Friday, 31 July 2015

fruux > Google

I make it no secret I would consider the world a better place if we were to eradicate Google. Not that I mind its products; some of them are pretty good, some the best. It’s the surveillance and the tracking that comes bundled with those services that I despise, which is why I have already dedicated a post to Gmail alternatives in the field of email.
Now I am here to tell you of another alternative to a core Google service, the calendar and contacts applications. The rational for ditching Google in this department is clear: first, do you really want Google to know exactly where and when you are going to be, through your calendar? And second, what did your friends ever do to you that you’re letting Google gulp down all their contact details?
There are, of course, viable answers to these questions. Services like Google Now can only work if you do let Google know everything there is to know about you. Besides, let’s be clear, Google does a pretty good job managing contacts and calendars; theirs is not a product one would want to leave behind because of its inferiority.
Yet that’s exactly what I did, and I am here to report I am happier for having done that.

The contacts/calendar alternative I went with comes from fruux, a small German company specialising in contacts/calendar solutions. Wow, such an exact fit!
The key difference between fruux and your Google is in the privacy department. Starting with fruux being a German company, its policies state it never uses your data for anything while its security facilities have your data  encrypted both when communicating with fruux' servers as well as when at rest with fruux. Do note, however, that fruux uses Amazon servers, which pretty much guarantees the NSA has access to your data, assuming they have the ability to crack its encryption. The main point is that your data is as secure and private as it can be for a cloud product that let’s you enjoy the benefits of a cloud based solution (as opposed to, say, the Apple solution that only works on Apple gadgets).
These benefits include web access at will and for free (through facilities that can feel noticeably cruder to Google’s) as well as up to two devices for free. Note fruux does not have its own apps; you are free to use any standard calendar/contacts application, from Outlook to the Contacts or Calendar apps on your iPhone.
There is not much for me to add here other than state fruux simply works, with both my wife and I being happy converts from the Google jail. We particularly like the ability to throw shared calendars into the mix, which allows us to easily (incredible easily!) run our own private calendars/contacts as well as a mutual calendar for stuff that’s relevant to the two of us.
I took great pleasure in deleting all my contacts and calendar information off Google. And I highly recommend fruux!

Image copyrights: fruux

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Top of the Crab to You

Attack of the Crab Monsters

This blog's sister blog, Crab Juice, is celebrating its 9th birthday today. As has always been the case, proceedings involve yearly summaries and pickings of the best this year had offered.
So go forth and have a look. Later we can blast a tank or two over a cuppa.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Ode to the Public Library

One of my more interesting destinations, back then in the once upon a time era, used to be the book shop. A unique place that collected huge amounts of quality entertainment and enlightenment where I was allowed to pick and choose (and then pay) for the food that is going to be nourishing my thoughts next. 
For better or worse, that establishment is now more or less gone. Instead we have ourselves massive online shops and ebooks that allow us to read more and acquire our reading material faster and easier than ever. Yet there is no replacement for the book shop as a physical place of pilgrimage; or rather, do we really need such places of pilgrimage in the first place?
This post is here to argue that yes, we need them. Not for religious reasons, but rather for the simple fact that libraries still fulfil important jobs.

Read a fucking book tee, Red Emma's, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

We do not get to one of our local libraries as often as we used to, but when we do we notice we are not alone. We usually bump into people we know, people from our community, which – given my background as an immigrant – is a rare affair for me in Australia. Extrapolate from my own private experience and you should arrive at the conclusion that a public library seems to serve as some pillar of quality community interaction. A hub, of sorts, and a high quality one at that.
I will not go into other roles the contemporary library fills nowadays, like offering access to the Internet or free (but heavily DRMed) short term ebook rentals. These do not affect me in person.
Book wise, the number one benefit of the modern day library lies in its curation. Every time I visit the library I am exposed to the books on prominent display, as curated by the librarians. These happen to be a mix of popular hits with the local readership as well as books that the librarians find interesting. What’s notable about this curation is that, in contradiction to the one you get/got at a book shop, choices are not affected by marketing or sales or accounting departments, but rather by popular demand and the tastes/inclinations of the local librarian. As such, those curations happen to hit home with me and point me towards books I would have never otherwise heard of but will greatly enjoy reading much more than most other books recommended through market driven channels. You know, the channels that seem to forget books published five years ago or longer even exist.
That curation also works in a manner that no “recommended for you” page on Amazon can achieve. In an instant I am exposed to dozens of books (how important is that book cover!), and within seconds I know where my focus should go. Online, the story is significantly different; one can only focus on one book at a time, and the links between one book and another are rather limited in number. At the library I can drown myself in a hundred books a time and quickly identify 2-3 favourites. Amazon is still unable to achieve that.
You can dismiss the library if you wish. I argue that this service it’s giving me is of vast importance, particularly because the economics of our era have made this a time of very little free time. The time it takes to spare a look at books is sparse. On the other hand, our generation of over stimulated humans is well trained on how to deal with massive amounts of information, which means that we can easily digest the book display at our local library.
To put it another way: the institution of the local public library has survived the latest challenges imposed on it by technology, well enough to still offer vital services to the public. As it has always been, the public library is well worth community investment.

Image by Cory Doctorow, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Friday, 24 July 2015

My Place of Warship

Disney Worship

With the pending doom of my current employment, one source of comfort is the act of daydreaming up my fantasy workplace. The place the will combine everything I love the most into something others can enjoy while earning me money, too.
I even thought of a name: “The Hummus and the Pita: Abou Gadro’s Place of Warship”

The Hummus and the Pita will offer the following core services:
  • We will be serving our customers the best dish ever, hummus (consumed with the avid support of pita bread).
  • We will be serving our customers quality coffee.
  • Customers will be able to enjoy their hummus & coffee over public discussions on matters of technology and the Internets.
  • Customers will be able to put their learning into use.
The above should explain the choice of a name, but in case you didn’t get it:
  • “The Hummus and the Pita” is designed to sound like your average English style pub name, i.e., two silly nouns connected in a manner that makes no real sense (e.g., "the crab and the juice").
  • “Abou Gadro” gives both Arabic flair as well as a scientific one. That goes well with hummus.
  • “Warship” hints at the possibility of taking part in MMOs such as World of Warships, while suggesting that hummus and coffee are addictive to the point of worship. What seems to be a spelling error acts to attract further attention.

To clarify: the above was written in a burst of whim and should not be taken seriously. Once I do lose my job I will put on my suit and tie, like all good boys, and beg for my part in the job interviews scene.

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

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Star Copyright Wars

“Without copyright, independent creation is impossible”
The above are not my words. They’re the words of Prof Michael Fraser, who at some point in time (and perhaps still) was the chair of the Australian Copyright Council (ACC). He said them at a debate I have attended and discussed before.
All the hype that’s currently in the air ahead of a Christmas release of the next Star Wars movie, episode 7, The Force Has a Coffee to Wake Up With, made me reminisce on Fraser words. Reminisce, and demonstrate in a post just how to debunk that statement was.

Think Star Wars for a moment. Think of the hype: clearly, there are many people out there looking forward, very looking forward, to the new Star Wars movie. And a big part of this longing is to do with the duration, measure in decades, between batches of Star Wars movies. The reason for that long duration? Copyright!
If it wasn’t for copyright, we would have had everybody in this world and their grandparents doing their own version of Star Wars. We would have had Star Wars coming out of our nostrils.
Copyright is not the enabler of creativity; it is the blocker of such. I know, because even my YouTube family baby video was taken down (thanks a bunch, Disney!) due to a copyright claim. You see, it had Star Wars music playing in the background.

No, I am not arguing we should kill copyright altogether in the name of enabling the mass creation of Star Wars stuff. I certainly think George Lucas is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his creation. That said, I think he would have done just as well with significantly less inhibiting copyrights.
Still, I hear you argue, that independently made Star Wars content would never be up to the quality the multibillion dollar juggernaut studios are able to produce. I agree; there is definitely a question of quantity vs. quality here. It does not, however, render my core argument – regarding copyright actually being an inhibitor of creation – wrong.
I will concede one thing: no independent production can rise to the peaks of quality delivered to us by The Phantom Menace.

9 August 2015 update:
If you didn't believe me on Star Wars, here comes Buck Rogers to prove the point.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Killer App

Having recently listed some of the more special apps running on my iPhone, I would like to dedicate a post to what I consider to be a killer app. Sorry, a life saving app. An app that, depending on how it is implemented, might even get me to throw my money at the otherwise non selling Apple Watch.
This killer/saviour app of mine? A defibrillator.
Why? Because:

You might laugh at my idea, but think about it. Nowadays, defibrillators have come down in cost to the tune of $5000 or so. Give it five years, definitely less than 10, and every house will have one. Sure, it costs a lot, but with 30% of people dying through heart related problems? Those five thousand are the best money you’re ever going to spend.
Where a smartphone/smart watch come in handy is their heart sensors. True, I do not expect my smartphone – already battery starved the second I remove it from its charger – to be able to reset my heart. However, I do expect my heart rate monitor equipped smart watch to be able to tell me something along the lines of “please rush to your nearest emergency room, you have a heart event in the making”. Such an implementation is not beyond the capabilities of modern technology; watching the way Apple Watch features were removed through fears of liability, it seems the main barrier before such mass life saving tools is the fear of lawsuits rather than technological shortcomings.
Do you hear me, Apple? I challenge you to save my life!

For similar iPhone uses already being implemented, check this news article. For some more creative apps in the service of health, check this article.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

How to Skin a Political Cat

Federal Election Day 2010

One of the classic phenomena with social media is that, over time, we tend to construct a circle of like minded people around us. My Twitter experience is definitely a case in point: I might be constantly accumulating and sharpening the list of people I follow, but if I was to sit back and look at the overarching theme I would see a long list of likeminded lefty progressive people. By now I’ve had enough of a sample of real life interactions with people I know through Twitter to know this observation to be true, with the exception that those people tend to be much better looking than I am.
Yet with all this like-mindedness, there are disagreements in the camp. One of those core disagreements revolves around the question of which political party one should support if one considers oneself to belong to the ranks of the progressive minded Australians. If we exclude the options with low probability to earn a seat (even though the Motorist Party proved that assumption wrong), us progressives have two options to pick from:
  1. The Greens, a party known to stand for progressive causes despite the occasional quirk of a political compromise and even though it lacks the ability to make much of an impact on its own, or
  2. Labor, a party with much power. Basically, it's one of the two big parties that periodically take ownership of Australia every second round of elections or so. However, that can also explain it constantly sliding closer and closer to the Liberals, under the influence of big money/power and in its attempt to steal drifting "central" marginal voters.
With the two camps being the way they are, the real question at hand is – where does progressive you think salvation would come through first? Is it by putting one’s money behind The Greens and hoping there’s enough such “money” for The Greens to influence decision making, or is it by putting one’s money to support the progressives of the Labor party in order to render them influential enough so as to be able to affect the party’s overall decision making and thus Australia as a whole?
Personally, I tend to err towards the first option, the green one. However, who am I to claim the ability to know better? What I am trying to say here is that for the progressive Aussie, the exact political party alignment one carries the banner for does not matter; what matters, really, is that we stand together as progressives to put our money where it has the biggest impact.

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Miraculous iPhone Apps

For no particular reason other than the yet unconfirmed news that one of my best friends has got himself an iPhone, I thought I’d list some of the iPhone up which yours truly considers exceptionally good in making a difference.

iPhone apps sphere

Without further ado:
  • Password management: I’ve mentioned 1Password before and I will mention it again. Once you start using it, there is no going back because it will truly revolutionise the way you use the Internet (if only through the introduction of safety to one’s Interweb operations).
  • Messaging: Another app that’s been mentioned here before is Signal. Where Signal rises above the hordes of virtually everything else is its security (the best, and as Wall Street Journal reports, even the White House agrees) and its privacy policy (here is a company that, unlike Whatsapp and Facebook, does not seek to suck your privacy away).
  • Browser: Ghostery is far from a good browser in the usability department, but it’s the best when it comes to protecting you from online trackers (while also getting rid of many annoying ads). You can even set it up to protect everything you do on wifi (with the annoying caveat of protection not working if you're using VPN). Until Firefox joins the iOS party with its plugins, this is probably the safest browser around.
  • Notes taking: Evernote is always a good choice, whether you want to keep notes or keep a collection of your receipts. Microsoft’s OneNote comes close and is probably the better choice for work related stuff. Me, I use them both. Beware, though: as with all cloud storage solutions that do not encrypt your data before you lose control over it, your privacy does depend on the wits of your provider. Evernote’s good privacy policy wins it the day.
  • Project management: I don’t know if you can call it project management or more of a sort of an idea management app, but Trello’s idea of boards and cards is a winner when it comes to my organisation of my personal projects. Beware, again, of your privacy with this cloud based solution.
  • Camera: Since iOS 8, Camera+ seems to provide the best tools for taking photos with an iPhone by offering manual controls (hooray!) as well as auto ones (boo!). Plus, it offers useable post processing options. I will add that the HDR app called simply HDR is quite useful for shooting static objects: it offers true HDR by taking a couple of photos under different exposure settings and merging them.
  • Photo post processing: This is a highly contested area, but my money firmly goes to Pixelmator (the Mac version is also a worthy rival for Photoshop, but that's another story). Also worth mentioning are Enlight (an iPhone only Pixelmator alternative) and Adobe’s Photoshop Mix, which let’s you – well – mix photos ever so easily it could qualify as a miracle. I will add a warning, since Photoshop was mentioned: avoid the iPhone version of Photoshop, which is quite cumbersome and is soon to be discontinued.
  • Design: I am cheating here, since Canva is an iPad and not an iPhone app, but it's just because I love it so much. If you want to create an good looking graphic, whether for a website, a Twitter post or a brochure, Canva will help you get that knockout effect in surprising ease.
  • Weather: One of my favourite hobbies is comparing the weather predictions of different forecasting apps. The one that seems the overall winner is Weather Underground. Not only is it accurate, it also has all the things that need to come with a forecast – a radar map, detailed graphs, and the ability to monitor the weather anywhere on earth.
  • RSS: Feedly took over what used to be once Google Reader’s domain. It’s just a pity it hasn’t got its own login facilities and has to rely on the likes of Google/Twitter logins.
  • Flight tracking: I remember those ancient days when we used to call the airport to check when a flight arrives. Nowadays, you use an app like Flightradar24 to see where a plane is and what its speed and height are – all in real time, over a map. If that’s not enough of a wonder of technology for you, just try pointing your phone at a passing plane and viewing everything you ever wanted to know about that flight.
  • Astronomy: There have been many apps before to help the budding astronomer (or the budding sky photographer) figure out what’s up there in the sky, but Sky Walk 2 is currently the best of the breed. You can learn a lot about the sky or just point your phone up and learn what that particular star up there is.
  • PDF reader: I did not realise why I need a good PDF reader until I’ve started using GoodReader. It’s not only a pleasure to read PDFs with the app, it’s also dead easy to annotate them.
  • Scanner: An iPhone makes for a pretty effective scanner with the right app. There are plenty of good scanning apps out there, but the one that gets my nod is FineScanner Pro for its superior OCR (yes, the app reads the text off the paper you scan!). I will add the usual privacy warning: OCR is done over the cloud, so I would not recommend it for private stuff.
  • Video player: It is costly, but if you seek an app that will deal with all video formats, play from a NAS or a network, retrieve subtitles for you, broadcast to your Chromecast, and just do a great job playing videos then Infuse Pro is the right app for you. If the cost is too prohibitive then the always free and always good VLC (which also does audio only material) is definitely worthy.
  • TV tracking: If, like me, it is hard for you to track what TV show goes on air and when, then TeeVee is the way to go. Feed it with your favourite shows and receive notifications upon the release of each new episode.
  • Keyboard: iOS’ default keyboard is alright, but it takes ages to type on. Swype allows you, well, to swipe instead of type. It can be annoying when it doesn’t get your gist, but most of the time it offers way faster text input then Apple’s. In contrast to most of its competitors, Swype will work well without you handing it Full Access (thus blocking it from informing others what you’ve typed), which is where this particular keyboard rises above the bulk of the rest of iOS’ third party keyboards.

Image by Blake Patterson, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Other Circus

Having recently found myself rather disappointed by the circus show referring to itself under the oh so sophisticated moniker of Cirque du Soleil, I was left rather hungry for a proper circus experience. Oddly enough, I have found that exact experience I was looking for in a very similar yet different circus, Circus Oz.
I don’t know if it is the sign of the times or whether Circus Oz tries to copy its much more famous counterpart, but Circus Oz also boasts an "all animals on show are 100% human" policy. The acts bear some significant similarities, too. So what’s the difference? Where is it that Circus Oz cuts the mustard?
I feel it comes down to Oz’ down to earth, approachable, nature. Specifically speaking:

  • The venue (the circus tent) is much smaller, giving a much more intimate experience.
  • As a direct result, we were sat much closer to the performers.
  • As it turned out, the performers were mingled around the people greeting us in, checking our tickets and pointing us to our seats.
  • Those performers were capable of everything: the same people were singing, farting, clowning, doing acrobatics, and playing music.
  • Oh, the music! That live music! While that Canadian gang I mentioned above specialised in schmaltz for the masses, Circus Oz did some modern jazz and rock. With a kick. It was genuinely good – as in, “I want to listen to that music later on my headphones” good.
And last, but not least: Circus Oz does not mind photography; they only ask to avoid flash photography, for the very obvious purpose of preventing the performers from going blind. As you can imagine, that alone has raised my levels of show enjoyment by a few orders of magnitude. I even got the photos to show for it!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

A Visit to the Desal Plant


We recently happened to pass by Victoria's water desalination plant, so we've decided on a bit of a detour to go and have a look at this infamous piece of infrastructure.
The sight was rather surreal. We approached a building that has been obviously designed to appeal, architecturally. The building was set around a well groomed natural environment that, walking tracks and all, was obviously designed to be toured by people. And the facilities are surrounded by meticulous parking facilities that are obviously designed with visitors in mind.
Only that no one was visiting the place, and apart from the people that seem to be working there this highly invested in piece of [something] lies dormant. No one wants it.

Opposite the desal plant stand a few wind turbines. The cynic in me would say these were erected as a token gesture towards minimising the environmental impact of the plant, but let's give them the benefit of doubt.
As we were marvelling at the wonder of the wind turbines, I explained to my son how some of his ministers regard these as a blight. He was curious as to how anyone could hold such marvels of human engineering under such views, but then he came up with a suggestion: why don't they decorate the wind turbines with fancy patterns?
Why indeed.