Tracking notebooks

27.01.2018 20:33

Two months ago, there was a post on Hacker News about keeping a lab notebook. If you like to keep written notes, the training slides from NIH might be interesting to flip through, even if you're not working in a scientific laboratory. In the ensuing discussion, user cgore mentioned that they recommend attaching a Bluetooth tracker on notebooks. In recent years I've developed a quite heavy note taking habit and these notebooks have become increasingly important to me. I carry one almost everywhere I go. I can be absentminded at times and had my share of nightmares about losing all my notes for the last 80 pages. So the idea of a Bluetooth tracker giving me a peace of mind seemed worth exploring further.

cgore mentioned the Tile tracker in their comment. The Tile Slim variant seemed to be most convenient for sticking to a cover of a notebook. After some research I found that the Slovenian company Chipolo was developing a similar credit card-sized device, but in November last year I couldn't find a way to buy one. The Wirecutter's review of trackers was quite useful. In the end, I got one Tile Slim for my notebook.

Tile Slim Bluetooth tracker.

This is the tracker itself. The logo on the top side is a button and there is a piezo beeper on the other side. It is indeed surprisingly thin (about 2.5 mm). Of course if you cover it with a piece of paper (or ten), the bump it makes under the pen is still hard to ignore when writing over it. I mostly use school notebooks with soft covers, so the first challenge was where to put it on the notebook for it to be minimally annoying. I also wanted it to be removable so I could reuse the Tile on a new notebook.

Tile Slim in a paper envelope on a notebook cover.

What I found to work best for me is to put the Tile in a paper pocket. I glue the pocket to the back cover of the notebook, near the spine. I still feel the edges when writing, but it's not too terrible. So far I was making the pockets from ordinary office paper (printable pattern) and they seem to hold up fine for the time the notebook is in active use. They do show noticeable wear though, so maybe using heavier paper (or duct tape) wouldn't be a bad idea. The covers of notebooks I use are thick enough that I haven't noticed that I would be pressing the button on the tile with my pen.

There is no simple way to disassemble the Tile and the battery is not replaceable nor rechargeable. Supposedly it lasts a year and after that you can get a new Tile at a discount. Unless, that is, you live in a country where they don't offer that. Do-it-yourself battery replacement doesn't look like an option either, although I will probably take mine apart when it runs out. I don't particularly like the idea of encouraging more throw-away electronics

Screenshots of the Tile app on Android.

I found the Android app that comes with the tracker quite confusing at first. Half of the screen space is dedicated to "Tips" and it has some kind of a walk-through mode when you first use it. It was not clear to me what was part of the walk-through and what was for real. I ended up with the app in a state where it insisted that my Tile is lost and stubbornly tried to push their crowd-sourced search feature. Some web browsing later I found that I needed to restart my phone, and after that I didn't notice the app erroneously losing contact with the Tile again. In any case, hopefully I won't be opening the app too often.

Once I figured them out, the tracker and the app did seem to do their job reasonably well. For example, if I left the notebook at the office and went home the app would tell me the street address of the office where I left it. I simulated a lost notebook several times and it always correctly identified the last seen address, so that seems encouraging. I'm really only interested in this kind of rough tracking. I'm guessing the phone records the GPS location when it doesn't hear the Bluetooth beacons from the tracker anymore. The Tile also has a bunch of features I don't care about: you can make your phone ring by pressing the button on the Tile or you can make the Tile play a melody. There's also a RSSI ranging kind of thing in the app where it will tell you how far from the Tile you are in the room, but it's as useless as all other such attempts I've seen.

I have lots of problems in a notebook.

With apologies to xkcd

The battery drain on the phone after setting up the app is quite noticeable. I haven't done any thorough tests, but my Motorola Moto G5 Plus went from around 80% charge at the end of the day to around 50%. While before I could usually go two days without a charger, now the battery will be in the red after 24 hours. I'm not sure whether that is the app itself or the fact that now Bluetooth on the phone must be turned on all the times. Android's battery usage screen lists neither the Tile app nor Bluetooth (nor anything else for that matter) as causing significant battery drain.

Last but not least, carrying the Tile on you is quite bad for privacy. The Tile website simply brushes such concerns aside, saying we are all being constantly tracked anyway. But the fact is that using this makes (at least) one more entity aware of your every move. The app does call home with your location, since you can look up current Tile location on the web (although for me, it says I don't own any Tiles, so maybe the call-home feature doesn't actually work). It's another example of an application that would work perfectly fine without any access to the Internet at all but for some reason needs to talk to the Cloud. The Tiles are also trivially trackable by anyone with a Bluetooth dongle and I wonder what kind of authentication is necessary for triggering that battery-draining play-the-melody thing.

I will probably keep using this Tile until it runs out. It does seem to be useful, although I have not yet lost a notebook. I'm not certain I will get another though. The throw-away nature of it is off-putting and I don't like being a walking Bluetooth beacon. However it does make me wonder how much thinner you could make one without that useless button and beeper, and perhaps adding a wireless charger. And also if some kind of a rolling code could be used to prevent non-authorized people from tracking your stuff.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life

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