Kies To The Shitty

Samsung Kies

There can be little doubt that Samsung makes a fine phone. They make a few crappy ones too of course; a friend of mine has the Galaxy Y, which actually hurts slightly to look at. It is fair to say though that with the Galaxy S II, Nexus, and Note, they make three of the best phones you can buy.

But if one thing lets all of them down, it’s Kies. This is the software they provide for connecting their phones to computer, which you’d use for example to transfer music to the phone or photographs from it. Or, to synchronise the contacts on your phone and computer. That’s such a useful function that it’s one of the main reasons I use a smartphone. Having just one version of all your email addresses and phone numbers, kept in sync across all your devices, is heaven compared to the situation a few years ago when I had some addresses in one webmail account, some in another, some on the computer, some phone numbers on the SIM, some in phone memory, some more in another phone’s memory…

These are Android phones of course, so you can just do it the Google way and sync all your contacts with Gmail. Which is fine, but I don’t really want to put all my eggs into Google’s basket. Plus I use other email addresses as well.

So what I do is funnel all my email accounts into Microsoft Outlook. That not only gives me a way to gather all my contacts together, but allows me to read old Gmail and other webmail even when not online. (It’s simple enough to set up, and if you prefer you can use another email client like Thunderbird.) That makes it easy to ensure I don’t have multiple versions of the same contact with slightly different names, defunct numbers and so on. A bit of a pain, but so much better to do now than when you need to call someone. Then it’s usually a simple matter to sync the contacts in your phone with the ones in Outlook.

Unless you’re doing it with Samsung Kies, which takes bloody forever and fails almost incessantly. Time after time, the process would hang at 64% complete. Giving up and unplugging the phone, I find that it got stuck on one contact or another and copied it over and over and over again. Shit.

It can be hard, considering you’re syncing not just Outlook with your phone, but your phone with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., to pinpoint exactly where things are going awry. But it seems it came down to a few malformed address book entries knocking Kies for a loop. Things like a hyphen appearing at the start of a name field. I’m sorry Samsung, but that’s ridiculous.

I think I’ve combed these idiosyncrasies out by now (fingers crossed). It actually completes the sync anyway. Right now though it’s using almost half a Gig of memory just to display the contacts on my phone. It took forever to even reach this point, and now they are finally visible my computer is too constipated to let me scroll through them. Oh, and it also cannot transfer my audio and video files because I don’t have a sound card fitted at the moment. I don’t need to play them, or convert them, or run these media files in any way, just copy them from A to B. But because it can find no hardware, Kies won’t even acknowledge their existence.

And it takes forever to load, and it’s confusing to use, and it’s shockingly unresponsive. It is just a breathtakingly badly-designed piece of software. I used to think Nokia’s Ovi Suite was a bit of a mess. Ovi is a futuristic dream compared to this. It’s as if Samsung were so keen to outdo Apple that they even decided to make something more annoying than iTunes.

Samsung make great hardware, and the software actually on the phones seems to be excellent too, but Kies could really undermine your confidence.

I’ll get back to you when I figure out how to live without it.

An Alternative Easter

Abraham embraces his son Isaac after receiving...
"What the **** was that about, Lord?"

Eggs and rabbits, sex and death. Easter is weird. But then, the whole of Christianity has an odd feel to it. It’s the kind of eccentricity you only get when very different cultures meet and blend. A sort of… theological jazz. Greeks give the Jews the idea of the half-human demigod, Jews give the Greeks the idea of monotheism: Result, a god who is his own son. Which is pretty original, you must admit.

Another reason it’s strange is that it has such a satisfactory narrative. I mean, by mythological standards. It’s got structure, a beginning and an ending. A twist even. Like Judaism and Islam it really begins with Abraham, whom God told to sacrifice his son before relenting at the last moment. Weird in itself, but apparently just the stuff to start major religions rolling; keeps the audience off-balance I suppose.

But Christianity culminates with a dramatic reversal of this. Where before he’d demanded a son, now God sacrifices his to us. Yet instead of saying “Ha, had you going there!” at the very last opportunity, the humans just go right ahead and kill him. It’s the greatest of all surprise endings – the cavalry doesn’t make it. Humanity completely blows their one chance to return the favour God showed Abraham. It’s pretty shocking really. I’m imagining God the Father watching this unfold and shouting “Hey. Hey hold on there, I thought we had a deal.”

Wouldn’t that have been a better ending? A last-minute intervention by a stranger in the crowd. Christ is released. Everyone feels embarrassed and wanders away. The mysterious figure looks up into the sky and says, “OK, square now?” From then on, humanity and supernatural beings leave each other the hell alone.

I’m building the time machine as we speak.

What Will Be In The Ice Cream Sandwich?

image
It may lack a pen cursor, but the responsive line you can create demonstrates the Galaxy Note's potential as a drawing tool

I am eating an ice cream sandwich, thinking about Ice Cream Sandwich. This is either a complete coincidence, or my subconscious is taking the piss.

I refer of course to the next version of the Android operating system. Each one is named alphabetically after a dessert, because the people at Google maybe drink a little bit too much at lunchtime. So the main current version of Android is known as Gingerbread, the one they brought out specifically for tablets is called Honeycomb.

Ice Cream Sandwich is meant to reunify the line, to combine the features of both phone and tablet versions and scale well to screens of any size. So far it’s available on few devices except the Galaxy Nexus, but it’s promised soon for Samsung’s other large-screened Galaxy phones like the fantastically popular S II – and of course the Note.

As I’ve mentioned, us Note owners in particular are champing at the bit for ICS. It seems such a desirable match for a device that also combines features of phone and tablet. And if leaks are anything to go by, it will introduce all-round improvements to performance and the interface. Not that there’s a lot wrong with the Note as it is; if there were no ICS waiting in the wings I’d probably be quite satisfied with Gingerbread. The main frustration is knowing it’s there, being dangled. The release date has slipped so much now that Samsung have promised a compensatory “Premium Suite” along with it, which includes a more developed pen-based note taking app and – wait for it – an exclusive level of Angry Birds.

Well and good, but for me there is a major disappointment.

A thing that could really improve the Note’s pen is a pointer, tracking the pen tip as it moves above the screen. The hardware allows for this; it’s precisely the same as that recommend for Windows pen input. On the Tablet PC and its descendants, the pen’s position above the screen – not on it – moves the pointer in the same way a mouse would; actually touching the screen with the pen is equivalent to a mouse click.

This is made possible by the clever Wacom technology employed. The pen has a radio circuit inside it. It isn’t powered by any battery though, but by radio itself – it simply resonates to a signal broadcast by a grid behind the screen. The same grid detects this echo, and thereby tracks the pen’s position. Pressing the pen’s button, or touching the screen with its pressure-detecting tip, simply modifies the signal returned.

This is excellent for drawing, because with an electronic pen there will almost always be some calibration issue – the potential for a difference between where the pen tip touches the screen and where the mark it makes appears – even if it is only parallax caused by the thickness of the screen glass. But if you use a pen and screen system like Tablet PC or Wacom’s Cintiq, you soon learn to watch not the tip of your pen, as you would if you were drawing on paper, but the cursor that tracks it on the screen. That way there is no calibration issue, your line appears precisely where you expect.

Samsung’s S Pen however follows the same paradigm as finger input. The screen is – seemingly – unaware of the pen’s position until it touches it. But Ice Cream Sandwich, being conceived to run on a much wider range of hardware, has native support for digital pens which includes being able to respond to “hover” events. It must therefore be aware of the pen’s exact position above the screen – and could be displaying it.

So it would be nice to see a little dot tracking the pen in S Memo, the Note’s inbuilt drawing app. But going by videos of a leaked version of the upcoming firmware, it seems alas it is not to be. Perhaps Samsung consider it too big a break with the touch-input paradigm. It’s a shame though, because the potential seems to be there.

Will we see developers taking on the challenge? A drawing program with a pointer could be a killer app for the Note range of phones and tablets. Especially if it also had the other features most sought after by artists: Layers of course, a good painting engine that creates convincing brush and pen strokes (like the one from the open source MyPaint project), and selection and fill tools.

Anyone feel like coding that?

alas

Boxfish – See What They’re Saying

Terrifying concept?

How do you search TV? Titles and prepackaged programme information are available, sure, but it’s the content that’s of real interest. In particular, the vast amount of fresh content that TV generates every minute, around the clock. It’s relevant, immediate, important – and unobtainable.

Or it was, until Eoin Dowling and Kevin Burkitt, two Irish guys working in Silicon Valley, had one of those ideas. The data is there. Most TV channels have captioning, streaming dialogue and often description in text form right alongside the images. It’s intended to help hearing-impaired viewers of course, but its potential is greater even than that. All you need to do is strip that text out and you can index it just like any search engine indexes the Web. Using technology they devised themselves, and by arrangement with major broadcasters in the US, UK, and Ireland, Dowling and Burkitt created Boxfish, a search engine for the captioning data stream.

It’s still in beta and a little unrefined. I see no way yet, for example, to limit the results to just one of those countries. But it works and it’s fast, returning results for your search terms often within seconds of the word being uttered in a broadcast.

Some have complained that it fetches just the text itself and not the video clip it transcribes, but as desirable as that would be for entertainment purposes, to focus on it is to overlook the real usefulness of Boxfish. Visual medium or no, the vast majority of the actual information on television, particularly the content that itself becomes news – interviews, discussions, briefings – is delivered verbally. Boxfish will make that information far more accessible. If that seems a small thing, consider how instant reporting of what’s said on television will break down a major barrier between broadcasting and the Internet, allowing far deeper integration between old and new media. Picture for example setting up alerts to switch you to a channel as soon as a hot term is mentioned. That could change how people use television.

And Now, Pictures Of Home

I’m back home again – listening to Back Home Again being played on piano, oddly enough. But the trip has gotten me into the habit of taking photographs. I’m in O’Connor’s of Salthill, one of Galway‘s most attractive pubs, decorated with an eclectic, obsessive, and possibly mildly deranged eye for detail. Bicycles, old cameras, and all manner of crockery are suspended from the ceiling and walls. This is the fireplace; above it, as if to dry, hangs underwear .

The lighting is from oil lamps with bulbs fitted, dozens of them, These are augmented with old illuminated adverts – including, though I’m sure it has to be illegal, ones for cigarettes. Perhaps they get away with it because such brands as Player’s No.6 are no longer available. Just at the bottom here you can see part of one that says “Virol – anaemic girls need it”. No idea what Virol was, but I can’t imagine it sold a lot with copy like that.

Anyway I can recommend O’Connor’s of Salthill. Actually, I must get here more often myself.

Sea To Ocean

Dundalk Bay beckons

We spent a lot on roads in this country. Probably more, with hindsight, than we really ought to have. So I can’t help feeling ungrateful when I don’t use them. Motorways – highways, autobahns, what you will – are convenient, sure. You can cruise along at 120k (75mph), faster than on ordinary roads. You can steer like you’re on rails. You can sleep.

No wait, not sleep. That’s the one you’re not supposed to do. But honestly, if they wanted you to drift off at the wheel this is exactly how they’d design roads. They’re so safe they’re dangerous.

I spent last night at a friend’s near Dundalk, close to the M1 that runs DublinBelfast. The M4 and M6 take you from Dublin to Galway, so I could have gone home entirely by motorway. The route makes a perfect right angle, but nevertheless it’s what the satnav recommends.

Edward J. Valentine's intriguing pub in Longford Town

I took the hypotenuse, the direct route across country via N-roads (national routes). At least, it would be direct if it didn’t wind like a bastard. These roads live from bend to bend, forcing you not only to concentrate on steering, but to change your speed and even gear constantly. Though it must be said that these have also been the object of serious investment in recent years, with accurate lines and chevron markers on every bend. Driving them is hard, but not particularly dangerous.

This is the only way to see the country – insofar as there is anything to see in the midlands. Not counting a (very necessary) break then, it took me four hours to get from the Irish Sea to the Atlantic coast. I could’ve done it in an hour less by motorway, but dammit, it would’ve felt longer.

Here’s some more pictures from the trip:

The most Zen front garden in all Ireland
Breakfast or something
Stuff on my friend's table - I just liked the colour combination

On The Road, On The Border

Ballybay

Lying on the floor of a cottage by the sea, theoretically trying to sleep, feeling guilty about how little I’ve written in the last couple of days. It has been a great break though. An adventure in a lot of ways, particularly driving ways. I’m not used to steering by satnav, and kept missing my turning. I have literally no idea where I’ve been. Wandering around the back roads, I think I crossed the border with Northern Ireland about six times. You can tell because the quality of the roads suddenly drops. Not so long since it was the other way around; the British really seemed to stop trying after the peace agreement. I also ended up driving on motorway for the first time, something I wasn’t allowed to do before I passed my test. Shouldn’t have been doing it now either, I was going in the wrong direction.

Had my first flat too! Changing a tyre is quite exciting when you’ve no idea how to do it. The Japanese like puzzles, so they make it interesting. Along with the jack they give you a couple of bits of metal to see what you make of them. As it turns out, one levers off the hubcap, one undoes the wheel nuts, and if you fit them together and revolve them in a really rather surprising way, it turns the jack. All pretty straightforward really; I had it nearly figured out by the time I was finished.