Thursday, 28 May 2015

On the Woes of In App Purchases

App Store

One of the things I hate the most about today’s software scene is the “free with in app purchasing” business model. To be more specific, since there are several ways for implementing in app purchasing, I detest the apps that lure you in with their free price only for you to find out there is no proper way to use them without spending money. Generally speaking, I’d much rather open my wallet upfront, spend the money, and use my new app at will.
Since most apps nowadays offer in app purchasing, and since some do so in a meaningful way, I do commit the occasional in app purchase sin. To give you a couple of examples, I did spend extra in order to acquire extra levels in Monument Valley and I did spend a few dollars getting rid of the ads in CARROT Hunger (mostly because I thought the developers deserve some of my cash).
Having done so, I could not avoid noting the peculiar. My son was able to access these in app purchases on “his” iOS device, which runs under his account and benefits from iOS’ Family Sharing with mine; whereas my wife, who runs her own account but also benefits from iOS’ Family Sharing with mine was unable to do so. At first I thought it was a bug with CARROT and turned to their support (who, by the way, proved willing to go out of their way to help me), but when I noticed the problem is not limited to CARROT I cut to the chase and raised a support call with Apple directly.
This led to an interesting evening on the phone with Apple. The various guys I spoke with, as the case escalated up the echelons of Apple Support, were all trying to be helpful (even if some did not know what Monument Valley, a game Apple had boasted aplenty about, was). Eventually, after an hour and a half, I reached a supervisor who told me, simply, that “in app purchases are not supported by Family Sharing”.
I do not know whether he was trying to get rid of me or whether that explanation was genuine. I challenged him: I asked why it works for my son, and he admitted he doesn’t know and that one way or another, Apple has a bug on its hands; I asked what the point of Family Sharing is, since it is clear I am not about to spend more money on Monument Valley but rather login to my account on my wife’s device so that she can play the game. Is that what Apple really wants me to do? Again, he got rid of me politely.

My takes are simple:
  1. As discussed before, Apple’s Family Sharing is half cooked and not particularly well implemented.
  2. In case you did not figure it out already, in app purchases are best avoided.

Image by Cristiano Betta, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Insult to Injury

One cool crash test dummy

The other week I received news that one of my parents’ best friends is in a comma, at a hospital in Israel, following a traffic accident. That accident took place while he was on his way to the synagogue, but I will let the tragic outcome overshadow the irony of the situation. By the sound of the descriptions reaching my ears, the friend was not wearing his seatbelt (although his family denies such accusations); again, other than being a lesson for the rest of us, this does not matter much now. The point is that the life of this man of advanced age is, at least as he used to know it, over. He’s either going to die or live the rest of his life severely disabled.
At one stage or another we all hit that point in our lives. One can only hope it won’t be as sudden and it won’t be too painful, but who am I kidding: that is rarely the case.

I actually had an affair, so to speak, with that guy in the comma.
Some two decades back, us – family and friends – gathered for the memorial of a recently deceased relative of mine. Being me, I refused to take part in the religious rites that my otherwise secular family persisted with. Hardly anyone cared – as they should – with the exception of this “friend”.
He confronted me and told me off by asking whether I’m a Jew or not. I told him, politely, that I am not; to which he completely lost it and swung a punch in the trajectory of my face.
Now, I am not the most physical of people (and that’s a severe understatement). But I had the size and the age advantage, and I easily dodged the swing – which would have clearly hurt me a lot, had it landed. The guy was preparing for a second round; I was preparing for a counterattack which, in all likelihood, would have settled things pretty quickly. I did not want to do it, but in the interest of self-defence and given the need to react quickly it was pretty much unavoidable.
Luckily for the two of us, the guy was restrained from behind by a woman that happened to be there. No one else bothered to intervene or say anything, despite dozens of eyes witnessing the event. I stepped outside and that was pretty much it.
The rest of that evening went along as if nothing had happened.

I, however, do not consider matters closed.
The whole incident happened right before the eyes of my parents. And although they referred to the guy as “silly” in later conversation, they still kept this person that was so eager to punch me in the name of his religion of birth as a best friend of theirs.
Now that he is in hospital I wish him the best recovery possible. Whatever happened between us is not punishable by death or severe injury. However, I will never forgive my parents. All in all it was just another brick in the wall that, eventually, saw me leave for Australia.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Fitness Bracelet, or: Why I Love My iPhone

Not exactly satisfied with a Pebble watch’s fulfilment of her fitness tracking needs, my wife decided to try for a fitness bracelet instead. Since we were on experimentation mode and did not want to spend tons of money, and since we weren’t really blown away with excitement over the Jawbone/Up and Misfit environments as revealed to us through the Pebble, we opted for the Xiaomi option.
You may not have heard of Xiaomi before, but it is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of smartphones. Third largest, according to what I read online, behind companies you might have heard of called Samsung and Apple. The catch with Xiaomi, and the reason it’s relatively anonymous, is that it is focused on selling at its homeland of China. Regardless, my experience with Xiaomi thus far has been very positive: its products, whether power packs or headphones, are cheap but offer high quality. Xiaomi designs are very Apple like (and I’m sure Apple’s lawyers are just waiting for Xiaomi to step out of China before they start their legal attack), and its value for money eclipses everyone else by orders of magnitude.
So we went for the Xiaomi Mi fitness bracelet, available in Australia for $30 (but also easily available for less, even half, if one is patient in one’s bargain hunting). Together with an Android or iOS app, the Mi offers basic step counting (but not other sports), sleep tracking and alert facilities (the bracelet shakes when the smartphone rings or when you set it up as an alarm clock). The bracelet battery requires a special cable but lasts a month between charges, while the bracelet itself is waterproof. If you’re into these things, you can personalise yours with colourful covers. In other words, the functionality offered by the Mi blows away most of the competition regardless of price; what you’re missing out on is heartbeat tracking (only available in the most recent / most expensive bracelets, and often unreliably so) as well as the whole fitness ecosystem, the likes of Jawbone offer, where you can do things like maintain your dietary calendar at the same time or receive health advice as per your gathered inputs.

As I have already discussed in previous posts, and as should be glaringly obvious through reading the previous paragraph, privacy is a big deal with fitness trackers. So we did what we should do and read the privacy policy that comes with the Xiaomi iPhone app (because there’s nothing in the bracelet itself). What we’ve found was very similar to the usual No Privacy policy we got conditioned to accept from your local neighbourhood American company, but with two noteworthy points.
First, Xiaomi’s terms & conditions dictate that one should not use Xiaomi’s facilities to insult the Democratic Republic of China. Clearly, there’s a redundant word in that sentence; think how dreary life would be if such privileges were to be removed from the likes of Twitter.
Second, Xiaomi’s privacy policies included the following. And I quote:
You hereby consent that Mi Talk may analyze your phone contacts to search for your friends who also use Mi Talk. Mi Talk codes your telephone number through highly intensive and irreversible encryption algorithm and retrieve your contacts in this way to match you with existing phone book contacts on Mi Talk. Other users also can find you through Mi Talk if you are on their phone book list.
As well as:
The “Intelligent Phone Number Recognition” Service, where the “Intelligent Phone Number Recognition” Service refers to the service that recognize phone numbers that come from incoming and outgoing calls or text messages. Xiaomi will upload such number to its server, therefore identify the “Marked Information” of such number. Your data and information in this Service will be strictly protected, and we make sure you cannot be identified result from uploading such information. 
To which I would like to note that most of this crap has obviously been taken, word for word, from the Android app. This is because:
  1. Unlike Android, iOS apps cannot have access to call records.
  2. Unlike Android, iOS apps require the user’s explicit approval in order to be able to access the contacts stored on the phone prior to the app's first attempt to access the contacts (as opposed to during the app's installation). Such privileges can be easily revoked later, too.
I know the above can be achieved on Android as well if one bothers to take the right measures. But for me, as a privacy conscientious end user, that difference speaks volumes. Ultimately, it is the reason why I am willing to fork out hundreds of dollars more in order to get myself an iPhone.

Image copyrights: Xiaomi

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Olympus vs. Sony: The Photo System Dilemma

RX1 & OMD - Streetwalkers

The weird shattering of my camera purchasing aspirations has brought me back to the drawing board. That is, it makes me think: what camera system should I be getting into?
I’m way past SLRs. With all due respect to their potential for superior quality, their quality to bulk ratio is incredibly poor. On the other side of the spectrum, I’m looking for something that’s more than a pocket camera, thank you very much. This leaves me with two popular options (I designate the ones from, say, Fuji or Samsung, as unpopular):

  1. The Four Thirds system, as represented by the Olympus OMD E-M1 camera; and
  2. The Sony E-mount system, as represented by the Sony Alpha A6000.
The Olympus offerings seem to be designed for the photographer, with plenty of dials and such that make taking the photo one wants to take a delight. Equipment is generally available for less money, too. On the other hand, I’m not much of a fan of the 4:3 aspect ratio and the sensor is rather oldish.
The Sony is more of a gadget than a camera. Sure, it lacks a touchscreen, but its APS-C is newer, bigger and mucho flashier than the Olympus’.
I’m inclined towards either the Sony or waiting out a year to see where the wind blows as far as new models are concerned. I suspect replacement models for both of the above mentioned models will be out: Olympus already released its Mark 2 version, with some nifty features like being able to take 60MP photos (which sounds great but lacks practicality for me, given I rarely carry a tripod). And surely Sony would not want to wait too long in between models, especially as it releases a new Mark for its successful RX100 every year?

Your opinions would be greatly appreciated.

Image by Zhao !, Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Netflix Tax

Netflix mailer packaging: October 2013

I seem to have stumbled upon a trend: I try to access the Internet at night, but it’s just not there.
Some websites, including major ones, seem simply out of reach; others are so slow to load that it’s just not worth it. [Excuse the technical jargon, but it appears as if I am unable to reach my DNS server.] The situation seems at its worst on Sunday nights.
What gives?

I’ll give you my hypothesis: it starts with net and ends with flix. Or, in other words, the recent official release of Netflix in Australia has broken all dams, and now Australians are streaming videos at large. As they should, and as they should have been able to for years if it wasn’t for the copyright monopoly bastards’ greed keeping us back in the Stone Age.
However, now that the genie has been uncorked, the lack of infrastructure is made rather too glaringly obvious. Years, if not decades, of poor investment in core technologies, have been exposed within the lengths of a month or two.

The good thing is, the Liberals’ latest budget has pretty much left the NBN in ashes with all hope of infrastructure improvements decimated. So we know that we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages with unusable Internet for years to come. Because that is the vision that the politicians we have elected are offering us!
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see some change.

Image by Bill Rogers, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Warning: Pebble & Fitness Trackers

Some six months ago I reviewed my Pebble smartwatch and gave it a very favourable rating. Shortly afterwards my Pebble broke down but was quickly – and impeccably – replaced by a brand new one, posted to me through a very hassle free process by Pebble itself. So far so good.
Today I am here to tell you that I no longer recommend Pebble. In fact, I’d advise you to steer away. The reason is simple: our second Pebble watch, a Pebble Steel model, broke down as well, suffering from the exact same screen fault as well as a problem with its Bluetooth functionality. On the same week my Pebble Steel broke down, a friend’s Pebble Steel broke down with – again – the same screen problem.
As it happens, 3 out of the 4 different model Pebble watches I have daily encounters with, all active for 6 months or less, have broken down. Sure, Pebble has been very helpful honouring its warranties, but a lemon is a lemon and the Pebble is clearly a lemon.

This warning comes at a time in which virtually everyone I know has, by now, begun wearing watches/bracelets with tracking facilities. I regularly ask these people what they do with their gadget, and the universal answer is “I track my walking/running and my sleep”.
None of them seems aware that the data they’re tracking is also at the disposal of their gadget’s provider, usually Garmin or Fitbit. None of them is aware these companies make money off this data. And none of them has even begun to think of what their detailed location and activity patterns data can be used for.
But that is the manifestation of today’s out of sight, out of mind, Big Brother.

The Apple Watch is yet to make an impression on the market, and frankly I don’t expect that to happen until the second to third model. That’s what happened with the iPhone and later with the iPad.
However, with the direction the Apple Watch is heading for, I can actually start to see some benefit that will allow me to be happy with the fact I’m being voluntarily tracked. I’d be more than happy to wear an Apple Watch that looks at my heart rate if, in return, it would direct me to the nearest hospital well in advance of a heart attack it can see coming but I am not feeling yet.
Pebble watches are not that sophisticated. They offer an ecosystem of apps, but in general they are not much more than glorified smartphone notification systems. And their tracking applications can be easily blocked from calling home with my personal data.
Which brings me to say: why isn’t there a fitness/health app out there that prides itself on not divulging my data with anyone but me?

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Unwelcomed iPhone 6S

It is with a sad face that I declare it is virtually certain I will be getting myself a brand new iPhone 6 Plus S (or would it be the iPhone 6S Plus?) when it comes out, probably around September/October.
Sad, because I was hoping to get another year out of my otherwise very fine iPhone 5 (that is, until Apple deliberately butchered it through iOS release 8.2 a few months back). Sad, because the benefits I would gain out of an “S” model are marginal in comparison to the benefits that come with a complete model redesign (note how last year’s 5S looked archeological the second the 6 came out). Sad, because I was hoping my next iPhone – with which I am planning to spend some three years – would enjoy the benefits of a software based home button (saving space) and a USB C connector to replace the current Lightning one (in the name of universality). But I know such changes cannot come on an "S" release.
As sad as it is, such a replacement is investable given that I consider it important to have my smartphone running the latest and greatest. That’s pretty much a must for anyone aware of security concerns; anything else runs on full of publicly known vulnerabilities, which are basically a time bomb waiting for a slimy nosed hacker with a quest for notoriety.
Alas, my iPhone 5 is now dying unexpectedly when the battery reaches 30%. Headphone performance is also suffering, with distorted sound when the battery is on its low half despite me using very mobile phone friendly, easy to drive, headphones (Sennheiser Momentum On Ear, if you have to ask).

Since I mentioned an expected three year lifespan out of my future iPhone 6S Plus, the way my previous iPhones survived, I will add that with the bigger screen size come higher probabilities of screen malfunctions/breakups. So will it last three years?
Check this blog in three years time to find out!

Image by Martin Hajek, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Friday, 15 May 2015

How Not to Lose Weight

“I know you’re exceptionally smart and good looking, but still – how do you do it?”
I get that a lot. Lately, these questions relate to my allegedly exceptionally successful campaign of weight reduction, a campaign that – by the way – is now in the process of getting itself wound down due to it shattering all the goals I could have imagined along the way. I will still answer the question, though.

But before I answer I want to stress something out: I never did embark on a campaign of weight reduction. What I did do, starting mid January, was start playing with a funny calorie counting app I got for my phone after reading a funny article about it. That’s all I intended to do; there was never a New Year’s resolution or anything like that. So much for being perceived as a person of supreme will power or long term vision; I’m just a person with tons of affection for gadgets.
That said, when I started playing with the CARROT Hunger app, the analytical part of me kicked into action. Yes, there is more to the analytical part of me than movie reviews! That analyst quickly recognised facts evident through the food consumption data I have been collecting via CARROT: it became clear my default eating habits are slowly, but very surely, making me gain weight. Something had to change if I wanted to stop this trend.
If you are looking for the two word answer to the above question of how I did it, then it would be “portion sizes”. However, if you are a mature person you would know life is more complicated than two words and the devil is in the details. So here are my insights into the details that make the reduction in portion sizes such a big deal.

First, there is the fact that, as calorie counter applications go, CARROT is not a particularly good one. I mean, it’s got the sarcasm and attitude, which is funny and all, but it’s got a shit all database of built in [Australian] food items. This meant that when I wanted to feed something I ate into CARROT, I had to look at the packaging to see what to enter; I had to weigh or estimate how much I ate; and I had to look over the Internet to try and assess the qualities of the food that did not come packed up and labelled. Doing this meant my awareness of what goes in through my pie hole, as CARROT calls it. In turn, this made me start to question thing I’ve been taking for granted. To put it in terms I can easily relate to, it made me erect a firewall around my mouth.
The second factor is to do with what it is that one tends to cut when one realises one needs to cut portion sizes. I didn’t go about cutting the portions uniformly; it’s the fillers that bore most of the grunt. It’s the chips that come on the side of the shawarma, the pita that comes with the hummus, the sides that come with the main that bear most of this burden. When you stop to consider the nature of these items that tend to bear most of the load of the portion cutting, one word dominates affairs: carbs.
Now comes the third factor, which is perhaps the nicest one. It is the analysis and the learning that pushed me into submission [to cut portion sizes]; what made me able to persevere is the fact my stomach quickly got used to the idea and felt perfectly happy with the reduced portions. In other words, I no longer feel the need to eat as much as I used to. Indeed, I feel better eating less, thank you very much. I cannot stress how important this is, because it means the process of taking control over my diet (and by proxy, my weight) is no longer a struggle but rather one of perpetual motion.
Which brings me to add an important fact: Exercise. Or rather, the lack of it. I do not know if my successful affairs would, or could, have been as successful as they were if I was to add exercise to the equation. I severely doubt it, for the simple fact that exercise creates unquantifiable hunger that is hard to control; no longer would I have been able to enjoy the smaller portions I got used to. In other words, exercise would add significant and hard to control chaos into my comfortable little world. My point is simple: given that my success depends on the relative lack of exercise, I cannot claim my approach to controlling my diet and/or losing weight is a healthy one!

So there you go. This is how I do it. Perhaps you’d be able to gain something out of my experience, and perhaps – probably – not.
Personally, I’m curious about the why question, especially given this quest of mine was rather unintentional. I can point to three reasons to explain my perseverance thus far: First and foremost, inertia. By the time I realised something was going on it was already going on. Second is the feeling and realisation I’m doing better, supported by things like clothes being more comfortable, belts going up a notch, and the very complimenting process of acquiring new clothes that fit my current size (as well as witnessing how baggy some of my “old” clothes are); I will not deny this feeling is heavily mixed with the fear of regressing back to where I was before.
The third reason is one of those that explain a lot about yours truly lately: my father. When my father died, more than a year ago, the dominating notion was that he had a few more good years left in him that he missed out on. When I track the reason for his perceived premature death, the common theme that keeps coming up is overweight. While, as an adult, I never belonged to a category most people would label fat, I do see the point in reducing mechanical stress off my body – my non exercising body – as a measure with which to reduce the probability of inheriting a similar ending to my father’s.
There you have it: inertia, fear, and the need to prevent history from repeating. There’s a whole world of psychological analysis in there.

Image by Daniel Oines, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence