Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Line Between Morality and Freedom - A Guide to the Confused

Morality is a dilemma for many - "What is right for me is not necessarily right for you. Am I right in forcing you to see things my way?"

Christopher Hitchens and Shashi Tharoor debate for over an hour in the above video about which is more important - "freedom of speech" or "not hurting others' sentiments".

The dilemma is that if we concede to Tharoor's argument and censor ourselves in whatever we say we will turn into a gun without bullet, and on the other hand if we follow what Hitchens says, to speak our mind out without worrying about the consequences, we will all turn into guns shooting each other.

After thinking about this issue for weeks, literally, I have come up with a middle ground.

First I'll explain why it is necessary.

We should do what we feel is right because otherwise we are doing it wrong. It is mean on our part to see "wrong" and not react. Do not conform to majority opinion, or minority opinion, or anyone's opinion because they could all be wrong. We do not know the absolute truth, or the absolute right. But what we do know is our "rights" and our "truths". Be courageous to put it forth.

Now I am sure some of the readers will take it down the slippery slope and say that this argument favours terrorism - what they feel is right, they do. But I have not finished my point. Keep reading.

But what if I am not sure what is right? In such a situation just listen to all sides and form an informed opinion which you are ready to change if proved wrong later. It is fine to change your opinion. You could support someone and later oppose them if it turned out you were wrong, or vice versa. You could support an ideology and later oppose it if that is better in the light of new knowledge.

Okay, I know what is "right". But am I right in forcing others into my "right"? They have their right to have their "right", right?
True that. This is where terrorists are wrong. While asserting their right they are taking away the others' right to live, learn, etc. We can do what we feel is right as long as we don't deny others their rights.

Is that the ground-breaking middle ground insight that I promised? No. We have all heard "Your freedom ends where my nose begins". But what we have not heard is how to swing our hands in such a way that it almost reaches the opponent's nose and scares them, but does not touch their nose and cause harm.

It is this line that we must aim at. A war in which both parties shoot, but not at each other. Where do they shoot then?

They shoot into the consciousness of the society. I can explain.

You know that ethyl alcohol is a harmful substance. When you see a lot of people drinking it, you feel like the government should ban it. But by banning drinking - even when a person is not a government servant, not responsible for anything, or is a dead waste in the world - you're essentially shooting at the alcoholics and denying their right to drink whatever poison they want to (Note: Of course there's a question about suicide being legal or not). There is an alternate way. Though it is more difficult and long, it puts you in a moral ease. And that way is to shoot your argument at the masses and convince them collectively that alcohol is a harmful substance. Like what Dr Dharav Shah does.

You know that Bollywood/Tollywood/Kollywood/Sandalwood movies are produced by perverts who want to make money by tickling our dicks. You know that actors and actresses are selling their bodies off under the pretext of "doing it for the script", "what the character demands", and you feel the society is being exploited. But you shall not ask the government to ban these movies. You shall not tear the posters and make filming impossible. What you can do without consciousness prick is criticize them vehemently, call them what they are - hypocrites, expose their lies, and raise the society's awareness about how they are being exploited.

Still not sure you are right enough to do such good things for the society? Think of this. Collectively our society thinks very less. Its opinions are heavily shaped by the mainstream media and easily biased by glamour and money.

It is a place which cannot understand sarcasm, takes words by the face value, and listens to celebrities (politicians and actors) - whatever shit they say.

It is a place where emotion rules over logic, and superfluous thoughts and ideas triumph over deep, far-sighted visions on any day.

And if you read so far be assured your "rights" and "wrongs" are better than those of 95% of this society.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Making of a Maker Party

Mozilla is asking all of us to throw parties all over the world from July 15 to September 15. Webmakers all over the world are responding by hosting "Maker Parties" wherever they can.

I did one too.

This is a report for the sake of other webmakers.

To begin with there was me. I have been getting a lot interested in the web ever since the Firefox 29 launch party in Bangalore a few months ago. Also, I was learning web developer's power tools like yeoman after getting stuck with optimization of saMMsCRIthi '14 website.

And there was Swathi. The moment she heard about maker party she was excited and wanted to host one at her home. Since she had WiFi all we wanted was some participants.

After postponing the event twice about 10 people were all set to attend on August 31, Sunday. I registered the event only two days before the party. And therefore there was no point asking Mozilla for some stickers or banners. So Swathi took colour prints of the webmaker logo, firefox logo, etc and made some awesome goodies on her own!

The awesome self-made goodies by Swathi. Note that the maker party stickers on the left had double sided sticky tape behind it so that they could be stick-ed anywhere.
Since our event was from 12 noon to 7 in the night, Swathi also had to take care of lunch. Thanks to her awesome mom for the nice food!

I'd remixed a teaching kit and made this kit for a small maker party. But it was very boring what I came up with. So, most of the activities were planned an hour before they happened.

I reached the venue at 10 am, well in advance to make sure everything would work fine, but that wasn't necessary because the host had taken care of it all. All I had to do was get the WiFi password and make sure it was connectable. 10-12 I made a small webpage for the event which was useful in demonstration of some activities too.

Luckily not all 12 of the people who wanted to come did come. Therefore everyone could sit in 2 couches + 3 chairs in one room.

See how cramped everyone was. But that made working together easy.

Around 1 we started with the IP by hand activity. I believe that people should understand the chain of events that happen whenever they do anything, and if they do they can easily understand everything else surrounding it. So the participants assumed the roles of browser, router, ISP, DNS, internet backbone, server, and domain name registrar. And then we sent IP like requests with originating address, to address, etc in a piece of paper.

Immediately after that I could explain how the router works, how our 6 computers were connected to each other even if we removed the wire connection from Airtel. We went to 192.168.1.1 and learned how to configure the router. Then we went to 192.168.1.2 where I had the local version of the event webpage running and I explained how a server works. We pinged each other on the local network, we pinged google and was surprised at how different people got different IP addresses to ping (although we were all connected via the same internet connection). I explained the various load balancing issues involved.

After that we started learning browser shortcuts. This could have been planned better with some competitive activity between teams. Instead we were just opening new tab, closing that, searching google, etc without using the mouse.

An ultra-small quiz was held when we were all on India wiki. I would ask a question based on some sentence in the page like "Who ruled Gangetic plains from 606 to 647 CE?" and the teams would ctrl+f to find the answer.

Then we had lunch.
All plates were clean when we were done
Following lunch I talked about domian name, URL structure, https connection, certificate. And the importance of making sure these are proper when we're banking or shopping.

Then we solved 3 privacy challenges. There could have been more challenges using the myriad privacy settings in facebook to hide things from people.

Then I gave a small intro to all the tools available in google using the more -> even more page. We started typing on a Google doc, all of us at the same time.

Then we used google search tricks, to uncover secrets about the participants and people we hate. We would use queries like:
  • "name of person"
  • name of person site:rguhs.ac.in
  • "name of person" +mysore
Since most government details are put online (without any consideration of privacy) we could easily find some interesting stuff.

To introduce the need for HTML I asked everyone to draw a small webpage for themselves in a piece of paper. They made nice shining pages. Then I asked them to reproduce what they did in notepad. Everyone would get stuck at line 1, because there's no center align in notepad. Once stuck, I introduced thimble, and the need for mark up. With the concept in their head, all I had to tell them were "h1", "p", "a href=''", etc , and they soon started asking me the tag for inserting images, the attribute to restrict image size, etc. And they made these. I missed telling them to tag the makes and now it is difficult to find the beautiful makes.

To wrap things I spoke about Mozilla and the open web.

That web which makes you read this. Without which life would have been much more difficult. Which is consistently denied to many people in certain parts of the world. Which is under-utilized in most places sheerly due to ignorance. Which is scary for some, which is the only way to communicate for some. Which is the one biggest reason the world feels so small.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

A Smartphone in ₹2000 - What is Firefox OS?

Mozilla is all set to sell Firefox OS smartphones that costs $25 (~₹1500) in India.

Who is Mozilla?
Mozilla is to Internet what WHO is to world's health.

Mozilla is a community of "Mozillians" from all over the globe with a common mission - to build a better internet.

Most of us know Mozilla as the non-profit organization behind the mighty web browser - Firefox. But Firefox is just a small part of what Mozilla does. Mozilla plays an active role in promoting the openness of web, bringing down disparity and bridging the digital divide, and empowering citizens all over the world for innovation.

They do this through building products that transform the way we interact with the web, through educating the world about the web, and by influencing policy making in matters related to the web.

A screenshot of the mozilla.org homepage
What is Firefox OS?
Firefox OS is an operating system for your mobile device, an alternative to Android, iOS, Windows, etc.

It is built using the same set of tools that is used to build the web - HTML5 and other open web standards. This makes it easier for people to develop applications for Firefox OS. In fact, any website on the web can become an app on Firefox OS - because they are built using the same tools.

What this means for the end user is that there will be a lot of apps - a lot of apps - that runs on Firefox OS.

How is it different from Android, iOS, etc?
There are differences at multiple levels.

Everything in Firefox OS is a web app. In fact the entire user interface of Firefox OS is a web app. The camera app is a web app. The dialler app is a web app. These are all written in HTML5, css, and javascript, like the websites are written.
In other operating systems, you write apps in different languages, like java, C#, etc. And this brings on the additional complexity of having to know those languages.

Firefox OS needs very little resources. It runs on very low-end phones. The minimum hardware specs required are low, and the cost of devices in turn becomes low.

But the most important unique feature of Firefox OS is that it is adaptive!
3 screenshots of a Firefox OS phone showing how it is adaptive
When you search for soccer, you get all the apps from all over the web related to soccer, and so on.

Cool! Where do I buy a Firefox OS device?
Like all other phones, you buy Firefox OS phones from shops! :D

Update:
So, do I need an internet connection always on to run Firefox OS?
No! Actually, there are two kinds of apps in firefox - hosted app, and packaged app.

Packaged apps (like dialler, sms, cut the rope game) work offline (though they can connect to the web if needed). All the resources they need are already downloaded when you download the app initially (or when you buy your phone, in case of default apps).

Hosted apps (like facebook), are hosted at their own websites. Hosted apps are usually used only when the content that is shown in the app is regularly changed online (think of news, social networks, etc).

For all practical purposes, Firefox OS needs internet connection only in the cases the other platforms (android, iOS, etc) need internet - to update the system, to install new apps, to browse the web.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

How and Why To Switch to Zsh from Bash


Ubuntu comes with Bash as its default "shell". So, when you're running `gnome-terminal` (the default terminal emulator) it actually sends the commands to '/bin/bash' which interprets your command and displays output.

What is the difference between shell, console, and terminal?

Zsh is an improvement on bash. It adds more functionality, and better ways of doing things.

Bash vs Zsh | /r/linux

Image from Oh My Zsh

Switching to zsh is a "do once, be grateful for ever" task thanks to Oh My Zsh.

As explained on Getting started with ZSH on Ubuntu (for technotards), you need to first install zsh.
sudo apt-get install zsh 
Then you can install Oh My Zsh
curl -L http://install.ohmyz.sh | sh
Change Shell
At the end of the Oh My Zsh installation script, there's a command to change the default shell to zsh (from bash, or any previous shell). But this might fail by not asking for a password. In case this happens, do this manually.
chsh -s `which zsh`
Important: Changing shell needs you log out and log in to take effect.

Configure
Zsh has a lot of configurations, and Oh My Zsh does these for us. Now you can configure Oh My Zsh!

Enable plugins
In .zshrc, change
plugins=(git)
to, say
plugins=(git common-aliases autojump python sudo)
With common-aliases, you can do `vim .zshrc` by `zshrc`.

Themes
Oh My Zsh comes with 137 themes. Set a random theme to load at startup by changing in .zshrc
ZSH_THEME="random"
Override plugins (optional)
The common-aliases plugin has "j" alias for jobs. Autojump uses "j" to jump directories. To resolve conflicts like these, just make your own custom version of the conflicting plugin. Like I copied '~/.oh-my-zsh/plugins/common-aliases' to '~/.oh-my-zsh/custom/plugins/common-aliases' and edited the 'common-aliases.plugin.zsh' in that to comment out the "alias j='jobs'"

Migrate .bashrc and .bash_aliases (optional)
If you had custom settings in '~/.bashrc' or '~/.bash_aliases' that you want to copy over, you can copy them to '~/.zshrc'

Alternately, you can create an Oh My Zsh plugin of your own by creating a *.plugin.zsh file in custom/plugins directory.

Enjoy (required)
Open a new terminal (Ctrl+Alt+T), and see a fresh terminal

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Eulogy to Orkut and an Introduction to the Importance of Social Networks

"Orkut is dead. Facebook murdered it" - read the name of a facebook page which had millions of likes around the time I started using facebook.

If we can fall in love with social networks, Orkut was my first love. And like all firsts, Orkut was very special to me.



Everyone on Orkut had a scrapbook. It was like the facebook wall. Anyone could write in your scrapbook, and anyone could read your scrapbook (unless you've changed the privacy settings, of course). Back then, there was no ajax or continuous scrolling. One could see only 10 scraps at a time, and had to press "next" to see the next 10.

Scrapbooks used to easily fall prey to worms every now and then. One such Brazilian worm fondly called "Bom Sabado" (Good Saturday) spread when people clicked on a link in one of their scraps. It would send everyone a "Bom Sabado" scrap. Incidentally, this was asked in a tech quiz while I was in Class XI and I answered it right.

Communities were central to the Orkut experience. They used to have polls, events, and forums. Discussions in these forums were probably the first time I came across rationalism, and a lot of other beautiful stuff.

For a very short time, I was the moderator of Dr APJ Abdulkalam Fan Club which had over 2,00,000 members at that time. I was also the moderator of a cricket community for a long time, although I didn't have much interest in Cricket.

A couple of years after I quit it to concentrate on class 10, I met the owner of that community in a super-fast train following a series of bizarre events. Me, +Nishan Ansari, and +Rajendran Sir (our Physics teacher) were travelling towards Kannur from Calicut after a medical quiz organized by the Calicut Medical College. We reached the railway station just in time for Rajendran Sir to barge ahead of the queue and get a ticket for the Mangala Express waiting on the platform. In the hurry we got into a reserved compartment. The ticket examiner let us sit there till the next stop. As soon as we got down at the next stop and got into the general compartment right next to it, I realized I didn't have my Nokia 3120 Classic with me. I ran back to the first compartment to see if it had fallen where we were sitting. Rajendran Sir followed me, but Nishan stayed back in the general compartment. The train had begun moving when I discovered that the phone was inside my own bag. In short, we had left Nishan alone in the general compartment and come to this compartment for no reason.

And then, while we were standing at the door reading Nishan's SMS about how his compartment was filled with cigarette smoke, a man with long hair that stood out like it does when you touch a Van de Graaf generator, emerged from the toilet side, and shook my hand asking if I was Akshay. He revealed himself as Unmesh Menon, aka Arcadian, the owner of the cricket community I was talking about. He was on a family trip to Kerala temples during his holidays between the PhD course he was doing in Optics at some German university. And that became the strangest coincidence in my life till then, and it remains so.

Orkut allowed us to see who visited our profile. Pretty much like how LinkedIn allows it now. This was both good, and bad. Good, because you could find out if someone is looking at your profile, and bad, because you can't stalk at other's profile.

There was also testimonials - you rate people and write a paragraph about them. And crush detection - you could tell Orkut if you have a crush on someone, and if the other person does the same to you Orkut will notify both of you about your crushes.

Above all, Orkut gave a huge prominence to our "about me", much unlike facebook. Maybe facebook ditched that because "How would you describe yourself?" is a tough question in interviews.

I signed up and operated Orkut for a long time using a dial-up connection provided by BSNL. I think BSNL still provides this dial-up facility. All you had to do was connect your phone line to the modem of your computer, and then create a new dial-up connection with *99# as the number, our phone number as the username, and "bsnlten" or something as the password. The billing was based on the duration we remain connected and not on how much we download.

When I made it impossible for anyone to reach my home over phone, my parents had to get a broadband connection. And after that, I'd shuttle between school and Orkut all the time of my life.

On December 21, 2010, all my online accounts were cracked. My facebook account was defaced, my username changed to asdofpakishthan, (from asdofindia). My Google account was deleted, along with this blog, and so was my Orkut account. I could repair the damages and recover almost everything. Except the poor Orkut account. A new Orkut account was created automatically when the Google account was restored, and the old account was lost forever.

And for me, that was the end of Orkut.

Google decided to say bye bye to Orkut yesterday. And I have no data to take out from it.




Cliché, yet human beings are social animals. We can not live without social validation of our thoughts. That is why we communicate. That is why we debate, fight, and struggle hard to prove ourself right. Heck, that is why I write this post even.

Maybe this is an evolutionary trait. If we do things that are accepted by others, they cooperate with us. And then we copulate.

A less rudimentary way of looking at it is that our brain likes to have an accurate and complete idea of the world around it. It keeps updating its world-view to fit facts and observations that keep pouring in.
Lose a tooth. Now try to keep your tongue away from the hole that leaves. Impossible? Because the brain wants to make sure what it thinks is missing is actually missing.

When the knowledge is incomplete, the brain seeks feedback to make it complete. If you see someone moving, you look up at his face to know who he is. If you hear something fall, you turn around to see what it was.

When it comes to ideas, brain seeks feedback from other brains. This is what I called validation. We express ourselves so that others agree/disagree with us so that, in turn, we can strengthen/correct our idea. That is why authors love feedback and artists perform better when audience applauds.

Social networks make this process easier.
They bring people together on a single platform so that people can exchange their views, and give feedback on others' views. They let our brains relax and feel at home.

This also makes them an essential part of the internet. The internet is analogous to the world. The users are us people. And the discussions on social networks are the conversations we have in real life. It is difficult to lead a life without communicating - in the real world, and on the internet.

Orkuts will die. But social networks will live on.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why I Love Telegram Messenger and Love Not Whatsapp Messenger

Whatsapp is huge. There is no argument against that. Everyone who has an Android phone is using whatsapp.

And this post is not about why you should stop using whatsapp. This post is about why I love Telegram Messenger.


Open Source
Telegram Messenger is open for anyone to crack, or hack, clone, and improve. This is the biggest reason why it is the best among all messenger apps.

Cloud storage
Telegram supports multiple devices simultaneously for the same account. This is possible because all your messages are stored on the cloud.
This gives you two advantages - you never need to back up your messages, and you can move between your phone, laptop, tablet, whatever and continue your conversations where you left off.

Secure
Telegram and whatsapp are like a metallic lunch box and paper wrap respectively, when it comes to security. Telegram even allows you to encrypt conversations such that only the recipient can read it.

File Sharing
Telegram allows you to send files. You can share pdf, mp3, doc, ppt, all those files you want to quickly send to a friend without having to resort to email or without using a pen drive.

Additionally,
Groups on telegram can be up to 200 members. Anyone can add new members.
Free as in free water. The people behind telegram is the people behind vk.com, the world's second largest social network. They have enough money to keep telegram running free for practically long enough.
Fast, though it is always arguable.

And the best for the last,
Availability on multiple platforms
Telegram has an official Android version and iPhone version only. But due to its open nature it has countless windows phone versions, a web version, a windows desktop version, and even a linux cli version mentioned on its website. That is not to mention the fact that you could develop your own client using the open source protocol.

In fact, I even built a bot based on telegram.

Give telegram at whirl, checkout telegram.org

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Share" Button is the Biggest Threat to the Human Capacity to Think


The ability to read and rationalize is unique to human beings. It could be the so called "fast paced environment" in the 21st century that caused it, but we do not read things carefully these days.

In ancient past the only way for people to communicate was to talk to each other - in sign language, or through pictures, or through a proper language. Conditions improved when we discovered script and ways to write down words. Printing press made it absolutely easy to create multiple copies of what we had to say. But computers connected to the internet changed the scenario.

With the ability to copy-paste and spread a word without spending a penny came a detestable habit - forgetting to read and analyse what is going through. While copy-pasting needed one to define one's selection by dragging with their mouse around the right words, "Share" or "Forward" makes it a single-click affair, and much worse.

Here is an audio (in Hindi) which tells us how this ease-of-use has actually made us lazy to think about even the consequences of a click. A radio jockey pretends to be a Facebook manager who is rewarding active users and calls up two guys - a Muslim and a Hindu - who had put status updates against each other on the preceding day. When asked about what they had posted, they are ashamed to answer.
Notice that at the end of the audio the poor fellows accept their mistake and admit that they were "copy-pasting what someone else had posted".

This happens in chain forwards too. Most chain forwards begin with a claim of authority ("The Scientific Association of ABC warns that...") which is directly followed by a false claim ("...eating XYZ is harmful for body as it contains UUU..."). Following this there is either an unscientific explanation of how this works, or a very emotional story of someone being affected by not following this advice. And at the end there is the quintessential "forward this to your friends and relatives".

The people who actually read this critically will focus on two things - the authority who is claiming it, and the explanation behind it. They proceed to verify that the authority has actually issued such a warning or that the purported harm is plausible according to the given explanation.

But the people who forward it mercilessly focus on different things - the claim, the emotional story, and the "harmless" opportunity to help a lot of unsuspecting people. I wonder if they even read the claims. They gloss over the long piece of text and then think "Uh, oh! What if this is true? This affects a lot of people, I suppose. After all there is no harm in just sharing it." Click. Shared.

The people in the above audio clip might also have done the same. They would have superficially understood the emotions being conveyed in a message. And then they would have taken it for granted that the claims in it are actually true. And, worst of all, they would have shared the message with best intentions.

It is when we forget to slow down and think that mistakes tend to happen.

When in doubt, do not share. When you are compelled to share, "say something about it". Add your opinion, or doubts about it along with what you share. And never share something that you have not read fully.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

How To Never Lose Your Contacts or Data on Your Smartphone

This post will tell you everything you need to know about:

  1. Having to never lose any of your contacts
  2. Having to never lose any of your chats/messages/whatsapp conversations, etc.
Required: An android phone (though the concepts presented in this post will apply to other smartphones like iPhone, and Blackberry too)

What you need to know
Your smartphone has two kinds of memory - the system memory (the internal memory) and the user memory (SD card, external storage)

MemoryConsistingAnalogyWhat it meansThings stored
InternalPhone memoryBrainWhen your phone dies, the memories die tooContacts, accounts, settings, application data
ExternalSD CardNotebookThe memories are not tied to your phone, they can travel from phone to phone, state to stateImages, videos, application backups

So what?
So, when you inadvertently burn your phone's motherboard, or decide to format your phone, you'll lose everything on the internal memory and nothing on the SD card. *

How to utilize this knowledge and save your ass
Now that we know what kind of memory is vulnerable to being lost, we can think of backing up things stored on it - contacts, accounts, settings, application data, etc.

There are two places you can back your data up at:
  1. SD card
  2. Cloud (that is servers of google, apple, etc)

Contacts
Easy way: When adding a new contact, an often neglected option asks you "Create contact in: Google Account, Phone, or SIM?"

If you choose "Google" as the answer to the above (instead of "Phone"), you're done. Over. That contact will be synced to your google account the next time you're connected to internet, and voila! You'll never lose it.

Note: Contrary to what some people think, choosing that the contact be saved in Google doesn't mean that the contact won't show up on your phone. A Google contact acts just like a phone contact, only that it will also be synced to the google server.

What about existing contacts on phone?
Moving the contacts you've already saved to your phone from your phone to Google is also going to be a piece of cake.

See if in your Contacts --> Menu or Contacts --> Menu --> Settings there is an option meaning "Move contacts". If it exists,
Step 1: simply click "from: phone" and "to: google".

Most phones I've come across does not have the above "move" option. For these, we're going to take a scary approach.
Step 1: Contacts --> Menu --> Export Contacts
Choose "phone" and it will save all your phone contacts to your SD card.
Step 2: Contacts --> Menu --> Export Contacts
Choose "sim" if you also have some contacts on your sim card.
Step 3: (Scary step) Contacts --> Menu --> Delete all contacts! (Don't worry, we have exported all your contacts to SD card in step 1 & 2)
Step 4: Contacts --> Menu --> Import Contacts
Choose "Google account" when you're prompted where to import contacts to.

Alternate way
If you do not ever connect to internet, an alternate way to back up your contacts is to follow steps 1 and 2 above, and then step 4 when you need to restore your contacts. The disadvantage of this approach is that this is manual.

Alternate way with software download
Just download Contact Backup apps and these will do the above alternative automatically.

SMS Messages
The SMSes are unfortunately never backed up to the cloud by default. If you still use SMS for communication after all the TRAI regulations, I have the following app recommendation

SMS Backup+
It is free, and it works charmingly well, backing up all your SMS conversations to gmail thus allowing you to use gmail's search to search even your SMS conversations.
Advantages:
  • Backs up SMS, Call Log, and even Whatsapp conversations (excluding group messages)
  • Backs these up to GMail!
  • Free!
Whatsapp Conversations
Whatsapp has a built-in backup feature. By default it is on, and runs at 4 AM every day. It creates a backup of all your chats to the "Whatsapp" folder of your SD card. You can also trigger a manual backup, in case you know you're going to break your phone.

To-do:
  • Never "Delete and exit group"
  • Never "Clear all conversations"
Restoring data after crash:
  • After you install whatsapp again, it automatically detects the backup inside "Whatsapp" folder on your phone's SD card, and offers to restore conversations for you.
  • Do NOT choose to continue without restoring. Once you do this, you'll potentially fork your message history thus leaving you with no chance to have a "total" history of your whatsapp messages.
Advanced restore: (If you buy a new phone or something)
  •  In your new phone, and new SD card, there's no "Whatsapp" folder. So, when whatsapp runs it won't detect the backup (because there is no backup)
  • Just copy the "Whatsapp" folder and paste it in your SD card BEFORE installing whatsapp. Now, whatsapp automatically detects your backup and restores messages from it.
PRO-TIP:
The whatsapp backup file is saved in your SD card. So, if you lose your phone, and lose the SD card along with it, you could end up losing whatsapp backups too. But there's a way to sync those backups to the cloud. Checkout Dropsync, or Auto Backup for Whatsapp
 
Settings
In newer android phones, there is a setting "backup & restore" that allows backup of all settings. But otherwise you'll need different apps. Just search "backup settings" in play store.

Other apps
The way android is structured, the data of apps cannot be accessed by other apps (unless you're rooted). So, if the app (whose data you're trying to backup) doesn't have a backup option, you are out of luck. (If you're really into it, you can root your phone. Although this might lead to countless sleepless nights)

*Some phones have an external storage that is built-in, or comes with the phone. I haven't played around with this a lot, but chances are that this acts like an SD card.

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