Clearly nobody could find Cortana though so …

I’ve not posted a technical blog entry in ages; I post one about the Cortana “listen mode” key change with the Anniversary Update; the next day I upgrade to the W10 Creators Update, and guess what … the shortcut has changed back! Yep, to get Cortana to pop up and listen (if you’ve not enabled “Hey Cortana” always on mode) it’s now back to being Win+C, well if you turn it on! Just typical!

Cortana shifted her number, but now I’ve found her again

I know that virtual assistants aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I really like Cortana. However, a while ago as my Cortana usage started to increase, I found that the Win+C shortcut that had previously popped up Cortana in listening mode had stopped working. Was something else I was running it blocking it? Nope, since it wasn’t working on any of my W10 machines anymore. I tried searching for a resolution, but all I found was articles confirming that Win+C was the shortcut. Until today …

Recently I’ve been looking to find out what I could do extend Cortana with skills, but that only really has relevance if I can talk to her easily. Hence I went looking for a resolution again and finally found out where Cortana had gone! With the W10 Anniversary Update Cortana moved “numbers” very slightly … Win+C became Win+Shift+C! Use those keys and she answers immediately! Not sure why I’d not found this previously but hey ho!

If you didn’t know, the other useful Cortana shortcut is Win+S (or Win+Q) to pop up the Cortana summary window.

I now also run Cortana on my personal Android phone (and naturally on my work Windows phone), and am looking forward to things like the Harman Kardon Cortana-powered speaker (albeit with worries for my wallet).

Batch creating Google Calendar events

I have a shared Google calendar called “® Andy’s Whereabouts” that shows my location on every weekday as an event between 8:00 and 8:30. By default I create each day as TBD, and then once I know I have to be somewhere specifically eg. for a meeting or a perhaps day I need to be at home, I update it. Acts as a quick aide-memoire for me, and is something that lets Mrs ® Andy know my whereabouts since naturally she can’t see my work calendar. Whilst I have it every day, it isn’t a repeating event, since if I created it that way when I went to edit any single day it’d give me the “do you want alter all past/future events” spiel. Hence historically every month or so I’ve gone and clicked on each day in the month ahead, created a default hour event, dragged it down to 30 minutes, and typed in TBD! Ugly, manual and I knew there must be a better way but I’d not bothered to find it! With me beginning to schedule into the new year, I thought I’d see if I could find a neater solution.

The solution came by way of an excellent blog post here. Whilst I regularly import .ics files into Google Calendar for train details exported from the National Rail website, I’d never noticed you could import .csv files too. The capability is more formally described here. Thus a quick Excel spreadsheet knocked up with a formula that moves the date in each row on by one workday (=IF(WEEKDAY(B2)=6,B2+3,B2+1)), replicated across a year’s worth of rows, exported as a .csv and imported into Google Calendar via the Other Calendars menu, and that’s a year’s entries created in a single batch import. Sorted!

Lollipop on Nexus 4 – strange problem and even more surprising fix

I installed Android 5.0 Lollipop the day it became available for my Nexus 4. No waiting for OTA updates (which seldom work for me since I’m invariably running a non-stock kernel), so I simply took the factory image and then flashed the radio, bootloader, and each partition (bar recovery) one by one. One long boot later, and we were up and running.

I’ve been loving Lollipop ever since! It’s the slickest and most natural phone OS I’ve experienced yet, and shows iOS up as having the seriously restricted last gen UI it does. Two killer enhancements for me are the new model for notifications on the lock screen, since where my phone has work email/network access it’s necessarily always locked behind a long password (and I’m forbidden to root it anymore), and the idea of trusted devices (which I know the Moto G already had) which means that when I’m in my car and paired to my trusted BT handsfree said long password is disabled. Anyhow, I did have one annoying strange problem …

Whenever I tried to side load an APK, I couldn’t click on the install button. Literally you’d touch the screen and it’d show no response at all to the button. This was a real pain since many work specific applications are distributed via MaaS360 MDM which installs them locally and hence I couldn’t install any updates at all! When I first noticed the problem after running Lollipop for a day or two I tried Googling but found nothing useful, and put it down to something unique to me that I would have to try and fix one day via something radical like my first ever fresh install on this phone. Then the other day I was frustrated by it yet again and tried searching again, and found my saviour on reddit.

The reality is that this is actually a new security feature on Lollipop! I run Lux to give me more control over screen brightness, and when active Lux runs a “filter” over the screen to allow it to do things like night colour changes (not that I use night mode). Lollipop now disables the install button when it detects a screen filter being run, lest you are tricked into thinking you’re performing one action by an overlaid filter whilst actually installing some malware as a side loaded APK. Makes sense, apart from when you’ve not the foggiest there’s a totally transparent filter applied by one of the applications you run and you can’t work out why you can’t install things!

Quickly tapping the pause button on Lux removes the filter, and huzzah the install button is clickable again!

My first day and a half with the new Google Inbox app

I’m always tinkering with new tools to make my day-to-day work and personal “workflow” as efficient as possible. That I spend way too long on said tinkering rather than just getting on with things is not lost on me! It’s not lost on Mrs ® Andy either, who always bemoans “don’t put it on your so-and-so list, just do it!”

Quickly on the point of my so-and-so list, whilst I’m not a formal devotee of the GTD methodology, being a bear of little brain (or at least little memory these days) I do absolutely follow its core tenet of having a system for recording items I need to do, using it always, and trusting it to “know” what I need to do. The tool I’ve used for a number of years to do that is Trello, and I’d commend it anybody who prefers a visual Kanban-style of keeping lists of thing.

Many of my other fundamental tools are Google based. As an aside, I probably really should work for Google since I’m a long running fan/user, but have previously decided I couldn’t deal with being mostly London-based and with lots of campus activities meaning I’d see the boys too little. We have several shared Google calendars that hold things like family appointments and also my work location and travel plans. The app I use personally on desktop and mobile to access those calendars is Sunrise. Personal email wise it’s equally long been Google Mail for me (hence why I don’t call it Gmail but will hereon in this post), though over the years I’ve tried various apps on top like Mailbox and Boomerang, but neither worked well with my use of labels, adding labels of their own. When Google announced its own new app for email on Wednesday, called confusingly Inbox, I naturally immediately requested an invite!

Inbox isn’t totally ground breaking, but instead it’s a slick combination of a number of previously seen concepts working perfectly alongside/on top of your Gmail account. Neither Inbox or traditional Gmail conflict with each other and overall they’re totally in sync. Importantly the same labels existing in both, though the impact of those labels is different. Ultimately they’re both built by the Gmail team so you should consider them to be different views of the same data.

At Inbox’s heart is the idea of a various automatic smart labels that can then bundle all so labelled content together in your Inbox inbox – standard ones include things like Finance, Purchases, Promos and a final catchall Updates. Expand a particular bundle and deal with it more coherently. Neat tricks around bundles include setting when they show up in your Inbox inbox (I’ll stop soon), so for certain lower priority bundles you might chose that they appear at the top once a day/week, keeping the lower priority noise out of your inbox until when you can quickly process them in bulk. Bulk operations work nicely since you can apply a single operation to a whole bundle.  Picking up on the approach of Boomerang, you can also snooze emails so that they reappear at your chosen point in time, or indeed location on the mobile app version. Likewise you can set yourself reminders which appear in your inbox, tied to particular emails or in general, and you can snooze those too. For emails that you want to remain anchored in your inbox you can pin them, and you can switch the view to only show pinned emails if you want.

So after a day and half what do I reckon?

  • Well the starter for ten is that I’m smitten! The fact that I can use Gmail and Inbox simultaneously remains important, but I’m already happy using Inbox as my primary email app. The UI is clean and modern on both web and Android.
  • The automatic labelling and related bundling is already hitting the mark. It lets me see the things that are more important immediately, and then I can deal with the lower priority bundles later.
  • You can add your own new bundles to the inbox, but it’s not obvious how to do so! You can add a label to an email easily (equivalent to a Gmail move) and create a new label whilst doing so, but that new label doesn’t then appear as a bundle. For the automatic labels you can select their settings and chose whether they appear as a bundle or not. Likewise all your existing labels show up as “unbundled labels”, but when you select their settings there’s no option for making them appear as a bundle. In the end I worked out that you need add at least one new filter/rule to “Automatically add messages” using the Inbox settings UI for a particular label, and only then does the option appear to make that label bundled in your Inbox.
  • Once I’d discovered the above, the neat trick is to group your existing Gmail labels into less granular Inbox labels by adding filter/rules which using the “includes” condition to search for “label:<labelname>”. Hence my Gmail filters sort things into lower order labels, and Inbox neatly uses those to bundle together at level above.
  • Core Gmail shortcut keys work but it took me a while to realize! I don’t know if I changed mine from defaults at some point, but my Gmail is set for up/down to move through the list; on Inbox it’s left/right. Once I’d discovered that I realized I could select things by keyboard and then others eg. ‘x’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘#’ work as expected.
  • The Google preference that we archive everything rather than deleting still overrides, and that’s the one thing I don’t like. The core action in Inbox is to mark emails as “done”, which is synonymous with “archive” in reality. On the Android client swipe right will only mark things as “done” and you can’t change that. I receive too much opted-in marketing/spam plus regular short term emails that I don’t need to keep and so still delete a significant proportion of my emails. On the web app it’s not so bad especially with shortcut keys, but on the Android app it’s a real pain having to either open an email to read and then selecting trash from the menu, or long pressing on the inbox to select before you can again chose trash from the menu. Personally I’d like to see a short swipe to be “done” and a continued longer swipe to be “trash” in the Android app.

I’m sure there’s plenty more for me to find out yet, and time will tell, but the “shiny shiny” nature of Inbox plus the fact that I’m sure there’ll be loads to come has grabbed me for now!


A quick Shellshock test on my MBP

If you’ve not read about Shellshock yet today, you probably should. For most people it’ll mean little in reality and the net impact will be an urgent security update, assuming they’re on OS X or Linux. Of course a different question is how overblown the press will make reports of Shellshock, given the panic they spread around Heartbleed earlier in the year!? You can always tell how good a job they’ve done at worrying people when friends and family phone you up and start with the phrase “you’re a geek … should I be worried about <insert technology issue>”.

Of course it is always concerning when a vulnerability is as long historically long lived and widespread as Shellshock seems it could be. Obvious things will be patched quickly, but there’ll be those old systems sat in the background that never will be. However, despite all the doom and gloom that will be spread about it “taking over entire websites”, the typical question of how a hacker is going to get to remotely execute said vulnerability-exploiting bash script in the first place remains!?

Starting with the most obvious, a quick check on my MBP running OSX 10.8.5 shows that it is indeed vulnerable.

bash --version
GNU bash, version 3.2.48(1)-release (x86_64-apple-darwin12)
Copyright (C) 2007 Free Software Foundation, Inc.

And executing a standard test example …

env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c 'echo to me stealing all your money'
to me stealing all your money

However, probably more importantly SSHing into my router running DD-WRT shows that it’s not got bash enabled.

Will be interesting to see how this one develops and whether I’ll get any phone calls!?