While visiting Austin, TX with my family this spring, I took this photo of the ceiling in the main foyer of the capitol building. The building is absolutely beautiful, and I was very happy with how the photo turned out. It’s available on my Flickr, 500px, and Unsplash profiles. If you’re not familiar with Unsplash, it’s a website that posts 10 new photos every 10 days that are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero license, which means they can be used for absolutely anything, completely for free. It’s a really great site. You should check it out.
Also, while you’re checking things out, you should check out my Redbubble and Society6 pages, where you can purchase prints, throw pillows, and even iPhone cases of my work.
There is currently a Flappy Bird-esque game on the App Store called The Legend of Zeldo: Lonk’s Awakening DX. No, that is not a typo. This is an actual game someone developed, because of reasons. It’s not terrible, as far as Flappy Bird clones go. It has a unique inventory system where you can collect items as you go which affect the game play (Pelican Boots let you dash ahead a short distance, Irony Boots increase the speed with which your character flies), which almost alleviates the frustration of the core gameplay conceit. Almost.
It’s free, though. And it will likely only exist for a short period of time before the developer receives a cease & desist (even though it is clearly parody and protected, the dev likely isn’t willing to pay a lawyer to prove that), so if you think it might even be slightly interesting, you should pick it up now before it’s gone forever.
Studio Neat released Highball, their latest iPhone app, today. It’s a cocktail app with an emphasis on sharing. As a result, recipes are designed around beautiful cards: visual recipes that are easy to parse and can be imported into the Highball app to save the recipe and even edit it to fit your own tastes.
To get a feel for the app, I went ahead and made my own Sazerac recipe, with a Kansas City twist. And yes, I know that KC is technically the City of Fountains. However, this recipe name rolls off the tongue much better.
When Amazon first announced the Echo and the accompanying promotional video, I was torn. The aspirational concept at work was great. A precursor to Jarvis, the digital butler from the Iron Man movies. Tony Stark’s AI-powered smart house is what I think the dreams of virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana hope to one day realize. However, we’re not there yet, and the cost of adding “intelligence” and automation to one’s home is far more than a middle class family can reasonably expect to afford. But, that doesn’t mean that certain aspects of this ambitious future can’t be achieved today. Voice recognition has come a long way, and virtual assistants are getting more capable every day.
Enter Amazon Echo. By now, nearly everyone in America has access to some sort of smartphone or tablet that includes a virtual assistant. Whether it’s Siri, Cortana, or Google Now, users can simply speak or type a natural language request and receive desired results. Even devices that don’t come with a virtual assistant built-in can almost always install apps that provide some, if not all, of the same features. But, when your hands are otherwise occupied, getting your phone out to do some menial task can be aggravating. And while, yes, iPhones and Android devices are capable of listening for a “wake word” to trigger voice actions without pressing a button, the results are often hit or miss (and, at least on the iPhone, require it to be plugged in and charging).
When the Echo arrived, I was struck by how much smaller the box was than I expected. It had been some time since I watched the reveal video and had forgotten just how compact the device is. But I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the packaging. Amazon has really impressed me with their Apple-esque attention to packaging detail. When I purchased my Amazon Fire TV Stick, I noticed the same attention to detail for beautiful packaging. While I still think Apple does a better job of not wasting any space in their package design, I had to admit that unboxing the Echo was a very delightful process: something that has long-been Apple’s forte (almost exclusively so).
The Echo box bears a striking resemblance to the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The first thing I noticed, of course, when I set the box on the table and prepared to open it was how much it resembled the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey: a comparison that places no small amount of pressure on the contained device to assist its users in their technology-assisted evolution. I carefully removed the outer shell and laid the box flat to get a look at the subtly embossed product logo on the box.
Every picture from here on out will pale in comparison to the first. Like an echo.
And then I opened it up and was actually pleasantly surprised by what I found inside. The Echo was placed gently into a curved cradle that protruded from both the front and back (or top and bottom, depending on your preferred spacial orientation) of the box. Where many tech companies would have been content to just place the Echo in a recessed space, Amazon went the extra step to ensure that the front of the Echo was protected during transit. At this point, I took one last photo of the box and then proceeded to the fun times.
A place for everything and everything in its place.
The instructions in the box were incredibly simple and easy to follow, though they omit the ability to setup your Echo using a web browser on your Mac or PC, a feature worth noting for anyone wishing to use an Echo without one. I simply plugged the power outlet into the wall and then into the Echo, fired up the Echo app (which I had already downloaded on my phone as soon as it became available), and the app walked me through the setup process. The only part that wasn’t seamless was when I was required to connect my phone to the Wi-Fi network the Echo created to create the initial sync before telling the Echo to which wireless network it should connect. I have been spoiled by the use of Bluetooth to quickly pair and set up Apple TVs with your iPhone. But, this seems to be the most effective method for the setup of a device that needs to work with several different platforms, especially since the Bluetooth features of the Echo appear to be limited to streaming audio from a smartphone, tablet, or computer to the Echo’s speaker.
And then, just like that, the Echo was ready to use. The app walked me through several example queries and commands to get me comfortable with the device and then I was off and running. My children were enamored with her, though perhaps the most adorable moment was when my daughter tried to activate her by calling her Siri, rather than Alexa. A few more taps inside the app itself and I had paired my iHeartRadio account and set off a stream from a local radio station via TuneIn. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed to discover that there is not currently support for Audible content (though I have been informed by Amazon support that they are working hard to bring more audio sources to the Echo). My son has recently become quite persistent in his requests to listen to the Star Wars radio drama and I must admit that I would love the ability to stream them to the Echo while I’m working in the kitchen. Fortunately, a workaround exists: simply redirect the audio from your iPhone or other smart device to the Echo via Bluetooth. However, I have not yet had the opportunity to test it and see if Echo can remotely pause audio playing from a third-party device.
As with Siri, much of the fun of the Echo comes from trying to get her to respond in entertaining ways. For example, my son asked her to “Set phasers to kill,” to which she replied “That’s a feature for a later version!” The Echo also includes a voice training feature, which I’ve not yet tried. I am hoping that it can be used to improve understanding of my children, as they’ve not yet learned to articulate. However, she already does a remarkable job of recognizing my requests. In fact, the only issue I’ve had so far with the Echo is that I don’t know what else to do with it. It makes for an excellent Bluetooth speaker and Internet radio device. But, I hope for so much more.
One exciting feature of the Echo that I’m hoping gets better over time and with usage is the Flash Briefing. This particular feature is one of the key things I want from a digital assistant: the ability to quickly get brief news snippets, the weather, and other info about my upcoming day while I’m getting ready in the morning. Unfortunately, I was so tired this morning, I completely forgot to ask Alexa to give me one. I suppose I’ll just have to do it tomorrow. There are several other 1.0 features that I’m hoping to see get better in 1.1, 1.2, or even 2.0. For example, the Echo has the ability to set an alarm for you. However, there are no options for configuring alarm repetition (I would love to have an alarm that goes off every weekday, but not at all on weekends).
Part of me hopes that Amazon decides to go all out with the Echo and eventually allow you to sync it with an iCloud or Google calendar so that you can be notified of upcoming appointments, find out what the roads are like on the way to the movies or date night (currently, it can only give you information on your daily commute), or even schedule events for you. While Amazon may have their own ecosystem that they want you to use, it’s clear that the Fire Phone is never going to be popular enough for features like that to exist as an Amazon exclusive. But if the Echo can outdo Siri and Google Now in convenience and tie into their respective ecosystems slightly, they might be able to carve out a nice niche in the home before the battle for the smart home truly heats up.
The top of the Echo has a ring that adjusts volume, and has just the right amount of heft to feel awesome.
Until then, I’m happy with my Echo. As Amazon adds features, I hope to discover that I like it enough to have several in my home in different places for different purposes. I also look forward to the day when I can rename my Echo to Jarvis, give it a male voice with a stuffy, British accent, and ask it it power up my Mark IV armor. A man can dream, can he not?
If you squint just right, the top of it almost looks like a face.
Well, now. I suppose it was only a matter of time.
No one can run forever.
I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly, waiting for the telltale click of the hammer-release, microseconds before darkness. But it didn’t come. I began to sweat.
No one should be forced to know their demise is imminent and then be made to wait. It is an unbearable torment to know your time on this plane has come to an end, yet listen to the ticking of the clock on the wall delaying the inevitable. This cancer in my mind gnawed at my sanity as the seconds slipped past.
I continued to exhale the remaining air from my lungs. Soon, I would need to take another breath. What a cruel fate to know that I might be interrupted by an ounce of hot lead caroming around inside my skull, tearing chunks of nervous tissue and compressing them into a useless pool of viscera.
I sucked in air. My calm was officially gone. I suppressed a scream of outrage at my treatment. To know that death had come to escort me hence and to stand, impatiently staring at my wristwatch while he chats up the receptionist was infuriating. Doesn’t he know that I have places to be? This isn’t his lunch break. He doesn’t get to decide my time has come and then push the appointment back by an hour!
I forcibly expelled all the air from my lungs again, this time refusing to draw another breath. If the gunman won’t pull the trigger, I’ll pass out from temporary asphyxiation. Then, at least, I won’t have to wait any longer for the finale. I can sleep right through it.
A buddy of mine pointed out today that Word Lens integration had finally come to Google Translate, making it as easy as pointing your iPhone (or Android, if you swing that way) at a sign or other textual object and see it immediately translated to another language. While I had played with Word Lens in the past, I was excited to see what their time at Google had wrought.
One of the first things I found in my office was a Netgear ProSafe box with big, bold lettering on the side.
This was the result:
I mean, seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. Full-size images available by clicking the thumbnails below.
Tonight, my (very nearly) 3-year-old daughter began announcing that I and her brothers would be going to jail for various reasons (I, apparently, committed the most grievous act of spilling her drink—an honor that rightfully belonged to the 5-year-old). Cries of, “You spilled my drink! You’re going to jail!” and “He spilled my drink? He’s going to jail!” echoed from the back seat as we left Christmas In the Park and the brightly lit decorations behind.
After the tenth or eleventy-first time, I finally asked her if she even knew what jail was. While my wife muttered under her breath that jail was clearly a place where people that pissed her off were banished, never to be heard from again, there was silence from the back while my daughter considered her response.
Then, “Yes, I know. Liam’s going to jail because he spilled my drink!”
I shook my head and said a silent prayer of thanks that she had shifted her ire away from me. For now.
As my wife continued navigating the road out of the park, I picked up my phone, queued up some Christmas music, and watched the lights as we drove home.
All my adult life, I’ve heard people my age (and older) complaining about how Christmas season starts earlier and earlier every year. While true, most of the people complaining about this don’t realize that this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s not even something that started in the last 10 or even 15 years.
The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special from 1973 calls attention to this “problem” in the first 2 minutes of the video. Pay close attention to Charlie Brown’s conversation with his sister, Sally.
Yes, retailers are starting the Christmas shopping season earlier than they did in the past. But it’s not a new problem. In fact, if you consider how little has changed in the last 40 years, it seems to me that it is, perhaps, a sign of the desire of humans to merge the joy they experience with Thanksgiving and Christmas into a two-month long celebration of life, family, and surviving the winter together.