Narwhal Circus

…Will be resumed as soon as possible. I’m in bed with a bad cold.

Well I say bed, it’s more the couch, in front of the TV. Sipping a hot drink. I’m recording TV and updating my phone. In the oven, a whole chicken is roasting for dinner. It doesn’t sound much like hardship, and I have to admit it’s not. I’d probably enjoy doing this little – if I was doing it of my own free will.

But I’m cooking the chicken now because on Sunday I was too fuzz-headed to figure out how, and I haven’t written this blog – or done anything much else even remotely constructive – in days. I think the closest I got to creativity was a couple of rounds of the Game of Liff over on my friend Susan’s blog, and even then I faded out almost immediately.

That’s typical in fact. I don’t feel so bad – my inner ears are little diving bells, but there’s no other real discomfort – I just can’t concentrate. Not that I’m a paragon of laserlike focus when I’m well, it might be admitted, but now I’m all, you know, kind of

That was going to be a sentence that trailed off aimlessly, but while I was writing I honestly fell asleep. Weirdly, my attempt to describe reality became the reality. But I feel a bit better for it at least. Maybe today I can write something coherent.

Hoping you’re well.

No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

©SamsungThere are phones and there are tablets, and basically the only difference between them is size. But that difference is not trivial. Far from it; in mobile technology, form factor is everything. Difference in size means difference in purpose. A tablet is as big as is comfortable to use for ‘media consumption’ on the couch, a phone as small and portable as it can be while remaining usable. Anything intermediate is a compromise that falls between stools. Such is contemporary design wisdom.

And it’s wrong. People use their phones more and more for browsing, reading, viewing media and playing games. All else being equal, these will always be better on a bigger screen. So it’s very arguable that the best portable device is the biggest one you can comfortably carry. How big is that though, exactly?

Bigger than you might expect. Samsung‘s view – and I tend to agree with them – is that the upper threshold is what you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video). In most ways, their new Galaxy Note is just an upgraded version of their popular Galaxy S II. What sets it apart is its simply humongous 5.3″ screen, surely as big as a mobile phone can get and still remain mobile. That’s not a compromise, that’s pushing an idea to its extreme. Seen this way it’s the recent generation of 7″ Android tablets that fell between two stools – smaller than the iPad, but not small enough to be truly portable.

Some reviewers have worried about looking foolish, holding such a large device up to the face. Well yes, maybe this is not the phone for the overly self-conscious. But I suspect it will attract more glances of interest, even envy, than amusement. It’s not merely the size of the screen that makes it stand out. With its resolution of 1280 x 800 – higher than the iPad – and luxuriant saturated AMOLED colours, it’s gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful ever seen on a mobile device.

©SamsungBut the controversies only begin with the Note’s size. There’s also that pen. How can the addition of an input device somehow be a fault? For this we can blame Steve Jobs. Making a dig at the original Windows Mobile, he said “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” He was wrong too though. If you need a stylus they blew it, sure. Poking at tiny icons with a stick is not cool. But the Note has a touch interface as good as any of its rivals. More than one review has seemed almost to take offence at this. If you don’t need the pen to use the phone, what’s it doing there?

For sure, it would still be a fabulous device without it. You could use the Note merely as a huge-screened Web browser, HD video player and camera, e-book reader, satnav, tablet, gaming device etc. without ever withdrawing the pen from its bay. But for others – myself included – that pen is precisely the reason why we’ll be giving our money to Samsung. This is no plastic stylus. An advanced, sensitive pen would be a brilliant complement to a device big enough to use like a notebook. And once again Samsung has not cut any corners, using gold-standard technology from Wacom, makers of the Intuos and Cintiq tablets found in graphics studios worldwide. The sketching, annotation and handwriting possibilities this “S-Pen” adds put the Galaxy Note into a league of its own. Or would, if its screen hadn’t already.

It may not be on its own much longer though. It’s being joined by a rival product from fellow Koreans LG. Their Optimus Vu will have comparable dimensions and also comes equipped with a pen – rejoicing in the name “Rubberdium”. (No clues as to what the technology is yet, but they describe it as dedicated so it is probably an active device.) And it may be far from the last. The fourth iteration of Android, with its ability to scale to different screen sizes and its inbuilt support for pens, seems tailor-made for devices like this. (The Note does not actually have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but will get it as soon as it’s ready – possibly next month.) With these features clearly part of Google’s vision, will we be seeing a phablet from Motorola next?

I hope so for the sake of diversity, but speaking for myself it’s hard to imagination any device in the near future improving on the Galaxy Note. Wacom technology appearing on a phone is a long-held dream I seriously thought would never come true. So I want to use this more than any device I’ve seen in nearly ten years. And frustratingly, about anywhere in the world seems to be getting the Note before Ireland. Vodafone has at least have confirmed they will be carrying it though. No details on pricing yet, but if you want you can register your interest here and get notified as soon as it goes on sale.

Just one question remains then – what will we call this new class of device? Phablet seems to be catching on, even if some abhor the word. Well, it’s not as bad as tabphone or phoneblet. I have a different suggestion though. We could take a word that technology has made redundant and give it a new job. Let’s call it the Phonebook.

What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

 

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...
The Outsider - Windows Phone 7

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

Our Special, Dysfunctional Relationship With China

We send them money, they send us more or less everything. Simple.

Actually there’s a lot more to it than that. It may seem that our money is going there never to return (except in the form of loans and – perhaps – investments), but China’s increasing wealth is little more than a side-effect of the highly integrated role that it now plays in the world economy. China is a machine for transferring wealth all right, but while some of it goes to the rich in China and some even goes to the poor there, most of it flows from our poor to our rich, here in the West. It’s the great money pump. As such it plays a very useful role in the destruction of democracy, by democracy.

Think back to those far-gone days when Capitalism seemed to actually work. Owners of businesses would employ people who would then be able to buy things from businesses. It was a two-way street and it worked well enough. The owners arguably got more than their fair share and working conditions were downright dangerous in the early days, but overall it was a benign circle where people saw their incomes rise.

It began to fail only when everyone, more or less, had a job. This meant that the labour supply was no longer an endless resource, and that very much strengthened the position of the “working class” in their campaign for a bigger share. Labour was still a renewable resource though, so at this point things might conceivably have reached an equilibrium. But capitalism is driven not by profit, as you might assume, but by increasing profit. Its most powerful members after all are not those who create wealth, but those who have it already. Investment will go not to what might make a sustainable economy or society, but to whatever can return the biggest immediate margin.

And one of those things was China, where labour seems again to be in infinite supply and working conditions can be just as dangerous as the good old days. Now instead of paying people in their own countries, businesses can pay people in China to make things to sell to the people of their countries. As owners of the patents, the brand names, the “intellectual property”, they still get the lion’s share of the profit from these Chinese-made goods. The transfer of wealth thus becomes a one-way street, from the poorer to the richer in our society, with China merely taking a commission as agent.

Most people in the West are still employed of course, but more and more they’re employed in secondary jobs that have little control over the production of actual saleable goods. I don’t think government is ever going to be brought to its knees by a mass stoppage of supermarket managers or Web designers. Robbed of this bargaining chip, people’s incomes are falling in real terms. It’s just that we don’t notice because the cost of many goods is rapidly falling too – thanks to them being made in China. It’s the tasks we cannot effectively outsource – health and education for example – that show how the real wealth of our society is decreasing.

Thanks to China. the rich no longer really need the rest of us as much as they once did. Which explains why the wealth gap is rapidly increasing. So China does turn out to be a threat to democracy, if not in a way that anyone expected back in the Red-Scare 50s. My question is this: If we encourage Chinese investment here, will it help us focus on finding solutions to this very dysfunctional relationship – or will it simply buy our silence?

Roots Of Religion

I came across something extraordinary. Chimps may have a religion.

When the seasonal rains come, chimpanzees – the dominant males especially – do a special sort of dance or ritual. It’s hard for us to guess their motivation of course. Are they celebrating the change of season, defying it, placating it? All you can really say is that it’s a social reaction to an environmental phenomenon. And that is surely one of the hallmarks of religion – personifying and attempting to communicate with natural forces.

It’s especially interesting when you consider that there doesn’t seem to be a human society without some religious sense. A traditional (non-religious) explanation is that when faced with the inexplicable, we are forced to ascribe it to the caprice of an unknown will.

Seen that way, religion is a consequence of intelligence. But what if all humans have religion because religion is older than humans, and our ancestors treated the forces of nature as living beings, malevolent or benign, long before they had language or culture?

It would explain some things – like how people with barely any language or culture can be so religious today.

The Firefox Phone

Remember when people just, you know, made phones? That was so crazy. Now you don’t stand a chance unless you have a whole “ecosystem” of app developers, electronics companies, service providers, accessory makers and so on.

Incompatible systems, locked in a death match; the fewer there are after all, the more profitable they will be. We’ve already seen promising contenders like Symbian, WebOS and MeeGo fall away, Blackberry and even Windows Phone have question marks over them. So why is an organisation like Mozilla, the not-for-profit foundation best known for the excellent Firefox browser, entering this ring?

Well they have one advantage over the others, and I just mentioned it: They don’t have to make a profit. They don’t need the support of a mutually beneficial ecosystem. But if they don’t want the money, why do it at all? There’s one good reason: To preserve and protect the Web. As a foundation set up to create a free, open Web browser back in the days when it looked like Microsoft was going to take it all, they could be said to have a legitimate interest here.

Only this time, they have to save the Web from Apple.

Look at Apple’s business model. To a large extent it consists of taking things that the Web could deliver for free and offering them – via an app – as a service you pay for. This is especially attractive to publishers and others who are looking to control distribution, holding out hope for a future where people will need certain apps running on certain devices to access their content. It’s not hard to see a danger here of splitting the Web into proprietary channels.

Gecko is the “engine” of Firefox (and other related browsers), the program that turns the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that pages are written in into the visual, interactive experience on your screen. The idea is simple but unexpected: Why not write the whole phone in these languages? Compare this to Google’s system; Android has a little Linux for the fundamentals, then on top of that it runs a Java engine called Dalvik. So the interface and the apps of Android – including the browser – are all written in this version of Java.

B2G also has a little Linux, but running right on top of that is the browser (Gecko). Everything else then, from the interface to the Web pages it brings you, is in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. It’s a drastic simplification. Writing apps for it will be like – indeed, will be – Web development.

Unlike the average Web browser today though, B2G will have greatly-heightened awareness of the hardware it is running on, and this will allow app-like integration between the device and online data. Better still though, it can integrate them via the Web. A sufficiently “intelligent” page would be able to accept all the different kinds of input data your phone can provide. To take a fairly obvious example, an icon on Facebook could launch your camera and upload an image seamlessly.

One big question remains: If nothing is locked-in, if no one can make money by selling apps and services, who is going to make and sell the hardware? Surely not the big two or three who almost have the market sewn up between them. The answer might be: Everybody else. With B2G freely available, maybe people can just… make phones.

Download Yourself To Jail

This is the stupidest thing I’ve seen in months – and I am a connoisseur of stupid. RnBXclusive.com, a music download site, has been taken down by an organisation calling itself the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

This is what it used to look like. This is what appears there now.

The image above though – click to see it full size – is what it looked like yesterday; a page put up by this SOCA plainly intended to scare anyone who visits. I kid you not. And despite their Captain Scarlet-class logo, the Serious Organised Crime Agency are an honest-to-goodness branch of UK law enforcement which, when it’s not busy, does real work against real crime. Which means that making music available for download is serious crime now, alongside drugs, extortion, and human trafficking. Thanks to the lobbying of the entertainment industry. Indeed the notice reads like it was drafted by industry spin merchants:

“The individuals behind this website have been arrested for fraud”

Arrested, not convicted. The logic is that some of the tracks made available were not officially released yet and so obtained by illegal means, and that constitutes fraud. Seems tenuous, but we’ll let it pass.

“The majority of music files that were available via this site were stolen from the artists.”

Copyright infringement is not theft – not even in law. If they are implying that the majority of tracks on the site were obtained from record companies by illegal means then that, let us say, seems unlikely to be true.

If you have downloaded music using this website you may have committed a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine under UK law.

You can get ten years for downloading a music track? Absolutely untrue. The penalties for copyright infringement are not that draconian – yet. The tortuous logic of this seems to be that by downloading the file you are participating in a conspiracy to defraud. This should be laughed out of court.

“The above information can be used to identify you and your location.”

This is designed to frighten children. Of course a website you visit knows your IP address. Unless of course you actually are a criminal, in which case you’d take the trouble to disguise it.

“You may be liable for prosecution and the fact that you have received this message does not preclude you from prosecution.”

You may have already won $1,000,000. Again they are trying to scare kids with vague half-truths. Which is not what I thought law enforcement was about.

“As a result of illegal downloads young, emerging artists may have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music you will have damaged the future of the music industry

Still trying to make kids feel bad. Trying but failing; the kids know that illegal downloads are as likely to promote the careers of “young, emerging” artists. They also know that the music industry has no future if it goes on like this.

This page has been taken down now, because “that stage of the operation is over”. Well yes. Over because it was widely and rightly criticised. It now links instead to SOCA’s own site, which among various other questionable claims states:

“IFPI estimates losses to legitimate businesses and artists caused by the site to be £15m a year.”

The IFPI is the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry – a lobbying group. So what the SOCA is saying here is “We report entertainment industry PR bullshit as fact.” Again, not what I thought law enforcement was about. In the minds of the industry every illegal download is the loss of a full-price sale, and copyright infringement costs them more money than the record-buying public ever had to spend. Yet it’s they who are convincing politicians to sponsor terrible laws like SOPA and ACTA, laws that if passed will curtail real freedoms that we legitimately enjoy. All because these people submit present masturbation fantasies as evidence.