Tag Archives: software

The best tools that can replace Google services for privacy-minded people

2018-12-26

I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely annoying when I’m researching, say, New Zealand for an article or a book, and suddenly I’m bombarded with ads of hotels in the destination. Privacy is an important factor why many colleagues have given up Google products, whereas frequent travelers have fed up with Google’s inability to manage travel access to its services. In this article, you will find the best privacy-tested alternatives to Google services.
Google services symbols
Google’s (as well as Facebook’s and many other big internet companies) business model depends on sucking users’ private and non-private data, using it for ad targeting, and selling it to other companies. This is why Google will collect your data even if you specify in product settings that you don’t want to be tracked. So, the safest choice is to switch to another product.

The best user-recommended products to replace Google’s online services

No More Google web site has collected a long list of alternative products that can replace Google products. The alternative products and services are recommended by internet users who have realized they must manage their privacy themselves (and not leave it to big internet companies). Here are a few of the popular choices:

  • Google Search – DuckDuckGo is the most liked privacy-enabled search engine.
  • Gmail – Protonmail is the most recommended email system.
  • Google Chrome – Firefox is the most recommended alternative product to the Google web browser.
  • Google Maps – Openstreetmap
  • YouTube – Vimeo
  • Google Drive – Dropbox
  • Google Docs – Notion
  • Google Analytics – Matomo
  • Hangouts – Telegram
  • Blogger – WordPress
  • Google+ – the social media service is closing in April 2019.

 

In addition to DuckDuckGo search engine, Qwant and StartPage are good alternatives as well. For browsers, Opera and Vivaldi are good choices, too.
Qwant search engine home page

Replacing Google hardware with privacy-friendly products

Google is also marketing hardware products, such as smartphones and home gadgets. That’s not all, because operating system software is closely related to hardware. Operating systems are built in to hardware products. That’s why it makes sense to pay attention to the operating systems as well, because companies like Samsung, LG, Nokia, Huawei and others use a Google operating system in their phones and tablets.

Here are a few alternative products to Google hardware products and operating systems:

  • Android – the most viable alternatives at the moment are Purism Librem 5 smartphone (built on open source Linux) and open source project /e/ that has released a beta operating system for smartphones.
  • Chrome OS – any desktop Linux, like Ubuntu, Manjaro or Mint is an alternative to the Google operating system (although Linux desktops have not been designed exactly for the same purpose).
  • Google Pixel smartphones – We may have to wait until Purism gets its Liberm 5 phone to the shops, or the /e/ foundation manages to convince a hardware manufacturer to factory-install the /e/ software, so that we can buy a phone that doesn’t leak data to Google.
  • Pixel Slate tablet/laptop – a sleek laptop running on Linux is an alternative to the Google tablet/laptop.
  • Google Assistant – voice assistants require computing power that is usually provided by big server computers in data centers. Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana all work in the same manner, so it is a choice of brand you trust the most.
  • Home Hub – Google home automation products communicate with this tablet-like device. It knows everything that is going on in the system. If it is connected to the internet, privacy and security risks are inevitable. The best alternative is the brand you trust the most.
  • Nest – all gadgets that control and monitor home lights, alarm system, heating and other functions, and are connected to the internet have security and privacy risks.

Purism Libr smartphone
Purism Librem 5.

Artificial intelligence computer software is already helping authors write fiction books

2018-10-22

Writers who know how to create computer software have tried to develop applications that can write for years. Earlier, we reported about automatic and semi-automatic tools that can write simple news reports and structure scientific papers. Now, fiction author Robin Sloan has developed a smart and simple tool that feeds him text when he wants ideas.
two computer monitors chatting
The New York Times visited Robin Sloan who demonstrated his idea generator-application to the reporter. This is what The Times reporter saw on the author’s computer screen.

Here is how a computer writes fiction

Mr Sloan typed in his tool: The bison have been traveling for two years back and forth. He stopped and pushed a button on the keyboard. The computer thought for a second and printed on the screen: between the main range of the city.
Another sample: The bison are gathered around the canyon. Sloan typed, and pushed a button that woke up the helper application. After a brief moment, the computer added the words by the bare sky to the screen.

The definition of artificial intelligence (AI) is broad and flexible, but Mr Sloan’s writing assistant software could be called machine learning or even a bot (for more about the AI and ML definitions, read this). The application looks at a few sentences that have been typed before the magic button was pushed, searches its database for matching phrases and suggests a few words that might fit into the context.
Robin Sloan writing tool, screen shot
Robin Sloan's software
Robin Sloan himself regards his application as a collaborator that makes his work actually harder and helps him produce different results than he alone might have been able to achieve. Sloan has made his software available (consisting of two components: torch-rnn-server and rnn-writer) for other tinkerers to try out.

So, artificial intelligence software applications are not going to write fiction books in the near future. But what about nonfiction?

Nonfiction writers may get help from AI as well

South China Morning Post reports about the AI research group of Alibaba, China’s biggest online commerce company, which has developed a machine-learning software that beats humans. It was tested with the Stanford Question Answering Dataset, and scored higher in the large-scale reading comprehension test than humans. Alibaba’s machine-learning software scored 82.44 on the test, compared with 82.30 that humans achieved.

The chief scientist behind the software believes that computers can now answer questions such as “what causes rain?” with a high level of accuracy. “We believe the technology can be applied to numerous applications such as customer service, museum tutorials, and patient inquiries online.”

Nonetheless, the Alibaba scientist reminded that the system currently works reliably with questions that have straightforward answers. If the question’s language or expressions are vague or the grammar is incorrect, or a prepared answer is missing, the software may not be able to answer correctly.

A software technology that Alibaba’s research has developed would be a great help for nonfiction writers, editors, and fact-checkers. All those small (and big) facts and details that just have to be correct in a commercial book could be verified by a piece of software.

Having access to this technology might shorten the time to write a nonfiction book.
Alibaba screen shot

Smart computer applications automatically write news, scientific papers and even Harry Potter sequels

2017-12-13

Long before the term artificial intelligence (AI) was invented, clever computer programmers tried various methods to automatically produce texts for different purposes. Early attempts have been unsuccessful, but now, technology has developed so much that serious attempts for automating the writing of news reports and scientific papers are underway. What does it mean for authors?

keyboard on fire
Computer-generated brief news reports are perhaps more widely used than we are aware. For instance, The Washington Post newspaper is using a news robot called the Heliograf.

The robot working for the newspaper is not fully autonomous, but writes reports in cooperation with news editors. The editors have created templates for political news stories that feature key phrases for particular events, like elections. Heliograf is connected to a source of structured data where it can access the required data for reporting. The robot searches the database, matches the discovered relevant data with the corresponding phrases in the template, and inserts the data into the template for publishing a news report.

It is not a coincidence that the Heliograf robot was developed and taken into use after Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, took over the newspaper. With the help of the robot, The Washington Post wants to publish more news stories that can reach small local audiences that previously were out-of-reach for a major newspaper.

SciNote, an enterprise that provides scientists cloud services where they can store all their notes, papers, references, ideas – anything that has to do with their research has also chosen the human-robot collaboration method for its automatic writing application. Slate talked to the people behind the Scinote’s software technology and found out that already 20 000 scientists use the company’s cloud service.

Manuscript Writer is Scinote’s automatic tool for drafting a scientific paper from pieces of data. The data must be structured and organized by the researcher for the Manuscript Writer to be able to do its job, but that’s exactly what Scinote’s cloud service enforces researchers to do. The result from the Manuscript Writer is a draft paper for further work, review and editing.

A community known as Botnik has developed a writing application that can automatically continue your work once you feed the robot enough source material for analysis. That’s how Botnik has written a sequel for Harry Potter, TV show manuscripts, advertisements, and other texts. Below a page from Botnik’s Potter adaptation (photo by Botnik.org).
Botnik bot writer, Harry Potter variation, photo by Botnik.org

Most writers (and all internet users) use artificial intelligence applications daily without paying any attention to them. A search engine is a very clever piece of technology that constantly learns more about you and what you want in order to return better search results. Facebook and other social media services constantly follow and listen to you in order to tailor their newsfeeds and ads to match your desires.

The software algorithms used in writing robots and in social media services know what to do because they have enough data to start their work, and when they are fed with more data, they can improve the results.

Can a robot write books like The Lord of the Rings, Catch 22 or The Innovator’s Dilemma? No. At the moment, a robot can write something where the results are known in advance (a fixed number of possible outcomes), and the robot fills in the key data; a robot organizes a large set of data into a document; or produces variations derived from an existing source text.

This is why the Apple MacBook sucks, but a Windows 10 laptop doesn’t

2017-06-25

Here is the nasty truth: the user interface software Apple uses in its MacBook laptops and iMac computers is seriously outdated.

In other words, Apple computers suck. Compare a Mac’s user interface to a modern user interface, like Windows 10, and you have to admit that someone has mastered her homework while the other one has lost her vision and only enjoyed success that once seemed never-ending. I claim that the user interface of macOS is 10 years behind Windows 10, at least.

I am talking about Apple’s line of computers, MacBooks and iMacs, that are running the macOS operating system (I am currently running Sierra version 10.12.5). This operating system is based on Unix software. Apple has developed its own graphical user interface on top of Unix.

In fact, Unix is the best thing in Apple’s macOS software. The Open Group has certified that it really is Unix. For anyone who codes anything – web pages, enterprise applications, php scripts – having a full Unix under the graphical user interface is a great time saver and testbed.
Apple MacBook desktop, macOS user interface
Apple introduced the OS X operating system software in 2000, and shipped it in 2001. MacOS is the same as OS X, Tim Cook just recently updated the name. When Steve Jobs introduced the brand new software 17 years ago, it was specifically the user interface that got people excited. It was simply amazing at the time.

Plenty of development has happened in OS X/macOS during the past 17 years, but in essence, the user interface is still the same. Yes, the dock icons are cute, but so what?

The worst thing is the windowing and the menu system of the macOS user interface software. Look at the user interface of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS. It is consistent. Or Android, or Windows 10. Consistent and intuitive. The windows and menus behave rationally and you find them in the same places wher you found them the last time.

The windows and menus in macOS live in parallel universes that are not quite sure how to interact with each other, if at all. An application window at the bottom of the screen has its menu at the top of the screen. An application window has problems of remembering all the other windows opened in the same application. Copying, moving and working with files in Finder is nearly impossible unless you open multiple Finder windows. The installation process of applications from outside the App Store occasionally reminds me of apt-get, a Linux command prompt installation program.

I understand that many Mac users open one application, fill the whole screen with it and are happy that it works the way it does. Because computers are very efficient multitasking machines, I want to exploit that feature and run several applications and windows simultaneously. On a computer, it must be easy and quick to switch between application windows.

I use both Mac and Windows computers at my work. Sometimes, I use both of them during the same day, but usually, I may work two weeks on a MacBook and then, two weeks on a Windows laptop. I also use smartphones, tablets, ereaders and perhaps a camera during a day. Experiencing many different user interfaces during an hour of work is normal. There is only one user interface that constantly bugs me: macOS on my MacBook laptop. It just doesn’t fit in today’s world. It lives in the past and is burying itself deeper in the past every day.

Microsoft has taken multiple courageous steps in order to keep Windows operating system’s user interface relevant. If we look back at the last 17 years of Microsoft’s PC operating system, Windows XP and Windows 7 were successful, although both included major changes in their user interfaces. Windows Vista and Windows 8 were less successful, many people hated them and switched back to the old version. Windows 10 development team could take all the learnings from the previous version that wasn’t popular, and created a really solid user interface for Windows 10.

Microsoft Windows is 10 years ahead of Apple macOS user interface, at least. Windows 10 fits right in to today’s world of tablets, smartphones, ereaders, cameras, and other devices we daily use.

MacOS was designed at a time when we purchased mobile phones for making phone calls and for sending text messages from a black-and-white screen of four rows of forty characters, two megapixel digital cameras were a novelty, Facebook didn’t exist, tablets only cured diseases, home automation meant buying a dishwasher, and being online all the time was impossible because of ultra-high mobile network costs.

One piece of software – in addition to the underlying Unix – on Mac computers is brilliant. It is the iBooks Author application used for creating ebooks. The books laid out in the iBooks Author may have video, audio and animation elements as well as interaction with a (human) reader. It is possible to create smart, useful and beautiful ebooks, like text books, travel guidebooks and other nonfiction works in iBooks Author. This Apple application compared to its competitive products reminds me of times when Apple computers were number one machines in everything that involved graphics and laying out publications.

Perhaps my only option is to wait and hope Apple does something about its software that is powering its computers. But I won’t wait for long. There are always other choices.
Windows 10 PC desktop user interface