Dear Android gesture typing: Enough ashtray with this one autocomplete error

About 95 percent of the time, the “gesture typing” built into Android’s keyboard is one of my favorite parts of Google’s mobile operating system. I trace a fingertip over the letters of the word I have in mind, that item appears in an overlay before I’m halfway through inputting it, I lift my fingertip, and a Scrabble winner like “deoxyribonucleic” pops into a tweet, e-mail or note.

Ashtray forbiddenBut then I have to try to gesture-type the $10 word “already,” and Android will have other ideas. Specifically, cancerous ones: It keeps subbing in “ashtray.”

I could take some comfort in the privacy-preserving thought that Google’s sense of my interests is so off that it thinks I write about cigarettes all the time. (This post probably won’t help!) But, really, I only want to write a common adverb without having to tap keys one letter at a time, like some kind of an animal.

And because I’m in the same abusive relationship with autocorrect as everybody else, I keep hoping that this time, Android will finally realize I have no interest in tobacco products. That’s when it will humor me by inserting “airway” instead of “ashtray.”

I just don’t know what could lead Google to misread me so consistently. The path you trace to gesture-type “already” requires going significantly farther east on the keyboard than the route for “ashtray,” and Google’s own search results suggest the former word is used about 143 times more often than the latter. Who would see any upside from this pattern of error?

As I said, this is annoying because it’s so unusual. The only other common word that Android gesture typing botches halfway as often is “conference.” And there, it’s at least more creative: The software will sometimes choose to read my attempt to enter this noun for an occupational hazard of my job as me gesture-typing “cicatrice.” Yes, real word: It’s a Middle English-derived noun for tissue that forms over a wound and then becomes a scar.

One thing I do know about this mystery: If there’s a tech conference with “already” in its name, I may have to decline all of its invitations to preserve my own sanity.

Weekly output: old TVs, Mark Zuckerberg, rebooting, deleting old e-mail, wireless charging, Android phones, wireless carriers, smartphone features, smart apartments

Another Mobile World Congress went into the books when I flew home from Barcelona Thursday. I’m glad that show and that city have become a regular part of my travel schedule.

2/21/2016: It’s really time to let go of that old tube TV, USA Today

Circling back to a topic I covered in 2013 allowed me to note some good HDTV options for under $200–including the Wirecutter’s $170 pick–and the unfortunate end of Best Buy’s free TV recycling.

Yahoo Tech Zuckerberg MWC post2/22/2016: Zuckerberg at MWC: Getting the World (and Someday His Daughter) Online, Yahoo Tech

The Facebook founder’s Q&A session started at 6 p.m. local time, meaning the press room closed while I was still writing my recap. I finished it on a bench in the hall outside–MWC, unlike CES, has free WiFi throughout the facility.

2/22/2016: Tip: Sometimes You Really Do Need to Reboot the Damn Thing, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this tip item weeks before, not knowing that a colleague had just filed a different tip item around the virtues of rebooting. Fortunately, our devices did not get any less buggy over the ensuing month.

2/23/2016: Tip: How to Quickly and Easily Get Rid of Old E-Mails, Yahoo Tech

You read a version this three and a half years ago at USA Today, but that didn’t give enough credit to Microsoft’s Outlook.com for nailing the task of automatically deleting e-mails over a certain age.

2/23/2016: Why Wireless Charging Is Still a Tangled Mess, Yahoo Tech

Once again, the wireless industry seems dead set on balkanizing itself between two ways to do the same thing.

2/24/2016: Your Next Android Phone: Smaller but Expandable, Yahoo Tech

This was my attempt at a State of the Union address for Android phones.

2/24/2016: Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

Our first major update to this guide since September factored in the end of two-year contracts at AT&T and Sprint… and two days after it went up, I learned that Sprint had restored two-year contracts. We should have yet another update up in a few days.

2/26/2016: Your next smartphone should have these features, USA Today

My last MWC post inventoried six features that I think you’ll want on your next phone–and another that nobody should care about for a few more years.

2/27/2016: Emerging Multifamily Technologies Panel, NWP Energy Summit

The morning after I got home from Spain–professionalism!–I moderated this panel discussion with NWP’s Howard Behr, Greystar’s Pam Darmofalski, Embue’s Robert Cooper and Remotely’s Mike Branam about how smart-home technology is changing apartments.

Nexus 5X setup tips

A week and a half ago, I set up a new phone–not to review, but to keep. I’m not ready to render a conclusive verdict on this Nexus 5X beyond “I paid for it and I own it,” but I can offer some getting-started advice to other new 5X users. Maybe you will find them helpful?

Nexus 5X on Ha'penny BridgeNexus Imprint: The fingerprint recognizer on the back of this phone works amazingly fast–it only took me a few days to get out of the habit of pressing the power button to wake it. But it functioned better after I re-registered my left and right index fingers with more off-axis touches to allow for those times when I grab the phone from one side or another.

After I’d done that, I remembered to register my wife’s fingerprint too. You should do the same for anybody you’d trust with your phone if you couldn’t get to it.

USB Type-C: I no longer have to worry about plugging a USB cable into this thing upside-down; instead, I have to worry about trying to use it with my collection of incompatible micro-USB cables. To keep all of those old accessories–especially those connected to external chargers, given that this is yet another phone I can’t assume will last a full day on a charge–I had to buy a USB-C-to-micro-USB adapter for $7 or so off Amazon.

Any advice about where else I should have looked? Monoprice’s offerings were more expensive–maybe because theirs charge fast enough by correctly implementing the USB Type-C specification?

LED notifications: The 5X has a notification LED embedded below the screen that’s off by default. To switch it on, open the Settings app, touch “Sound & notification,” and tap the switch to the right of “Pulse notification light.”

WiFi calling: This phone can also do WiFi calling on compatible carriers such as T-Mobile, and you can enable that under the “More” heading of Settings’ “Wireless & networks” category. Touch “WiFi calling” for a switch to activate that and an option to prefer WiFi or cellular calling.

Screen app and widget layouts: I was a little embarrassed by how many mental processor cycles I put into migrating a layout of apps and widgets from the four-icon-wide grid on my old phone to the 5X’s five-icon grid. But in return, I was able to condense five screens’ worth of app shortcuts down to four.

But some of my regular widgets, like the two-icon-wide analog clock and the four-icon-wide “What’s This Song?”, either no longer fit neatly at the center of the screen or could span the width of it, and the old power-management toolbar doesn’t seem available in Marshmallow at all.

Oh, and if you were confused about how to create new home screens beyond the one you get by default: Drag an app icon off the right or left side of that screen, and Android will spawn a new one automatically.

A phone meltdown, a reset, a tedious reconstruction

My phone’s weekend ended badly: Sunday evening, it went off on a tear, opening and switching between apps faster than any human could do, and the only way I could get it to stop was to shut it down.

(If you got a gibberish text or a random phone call from me then: Sorry.)

Phone reset buttonI was pretty sure my aging Nexus 4 hadn’t been hacked, but seeing it race out of control was still one of the more terrifying smartphone experiences I’ve had. And multiple restarts didn’t quash this behavior.

When I got home, quick research revealed a few posts recounting similar meltdowns and suggesting a hard reset in case the problem wasn’t a failure of the digitizer that makes the touchscreen work.

Fair enough, I thought; I had already been considering a factory data reset after the phone had locked up a few times. I plugged the thing into my desktop, copied over a few application settings files that I thought Android’s app backup might not get, and took a breath before tapping the big, gray “RESET PHONE” button.

What did I not think to do before that irrevocable step? Change the setting in Google’s Hangouts app that would have made it the default SMS app and copied over all of my older messages. I also spaced about running the SMS Backup+ app, which would have backed up those texts to a folder in my Gmail account and would have been doing so automatically all along had I changed one setting there.

When the phone rebooted into factory-fresh, apparently stable condition, I realized how little Android’s standard online backup had covered. My screen wallpaper was intact and my old apps quickly downloaded, but I needed to redo almost everything else. That included at least 25 different app logins, three of which also required redoing Google Authenticator two-step verification.

And the phone and messaging apps were devoid of data, with no way to restore anything lost since I’d last run SMS Backup+ several months ago. I’m not too beat up over the call log, since… wait for it… the NSA has that backed up anyway. But I am upset about losing those texts. I suppose that being humbled this way is a healthy episode for anybody handing down tech advice.

I’m told that in Android 6.0, the backup system actually works as you’d expect it to. And it looks like I’ll have the chance to experience that sooner rather than later: This phone’s screen has run amok twice since Sunday (and its relatively recent habit of unlocking itself in my pocket now looks like another symptom of a degrading digitizer), so a new phone is no longer just a good idea but an outright requirement.

Weekly output: Google news, Apple vs. Google, EMV credit cards, OS X Photos

LAS VEGAS–I’m here for the last time this year, I think, to moderate a panel at Tech.Co’s Celebrate conference. It only seems fitting that I booked my flights to CES 2016 on the flight into Vegas this afternoon.

9/29/2015: Google’s new phones and tablet, WTOP

Washington’s news radio station quizzed me about Google’s introduction of the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P phones (the former is looking like my next phone), Android 6.0 Marshmallow and Pixel C convertible tablet.

Yahoo Tech Apple-Google copying post9/29/2015: Apple and Google Just Can’t Stop Copying Each Other, Yahoo Tech

I was having a hard time coming with some kind of illustration for this reaction to Google’s news when I remembered staging a similar shot for a Discovery News post (which, of course, I can’t find now) exploring a comparable imitate-and-improve dynamic between Apple and Microsoft.

10/1/2015: Your Old Credit Card’s Now Obsolete. Now What?, Yahoo Tech

I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about the shift to “EMV” credit cards and what it will and won’t do to stop the next account compromise.

10/4/2015: Extensions can make OS X’s Photos app more useful, USA Today

I know that Photos is supposed to replace iPhoto, but I’m still not sure that I’m ready to make that transition.

An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

Weekly output: financial and tax insecurity, Solo drone, future of radio, lost location apps

My trip to the NAB Show ended with a red-eye flight home to the East Coast, something I don’t think I’ve done for business travel since 1996. Let’s just say I can’t rally from the experience as well as I did back then.

Yahoo Tech tax-return fraud post4/14/2015: The Other Reason Tax Prep Should Make You Nervous, Yahoo Tech

I had meant to file this piece about financial-account security and tax-refund fraud before heading out to National Airport for the first of two flights to Vegas but instead pretty much wrote the whole thing on the ORD-LAS segment.

After reading it, please look over last year’s tax-time column: a recount of how Intuit, the company whose weak security helped grease the skids for a fair amount of identity-theft refund fraud, has worked to ensure it won’t face competition from federal or state governments when it comes to online tax prep.

4/15/2015: 3D Robotics’ Solo Drone Can Fly Circles Around You, Yahoo Tech

I’m still not sure what possessed 3D Robotics to debut this drone at a convention for the broadcast media, but I thought the product fascinating enough that it was worth writing up the experience. My one disappointment: Nobody besides my editor seems to have picked up on my “a Solo can shoot first” line.

4/15/2015: The Journalists Panel, NAB Show

My primary reason for going to the NAB Show was to participate on this panel, in which longtime radio exec Jeff Simpson quizzed Radio World editor Paul McLane and I about the competition AM and FM stations face from online alternatives. I emphasized locality: Stations should try to sound like where they are, something a worldwide app like Pandora can’t do. If only more commercial FM stations would follow my advice when it comes to music programming.

4/19/2015: How location-aware app can get lost on WiFi, USA Today

I’ve touched on this topic before, but this time I had the benefit of talking to some smart mobile-app developers who clued me into some important differences in how location-based apps work in iOS and Android.

Weekly output: mobile-app privacy, Google I/O (x5), Fort Reno, TiVo and SDV

One of these links is not like the others; five of them are very much like each other.

6/24/2014: 4 Questions to Ask Before You Give a New App Access to Your Personal Data, Yahoo Tech

I’m used to playing a grumpy old man, but I’m rarely in such a get-off-my-Internet mood as I was when writing this post about overhyped mobile apps.

6/25/2014: Google Announces Two New Directions for Android, Yahoo Tech

The first of three quick posts I wrote during the Google I/O keynote, this one sums up the day’s hardware and software news for Android.

6/25/2014: With Android TV, Google Turns Its Eyes to Larger Screens (Again!), Yahoo Tech

Here, I compared the debut of Android TV to the snakebit launch of Google TV four years ago. (Fun fact: My neighbor across the street is one of the few individuals to have purchased a Google TV box.)

6/25/2014: MIA at I/O: 8 Products That Google Didn’t Mention, Yahoo Tech

It’s good practice to notice what products or principles go unmentioned in a tech company’s keynote.

Google Cardboard post6/25/2014: Move Over, Google Glass: Here Comes Google Cardboard, Yahoo Tech

I wrapped up the day by describing this fun little experiment in cheapskate virtual reality.

6/27/2014: Man in Screamingly Loud Paisley Shirt Explains Google’s Subtle New Design Language, Yahoo Tech

I talked about Google’s new “Material Design” initiative for about half an hour with Google design v.p. Matias Duarte. I wish I could take credit for that memorable headline, but I can’t.

6/27/2014: D.C. Reflects: What Fort Reno’s Concert Series Meant To Us, D.C. Music Download

After the organizers of these annual free concerts in Northwest D.C. said they wouldn’t happen this year, courtesy of a last-minute demand by the U.S. Park Police that they pay to keep an officer onsite for each concert, I griped about the news on Twitter. Writer Stephanie Williams then e-mailed to ask if I could comment further, and so there I am next to all these people whose indie-rock creed goes beyond seeing Fugazi play Fort Reno two or three times.

6/29/2014: How to use TiVo with Time Warner Cable, USA Today

A query from a friend’s dad that I thought would be simple turned out to be complicated. And maybe even my abbreviation-dense answer was itself not complex enough; after the story ran, veteran gadget blogger Dave Zatz tweeted that TWC’s control-freak application of a copying restriction blocks a remote-viewing feature in newer TiVo DVRs.

Weekly output: Apple-Samsung patent fights, Rocky Agrawal, Google Voice

On a trip where I was supposed to be covering other people’s news, I wound up ever-so-slightly in the news myself after my friend Rocky Agrawal had a Twitter meltdown for a few days. I wrote about our meeting Monday night and tried to suggest that onlookers consider more than the past 72 hours in judging his character, and Business Insider ran a story written around my post. (Hi, new readers. Please stick around.)

Yahoo AppSung post5/6/2014: Apple v. Samsung, Unspun: Patent Warfare Is a Slow, Costly Habit with Few Winners, Yahoo Tech

I led off this analysis of the latest Apple v. Samsung verdict by suggesting that the only sure winners were the children of the patent lawyers involved, who could now count on having their college tuition fully covered. A reader countered in a comment: “As the spouse of a former patent litigator, I take issue with the first paragraph. The children of these attorneys do not win in this scenario. The hours spent on this case are hours these parents will never get to spend with their kids. So pretty much everyone loses.” Fair point.

5/9/2014: Concern on Twitter for the mental health of a former PayPal executive, The Columbia Journalist

Freelance journalist and Columbia j-school student Sara Ashley O’Brien interviewed me for this recap of my friend’s situation.

5/11/2014: Google hangs up on Internet calls for many Voice users, USA Today

Google’s imminent end of support for a protocol that let third-party Internet-calling apps hook into its Google Voice service meant I had to explain why advice I’d offered a year ago in my USAT column is no longer operative.

Weekly output: tax prep, Google Glass, Heartbleed, Nearby Friends, online banking

This was a multiple-microphone week, and two of my three broadcast appearances involved shows that hadn’t booked me as a guest before. That’s good.

In other news: Happy Easter!

4/15/2014: The Strange and Successful Campaign to Make Taxes More Taxing, Yahoo Tech

A lot of material had to get left out of this already-long column denouncing the crony-capitalism campaign by Intuit and such Washington groups as Americans for Tax Reform and my former client CCIA to stop governments from letting citizens file and pay taxes at their own sites. (For example, these direct-filing sites cost little to run–$80,000 a year at California’s ReadyReturn, $150,000 for Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-shuttered padirectfile.)  Comments debuted at Yahoo Tech late Tuesday afternoon, and as you can see I did not wait long to show up in them myself.

Speaking of feedback, you might as well see ATR’s latest post opposing IRS-run tax prep and stories, mine included, that suggest it would be a good thing… which, in a coincidence too weird for me not to disclose, was written by the guy who’s done my taxes since 2012.

4/16/2014: Google Glass and privacy, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on the air to talk about Google Glass and privacy issues. Since I was being translated into Arabic in real time, the producer emphasized that I speak slowly and simply–a challenge when my usual habit is to speak too fast on the air.

To the Point Heartbleed show4/16/2014: Heartbleed and Internet Security, To the Point

KCRW’s news show had me on to discuss the Heartbleed bug and how  open-source development broke down in this case. I wish I’d thought to compare major tech companies’ unwillingness to kick in any money to the OpenSSL Foundation with all the effort they’ve put into finding ways to pipe income to shell corporations in overseas tax havens.

Most of my input happened in the first 20 minutes or so, but keep listening to hear Internet Governance Project founder Milton Mueller discard some silly objections from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro to the government’s proposal to hand over supervision of the DNS root zone.

4/18/2014: Nearby Friends, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a few minutes via Skype to talk about Facebook’s new location-based option, its privacy implications and how it competes with such existing apps as Foursquare and the D.C. startup SocialRadar.

4/20/2014: Safety you can bank on: Chromebook, Linux, phone, USA Today

A relative’s question about whether he should buy a Chromebook for his online banking gave me an opportunity to note a couple of cheaper options to separate your Web financial transactions from your regular use: booting your computer off a Linux CD or flash drive, or using your bank’s app or the built-in browser on your phone or tablet.