Thursday, 20 November 2014

My Next Phone

My iPhone 5 is celebrating its second birthday at my service. Although it is still doing a great job at doing whatever I want it to do and doing so well, it does feel like a kid's toy in comparison to its bigger screened mates. I will not deny it, I am craving screen size!
Apple came to my aid, this time around, supplying the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5" screen - the phone they should have offered years ago. Alas, they also made sure it cannot be purchased on impulse by giving it a $1130 price tag (for the 64GB version; I do not see much point in the 16GB version). Then there were the stories about the phone bending: while Apple was put in the clear by various official investigations, I think the model does have an inherent weakness just below its volume buttons. Too many otherwise objective reviewers have reported the problem for it to just be "nothing".
Then there are my recent issues with Apple and its approach to privacy (as discussed here and here). Sure, Apple talks the talk, but it doesn't walk the walk in too many ways. Given that for years now I have been an Apple over Android advocate by virtue of the extra privacy that Apple offered, this is quite a blow.
The thing is that Android did not make much of an effort to attract me in its direction. Sure, its smartphones are generally cheaper but not so much when considering total cost of ownership (as in, iPhones last longer and resell for more). Android itself, although more powerful than iOS, requires more attention and is less consistent than Apple's. Then there are the privacy issues: once installed Android apps can do pretty much whatever they want with your smartphone's data, while in the background there is always Google to sip your privacy away.

Recently, however, there came an Android phone that did two things to tilt the equation. The OnePlus One Android phone offers A class components for significantly less than the Samsungs and HTCs it competes with. By running the latest CyanogenMod version out of the box, equipped with facilities allowing the user to control what each app is allowed to access, it also negates a lot of the privacy issues that stand in the way of the Android system. Reviews (Ars Technica's here, Anandtech's here) have been quite favourable.
Not that the OnePlus is without issues. As the reviews attest, its camera is mediocre, not to mention Android camera and photography apps in general lagging severely behind iOS'. OnePlus' purchasing options are also a pain: if you want to buy one directly from OnePlus, you need to have an American address and you need to prove yourself worthy of the phone by taking active part in the company forums. I'll put it this way: they can go and **** themselves if that's what I need to do in order to give them my money.
One can get a OnePlus more conventionally, though. DWI sells them for $460 (although prices fluctuate by the day). Which brings me to think: at less than half the cost of an iPhone, the cost of converting from iOS to Android pales in comparison to the savings. Sure, the iPhone 6 Plus is a better phone; but is it $670 better? No way, Tim Cook.

So, am I buying a OnePlus? I will not deny craving one. However, as I said, the rational part of me is well aware of this being an exercise in financial irresponsibility. I bought my iPhone 5 under the assumption I will use it for three years, and given that I haven't won the lottery yet (nor could I, given my lack of participation) I should stick with that original plan.
However: in the not so unlikely event of my iPhone 5 dying one me, the OnePlus stands a good chance of coming into my life. More importantly, I consider it a fine option for punters out there contemplating which phone to get without having to bundle another mortgage into the deal.

Image copyrights: OnePlus

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Left Foot Forward, Right Foot Back

iOS 8 was released with much fanfare just a couple of months ago. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, went on to elaborate on his company’s stand on the side of the privacy of its users. It was an interesting and, in my opinion, a good angle to sell one’s gadgets with; but it was also forced upon him by the recent hijacking of celebrity nude photos from Apple’s own backyard. Then we started hearing the FBI complaining that iOS 8’s fully encrypted smartphones, and the equivalents that Google had promised to deliver, would spell disaster for society as we know it through the freedom they provide.
All this raises questions: between all the hype and the self interest, where are we really with iOS 8 and – for that matter – OS X Yosemite, the latest version of the Mac’s operating system that was released along similar time lines? Have the privacy wars just been won by the users, or are iOS 8 and Yosemite much of the same?
Let’s start by looking at what we know. I will start with the positives.

iOS 8 seems to deliver on one big major promise: it is the first smartphone whose data is owned by its owner by default. In more complicated words, it encrypts its entire contents with a key that is based on the passcode determined by the user. With no one else having knowledge of this passcode, not even Apple, no one can grab hold of the information stored on the smartphone without resorting into hacking. This may not sound like much, but it is a big deal given the wealth of information people store on their phones nowadays.
So far so good; now, let’s look at the negatives.

It only took a few days after iOS 8 was released for us to hear that one of Apple’s major promises in the area of privacy, the ability to evade wifi tracking, was nothing but a blatant lie. Once Apple’s implementation was examined it was found to be, at least by this self proclaimed expert’s opinion, a bad case of bullshit spin.
Along came the Yosemite release to add fuel to the fire. First we heard complaints that, by default, Spotlight searches on one’s Mac now call on the Internet without users being alerted to the fact. Then we heard worse news: we heard that applications saved their data to Apple’s iCloud automatically and intermittently, as in not necessarily when the users click on the “Save” button. The catch here is that users often keep shorthand notes of deeply private stuff as temporary notes that, at best, they would save locally only (on their encrypted by default hard drives). Now, however, Apple will save this information by default to its iCloud services. And thanks to Mr Edward Snowden we know what happens next: the NSA drinks up all the information up there, courtesy of its PRISM program.
As mentioned in my previous post, Yosemite does other nasty things. Things like calling home to Apple to inform it of every search you do in Safari. This one isn’t even an opt out feature, like the automatic iCloud saves; this one is a feature users cannot get away from as long as they use Safari.
[19/11/2014 update: It occurred to me I neglected to mention finding out that under Yosemite, Apple collects the email addresses used in its Mail OS X application, too.]
Learning about the way iCloud behaves under Yosemite made me pay attention to how it behaves under iOS 8. A few paragraphs earlier I mentioned that under iOS 8, your iGadget’s data is safely yours; however, there is an exception to the rule: the data on your gadget is safe, but the date you save on iCloud isn’t. It’s open season to the NSA’s PRISM. And there’s a good chance that, like me, you back your iGadget to iCloud, because – hey – who wants to lose their data?
The catch is that I do not want all my data backed up. If, for example, I have an app for PGP encrypted emails on my iPhone, I do not want my encryption keys to be backed up on iCloud under the NSA’s watchful eye. Apple gives me the option of cancelling this app’s iCloud backup, but only after it was already backed up to iCloud the first time around. By then it was too late for yours truly.

Now that we’ve seen the evidence at hand, what do I make of it all?
Apple should be commended for pioneering the fully encrypted smartphone. However, there are many light years between having that and having a truly secure smartphone: As The Intercept has informed us, there are companies earning their bread by hacking into smartphones to strip their data away. As learnt from recent competitions, it is not all that hard for a hacker worthy of their title to break into the world’s most popular smartphones. Given this knowledge, we can rest assured that when the FBI is crying foul at Apple’s encryption it is simply lying; for an organisation such as the FBI, the question of “can we hack our way into an iOS 8 iPhone” is not a yes/no question but rather a “which of the hundred possible methods for hacking an iPhone are we going to use today?”
The key difference is not in the FBI’s ability to penetrate the device but on the legality of doing so. Whereas before they could slide the phone under the table and ask Apple to do so for them without anybody in the world knowing it, actively hacking into a smartphone carries legal repercussions with it. iOS 8 did not prevent the FBI from hacking into devices; it just forced the FBI to answer to the law while doing so.
All the while, as the FBI is crying foul, the NSA is sucking Apple users’ information away like there’s no tomorrow through iCloud. They don’t even need to make an effort; cloud technology ensures our information is uploaded directly to the NSA servers, thank you very much.

In conclusion, let us go back to Tim Cook’s declarations on Apple and its stand for the privacy of its users. I will call bullshit on those. Sure, Apple made sure that if one iPhone is stolen, there won’t be much the average thief would be able to do with it. However, as far as protecting its users from Big Brother, both in the shape of the governments tracking our every move as well as in the shape of commercial interests wishing to make a buck of the things we hold private?
Through misleading its users with its spin, Apple took us a step backwards.

Image by Mike Lau, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Ominous Omnibox

If we were to take the clock back to 2008, when the Google Chrome browser was first announced and released, you may be able to recall one of this browser’s main attractions was the omnibox. Compared with Firefox, the then “browser to use”, it was a nice breakthrough in the field of usability: instead of having one box to type your URL and another to run web searches from, you can now do it all in one box. Why didn’t they think about that before?
Six years later, one cannot avoid noting Firefox still hasn’t figured this out. Mozilla still equips its browser with two separate boxes at an age in which it seems everybody else has adopted the omnibox design. What gives? How come Firefox is so slow to adapt?
The reason for Firefox’ conservatism, if you will, becomes clear once one understands the potential ways in which the omnibox may be abused. At its worst, with Google set as the default search engine, the omnibox will send everything you put in it to Google. Whether you typed a URL or actually did type something for Google to search for, Google will gladly collect all the info you put in the omnibox. Firefox therefore chose to keep two separate boxes in order to signify that this data collection does not happen under its watch. In plain words, Firefox offers a better (but, it has to be said, still compromised) starting point for privacy than Chrome.
There are ways for disabling the omnibox’ damage, my favourite being replacing Google with DuckDuckGo as the default search engine. Unlike that dominant monopoly, the latter does not keep account of its users’ activities.

Which brings me to note the nastiest player in this field thus far. You might have heard of this company, it’s called Apple.
In the latest release of its OS X operating system (the one that runs on Macs), called Yosemite, Apple has introduced the ability to set DuckDuckGo as the default search engine for its built in browser, Safari, and its omnibox. Cool; this means one is no longer at the mercy of the commercial interests of Google, Microsoft or Yahoo.
However, Apple took things one extra step. Regardless of one’s default search engine, anything you type into Safari’s omnibox is sent to Apple. Anything, everything. The official reason is to help create better user experience, but then again isn’t that what we have been told all along from Google? Do yourself a favour and install Firefox on your Mac. You’ll live longer.

More about Apple’s latest shenanigans in the field of privacy in a future post.

Image by Varawut Prasarnkiat, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Monday, 10 November 2014

Audiobooks Revisited

The sharp eyed amongst thee might have noticed I recently published an audiobook's review. Not my best review ever; time limitations ensure that cannot be the case. The more interesting aspect of this audiobook-gate is historical: it wasn't that long ago that I published a guest post here discussing the virtues of audio books, to which I added a rather damning comment expressing my problems with the field of audio booking.
So is this ass here to inform you of another change of mind? Yes. And no.
No, because I still have reservations about audio books. I still do not think I can concentrate enough to derive as much satisfaction out of the format compared to old style reading of the same material. But yes, because not all books deserve that high a level of concentration. Or rather, what if I could use some previously unused time to "read" an audiobook? Better than not reading at all, innit?
Perhaps more interesting, in my view, is the question of why I happened to change my mind at this point in time. To that I will offer a three part answer:
  • First, I have found an audio book worth my time and attention. It's the one I have reviewed.
  • Second, I realised I now have the technology to listen to audio books. That is, I am now the owner of headphones capable of secluding me from the outside world while also generating highly intelligible sounds. Prior to that I tended to own open headphones that were useless for listening at venues such as a crowded street or a train.
  • And third, it occurred to me that my daily commute to work includes significant walking. Pretty much the only thing I can afford to do while walking is listening, so I might as well use this time for audio books from time to time.
Thus you will now find me conducting research so as to find which genres work best with the audiobook format.

Image by Nicola Einarson, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Friday, 7 November 2014


I’ve been trying to analyse why I’ve been having more and longer lasting colds this year in particular. Obviously, there are some crafty viruses out there to blame, but I think I could also point a finger at exhaustion. Or rather, the fatigue that comes with trying to toggle full time work + full time parenthood + having a shred of a life. Just to give you an indication how serious this problem is: I received my copy of Shadow of Mordor almost a week ago, and still haven’t finished the tutorial!

Lately, a lot of the spare time I don’t have has been allocated to officially complaining. As we stand, I have three open complaints raised with Australian bodies. One is dealing with Australia Post’s ongoing mischiefs, another with a medical practitioner’s, and the third with PayPal deciding to take ownership of stuff that’s not theirs.
Each of those requires me collecting all the relevant information, finding out the right avenue to complain through, and phrasing my complaint as per the expectation of the responsible government body’s expectations. Yes, each of these have their own uniquely weird collection of PDFs and online forms to hurdle through. After all this effort, the government bodies step aside and "let" me discuss things directly with the organisations I'm complaining against (yet again, because it's the failure of such discussions that got me to raise official complaints in the first place). Then there’s dealing with the feedback from the organisations I’m been complaining against: at least two out of the three seem to specialise in providing lengthy feedback that completely ignores my arguments. Which sets the wheels rolling yet again for additional rounds.
Complaining is hard and time consuming. No wonder the average Aussie is so indifferent to the world around them; it’s damn hard to take the right action.

In an attempt to finish this post on a positive note, I will list some of the books I have purchased recently but am yet to get to. Knowing that these books that were written by my favourite authors are politely waiting for me on my iPad the minute I can spare some time offers much consolation.
So here they are, in the order they have been purchased. Remember, these are only the top of my pending reading list:
  1. Lock In – John Scalzi
  2. Waking Up - Sam Harris
  3. The Prophecy Con - Patrick Weekes
  4. The Doubt Factory - Paolo Bacigalupi

Image by Adrian Sampson, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

In His White Room

A bit more than a week later I learned that my favourite bass player, and one of the musicians most influential when it comes to the establishment of my taste in music, has died.
I actually saw Jack Bruce live in early nineties Israel, at a strange live show which I have attended under rather strange circumstances. Bruce seemed like he didn't really want to be there. Luckily, he sure seemed as if he's having a good time in the 2005 Cream reunion whose video I can watch again and again.
Although he's the person behind some big hits like Sunshine of Your Love (and its luring basic beat), my favourite piece of Jack Bruce music is actually in a piece credited to Cozy Powell; he "just" plays bass (and contributes a Cream theme at the end). A few decades back, this song used to serve as the theme for Israel Reshet Gimel radio's equivalent of Top of the Pops:

Rest in peace, Jack Bruce.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

A short while ago I discussed my Apple consumption prediction for the next year. What I failed to include was an account of what gadget I’m really looking forward to them providing me with. So let’s fix that quickly:
What I would really like to see from Apple is a 12”-13” iPad like device that’s running OS X.
Or, in other words and using more words, I would like to have myself a Mac delivered in the iPad shape factor. But it should still be a Mac, with gigs of storage in the three digits and plenty of RAM, with a current generation I5 Intel CPU, with an HDMI output, and at least a couple of USB outputs. Basically, I’m looking for a device that would do everything I need my computer to do, but deliver it in a portable package that would feel as if I’m carrying an iPad while allowing me to use a wireless keyboard for the serious stuff. I’m looking for a device that fills the same niche that my now aging MacBook Air filled several years ago.
I would like to note that such a device would also allow me to cut down my gadget armada. Instead of running a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone, I could just settle for one MacPad and one iPhone (the 6 Plus, thank you very much). Then again, it is this cannibalisation that is probably preventing Apple from coming up with such a product.
The beauty of it is there are indications Apple is on its way to deliver this very gadget already:

  • There have been rumours concerning an iPad Pro like device for a while now.
  • There have also been rumours concerning a brand new design for a fanless 12” MacBook Air utilising Intel Broadwell technology CPUs.
  • Apple has released its own SIM together with the iPad Air 2. A SIM allowing users to switch providers and plans quickly and seamlessly.
  • We know that Yosemite, the recent OS X release, supports hotspotting. In other words, it won’t take much for Apple to deliver a Mac with an Apple SIM inside.
Microsoft did it already, to one extent or another, with the Surface Pro; its third incarnation would have been a gem if it was running anything other than Windows.
Come on, Apple. Make my day.

Image by brett jordan, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Statements that Prove You Have No Idea*

1. Losing your job is an opportunity.
2. You can always make time available.
Feel free to offer additional statements.

*These statements can also prove that you don’t have children. In which case I am still correct when I argue you have no idea.

Image by Martin Fisch, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence