Alexa and Amazon Fight it Out

Posted in Amazon, Hardware on November 25th, 2020 by michael

Okay, we’ve got kind of a situation over here. Alexa and Amazon – two of my beloved personal assistants – can’t get along. Here’s the situation:

Me: “Alexa, play <insert song name here>.”

Alexa: “Now playing <song name> on Amazon Music.”

Amazon: [Thinks she heard her name being called; starts playing some random song also.]

Alexa: [Sees that Amazon has started playing music; stop playing what I asked for.]

Me: “Aaaaaargh! Amazon, stop!!!”

You might think that Amazon devices would know not to take orders from each other. Apparently, there are limits.

Help me Amazon Dot Com! You’re my only hope.

My Personal SSD-palooza

Posted in Amazon, Apple, Hardware, Problems on May 22nd, 2020 by michael

I’ve been doing a few things with SSDs lately. It all started with my niece Christy.

I’m kind of the family Tech Support guy. There are others in the family who are – dare I say? – possible even better tech supporters than I am. Yet I get my share of the work, and I love doing it.

Anyway, Christy lives very close to us and she had a problem: her very old (early 2011) 13″ MacBook Pro had stopped booting and refused to give up its secrets. And it held many of Christy’s secrets. Mainly her photos and a bunch of school work, as I recall. There were no backups. And she needed that data. So I went to work.

I did all the usual things, mainly involving trying to use Apple’s tools to restore the OS, which didn’t work. It appeared there were one or more damaged disk sectors in the boot area. No boot. I needed to operate.

With Christy’s permission, I took the back off the machine, retrieved the damaged disk, put an external USB drive interface on it, and plugged it into my Mac. Everything was there. I copied it all and put it on another external drive her dad Ken gave me. The day was saved!

The machine was old and pathetically slow and I asked Christy what she wanted done with it. She said to keep it and do whatever I wanted with it. So I put it back together, wiped the drive, and reinstalled the operating system.

It booted! But I was right – it was pathetically slow. It was old, couldn’t accept the latest OS, had a slow 320GB drive, and sported 2GB of ram. Pathetic. So while I got it working again, it was far from useful. Time to throw it away?

Nope. I assumed the 5400 RPM HDD was holding it back. So I budgeted a hundred fifty bucks or so and ordered up a decent 500GB WD (Western Digital) SSD and 16GB of RAM. Easy install, quick OS install, and the machine was fast! Even though it won’t update to Catalina, it’s pretty cool. In fact, I’m writing this on it now. Its name is Groucho.

Classic case of the cheap upgrade. Encouraged, I decided to do it again.

I have an ancient Dell Latitude E6430, circa 2012. Joanne and I bought matching refurbished Dells in mid-2019 when she was in the middle of a job change. We wanted the best available bang for the buck for the lowest price possible.

These are actually pretty cool old business laptops. They have 14-inch screens and refurbished, with Windows 10 Professional, 8GB of memory, and 500GB hard drives. We got matching docking stations too! We both really like them, in spite of their age and weight.

The trouble is that they’re a bit slow. So it was time for another project on my laptop. The exact same project as with the MacBook Pro. I bought another 500GB SSD and 16 more gigs of memory. The install on the Dell was even easier than on the MBP. Those things are made to be serviced.

And the best news is that the machine became really fast! Two for two!

It wasn’t long before Joanne felt her machine slowing down and wanted the same upgrades. So I bought a 1TB SSD, threw it into my machine, and gave her my 500GB drive as a hand-me-down, which she seemed okay with. So we both have fast, solid, relatively powerful Windows laptops!

Mine is named Joe. Joanne’s doesn’t really have a name, but that’s okay. It’s her only computer and it doesn’t need a name.

Now what to modify? Curly, my 27″ 5K iMac is pretty new and has a fairly powerful 3TB hybrid drive. I upgraded Curly’s memory to 24GB the day I bought it and other modifications are quite difficult to make. So Curly was a no-go.

Moe, my late-2014 Mac Mini, has a 1TB HDD, 8GB of memory and is slow. iFixit says it takes 35 steps and a complete disassembly to get to the hard drive. And that machine’s assignment has been downgraded to just serving Time Machine backups to the other Macs on the network. So not for now.

Larry is my early-2013 15″ MacBook Pro. I loaded it up pretty well when I bought it. It has 8GB of memory and a 500GB SSD, all of which I’m led to believe are soldered on to the motherboard. Plus, it’s still a quite adequately powerful laptop. So it remains as-is.

On to Brutus, my homebuilt desktop PC. It has a 3.3GHz 8-core AMD cpu, 32GB of memory, and a GTX-760 GPU. It also has 5TB and 2TB internal hard drives. But it runs slowly. What the heck?

So I bought yet another 1TB WD SSD and installed it. Turned it on and . . . it’s still pretty slow. What the double heck? The research began.

My first concern was that I might have installed the drive in a way that resulted in some kind of electronic interference, as remote a possibility as that might be. I had kind of temporarily zip-tied it to the bottom of the 2TB drive. Not the best install in the world, granted.

So I bought a 2.5″ drive sled and installed it. Still slow. As expected, to be honest. What else could it be?

I downloaded the motherboard manual to look for clues. And I found one! The machine has 6 SATA ports, but they’re only SATA-2. I think I need SATA 3. A little bit of research later and I’ve ordered a replacement motherboard that’s slightly newer, has 6 SATA-3 ports (6Gb/sec), and USB 3.1. It uses my existing CPU, memory, drives, GPU, and everything else. Should arrive sometime next week, and then we’ll see.

Enough for today. I’ll tell you about the SSD attached to Junior, my Raspberry Pi 4b, next time.

See you soon.

Do not let your waitress take your group photo!

Posted in Problems on April 1st, 2018 by michael

My sister and me at school

See those cute kids? As you can no doubt tell, that’s my sister Sandy and me in front of Charles Lindbergh Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan. I believe the occasion was my first day of elementary school in September of 1962. Photo courtesy of my loving, well-meaning father.

Honestly, could that photo be any worse? You can’t see Sandy. You can’t see me. You can barely even see the school! Why did my dad find it necessary to stand so far away from us? Did we smell bad? Was he permanently banned from the campus? (No to both questions.)

And this is why you should never let your waitress take your picture.

Just about every time we go to take a picture of a group in a restaurant, a kind waitress will come by and offer to shoot the photo right as we’re lining everybody up in a selfie. In the past, we’ve handed over the camera to the nice waitress and smiled for the camera. She steps WAY back and snaps a couple of photos.  Just about every time, though, the results have been mediocre, and it’s usually because two simple rules have been broken.

Honestly, we should have just taken the selfie.

Listen, I’m not a professional photographer. But I have taken a couple of classes and read some articles and I have learned two simple rules about photography:

  • Rule one: Fill up the frame with your subject.
  • Rule two: Follow the rule of thirds.

And there’s maybe one more rule:

  • Rule three: Lighting matters

These rules are not complex. Just a few words about each:

FILL UP THE FRAME WITH YOUR SUBJECT

The biggest mistake your waitress makes is simply that she stands too far back. She thinks she has to do that to get everybody in the picture, but she really gets WAY too far back. For one thing, you don’t need to see everybody from head to toe. You’re interested in seeing their faces, not their shoes. So leave their shoes out. You’re interested in seeing the people, not the restaurant decor (usually), so get close. Get right up there and fill the frame with everybody’s faces. Don’t forget to make sure everybody’s there, but get everybody into the frame and stop backing up right there. How about an example?

I noticed a pretty bouquet on the coffee table near my comfy chair and thought it would make a nice picture. Can you see it there right in the middle of the frame (more on the rule of thirds later)? It looks so … small and hard to find. Kind of like my sister and me in front of our school. Let’s try that one again:

Oh, that’s better! Now I can see the flowers and just a bit of background. It’s obvious what the subject of the picture is and I can see it in detail. I got up close and filled my frame with it and I rather like the result.

FOLLOW THE RULE OF THIRDS

Pictures are more aesthetically pleasing when the subject isn’t right in the middle of the frame. For example, here’s another flower vase by my comfy chair:

This picture is okay, I guess, but it’s just missing something. Top Scientists tell us it’s because this picture violates the Rule of Thirds, which is defined by Wikipedia thusly: “The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.”

In other words, put your subject a third of the way from the left or right and/or a third of the way from the top or the bottom. Easy as can be.

Let’s see how that last photo looks when I follow the rule of thirds:

Much more visually pleasing. This is another photo I like.

This rule is so important that your camera makes it easy to follow! On iOS, Apple has provided a “Grid” setting in the Camera preferences:

It couldn’t be easier:

Turn it on and you’ll be taking beautiful photos in no time.

And now for the last rule:

LIGHTING MATTERS

Lighting matters. Look at how your subject is illuminated. Take pictures when the sun is low in the sky whenever possible. Pose people in front of a window. Or just keep looking for beautifully illuminated subjects. Here’s one of my personal favorites:

So fill up that frame. Get that subject off-center. And use light to make things look interesting. Go forth and take beautiful images.

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.

UPDATE A FEW DAYS LATER – I downloaded Facebook again. I still don’t miss Twitter at all.

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.

UPDATE A FEW DAYS LATER – The new watch is here. I love it. The process was painless and pleasant – although admittedly less pleasant than never having my watch fail. But still, good customer service, Apple!

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 [amazon text=Echo Show&asin=B01J24C0TI] in the kitchen
  • My original [amazon text=Echo&asin=B06XCM9LJ4] in the bedroom
  • An [amazon text=Echo Dot&asin=B01DFKC2SO] in my office/lab
  • A brand-new [amazon text=Echo Dot&asin=B01DFKC2SO] in the master bathroom
  • A [amazon text=Dash Wand&asin=B01MQMJFDK] in the kitchen
  • One more brand-new [amazon text=Echo Dot&asin=B01DFKC2SO] 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 [amazon text=Bose Bluetooth speaker&asin=B076LFBHKJ] 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 [amazon text=other purposes&asin=B01AFRSQGW] 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?