Thursday, December 30, 2010

My First Android Tablet

I recently purchased an Android tablet, and I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts and reactions.  I did a good bit of research and finally decided on the Viewsonic gtablet.  The reason I decided on this tablet was that the hardware in the unit looked great on paper.  I was able to pick it up at the last minute from a Sears for cheap ($370 at the time I bought it).  But anything that I can list out here can be found at the above link.  There seem to be a lot of varying images for the tablet, but the one we ended up with looked like this

My motivation for this purchase was to entertain our twins (1 year old boys) on a long drive (28 hours in the car spread out over 4 days of driving).  We had borrowed a in car DVD player from one of my wife's co-workers, but the engineer in me spotted some immediate problems.  

  1. Keeping up with, changing, and dealing with fragile (prone to scratches) DVDs was not going to make our drive any easier.  
  2. They each get their own screen, but the screens are poor quality, only 7 inches, and only show the same image.
  3. There are a lot of wires running all over the place with these things, and if you have a toddler you know how irresistible a draping cable is!
  4. They don't have a battery (stopping for gas?) so turning off the car resets everything.
  5. While I could go on -- they are just pretty lame too...

What  you see on the screen above is the Tap-n-tap firmware that comes loaded on the tablet.  This is probably the source of most of the issues, but more about that in a bit.  For now here are some of the pros and cons for this tablet.


  • Resolution - The screen looks great when viewing it close up or even at a modest distance at a narrow viewing angle.
  • Speed - Compared to my first generation Motorola Droid and even when compared to my wife's second generation Droid the hardware (at least on paper) is quite adept.
  • Size - This thing is stylish and svelte even compared to the iPad.  The screen ratio is even better for viewing widescreen movies.
  • Battery life - The battery on this thing lasted for about 6 hours of continuous use.  We were either playing mp3s on it or playing a movie for the kids, and we did not have to charge it in the car once.
  • Sound - My wife and I watched a movie on the tablet at the in-laws one evening and much to our surprise the tiny speakers on this made a reasonable sound.  We were impressed enough that we even used it to play some holiday tunes one morning.  
But for all the pros that this tablet has there are some problems that one has to contend with.

  • The software on the tablet as it comes out of the box is not usable.  This is not and exaggeration, and keep in mind that I bought the first Android phone with the first version of the software.
  • The touch screen has issues with sensitivity.  Even once the available adjustments are set such that the screen is at its most sensitive, it is difficult to get it to register a touch.  This is especially true around the edges of the tablet.  Given the wide spread nature of this issue and the fact that it is consistent across different versions of software, I believe that there are obvious hardware limitations at play.
  • While the screen looks fantastic from strait on, the viewing angle is somewhat limited.  If you have never owned or used a slate style tablet before, then you probably aren't expecting that the tablet is a social instrument.  I was surprised by the fact that unlike a phone, the tablet provides a comfortable opportunity for collaboration.  The twins were far enough away from the tablet so that it wasn't too much of a problem, but when viewing a movie with my wife I found that the angle needed to be fine tuned frequently.

The update from Viewsonic was a vast improvement over the firmware that was on it out of the box, but the interface was still very poor.  I used a couple custom roms (Cyanogenmod and TNT-lite) and I am sure that more can be found with a quick Google search.  They made the tablet much better, but there were some lingering issues like the battery meter always reading 100% and force closes.  One piece of software that I did not get to test, but that sounded very cool was GPS tethering.  The idea is that you can take advantage of the large screen for navigation.

In preparation for our trip we needed to find a good mounting location that provided easy access from the passenger seat with a good view from the back seat.  I thought long and hard, and finally I decided that the front sunroof of our Discovery II was the solution.  I bought a cheap cell phone mount at a box retailer, and cut off the part that held the cell phone.  Then I cut a piece of plywood so that it was about 1/2 inch bigger on all four sides of the tablet.  I drilled holes at the four corners of the wood to thread elastic straps through.  The last step was to mount the stub of the phone mount to the back of the plywood.  This allowed for a lot of flexibility in placement, and held sturdily.  I will be making another one, but this time I will not be using a cheap phone mount.  The one I had used a stiff, but pliable adjustment.  The next one I build will have a hinged mechanism.

For a car charger you can't use a USB charger (not even with some custom wiring) because the output is too low.  SO I had to buy one at Radio Shack.  Not a big deal, but still an annoyance.

All in all I think the tablet fulfilled it purpose of entertaining our twins, but the thought of trying to use it for anything other than viewing media was going to be a nightmare.  The touchscreen issues killed it for me, and in the end it was returned.  Sears was great at returning it.

When I left Sears though I stopped by the Apple store to play with an iPad.  I still don't care for iOS, and the arrogant Apple clerk made me want to run screaming out of the store (full disclosure we have 4 macs at home and two more at our jobs).  That being said, there is no comparison between the responsiveness, and how smooth the iPad operates.  Maybe jailbreaking would make me feel better about the closed nature of the iPad, but that won't help me swallow the price.  Still this just reinfoces the idea that you get what you pay for, and after this experience I am going to have a hard time buying another Android tablet.  I just don't feel good about being an iPad owner.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

k-Anonymity for Our Public Lives

I was just reading a paper that proposes a way to provide anonymity for location based services, and it really got me thinking about the priorities in information security and privacy.  The authors are in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and cite information leakage and a slippery slope slide into a 1984, George Orwell inspired, world where large amounts of location based information combined with public records provides a complete picture of the individual.

Take for example that a particular mobile device always looks for places to eat near a rehab hospital, that same mobile device begins long trips (GPS data) from a particular (home) address, and that home address is linked to a name in the white-pages.  This contrived example is not bullet-proof, but it illustrates how information leakage can, over time, expose a lot more about ourselves than we originally thought.

While all of this is well and good, and I appreciate the efforts of academic researchers; however, I can't help but think that we are not addressing the real problem.  If you are worried about data leakage, then you should be terrified about the way that most of us throw lots of information about our professional and private lives into the public domain readily.  Facebook is the prime example, and to their credit they have taken steps to remedy the data disclosure problems in older versions of their system.  People just have no notion of how the things they publish can effect them later on.  I even have an example where the person in question didn't even intend on providing a lot of information...I give you as an example the 

Jack and Jane Smith case...

Jack and Jane Smith think they are a clever pair, because every-time there is a marketing or signup sheet that asks for an email address they list mine instead of their own.  This seems innocent enough, but what they don't realize is that every piece of solicited junk that shows up in my inbox fills in more details about their personal and private lives.  This compounded with the fact that they have chosen to use their real names in coordination with these mailings accelerates this process even further.  The real funny part is that Jack fancies himself as an IT professional (don't get me started on this).

This project all got started when I got a "happy thanksgiving" email from Freedom Toyota in Hamburg, PA.  This got me to thinking that maybe this wasn't random internet spam, but that maybe all the emails that I keep getting for Jack and Jane are substantiated in some way.  Then I decided to do a bit of googling to find out more of who these people are...

Jack Smith is a 49 year old IT guy who lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA (I have the exact address and phone number) and I know when and where he went to high-school (Facebook), where he has worked (Linkedin), and lots of seemingly benign things like kids names and relatives (mom?).

Jane Smith is the 45 year old wife of Jack and lives with her husband in a modest home in an relatively urban area.  Not to be outdone by her husband she also provides lots of personal information on her website.

They have some kids and here is where things aren't quite so clear, and this is probably a result of multiple marriages and kids with former spouses, but they definitely have a kid named Jen.  What is interesting is that Jen is probably not Jane's daughter, because the Name Donna pops up quite a bit.  Jen lists a number of siblings on her Facebook page that don't show up on Jack, Jen or Donna's pages (family relationships can be quite complex).  But what is clear is that we know who Jen's main crush is.  She is also quite the aspiring photographer and fond of the UK...

If you still think all of this is pretty innocent then let me propose the following...I know names, and addresses and phone numbers, mothers, daughters, maiden names, high-schools cities/dates of birth and what kind of house/cars they own.  These sound a lot like the types of security questions that get asked when you call a customer service desk right?  Further all of this was acquired without spending a dime of my money.  I can't fathom the information I would get by paying a few dollars for background and records searches or the parents!  This could all lead to identity theft or worse.

When I got to this point I realized that I should go back and change the names...If their is a real Jack and Jane Smith, then you know that your name is just too common and generic and should have expected this or at least seen it coming...

A broader perspective...

The point is that there is no point in comprising intricate and complex algorithms for hiding personal information if people are going to be stupid and give it way.  This is a new area of concern for adults, but what will it mean for our kids who's photos and lives have been the subject of baby blogs and Twitter feeds since before they were even born?  Will the definition of privacy change as the founder of Facebook claims?  

In design/engineering you are taught to tackle the problem that has the greatest weight (opportunity for improvement) first.  Said another way...if you are drowning and holding onto an anvil, let go of that before you attempt to save yourself by emptying your pockets of lose change!

PS:  I have no intention of releasing the information about the Smiths, but I do intend to continue collecting information about them for as long as they are dumb enough to use my email address for marketing signups and spam likely forms...

Monday, May 31, 2010

It's Quit Facebook Day

While hanging out with friends this weekend we passed around an article that highlights the privacy and ethical shortfalls of Facebook.  Many of us commented on our intention to delete our accounts.  I have followed through on this and I hope that many of them will as well.  I have found a couple of things that will make the transition to a non-Facebook me easier.

Keeping your contacts:

This process allows you to get all of the email and other information from Facebook into other programs.  The point here is that while Facebook has allowed us to get in touch with many old friends that may not be the way we want to continue to keep track of them.  The process involves using a yahoo email account which has the option for importing your contact information from Facebook.  Then export that information to your service/application of choice.

Microbloging -- Status Updates:

While Twitter is not the perfect solution it is simple and there is little mistake about what is public and what is not.  I have a Twitter account that I will continue to use (

Bigger Posts:

I plan on using my blog (you are here now) for posts that are to lengthy to fit into the character limit for the Twitter API.  Here again there is little confusion about what is private or not.

Chat and Messages:

Email and instant messaging has worked for almost a decade and there seems little reason to think that it is not capable of working again.  I don't plan on posting an email address here, but if you are/were one of my friends on Facebook you have received a email from me explaining that I have left Facebook behind with my contact information including a link to this blog.

Photos and Videos:

This is somewhere that I found Facebook to be particularly weak anyways.  For video we use youtube and for photos we have always preferred Flickr.  Both of these sites offer free accounts to receive updates when your friends post new photos, but offer RSS feeds as well (more on that in a minute).

Private Posts:

There are some posts that are private in nature that I would like to share with family and friends but maybe not the entire Internet.  There is not an immediately clear solution to this, but then again there might be a problem with trying to post something that is partially protected to the internet.  It is possible to make a protected blog that requires users to register to see the posts and that may be the solution.

Aggregating the Information:

One of the selling points of Facebook is that it has everything in one convenient place.  I don't have to check n different blogs for my n friends.  There is a solution for this too.  And you have your choice in providers!  I personally use Google Reader, but there are many other options.  Most blogs, twitter feeds etc. have the option of subscribing to an RSS feed.  You may recognize it by the small orange square with the white curved lines...  Clicking on this button will allow you to follow this feed in your RSS reader.  This way you have one place to look to all of the most recent blog/twitter updates from your friends.

What is Missing:

There are some features of Facebook that are not replicated in my plan, but that may be for the better.  I will be so glad to never hear about the sheep that wandered off someone's farm.  The social network is missing, but lets be honest about that.  Most of us have filled in our social network from our past more than we would like to, and if someone wants to find my blog or twitter feed then they can simply search for me on Google.

There are plans in the works for a open source solution to Facebook.  Without a centralized entity controlling our data we can share and feel more in control, but the honest truth is that once shared we are never in control.  These guys are well funded and have some great ideas about an alternative to Facebook that puts 100% of the control in the user's hands.

What you Gain:

Following this type of plan does not put all of your digital "eggs" in one basket.  Facebook is not alone, and many of the services that I have described above are corporate entities completely capable of making bad decisions with your data.  BUT, by not relying on one for everything you are free to move one bit to another provider without having to change everything.  Further by not having everything in one place you are doing less to empower one company with all of your data.

To Conclude:

It is important that we share our information responsibly, and that means taking a long hard look at the companies that we are trusting with our data.  The biggest reason for me taking the steps to deactivate my account is that even though I have taken the time and the care to set privacy settings for my account Facebook has a history of setting those to a conveniently open default when it wants to roll out an "update."  There is no opt-in for Facebook because they survie on me sharing more and more private and personal information.  I would encourage you to have a look at the article in Time Magazine that made me and many of my friends realize that Facebook was not something that we wanted to be a part of.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Google Phone Interview

A researcher in networking contacted my advisor a couple weeks ago requesting any leads on possible summer interns.  My advisor recommended me for the job based on the fact that the research that was being done at Google is very similar to my recent work.  I polished my resume and sent it off.  A day later I was contacted by a recruiter who took some more information and scheduled me for two technical phone interviews.  These are not the "where do you see yourself in 5 years" type of interviews.  These are the "prove P=NP and write up a C function to solve all the NP problems while you are at it" kind of interviews.  This meant that my immediate concern was preparing for the possible onslaught of questions.  

While preparing for the interview I was also preparing for a presentation in my networking class on "why use delay based protocols?"  One of the assigned papers (the one that I spent the most time working on) was the TCP Vegas paper, written by Larry Brakmo.  I found the paper very interesting and in fact there are a lot of similar issues in the paper that I worked on most recently.  So I know this paper, and I mean I REALLY know this paper well.  Guess who was my second interviewer of the day, and guess who was so focused on the interview that he failed to make the connection?  I had the opportunity to talk about  using delays to the guy who invented the idea!  Doh!

Both of my interviewers were exceptionally sharp, and polite.  While I would be supper excited to get an internship at Google I am flattered just to have had the chance to interview.  If I am not offered a position I think I will continue to try again, because the interview was challenging in a good way.  Not to mention the fact that you just may have the opportunity to speak with someone that you otherwise would not.

So Dr. Brakmo if you ever happen to see this, just know that when I said I didn't have any questions about Google that I should have taken the opportunity to ask at least one of my questions about Vegas.  No I am not going to list them here just incase I will get the chance to talk with him again.

The bottom line on the interview is this, as far as TCP goes I know my stuff, but that does not mean I know everything there is to know about networking and I will work hard to figure out the answer.  That being said, lets just hope that makes up for me pulling Null for my programming question.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

OS X Time Machine Lacking in Options

My time tested method for backing up my laptop was to run a Bash script that would rsync various directories to my Linux server at home.  The nice things about this were:
  • I was in complete control of what got backed up and how.
  • I could work on things just as easily on the Linux server as I could on my OS X based laptop.
  • Copying things back over to the laptop was a cinch.
  • I could schedule it to run as frequently or infrequently as I wanted by using a chron job.
This method of backup worked wonders for me, but my wife did was not onboard with using Linux.  I was intrigued by the osX86, so I hacked a mac.  It works great!  It is stable, fast, and easy to use.  I had not been able to use time-machine for backups before, but I thought I would give it a shot.  I set it up on my laptop to backup to the desktop and when I say I set it up, there was very little to configure.  I know that is the idea, to make it dead simple for everyone, but at least give me an advanced options pannel or something.  Here are some of the things that bother me that I would like to change:

  • It tires to backup my laptop when I am away from home, and this would not be a problem if it were not for the resources that it uses.  It seems to access the disk so heavily that it slows other applications.
  • You can exclude some directories from being backed up, but that is about the extent of the options.
I am not going to be one of the people that complain about a problem and don't suggest possible solutions, so here are some things that I would like to see.
  • Backup only when connected to my home network (can be recognized by subnet).
  • Allow choice of how a directory should be backed up.  Some I would like to be backed up more often than others, and some I would only like a working copy (shorter history).
  • Schedule backups to only happen durring certain times, or not to occur when the computer is very busy.
  • Allow for backing up to a local temporary directory when I am away from home and then commit that when I return.
  • Allow to chose a server based on location.  So it would back up to one server when I am at work and another when I am at home.
Again, this is just a list of ideas of features that would be nice to have.  I am sure that there are programs out there that do all of these things, and to that my original backup methods do just that.  I would like to see some of these options to be available for my wife's computer.  So Steve Jobs, I hope this helps.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Droid applications

Here is a list of the applications on my Droid.  I have been asked by a few people about recommendations for cool apps, so I thought the best place to start would be just listing the ones that I have installed on my phone.
  • Advanced Task Killer Free - I used this more when I first got my phone, but after a while I have begun to realize that it really does not make that big of a difference in the overall performance of the phone.  I still give this a go every once and a while when it starts to feel kludgy.  <-- I am now using ES Task manager for this.
  • Amazon - never used...
  • Astrid - I use this all of the time with an online service that I thought I wouldn't like but have come to love RTM
  • Barcode Scanner - I have used this a handfull of times and it works well.  I even used it at a big box store to look up a price.  It found their website and tada...
  • ConnectBot - used for remote ssh sessions
  • Detexify - draw with your finger on the screen and it gives you the LaTeX code for it.
  • DockRunner - because I did't want to spend $30 on the charging dock.
  • DroidLight - I use this at least twice a day!
  • ES File Explorer - tool that I don't use often but is a must have when you need it.
  • ES Task Manager - I use this to close down programs that are running in the background.  One of the flaws of the Android platform as I see it, is that there is not a clear way to close a program as opposed to having it run in the background.  
  • GDocs - I hope to use this more as I move away from using MS office
  • Gmote
  • Goggles - cool concept but not very useful
  • Google Sky Map - again cool but...
  • gStrings - program for tuning a guitar, but I assume that it could be used for any musical instrument.  
  • Google Voice - very nice
  • GTalk Updater - wish I didn't have it
  • IP Cam Viewer Lite - used for nanny cams when we are out
  • IP Machine
  • Key Ring - keep my vic card and such on it, and my wallet it thiner.  Now I don't even get odd looks from the cashiers anymore as I am guessing more people are using them.
  • Labyrinth Lite - I found this after my family was talking about the old game at christmas.  Even my grandmother enjoyed this game.
  • Listen - used on the bus to listen to npr stuff.
  • Locale - handy for making sure my ringer is turned off and such  <-- No longer free and I don't feel like it is worth the $10 that they want for it now.
    • GPS Plug-in
    • Sync Plug-in
    • Tweet Plug-in
  • Maps - has the navigation that has been useful running around town
  • Maverick Lite - cool, but unused as a compas
  • Metal Detector - fun party trick
  • MountUSB - used for adding music to droid
  • My Tracks - cool for tracking exercise distances
  • NetCounter
  • NetTools
  • OpenSudoku - fun
  • Orienteer - allows to see raw GPS data
  • OurGroceries - my wife has the iPhone/iPod version and this makes shopping a lot easier
  • Pandora - I only use on wifi, but I love Pandora radio
  • Mobile - only used once, but it works
  • Pkt Auctions eBay - might use more if I wasn't broke
  • Places Directory - used to find food while traveling
  • Power Save - nice widget that provides the same functions that are built into 2.1
  • RTM - the official app for the RTM website, it is a pay service (yearly) but I am starting to think that it is worth it.  Their to do list is fantastic, by far the best I have ever seen.
  • The Weather Channel - check for dress every morning
  • Twidroid - used all the time.
  • Whack-A-Droid
I am making this list for my own reference as I am going to unlock the phone and load the nexus one rom to it.  I will add a post to update on how that goes.