Sunday, 28 December 2014

Merry New Year

And a happy Christmas. I know I'm late by a good few days, but hey - sue me. This atheist takes his days off when they come regardless of shape and size.



Friday, 19 December 2014

What a Shit Year


2013 was a rather crappy year, but the headline says it all - 2014 has been worse. Quite bad, actually.
At the public level we had Tony Abbott destroying Australia and taking it back to the fifties, and the USA/UK partnership bent on destroying the global free minded society. I'll be honest: there's just so much I could take; it was easiest to simply switch off and disconnect. Let my Twitter go. The reality, however, is that the only way to get this world to improve is to remain switched on despite the emotional toll.

At the personal level, this has been the year my father had died. It did not come as complete surprise and it’s not like he died young, but it still hurts. Months later, it is obvious I am yet to truly digest his absence.
Perhaps this is because of what this death implies on me, personally. The reality is that with my father living in Israel and I in Australia, I missed out on his last years. I missed him when he was still alive. I wasn’t there to see him aging, thus when the bad news had arrived it was harder to swallow.
Naturally, this brings up thoughts of a nature that this immigrant would have preferred to forget: when I chose to move from Israel to Australia it did not occur to me that I would be missing out on my father’s last years. Sure, I knew that to be a certainty, but one does not tend to think such thoughts on such lines. What I discovered this year is that things along these lines, which I used to dismiss through some elusive practice of mental accounting, do matter more than they would seem. But still, life needs to go on, because – I will be completely honest – leaving for Australia was still the right move. Very clearly so.

Another torment brought by my father’s departure is the obvious reminder that our time here, on earth, is limited. And a very short time it is.
Memories are quite vivid. It feels as though just the other day my father used to lift me up with his strength, heft and all. Only yesterday he came to my rescue when I needed him. A brief moment ago he was young and powerful and we did stuff together, and now this can never happen again and I can never ask him any more questions.
If all that happened but a brief moment ago, then the implication is that in a brief moment from now all that I have will be gone just the same. If I look myself in the mirror and put on an honest face, it says that – if things go well! – I got a couple or so of decades worth living under my belt before life deteriorates into a festival of experiences I do not look forward to. What's a couple of decades in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. Everything.
I think the lesson is clear. There aren’t that many years for one to live one’s life, so I’d better make those upcoming years good. Better than the shit that 2014 has been.


Image by Andre Vandal, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hi-Fi Alternative

Sometimes, consumerism steers society in weird directions.
The easiest example to point at is MP3 sound. It was only a decade and a half ago that CDs used to be the go to medium for music consumption. But then the iPod came out, and we sold our souls: in exchange for portability we gave up on the non compressed 16 bit sound quality of CDs in favour of something vastly inferior.
A similar trend has been taking place over the past couple of years. The availability of LED backlit LCD panel TVs has made a lot of us replace our TV sets yet again in favour of these models. Why? Not because they’re necessarily better, but because they’re thinner. Sure, percentage wise they are significantly thinner than the flat panel TV of “old”, but in absolute terms? It was purely a case of thinner for thin.
The transition to even thinner panels brought with it significant deterioration in sound reproduction. Those thinner panels don’t have much room for speakers, so the speakers they do have sound awful. Not that the consumer electronics industry minded: it offered them an opportunity to sell us yet another product, the sound bar. [Short sanity check: consider the rational of trading off a slightly thicker TV for a thinner one given the need for an additional speaker system much thicker and bigger than the TV of old and the cost in thousands of dollars this whole affair incurs.]
The question then turned out to be – which sound bar does one get?


I got myself a Yamaha model that came without a subwoofer at Costco. Yamaha, because I have been using Yamaha equipment for decades and in general appreciate their sound (not that it can compete with true hi fi), their unblemished reliability record, and their experience in creating phantom surround images out of a stereo soundtrack. Costco, because of the price. And no subwoofer because, seriously, a real subwoofer has to be huge because of basic physics (which thus directly implies it has to be expensive). What passes for subwoofers in the sound bar market tend to be one note boom boxes that are just awful on the ears.
I like that Yamaha sound bar. Yet I keep asking the question – was that the best I could do for the money? Now I am at a point where I can confidently say “no, I could have done better”. Albeit with a less stylish solution.
The better solution involves using a good but cheap digital amplifier and a couple of good but cheap bookshelf speakers. Good but cheap digital amplifiers did not used to exist, but now they do; check this DTA-1 model here. And good hi-fi bookshelf speakers have always existed; a pair that will knock any sound bar selling for less than 3-4 times the price will cost you $100-$200. What you will be getting, in effect, is a small time hi-fi system; what you will be losing is the form factor of the sound bar.
The choice is yours. Personally, I would say that people should jump at this newly available opportunity to introduce hi-fi sound into their lives. It won’t only do wonders to your TV sound, it will do wonders to your music, too.


Image by Phillips Communications, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Quest for the Next Mass Effect

It took a while till the new generation of consoles started getting games that do justice to the new hardware. It wasn’t easy; the first Big Name Title I got for my PS4, Destiny, turned out to be a great first person shooter game but also the lousiest game in living memory when it comes to things like plot and character. The contrast between the two was just too high to fathom.
But there is goodness to be found, so I thought I’d run a brief overview on some of those. These are not proper reviews but more like first impressions. Read on to learn more about my quest to find Mass Effect’s replacement!


Dragon Age: Inquisition
By far my most anticipated game of 2014, being that it comes from BioWare – makers of Mass Effect – and being that it had Patrick Weekes – one of my favourite authors – writing it.
My initial reaction, however, has been that of disappointment. This is a vast game, one that could easily suck 200 or even more hours of one’s life on its campaign mode. And that’s without taking into account that you can redo the campaign and play completely different characters! Why am I complaining? I’m complaining because I don’t have that much time. In the balance between expanse and getting to the point, I prefer erring on the side of the latter.
By far my biggest complaint thus far is to do with the combat system. I found I could play it in one of two ways: either use the tactical mode for precision management of what each of my player is doing in combat or simply hold the fire button pressed and wait for the baddies to eventually die while with minimal intervention on my part. Yes, that first option doesn’t only sound great, it is great, but seriously – there is not enough time in anyone’s life to micro manage the frequent combats this way. Thus I end up dealing with combat the mundane way.
I find playing Dragon Age a very similar experience to playing the very first Mass Effect. Having arrived there after playing Mass Effect 2 & 3, combat was a boring and tedious affair, but I went through the motions because I wanted to see what happens and I wanted to do good by my favourite characters. The key difference is that Dragon Age takes much longer to get to the point, but it does seem to get better the deeper I’m in.
I just hope it would end up delivering on my time investment.

Shadow of Mordor:
If Dragon Age takes its time, Shadow of Mordor is the exact opposite. This is an intense game from the word go, whose main achievement thus far is enlightening me to the fact a career in sneaking behind orcs and slitting their throats should have been high on my priority list.
Seriously, this game offers a great balance between strategy and action. Your goal is to eliminate baddie captains, but you can’t just storm your way through. You need to gather intelligence and work your way to them. If you lose, that orc captain you were after gets stronger, which means your next attempt will be much harder!
Intense and rewarding is the name of the game, with even the controller itself joining in with sound effects. My main complaint? You can’t pick Shadow of Mordor up for a short go, because saving the game returns you to your spawn point instead of where you actually got to. Which means that unless I have two hours to spare, it’s hard to just pick this game up.
Sad, because this means I probably won't be able to give this game the attention level it deserves.

Super Smash Bros – Wii U:
No, I know this post is about games for the new consoles, but it is exactly because of this that I am forced to include Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.
This one is simply great entertainment for the whole family. With so many gaming options, characters and modes to pick from, Super Smash Bros joins Mario Kart 8 as a game that offers endless fun of the type I am simply unable to grow tired of. My point is, the PS4 (and, for that matter, the Xbone) can have all the big titles they want, but the bottom line is that the “older” Wii U delivers where it counts the most: in the fun department.

Which, last I heard, is the whole point of gaming. Even with games that are not Mass Effect.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Fitness First?


My review of the Pebble smartwatch touched on some privacy related aspects, but given the limited scope of the review didn’t delve deep enough. So I thought I’d dedicate a few more words on how The Internet of Things, the main Internet related commercial drive we are going to be exposed to during upcoming years, comes secretly bundled with some intensive tracking.
I’ll make it short, though. I am often ridiculed for being paranoid when I point out I don’t want companies to keep track of my personal information because I cannot trust them to use the data properly. Now we know that this is more than mere paranoia: data gathered from a FitBit tracking device will be used in a court case, with some interesting aspects this brings to the table pointed out in this article co-written by Angela Daly (a Twitter friend previously mentioned here).
Things come down to a simple equation. Given the Pebble's context of fitness tracking, do you really want an American company with very loose ideas on privacy (at least by European standards) to hold on to detailed data on your location, your activities, your diet and your biometrics in return for basic analysis of this data?
This is not a simple question. If I were to knock on your door and ask you to give me this data, you would rightly tell me to F off. Yet the millions using fitness tracking devices do just that, often/usually without thinking twice about it. On the other hand, this data could – not now, but eventually – be used to raise the alarm bells and tell you to rush to the nearest emergency room when its analysis points at a pending heart attack.
I’m not here to tell you to keep fitness trackers out of your life. What I am saying, however, is that things don’t have to be this way. We do not have to trade our privacy for our health. This entire business model that companies such as Google and Facebook have built their empires on is crap!
I would happily give FitBit/Jawbone/whatever a few dollars a year to receive the same services but have my data remain my data. I know a lot of the benefits of fitness tracking come through statistical analysis of many people’s private data and that contemporary data anonamysation techniques have been repeatedly proven ineffective, but surely there can be a way to achieve that without my life turning into tradeable commodity in the process.


Image by Kazuhiro Keino, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Disenchanted


Earlier this week, I took note of the Mass Effect twitter account informing us followers of maker BioWare’s one day shopping special: hoodies capped at $50, discounted t-shirts and free shipping. The latter was the most important part, given past experience with BioWare had taught me they charge more for shipping to Australia than they do the actual product.
I received the news in the morning while I was at work. Quickly, I headed to BioWare’s website to check things out and – lo and behold – witness they actually did offer free shipping to Australia. Hooray! But being that work is work, I postponed actual purchasing till I got back home.
I got back home, I switched my computer on, I warmed my credit card up for the upcoming exercise, I headed to BioWare’s website, and… I saw that the free shipping message had now been switched into “free US shipping” instead. I tested the affair, and again, BioWare was true to its [current] word. I wasn’t the only one devastated; my wife, who saw this as a great opportunity for her to get me a Christmas present I would love, was also disappointed with the opportunity fading into the ether. [Not that I think it that hard to get me something I'd like.]
I tweeted my opinion of the matter to BioWare’s @MassEffect account but, to date, received no reply. Regardless, the whole affair, as silly as it was, turned out to have huge impact on me.
I’m a big Mass Effect fan and I do not hide it. But this, this shattered the whole illusion as effectively as a tank ramming through a paper wall. Sure, I can see how BioWare’s original offering would get them a flood of online orders from Kreplakistan; but isn’t that the whole point of Black Monday/Friday/whatever offers?
The question here is just how much a profit seeking company can toy with its fans. Apple does it all the time and its the biggest company in the world, value wise. BioWare does it by offering great content in the shape of my all time favourite video games. There is a limit, though, for how much they could stretch their credit. As far as I am concerned this week’s build-up of expectations, followed by their utter evaporation, stretched things too far.

Mass Effect, I now officially renounce you.


Image copyrights: BioWare

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Not Kosher


As a product of the Israeli pretend secular public education system, I recall being taught about the Bible’s rules concerning Kosher food. I recall being told one of the key justification for prohibiting food such as pork was health related: these animals live in the mire, and at the time there were no facilities allowing their safe handling.
This hygiene based argument made sense, even if it failed to explain why Jews continue to abide by it today. It appears as if such exclusions are to do with the religion’s core philosophy: Judaism regards itself as some sort of an elite club of chosen people, hence it enforces such exclusions. Christianity, on the other hand, designed as it was to service the Roman Empire, is more to do with distribution and assimilation. Hence its “come forward and enjoy thy bacon” attitude. Bacon goes a long way in the selling/convincing department.
Mmm, bacon...

Recently, I bumped into another explanation for why Judaism came up with its Kosher regulations. It argues that Kosher rules are there to prevent Jews from taking part in that most basic of human rites together with would be non Jewish partners: the ritual of sharing a table and having a meal together.
If your core concern is the self preservation of your group's identity, then preventing members from being able to contact non members is a pretty effective method for achieving that. It’s deadly simple when you think about it and when you recall that our main way of socialising with one another is through shared meals and drinks. Plus, let’s face it, Judaism’s record in the self preservation department is admirable, having survived that long with all the prosecutions it went through.
Yet questions must be asked. At the personal level, I need to ask myself why I accepted school’s reasoning so easily and failed to realise the hidden motivation for myself. More importantly, at the global level, us humans need to ask ourselves why we are still letting such nonsense divide us?  Surely, in the face of global threats ranging from nuclear weapons to global warming we need to unite! Yet the majority of the best of our minds occupies itself with bullshit that, by design, is there to divide us.
File for the next time someone tells you religion is a force for good.


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

Monday, 1 December 2014

Photo Policy

Yet another post on how I don’t have time to live my life anymore.
It occurred to me I no longer have the privilege of editing all of my photos prior to posting them online at Flickr. Up to now, and since starting to use Flickr almost a decade ago, I regarded my Flickr page as both my personal photo album and as the cloud backup facility for my photos. I also used it as my way of supporting the Creative Commons community with content. However, that is all changing now.
I no longer have the time it takes to process through all my photos, pick the better ones, massage them using software tools such as Aperture and then post them with detailed descriptions on Flickr. It just can’t happen anymore. Instead, I’ll be uploading all of my raw photos to Flickr with just the most basic of tagging so as to use the online facilities as a cloud backup service. The bulk of photos uploaded this way will be kept private.
There is a positive side to this move, if you like. Instead of me doing basic to mediocre editing on all my photos, I will be able to give the whole of my attention to the photos I want to make actual use of. Recently I have been enjoying playing around with Pixelmator on the iPad and see no reason for stopping. [To the uninitiated I will add that Pixelmator has been a staple application for Macs, offering most of what armatures would get out of Photoshop but with a one off $30 price tag.]
Still, bad news is bad news.


Talking about bad:
The act of uploading my photos in bulk to Flickr exposes just how 20th century my ADSL internet connection is. When I upload big stuff, like a video to YouTube or numerous photos to Flickr, my whole Internet connection grinds to a halt. If I try and to do anything else on the Internet things either works extremely slowly or my photo upload process gets broken. The fault is with the ADSL connection’s inherently low upload speeds.
Which brings forth one more reason to thank Tony “The NBN Destroyer” Abbott. It is so blatantly obvious future generations of Australians will write his reign off as some sort of a tragic drug trip taken by their early 21st predecessors.


Image by Jo, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licnece

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bluetooth Blues


Bluetooth technology went a long way over the course of its short lifespan. This geezer remembers the days it was a pain to set up and endure the repetitive pairings one had to go through. I also remember having to deal with external dongles and equipment that, despite all the good intentions, couldn't hold dialog with one another.
Things are different today. I use Bluetooth all the time, literally, for things such as:
  • My smartwatch talking to my smartphone,
  • My car’s hands free and music,
  • The portable Bluetooth speaker that lets me listen to decent quality music wherever I am without the need for headphones,
  • And the Bluetooth keyboard I pack my iPad in, which turns the iPad into a very effective work tool.
With this constant use of Bluetooth comes a new risk: tracking.
You might have heard about it before in the context of wifi tracking: you walk around with your smartphone’s wifi on, and as you go your way hidden wifi trackers talk to your smartphone and gather its unique wifi identifiers as well as the list of wifi networks it normally uses. The latter allows them to know where you live/work, because companies such as Google have already mapped everyone’s wifi networks; the first allows it to easily match you with previous observations so as to keep track of your location over time.
Well, the same story pretty much applies to Bluetooth. Whenever I walk about (or, for that matter, drive) with my Bluetooth devices on, I am exposed to trackers that are able to uniquely identify me and thus build a picture of me and my habits. Things are so bad that the city of New York, for example, started banning such trackers; but what about all the rest of them?
Thing is, there used to be a way around this tracking. Once upon a time, one could set their Bluetooth connection to be on while switching device settings so as not to be discoverable (note this in the above image). You could use your devices, but you can’t be tracked. Nice! But did you notice these settings are not available anymore?
In case you wonder why these settings managed to disappear, here’s the answer. The short, one word answer is: money. The longer one is that companies, companies of the likes of Apple, make a lot of money through selling products such as iBeacons to track and “guide” people around. Primarily to do so at shops, so as to allow you to spend more money. In order for Apple’s product to successfully work, Apple needs your Bluetooth device to be on and to be discoverable; lucky for Apple, it has a lot of control over whether these settings are available to users in the first place. Google, the world's largest advertising company, isn't any better.
I will therefore repeat the conclusion from a previous post: Companies such as Apple may send their overpaid CEOs to announce their commitment to privacy and how much they care for their customers, but the reality is the exact opposite. These companies are more than happy to take an active part in destroying our privacy for the sake of a dollar. Their records speak for themselves.


Image by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Monday, 24 November 2014

Manage Thy Passwords

Let me ask you a personal question: what do your passwords look like?
Online passwords stand between your most sensitive stuff and any would be thief out there, not to mention this world’s dubious governments (pretty much all of them). A good, unique, password is pretty one’s first (and often last) line of defence.
Have a look at what a typical password of mine looks like:
5.2_=.|!!*5:~pV56a==-:~^7-K7.u

What do you think?
You might be thinking the above is rather hard to remember. You might also be thinking that if I am following my own advice regarding unique passwords, then this password would be just one of many; how the ****  does I do it, then? How do I manage to remember many such complex passwords?


The simple answer is that I don't. I use a password management tool that does all the hard work for me for me. It both creates passwords and stores them for me so I don’t have to remember much. The only password I do need to remember is my master password, the one password that unlocks my password manager for me to use.
I cannot boast using many password management tools or being able to compare them. What I can say, though, is that I have been using 1Password and I am a very happy user of 1Password. Not only does it have the ability to manage my passwords as per the above, it also lets me access them on any Internet connected computer (not that I recommend doing that on any computer), it stores other sensitive information for me (e.g., credit cards), and with the Chrome/Firefox add-ons installed it will even fill my user names and passwords for me. What can be a rather tedious process of logging in, even when one’s password is “password”, becomes a one click operation with 1Password.
The other week 1Password even went the extra mile for me. I discovered that a cloud service I had used and have presumed to have updated my password for did not really change the password. Since 1Password already had my “new” password, I thought that was the end of my use of that particular cloud service; I thought I could never login with my old password again. Then, however, I discovered that 1Password keeps a log of changes: I was able to go back in time and recover the old password.
Obviously, security is of prime concern with that information managed by 1Password. The application encrypts all of its saved data, which makes it safe for cloud storage (or as safe as anything stored on the cloud can be). The only caveat I can add is to do with Android usage: due to Android’s rather lax application sandboxing (a complex term for describing whether one application is able to access another application’s data), I would advise caution; do read this article to learn whether and how these issues apply to you.

Overall, the whole password concept is one of risk management. When weighing up whether to start using a password manager, one needs to weigh up the added benefits of being able to easily use unique and very complex passwords vs. the risk of storing the whole of one’s passwords in a single basket. I can only attest to my success with 1Password; it genuinely made my use of the Internet much more comfortable.

Added on 26/11/2014:
If you are considering the use of password managers and are contemplating which, have a go reading the papers referenced here. They bring forth further considerations to do with the security of these tools. As far as I can tell, 1Password excels in the parameters mentioned there.
I would also like to note that, at least on the Mac version, 1Password brings with it alerts regarding compromised passwords. It warns you when passwords need replacing because their related website has been compromised (and I can attest to 1Password doing a very good job keeping up to date on compromised websites). And it also warns you when you're about to let your password go through over an unencrypted connection (including cases where the page seems encrypted but the part that asks for your password isn't).


1Password image: AgileBits

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Religious Brain

You might have even noticed I haven’t been poking at religion lately over these pages, at least not as often as I used to. Religion has acquired the status of old news, and poking at this soft target feels like laying down banana peels in front of a blind person (although I will add that pointing the “virtues” of religion to the blind is analogous to handing them a walking stick, a guide dog and a pair of perfectly functioning eyes).


Which brings me to a new argument against religion, an argument of a type I was unaware of before. To give credit where credit is due, I read it in Sam Harris’ latest book, Waking Up.
It goes like this:
We already know that it is possible to severe the connection between a person brain’s left and right hemisphere. This is a medical technique that is used to reduce the damage resulting from electrical storms in the brain so as to avoid strokes and such. We also know that when this happens, the person displays two separate consciousnesses: one of the left brain and one of the right (with the caveat that the right one lacks the ability to talk; talking is a mostly left brain affair).
Now let us imagine that the left brain’s consciousness is that of a devoted Christian but the right is a rather sceptic atheist. Is this person going to hell or not? Or did this surgical procedure of severing the brain cause the person to have two separate souls?
QED

In case you’re curious, the answer that science indicates at (disclaimer: we do not know that much about consciousness yet) is that what we perceive as consciousness is a multifaceted affair that should not be treated with religion’s blunt and archaic approaches (e.g., its concept of the soul).


Image by TZA, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

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. [21/11/2014 update: The OnePlus One comes with a promise to receive CyanogenMod updates for two years.] 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.


21/11/2014 update:
Since I know I'm going to be quoted on this post, I would like to add that in my humble opinion iOS still offers significantly superior privacy facilities to the OnePlus. It is still my preferred mobile option; the question is just how much more one is willing to pay extra for that superiority (and, obviously, for the other advantages and disadvantages bundled with it).


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

Exhausted

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

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

I Thought I Heard the Dark Side of the Moon


But then I received my brand new Meridian Explorer today. And then I connected it to my Mac and connected my Sennheiser Momentum headphones to the Explorer.
I picked up things with Spotify, listening to a song from Annie Lennox' new album. It sounded good, but I needed a benchmark. So I turned to the album I have listened to the most, my all time favourite The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. I chose a favourite benchmark, Money, for all the variations it has to offer.
What followed was an experience words can hardly explain. I thought I knew this album by heart, but now I was able to easily discern stuff that was there in the background all along but I could never notice before. By the time Money did its trademark shift from 7 beats to the more classic rock 4 beats, I was in tears.
This is the best sound experience I have ever had.

More on the Meridian Explorer in a proper review later. For now, I have music to listen to.

The Real Agenda Behind the Deregulation of University Fees


It really is dead simple, even if no one in the media bothers to state the obvious anymore:
By making university studies accessible only to rich people (through the deregulation of university fees), the ruling classes are making sure their status - the ruling class - is not in danger.
That is to say, the matter of university fees is just another page in the class warfare being waged on the Australian public by the government it had elected a year ago.


Image by David Burke, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Private Apps Are Watching You


Jonathan Zdziarski, a leading security expert with significant expertise in the Apple eco system, wrote his observations after taking a quick look at the Whisper app for the iPhone. By now you probably know that Whisper, an app meant to fill the niche for secretive social media, is the exact opposite. What I found interesting is how the app accomplishes this, as revealed by Zdziarski.
First, note how the app creates a unique ID for the user's device. Unlike anything else so far that may have been used to identify you on the Internet, such as an IP address, there is no plausible deniability here. This identification pinpoints the exact device, regardless of whether you are trying to use VPN or TOR to obscure your identity. Nothing that we can access through a web browser has the ability to achieve this without inflicting severe malware; this is, therefore, a significant “achievement” for apps. 
Second, note the casual way in which the app demands to know your exact location, even though nothing it can offer really needs anything finer than rough. Let us recall that an IP address alone is enough to identify one’s location already. This spells contempt for the user on many grounds, starting from disrespect for battery life and moving on to disrespect for their privacy. All for unnecessary reasons.

OK, you may not have heard of Whisper before and may definitely not be interested in using the app. Fine; I’m not interested in it, either. That does not mean other apps you are interested in do not pull the same tricks. I already noticed certain freemium games, such as Godus, having the uncanny ability to remember where we got to in the game despite device resets, restorations and iOS upgrades. We already know Rovio collects such information about its Angry Birds users, so much so that the mighty NSA had decided to tap into their databases.
The lack of attention society pays to such abuses of privacy mean app developers feel as if they have the mandate to push further through. I suspect that by the time we wake up it will already be too late.


Image by Tim@SW2008, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

You Know People Don't Give a F*ck abouy Copyright

When every time people feel the need to use images to support the written message they are trying to convey, they will - without fail* - infringe someone’s copyrights.


*The only exceptions to this rule that I am able to observe take place in:
1. Cases where the written message goes out to the outside world, which could leave the messenger legally exposed.
2. Cases where the messenger objects to copyright to an extent that they prefer to wage war on it by utilising material licensed under Creative Commons licences.


Image by Sam Teigen, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Google's Education

My son’s school ran an evening presentation for parents detailing its IT policy for the next three years. I won’t bore you with the details of this two hour long presentation; more than half was devoted to “Doh!” grade material along the lines of the case for letting kids learn about/with computers in the first place. The policy itself is good, and – to this self declared expert – stands well on that very unattainable equilibrium of price, value and practicality. I will also note the school principle stood out to let us know parents who cannot afford the cost will be supported, a point whose absence I would consider casus belli on any school IT plan.


My wife allowed me to attend the session only if I promise to behave. Which is one of the reasons I did not make a fuss of what I consider to be a deep chasm in the presenter’s understanding of the concept of online privacy.
Under the banner of privacy, the presented informed us the school kids will use either Google’s educational apps and/or Microsoft Office 365 educational suite. Both are cloud based. The reason this was presented under the privacy flag? Each child will have their own separate account, and the whole school will have its own area that no one else can touch.
This is where I have my reservations. Yes, no one else can touch this area, NSA & Co excepted, but what about Google itself? Surely, it does not provide all these educational facilities because it thinks my child and his school colleagues are so good looking? No, I was told, I needn’t worry; Google promises not to do anything with the information it collects through the educational program. They even have a separate privacy policy to cover that program.
So I went and checked that privacy policy. You can go to pages explaining it to the laymen, such as this one here. This is where the presenter’s naivety struck me. I could accept such naivety a while ago, but in this post Snowden age? In an environment where we know governments and companies lie to us and hide behind carefully spun words to hide their true acts? No.
Have a look at the following clause from Google:
We do not scan your data or email in Google Apps Services for advertising purposes.
Note the glaring absences. Sure, in its creation of a personal dossier of its users, Google will not use anything done through its suite of educational apps. However, do note that Google does not limit itself when it comes to things done outside that suite. For example, what if a child starting to explore their sexuality ventures outside Google’s apps while using the same browser they’re logged in to Google with? And what if those websites the child visits ring Google back through facilities such as Google Analytics, DoubleClick or Google Adsense? Google’s privacy policy does not say what Google will do with information it collects this way. Given what we have learnt from Snowden, this reads like Google having a field day to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Google’s educational suite is pretty good and I suspect the vast majority would consider me a paranoid for the threat I consider Google to pose on my son’s privacy. However, my point here is simply to point out that Google is no angel; that Google is giving away free stuff, like its Android operating system, because it makes money out of our privacy. It makes tons of it. And we shouldn’t ignore that when we consider our children’s education options.
This is why, out of the two options, I would prefer my son to use Office 365. It’s not that Microsoft is a beacon for privacy; it is to do with Microsoft having less of a strangle hold on the Internet. In this world where your privacy is guaranteed to evaporate once you venture online, my risk minimisation approach includes hedging my bets with the various players. I apply that approach with my choice of cloud storage providers, and I suggest it applies to schools’ IT policies just the same.


Image by Giulia Forsythe, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence