Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.

You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?

In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.

And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.

Interesting Times, Part 2

Welcome back. Last time, I implied that Google had made a big mistake in designing Android. Today, I’ll explain.

I can summarize the problem in one simple sentence. It’s impossible to back up your Android device.


There are some partial methods:

  • Turn on “Back up my data”. (Android prompts you to turn it on when you’re setting up the device, but if you declined, you can find it in the “Backup & reset” section of the Settings app.) This sounds good. According to the menu in Lollipop, it will back up “app data, Wi-Fi passwords, and other settings to Google servers”. Unfortunately, the description is somewhat misleading. Your Android settings will be backed up. So will a list of all of the apps you’ve installed. What won’t be backed up is the settings of all those apps. Game progress? Not backed up. List of websites in your RSS reader? Not backed up. Configuration of your e-book reader, social network apps, and weather app? Not backed up–unless you’re using Google’s own apps. The problem is that Google has made the APIs for saving configuration and app state optional. The number of developers who actually use them is miniscule.
  • Install a backup app. There are some. Some of them even work–but only for data the individual apps have marked as public. As part of Android’s security model, apps are largely prevented from accessing any data but their own. In order to do a full backup, you need to root the device. That requires a user to gather instructions and software from several places around the Internet and risk bricking the device. In many cases, it will void the warranty and prevent automatic installation of OS updates–and configuring the device to allow rooting will wipe all of the data on the phone. Yeah, the same data you were trying to back up.
  • Use the backup tool from the developer’s kit. Uh-huh. The average user isn’t going to use any tool that requires them to type commands. Heck, never mind the fact that the average user doesn’t back up their computer and wouldn’t see the point in backing up their phone; the portion of users who would even install a command line program is too small to count. Not that it would help much if they did. Google warns that backing up app data isn’t fully supported, and may not work.

The bottom line here is that as soon as you install one non-Google app, you have almost certainly lost the ability to move your electronic life from one device to another.

That’s not just a problem for people whose devices suddenly drop dead. It affects anyone who wants to upgrade to a new phone (Gotta have that larger screen, right?); anyone who needs to change carriers; and, of course, anyone who doesn’t trust Google to keep their data safe when the NSA comes calling.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Google can do to repair the problem at this point. Google doesn’t review apps at a level of detail that would allow them to require apps to use their backup APIs. Future versions of the OS could introduce a limited form of root access (similar to Windows’ “Administrator mode”), but that wouldn’t help anyone using a device with an older OS–which is most users*.

* As of January 5, Google’s own numbers show that less than 0.1% of users have picked up Lollipop since its November launch. Less than 40% have even gotten as far as last year’s KitKat release. Hell, nearly 8% are still using Gingerbread, which hasn’t received any updates since 2011.

Security is a spectrum. Every vendor has to strike a balance between user freedom and protecting users from themselves. In this case, Google put the balance point in the wrong place. How many would-be phone upgraders, faced with the task of re-entering all their app settings have changed their minds? A little more freedom, and we might not have all of those Gingerbread and Honeycomb users still clutching their aging hardware and praying that it won’t die on them.

Interesting Times, Part 1

Well, the year is off to an interesting start, technologically speaking. Oh, not for everyone. I know everyone is looking forward to this year’s crop of flagship phones, whose primary distinguishing feature is that they’re larger than last year’s models. But that’s not really interesting in any sense of the word. My year has started interestingly in the sense of the Chinese curse.

On the sixth, the second hard drive in my Windows computer died. It wasn’t really a big deal. The only things on that drive were my iTunes library, which can easily be recreated, and a staging area that I used for holding backups until an automated routine moved them to the network server in the middle of the night. So I figured I’d ignore it while I worked on more critical matters–my current writing project and, of course, taking pictures of Sachiko.

On the tenth, the primary hard drive died. Normally, I would have jumped on the problem. One drive dying is likely random chance. Two drives dying this close together could be a sign of an underlying problem: overheating, motherboard dying (it’s of the right age that it could have bad capacitors), or some variety of malware. Normally I’d have had the machine open within minutes, but I’ve been dealing with an unrelated problem.

At least, I assume it’s unrelated. On the ninth, about ten hours before the second hard drive went down, my beloved Nexus 7 passed away. According to the autopsy, the flash storage bit the dust. So that makes three drives–on two separate machines that have never been connected–failing in less than a week. Disturbing.

I use the Windows machine a couple of times a week. The Nexus 7 I use several hours every day. It’s my ebook reader, my news reader, and the home of the few games I actually play. Having it out of commission was a serious block to my normal routine. Of course, the first thing I did was a deep dig into the Web to see if it was recoverable. Short answer: no. Longer answer: there are some recoverable failures with similar symptoms to the storage failure, but the flash storage is soldered to the motherboard and can only be replaced by swapping out the entire board.

I called Google’s hardware support to confirm my diagnosis. Kudos to “Dan,” who didn’t read from a script or have me repeat tests I had already done. He asked a few questions to confirm that I had actually done what I said I had, suggested one test I hadn’t tried, and when that failed, he confirmed that my tablet was pining for the fjords.

Since I bought the Nexus 7 in mid-2013–on the first day they were available, in fact–it was long out of warranty. Waiting weeks for a repair at a cost higher than what I paid for the tablet was a non-starter. Google doesn’t sell the Nexus 7 anymore. Getting a new one would mean buying on eBay or from a closeout seller*. Again, not really a path I felt comfortable about with my daily routine on the line.

* I’ve had mixed results with Tiger Direct and similar sellers. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes their inventory is wishful thinking; sometimes the inventory is fine, but their shipper employs snails–not snail-mail, actual snails.

I considered a non-Nexus tablet, but I’m not fond of the UI changes they layer on top of stock Android, and I really don’t want a device cluttered up with their add-on software. Space is tight, and I see no reason to sacrifice space to software I don’t use.

Google offers two choices: the Nexus 6 and the Nexus 9. The N6 is a phone, and I don’t need a second phone, thanks–and, all jokes about phablets aside, IMNSHO, a six-inch screen is a little too small for extended reading.

So that left the Nexus 9. Yes, I got one. I was concerned about the size and weight, and that is a bit of a problem. Reading on the N7 felt a lot like reading a mass-market paperback. Reading on the N9 feels more like reading a trade paperback*. The N7 fits in a jacket pocket–even some generous pants pockets–even with a cover. The N9 isn’t going in the pocket of any garment I’ve ever owned or would be willing to wear.

* Which is still better than reading on an iPad. It’s not just a matter of weight: even with an iPad Air, the sheer size of the screen makes it feel like a hardback psychologically. That’s a bit of a barrier for me. Reading a hardback has mental overtones of studying, rather than reading for pleasure. (Am I the only person who feels that way? Surely not.)

The N9 is fast, yes. The screen is gorgeous, I’ll admit. The N7’s screen was too small for watching videos comfortably, but the N9 is–just barely–large enough to make it work. I’m not sure it’ll unseat the iPad as my portable video player, but it might. On the downside, it is too heavy to hold unsupported for long stretches of time. I wouldn’t want to use it standing on BART. The “double-tap the screen to wake it up” feature is handy, but very easy to trigger accidentally when picking it up or putting it down. Once the case I’ve ordered arrives, accidental double-taps shouldn’t be as much of an issue, and the case* will double as a stand so I don’t have to hold the darn thing all the time.

* I favor the origami-style cases from roocase. They don’t add too much weight to the device, they give a reasonable amount of protection, and–most importantly for me–they work as stands in both portrait and landscape modes.

Once I’ve finished migrating to the N9, I’m sure I’ll be just as happy with it as I was with the N7. But note those key words: “finished migrating”. I got the tablet on Saturday. Today is Tuesday, and I’m still setting it up. Google has made some design decisions for Android that limit users’ control of their data, and that’s a big problem.

Tune in on Thursday for the second part of the story, in which I explain why Google needs to be turned over someone’s knee.

Google I/O 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I hit the high points of Apple’s WWDC keynote. In the interest of fairness and equal time, here’s a look at the early announcements from Google I/O.

If there’s a unifying theme of Google’s announcements this year, it’s “unification.” A platform for wearable devices (currently a codeword for “watches”) that ties the watch to a phone with shared notifications and alerts; a platform for cars that essentially allows your phone to display information and apps on a dashboard screen; a single card-based design* across all platforms; an “Android TV”; the ability to use a watch as a security fob for a phone or tablet; Android apps running in Chrome OS; cross-platform cloud APIs allowing status to be seamlessly moved among Android, iOS, and desktop applications; mirror any (recent) Android device to Chromecast; health APIs to integrate health data across apps; everything is voice activated and context-aware. I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the idea.

* Does anyone else remember Palm’s card-based UI for PalmOS (later WebOS)? Everything old is new again…

We did see previews of the next version of Android, and we’ll see many more over the next few months. Google is releasing a developers’ preview of the so-called “L release” today, ahead of the public release this fall. We still don’t know the most important piece of information about the release: the food name. Speculation is rampant, with “Lollipop” the leading candidate, but Google remains quiet on the subject, fueling speculation about the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Laffy Taffy,” anyone? (I hope Google does do a few more corporate tie-ins. I’d love to see Android 7 hit the market in 2016 under the name “Nerds”.)

So everything Google touches can talk to everything else Google touches. They look the same, they talk the same language. For good or bad, this sounds like Apple’s tightly integrated, similar-appearance infrastructure. Google’s variation on the theme relies on third parties for most of the hardware, but the core is the same: once you buy one Google device, it’s much easier for your next device to also be Google.

As with Apple, WWDC announcements, Google has a lot of evolution going on, but nothing truly revolutionary.

The revolution is happening outside of Moscone Center. As it happens, I was in San Francisco yesterday, and happened to go past Moscone shortly before the keynote. Here’s what was happening:

That’s right. You know it’s a serious protest when there’s a brass band! (Ars is reporting that a couple of protesters even managed to briefly interrupt the keynote.)

Apparently Google is solely responsible for San Francisco’s apartment evictions and the world-wide inability of non-tech workers to earn a living wage. According to a flier* the protesters were handing out, and to the bits of the loudspeaker-delivered speech I heard, Google has an obligation to increase wages for employees of other companies, support tenant rights, and (my favorite) “End all tax avoidance schemes.”

* The flier is a bit of a WQTS moment, by the way. The illustration is poorly centered, and three of the five sentences include grammatical errors. My favorite: “Do you have an idea for an app that would alleviate the imbalances in Silicon Valley or have other thoughts to share?” Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody could write an app that would have thoughts to share?

Guys, Google may be big, but they aren’t that big, and they really have no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to solve all of the world’s problems.

Even if they did, do you really want to live in a world where Google is responsible for setting fare wages and policing housing markets? I don’t, and I’d be surprised if the protesters would either.

Waze and Means

Uh, Google, did you really think this through?

OK, I’ll back up a bit.

A couple of years ago, an Israeli company released a unique GPS app called Waze. Waze monitored its user’s devices to learn about traffic conditions and driving times, much like other GPS apps. What made Waze unique is that it didn’t just passively watch the device locations. It also actively engaged users, giving them simple ways to report speed traps, traffic jams, accidents, and even gas prices. See someone pulled over by the police? Tap a couple of icons and now everyone using Waze in your area knows that the cops are making traffic stops. Street fair in your neighborhood and traffic is blocked off? Report it as both a traffic blockage and a street festival so drivers can avoid it and party-goers can find it.

The crowd-sourced data model worked out well for Waze, and the app became arguably the most popular third-party GPS program on both iOS and Android. Inevitably, they were acquired. Google paid $966 million last June and, even as the US, UK, and Israeli governments were investigating whether the acquisition was anti-competitive, they started working on integrating Waze data into their own map products.

The app is still available on both iOS and Android; it hasn’t replaced the default map application in Android. Not yet, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t in Google’s long-term plans. What Google has done is interesting–and a little disturbing.

They’ve integrated Waze data into Google Now.

Think about that for a moment, because Google clearly didn’t.

Remember, Google Now is always on, always reporting what it believes to be relevant, important information. Alerts that it’s time to leave for an appointment that are based on the estimated driving time. Directions to the event. Scores of games your favorite team is playing. Useful, timely. OK, great. Except.

Look, I have mixed, but largely favorable, feelings about Google Now in general. But I’m firmly of the opinion that it should not include live traffic information. Whenever I leave the house, if I look at my phone, I find a popup message telling me how long it will take to drive home. Guys, I’m already enough of a hermit. Don’t encourage me to retreat to my cave if I’ve managed to find my way into town…

OK, that’s just mildly annoying. What’s outright dangerous is the live notifications. Case in point: I drove Maggie to BART this morning. On the way home, my phone started buzzing, telling me I had a new message. I finished the drive and then checked the message. Google Now was alerting me to a “traffic event” on the freeway. Remember, I was not using my phone for directions. It was locked and sitting in its holster. In order to check the message, I would have had to pull it out of the holster (a task that usually requires me to use 1.5 hands), hit the power button, swipe to unlock the screen, and then pull down the notification slider. Since I’m not particularly suicidal, I should probably pull over first.

Suppose I do all that. What would I find? “Traffic incident on I-80 W.” Great. Since it doesn’t say anything about which exit it was near, I have no idea if I had already passed it or was approaching it when the alert came in. Even better, I was on 80 East, so it wouldn’t have affected me. Yes, I know that an accident on one side of the freeway usually slows down traffic on the other side as people gawk at the carnage. But it’s rare for the slowdown to be extensive enough to warrant distracting a driver.

So, Google, please give the whole idea a few seconds of thought. If I’m using Maps for directions, by all means pop up a warning of an “incident” in my vicinity. Hell, if I’m using the phone, I could make an argument for a notification. I’m not going to complain too much if my cat videos are interrupted to warn me about an accident that’s going to make me late for dinner. (Yes, I’m assuming that I’m a passenger here. I don’t usually watch cat videos while driving.) But if the phone is locked, that means I’m most likely not in a position to see what the message is. Triggering an audible alert is at best annoying, and might actually be dangerous. Remember, folks: if I have a serious accident because you distracted me at a critical moment, I’m not likely to buy another Android phone…

State of the Fourth Estate: One Year On

Happy Birthday! Happy Belated Anniversary! (Relax, it’s not a baseball post. Well, not much, anyway.)

March 22, 2013 was my last day as a corporate employee. That was a Friday; I spent a chunk of the weekend figuring out the basics of WordPress, and on the 25th, Koi Scribblings: The Blog made its official debut. That means no matter how you figure it, I’ve been a professional writer for a year. “Professional”? Yeah, more on that in a moment.

I marked the six-month anniversary with a post covering the “state of the fourth estate”: summing up what I had accomplished and what I planned to do next. A full year is, IMNSHO, more than twice as impressive as half of one, so it’s time to update that status report.

First, there’s the blog. It’s over 250 posts and–aside from a minor bobble due to The Great Kidney Stone Fiasco–has stayed on schedule. That’s a nice portfolio of work I can point to. I’ve attracted a small but growing crew of followers (currently 106–I’ll refrain from speculating about how many are trying to get me to boost your SEO rankings by following you back); thank you all for hanging around. Seeing your likes helps me remember that there’s a larger world than what I can see from my office windows; seeing your comments lets me know I’ve written something that engaged you. I said when I started that the goal of my writing was to “educate and entertain”. If I write something that affects you enough to do more than just click a button, that’s a pretty good indication that I’ve met the goal.

Second, there’s that “source of income” I mentioned in the first Sof4E post. I took a swing at content creation*. It wasn’t a rousing success. The publishers are interested in quantity and speed; to encourage writers to produce multiple articles, the price per piece is low. To successfully game Google’s rankings, the article need to adhere tightly to a house style and format. To put it politely, that wasn’t a good match for my skills. I did sell a few pieces, but… Let me put it this way: to cover my share of the mortgage, I would need to sell three articles every single day. Since it took me about six hours to write one article and push it through the editorial process, that would leave me six hours a day to eat, sleep, and do something to cover the rest of my expenses. Doesn’t leave much room for the writing I want to do, that “educate and entertain” thing, does it?

* What’s “content creation”? Here’s a piece of news that may surprise you: many websites are commercial enterprises designed to make money by encouraging you to buy something–or at least look at an advertisement. Quite a shock, huh? So how do they accomplish their nefarious goal? They publish “content”. Note my careful word choice here. In many cases, it’s not information, but an incredible simulation: something that looks useful at first glance, but proves to be too superficial to really accomplish anything. Such content is carefully designed so that it will appear in response to some particular search on Google. Google, for their part, is constantly tweaking their algorithms to push content down in the rankings and pull useful information up. Thus, the content sites are focused on sculpting their content through formatting and the use of key words to game the system. If someone clicks through to their site, they win, even if the reader immediately closes the window and moves on to something more useful. It’s a step up from telemarketing, but not a very big one.

Still, the exercise in content creation did result in a (small) paycheck. By the most literal definition, that does make me a professional writer. Sweet, innit? OK, it’s not going to give me any street cred or professional respect, but it’s a small step forward.

Note, by the way, that there’s a slightly higher class of content creation. Instead of contracting with a content creation company, the writer chooses his own subjects and writes in his own style, then uses a distribution service to market the articles. It’s the modern version of writing “on spec”. I class this as “content creation” because to succeed at it, the writer needs to do the same Google targeting that the creation company would do, but because the writer is writing in his own style and voice, there’s an opportunity to do more than produce a string of article-sausages, all alike and all devoid of taste. And yes, I did take a shot at this type of content creation as well. Over the course of a month, I wrote several pieces in the style I’ve created here on the blog and posted them for sale. None of them sold–until today. As I was writing this post, I got notification that one has sold. It looks like someone bought a large group of cat-related articles, and mine was one of them. It’s still not going to give me a lot of street cred, but it’s worth more to me in terms of personal satisfaction than the earlier content creation sales.

Third, there’s that writing I want to do. I’m making progress there too. I’ve got two short stories and one poem making the rounds of potential publishers (as always, you can check the scorecard of submissions, rejections, and acceptances in the menu up at the top of the page). There’s a third short story in the final stages of review and rewrite; I expect to start submitting it this week.) The big news is the state of the infamous “novel in progress”.

ybHere you can see Yuki guarding beta reader* copies of the book. Those went out last month, and their comments have been trickling in. While I was waiting, I started a second novel; its first draft is about 20% done. Now that the comments are all in, I’m bringing the second novel to a point where I can set it aside for a couple of months and I’ve started the second rewrite of the first novel.

* Ask three novelists what their process is, and you’ll get at least five different answers. Here’s the high-level summary of my current approach. Write a draft (get the story down without worrying about consistency or felicity of language). Rewrite it (fix the consistency errors and the truly awful bits of writing). Give it to the beta readers (a carefully-selected group whose opinions you respect and who you can trust to tell you the truth about the bad pieces). Rewrite again (fix the bad stuff the beta readers pointed out and upgrade the merely adequate bits of writing to sparkle. Put it aside for a month, then rewrite it again with fresh eyes.

So, yeah, still months away from trying to sell the first novel, but getting it into the hands of the beta readers was a major milestone. The second novel is moving faster than the first one did, which is encouraging. I’m never going to be a fast writer, but speeding the creative process up improves the odds that I’ll be able to tell all of the stories lurking in my head.

They’re Back!

Ah, baseball… It’s back!

No, wait, come back! This isn’t a baseball post. Just taking a moment to enjoy the first Spring Training games–unwrapping the first of my Christmas presents. Sure, the games don’t really mean anything in terms of predicting how the season will go, but it’s just pleasant to have baseball back on TV and the Internet. (As I write this, the Pirates have a 2-1 lead over the Yankees: an excellent start! Meanwhile, the Red Sox are playing the first of two games against college teams. Way to pick on someone your own size, guys! Actually, it looks like they may have done just that. The game is still scoreless in the fourth inning. Go NEU!)

Sorry about that. Not a baseball post. Moving on.

Also back is Google. Remember way back in November when I talked about the KitKat release of Android and the implications of merging the Search app and the Home Screen app into a single, unified bit of spyware? No? That’s OK, I didn’t either and had to look it up. If you want to refresh your memory, the post is here (along with some Lior-baiting, for those of you who enjoy that game).

One thing that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time was that the new app wasn’t rolled into KitKat. It shipped on the Nexus 5–the first KitKat device–but when KitKat started rolling out to the other Nexus devices and the Google Play Edition phones, it came with the familiar separate Home Screen and Search apps.

Why did Google set aside its plans for wrapping its tentacles more tightly around all of those users? While it’s tempting to think that they wanted to avoid the glare of publicity this blog routinely generates, I have to admit that it’s more likely that the code just wasn’t ready. That theory gained support when Google released it to the Google Play Store under the name “Google Now Launcher”. It’s the same app–this version replaced the version that shipped on the Nexus 5–and it’s still only available for devices running stock Android KitKat (i.e. Nexus and Google Play Edition).

In the interest of SCIENCE!, I installed it on my Nexus 7. The first time I hit the Home button after the install, the device asked me which launcher to use and whether to make it the default or just use it once. I selected the new launcher and it immediately asked if it should import my app and folder icons from the original launcher. I was pleased to see that it did actually get all of the same icons–although it didn’t import my widgets–but a bit disappointed to see that it just dropped them randomly on the screen, not making any effort to import the organization.

I put the icons where I wanted them and added the missing widgets. A horrible waste of time–probably a full three minutes I’ll never get back–but at least I should only have to do it once. After that, well, it works. I can now say “OK, Google” while sitting at the home screen to get the 7’s attention. I can do voice searches and give it commands. As expected, the voice recognition isn’t perfect (case in point: it repeatedly searched for images when I said “issues”), but it mostly works. Google Now is now the leftmost page of the Home Screen. It’s the same GN we’ve seen before, probably with the API hooks that allow the NSA to listen to everything I do.

So Google has taken a small slither forward, wrapping those aforementioned tentacles around a few more users, but they’re still a long way away from grabbing all Android devices. Stay tuned; what shows up on the Samsung Galaxy S5 come April may give us some hints about how quickly Google intends to make Google Now a core part of the Android infrastructure.

The Worst Job In the World

OK, so we’ve got BART making national headlines again. Not content with a four day strike last month, BART directors and union representatives are flirting with another.

Wait, wasn’t the contract ratified? Well, yes and no. The unions ratified it, but BART has not. Seems there’s a clause in there–the now-infamous section 4.8–that grants workers six weeks of paid family leave. BART officials are claiming that it could cost as much as $44 million over the length of the four-year contract, they never meant to agree to the clause, and it was included in the ratified contract by mistake.

The unions say that the estimate is outrageously overblown–$22 million is a realistic high-end estimate, and under $10 million is more likely–and that regardless of what they meant to do, they not only signed off on it in July, but didn’t raise any objections to it during the final review to resolve any questions before it went to the unions for ratification.

BART wants to reopen contract negotiations, a notion that the unions are flatly rejecting. The sides met to argue over the actual projected cost of the provision, but the unions explicitly stated that the meeting “should in no way be construed as interest on our part to resume negotiations.”

The contract includes the same “no strike” clause that the unions declared inapplicable and the same clause that prevents BART from hiring replacements until after a strike is called. Consequently, many Bay Area residents feel that BART caved into union demands, and that the current flap is a desperate attempt to save some face by “getting tough” at the expense of commuters’ jobs.

Both sides are acting like children here. BART is on one side of the room whining “It’s not my fault!” and blaming an unnamed “temporary employee”, and the unions are on the other side of the room, jumping up and down and screaming “No takebacks!” Commuters just want to spank both sides and send them to bed with no dessert.

Meanwhile, in hopefully unrelated news, Google is promoting an initiative to actively remove links to child porn. They say they’ve cleaned up over 100,000 queries, and 13,000 more queries will result in warning messages that child pornography is illegal.

Kudos to Google for taking steps to make such material harder to access. (None of the articles I’ve seen say whether suspected kiddy porn will also be reported to authorities, but since they have reported such material in the past, presumably they’ll continue to do so.) What’s especially interesting to me in these reports is that Google is taking active steps to avoid false positives. They’re not trusting computer algorithms to automatically remove links, which would have the potential to block legitimate content. Apparently, every image flagged by the software is reviewed by “a team of 200 Google staffers”. Those are the people that I really take my hat off to.

Not only do those staffers have to spend hours looking at some of the most depressing scenes possible, but they have to make very sensitive decisions about each one. It’s not just a question of whether the participants are actually children, but whether the images are pornographic–one article mentions “something innocent like a child taking a bath”. Keep in mind that Google is attempting to honor local (i.e. national) laws in making their decisions. That means that a given picture could be an “innocent” bathing image in one country and an actionable obscenity in another.

Not only do the reviewers need to look at the materials and make repeated sensitive but subjective judgments, but they’ll be under very close scrutiny while they do it. In many jurisdictions, possession of child pornography is an offense–possession, not viewing. Google is going to have to closely monitor reviewers to ensure that questionable materials don’t wind up on their computers; one hopes that reviewers are not able to use BYOD machines for the task. Given the number of prosecutions that have taken place when computer repairers have found images in browser caches or temporary folders, one failure to wipe a machine at the end of the day could result in nasty accusations or even jail time for someone who really was just doing his job.

I think I’d rather be a BART contract negotiator.

PS: I had already decided on the title for today’s post when Lior reminded me of this. Good timing!

Equal Time

OK, so you can blame today’s post on Lior. In all fairness, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to trigger a post when he sent me an email about last week’s posts, but that’s just what he’s done. So if you’re sick about my curmudgeonly rantings about mobile devices, send your complaints about today’s post to Lior.

The gist of his email was that I hadn’t done full justice to Google’s decision to merge the Android Home Screen app into the Search app. What I said was that it’s “an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools.” That’s true, but Lior is correct that it doesn’t really address what’s going on.

The immediate results of the change are small; essentially, it allows Google to easily integrate Google Now cards* into the Home Screen. In KitKat, they’ll only show up on the leftmost screen, but they could easily spread to other screens, and they’re well-positioned to move into the rest of the system.

* Google Now, for the uninitiated, is Google’s ongoing project to provide relevant information before you search for it. For example, by noting that you frequently search for movie showtimes on Friday afternoons, it might start showing you movie information on Fridays. Similarly, receiving an airplane boarding pass in your Gmail account could trigger Google Now to create a calendar event for the flight, offer directions to the airport, and suggest attractions and events at your destination–all based on searches you’ve made in the past. Those directions, for example, might be for public transit if you’ve frequently searched for bus or subway routes. The events might emphasize concerts if you search for music.

Don’t forget that Google search goes beyond the traditional keyboard entry these days. Tapping the microphone icon allows you to use voice input, and the most recent iterations of search steal a page from Google Glass and let you trigger voice input by saying “OK, Google”. The Moto X phone has voice input integrated throughout the phone, not just on the Home Screen–and remember that Motorola is now owned by Google. I expect that we’ll see “OK, Google” spreading across the rest of the OS in the next Android release.

A bit of additional evidence that Google is pushing Android toward tighter and tighter integration with Google’s own services: In KitKat, the familiar Gallery app has been decoupled from the Camera app and pushed aside. It’s received almost no updates in KitKat–not even a new high-resolution icon like the rest of the Google apps. At the same time, the Google+ Photos app has been renamed to simply “Photos”. It looks like the next Android release may well do away with Gallery and push users into the Google+ service so that all your photos are tied to your Google identity. Fun, fun!

And one more change in KitKat is the integration of Search into the dialer and incoming call screens–they’ll now automatically do Google searches for phone number information. Next time Lior calls me, I won’t just see his name, I’ll get his picture (which will probably be added his entry in my address book), and perhaps a link to his Google+ profile. That’s going to happen even if Lior is calling from his new cell phone with a number that isn’t already in my address book.

Google is the new Santa: They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake (and given how deeply the NSA has penetrated Google’s infrastructure, you damn well better be good.) The Apple patent I griped about last week has some serious implications for physical security. Google’s moves don’t have the same physical ramifications, but they sure do have some nasty implications for your privacy and online security.

Last Week In Review

There was a lot going on in the world last week — much of it was even relevant to this blog*. Most of it was far from time critical, though, so I didn’t feel compelled to drop everything and put fingers to keyboard (I almost wrote “put pen to keyboard”, which seems like it could work, but would probably be a bit messy.) Instead, I bring you this assemblage of short items summarizing last week.

* Meaning, of course, “Casey found it interesting.”

  • Putting the most important story first, to ensure that it gets seen even by those with short attention spans. I hasten to note that nobody who regularly reads this blog could be suffering from that problem — the comment is aimed at the occasional drop-in reader. A moment of silence in memory of George Thornton, who passed away Sunday, 27 October. Mr. Thornton will be remembered for decades to come as the prime mover in the famous “Exploding Whale” fiasco. I won’t even attempt to summarize the events of 12 November 1970; I invite you to watch the video embedded below, and then to visit the commemorative website for more information. Let us mourn the passing of a mind that thought dead whales and dynamite were a natural combination. I’ll skip the inevitable jokes about proper disposal of Mr. Thornton’s remains, and simply refer you to the comment section of the NBC News story, where all of the jokes have already been made.
  • Google Announcements As many of you are aware, Google announced — and began shipping — the new Nexus 5 phone and Android KitKat. The phone is, as expected, similar to LG’s G2, and the OS is, as expected, similar to Android Jelly Bean. What’s most interesting, however, is what didn’t get announced (and thanks to go Ars Technica for pointing these out.) On the hardware side, Google’s promotional website was updated to include the Nexus 5; the updates include photos of what appears to be an unannounced 8-inch tablet. Since the Nexus 7 was just updated a few months ago, it seems improbable that this would be a replacement; however the Nexus 10 has not yet been updated. Perhaps this is Google’s next entry into the “large tablet” space, and intended to compete head-to-head with the new iPad Mini. Over on the software side, KitKat all but drops the standalone Home screen app that provides the home screen and app drawer: it’s now a stub that redirects calls over to the search app. Yes, you read that correctly: the home screen and app drawer are now part of the search app. It’s an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools, and I look forward to seeing how device manufacturers and carriers react, as this will certainly affect their ability to differentiate their devices through home screen tweaks and proprietary UIs.
  • A major milestone in my professional development has been reached. With a rejection on Sunday, 3 November, I now have enough that each finger could claim one. Yep, rejection number 10. I realize the email was a form letter, but I take heart in the fact that they chose to use the form that says they “enjoyed reading” my submission, and that I should “feel free” to send them other works. Much better than the form that threatens lawsuits for mental damage and warns of restraining orders.
  • Halloween musings A few follow-ups to my comments on Halloween.
    • Apparently a lack of sidewalks isn’t quite the barrier to trick-or-treating that I had thought. Our modest decorations (a giant spider, a few themed lights, and a talking dog skeleton) sufficed to bring in almost 40 candy bandits, a new record.
    • For the record, there was only one zombie and no Miley Cyruses (Cyrusi?). There were also a couple of cats (hurray for tradition!) and fairy princesses. Most of the rest were clearly costumes, but not anything I recognized. I suspect my lack of engagement with most current popular entertainment is a drawback in these situations.
    • Reese’s Cups were far and away the most popular item in the candy bowl. KitKats were a distant second (sorry Google), and Mounds bars barely even registered on the consciousness of the average trick-or-treater.
    • Trick-or-treaters who politely ask “How many may I have?” are a distinct minority. I’ll allow you to write your own “decline of civilization” comments; my own suspicion is that politeness has always trailed well behind the lust for candy among the pre-teen set.
    • No wildly creative costumes this year. However, since the few older kids were obviously towing younger siblings and mostly declined candy, I forgive them their lack of effort. I’ll give them mild props for making a small effort and save my scorn for the parents that made no effort to costume at all, but sent their urchins to the door with an extra bag “for Daddy”.
  • The importance of conjunctionsCJ Maggie spotted this place on our way to dinner Sunday night, and I’m really looking forward to trying them out for breakfast. I’ve never had ham, bacon, or chorizo juice before. Should be quite the tasty — and artery-hardening — experience! (Lest you think this is entirely in jest, be aware that the Internet is full of suggestions for what to do with ham juice (stock, pea soup base, beans), bacon juice (mostly related to eggs), and even chorizo juice (predominantly potato-related). Hint: most people call these items “grease” or “fat”. I’m all for regional dialects and variant word usages, but when it leads to straight-faced suggestions regarding large glasses of liquid pig squeezings, I draw the line…) Seriously, guys, would it kill you to add an “and” before the last word?