Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Named Map Pins - get it right, Google!

Marking a location in Google Maps and remembering what it is has pretty much always been a pain in the neck.

Don't get me wrong... I know how to mark a place. I can pull it up in Google Maps on a computer and "star" it, or I can do basically the same thing on my Android. When I do, it comes up as a star on my phone or on my computer whenever I view a Google Map.

I also know the convoluted way to get the location to have a name. You star it in Maps, then of all places you go to Google Bookmarks (!) to change the name. Once you've done that, the place name comes up on Mobile when you view "My Places".

Sometimes it does, anyway.

Actually, more often than not, I still see the address in My Places, even when I've given the bookmark a name in Google Bookmarks. I've tried and tried to find a rhyme or reason to this, but I just can't figure it out.

Why, Google, why?

I don't know what person a specific address goes with, any more than I know what person a specific telephone number goes with. And if I want to find Bill's house, I'd darn well better know his address, even though the very reason I starred his house in the first place was so I would be able to find it later without having to look up the address!

Actually, that's not entirely true. I've figured out some work-arounds. If Bill is in my address book, I can put his address in there, and it's clickable to go to Maps. That's terrific as long as the latitude/longitude coordinates that Google resolves to for his address are perfectly correct. But I actually wound up resorting to installing a third-party Google Bookmarks app just for this purpose. So now instead of opening maps, I open that app, find my bookmark for the starred location, click it, and then the Maps app opens.

Don't even get me started on how the stars in the desktop version don't display my bookmark name... at all. Ever.

Come the heck on, Google. Knock it off fiddling with Google+ for just a day or two and get these technologies working together.

If you don't, I may never find Bill's house again.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sandisk Memory Zone: Bleah.

app logo of a squirrel
I'm a firm believer in backing things up. In my four decades of messing around with computers, I've lost things and had problems because of it often enough that when I finally caved in and got myself a smartphone, my first thought was to figure out a way to back it up with a minimum of fuss, preferably into "the cloud" instead of filling up my already bursting-at-the-seams hard drive. As a Google Voice fan, I knew that my contact information was safely stored in Google Contacts, but what about pictures? Videos? Ringtones? I wanted that stuff to be backed up in the cloud so that I wouldn't have to worry about it.

When I bought my spacious new Sandisk MicroSD card, I found a little piece of paper in the package that claimed it was going to solve this problem for me. It was a QR code with a link to an Android app made by Sandisk which can back up your stuff to any of a number of cloud providers. It could do it on a schedule, so I could set it and forget it. And copying things back to my phone is as easy as copying anything using a phone. Sounded great! (Here's the link.)

What I found was an app that does what the hype says... but does it slowly, awkwardly, and unreliably. I had so much trouble with it that I finally quit using it, but only after it apparently lost some of the information I was trying to back up!

First of all, loading up the app in the first place is excruciatingly SLOW. Apparently the app thinks that every single time it is loaded, it needs to fully index not only the contents of your MicroSD card, but the entire contents of your phone's internal storage, and also all of the files on any cloud storage you've configured (!) This takes an incredibly long time. A better strategy might be to cache the information scanned from the user's resources the last time the app was used and let the user get started poking on things, and re-scan everything in the background. That's more complex to program (I ought to know, I write software for a living), but it would be a much better user experience than "click to launch, go to lunch because it will take that long to start up."

I would be willing (but not happy) to tolerate the long startup time, however, for an app that performed well on what I wanted it to do, which was back up certain kinds of files at night when I'm asleep and not using the phone. I set up my backup schedule, and found that it backed things up to my cloud storage as expected... sometimes. I never figured out exactly what the reason was that it would back things up sometimes and not other times, but I did learn early on that if the app crashed, there was no easy way to get the darn squirrel out of my notifications tray. I rebooted the whole phone many times just to clear the icon so things I wanted to be notified about were more visible.

It worked often enough, though, that I would have been OK with even that, as long as it backed up the stuff I want to keep fairly often without screwing any of it up. Obviously, this was too much to ask. This app attempts to reduce backing up and restoring to very simple steps - there are categories for your photos, music, videos, documents, and so forth, without having to navigate your phone's folder structure (which is one reason for all of that initial scanning). So no matter where the app finds a picture, for example, it winds up in the "Photos" bucket. Picture of your children? Photo! Ad for beer from your browser cache? Photo! Image file used internally by an app you use once a month? Photo! MP3 of your favorite song? Oh wait, that's "Music". 10-second ringtone you bought three years ago and forgot you had? Music! Alarm sound that came preloaded on your phone? Music! "Ding" sound from your instant messaging app which you could recover by reinstalling the app? Music! There is no way I could find to select or unselect specific folders or files from being scanned, so every image on my phone was backed up to "Photos", and every sound on my phone was backed up to "Music" (I did un-select "Documents" and "Apps" because I keep documents in Dropbox and back up Apps with Titanium Backup, but those are two other stories).

I could have lived with this... after all, as long as the stuff I did want backed up was safe, having a few extra files is a fair price to pay, right? Well, I found out about that price the hard way when something - and I'm pretty sure it's this very app that's supposed to save me from disasters like this - deleted all of the photos and audio files from the phone. Eek!

The app is supposed to be able to copy files from your cloud storage back to your local phone storage with no trouble - Photos to Photos, Music to Music, etc. However, the app seemed to have forgotten where my backup on my account was (the default folder which the app itself had created), so I opened up the folders on my computer and took a look. When I realized that the app had backed up all sorts of superfluous information, my heart sank... this was going to be quite a job! But I set to work, and was able to find my ringtones and notification tones fairly easily and get them back on my phone where I wanted them. Getting my photos back, though, was another matter.

Ultimately, I restored less than 300 pictures that I had intended to back up. To get to them, though, I had to delete 2,476 superfluous images! These included hundreds and hundreds of album covers from Google Music, dozens of images of the covers of books from my Logos Bible software, images of the spaces and board layouts from Words With Friends, images from articles I had saved in Pocket to read later, pictures I've posted on Facebook, pictures I've saved in Evernote, and tons of stuff which appears to be from my browser cache, including a number of advertising banners. I literally had almost ten times the amount of garbage backed up as useful stuff. What a ridiculous thing to have to wade through!

One time doing that was enough for me. I actually had looked around for a different app to use, but hadn't found anything yet at the time, which is the only reason I put up with this stinker of an app in the first place. The concept is excellent, but the execution is lousy. The app is slow, buggy, and unreliable. It deleted the stuff I wanted it to preserve, and then gave me a hard time when I tried to restore it. I quit using it entirely months ago, and only yesterday did I look around for another replacement app - and I may have found one in FolderSync. I've installed the "Lite" version, and I'm trying it out. It takes a little more doing to get it configured (you actually have to tell it what you want backed up! It doesn't back up every file you ever touched!!), but if it actually does what it's supposed to, I'll plunk down a couple bucks for the full version. This free Sandisk thing is a mess. I love their memory media... maybe they should sort of stick to that.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The "Unlike" Project - First Month

Just over a month ago, I wrote this post explaining that I was beginning a campaign to "Unlike" things on Facebook. The idea was to start reversing one of my "Likes" on Facebook ever day, and then tweeting about it using the hashtag #UnlikeProject. The experience has been interesting in a lot of ways - I thought I'd give my "first 30 days" report (although it's actually been more than 30 days) and let you know what's been going on.

The first thing I noticed is that it is incredibly difficult to decide what to Unlike. Fact is, the things I've "Liked" are things that, in real life, I in fact do actually like! It feels a little bit like a betrayal, especially when you are Unliking things like The Bible or your favorite sports teams. It's also difficult to find the things that are less important to me so I can Unlike them first - I wound up making myself a list to make prioritizing easier. I don't intent to Unlike everything, so I need to make sure I find the things I want to free myself from first. (Pages set up by friends of mine, for example, or organizations that I genuinely do want to stay in touch with will probably stay in my "Likes".)

Some of the earliest casualties were Pages that post a lot. The reasons those got the axe first was that I was more likely to see their posts in my News Feed and remember "Oh yeah, it annoys me when I see them there!" or "Their posts are never interesting," and then I could wipe them out and be done with it. But even with the easy pickings of those frequent posters and with my "Unlike first" list, I still didn't Unlike something every day - once I Unliked two things in one day, and four or five days I forgot altogether.

Two different organizations actually saw my "Today I Unliked..." tweets and responded to them, apologizing for whatever they did that put me off. Fact is, they didn't do anything, and I told them so! This is all about cleaning things out and simplifying... and insulating myself and my friends from invasive advertising as much as possible. I do have a positive opinion of those organizations, thought... kudos for keeping an eye on your Twitter mentions (I didn't actually even mention them by @ handle, so they're watching keywords) and reaching out to people based on that! That's the way to DO social media!

During the month, I also discovered a few facts that back up my reasons for doing this:
I'm actually enjoying the project - there's a sense of freedom in it, like when you've cleaned out the junk from the garage or gotten all the bills paid for the month. Maybe you'll give it a try? If you do, make sure you remember to tweet your Unlikes with hashtag #UnlikeProject so I'll know you're in!

Is it nuts to just start Unliking things that you actually do like? Why will you be joining the project, or why not? Sound off below by clicking the "Comment" link!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Google Collects Things People Shouted From Rooftops - Ordered to Pay Someone Else As Punishment

from DailyTech:

Google Ordered to Pay $7 Million to U.S. States for Wi-Fi Snooping Incident

Google is finally settling a three-year investigation this week into a Wi-Fi incident that occurred when compiling data for its mapping service.

Google's Street View mapping cars had accidentally collected personal data, such as home wireless network passwords, between 2008 and 2010. The cars were out collecting images and data for the Street View mapping system in Google Maps, and were using an experimental computer code in the cars' software while doing so. This led to the accidental collection of personal data.

The settlement orders that Google split $7 million among 38 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia, which were involved in the incident.
Read the rest here.

First off, some background. A few years ago when Google's cars were driving around the country taking the pictures that are now part of the popular "street view" part of Google Maps, the cars were (accidentally, Google says) also taking snapshots of something else. As they were driving around photographing streets, businesses, neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and everything else, the cars also had software running that was recording Wi-Fi signals.

Why did this cause a problem? Because whatever you do with your wireless laptop, smartphone, tablet computer, or anything else that communicates over Wi-Fi could be intercepted and recorded. This is a basic principle of radio communication. This can include instant messages, emails, Web browser requests (like what URL you are visiting)... anything that you do on your Wi-Fi.

Does this creep you out? Well, it shouldn't. Because you should have the sense to do something very basic on your home Wi-Fi: put a password on it. Don't leave your Wi-Fi in the open. When you put a password on your Wi-Fi, it is encrypted, and although traffic can be recorded, it doesn't make any difference... because it's in a code which nobody likely cares enough to try to break. It's secure enough that recording it doesn't make any difference.

On top of that, if you are logging into a site... say, your bank, or your credit card provider... the URL on your Web browser should start with "https://" (and not just "http://" - the "s" is the important part). If it does not, it's time to choose another bank. The "s" means that the bank is encrypting (encoding) all of the communication between you and it, so even if you are on an unprotected Wi-Fi network, your password and other communication is still in a code that is too strong to be worth trying to break.

So despite the fact that most everyone has gotten the clue and set up passwords on their Wi-Fi, and despite the fact that even email services lik Gmail encrypt your password with https://. and despite the fact that Google admits that it recorded the Wi-Fi signals and says it was an accident, and despite the fact that they have promised to erase the recorded information... Google is being told to pay some sort of punitive damages.

But not to the people who had Wi-Fi signals recorded. Not to the individuals. Directly to the states.

How were state governments harmed by this? They weren't. Really, the consumers weren't harmed either. This is a tempest in a teacup. And how does a $7 million settlement teach anything to a $100+ billion company? It doesn't. Google probably contributes that much to the United Way every year. Heck, Google probably spends that much in fuel for the Street View cars every year!

This whole thing is silly. I hope at least part of that settlement with the states goes to pay the salaries for the judge and other people the courts employs to hear cases like this, so none of my taxpayer dollars paid for it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Situation - And A Recipe

I just got an email. The email says "Your cell phone battery is getting low!" I checked my phone, and sure enough, the battery was down to 15%, so I plugged it in to charge during the afternoon so I don't run out of juice before bedtime tonight. Who emailed me? Well, the cell phone did, of course! Actually, it texted me... but let me start from the beginning.

A Locale Situation
One afternoon a few weeks ago I realized (when I was already on my commute home from work) that my phone battery had run down. I have charging cables in the car, of course, but my commute is only long enough to charge it partway... I ran out of power again later that evening. I realized that I had already set up something to check the battery level of my phone: a "Situation" in an app I use called Locale. In a nutshell, a Locale Situation monitors "Conditions" (such as your physical location, the time, or whether your phone is face-up or face-down) and when they match a set of Conditions you have configured, it activates "Settings" which can be settings on your phone or might be other actions. The app allows you to add new Conditions and Settings through a plug-in architecture. I've set it up to do things like make sure Wi-Fi is on when I'm at home and turn off the ringer when I'm at church.

I had also set it up to turn down the brightness of my display automatically when the battery power is below 15%, on the theory that this will stretch the battery just a little longer. That didn't help me realize that the battery was getting low that day, though, so I wanted to do something more.

Enter the Send SMS Plug-in. When you install the plug-in, you get a new "Setting" in your options - the "Setting" does not change a setting on your phone, but instead it automatically sends an SMS message from your phone to whatever recipient you like. This is terrific, but I didn't really want to be notified via SMS on my phone. When I'm at work and my battery gets low, I want to get an email... I monitor my work email closely when I'm at my desk, much more closely than I monitor the SMS stream on the phone itself. I tried sending an email through the Send SMS Plug-in, but even though you can do that through the stock SMS app, you couldn't do it through Send SMS. There are other apps (like this one) which I could have used, but SMS messages can often be sent even when the phone is having trouble connecting to the Internet. I wanted to send an SMS message, but receive an Email.

Enter IFTTT.

IFTTT (pronounced exactly how it looks, like the word "if" and then the letter "t") stands for "IF This Then That." And that adequately describes what IFTTT does - you associate it with things you do (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, CraigsList, Evernote, the time, the weather, etc.), and then configure associations so that if a certain condition exists on one of those things, something happens on another of them. The "things" are called "Channels" and they may act as either the instigator or the recipient of an action. For example, when this blog post is published, IFTTT will see it in the RSS feed and will automatically schedule it to go out to my Twitter stream via HootSuite. In this way (if a condition exists, do something) it is similar to Locale, except almost every IFTTT Channel can be checked (like a Locale "Condition") or do something (like a Locale "Setting").

IFTTT has Channels for SMS and Phone Calls. Once you've set them up to match your phone, an SMS message from you can trigger something (for example, automatically save the SMS to a new note in Evernote), or IFTTT can send an SMS to your phone. The Phone Call channel can either receive a call (which it then can transcribe) or place a call using text-to-speech. Finally, IFTTT can send an email, using the Email channel, to any address you like.


I set up an IFTTT "Recipe" to receive SMS messages from my phone with a Twitter-style tag which indicates that I am at work, and forward those messages to my work email address. Then I set up Locale to check my battery level and my SSID, and if I'm on my work WiFi network, Send an SMS reading "Your cell phone battery is getting low!" with the special "I'm at work" tag to the IFTTT SMS number. I also set up a separate Locale/IFTTT combo to actually call me via voice if my battery gets low and I'm not at my desk! In theory, I should never again discover that my phone battery is discharged below the point of no return... I should always know about it ahead of time.

So that's how I wound up today getting an email from my phone that the battery was low. Pretty cool? Yes. A little convoluted? Kinda. Pretty geeky? Definitely. Useful? ABSOLUTELY.

Do you use Locale or IFTTT? Have you set up any groovy Situations or Recipes that you'd like to share? Have you ever used synergy between multiple online services to build something cooler than the component parts? Tell us about it below in the Comments!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Terrestrial Radio Needs to Step It Up!

'Radio Transmission Towers Atop Mt. Wilson' photo (c) 2011, Andrew The radio industry has been in quite an uproar in the past ten years or so. Out of the sight-lines of most people, there has been a real struggle involving traditional "terrestrial" radio (which comes to you directly through the air to an old-fashioned AP or FM radio), satellite radio, and Internet radio. Each has its advantages and drawbacks; terrestrial radio is free and has the advantage of being local in scope (paradoxically, some stations have switched to a syndicated format with no local programming, giving up their biggest trump card over the others); satellite radio is available pretty much wherever you are for a monthly subscription fee which never changes, and there are a zillion channels to choose from; Internet radio offers even more stations than satellite, with the added benefit of being highly customizable (like Pandora or Songza).

Each of the three also has its drawbacks (terrestrial radio has a limited range, statellite radio requires the purchase of expensive equipment and has an ongoing subscription cost, Internet radio can be expensive based on your bandwidth usage and can be glitchy if you have a slow connection). Terrestrial radio stations have tried to fight back by broadcasting online in addition to their on-the-air signal; my guess is that this strategy meets with some degree of success, because these days it's not easy to find a terrestrial station which doesn't also have an online stream. But I think terrestrial radio stations are not doing everything they can to make technology work to their advantage.

For example: one of my cars has a radio that can display the name of the song you're listening to as it plays... if the radio station's transmitter is broadcasting that information. I'm amazed at the number of stations that either don't provide that information at all, or just continuously broadcast the station's call letters and station motto. Come on, people! This tech has been in place for years now! You KNOW you have this information. You've got a computer logging every song that is played anyway, and even if you don't, in this era when any smartphone with Soundhound or Shazam or Midomi or any number of other apps can instantly identify a song based on just a few seconds randomly selected from the middle of the song, there's no reason to not automatically provide that information to your listeners. And you don't even have to burn airtime having your DJ say the title. It's just THERE.

But if the terrestrial stations really want to keep people from heading to Best Buy and picking up that Sirius or XM box, I think there are things they could invest in as an industry that might keep people in their court.

I think every new automobile radio should have a GPS sensor in it. I don't think they should necessarily have navigation information built into them, but I think they should know where they are in the world. Why would this be useful in a radio? Because if you know where you are in the world, and you know what stations exist there, then you can provide a list of available stations to choose from. If there was a list that could be downloaded periodically, I'll bet people would go to the trouble to set it up. If you park your car in your garage and you have WiFi in your home, chances are your car could access that signal (maybe even using the car radio antenna!) and download. If you don't have a signal where you park but your cell phone has hotspot capability, you could use that to periodically update your list. Or you could park out in front of McDonald's or Starbuck's or somewhere else that has a free WiFi signal, and in a few seconds your list could be updated.

Or maybe there doesn't have to be a master list at all! It would be entirely possible for a radio, over time, to gauge the availability and strength of radio signals in places where the car goes, and build its own list over time. With digital memory as cheap as it is, you could store a great deal of information. Heck, it would even be possible to share that information with other radios nearby, so if you're sitting in a traffic jam or parking lot, your radio could be comparing notes with other radios about what frequencies are available where. You might find that you drive to a new place and your radio already knows what stations are there!

But let's back up even further. There are only a few places I frequent... I live in the Tulsa Oklahoma area, and my brother lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Sometimes we drive to Oklahoma City, and I have family in Shreveport Louisiana. In each of those places I have stations I like to listen to, but I only have twelve or so radio presets to play with. Just my Tulsa stations fill up those buttons; when I visit my brother in DFW, I have to reprogram my radio presets. Why not have an arbitrary number of preset banks, which are sensitive to location? Why can't my radio show my Tulsa presets when I'm in Tulsa, and when I'm in Dallas, show me my favorite stations down there?

And let's go even one step further. In Tulsa, one of the stations I listen to has three separate frequencies that all broadcast the same programming. Depending on where you are in town, any one of the three might have a stronger signal than the others. Why shouldn't I be able to group the three so that, based either on my physical location or signal strength, the channel automatically changes to the best signal? And even better: that station is one of those local stations that is actually part of a national network. They just launched a frequency in Dallas. Why can't my button for them in Tulsa be the button for the same programming when I get to Dallas? Stations could provide a downloadable list of their own frequencies that could be used to program this new, cool, technology-enhanced terrestrial radio. Heck, stations could even provide an internal link to their Internet streams if they wanted, so Internet-capable radios would be able to switch to the online stream when they are out of range of the over-the-air signal. I think it would make sense for the terrestrial radio industry to invest actual money in developing these technologies, because when they become available, it will benefit them tremendously.

I won't even go into things like the possibility of the radio being able to make suggestions based on genre (rock, country, talk, etc.) because those capabilities are already out there in some existing radios. That technology suffers from the same problem the Song ID technology suffers from: stations don't always provide that information in their signals. I could also brainstorm from the perspective of the marketers: transmit the station or show's call-in number with the signal so your radio could dial your cell phone for you (there's a "distracted driving" case for the lawyers) or use the GPS capability to let you know when one of the station's advertisers is nearby. There are so many ways that car radios could be enhanced, it's kind of sad that in general, car radios still do basically the same thing they did in the 1970s when you knew what station you were on by looking at where the stick was over the list of numbers.

Terrestrial radio hasn't been making the effort to beat out their competitors in outer space and on the Internet. Many new car radios come with a line-in jack; mine doesn't, but I have a small FM transmitter that I can use to play music from my cell phone through my car radio. Even now, I can choose Internet radio over terrestrial if I like. As bandwidth continues to get cheaper and Internet music services continue to get better, traditional radio needs to step up its game, or it's nothing but downhill from here.

(Since I wrote this post, I've learned that 4G is coming soon to a car near you. Get on the ball, radio stations!)

I'm not a radio industry professional, and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some of my details wrong. Do you know something that contradicts the ideas I've presented here? Any more ideas that could be incorporated into car radio technology that would make listening to over-the-air radio easier or more enjoyable? Has the terrestrial radio industry made an effort to help technology along? Join the discussion below in the comments section!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The "Unlike" Project

'dislike button' photo (c) 2011, Sean MacEntee - license: I made a rash decision. I decided to Unlike stuff on Facebook.

The reasons for this are not irrational. The reason I've clicked "Like" on TV shows, musical artists, movies, and whatever, is usually because I want my profile to say things about me when people visit it and look at my details. You take a good look at that stuff when you look at people's profiles, right?

What do you mean, you never look at people's profiles?

Basically, I've come to believe that my reasoning for wanting to click "Like" on stuff (to tell my friends I like it) is flawed. My friends don't typically see it. If they do, they don't care.

You know why?

Because they see it in advertising.

The main reason Facebook has "Like" is so they can sell advertising to you and your friends. "Michael likes Coke, so maybe you, his friend, will like this ad from Coke!" (This is why, by the way, there probably will never be a "Dislike" button.) I find this annoying, and I've decided I'm not going to be complicit in it anymore... but I have far too many "Likes" to "Unlike" them all at once. Besides, I've "Liked" a few of them on purpose. I want to see updates from that band on the road, or hear what's going on with that software package I use, or whatever. So starting today, I've decided to "Unlike" one single thing I've "Liked" but have no reason to continue to "Like".

I'm tweeting my daily Unlikes in my Twitter stream, using the hashtag #UnlikeProject. Would you like to join me in this quest to stop littering our friends' Facebook feeds with advertising that looks like it came personally recommended? Great! Tweet your unlikes to Twitter when you do, and use the #UnlikeProject hashtag. Let's see how many people are freeing themselves from being stooges for Facebook's advertisers!

(After the first month, I wrote a followup post. Here it is!)

Do you have a different take on Facebook "Likes"? If you do, please click the "comments" link below and join the discussion! And if you are tweeting your Unlikes on Twitter, feel free to link to this post (a short link is to explain your reasoning.