The developing world leading Europe?

I recently discovered a company called OpenSignalMaps. They provide data for people who are looking for a way to link mobile phone signal, or cellular signal, to geography. So, let’s say that you’re in an area and you’re looking to switch network; you could just use their service to work out what kind of signal you’re likely to get.

This is a very useful service, and I wish I’d heard about it prior to today. I switched to a new mobile network with the release of the iPhone 4S, and prior to switching, I bought a Pay As You Go SIM card from the prospective network and used it with my iPhone 3GS for a week, swapping it in and out to try and get a picture of what signal would be like around my home at the time. Being able to look up the data on a map would clearly have been much quicker!

How did I find out about the company? Well, I recently read an article by OpenSignalMaps in which they talked about Android fragmentation, and I found it very interesting indeed. I ended up bookmarking it in order to share it with my Twitter following, but not before I’d noticed a couple of sentences towards the end of the article that got my brain whirring.

…the 5 countries where OSM gets most use are: US, Brazil, China, Russia, Mexico. From what we’re seeing the developing world is no longer developing but leading Europe.

I wasn’t sure what to think of that sentence. I don’t feel like Europe is currently trailing in terms of mobile1, and I was wondering whether that was just a pro-Europe bias or whether it was an accurate picture. Then I realised what was bugging me about that list:

All the countries in that list are significantly larger than the countries that comprise Europe.

If your product is a way for people to see what the cellular signal is like in their area, it stands to reason that this product will be more popular in countries with bad cellular signal. In a small country, it takes fewer towers to completely cover the country, and so coverage will be better, I reasoned. This would provide an alternative reason for why the app has not seen as many downloads in Europe.

Once I had started down this line of thought, I wanted to check whether my suspicions had any basis in fact. In terms of the world’s largest countries by area, what positions are occupied by the five countries listed? Where is the largest European country on the same list? So, I looked for answers, and found the relevant Wikipedia article, entitled List of countries and dependencies by area.

Of the five countries on OpenSignalMaps’ list, four of those countries are in the top five countries by area in the world. They are Russia (largest), China, the USA and Brazil (3rd–5th largest respectively). The remaining country, Mexico, is the 14th largest country in the world. So, how does this compare with the largest European country? Well, France is the largest European country, clocking in at 49th.

I disagree that the data from OpenSignalMaps shows anything like “the developing world…leading Europe”. In fact, I think it shows the plain fact that the relatively small countries in Europe have, in general, a better level of cellular coverage than the largest countries on Earth. An app that exists solely to allow the user to deal with bad cellular coverage (or bad infrastructure in any arena) will do badly in countries that have a good infrastructure. The countries which are leading in app downloads are the very countries that aren’t leading when it comes to getting signal.

  1. British LTE adoption notwithstanding — in five years’ time, maybe we will be trailing. 

Using Markdown with WordPress

Since writing this article, Michel Fortin has announced that he is going to stop including WordPress plugin functionality in Markdown Extra. Click here to read a more recent article that explains how to cope with this news.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting hits for Markdown-related searches on Google, ever since I wrote a blog post about the browser extension called Footnotify. When I saw Footnotify I instantly knew I wanted to have that functionality on my own website, and so I started searching for a WordPress plugin that provided footnotes. Eventually, I decided that it would be worth using Markdown to achieve this effect, after seeing the footnotes on Daring Fireball, and set about getting this arranged.

The first step was finding a way to install Markdown on WordPress1. I searched on the website for an extension to do this, but couldn’t find an ‘official’ one, so I searched on Markdown-Discuss (the mailing list set up by John Gruber) to see whether I was mistaken. It turned out I was, although the plugin that I’d recommend isn’t listed on the WordPress website: since WordPress is based in PHP, and since Michel Fortin has written Markdown Extra for PHP, one can just download PHP Markdown Extra from his website and upload it to WordPress as a plugin.

A screenshot of an FTP client displaying the file path of PHP Markdown Extra in my WordPress configuration.

The process is easy. Once the zip file has downloaded, simply unzip it. You’ll be presented with a folder containing three files: two in .text format (one of the accepted file extensions for plaintext files that contain Markdown syntax) and one PHP file. I renamed the folder to php-markdown-extra and then uploaded it to my WordPress installation (the filepath is wordpress/wp-content/plugins). WordPress then sees this as a plugin, and so you’re ready to roll!

But what should you use to edit your Markdown text? Initially, I tried a Mac app for Markdown called Valletta, which didn’t impress me. One of the key features of Markdown that I adore is its ability to turn -- into — and turn 'typewriter quotation marks' into ‘typographic quotation marks’. Valletta doesn’t implement this part of Markdown, so I don’t recommend it. However, the beauty of Markdown is that it’s just plain text with specific syntax, and so you can feel free to use the plaintext editor of your choice. Personally, I flit between Textwrangler, on the Mac and Notepad++, on Windows. Both apps can be configured to highlight Markdown syntax2, and I’m actually using TextWrangler to write this post.

A screenshot of this article, being rendered by Elements, the iOS plain text editor.

Although I don’t use a specific app on my computers, I have found a rather good app on my iPhone. An iOS app by the name of Elements, it started life as a simple plaintext editor that supported Dropbox as a filesystem, but has since gained the ability to preview Markdown-formatted text and also copy the HTML generated as a result, for use in other apps.3 Elements is really good in a variety of ways: Dropbox sync is chief amongst them, but the ability to choose what file extension you give to Markdown files is also a very nice touch. It allows you to choose which folder on your Dropbox you want to synchronise4, too. Find it on the App Store here (£2.99/$4.99).

Lastly, let’s return to Footnotify. Markdown Extra allows for easy footnote creation, and Footnotify complements this brilliantly — I use both the Chrome extension and the JavaScript that provides the overlays on this blog. It will work whether you’re using Markdown on your blog directly or generating footnotes on your own. If you like what it’s doing for your browsing experience on my blog, you should definitely download it and give it a try with your own website!

I am glad that I got the desire to try Markdown because I feel it really has enhanced my writing. For me, the main benefits are the syntax, which makes certain tasks (bullet points, linking, footnotes) much easier. For the reader, the better formatted text brings something to the design of the website, whereas the footnotes mean that my frequent desire to wander off the topic is nowhere near as aggravating as it might be. I’d definitely recommend Markdown to anyone who writes online, even if it’s relatively infrequently.

  1. If you’re using, installing plugins is not possible and so this won’t apply to you — sorry! However, you can still use a Markdown app to export HTML and paste it into WordPress, so keep reading. 
  2. Notepad++ may need you to roll a user-defined language definition, but there are such things available online. There’s even this handy article on how to generate HTML from Markdown
  3. I mostly use this feature when posting to my LiveJournal, but if you’re running a blog then it will also be very useful! 
  4. I have all my text files in a folder called PlainText, named after the free editor that also syncs with Dropbox. I recommend that one, if you’re just looking for an editor without Markdown editing. Find it on the App Store here (free). 

Retina Display: The apps that don’t use it

The iPhone 4 brought a myriad of improvements to the product on its release in the summer of 2010. It had a better camera, a better processor, a vastly improved chassis — but I think one of the most obvious and most pronounced features was the Retina Display. This was a technology that increased the resolution of the iPhone’s screen from 480×320 to 940×640 (thus doubling the pixel resolution from 163 ppi to 326 ppi). This was matched by a problem: Every app was now blurry and it took time for developers to react to the new technology.

I didn’t upgrade to the iPhone 4, instead waiting for the iPhone 4S, and so by the time I was using a Retina Display, most apps had been updated to use sharper graphics and textures. When I did upgrade, some of my apps still hadn’t been updated to the higher resolution, and so I faced a choice between deleting them or keeping using them. In most cases, I found other apps that had been updated to work with the new technology, but a handful of apps remained despite their blurry graphics.

iStat by Bjango

A screenshot from the Bonjour feature of iStat showing my iMac's statistics.
My iMac, through iStat

Bjango is one of my favourite developers in the Apple community. iStat is an iOS version of their unparalleled Mac app with the same name, and it’s a well-designed app indeed. Opening the app gives you a choice of devices; either the iOS device you’re using or any number of devices found via Bonjour. Getting a device to show up via Bonjour is simple: just install iStat Server from the app’s webpage and you’re ready to monitor statistics.

Select the iOS device, and you get a screen showing you various statistics. Firstly (and least usefully) is a battery readout. This gives you a percentage of the remaining battery; given that this information is already available at the top of the screen, it isn’t terribly useful. Alongside the readout are estimates of how much usage that will permit, which may be useful if you aren’t used to your device’s battery life yet. Another stat is the remaining hard drive space, which is similarly already available through the operating system.

Elsewhere within the statistics, one can see a variety of things that aren’t already in Your device’s IP addresses — both the network’s IP and the IP on any Wi-Fi network — are available, as are the Wi-Fi MAC address and your iPhone’s UDID1. iStat can also give you the uptime and load of your device, which are interesting, if not useful on a regular basis. A pie chart shows the amount of RAM being used and how much is free — if your device is acting up, checking the remaining RAM might give a clue to the problem. This is in addition to a list of your iPhone’s currently running processes, so you will be able to see which apps are doing things in the background.

What are the minus points with iStat? It doesn’t remember where you were if you switch to a different app and then back, which really annoyed me whilst I was writing this review but may be much less aggravating in general use. Also, when I first got the app, it contained a way to free up the iPhone’s RAM, which was removed in an update that got skewered by the App Store’s reviewers — given that this feature is now available in other apps, it’d be nice to see it return to iStat.

Find iStat on the App Store here (£0.69/$0.99).


A picture I drew of the Greek letter rho in Detexify.
Trying to find rho.

I use LaTeX2, and so this app is very useful from my perspective. If you don’t use LaTeX, then this very possibly won’t be useful for you!

The list of results for my drawing of rho from Detexify.
Results for rho!

What Detexify does is simple. It allows the user to sketch a character on the screen. It then takes that squiggle and finds a list of symbols available that match it, alongside the name of the package they are in and how to use them in a document. It’s terrifically handy if you’re trying to write a scientific paper. It’s also fairly handy for looking up what Greek characters are called, even if you’re not using LaTeX.

Detexify is available from the App Store in a free or a paid version; the paid version lets you contribute a little to the developer as a ‘thank you’, but otherwise there is no difference between the two. An alternative way to donate is to visit the Detexify website and donate through the provided links (this will mean Apple doesn’t get a cut of your donation).

Find Detexify on the App Store here (free).
Alternatively, buy the Supporter Version (£0.69/$0.99).

iSeismometer by ObjectGraph

A screenshot of iSeismometer, showing motion in all axes.

This app from ObjectGraph is pretty much self-explanatory: it allows your iPhone to act as a seismometer, with measurements of the movement in the x-, y- and z-axis. Rest it on a table, and tap/shake/tilt the surface to see what it can do. This is an amazing app for demonstrating some of the capabilities present in the iPhone’s hardware, as well as being an excellent way to demonstrate the science of seismology to people who aren’t very knowledgable about it3, and so it stays on my phone despite the fact that the icon and buttons are somewhat pixellated.

Whilst researching this application, I’ve noticed that there are other seismometer apps available in the App Store, but that this is definitely the best free app available despite the non-Retina graphics. However, given a couple of the others are only 69p, I may well try a different one to see whether it converts me!

Find iSeismometer on the App Store here (free).

Galaxy Zoo by Zooniverse

If you haven’t heard of Galaxy Zoo, this may not appeal to you as much as it otherwise would; however, it’s a nice little app. It doesn’t let you do much other than look at images of galaxies and analyse them using the limited set of multiple-choice questions that’s familiar to any Galaxy Zoo user. However, that still means you can make useful contributions to physics whilst standing in the queue at the bank, so it’s definitely worth a look.

Find Galaxy Zoo on the App Store here (free).

SUBCARD® by Subway

SUBCARD® is Subway’s loyalty card app in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland4. One can either have a physical card, or download the app, which has a barcode used to load points onto your account. As well as this, the locations of nearby branches of the chain can be ascertained. If you go to Subway often5, it’s probably worth a look, but if not, there really isn’t anything else to it.

Find SUBCARD® on the App Store here (free).

Arriva m-Ticket

A screenshot from the Arriva app on the ticket selection screen.
Which ticket?

Somewhat strangely, the Arriva m-Ticket app actually got released — with non-Retina graphics — after the iPhone 4 came out. It allows the user to buy tickets for Arriva buses on their mobile phone; since Arriva operate buses near me, I have the app on my phone. It allows for the purchase of tickets on a variety of timescales in areas that Arriva works in (but a ticket in one area presumably won’t transfer to others). Choose a day ticket, opt for a week’s worth of travel or get the whole year in one go.

Having said all that, my experience has taught me that Arriva’s buses have something in common with this app: they were outdated when they were new and they’re never on time. As such I still haven’t actually used the app to travel anywhere and may need to review it again when I’ve actually had a chance to analyse it in use.

Find Arriva m-Ticket on the App Store here (free).

  1. Now that UDID is being deprecated by Apple, this may change in the near future. 
  2. Specifically, MacTeX, which I rather like. 
  3. To be fair, that could very well describe me. 
  4. I don’t know if similar apps exist outside of these two territories, so I apologise to anyone for whom this is unhelpful. 
  5. According to this app, the last time I visited was in 2010: I hadn’t realised it had been that long! 

If not DUFFers, won’t drown

Apologies for the Swallows and Amazons quotation at the top, but I just couldn’t resist!

It was recently announced, in a recent news post from File 770, that DUFF (the fan fund between North America and Australasia) is to have a race down under this year. The convention to which the fund will send a delegate, Continuum VIII (this year’s national Australian convention), is to be held 39 days from the announcement. This means that anyone who wishes to stand for DUFF has ten days to find five nominators, twenty days to campaign, and nine days to arrange an entire trip and make it from North America to Australia in time for the convention. If the candidate is feeling daring, then they might try to make it to unCONventional 2012 in New Zealand, which would give them pretty much no time whatsoever between the end-of-May deadline and the start-of-June convention.

What follows is not my opinion as the administrator of a fellow fan fund: that would be out of place, and so I’m not going to comment in an official capacity. This is my personal opinion, as a fan with an interest in fan funds. And, this is, to speak plainly, quite insane. I know for a fact that David Cake (the Australasian administrator) was not in favour of such a race as recently as mid-April; I agreed with him at the time, because I think the timescale is fundamentally flawed. David has since said:

I think that IF you think the timing on the race is overly rushed for a reasonable race and/or trip, then voting for Hold Over Funds is an appropriate way to express that opinion.

Certainly, that would be my recommendation, given the below considerations.

Let’s consider the prospect of time off. Getting time off with a month’s notice should be fine, if candidates arrange it as soon as the nominations period closes. Getting time off with a week’s notice is more tricky — candidates are, I think, going to have to book time off work before they know they’ve won. There’s also the thorny issue of how long you stay — booking more than two weeks off at a time can be tricky, without warning your employer in advance. Is two weeks long enough to do justice to a trip Down Under?

What about the cost of the flights? There are nine days (at maximum) between the close of voting and the start of the trip. The flight costs are not going to be kind, so close to the point of boarding: can a fund really afford to send someone at such notice? One thing is certain: The eventual delegate is going to have to raise a lot of money during their administration in order to offset the cost of flights. One of the ways to raise funds is traditionally through voting fees, but I’m unsure that that will be enough of a revenue stream to offset an extremely expensive trip, so the onus will be on whoever wins the race to set new records in terms of fundraising ability.1 There’s also the risk that fans concerned about the potential cost to the fund might vote to Hold Over Funds, which would be a great shame in many ways.

Then there’s the voting itself. If you have a voting period of twenty days, how is the fund going to attract a large number of voters in this race? If the extreme costs of the trip is married to an unusually low-revenue voting period with a low turnout from North American and Australasian fandom, then that’s even worse for the fund financially speaking. Although I’m sure DUFF has the money to weather the storm, it seems unwise to tempt fate by running a race that could be a financial disaster in multiple ways.

If I wanted to run a southward DUFF race before what seems likely to be a northward race to LoneStarCon 3, I’d run it in 20132, and race to the Australian Natcon in 2013, Conflux. This convention will be held in April, which means you could use publicity from the southward race to kickstart the northward one:

  • Southward nominations open — 2012.
  • Southward voting opens — start of January.
  • Southward delegate announced, northward nominations open — February.
  • Northward voting opens — March.
  • Southward trip begins. Delegate publicises northward race — April.
  • Northward delegate announced — May/June.
  • Northward trip begins — Summer.

In conclusion, I don’t see this as a sensible move. I think — whatever the logic behind this extremely small window of opportunity for potential candidates — this is ultimately going to cost DUFF. I think the likely situation on May 11th is that the race cannot go ahead as fewer than two candidates3 have been nominated, and that the whole affair will have just been an opportunity to court criticism and bafflement. And that’s the best case scenario, since the alternative is a delegate who has nowhere near enough time to put together a proper trip and ends up spending a lot of money on what will ultimately be a waste of everyone’s time.

  1. If there was ever a time for Chris for TAFF 2: Chris for DUFF, this could be it — Christopher J. Garcia was very good at fundraising and awareness boosting in his time as a TAFF administrator, and could well pull it off for DUFF, too. 
  2. So would Ulrika O’Brien, who suggested this. 
  3. The Big Three — TAFF, GUFF and DUFF — require two candidates to stand for a race to go ahead. 

Google Drive: the new document syncing service

As anyone who has been paying attention will know, Google released Google Drive today, which is their new competitor to other services. I already use Dropbox with a fervent evangelism, and I also have an account on Box, so I figured I’d take a brief look at what Google Drive is.

The first thing that it’s important to note is that Google Drive replaces Google Docs. That is to say, if you had any documents in Docs, they’re now in your Drive, and going to the old Google Docs URL will redirect you to the new Drive URL. I use Google Docs to edit fanzine articles with España Sheriff1 — when either of us has written an article, we upload it so that the other can go through and make suggestions. The everyone-can-edit model suits this workflow extremely well, and so I now have a number of fanzine articles saved in Google Drive (as well as a bunch of work from my undergraduate degree).

All told, there are several pieces of work in there, and I am not keen to cede the rights to those to Google. This means that the Google Terms of Service make me slightly nervous:

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.

Is this anything to worry about? It’s certainly been noticed online, but is it anything to worry about? Well, firstly, it’s important to note that Google do not take ownership of your files — they just give themselves a licence to do things with your files. This is an important distinction, as it means that the copyright still resides with you. The other important thing to note is that this licence is granted even after you stop using the product, but this appears to be in order to allow Google to continue displaying information in other services, rather than specifically relevant to Google Drive.

This brings me to the main point: This Terms of Service document is not specific to Google Drive, but is applicable to every Google service. Unless the segment of Google you’re using has more restrictive terms that supersede the ones outlined in this blog post, they already apply to you. This means, for instance, that these terms already applied to the documents I had in Google Docs. Or, indeed, to any email I have received since 2004, thanks to my Gmail account.

A similar outcry happened around a year ago, when it became clear that many picture sharing services owned any images that were uploaded to their servers, and Dropbox itself was implicated in a similar brouhaha when they updated their TOS in 2011. One of the things that arose from that (as well as a huge reaction from their users) was a blog post outlining why Dropbox needed the things outlined in their TOS. A lot of the permissions granted are there just so that you can have the experience you expect, and the same is almost certainly true of Google.

Google need to update their Terms of Service, just like Dropbox did, to make it clear that the information uploaded to their servers is not going to be used for anything outside of users’ expectations. I’m hopeful that the blog posts and news articles being written on this subject will expedite that process, and that the TOS will be made clearer very soon.2 I don’t intend to completely ignore Google Drive, but I would feel much more comfortable using the service if this issue was explicitly addressed by the company.

  1. Coincidentally, her latest blog post is about deleting files from Google Docs and moving them to Dropbox. 
  2. Separate TOS documents for Google Drive and Gmail would seem like a sensible idea!