21 August 2009

Will we pluck the chicken or kill it?

Dear readers,

I have listened with disgust to many of the comments made in the UK and in the Netherlands about the so-called Icesave deal. This is a nasty piece of chauvinistic bullshit if there is one. Let's go back to the facts. In 2007 and 2008, many Dutch and British citizens (as well as most Icelandic people) subscribed to Landbanski saving accounts which were proposing extraordinary returns, far above the (then already quite high) market interest rates. Unfortunately for them, such rates could only be achieved through a semi-pyramidal scheme, part of the returns being funded by capital being invested by the new customers. Please note that each national group of citizens was also relying on guarantees from their respective national finance regulators. This lasted until the now infamous credit crisis burst, leaving thousands of people with virtually nothing left of their savings.

Obviously, these customers turned back to their state and activated the refund requests linked to the national guarantee. Some of them, however, had invested amounts in the Landbanski scheme that were higher than the national guarantee limit. They lost a lot of money, on top of the promised interests. Understandably, these citizens and the public organisations that had imitated them (regional councils, towns and other districts) were quite angry at the Icelandic banks for having failed them, despite the fact that they should probably have known better. There is indeed no such thing as a saving system which can deliver twice the market interest rate.

However, things became uglier. Hit by a triple bank failure (aggravated by the UK uncompromising attitude), the Icelandic currency lost most of its value and the Icelandic economy collapsed. Iceland new government and its citizens, understanding for the first time that their previous go-it-alone policy was not protecting them in times of crisis, decided to apply for EU membership. The reasoning is that the European Union, particularly its monetary aspects (the Euro), could protect them in the future from similar disasters. This was favourably seen by most EU member states (in normal times, Iceland would be a net contributor to the EU budget). But the UK and Netherlands, were both governments are in difficult electoral situations, facing strong populist criticisms, vocally requested that Iceland first reimburse the sums they had advanced themselves to their duped citizens. This is called the Icesave package deal and is currently being discussed by the Iceland Parliament, the Athling (the oldest Parliament in the world).

This is unfortunately probably going to derail the whole process. EU membership negotiations were already going to be difficult, due to a understandable worries from the Icelandic fishery sector. But the new British and Dutch exigences are enraging an already touchy Icelandic public opinion. And I can only give my support to the unfortunate Icelandic citizens. Why on Earth, when they are already down, highly indebted and suffering from a terrible crisis, should they be forced to support the costs of guarantees that were passed by other governments. Why should they pay for the misdeeds of a private bank which only happens to share a geographic situation with them. Why should they be asked to cover on their own money the risks taken by other people? Why should they in other words, pay for the greed of fellow Europeans? I see no ethical basis for this. I don't see any legal reason for this either. On the contrary, I believe that we should rather give a shoulder to fellow Europeans, especially at a time when everyone is suffering. That's what solidarity is for. That's what the EU is for: being stronger together, not screwing the weakest link...

19 August 2009

Android Review

Dear readers,

As some of you might now, I got myself a new mobile phone while renewing my phone subscription. After long and careful consideration about which phone was on offer by my provider, as well as my own budget (which is as usual on the tight side), I decided to go for the much touted HTC G2 "Hero". The important thing about this phone is not just the specifications, but the operating system.

The HTC Hero makes full use of the latest version of Google's Android OS, dubbed Cupcake (a Linux related operating system for mobile and smart phones). It does so via its own HTC Sense interface which is basically an integration of Android to the HTC Hero. Before going any further in this review, let me state a couple of points first: I am a Google fan in many ways (although I don't like everything they do) and I enjoy gadgets of all types very much. All in all, I am extremely happy with the HTC acquisition and I plan to keep it for a good while. This said, I am also going to bitch a bit about what I don't like in both, so get ready.

First, let's have a look at the goodies (and there is a whole lot of them).

The phone is big, without being heavy (135 grams) or unhandy. It has a kind of bended shape at the bottom, which is not unpleasant and makes it feel like an actual phone, not just another IPhone copy. The screen is rectangular, with an 81 mm (3.2 inches) diagonal and a fairly standard 480 * 320 pixels resolution. The brightness is good and makes it easy to read even without the backlight option on, unless in bright sun light, of course. There is a mini-mouse ball for navigation, six buttons and no keyboard. Input is done via the touchscreen. The only plugs are a semi standard USB 2 and a headphone jack. A 5 Mega pixel video camera is included, as well as a slot for mini HD SD memory card (filled with a 2 Gigabytes one). I immediately replaced the SD card by an 8 G one, because I was planning to listen to music on this new toy. ;-)

All in all, I have used this phone for four days now, and it feels great. As a phone it is doing its job nicely, calling and receiving calls is going fine and the sound is crisp. Messaging is also quite handy and the OS shines already at this stage with its integrated way of guessing words for you as you type, but without imposing a solution on you (assuming you are typing in the language you indicated in the settings). I mention both of these because in these days of smart phones, people and especially salesmen tend to forget that a mobile is primarily this: a bloody telephone. As another side comment, I should also add that the battery life is really good. I was a bit afraid of this in the first place, but I was happily surprised. Despite using the phone intensively (including some of the most power intensive options I am going to mention later), the battery lasts easily a full work day and more. This means you can load your phone during night or in the morning, go to work with it and use it a lot, come back home, continue using it and only have to put it on the (USB type plug) loader at night again or the morning after. This is a major plus point, I think.

The applications and the OS are also a blast. The camera works fine and uses a second or two delay as default, which is handy in most situations where one might want to use a phone camera. The video is ok too, but this is not the most interesting use of the HTC Hero lenses in any way... The interface uses finger gliding/tapping or the mouse ball. Both work very well, although I have to say that my greasy fingers are not really helping on the touchscreen. Tapping to type is going well, as I already mentioned. The Android "desktop" functions pretty much as one virtual scrolling screen made of seven times the actual HTC screen. The central panel is linked to the home button and shows the WiFi switch, the Browser the Mail application, the Contact list, the SMS launcher and an analog watch per default. There are also three virtual buttons in the lower bar (the application list, the phone mode and the "add icon or widget" button). The higher bar is a status one, which can be expended, and proves highly useful to open incoming messages, alerts and other notifications directly.

Other panels show a couple of other icons and widgets (weather forecast for your location, web search, camera and music). I have to say something about the music listener application. The way it works is really the most user friendly you can imagine. To load music on the phone: just plug the HTC on a USB port on your PC (it will use this to reload too, by the way) and use copy paste from a PC window to the HTC window. Once the transfer has occurred, unplug the phone and voilà: the music is found, recognized, sorted by meta tags and ready to play. All basic options are there: play lists, shuffle, repeat and so on. The sound is excellent and the provided headphones are of decent quality. Volume can be changed via the phone side button reserved to this use. A remote on the headphones allows the following actions: play or stop/pause, forward and backward.

Of course, maybe the most interesting aspect of Android is the number of applications you can download from the "Market" to the phone and use almost immediately. Thanks to Google's open policy, these are mostly free (although many of them are not, ranging from 1 to 5 or 6 Euros, there is pretty much two free equivalent for each paying one). They cover all kinds of software and uses, from the obvious productivity applications to the silliest games or "social networking" fads.

Speaking about fashion, the latest and maybe most impressive type of application available on the Android market are the ones called "augmented reality". Some predict this will be the new step beyond Web 2.0. I honestly don't know, but it certainly looks cool. There are two major applications in this range (and only available on Android, as far as I know): Layar, a Dutch system, and Austrian made Wikitude. There used to be a Japanese one, but it seems to not have survived the recent credit crisis. What do they do? Well, they make use of the GPS receiver, the accelerometer and the video camera or the HTC Hero to actually display layers of web based information directly on the live video images of your surroundings displayed by the camera. The best comparison I have seen to described this is the images taken in the movie Terminator, when the spectator gets to peek from the Terminator point of view. They don't see only the video image of what the robot perceives, but also all kinds of (con)textual information about its targets and environment. Augmented reality applications do exactly that. Most use a simple search for geolocated elements on the web (such as Wikipedia locations, Google map searches and so on). But, as demonstrated by Layar, any provider of such layers can have its specific information displayed on their software platform (presumably via their own API).

Now let's have a look at the bad sides.

The first negative, although it is a minor thing, is the fact that the screen is only 3.2 inches, instead of the massive 3.5 showed by the IPhone. It might not be much, but it is visible and not irrelevant in terms of reading comfort. This said, it has a positive side as it is easier to hold than the Apple product, especially for someone like me with less than average size hands. Still in the usability issues, the volume button that I mentioned above is not so obvious to use and a bit poorly designed. But again, no big deal and more a matter of getting used to it.

There are more annoyances on the software side, unfortunately. Again, please remember that most of this if not all comes for free, so it is a bit like complaining about a present somebody made to you... But still, for the sake of software improvement, it needs to be said. First, and at least for my provider, Skype is not allowed to function with Voice over IP via the WiFi. I can understand the economic rational behind this, but it made me a sad panda. ;-)

The second and probably most annoying issue is the browser. It is full of bugs in my opinion. I know it is based on a much acclaimed system (which is also used on the IPhone), but still I hate it. Despite claims of the contrary in the settings, I can't have the home page stick at all. Cache refreshing happens when it wants (pretty much never), which makes AJAX software nearly unusable. I see that there are other browsers available on the Android Market, and I certainly intend to test them. At the moment and the way it is designed, the default one is sub par. Another bad thing with it is that the button you normally use to close an application (the left arrow) is also the "Go back" button in the browser. I haven't find a decent way of going around this. Frankly, this is poor design.

A thing I also found annoying in Android is that, despite the fact the software is a Google based product, Google applications are not supported that well. Of course, Gmail and Google Calendar are standard, as well as YouTube and Google Map (which makes great use of the GPS) and you can add easily Google Finance and a couple of others. But I find unfortunate that Google Reader has no dedicated application nor a widget and that there is no free application allowing to synchronize your Google To-Do List. I couldn't find anything to synchronize bookmarks either, but i haven't researched the issue in details either. I eventually settled for the free and excellent NewsRob application which integrates very well with Google Reader and I am using the pretty good Astrid app for the To-Do List (although it does not synchronize with Google To-Do list on iGoogle). And I know that I could use both these applications through the browser. But after what I said about the standard browser, I guess you will understand why I refuse to do so (and why it wouldn't work too well, considering the caching issues). Also, using the browser involves at least one or two extra clicks or taps and I think there is no best way to kill user friendliness.

Last but not least, Picasa is poorly supported. Although it is supposed to natively integrate with the Android Albums photo library, this is not easy to find out and even worse executed. I could not make it work at all, for some reason, and I ended up canceling the picture upload. Strangely enough, Facebook and Flickr uploads are also natively supported and work better... 8-\

Apart from these glitches and minor annoyances, I would conclude this (too) long review by saying that the HTC Hero with Android and HTC Sense is a great smart phone with a fantastic piece of software running on it. And I haven't tried all of it yet, by far... So I would highly recommend it. And for the budget conscious like me, I would even go as far as saying that it is superior to the Apple IPhone.

17 August 2009

There Is Honor Amongst Thieves

Dear readers,

I read this morning that Mikhail Khodorovski has refused to request the pardon of Dimitri Medvedev, as hinted by the current Russian President. Khodorovski is doing an 8 year jail term in Russia for alleged tax evasion and he is being currently tried for a second set of fraud and embezzlement accusations. This second set is just as likely to end up in a conviction and a maximum 20 year cumulative sentence, considering the level of independence of the Russian justice system.

So why would a (relatively) young man like Khodorovski refuse to ask for a pardon which could prevent him for spending most of his life in a Russian dungeon? The risks of doing so are minimal, considering he will be convicted anyway. And Medvedev would have never hinted at it if he was not intending to give such a pardon, at least after a while. Well, Khodorovski himself gave the answer: to ask for a pardon in Russia, like in most other countries, you need to recognize that you were guilty in the first place. There is no way Mikhail Khodorovski will do this any time soon. While the ex-tycoon is certainly no saint and probably did commit some of the infractions he is accused of (and maybe some others), there is also no illusion for anyone that these convictions are purely motivated by the wish of the Putin Clan to rule Russia unopposed.

This has been Khodorovski leitmotiv for the last four or five years and he is unlikely to change his speech. Because that's pretty much all he has left. He lost his freedom when he was arrested then, all his fortune disappeared in the trial or was confiscated by the Russian authorities or distributed as spoils to Russian companies nearer to the Kremlin. All he has left, apart from his life, is his "honor". Likely a thief honor, after all, but honor nonetheless. And in a society such as Russia, this still counts. It is his name, after all. The other thieves are giving him the opportunity to exchange his honor against his life (because he won't ever be free, even out of jail, they will see to that). And he refused.

So here I am, saluting a true man who refuses to bend. Good luck Mikhail. You will need a lot of it.