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.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thrill Me, Chill Me, Fulfill Me

It was Christmas vacation in 1978, when I came home from college to visit my parents who had retired to a small town in northern Georgia. My parents had relocated after my high school graduation so the place I was going to visit with them was not somewhere that I had ever lived at any point during my life. As a result, I was going to be suffering through what was popularly known as the "weekend fix-up with your parent's friend's kids". In most instances, the minute you got beyond ear shot of the parents, both you and the person you were being fixed up with agreed that you would make the most of your time together but there was little that was really going to come of it.
I was told late one afternoon that it had been decided that I was going to go to a late-night scary movie with the high school senior daughter of a friend of my mother. My mother did not know the name of the movie, just that it was some kind of horror movie that started at 11 o'clock at night at the theater in downtown Augusta. Since I had no other plans, it was easy to be agreeable to this one. However, I had no idea what I was agreeing to at the time.

I can't recall her name anymore, but she and another couple we were double dating with came to pick me up for the movie that evening, and we headed into town. During the drive into town, I asked for the title of the movie and realized I had never heard of it but at that point it was too late to get out of going.  When pulled into the theater, I noticed that both of the girls were carrying large purses, but really didn't think anything of it. No one looked unusual in the lobby or in the theater itself once we got in and sat down. After getting seated, the girls started to hand out various props. When I asked what was going on, they told me that I would understand once the movie started. I was given toast, a newspaper, a squirt gun, rice, and a party horn. As soon as I got my allotment of goodies, I started to look around to see if everyone else was doing the same but it was too late because the light started to go down and the voices went up.

"Lips! Lips! Lips! ..."  In unison it seemed like the entire theater had started the chant, while clapping their hands in time -- and I joined them. I watched as the curtains opened and then upon the screen appeared a huge set of red lips. The shouting quickly died down, so you could hear the lyrics of the first song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For those of you who have been before, I made no mention of anyone in costume because the CosPlay ritual had not started in Georgia yet but that did not prevent the audience participation portion of the movie.

So as a virgin to the show, I learned when the say "Slut", "Asshole", "Where's your neck?" and many other phrases that added to the adventure that is the movie.  I held a newspaper over my head while I dutifully squirted water at everyone seated in front of me and was totally caught off guard when an old-fashioned cage elevator delivered the star of the show -- Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Transsexual Transylvania. I am proud to say that I quickly caught on to dancing The Time Warp after the first chorus and quite simply had a blast. The movie was heavily campy, but the songs were a lot
of fun with lyrics that had at the same time deep meaning and double entendre buried within them.

The evening ended with the ride home that was a lot more loose and fun than the ride to the theater. I put the experience in the filing cabinet in my mind thinking that that was the last time I would run into Frank, Riff-Raff, and Meatloaf.... Ah but I was so wrong.

It was less than two years later when the college I was attending showed the movie as a Halloween social event on campus.  Looking back, I'm surprised that they chose to show the movie given the fact that I went to school in the Deep South.    I, along with a group of friends, put together prop bags to take with us and even though all of us dressed up in Halloween costumes, no one was bold enough yet to show up dressed as any of the lead characters from the movie.   A good time was had by all and this time, after the movie, I bought a copy of the soundtrack so that I could enjoy the music  -- I admit it -- I used to sing along with  the chorus of "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me".  Also, even though it reveals how long ago this was, I will say that I would've bought a video tape or DVD if either had been commonplace at that time. They weren't.

In the mid-80s, I flew into Okinawa because of a typhoon evacuation from Guam, and while strolling
through the market section of the city I ran into a merchant with a table of videotapes for sale. Amazingly, one of them was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with Japanese subtitles. I bought it, and watched the movie again – – I will say it is not as much fun is seeing it in the theater with a group of friends and if you watch it at home you have to clean up the mess after.

I did not see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a theater again until October 2014, when my Son and I it at a local theater just before Halloween. The theater was showing what was being billed as the sing-along version of the movie, and the cost of admission included a bag of goodies for audience participation.
I will confess that I did not know my Son had never seen the movie, I had always figured that at some point in college he had gone -- it was not your usual Father/Son experience, but that's OK.  He participated in the virgin deflowering ceremony and then we kicked back and watch the movie. I had never seen it shown with sing-along lyrics across the bottom of the screen, so for the first time I actually saw what some of the words were for the crowd responses. I had been saying some of them wrong for a lot of years. That's okay, learning the words from the people you went with was more fun.  Not sure when I will have another opportunity to see the movie, but I hope it isn't too long.

So what does it all mean?  I have seen the film with both male and female gay, bi-sexual, and straight friends.  Each of them probably found something different to take home at the end of the movie, from hedonistic to spiritual. The one message I have always taken away from the movie is a simple one ... Don't dream it, be it.

At the late-night, double feature, picture show – – I want to go – – Oh oh oh oh --- to the late-night, double feature – – picture show.