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Sold my Soul

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My soul is now officially sold to Google since I signed up for Google Now on my Nexus 4. The terms and conditions initially scared me to death. Long story short: you sell your soul and give up the last shreds of privacy you might have had. I can only hope this data trail will never be used against me for nefarious purposes.

So how does it work and what do you gain in exchange for your soul? The price to pay is to leave your GPS constantly switched on. Your phone is also constantly listening to incoming Wi-Fi Access Points, even if you are not connected or trying to attach to one. This eats up your battery even faster than usual, but I could not spend a complete day without charging at least once anyway so this does not change much. What you gain is instant positioning no matter where you are. If you feel lost in a city (happens to me quite a lot), just switch on Google Maps and get an immediate fix. Coupled with contextual search, it means you can whip up your phone, whisper “bakery”, and get directions for the nearest one in less than a second. Nice.

What makes Google Now even nicer is the long list of heuristics they have attached to these data. With just a one-day data set, you can tell where I live and where I work since I repeatedly spend night-time without moving and day-time at work, moving a bit. You could also tell which are my favourite restaurants at work and how often I visit them. You can tell where I shop during the weekends, or how often I go get my kids at school. You could also track customers and partners I have business with, and know how often I go through interviews with headhunters to find another job. But I digress.

The Google guys have attached events to your presence in various locations and take advantage of this to offer you some advice. Let me give two examples:

Friend of mine has a guitar course on Wednesdays at 7pm. He usually takes a train to work but the guitar course is a bit off-center so he takes his car. One week after switching on Google Now, he got a message the second Wednesday around 6.30pm to warn him that with the current traffic conditions, he should leave now to be on time for his 7pm appointment.

I was on a trip to San Francisco last month. Two hours before my scheduled departure time, my phone rings an alarm telling me I should go now to be on time, together with traffic conditions and directions to the airport. Even better: on my first day there I slept in a hotel and went to work the next morning around 9am. The next day, I get an alarm from Google Now around 8.30am telling me that if I want to go to the same address as yesterday, I should leave now because of the traffic on I110. I was a bit dazed and looked at my phone with a large WTF across my face.

From your speed, Google Now also knows if you are walking, cycling, in a bus, in a train, on a plane, or in a car. At the end of each month you get a summary about how much you walked and cycled, which is a nice touch when you try to loose some weight. Next step would be to connect it to the device I stick on my chest when running so that I know exactly how many calories I loose per session.

Google Now is also connected to various city transportation sites. When you get close to a station, it automatically displays the time tables for the next coming buses or trains. It does not work with tramways in Paris but I was told subway and buses should be Ok.

When traveling abroad you get a card showing the time it is at home, another one providing exchange rates, and yet another one offering translations to local languages. As I was in London last week, the whole interface switched to a London theme, complete with Big Ben and Eye of London. That was a fun touch!

This is incredibly useful but also totally scary. It means my private data are stored somewhere in Google’s centers. What protects it for now is the fact that millions of people are tracked in the same way and I have no reason to appear as anybody special. What scares me is how these data could be one day used against me for whatever reason. Imagine a European dictatorship deciding that anybody who worked in the Bay Area is a potential terrorist, or simply a competitor who would like to know which companies I have visited there. Collecting data is harmless. The danger comes from who uses it and for which purpose, and I have absolutely no control over who accesses my data and what they want from it.

Once you get past these privacy points you do enjoy these location-based services. Even if these are just frivolous for now, I cannot help but think of a recent time when I did not have a frivolous smartphone either. Who can tell what these will bring us next?

Written by nicolas314

Sunday 12 May 2013 at 1:10 am

Posted in android, google, mobile

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Nexus 4 review

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Nexus 4


There have been countless reviews of Google’s Nexus 4 already. In this short one I will just try and give my opinion. In essence: this is the greatest smartphone I have ever seen. My job is all about smartphones these days so I tend to manipulate quite a lot of these. Honestly, this one is a piece of art. It delivers on all possible accounts.


The object itself is gorgeous. A thin, black slab that holds steady in your hand without being too heavy or too light. Not really fan of the almost-invisible stars on the back but whatever. The screen is pretty big but not too much. It is still longer than any of my fingers, which forces me to use it with both hands. This may actually be a good thing: holding my phone single-handedly has given me some health issues with my left hand in the past, this is hopefully gone.
What really makes it unique to me is the waterdrop-shaped screen. Instead brutal angular edges, you get this smooth watery feeling. Touching and feeling the glass has never felt so smooth and pleasant. These things are more than just communication tools now, they are really becoming tiny intimate pieces of yourself.


Quad-core with copious amounts of memory. This phone is now officially the fastest computer in my house! The user interface jumps to your touch. Agreed: my first-generation iPod touch has always been that reactive with a lot less horsepower under the hood, but hey… can’t have Java and speed on the same device unless you boost processor speed and available memory. Using a quad-core for just a phone is a bit ridiculous but Ok, this is more than just a phone.

Battery life

Not tested enough, but seems Ok. After a day of intensive use I still see 30% left. My previous phone did not finish the day with just 3G on.

Android 4.2

Nothing really new there. The big jump was Android 4, this version is just polishing a bit and adding new bugs.

Storage space

I purchased the 8GB version and honestly do not even need so much space. My best friend for listening to music and podcasts remains my faithful first-gen iPod touch. If I really want to get music onto the Nexus I can start Google Music and access some of the 15,000 songs I uploaded there.

Watching streaming movies is certainly possible on Wi-Fi, but I’d rather use a tablet for that. No need to store these on my phone either.

Conclusion: go get it if you can!

Written by nicolas314

Thursday 22 November 2012 at 10:35 pm

Posted in android, hardware, mobile

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Darky vs CyanogenMod

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CyanogenMod 7 screenshot

CyanogenMod 7 screenshot

Owners of a Samsung Galaxy S smartphone, rejoice! The time has come to join the Cyanogenmod crowd and throw all previous attempts at Android firmware into a bonfire!

To be fair I lived six months with the default Samsung firmware, the one that was carefully modified by my operator to remove features they did not want me to use and filled up with ads and crapware. Yeah, no good. Even if I could tolerate the crapware, the phone was kinda unreactive and full of irritating bugs.

Then I read an article about an alternative firmware that would speed my phone by magnitudes, and it was true. Six more months have passed and I have now come to the conclusion that Darky may not be the best choice for Galaxy s.

Darky’s ROM is built by a single guy who fell in love with his phone and discovered it was not too hard to tweak an Android ROM into something better. I do not want to minimize what Darky did, he put some heroic efforts into producing something that many paid-for people at Samsung could not achieve. For this he should be thanked a million times. Thing is: Darky is mostly just a single guy. Until recently he did not even have a dedicated web site to distribute his ROM, you would have to Google around and end up on the xda-developers forum to find that the Darky’s ROM web site was actually a sticky topic lost in the middle of a gazillion discussions about Android. The ROM itself is still distributed through various warez sites. Darky’s ROM now has its own web site, but the lack of professionalism kind of shows through the pages. See for yourself.

Enters Cyanogenmod. A ROM built by (volunteer) professionals around a common core source tree for various kinds of devices. The effort seems to have been recognized for its value by the industry as the core developer was recently hired by Samsung. Several vendors contribute devices to the project in the hope that Cyanogenmod may support them some day.

As an end-user I have to admit that the result is pleasant. Going from Darky to CyanogenMod did not get me much in terms of software features (they are more or less the same) but I now feel like I put my phone ROM on the path to longer-term maintenance, knowing that you have a full team behind each release with forums and IRC channels and a bug-report system that makes every release better than the ones before.

If you intend to keep your Galaxy S alive for some more years you definitely want to stick to a development team that is committed to maintaining the software alive. It seems kind of weird that this effort has not been undertaken by Google themselves but by a team of independent and motivated hackers. Don’t tell me Google cannot find the resources to do the same, I believe they have enough engineers. If you are not ready to tinker with your phone, your only alternative is to follow firmware releases offered by your Mobile Operator. This means at least a year delay between an Android release and the moment you will have it in your hands, and that is: only if Google, Samsung and your Mobile Operator have all decided that your device may be supported. It is of course all too tempting to declare older-than-a-year devices obsolete and force you to buy a new one to get the latest Android. Will not happen.

If your choice today has to be between an iPhone 4S and and Android device, I’d say you will have more freedom with a jailbroken iPhone and more frequent firmware updates without need for dark magic smartphone hacking. Your mileage may vary.

Written by nicolas314

Thursday 20 October 2011 at 10:59 pm

Yak Shaving with Android and Google

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YakYak shaving is definitely not my favourite activity but it seems I cannot escape it as soon as I touch something remotely involved with computers. For the curious, a good description of yak shaving was proposed on Seth Godin’s blog. Quoting:

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. “I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

“Bob won’t lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though.”

“And we haven’t returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it.”

And the next thing you know, you’re at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

I have an Android phone running a snappy Gingerbread called Darky’s ROM. Cool stuff and the phone has been incredibly responsive since. Touch the screen and the interface jumps to respond to your command, a real treat… until a few days ago when I started to notice some heavy lags. Slow mail, slow news, frozen apps, force close on system apps, dropped and missed calls, a real nightmare.

A quick lookup on DarkyRom’s web site revealed that a new (final) version had just been released and could be installed by merely downloading a zip and installing it via an app. Cool! Let’s update stuff! I love updating stuff! It only took me five minutes to download, install, and… loose all network connectivity on my phone. The damn thing was still sluggish as hell and would not hold a 3G or WiFi connection for more than a couple of minutes. Impressive. I have absolutely no idea what I did wrong and to be honest, the DarkyRom web site is an atrociously unstructured jungle where even the most adventurous get lost. No chance of me ever finding out which step I missed.

The following six hours were spent trying various recovery strategies, including 3 re-installations of Darky’s (i.e. two consecutive ROMs each time) and 1 installation of Cyanogenmod which finally corrected the network issue. I ended up with a reverted Darky’s ROM on my phone with complete connectivity. Six hours just to go back to square one. I swear I will look deeper into Android backup strategies now.

Half a day later I re-installed all apps from Titanium Backup (this app is a lifesaver) and recovered a fully functional smartphone. Re-installing apps one by one allowed to find the culprit: the Google Music app had been eating more CPU, memory and network than all other apps combined. Yeah. Beta software with emphasis on Beta.

TL;DR: I installed a shitty Google app, spent a night repairing my blunder, learned a few things about Android, lost trust in Darky’s ROM and Google apps, figured out a backup strategy for my smartphone.

Now this is one shaven yak, my friend. What was I up to initially?

Written by nicolas314

Thursday 6 October 2011 at 1:47 pm

Fixing Google Music

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Throwing the ball at Google Music in my previous post was easy. The service is in beta after all and looking for ways to optimize user comfort, legal compliance and business model at the same time. Not sure there are obvious solutions to that, especially if you are not willing to enter discussions with the MAFIAA.

Does not mean that it is impossible though. Let’s try to fix Google Music, shall we?

Fix the initial upload

Uploading my whole music collection would require about 60 days full-time on my current DSL line. I tried uploading from other locations with better upload bandwidth but unfortunately Google Music Manager does not support HTTP proxies (yeah, beta). Why should I have to upload my music after all? I bet Google has half a billion users uploading Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon right now, this eats up tons of space for the same files over and over again, and uses bandwidth for nothing.

Guess what? Apparently Google did not have much choice, but it seems things have just changed: Cloud music is not a crime

Much better. Now I will just point the manager to my copious MP3 collection and let Google Music decide that I can access all of these from the cloud. Pretty cool! Hey wait: how does Google determine that a file on my disk is the same as a file in the cloud? Sheer MD5? Cool! This means that if I can produce a set of files with the same MD5 fingerprints, Google will automatically give me access to the real music files up there. Instead of downloading albums, I can now just download a set of files with the correct fingerprints, or whatever it takes for Google Music Manager to identify them as valid music files and give me access to them instantly. No need to upload but no need to own the real data either!

Going a bit further: there is actually no need to download files. I bet you can hack Music Manager into believing that you have a huge set of music files of your choosing and let it activate it all in the cloud for your account. The Music Manager is a piece of software running on my computer, I can hack the OS all I want to make it believe what I want. I give this a couple of months before somebody finds a way to do that.

Packaging it all could be made even more convenient:

  • Write a script that opens a Google account for you, get user help when the captcha is required
  • Automatically subscribe to Google Music, download Music Manager
  • Feed Music Manager whatever it takes to make it believe you have 20,000 songs on your computer
  • Instant access to 20,000 songs!
  • Profit!

We could easily imagine scripts to get instant access to 20,000 jazz pieces, or 20,000 classical recordings, or 20,000 best popular songs. You name it.

Even without having to create new Google accounts, you could have a script that bullshits Music Manager into giving you access to 20,000 songs of your choice on your existing account. You could offer dedicated themed radios too. The sky’s the limit.

Sure, you won’t be able to download the songs, but you will be able to listen to all the music you want from your Android phone or anything that has a flash-enabled web browser.

Not yet ideal but that would certainly make the service a lot more interesting :-)

Written by nicolas314

Tuesday 23 August 2011 at 1:50 pm

Google Music (beta) Review

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Been using Google Music for a couple of weeks now. Time for reviewing!

What is it about?

Google recently opened Google Music to compete against Amazon, Spotify, and Apple in general. Compared to other services the terms are pretty simple: you can upload up to 20,000 of your own mp3 songs at no cost (for now) and they are available to you anywhere you can call from a browser. Google also offers an Android app that can sync with your music collection: choose the albums you want on your phone, put it on WiFi and let it download locally for offline listening.

Seems sweet huh?

Hmm… Only two weeks in and I am not convinced. Let me elaborate.

Beta Quirks

The service is still in beta, which seems to be the norm for all Google services, but this time it really feels like it is half-baked with profound design errors.

The only way you can upload music is through a desktop app. There is one for Windows, Mac and Linux. I installed the one for Mac, — a pretty big app for something that is just supposed to upload stuff — started it and got a configuration screen. I clicked a bit everywhere in hope of getting in control but there are very few things you can set in the panel, and once you click Ok the app disappears.

Ok so it wants to remain unseen like a background daemon doing its job without me noticing. That was friendly but I really want to be in charge and know what is happening. Guys this is my bandwidth!

As for upload options you are given a choice between:

  • Uploading your “Music” folders (? didn’t try)
  • Uploading your iTunes collection
  • Uploading a list of folders of your choice

I stupidly chose to upload my iTunes stuff, thinking Mac integration would be best with the Apple-sanctioned music handler. And then nothing. Waited a bit and noticed my bandwidth was being savagely maxed. I had to rummage through the System Preferences to find what in hell this thing was doing, and finally discovered it was courageously uploading all the podcasts I stored for later perusal on my iPod. No! No! I do not care about putting podcasts in the cloud! I can find them easily enough on their respective web sites, don’t need an extra copy with Google. So how do you stop this thing? Well, turns out you cannot, so I ended up uninstalling it altogether.

Ok, reinstall and this time choose Upload folder. Point it to a folderful of music and… wait. There are 20 Gigs in there, how long is this gonna take? Quick calculation: about three days. THREE EFFING DAYS?? Forget about web browsing when all the upload is gone.

But Ok, I’ll play. Eat my bandwidth, Google.

Three days later I got a nice set of 3,000 songs up there. Now what? Now I can proudly listen to a bunch of files I already had access to, by definition, at work and at home. Putting 8 Gb of it on my Android would not have taken me that long through USB. What is the service really?

I just cannot get any grasp as to why I would like to use this service at all. My personal music store at home runs in about half a terabyte of music of all possible styles, trends and periods, I will never be able to upload all of it to Google’s servers. And even if I could, what would be the point really? Transferring music to my phone is really easy (mount phone through USB, copy) and I only need to do it every couple of months or so. With USB thumb drives running now with 32Gbs of storage, it has never been easier to carry around tons of music and transfer them without difficulty anywhere I go. The “portable” aspect of having my music online just escapes me.

One point about storing things up in the cloud is that it remains there in case you loose all of your backups in a fire. But honestly: if my house burnt, my music collection would be the least of my worries. I bet if this happened I could rebuild a full music DB in a matter of days by just gathering music from friends. This could actually be a good opportunity to discover new stuff, come to think of it.

One useful feature could have been to be able to download your music back from the cloud. Putting everything up there could at least be useful to share songs with friends. But no: nothing is planned for music download. So much for sharing.

The web-based part tries to be as nice as possible but still has a way to go. Some uploaded albums were not recognized correctly: missing covers, or you end up with two half-albums sharing the same name, each one having half of the songs of the original album. Yuck. In terms of file formats you can only upload mp3. Forget ogg, flac, ape, or anything exotic. Barf.

Net result: I am not buying it. The service has less features than what I can do myself with a few euros worth of gear in my pocket. A “free” service that has already cost me more in electricity than what I could have achieved in five minutes over USB.

C’mon Google. We all know you can do better than that! Don’t let the MAFIAA ruin what could have been a great project.

NB: Google Music is currently only available through invitations and you need to be in the US to activate it.

Written by nicolas314

Saturday 20 August 2011 at 1:51 am