Things I Learned

Warning: Some NSFW language in this post.

Things I learned during the holiday season.

  • There are a lot of stupid people driving cars. Weaving between lanes at ten miles per hour over the speed limit really doesn’t save you much time. Unless your commute is over a hundred miles, you’ll probably wind up spending more in increased fuel costs and vehicle wear and tear than you’ll earn in the few extra minutes you’re at work. And the less said about accelerating in an attempt to cross intersections in front of oncoming ambulances the better.
  • It’s not just drivers. Kudos to Caltrans for reaching new depths in planning. If you were going to close a major connecting street for three months and detour thousands of cars to an alternate route, wouldn’t you re-time the traffic lights so traffic on the detour route can move? Yeah, me too. Not Caltrans, though.
  • Tradition is not dead. Parents finding their kids’ toys obscene is nothing new. In 2002, there was the Harry Potter vibrating broomstick. Every couple of years since at least 2000, there’s a furor over a swearing Furby. And now parents are in an uproar over a phallic toy from the Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset. (If you’ve missed the uproar, there’s a picture of the object in question on Gawker–and probably a few million other sites.) I’m a little disturbed by the number of reports that say the toy looks “exactly” like a penis. Have the reporters ever seen one? Let me tell you, I’ve seen several, and none of them had screw threads. Nor do they come with those stimulating bumps behind the head and at the base. At least not as delivered from the factory; those are typically third-party aftermarket add-ons.
  • America is losing the candy war. It’s an R&D problem. Major manufacturers are content to rest on conventional wisdom, cranking out endless combinations of milk chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and wafers. Outside the US, however, candy makers aren’t afraid to try new things. Consider these offerings from Nestle:
    That’s right. In Japan, Nestle offers a green tea KitKat. And in the UK, it’s dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, people! And not the wimpy 50-60% the US sees on the rare occasions that the major manufacturers dabble in dark chocolate, but a solid 70%!

    In the interest of Science!, Maggie and I tried both variants. The experiment wasn’t entirely successful. We enjoyed both, but probably wouldn’t buy them again. The dark chocolate completely overwhelms the delicate flavor of the wafers. Contrarily, the flavor of green tea is a little weak, present mostly as an aftertaste.

    But the success of Nestle’s experiments is beside the point. What is important is that, first, Nestle is continuing their attempts to identify an ultimate candy bar, and second, they’re trying to hide their work from America.

    What, you don’t believe me? Take a closer look at that sticker on the Japanese candy.cg3
    That’s right. “…not a product authorized…for importation…”

    In the immortal words of General Buck Turgidson, “Hershey and Mars, we must not allow… a candy gap!”

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.

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?