Soon airlines will finally be forced to post the real price

Posted by & filed under Politics, Technology.

Finally. It doesn’t happen often, but there is a new regulation that I wholeheartedly support. Starting from January 24th 2012 airfares in ads will have to include taxes and fees. Yes!
It means when the ticket costs $1500 it won’t be advertised as $500 super fare, which just happen to have extra thousand bucks in taxes and fees. Now, the optional fees still won’t be included in advertised price, which means that checked bag will probably cost us dearly, and there probably will be “online ticketing” fees soon, just like Spirit does (because theoretically you can buy ticket at the airport, ha-ha).

I hope this will survive all possible ridiculous challenges in court (“Freedom of Expression”, anyone? Because airlines should be free to lie about the real cost of the trip in their ads). And I also hope that local phone/cable/cellphone providers will be next, because while in telecom taxes and fees hasn’t quite reach 100%+ level like they did in travel business, they are way, way too high to be quietly ignored in those lovely TV commercials advertising you cell phone plan (that requires FCC fee, local tax, county tax, sales tax, USF charge, franchise fee, and some other additional charges).

Yay.

City of Austin tries to out-San Francisco the San Francisco, ban plastic and paper bags

Posted by & filed under Oddities, Politics.

Example of washing/drying of plastic bags in Russia, photo (c) 2008 KosmonaFT

I swear, lately the environmentalism turned from venerable goal into some sort of a madness. Fresh example — city of Austin tries to ban plastic and paper bags. Well now, the proposed ordinance on ban of bags is out and it’s just crazy. First of all, both plastic and paper single-use bags will be banned permanently. That part theoretically makes sense, because plastic bags used to be an alternative to chopping up trees for grocery bags (though these days paper bags are mostly made of recycled paper). What doesn’t make sense is demand that each and every bag results in 25c charge for 3 years from 2013. Have five bags of groceries at HEB? That’ll be $1.25 please, in the name of environment. Or buy a China-made and shipped across the world reusable bag (what is it, $4 or so?) and drag several of those around with you every time you could possibly want to stop by the grocery store. Forget DC or San Francisco — those feeble cities charge 5 to 10 cents. We’re going for the win with 25c. Of course Seattle voters said “screw you” to 20c fee, but city of Austin people are more crazy about the environment, right?

And while I personally can afford an extra dollar every time I go grocery shopping, those who are too rich to be on food stamps will be penalized the most. Aside from making grocery shopping similar to what it was back in Russia (where people dragged avoska with them while grocery shopping, washed and re-used plastic bags until they wear out, that kind of staff) “the ban” will force them to spend the most. That or go to Costco on one of those “free guest day” and buy a roll of plastic bags for the same amount and carry that around instead. Or will they attempt to bat sale to end consumer of anything that is not a multi-use bag?

What is going to happen to retailers outside city limits? I live in Austin but I also shop in Sunset Valley. So I guess those who shop in Sunset Valley the bags will be free as usual, but trash is collected by the city of Austin. Or will there be a Trash Police checking where you got your bags? What about trash bags, that most people use to pack their garbage in, those aren’t clogging landfills?

And look at other exemptions. Why on earth do you want to allow newspaper bags to be un-banned and free. What, those clog the landfill less? Local newspapers plaster the whole area with free issues at least once a week, wether you want it or throw it directly into trash.

If city really wants to keep single-use bags out of landfills, the ordinance needs to allow a full (or almost-full, penny-less) refund when you recycle your bag. Fine, charge 25c, but if I bring the bag back for recycling, give me my money back, as it’s not going into landfill. Same for “multi-use” bags, because I’m pretty sure the environmental cost of trying to wash and dry a “multi-use” bag because milk spilled inside or using heaps of paper to wrap all the veggies (and still the bag will get dirty) will be way more than giving out several single-use plastic or paper bags.

So, if you want to help the environment, use your brain a little, and don’t just run with a crazy ideas. Grocery stores switched to single-use bags because it’s convenient, inexpensive and hygienic. Trying to ban them or “fix” behavior with a tax/fee only seems like a good idea, but it has plenty of down sides. Sure, encourage manufacturers to produce more reusable packaging. But don’t just ban all bags outright, or charge an exorbitant fee.

Carrier IQ: poor little victim of carrier’s desires (NOT)

Posted by & filed under Technology.

Sometimes when I read TechCrunch I’m not sure if they’re just trolling or accidentally “omit” certain aspects of story. You have probably seen enough Carrier IQ news everywhere — how it’s capable of recording everything on your Android phone but choses to only “help carriers to improve service”, how Apple turned out to also have Carrier IQ software on older iOS devices, and how they will quickly remove all remains in future update, and how security expert thinks that they are not purposefully tap your SMS chats, and stuff (which I guess is true).

Inevitably, there are now voices, saying how everyone is piling on Carrier IQ, who is poor little victim here and generally is a white and fluffy creature that serves evil overlords of cell phone carriers (see TechCrunch article). That strikes me as quite an odd position. Here are my objections:

– Carrier IQ actively advertises information gathering and “install base” (right on their front page). I don’t see all cell phone carriers suddenly getting an idea of putting essentially a rootkit (“with no visible impact” says their web site) on client’s phone at the same time. I do see Carrier IQ promoting their product and offering it to carriers (even then Verizon claims not to use it at all) and profiting from it. While originally idea might have originated from cell phone carrier (“Could we figure out what’s going on on handset when errors happen?”) the implementation certainly went beyond what the claimed purpose is.

– Stealth stealth and more stealth. When you are trying to help user, you don’t have to hide. Put a big banner and let user turn on your “information gathering” openly, to collect whatever information that is needed. “We’re sorry your battery performance is unsatisfactory, would it be okay if we check what applications are installed and are running on your handset to determine if one of the app is a problem?” There, your problem is solved. Windows has remote help, which is essentially used for the same purposes. Yet instead of “turn it on and we will help you” here we have “this is always on, gathering data, sending it out there for the case you drop a call, trust us” behavior. Very very odd.

– Catch everything, report something. This might be just a “shortcut” from development point of view. But in case of sensitive information nobody in their right mind should agree to that. “Let me track your every movement, check your passwords, bank account pins and observe all your conversations, which I am going to ignore, to figure out what kind of pavement results in your shoes being worn off excessively”. If you don’t want to record the content of the SMS, don’t record it. Don’t touch URLs of where browser is headed unless you actually plan to report it. Ask Google for reporting interface for certain functionality if it’s not there already.

– Don’t allow turning it off or uninstalling. “We will help you, wether you want it or not, and watch your every move”. Again, very unfriendly.

– Conflicting information about personal information. From one side press-releases keep stressing that it’s the aggregate information that gets transferred, from the other side their own marketing material says: “What’s more, the combination of the MSIP and IQ Insight lets you move seamlessly from broad trend data across many users, through comparative groups down to diagnostic data from individual devices.” I’m sorry, which is it then, aggregate or individual? Do try again.

So, anyways, I don’t think it’d be valid to say this little scandal is all carrier’s fault. Because of the sales, because of the offering, and the way that system seems to be constructed. Responsibility could be somewhat shared, but lion’s share lays on Carrier IQ’s shoulders.

Update Per Wired’s article Carrier IQ indeed can record the content of SMS (when delivered to wrong recipient?), URLs etc. On behalf of carriers, of course, because some users could misspell Facebook.com And everything is stored for 10 to 30 days.

A few thoughts about an ideal Android phone: Razr Glaxy Nexus anyone?

Posted by & filed under Technology.

So, today is the day for Android announcements. Motorola has Razr completely and officially unveiled. Samsung and Google showed Galaxy Nexus and new Ice Cream Sandwich OS. And as I’ve already got accused of being a hater for my initial impressions of the presentation, I decided to think about the ideal combination. What would make me say “Wow!” right on the spot? I think a combination of Razr and Nexus would be just the thing.

1. Form factor can be either of these — I don’t care much about thinness of the phone, both are thin enough. Samsung prefers to bulge at the bottom (easier for holding, as bottom self-orients the phone and stabilizes it a bit), while Moto likes it on top (iconic for their phones, but wobbles a bit more in single hand mode when filming stuff with camera). Samsung it is.

2. Camera — probably from Samsung, not sure yet (demo in low light are impressive, even if it was on a tripod). 5MP or 8MP is a wash, everything will be decided by low light performance. Both can shoot video in full HD.

3. I’d want a couple physical buttons, but could live with “on-screen” buttons instead, as long as the location is really consistent.

4. Dual core CPU (probably more of a marketing gimmick at this point, but snappiness of graphical subsystem is a must), gig of ram, 16Gb of storage built-in plus storage card pretty much standard now.

5. NFC chip at the tip of the phone, not in the middle. Because tilting handset forward and touching the end to the receiver (the bump in case of Moto :)) is a way more intuitive gesture than putting handset flat against angled terminal (everywhere I saw contact-less payment systems they had those little pads tilted back about 45 degrees). This would also allow “beam up” to work by “aligning” handsets similarly to infrared times, or be side-by-side (presuming 5cm active radius and the fact that width of the phone is less than 10cm)

6. Ice Cream Sandwich, but not bare. While I appreciate new improvements in Camera app and interactions, I still think it needs a lot of polish and/or UI prettifying. Could be something like Touchwiz UI overlay (Sense would be a bit too much) with uninstall option for purists. It needs consistent set of icons (3d/non-3d/with backgrounds), filled-out window backgrounds, color coordination etc. This UI should make iPhone owners jealous or at least purse their lips in “well ours is still better” reaction.

7. Moto Smart Actions — intelligent management of settings everywhere. I do want to slow down CPU while I’m on the phone and nothing important is running. I want to be able to kill/start apps depending on where I am. Turn off Waze and GPS automatically when I reach the office. Shut off WiFi when I’m driving. Adjust screen brightness, so on and so forth. Even if this gives less than claimed 30% improvement even 20% would be welcome (and thick and juicy battery option). While at it, throw in business/personal data separation too.

8. Improved voice commands are nice, but I also hope the text-to-speech engine will be upgraded a bit (I haven’t seen that in the presentation). Perhaps better out-of-the-box integration with Ford Sync (even though it’s from Microsoft) and OnStar.

9. I like new gestures for dismissing the notifications. Could this be used for smart call rejection? What presentation showed was a bit too involved for, say, driving. Perhaps allow switching between “desk” mode (where you need to select precisely option) and “driving” mode where a broad up/down/left/right swipes could send pre-determined SMS (i.e. dismiss to the right means send “I’m on my way”, up “I can’t talk right now” etc). Combined with voice announce this would be quite convenient.

That’s probably it. Things like hang-out (via Google Plus), video effects etc were already available in Gingerbread so I don’t count them as ground-breaking though moving into core OS is nice.

Now, who’s going to build a phone like that? 🙂

Ice Cream Sandwich presentation: first impressions

Posted by & filed under Reviews, Technology.

Well, I’ve watched to Ice Cream Sandwich presentation from Hong Kong. It’s always nice to see new hardware and software, though here the actual presentation seemed to have ran into rough patches repeatedly. Aside from the fact that all presenters were speaking in front of a video screen (which created horrible dotted patterns, driving youtube codec berserk) the OS seems to be quite unstable. It kept crashing, turning off screens and misbehaving here and there.

My biggest objection so far is the least important thing from engineer’s point of view — the visual design. All I can say is the default theme is fugly. It’s like a Windows Mobile 6.5 suddenly crawled out of its grave, dusted off ugly outlines of rectangular windows, flag icons for messenger and all other visual elements and, with lots of smacking, ate the brains of the designers. Un-freaking-believable. It screams for Sense. It withers in a distant shadow of MIUI. Even Samsung customizations usually don’t look this bad. Ick. It’s like offering text terminal with ASCII graphics next to Windows 7 aero interface — functionality-wise fantastic, but kinda horrifying for end users.

Yes, widgets are now resizable, but default ones are mega-ugly.

Face-unlock seems to be a gimmick, and demo didn’t work anyways. I’d be interested to see how the unlock reacts to a photograph of the owner instead of the live face (it doesn’t seem to ask you to, say “smile right now please” which would improve the security, though lengthen the process).

Tap-to-share sounds quite promising (aside from making you think about Nokia and Palm versions). Biggest question is, would I be able to touch the top of the phone only. That would be nice. Otherwise a simple “beam up” interaction will turn into an awkward double-phone holding with extra pokes to actually initiate the transfer (perhaps this simply hasn’t been choreographed enough).

I wish there’d be a longer demo of voice recognition — there are many things that can be improved, even without adding Siri-like context awareness. But accuracy still kinda leaves some things for further improvements.

Overall — interesting, but a bit too raw of an OS. Perhaps Sense on top of it, or MIUI to make it pretty would make things better 🙂 Not sure what I think about total lack of buttons, even sensor ones — I generally hate taking photos with a touch-screen. You can’t do it easily with one hand and I don’t spy any camera buttons on the new Samsung Nexus phone. Too bad…

p.s. The official Samsung Galaxy Nexus page is now up.

p.p.s. My thoughts on ideal Android 4.0 device