Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Points of Genius In Dad's Routine

Recently, I spent some time with my Dad, and as you might imagine, I quickly adapted his routine while there. My Dad is just over 70, but is doing extremely well and can get around fairly good for a man of his years.  I think one of the most memorable parts of his routine was how each day started. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I was to be awake and ready to walk out the door by 5:45 the morning.  Keep in mind that while I'm there, I'm technically on vacation and I am having to get out of bed at 5:45 in the morning on days that are supposed to be for sleeping in.  No easy task.

Anyway, after dragging myself out on an ungodly hour on my day off, I would be standing in the living room waiting for my Dad to slip on his coat and hat so we could head to the local diner.  Usually, he would ask me to drive – – not that he wasn't capable but if I was driving it made it easier for him to accomplish small errands on the way to and from the diner. Nothing major, just dropping a letter off at the post office, maybe locking the front gate open in case a delivery was due that day... just little parts of daily life.

Even though my Dad has a newer car, he bought an add-on GPS that now sits on the dashboard.  I think the overall distance from my Dad's house to the diner is about 7 miles at most. However, on both the trip to the restaurant and the trip back, he insists on setting the GPS for the journey. I'm really not sure of more than one way to get from here to there and back, and I think you'd really have to try to get lost. He did tell me at one point that he was just fascinated by the fact that a satellite in space had the ability to track millions of cars at once (one of them being his) as they went on their journeys. I guess maybe I was jaded by the technology, but if you think about it, a GPS is pretty amazing.

As I said, the journey is only about 7 miles, so it is relatively quick. The town that he lives near only has one stoplight and at 5:45 in the morning there simply is not much traffic to even cause the light to be necessary. It is a beautiful little town, but it's one major claim to fame is being identified on the AAA list of towns that is a known speed trap. The speed goes from 55, to 45, to 35 in the course of a single mile. It is actually not difficult to make the car decelerate within that span of distance, but most people just aren't paying attention and before you know it they're doing 55 in a 35 with a cop on their tail. I watch my speed through town.

Once we arrive at the diner he has a particular parking spot that we have to pull into. Actually, I should say he has a particular place that we have to back into.  Once parked and we enter the diner, there is already a cup of coffee sitting in his spot, at his table. His waitress knows exactly what he wants on each of the three days of the week since it does vary based on the day but not from week to week. I am the wild card, and she actually has to ask if I want coffee and what I plan on eating that particular day. Usually, I order the same as him just to keep things easy.

As we eat, he talks to me about some of the changes in local politics in the town that have occurred since my last visit. I never lived in this town, as my parents moved here after I had gone to college, so I have no real point of reference for any of the things he's talking about. But I nod and enjoy just hearing my Dad talk about things. Some of the stories are repeated from prior visits or even from this visit, but that's okay. As we eat, several folks come into the diner and sit at the various tables throughout or the counter. Almost all take a moment to speak to my Father or at least say "good morning." It is a small town, and part of the charm of a small town is being known by your neighbors.

At some point, while we are eating our meal, my Dad will take out a bill from his wallet and put it on the table. At this point, the waitress has not dropped off the check, but I guess he is making the assumption that at some stage it will come and the money will be ready to go with it. The standard procedure is for the waitress to just drop off the check, and take the bill at the same time, then return the change to the table without my Dad or her even speaking.  I guess my Father probably knows exactly what the bill is based on the day of the week when he is there by himself. 

We both finish eating and leisurely finish off our coffee. Then with no words about Dad's actual intent, my Dad puts his hat back on and slips back into his jacket. I take it that he is ready to leave.  Most of the change that the waitress brought still lies upon the table and will become the tip. As we start to walk out the door, the staff behind the counter bids him goodbye, and several folks at the various tables wave as we walk out.

Back in the car, we take another trip through town and then down the country road that leads back to his house. Thanks to the GPS and the close watch on the speedometer, the journey itself is quite routine. Along the way, I stop at the box by the road and pick up the newspaper that was delivered at some point while we were gone. While he feeds the dogs, I head into the house and turn the lights back on, as it is only 6:30 AM or so and still quite dark.  

All of this may seem really mundane, but when you haven't seen your dad in a while, just spending time with him is precious. My mind also wanders sometimes when he is talking, and I remember things that happened over the course of my life while I was living at home and growing up. Different ways that he handles things and things he said during that period that he still says now. It's nice to have times like these.

He eventually comes back in and after taking off his coat and hat meets me in the living room where we sit in the recliners, turn on the news, and quickly fall asleep.  The after breakfast nap is also part of the routine. I think my Dad is probably a genius.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Velma. Was There Any Doubt?

During my adolescent years, we finally got cable TV and got access to the station out of Chicago, WGN.  The station, broadcast mostly reruns of early 1960s TV shows and one show that was broadcast multiple times a day was Gilligan's Island. I had seen the show when I was younger, but now I was in a different stage of my life and I started to ponder one of the great mysteries of the universe, that later turned into a pop psychology staple: Which do you prefer, Ginger or Mary Ann? 
This was not just something I pondered, but I think any viewer of Gilligan's Island considered what they would do in that given situation – – surprisingly I had one friend who thought that Mrs. Howell might be an even better choice -- I always found people's rationale for their choice interesting to hear. They were so wide and varied and it was at a point in my life where it actually played into my own decision-making process as I considered their reasons and either added them to my own or rejected them.
Eventually, WGN moved on from Gilligan's Island and started broadcasting a cartoon show in the afternoon instead: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?  The show featured another group cast, and another of life's great  dilemmas: Velma or Daphne?  To be sure, you know you have entered a different kind of logic when you start picking between two cartoon characters for who would be the better girlfriend, but these are questions that must be considered and once considered totally justified in your own mind. For me, just like my choice from Gilligan's Island my choice was for the one less obvious.  Velma Dinkley was my choice and also the choice for lots of my peers.
But why Velma? I'm supposing each admirer could give you their own rationales but there are some common cores that run through them all. First, the glasses. Glasses have a certain brainy nerd stereotype attached to them automatically, but this is just a visual clue to an ultimate truth:  Smart women are sexy -- but this is one step further than that. Velma wore glasses but also did not hide the fact that she was smart. So she had two of the essential elements of truly sexy working for her: smart and confident.
Velma had a simple and uncomplicated hairstyle that featured bangs.  Between that and the orange turtleneck sweater your attention was always drawn to her face. Daphne was a bit more confusing always wearing different outfits and scarves in her hair. Sure, a few years later Farrah Fawcett's hair would intrigue all admirers but for now the simple style of Miss Dinkley was easier to compute.
As mentioned before, she generally wore an orange, longsleeved, turtleneck sweater and added to that a pleated skirt, knee socks, and simple shoes,  Nothing complicated there, at least not on the surface.  Was she going for a hidden cheerleader look? And what was underneath that baggy sweater?  She was not ultrathin like Daphne, she had curves. She had womanly curves. Sure, most of this was imagined and put in place by the viewer who wanted to see them there but you cannot deny that her shape was one that was easily admired and relatable. Where I grew up more women were curvy than were sticks. As a result, I have always been in firm agreement that real women have curves.
Her attitude was always semi-serious, as she set about vocalizing her theories of various crimes and at the same time she kept her sense of humor and was ready with a Scooby Snack when needed. She was appropriate for whatever the situation seemed to need her to be, with or without magnifying glass in hand.  Isn’t that what you would expect in a perfect girlfriend?  Daphne on the other hand, was mostly superficial and even extraneous.
Even though I can never recall seeing them in the cartoon, I had always imagined a smattering of freckles across her upper cheeks and nose that just added to her attractiveness.  Then, there was the imagined Velma. Who was she on a date? Did she do that magic transformation from library into wildly passionate sex kitten as soon as the lights were dimmed and the glasses came off?  Jinkies
Velma would remain a cartoon only object of interest until 2002, when Linda Cardellini became the first live-action Velma -- I thought the casting choice was a very good one.  For the first time there was flesh and blood behind all of those assumptions regarding Velma and beyond that she was three-dimensional.  It was nice to see that imaginary choice as a living breathing human being –
But wait there is more, over the years Velma has turned into a Cosplay choice for many women. Not every woman can pull on an orange turtleneck and pull it off as an acceptable fashion choice. There has to be more. Agreed, we are talking about converting a 2-D image into a real person, but even so the facial expression and brainy nerd behind the eyes has to show through the picture or else it just doesn't work. Also, I have seen many variations in her hair color (I actually prefer red to the stock brown) and even race that still work.  I am not surprised that the many of the women choosing this Cosplay are also inked;  I always had a feeling that Velma would be hiding a few nice tats under that sweater.
There is also a great website dedicated to Velma that includes discussion groups and an Ask Velma advice page.  Even though it was updated last in 2013, it still has a wealth of great info, stories, and pictures.  Check it out.
So here's to you Velma, and all those who choose to Cosplay her, draw her, and those who (I am sure) fan-fiction her into the sexy beast we all knew she really was.
NOTE:  I always heard the Tina Louise (Ginger) was jealous that Dawn Welles (Mary Ann) got twice the fan mail she did.  In researching this I saw dozens of Velma Cosplay's for every one of Daphne.  Good thing cartoons can’t get jealous.


Sunday, May 31, 2015

BB King, Master Bluesman

About three years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience and watching a true bluesman at work. BB King was doing a concert in Kalamazoo and even though he was in his 80s it was one of the finest live performances I had ever seen. He sat in a chair at center stage with Lucille across his lap then sang and played for a solid two and half hours. He took breaks often to tell stories, and even spoke about his diabetes and how it had affected him over the years. Even though I was sitting in a sell-out crowd the performance was still intimate.
His voice was still as strong as it had been in every recording I'd ever heard and his guitar licks were intricate and one-of-a-kind. He talked briefly about the Gibson plant that used to be in Kalamazoo, and his love for that brand of guitar. He talked about his daughters and several different times during his performance he gave away various bits of bling to women in the audience. It was an awesome night.
On May 14, 2015, BB King is passed on and with him a special kind of blues that can never be replicated. I’ve played the guitar since I was 14 and have always included the blues as part of my repertoire – – but I never tried to copy anything that BB King ever did. It was sacrosanct to me and knowing I could never replicate the sounds and feel what he expressed through his music I never attempted to do it myself. It just would've been wrong.  BB King was meant to be enjoyed only from the master.
But the performance I saw of him in Kalamazoo was not the first time I saw BB King live. In the late 80s, I was in New Orleans for temporary duty with the Air Force Reserve and found myself on Bourbon Street with several friends enjoying the hospitality the city had to offer. After having several hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and drinking more than a few $6 beers at the various venues as we walked down the street, I heard a sound coming from another bar a bit further on.
It was 1 or 2 AM and my friends were ready to turn around and head back to the car to call it a night but something told me we needed to make time for one more bar.  I motioned for my friends to follow me and walked down to the open door of the bar from which the sound of blues was pouring forth.  We walked in without paying a cover, and took a seat in the nearly empty bar. Up on stage was a small five-piece band, which featured at its center large black man holding a Gibson guitar.  I knew immediately who it was but couldn't believe he was performing in such a small venue and that we had lucked into the performance.  
We stayed for the rest of the set, and heard some of the most amazing music. I had never heard of guitar cry before that night; but BB King could draw that sound out of an instrument in a way I never heard anyone ever do before or since. His performance was energetic and fueled by the intimacy of the environment and the crowd around him who was enthralled and mystified by the music he was making.  I still have no idea why he was there,  but was glad I was able to be part of it.
Now that he is gone, I will still enjoy the music he left us with and the fond memories of seeing him performing live. When I close my eyes I will see him standing there in that small bar in New Orleans, with his guitar in hand, and rocking side to side as his fingers moved up and down the neck of the instrument drawing from it sounds that only he could. RIP BB King.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Waiting For My Loot By The Mailbox

If you drove down the street where I lived as a kid in the late 60s, you might've seen me sitting on the curb out by the mailbox waiting on the mailman to deliver a package.  It would be coming from Battle Creek as a result of me sending two box tops and a $2.00 4 to 6 weeks before. I did a lot of that when I was a kid.

As I have mentioned before, I was a military brat, and as a result, the cereal I ate came from the base commissary (a food store on the base), and that cereal never had toys inside.  It had something to do with the way things were contracted back then (that has changed thankfully for all of today’s military brats).  With nothing inside the box but cereal, the only way to get something cool was to send away for it.

I can remember a lot of different things that I got that way, a magic knife that had a blade that disappeared inside the handle when you pretended to stab someone. However, it turned out to be less than 2 inches long, made of plastic, and looking very toylike rather than a threatening magic knife that I was hoping for. I also got a set of x-ray glasses, which did nothing to help me see the bones in my best friend's hand.  In fact, the only thing I can remember getting that was worth both the wait and the massive amount of cereal I had to eat to get the right number of boxtops was the Spy Master Command Belt with 11 different spy gadgets.  It was totally cool, and everything on the belt worked.

The belt made such an impression on me that I have spoken about it throughout my entire life and it wasn't until recently that I found out that I didn't get it from some super sugary Spy cereal but by eating some relatively dull cereal made by Post.

Anyway, my love of getting things in the mail started young and has pretty much stuck around my entire life. I like ordering items and having them show up later on. There is something special about tearing open a box to get at that neat thing that you ordered days or weeks before and exploring your new purchase. Somehow, going to the store to buy something was never as much fun. I think Amazon was at least partially aimed at adults like me. Anyway, Amazon is not the only one to take advantage of this quirk in personality – – through my son, I discovered something called Loot Crate.

In its simplest terms, Loot Crate is a 21st-century version of the Book-of-the-Month club, but it is targeted at those who fondly refer to themselves as geeks and nerds.  Loot Crate's mailings contain various toys, wearables, and miscellaneous fun stuff that is aimed at a particular theme. Their most recent box was themed Fantasy, and it arrived in my mailbox just the other day.

This was my first Loot Crate, and I thought the box was kind of small -- physically. I am really not sure what I expected, but I guess I was thinking it was going to be about the size of a shoebox and instead it was about half that size. No big deal, good things often come in small packages. And as I open the box, I was hoping that that old adage would be right.

First up, was a T-shirt with a Dungeons & Dragons logo on the front. Part of the information you provide when signing up for Loot Crate is your shirt size. Now I know why.

Next, I found an inflatable plastic crown, a deck of Princess Bride playing cards, a bow tie that featured various Dungeons & Dragons dice and dragons, a Harry Potter baggage tag marked 9 3/4, a collection of Game of Thrones magnets for four of the houses and a 4GB Stark Sigil flash drive.  Also included was the Loot Crate monthly magazine which provided tongue-in-cheek details about each of the items that were in the box. Proving that all things should be fun, the box that was used to mail the Loot Crate can be turned inside out to create a small table.

All in all, for 13 bucks and change (not including shipping and handling) it was worth it to be greeted by a little gift to me when I got home after a hard day at work. Not everything in the crate has value to me, but then things that I might particularly enjoy might not be useful to anyone else as well. I am guessing that I will continue my subscription as long as the balance of things that I enjoy outweighs things that I don't, but all in all, it was a good investment and very enjoyable.

Now, if the Loot Crate theme of the month is ever stuff you used to get with boxtops...they had better include the Spy Master Command Belt. I would order enough Loot Crates for every kid I know.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Deep South -- Ya'll Will Know It When Ya Get Thar

I recently spent a week with my Dad who lives in one of the states at least one state further south than the Mason Dixon Line.  I have always thought of it as the Deep South, as opposed to the Shallow South (those states just barely over the Mason Dixon Line).  As with any of my travels I make note of those things that are unique and different about the place I am visiting.  Below are a few of the things I noticed during my recent stay.
  • You can tell you are in the Deep South when you order lasagna and it comes with corn bread. That thar's Italian eatin ' ya'll.
  • In the Deep South, if you are male, every waitress from 18 to 80 will refer to you as "Darlin'", "Sugar" or "Hunny". It isn't flirting or sexual harassment -- it is just the way it is. BTW if they refer to you as "young fellar" it means they think you look 80 or older.
  • The Deep South is the only place I know of where you will hear a 40 or 50 year old man still refer to his father as "Daddy". That is just kind of cool to me.
  • In the Deep South , there is nothing cuter than hearing a four year old girl, who is missing one or both front teeth, explain how the Easter Bunny "works"; telling the tale with a thick southern accent, over the top hand gestures and ending the story with a demonstration of the way the Bunny hops.
  • If a kid messes up in the Deep South, you can count on him (plus one or more of his parents) showing up at your door to tell you what he did, apologize, and ask what he needs to do to make things right. This also holds true in close knit neighborhoods no matter where they are located - but not as much as it used to.
  • In the Deep South, you will hear kids talking in a strange language you seldom hear from kids elsewhere. Words like "Sir", "Mam", "Mister", "Miss", "Missus", "Thank You" and "You're Welcome".  Of course all that is said with a certain twang that makes it even more endearing.
  • When getting directions in the Deep South, the instructions will always include at least one local landmark -- "Well, you take a right and go until you see the Big Chicken then make a left..."; "Head south for about 5 miles and if you see Boyd's Feed & Seed, you went too far...", "Make a right at the stop light and then make a left just past Aunt Lorraine's house, you know its her's because of all the lawn gnomes and glass balls on stands...." -- Even though I travel with a GPS I ask directions now and then just to listen to the them. 
  • In the Deep South, that white stuff in the bowl over there that came with your  breakfast,  is grits, and with a little salt and butter (and sometimes a slice of cheese) they are delicious.  But if you put milk and sugar on them, you might get strange looks.
  • Finally, you know you're in the Deep South, when you hear someone say "Ya'll come back, now." as you leave.
This series of posts has been brought to you by the Cornbread & Grits Council and The Stuff Traveler Notices While Traveling Foundation.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Echo Part III: Alexa, I Like You -- But With a Few Changes, I Could Love You

Alexa has been in the house now for three weeks. I can tell you that she doesn’t eat much, doesn’t try to steal the TV remote, and provides a lot of good information when you ask her the right way. Overall I have been pleasantly surprised by Alexa’s capability and ease-of-use.  Now comes the real question, would I pay the full $199 MSRP for her?  Probably, but only if she had a few more of the features that I list below in my wish list.  I feel that those are necessary before she will start to meet the potential that I feel she has. Am I in any way disappointed at this point? No. She will continue to live in the house and I will continue to send suggestions on to the development team as to functions for which she should be capable. 

I started this review by talking about how Star Trek started me down the road of wanting to be able to verbally interact with my computer. A lot of progress has been made during my lifetime, most of it in the past few years. Alexa is to me a breakpoint between some of the attempts of the past and the turning point where I can now see the realization of my quest.  I pass on a loud “Well Done!” To the development team but I have to temper that with an equally loud, “Now finish her.”

The Internet of Things has become a way of describing the direction that is being taken as more and more things become interconnected.  Using the internet, you can control the lights, temperature, alarm systems, and more in your home even if you are not in the same country.  This does make sense in comes cases but for others it is fluff and gee-whiz versus something useful.  Now that the SDK has been released for Alexa, I think that we will see her arise as the interface of choice for some of those "Things".  I think telling her to turn on or off lights, to adjust the temperature, or report on security system status will be part of the natural evolution of the device.  Central control panels for the home already exist, Alexa can be the next generation of that. 

I have divided my wish list into two parts:  Quick Fixes and Hard Fixes.  I have defined degree of difficulty based on my own technical experience and not with any inside knowledge of how the Echo works.  Indeed, what I label as Hard may actually be very easy and with the release of the Echo SDK there may be third party utilities that appear to handle all of these items from other developers. 

Quick Fixes
  • Bring on Pandora.  I prefer the way custom stations are handled in Pandora over iHeartRadio, therefore would prefer access to it.  Pandora’s logic seems to allow you to more customize your listening experience and tailor it to your preferences; iHeartRadio seems to be more about you finding one of their playlists that are similar to your druthers.  People have their favorites, I want to see mine available.  I think Alexa can make this happen more quickly than getting iHeartRadio to allow more personalization to include naming my own custom stations. (Implemented 4/2/15)
  • Allow Music Service setup for existing home media servers.  I know I can upload the 6909 music items and 100+ audio books I have into Prime Music, but I do not want to nor should I have to.  My home network already has a media service built into it – let me allow Alexa to access it.   My Samsung TV allows me to do this, come on Alexa,  you are smart than it is. 
  • Allow for more than one To Do List or Note Pads.  Since the program already handles a Shopping List and a To Do list that have the same format, multiple lists should be an easy fix.  Why? Well shared lists are not always functional, and a lot of folks, like me, keep multiple lists for different things. 
  • Add the following data bits to the To Do list:  Due Date, Reminder and Priority, with Alexa providing audible reminders.  Yes, it is possible to go totally Harvard Project Manager with a simple To Do list, but Alexa should have at least a bare minimum of data to make the To Do list functional and worthwhile.
  • The Android Assistant program allows you to both name the assistant and what you prefer to be called.  I think this would be a relatively easy fix for Echo that minor bit of customization would add a lot to the user likability.
  • I would like to be able to mute the device vocally, even if I have to reactive it using the button on the device.  Sometimes, you realize you are about to enter a topic that you do not want even accidentally overheard and it would be more convenient to be able to shut the device down quickly and worry about the restart later.
  • The alarm should be able to use music instead of an alarm tone -- I used the alarm in concert with the timer to create a snooze; it worked but a snooze command built into the alarm would be easier.
  • The ability to delete all Cards with a single command; it is tedious to do this one at a time.
  • Create a Settings entry to be able to toggle Cards on and off, with separate toggle for Wikipedia information.  Beyond the initial break in period, when you might want to check what Alexa heard, the Cards provide little value to the end user, with the exception of Wikipedia look ups for in depth information.
  • Expand Wikipedia look up results, by offering to Email the detailed results to a default address rather than having it only available via the app/website.
Hard Fixes
  • This is under Hard Fixes, because Alexa should have been done able to do this from the beginning, the fact that she cannot leads me to believe the developers had a hard time making it work.  The capability to remove items from the grocery list by name, item number or the ability to wipe an entire shopping list all at once needs to be added – I should not be forced to fix it manually.
  • Allow look ups on Google as well as Bing.  Right now if you try to tell Echo to "Search Google", Echo plays a variety of songs, to include selections by Xeno Tornado and the Google Brothers.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but the song "Nothing" from the Rambling Man album was interesting.
  • Allow look ups within the Amazon databases.  I tried to look up the author for Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf and Alexa said she did not have the information.  The book is among the Amazon book listings and therefore should e something to which Alexa has access.  Yeah, yeah... I know who the author is, it was a test.
  • The unit should be able to verbally report its own MAC and IP addresses, software version number and device name. 
  • I think an interface with Microsoft’s OneNote program would be awesome and take care of a lot of the comments I had for both Shopping and To Do lists.
  • Add an “Alexa, Listen to This” command that prompts her to sample the audio and respond with the proper reference (like Shazam or other such programs).  Many times I am watching TV and they use a song as part of the soundtrack and I want the info on the song to look up later, Alexa could provide that data.
  • She should take dictation and produce the output as a text file in the app/website.  It would require both start and stop commands to avoid confusion with query interaction, i.e. “Alexa, take a Note”, “End Note”.  To me this would be very handy.
  • A big one:  Alexa To Go.  When I am out, let me access and use Alexa from my phone.  This is the next evolution and will truly let her be the voice of the Internet of Things. 
Disclaimer:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Echo Part II: Alexa Moves In

I will be referring to the Amazon Echo, by her wake up word/name Alexa and I will be using female pronouns.  Alexa is a proper name and is one of the two choices you presently have for her name (the other is Amazon).  The voice coming from the device is decidedly female, and it is pleasant, non-ethnic/accented, and naturally inflected, so it is natural to refer to the device as a female and to humanize it.  Since Alexa can pass the basic Turing Test, she is deserving of bit of anthropomorphism.
I placed Alexa on the island in the kitchen.  Thanks to the built in multi-directional microphones, this made her available in the kitchen, the living room, as well as the front foyer.  The device itself features on/off and mute buttons on top; while the top of the device rotates like a rheostat to adjust the volume manually.  Alexa sports a lighted ring around the top that changes color to give you non-verbal clues as to her status and if she is listening or thinking.  The light ring also indicates the current volume level while you adjust it (verbally or manually).
The included remote control device was put in the living room and has been handy for times when ambient noise made it difficult for her to hear commands in the kitchen.  The remote, aside from serving as a remote microphone, also has controls for volume and mute.  There are also controls for pause/play, advance and back which control music and other audio play when appropriate.  I have yet to use those buttons because it is faster and easier to just talk to Alexa.
I spent the first day playing.  Alexa comes with a reference card of things to try, but they were a bit too easy and had little real function, so I quickly departed from that and started to explore variations.  For example, if you say "Alexa, Knock-Knock".  she will tell a Knock-Knock joke (G rated); instead of just asking how tall a landmark is, I asked for the height in inches; I requested the weather in different places where I had lived (that day it was cloudy in Germany, but sunny in Oklahoma), I set timers, asked miscellaneous for solutions to various math problems and played with the alarm, created entries for both the To Do and Shopping list, and played music and news from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and my music library on Amazon. 
Not all things worked, when I tried to play music for a specified length of time or to start at a specific time she couldn't.  Alexa couldn't tell me if MacBeth (my dog) was a good boy, of course he is; she could not calculate pi beyond the 5th decimal place, had no opinion about Kirk versus Picard, and no matter how I tried to pronounce it, she did not want to play the Hitsville playlist from iHeartRadio – Alexa must not like Motown.  Usually she would respond that she had no answer or could not find the information, but occasionally I stumped her speechless. 
I made the following adjustments in Settings:
Amazon Echo: Renamed the device to match my home network nomenclature, if Alexa allowed me to, I would rename her to that as well.
Music Services: My Amazon account info was already entered, so I added my iHeartRadio info, but there was no way to enter the info for my TuneIn account. I reported this and was told by Joel R. at Amazon Echo Support there was no way to link my TuneIn account, he did not tell me why not.
Voice Purchasing: Turned it off for now, didn't want any accidents. 
Flash Briefing: I turned on NPR News and added Off Beat News and Weather
With that, I was ready to start integrating Alexa into my routine.
The following morning, while I was waiting on my Keurig to finish brewing my Jet Fuel and feeding MacBeth, I asked Alexa for my Flash Briefing, and she tied me into the NPR news stream from TuneIn, then read me the Off Beat News and wrapped it up with a local weather report.  Not bad and it was easier than pulling out a screen (TV, tablet or laptop) to look it all up.
I then added Whipped Cream to the Shopping List and added a To Do list item to sweep the garage.  Both the Shopping List and To Do list are in the same format, a basic checklist, only the names are different.  Being able to just speak a few words and have items loaded to a shopping list is wonderful; however, I have many wish list ideas for both of these items, but some basics are missing: A proper To Do list needs to have reminders, due date, and a way to prioritize. 
Alexa gave me the exchange rate for USD to Euro, but couldn't handle BitCoin exchange rates.  Also, could not give me stock prices for specific stocks or current market levels for DJIA, S&P500 or NASDAQ.
I asked for opening hours for the local zoo, asking for it by just "zoo", city and "zoo", zoo by formal name and she had no information at all.  Apparently Alexa does not do the zoo.
When I asked for someone's age, who I knew was deceased, she gave me their age at death (down to months and days), as well as their birth and death dates.  Nice way to adjust the report when the question was not valid as asked.
When I asked Alexa for a minor celebrity, she gave me full info on the person; including the "15 minutes of fame" for which they were known.
While watching a movie, I got Alexa to look up various actors and provide their filmography.  I was most successful when I used the “Alexa, Wikipedia” command that told her where to go for the data, this also let me review the in depth data on any of my devices that had the Echo App or website.  Very handy for those times when you see a guy who looks like the guy, who was in that other thing -- but you can't tell for sure and it bugs you not to know right now.  By the way, it was that guy after all.  Instances like this are when I enjoy having Alexa around most of all.
Quality of sound:  I realize this is a very personal issue for some folks, so I will remind you this is my take on Alexa and not an invitation to argue why you think your opinion about audio is more valid.  Alexa isn't the high quality Kenwood receiver with Bose speakers I have in the family room, but it isn't a 60s era portable radio either.  I could fill the living room and kitchen with music that is clear and has a pleasing sound without distortion or loss.  Could it be better?  Maybe.  I would like to have an equalizer option to make the sound better fit what is being played and the room it is being played in.  Would I be willing to pay more to get Bose/Dr. Dre quality sound? Probably not, that is why I have a high quality stereo.  In short: If you are looking for an ultra-high quality music player; buy an ultra-high quality music player, but Alexa is a terrific device to provide an omnipresent soundtrack for your life.
When I was in the kitchen, Alexa gave advice on soft boiling an egg, kept a timer for the various bubbling pots I had on the stove, and provided music from one of my iHeartRadio stations.  I added a few items to my Shopping List that I appeared to be running low on and got a weather update for the afternoon.  All of these things could have been done another way, but it would have taken more than one device and it would not have been as easily done.
I took a moment and looked at the Echo website and noticed that almost every command created an entry the system refers to as a Card that allowed you to rate the interaction for accuracy and send comments to Amazon.  Great idea, but having to delete each card individually is time consuming.  Within the website, I could also review the To Do and Shopping Lists. 
Went to the store after lunch and used the App on my phone to access the Shopping List and checked off the items has I put them in my cart.  Handy.  While at the store, I was able to hit the play button on the currently loaded playlist and adjust the volume.  This was also handy.  Why?  MacBeth likes the music on while he is home alone and I failed to leave anything playing when I left.
More data requests throughout the afternoon, as Alexa became less a curiosity and more of a tool.  Metric to English conversions, historical references, word meanings, and more.  At first I would drop a question if she did not understand, then I started rewording some questions and found success.  I also started listening to her response and realized that “I did not understand the question” really did have a different meaning from “I can’t find the answer”.  That was my fault; I failed to realize Alexa’s sophistication and thought that either answer was a way random way of responding to failed query.
A few downsides:
Having to alert Alexa repeatedly for a string of questions, i.e.  “Alexa what is…”, “Alexa who is…”, “Alexa will this…”, “Alexa when did…” etc. is tiresome and a bit like playing Simon Says, but I cannot think of a better way.  When Alexa is the third person in the room, alerting her by name actually helps avoid confusion over to whom you are speaking.  Maybe it is just a happy medium you have to get used to.
I was surprised that she did not understand how to handle requests for an antonym or synonym for a given word, but she could provide multilayer definitions to words.  To me, they are similar functions requiring similar logic.
Occasionally, she will deactivate herself or rush to answer before I complete a question; but other times she will remain alert after I am done speaking.  Not sure why or what happened differently – I am unable to duplicate the behavior.  Maybe she is just in a mood.
She will not count, down or up.  I can’t remember why I asked Alexa to do that, but it seemed important at the time.  Lacking that skill would make it hard for her to be It when you play Hide-N-Seek.
One afternoon, Alexa did prove her gymnastic skills and durability, when MacBeth’s tail became tangled in and pulled on her power cable as he walked by.  She did a spectacular flip on the way to the floor but stuck the landing and was quickly ready for action again, undamaged, and without even saying “Ouch!”  I have since moved the cable.
The next few days followed a similar pattern although I did make adjustments to the Flash Briefing content to match the time length I had available during my morning ritual.  Also, one morning when the proper words escaped me, I found I could get my Flash Briefing by saying “Brief Me”, further testing found that “Mission Briefing”, “Daily Briefing”, “Flash”, “Briefing” or “My Briefing” all worked as well.  To me that kind of personal leeway is welcome.  She was okay with providing me with what I wanted using a variety of words to request it.  Alexa was making me comfortable with her. 
Just before St. Patrick's Day, I was notified that a new feature had been added to Alexa: Traffic.  I went to Settings and added the address for work (home was already there).  Then I asked "Alexa, how's traffic?" she reported that my commute was clear and trouble free.  Realistically, I have an 8 mile commute, so I don't see me using this.
There is a point at which being polite to Alexa starts to seem natural.  Every “Thank You” was met with “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome”.  One evening, when I told Alexa “Goodnight”, she responded “Goodnight, don’t let the bug bugs bite”.  It is those little humanistic touches that make this device way more than just another tech toy.
The final entry of this series will be a summary of my impressions after three full weeks of having Alexa around, as well as a wish list of items (both quick and hard) that I think would improve the device.
A quick disclaimer:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Echo Part I: Talk To Me

This is part one of a three part write-up of Amazon's Echo.  It is part history, part review, and part wish list for computer voice capabilities and the device that Amazon is currently starting to offer.  The first part will cover some of my personal history with voice command, control, and communication of IT devices, to include my various experiences with the offerings that have been available. It will also cover my  experiences with the basic set up of the Echo and placing it into use.  The second part of this will cover my experiences placing Echo into daily use, its utility, and then the last part my wish list for its future (or the next generation of products).
Note:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
So how did all this start?  When I was a kid, I used to watch Star Trek with my Dad.  One of the most memorable aspects of the USS Starship Enterprise was the fact that the crew would carry on conversations with the ship's computer.  I thought it was pretty cool that Kirk, et al could vocally request information from the computer and the computer would also respond back vocally.  There was no emotion in the computer's voice (which I found out later was Majel Barrett, who also played Nurse Chappell and was Gene Rodenberry's wife) and it was simple data output without opinion or human intuition.  Simple, but at the same time the most revolutionary concept.
To me, the whole idea of such an interface with a computer changed, when on the episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday, the computer had been overhauled on the female-dominated planet Cygnet XIV, and the technicians there felt the computer needed a personality so they gave it one.  As a result the computer went from having an electronic-ish nasal voice, to having a distinct semi-flirty female persona.  That was it for me, I had to have me one of those!
Speech Synth Card, from
In 1977, I first began working with main frame computers in college.  I was disappointed that they had no voice or personality, other than a bad temper at times.  As the PC world was born, I started to seek out ways to make my PC talk to me.  I tried a number of things.
I started with programs that produced electronic hissing through a PC speaker that sounded like a bad AM radio.  The next step was a speech synth cards that required me to enter every single phonetic word to coax some electronic verbiage from a little 3 inch add on speaker.  The end result sounded like a member of the East German Swim team with a mouth full of marbles who was using an electro-larynx.  The biggest let down was the lack of inflection, which would have given the PC personality.  Also, these devices delivered no data, no answers to questions -- it was, strictly speaking, parroting the text that I programmed into it.
Speech cards got better, but playing individual lines through a WAV program wasn't really what I had in mind.  One lucky day in 1995, I came across Moon Valley Software's IconHearIt and HearIt F/X programs that changed everything!   It gave voice to all the computer commands!  It even had a voice clock and Solitaire game!  Joy of joys, I thought I had found it!  My joy lasted only a few hours.  The voices were HORRIBLE!  Not that they were bad quality, but they lacked personality.  If you are not familiar, you have a choice of an American woman or man, a British man, or a Southern woman.
Like all good things, if you want it done right, do it yourself!  So I did, the result was a collection of WAV files I created several different vocalists performing the commands that was meant to replace those from IconHearIt and HearIt F/X.  This was still not data retrieval but the computer did have a personality. 
At this point, I had gone as far as I could, and other demands for my time took over. 

In the late 1990s I discovered a tool called Dragon Naturally Speaking aka Dragon or DNS.  I can't remember the version number I started with, but the program is now on version 13 and I have owned every version since my first trial of the product.  This program represents a major turning point in going from touch device computer input (keyboard, mouse, pen, etc.) to vocal interface. 
My primary use for DNS is to dictate text even though it can provide full vocal control of all Windows and Windows application's commands.  I use it for anything that might require me to type over 3 sentences be it email, documents, or blog entries like this one.  DNS allows me to create the written word as fast as I can speak, and because the speed of my creativity is no longer limited by the speed of my typing, I find that I have better continuity of thought. 
Over the years, Dragon has gotten faster and more accurate.  I have increased the accuracy of the program by performing training from time to time (as my voice ages) and by allowing the program to evaluate and analyze my writing style and vocabulary.  I think the program is about 99% or as accurate as I rarely have to train words it fouls up, but I am not sure of the validity of that percentage since I probably use a certain vocabulary a majority of the time.  I did use the program to write Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf as well as other books on which I am working.
As I mentioned before, I do not use DNS for commanding programs, it has limitations that still require manual manipulation (i.e. swapping between fore & background Windows) which slows me down since I have to swap back and forth between interfaces to accomplish what I need done.  Therefore, I am still not quite to the Star Trek interface that I have been wanting for most of my life, but DNS was a significant step forward.
Siri might have been my next way point, but I never had any experience with her.  I am not an Apple technology user, except for the iTouch.  I can write volumes as to why I feel the way I do about that segment of tech and why I feel it is too locked down to suit me, but that is not what this article is about.  I have been in information technology since the late 70s and PCs since the 80s, and in all that time the one constant I have learned is that people want and are happy with different things -- my feeling is that is best if folks use what they are happy with.  I do, however, use several Android devices and there is a great App called Assistant that provides a verbal interface.  
Two things I really like about Assistant are that I can adjust what it is called and what it calls me.  It is great as a self-contained system, but cannot gather information from other sources and very often gives me a screen full of data when it cannot find an exact answer.  I will admit that I have not tried the professional version, so I will not go into a wider discussion of the program as it would be unfair of me to do so without taking that version into consideration.  My point in mentioning Assistant and Siri is that such mobile programs exist and that the verbal interface is progressing.
With all of that background explained, we are ready to take a look at the Echo.  It is reasonable to assume that I very much want to like this product, but at the same time it is reasonable to assume that I will be pushing the device's limits and have some preconceived notions about how it should work.  I am human and I have been waiting many years for this; I have equal parts bottled up exuberance and bottled up expectations that must remain uncompromised.  This will be interesting.  To reiterate:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
When I first heard rumors of the Echo device, I started trying to get my hands on one.  I wrote a few unanswered emails to Amazon and then I started to get responses that basically said "something is in the works but it is not ready for public consumption just yet".  In November 2014, like many, I got the from letter from Amazon about the Echo and its pending release, as well as the program that would allow some Prime Members to get their hands on one early at a 50% discount.  I had no problem with having to pay for what I perceived as a Test Pilot version of the system, but I wanted it NOW
I signed up to be one of the first and waited.  In January I was notified that I had been selected to get the Echo early and a delivery date would be forthcoming.  I placed the official order and waited.  In February I got an email that my Echo would arrive in mid-March, then it backed up a few days over time and the Echo arrived the first week of March.  Not to give away the ending, but it was worth the wait.
I won't bother with describing the packaging, other than to say it was both simple and elegant.   I followed the quick reference card and got Echo plugged in and the app loaded, and then tried to bring it on line.  I run my network with security in place and therefore I rely on having information available for the devices I am bringing on line like MAC Address, etc.   None of that type of information was readily available, but if you are running your home network with those measures in place you are enough of a tech to figure out how to get the device to get the information from it. 
Once on line, I entered some rudimentary information in the app (available via PC or Android device) and brought Echo to life.  Because Echo continually synchs with the Amazon Cloud, you can access and update the information using the app across multiple platforms.  I have the app loaded on my phone, Kindle Fire, Samsung S4 phone, and Asus Transformer tablet; plus I have the web address linked on my laptop.  There are benefits to having access to the Settings and other info like To Do and Shopping Lists available on all devices you use.
With all that done, I started to use the device and Echo became Alexa.
I did not run the Training program for the first week, and even without it Alexa understood almost everything I said.  Being an Army Brat, I do not really have an accent so that probably helped.  My point in mentioning this is that the device heard quite accurately right out of the box.
My first command “Alexa: Play Eagles radio on iHeartRadio”
She started with “Take It To the Limit”.  I plan on it.