26 November 2008

Google mobile voice search review. Much ado about not very much, but you'll use it anyway

Judging by the amount of noise on iPhone sites, you'd think that the voice search function in the latest version of Google's iPhone application was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Let me tell you why it isn't.

Do you have voice recognition on your computer? Of so, do you use it to browse the web? For most people the answer is probably "no". Sure the software and hardware exists and is probably even built into your operating system, but most people have come to the conclusion that it's not a good idea.

Ah, but the iPhone is a mobile device, I hear you say! Voice recognition saves all that typing, and is surely much safer in the car. And here you would be right, assuming it worked really well, but in my experience, it only works 'okay' rather than 'really well'. And you'll look an idiot in public talking into your search engine, especially after spending all that time telling everyone how easy it is type on the iPhone virtual keyboard.

As for safety in the car, you still have to unlock the iPhone (one touch), go to the home screen to find the app (two touches), launch the app (three touches), look at the screen long enough to find the small 'Voice Search' button, touch it (four touches), speak, wait, look at the search field to see whether it has recognised your voice correctly, and if not, look at the prompts to touch the screen again and try again. Then you have to read the tiny text in the google page that opens. If my phone is mounted on my car holder, I can't read the text on this screen, nor even see the Voice Search button, so I'd have to hold the phone closer to my face to execute the search and comprehend the results. And bear in mind that voice recognition will work far less well due to background noise in the car.

Bottom line is, there is no way this process could be considered safe in the car, and certainly in South Australia it would (rightly, I think) be illegal.

But how well does the voice recognition even work? I tested a few words and phrases at a distance of about 40 cm and here is a sample of my results:

I said "supermarket". It heard "chicago".
I said "supermarket" in an American accent. It heard correctly.
I said "podiatrist". It heard correctly.
I said "newsagent". It heard "mutations".
I said "newsagent" again. It heard "musicians".
I said "paper shop". It heard correctly.
I said "chemist". It heard "tennis".

I said "drugstore". It heard correctly.
I said "chiropractor". It heard correctly.

I said "pharmacist". It heard correctly.

I said "I feel like a massage" in an American accent. It heard "flexamerica".

I said "where did I put my car keys". It heard "when does my car keys".
I said "where did I put my car keys" in an American accent. It heard "where to put my car keys".

I said "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". It heard correctly.
I said "google voicemail". It heard "google boise idaho".
I said "shall I compare thee to a summer's day". It heard correctly.

On that evidence the voice recognition works well enough to be entertaining but only moderately useful; it responds better to Americaan accents  than my Anglo-Australian, but more than that, it seems to respond better to American vocabulary; and it seems to like Shakespeare.

Is it safe for use in the car? No. Is it all that useful? Not really. Will I use it anyway? Yes, because it's fun. And like so many applications on the iPhone it's an example of clever technology only partially solving a problem no-one had in the first place. And that's kind of cool in a geeky way. Just like the Lightsaber or Zippo Lighter iPhone apps, no-one who actually 'gets' the iPhone should have to ask why.

23 November 2008

How to use Google Streetview on the iPhone

Nice to know we have Street View on Google Maps in the iPhone 2.2 update, but how does one use it? I zoomed around my district unable to see any streets marked with the tell-tale blue which indicates Street View is available, although I know that it is in my area. I then tried my current GPS location, again to no avail. Colour me stupid, but it took my quite a while before I twigged.

The secret is, you need to search for somewhere. Once you do, that location is marked with a red pin, and if Street View is available, the label on that pin will have an icon on the left of a little white man in a red circle. God knows why a man indicates Street View, but ours is not to question why. It will look like this:

Then when you touch the icon for the little red man, you'll be taken to Street View, with your screen rotating accordingly. You'll see your place on the map in the bottom right corner, even indicating your direction of virtual travel, which is pretty cool:

Quick thoughts on iPhone 2.2 firmware update

I suffer from a disease known as 'early adoption'. Knowing that iPhone firmware 2.2 was due out yesterday I connected my iPhone to iTunes and periodically hit the update button all day until I got a result. Of course, I had read all the rumours beforehand as to what was in it, so there were no surprises. But my first reaction was still one of being underwhelmed.

Let's be frank, for most people there's nothing earth-shattering in this update. None of the major flaws of the phone are addressed. So there's still no multitasking for 3rd party apps, no cut and paste, no decent folder organisation for all your applications, the diary functionality is still pretty poor and the email app still won't open mime attachments. But all of that was to be expected. That said, I am immediately struck by a few improvements that really do make life easier.

The first is the new feature where clicking the home button on any home screen takes you back to the first home screen. This may not seem like much, but I find it a major time saver that also lets me get back to my primary applications without having to look at the screen, a major failing of touchscreen devices as a whole.

Other neat additions include some major changes to the App Store which make it much more usable and in-line with the iTunes version. For example, whereas you could previously only see one screen shot of an app, you can now view and zoom in on all of them. The categories screen now has icons which make navigation easier, and you can break down your view by "Top Free", "Top Paid" and "Release Date" like you can on iTunes. The Updates screen now has an "Update All" button which fixes a major annoyance and time waster. All in all the App Store is a much nicer place to be now.

The mail app has several claimed improvements. The only one I've noticed so far is that wide HTML emails now seem to wrap to the screen better. The claim that "isolated issues with scheduled fetching of email" have been fixed remains to be tested. Since the update my iPhone still does that random thing where it downloads heaps of old email, and forgets the most recent ones. A very annoying bug and I think it hasn't been fixed. Anyone else experiencing this?

There are also claimed improvements to the stability of Safari, and if that's true then they're much needed. I also haven't had a chance to test the new features in Google Maps. Further reports as I play more.

29 August 2008

Should we root or 'rowt'?

When Australians take journeys, they follow routes and they pronounce them 'roots'. It's widely understood that Australian men in particular are always looking for quick ones. Why then do so many Australians insist upon calling their networking devices 'rowters'? Are we really so infantile that we can't pronounce a perfectly decent word correctly without descending into toilet-humour titters? Surely the defence that 'it's just too embarrassing' is a pretty feeble one.

Then there's the oft-heard 'American pronunciation' defence. Interestingly, though, plenty of Americans do in fact use the British pronunciation, and no less authority than Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives both pronunciations, but the British one first.

And of course, there is already a device pronounced 'rowter'. It's a woodworking tool, and its etymology is very different. So unless we are planning to carve channels in our networks, can't we just call them 'rooters' and get over it?

1 August 2008

Never bond with chickens

Late last year, junior brought home two chicks that had been incubated as a class experiment, and they grew into chickens in the backyard. They were extremely free-range, wandering the garden by day and sleeping in a tree by night. I started building a coop, but didn't persevere as they seemed content in the treetops and I am naturally poor at finishing things around the home that I start.

One of the chickens, an Ancona, was a capable flyer and displayed mind-boggling intelligence on several occasions, then crowned off the display of intelligence by escaping a few weeks ago never to be seen again. The other, a New Hampshire Red, stayed and, whilst not as bright, was nevertheless a friendly, almost affectionate bird with whom we have been bonding over the last several weeks.

But all that came to an end this morning when I found her brutally decapitated and distributed over the back lawn. Despite my creating sheltered accomodation for her in her tree, she still insisted on sheltering and laying at ground level, and something had found her there overnight and attacked her. Might have been a fox, but more likely a cat. A rather gruesome and depressing sight in itself, but also one that reminded me of the perils of bonding with animals. We're always told of the positive mental health outcomes of pets and animals, but like many people I create very strong attachments to creatures feline or feathered, and find myself inordinately affected by their loss and often guilt-ridden as a result of the things I might have done to prevent that loss.

Over many years of caring for pets, for one doesn't really 'own' them, I have had responsibility for couple of cats, a guinuea pig, a turtle, a rat, several fish and birds aplenty, including budgies, galahs, parakeets, African Grey parrots and a cockatiel. I remember each one fondly, but in each case was deeply impacted upon by their demise/loss/escape. Am I one of that plethora of people who bond with animals to avoid bonding with humans, or was Gandhi right when he said "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated"?

31 July 2008

Democracy at work?

The South Australian Government has just changed its mind about its approach to the aspects of health care for rural issues in response to public sentiment over the issue. It's described in the local rag as "an embarassing backflip", but surely improving policy in response to public opinion is simply effective democracy at work, and governments admitting they may have erred shows a rare humility and self-effacement that should be lauded rather than condemned.

29 April 2008

Firefox 3 beta 5 and Scribefire

As an avowed Firefox fanboy, I've just upgraded to Firefox 3 beta 5 and was surprised to see it smoothly pick up all my add-ons. Of course, it crashed the first several times I started it up, but now a certain calm seems to have descended, and it's working fine.

Some months ago I installed the Scribefire add-on, and although it's been quietly updating away in the background, I've never actually used it in anger until today. So I guess this is a test of whether it works with the Firefox 3 beta. Now I'm going to press the Publish button, and if this appears on eebahgum! then it works. If it doesn't, I'd appreciate your feedback to tell me so. Here goes...

17 April 2008

Shame on you APC magazine! (Plasma & LCD wars)

Something odd is afoot in the world of large format televisions. There seems to be a global attempt move by the media and sales outlets to trumpet the cause of LCDs at the expense of plasma. Never mind the fact that a blind man in a snowstorm can tell that plasma is better at almost everything. Never mind the fact that large LCDs are still more expensive than comparably sized plasmas.

So walk into a major retail outlet and look at how the floor is set up to drive you towards the LCDs. Look at the way the screens are calibrated to minimise the differences between the two, and the store lighting is set to flatter LCDs. Notice the reluctance of shop staff to tell you flat out that plasmas are still generally better at motion, colour, blacks and that resolution is not ultimately important compared to what you see with your eyes.

Look at the media's constant prattling on about LCD 'closing the gap' and becoming the equal of plasma in so many areas. Then think how many years they've been giving us that message. The media is now speculating that Pioneer's recent decision to stop making plasma panels is a sign of their resignation to the victory of LCD in the long run. Nonsense. Although Pioneer has long since made the world's best plasma panels they just can't make them at a realistic cost, and they realise it. Their chief competitor, Panasonic, works to very different economies of scale and has significantly closed the quality gap such that Pioneer screens are simply not competing in the market. Only sensible then, that Pioneer source their screens from Panasonic in return for sharing their technology. It has nothing to do with Pioneer changing its mind about the superiority of plasma in large screens.

So where does Australia's erstwhile APC magazine come into it? Well, this publication, for whom I have always had the utmost respect, has a headline this month which loudly announces "LCDs CATCH PLASMAS" and "SHOCK RESULTS" implying that the LCD panels on test match the plasmas. The trouble is, that is simply not the conclusion of the tests inside the mag. The article in question evaluates 2 plasma and 3 LCD panels and the plasmas come first and second, closely followed by a Sony LCD with the other LCD a distant 4th and 5th. And anyone who has been shopping recently knows that Sony LCDs still cost significantly more than equivalent sized Panasonic plasmas, for example.

So, APC editors, a far more honest cover headline would have been "LCDs STILL TRAIL PLASMAS". Why did you chose to run the misleading one, and are you too part of the global conspiracy against plasma screens?Go to eebahgum!

24 January 2008

Laptop crashing? Try this cool trick

Recently my laptop started crashing at random times, usually when I was in the middle of something critical. Like browsing YouTube videos, playing StickCricket and, oh yes, working. I've always had a theory that laptops were pressure-sensitive, that's to say they are sensitive to the amount of pressure I am under, and more likely to fail when that is high, purely out of spite.

When I started thinking about it I realised that my laptop had once run rather quietly, but now seemed to be a noisy beast with the cooling fan running all the time, and it had become consistently too hot to have on my lap. I hunted down the excellent, if slightly confusing, free application called Notebook Hardware Control, which lets you monitor hard disk and CPU temperatures, and was shocked to find my CPU regularly running in the 90s (Celsius/Centigrade) and peaking as high as 112 degrees before crashing. Being famous for my insight and deductive reasoning, I surmised that this was perhaps less than ideal.

So I took a trip down to my local electronic hobby shop, Dick Smith, and bought myself a can of air, the compressed variety used for cleaning equipment, and sprayed it in every hole and gap I could find. My machine was instantly cured, and is now running in the high 50s and low 60s. It's also far quieter, because the fan is now only one a fraction of the time, rather than all the time as it was. Cost $15, Time 30 seconds, result, dramatic and instant cure.

I'd be willing to bet that most laptop crashes are caused by overheating, and recommend you try this before anything else. The reason it works is that over time, dust, skin and so on build up inside your laptops fan, vents, and in particular, the CPU heatsink. Just make sure you get the right sort of spray, avoiding freeze sprays, or anything that leaves a deposit. And good luck!Go to eebahgum!