Samsung Galaxy Nexus: my review

It’s a little over three weeks since I made the bold decision to sever links from the iPhone in favour of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Here’s a brief account of the reasons, and my experience thus far.

So first of all, why? I was previously on an iPhone 3GS. Each iOS upgrade came with new functionality but degraded the speed, and towards the end, the operating system became unacceptably slow to the point that a hardware upgrade was necessary. (When did we start talking in this way with respect to phones?)

My immediate question was this: should I upgrade to the 4S or should I wait for the next Apple phone release? Decisions, decisions. But then I realised how stupid I was being. Apple had brainwashed me, or perhaps I’d brainwashed myself, into thinking there were no alternatives to the iPhone. So I searched beyond the walls of the mothership.

Before doing so, I double-clicked the iPhone Home button. This told me which apps I used, in the order in which I’d last accessed them. And it soon transpired that the vast majority of apps I accessed had Android equivalents, most of which were free. My only area of concern was mobile music. More on that later.

The only viable alternative to me seemed to be an Android phone. And it soon came down to a toss-up between three phones: the Galaxy SII, the Nexus S and the Galaxy Nexus. Without having seen a Nexus beyond the odd billboard ad, I opted for this. It was new, it was cool, and it had Ice Cream Sandwich, whatever that may mean.

And so far, I adore it. Here’s why.

First, navigation. There is a three-button screen-based navigation bar that comes with the operating system. It sits at the bottom (or to the side in landscape mode) of each app, and allows you to do three things: go back; go home; or go to a screen allowing you to scroll through your open apps. The back button works within the app you’re in; the other two take you beyond that app. And they sit together beautifully. They make sense.

Next: sharing. The operating system is beautiful for sharing stuff. In-app buttons invite you to share using the apps and accounts you’ve connected to the phone or the technology that it comes with. Clicking on a tweet, I can immediately share it using: Bluetooth, Facebook, Gmail, Google+, SMS, Facebook Messenger, Note (a Post-It app), Twitter itself or WordPress. For me, photos have further options of Picasa, Flickr or Send to BBC News. It’s just so simple and accessible. And I use it lots.

Next: notifications. They’re reliable, obvious yet unobtrusive. They sit in a little bar at the top of the screen and you can ignore them or investigate them. They just work. I found that beyond email and calendar, iPhone notifications were unreliable. And the grouping of apps that came later versions of the OS didn’t sit well with the red dot that appeared when apps had notifications. Android seems to have this nailed.

Now: the camera. Comparing it to the 3GS camera, my early view is that the photos are a lot clearer. And there’s a lush feature that allows you to capture panoramas from the onboard camera app. Here’s a rather good example that I took at the weekend.

Finally: Google. I find using Gmail is a dream compared to the iPhone equivalent app. That said, the Google Calendar app. is appalling and needs an overhaul. I’m sure that’s on its way. And somewhat oddly, I don’t enjoy the Google Maps app. quite as much as I did the iPhone equivalent. But the difference here is minimal.

The only big drawback thus far is music. I’ve tried using Songbird, but haven’t yet had sufficient time (nor inclination) to figure out whether this is my solution. Early tests suggest that its conversion of AAC files to MP3s can chop off a bit from the start and end of the track. But there’s more work to be done on this front.

Thus far, the experience has been utterly pleasurable. I urge you to think outside the box.

Update: the only specific comparison I made between the 3GS and the Nexus related to the camera. This is somewhat unfair, as the iPhone 3GS had a three megapixel still camera, while the iPhone 4 comes with an eight megapixel one. (The Nexus camera is five megapixels.) All other comparisons are valid, as they refer to the operating system and apps, rather than the hardware itself.

Are failing handwriting skills a bad thing?

One of the big educational focus areas for my daughter (aged five) right now is handwriting: being able to write the alphabet and write words. She has fun learning, as do I with her. But in today’s computerised world, is the art of forming letters a means to an end, or an end in itself? And do failing standards in this area matter?

There was an article recently in the Sydney Morning Herald asking this very question. It tells of senior students who are unable to write quickly or fluently, and indicates that “the finger is being pointed at technology”.

I don’t like the blaming nature of this statement. Is this lack of ability a bad thing?

Occasionally in a work setting, I’ll stand up at a whiteboard and write some stuff. And I’ll occasionally write something down on a scrap of paper if I’m out of reach of my laptop. But otherwise, handwriting doesn’t feature in my day-to-day working life. Nor does it in that of most people I know. Outside of work, I’ll write some Christmas cards and the odd birthday card. And I probably write 15 cheques per year. But beyond that, there’s little writing going on.

My guess is that handwriting during the early years of education is important to help kids to recognise letters and to bring together the worlds of the spoken word and the written word (be it handwritten or typed). Yes, it’s a useful skill to have. But if it fails with lack of practice, I don’t see this as a bad thing. As long as that education serves as a useful platform for learning how to read and spell, then the job is served.

My guess is that during her formal education, handwriting will feature less and less with time. And typing will feature more and more. I would much rather she left school being able to type quickly and fluently than being able to handwrite similarly.

I’d be interested in how the average words-per-minute typing metric has changed over time, as opposed to looking purely at the falling standards of writing.

(As an aside, I’d be interested in understanding why children learn to write the letter “a” differently to its standard printed form.)

@LiamStacey9

On Saturday, the news of Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest during the Tottenham–Bolton FA Cup tie flooded through Twitter. The news itself was deeply shocking. And the vast majority of people’s tweets on the subject were respectful.

But there were a couple of tweets from one Twitter account in particular that were deeply offensive. The account, @LiamStacey9, has since been closed, likely by the user himself.

The tweets themselves are not fit for publishing here. They were disrespectful, deeply offensive, racist and suggested that Muamba had died. (The good news today is that Muamba has been speaking, and his condition has improved from critical to serious.)

Stan Collymore forwarded the tweets on to South Wales police.

In news that I expect is related, Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old student from Pontypridd, appeared at Swansea magistrates’ court yesterday and admitted a racially-aggravated public order offence. He will be sentenced on 27 March and has been told that he could be jailed over the comments.

Stacey will have a criminal record for the rest of his life. He may spend some time in prison. And he’ll likely lose his place at university. In one short moment, his life was changed forever.

I am not sad about this. His comments were offensive and my view is that legal action is appropriate. Online hate is rife, and when this is combined with racial abuse, it is simply unacceptable. In fact, even without racism, my view is that more should be done to close down on mindless hatred.

Since the developments, online trolls have started popping up, publishing Stacey’s address on the internet and basically inviting people to take the law into their own hands. This sort of behaviour is, in my view, no better than Stacey’s behaviour at the outset.

I watched with interest this evening (on iPlayer) Richard Bacon’s exposé of online trolls. The key takeaway for me was that it seems that these people are not aware of the damage they cause. And where they troll celebrities, they believe that the celebrities are deserving of the abuse, almost simply for being in the public eye.

Online hate is a big problem. Children, adults, celebrities and people outside of the public eye are all victims. The trouble is: those that dole out the abuse don’t seem to be the sorts of people who care.

Creative drawing: disorder wins the day

This afternoon, I sat down and did some freestyle colouring with my daughter.

Now anyone who knows me well will know that my artistic skills are close to non-existent. My elder brother took whatever genes existed in the artistic field—his abilities in this area are vast. Whatever was left when I came along was rather paltry. Hopefully I excel in other areas.

That aside, we broke open the brand new Crayola felt-tips and the rather tired A3 sketching pad and started creating.

Now to be clear, my lack of skills in this area are twofold: both my imagination and my drawing abilities are shit.

We flicked through the pad, searching for a blank page. (My daughter is not particularly methodical in using the paper in the order in which it was bound.) We happened upon a double-blank, so I took the page to the left of the spine; she the right.

Now my daughter has a penchant of late for drawing flowers, so we started drawing our own pictures geared to this theme. And the differences between our respective creations are palpable.

First, my effort.

I think it’s quite clear what it is. We have a flower, a butterfly, a rain cloud (with accompanying rain), a sun, a wiggly worm and some grass. That is all. Both the petals of the flower and the wings of the butterfly have been coloured in an orderly fashion, using dots instead of solid colour. And the grass and sun are similarly uniform.

Now to my daughter (soon to be five).

She went for four flowers, of varying colours. She drew both a wiggly worm and a snail (the snail seemingly winning the race at the time of drawing), and three each of butterflies (pink, top) and dragonflies (red, beneath). Two rain clouds (“rain is good for the flowers”) topped with a blue sky and the sun in the corner. The ground from which the flowers are growing undulates beautifully.

Despite her still being four, and despite my being more than 33 years older than her, my daughter’s picture is better than mine. By a country mile. And I’m delighted about this.

It has more imagination, more flair, more risks have been taken, there is less unnecessary order. And quite simply, stripping out any paternal bias, it’s more pleasing to look at than is mine.

The afternoon continued in the same vein. A castle, a princess to name but a couple. My creations were orderly and dull. Hers were haphazard and wonderful.

That said, a lovely afternoon was had by all concerned.

Speed tests

In my last year of junior school (Year Six, as people of today’s era might call it), I was in form J3Sn. Year three of junior school, in the class of Jack “Sandbags” Sanderson. Our nickname for him wasn’t much cop, thinking about it retrospectively.

I remember he gave maths tests. But instead of being held in class and set against a reasonable time limit, I vaguely remember them being held outside of class, and the whole objective was to finish them in record time. Literally against a stopwatch. Rather unimaginatively, they were called “speed tests”. (My romanticism over the last 29 years (ouch!) thought they were called something more artistic than that. But alas not.)

I revelled in these. The sense of competition combined with my penchant for numbers made for a lovely combination.

In all walks of education, there should be a sense of competition introduced at varying levels. While it’s good practice to ensure that students have a grasp of what is being taught, I think it’s also useful to add a dimension to the learning experience for students, particularly in binary subjects like maths (ones where, largely, you’re either right or wrong).

Regular tests are an onus to the student (and the teacher, I guess). They pit the student against the teacher. (And most of the time, the student has no interest in being pitted against the teacher.) By and large, the student is simply trying to do well in the test.

By bringing in the time element, it suddenly becomes a competition between the students. The dynamic changes dramatically.

I remember both the speed tests and Mr Sanderson fondly. I hope my daughter enjoys similarly inspiring moments during her own education.

Simon Yadav

I went to school with a boy called Simon Yadav. He was doubtless the most academically gifted kid in our year, and I expect he would have won that award had he been in any of the years above and below ours.

I remember him as a quiet, unassuming boy, hard-working, diligent and always happy to help others with their work. He excelled in sciences, maths in particular, and I remember vying with him and Liam Sutton for mathematical honours in our early senior school years, class 1C in particular.

As for Oxbridge, the only uncertainty with Simon was which of the two would be graced with his presence.

But Simon was murdered in Bradford Interchange on his way home from school one Wednesday, midway through his senior school career, cutting horribly short the life of someone with so much to offer, both academically and as a person.

I often think of Simon, and what he might be doing now had events been different. A search for his name in Google doesn’t yield any results that pertain to him. (This post will hopefully change that.) How things would have been different…

How Apple ruined my music collection

When I was young, I, like many, used to record songs that I liked from Radio 1’s Top 40 countdowns on Sunday evenings. The art lied in capturing as much of the song as possible, while avoiding the dulcet tones of Bruno Brookes. The result was a mini-mixtape that lasted until the following Sunday.

Over time, I moved on to records, grooved circular pieces of vinyl seven or 12 inches in diameter that used to be read by a needle to play music. And then on to CDs.

Throughout that time, I knew what music I owned. Arguably, during the Brookes era, I couldn’t quite tell you what was on the TDK D90 at any point in time. But certainly thereafter, I knew what music I owned, and I knew what music I didn’t own. My CDs were arranged alphabetically by artist. Things were just lovely.

Then along came Apple.

I copied all of the CDs I owned to my computer and uploaded them all to iTunes. In the early days of iPods, storage exceeded my music collection, so I generally kept my iPod in sync with iTunes. The lack of an internet connection on the iPod meant that all music was bought from the computer, and everything was pretty sweet.

Then came the iPhone. Now importantly this came with two features that destroyed my music collection: an internet connection; and more limited storage than its iPod predecessor.

The internet connection meant that suddenly, music could be bought on the move and downloaded to my mobile device unbeknownst to iTunes. And the more limited storage meant that no longer could the two music libraries be kept in sync. My PC-based music collection was bigger than my iPhone could cope with.

So manual sync-ing ensued, as indeed did chaos. There was a manual process in copying items bought on the move back to iTunes. And there was subjectivity and manual intervention in deciding which songs were worthy of transferring to the iPhone.

There was no longer a definitive location for my music. I couldn’t turn to a proverbial CD rack to find an album or song.

The problem has been exacerbated by my recent move away from Apple. In moving to Android, I’ve had to hack my music out of iTunes and into a new format. I’m not sure exactly what’s happened technically, but a very slow process has meant that thus far, a small proportion of my music has made its way across to Songbird, an Android music app. In so doing, for some reason, some songs have lost a split second from the beginning. I’m hoping this is resolvable by following a different process in moving away from iTunes.

But the bottom line is, I don’t know what I own any more. I don’t know where that music is. And I don’t quite know whether music I’ve bought via Apple is legally allowed to be used outside of Apple.

And that’s not good. Apple ruined my music collection.

Freedom of expression and anonymity

Freedom of expression has interested me for a long time. As a society, we promote it, but we only do so to certain levels. Inciting hatred through racism, for example is illegal. And rightly so, in my view.

The opposite of freedom of expression is effectively censorship, either proactively in the form of the law, or reactively in the form of suppressing the speech of those speaking out in spite of the law.

In my view, it’s important that the point at which the law sits on that scale is close to the end labelled “freedom of expression”. It should, however, fall short of mindless verbal abuse and verbal bullying, both of which should be stamped out of society, ideally by peer pressure, but failing that by law.

But here’s the important point. Wherever we draw the line between freedom of expression and censorship, things that are said in a relatively public forum should be identifiable to us as individuals. Because failing that, we descend into a world where unqualified personal abuse is accepted. And that’s not a healthy place to be.

Imagine if newspapers and their journalists were not accountable for the things they published. They would become yet more despicable than many have proven themselves to already be. Yet the same should be true of other, more modern publishing mediums. By writing up to 140 characters on Twitter, I am firmly of the view that you should be able to stand behind those comments, both as a member of the human race and as a law-abiding citizen of the world. (The first is a point of principle; the second is a point of law.)

If your views will not be tolerated by your employer, then it’s time to temper the publishing of those views. Or it’s time to find a more liberal employer. You should be able to freely express yourself without damaging the reputation of your employer. It might be a delicate balance, but that is one of your responsibilities as an employee, I guess.

Unless you have your account set such (and the vast majority of people don’t), comments on Twitter about specific individuals can be searched for by those individuals, and can cause pain. They cannot be treated as private conversations that might be had down the pub. Yet the legal accountability associated with tweets is not as far progressed as that associated with news articles. The law will catch up, and it’s important that it does. Stan Collymore’s outing of racially abusive commenters is one example of this.

Now this all gets rather more interesting when you bring Facebook into play. Arguably, Facebook allows a more more closed conversation than does Twitter. Facebook is more pub-like in its approach to sharing, or probably more accurately a speech at a house party to which you’ve invited everyone you know (and some you barely know). Should comments on people’s protected Facebook walls be subject to legal scrutiny in the same way as tweets are? I’m not sure of the answer to this.

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts? Do people think that Twitter should allow fully anonymous tweeting that flouts laws about freedom of expression, or promotes the abuse of people without any recourse of accountability? And what of Facebook?

Is minimising your tax bill a bad thing?

I read with interest yesterday morning a post by my friend Paul Clarke. It was vehement in its anger towards the messaging used by a wealth management company in its direct mailing to him.

The mailing was encouraging him to work within the law to minimise the tax that might be payable on his estate should he die.

The post, together with a subsequent email discussion with another friend, prompted some thoughts of my own on the subject—which are shared here.

There are two axes at work here. (Axes of the horizontal and vertical variety, as opposed to their sharp, woodcutting namesakes.) These are: what is legal; and what is morally right.

Although the legal axis might be argued as being binary, my view is that there are levels of breaking the law, particularly in the world of financial crime. The severity of crime committed, the level to which it is committed and the intent behind the crime all play into this. A small business owner who forgets to return their VAT return is technically committing a crime, but is arguably less of a criminal than Bernard Madoff.

As for the moral angle, this is open to debate. Many would argue that operating within the law to protect money that they have built up over the course of their life is morally defensible. I’m not quite sure whether Paul has an issue with this premise, or whether his issue is with the barefaced marketing encouraging him to do so.

Likewise, many would argue that small business owners paying themselves dividends in addition to salaries to reduce the overall levels of tax paid passes some level of moral judgment. After all, they’re hard-working small business owners, helping to keep the economy afloat.

Yet some of those very same people are outraged when the likes of Barclays and Vodafone also operate within the bounds of the law to minimise the size of their own respective cheques to HMRC.

Paul’s stance (which I’ve extrapolated from his post) is admirable: if you save your relatives a tax bill by pre-emptively protecting your estate from the taxman, you reduce the funding of public services, which is a bad thing.

But just as with voting, people will see their own contribution as trivial in the grand scheme of things. If HMRC’s annual tax take was represented by an Olympic-size swimming pool, then a teaspoon of water would equate to £1,032.34. So a £10,000 tax saving equates to a double spirit shot; a £100,000 saving being a little over a pint. Who’ll notice if I take a pint of water out of the swimming pool? And who’ll notice if I take £100,000 out of HMRC’s tax take?

And I think it’s this force that’s at play here. Assuming people think this deeply, the thought is that the benefit that the extra money can bring to their family is immeasurably greater than the tiny benefit that can be brought when the money is diluted in helping the rest of the country.

Maybe the opposite ends of this decision represent the true difference between conservatism and liberalism. Although I for one see myself as relatively liberal yet I can see myself managing my finances in line with the premise outlined by the wealth management company mentioned above.

Does that make me a bad person?

All socialed out

The people I know are, on average, more technically savvy than the average person in the UK. And I am, I would say, more technically savvy than the average person I know. Yet I am confused.

For me, there are too many technologies for me to keep up with. And there are two platforms in particular that have tipped me over the edge: Pinterest and Tumblr.

In all honesty, I can’t be arsed. I do Twitter—my 17,417 tweets are testament to that. And I do Facebook, in a rather half-arsed way. And yes, I blog, albeit less vociferously than I have done: 1,766 posts over the last seven and a half years.

And for me, from a social perspective, that’s enough. I use other tools professionally—Google Apps, Dropbox to name but a couple. But socially, for me, there isn’t space for anything else in the virtual world.

Twitter fuels my interest in things. And Facebook fuels my interest in people.

There are overlaps. But Twitter is not sufficient to fulfil my online friendship needs (although over time, it’s become more important in this regard). And Facebook certainly isn’t sufficient to fulfil my interests (and this position has changed little over time).

Pinterest, Tumblr, Posterous, Google+, Yammer. Maybe I’m missing out by not participating. But to be frank, I have neither the time nor, more to the point, the inclination.