Amazon Echo first impressions

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).

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Echo

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.

Is the Amazon logo smirking at me?

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.

And I thought it smelled bad on the outside

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.

This is not a coffee mug

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?

Stop looking at me, swan!

If you squint just right, the top of it almost looks like a face.

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Tick-tock

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.

Tick

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.

Tock

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!

Tick

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.

Tock

FUCK THIS, I’M THROUGH WAITI–

BLAM!

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March 1, 2015

Fat, wet snowflakes
Blanket the wintry landscape
Trapping sound and eating echoes

Deep within our linen fortress
We stand against the cold
Huddled together
Cupping dark roast blend within our fingers
Listening to the silence
Finding tranquil peace

The mountain air setting us free

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Vacation weekends are the best



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Fun with Word Lens

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:

Netgear-Two-Up

I mean, seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. Full-size images available by clicking the thumbnails below.

Netgear-Two-UpNetgear-Prime

Netgear-on-Word-Lens

 

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I really hope I’m not going to jail

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.

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I don’t know where you buy a turkey tree, but I want one

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VayAyAr-xqI]

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.

Something to think about.

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“There’s always next year” feels hollow and empty

I don’t know if I can find words to describe this feeling tonight. I know there’s a part of me that should be happy that the Royals made the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. I know that I should take solace in the fact that next year could be “the year”. But I can’t. There’s no way of knowing what the landscape of the team will look like next year. A number of contracts are up and the owner is not known for spending money to build a franchise when he can flip hot players for a quick buck.

A friend of mine made this photo today and told me I could share it. I had hoped to do so in celebration, but it’s too great a photo not to share. I would have loved to put one from tonight up beside this one but alas, it was not meant to be. There’s always next year…

Royals Timehop

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Bonjour, Yosemite, and you!

For several months now, I’ve been watching my Apple TV have an identity crisis whenever I see its name advertised across the network via Bonjour. I named my Apple TV Durendal (because all of my devices are named after weapons and because Marathon is awesome). It used to only happen every now and then. I’d go to AirPlay to my Apple TV and I’d be greeted with a “Durendal (2)” in my available devices list. I’d change the name to something else and back and it would fix. But a few days later, we’d be right back where we started. It was an issue that didn’t bother me much, so I didn’t worry about it. There’s only one Apple TV on my network and the name is unimportant, so long as it works.

But then today, Glamdring (my MacBook Pro and Gandalf’s hand-and-a-half sword of legend), started having a similar issue. Glamdring is less regularly accessed over the network, but having it always showing up with the wrong name in my Shared items in the Finder set off my OCD something fierce. Worse, changing the name in the Sharing preference pane only fixed it for a few seconds. Soon, it would increment right back up to “Glamdring (2)”. So I set out to find a solution.

It only took a second to find one. Toggling Bonjour off and back on is reported to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, partway through the beta release cycle, Apple changed the way this worked. All the instructions I found gave command line instructions to unload and reload the mDNSResponder LaunchDaemon. Unfortunately, the necessary .plist went missing during Yosemite beta’s development. Thankfully, Matt Burgess made a comment over at coderwall.com that revealed the new Terminal commands necessary to fix this (which has since been resolved, thanks to this tip). Since I can’t link directly to the comment, I’ve included it here for quick access.

sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.discoveryd.plist
sudo launchctl load -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.discoveryd.plist

Run these one after the other in Terminal and then change the name of your computer to its correct name. The problem should be resolved.

Since Glamdring was now resolved, I moved on to Durendal (which had climbed all the way up to “Durendal (102)” since I last fixed it). That one was easier, though less permanent. I simply went into the Settings app on the Apple TV and changed the name to one of the suggested default names the Apple TV provides. Then I went back to Custom… and put Durendal back into the field. So far, so good, but we’ll see what happens the next time the network cuts out unexpectedly or I have to force the Apple TV to restart.

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I’m dreaming of a Blue October

I’m exhausted. I stayed up far later than I had planned watching the Royals do something they haven’t done since I was 5 years old. I’m not a die-hard baseball fan. I don’t generally watch games on TV, and my family usually only makes it to a couple games a year. But I’ve always rooted for the Royals in my own way. By watching the score update on my phone and following along with the season, at least for a little while. But life always gets in the way and I usually lose track.

So when I found out that we were playing the Wild Card matchup this year, I was pleasantly surprised. I was even more surprised when I realized that I’d actually have the free time to catch the game, rather than having to be out running around doing something fatherhood-adjacent. So I stayed up and watched the game and got excited about a sport that has done very little to excite me for almost 30 years (barring a very sweet victory over the Red Sox that I got to witness live while rubbing it in the face of my brother-in-law and a few other games at Kaufmann I’ve caught through the years). And while I probably still won’t be buying season tickets or watching every game on TV, I am still pretty happy to have found joy in a Kansas City team that doesn’t kick a ball around a field or pitch.

I don’t really have the words (or energy) to write a lot about this. Besides, this fan already said everything I could say. I may not have been as dedicated a fan as he during my childhood, but my apathy toward baseball mirrored his own for many years. And while I’ve grown excited a time or two when catching a game at the stadium or just talking about the team with my friends and family that are still baseball fanatics, last night’s game was different.

So go and read that article. And if you, like me and like him, found a little bit of magic in last night’s game, then I hope you tune in for the next one, too. Because, this year, far more than a White Christmas, I want a Blue October.

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