My phone was back and the battle almost won.
All that remained was to run the software that gave me root access to the kernel — which took about five minutes, four minutes longer than it should due to me mistaking it for an Android app instead of the Windows executable it really was — and to actually perform the exorcisms of silence and sanity in the name of which I'd gone through all of the above.
The first job in my role as Omnipotent Phone Deity was stopping the shutter noise. The most highly recommended fix, according to a consensus across the forums, was to create a small configuration file in the right directory on the phone.
You need root access to do that. I had root access. I did that.
Anticipating the moment of triumph, I took a photograph. And tasted failure: the donkey bit the apple as rudely as ever.
A few other suggested fixes later, it was not going away. It's still not clear why some fixes work for some people and not for others, except that Murphy's law clearly states none of them were going to work for me.
One last and surely unstoppable answer remained, to find and delete the shutter sample audio file. It was, I learned, called shutter_01.ogg (yes! Ogg lives!) and it lived in the /system/media/audio/ui folder. Now, if only I could navigate there: the phone was still guarding those secrets well, and none of the file managers I had on the phone or the USB file system mounts could see it. Back to Google and asking what felt like gratuitously obvious questions: after nearly thirty years in the belly of technology, I had to ask how to see a system folder? Apparently so.
The answer turned out to be the last piece of the jigsaw: another little utility, this one called Android Commander, written by yet another member of the xda-developers forums. In the words of an alternative mobile phone developer, it just worked. There was my system folder and there deep within was the sound file. I renamed it. I took a photograph.
The silence was delicious.
And what of TopApps? Android Commander had its own apps manager that scanned the apps I'd installed (around 60) and the ones that came with the phone (180 packages. Really). I let it build up its database, selected TopApps, told it to die — and it died. Gone. For good. I resisted the temptation to delete everything else I didn't want to use, keeping that power for the day that they start to annoy me. Long experience has taught me to resist the temptation to delete stuff I don't quite understand on the spurious grounds of neatness.
Now I have a phone that is closer to perfect than when I got it, as well as a much enhanced ability to sort out future problems and to reconfigure things if need be. Was it worth it? Yes, and I'd hate to have to embark on this sort of mission on any other platform. Is Android fragmented, with incoherent support and pitfalls for the unwary? Yes it is, much more so than any other platform — but if you don't want to fiddle, this doesn't matter.
Provided you can learn how to navigate the shoals, places like xda-developers have enormous amounts of good advice, good software and good ideas — and the community to keep everything safe and on track. You have to learn how to use such things, but the skills are valuable way beyond this particular task.
On a more philosophical note; it’s incredibly important to maintain a platform and the public expertise to keep this level of control open to consumers. Locked systems invite corporate and regulatory abuse. The history of the telecommunications industry before and after the advent of the true public internet is a vivid illustration of this; the battles over SOPA and other dangerous laws show it to be more relevant than ever.
Removing a shutter sound and a naff marketing app may not be the storming of the Winter Palace, but large freedoms are built of smaller ones. It’s worth the price of admission.