Backing away from Facebook and Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized on January 16th, 2018 by Michael

Like many people recently, I have grown increasingly – shall we say – bored with Facebook. I don’t think it rises to the level of disgust; I’m just bored. It’s reached the point, though, where I don’t really even want to look at it anymore. There are so many more fulfilling things to read. So I just deleted it from my handheld devices. I got rid of Twitter while I was at it, although I have never been a Twitter user anyway. When I want to look either of them – which may turn out to be more often than I think – I can use a browser.

I didn’t make any Grand Announcement on either platform. I’m just kind of fading away. Joanne will still be a regular Facebook reader, so I’m sure she’ll share important events with me.

Just so people at The Facebook Company don’t worry too much about their revenue stream, I’ve kept Instagram on my devices and it still cross-posts all my content to Facebook. So family and friends will still be able to ooh and aah over all my adorable selfies. You’re welcome.

Apple watch replacement

Posted in Apple, Hardware on January 12th, 2018 by Michael

My Apple Watch Series 2 suddenly stopped working the other day. Got on a chat with an Apple employee, who asked just a couple questions, seemed to actually read my responses, and quickly decided to have me send it in for repair. A box came in the mail a couple days later, I put my watch in it and FedExed it back a couple days ago. I just got an email telling me they’re shipping a replacement today. I guess it was REALLY busted.

Anyway, quick, easy, thorough, and polite. Good job, Apple

While waiting for my replacement, I’ve been wearing my old Series 1 watch. It has the dreaded dim screen with image ghosting problem. Can’t see the screen outdoors, but it’s working okay inside. Also, the battery isn’t always lasting an entire day. It should be obvious why I bought a new one. Better than nothing for the time being, though.

Home automation update

Posted in Amazon, Hardware on January 12th, 2018 by Michael

Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote about my Echo Show. Still enjoying it, although I don’t think I’m getting as much usage out of the screen as I could. I’m still not sure what screen-centric things to do with it, to be honest. I think a lot of people agree with me, as the price has fallen dramatically from what I paid.

Be that as it may, I still like it and hope the screen becomes truly useful to me one of these days.

But wait – there’s more! I now have the following Echo devices in my house:

  • The Echo Show in the kitchen
  • My original Echo in the bedroom
  • An Echo Dot in my office/lab
  • A brand-new Echo Dot in the master bathroom
  • A Dash Wand in the kitchen
  • One more brand-new Echo Dot still in its box, which I think will go in the guest room (although the garage is still a possibility)

Don’t laugh about the Dot in the bathroom. I listen to books, podcasts, and music while I’m showering and shaving in the morning. I was bringing my nice little Bose Bluetooth speaker into the bathroom connected to my phone for that purpose, but now I can just ask my Dot to play things for me. It’s a little low in the max volume department, but it works. Plus, I can interact with it in the usual way while I’m there.

And I suppose it can be useful while I’m in that particular room for other purposes too. Hey, it’s no different from a phone in that regard. Stop judging!

So what are all those Echos doing? A plethora of things:

  • Turning lights on and off – In the living room, in our bedroom, and on the front of the house, so far, with more to undoubtedly come. I’m thinking about the lab next.
  • Listening to music – I recently bought a trial subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited and I’m generally pleased. I’ll add my thoughts in a future post. I can also listen to any of my Pandora playlists. Choices! Oh, the Show also shows lyrics for a lot of songs. Karaoke night, here I come!
  • Listening to Kindle books – I recently discovered you can have Alexa read you your Kindle books. No need to subscribe to Audible (sorry, Audible: I know your quality is better; I just wouldn’t use you enough to justify the price).
  • Listening to podcasts – This one is still tough for me. I use the excellent podcast app Overcast on my phone (and therefore in my cars, including on Carplay) and love it. It keeps track across devices of what I’ve listened to and where I am in a given podcast. It allows me to order my podcasts however I like. It allows me to either stream or download podcasts, or any combination of the two. It intelligently speeds my content up if I choose. It’s great. Sadly, it’s not yet available on Alexa. Come on, Marco, Arment! Just do it! In the meantime, there are a couple of podcast apps supported by Alexa, none of which I really like.
  • Listening to the radio – I use TuneIn to play a few local stations when I feel like it. Works great. Maybe I should look into its ability to play podcasts. Hmm.
  • Kitchen timers – You can have multiple timers at once and I can see them on the screen of my Show or query them by voice. I added an If This Then That (IFTTT) applet to turn on one of the living room lights when a timer goes off, just in case I’m not in the kitchen and don’t hear the timer (I just wish I could get it to flash the light). Works great.
  • Kitchen conversions – Alexa knows how many tablespoons in 3/8 of a cup (6). Plus a whole lot more.
  • Telling time – When I feel too lazy to look at my phone or watch, I just ask Alexa what time it is. Works great
  • News – I have a pretty good news feed set up.
  • Jeopardy – I play Jeopardy every weekday. It asks twelve questions and is amazingly good at understanding my answers. Great fun.
  • Other games – I occasionally find another game that’s interesting. Try 21 questions.
  • To-do and shopping lists – We use the shopping list functionality a lot. When I use up a staple in the kitchen, I just tell Alexa to add it to my shopping list. I use IFTTT to transfer those items to my iOS Reminders app, which I use in the store. IFTTT also copies my to-do items to Reminders.
  • Amazon videos – If I know the name of the movie or TV show, I can get my Show to play it for me. Nice company while cooking from time to time.
  • Weather forecasts – Alexa gives amazingly detailed weather forecasts, either local or remote. Really useful.
  • Controlling my thermostats – I have Nest thermostats and can find out and/or set the temperature both upstairs and downstairs
  • Drop-ins – I just started using this capability. I can ask Alexa to drop in on any of the other Echo-equipped rooms in my house and talk to whoever is there. Pretty cool. I haven’t enabled that capability outside of our house and I don’t plan to.

There are numerous other capabilities I’ve messed with but don’t use regularly. For example, Alexa can send text messages for AT&T customers (which I used to be), but it’s fairly clunky, so I only experimented with it.

Oh, Joanne and I also like to tell Alexa to play thunderstorm sounds when we’re going to sleep. There’s something peaceful about hearing a thunderstorm outside when you’re snug in bed, even a pre-recorded one.

Coming up sometime soon – details on my Alexa-controlled lights. I’m using smart bulbs, smart switches, and smart plugs. Each has its own ups and downs.

Are you doing anything really cool with your Amazon Echo?

 

Echo Show First Impression

Posted in Amazon, Hardware on August 3rd, 2017 by Michael

I really like my Amazon Echos.

I have an original Echo and an Echo Dot and use them constantly. I won’t say I’m anything like a power user, but I do use them.

I have three smart lightbulbs and control them from my Echos. They’re particularly good in the nightstands in our bedroom. We go to bed with the lights on, get all comfortable, and turn the lights off with a voice command. Sometimes we have our Echo lull us to sleep with thunderstorm sounds. And we play music with it quite a bit, either by streaming from a phone or by using the built-in links to Pandora and/or I Heart Radio.

I use them to set timers and alarms. I use their very convenient shopping list, which I have hooked up to my iOS Reminders app via IFTTT. IFTTT also helps me add to-do items on Echo and convert them to Todoist. They look up information for me, which works sometimes, but not often enough. And of course there’s their most important use – playing Jeopardy every day. I don’t want to live life without Jeopardy.

Oh, and I just remembered I have an Echo Wand. I think I may be the only person who bought one, but look it up. It’s kind of a slightly crippled handheld Echo that has a laser barcode scanner. You scan used-up items you want to replace, for example, and it adds them to your Amazon shopping cart. I’m casually waiting for somebody else to come up with an IFTTT recipe to remove items from my shopping cart and add them to my Reminders shopping list. Then my Wand will become very useful indeed.

In short, Alexa is an integral part of our household.

Which brings me to my latest purchase – the Echo Show. It’s a pretty clever Echo with good speakers (maybe not quite as good as on my original Echo, but good), coupled with a camera and always-on 7-inch touchscreen. It can do a bunch of unique stuff, including acting as a videophone, displaying recipes, playing Amazon Video movies, and … umm … stuff. In general, I like it. So what’s good and what’s bad?

The good:

The screen is always on and displaying useful information when it senses somebody is in the vicinity. You can refine what kinds of things it shows you, which I haven’t done yet, but I might eventually get around to it.

I really like being able to see the status of my timers. I use it for timing things in the kitchen all the time, and I always had to ask it for its status when I wanted to know how much time was left. Not anymore!

I actually watched part of a movie while cooking once! It’s a pretty cool idea, although it only works with Amazon Prime movies, which I don’t watch all that much. Still, it’s there and I like using it.

The sound is fine and it’s nice to be able to see what’s playing.

The bad:

My other Echos offer a visual indicator that they’ve heard their wake word, in the form of a moving bright blue light along the top edge that’s visible from across the room. There’s no light on this one. The screen shows a moving blue bar along its bottom edge, but that’s only useful when you’re standing right next to it. Otherwise, you just have to assume it’s on and listening to you. Not a huge deal, but I’ve been surprised at how much I miss that visual confirmation that she’s listening before I ask my question.

Nobody else has one, so the video phone function is fairly useless. Plus, I don’t want to have to stand in my kitchen to talk to somebody, and my phone, iPad, and computers all have a much more flexible version of that capability already.

It’s kind of expensive.

When I bought my first Echo, I thought it was kind of cool but doubted I would ever really use it very much. Then I discovered more and more of its capabilities over time, and now it’s an indispensable member of our household. I have a feeling this version will turn out the same way. Recommended.

Alexa works on iOS! Mostly.

Posted in Amazon, Apple, Internet, Problems, Software on April 24th, 2017 by Michael

I was delighted to learn today that Alexa is finally ready for iOS! And it seems to work great, except for one glaring problem – one of my very favorite Alexa apps: Jeopardy.

Like many people, I’m a big fan of the Jeopardy television show. I’ve loved it since the Art Fleming days, when little-boy me ran home from school for lunch and watching Jeopardy with my mother. They may not have any more-loyal fans than me.

So I was delighted to learn today that Alexa was now working on iOS, within the Amazon app. I tried it out first by asking for a joke. No problem! Immediately, I asked it for today’s Jeopardy clues, since I’m out of town and don’t have access to my beloved Echos.

That’s when I discovered the problem: Jeopardy hangs the app very frequently when it’s waiting for a user response. Maybe they forgot to test that functionality. The only recourse seems to be to close and reopen the app, at which time it allows you to either start over or resume from where you left off.

But there was a bug with that too. One of the several times it hung, I closed and reopened the app and asked it to play another joke, just to be sure it was still working. Jeopardy had apparently not really closed that time (although it seemed to do so every other time I went through the close/open cycle) and interpreted my joke request as an answer.

I lost credit for my correct answer! Noooooo!

Anyway, please fix the iOS app to allow Jeopardy to work properly, Amazon. In the meantime, it works fine on my Amazon Fire tablet. So that’s plan B until they fix the iOS implementation.

Another OS X calendar quirk

Posted in Apple, Problems, Software on December 16th, 2014 by Michael

angry-computeruserOkay, it just keeps getting weirder for me with Calendar.app in OS X. I created a calendar event just now and wanted to include the restaurant’s name, address, and phone number in the “Location” tab. When I enter that information into the Location box, the app pops up a suggested address that’s identical to mine, but doesn’t include the restaurant’s name or phone number, which I want there. When I click outside of the box to dismiss it, the app deletes my entry and puts in its own “suggested” data.

The only way I can get it to keep what I want there is to tab out of the field. If I subsequently click in that field (ever!), it changes it again.

Now, I love Apple products, and they usually do things well. But dammit, if I want to put additional text into the Location box for an appointment I have, Apple has absolutely no business forcing a change there. None.

Unacceptable, Apple.

Flaky iOS camera behavior

Posted in Apple, Problems, Software on December 9th, 2014 by Michael

Photographer1850s

I’ve been getting an unrepeatable error with both my iPhone and iPad under iOS 8. The Camera app’s shutter sound doesn’t work on the first photograph. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s frequent enough that it’s noticeable. When I take a second photo, the sound is there.

I just tried to duplicate the problem with the Camera app started cold and again with it brought up from the background, and the sound worked great. I have no idea how to get it to repeat, but I swear I’m not going crazy!

I did a quick web search and couldn’t find any reference to this issue. Has this happened to you?

OS X Calendar app quirk discovered!

Posted in Apple, Problems, Software on March 26th, 2014 by Michael

I just added an appointment to OS X’s Calendar app. It’s supposed to run from 10:00 AM until noon. I go to the app and double-click on a date, fill in the event description and location, and then click on the date/time and get this:

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 5.09.06 PM

From the keyboard, I enter 10:00 AM as the starting time. Then I tab to the next line and try to enter 12:00 PM as the ending time. It won’t enter that time. It enters it as 10:00 PM, after which I have to go back and manually change it:

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 5.11.35 PM

In fact, it won’t let me type anything in the Hours space other than 11 until after I’ve changed the AM/PM indicator first. Now, I know I could do that and I know I could click on the time and select from Apple’s pre-ordained choices (from 30 minutes to 3 hours in half-hour increments). But what if I just want to type in an ending time? Don’t you think Apple’s programmers would automatically allow meetings to go past the noon/midnight barriers?

Am I the only one to discover this issue?

Terrible Connectors

Posted in Hardware on December 9th, 2013 by Michael

 

5pin180dinplugAm I the only one who hates those new Lightning iPhone/iPad connectors?

Yeah, I know they’re way better than the old 30-pin connectors. They can be plugged in either way, they’re small, they’re new, they have special Apple-y goodness, etc.

But there’s a problem anyway. The socket is absolutely impossible to find on my iPad without holding the thing edgewise and finding it.  With the old 30-pins, you could just feel your way to it and then plug it in. If you had the plug upside down, that was readily apparent and you simply turned it over.

Dare I say . . . it just worked?

The Open Sign

Posted in Computer Science on November 2nd, 2013 by Michael

Fire Open

My wife and I went to Costco this morning, like most American couples do every Saturday. While we were there, I noticed a really cool “Open” sign. It flashes and does who knows what else. Mostly, I suspect it says “Open” in a very bright fashion.

I’ve been having a bit of trouble concentrating on business for the past nine months or so. Coincidentally, I’ve been self-employed for the past nine months or so. I find it comically easy to get distracted by, well, pretty much anything. And I find it frustratingly difficult to get back on task.

For example, I spent the entire day yesterday configuring Moe, my Mac Mini Plex server for the house. I copied a couple thousand songs from Curly, my trusty laptop over to Moe. Then I discovered I needed to configure the metadata, including embedded artwork for almost all of them. Found a free tool called Tagr that makes it easy. Highly recommended.

But that took hours and hours to get accomplished. Sure, now I can stream my own music library (at least the parts of it I actually like – why do I have so much music I don’t like? – am I the only one with thousands of songs in my music library that I never listen to?) to all the TVs in the house, but I got zero work accomplished yesterday.

On the one hand, I tell myself that’s the advantage of being self-employed. I can take a day off when I feel like it. But I guess I’m just a mean boss because I feel kind of bad about it the whole time. Stop nagging me, me!

Anyway, back to the “Open” sign. I figure I could buy it, put it in my office, and turn it on when I want to work. The flashing blue and red LEDs would remind me to keep my nose to the grindstone, my shoulder to the wheel, my ear to the tracks, and my eye on the ball. Kind of a difficult position to work in, but you know. An additional advantage to the sign would be that it would serve as an advisory to my wife and son that the brain is engaged. Not that it would stop wife from asking for help on her own projects – she’s battling a long-term illness and needs more help than she did before or will in the future. But it would serve as an advisory.

Plus, the bright lights might help keep me awake during my daily 2:00 slump. Seriously, I cannot stay awake at 2:00 PM. The strange thing is that my body somehow knows when it’s Daylight Savings Time and still falls asleep precisely at 2:00 PM. Don’t hate me.

apple

Speaking of Plex, I’ve been finally trying to get out of the iTunes/Apple TV ecosystem for my home video and audio services. I have a couple of very nice Roku players, including a super-cool Roku 3 in my living room. The other one covers the TV in my bedroom. All that was left was the TV in the office, which is still hooked up to my 2G Apple TV. The problem with this arrangement is that I still had to keep all the audio and video files in iTunes on Moe. The Rokus don’t demand that, but that one Apple TV certainly does. I had an old 1G Apple TV lying around the house doing nothing, so I decided to see if I could figure out a way to make it run Plex.

I couldn’t. But I did find an excellent solution that puts XBMC on the Apple TV, and it plays very well with the XBMC server on Moe. So that’s what I did. It’s called OpenELEC – Embedded Linux Entertainment Center – and it’s working great. I no longer have to keep iTunes running on Moe and I no longer have to add all my files to its increasingly horrible and slow interface. I swear, iTunes takes a minute or so per file just to set up the metadata that puts TV shows in the TV show section and movies in the Movie section. Before that, they all get imported as Home Movies. I’m not going to miss iTunes on Moe. Not one little bit.

atv-bootloader

Anyway. ELEC on Apple TV 1G is highly recommended. The machine has way more power than its native interface allows it to use. It can play pretty much any video file beautifully. Try it out.

Back to work.