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location.location.location

Most of the time when services want to know your location, a post code and house number will suffice. For others, your longitude and latitude are necessary. From online shopping to GPS, so much depends on letting others know where you are.

Knowing where you are these days is, for the most part, very simple. Most of us carry a smartphone. GPS has been part of smartphones since the days of the Nokia N95, but it’s far more accurate these days and the software has come on leaps and bounds. While Google Latitude is no longer an option, others have stepped in. Glympse is by far my favourite for sharing my location on the fly. It tracks the phone or tablet and shares your location using a one-off web address to whoever you want to share it with, and only them. It automatically terminates the web page when you reach your destination, after a preset time, or by both (whichever comes first). When it comes to sharing your location it’s great, assuming you’re on the move.

When you’re not on the move and want to share a specific place, you’ll likely fall back to either an address, or longitude and latitude. I could say I’m at Tower Knowe Visitors Centre, Kielder, NE48 1BX and you could find me fairly easily. If I said I was parked at 55.1739, -2.4746 then you’d have a more accurate position, but postcodes only work if there’s a building nearby and long/lat can be easily mistaken or forgotten. What we need is a more elegant, simpler approach. Thankfully someone’s already solved that problem.

Imagine if everywhere on the planet, city, homes, seas or deserts could be found using just three words. Everywhere. Three words to describe every three by three metre square. Texting someone would be far simpler. Calling 999 for emergency services, or roadside assistance (AA, RAC, Green Flag etc) could be far less stressful by giving them positions.dreaming.nipping rather than spelling out Knowe and Kielder. It’s not hard to get the location from the three words either. Prefix the three words with what3words.com/ or easier still, w3w.co/ and you have your location. w3w.co/positions.dreaming.nipping will take you to the Tower Knowe car park at Kielder Forest.

With a range of map overlay options compatible with various browsers and apps for Android and iOS, it strikes me that the obvious choice for sharing your location is no longer street names or the more traditional “turn left at the Red Lion”. The app doesn’t even need an internet connection, it can provide your three word location and can even show direction and distance to a three word pin or waymarker (think geocaching). I’ve been using What3Words for a few years now, and we still add it for delivery instructions to indicate the right house, or for the front or back door. I’ve converted w3w addresses to QR codes and João Dias has added W3W’s Developer’s API to AutoTools so now a secret phrase can be sent to my phone and it will automatically reply with a link to my location. To date we’ve used W3W for everything from ‘additional instructions for the driver’ to the traditional treasure hunt for our son at Christmas and even our wedding invitations.

One thing is for certain, Ozero Kovdozero, Republic of Karelia, Russia or 63.1539N, 32.1040E aren’t remotely as easy to remember as w3w.co/location.location.location.

Encryptr

Every now and then something comes along where you can see somebody’s put some serious thought in to what they’re designing. The Raspberry Pi is probably the first thing that comes to mind, the Pebble watch is another. Lego is a brilliant example.

With apps, it’s lesser so. Not because people don’t think about what they’re doing, but because there are so many out there that are either sloppy/lazy, through no fault of their own the developers don’t have the experience, or because they’re looking at a means of making money (adverts, data theft etc.). Some apps really do shine through though, Tasker, AutoRemote, Titanium Backup, Spideroak. [See an early list]

Latest to the list must be Encryptr. Like Spideroak, at its core it is built on the ZeroKnowledge principle. This got Spideroak some criticism because with ZeroKnowledge systems, only the end user (that’s you) can read what’s stored. Not GHCQ, not David Bloody Cameron, not the FBI, not even Spideroak themselves. All associated data is encrypted and can only be decrypted with a passcode, password, phrase, or similar.

For a little while now (since Dropbox was hacked for the second time) I’ve been looking for something that uses Spideroak’s approach, end point decryption for keeping passwords secure. After a quick search I decided the best way was to use Spideroak’s Hive. Spideroak has a couple of options, data is stored per machine or shared with all machines signed in to that account. Hive is the latter, so my passwords are securely synced with every machine I choose to sign in with. It meant that if I didn’t have a phone signal I was a bit stuck, but only passwords for internet based systems were being stored. It also meant that I had to be at a PC to create the file but Spideroak are currently looking to implement this as an option in an upcoming release.

Encryptr is the solution to the problem. It doesn’t matter if your phone gets lost, stolen, soaked or damaged because no data is stored on your phone. Every password, PIN, credit card number and note that’s stored is done so securely online. With cross platform availability, the same passwords on your phone can be synced with your Windows or Linux PC or even your Mac. It even offers a secure, randomly generated password for you when you input an entry. Best of all, it’s free. There’s no advertising, no sign up, no personal details required to use it, just a user name and a passphrase/password. That’s it.

As Encryptr’s web site states, there’s a down side. If you forget your username and/or passphrase you’re locked out. No ‘forgot my password’ option as they don’t ask for your email address. Taking this into account, you have to acknowledge the advantages far outweigh any risk of forgetting your username and passphrase.

Encryptr’s developers have obviously thought about what they’re doing. While basic, the app and its ethos have a solid foundation. I’d like to be able to put entries in folders, toggle the courtesy password on/off and select its length and complexity (upper/lower case, numbers, symbols etc) and be able to copy the password in to the clipboard, but these are suggestions for a later version.

Considering the app is only at version 1.1.0, what Encryptr have achieved is impressive.

 

Pain Diary

I recently had the opportunity to answer questions about pain management and wearables.  Even if you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, I suspect most people are aware of the products.

Wearables are smart devices that are worn; fitness trackers, smart watches, health trackers etc. I’m not sure if those Bluetooth pills that are swallowed and feed back to a smartphone are strictly classified as wearable, but their benefits are definitely there.  Real time data is big business, and there are companies all over the world looking to cash in.  While many of those companies are profit based, some are more altruistic.  I certainly don’t have their budget but I wonder if the limited consumer gadgets I own could be put to use?

I’ve suffered with pain in my left knee after a road accident in 2007, pain in my lower back since around ’96 and my shoulder has dislocated at least since ’91.  I’d love to be able to walk, but the consultant at the Pain Clinic has told me it will never happen.  I’m taking it with a pinch of salt.  In 1974 my parents were told I wouldn’t survive the week.  I may be completely in denial, but I’d like to think that when it comes to medicine we can’t say never.  Putting aside the progress that’s being made in exoskeletons, I think the odds are against me but if I can help the medical profession find a trend then I’m going to do all I can.

Tasker already manages my medicines for me, announcing when they should be taken and nagging me if I’ve been unable to take them at a given time.  Tasker also allows me to manually record entries to my Pain Diary.  The entries update a text file (chosen for universal compatibility) via Dropbox, and also a privately shared Google calendar (accessible only via a private link). When combined with AutoPebble, medication notices can be pushed to the watch and actions taken.  I can notify Tasker that I’ve taken my meds, or to dismiss the alert and remind me later.  It also allows me to update my Pain Diary, all without taking my phone from my pocket.

Although the Pebble smart watch is renowned for its battery life, usually lasting 6 – 8 days, I’m not relying exclusively on it.  Using Tasker’s Scene functionality I can also have buttons pop up and update the Pain Diary straight from the phone’s home screen.  Because of the way Tasker works, that screen and all associated settings can be taken to a tablet or an upgraded phone in a couple of minutes.

Because of the way it’s set up I can add or remove items in the list very quickly. I can also type in rarer entries manually.  It has only really benefited me properly a couple of times, but those times have been worth it.  When a nurse asked how often I experience chest pains I was able to provide exact times and dates in a couple of minutes.

Obviously, this doesn’t have anywhere near the sophistication of what is achievable or even what’s currently in development. It has to be manually selected and doesn’t include heart rate, blood pressure, etc. but that’s not what I’ve set out to do. This started as a means for me to keep a personal record of when I’m in the most pain.  Providing the Pain Clinic with the entries is just an added bonus.

Lifeproof

It surprises me that more phones haven’t been waterproofed. A few years ago, Jason Bradbury featured a Samsung Galaxy S2 being submerged in water without any adverse effects after being coated with a nano-coating by P2i. Nowadays, a few phones will claim to be splashproof, but currently only Sony make fully waterproof phones. Despite the obvious appeal of a naturally submersible phone, I really don’t want a Sony product again.

There have been a few cases on the market to protect your phone. When the Lifeproof case was on special offer, I seized the opportunity. Lifeproof has a great reputation. I’ve seen their products for iPhones in the past but this was not only a Lifeproof case for an Android device, but for the same one I use. At least for now.

When you first pick up the box you immediately feel as though Lifeproof have given thought to their product. The box is tactile, a door on the front opens to let you view the product through the transparency. What impressed me was the magnets (top and bottom) which snap the door shut.

Lifeproof cover and test unitLifeproof internal sealThe rear of the box boasts the case will protect your phone with a rating of IP68. It can be fully submerged up to 6½ feet. Unfortunately, I can’t say I hold much confidence in this claim.

Lifeproof base, showing waterLifeproof include a phone’s “test unit”, a blue plastic mock up matching the dimensions of the phone it’s designed to protect. The manual suggests testing the case using the test unit for 30 minutes, weighted down to fully submerge it in water. I
tested it for 15 minutes using their test unit and found the product leaking water.

Lifeproof base, wet lockThe case was dried off, checked for anything that could be preventing the Lifeproof case from working properly. I could see nothing that would cause the leak.
The second test lasted only 5 minutes. Unfortunately the case was unable to resist the water using the provided test unit.

Another check for any dust, dirt, cracks in the rubber, anything at all proved fruitless. I checked and double
checked the test unit. Even under a jeweller’s magnifying glass nothing showed that could account for the leaks. To say it came as a disappointment was an understatement.

The final test was done under full observation in the hope the source may be found. No such luck. There was no obvious point where air could be seen escaping. After ten minutes it was clear that nothing would give away the weak point. With some surprise I learned the third test was successful.

I’m aware the only consistent factors in these tests have been the same case, the same test unit and the same person. Being truly objective, I cannot rule out me missing something between tests, however small. To the best of my knowledge, in each test nothing had changed. The test unit was settled in place. The case was snapped shut with the same force as before. Even the order of it closing matched the previous tests.

Pros: The Lifeproof case is sturdy. It feels like a quality product. The rubber on its back makes gripping it very easy. Despite only having contact with surfaces with its four rubber feet it doesn’t easily slide (tested at various angles). The speaker and microphone aren’t obstructed due to a waterproof membrane, music can be heard as before and nobody called knew the phone was in a case. Rubber covers over the buttons stand out proud from the base making finding them easy, but prevent the phone activating without your knowledge.

Cons: Some charging cables no longer work due to the smaller aperture at the base (see yellow plug on the case). None of the OTG cable fits. Only a third of the tests with the test unit passed being submerged in water.

Outcome: The Lifeproof case tested with the Samsung I9305 feels like a quality product. Even the box has had serious thought put in to it. The case will block dust, dirt, sand etc. (involuntary test) with ease.  [You’ll understand me not testing the waterproofing with the phone.]  Using the official cables and not cheap ones from eBay, the phone performs exactly as it always has.  Bumps and drops on to hard floor tiles are taken in its stride.

I’d recommend Lifeproof cases to anyone who asks. Cheap cases may save your phone from knocks and drops, but they can’t offer anything like the protection of a Lifeproof case.

Pebble throwing

I won’t go in to the details twice, but I had one requirement in a smartwatch – it had to interact with Tasker.

It turns out that Pebble themselves have decided on our behalf to stop supporting certain apps.  My needs in a smartwatch are few but supporting Tasker is essential and Google apps are next on the list.

Pebble drop Tasker

 

Pebble want to control what information you’re allowed to see on your watch, and they want to control it all through their app.  Had I wanted such strict control I’d have bought an iPhone!  My phone is Android.  Android is open source.  Not restricted.  The app doesn’t even have a tick/untick box, warning “Tasker / Google Now may result in repeated notifications”.

The thing is, Tasker brings functionality to the watch that Pebble themselves haven’t been able to do.  With its plugins and 3rd party apps integrating with Tasker it means you can do so much more than the already comprehensive app is capable of.  As Pebble want to restrict which apps they’ll allow you to use they’re putting nails in their own coffin.  If they’re not careful these sorts of decisions will do to their watch what Blackberry and Nokia did to their phones.

A year ago, Pebble were already facing criticism for blatant favouring of the iPhone over Android.  Even at the bottom of the box showed where Pebble’s alliance lay:

Pebble Box (under) highlighted

Pebble have faced criticism for not using colour screens or implementing touch screen functionality, especially in their Pebble Steel.  By denying access to certain apps and restricting functionality, even their supporters in the Android community will start to jump ship.

What annoys me is that there weren’t any “This app will no longer be supported as of 31/12/14” notifications.  Not even “This app is no longer supported”.  If a company behind smartwatches can’t send a notification to their own product then perhaps they should consider removing the prefix ‘smart’.

However, all may not be lost.  Recently Pebble announced their app can interact with Android Wear.  The Android Wear app doesn’t even need to be connected to the app or signed in to any account.  The only requirement is that it be installed.  Time will no doubt tell whether this restores what Pebble saw fit to block.  With a little good fortune I won’t be Pebble throwing any time soon.

What a difference two days make

Two days can make such a difference.  You can fly abroad, pass your driving test, or simply master that recipe that’s been frustrating you for the last six months.

Having previously been a Virgin customer I’m aware of the speeds available on fiber-optic broadband.  We’ve used it at my soon-to-be in-laws.  The shock of its capability has long since worn off.

Four years ago I moved out of a Virgin area and instantly noticed the difference.  Email seemed to be sent and received by carrier pigeon, photos suddenly seemed as though they needed to be developed and I could get faster internet on my mobile than I could at my door.  The change from Virgin’s 20Mb to Sky’s 0.8Mb was laughable, or it would be had it not been so painful.  The thing is Sky had promised me 3Mb, they just couldn’t deliver.  So five weeks after being connected, I was free.  Even penalty free.  O2 carried the torch, delivering on the promises they’d made.  Sky bought out O2’s home broadband service, and our speeds slowed again.

No more!

Two days ago I did a broadband speed test.  I did another today.  [If you’d like to test your broadband speed, click here]

Sky vs BTIt’s costing £8 per month more but you can see the difference for yourself.  [It’s worth noting that this is the first speed test since the line was connected.  The line has not been calibrated yet so the speed may increase over the next three weeks]

 

2015-02-06 13.25.55aBT did everything without even needing a coffee and a Jammy Dodger.  I received a text from them saying the line was connected [11:42], and another a short while later [12:02] saying the fiber-op was up and running.  What made the whole lot that little bit sweeter was the text I received from Sky [13:03] over an hour after BT’s last text saying they’re sorry to see me go and they’ll write to me with the details of any charges.  They didn’t even bother to proof read it. (don?t)

Good riddance!

Finally quit

After three weeks the Tasks and Profiles in Tasker (an automation app for smartphones) have been removed.  All links between the PC’s, TV, tablets, watch and phones relating to having a smoke are deleted.  No longer can I soak in the tub, press a button on my watch and ask my other (better) half if she wants to join me for a smoke.  No longer can texts or AutoRemote messages be sent.  No longer can I automatically log my location at the Cuban Cigar Club with FourSquare.  Those who know me will testify to how rarely this happens.

I didn’t really want to quit smoking.  I loved it.  It was only really the finances that dictated the necessity to give them up.  The thing is, if you’re going to do something then make the effort.  Doing something half-hearted based on the fact that you didn’t want to do it in the first place is something that belongs in your childhood.  You certainly should have outgrown it by the time you enter your thirties (much less my age).

So, the final act of acceptance has been made.  I’ve deleted something from Tasker.

If you’ve missed the previous entries on smoking/quitting then you should know I hold vapes and Doctor Mike Evans responsible for my success.

Safer smoking

People all over Great Britain have been, and are, quitting smoking or reducing their smoking via electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) and vapes.  [The only difference is the e-cigs look like cigarettes].  They use batteries to charge a coil.  The coil heats up the liquid, turning it to vapour which is then inhaled.

Vapes can contain different levels of nicotine, from 24mg down to none at all.  [I know people who use nicotine free liquid as they want to quit the habit but not the experience.]  It’s also better for everyone else as the second-hand smoke issue no longer exists.

The trouble is, as the Guardian highlights, USB chargers (for anything) aren’t always safe.  Aside from the batteries heating as they charge, there’s the risk of malware.  This can turn your nice new PC in to anything from a host for annoying adverts (are they any other kind?) to a means of giving unknown levels of control of your data to someone half way around the world.  However, the solution is simple.

Any USB hub can remedy this for you.  Grab yourself a cheap USB hub, take it apart and cut the middle two cables.  Leave only the red and black cables intact (1 and 4).  Put it back together again and your USB hub can charge your devices without any data being transferred.  If any adware/malware/Trojan horses or viruses are hard-coded into the charger, they can’t go anywhere.

Of course, the alternative is to never charge anything from your PC, but we don’t always have that option.

Weaker passwords

So many web sites, so many passwords.  Unless you’re willing to risk using fewer than ten (or possibly only one) password for every site you use, you probably have the browser save the passwords and use a random password generator.

There are a number of apps which will generate passwords for you.  You can set the password strength and it will give you a unique password each time you ask for one.  If you’re hoping to get the same one twice, you’re probably going to die before it happens.  The apps give you nice, strong passwords.  Other apps will save the details for you, password keepers.

It’s not often, but from time to time I’ll come across a site which doesn’t allow the 40-50 digit passwords I tend to use.  Sometimes I’ll add a more, sometimes take a few off.  When I exit the app, the contents of the phone’s clipboard are sent to the PC.  From there I’ll often drop the password in to a .txt file and save it in Spideroak.  For those who don’t know, Spideroak is much like Dropbox but is fully secure, only decrypting the contents at the user’s device.

For the first time I’ve come across a web site which not only limits the length of the password, but doesn’t allow most of the special characters (for example !£$%^&*{[]}@’#~<>?/`¬\|etc.).  Eon Energy only allow the basic 0-9, A-Z, – and _.  For the first time since using password generators I’ve been effectively told my password is too strong, please use a weaker password, twice!

We’re living in a world where everyone is using stronger and stronger passwords.  Those with Microsoft qualifications need at least two special characters in their lengthy passwords.  Google, Twitter and Dropbox are amongst many sites using 2-step security, requiring a password and a code either generated by / sent to your phone.  These sites don’t require payments or personal information to use them, but they still offer 2-step security.

I didn’t sign up with Eon.  I was tempted to type in ‘password’, but in the end I was afraid it would be accepted.
Eon - too longEon - invalid format

Evolution of notifications

I’ve had smartphones ever since the Nokia N-Gage was released and I’ve grown accustomed to notifications changing. It started with things like Bluetooth being turned on, new SMS text messages and missed calls, something not unexpected on a telephone.

Symbian S60 changed to v2, v3, v3/v5 and v5 before it was retired. Icons and symbols associated with telephone function have since changed to include tweets, weather forecasts, RSS feeds, choice of keyboards and various other apps.

I now get reminded to take my medication or to take out the bin, as well as more personal notifications such as the computer has finished whatever task it was set or the dishwasher has finished its cycle.

Of course nowadays our notifications are branching away from our phone screens to Google Glass, Android Wear smartwatches, or the more battery friendly Pebble.
We can acknowledge or even respond to our information with the blink of an eye or a flick of our wrist.

So much information is at our fingertips we’re now the weak link in the chain. We can’t possibly process everything that comes our way. The notifications for it all would be overwhelming. So as we bring more and more information to our attention with services like IFTTT and apps like Tasker, we set up customisable conditional events to only show something of we’re at home or something else if we’re at work but only if the outdoor temperature drops below a given temperature or above a given humidity level; send a photograph to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook if we use a certain app, or change our wallpaper every day to match NASA’s photo of the day.

We are now at a stage where we need these systems in place, picking apps allowed to show us relevant notifications like a VIP list and banning others (especially those spamming us with pop up adverts). In the last decade notifications have evolved so much I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be in ten years time, and perhaps more importantly how we’ll be notified.