In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?
Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:
Here’s how to use it:
1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)
2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:
3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:
You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:
These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.
4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):
Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.
Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).
You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.
There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.
Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.
If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin
Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI. It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.
If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.
If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble
Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.
When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.
Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.
Above & Beyond have made some good albums, but the album is not the ideal vessel for their strengths. In his roundup of 1990s albums 15 years ago, music critic Ned Raggett noted that the album could eventually be dislodged as the dominant unit of musical consumption. While it remains venerable in rock and hip-hop, the album – with a few exceptions, such as Deadmau5’s While (1<2) and Andrew Bayer’s It’s Artificial – provides less insight into many EDM artists’ talents than singles and podcasts, two media that A&B have mastered. Their Group Therapy podcast really is a post-album format that retains some of the album’s trappings – coherence, flow/transition – while making everything multi-tenanted and casual. And their impressive catalog of singles can and often does fill out the primary and flashback portions of the show.
#10: Walter White
How will we remember Breaking Bad? I thought it peaked with the antepenultimate episode, “Ozymandias,” with the final two somehow managing to be simultaneously drawn-out and rushed. That said, listening to the digital-only release “Walter White” brings back better memories than recalling “Felina.”
The distinctive screeches of “Walter White” still adorn the intro to each Group Therapy episode, but they’re not even the best part of the song. There’s the drop at 1:31 that, considering the context and title, I’ll always associate with Walt crossing the point of no return during the conflict at the trailer. Then there’s the airiness at 2:46 and the melodic line at around 3:00 that is as clear as the blue crystals that Walt and Jesse cook. The background vox at 3:29 are in keeping with the frequent EDM usage of Morricone-like arrangements, but they work especially well here, since the imagery and the narrative are, well, like something from a latter-day Spaghetti Western.
#9: Sticky Fingers
Let’s start with the title. This song is catchy and punchy enough to make you think it’s a cover of a long-lost original version of the title track to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic album, Sticky Fingers. The video, inspired by Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, is also rockist, with the band playing traditional instruments while Alex Vargas moves around like…well, Mick Jagger. It’s the most rock song they’ve done, both in sound and presentation.
“Sticky Fingers” is unusual in the non-OceanLab A&B catalog because of its tremendous vocal hook. Like the also Vargas-fronted “Blue Sky Action,” it has an unforgettable refrain (and those background vocals! presumably from Tony McGuinness). The piano, which goes in and out of the mix, is very 90s – I thought of Endtroducing… . The song’s thrust is as powerful as “Hello” or “Mariana Trench,” but works so much better with Vargas’ vocals.
#8: Breaking Ties
Justine Suissa has a way of conveying simultaneous despair and hope that is different form any other trance chanteuse. Her extraordinary interpretations are naturally suited for songs that go above and beyond the typical EDM and trance templates.
Witness “Breaking Ties.” It’s like a 1990s chill out ballad (indebted to Massive Attack) lifted by a novel acoustic guitar, percussion, and Suissa’s beautiful “You and I/truth and lies” refrain. “Satellite” may be more tuneful, but “Breaking Ties” is the OceanLab song that shines with A&B’s ear for melody and arrangement.
“Anphonic” is exemplary of what A&B and the rest of the Anjunabeats stable have been good at for so long – a big buildup that pays off in unexpected melody. This collaboration with Kyau & Albert is the standout tune from Anjunabeats 8 and a fine technical specimen.
The crunching build-up is woven back in with the delightful midsection chords, foreshadowing the later achievements of “Walter White” and providing a blueprint for both “Hello” and “Mariana Trench.” I ranked it as the second best if the group’s many great collaborations.
#6: Far From in Love
“Far From in Love” was A&B’s first single, released in 2002, but this early effort ranks up there with their later work. The ingredients of A&B’s magic are here – the sultry vocal from Cate Cameron, the tunefulness, and the atmosphere that yields itself so well to reinterpretation.
It made sense that, according to Tony McGuinness on an episode Group Therapy, “Far From in Love” was the inspiration for the sound on Acoustic. Even from the start, A&B were up to things bigger than EDM and trance as traditionally conceived.
#5: Sun & Moon
The Group Therapy artist album that spawned the podcast of the same name always seemed weaker than either Tri-State or Acoustic. That’s not to say it lacks standouts – “Sun & Moon” is one of A&B’s finest tunes.
Front-and-center vocals on non-OceanLab A&B tracks were rare before this one. Airy voices like those of Zoe Johnston and Hannah Thomas were perfect accompaniments to A&B’s early work, though there were some signs of using male vocals, such as “Stealing Time” and “For All I Care.”
Richard Bedford’s voice is seasoned with experience and a little darkness. The imagery he has to work with here – suns, moons, big roulette wheels – taps into A&B’s tradition of unexpected lyrical richness and insight. The “big wheel” part in particular reminds me of the final track from Massive Attack’s 1991 album – “Hymn of the Big Wheel.”
#4: Air for Life
Tri-State is a singular achievement in EDM and trance because of how it extends those genres into strange territory – piano quasi-balladry, alt-rock, folk – without seeming heavy-handed or out of its depth. “Air for Life,” while not as gloriously off-kilter as “Home,” “Good for Me,” or “For All I Care,” foreshadowed all of the album’s strengths when it came out in 2005.
There’s so much going on here, in both the front and back of the mix. Then there’s the vocal that floats atop the controlled chaos like air, apropos. Done with Andy Moor, this was a breakthrough and probably their most pivotal collaboration.
OceanLab’s Sirens of the Sea Remixed album may be the most listenable LP in the entire Anjunabeats catalog. It’s one killer tune after another, and none is more killer than “Satellite.”
It has the best of rock balladry and EDM without the weaknesses of either. That’s to say, it has sensitive lyrics with rich imagery (“I’m like footsteps in the snow / I’ll follow you everywhere you go.”) and a propulsive, tuneful surge, but never seems saccharine or boring.
I come back to “Satellite” more than any other A&B song, though I’ve ranked it third since I think it doesn’t say as much about why they’re special as the top two do. I’m not the only one who can’t leave it alone; Ilan Bluestone did a remix of it this year, a decade after its original release.
#2: No One on Earth
Lyrics aren’t a strong suit of EDM or trance. Leave it to A&B to weave songs that are as remarkable for their words as for their music.
While “Satellite” is a good poem, it can’t match the strangeness and lyricism of “No One on Earth” from 2004, which paints a picture of an alien or savage coming to rescue an often-spurned lover.
“Down through the dark trees
You came to save me
You’re so ugly and you’re so beautiful
You’re like no one on earth could be”
Not your standard EDM or trance fare. And the musical backing is just as surreal, with a nuanced performance from Zoe Johnston that highlights the strengths of her different registers. The original, with the breathy middle section, is my favorite, though the Gabriel & Dresden remix, which I heard on their 2004 album Bloom, is somehow even more dramatic.
#1: Good for Me
I first started listening to trance and EDM via the Ultra Trance/Ultra Dance and In Search of Sunrise CD series. I discovered Above and Beyond, Deadmau5 and may others through these volumes. The best discovery, though, was the King Roc Vocal Mix of “Good for Me,” the first A&B track I ever heard.
I remember thinking that the title was such a nice reversal of the sarcastic cliche “good for you” – “Good for Me” is the opposite, a sincere letter to a loved one. The delayed vocals cut through the fog of that morning – I was in my dorm at 7am, studying for a Latin exam, while it rained outside – and I listened to it probably 10 times during that study session.
Why? The melody, the ambience, Zoe Johnston’s vocals – “Good for Me” is not easily forgotten, and is as suitable for a dance floor as a wedding. It’s worked in seemingly every imaginable form: a club mix, a dub mix, an acoustic reading, and of course the airy, beatless original, which is the centerpiece of 2006’s masterful Tri-State. More than any other single, it shows all of A&B’s strengths simultaneously – the focus on tuneful composition, the knack for unusual arrangement, and the perfect pairing of melody and lyrics.
In his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell talked about how the overuse of Latin words in English had become like “soft now” falling up on facts, “blurring the outline and covering all details.” The result of such snowiness was that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” It was true in 1946, and it’s true in 2014. We have awful, long-winded “you’re all fired” letters, so stuffed with bromides that they open with “hello there” to blunt what their authors must realize is widespread pain infliction. We also have the word “adjunct.”
This word is almost always succeeded by “professor” in English. In a terrible twist of irony, it comes from the Latin adjunctus, which means “closely connected.” But there is no brotherhood between the “adjunct” and the institution she serves. An “adjunct” (I will continue to put this word in quotes because I don’t want it to be normalized) is a reverse mercenary; she joins in because she’s forced to, and there’s nothing to gain. She teaches for a pittance – I worked for $1,700 a semester – at whatever institution (I also prefer this word to “college” or “university” since it has fewer august trappings) has done enough cost-cutting to justify her hire. The job is likely one of many similar gigs.
I “adjuncted” for much of 2010. As an “adjunct,” I spent the equivalent of a part-time work week each week during that summer of 2010 preparing syllabi, lectures, and assignments, and none of that time or effort was paid. I prepared everything from my studio apartment because I was not given an office until the school year began in August (and even, only once a week for a short pre-class window, for office hours). I was not asked to participate in any departmental meetings and was not awarded any insurance.
Accordingly, I was upset at the picture of the “whining adjunct” painted by one Catherine Stukel in a recent letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though she didn’t extend her critique to “adjuncts” as a group, her decision to go after an extreme case makes me worry that she would not hesitate to put down the thousands of “adjuncts” who are in bad situations due to injustices beyond their control. The “whining” individual in question was Margaret Mary Vojtko, an “adjunct” French instructor who passed away at 83 after years of virtually pro bono service to Duquesne University. She had been working well into her 80s.
Stukel’s argument, such as it is, seems to be:
- Society is full of “entitled young adults” that are unjustified in their complaints about full-time work prospects.
- Vojtko, as an 80-something professor struggling to hold down work, was a poor model for this same “entitled” children, and may have perpetuated such ungratefulness.
- Vojtko’s lack of tenure or even full-time work was likely due to inter-office politics or, worse, a lack of passion (“Maybe she was unhappy?”), not ruthless corporatization of the post-secondary education system in the U.S. over the past 30 years (a figure that Stukel coincidentally drops in her paean to her own history of lifelong gainful employment).
- Life is about compromises – in this case, settling for the middle ground of “adjuncting,” after not attaining a dream job but having the wherewithal to avoid literal unemployment.
Let’s go through these points.
The myth of entitled youth
I covered this point elsewhere, but to recap: Calling the current young generation “entitled” is blaming the victim, and it is the most clichéd move of all time (everyone going back to the Homeric epics has derided children for having laxer standards than their parents). Self-sufficiency for students and instructors alike is an enchanting myth that leave out how institutions have become corporatized factories that A) discipline their students through non-dischargeable debt, private sector business models, and segmenting of populations into groups that are assigned varying levels of respect; B) use adjuncts to do it. The cage is so large that the students and teachers in it can’t even see the bars anymore.
“That’s part of the business model,” wrote Noam Chomsky. “It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.”
Professors aren’t and shouldn’t be role models
Stukel has a hard time imagining that a lifelong “adjunct” like Votjko could be a suitable example for the “young.”This argument is strange; college students, though perhaps “young” depending on one’s own age, are adults. Many of mine were older than I as when I began “adjuncting” at age 24. They are past the stage of needing role models.
There’s immense irony in Stukel’s lazy arguments about “entitled” kids and how “adjuncts” enable their worst tendencies:
No, everyone does not get a trophy. “Adjuncts” certainly don’t, unless I missed my pick-up of the No One Cared Memorial Vase. Plus, to the extent that “adjuncts” dole out inflated grades – maybe those pass for trophies, I don’t know – they do so because low grades could cost them their jobs.
What does a “self-sufficient” (Stukel’s word) professor look like? He makes more money than an “adjunct,” but full-time professors have positions that their students cannot realistically aspire to (since we’re looking at Stukel’s career-centrism) and which most people could never stomach their ways through. The political tit-for-tats alone are so far beyond the quaint office scenarios that Stukel imagines as standard fare (to be fair, she is “a career- and technical-education professor,” rather than a traditional academic) that it’s naive for anyone to expect such machinations to produce anything resembling justice or for the involved professors to come out looking like anything other than competitors in Hobbes’ state of nature.
“Adjuncts” are past the political stage
The politicking situations – the back and forth inter-office banter, the spectacle of a committee meeting – that Stukel takes for granted are at odds with the lonely, nomadic experience of many adjuncts, who, whether by choice or necessity do not linger at their institutions beyond class time. Why should they?
To the institution, the “adjunct” is a non-union, fireable-for-any-reason employee, one who could be replaced by someone from the legions of desperate, overqualified humanities major out there. Plus, it’s common for adjuncts to perform enormous commutes just to get enough classes to scrape by. Imagine spending $200 a month on gas and 8 hours a week in a car going back and forth between institutions.
My situation wasn’t that extreme, but I did endure a bus-train transfer each time over, often spending 30 minutes per day standing on the Red Line platforms waiting for trains going north and south. I woke up before 6 most days to wear the tie, dress shirt, and slacks I bought specifically for the job and give myself enough time in the case of CTA bus or train delays. My commute, while relatively mild, was often longer than my time in the classroom.
Yet, Stukel is concerned with “meetings” and “events.” There’s no time for such niceties for many adjuncts, and even when there is, the context is more likely “we’re letting you go/a student complained/we added a course” than “tell me what you did last weekend.”
Moreover, “adjuncts” in the classroom, the makeshift office, or the department building are not participating in a political contest in which the stakes include long-term employment. Most “adjuncts” go in knowing that the position is in no way on a track toward a six-figure salary, paid time for research, and general job security. Which brings me to…
“Adjuncting” is a destination, not a journey
“Adjuncting” is often thankless work that may benefit a few students, but rarely their instructors. Pay is non-existent, the workload is high, and “adjuncts” have to live with the constant knowledge that they are replaceable despite their hard-earned degrees and often sophisticated teaching techniques. An “adjunct” with a master’s degree has worse career prospects than a Teach for America alum like Michelle Rhee, who once taped her students’ mouths shut. How does that make any sense?
Votjko’s age also speaks for itself. If a senior citizen can’t overcome the vile postsecondary system after decades of excellence and experience, who can? “Adjunct” is such a terrible word for the entire experience that instructors have to put up with. May I suggest another Latin derivative: intern. Ideally intern professors will take the fight to the institutions like unpaid interns already have.
Have you ever opened up your browser and gone to gmail.com…on your iPhone? Ever felt the urge to load the Instagram website in Chrome, on your Nexus 5?
Web protocols – hello, HTTP – may be central to how we experience mobile software, but mobile browsers have lost the race to hybrid and native apps. Whereas one could conceivably spend an entire workday on a Mac or PC inside Safari or Chrome, the same workflow would be unbearable on an iOS or Android device.
Mobile browsers seem like library stacks – you probably wouldn’t wander into one unless you had to retrieve something, whether a book or a URL. There’s a reason for all those annoying “download our app” banners when you stumble upon some TV station’s mobile website. Apps are better.
If a service offers both a mobile website/Web app and an app that can be downloaded from an app store, I just about always go for the latter. Its hybrid/native app – i.e., the one from the App Store and Google Play that has its own springboard icon and takes up the full screen when launched – is almost certainly faster and definitely more immersive.
Everything from Yelp to various Reddit clients are much better than their corresponding mobile Web experiences. On Android, the incentive to “go native” is even greater since some links can be opened in apps rather than Chrome (e.g., click a URL that goes to Google+ and opt to open up the Google+ Android app rather than the website).
But there seems to be at least one big blue exception to the normal Web versus hybrid/native app rule.
Facebook’s mobile apps, especially for Android, have always been a mess. The early versions were just Facebook.com repackaged with multiple hamburger buttons. While the visual style has gotten flatter with the years and the app has been rebuilt with native code, it’s still got a lot of flaws:
- It’s a big battery drain. Deleting Facebook alone is probably the best generalist advice for saving battery on Android other than just keeping the screen off all the time.
- It’s inefficient. Photos can take forever to load on even modest network connections, with performance that lags behind even bandwidth-intensive apps such as Netflix.
- It’s inconvenient. The recent separation of Facebook Messenger means that Facebook is not one but increasingly many apps taking up space and battery on your phone.
Facebook’s Android app is what happens when the immovable object of a massively popular PC-era app means the unstoppable force of mobile app usage. It manages to hold onto all the legacy features – post filtering, sponsored posts, tons of menus – while taking chic 2010s aesthetic cues. The result is something that is at best a mercifully unobtrusive and at worst crashy and unusable.
There’s plenty of irony about Facebook’s operations, including its fundamental devotion of massive computer science expertise to the art of ad-clicking. With app design in particular, it’s amazing that the lowest-risk way to use Facebook on Android in 2014 is via Chrome.
The Facebook Web app, especially on a big screen Android phone, has several advantages over its cousin:
- First, it leaves you alone. There are no push notifications, though you can still check your notifications and your messages through the familiar row of icons at the top. Once you leave the site, you’re basically out of Facebook’s world.
- Facebook Messenger? It’s right there in that same row and it actively updates with new messages without requiring a page refresh.
- On middling Internet connections, it seems to load media better than its Android counterpart. I’ve seen big rows of gray boxes in the place of photos on the Android app, whereas the website on the same network is fine.
Granted, going to Facebook.com on an LTE-equipped phone feels like bringing modern hardware back to 2006. But in every way it feels like the healthiest choice for the phone and for my own sanity.