Thursday, 25 July 2019

The way humans deal with their planned obsolescence

The 7am podcast ran an episode discussing how it was Australia’s elderly that determined the outcome of the recent federal elections in favour of the Liberals. It’s not the first time the world has seen such phenomena; Brexit is probably the best example for how the elderly voted to block a world of opportunities from the younger generations. Australia’s case was different in the sense that it wasn't the fear of the immigrant but rather selfish greed, or - to be exact - generally unfounded selfish greed that settled the elections.
The matter of the elderly baby boomers screwing the world for followup generations is often brought up in various contexts, from global warming to housing affordability. In this post I wanted to share some thoughts I have on the subject, thoughts that came out of left field: software development.
Bear with me.

During June’s WWDC, Apple’s yearly developer convention, the company presented its application software developers with a whole slew of new technologies with which to develop their apps. Indeed, 2019’s WWDC is seen as the most bombastic of WWDCs since Apple had announced the Swift language, at least in terms of the number of innovations on display.
One such innovation is SwiftUI, a new framework for the declarative creation of user interfaces. Up to this point in time, imperative user interfaces were the rulers of Apple Land. Which begs the question, which of the two approaches will be ruling the world of tomorrow?
On one hand, it is obvious Apple is positioning SwiftUI as its new king. On the other, the App Store is filled with millions of apps built using older technologies, and these are not about to disappear nor rebuild themselves using SwiftUI. At least not within a couple of years, give or take.
Anyone watching the WWDC SwiftUI presentations  could not help but be impressed with the new technology. At the same time, there is much anxiety in the world of Apple Developers: which technology should one invest oneself in? Should they go with existing technology, which would allow them to dive right in to existing app development, or should they focus on SwiftUI to improve their future stake? Specialising in both at the same time is not a trivial affair. Further, which way should a new developer go? The answer might be obvious in a couple of years time, but the firm advice for today is to stick with the tried and tested. For now.
Consider, for a moment, what’s at stake for veteran Apple developers. Within a year or two, a whole lot of the experience they had gathered over the years would evaporate; a junior developer that just graduated could hold the advantage over them by being well versed in the newer technologies through their school of choice. What are the veterans to do? What can they do to avoid a potential crisis in income, status, and job stability?

It is obvious the camps of the Apple developers are but a tiny fraction of the workforce. However, it is just as obvious that this phenomenon - that of the rug being pulled under the worker as the rules of the game change and they are found to be out of date and out of touch - is far from a rarity. Not in this world as it is going through unprecedented rates of change.
The question is, how can the veteran secure themselves a future in such a world? There is only that much effort one can do when it comes to keeping up.
One way to achieve such security is through promotion. If we stick with software development, our experienced developer can become a lead or a manager. She will be doing less, if any, hands on development herself, but instead focus on making sure the ship is steering in the right direction. No intimate familiarity with SwiftUI is required in order to achieve that, but the wisdom that comes with experience certainly is.
Promotion is not enough, though. One cannot rely on being promoted when one’s future is at stake. There is the matter of the pyramid’s math, with its crowded base and the lonelier upper echelons; there is not enough room at the top for everyone.
Some other method has to be found to guarantee security for the “elderly” in the face of the threat coming from the younger quarters.

My point is simple. It seems to me as if society, more or less as a whole, chose to screw the younger generations in order to guarantee the older ones that they won’t suffer severe status depreciation.
This is why the rules are rigged in favour of the old. That is why they have made it harder and harder to get into the housing market. That is why they made sure entitlements they benefited from would no longer apply to others. Consider the formerly free tertiary studies, as well as various superannuation boosting schemes that seem to be disappearing over time. I would leave you be with the exercise of coming up with further examples; I doubt you would find much difficulty in coming up with plenty more.
The catch, in my opinion, is that I do not think this is going to be a one off. I do not think this particular illness in human to human relationships would be cured once baby boomers’ time under the sun is over. I suspect that, instead, it would be the gen X folk that take over and continue with the tradition of screwing those that followed them. Eventually, today’s victims, the millennials, would find themselves on the other side of the boot as they kick around whatever bizarrely titled generations come after them.
It would be simple. It would be the way of the world: when a problem presents itself, we tend to drift towards the simplest, the tried and tested, solution.
If it is breaking out of this vicious circle that we seek, I cannot see that happening without the restructuring of society’s core foundations. In other words, I cannot see that happening. Unless… Well, there might be some positive aspects to the climate catastrophe that is falling on us (and not so gradually).

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The BBC & I on Dust

BBC Crowd Science is one of my favourite podcasts. Essentially, it's a podcast where people from all over the world send them questions on matters of science, and they answer them.

Back at the end of 2017, Crowd Science has featured an episode based on a question from yours truly. I asked them to tell me about the dust in my home and whether I should worry about it (or even clean it). To help them answer my questions, I had posted them dust samples from various sources in my home. Luckily, there is no supply shortage there.
You can read and listen to this episode here.

This week, Crowd Science followed up on my question with yet another episode that goes even deeper into the matter and looks at whether household microbes help or harm us.
You can listen to this newer episode (and to yours truly, again), here.

While at it, do consider subscribing to BBC Crowd Science on whatever platform it is that you're listening to podcasts through. It's a great podcast even on episodes that do not feature me.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Thoughts on the up and coming Apple Arcade

The App Store is dead.
No, hear me out. I know it’s been making more money than ever, but the financial figures only tell part of the story. Money may be up, probably due to subscriptions, but downloads are down. That is probably because, these days, what used to be the open range safari of an App Store is mostly catered for by a very few companies delivering the big apps that almost everybody uses (thing Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps) and a tiny bit of a few other things on the side that are probably struggling to survive (think Evernote).
That old concept that said all one needs in order to make a killer app and retire a millionaire hasn’t been cutting the threshold of reality since around 2014. Exceptions exist, true, but so do lottery winners, and none of us take lottery winning for granted; we’re smart enough to know the odds mean it’ll never happen to us.
Looking at games, specifically, the App Store is even more than dead. It’s a dead zombie walking. Have a look at all the charts and you will have a hard time finding a premium game; everything is freemium, and - by definition - a freemium game cannot be a good game.  A good game is a game that’s focused on being a good game, usually by delivering a good narrative; a freemium game is a game that’s focused on drawing money out of the coffers of its players.
If Apple was truly caring for us, its users, it would offer search options where games are ranked in depending order of cost. Better yet, it would allow the option of ignoring freemium apps in the search.

If the iOS App Store is dying, then the tvOS App Store can never be said to have been alive in the first place. Sure, when the fourth generation Apple TV came out there was this promise that it would turn our living room into a gaming arena, but that was hampered by two factors:
First, those of us who wanted a gaming arena around their TV already had much superior options to do so with. Think PlayStation.
Second, anyone who tried the Siri remote that comes with the Apple TV will know it’s a pain to use when all one seeks to do is watch something on Netflix; for gaming purposes, it’s a total nightmare. Proper console like controllers can be purchased, yes, but they’re expensive and they are trapped in that chicken-and-egg conundrum of having the games first before bothering to buy a controller.

Into this scene Apple is now proposing to bring the Apple Arcade. For a fee rumoured to be $10 (USD) a month, users would be able to play some 100 games Apple had paid hundreds of millions ($500M, according to this report) for external game developers to create. Assuming the catalog will only grow in size over time, expect the Apple Arcade to open around September 2019 with the release of iOS 13.
Further, those Apple Arcade games would be playable on iOS (that’s iPhone and iPad for you), tvOS (Apple TV), and macOS. In effect, through iCloud sync, that would create an environment not unlike the Nintendo Switch’s: you could play at home on your big TV with a controller, then take the game with you to play when you’re out and about. Or even at work, but don’t tell anyone. The technical capabilities of these devices is certainly not far off the Switch’s, if not better in certain aspects.
The question is, what would Apple Arcade achieve? Would we be better off for its existence, or would it create a worse world as far as good games are concerned?

Naturally, the knee jerk reaction is to welcome any initiative where games receive proper funding and where games are being properly paid for. At first glance, Apple Arcade could be a life saver.
Nothing, however, is simple as it may seem. There is a lot to question with regards to Apple’s approach with Apple Arcade.
Consider the developers it had engaged. The likes of Will Wright of Sim City and The Sims fame; or Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. Are these the sort of people that need Apple’s cash to create a good game in the first place?
Take a look at the companies Apple has been engaging with. Are Lego and Sega, to pick a couple, the sort of companies that have any problems releasing video games on their own?
Sure, there is nothing wrong with us having more games from these makers. Spare a thought, though, for the small indie developer out there, armed with fantastic ideas and no funding: what hope lies in their future when all the money goes towards the already rich and famous? Worse, who in their sound mind would pay to buy their games when they’re already paying $10 a month to Apple Arcade?
Apple Arcade could be a boon for all those involved, but it could be a disaster for all those left out. And those left behind are the majority of developers out there, the ones that - once upon a time - helped Apple make the App Store the giant it is.
Me, I’d rather see Apple spend its money on smaller developers. Or initiate some sort of a program that would allow them to come up with something, rather than invest in the already tried and tested that we are generally saturated with already.

Then there is the discussion on whether $10 a month would work. Most of us are already spending considerable sums a month on various entertainment subscriptions, be they cable or Netflix for video or Spotify and Apple Music for music. Gamers are already paying for the likes of PlayStation Plus or Nintendo’s generally struggling online service. Do we care to add the considerable sum of $10 a month on top? $120 a year?
I expect many, if not most, to be pushed back by this price. Personally, I’d love to pay for games but I hardly get the time to play them; spending $10 a month when I can only play 1-2 hours a week seems highly irrational to me, no matter the good thoughts that paying for good games bring.
I would have preferred some sort of a tiered payment structure that could ease the pain.

Last, but not least (at least for yours truly), is the matter of privacy.
Ads, tracking, and data harvesting are the hidden bane of modern gaming. Most people are unaware or turn a blind eye, but there are hardly any games or games platforms out there that don’t watch you as you’re playing and go home to talk about it to anyone willing to pay. Most game publishers consider the money they earn through these avenues another legitimate revenue streams, but in effect they are selling our data - who we are - to the highest bidder (and to the lowest as well).
Do you really want anyone out there to know what you’re playing, when you’re playing, and where you’re playing? Maybe you’d consider that data harmless; but it is not so harmless when it is added to data collected about you elsewhere, which allows companies like Facebook to categorise who you are to an extremely fine degree so that the likes of Brexit and Donald Trump can then be sold on to you.
Call me old fashioned, but when I read a book I like to do so by myself. And when I play a game, I also like to do so by myself. Therefore, when Apple announced its Apple Arcade games would come with no in app purchases, no ads, and no tracking, that was - by far - the thing that attracted me most to this service. No longer will I have to switch my phone offline in order to be able to privately play a game without some nasty company like Facebook peering over my shoulder!
The questions I had (and still have) is, how private is private? I have seen (and reported) cases where a company states one thing with regards to privacy but does another thing altogether. Where will Apple lie on this spectrum?
We still don’t know, because Apple Arcade isn’t out yet. And we would have to constantly check in order to be sure over time. However, we got a bit of a promising glimpse into the future when Apple released its own game, for the first time in goddess knows when, to the App Store. This free game is called ‎Warren Buffett's Paper Wizard.
Granted, it’s not much of a game; the back story suggests it’s more of a joke. Regardless, last time I checked yours truly was holding the #8 high score in the world. Not bad for a n00b.
More importantly, yours truly checked Paper Wizard to see if Apple is true to its word when it comes to privacy and tracking. The image below shows all the internet connections made by my iPad while playing the game:


Let me translate it to you: other than normal iOS communications that the device does anyway, and other than saving my position to iCloud, no external ad agency, data harvester, or external analytics service was deployed. Assuming one trusts Apple (and one has to when buying an iPhone), things could not be better on the privacy front.

In conclusion, let me ask again: would Apple Arcade improve the world of gaming or hamper it?
We don’t know yet. Personally, I hope it would; it could be the last time a company with coffers as big as Apple’s decides to invest in gaming.  But I suspect some sort of a mixed bag that easily could, if Apple doesn’t pay enough attention, actually reinforce the current status quo. Do we want to continue living in a world where only big companies can release games, and therefore those games they do release tend  to come off the uninspiring pre-established moulds?

Sunday, 28 April 2019

What good is a Privacy Policy?

A friend recently pointed out the existence of an Israeli app called Shiri (שירי), which allows its users to freely listen a large collection of Israeli songs. Generally speaking, I hesitate to install new apps on my phone on account of the regular abuse of my privacy and security performed by most apps (a phenomenon I had already discussed here). However, out of curiosity, I decided to give this particular app a proper examination.

First, I went to the app's iTunes page in order to check its website out. It is there that I found Shiri's privacy policy, which - to my eyes - seemed quite impressive. Under the assumption of fair use (which I believe I have on my side here, as I am about to critically assess this policy), I will quote some of its more appealing aspects:
The National Library collects only personal information provided by you, willingly [emphasis by yours truly], with active and informed consent granted during your user registration process and\or during your request of services and\or...
The National Library will not transfer your personal information to third parties unless (a) it is required to do so by law, and\or (b) it was required to submit information to an authorized authority according to that authority's request, and\or (c) it was necessary for the provision of the requested services and you approved the transfer of the information to that third party.
Given such a lovely privacy policy, I went out and installed the free app. However, before starting the app for the first time I set up a proxy service in order to capture all the online activities performed by the app.
The next thing I did was start the app. I will emphasise here that I only started the app, did not press anything, and got only as far as its welcome page. However, by then my proxy service already showed the following online connections were made by the Shiri app:



Three usual suspects are immediately noticeable: Google, Facebook, and Apple. Apple can be excused by the fact it is the phone's operating system itself that contacts Apple every time an app is started in order to support Apple's app usage statistics. However, there is no excuse for Facebook nor Google to be there. Not when the above quoted privacy policy says that no personal information of mine will be transferred to third parties (which is exactly what Google and Facebook are, in this particular case).
Even if the inclusion of Facebook and Google was included because "it was necessary for the provision of the requested services", I do not recall having "approved the transfer of the information to that third party"; all I did was start the app for the very first time. It cannot be said that I had willingly provided my consent for my information to be collected!
Further, Google and Facebook were not the only trackers to join the Shiri party; they are just the most famous. As you can see in the above screen shot, we also had app-measurement.com, appsflyer, hockeyapp, and crashlytics. Now, it may be argued that these are not your average data harvesting services out there to suck as much information about you (the way Google and Facebook act), but rather services that are there to help the app developer ensure they are providing good service. However, these are still third parties, they are still collecting my information, and I still haven't provided any consent for them to do that. More importantly, in the context of this post, they were never supposed to exist in the first place given Shiri's privacy policy!

Why is it, then, that Shiri is acting this way? Why is Shiri publishing a privacy policy which it then completely ignores?
I strongly suspect there was no ill will on behalf of Shiri here; just good old ignorance. One part of the organisation, with all the good idealism on its side, wrote a marvelous privacy policy; then another part of the organisation (probably with the help of external contractors) went out to develop an app, and that part chose to use SDKs from Google and Facebook. While at it, they chose to use several third party services to help them with the app's development and running. I suspect they did not even bother to read their organisation's own privacy policy.
Who does, these days?

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Panda Arcade interview

It's been a while since I contributed to Digitally Downloaded, but I'm quite proud of this particular one: an interview with the Richmond (Melbourne) based indie developers Panda Arcade.
Panda Arcade are in the process of making a new mobile game, Pico Tanks. Essentially, it's a modern incarnation, online multiplayer, version of the good old Combat game that came bundled with my Atari 2600. Having played it at last year's PAX as well as this year's, I can report a family favourite in the making.
I'll quit while ahead and send you to read the interview here.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

ASS Access Submission

Following is the submission I have made with regards to Australia's proposed ASS Access bill.
I do not pretend for this submission to be exemplary in any way; I knocked it off rather too quickly in between other things I have to do in life. However, I am publishing it here in the hope it would help others file their own submissions. We only have a few days left to make an impact!

Dear sir/madam,

I would like to express my objection to the proposed Assistance and Access Bill 2018 (The Bill). As I will outline below, The Bill demonstrates deep misunderstanding of contemporary telecommunications, The Bill will jeopardise the security of Australians as well as the rest of the world, and The Bill runs the risk of turning Australia from a society of free thinkers into a society of East Germany like people worried about their every move.

To start, the explanations provided in support of The Bill on The Bill’s internet page itself (see https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about/consultations/assistance-and-access-bill-2018) demonstrate the government’s lack of understanding in the areas it is aiming to regulate so aggressively through the proposed Bill.
For example, the page cites a sex offender whose use of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger prevents the Victoria Police from collecting evidence on the case. However, in real life that will not be the case: Snapchat is probably one of the least secure popular messaging platforms, and should allow the police to easily retrieve all communicated data using existing procedures (e.g., a warrant). Given court approval, a police appointed hacker will have no problems retrieving message data, although it should be even easier for the police to acquire the data from Snapchat itself.
Similarly, Facebook Messenger should not pose much of a problem to the police, either. By default, Facebook Messenger does not use end-to-end encryption. Further, Facebook collects messages’ metadata, which it will serve the police when issued with a warrant, therefore allowing the police to connect the dots even if encrypted messaging was put to use. And let us not ignore the fact the police can already collect most, if not all, of the evidence it requires from the victim’s phone.
To summarise the point, there is nothing in the single example cited in support of The Bill that cannot be achieved, and easily so, using legal methods currently available to the police. This example not only demonstrates lack of understanding in matters of technology on behalf of the government proposing The Bill, it actually demonstrates quite effectively the rather redundant nature of the proposed Bill when it comes to crime fighting.

Further, I - as well as all cybersecurity and encryption experts, who are unanimous on this - argue that the proposed Bill will harm the cybersecurity of Australians rather than improve it. In actual fact, it would harm the cybersecurity of all the citizens of the world, since we all rely on the same technology and mathematics to protect our banking, commerce, private messaging, and even nude photos that we would prefer to keep to ourselves. (I know nude photos do not sound like much in comparison with commerce and banking, but they do seem to carry a lot of significance with a large proportion of the population.)
The reason The Bill will be harmful to the security of Australians and the rest of the world is that its implementations would create backdoors into otherwise private online interactions. While The Bill claims it will not create a backdoor, that is exactly what it will create: there is no other way to break the encryption algorithms in current use other than a backdoor; it is mathematically impossible. The only point of contention remains the exact definition of the term “backdoor”, but semantics aside, a backdoor by any other name is still a backdoor.
The problem with such backdoors is that, once created, we cannot prevent them from being used only by “the good guys”. Nor can we prevent their abuse, which is likely to be high given the complete absence of oversight offered by The Bill and the oppressive measures it will enforce on those informing the public of its application (measures that might befit Putin’s oligarchy, but certainly have no place in Australia).
For example, if Apple develops a way for Australia to hack into iPhones, that same method can be used by Russia, China, and the entire collection of criminal hackers who would love to put their hands on the sensitive data we all store on our smartphones these days. There is simply no other way about it, which is exactly why The Bill would be harmful to the interests of Australia’s citizens and put Australian businesses at a disadvantage against their international competition. It is obvious international companies would prefer to avoid the potential scrutiny of the Australian government.
Eventually, the proposed Bill would put the entire world at risk. Examples for the problematic way in which government backdoors can go wrong include the famous WannaCry, which was originally developed by the NSA as a backdoor. WannaCry then fell into the hands of people on the wrong side of the fence, probably North Koreans, and shut down the UK’s health services for a while. It  still continues to harm the world economy, putting all manufacturing at Taiwan’s TSMC, the world’s largest computer chip manufacturer, to a halt just the other month (refer to https://www.bankinfosecurity.com/chipmaker-tsmc-wannacry-attack-could-cost-us170-million-a-11285 for details). I am thus very much puzzled by an Australia that seeks to walk down the same path and put the world’s cybersecurity at risk: if the NSA with its multibillion dollar budget, the biggest and mightiest in the world, can fail to protect its trade secrets, what chance does Australia stand?

Lastly, I will argue the proposed Bill stands against the core values of Australian society. The values that make Australia the great country it is, a society of free thinkers, where entrepreneurship is encouraged, and individual initiative is highly regarded.
Do we really want to subdue the free spirit of our society by creating, instead, a country where people know every form of communication they have with their fellow citizens is monitored and surveilled by others (be it government agencies, but also - as previously noted - foreign governments and criminals?).
Science has already told us people behave differently when they know they are being observed (refer to the Observer Effect or the Hawthorne Effect, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect). Australians do not need to experiment on ourselves to know what a society of mass government surveillance would be like: we need only look at China. China’s internet resembles the one our Bill aspires to create: an internet where no one can keep a secret from the state through the abduction of all form of privacy. All this has been achieved by delegalising all manner of encryption.
Let there be no doubt about it: these days, removing the means with which people can securely and privately communicate electronically amounts to removing people’s core freedom; electronic communications are where the bulk of today’s communications lie. For some people it represents the entirety of their communication with the world at large.
We therefore need to ask ourselves: Do we want to become another China? I think that is a rhetorical question. I doubt any Australian would prefer to live in China over Australia; similarly, Australia is often cited as one of the best countries in the world to migrate to, whereas I am yet to hear of anyone who seeks to migrate to China.

I therefore urge for the Assistance and Access Bill 2018 to be dropped. As I have demonstrated, it has been wrongfully raised in the first place; it will put Australians at a disadvantage; and it will actively harm Australians as well as the rest of the world.
Let us keep Australia as one of the best places in the world to live at. Let us not imitate the East German Stasi ideal. Let’s stop this bill and keep Australians free.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Survey of current Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones

These days, it seems everyone on the street is armed with some type of headphones, yours truly included.
Yours truly used to aspire towards audiophile quality headphones that work well when they’re powered by smartphones (like the Sennheiser Momentum I reviewed here). Then yours truly gave noise cancelling headphones a try, in the shape of the Bose QC25; and since then, noise cancelling has been deemed to be the most important quality as far as headphones are concerned, at least by yours truly‘s book.
The reason is simple. Most of the places where I listen to music are noisy: be it the street, the train, the plane, or even the office - there is always noise about. Under such circumstances, the headphones’ ability to convey the most accurate depiction of a recording’s sound does not matter much. Those tiny details are masked by all that noise.

Enter noise cancelling: by cancelling the noise, to one extent or another, a good pair of noise cancelling headphones allows listeners to enjoy more of that quality without having to raise the volume to eardrum defying levels. As MasterCard put it rather eloquently, that ability to listen to music or podcasts on the train at whisper quiet sound levels and genuinely enjoy it - priceless!
Naturally, noise cancelling comes at a price. The process of sampling the noise outside the headphones, then deducting it from the music's signal while taking into account whatever it is that's going on inside the headphones, is a rather complex one (both the inside and the outside need to be sampled, then some formula needs to be applied); the end result will not be perfect, sound quality wise. That process also requires power in the shape of a battery, creating more bulky headphones and the need to associate oneself with spare batteries or a charger.
Probably the biggest drawback of noise cancelling headphones these days is that they are but a rare few that are made with high quality sound in mind. There are multiple reasons for that: for example, it is hard to make good sounding noise cancelling headphones that are not pretty expensive. However, by far the biggest problem when it comes to making good noise cancelling headphones lies with the fact one company, Bose, holds the bulk of patents on noise cancelling techniques; all other companies have to work around these patents through all sorts of compromises if they want to offer some competition.
Another twist to the scene of noise cancelling headphones was created by Apple upon its release of the iPhone 7, some two years ago. That was the first major smartphone to abandon the till then generally universal headphone plug standard, which meant that - from that point onward - Bluetooth was pretty much the way to go when it came to headphones. Even non Apple smartphones “imitated” the trend, to one extent or another; and given the hefty cost of noise cancelling headphones, Bluetooth is now a requirement if you want a future proof option.
On one hand, Bluetooth releases us listeners from the tangles of wired headphones; that feeling of liberation when one moves from wired headphones to a Bluetooth pair is clear and present. However, Bluetooth also means a reduction in sound quality due to the format’s incapacity to wirelessly convey the level of detail available. And it also means one needs to suffer through the occasional “why won’t my phone talk to my headphones” moments of pairing trouble, which always seem to happen when one is in a hurry and carrying stuff.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d take you through my personal observations of the most dominant noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones on the market today.
Let’s have a look:

Bose QuietComfort 35 II (aka QC35):
Regardless of the aforementioned patent related reasons, there can be no doubt the QC35 is the king of the active noise cancelling. No other headphones can kill the surrounding environment sound as effectively as these ones.
This doesn’t mean I like these headphones, though. I find the QC35, with their classic Bose sound, too uncomfortable on the ears; that non natural metallic sound curve seems to pierce right into my ears. Which contradicts the headphones' fit comfort: there can be no denying they are the most comfortable headphones to wear in this survey. It's just a shame their sound is so ear piercing.
Version II of the QC35 comes with Google Assistant. Both that and the older versions can be used with a Bose smartphone app that has been identified to send listener’s listening records over to Bose (to be resold to advertisers, no doubt), so bear in mind that these are no privacy activist’s headphones; on the other hand, all these smart features can be disabled to one extent or another.
In Australia, the QC35 II normally sell in the low $400 territory, but the occasional discount can have them in the mid $300 territory. If you want to try the QC35, try heading down to an Apple shop: in addition to selling its own headphones, Apple sells Bose's and should be able to let you try them on.

Beats Studio3:
Generally speaking, I am no fan of the Beats traditional bass heavy sound. However, it may surprise you to know that sound does not apply to the Studio3. I was very much surprised with the natural sound these headphones produce. I will not mince words, I love these headphones!
If you’re in Apple territory, they’d give you the bonus of beating able to easily switch between all your Apple devices. Also, that initial Bluetooth connection experience is solid in its reliability and speed.
There is only one negative I can put against these headphones (other than the obligatory “definitely not as good as Bose's noise cancelling"): build quality. Like most Beats headphones, build quality is less than inspiring, to the point I wonder how long they’d last or whether they'd have much resale value. My original pair proved faulty through a clickity-clackity symphony taking place on the left headphone each time I took a step; luckily, being an Apple product with Apple grade service, they were quickly replaced with a brand new pair that has been working well since.
I will also note the short lived battery, that doesn’t last much longer than 15 hours per charge (but does charge quickly).
In this imperfect world of noise cancelling headphones, the Studio3 are my personal choice. Apple sells them for $450, but you can get them at Costco for $310. Regardless, if you head to an Apple shop you can easily try them with your phone and make your own mind up; you can even return them to Apple within a month to get your money back, if you fancy a long tryout.
It is probably important to point out at well substantiated rumours Apple is planning on releasing Apple branded flagship headphones during 2018, probably in time for the Christmas shopping season; these will probably downgrade the Studio3's status.

Bowers & Wilkins PX:
Sold as the audiophile’s choice, the B&W PX do offer sound quality that is significantly superior to all other Bluetooth headphones I have tested and can almost rival that of high quality wired headphones. Which is not an achievement to be trifled with.
They also feel “newer” and “fresher” than the rest, offering a USB-C charging cable (as opposed to the older Micro USB standard the utilised by the old guard).
Problems lie with the PX’ noise cancelling. Or should I call it noise smearing? What I’m trying to say is, their noise cancelling is pretty much worthless in any environment that is not already pretty quiet. Even a passing car in a generally quiet suburban street render me unable to interpret speech or enjoy music, let alone the noisy environment of a train or a busy city street. Which is a big shame, because the PX sport the best passive noise cancelling around (through tight, yet comfortable, ear pieces).
Couple that noise cancelling of a joke with a price tag of $550 or so, and I can only regard the PX as a major league disappointment. Sure, all the hi-fi magazines drool over it, but in the real life environments where noise cancelling is supposed to make or break one’s listening experience these are total failures. If I was to do rate these headphones, I would give them 1 out of 5 stars; that is the level of disappointment these headphones put me through.
I would advise you to only approach these headphones if you are after the best Bluetooth can offer and are only planning to use your headphones in the [dead] quiet of your home.

Sony WH-1000XM2:
Sony does know how to attach sexy names to its products, doesn’t it?
OK, I will admit right from the start that I have minimal personal experience with these headphones; I only included them here because they are widely  considered to offer the second best noise cancelling option (Bose being the first).
My one time go at them, in the middle of a noisy shop, seemed to indicate at very musical headphones and good noise cancelling. Who knows, maybe they are superior to the Studio3, but I will probably never know for sure because I have no reliable way of testing them (without forking out $300-$400). Let’s hope Sony can learn a page or two from Apple here and offer testing opportunities.


In conclusion...
I will add there are other, more technical, considerations to bear in mind when choosing your noise cancelling headphones. For example, some can operate without power but with a cord, which can be fairly handy when the battery runs out or if you just want to reserve power (you will be giving up on the noise cancellation, though); with some, you cannot listen while charging; and others have the ability to charge quickly, giving you an hour or two of operation with a mere 10 minute charge. If any such consideration applies to you, I urge you to do your research to ensure you are not getting yourself an expensive pair of useless headphones.

Obviously, all of the above relies mostly on personal observations and your own mileage may vary. The main point to take, though, is that not all noise cancelling is created equally; yet, at least in this survey, 3 out of the 4 headphones offer a level of noise cancellation that slices through daily train commutes like it was creme chantili and can make long flights slightly less intolerable. Which, by my book, goes a long way towards being able to enjoy music and sound wherever I may be.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Follow the Apps

Most people take mobile apps for granted and never stop to consider the implications of using them. Well, there are implications, and privacy is one of them: when you use an app, you are - effectively - giving up on your ability to know what this app is doing on your behalf.
One very common thing for apps to do is to share your information with various players who make their money by collecting and harvesting our information. I’m talking Google, I’m talking Facebook, but I’m also talking about thousands of other companies most people have never heard of who make billions by selling our data. And, almost exclusively, they do so behind our backs (because we wouldn’t let them do it if we were aware of what was really going on).

There are ways for one to check on one’s apps.
One free and all conquering tool is Wireshark. You set it up on a computer in your network and it will tell you of everything going in and out; you can then examine it to see, in detail, what goes in and out of your phone when you use certain apps. The problem, however, is that for the laymen it can be pretty hard to identify the relevant from the irrelevant. Or, for that matter, it could be pretty hard to set Wireshark up in the first place.
Another way to check what’s going on in your internet connection is to use deep pocket inspection facilities available on some routers and switching equipment, particularly the more professional ones. For the purpose of the current discussion, I will assume this is either unavailable or is too technically demanding.
The easier and accessible for all way to see what apps are doing is to use a proxy app on your mobile device. When it’s running, all outgoing network traffic will go through that proxy app, and if it is designed for that purpose then it will allow you to peek into that outgoing traffic: where it is going, how much of it is going, and what is it that is going (as in, the actual contents). With regards to the contents, things are getting harder to assess given most apps use encryption (a much welcomed positive!), but the metadata at one's disposal is usually sufficient to make some educated assessments. For example, you can tell if an app of yours is uploading your photos to an online server.
My proxy app of choice for iOS is called Charles Proxy. I can attest that aside of having a lovely name and a lovely icon, it delivers when it comes to overseeing one’s apps.
Regardless of tool, the first thing you will see when examining traffic going in and out of an iOS device is just how often your phone calls home to Apple (and I assume the situation is very similar with Android phones calling Google home). It’s all encrypted, so you can’t tell what it is, exactly, but it does looks like Apple keeps track of opened and closed apps (probably for the purpose of assessing app popularity and such). The problem is, it’s all done behind closed doors so one cannot really tell what’s going on; regardless, we should all be aware of the fact our phones report a lot of stuff about us to the powers that be. It is something we all need to be aware of when we use our phones: you are not alone; someone is watching behind your back.
For now I will note that, given I ran my tests below on iOS, I have ignored mentioning whether apps call on an Apple service. It comes down to the fact that if you are using an Apple phone, you cannot hide from Apple. The same applies to Google and Android phones; Apple and Google’s surveillance is only limited by how far they are willing to go. In Apple’s case, it claims to be quite pro privacy (e.g., it offers navigation facilities using Apple Maps that don’t record where you are) yet it lacks in transparency. Google’s case is vastly different, with the company making its money out of its users’ data, causing it to often cross what’s acceptable (examples include tracking users’ location using cell tower data even when the user disables location services; there’s plenty more). I will put it this way, there are very good reasons why I happily pay Apple the inflated prices it charges for its devices.

Once you do start looking into apps’ behaviour, you’d be able to detect a pattern. Apps tend to come in one of the following flavours:
1. Apps that work just fine without calling any external party or any user tracking.
2. Apps that call home to Google.
3. Apps that call home to Facebook.
4. Apps that call home to a slew of other trackers, advertisers, and data harvesters.
I will note the above order of app escalation is not random. That is to say, apps that call Facebook seem to unanimously call Google, too. Similarly, apps that call on “other” trackers will not leave Google or Facebook behind.
It’s worth mentioning there are legitimate reasons for apps to call on the external resources of companies such as Google and Amazon. For example, Signal, one of the most secure and private messaging app out there, uses Amazon’s services. Similarly, there are apps that use Google’s storage facilities. However, part of the Google “contract”, if you will, says that they provide services in return for tracking. Similarly, Amazon Web Services is the engine that runs a lot of our internets, but Amazon is also a retail company running pretty sophisticated operations in the tracking and data harvesting department.

To demonstrate my point regarding apps and the tracking they come bundled with, I will point out real life examples for apps that behave differently to one another when it comes to respecting their users’ privacy. Obviously, there are a lot of apps to go through (in the millions!), but for now I will stick with three popular use cases of mine.

Camera apps:
Halide: Doesn’t call anyone.
Camera+ for iPad: Doesn’t call anyone (but do note there is a newer iteration of that app).

Photo editing apps:
Darkroom: Calls the dev’s home, a couple of analytics tools (Heap Analytics, HockeyApp), Apple’s iCloud (probably because that’s where my photos are stored).
Affinity: Calls the dev’s home and Amazon’s AWS.
Enlight: Calls Google, Facebook, and numerous others. Guess that's one app that quickly gets deleted off my phone.

Video playback apps:
VLC: As can be expected (?) from an app of such noble origins, VLC doesn’t call anyone.
Infuse: Doesn’t call anyone, but I will note I am using the old Pro version 4.
PlayerXtreme: Despite me paying for the premium app (there is also a free version), the app calls Google, Facebook, and numerous other trackers. It’s hard to tell what it is, exactly, that is shared; however, since I am not sure I would like to share what videos I watch with such entities, I’d rather stick with the likes of VLC.

PDF annotation apps: (I will add I grouped here several apps offering significantly different, yet overlapping, functionality)
GoodReader: As per its own statements, GoodReader does not share your information.
Notability: While this app offers superior annotation facilities (e.g., OCR, Apple Pencil support), it does calls home to Google.
GoodNotes: Very similar to Notability in form and function (though it had OCR years earlier), GoodNotes calls home to both Google and Facebook.
LiquidText: This otherwise incredible app for studying texts is also quite productive in the tracking department. It calls home to liquidtext.net looking for something called ad-pack.zip (does the name tell us all we need to know here?). It also calls Facebook and various analytics/trackers like Apptentive, Crashlytics, and AppsFlyer.

I will add I find the above findings odd. In the case of Halide I actually communicated with the devs, who told me their apps don’t send anything, but then again my device clearly shows some [yet little] mobile data use by the app. It could have been a one off or a bug.
In the case of Camera+, I distinctly remember the iPhone version calling home with each use. Perhaps the iPad version is different, or maybe they changed their approach.
I guess my point is, if you see an app sending your information away then you know it does it; if you don’t, that does not preclude the app from sending information away at some later point in time. That said, I highly recommend Halide as my favourite camera app on the iPhone, and I think it is clear the developer has all the right intentions.

You might have noticed I did not include games in this survey. Which is rather odd, given games are known to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to tracking users. Especially the free ones, some of which are pretty blatant platforms for not much more than tracking their users.
My answer there is rather simple: Sure, there are plenty of ethical games out there that do not track their users. Regardless, given that the bulk of games do not need the internet to run (I will add: given the better games do not need the internet to run), the easiest way of dealing with their user tracking is to simply go offline when playing them.
Sometimes, the crude “old style” solution is the best solution.

Yet another solution for bypassing the tracking imposed on users by apps is to use a good old browser instead. That is, instead of using an app to perform an action (say, buying an item on eBay), go to the eBay website and perform the exact same action.
The reason for choosing the browser over the app is simple: on a browser, you can take control over who can track you or not by using ad blockers and numerous other tools that are widely available out there. On a desktop browser you can install add-ons such as uBlock Origin (ad blocker), Ghostery and Privacy Badger (tracker blockers that utilise different approaches to the blocking).
On iOS Safari, on the other hand, you can utilise ad blockers such as Firefox Focus, AdBlock, or one of the flavours available from Disconnect. The Firefox iOS browser itself comes with ad blocking built in, to various degrees, but it is not on by default. Then there is my favourite iOS browser, Brave, which comes with idiot proof tracker blocking built in and even offers script blocking for the more advanced user. Indeed, Brave has become my go to recommendation whenever the layman asks me for the easiest way to avoid tracking; it is, literally, idiot proof.
Sure, nothing here can completely solve the tracking problem, but this approach lets us, users, take some initiative.

If there is a way for me to summarise this post, it will be by stating that, the way things currently are, there is no way for a user to know whether or not certain apps come with user tracking or not without (a) paying for them first, and (b) testing them yourself while, at the same time, letting the harvesters harvest by virtue of your testing. Given the above examples, it is clear I would have never bought certain apps given the availability of others that do the same (more or less) but come without that extra burden of user tracking.
With the caveat of never knowing for sure before you actually bought the app, I will add there are certain indicators that can help. Some apps “smell” right while others don’t. Take VLC as an example: it’s open source, it’s a free download and has been for eternity, and therefore I wasn’t surprised to learn it doesn’t try to track me.
In contrast, all the apps that make a living through advertising are clearly prime time suspects, if only because of the fact those same advertising companies whose contents they show are also (usually) data trackers/harvesters. Clearly, this makes paid apps less likely to use trackers than free apps (with the notable exception of the ideologically driven apps, of the likes of VLC and Signal). It’s probably worth noting that trackers do not stop tracking even after you pay the extra fee to remove the adds, as is often an option.
Bottom line, probably the most effective way of assessing whether an app will exploit you for your data’s worth or not - other than paying and testing the app for yourself - is to try and figure out how, exactly, is the app developer planning to finance their operation. In most cases, us users can tell that in advance; sure, it takes time and effort to do this research, but on the other hand it is always worthwhile to ensure you’re installing quality stuff on your devices in the first place. For the same reasons you don’t pick garbage from the street to put in your house, don’t do it with any odd garbage you find at your nearest App or Play Store.
One last thing: If you do stumble upon an ethical developer that does the right thing, do support them! Give them some of your money, because they deserve it. And try to point to your friends and colleagues the virtues of those developers. The biggest problem a developer faces is obscurity, and if we can help the good guys with that then we are actively improving the world we live in.