Technology

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Garmin Varia RTL510

I seem to have a constant battle with rear lights on my bikes. The main problem is that I use a saddlebag on my full-size bike, and attaching a bike light to it is a seemingly simple task, but tends not to be brilliant.

If you have enough seat-post showing, then placing the light below the saddlebag in such a way that it’s still visible to traffic, is probably the preferred option. But in my case, there isn’t really enough seat-post showing.

Topeak seem to have the popular saddlebag market sewn up, and I have owned several of their models. However, in many instances, when you then hook a light through the slot made for them, they hang backwards and downwards, meaning that the light isn’t as effective. Remember, a rear light is basically only there for you to be seen!

My preferred rear lights, for compactness, have been Lezyne’s Zecto Drive range. But they suffer this problem.

My recent solution has been to change my saddlebag to a use a Topeak Wedge Sidekick saddlebag. I have the smaller of the two sizes. That’s enough for a tube, a couple of CO2 canisters, a large multi-tool, tyre levers and patches. Importantly, it’s firmer than other Topeak models, so hooking a light on the rear keeps the light pointing higher rather than lower. I’ve been happy so far.

All of which brings us to Garmin’s new Radar Light. Now why might I want a radar light? Is that strictly necessary? The answer is clearly not, but it has immediately proved itself useful.

The light fixes to your bike via a regular Garmin quarter-turn connection. The box includes mounts for a seat-post, but as mentioned above, I don’t have room to place it on a seat-post. Fortunately, creative people who design stuff to be 3D printed have got solutions for you. I bought a Varia Saddle Bag Clip via Shapeways. They 3D print things that creators have uploaded to order. It’s an extra cost, and it’d be nice if Garmin packaged one in their box, but it does the trick. Alongside the Topeak Wedge Sidekick, the light stays firmly pointed in the correct direction.

The light itself is relatively basic. There is a single led light and it has four modes – solid on, night flash mode, day flash mode and standby mode (As far as I can see, standby mode is a bit useless since it doesn’t have traffic detection). The battery is recharged via micro USB and the battery life seems decent with 6 hours in solid mode and 15 hours in day flash mode. Fine for most rides, but you’ll probably need a backup light if you do, say, the Dunwich Dynamo.

So how does it work in practice? While a standalone device is available (RTL511), it’s perhaps most useful when paired with compatible Garmin bike computer. In my case I paired it with my Garmin 1000 which was as simple as adding a new sensor. In the top right hand corner you get an indicator that there is connection, and you’re ready to go.

It works by determining larger objects that are moving at a different speed to you. When it sees one, it gives you an alert and small dots appear on the side of your Garmin bike computer (the right hand side by default). The device can determine several vehicles at once, and you’ll see a series of dots. The closer the dots get to the top of the screen, the closer they are to you. If a car passes particularly fast, the screen goes red, but if it’s slower then you get green. The unit will also beep to alert you to this traffic.

I must say that in practice, it worked very well. You do get the concessional false positive, and if a car stays behind you, matching your speed, perhaps up a slow windy hill with few overtaking opportunities, it may lose the vehicle for a while. Other cyclists tend not to show up, but in general I really like it. Note too that it obviously only detects traffic behind you and coming towards you. You shouldn’t see dots tailing off towards the bottom of the screen!

The radar has a 40 degree wide angle which covers a decent chunk of the road. It also means it continues to work going around corners for example. Garmin says that it can detect vehicles up to 140m away, and I’ve no reason to doubt that in my usage.

And when the vehicle gets very close, the blinking on your light increases in frequency to make sure that the driver has seen you!

The only real downside is the impact on battery life of your bike computer. The Edge 1000 I use has never had amazing battery life, but I got the low battery warning after a 70km ride last weekend which is a bit early. Obviously, the number of sensors you’re using will impact on that, as will things like screen brightness and me using maps (which I was). But while the light itself will probably last well, you’ll need to keep your bike computer’s battery topped up.

I’ve not tried the light in the city centre, and I understand that it can be less useful – probably too much other traffic to cope. In any case, you nearly always have cars behind you, so there’s little added value. It’s best for those places where it feels like cars sneak up on you.

Even with only a couple of rides under my belt, I’m already a fan.

For a much better and more detailed review, DC Rainmaker is obviously the place to go.

Facebook Pixel Tracking

This morning Nieman Lab had a really good piece asking whether if there was a certain amount of hypocrisy coming from certain news organisations castigating Facebook for leaking data, when at the same time they’re helping Facebook collect more data on you.

Recall yesterday, when I said that some of Facebook’s data was missing from the download, and I highlighted Facebook Pixel? Quora is a good place to go and have a look (Note: Quora itself has a Facebook cookie):

The pixel is a transparent, 1×1, unique image file that can be embedded on pages outside of Facebook (unique = 1 per advertiser account). That image file, however, sits on Facebook servers. So, each time it is loaded, it increments counters on Facebook’s side.

And each time the pixel file is being seen by a user… Facebook servers can see which browser is used, which machine and which IP address. In other words, they are able to reconstruct that signature – they know which Facebook user has seen the pixel.

In essence, the Facebook Pixel lets you then target people who visit your site when they’re back on Facebook. And of course, Facebook now knows that you’ve visited a particular site, deepening the picture they hold on you.

And Facebook also has the Facebook Audience Network, which basically extends Facebook’s advertising business beyond the bounds of the Facebook website. In particular, they’re targeting mobile sites and apps.

Using the EFF’s excellent Privacy Badger browser plugin, I looked at some of the UK and US’s biggest news websites to see which ones allow Facebook to track you. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea.

Sites with Facebook Cookies

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sun
  • Metro
  • The Times
  • The Economist

NB. These are at time of writing.

It must be said that I’ve not really gone into detail about Facebook’s business model here, but it gives you an idea.

And there’s a wealth of data being collected by many companies beyond Facebook – and a multiplicity of ad tracking cookies going around. Upwards of 20 cookies on a website is not unusual. Sometimes they’re just there for analytics purposes. All the advertising networks use them, with Google and Facebook being by far the biggest networks globally.

And there can be good reasons to use tracking cookies. This very site uses Google Analytics to count the number of people who visit, for example. I’ve embedded Vimeo videos and Flickr images on this site, and they have tracking codes built into the code I copy to this site. If you comment, there are various ways you can log in, and they have tracking codes too. I’d prefer there not to be, but if I want to properly use those sites’ services then I have to play ball with them.

While everyone kind of knows that the pair of shoes they looked at over lunch, but didn’t buy, is now following them around the internet, and that must be using some kind of tracking information, I’m not sure that many of us really understand how widespread this is, and how much data is being captured about us.

[Update: In related news, Mozilla has announced a Firefox plugin that stops Facebook tracking you around the web. Useful if you’re not already using something like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.]

Is Netflix Quite As Smart As Everyone Says It Is?

That’s possibly a provocative title, but I’ve come to the conclusions that while Netflix is very good at some things, I’m not certain that its recommendation engine is entirely as linked up as you’d think it’d be.

A couple of recent cases in point.

I was really looking forward to the new Alex Garland film, Annihilation. While I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t getting a cinema release, I was very pleased that Netflix was investing in it (well, buying the rights), and making it available to its subscribers. I dutifully searched for it ahead of its 12 March release, and added it to “My List,” Netflix’s somewhat clunky system for saving things you want to watch.*

Although I believe the film was made available at midnight UK time, but I waited until Monday evening to open the Netflix app on my Nvidia Shield and settle back to watch. I thought that they’d probably have the film front and centre when I opened the app. After all, it was a big coup them getting it. Plus I’d explicitly added it to my list.

There was no sign of it. It wasn’t in trending (too early I guess), or in any of the top lists of things I might want to watch. I ended up using Search to find it. It was – but hidden.

Then over this past weekend, while I was out and about, I got some Instagram advertising for a film called Paradox with Darryl Hannah and Willie Nelson. I’d not heard of it, but clicked through and saw video for some kind of western themed film. “I might watch that,” I thought – vaguely intrigued. Netflix are obviously promoting it, I’d catch up with it at some point.

Later, with that thought having drifted out of my head, I did open Netflix again in search of something to watch. Had I spotted Paradox, I’d have at least given it a second look.

But it wasn’t there. Or more to the point, it wasn’t obviously visible. In any case, because a film I’d seen promoted precisely once, was no longer in my view, I didn’t search for it. I only remembered this at all because I saw a second Instagram ad for it earlier today.

But again, it feels like Netflix is being a bit slow and doesn’t have all its ducks lined up. It’s not that I don’t think they can do some clever stuff, but they’re not as good as they make out.

Have you heard of a Danish comedy drama called Rita? Maybe if you’re Danish, but otherwise, you might not have. Netflix never recommended it to me. It was someone on Twitter who noticed it. It’s very amusing.

I started watching a Spanish series called La Casa de Papel. It’s a series about a gang of thieves who try to rob the Spanish Mint. It starts well, but like another Spanish series I saw on BBC Four last year, the strong hook doesn’t last the course, and we end up with an interminable number of episodes where not a lot happens, and the villain is really villainous. More plot and fewer episodes please Spain. I mention this because after I’d watched a few episodes on Netflix, the series promptly changed its name. It’s now called “Money Heist,” although it wouldn’t be obvious to those like me who’d started watching it under another name entirely. I had no idea what Netflix had done!

I’m always suspicious of over-claims about how briliant someone’s algorithms for discovery are – mainly because I’ve yet to experience anything that’s really that good. Amazon is pretty bad at recommending me books I didn’t tell it about, and music recommendation engines are pretty poor in my experience – especially if you move beyond the obvious.

Maybe they work for some, but I’m underwhelmed.

* I say it’s clunky, because it’s incredibly binary, and doesn’t allow you to make lists for different things. Furthermore, when you watch something that was on the list, it doesn’t then remove that item from your list. I’m also not aware that Netflix alerts you when something that’s on your list is shortly to be removed. Another useful feature.

Examining My Facebook Downloads

One very good consequence of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story is that a lot of people are discovering the surprisingly large amount of data that Facebook holds on them. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones was “somewhat shocked” to see what it had on him. And The Verge has a good piece on the subject with particular reference to Android phones.

In essence, Facebook always asks for quite a lot of data when you install its apps, and people seem to be too quick to offer that data when it comes to installing those apps. Only now are they discovering what they’re sharing.

“Yes, yes. Just install and let me get onto Facebook,” seems to be the default thought process.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always slavishly careful about those permissions myself, but I certainly wanted to see what Facebook holds on me. So I went to the Facebook Settings page and clicked on the Download A Copy link at the bottom.

Facebook first has to prepare the data, crunching it into a Zip file for you. You need to re-enter your password to begin the process, and Facebook promises to email you when the link is ready.

Based on others, I thought it may take a while to compile, but in face it took just 16 minutes. Fast considering the volume of data and the number of users who are perhaps also doing this right now. You have to re-enter your password a second time, and then the file downloads.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, and I thought that this could be a big file. In the end it was just over 1.1GB. I’ve uploaded a lot of photos to the service in the past, but particularly in the early years of Facebook, they heavily down-sampled those pictures. (Another reminder that you shouldn’t use Facebook as your only photo backup.)

Anyway, the file extracts easily enough and Facebook has built a fairly intuitive html interface for you to examine your data offline.

My profile data is an interesting place to start. Facebook seems to have detected a single family relationship. While relatively few of my family are on Facebook, some of those who are, were not picked up here as family members. If they don’t have the same surname it might not be obvious to an algorithm.

The interests section is very odd, and not very accurate. When Facebook first started, you just had empty text boxes to fill out. I wrote a general stream of consciousness about music, TV, movies and so on. At various points Facebook has tried to clean that up a little, isolating artists and titles, and linking them to official accounts or lists that it has.

But despite prompts to help them (and help me!), I never really played ball. So there is one novel listed in books, which I think I was probably reading at the time. There is one TV series – one that I absolutely do not recommend. Movies are a little more populated, but with films I may have referenced directly on the service rather than anything else. And music is very limited. Facebook really doesn’t know much about my media consumption.

In general, Facebook would learn a lot more about my media choices if they scanned through this blog!

Otherwise, most of the rest is either groups or people I’ve taken an interest in. I would say that they’ve used Instagram heavily for the latter.

Probably the most contentious area is the list of contacts. And for me, that’s a moment in time, when I did at one point let Facebook into my phone or Gmail account. The list of contacts is old, and while many of those email addresses and phone numbers still work, they’re cast in aspic. Over the years I’ve had any number of phones, and if and when I install a Facebook app, I never give permission for it to see my contacts.

My Timeline is as you would expect – everything I’ve written on Facebook. I link my Twitter account to Facebook, because I’m far more active there. All those Tweets are also captured here. But nothing I wouldn’t expect Facebook to have.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uploaded a number of photos to Facebook over the years. They tend to be more social photos than anything, and Facebook was an easy way to share with friends and work colleagues. Latterly, anything that I’ve cross-posted from Instagram shows up. [Update: A friend – on Facebook – noted that captions for photos are not included]

There are only a limited number of videos, again social, and no surprises.

Messages lists all my Facebook message and Messenger interactions. I loathe Messenger and don’t ever have it permanently installed (On occasion I’ve installed it for a short, but necessary period of time. I uninstall it immediately thereafter). Nontheless, again there were no surprises.

The data supplied by Facebook on “Pokes” (Remember them?) was incomplete. I only had one poke listed!

Security lists a variety of things including devices, and even IP addresses from which I’ve accessed Facebook.

The final two key pieces of note were Applications and Ads. I recently cleared out the list of applications that I allow Facebook links to. It’s always worth doing this on a regular basis. I know precisely which apps are currently linked, and there is a good reason for each of them. There are only five.

Ads are broken into three parts. There’s the list of topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in. This is a curious mix of very broad things (“Music”) and very narrow things (“Dan Martin (cyclist)”). It’s reasonably fair, although I don’t really have a particular interest in Citroen, nor Motor Sports or Auto racing. And I’ve no idea why “BBC Radio Solent” is one of a handful of radio stations listed as being of interest to me [Update: I worked out that a former work colleague of mine works there now, and I’ve liked some of their activities]. They do at least list my current employer! My previous employer is not listed. It’s possibly that this list is dynamically updated and pruned accordingly.

Ads History claims to list all the ads I’ve clicked on. They only have two listed – both this year – and one without a named advertiser. This is clearly missing data. While I do recall clicking the one named advertiser, and although I rarely click advertisements, I have clicked others in the past. Incredibly, I once actually bought something on the basis of a Facebook ad! Extraordinary, I know.

Finally, perhaps most worrying for me, is a list of “Advertisers with your contact info.” Most of the list is made up of KLM subsidiaries. I once entered a KLM competition on Facebook, and must have agreed they could use my data. I rarely participate in competitions that require much data access for this very reason. Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and eBay Canada seem to have my details. But there are a hole bunch of seemingly related “Crowdfunding” companies who have my data. I’ve no idea how they got it, and more importantly, I’ve no idea how to remove it from them. In general it’s quite a contained list.

Notably, Facebook does not have a list of my outgoing or incoming calls, and it’s not had access to any SMS messages I’ve sent. I’ve never given permission, and never wanted to use one of its products as my default SMS app.

The most sensitive data is my list of contacts. But that data is old and is not being updated since the Facebook app on my current phone does not have permission.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I’ve never found Facebook the most trustworthy company. But on the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to me from what Facebook has in my data.

I think that there are some incomplete aspects of it. I’ve clearly clicked on more ads that Facebook is admitting – but perhaps they delete that data after a period? Less importantly, the list of Pokes was incomplete. I mention that only as it suggests that this might not be a truly complete picture of my Facebook activity.

But I also know that if I carried out the same process for Google, it would be a lot larger. Google has all my email. It has all my contacts. It stores documents, photos and videos for me. I use its browsers multiple times per day. It knows what YouTube videos I watch. It knows what music I listen to. I’ve had phones running its software for years. They know where I go.

In all of that respect, it’s potentially a much scarier proposition.

And yet, I do have more trust in Google than I do in Facebook. Perhaps that’s misplaced? Perhaps not. But in general terms, I think people are clearer in their knowledge of how their Google data is used.

Auditing who knows what about you is important, and we should all be doing this on a regular basis. It’ll be a much bigger job, but it looking at my Google Data might be worth doing too…

[UPDATE]

It’s probably worth highlighting a few things that you don’t get from this data.

  • Likes – Given that a key part of the Cambridge Analytica story is about trying to determine OCEAN psychographic measures from Facebook likes, a record of comments and pages I’ve “liked” is data that’s relevant but not here.
  • Facebook Pixel dataFacebook Pixel is the technology that Facebook uses to determine where users also go. While that could be websites that simply allow you to comment via your Facebook login, it might as well be websites that you never realised had installed the pixel. In effect, when you visit such a site, Facebook knows about it. It gives them some of the data that Google collates about you via its ad networks.
  • Geographic data – Facebook loves to know where you are. I mostly have this turned off, but couldn’t definitively say that this has always been the case. While Google has its Timeline History that tells you where you’ve been, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for Facebook’s location data. Incidentally, if you’ve never explored that Google data, I’d urge you to. You’ll be delighted, scared and possibly both. (Note to crime drama and fiction writers: Nobody ever uses this, although I understand it potentially increases the difficulty in plotting your story as mobile phones in general have.)
  • Whatsapp or Instagram data – I’ve noted that some of my Instagram information does seem to have fed through to parent company Facebook’s data. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for WhatsApp. Within the EU, Facebook has been limited quite significantly about how much data it shares. The UK’s Information Commissioner made that very point again recently. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I’ve been following the stories surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for some months now, and in recent days, following stories from The Observer, The New York Times and Channel 4, the story has really blown up.

However, I do think that the story, while completely valid, and asking some really critical questions, perhaps over emphasises some aspects at the expense of others. It’s true – I tend to see cock-up rather than conspiracy in most things. But here are some of my thoughts on the two key players in this instance.

On Cambridge Analytica

My underlying belief is that Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims it’s more powerful than it actually is, and uses the “digital voodoo” to win business in the murky world of political consulting.

If nothing else, tonight’s Channel 4 News exclusive shows that aside from stories about how powerfully the company is able to target voters using sophisticated social media targeting, more than anything they’re an ethically dubious political consulting group who will do just about anything to see that their paymasters win.

On Newsnight, their CEO Alexander Nix somewhat disingenuously claimed that he was being targeted by British media. That’s certainly not what came across in the Channel 4 video.

As they themselves will admit, it’s clear that Cambridge Analytica did indeed use Facebook targeting to try to micro-target individual voters during the last US presidential election, with advertising that pushed the right buttons with those voters. So if they thought that you might be swayed with promises about jobs, then that’s the hook that they would use to get you to vote Trump. But I also think it’s true that previous campaigns have done the same – notably Obama’s.

Of course we’ve not really had many elections in the time of social media to truly measure the impact, but while the data does allow a political party or its supporters to make potentially hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of copy that might tick the right boxes amongst voters, I think that it’s incredibly naive to believe that so many are willing to change their voting intentions on the basis of a few Facebook ads. It takes more than that.

That being said, this is clearly the narrative that Cambridge Analytica have painted for themselves. They worked for a campaign that wasn’t seen as likely to win the US election and yet it did. That means that they can go out and win lots more business all over the world with the suggestion that it was them “wot won it,” – as the Sun once claimed after the Conservatives won the 1992 UK General Election.

It’s a great gimmick. Nix has been able to go out and proclaim that his company has discovered the secret to winning elections. And campaigns of every hue have been queuing up at his doorstep.*

Beyond that, it does sound as though the company has been, if not bending the rules further than it should, taking and using data it really isn’t allowed to. After months of questionning, as the big stories came out over the weekend, Facebook finally pulled Cambridge Analytica’s access to use the platform and says that it will be conducting a forensic audit on how the data was being used. Meanwhile the UK’s Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to look at the company’s servers and databases.

I wouldn’t in any way excuse the company. If the claims made by both whistleblowers and others are proved to be true, then the book needs throwing at the company.

But I still need a lot of convincing that the company is as powerful as it would like to portray itself. Instead, I see a company who has decided to lead on it being an expert at data science in the world of political consulting to give it an edge over its rivals. And given the scale of social media networks and the way that users and the networks themselves use this data, we are more willing to believe that they are more powerful than they truly are.

On Facebook

I think Facebook has some real problems that are largely of their own making. This boils down to a few key areas, all of which they really only have themselves to blame for.

Privacy Settings

Facebook’s privacy settings have always been a nightmare for users. With a network as complicated as the one it has built, relatively few really understand what they’re sharing and who it is with. The settings change relatively frequently meaning it’s hard even for the most assiduous privacy minded user to keep up with who has access to what. What stories you like; who your photos are shared with; who your friends can further share things with and so on. It’s truly complicated.

Some people manage to lock their accounts down quite a lot, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Who can friend you? Who can share things with you? Who sees things that others have shared with you? Can you be found with your email or phone number and who can find you that way? Are you searchable via Google? When you like a company’s page, how much data is that company able to capture on you? What about when you enter a competition?

Lack of Control

Such is the breadth of the data that Facebook is able to capture, that one of the most troubling aspects of this story is the general lack of control the company seems to have. One part of this story concerns the use of a personality prediction “app” on Facebook called thisisyourdigitallife. The questionnaire was completed by 270,000 users but the data captured wasn’t just for those users, but for many of their friends as well. In total that gave data for over 50 million users. Facebook refers to these as “friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.” But just how many of those people who didn’t complete the survey remember, truly realised that this kind of data could be captured? While it may only be how that data was subsequently used that broke Facebook’s terms and conditions, it’s worrying that someone is able to capture that level of data regardless of whether they’re using in accordance with those rules.

And I suspect that a very small minority of users realised just what kind of catnip they’re giving to companies like Cambridge Analytica when they complete “fun” surveys such as this. For most users they’re just communicating in a fun environment with their friends.

Advertising

Facebook has built one of the most powerful digital platforms in the world; a platform that reaches billions and one which generates nearly all its revenue from advertising. That advertising is targeted using a massive database that it has generated based on user data that the company would say users have volunteered themselves. That in itself might be troubling considering that users largely don’t really consider how that data about themselves is used. But even worse is the idea that third parties can come in and use that data to target individuals without it even being revealed who is paying for those ads. We’ve seen that with ads paid for by Russian sources during the Clinton/Trump election campaign, and we’ve seen it in other campaigns. Channel 4 News highlighted last year’s Kenyan election for example.

It’s surely critical for any platform that runs advertising to be up front and honest about who is actually paying for that advertising.

Data

Facebook captures enormous amounts of data and it’s not simply when you use the Facebook website. You might be sharing your location with Facebook via its mobile app. Third party websites incorporate what is known as the Facebook Pixel. As with other advertising networks including Google, it means that Facebook knows where else you are outside of its own network. All those helpful sites that let you log in with your Facebook account? That’s more data you’re sharing with Facebook on top of the thousands of fields of information it is already keeping about you.

This can all make it seem to users that Facebook is actually doing nefarious things like using the microphone on your phone to listen in to your conversations. It’s almost certainly not, but as I said in a piece last year, if the company is so uncannily accurate, then the perception trumps the reality.

Summary

This is serious story – scandal even. And as much as anything, I’d like to think that this is a wake up call that gives people a greater understanding about how their data is being captured used, and potentially misused.

But I suspect that Cambridge Analytica is really just another political consulting company who’s USP is that they target voters with social media. They hit the big time by working for the Trump campaign, and being allied with Steve Bannon. Yet as a result, their marketing claims have become so hyperbolic that it has led to a widespread disdain for what they do, and since this story has begun to unravel, they’ve been rowing back how impactful this aspect of what they do actually is.

Instead, based on evidence from Channel 4 News, the company is perhaps more about the grubby world of sending prostitutes to the homes of political opponents and capturing it on video, or giving the appearance of having developers pay backhanders for property deals. This is all as low rent as you like.

Facebook’s problem is that it has too much data to the point that nobody seems to be able to keep on top of things. They have so much that some users suspect them of actually listening in to them via their phones. But they truly do follow you around the internet. The danger for Facebook, beyond what are likely to be short term falls in their stock value, is that users do start to rebel and close down their accounts.

I’ve always had a problem trusting Facebook. I don’t think they’re evil as such. But they have played too fast and too loose, and have ended up in a powerful position. As a by-product – alongside Google – they have just about completely cornered the digital advertising market which brings with it its own problems for society in general.

I’m not going to underestimate the problems with “fake news” and the ability of propaganda to spread like wildfire on social media platforms. There are some serious questions to be asked about how these platforms can and should be regulated, particularly in regard to elections where we have seen continuing problems.

On the other hand, just because I can be micro-targeted using all this data, it doesn’t necessarily win elections.

People who work in advertising always love to tell you about how their methods work – explaining that they built the biggest brand in the sector using their methods. That’s the same in politics too. Saatchi & Saatchi were widely credited with helping Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 General Election with their famous “Labour Isn’t Working” outdoor poster. The poster did indeed sum up very nicely the prevailing political landscape. But did it actually win the election, or was the country moving away from Labour anyway? It was a sizeable win for Tories. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a poster “wot won it” that time, and I’m pretty sure that a company led by an old Etonian with some Facebook data wasn’t actually responsible for Trump (or Brexit) either.

Further Reading:

A really decent piece from the New Statesman that seems to accurately summarise the full Facebook data part of the story.

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

A Verge piece that really gets into psychographics and microtargetting and what it can and cannot do.

Taken altogether, it seems like Facebook was taken in by a shady firm that misused data and lied about it. When Facebook found out, it did nothing. And making matters worse, we can’t even point at Cambridge Analytica’s deception as the reason Trump was elected: a closer look at its methods suggests they might not even work.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing says that he doesn’t think Cambridge Analytica is actually able to do what they say they can.

So, as I’ve written before, we should take Cambridge Analytica’s claims to Svengali-like mind-control with a boulder of salt, because until Sunday, they made these claims to drum up business (now they’re busily declaring that they are no more persuasive than any other ad agency, of course, because they’ve gotten in trouble for it).

Antonio García Martínez at Wired magazine on the noisy fallacies of psychographic targeting.

For the impatient, my fundamental thesis is this: Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.

* In a strange radio related twist, Cambridge Analytica’s offices at 55 New Oxford Street are in the same building as many of the UK radio industry’s offices including Radiocentre, RAJAR and Digital Radio UK! But it’s a largish office, and other companies share the building too.

Digitising My Life in 2018

Life is digital. We’ve known that for a long time. Digital offers lots of convenience, but it brings with it complications. In particular, safe storage.

In 2018 I need to try to fix three or four problems/issues I have coming up.

1. Cloud Storage

As longtime readers might know, I have a couple of Synology NAS drives at home, each with a RAID 0 arrangement with pairs of matched hard drives storing my data. In total they store just over 4TB of data, with a further 1TB of headroom between the two NAS drives.

While I have local copies of music and other documents, space is really taken up by photos (in RAW format) and videos. As more devices move from HD to 4K, those video file sizes aren’t going to be coming down much any time soon.

All of this NAS drive storage is backed up to Amazon Cloud – more of which later.

Beyond this storage, I have a further 4TB drive of older files sitting on a new standalone 4TB external HD. This data is not backed up in the cloud, but is duplicated on a series of older “passport” sized portable HDs.

Amazon introduced its unlimited cloud storage system last year, and I jumped at spending £59.99 for a year’s worth of unlimited storage. I could use an app on my NAS drive to upload files in the background and keep the two in sync. My older NAS drive didn’t really work with this method, but I managed to create a virtual link between the two NAS drives from the drive that did work, and I safely backed up all my files.

But the writing was on the wall for the Amazon deal almost from the start. In the US, where they’d had the initiative for a longer time, Amazon had cancelled it because some users were storing vast quantities of data. It would only be a matter of time before Amazon UK followed suit, and sure enough, I got an email announcing the end of the scheme towards the end of last year.

Because Amazon will continue to store photos free of charge, I would only require 3TB of data for video and other files. Amazon prices that at £237 a year.

But that excludes my other 4TB of data. Even if some of that is also photos, I’m probably looking at 5TB at £400 a year to be fully backed up with Amazon.

So my first job is to find a robust backup provider that can help, ideally coming in at well below £400.

One alternative is to buy an 8TB external hard drive, sync my drives to it (I would estimate that will take at least a week), and then store that drive at work, returning it home fortnightly or monthly to do intermediate syncs.

Another suggestion via Twitter was:

I do kind of like the idea of this. In reality, I’m probably not going to find a friend with unlimited data willing to put my Raspberry Pi/USB HD combo under their stairs or wherever, but it’s definitely an idea. Nextcloud in particular seems interesting application to enable this.

I will continue to explore paid for options and see what I come up with.

2. Scanning Photos

Yes – just about every photo I take these days is digital, and even those shot on film get scans at the time, so I have digital copies of them. But I still have a few thousand (I think) printed photos.

Included amongst this is a historical archive of old Virgin Radio pictures – mostly press photos – saved from the bin around the time that Virgin Radio was rebranded as Absolute Radio.

I’ve been meaning to scan this trove for years. But I’ve always been stuck since although I have a reasonable scanner, it’s only USB 2.0 and doing a decent scan of a photo takes quite some time. Even if you place half a dozen or more photos on the flatbed at the time, it’s a painful process. Invariably I choose to scan at high quality – probably higher than I’ll ever need.

The other option would be to scan negatives – as I usually still have them. But that involves dust removal and other slow to process issues.

One popular alternative is to pay a third party company to do the scanning for me. That involves boxing the photos off, sending them off, and getting a digital download or USB stick back with the results. It’d safely cost me several hundred pounds.

My 2018 solution is to not be quite as fussy about the quality of my scans. Anything really worthwhile I may spend more time with. But in the main, we’re talking about photos that have barely seen the light of day since I took them (I’ve never really had physical photo albums).

I own a Fujitsu Scan Snap iX500 which I bought to scan a large number of documents. It’s really good at this, and I also save things like cycling or walking routes from magazines, or other things that might be useful to hang on to.

Importantly, it has a sheet feeder that means you can scan things pretty quickly. For documents I make searchable PDFs using optical character recognition at the time of the scan.

But I’d not used it for photos because – well – I was concerned about quality issues. But it will scan to 600 dpi, and while that might not be enough to print billboard sized photos from, it should be fine for regular use.

I will report back and let you know the findings.

[Update: Well I did a bit of a test run through with 800 Virgin Radio photos that I, er, acquired when the station rebranded as Absolute Radio, and it was fairly painless. The quality is decent and it didn’t take an inordinate amount of time to do. This should be very achievable.]

3. Digitising Video

I also have something approaching 100 MiniDV video tapes with various footage on them. While I’ve already captured and digitsed all my oldest Hi8 video footage, this MiniDV footage needs capturing. I have a working camera to play the tapes back from, but the only way to capture is in real time. In reality that means a dedicated PC (fortunately I have such a beast), and regularly running tapes through the camera to capture the material.

There are no short cuts for this one that I can see.

4. Supplemental

I found a load of 3.5″ floppy discs the other day. I suspect that there’s little to nothing I really need to keep from them, but I’ll probably pick up a cheap USB drive and run through them anyway. I’ll keep a handful for posterity, but probably ditch the others – especially the numerous covermount discs!

The other job I have is to properly digitise the family’s Super 8 films. Many years ago, I pointed a digital video camera at a projection screen and captured them that way. I have that now converted to mp4. But it’s dreadful quality. Again, third parties can do this, but the costs are high. I’ve been quoted £600-£1000. So at some point, getting a machine like this Reflecta Super 8 scanner might be a good idea. It looks like it’ll create HD video from footage, although a bit of post-production will be required to correct the frame rate.

5. Summary

One thing I’m aware of is that all the scanning and capturing from 2 and 3 will create a bigger haul to store in 1. Such is the way of these things.

I should also note that I still have unripped CDs to capture, old cassettes I might digitise, and never mind my ongoing DVD/BluRay collection just about none of which is in a pure digital format.

I can see format conversion and digitisation being a theme for the rest of my life somehow…

Note: Just because I’ve digitised something, it doesn’t mean I’ll be throwing the originals out. They don’t take an enormous amount of space, and it would be foolish to do so.

Pixel 2 – Review

Note: I’m calling this a review, but frankly, it’s still early days, and there’ll be lots of things that come out in the wash further down the line. So think of these more as some initial thoughts. Not that any of this stuff prevents other sites posting reviews after less than a week’s worth of use.

I’ve now had this phone well over a month.


As my recent post about the pains of upgrading an Android phone made clear, I’ve recently bought a new phone. The Google Pixel 2.

When Google first started making* their own hardware, they concentrated on both providing a pure Android experience at an affordable price. I have previously owned a Nexus 5 and no fewer than three Nexus 7s. But the Nexus line has sadly long gone, and Google these days is about producing premium devices to show off what they can do.

So what about the Pixel 2?

Well let’s get the first issue out of the way. There is no headphone socket. That’s still a particularly user-hostile thing to do. I use my phone nearly all the time with a pair of headphones. And while I’ve used a variety of wireless headphones over time, they all need regular recharging and invariably you find yourself losing audio when you’re out and about. I actually tend to carry a spare pair of wired headphones just in case. In any event, I’m still enjoying the HTC Hi-Res Earphones that came with my previous HTC 10.

It’s true that the Pixel 2 ships with a headphone dongle, that has a nice snug fit to plug existing headphones into. But this only seems to come in white. I chose a black Pixel 2, and use black headphones. The dongle is white. Which means that after a few weeks sitting in coat, jacket and trouser pockets, it becomes more of a pale grey. I’ve already had to clean mine with an alcohol wipe a couple of times.

The dongle is also quite large. There’s a sizeable bump emerging from the USB-C socket that it plugs into, and it necessarily needs a solid female 3.5mm jack adapter. Combined, these mean that you have unruly lumps and bumps coming out of the phone which can get caught on things when you slide the device into your pocket. Some wired headphones come with 90 degree connectors to allow them to plug in flush to the phone. That’s going to make no difference here. Indeed those headphones are likely to make things worse creating an awkward L-shaped thing to place in your pocket.

The audio quality is excellent, although I don’t think it’s quite as good as my HTC 10 was. Google has dropped the price of these USB-C/Headphone jack dongles from £20 at launch to £9 now (matching Apple’s price for its equivalent Lightning/Headphone Jack dongle), and I’ve already bought a couple of spares because I know these will need them. One of these has already found its way into my cable-case.**

The Bluetooth functionality itself looks good, being Bluetooth 5.0+ LE, although I’ve not fully explored the Bluetooth range. My Beyerdynamic Byron BT headphones seem to work reasonably well, although they do sometimes connect slowly (as they also did with my HTC 10). On the other hand, my Sony MDR-1ABT headphones connect flawlessly, and because both phone and headphones support LDAC, they sound great.

I’ve also recently started using a pair of wireless Zolo Liberty+ Bluetooth headphones. They similarly connect flawlessly, and since both the phone and the headphones use BT 5.0, the connection is stronger than previous small Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried.

Interestingly, I am running into some issues with my Roberts ECO4BT DAB radio that acts as my kitchen radio at home. This is a nice sounding workhorse radio with Bluetooth connectivity, that I never had any problem with connecting to with my previous phone. I still haven’t bottomed out the issue in this instance, since re-pairing the phone will work once. I wonder if the phone is trying to pass audio in a codec that the radio won’t accept as it gets trapped in a reboot/reconnect sequence. I had no other Bluetooth issues, pairing the phone with various headphones and Garmin devices, a Google Home Mini and an Amazon Echo. It also works nicely with my long-in-the-tooth Sony Smartwatch 3.

I really bought this phone because it has the best camera on any smartphone, and I can completely believe that. With 12.2 MP rear camera (the front camera is mostly irrelevant to me), with an F1.8 lens, and capable of shooting 4K video at 30 fps, or slowing down motion to 240 fps (in 720p), this camera ticks many boxes. It uses a combination of optical and electronic image stabilisation, all of which leads to very good imagery coming out of the phone.

The default camera app seems straightforward, without much in the way of bells and whistles. There’s a portrait mode which does all sorts of algorithmic fakery to create bokeh (aka blurriness beyond the subject) that a wide open lens on a camera with a larger sensor would do naturally. The overall thinness of phones, alongside the size of the image sensors and, well, physics, mean that you have to cheat if you want to replicate the effects that larger cameras can create. But the F1.8 lens does mean that it works well in low light.

As important for me is the ability to shoot RAW photos. The default app doesn’t do that, but third party apps do allow it – Lightroom CC Mobile in my case.

There’s also an astonishing smartburst mode that shoots around 10 frames a second continuously. All those shots become available, but software will try to identify the best based on things like people smiling and having their eyes open. I think I only noticed a tiny delay in buffering when I reached 124 shots! And that was only fractional. Fantastic for catching fast moving action.

One small thing I noticed was that if you shoot a short burst of photos, then you can turn them into an animated GIF or video fairly easily. But if you shoot a long series of photos, the app decides that you can’t turn that into a longer GIF or video which is a bit annoying.

However, each regular photo you shoot also comes as a Motion Photo if desired, and you can turn that into a short video as well.

Let it snow…

A post shared by Adam Bowie (@adambowie) on

The camera also has a super slowmo mode allowing you to take high speed footage at either 120fps (1080p resolution) or 240fps (720p resolution).

(NB. The above example was shot in very poor lighting conditions, so does not show off the imagery to the best extent.)

The Augmented Reality (AR) Stickers are silly but, kind of fun too.


“These are not the commuters you’re looking for…”

The phone runs very smoothly with a healthy 4GB of RAM paired with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. The OLED screen is beautiful, and the resolution means that someone with as many apps as I like to have, can get them into folders across a couple of screens, along with a few choice widgets (mainly weather related). With my HTC 10, the bigger font size meant a limited number of folders could be displayed at any given time, which I found frustrating, as it meant pages and pages of apps. But in fact, the default Android app drawer makes access pretty fast. And apps seem to install very fast indeed.

The full Android Assistant is built into the Pixel 2, and it can be launched in a number of ways. Voice is probably the easiest, or long holding on the home button – which isn’t actually a button. But you can also squeeze the phone in the lower part of it, and it’ll launch. Entertainingly, when I asked the assistant in the Google Store concession in Curry’s PC World on Warren Street (essentially Google’s flagship store in London), they struggled to get it to work. But it does seem to work fine. Whether it’s actually useful is a moot point. In any case, you can set the Google Assistant to launch from any screen including the lock screen. It can also be summoned by a double press of a standard wired headset’s multi-function button.

The fingerprint reader is excellent, and positioned on the back, is much better placed than phones that place them on the home button. It just makes one-handed unlocking very easy indeed. It must have taken me less than 10 seconds to register each finger that I wanted to register. It’s worth going into Settings > System > Languages, input & gestures to turn on Swipe fingerprint for notifications. It’s a quick way to get access to your notifications drawer, and I wouldn’t have found out about it had someone else not pointed it out. It makes it astonishingly handy for one handed use.

It’s also worth noting that double tapping the power button can be set to launch the camera. And if you have multiple camera apps, you can choose which launches.

When I first got the phone, one curious thing I came across was the way the phone seemed to handle WiFi networks that require some further signing in before you have full internet access. I think we’ve all had issues where we’ve taught our phones to use something like BT Openzone or The Cloud, with our phones latching onto the network, only to lose all connectivity until we sign in. It can be very annoying if the phone doesn’t seamlessly login in the background. The default behaviour on my Pixel 2 seems to be to continue to utilise 4G if the WiFi network isn’t offering internet connectivity. This is fine in theory, but can lead to problems when you’re signing into a some networks. My work WiFi network is especially secure, needing both a specific app and a security certificate to access. I found myself turning off mobile data to force the phone to behave properly when signing into such a system. Even opening up the Developer Settings where there’s a switch that should change this behaviour didn’t really work. However, during the course of owning the phone, Google has send out Android 8.1.0, and that seems to have sorted out some of the errant WiFi behaviour.

One thing I hadn’t clocked ahead of time, despite reading reviews, is that the screen is always on, in that it permanently displays that time and date, and depending on your settings, will briefly display notifications. I know other phones do this, but I’ve not had one before. I actually find this very useful. We are just talking about white lettering on a black background that looks otherwise as if the phone is turned off. And importantly, the display does not seem to impact on battery life.

Call quality is good, and it’s nice to discover that the phone alerts you to numbers that it believes are suspected of spam calls (“Were you in an accident…?” “Have you claimed your PPI…”). It’s unclear to me whether this is a Pixel 2 specific thing, or an Android O thing.

I bought the 128 GB model because, sadly, there is no Micro SD card slot on this – or any other Google phone. While I’m only really at about 50% full as I type this, once I’d installed all my apps, downloaded some music for offline listening, and got a full range of podcasts sitting on the device, I know that it’ll fill quickly. Podcasts are my “problem”, since as I’ve written before, I subscribe to more than I can listen to, and I don’t have them automatically delete.

So far, battery life has been exceptional, but since I’m only a few weeks in, that is fairly meaningless. The question will be how close to zero the phone is getting in terms of charge in 18 months’ time. Android O does seem to be quite aggressive in killing background apps that are eating power. And once you drop below the default 15% battery level, you can enable battery saving which places red bars at the top and bottom of the screen to alert you to your reduced power status.

The included 18W charger is very fast recharging the phone, although there’s no wireless charging (something that only seemed to be a “thing” when iPhones started offering it. Nobody seemed very interested when my old Sony Xperia had it).

There have been a few smaller issues along the way. The phone has, at times, randomly rebooted itself. This seems to be a known issue. But it has happened a handful of times that I’ve noticed. Google promised a fix. and at time of writing, I can’t say definitively whether the update to 8.1.0 has fixed it, but I’ve not noticed any more reboots.

And I did have an issue with audio via USB-C on one single occasion when my headphones just weren’t registered by the phone and the sound came out of the phone’s speaker instead. I had to reboot to quickly sort it out (fortunately, reboots are really fast).

I do question how strong USB-C sockets are in the longer term for those who listen to a lot of audio. Say what you like about the 3.5mm jack, but it was a solid and robust fit. Once inserted, the jack had little opportunity for movement, whereas the rectangular shape of USB-C sockets feels like it’ll be less stable in the longer term. Time will tell.

Android 8.0 seems to have added lots of little bits and pieces here and there. WiFi can be set to turn on automatically when you’re in a particular area. This is useful when you’ve turned off WiFi for some reason and forget to turn it back on. You can also turn on “Now Playing” which lets the phone silently identify music playing in the background at any time. It’s like Shazam without actually having to open the Shazam app. The song details come up on the lockscreen (Obviously, there are potentially privacy issues with having your microphone “live” pretty much all the time). Many of these features will be available to any phone if and when they get Android 8.0. That in itself is an issue with Android of course, with phone manufacturers and network operators being responsible for pushing out updates. My phone is unlocked and not tied to a contract to avoid these things.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my purchase. The camera alone makes it worthwhile. The phone isn’t a giant compared to today’s monsters. But that means I can use it one handed, and it will fit in my pocket comfortably. It actually feels very slightly smaller than my previous HTC 10. However, there is no getting away from the fact that losing the headphone socket is a terrible thing.

* They don’t really make phones of course. They outsource them to third parties. In this instance, the Pixel 2 is made by HTC, while the Pixel 2 XL comes from LG. Google recently announced that they were effectively “buying” part of HTC’s smartphone team, so perhaps future devices will all be manufactured by HTC.

** I must write about this at some point.

Changing Android Phones

I’ve never been much of a fan of Apple’s iPhones. They’ve always seemed overpriced, and far too tied down. You can only do what Apple allows you to do with them. Furthermore, the ecosystem is incredibly limited. Everyone has to use one of a very small handful of models, none of which are especially cheap (even the “budget” iPhone SE). And of course, you’re using precisely the same hardware as everyone else. Choice of protective case is not the high point of individuality!

But one thing this has all allowed Apple to do is offer a seamless backup and upgrade programme. If you lose or damage an iPhone, it’s relatively trivial to restore the phone in its entirety once you have your hands on a replacement device. Similarly, when it comes to upgrading to a newer model, it’s a painless affair, assuming you’ve made use of the iCloud.

The same just is not true for Android. While I enjoy getting a new phone as much as anyone, I really don’t look forward to the hours of work it will take to move across. Certainly the simple act of signing in to the device is trivial, actually getting the phone back to something similar to what you had before is incredibly time-consuming and tedious.

I’ve just upgraded to a new phone, in large part because I unfortunately damaged my previous one. Not enough to stop it working, but enough to mean an expensive repair. I opted for a replacement.

Google has started providing a USB adaptor with its Pixel phones to aid the set-up. The idea is that you connect a cable between your old phone and new one, and lots of your settings, messages and music are transferred across.

But this is really only a very basic transfer, and there’s much more that you have to do.

Now I appreciate that I use my phone for lots of services, and have more than 150 apps in total running on it. But it’s just such a painful experience even once you’ve backed up what the cable allows.

Here are just a few of the problems:

  • Passwords – Apps just don’t remember them. You have to re-sign into nearly everything. Now Google does have a Smartlock service, and some apps work really well with it. Netflix and Uber worked seamlessly. But the vast majority of apps needed me to sign in again, in the worst instances, having to set up the various options as I’d had them before. Sure, that’s the app developer’s fault for not using Google’s service. Yet, it still feels needless.
  • Signing in repeatedly – Even more annoying are the multiple apps that share the same user identity, yet require you to sign in separately. For example, I have a number of apps that use Amazon’s login (e.g. Kindle, Amazon Prime Video, etc). I repeatedly have to sign into each app. Again, that’s probably the app developers’ fault, but from the user’s perspective, it’s needless.
  • Run every app – All of this means that to ensure everything is working, you have to run every single app.
  • Apps that don’t work – Again, not really Google’s fault, but apps that don’t run in Android Oreo, just don’t get installed. It means that apps drop off in the transfer. It would be useful to have a list of apps that have not been installed because they’re not yet compatible.
  • Layout not transferred – Since I have a large number of apps, I try my best to corral them into sensible folders. I spend ages doing this, and of course, when you set up your new phone, this is all completely lost. I understand that the layout of my new phone may be different and therefore screen real estate can’t be precisely replicated. But it’d still be nice to keep the groupings between phones. In the past, when I’ve had a phone repaired (and of course, reset afterwards), I’ve ended up taking screen shots of the way it was organised so that I can mirror my set-up later.
  • Widgets are lost – Ditto, none of the widgets I’ve placed previously are carried across. I have to rebuild them.
  • BlueTooth settings – While WiFi settings do tend to be carried across, you have to repair all your BlueTooth hardware. I realise that this is perhaps due to how the technology works, with unique codes attached to each device.
  • Re-download media – While I understand why I have to re-download all my podcasts, because Google doesn’t have a default podcast app, so developers all do their own thing, that’s not true of music. Google has its own Music app, and it allows you to download tracks for offline listening. None of this is remembered, so you have to go through and re-download all your music, rather than it automatically restore itself.

That’s just what I can remember off the top of my head, and isn’t necessarily comprehensive.

I would say that, conservatively, it took me 5-6 hours to get my new phone up and running to my satisfaction. And that doesn’t include one false start where I didn’t realise that if I didn’t do the transfer from the old phone during initial set-up, it would never work. A factory reset was required, and I started from scratch a second time.

Undoubtedly Google is getting better at this. Every major Android release sees some improvements. And of course the diversity of the Android ecosystem means that it’s harder for Android than for iOS to do this kind of thing. But many of us are locked in a phone replacement cycle of between 18 and 36 months, meaning we all have to do this on occasion, it’s vital that this process is made easier.

If People Think It – Does It Matter If It’s Actually True?

In this week’s excellent episode of the Reply All podcast, Alex Goldman and PG Vogt explore the question Is Facebook Spying On You?

In particular, a number of people are of the belief that the Facebook app is listening to what you’re saying and that’s the only way to explain why things you were talking about with your friends are suddenly appearing as ads in your Facebook timeline.

Now in fact there are lots of reasons why Facebook could know this information, and the episode digs into the issue of online ad tracking, which is remarkably sophisticated these days – and/or creepy. Facebook tracks your internet behaviours across many sites who use the Facebook Pixel. Essentially it’s tracking code that follows you around vast parts of the web. It’s this technology that also explains why that pair of shoes you were looking at during your lunch break then follows you elsewhere around the web.

Facebook records thousands of pieces of data about each user, and then further utilises location data from the app and location data of your friends’ apps. In turn this means that you might see products that your friends were looking at because it can infer that you might have mentioned them. (Interestingly, just after listening to this episode the Facebook app on my phone performed quite a sizeable update that required me to log in again. The first thing it asked for was permission to turn on location services. Denied!)

This remarkable technology, along with smart algorithms that will make inferences based on people’s behaviours means that as Facebook says, it isn’t actually using the microphone on your phone to listen to you.

But the tracking they manage seems to be practically magical to many people, so they infer that Facebook must be listening in!

So my question is this: Does it actually matter that Facebook isn’t using the microphone on your phone. If their tracking is so exceptional and accurate, that it becomes creepy, people will rationalise it as meaning they must be doing it.

And if people believe something to be true, it really doesn’t matter if it’s not actually the case.

Note: I write all this in the knowledge that I have microphones in my home that do stay live all the time, and report data back to Amazon and Google. The difference is that I trust those organisations more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but it feels that they’re more up front and honest about what they’re doing.