• I want to like Gboard

    I want to like Gboard. On paper it looks really rather good. It’s a keyboard from Google, it ties in with your account, it syncs things, it has clever searching for emoji and gifs and the like… what’s not to like?

    Problem is, I’ve been a user of SwiftKey since around 2011 (I think it was). I’m very used to how SwiftKey works and it also contains a lot of handy things. I like that it has smart completion, that it learns how I type a bit skewed and that it takes this into account, that I can turn off the fancy swipe typing and instead make use of handy gestures like swipe-left to delete a word. I like some of the themes a lot.

    Into the mix comes my iPad, which I use on occasion. The standard Apple keyboard is horrible and, sadly, I find SwiftKey on iOS just as frustrating. It seems to lack enough key features there (especially the word deletion gesture, as far as I can tell) that it’s also a bit annoying. My dream of a consistent typing experience across all devices just wasn’t happening – until I found Gboard on iOS.

    That felt almost right. And from what I could tell it worked almost exactly the same on iOS and Android. So it felt like a good time to try and force myself to use Gboard on my Google Pixel and Nexus 7.

    Sadly, though, I’m just not getting on with it. It’s okay. It’s not bad. It’s just… not good. I’m finding that it lacks enough useful things that it’s a frustrating experience. Little things like: when I enter Google Search, there’s no word completion in the keyboard (SwiftKey has that); the word deletion gesture (swipe left from the backspace key) seems very hit-and-miss; the most obvious completion for a word sometimes appears in the middle slot but, other times, in the left slot. And so on.

    Nothing huge. Nothing that’s a show-stopper. But a handful of a little things that make me miss the comfortable home that is SwiftKey.

    Don’t get me wrong, it does have some very handy and cleaver features too. The searching for emoji – including showing them up as word completions – is rather clever. The gif-search thing is all kinds of fun too (mostly used to annoy the hell out of my son on twitter).

    None of those quite make up for the bits I miss from SwiftKey though.

    All that said, I’ve being making a point of pushing on with Gboard, thinking that most of my issues might just be because I’m too used to my “old home”. Mostly this was working well, until I noticed something this morning. While reading the description for Gboard I noticed this handy thing in the “Pro Tips” section:

    Sync your learned words across devices to improve suggestions (enable in Gboard Settings→ Dictionary → Sync learned words).

    Useful! I’d assumed that this was the case anyway – it’s Google after all – but it’s good to know I can ensure it’s turned on. So I went to turn it on. This is what I found:

    Gboard WTF

    What the hell Google? Sure, I do have a Gsuite account on my phone – as in various apps have access to a Gsuite account (Gmail, Drive, etc…) – but it’s not the primary account on my phone and it’s not the account I’d really want to be doing the dictionary sync with anyway. If I’ve got dictionary sync I want it tied to the keyboard no matter the app I’m in, and no matter the account I’m using in that app. I want the keyboard to be tied to a specific account when it comes to sync (just like SwiftKey does it).

    This, I think, is a show-stopper for me.

    I can overlook the other niggles, I can learn to cope with it not being quite so perfect in some situations; but the blanket inability to do something as simple as cloud-sync the predictions and learn from how I type – things that are, these days, central to what Google’s about – it’s frankly stupid.

    I guess I’m going to have to keep Gboard as a backup keyboard for those times when I need to find the perfect gif.

    Google WTF

  • Google Now Achievements?

    Over the past couple or so weeks I’ve been having some issues with Google Now. It first seemed to start on my Nexus 7, then appeared on my Nexus 6. More recently, even as of today, I’ve seen it on my Google Pixel. The problem is that, in the Google Now launcher (or on the Pixel, in the Pixel launcher), the Google Now page (that you swipe to the left for) sits empty for ages. All I see is the little animated waiting circle and nothing else. Once or twice I’ve had the Google app die and restart or, more often than not, after quite some time it finally loads up.

    The latter happened a little earlier and I noticed something I’d not seen before:

    Blank Google Now

    What’s with that “Achievements” menu option? You’ll notice that the whole of the menu is blank – no profile picture or anything and none of the menu options seemed to work.

    Eventually, after I’d left it for a while, it ended up working.

    Google Now finally working

    And, once this happened, no “Achievements” option.

    Presumably this is some back-end server issue, I’m being served up something I’m not supposed to be seeing and it’s confusing the client app. Okay, I don’t know that’s the case, but it has that sort of feel.

    So now I need to go looking for what this Achievements thing is all about.

    Using Google, obviously.

  • jsNG

    Like many programmers, I have a couple of “Hello, World” projects that I’ve carried with me over the years. One is 5x5 (which has been used to get to grips with things as diverse as the Palm Pilot and GNU emacs). Another is Norton Guides database readers.

    I’ve made Norton Guides tools that have allowed web servers to serve guides (w3ng), that have allowed you to convert guides to HTML (ng2html), that have let you read guides on OS/2 and GNU/Linux (eg) and also have let you read guides in Microsoft Windows (weg). It’s a problem I know fairly well and one where I know the solution well enough so I can concentrate on learning the new language or environment.

    Recently I wanted to get to grips with some “pure” ES6 coding while also getting to know node.js. A new version of the Norton Guide code, written for this environment, seemed like a good thing to do.

    And so jsNG was born.

    At its core is a library of code for opening and reading data from Norton Guides databases. While I doubt it’s good ES6 code, or even good node.js code, it’s been very useful in giving me a fun problem to solve and it’ll carry on being something I’ll tweak and tinker with by way of trying new things out.

    On top of this I’ve built a handful of tools for working with Norton Guides databases. The most useful one at the moment (the others are more in the “test the library” than the “make something handy with the library” category) is ngserve. This is designed as a simple Norton Guides database HTTP server.

    ngserve in action

    When run, you give it a list of guides to serve:

    Starting ngserve

    and it does the right thing. It has a small number of command line options that help configure what it does:

    ngserve command line options

    Possibly the most useful are the ones that let you change how it handles “higher” DOS characters and, if you don’t like the default colours and stuff, the option that lets you point to your own style sheet (note for now you’ll need to host the stylesheet somewhere else – ngserve won’t serve it for you; I’m aiming to change that in some way in the near future).

    jsNG does have a fairly basic design compromise at its heart. In the very early version I started out using the async functions for opening and reading the guides. This got very tedious very quickly and I could see that it was going to make for a very messy library with a very messy interface. While it might not be in the spirit of node.js programming I decided to go with the sync version of the file IO functions and code up the core library based around this.

    This approach also means that I took another leap that I never have done with Norton Guides before: rather than doing the traditional thing of keeping an open handle into them and reading direct from the file as you navigate the guide, I simply read it all into a buffer in one go and keep it in memory. This is a “guides are small, memory is cheap, things will go faster” approach.

    It does mean that when you load up a load of guides into ngserve they’re all sat in memory. The upside of this is that things should be a lot faster and the code is a lot easier to follow (I think). To put this in some perspective: I have a directory here that contains 110 Norton Guides files. They total 36M in size. If that seems like a lot of stuff to hold in memory… remind me how much is being used by your web browser so you can look at some hilarious kittens. ;)

    Anyway, that’s where I’m at with it right now. The code is mostly settled and mostly tidy. I need to write up some documentation for it (and so I need to take a look at good JavaScript documentation tools) and perhaps tinker with ngserve a little more. I’d also like to do a new version of ng2html with this – a version that makes it far easier to control the style of the output. I’m also tempted to do a CLI-based reader in pure ES6; something similar to EG or WEG.

    All in good time.

  • Hello Google Pixel

    For the past two years I’ve, mostly, being happily using a Google Nexus 6 as my phone. In the past six months or so I’ve started to notice that it hasn’t been quite as good as it was. The main problem, for me, was that the camera was starting to play out. The issues were the ones that I’ve seen reported elsewhere: use of the camera would quickly make the phone laggy, very slow response times on pressing the shutter, occasional failure to save an image, etc. This was generally frustrating and, even more so, because I’d got back into photoblogging.

    Meanwhile… I’ve been lusting over the Google Pixel ever since it was originally shown off. I was some way off my phone contract renewal and the price of a new Pixel was something I just couldn’t justify. Last week though an offer cropped up that meant I could renew early and get a Pixel (including a free Daydream headset thrown in).

    Fast forward to Monday just gone and…

    My new Pixel

    So far I’m liking it rather a lot. It is odd that it’s smaller in my hand than the Nexus 6 was (the XL wasn’t an available option and I was also starting to think it was time to drop down in size a little again) but I’m also finding it a little easier to work with; it’s also nice that it fits in trouser pockets as well as jacket pockets.

    It feels very fast (although every Android phone and tablet I’ve ever had have felt fast to start with) and smooth to use. I especially like the default feedback vibration – it’s a lot smoother yet also more reassuring than any I’ve felt before.

    The Google Assistant is proving to be very handy. I’m sort of used to it anyway thanks to having owned an Android Wear watch for a couple of years but having it on the phone like this seems like a natural next step.

    Another thing I’m getting very used to very quickly, and really liking a lot, is fingerprint recognition. I didn’t think I needed it but now I’m wondering how I ever managed without it. Combined with the notification pull-down gesture that the recognition area supports it seems like a perfect way to open the get going with a phone.

    There’s a couple of niggles with it, of course. The main one for me is the lack of wireless charging. That was something I really liked about the Nexus 6: I could be sat at my desk and have the phone sat on top of a charging pad, staying topped up. No such handy setup with the Pixel. The other thing is the lack of water resistance. To be fair: it’s not something I’ve ever really felt I needed with other phones and I’m not in the habit of sticking them under water; but knowing that it doesn’t matter too much if it gets exposed to rain would be nice.

    Other than that… there’s not much else to say right now. It works and works well, the move from the N6 to it was pretty smooth and the Pixel has fallen perfectly into my normal routine.

  • Seen by davep (the return)

    A few years back, not long after I got my first smartphone (a HTC Magic), I started maintaining a photoblog that was based around photos I took on that phone. The blog itself was very important to me as it covered a pretty difficult time in my life – many of the images on it contained and conveyed feelings and emotions that seem a world away now, but which I never want to totally forget.

    It served as a visual diary, a note to future me.

    And, hopefully, it provided some entertainment for those who viewed it.

    Sadly the company who hosted it closed down and the whole thing was lost, except for a hasty (and only partially successful) backup to a Wordpress blog.

    After the blog died I sort of lost interest in trying to maintain one and, to some degree, lost interest in active photography in general. Between the blog disappearing and another disappointing event relating to photography I sort of lost confidence in myself and my ability to dare to publish photos online.

    This year, despite how shitty it’s been for the world in general, has been a really good one for me. Lots of positive changes have happened and continue to happen and I noticed that I was starting to do the phone-based photoblog thing again, albeit only via twitter.

    From up the hill

    Finally, this week, I’ve cracked and decided to make it “official”. My old “Seen by davep” blog is reborn, with new content and the same old purpose. You can find it here: seenbydavep.blogspot.com

    The blog itself is still driven by twitter and the posts will still appear on twitter. In the background I have an IFTTT process running, watching for any tweet of mine with the #photoblog tag and creating a post on the blog from it.

    As for how often and what the content will be… simple: it’ll be when I see something that I need to capture.

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