Taggadgets

Tools I use (Dec 2012 updates)

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That beautiful moment.

I’ve been posting the Tools I Use, ie my gadget and tech setup, a few times by now. It’s a simple way to help share recommendations, and just like The Setup, which I’m somewhat addicted to, it can help others figure out their own tech setup. So here goes another one, as I’ve recently updated a few things.

Galaxy S III

I was a bit miffed when I learned that Google would start selling the Nexus 4 (the pure Android flagship phone) just after I had bought my S III, but I realized I’ll be quite happy with it for awhile to come. The size takes some getting used to – the thing is huge! – but now I have a hard time imagining to go back to anything smaller. (It’s funny how fast we adapt to these things.)

There’s on drawback for the S III, and that’s the software it ships with. As it’s not straight from Google, it comes with Samsung’s flavor of Android, in other words an extra layer of software on top of the operation system. That has a number of advantages and drawbacks.

Pro: The software is customized to fit the hardware perfectly. For example, the photo software that it ships with is lightning fast.

Con: Anything else. It’s less well designed, it’s full of bloatware (although not as bad as expected). My biggest problem with not having the pure Android experience is that it takes much, much longer to get the most recent updates. So currently I’m running it on a Cyanogen mod nightly build, which is all good and fine for me personally, but if you just want to use your phone and not spend a few hours geeking out with your phone to take full control, it’s a bit of a turn-off.

That said, with the Samsung layer scraped off it’s a brilliant phone. (And if you’re not as obsessed with getting any bloatware of your phone as I am, the out-of-the-box version you’d buy might still be brilliant.)

I love how Android has been evolving more recently, and have less and less phantom pain for not having access to iOS by the day. This is a purely personal preference, of course, but I live inside the Google-verse, and hate a lot of the product decisions Apple has made over the last few years, like stronger iTunes and Facebook integration just to name a few. But I digress.

Long story short: I fully recommend the S III, but buying now I might go for the equally powerful and less pricey Google Nexus 4.

Nexus 7

Another member of the Android family, I just got a Nexus 7 tablet. (The 7 stands of the screen size of 7 inches.) It’s the larger model with built-in 3G support, so I can take it on the road. Relying on wifi too much isn’t my thing. The setup, thanks to the Google cloud, is extremely fast and comfortable, and moving all Android apps to the new device is a fast, painless, simple process. Never having owned an iPad, I can’t speak to how it compares directly. What I can tell, though, is that the Nexus tablet has instantly found a good place in my daily routines and workflows. The killer for me is the ability to read anywhere that’s not my laptop, where too many distractions (like work) will keep me from reading longer texts. So I send articles mostly via Pocket (formerly Read It Later) for comfortable consumption. That, and occasional surfing or watching a video while traveling, has been quite enjoyable and I can see that last for awhile.

Kindle

Still going strong: my old Kindle. For books, it’s not going anywhere.

Mac Air

Also just upgraded to a new Mac Air, but since I just set it up and there’s not that much difference over the old models except for the usual evolutionary performance upgrades, there’s not much to say except: While not a machine for developers or if you render a lot of videos, it’s more than powerful enough for your average power user like me. Just make sure to buy the top of the line model with the extra RAM and larger SSD drive and it won’t disappoint.

Tools I Use (September 2012 edition)

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objects

As a geek, it’s one of my duties and privileges to occasionally give tech & gadget advice. Sometimes to companies, more often to friends and family. I try to collect that stuff online under the tag Tools I Use. Here’s a snapshot of some of the gadgets and tools I’m currently using, and why:

Macbook Air

I’m still on a Macbook Air of about two years of age, about to be replaced. It’s my main & only computer, and I’m on it all day, every day. The Air has enough power for almost anything I encounter day to day, and its super lightweight design makes more than up for the occasionally over-powered processor. Of course, an external screen is nice and recommended. More screen real estate is good.

Nexus S v Galaxy S3

I loved my Nexus S phone, pure Android goodness. But it’s old now, and about to die. Time to let it go.

After years on various Android phones, I was (once more) just about ready to jump ship and switch over to iPhone. Initially I went to Android because it was more open than Apple’s iOS platform, then admittedly because I didn’t want to admit to myself that Google’s competitor isn’t as open as it set out to be. Both platforms by now try to lock you into their ecosystems, and both by now have pretty mature ecosystems, too.

While I consider the hardware design, by now, more eye candy than the software & platform aspects, on the design front the new iPhone kicks the Samsung Galaxy S3’s ass any day. (Same goes for naming conventions, as the last sentence easily demonstrates.)

That said, back to platforms and software: My mail and calendar live at Google. I don’t like iTunes. And I prefer Google Maps over Apple’s less mature mapping tools. (I hear very good things about Nokia maps, but hey, you can’t have it all.) So any promise the iPhone can give me about better integrating iCloud, iTunes or Apple’s calendar and email sounds to me more like a bug than a feature. I understand why many people opt for the Apple-verse, but when the road forked way back when, with one road leading to Apple lock-in and the other leading to (slightly less total) Google lock-in, I made a choice, and now it seems not worth switching.

My new phone is the Samsung Galaxy S3, the current top-of-the-line Android phone, the flagship model.

To get a better hands-on feeling for iOS, I guess I’ll just get an iPad. Using both platforms in parallel will both maximize friction and transaction costs, and give me a good side by side comparison. It’s the price I have to pay for geeking out.

Camera

I don’t really use any camera besides my phone. I’m on the market for a super compact model, but for almost any given context the phone camera should be good enough.

Headphones

For heavy duty, loud contexts (long plane rides, New York subway, etc) I use Audio Technica Quietpoint noise cancelling phones.

For the day to day, including sports and lots of conference calls, I’m quite happy with my Bose IE2 in-ears. Being in-ears, there’s lots of cable to get tangled up, but sound quality and fit are quite good. It’s not easy to find a good mix of headset and in-ears, and I’ve used them for the last nine months or so and am quite content with them.

Extra battery

On more intense days, my phone battery won’t make it through the day. So I frequently need some extra juice. A simple, if not particularly elegant solution is an external battery pack. I use one from TeckNet, which (like the name indicates) is a bit of a plasticky, cheap-ish affair. Yet, it works. And the current models actually look at least superficially like they might have improved in overall quality. Whichever brand you use, it’s good to have an extra charge of connectivity in your pocket.

Travel gear

  • Everyday backpack: Mission Workshop Rambler. Excellent, and just the right size and pocket layout for laptop & the necessary gadgets, extra jacket/sweatshirt, water bottle and all the cables, etc, that keep adding up.
  • Carry on: Rimowa IATA Cabin Trolley (two wheels). Hard to beat, and can take a beating. Heavy, but I like the aluminum finish. (The other materials are more light-weight.) Just big enough for 3-4 days of clothes and running shoes if you travel light.
  • Backpack for longer intense trips: Eagle Creek. Not sure which model, but I think it’s what they would now have updated to Rincon Vita. Light weight, huge volume, pretty much indestructible.

All of them are a bit on the pricy side, but are reliable, durable, feature a decent minimalistic design. I wouldn’t leave my home without them.

More recommendations

Helpful? If you’re into tool recommendations, I highly recommend Kevin Kelly’s fantastic Cool Tools.

Apple’s responsibility – aka what can we demand from our gadget dealers?

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“Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.” – Apple.com/environment

Last month, the New York Times published an article about the human cost of the iPad. It is a shocking, appalling and sadly an entirely unexpected report of the working conditions in Apple’s production plants in China, namely the one of Foxconn.

Up front, let’s be clear: This focuses on Apple, but similar reports could most likely be written about every single bigger electronics company as well as any of Foxconn’s competitors. Foxconn is one of the world’s largest producer of electronics. So while these two have been singled out, there’s a larger issue at stake here. Let’s also be clear that this doesn’t excuse anything.

All quotes are from the above-mentioned NYTimes article.

“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” said Li Mingqi, who until April worked in management at Foxconn Technology , one of Apple’s most important manufacturing partners. Mr. Li, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal, helped manage the Chengdu factory where the explosion occurred. “Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests,” he said.

Just a few days before the article appeared in the NYTimes, …

(…) Apple reported one of the most lucrative quarters of any corporation in history, with $13.06 billion in profits on $46.3 billion in sales. Its sales would have been even higher, executives said, if overseas factories had been able to produce more.

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

So who’s to blame here is a tough call to make. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should just go about our business. We as consumers are responsible — and that includes me personally, and maybe you, too — for buying all these gadgets and turning a blind eye on where they come from. The big production companies like Foxconn are responsible, because they work abuse their workers in the reprehensible way they do. And Apple (like their industry partners/competitors) is responsible, maybe most so. It is their management that decides to stick to these production plants and the way they operate, to not push them hard to demand better working conditions, to not be willing to give up a small chunk of their insane margin & profits and pass down a bit of it to the people building their products.

Just to be clear. This is Apple’s responsibility to be better than the bare minimum, or anything mediocre. If you claim excellence and a leadership position, you got to act accordingly. You’re the leading design company and know what’s best for you users, and you insist on providing the best experience out there? In other words, you demand the lead position from your designers? Then you better demand the same from your production.

At the same time, we as buyers need to ask ourselves: What do we demand from the companies that produce our gadgets?

Now, where all parties are involved and bear some part of responsibility, aka Any Real-Life Situation In A Global Economy, it’s easy to weasel out. “But it’s you, too, and they do it too, and these guys over there!” And by shifting and spreading responsibility around, we get away from the thing we discuss.

Let’s not do that.

We’ll never find one person/company to hold responsible, just as we often won’t be able to completely switch our personal behaviors radically in hope of some later change. On the one hand, everybody needs to do what they can, on the other – and I can’t overstate that – I think we should lean hard on these companies whose products we buy. In fact, I think this might sometimes be more effective than any boycott.

So yes, as a paying customer I demand that Apple takes the human rights of their factory workers seriously and goes way(!) beyond the market average in doing so. “But prices will go up,” the usual argument goes, “who’s going to pay for all that?” If those changes mean slightly higher prices for me, fine, I’m willing to bear some of that load. But I seriously expect a big chunk to come out of that hilariously high hardware margin and profit. A company that has higher revenues, margins and cash reserves than the rest of the field should well and truly put some of that money to good use. And I don’t mean a new, beefed up DRM. I mean some serious change of business.

Disrupting business? Fine, whatever. Disrupting production chains and post-consumer lifecycles, that’s the next frontier. It’d be nice to see Apple take the lead there.

Pocket watches & antique gadgets

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While visiting my family over the holidays, I happened upon some old (as in very old) watches that have been in the household for as long as I can think. As it sometimes happens, I hadn’t really paid any attention to them, but had a closer look just now.

I’m going to investigate further, and try to find out where they come from. Are they old family pieces, from my grandfather or even his grandfather? Or did someone pick them up at a flea market at some point?

I don’t know much about these watches at this point. What I know is that they’re in relatively bad repair, and seem to be of very different age as well as build quality. But that’s all I could tell from a quick glance. If anyone here knows about this kind of pocket watches, let me know. I’ll collect more photos in this Flickr set.

The second thing I know is that I’m absolutely fascinated by the design, the intricate details and the working of these timepieces. Can’t wait to dig deeper.

Watch

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Crossing technology vectors & emerging humane technology

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Where will it lead? This is where it gets interesting.

It’s where emerging technologies – tech vectors, really – cross that truly new stuff happens. It’s also where bits and pieces, building blocks of more or less well-established technologies can be combined into something new that might be bigger than the sum of its parts. Or into something that’s completely and utterly banal, but maybe playful or just nice.

In either case it’s these intersections that I find most interesting to watch.

Enter BERG’s Little Printer:

Little Printer by BERG Image: Little Printer by BERG

The Little Printer is many things: A device to output digital information on paper. The output end of a larger infrastructure, a cloud service that BERG has built, that on the input side extends to a set of smartphone apps. It’s a physical manifestation of a process that BERG has been working on for a long time, namely to also be able to design, produce and deliver physical goods. (The other physical manifestation was the recent comic book project SVK.) And it’s a little printer, of course.

Now what I find personally fascinating here is this.

The Little Printer isn’t really anything groundbreaking, anything truly new. It’s a glorified receipt printer. Many printers have been hooked up to the web, to Twitter, to data streams. (BERG openly acknowledges them, too.) Quite a few folks on Twitter have been poking fun at the LP for that.

Yet, there’s something different about this one, other forces at work, so to speak.

One, some very subtle design tweaks make the Little Printer quite adorable. BERG is very, very good at making things adorable that shouldn’t possibly be adorable. It’s a friggin’ receipt printer, yet I want to hug it. Of course that’s mostly done through the images they used in the announcements, with the little face inside the printer etc. I imagine it’s a few of the shapes and colors, too, but I wouldn’t be able to reliable say. (Designers, got any hints for me?) I’m not sure if making technology cute is the best, or only, way to go, but I have to say: It works for me.

Two, there’s a decent, solid set of initial launch partners that give you the kind of content to print out that makes it easy to imagine how you’d use the product. Weather report, tweets, shopping list, it all makes sense. Again, I’m not sure if you really need explicit launch partners for a printer, but they have them, and it seems to work.

Three, it’s entirely and utterly banal, anti-climactic. It’s an entirely unthreatening bit of networked technology that prints out mostly harmless pieces of paper, when you press a button on your phone. I can totally imagine this thing blending right in – in my kitchen, on my desk, in the living room. Anti-climactic technology is lovely. Shrug tech: Do you mind me putting the printer here? Nah. It’s ubicomp in human shape, or maybe rather in humane shape. It’s brilliant that way.

On a meta-level and big BERG fan, of course I’m also curious to watch go through the learning process of producing physical goods.

But as it stands, I can see myself getting two Little Printers, one for the office and one for my kitchen. I’m not sure what I’d use it for, but I’m pretty sure that I’d use it. In an entirely unthreatening way, to print mostly harmless pieces of paper.

Little Brother: Protect Your Privacy To Protect Your Freedom

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Cory Doctorow: Little BrotherPrivacy isn’t usually the most sexy topic. At least it isn’t usually treated that way, which is a shame. All the better: Cory Doctorow’s latest novel Little Brother (download for free, buy on Amazon) more than makes up: Little Brother is a passionate & compelling rant against government surveillance, and a rally cry to protect our privacy. More importantly, it makes a strong case for why replacing privacy with surveillance won’t protect our freedom and safety but destroy both.

Little Brother is, technically, aimed at young adults, but don’t let that put you off. (It certainly didn’t stop me!)

I just devoured the whole novel in a single swoop on my train ride back to Berlin, and it’s an absolute page-turner. Also, it’s so angry it’ll make you see your day-to-day world just that little differently, like it just inserted a dash of ARG (Alternate Reality Game) into your daily life.

Neat side feature: Instructibles explains how to built all the neat hacks and tools brought up in the novel.

Go hack away!

Here’s a few links to get started, largely taken from the Little Brother’s Afterword:

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  • Reading

    • Reporters Without Borders: Freedom of the press & of expression is the basis for a stable, working, living democracy. Reporters Without Borders watch the freedom of press worldwide.
    • Center for Citizen Media. Call it citizen media, participatory journalism, or simply blogging: Don’t leave it to commercial media to report on abuse by authorities.
    • The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). THE fighters for our digital rights. If you have a few bucks to donate, this would be a good place.
    • cryptome.org: An anonymous place to post confidential information. Think dissidents and whistleblowers.
    • For German speakers: Newspaper TAZ.de just started a new blog about privacy issues called CTRL. Full disclosure: I’m friends with one of the authors of CTRL.

  • Hacking

    • tor.eff.org: TOR, The Onion Router, allows for anonymous surfing. You really want that.
    • gpg encrypts your email. Like, pretty much unbreakable.

  • Open Source Hardware: Buglabs to ship in Q4

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    Tired of your bricked iPhone? You’re not alone. (Ok, to be fair, iPhones aren’t even being shipped in Germany yet, I think. But anyway.)

    There’s at least two new projects that are open sourcing not just their software, but also their hardware: They’re specifically designed for hackability. How awesome is that?

    First, there’s OpenMoko, an open source mobile phone. It’s got the touch screen, it’s got some kind of motion sensor, and it’s got a neat user interface. Not quite as slick as an iPhone, but, you know, that may not be the main point here. So far, OpenMoko is shipping developer prototypes only, but expect that to change soon. (If you’re a developer, you might also want to check out the OpenMoko Developer Platform.)

    Then, and this is great, Buglabs has just announced that they’ll be shipping their hardware starting in Q4 2007, which sounds to me like: now. So far, their product line seems to focus on camera and GPS modules, which by all means is a good start. Also, there’s a hackable Linux box to program all the stuff. You can see all Buglabs products here. (Buglabs blog here.)

    Boy, I can’t wait to get my hands on one of those.