Thursday, January 30, 2014

One Shoe Tale

I've written a novella. I've self-published on Kindle. It is the first piece of fiction that I am prepared to own up to. It's a straightforward Marxist hard-boiled noire fairy-tale pastiche in an alternative-history context – you know the sort of thing. Imagine “Cinderella" written by a Hungarian Dashiel Hammett in a parallel universe. 

You can find it here.

The paperback version is here.

I'd be really happy if you would download or buy a copy, read it, and leave a nice review. Anyone can publish on the new platforms, but everything there disappears without trace unless it gets reviews and recommendations. If you like it, please recommend.

I wrote it as a bit of fun with my tongue firmly in my cheek. There is some “adult” material in there, so don't read it if that sort of thing offends you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

All the things that went wrong when I flashed my Android phone to Cyanogenmod (and how it turned out all right in the end).

Yesterday I finally got round to changing the operating system of my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy Note GT7000, since you ask) from the Samsung-customized version of Android that it came with – to a more open, less bloated, and more user-controlled version. I opted for Cyanogenmod as a relatively user-friendly option; there are other versions that are more ‘outlaw’ but the instructions for installing seemed to include a lot of command line stuff. I’m not a real geek, only a wannabee, so Cyanogenmod seemed like a sensible half-way house. Cyanogenmod used to be a community-maintained project, though it has now become a start-up with a hardware partner.

The first thing I had to do was ‘root’ my phone. I had lived long enough in Australia to be slightly worried by the sound of that, but it means taking over user control. In Linux-speaker, Root is the equivalent of ‘Administrator’, so rooting your device means taking over privileges to control it that you don’t automatically have. Iphone users talking about ‘jailbreaking’.

Rooting turned out to be quite easy. The only scary bit was booting my phone into recovery mode – by powering it on while holding the Home and Volume Up buttons, and holding down the Power button until the recovery screen appeared. A funny unfamiliar picture of the Android android appeared, with a little blue matrix of stuff coming out of its tummy.

A scroll bar also appeared, which got about a quarter of the way and then stopped. There are lots of warnings about ‘bricking’ your phone in all of the instruction sets online, so I waited and waited. Nothing happened, so in the end I took the battery out and replaced it. That turned out to be what it had been waiting for, because a new screen appeared, the scroll bar shot across the screen and a system message in a funny courier-like font told me that the install had finished. It was so quick that I didn’t believe it had actually happened, so I did it a few more times. Eventually though I decided to believe. I rebooted. Of course, you can't tell if your phone has been rooted; you need an app for that. I found one, installed it, and got a lovely message of congratulations, telling me that I did indeed now have Access.

I basked in my technological prowess for a few days. It turned out that having Root Access didn’t give me much more control over the phone at all. It allowed me to install some apps that require it, like Root App Delete which is supposed to allow the user to get rid of pre-installed crap, but actually everything that I uninstalled just re-appeared. Samsung Music Hub, Samsung Push Service…all of it.

So yesterday I thought I would go the distance and install Cyanogenmod. I copied the .zip file to my SD card – it’s really important to find the right version for your hardware, but not as straightforward to this as you might imagine. It’s easy to find the versions for relatively new devices but harder for old ones, especially where the nomenclature is less than clear. What exactly is my version of the Note called? The GT7000? The Note International? The Note 1?

I launched the app that is supposed to install it – Clockwork Recovery. I made a backup of my existing operating system to the SD card. Then I tried to install the Cyanogenmod OS. It couldn’t find it. Although the app thought it was looking at my SD card, it was actually looking at the phone’s internal memory. Not to worry, I coped the .zip file to the internal memory and tried again. Still didn’t work. So I tried booting into Recovery Mode and running it from there. Here there are several options, including Wipe and Factory Reset. That didn’t feel like what I wanted to do – after all, wouldn’t that put it back into the Samsung version that I wanted to get rid of? So I went straight to ‘Install from .zip’, navigated to the right zip file, and watched it install – again, really quickly.

But not doing the Wipe was a mistake. It was lovely to see the spinning, flashing lights of the Cyanogenmod boot-up screen for the first time, and made me feel like my work was almost done. But after 25 minutes I was a bit bored with it, and wondered whether it could really take this long. Searching on the forums revealed that this wasn’t supposed to be happening, and was the result of not doing that wipe. But how to get back?  If I powered off now, would it brick the device? After another 15 minutes (during which the phone got quite hot) I decided that there was no alternative and rebooted.

But it turns out that there is a specific physical skill involved in doing the reboot. This time my screen displayed a different little android, a ‘Downloading in Progress’ message, the famous yellow triangle of death, and a strong warning not to power off.

But nothing else happened, for a very long time. I was now convinced that I had bricked the phone. But I rebooted again, being very careful not release the Volume Up key until the Recovery Mode screen reappeared. Eventually it did (it felt like a really long time though) and then I did the Wipe and Factory Reset, then reinstalled Cyanogen from zip again. Just in case, really. And then rebooted again.

This time it actually booted into Cyanogenmod, and asked me to create a Cyanogenmod account (why?) which I did. So now my phone runs Cyanogenmod  - but there aren’t many apps, and no apps store. If I was a real outlaw I wouldn’t want the Google Play Store – I’d want to use F-Droid or some other way to get completely ‘open’ apps. But I’m not, and one of the things I like about having an Android phone is the way that it syncs nicely with cloud apps that I can provision easily from a PC with a proper keyboard. So I had to install Google Apps. Another download, another zip file, another boot into recovery mode, another install from zip, another reboot.

Only now the phone is really, really cross. The Google Apps are all there, but I can’t work out how to sign in to them. In fact I can’t sign in to anything, because the soft keyboard has stopped working. In fact, I get a message telling me that the keyboard has stopped working every few seconds.

Another web search, with the exact words of the message; I learn that I have installed the wrong version of the Google Apps package. The one I have doesn’t agree with the version of Cyanogenmod that I have installed. I try to download the right one (finding out what that is takes a while) but actually a lot of the apparent download links lead to malware or try to install other crap on my PC. Eventually I find a good one, download it, copy it to the SD card, do the whole boot into recovery shuffle yet again, reboot – and hurrah! The keyboard works again, and I am immediately taken to a Google sign-in screen. I feel slightly daft – all this effort and I just back signing into Google anyway, but it has worked.

My phone now runs Cyanogenmod. It is clean and snappy – apps don’t hang anymore. I have a bit more control over what it does. And I do feel a bit more like a geek. But honestly, why would any normal person do this if they didn’t have to?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review of Heartbreaker

Stupid French sex/rom comedy about a bloke whose business is to break young women up from their unsuitable partners, under contract from family or friends, by making the women fall in love with him. But in this one last job he...well, you know.

Cheesy, corny, cliched. Some nice locations, crisply filmed (lots of tight shots and cuts in a way that seemed a bit unusual for a French film) and Vanessa Paradis as the woman (quite like her music, but isn't she weird-looking?); but not worth the time it took to watch it.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Review of The Changeling

A relatively straightforward narrative of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, focusing on the experience of Christine Collins and the way that the LAPD offered her a substitute for her missing son. The actual story, as depicted in the Wikipedia article, is actually much more gruesome and unpleasant than the movie. In real life the murderer's mother was involved and actually proposed that he kill Walter Collins, because the boy could identify him. She got life because women weren't hanged.

A good film, and nice to see that Angelina Jolie can actually act. But strangely flat – given what happens in it (child abduction and murder, false accusations of insanity), one might have expected more noire.

Small historical footnote: both Jolie's character and her prostitute friend are subjected to punitive ECT in the hospital. Given that it is set in 1928-30 this is ahistorical. ECT wasn't used until 1937.

Review of American Hustle

A film about confidence tricks, so a fairly confusing plot, things that seem implausible, and a twist at the audience's expense. I'm not sure I followed every twist and turn, and most of the characters were flawed and mainly unlikeable. Not that characters have to be likeable, but it's a long time to spend in the company of quite so many sleazeballs.

The tone is set in the first few minutes with the lead character arranging his comb-over. This is at once about deception (because comb-overs are about pretending you have hair when you don't) and slightly disgusting – not sure why comb-overs provoke such disgust, but they do, and the effect is enhanced by some close-ups of an ugly pot belly.

Did the late 1970s really look this ugly, and this brown? Probably they did. The aesthetic of the film somehow made me think of a porn film – think 'Boogie Nights' but without the dirty bits - even though there was relatively little sex depicted.

Despite all this repugnance I quite enjoyed the film – it didn't feel like time wasted, anyway.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Review of 'Dial M for Murder'

Seems odd to be reviewing this sixty years after it was released, but it was the best thing on at the Bristol Watershed cinema on the weekend we happened to be there.

It is of course a great film. Somehow the Britishness stops it from being too noir - it would have been much more so if it had been American, and/or black and white. Most of the time it seems very contemporary, and then there is some glaring period detail that reminds us as to how much has changed. Grace Kelly's accent is remarkable - it seems that the register of women's voices has changed much more than the male ones. Only the Queen sounds like that now, though most upper class women in films seem to have spoken like that.

The plot itself would never work now, because Margot would never get out of bed to answer a call, and the evil Tony would never have to wait to use a phone booth.

Surprisingly the original was made in 3D and we watched it a 3D version, which worked very well. There weren't lots of 3D-specific scenes, but the near-murder itself was much enhanced by Margot's arm coming out of the screen and into our faces.

Not a feel-good film, but it nevertheless left us with a good feeling.

Review of 'A Bunch of Amateurs'

Not a great film - if I did star ratings it would probably be a four or five - but watchable. Burt Reynolds is a Hollywood actor who is rich and obnoxious but whose career is in the toilet and has the worst agent in the world. Somehow he gets sent to England to perform in an am dram village performance of King Lear, and the experience eventually ennobles him and enables him to reconnect with...yada yada yada. A cast of Brit character actors including Derek Jacobi and Imelda Staunton. Some nice situational observation, some unnecessary slapstick.

Although this is not good, it is probably the best film I have ever seen with Burt Reynolds in it.