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Tag Archives: g+

DuckDuckGo, Google Now, and the NSA

I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.

Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter  doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook  has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.

Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.

Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.

Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.

I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.

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Dashclock Widget for Android (4.2+): 13 of the Best Extensions

Dashclock

A sample Dashclock Widget, with extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, Logika Word of the Day, and inQuotes.

Dashclock Widget is a revelation. It has become so integrated into my daily workflow on my Nexus 4 that I forget that it isn’t an Android system app and that it is in fact a 3rd-party solution (albeit one developed by a former Googler, Roman Nurik). When an app reaches this level, at which it no longer requires any effort or second thought to use, then I know that its functionality and design have resonated not just with me but likely with thousands of other users, too. If you need a quick primer about Dashclock, I’ve written one here.

The best thing about Dashclock, however, is that it is an ecosystem unto itself, a mini OS that governs your Android 4.2+ lockscreen (seriously, Google should acquire this app). Many Android developers have now created extensions for Dashclock and diversified and enriched its functionality. Out of the “box,” Dashclock supports Gmail, SMS, missed calls, weather (from the stock Android weather app), Google Calendar, and Alarm/Clock. 3rd-party extensions typically add support for other apps (like Google Voice) or display their own curated sets of data (like quotes). Some topshelf Android apps have Dashclock support baked-in, meaning that you only have to add their extension in the Dashclock settings menu.

Here’s a roundup of 13 of my favorite Dashclock extensions (why 13? Because I’m feeling unlucky today, that’s why).

AnyDash Pro

As its name suggests, AnyDash Pro lets you add an extension for any currently installed Android app. Simply pick an app, and then pick an icon to go with it. You’ll have to grant AnyDash Pro the appropriate Accessibility permissions so that it can monitor your notifications. My favorite apps to pair with AnyDash Pro are Snapchat, stock Email client, Words With Friends, and Google Voice.

Battery Widget Reborn

This app is an all-star. It gives long-term charts and history about your battery usage and life, with nice charts and relevant statistics (e.g., “battery usually lasts [time]”). It can also put your phone into “Night Mode” (with mobile data, wifi, Bluetooth, and background sync all disabled) automatically during assigned time periods. Its Dashclock extension shows the predicted amount of battery life left, or, if the device is charging, how long you’ll have to wait until it’s fully charged.

Dashclock Custom Extension

As its name suggests, this extension lets you add an action, icon, and title/text of any kind to your Dashclock. Want to launch Chrome or toggle Bluetooth? You can do it with a simple tap.

Dashclock Facebook Extension

I’m not much of a Facebook user, but this extension is useful if you are: it shows counts
and extended text for global notifications as well as Facebook messages.

Dashclock inQuotes Extension

This is a simple extension that provides a thoughtful or inspirational (or sometimes depressing) quote from a famous person. You can customize the content areas you want the quotes to pertain to (tech, love, etc.), as well as the refresh frequency.

Dashclock Keep Extension

Do you like Google Keep? Me too! It’s the best way to get a stock Android experience while taking notes, making lists, and saving images. This handy extension gives you immediate access to Keep, and better yet, it lets you configure what action you trigger when you tap its Dashclock icon: you can browse notes, or go directly to creating a new note or new list.

Dashclock SMS Extension

Dashclock can already display an SMS extension by default, but this 3rd-party extension
does a little more: it shows the actual unread count for your SMS/MMS, rather than the number of unread conversations. So if you have five new SMS from one person, it’ll show
that, rather than “1 Unread Conversation,” which wouldn’t give you a sense of how many
messages that person had really sent.

Dashclock Word of the Day

I used to use Dictionary.com’s app for a daily word of the day, but I eventually discarded
it due to the ugliness of its widget. This provides a much better solution: the word and its definition are shown in Dashclock, and can be clicked to take you to the Merriam-Webster page.

Eye in Sky Weather (Pro)

Eye in Sky is the greatest of all Android weather apps – it has a killer widget, lots of cool icon packs, and a persistent notification with hip language (“refreshingly cool,” e.g.) and a graphical preview of the rest of the day’s weather. It also supports Dashclock, with an icon to show the current condition, as well as read-out about the condition and temperature. There’s no reason not to ditch the stock weather extension for Eye in Sky’s version. And please, support the developer by upgrading to the Pro license (it removes the annoying in-notification adds, too).

Press

Press is snazzy RSS client that simplifies your reading experience and taps into Feedly Cloud, Feed Wrangler, and Feedbin, so that you’ll not need to fret Google Reader’s imminent demise.

PushBullet

This is a great app in its own right that lets you access links and files that you’ve pushed to your Android device using either the PushBullet website or the handy Chrome extension. Its Dashclock extension previews the content of the most recent push and shows you an applicable push count.

Robin

Robin is an amazing client for App.net (ADN), with some of the smoothness scrolling I’ve ever seen on an Android app and a rich set of features. Its Dashclock extension lets you preview any notifications.

Sound Search for DashClock

This nifty extension lets you perform a search on the current song playing and it lets you utilize Shazam, Sound Search for Google Play, or SoundHound.

BONUS!

Dashclock Stardate

If you’re a Star Trek nerd (like I am), this extension is a lot of fun. You can see the current Stardate, plus you can configure it according to whichever series/timeline you prefer (I use The Original Series). It clicks-thru to Google Calendar, too.

The Trek Episode Guide app is also a great resource if you’re a Trekkie.

The Internet Isn’t Objective

Objectivity

Objectivity?

Microsoft has updated Bing so that it now pushes Klout results to the top of its many of its results pages. Ostensibly, this is a move to provide better content and to keep pace with Google’s own efforts at integrating Google+ results into Google Search. It also squares with Microsoft’s generally aggressive commitment to social search, which can be glimpsed in its relationship with Facebook and Facebook’s Graph Search functionality in particular.

Microsoft’s defense of the move produced this strange paragraph:

“Microsoft believes that content is so powerful that is almost doesn’t matter whether Klout’s “experts” actually have any real expertise. If enough Klout users vote up an answer, it will still likely be a worthwhile addition to Bing results, Ripsher said.”

If one had any doubts about the internet’s objectivity or its “openness” (to use another overused adjective), then this peculiar development should allay them.

“The internet” is often characterized as an almost untouchable, coherent, self-contained system that can provide definitive knowledge and answers. The rise and insane hype around services like Quora and Klout are the current symptoms of this characterization, although it actually began long ago with Google and Wikipedia becoming (for relatively well-off internet users, at least: a relatively small portion of humanity) the go-to resources for queries, and with social networks then becoming echo chambers and in effect new realities for their respective users. As I have mentioned before, onlookers who regard these services in these ways seem to overlook the fact that the internet is actually a manmade thing and not a law of physics or deity.

On the contrary, the sheer volume of information available thru all of these channels in turn has led to the internet becoming, for many commentators, akin to the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, able to dictate authoritative wisdom at will, although it arguably one-ups even God’s favorite flaming plant, since much of that wisdom is “crowdsourced,” too. Now, the so-called crowdsourced structure of many online services – Google’s collection and subsequent application of user data, Wikipedia’s group editing, Reddit’s upvote/downvote system – is a hopeful development not because of the veracity of its content but because it, at the very least, shows that there are human agents who drive the internet, rather than some unstoppable, robotic force of nature that we often vaguely call “the internet.”

So how is that crowdsourcing intersects so snugly with the prevalent narrative of a self-driven internet? How is that search engines (the clearest, most obvious metaphors to a wisdom-producing computer from, say, Star Trek, yet another debt that tech owes to imagination and the liberal arts) are now, in many cases, conduits for social networks and other crowdsourced news? I don’t think it’s odd at all, actually, since it confirms that the internet, as a source of knowledge or truth, is just as subjective and contingent on human inputs as anything else. I mean, let’s look at some of the major drivers of internet content:

-Google: uses proprietary algorithms and integration with proprietary social networks (most notably G+). Results system can be gamed or “bombed” to promote certain results. All of this despite its promotion of “openness.”

-Twitter: proprietary social network that suggests certain celebrities or popular users to follow, primarily because said persons are the best evangelists for Twitter itself (as a tool/service).

-Klout: dependent on mostly amateur “expertise” and opinion, as noted above by The Verge.

-Reddit: predominantly male, and dependent on user opinion/taste. Often wildly wrong on important news stories.

-Wikipedia: predominantly male, too. Arguably sexist. Many articles are protected from editing at all, or are zealously guarded, despite its “openness.”

So Microsoft is hardly putting anyone or anything newly “under the influence” of amateurs. The entire internet is built around these types of subjectivity that inevitably result from human input and tinkering.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.

Google Keep is a Keeper

Quick – name a 1st-party native iOS app that has no Android equivalent! GameCenter? Ok, you got me on that one. But let’s talk about apps that users actually use. The answer is actually Notes, Apple’s plain-Jane notes app. Despite its simplicity and skeuomorphic design, Notes is a useful tool, with the kind of raw reliability and speed that you expect from pen and paper. Plus, it syncs to iCloud and lets you continue working on your Mac. Android has no similar system app. Luckily for us, however, Google has just released Keep, its own Holo answer to Notes and (to a lesser extent, I think) Evernote and Dropbox.

You can download Keep right here. And you should download it, if you’re running Android 4.0+ (and you should be!). Keep is a notes-taking app that lets you create text and lists, or save photos and webpages. It lets you color-code notes for differentiation, which is a surprisingly novel and neat touch. To tie it all together, it has an excellent widget that lets you scroll thru your notes or quickly add new ones. Here are some screengrabs:

Keep

Making a note in Google Keep.

Widget

The Google Keep widget.

But most importantly, it syncs automatically to your Google Drive. Before now, I had been using the excellent Simple Notepad, which syncs to Dropbox (where I have only a basic account), but I’ll probably switch now, since I’m a fan of consolidation and not having to juggle between various incompatible services/apps. There’s some truth to the claim that Keep could be an “Evernote killer.” I had found myself using Evernote less and less recently, not only because I had less storage there than on Google Drive, but because I had begun using the Save to Google Drive extension in Chrome to save almost anything remotely interesting that I came across on the Web.

What’s overlooked in all the hoopla about Keep v. Evernote, however, is how Keep further pushes diehard Android users away from Dropbox, and how it shows off Google’s new cross-platform strategy against Apple. Since Google already matched Dropbox’s Camera Upload feature with its own Instant Upload feature in Google+ (and attendant photo sync with G+/Picasa in the stock Gallery app for Android), it now has in Drive/Keep some of the note taking features that a host of 3rd-party apps have already hooked-in to Dropbox, too. And since your Keep notes can be accessed from Google Drive, Google now has an answer to, of all things, Apple’s stock note-taking app, which is an important front in the battle for a smooth cross-device experience.