In December, I received an invitation to purchase an Echo, a niche consumer device offered by Amazon.  I took them up on the offer, and have now been using Echo for about a week.

The Echo was easy to set up.  You basically plug it in, then follow the prompts on a phone app to configure the Echo for wifi.  It connects to your home network the same way you'd connect a Chromecast -- You connect to its private wifi network with your phone, then use the software to choose your home wifi network and provide the password.

Via the app, the Echo was instantly connected to my Amazon account, giving it access to my music stored there.  Presumably other services could be connected, but connecting it to Amazon Video doesn't make much sense since the Echo has no screen.

Echo works by calling out the command word, which can be either "Alexa" or "Amazon", and then issuing a command.  Saying, "Alexa, play the Defiance original soundtrack," would cause the Echo to connect to my Amazon music library and play the indicated album.

The Echo is also able to answer basic factual questions, such as "Who was the third president of the United States?" and "What is the square root of 64?" and "Who is Kevin Bacon?"  These questions are most answered with Mrs. Mitchell-satisfying 4th grade-complete sentences that include the salient part of the question, which is great since you then know that the Echo really did understand what you were asking. 

I've read some other reviews on the Echo, all of which seem to deride the accuracy of the voice recognition of the device.  This is complete BS.  The Echo is significantly better than Siri in both recognition and response.  Siri hardly ever understands what I'm asking; The Echo underwent rigorous technical trials with 10-year-old Riley at the wheel, and passed with flying colors.  Siri's answers are almost always "I found this for you on the web"; The Echo somehow finds the information you're looking for and provides a summary of it.  Siri's voice even sounds somewhat robotic in comparison to the Echo's fluid tones.

Even with the volume of the Echo turned up reasonably loud, the voice recognition has not failed us.  I can only guess that the other reviewers didn't follow the instructions for placement of the Echo, which suggest that you place it away from walls and other audio obstructions.

There are some neat features of the Echo.  One of my favorites is the "Flash Briefing" which gives you a quick overview of the day's news, with topics configured via the phone app.  The Echo will tell you the local weather, which seems like a pretty standard feature for such a device.

You can add things to a shopping list with the Echo.  This feature seems useful, but there are a couple of problems.  First, the shopping list only appears in the Echo app.  The echo app is fine for configuring the Echo, but is otherwise not what I would prefer to use for my shopping list.  I'm not sure if I can share this list with Berta, or if she can even run the app connected to the same Echo, too -- haven't tried it, but suspect it will not work.  But the real nail in the coffin of this feature is that we've had a SmartShopper for a couple of years now, and stopped using that only a couple of months in.  We simply won't use this feature.

There's a to-do list that's similar to the shopping list, but unlike the reminders in the iPhone with Siri, there is only one list.  Once again, the list appears in the Echo app only.

The Echo has a great timer and alarm feature.  You can say, "Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes," and in 5 minutes, an alarm sounds.  You can ask how long is left on the timer, which is nice for baking cookies.  You can similarly set an alarm with a specific time.  The only issue I have with this feature is that you should be able to set multiple timers at once.  ("Alexa, set a timer for 50 minutes for the roast.  Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes for the vegetables." etc.)  Also, the timer alarm does not recur, which I think is a little strange.  Hopefully, these can be updated in software.

Selecting music for play is pretty easy.  The Echo focuses on titles that you've uploaded or purchased and stored in your Amazon music library.  If the song, album, or artist is not in your library, it will search Amazon Prime Music.  This is good, but there are holes.  For example, if I tell the Echo to play songs by Cake, then I only hear the three tracks I've uploaded to my music account, rather than all of the tracks that are available in Prime Music.  For artists where I've not uploaded anything, the Echo will play all of the music from Prime Music for that artist.  There are ways around this, but since the recognition of the Echo is usually so good, it's unfortunate that there is this one blind spot.  Once again, software should fix it.

Everything you say to the Echo is recorded and presented via the phone app.  You can give it ratings on whether it understood your request correctly or not, and play back the audio of what it recognized.  The Echo uses this rating and recording to improve its recognition.  It will also show you useful links to things based on your requests.  For example, asking about presidents gives links to Wikipedia pages.  Shuffling an album provides a link to that album in Amazon Music.  The whole "records everything" seems a little creepy, and more than one review site presents it that way, but let's be real about this: If you want a device that does what the Echo does, it's going to record what you say.  If you're concerned about this, don't buy an Echo, and don't report that the sky is falling.

The worst aspect of the Echo is the most unfortunate thing: The speaker.  It's pretty dreadful. I'm picky, but for a device that mostly plays music, you'd think there would be some midrange.  The bass is pretty impressive for such a small speaker, and the treble is there.  But much of my music has the muddied-out quality of being played through a budget Bose speaker system.  It's not bad enough to discount the whole device, but if audio quality is of vital concern to you, you should wait for a newer model.  It's particularly disappointing because there are smaller bluetooth speakers with better sound available on the market today.

I've used the phone app to turn off the feature that allows us to buy music via the Echo.  This is probably not something that Amazon wants, but I can't have the kids buying random music all over the place.  Having this feature use some kind of voice-printing as a password might be neat, especially if I could use it to order actual goods from Amazon.

There are some other small deficiencies.  The Echo has no inputs or outputs that I can see other than the power port, so you can't hook it to a better sound system or house mic.  You couldn't put the Echo in the basement and then wire it into every room, for example.  And that sounds crazy, but the more I use it, the more I feel like I want Echo in every room.

The kids, after watching far too much Eureka, now keep referring to our house as Alexa.  That's pretty neat, that Amazon can create a device that anthropomorphs our house.  I would love to be able to change the trigger word, so that we could name our own house, but I am glad they allow "Alexa" and have not forced "Amazon" on us.

Once again, the first software update should be great, assuming they address common requests.  Being able to bring in external services, especially podcast playback, would be fantastic.  Using voice to control home automation would be astounding, as well.  All of this should be possible eventually with this same unit.

Overall, it's a neat and attractive device.  It will be interesting to see how often we use it over the coming months, and whether it will become something integrated into our daily lives, or just another novel gadget that gathers dust.

Looking at Facebook the other day, I saw no less than three recipes for what people described (in summary) as "the best easy dish ever".  One of these recipes was for buttered spaghetti noodles with parsley.  Is this the kind of food people typically eat?

Buttered noodles is what I have when there isn't anything else in the house.  That is to say, I consider the house empty of food when all that is left in the house is your "best easy dish ever".

Yes, it is easy to make food.  Maybe that's what you were trying to suggest with your recipe -- that food doesn't need to be complicated.  But come on.  We must have seriously different ideas about what "complicated" is.

This is evidenced again in the recent cub scout father-son cook-off.  Riley and I were the only pair to make something with meat.  We made meatballs.  Granted, some of the other dishes (all but the popcorn mix was a dessert) were multi-step recipes, but were for the most part boxed desserts.

Our meatballs were part ground pork, part sweet Italian sausage.  There were spices mixed in.  Egg, cheese, and breadcrumbs.  We mixed the meat by hand.  We rolled the balls by hand.  We (both Riley and I took turns -- yes, he participated in every step) sautéed the meatballs in a pan, then slow-cooked them in a crock pot.  We made tomato sauce from scratch for them to simmer in, with tomato paste, canned crushed tomatoes, and spices.  There was no box, no frozen meatballs.

I'm puzzled by what passes for typical homemade dinner in a local household.  Sure, there are nights when reheated frozen chicken fingers see our dinner table, but we also have nights where the kids help cook salmon.  Berta's beef barley stew is pretty tasty.  I can make some mean, flavorful wings from a pack of whole bulk wings.  I am not trying to convince anyone that my sriracha-covered frozen chicken fingers are a delicacy on Facebook.

Berta went to a Tastefully Simple dinner night with a bunch of meat recently.  They were set to make meals out of the meat using the Tastefully Simple products.  Well, it went ok, but the recipes were a bit... bland.  Not just bland, but lacking imagination.  With such great spice products, you'd think the recipes would try to make use of that flavor.  Instead, the focus seemed to be on how you could use only their spices to make meat not-too-plain to eat after simmering in a crock pot all day.

Berta had to add vegetables to their inexplicable "Italian" beef stew.  What made it "Italian"?  Maybe the parmesan cheese they said to add to the bowl?  There was also cream cheese in it, which I've never heard of in a stew.  Maybe I'm missing something, and that's what stew is supposed to be like?  Based on the flavor, I think "no".

Yes, the lack of vegetables was curious.  In their last recipe we tried last night, the chicken was drenched in some flavorless cream-ish concoction.  We put it over plain mashed potatoes (which I don't think were part of the recipe), and the potatoes had more flavor.

We were not impressed.  And I am left to wonder, if this is what people consider "great recipes", what the heck garbage were they eating before?

I don't begrudge you your attempts at making food in your own kitchen.  More power to you.  But don't think that taking a jar of Prego (ugh, please) and adding some chopped onion to it makes your spaghetti recipe fantastic enough to mention.  Ok, maybe it's a stepping stone for you to greater things, but at least be cognizant of that.

My suggestion: Grab yourself a cookbook and learn to make quick meals with real food.  It's not as hard as you think, and the rewards are great.

I was recently reminded of this recording from ages ago.  I volunteered for a Blogothon, wherein you write a blog post every half hour for 24 hours, and get people to pledge money toward a cause of your choosing.

Being me, I decided not to write a standard blog, but to create and record a podcast-style story over the 24 hour process.  On the half hours, I'd write the script and post about the process, and on the hour I'd publish the recorded and edited audio of the script.

Mind you, this was ages ago (2005?) and was really the first time I'd tried any of this.  There were a handful of technical difficulties, but in the end I managed to crank out 20 "episodes" over the 24 hour period, resulting in one complete story.

The old recordings were hard to listen to in one sitting, since each short bite had a 15-second preroll that got pretty tedious to listen to.  So upon finding these recordings recently, I chopped off the preroll and tacked them all together into two large parts for easy consumption.

I present these to you here.  Enjoy!

Almost Friday - Paycut - Part 1 

Almost Friday - Paycut - Part 2 

I think I have found an unanswered electronics market: Developer headset.

I have been hearing headphones with a microphone every work day for at least six hours for almost four months.  My headphones are an essential part of work, because they connect me clearly to my remote co-workers, and to my programming pair (someone I cooperatively code with all day).

I want to take a moment to dispel the myth of your built-in MacBook microphone being enough to function as a speakerphone.  It's not.  It's better than most, but I can still hear myself coming out of your speakers, and I can still hear all of the activity going on around you.  It might be sufficient in a pinch, but it is not adequate if you expect to continue using it daily, and certainly not for my own use.

Requirements

There are essential features that I require that do not come in a standard set of headphones:

Headphones must be wireless

I have no desire to be tethered to my computer with a wire.  Many times during meetings, I will prepare food in the kitchen, which would not be possible with wired headphones.

Wireless should use bluetooth

Many headsets that are wireless require a special USB dongle that presents itself to the computer as a sound card and transmits/receives a signal between the computer and the headphones.  My computers all have bluetooth already.  An extra dongle, which takes up a precious USB port, is not necessary if bluetooth is used for the headset transciever.

Battery must last at least 5 hours

I use my current headset all day. I charge it at lunch so that I don't have to plug it in.

Charging cable must be standard

I've had headphones that use some ridiculous custom plug for charging.  I do not want to have to pack this extra, weird cable (and risk losing it!) while traveling.  MicroUSB is preferred.

Headphones must work while plugged in

In a seeming paradox, just in case I forget to charge the headphones, I need to be able to plug in the headphones to charge them while I am using them.  I've had headphones before that would shut down while charging, which is unacceptable.

Headphones must be over-the-ear

By "over-the-ear", I mean "circumaural", such that the cups of the headphones must only touch my head, and not my ears.  I can't have headphones crushing my ears all day.  Likewise, the headphones shouldn't hold themselves on by squeezing my head -- they should rest on top of my head with a comfortable band.

Microphone must include hardware mute button

There has to be a mute button on the unit, or some way to mute recorded audio without using software.  My current headset has both a button and allows me to lift the microphone into a muted position.

A setting must allow me to hear myself speaking mixed into the output audio

The other options are difficult to search for, but this is is the hardest one to discover, for reasons I can't explain.  My current headphones sufficiently isolate sound to the point that my own voice sounds muffled.  The software included with the headset (which only works on Windows), allows the microphone audio to be mixed into the computer sound.  This happens inside the headset so that there is no delay.  I can hear myself when I speak, and it is not so loud as to be overbearing.  When I am unable to use this setting (as on the Mac, which I now use for work), the inability to hear myself causes me to start slurring my speech after a few days of use.  This is an absolute requirement for a headset for me.

Nice to haves

There are a few things that would be nice to have in a set of headphones, features that I've seen in many headphone sets while shopping for the perfect unit.

Active noise canceling

There are often sounds in the room that would be nice to not hear at all: Kids running around, vacuum cleaning, lawn mowers.  An option that can be turned on to reduce these noises with active noise canceling (like my Bose Quietcomfort headphones) would be nice.

Hear-through capability

There are often sounds in the room that would be nice to hear without taking off the headphones.  These sounds should be amplified on demand, obviously with the option to disable it and enable noise-cancellation.

Boom-free noise-reducing mic

I like the concept of a mic that can isolate the source of speech, however in practice, mics on headsets tend to be omni-directional and hear everything in the general area.  Instead, I would like multiple microphones built into the ear cups and a signal processor that can combine their audio in a way that pinpoints and amplifies the sound coming from between them, and eliminates the sound coming from outside them.  I have seen several headsets available with this feature, and their mics are well-reviewed.

Programmable buttons

A couple of buttons on the side of the headset that could trigger actions on the computer would be nice, particularly for hanging up Skype calls.

Good, lightweight build quality

The headphones should have a solid feel, but still be lightweight. Unlike many of the reviewers on Amazon, I tend to treat my equipment with respect.  So the headphones need not be made of steel, but should not be flimsy.

Multipoint pairable with phone

It would be nice if the headset could simultaneously be paired with my phone such that I could touch a button on the headset to answer and hang up calls, and use the headset for audio.

If you see a set of headphones such as these in the wild, please let me know, as I am in the market.

A random thought I had this morning:  There are a lot of trucks that idle in our development.

I woke up this morning to the sound of, well, I don't know what kind of truck.  Whatever it was, it was making some grinding motory racket outside at 6am.

This past week, some neighbors have been having work done on their roofs.  The trucks that pull up outside simply leave their engines running.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe they need to be able to make a quick getaway if it starts to rain and they're on the roof?

The groundskeeping crew leaves their trucks by the side of the road.  They're not idling, but the mowers and the leaf blowers they use all day are nearly incessant.  Especially the leaf blowers.  I have a theory that when the crew gets tired, they just turn on the leaf blowers and wander around.  Outside my house.  Where I'm trying to concentrate.

It seems like just in our neighborhood we're consuming a crazy amount of gas, probably unnecessarily.  If there are communities like ours all over the world, that's simply a stupid amount of gas being wasted.

I think science should invest time in genetically engineering energy-producing grass.  Grass doesn't seem to be doing anything else than eating up our fuel supply and wasting our weekends cutting it.  Maybe grass should work for a living?