Hans D. Baumeister

Hans D. Baumeister

Three months with Alexa

At our annual sales kickoff in January, I was the lucky winner of an Amazon Dot. The Dot is the slimmed-down version of the Echo, and my expectations were high.
I was concerned that the device wouldn't function at all, as I live in Germany, but that concern was completely unnecessary - Alexa takes commands both in English and German!

You really have to define your query or command very clearly, however. Any deviation into dialect or changing the speaking rhythm leaves Alexa clueless.

While you can add new capabilites ("skills") to Alexa, many of these will likely be as forgotten as that odd app you installed on your smartphone but don't use because it is on the 5th app page…

All in all, I'm glad the device was free, as I would have been disappointed by a purchased version. Alexa (and speech command technology) has a long way to go, obviously!

WhatsApp App for iPad - a Warning

If you use an iPad with an excellent keyboard as I do, then a strong desire to use WhatsApp on the iPad rather than on the iPhone with its completely unusable on-screen keyboard is a natural result.

Until recently, WhatsApp was only installable on the iPad using various tricks, as the communication software is supposed to be locked to a particular ID (the mobile number). With the advent of WhatsApp software on the Mac (and on Windows) that connects to the mobile phone via a unique 2-D barcode identifier, a mechanism was created to make an online version of WhatsApp possible.

This online version is accessed - from an iPad or any other internet-connected tablet - via
https://web.whatsapp.com which makes the well-known interface available in the web browser (likely running on HTML5, but I haven't looked). The connection to the phone is made - just like with the software - via a 2-D barcode.

It works quite well, albeit being a bit slow in scrolling and selecting emoticons (on an iPad Air 2). So far so good. Of course, a thought crosses one's mind once the elation has ebbed back to normal levels: "if they can display all my message contents in a web browser, who says they can't read them, too?". I'll have to research that a bit more, I guess for now I'll have to believe that decryption is done on the iPad… hmm…

So if there is software for Mac (and PC), Facebook could have released an iOS iPad app, right? Off to the app store I went. A Facebook-authored app isn't available, but there are apps that bring WhatsApp to the iPad just the same.

I'm willing to bet that all these apps do is provide an iFrame-like mechanism to "beam" the web.whatsapp.com site into an app and add advertising (and an optional in-app purchase to remove it). Do you need that? No, certainly not. These apps do not add any value on top of what Facebook offers in the original http site. I'm sure the other, available apps work in the same way - they all have the exact same interface as the web app, sometimes with different colors (which you can change via CSS).

No value is added for the user, but there is plenty of additional value for the app developer, of course. Take this app as an example: "
iPad Messenger for WhatsApp - Free by Internet Rocks Inc." If you go on the developer website (https://internet-rocks.com/), you will not find a company address ANYWHERE. Not even in the Privacy Policy or the Terms and Conditions. I'm not a lawyer, but I will bet a tenner that this makes these documents quite irrelevant.

Read the section 1.1 of the
Privacy Policy on the website. The app collects data. Lots of it. Stuff that you don't want a company to know that doesn't even disclose their whereabouts on the planet. When you download the app they get even more data about you (such as your email address).

And they don't even have to keep your data to themselves! In section 2.2d you read that they may share your data "with third party advertising networks and analytics companies as described below." They do go on to state that no personally identifiable data is passed to ad networks or advertisers. Do you believe that, reading it in a privacy policy that doesn't even disclose the address of the programmer?

Honestly, I'm shocked this app slipped through Apple's quality check!

There is zero need for this app, as anyone with a halfway modern tablet (HTML5-browser) can use the website provided by WhatsApp.

Geotagging Photos - Part 3 - Choosing Mac Software

Choosing Software for the Mac

As I've mentioned already, there isn't that much geotagging software available for the Mac. Some of the software is older and doesn't run on current MacOS versions (like El Capitan and Sierra).

Geotagging Photos - Part 2 - Choosing a Tracker

Choosing a GPS Tracker

While Windows users have a few more options here, I use a Mac and the available software for geotagging is a different set than what is available for Windows. With the Mac, you're also somewhat restricted by the available drivers - not every tracker manufacturer has drivers for the Mac, while all of them have drivers for Windows (which doesn't mean they work!).

For a while, I considered getting the Holux M-241


Video Editing Experiences

OK, sure, I've used iMovie multiple times to put together YouTube videos or add together a few clips with fadeovers to a single movie to share within the family. Nothing complicated, and iMovie is great for that.

This summer, however, I agreed to film three different productions: a children's musical my kids both played in, the leaving-elementary-school musical my daughter played in and a play performed by the local junior acting group during our wine fest. I figured I could produce at least decent quality video with my Canon 60D, though I realized the built-in microphone would never cut the cake.

So I picked up a
Røde SVM Pro and did some tests during the final practice session of the children's musical. Even with the excellent Røde mic, you run into some beams when you film using the 60D. For one thing, getting your levels right on the 60D with the regular firmware is really not easy, as you don't see the level meters while filming (why not, Canon - was it really that hard to program???). I did some research on the web and found Magic Lantern, an alternate firmware add-on for the 60D that gives you a lot of info on screen as you film. However, that add-on isn't flashed into the camera, it loads off the SD card every time the camera restarts. Which means once you swap SD cards with one that doesn't have the software on it, and you're SoL.

To make a long story short, I ended up reading a lot of articles and watching a lot of videos on different external recording devices and ended up buying the Tascam ___, which has a lot of nifty features and is made to be used in exactly such a setting. You screw your DSLR on top of the Tascam and it onto your tripod. Connect the Røde into channels 3+4 on the recorder and a stereo cable from the recorder DSLR audio output to the external mic jack on the 60D and you're all set to go.

One issue that even Magic Lantern doesn't fix is the 4GB recording limit on the 60D (or any other DSLR you care to use). Obviously so, as that limit, which gives you around 12 minutes of recording time, doesn't originate from some obscure law that doesn't permit longer recordings than 12 minutes on a DSLR (as some internet accounts will want you to believe) - the issue is that with all current DSLRs going by the
DCF standard, the file system used for the 60D SD-Card is FAT32 (or some variant of that)! This damn format as been around since MS-DOS, folks! The problem is simple, of course: a standard Windows system (which, unfortunately, a good percentage of DSLR users are stuck with) can't read any modern file systems other than NTFS (which, in itself, is from the 90's). And FAT32 (or even ExFAT) simply can't deal with a file larger than 4GB.

So now there is an issue: after about 12 minutes, the camera recording just stops. There isn't an option to have it restart with a new file, either (in Magic Lantern, this can be selected). Not only would I have to be quite wary about the current recording to end, but also how would I fill the gaps between one recording and the next? Even if I cought the end of the recording immediately - or stopped it manually to restart, there would be a gap in the video of a couple of seconds. The need for a second camera became obvious. Keep vigilant to catch either the end of the recording time for a segment or stop it at an opportune moment and make sure the second camera was already running to make up for the missing material.

That sounds complicated, but with a bit of practice, it actually isn't that difficult. I ended up running up to three cameras at once: the 60D, my Fujifilm X100T and a (borrowed) Panasonic HD mini-camcorder. That plus the Tascam recording from the Røde Mic. In one recording session (the musical was performed four times), I even plugged into the AV mixer to record the direct wireless headset mikes onto tracks 1&2.

I used a similar setup with the other two events (sans the direct AV mixer input), leaving me with three projects to put together into one contiguous video each. And this is where things got really hard.

The version of iMovie I have on my laptop is the newest one from the App Store. And instead of making things better, Apple apparently really dumbed this software down. I have seen YouTube videos of people showing iMovie 11 doing multiple camera editing… something the current version isn't able to do. Why, Apple??? Oh, I get it - to sell more copies of Final Cut Pro, of course!

I started researching again. There are actually quite a lot of different video editing packages available for Mac computers - from very simple (and relatively inexpensive) products to professional software costing upwards of €800. Final Cut Pro runs €300, so it is actually "reasonable" in comparison. I tried a software called
Filmora Video Editor, which permits editing with multiple camera streams and even multiple audio streams. Unfortunately, this software failed for me as it doesn't how the waveform in the audio streams (required to sync up audio and video), and because - for some reason - it produced runaway audio with the audio track (i.e. audio that runs just a fraction of a percent faster than the video and subsequently gets out of sync more and more… sorry, there is probably a pro term for this, but I don't know it).

I checked into some other editors, all in the 20-100€ range, but none cut the cake. Most of them didn't permit multiple camera streams to be added and switched between.

Next, I downloaded the trial version of Final Cut Pro - I was getting desperate. Multi-camera editing is possible in FCP - along with adding separate audio tracks - something which, of course, is quite common in the Video Maker space out there. After seeing
this enlightening video, it seemed that FCP would be the ideal solution, as it even syncs up the different streams by the audio content (along with your audio content). Unfortunately, FCP is quite complex (even though I'm sure Apple has done everything to make it as simple to use as possible) and I wasn't able to get the syncing to work. And then, there is the price, of course.

I'd discovered - again via a
YouTube video I'd come across by searching for multicam editing - ScreenFlow previously, but hadn't tested it yet. After the first fail in FCP, I decided to give it a shot, even though it seemed more a software to produce screen cam movies. Talk about being pleasantly surprised! I'll report on my success (or failure) with this software soon.

Review of LastPass

If you’re looking for password management, please read my review of LastPass, which I can recommend without restrictions.

I’d been using the same - albeit complex - password for nearly all the internet (and intranet) sites I use... with more and more news about cracked servers coming in on a daily basis, I finally decided to do something about the situation.

I researched several sites that reviewed password managers and finally ended up with LastPass, as it fulfills several requirements I have:

  • usability on Mac at least on par with Windows
  • usable on iOS
  • usable on Android
  • auto-fill capability
  • multi-level authentication for security

LastPass ended up covering all of these requirements with bravado. It will auto-fill most webpages you call up automatically; some, it struggles with (strangely enough: my m0n0wall firewall in my local LAN is a candidate), but this is rarely the case.

Also quite nice is the recent addition of autofill on mobile devices, which makes working with passwords a snap for most apps / websites.

When I first signed up (the service costs $12/year, apps are free for all platforms), the safest method for multi-level authentication was a grid (unique to each user) you printed out. To authenticate, LastPass would give you five letter/number combinations which - when followed up on the grid - would generate five alphanumeric characters as an authentication code.

Recently, they have moved to using
Google Authenticator, which reminds me of the RSA SecurID Token used to sign into VPNs. It works like a charm.

To further increase security, you can severely restrict the locale of the IP addresses that can be used to log in. I.e. if you know you’re never going to be in China, you can just close down all Chinese IP addresses as log-in sources. Sure, a Chinese hacker can VPN to an IP address based in Germany, for example, but the mechanism helps.
As the name implies, you do have to give your LastPass account one “last” password that you can easily remember but qualifies for a “safe” password. I.e.: don’t use your cat’s name here, because if someone figures it out, they have access to all of your passwords!

On first installation, LastPass offers to import all passwords from your browser(s). Since I used the browser auto-entry feature extensively, I let LastPass do this. After the fact, I’m not sure if this is a sensible step if you’re using the same password over and over, because you really don’t have much added value. On the other hand, you get a huge list of entries, some of which had up to 10 duplicates in my case, because browsers just don’t do the database thing very well.

LastPass will generate passwords for you; in fact, if you sign up to some service on the internet, LastPass consistently adds a small icon to the right of the fields where you are to enter and confirm the password to be used. I find this quite fascinating, since these fields have all sorts of different labels, etc., but perhaps there is a standard marking used in HTML to designate an entry field for the password.
In any case, if you click on this icon, LastPass will pop up a small window where you can not only generate a random password, but also change the parameters to be used, such as length, wether to make the password pronounceable or wether it can use special characters or not.
Especially the length and special characters settings can be quite important, as there are still services out there that restrict you to, say, 8 letters and/or numbers.

Once you have generated a password for the new service, LastPass offers to save the site (which is something you obviously want to do). You can name the site as you like and also select it as a favorite (which will make it come up at the top of the list in the LastPass panel), as well as assigning a category (such as “Online Shopping”). The categories can be typed in (for new ones) or selected from a dropdown list. They are optional, but very handy.

Perhaps odd at first is the fact that there is no LastPass App for Windows or Mac - you use it from a browser (all relevant browsers are supported). The mobile operating systems do have Apps to make the use simpler on these devices. On the mobile app, you can search for a site, for example (by any of its metadata) and chose “copy password do clipboard” if you need to manually paste it into a service. While you can search for sites in the browser-based “App”, to copy a password you have to open the entry, reveal the password and copy it to the clipboard manually - a bit cumbersome, but you get used to it.

The experience with Apple Safari on the Mac wasn’t so good, but because this is true not just for LastPass, I’ve switched to Firefox a couple of weeks ago. In Firefox, I sometimes have an issue where the Vault (as the database is called in LastPass) doesn’t come up when I click on the LastPass icon in the browser’s menu bar. Restarting Firefox fixes this; I’m not sure if it is a Firefox or a LastPass issue. As I don’t use Chrome much, I can’t say anything about stability, other than it works fine when I test it.

In order to get all your passwords to sync to all your devices (which is absolutely fabulous!), you will need a LastPass account. This also means that your passwords are synced to the LastPass server farm (albeit encrypted). Wether or not this is an issue for you is your decision; I think two concepts are relevant to make it:

1. Nothing on the internet is safe. If you want safe, go back to writing letters on paper and posting them. Oh, and hope no one opens the envelope that isn’t supposed to read the content...

2. I’m quite sure that lastpass.com is one of THE target sites for hackers. Imagine getting your hands on a couple of thousand user records... up to date and as far as I know, no breach has been reported...

You can use LastPass as a local-only installation - in which case your data never leaves your PC (or Mac). This version is also completely free-of-charge! So there is no reason not to test the software. If you only use a single PC or Mac, then this is all you need.

Check LastPass out here.

Review Grandstream DP715 DECT VoIP Phone

Because of severe functional issues with a FritzBox 7270 and connected MT-F DECT Handsets, I looked for an alternative DECT handset that I could use with our VoIP telephony account.
Besides the ominous Gigaset options, there isn't that much to choose from. After a complete disaster with a no-frills Gigaset DECT handset, I swore I would never buy Gigaset again, so the only alternative - at least at the time - seemed to be the Grandstream DP715.

The specs sound pretty okay, and we've had very good results with a Grandstream wired VoIP phone. On top of all that, the price was quite okay (I paid €60), so I purchased the phone. 

All in all, though, the phone isn't really to be recommended. The display is a complete loss; it reminds me of early 90's Nokia mobile phones. Bizarre looking symbols (there is one that flashes at me constantly, and I still don't know what it means), crappy contrast. Number keys are not lit. There is no way to provision the phone with a phonebook. None. At all.  What a pain in the butt, to be punching in names using that clunky "alphabet on the number buttons" method!  That, too, makes me feel like I've warped back to the "good ol' days" of the GSM heyday.

The rechargeable batteries are two NiMH AAA Jobbers with 500 mAh of "life". Yikes. That is supposed to power the phone for 80h standby, according to the spec sheet. I don't buy it, and that brings me to the absolute no-go of this phone: when the battery is low, it starts beeping, perhaps once per minute. That's fine - let me know ahead of time if I'm about to drop a connection. Unfortunately, the beep is extremely loud and will knock your eardrum a couple of mm down the hole. Apparently to compensate the infinitesimal warning beep, the volume of the person talking to you is increased beyond the envelope you would ever expect the earpiece of such a phone to be able to reach. If your eardrum didn't pop from the beep, it will do so from the person now screaming into your ear.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but only a little. My eardrum didn't pop, but I ended up - after getting over the initial shock - holding the phone a ways away from my ear, which made the conversation difficult to say the least.

Grandstream does some phones really well, but this little guy is not one I would recommend to anyone!

goo.gl App Recommendation: ShortGoo

Looking for a simple way to get URLs shortened via goo.gl URL?

I can recommend the software “ShortGoo” by Matt Shepard (see http://www.mattshepherd.us/apps/), which you can get via the App Store.

The software has a very simple and likable interface, will generate goo.gl URLs very quickly (given an internet connection) and even give you a listing of your recent URLs with, and this is great: click-counts!

For the price, the app is an unbeatable value if you need to frequently generate goo.gl URLs.

Caveat: it won’t do the other shorteners, such as bit.ly or t.co.


MacOS Mountain Lion Upgrade - Ubiquity

While Mountain Lion certainly seems more stable than the upgrade to Lion, I came across something nasty today.

While trying to get Pages to start so that I might do some work on the train, I noticed that Pages would load the inspector but nothing else and then lock up. I also noticed that a process “ubd” (which is the Ubiquity Daemon) was repeatedly restarting and using huge amounts of CPU resources. This was evident in the console log for Ubiquity, it kept coming back with an error:

[ERROR] 109710548aa [12/08/07 14:16:11.418] 768.main get_uuid_and_open_iidb:920 failed to mkdir "/Volumes/Macintosh HD/Users/Nick/Library/Application Support/Ubiquity/peer-A457E30B-FECA-D32F-0E18-059C1F0917D3-v23" (Permission denied)
[ERROR] 1097682a992 [12/08/07 14:16:11.510] 770.main ubd_main:2604 personid: 104544000
[warn] 1097b9d1c5a [12/08/07 14:16:11.595] 770.main find_existing_identity_unsafe:1104 Can't find identity. (error -25300 from SecItemCopyMatching)

There is a lot of content on this on support.apple.com (see this article).

As it happens, neither Numbers nor Keynote was coming up either. I tried deleting all the iWork com.apple.iwork.PLIST files in /library/preferences, but that didn’t help. Then - since ubd is related to iCloud, I opened the system preferences for users and - lo and behold - my Apple ID had been removed from my user account! Why? Nobody knows - perhaps this is “standard issue” for an OS upgrade, I don’t know.

In any case, as soon as I re-entered my Apple ID, ubd calmed down and iWork was startable again…

As with many of the issues reported in the article mentioned above, ubd had filled my Keychain with massive amounts of entries called com.apple.ubiquity.peer-uuid.n, where n is one of thousands of UIDs. Apparently, it was trying to generate self-signed root certificates for the missing one, but unable to do so due to the missing entry of my Apple ID.

In any case, Apple seems to really have made a complicated blunder here - there are, apparently, so many dependencies with the Apple ID and iCloud, that if something goes wrong, it tears down a large chunk of a previously running system.

MacOS Mountain Lion Upgrade - First Impression

Today, I upgraded my Lion Notebook to Mountain Lion.

The only apparent problem was with Mail - likely due to an issue with a plugin, it would freeze after about 20% of upgrading the mail database.

Some research gave the correct answer by a user called registerednderd on discussions.apple.com:

The Library folder has been hidden, starting in Lion. To access it, in finder, go to Go > Go to folder, and type "~/Library"
1. Force Quit Mail
2. Open Finder
3. Go > Go to Folder
4. Type in "~/Library/Mail/V2/MailData" (no quotes)
5. There are three files that start with "Envelopes," delete them
6. Re-open Mail
The upgrade should now proceed normally.

Thanks, registerednderd!

So far, Mountain Lion seems stable enough, time will tell.

Huawei E585 MiFi Appliance

As I’ve been using the E585 for nearly a year, I believe it is time to give a quick summary of my experiences with the device.

There is no doubt in my mind, that a small, portable device that provides 3G to WiFi routing - ideally for multiple clients - is the best solution for people frequently on the road. Some of the advantages:

1. connect multliple WiFi clients simultaneously in a local WiFi network with internet access (up to 5 on the E585)
2. no driver issues with USB 3G sticks, especially on Apple computers
3. connect devices (for example iPod Touch) that don’t offer any other connectivity, even on the road

Subsequently, I would buy a MiFi again, should the E585 quit working.

Would it be the E585 or a similar Huawei product? Not so sure about that.

For one thing, the E585 initially delivered incredible performance from the rechargable battery. The first time I used it was on a train trip from Berlin to Karlsruhe (more than 5 hours) without any need to connect it to the USB port to recharge. Unfortunately, the battery quickly lost its capacity, so that it currently won’t run for longer than half an hour without connection to power.

For another thing, the device occasionally has a “network hiccup” in that it will show good reception but not route any data. This only happens sporadically, but it sure is annoying, as it doesn’t indicate any sort of error. A reset (either by power cycling or by calling a reset from the config web page) will fix this, but read the next issue.

Lastly, the time required for the device to begin routing from power up is, in my opinion, much too long. I haven’t measured it, but it feels like about 3 minutes. If all you’re trying to do is quickly get some emails out, this is annoying. It certainly seems like most of that time, the device is booting up, quite possibly due to an extremely slow CPU.

One more point, although I wouldn’t dock “stars” from a product rating for this: I would have wished for the device to have a “USB data mode”, where the WiFI actually turns off and data is delivered via USB. Yes, this once again requires drivers to be installed (or already available), but seeing as there are quite a few standard products that provide USB to Ethernet bridging, this mode of operation should be less troublesome than finding working drivers (and software) for a USB 3G stick.

I haven’t tried any other MiFi products, but there are some things that could - probably quite easily - be solved with hardware / firmware upgrades.

Speaking of upgrades, I have not been able to find a way to upgrade the E585 firmware. The Huawei website doesn’t offer a simple firmware update download - unfortunately.

Would I recommend the unit to others? Potentially yes, but I would certainly recommend a bit more research into alternatives.