Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

SAST 3

I seem to be fever-free, which is nice. My attention span has improved. I haven’t gotten lost in mid-sentence in almost two days!

The cough is still distracting, however. Writing is a race to get words on the page before I drape my lungs over the keyboard.

Sorry about that image. But it is the only way to accurately describe the sensation.

So, another day of short notes, as I write a bit, cough a bit, lather, rinse, repeat.

Daylight Savings Time, how I loathe thee.

It’s not the lost hour of sleep Saturday night. It’s not the next several days of disrupted sleep. It’s not even the need to reset the non-Internet-connected clocks*–or the confusion to the Backyard Bunch, who are suddenly getting their dinner an hour earlier according to their stomachs.

* The stove. The microwave. The thermostat. The answering machine. The car. Half-a-dozen wall and table clocks. Hey, I just gained two wall outlets by unplugging a clock radio instead of resetting it!

No, what really pisses me off is that I’m suddenly getting up before sunrise again. I like having daylight when I stagger upstairs to say good morning to Rufus and take my first look at e-mail. Why should I have to turn on a light for that?

Mr. Trump, if you want to boost your approval rating, do away with Daylight Savings Time. That’s something both parties and the independents can get behind.

I’ve been following “Jim’s Random Notes” for several years. It’s an interesting mix of computer, wood carving, and cycling geekery. A post last week, North Dakota Mexican Food, amused the heck out of me.

You’ve played the game where one person recreates a drawing based on somebody’s description of the original, right? An NDMF is the culinary equivalent: someone describes a dish, and someone else thinks “Hey, that sounds interesting. Let me see what I can do.”

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have a NDMF experience? I can think of three right off the top of my head:

  • The Mexican restaurant that thought fajitas were a stew.
  • The diner whose barbeque sauce was red-eye gravy with a couple of chili flakes.
  • The Mexican restaurant that served Saltine crackers instead of chips.

Maybe the Internet will make the NDMF less common. But really, it’s never been particularly hard to find a cookbook…

Moving on.

Google and Apple have been in the news around here lately over their new campuses. Most of the press has been positive, but I’ve noticed they’re both taking a ding in the letter columns because neither company has included housing in their developments.

Excuse me? Yeah, OK, finding housing in the Bay Area can suck. You don’t have to tell me horror stories about extended commutes, thanks; I’ve got plenty of my own.

But do we really want to return to the days of the company town, where your boss owns the factory, the house you live in, the store you shop at, the air you breathe, the booze you drink, and everything else?

Aside from anything else, if the company owns your apartment, it’s a five minute walk from your office, and they own the phone you’re required to carry, are you ever going to get any down time? Or are you going to be unofficially (or officially!) on call twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five?

I think it would have been wonderful if Apple and Google had included some subsidized affordable housing for non-employees in their construction. Didn’t happen, but would have been great. But captive housing for employees? Bad idea.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a positive note. I write a lot–a hell of a lot, actually–about useless gadgets full of security holes and loaded with disappointment.

So it’s a real pleasure to write about a gadget that looks like it does exactly what it’s designed to do without putting your money and privacy at risk.

Take a look at the Fidget Cube.

Pretty slick, huh? Everybody fidgets differently, and the Fidget Cube is designed to offer fidgeting options for anyone.

I’ve carried a fingering stone in my pocket for decades. I’ll turn it around in my hand or rub the smooth side with my thumb when I’m on a phone call. Much less distracting than fiddling with the phone cord and quieter than tapping my pen on the desk.

The Fidget Cube’s got me covered with a smooth curve for rubbing on one side. A trackball for spinning. A joystick for sliding.

And several other goodies that I might never use, but somebody else will find addictive. Click-wheels. Toggle switches. Push-buttons. Spinners.

And it looks to be solid enough to stand up to a pocket full of keys, nail clippers, and thumb drives.

Would it replace my rock? Maybe not; it’s hard to top the appeal of a natural object shaped by wind and water. But who says it needs to replace the rock? Why not try some two-handed fidgeting?

OK Really, Google?

Sometimes one just has to make tough decisions. Tuesday was one of those times for me. I hope you all agree I made the correct choice in talking about the MLB playoffs, rather than Google’s latest hardware announcements.

However, I recognize that some of you may disagree with my call. You may have different priorities. And that’s OK. You are, of course, entitled to hold to your own beliefs.

If you are one of those people who holds to a different belief system than I, here’s the post you would have rather seen on Tuesday. Feel free to pretend it’s Tuesday today.

Yes, Google did announce a number of upcoming hardware releases. Before we get into the details, I’d like to address the hardware announcement they didn’t make: there was no tablet announcement. No replacement for the aging Nexus 9 and, worse still from my point of view, no next generation Nexus 7. As I said a little while ago, I’m in no hurry to pick up a new tablet, but I strongly feel that seven inches is exactly the right size for a light entertainment device–something that fits into the space between a phone you can hold to your ear and a TV you watch from across the room. I’m deeply disappointed to learn that Google apparently doesn’t see that as a viable niche.

Moving on.

Mobile is so last week. The new hotness is, Google says, “AI first”.

In practical terms, that means their new target with Android is to out-Siri Siri. Voice control, learning about the user to become more useful over time, interfacing with the real world, and, of course, omnipresent.

To make that possible, they’re changing focus to give hardware equal priority with software. And to mark the change, they’re doing away with the name “Nexus”. Google hardware will now be “Pixel”. They’ve been using that name for their high-end hardware for a little while. Clearly the rebranding is intended to convey that all hardware bearing the Google name is high end. And the prices certainly bear that out. The Pixel starts at $649 and goes up from there.

Interestingly, even though the Pixel won’t start shipping until November, the Nexus 5X and 6P have already been removed from the Google Store. If you want the current generation of Google phones, you’ll need to get ’em through Project Fi, which is still selling them.

Even though mobile is passe, they still began the reveals with new phones. They’ll come with Android 7.1, which adds a number of UI improvements (or, for those of us who are naturally cynical, “UI changes-for-the-sake-of-change”) intended to streamline workflow. They’ve got new cameras with image stabilization and the fastest capture times ever. Unlimited Google Photos storage for photos and video. Improved battery life. The screens, by the way, are five and five and a half inches. Apparently Samsung is the only company that still believes in the phablet form factor. Hallelujah!

Part of the hardware boost the Pixel phones have over the last generation of Nexus phones is to support Google’s Virtual Reality push. The phones will work with a new VR headset.

I presume that Google has rolled what they learned from the ill-fated Glass initiative into the new Daydream View. If so, what they’ve learned is that the mention of VR makes people want to put a bag over their heads. Or at least, strap one over their faces. Makes sense to me.

Google says it’s “soft and cozy.” I don’t know that I like the sound of that. To me, soft and cozy sounds more like sleepwear than something I’d expect to be able to use for work. Or play, for that matter: the spotlight release title is a game based on J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Note that there’s no word on whether the game removes the absolutely tone-deaf misappropriation and misrepresentation of Native American cultures.

Moving on.

All the AI in your phone and VR streaming is going to require a solid Wi-Fi connection, so Google is introducing “Google Wifi,” a modular router/access point. Need wider coverage? Add another module. I find this amusing: the device will ship in December, with preorders opening in November–but you can get on a waiting list now. Right. A waiting list to preorder. ‘Scuse me while I go bang my head against a wall.

Moving on again.

Since you’re beefing up your Wi-Fi, you might as well soup up your Chromecast as well. To be fair, the first- and second-generation Chromecasts were starting to show their age a little. They’ve never supported 5GHz Wi-Fi, and they max out at 1080p. Enter the new Chromecast Ultra. Up to 4K video, “major Wi-Fi improvements,” and–in case even your new Google Wifi doesn’t give you enough bandwidth–there’s an ethernet port, so you can connect it to your wired network. You do have a network switch behind your TV, right?

Of course, all this technology needs to be tied together. To save you the agony of pushing buttons or the horror of taking your phone out of your pocket, you’ll want a “Google Home.” Yup, that’s Google’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa.

As best I can tell, it’s powered by the same AI engine Google is touting for Android 7.1–and answers to the same “OK Google”* alert that phones have been using for several years now.

* Google really needs to make the trigger customizable. I don’t know about anyone else, but it ticks me off when I ask my tablet a question and a moment later a muffled voice from my phone says, in essence, “Speak up, Stupid. I can’t hear a damn thing from inside your pocket.” Yeah? If you can’t hear me, why did you trigger on the alert phrase? It’s only going to get worse when there’s a Google Home on the bookcase–or several of them scattered around the house. They say “Only the device that hears you best will respond.” I’m dubious. I’d really rather say “OK Alton” for the kitchen device, “OK Dewey” for the one in the library, and “OK Peter” in the bedroom.

Google Home will handle all of the usual questions you ask your phone now. It’s optimized for music. It’ll communicate with various home automation devices*. And the underlying AI will be exposed to third-party developers so they can integrate their apps into the ecosystem.

* Great. I can just see a tech-savvy smash-and-grab artist driving down the street with his car stereo blaring “OK Google, unlock the front door” over and over, while his confederate follows, testing the doors to see which ones are open.

Welcome to the next stage of Our Connected World As Seen By Google.

Oopsie!

Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, shall we?

I’m not in favor of piracy. IMNSHO, information does not want to be free. And, while I believe the music, movie, and publishing industries, have, to varying degrees, bobbled the transition to a digital-dominated marketplace*, I don’t believe that justifies an attitude that all audio, video, and written material can be “shared”, guilt-free.

* Especially when it comes to the methods they use to enforce copyright.

That said, I had to laugh when I saw this story. You read it correctly. Warner Bros. issued DMCA takedown requests against its own websites because the content violated its own copyrights.

To be fair, the requests didn’t come from WB directly, they came from Vobile, a company whose homepage claims their goal is to “Protect, Measure, Monetize the best movies and TV content in the world” Advertising mis-capitalization aside, that’s a remarkably elitist statement, isn’t it? Do they decide whether your content is among “the best” when you engage with them, or–as seems likely–is the fact that you want them to work their PMM magic sufficient evidence that your content is superior?

Regardless, they use the usual sort of digital “fingerprint” technology to identify their clients’ content–and then, apparently fire off a barrage of DMCA takedown requests with little-to-no human oversight. “Fair use? What’s that?” “Verification? Never heard of it.” Yeah, I’m putting words in their mouths.

Hey, do you suppose Warner has told Vobile that they should stop searching for unauthorized distributions of “Happy Birthday”? After all, the song was only placed in the public domain seven months ago…

Anyway, it’s a nice bit of gander sauce.

Moving on (briefly).

Rumor has it that Google is preparing to release a successor to the extremely popular Nexus 7 tablets. Ars, among many other tech venues, suggests that it’ll be announced at Google’s big October 4 launch party, along with new phones, Chromecast, and VR hardware.

If it’s true, I’m very glad to hear it. The world needs more seven-inch tablets. It’s an excellent size for reading, it’s large enough that watching video and playing games isn’t an exercise in annoyance, and it’s small enough to be carried easily.

I don’t expect to be getting one immediately–I’m still quite satisfied with my $50 Amazon Fire tablet for reading and my Nexus 9 for anything that needs a larger screen–but if the new “Pixel 7” (or whatever they decide to call it) is as affordable as Google’s earlier seven-inchers, I’d give it a strong recommendation to anyone who is in the market for a tablet.

The Name Game

So it’s official: Android N is “Nougat”.

Good on Google for hearkening back to the early days of “Cupcake” to choose a reasonably generic name–and one with a bit of an international flair.

There are only two things that comes to mind when you hear “Honeycomb”: the waxy thing made by bees and the overly-sweetened thing made by Post Foods. They both have their fans, but they’re definitely niche markets.

Unless you’re a Bay Area resident or dedicated It’s-It fan, “Ice Cream Sandwich” probably only suggests one thing: two pieces of vaguely cardboard-flavored cookie around a blob of sorta-vanilla, kinda-creamy substance. You know, one of these. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes those things are absolutely the perfect dessert. I’ve been known to stash a box of them in the freezer for hot days when it’s too much effort to go out in search of real ice cream. But they don’t inspire the kind of world-wide love you really want in a product name.

Nougat, on the other hand… Well.

As TfoAHK reminds us, there are three different kinds of nougat, with very different flavors and textures. Some varieties use whole or chopped nuts, some go with finely ground nuts. Dried fruit, honey, and even melted marshmallow* sometimes show up as ingredients. Something for everyone, right?

* Hmm. I wonder if the GoogleFolk who made the final name decision were aware of that variation. After all, Android Nougat wasn’t written from scratch; Android Marshmallow has to be a major ingredient in Nougat.

For whatever it’s worth, Google’s new statue shows that their version of Nougat contains plenty of coarsely-chopped peanuts.

Probably their way of saying “Nuts to you,” to the schmucks who used the name-suggestion website to suggest such tasty treats as “Nazi” and other, even less-printable, words.

The name website, by the way, hasn’t been updated as of this writing. It’s still promising that the name will be announced “soon”. Maybe the person responsible for updating the site ate too much nougat at the announcement celebration and is too sick to work?

Naming quirks notwithstanding, Android Nougat will be released sometime in the third quarter, much to the delight, I’m sure, of anyone who has a phone whose manufacturer will approve an update.

Low-Fi

Have you noticed how much better the Friday cat pictures have looked in the past couple of months? No, I haven’t magically improved my photographic skills.

It’s been said that a bad workman blames his tools. Does that mean that a good workman gives the credit to his? Well, regardless of whether it makes me a good workman or not, I give my tools full credit for the improvement.

In mid-April, I got a new cell phone. The logic went something like this: “I’m paying for a metric buttload of data that I never use. I’m out of contract. Can I move to a new plan?”

To make a long story short, not really.

I was paying Sprint $90 a month for unlimited data, but both their tools and my phone showed I was using less than half a gigabyte. They do offer a one-gig package for $20/month, but that’s on top of a $45/month “access charge” (i.e. basic connectivity, voice service, and anything else that isn’t “data”.) The website wasn’t totally clear, but I was pretty sure I’d have to get a new phone as well in installments. Add another $15-20. Gosh, I might save a whole ten bucks a month. Whoopie.

Other carriers were similar. I was about to trash the idea when I heard that Project Fi was offering a one-gig plan for $30/month–including access, voice, and everything else. Not bad at all. But who the heck is Project Fi?

Project Fi is Google.

No, Google isn’t stringing lines and building cell towers. Instead, they lease service from multiple carriers–as of this writing, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. The phone automatically switches from one carrier to another, using whichever one has the strongest signal. And, to keep their costs down, the phones will aggressively switch to Wi-Fi. Yes, including doing voice over Wi-Fi.

Even better: if you don’t use your full gigabyte, the unused bandwidth is credited against your next month’s bill. (Data is $10/gig, so if you only use half a gig, you get a five dollar credit; if you use 1.5 gigs, you pay $40–but get that same five bucks back the next month.)

I had to buy a new phone–which brings us back to where this post started; more on that in a moment–but Google is keeping the price of their Nexus phones down. That’s the potential catch: the only phones you can use with Project Fi are the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. If you’ve got to have a keyboard, iOS, or Samsung’s stylus optimizations, you’re out of luck. On the other hand, since Google is the carrier, there’s no nonsense about getting carrier approval for OS upgrades, including the monthly security updates. That’s not to be sneered at.

I went with the 5X, and since I knew I would be taking lots of cat pictures, I went with the 32GB model. Total price including tax, shipping, and all, $270.16. (You can buy the phone over 24 months, if you prefer time payments. That would have been a bit under $11/month.)

Financially, the move is working out well. I’ve paid for three months of service so far at a total cost of $87.09–less than one month’s payment to Sprint. That means I’ve saved enough to cover two-thirds of the cost of the phone. Even with the trip to Sedalia, which kept me away from my home Wi-Fi, I still used less than half a gigabyte–between the hotel’s wireless and the occasional public network, the phone was able to keep most of its activity off cellular.

Clearly, if I was a heavy data user, streaming music and video around the clock, Project Fi wouldn’t be as good a deal–but at $10/gigabyte, the break-even point may not be as high as one might think.

As for the phone, I’m very happy with it. As I implied, the pictures are much better than what my old Nexus 5 could do. Not so much because the resolution is higher, but because the low-light performance is significantly better. The white balance is greatly improved–I’m not seeing the orange tint that mars many of the pre-April cat pictures.

And yes, it’s better in its non-camera functionality too. The screen is brighter and seems sharper–though it is the same resolution and roughly the same size as the old one, so that may be a function of the difference in the screens’ ages. Calls are clearer–the speakerphone is about the same, but voices are less muddy when not on speaker.

The big difference, though, is the fingerprint reader. It’s…interesting. When it works, it’s great. I pick up the phone, my finger falls naturally on the sensor, and the phone unlocks before my other hand gets into screen-tapping range. However. Around a quarter of the time, the phone insists that I unlock it with my PIN, “For extra security.” It’s not just me–there’s speculation online that it happens after too many failed attempts to read a fingerprint; attempts that are triggered by the back of the phone bumping against the inside of a pocket or holster. I’m inclined to believe the speculation: I’ve had fewer “extra security” requests since I put the phone in a case. That keeps the fingerprint reader a little further away from the wall of the case. Perhaps Android N will make the reader a bit less sensitive. That would be a change I could support.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my phone and I need to go hunting. We need some pictures for tomorrow’s post.

Google I/O 2016

We’re in Google I/O week, so I suppose I should do my annual summation of the keynote and highlight what we can expect to see heading our way.

Google is very excited about “the Google Assistant”. It’s a collection of technologies–natural language processing, voice recognition, geographic awareness, and on and on–intended to provide context-aware help and advice.

From what I can see, a large part of it is the next stage in the evolution of “Google Now” and “Now on Tap”. Ask the assistant about movies, and it’ll give recommendations tailored to your local theaters, what you tell* it (or what it already knows!) about your family and your tastes, and let you buy tickets. All from within the search app.

* Yes, “tell” as in “speak aloud”. Voice recognition, you dig?

Nothing new and earthshaking, but definitely keeping the pressure on Apple and Amazon. Especially Amazon–there’s going to be a “Google Home” device later this year that’s built around the Google Assistant technology. Like Amazon’s Echo–but since it’s from Google, of course it’ll be zillions of times better.

Google Assistant will also be part of two new apps: “Allo” and “Duo”. Allo is the next generation of text messaging, replacing “Hangouts”. The GA will listen in on your exchange of messages, allowing it to pre-write replies for you (presumably going beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers) and letting you to ask it for context-sensitive help. Their example of the latter is giving you restaurant recommendations based on your current location (or an area you’ve been discussing) and food preferences. Oh, and it’s got emoticons and variable font sizes. Yay.

Duo is video chat. Call screening, performs well when bandwidth is tight, switches between wi-fi and cellular as appropriate. What can you say about video chat? Oh, it’s cross-platform, Android and iOS. I doubt any Apple-only conversations will move off of Facetime, but it ought to be nice for integrated families and businesses. (Maybe it doesn’t have GA. If not, look for that at next year’s I/O.)

Moving on.

Google can’t decide what to call Android N. They’re taking suggestions from the Internet. If you’ve got any ideas, go to https://android.com/n/ And no, they’re not offering any prizes. I’d suggest “Nutmeg,” but how would you turn that into a statue for the front lawn? There’s still the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Nerds,” anybody?

We already know a lot about what’s new in N–new graphics APIs, split screen/multitasking, compiler improvements (and a partial return of the Just-in-Time compiler that was removed in Lollipop. The idea seems to be to provide faster installs by letting apps run with the JIT compiler at first, then compile them in the background, presumably while you’re not using the device for anything else. The user messaging for background compilation failures will be interesting. “Why does it say I need to delete some pictures to install Duo? It’s already installed and working fine!”

Other changes: Encryption will be done at the file level instead of the disk level. Other than developers and the NSA, nobody will notice. Background OS updates: assuming your carrier actually approves an update, your phone will install it in the background, then make it live with a simple reboot. No more half-hour waits for the monthly security patches to install. Assuming you get the patches, of course.

Virtual reality. Yep, as expected, Google is joining the VR craze with support for it baked into Android–on capable devices, naturally. Even some current Nexus phones fall short–Nexus 5X, I’m looking at you.

Android Wear 2.0. Hey, your watch can do more stuff without talking to your phone. Sigh

Instant Apps. It’s not strictly correct in a technical sense, but think of a bundle of web pages packaged as an app that runs on your device without installation. Seems useful, especially if you’ve got limited bandwidth, but unless you’re a developer, you probably won’t even notice when you transition from the Web to an Instant App.

So, some interesting stuff, and–as usual–a lot of “meh”.

Ick!

If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, you might want to stop reading this post now.

Still here? The subtitle of this post is “How do you disinfect a tablet?”

The short answer appears to be “You don’t.” But let’s back up a bit.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my Nexus 9 (poor Kei-kun!). It landed on edge (wince) in the litter box (double-wince). Fortunately, I had just emptied the box, so there weren’t any, ah, chunks of ickiness. That also meant the top layer of litter was about as clean as it gets. And, since the tablet was in its case, the only part to come in contact with the contents of the box was the screen.

Have I mentioned that there are many good reasons to keep your tablet in a case that provides full coverage? No? Consider it mentioned.

Step One was to get the tablet out of the case. Easily done. I set the tablet and case on newspaper* and moved on.

* I have one thing to say to my friends who tease me about still reading the newspaper instead of getting all my news online: “Nya, nya!”

Step Two was to wash my hands. Thoroughly. Several times.

Step Three: Research!

I couldn’t find any reputable sites that gave instructions for decontaminating tablets or phones–though quite a few warned against spraying Apple screens with any kind of cleaning fluid. Apparently the coating Apple uses to minimize fingerprint smudges is very vulnerable to cleaners. Since, as far as I can tell, Nexus devices don’t have a similar coating–a quick look at all the smudges on my poor tablet made that obvious–I moved on.

OK, I can’t sterilize Kei-kun. What about disinfection? There are quite a few click-bait articles referencing a somewhat questionable study that claim phones are covered with something like 18 times as many bacteria as toilet seats. Most of the articles take great pleasure in telling you there’s nothing you can do about it; A few suggest using alcohol, though it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to use it to disinfect the device or just drink enough that you don’t care how disgusting your phone is. sigh

How about benign neglect? I tried to figure out how long bacteria live on glass and plastic. Turns out it depends on the specific bacteria, the kind of plastic, the humidity, and probably several thousand other factors. The range is from “a couple of hours” to “months”.

At this point, it had been a couple of hours, and I was suffering from tablet withdrawal. No way was I going to make it for months. I sprayed the tablet and case with an alcohol-based screen cleaning solution–carefully avoiding the buttons, camera, and speakers–and went to bed.

Step Four: Ignore the case. I figured that most of the bacteria on it would either die or get bored and go in search of a more interesting habitat within a couple of days. And, as long as I washed my hands, using the tablet was no more of a health risk than cleaning the darn box. I went through an unusually large amount of soap over the next couple of days.

I also noticed that the tablet was running hot. Mostly just warm, but when installing app updates, it got uncomfortably hot on a couple of points. Since I’d been using in the case, I had no idea whether the amount of heat I was feeling was normal.

Step Five: Return table to case. I was figuring another couple of days of excessive handwashing, and life would be back to normal. A couple of hours after I started using the case, the Nexus rebooted. And again forty-five minutes later. Back out of the case and back to the Internet.

Interestingly, overheating Nexus 9s seem to be a thing. The consensus is that it could be caused by a hardware problem or a corrupted system file, and either condition can be caused by dropping the tablet.

Step Six: Use tablet without a case and switch to a “smart cover” to protect the screen without allowing heat to build up. I figured that would hold me until the Android Marshmallow rollout. Upgrading the OS would then replace the entire system, and–hopefully–resolve the overheating problem. And it does seem to have helped. The tablet is definitely running cooler. I’m just not sure it’s running cool enough to risk putting it back in the case.

Which, of course, means that it could give out on me at any moment, case or not. I had some hope that Marshmallow’s auto-backup system would give me some peace of mind. Early reports were that it would back up all apps unless developers specifically opted out. However, it turns out that’s only true if the app has been targeted for API 23*. Older apps won’t be backed up.

* That is, the app needs to be compiled with the Marshmallow SDK and have the Marshmallow feature-set turned on. This is easy to do, but good software practices require app testing before making such a change. As of this writing, approximately a week after I got the upgrade, exactly two non-Google apps are being backed up: my alarm clock app and Yelp.

So I’m back to using the command line backup tool I talked about back in January. And running with the less-secure smart cover instead of the case. Pray for me and poor Kei-kun.

Google, can we please get a backup system that Just Works?

Googlesauce

Equal time again. Since I covered Amazon’s new cheap tablet and Apple’s latest releases, it’s only fair that I do the same for the new toys Google announced this morning.

The new phones are the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. (Disclosure: My current phone is a Nexus 5.)

The 6P has, unsurprisingly, an approximately 6 inch screen; the screen is a hair larger than an iPhone 6’s screen, even though the phone itself is a tad smaller. It’s got the “best camera ever,” fingerprint recognition for authentication, and front-facing stereo speakers.

The 5X is, as best I can tell, the 6P, but with a smaller screen and slightly less powerful processor.

Incremental improvements. Am I going to trade in my Nexus 5? Nah. If I was looking to upgrade my phone, I’d give the 5X a close look, but I don’t see enough of an improvement to make me retire the 5–although, given my ongoing complaints about the quality of the photos I post on Fridays, that “best camera ever” sounds attractive. I’ll be keeping an eye on the hands-on reviews once the phones get into consumer’s hands. That’ll be in October.

Moving on to Marshmallow, we heard about most of the new features back in May, so there weren’t a whole lot of surprises. Simplified, more granular permissions should good, as does 30% longer battery life thanks to the “Doze” mode. One surprise was the extension of voice recognition to third-party apps. We’ve been able to launch apps by voice for a while, but now the apps will be able to implement internal voice controls. Given the interpretation time, I wouldn’t expect more than a few controlled choices (“Do you want to resume the video where you left off or start over?”) but it could help with hands-free operation; don’t forget that Google is pushing Android into the automotive space. Marshmallow will start rolling out next week–to the Nexus 5, 2013 Nexus 7, and Nexus 9. It won’t be released for the original 2012 Nexus 7.

On the software side, we’ve got family plans for Google Music, enhanced sharing and album management for Google Photos, and new services coming to Chromecast, including Showtime, Sling TV, and Spotify.

And, to take advantage of the new services, there are two new Chromecasts. One is an enhanced version of the original, with faster Wi-Fi support (including the 5GHz band), a built-in HDMI cable, and bright, shiny colors. The other is an audio-only model, intended for connecting your streaming music–including Google Music, naturally–to your existing audio system. There’s no HDMI output, just digital optical and headphone outputs. Both are available today at the same $35 price the original Chromecast sold for.

The audio Chromecast seems like an interesting idea–a convenient way to get your music onto better speakers than a typical monophonic Bluetooth one without having to route the sound through a TV. If the Wi-Fi is really solid, this could give you a significant fraction of the Sonos feature set for a small piece of the price. Don’t forget to add in the cost of a digital audio cable when you do your price-to-performance calculation, though!

And then there’s the Pixel C. Windows laptop/tablet combination devices are popular at the moment. Blame Microsoft Surface for starting the trend. Apple is onboard: the iPad Pro is the iOS equivalent. And now Google is going there.

Ten inch screen, 2560×1800 touchscreen, running Android (not stated, but presumably Marshmallow). Cool feature: there’s no physical connection between the tablet and the keyboard. They’re held together with magnets in open, closed, and stand-up positions–and the keyboard charges inductively when they’re touching.

You can buy the tablet without the keyboard. So think of this as the new Nexus 10. $499-$599 depending on memory, plus $149 for the keyboard. So that’s $200-$300 cheaper than the iPad Pro (although without the stylusApple Pencil). Still significantly more expensive than a standard Windows 10 convertible device, but you always pay a premium for “cool,” right? No firm date for availability, but Google promises it’ll be out in time for Christmas. Give one to all your loved ones!

By the way, from the photos, it looks like the keyboard uses the same layout as Chromebooks. Personally, I find the omission of “Home” and “End” keys extremely annoying on my Chromebook. But then, I write novels. Maybe they’re not necessary for the e-mails that Google talks about.

I worry a little about that inductive charging. That’s not hugely efficient. I’m concerned about how hard the tablet’s runtime will be affected. Again, we’ll have to wait for the reviews.

Bottom line: Google’s got some incremental improvements coming our way, but nothing really earth-shattering. The Chromecast Audio is, I think, the most intriguing thing in the pipeline.

Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.


You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?


In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.


And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.