Camera speed on Android

Check out the photograph above. This was taken while traveling in a car. Of particular focus are the lines on the road - they are actually straight, but show up as curved in the photograph.

When cameras were first added to cell phones, they were small, slow and blurry. The sensors were tiny, the lenses were basically plastic and the processors were slow. While the megapixel count has gone up, the optics have gotten better, the biggest bottleneck still remains the processing speed.

At least the Android platform has taken an interesting approach to overcoming this processing speed bottleneck. It seems the sensor is read in sequence, line by line, starting from the top. The advantage with the approach is obvious - the camera can process one line at a time, keeping the picture sharp and well processed.

The side effect is the effect showing up in the picture above. The straight lines on the road, show up as curved because the car moved in the time between when the first line of the sensor was read and the last.

December 26, 2011

Impulse Purchase

At long last, my Nokia 5800 has been retired from active service.

It has been replaced by my new Samsung Galaxy SII. And all this happened within a matter of a few hours.

I had been eyeing an Android phone for a while now. My first choice would have been the vanilla Nexus series - but they tend to be far too pricey and missing carrier specific frequency capabilities on their wireless chipsets. The next choice was the Galaxy series from Samsung. And that is when I saw this deal from RadioShack:

While this was about $50 more than the Black Friday deal from Radioshack, it was still a full $100 less than the discounted price on AT&T's website. And it hit my key checklist items.

  • A tried and tested phone chassis - the Galaxy S II is the second in the highly successful Galaxy series.
  • Minimal UI customization - unlike the HTC Sense UI, TouchWiz UI is relatively lightweight and optimized for speed.
  • A known upgrade path to Ice Cream Sandwich.
  • No known carrier hindrances to phone capabilities.
  • Speed and responsiveness.

The Galaxy SII hit all points on the checklist - making the decision to switch surprisingly quick and painless. And RadioShack was not that bad an experience, as far as the tactical switch went. On a side note, I need to remind myself that RadioShack is probably a better option for buying electronics when I want something outside the standard mainstream products.

RIP: my ageing Nokia 5800 - you were a trailblazer, and were better than you had any reason to be. Yet, the trail was left cold after you, for no fault of yours. You will be missed.

December 21, 2011

TomatoUSB on Netgear 3500L

Upgrading a Netgear 3500L to the latest TomatoUSB build. This worked for me as of December 01, 2011 - with no guarantees that will work for you or at any other time.

Required ingredients:

  • The trailed DD-WRT build to perform the first upgrade. Filename: dd-wrt.v24-15704_NEWD-2_K2.6_mini-WNR3500L.chk
  • The correct TomatoUSB version - Build 54, Kernel 2.6, CPU MIPSR2 and feature-set Extras or Ext. This is what I used, but you might check the latest version here. Filename: tomato-K26USB-1.28.9054MIPSR2-beta-Ext.rar
  • WinRAR or 7-zip or a related utility to unzip the RAR file.
  • Some timer - either an app on your phone or a watch with a seconds hand.
  • A pushpin of some sort.
  • A printout of a document that looks something like this.
  • A laptop or desktop of some kind that has a working modern browser.

Procedure:

  • Ensure your firmware files are identified, available and ready to go. See above for the two files you need to keep available. Use WinRAR or 7-Zip to unzip the .rar file. You will get a .trx file along with a changelog. Rename the .trx extension to .bin.
  • Connect your computer to the router using an Ethernet cable, if you do not have extra cords, use the one which used to connect the router to the external WAN. In either case, ensure the External WAN is disconnected.
  • Set your computer to a static IP of 192.168.1.8 (Ensure you are doing this to the wired LAN connection)
  • Perform a 30-30-30 reset using your push-pin on the depressed reset button on the back of the router. You might want to use the timer to ensure you are actually keeping it depressed for 30 seconds.
  • Wait for the router to boot back up. Using your browser, head over to http://192.168.1.1, and use your default credentials login: admin and password: password to log in.
  • Using the Upgrade option on the Netgear admin menu, use the .chk file you downloaded from the DD-WRT site. Note you are not using the bigger TomatoUSB firmware yet.
  • Wait, no seriously wait. Wait till the lights get back to normal. Wait. Wait to see that you can access the new admin interface.
  • Perform the 30-30-30 reset. Wait for the router to come back up.
  • Now head back over to http://192.168.1.1. You should be automatically logged in, but instead will be asked to set an admin account with password. You can set this to be whatever you want, your firmware is just about to be flashed.
  • Go to the Administration tab and then Firmware Upgrade sub-tab. Select the TomatoUSB file that you extracted from the RAR archive and renamed to a .bin file.
  • Again wait. For all the frenzy to subside. After you can see the router administration page again, wait some more.
  • Perform another 30-30-30 reset. Wait for the router to come back up.
  • Again head back over to http://192.168.1.1. Login using the Tomato default credentials: no login required and password: admin
  • Set up basic wireless services, located under. Disconnect the Ethernet cord, reconnect the router to the WAN network, get-up sit on the couch and continue configuring your brand new router firmware.
  • And yes, keep away the push-pin, the timer and set your wired connection back to dynamic IP.

That was it, and if you have been following along, my Toshiba thrive connects beautifully to the new router via SMB and I can now access all the media I have on my RAID, wirelessly over the home WiFi network. Cloud anyone?

Freedom to hack: 1 - Closed systems:0.

December 04, 2011

Upgrading my Netgear 3500L

The story so far...

My tablet could not access my ReadyShare NAS that ran on my Netgear 3500L. So far, it seemed as if the problem was with the router and it's implementation of SMB. After much wrangling of hands, cussing of SMB and praising the virtues of hackable gadgets, I decided to change the stock firmware on my router.

My Open Router, is a great resource for available after-market firmware. It also has that typical Open Source lack of polish, that makes the process of re-flashing a real journey - filled with uncertainty and trepidation. Here is an example, the initial page for the 3500L has a total of 5 open source options, and the very first article after the review is a “de-bricking” tutorial. If you were not aware, bricking happens when you mess things up so bad, that the only true use of your cuboidal device is to use it as - you guessed it - a brick.

The key with open source projects is to just jump in and start reading. Do not try to form an approach - you will mostly be wrong. The most useful nuggets are mostly hidden - like the curiously named Peacock thread, or Redhawk0's firmware recommendation thread. If you were planning on using DD-WRT, you should not be touching the reset button without reading both these threads.

After about 30 tabs worth of reading, I learnt a few things. In no particular order, but relevant to me were...

  • Doing the 30-30-30 reset.
  • If you do not do a 30-30-30 before and after a firmware upgrade, you could brick your device.
  • There are two kinds of kernels used in firmwares - 2.4 and 2.6, use the wrong one and you could brick your device.
  • There are different types of builds - using a Mega build could brick my particular device.
  • If you try to reboot routers too quickly within the flashing phase, you could brick your router.
  • Trailed builds, are builds specific to a particular router. They do not have all the features or a regular build, but are critical to get off the original stock firmware. Use the wrong trailed build, and you could brick your router.

And everything you learnt above had caveats, which could also cause you to brick your router.

Anyway, after several days of researching, and figuring out what my priorities were, I decided to skip the DD-WRT in favor of a different sort of firmware called Tomato, and in particular a fork called TomatoUSB, that seemed most appropriate. I still had to upgrade to the DD-WRT trailed build to get off the stock firmware, but that was only a rest-stop on the upgrade path.

Next post, doing the actual upgrade.

December 03, 2011

My little Tablet problem

My Thrive had a problem - no, not the earlier one with the cracked screen, but a different sort of a problem.

About an year ago, I set up an inexpensive Terabyte RAID accessible on our home wireless network - a free cloud if you please. All my photos are on said cloud, and I had hoped to use my new Thrive to actually browse through and check my photos out in style. Part of the reason to get a tablet, was to consume my own media.

Here is where standards were supposed to help. My router was technically capable of sharing the Terabyte via either HTTP, FTP or most importantly SMB (essentially Windows Share). And my Tablet was supposed to be able to browse via SMB. But, try as I might, I just did not seem to work.

ASTRO File Manager
AndSMB Samba Client

I tried all the usual suspects ASTRO File Manager, AndSMB Samba Client, File Manager HD and ES File Manager. All of which had rave reviews, all talking about successful connections to other Windows machines.

File Manager HD
ES File Explorer

But none of them seemed to work. Out of character for me - I created new accounts on two Thrive Forums, to ask for help - no luck there either.

After three days of frustration, I began to realize something. Maybe the problem was not with the Thrive at all. Maybe, the problem was with the router, that was just unable to play nice with all SMB clients, including that on the Thrive.

Luckily, here is where my obsession for freedom began to pay off. My router is a Netgear 3500L. It is about the closest to a poster child for open hackable routers, that one can buy. A fact that Netgear actually advertises on the flier for the router itself. So I figured I'd flash my router, and hopefully make the newer version of SMB play nice with my Tablet.

Whether that worked is another story, but the moral of the current post is this - having freedom is awesome. It opens up possibilities and opportunities. It makes you focus on answers, not problems. And it is green too - who knows, I could have been tempted to buy a new router and chuck this one out, instead of trying to fix it.

December 02, 2011

Sense of accomplishment

IKEA has always fascinated me.

It isn't just a case of aesthetics - I am not one to care for much in that department. Nor do I have a particular affinity to particle-board furniture. Rather, what attracted me to IKEA was the fact that they offered a rare commodity - a frustration-free sense of accomplishment.

Case in point. We recently bought a regular ol' sofa, and while I was setting it up I came upon a very unwelcome sight. The main drill holes that were meant to attach the base to the back, had been drilled incorrectly. I had two options, pack the whole sofa that I had just unpacked after lugging it into the house from the rented SUV and take it back, or drill a couple of holes and fix it myself. Naturally I chose the latter.

That is when the problems began - the biggest drill-bit I had was too small for the bolts. When I got the pilot holes in, they were slightly off where they had to be. And to make matters worse, I did not have a long enough cord for my drill and had to constantly switch to the nearest power outlet. In short I spent more effort and derived more frustration drilling two holes, than I did finishing up the rest of the assembly.

I am sure most of that has to do something with me, but that is beside the point.

Contrast that with the IKEA experience. No holes to drill, no tool bigger than a screwdriver and every nut & bolt accounted for. Nevermind that every board I pick up is little more than saw-dust compressed together with glue; or that the mirage of the perfect IKEA room can never materialize in real-life. What IKEA sells is the experience - one that starts from impossibly perfect model rooms, to the warehouse with meticulously numbered aisles and bins, to the involved yet easy construction.

A frustration-free sense of accomplishment.

November 25, 2011

Nokia 5800: the phone never quits

All said and done, Nokia has impressed me with their steadfast loyalty to their first ever touchscreen phone, my Nokia 5800. It has been close to three years since it's release, and over 2.5 years that I have owned it, and the company continues to roll out significant upgrades to the phone.

The latest upgrade puts the firmware version at v60.0.003.

A couple of differences with the present upgrade - this did not happen over the air (OTA) as most of the other upgrades, signifying that this is a pretty important change. Secondly, the notification of the upgrade went through the new Updates module, signifying another milestone for Nokia in having a deployment method that actually works.

The biggest change seems to be the browser. Called Anna - the latest browser has a much better UI compared to the previous one and seems more stable upon initial use. Memory management seems to have gotten better, as there is more free space available. And playing catch-up the current upgrade includes a “Slide to Unlock” option to unlock the screen.

Maybe the Nokia 5800 is the perfect test-bed to check new features on - extra large installed base that are conveniently segregated by Product Codes; a phone with a strong hardware spec that does not seem seriously dated three years in; and a group of customers that Nokia desperately wants to keep in the family and not lose to the iOS or Android camps. Whatever be the reason, the upgrades are rolling out and for that, we are thankful.

My Toshiba Thrive's Screen Cracks

Sunday did not start well for my Thrive. I settled down with a cup of coffee to consume some video material, while using a soft cloth to gently wipe down the fingerprints on the screen. Halfway through the video watching my left hand, which was holding the tablet, started to ache. So I switched hands, when I noticed this hairline crack right under where I had just been holding it.

As I was saying, Sunday did not start well for me either.

We obviously went into a tizzy, trying to figure out what went wrong - did we drop it (no), did we crack it against something (no), was there a goblin in the house that goes about cracking LCD screens (no). Until the answer was fairly obvious, the glass cracked as I was holding the tablet one-handed and cleaning screen while watching a video.

Turns out, I was not the only case of this happening. Amazon has an eerily similar story, another dealing with a hairline crack and one with a peel-off LCD. Others have stories of shattered glass after a short drop. ThriveForums.org has this heroic tale of a dropped tablet and it's reincarnation.

Now here is my experience. I called up Toshiba on their customer support number (1-800-457-7777) to see if this would be covered by the standard warranty - No. They suggested I instead contact their out of warranty repair services. Turns out their starting quote for repairing the LCD is $354. Which is about $55 more than what I paid for the tablet.

In summation, the warranty does not cover it, and repairing it costs more than what I paid for the tablet. The obvious choice, I thought, was to kiss the warranty goodbye and do it myself. That is when it started to really stink.

NPD (National Parts Depot) is the parts supplier for Toshiba in the US. At the beginning of the year, they carried the replacement touchscreen and (4) sponges for $82 plus shipping. At some point, Toshiba stopped fulfilling orders for that part, and instead started to just sell the top case assembly for $180 plus shipping.

I get that LCD screens crack. I understand if it is too expensive for Toshiba to repair it for me. But when it feels like Toshiba systematically believes it needs to make money by making cheap parts scarce - it is time to stop encouraging such companies. Sorry guys, no more Toshiba purchases from me. I am just going to use the Thrive as-is and see how long it lasts, while buying exactly diddly-squat worth of accessories.

Thanks for leaving a really bad taste in the mouth.

November 22, 2011

Thrive upgrading to Android 3.2

Just had my Toshiba Thrive tell me that it has a system update waiting for me, to upgrade the Android version from Honeycomb 3.1 to 3.2. This is obviously the first step in the hopes of an eventual upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich.

The upgrade is a significant one and it is recommended that you do this over a WiFi connection and with the charger plugged in.

All did not start well with the upgrade however. The first attempt seemed to have bricked the gadget. The tablet did not restart and the on/off button wouldn't make any impression on it. However, once I removed the battery and replaced it, the upgrade continued as if nothing had happened.

Here is the new version!

More impressions once I've had a chance to play with the device more.

November 14, 2011

Pre-installed crud on the Thrive

Now that I've had a bit of time to play with my new fondle-slab, it is time to delve a bit more into what seems to be an odd philosophy from Toshiba in putting together the Thrive. The tablet comes with a near-vanilla version of the Android Honeycomb 3.1 OS, with a few useful Toshiba customizations and utilities. Then there is a curious collection of trial-ware and general crud, topped off with a collection of basic Google mobile goodies. Very little thought seems to have gone into in this - almost as if Toshiba was trying to be recklessly indifferent to its customers.

Android HoneycombFirst the good news - full marks for minimal changes to the stock Honeycomb installation. Keeps the tablet zipping along without additional overhead while keeping the option open for future upgrades (Ice Cream Sandwich anyone?). That said, there aren't too many indications that Toshiba is going to upgrade, unlike Samsung or HTC.

There is then the matter of custom tools that Toshiba built for the occasion. They range from the very useful, like the Service Station and File Manager to the bug-ridden Media Player and the after-thoughts like the App Place and BookPlace™. The App Place is the strangest. It does not offer much more than the Android Marketplace, is not mandatory and yet is an app one cannot uninstall. Clearly as useful as the points system on Who's line is it anyway?.

If Toshiba's app collection is a puzzle, it's third party catalog is a disaster. Outside of the plugins for Adobe® AIR® and Flash, the rest are trial versions of tools that we probably have better, free alternates available for. To add insult to injury, one cannot uninstall them - not even when you buy the full version.

I get that there is an economic reason to include trial versions, but the inability to uninstall is little more than spite. If ever the argument was, “Hey, we think these are must-have apps, so try them out and buy them so we can a cut of the revenue”, there is no sign of it. Instead, the pitch now is, “I don't know or care if you like these apps, but because others have uninstalled them in the past, we are not gonna let you.”. Seems like a rather haphazard way of gaining supporters among your customers. Just try searching for Kaspersky+ Thrive and you can sense the frustration.

Dictating how you want others to use your device is a futile exercise - Apple gets away with it, because they can. Toshiba cannot. So whoever is making the final call on what to include and what not to, remember this - you are not Apple. Don't act like them.

November 11, 2011

Nokia's near and distant future?

If you need a break from all the bad news that seems to be following Nokia everywhere, there are things afoot with the Finnish giant, suggesting all is not done with the company after their momentous decision to hitch their wagon to Microsoft Mobile.

The first one is a story of Lumia 800, a product of the above decision. Finally a focus on design, that GigaOm calls Nokia's iPhone moment.

The second is more esoteric. A phone that will probably never see the insides of a retail store, but as a concept is somewhere between intriguing and stunning. I cannot quite make up my mind on which it is.

For someone who grew up with the brand being synonymous with mobile phones, any sign of Nokia fighting, is a welcome sign indeed.

November 10, 2011

Thriving with a Tablet

I got me a tablet. Or as Register prefers to call it, a fondle-slab.

This Groupon, got things rolling for me. The price point was close enough, that I could get into the world of tablets without the worry that I'd have a super-expensive paper weight if I figured the fondle-slab form factor was not for me.

First impressions, the Thrive is a great device. Feels a tad chunky coming out of the box, but on the flip side, the rubberized back feels very safe and the thickness allows it to be gripped well. One is not constantly worried that it is a matter of time before sweat on your palm will cause the tablet to slip.

Logging in with your Google account means that all of your data comes synchronized right away. All your contacts are in the contacts app, Gmail is up and running and the Photo viewer displays all your Picasa albums - all with no further configuration from you. I know this is true of all Android gadgets, but the effect is scary and giddy at the same time.

Final first impression - the screen. The 10.1 inch display packs in a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels. The device is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra chip, withe graphics handled by a GeForce card. This graphics focused setup churns out crisp and smooth graphics, without a hint of hesitation. The resolution is so good, that looking at my made-for-web 600x400 crops from Picasa in full screen, made them look - ugly. The capacitive multi-touch screen is very responsive, making the user interface thus far, a real pleasure.

November 09, 2011

Evercube

Came across this pretty awesome piece of hardware - a well-built open source Network Accessible Storage (NAS) - called Evercube.

The design is open hardware, available under a Creative Commons Attribution license. And it looks good as well - a stainless steel 6-inch cube, housing five 2.5" hard drives - not the big drives but those smaller laptop ones.

Which makes it quiet enough to run in the living room.

But then it is expensive. So - maybe not the best use of the monies, but never hurts to know that there are open source options that look good.

November 03, 2011

The price of freedom?

Interesting post floating about the last few days, from the blog understatement.com, giving a different spin on the fragmentation issue that has plagued Android phones since the beginning. While iPhones get the OS up to date periodically, Android phones are essentially at the mercy of the carriers and the device manufacturers.

The post outlines the impact of this fragmentation on users, developers and the security of the phone itself.

The biggest impact though, I think, is in actual sales. Selling an outdated phone means you have fewer people who want to now commit to a two-year lock-in. People are still buying the iPhone 3, because they know that it is a phone that is actively being supported by Apple.

And yet, for me, there is another aspect of this that is not obvious from this picture. The world of modified software.

CyanogenMod calls itself an aftermarket firmware for Android phones. Essentially it is a modification of the Android OS, which, unlike the iOS, is Open Source. It provides additional features, not available to stock Android devices. But more importantly, the capability is not forced like with a jail-broken iPhone, but using pieces of the original Android OS itself.

Yes, the fragmentation of the Android market means I am going to delay my purchase till I am sure I am getting a version that is going to last me for at least two years. But it is also the price I am willing to pay - for a device that is actually mine.

At least for now.

October 31, 2011

Meeting requests in Gmail

A number of people have sworn by Google Calendars as a great way to keep oneself organized. I had two problems in getting onto the bandwagon - I did not have that Android phone yet. And keeping Google calendar synchronized with my work calendar seemed such a chore.

Turns out the second one isn't such a big issue. Gmail gracefully handles meeting requests from MS Outlook and my Exchange servers.

Yes, there is no way of choosing which Calendar the meeting goes to, but hey at least it is now possible to have my work and life overlap again.

Now for that Android phone.

October 25, 2011

Local start-ups on the WWW

Body Shop Bids
BodyShopBids.com is an interesting website, with a lot of potential. If you are ever in an auto kerfuffle, and need some body work done, this seems like a great way to get some bids to fix the damage without a lot of driving around.

I recently got into one such scrape myself, and when a friend suggested this site. I was naturally overjoyed. So, I created an account, took photos of the damage and created a report.

As it turns out the site is predominantly focused on the Chicago area, and did not have too many body shops signed up near me. While the guy from the company who called me up was definitely super-nice about it, the whole experience got me thinking of the travails of start-ups that connect physical world with that part of the world online.

There are some problems shipping can solve, but for something like this, the only answer is a Groupon-scale company. And without the scale, it is life between a rock and a hard place. Do you advertise your limitations on the site, and have potential customer's lose interest? Or spend a lot of time on the flip side, telling users that the service is not available in their area?

While you figure that out, I'll be hoping BSB comes soon to a body shop nearby.

October 21, 2011

Addictive fitness with a fitbit

When I first heard about Fitbit, it seemed like one of those fads that seemed to sweep across the public conscience, for a few ephemeral moments before the destined disappearing to obscurity. A “glorified pedometer” someone called it. And strictly speaking it is one. But it had one redeeming quality in its favor - it makes being healthy fun, addictive.

At it's heart, the Fitbit is a nifty device that uses a 3-dimensional motion sensor, which gives it a very accurate way to measure movement. The other piece of cool technology is it's base station. Using an ultra-low power 2.4 GHz ANT radio transceiver, the base station silently talks to any device that is within 15 feet to collect motion data and post it to the fitbit website.

Which is when the real magic begins.

The fitbit experience has nailed two things - calibration and presentation. Armed with nothing more than motion data, the fitbit is able to translate that into steps, and further into calories burned all with just the minimum physiological data about the wearer. While this might not rank really high on the “accuracy” scale, it is tremendously useful on the “it just works” scale.

Once it does these translations, it does an equally good job with presenting the information without making it too overwhelming. The fitbit itself has an embedded screen with a single button, which gives enough information to whet your appetite. The website furthers this thirst for knowledge by presenting, plotting, tagging and socially comparing the fitness data. In addition, the website also allows you to log food intake, activities and other vital statistics - stuff the fitbit cannot dream of measuring.

Activity Tracker

That is me above - a relatively sedentary day, with frenzied activity getting to and from meeting rooms; and a tennis game to round the evening.

Fitbit takes the same motion tracker technology and does something else with it. By using a provided sleeve you can wear the tracker on your arm while you sleep and it keeps track of how many times you toss and turn to determine how restful a sleep you have had. Again, not the most accurate - not every toss and turn is bad and not every time you wake up do you have to move. But good enough to serve a purpose.

Activity Tracker
5,000 Steps in a Day10,000 Steps in a Day

But in the end, what makes fitbit really stick, is the nice balance it strikes in being fun yet earnest. It does not come across as that chiseled guy in the gym who seems to speak jargon no one else comprehends, or irreverent like Groupon which may be good for selling baubles but is not the best pose to strike when you are urging to get someone to be healthy.

Yet it has elements of both; making me, for the first time, want to challenge myself to be more active.

September 21, 2011

Slashdot Effect

When I woke up this morning, there were three surprising emails in my inbox, informing me about three comments someone anonymous had left on my blog. The surprising part was not just the three comments, but the fact that they actually seemed helpful.

The answer was in my list of http referrals. They were all from hardware.slashdot.org. Turns out there was this article about inscrutable logos on the back of devices, and someone linked to my article in the comments.

So well maybe that was not the real slashdot effect, but it was great to have a traffic spike that was 10% of my total traffic in a single day.

Apparently the slashdot effect follows a double peak - the first when the link was posted, and the second at around 8am EST when east coast comes in to work.

The effect seems to be petering out now, and the visit rates are falling back to my regular. But it is leaving behind a graph where the scale is stretched so bad that the usual seems insignificant. Maybe the real effect of the slashdot effect is not on the server, but the fact that it leaves you wanting for more.

June 23, 2011

Bioluminescence: The language of light

One, if not the biggest highlight of our recent trip to Puerto Rico, was the night kayaking in the Fajardo Bay.

Cameras were not allowed on the trip, but even if they were, I am not sure I could do justice to the unbelievable feeling of kayaking through water that lit up like a glow stick on contact. The cool blue color was not only breath taking, but it evoked a feeling of true astonishment. This giddy feeling of awe and wonder is something that Edit Widder has experienced more than her fair share of.

Oh, and the best part about our kayaking trip? No need for a submersible.

June 17, 2011

Cell phones & Cancer (infographic)

It was a strange feeling when I heard about CNN's breaking news that cell phones caused cancer. I had long known the need for caution, when it came to microwave radiation. But singling out the low power of a mobile phone in this age of electro-magnetic saturation seemed too fantastic.

Yet, the first few paragraphs in the CNN article seemed to portray it as a done deal. As if the most damning of evidence had quietly piled up. The strangest part was that there was no new studies being cited.

It took a little searching around and spending some time with comments on sites, that are not CNN, for things to start making sense. There were no new studies. Instead, based on the existing data (and wishy-washy footnotes that had been known for years) WHO had decided to formally include cell phone emitted EM radiation in the "needs confirmation" category. Yes, lead is in that category, but that is lead. Not inorganic lead compounds. Those are in another category which includes those items that actually do cause cancer.

The CNN article made it seem like cell phone radiation belonged to that other list.

Nevertheless, at the suggestion of a colleague, I figured the best way to reasearch this would be to put an infographic together. Here it is, on the left. It quickly introduces the EM spectrum and the ionizing vs non-ionizing nature of different radiation. And how the amount of energy emitted by a cell phone is limited. Before citing the tremendous body of research that has found no clear indication of a linkage between mobile phones and cancer. And finally a quick review of the grouping system used by the WHO and why Group 2B does not mean the sky is falling down.

This is one of the longest infographic I have made. Click for the full size.

June 06, 2011

Liberating data using Scraper Wiki

Of all the wiki sites that sprung up after the original, one of the most useful and positively cool is ScraperWiki. Scraper wiki is an attempt to liberate data from websites and pdfs and instead populate spreadsheets with them.

There is a lot of data available on the net. But its value is severely limited by the fact that you cannot do much more than just browsing it. When you move data from a html page or a pdf file into a spreadsheet, suddenly the value of the data goes up many fold. Now you can analyze the data, sort it, look for trends and coax information out of it. ScraperWiki aids in the first step by scraping web pages and moving data into usable data sets.

ScraperWiki is two things. First it is a web-based compiler and reusable libraries (in Python, Ruby or PHP) that allows you to write and run a scraper. Second, it is a wiki store of scrapers written by others that you can then update, reuse or just run to get data.

There are quite a few interesting scrapers. This scraper collects data from weather stations across all of Germany, while this one collects the Location IDs from Weather.com URLs. Weather is not all scrapers do, this one for example collects basic info about all MLB players, while this one is an massive database of all soccer WorldCup matches.

Of all the untold millions spent by governments and corporations on digitizing their data and making web pages, a decent portion that went towards making html tables out of data sets. ScraperWiki is an attempt to reverse that. Cheers to liberating data from the shackles of the web.

June 03, 2011

LOOM (Short Film)

Like short stories, short films are quick, easily consumable, bite-size experiences. But, lately, it seems as if the short films are going toe-to-toe with their longer cousins in terms of production quality and subject matter depth. LOOM is a brilliant example. As an animated short, this is a gut-wrenching yet life-affirming snippet of the world around us. Watch it below:

Loom from Polynoid on Vimeo.

Polynoid, the company that produced this has a few others they created before. Including their violently fascinating and creepy snail movie and the weirdly funny flap flap.

June 02, 2011

+1 and the persistent Like


+1 is Google's latest attempt at cracking social. After the famously obscure Orkut, and the disaster that was Buzz, it was about time Google got it right.

With +1 Google seems to have gone about social differently. +1 is a highly scaled down version of a social network - the opposite of Facebook. Facebook built the interaction feature-set first, then used the Like button to spread it. Google's approach seems to be focused on building out the +1 button and eventually coalesce the rest of its sharing services around it.

+1 has two things going for it - it is persistent and contextual. Persistent because unlike the Like button, the core idea for +1 is not to broadcast the action to everyone. When you "like" something, that act itself is shared by Facebook. Which works for Facebook, because communication is what Facebook is all about. But +1 is more persistent; it hides in the sandwich layer between web-content and you - the search engine.

Persistence is important, because this shifts the playing field away from conversations - which Facebook and Twitter are good at, to algorithmically mining history - something Google is great at. This is where context comes in. Google owns your landing page on the web: the search results. It is a powerful page, and is also contextual. Unlike the static Facebook, Google's use of +1 can morph itself to add context to what you are in the mood for at that time. Unlike a cacophony of likes, you instead get the few +1's that are highly relevant to what you are doing at that time.

This is the strategy that worked for Google in ads, and the bet is that it will work for social as well.

The problem for Google's social has not been building out social feature sets. The biggest impediment has been changing the nature of social to fit with Google's strengths. +1 could well be the game changing strategy that Google so desperately needs.

June 01, 2011

GDesk on the Nokia 5800: more details

GDesk is a work in progress. This is painfully obvious when you begin trying to configure or edit the existing UI.

Toggling the "edit" mode happens via the Design menu item. Once you toggle the edit mode, you are now able to modify the content and placement of the various icons on the interface.

What you can do though is severely limited. The first, and most glaring problem is the lack of an undo option. This puts you in a strangely tentative mode while editing. To add to it, there is no easy way to manage the z-index. So if you have overlapping elements, it seems like what ends up on top is something you have no control over. A couple of slips of the stylus and the only option is to Discard Changes and start right over. Saving frequently is probably the only approach to successfully making big changes.

That said, there is still a lot you can do. You can set up icons and links, change their sizes and use many of the active elements supplied by GDesk.

Editing is not the only thing that is half-baked. After using the interface for a while, it feels like I am ready to get back to the original UI. There are several reasons for that.

  • First and most importantly, this is not a complete replacement of the UI. All applications still look exactly the same as under the original UI. This is merely an alternate home screen.
  • While on the subjects of home screens, GDesk does not really replace it. Instead, it is full screen program, configured to jump in everytime you go to the home screen.
  • Most elements on the UI are not configurable. It does seem to have a title-bar but no way to edit it's properties.
  • GDesk is limited in terms of how much you can talk to the underlying phone, and how much the phone can talk to you. Notification is the key gap here. Each notification capability needs to be programmed separately, and right now the only notifications programmed are the SMS and battery. This means you cannot see if you have missed calls, emails or other alerts.
  • The other capability I missed was the ability to choose the profile directly. This meant 5 or 6 taps to switch to and from silent; instead of the usual 2.

Overall GDesk is more a way to get some good eye candy and not really a replacement UI. But again, this was little more than a beta, and something Nokia never thought to run with.

May 16, 2011

Capture Camera Clip: on Kickstarter

I guess I joined the bandwagon. After all the case is so compelling. The video above is a great introduction.

tl;ds

The Capture Camera Clip System is a machined doodad that grabs onto belts and backpack straps that allows cameras to be clipped onto it. Using the tripod mount, the clip looks and sounds like a solution that can finally take on the problem of the swinging, dangling SLR.

This, also was my first attempt at backing something on the site Kickstarter. If you have not heard of the site yet, it is a creative way to fund projects. Everyone gets to be a venture capitalist, for a fixed reward of course, and not a direct equity stake. Nevertheless it has spawned several awesome projects including the TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kit, Diaspora and GoPano, in addition to a ton of movies and documentaries.

May 15, 2011

Swapping the battery on an iAudio X5

The iAudio X5 running a Rockbox build has been my default music player practically forever. Even after a forgetful incident while deplaning a Lufthansa flight caused me to lose my first purchase of the X5L, my replacement was a 60 gig X5. It is bulky, clunky and rather plain but has everything else I needed in my player. Great hardware, FM radio, Aluminium chassis (survived two falls), good battery-life, wonderful sound and finally hackable hardware.

When it's battery finally started to give way, the portable player became a PMP at home, and when the input voltage fell to 1.8v it was time to change the battery. Thanks to this thread, I had enough of a peek into the internals of the player and the name of a replacement battery. RadioShack has the Dantona 3.7V/1100mAh Li-ion PDA Battery for Cowon/iAudio (Model: PDA-203LI | Catalog #: 55027810) available online for $25. If you find a local store that does "Ship to Store" you could get it delivered for free. This replacement has slightly lower capacity than the original, but there hasn't been much success in finding a battery with higher capacity that fits.

Dis Assembled

Replacing the battery is not that difficult. My only hesitation in starting with it was that I did not have a solder iron. And I was not going to buy an iron plus lead for what could be just two joins. I figured I could do a quick and dirty splice instead. The detailed steps are given below, with the numbers in the text referring to the numbers on the image.

You need a couple of small screwdrivers [1], one with a flat and the other with a Phillips head. I used a set that came as part of a spectacles repair kit. You also need to get the batteries [2] before you begin.

To get the back of the player [3] off, using the Phillips driver to unscrew the four screws holding it on. The first thing you will see is the hard-disk [4] and a tape holding it down along the top. There are also a couple of wires running down the sides as well. Carefully separate the wires, undo the tape and flick the top of the hard-disk to get it off. The hard-disk is connected to the body via a cable, which you should try your best to never damage.

Some versions, have a rubber cushion [5] between the hard-disk and the battery, use your flat screwdriver to gently ease it out. This will expose the battery [6] allowing you to pull it out and show the two wires connecting it to the circuit board.

Because I was not going to solder the battery on, the other approach was to cut the existing battery, stripping away the insulation for both the existing wires and the new battery and splicing them together. Which was when I realized I did not even have a decent insulation tape, so regular tape had to do instead.

Couple of tips. The wires are multi-strand. This is both good and back. Good, because it makes splicing that much easier. Bad because any weakness you introduce while stripping the insulation may cause the strands to break and short the board itself. Make sure you blow the board clean before re-assembly.

That is it. Repeat the steps in reverse to put everything together. In my case this left me with a player that is once again portable. And it still as great a media player.

May 14, 2011

GDesk to skin Nokia 5800

For all it's hardware prowess, and flexibility, the Nokia 5800's interface is little more than a hastily put together extension of the S60 3rd edition interface that runs on top of the Symbian OS. This makes the touch interface more of an after-thought, but importantly carries over several elements that were more suited for keyboard interaction than touch. Nokia never got around to fixing this gap, before it's well publicized surrender to Apple & Android by choosing to go with Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS.

Luckily there were several other attempts to make up for Nokia's nearsightedness.

One such attempt was GDesk, written first for S60 3rd edition, and subsequently ported to the 5th edition. GDesk is a flexible, extensible desktop framework, that has the capability to build entirely new UI from scratch.

Inexplicably, or perhaps explained now in hindsight, Nokia did not jump on projects like this and try to integrate into their own interface efforts. There also has been limited development of GDesk in about 2 years. That however, did not stop folks from creating multiple themes and skins that can be used to create pretend interfaces.

Installing GDesk

Installing GDesk is pretty straightforward. The full package consists of the main GDesk .sis file, along with six other "plugins", giving you a total of seven installable files. The trickiest part is finding signed installable files so that you can install them on the Nokia 5800.

  • Search for "gdesk 0.34 signed" and you should be able to find a copy that works
  • Create a folder on your memory card, and copy all seven .sis files over
  • Use the File Manager on the phone to locate the GDesk installer first and tap to install it, as shown above.
  • Repeat with the rest of the plugins, and you are all ready to go.

Running GDesk

GDesk shows up as a regular application, double tap to run it. When it first runs, it is little more than an empty "desktop" with no distinguishing features at all. What you need is a GDesk desktop file, that contains a particular configuration. These are available as .gdd files.

  • Google around for good desktop file. I got mine from here. It emulates HTC's interface. Download it and store it on your memory card.
  • Tap anywhere on the desktop and select "Design". This switches GDesk into an editable mode.
  • Tap anywhere on the screen again and select "Load Design". Browse to wherever you stored the .gdd file and hit Select.
  • Wait, watch and enjoy.
  • There are two settings that are not checked by default, that you may want to make sure to enable: Tap > Options > Full Screen and Tap > Options > Replace Main. The first one makes it full screen, and the second one allows GDesk to replace the main menu.

GDesk: A Preview

The first feeling after installing GDesk and running the HTC UI is frankly euphoric. The graphics are clean and vibrant, thanks to the 5800's beautiful screen. There are five screens that you can swipe to traverse. But very soon the lack of depth of the implementation comes through. But more on that in a later post.

To be clear, GDesk is by no means a full fledged user interface. When you run any application, what you see is the default 5th edition navigation buttons. However, when you get to the home screen, GDesk appears, overriding the default (after a perceptible delay).

All said, this is a surprisingly powerful way to create a new home screen for the 5800. Next post to be about what works and what doesn't along with my first attempt at modifying the UI.

While it goes without saying, you could brick your phone if you do not take care. And everything on this post is provided with absolutely no warranty.

May 13, 2011

1 Gpbs Bandwidth (infographic)

Infographics was a way was for me to tackle and (try to) express uncommon news and large numbers. One such opportunity came along when I heard of the Gigabit per second experiment that Google was planning. I had followed with amusement as cities did everything that they could to woo Google.

But the Gigabit per second is a truly revolutionary concept, for which there are no known applications at the moment. Yes, there are ideas - but in the classic chicken-and-egg style - nothing has materialized.

The problem with solutions that come in search for problems is this - they could either herald the next big thing. Or they could just be the beginnings of a bubble, that was driven more by a vague promise than hard reality.

This was my attempt at putting down on paper, why the 1 Gpbs is a lot of bandwidth. And this is also the first infographic that uses layers in Inkscape.

May 01, 2011

GIF redemption

The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) format has had a checkered history. Introduced in 1987, it has had widespread support in browsers, making it one of the most commonly used image formats on the internet. The format has also had it's share of controversy and patent issues, which led to the creation of free alternatives but never really impacted it's use.

The defining legacy of the GIF is not its ubiquity, or the controversies. Instead it is its capability to show animations that simultaneously made it irresistibly over-used and notoriously hated. Animated gifs, along with the HTML <blink> tag are single-handedly responsible for the seizure inducing pages of the 90's.

Now, the animated GIF is making a comeback of sorts, as nothing less than high-art. The blog From Me to You, has a section called cinema-graphs, which are essentially beautiful photographs, embellished with Harry Potter style animations.

Consider the following:

And this

The blog, which is primarily fashion focused, has a lot more of this. Animated GIF as high-art. Who'd have thought that was possible for redemption.

April 30, 2011

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