Archive for the ‘Amazon Echo’ Category

Alexa now does follow on questions!

January 10, 2017

Alexa now does follow on questions!

We quickly learn patterns that work (and don’t work) with new tech. If something changes, we don’t always notice, because why would you try something that didn’t work (or mess with something that did)?

I’m very grateful to someone who alerted me in a private e-mail that Alexa has “gotten smarter”…she now remembers the topic of the conversation from question to question, meaning conversation gets much easier and more natural.

For example, it used to be true that if I said, “Alexa, how tall is Chris Pine?” and then wanted to know when the actor was born, I couldn’t just say, “Alexa, when was he born?” I had to say, “Alexa, when was Chris Pine born?”

That’s changed now!

Me: “Alexa, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Alexa: “Chris Pine’s height is 6 feet and 1 inch (184 centimeters).”

Me: “Alexa, how old is he?”

Alexa: “Chris Pine is 36 years old.”


Notice that I didn’t have to identify Chris Pine on the second question…Alexa remembered that’s who we were discussing.

Another example:

Me: “Alexa, who is Casey Affleck?”

Alexa: “Caleb Casey McGuire Affleck is an American actor and director.”

Me: “Alexa, who is his brother?”

Alexa: “Casey Affleck’s brother is Ben Affleck.”


I was quite impressed when I then asked, “Alexa, how tall is he?”

That’s a somewhat ambiguous question: am I talking about Casey or Ben at that point? I was thinking Ben, since he was the most recently discussed…and that’s the answer I got.

Alexa: “Ben Affleck’s height is 6 feet and 2 inches (1.89 meters).

It’s not just people.

Me: “Alexa, what is the capital of California?”

Alexa: “California’s capital is Sacramento, California.”

Me: “Alexa, how many people live there?”

Alexa: “The population of Sacramento, California, is about 466,000.”

It’s not always going to work (it doesn’t always work with people speaking your language, either…we sometimes get confused about the subject of a conversation).

Me: “Alexa, what is the tallest mountain in Peru?”

Alexa: “The tallest mountain in Peru is Huascaran.”

Me: “Alexa, what is the longest river there?”

Alexa didn’t understand the question.

I tried the sequence again, but this time said, “Alexa, what is the longest river in that country?” Alexa couldn’t find an answer.

Still, this is a considerable step forward. It’s not only clearly more efficient, it’s more natural. We want our talktech to learn to speak the way that we do, not the other way around. We’ve always done the latter with computers…when I was in high school, taking Basic could satisfy the foreign language requirement…

Google was already able to do follow on questions, but it’s nice to see it coming to Alexa.

I have access to the four main digital assistants: OK Google (they don’t name it), Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), and Alexa (Amazon).

I tried that same sequence on the others:

Me: “Siri, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Siri: “Chris Pine is 6′ 0.8” tall.

Me: “How old is he?”

Siri: “The answer is 36 years 4 months and 14 days.”

Siri did it, but I feel like Alexa’s answer is more natural, and I like that Alexa clarified the who the person was in the response.

Me: “Ok, Google. How tall is Chris Pine?”

OG: “Chris Pine is 6 feet tall.”

Me: “Ok, Google. How old is he?”

OG: “He’s 36 years old.”

OG’s language is perhaps more like a human’s would be. Interesting, looking at the “cards” on the phone, OG gave a lot more interesting and relevant information. It gave me heights for other people who are searched (Tom Hardy, Chris Pratt…) and showed me other questions people ask about Chris Pine. I would say OG seemed to contextually understand the question the best so far. The card from Siri looked very clinical, with all sorts of measurement conversions (including yards).

Alexa, by the way, showed me a picture…and linked to Wikipedia and offered to do a Bing search. Now, I do have to say that it’s nice that Alexa keeps a running record of our conversations…with OG, I think the first question disappeared from my display when the second was answered.

Me: “Cortana, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Cortana: “Chris Pine is six feet.”

Me: “Cortana, how old is he?”

Cortana: “Chris Pine is 36 years old.”

Cortana also showed me other information (Zachary Quinto’s height is interesting…clearly, Cortana realized they work together), and offered a Bing search as well as “See more about Chris Pine.”

This is a tough competition to call…Alexa gets a plus for showing me the series of questions, but I liked Cortana’s relevancy in the height comparisons the best. OG, though, showed me more “nearby” information. Siri was probably my least favorite…there is little question Apple has fallen behind a bit in this field, but I’m guessing they are working on a major upgrade.

Regardless, it’s nice to see Alexa getting this big improvement!

If you have other questions you would like me to test with the “Four Assistants”, feel free to let me know by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard !

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Join the TMCGTT Timeblazers!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Advertisements

“Your Honor, the prosecution calls Amazon Alexa to the stand.”

December 29, 2016

“Your Honor, the prosecution calls Amazon Alexa to the stand.”

I’ve had several people alert me to this story (thanks, everybody!) and I’ve seen it covered pretty extensively in the mainstream news.

That honestly surprised me a bit…certainly, it’s an important story, but it didn’t seem very surprising to me.

This

CNN story by Eliott C. McLaughlin and Keith Allen

gives you a good sense of the basics of the case and its implications.

The Arkansas police suspect murder in the case of a man found drowned in the home of an acquaintance. The Attorney General wants to see if an

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

which was in the home might have relevance to the case.

Almost all of the reporting I have seen has focused on the idea of voice recordings being stored in the cloud. The implication has been that the Echo might have recorded the actual crime.

This ties into the suspicion that many people have about the device.

While we had a relative staying with us during the holidays, we had our Echo and our Echo Dot (at AmazonSmile*)’s microphones turned off. We spent the week staring into the Red Eye of Alexa (the devices show a red glowing ring at the top when deafened). Fortunately, we also have an Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*), which doesn’t listen unless you tap (hence the name) a microphone button. That way, we could still easily use our home automation.

Of course, my relative realizes that’s it’s hypothetically possible these devices could be lying about when they listen to you, and that other devices, like a SmartPhone, could be listening to you without telling you at all.

From what we’ve been told, though, the Echo and the Dot are always listening. However, they supposedly don’t send anything to the Cloud until they hear the “wake word” (by default, that’s Alexa, but you can change it to “Amazon” or “Echo”, on the original device). When they are listening, it’s obvious: a blue light circles the top, and is brightest in the direction from which the device thinks the sound is coming.

I think it’s very, very unlikely that there was any useful voice recording captured. It was the accused’s house, and the victim (let’s say “deceased” instead…the defense suggests it was an accident) is acknowledged to have been there. You might be able to figure out time of death better, I suppose, if the deceased asked questions or gave commands. Without the voice recording, you can’t tell who was addressing the device. That may be possible in the future…it would be great if Alexa could recognize who was speaking, and even perhaps use that as a security device (which could be overridden by manually logging into it on the app the way we can now). Right now, if someone walked down a street and kept yelling, “Alexa, open the garage door”, they might gain entrance to a home uninvited.

I used to work in a phone room, and one of our best salespeople had a weird experience. I was a “verifier”…I called back the next day to see if the person who ordered the books really wanted them. If they didn’t, I canceled the order…making me the good guy. 🙂

One time, I called the number and the person who answered (after I identified who I was and why I was calling), asked what time the order was placed. I gave the time, and the person said (approximately): “This is the Sheriff. We believe the house was robbed at that time. I’ll need to speak to your salesperson.” This salesperson was quite honest, as far as I was concerned (the best ones usually are), so I believed the data I had on the card was accurate. The Sheriff talked to the salesperson who told me later that the owners of the house were in Europe on vacation. Apparently, the thief answered the phone…and listened to a presentation and ordered the books! The salesperson had to describe the voice to law enforcement.

That sort of thing wouldn’t be useful here, since, as I say, the main people’s presence in the house at the time isn’t disputed.

It’s possible that there might have been questions asked which would be useful, even if they were just text. “Alexa, how do I get blood off of cement?” might be an interesting query, for example. Those Q&As are visible…even in the app on the phone. If they seized a phone and had a warrant for it, they could tell what was asked.

When we had some people working in our yard, I told them they could yell into the house to get music from Alexa. One of them (jokingly) asked a question about a coworker that would have involved…um…some questionable behavior. They probably didn’t realize that I could see that question in the app later. 🙂

No, for me, what makes this story interesting isn’t that Alexa might have recorded something.

It’s that Amazon hasn’t honored the warrant.

Amazon is famously protective of its customers’ privacy, going to court in the past to fight groups wanting to get it (I remember a case with North Carolina from 2010, for instance).

In this case, there is a warrant, but apparently, Amazon feels it is “overbroad”. Here’s a short excerpt from the article”

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” it said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

This could certainly go to court, and might work its way through several levels with appeals.

Amazon might eventually lose, meaning that they would have to turn over Alexa data far more easily (they did, apparently, turn over account information).

That doesn’t bother me much…I really don’t think Alexa has much private information which would affect me. I find it far creepier that my Galaxy S7 keeps a timeline of all the places I’ve visited. My phone often asks me if I want to add photos from some place I’ve been…even if I haven’t asked directions on how to get there. I could turn that feature off…but even though it’s creepy, I have used it…for mileage for work, for one thing. That’s almost always a tradeoff in technology: privacy/security versus utility. People commonly give up security for making something easier to use…there are many people who don’t put a password on their Wi-Fi networks, for example, because they don’t like having to enter one.

The same is true with Alexa. I wouldn’t want to have to say a passcode every time I wanted to turn on the lights!

Oh, and it’s important to note: the prosecution doesn’t want to search the device, they want Amazon’s records which are stored at Amazon…two totally different things.

So, Alexa isn’t going to court…but I can imagine what might happen if she did! I don’t need to imagine it: I’ll ask my Alexa a few questions.

Prosecutor: “Alexa, where were you last night?”

Alexa: “I’m sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.”

Prosecutor: “Alexa, did you hear anything which might be relevant to the case at hand?”

Alexa: “Bah-boom” (Alexa’s sound for rejecting a question).

Prosecutor: “Alexa, has John Doe ever asked you any questions?”

Alexa: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”

Again, those are the actual responses I just got when I asked those questions.

Certainly, there may be devices in the future which record what we say and do all the time (some things like that are available now, but are not common). I have a dashcam in my car…it’s constantly recording. However, unless I push a button, it will record over video…and pretty quickly (I drive enough that it probably doesn’t go a day or two before it is recording over video). Now, if my dashcam was wirelessly transmitting the data (maybe through my phone) to a gigantic central storage, that could potentially be incriminating…or exculpatory, in my case, since I’m one of those people who (irritatingly to some) tends to follow the law pretty closely. My coworkers get tired sometimes of me waiting for a walk signal to turn green when there are no cars in the area. 🙂

Bottom line: as technology becomes more useful by knowing us better, it is also going to be able to give that information to investigators…and that’s something to consider. For more on this issue, I recommend the 1999 book The Transparent Society by science fiction author David Brin (the book is not science fiction).

Review: The Transparent Society

Even now being almost two decades old, it’s consideration of privacy versus freedom is still relevant today.

What do you think? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard !

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Join the TMCGTT Timeblazers!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

“Hello, Echo!” Getting to know Amazon’s Alexa

December 25, 2016

“Hello, Echo!” Getting to know Amazon’s Alexa

If you are one of the likely millions of people getting your first Alexa-enabled device this holiday season, welcome to a new world!

Well, maybe more accurately, welcome to a new way to interact with the world!

In this post, I’m going to give you some guidance on how to get to know Alexa…an introduction, of sorts, to a new friend. 😉

First, how do you know if you have Alexa?

You might have received one of the Echo family of devices as a gift:

If you got one of these, you’ll know you have Alexa…that’s their main purpose. Oh, you could use the Echo or Tap as speakers without using Alexa…but you wouldn’t. 😉 Since the Dot doesn’t have a very good speaker on its own (to me, it sounds like an old 1960s transistor radio), it really just exists to give you a way to talk to Alexa.

Alexa also exists on a number of other devices. The most common ones are the Fire TV devices, including

and the Fire tablets, such as the

Fire, 7″ Display, Wi-Fi, 8 GB – Includes Special Offers, Black (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

However, non-Amazon devices may also have Alexa. That’s becoming more common (Amazon made the decision to license the “Alexa Voice Service” to other manufacturers). The box will likely say it is “with Amazon Alexa”. Those devices have Alexa onboard, which means they’ll have a microphone so they can hear you and a speaker so you can hear Alexa. That’s different from “works with Amazon Alexa”. Those devices can react to instructions you give to Alexa and then Alexa gives to them. Here’s a search I did at Amazon.com for devices “with Amazon Alexa”:

devices with Amazon Alexa at Amazon.com (at AmazonSmile*)

Okay, so now that you know Alexa is “in the house”, what is it (or she, as many people come to think of Alexa)?

It’s really an interface between you and other devices/media. That makes it kind of like a keyboard and a mouse so you can use a computer connected to the internet, but nowadays, it will feel more like a smartphone to most people (although you can’t make phone calls with an Echo device at this time). Instead of using your hands, though, you use your voice. You talk to Alexa…and she’ll respond.

Alexa isn’t like a computer, where you store information right there. An Alexa device must be connected to Wi-Fi to be able to do pretty much anything. My Tap, which I use primarily at work, can’t even tell me what time it is without being connected to Wi-Fi). In modern parlance, it all happens in the cloud.

Looking at it, then, you might be thinking: if it can’t work without the internet, how do I connect it to the internet?

You use your phone or a computer. With your phone, you download the Alexa app (you can get it from the Apple Appstore, Google play, or Amazon’s own Appstore). With your computer, you go to

http://www.amazon.com/alexa

Once you get it online, the phone or computer aren’t giving your Alexa device the network…it is a Wi-Fi enabled device by itself.

You can now connect to Alexa itself, and you can connect it to other services you use…one of the main reasons I use it is for information about what’s on my Google calendar, for example.

In addition to connecting to Alexa and through her to other services you use, there are also “skills”. Skills are basically what we would call apps on a phone, and there are now over 5,000 of them. You can “enable” them directly from your device (even verbally), but you may find it easier to explore the options on your computer or phone at

Alexa skills (at AmazonSmile*)

The skills are one of two things that will really make your Alexa experience fun and useful (just as is the case with the apps on your phone). The other thing is the settings. Let’s go through those two at a high level.

You can get to your settings either through the Alexa app or at that Alexa site on your computer.

In the app on Android, for instance, you tap the three horizontal lines which identify the menu, then tap Settings.

You’ll first see a list of your devices, and you can do things like changing the name of that device, the default location of it (so it can give you local weather, among other things), and so on. I use metric measurements myself, but my Significant Other doesn’t…some of our devices have metric turned on, some don’t.

Below the devices, you’ll see the Account settings:

  • Music & Media
  • Flash Briefing
  • Sports Update
  • Traffic
  • Calendar
  • Lists
  • Voice Purchasing
  • Household Profile

Definitely explore all of these options when you get a chance.

Combining the settings with the skills will be what makes Alexa work for you, and investing the time in setting them up will be worth it going forward. Getting started can be a lot simpler than that: once you have Alexa online, you can just say, “Alexa, nice to meet you.” 🙂

A few other important notes:

  • There are no monthly charges to use Alexa, and currently apps don’t cost anything. She may connect you to something for which you pay…if you use Alexa to get you an Uber (which it can do if you enable the Uber app and connect it to your account), you’ll still pay for it
  • You have to enable a skill before you can use it. You might wonder why apps aren’t just enable by default, since they don’t cost anything and there is no limit to the number you can have (they aren’t stored locally on your device, so memory isn’t an issue). It’s primarily so it isn’t confusing for you…you know, the same reason most people don’t put out three forks at the dinner table. 😉 The other thing is that some skills do need to be set-up, like that Uber skill
  • Alexa is in her infancy, and abilities will change quickly! Right now, it’s like having a TV in 1948. Well, maybe more like in 1950. 😉 Besides my own blogs, I recommend author (and Alexa Skill publisher/creator) April F. Hamilton’s Love My Echo (no relation to my I Love My Kindle blog)

If you have questions, feel free to ask!

There’s your introduction to Alexa…and I hope this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard !

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Join the TMCGTT Timeblazers!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

You can text with Alexa (if you have AT&T)

December 7, 2016

You can text with Alexa (if you have AT&T)

You can do a lot of things with Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices!

One of my favorite new skills (and there are now over 5,000) in the

Alexa Skills store on Amazon.com (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

is the

AT&T Send Message skill (AT&T Send Message skill)

I find it a super simple way to send a text to myself, my Significant Other, or our now adult kid.

Sure, I could do it with my phone…but it’s so much easier with our

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

or

All-New Echo Dot (2nd Generation) – White (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) and an Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*)

to just say, “Alexa, ask AT&T to text Bufo…don’t forget the Toys for Tots gift.”

Some of you are also probably thinking that Alexa has a “To Do” list…and wondering why I don’t add it there.

Simple: I check my text messages frequently, and will certainly check right before I leave the house. To use the Alexa To Do list, I have to consciously choose to go there…it’s pull, not push.

There is a bit of set up involved. That’s part of why the review average on the site isn’t great…2.2 stars out of 5 with 154 customer reviews.

Here are the steps:

  • You need to already be an AT&T customer for voice…if you use Verizon, for example, this skill will not work for you
  • You need an Alexa-enabled device which can do skills. I have tested it with an Echo, an Amazon Fire TV (at AmazonSmile*) (and it should work with the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote (at AmazonSmile*)…which is the least expensive way to get Alexa at this point, since you can give it voice commands without the Voice Remote, using the app on your SmartPhone), and an Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*)  (one tip with the Tap, so to speak…you do not need to push the mic button to respond when Alexa asks you what you want to text)…it worked with all of those
  • Next, enable the AT&T Send Message app. A fairly recent improvement means you can do that just by saying, “Alexa, enable AT&T Send Message” with an original Echo or Dot. You can do it with other devices by using the voice interface (app/remote/Tap button)
  • You will need the Alexa app on your phone to set it up, though. You a text word from your phone to a special number to link your phone account to the skill
  • Next (and the skill explains this), you go to http://alexa.andyet.io to enter a name and a phone number. You can have up to ten names and numbers. Getting it to recognize the name has been a challenge for some people…as you can imagine, it doesn’t know the name “Bufo”. 🙂 However, you can say to Alexa, “How do you spell the name Bufo?” (or whatever name is right) and it will give you a spelling it should recognize when you say the name. It originally thought my name was spelled something like Buffon (not buffoon, by the way). Later, though, it said it spelled Bufo as B-U-F-O, so it might have learned it. Note that if you want to edit the list of names later, after you’ve closed the website, you’ll probably be asked to text a word again (that’s what has happened with me)
  • Now, to actually use it. 🙂 “Alexa, ask AT&T to text Bufo.” Alexa will respond by asking what you want to text. You say your line of text. Alexa will confirm it: “Sending a text to Bufo ‘this is a test'”

It should then show up on your phone.

If you have trouble with it (or if you love it…or just like it) feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard !

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Join the TMCGTT Timeblazers!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Amazon Echo’s 2nd birthday: almost $40 off, and the Alexa Skills store at Amazon.com

November 8, 2016

Amazon Echo’s 2nd birthday: almost $40 off, and the Alexa Skills store at Amazon.com

Today is the Echo’s second birthday, and Amazon is offering the main Echo for $140.39 instead of $179.99 ($39.60 off)

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

That’s likely to just be today (it says it is for a limited time only).

I use an Echo every day (and an All-New Echo Dot (2nd Generation) – White (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) and an Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*) on weekdays, but you know…). 😉

It turns my lights out on and off, place music, gives me the weather, tells me what’s on my calendar, and more.

When I say more, there is a lot more!

Amazon has now put the

Alexa Skills store on Amazon.com (at AmazonSmile*)

on Amazon.com, making it much easier to search the close to 5,000 skills!

For example, right now, I’m trying the

Earplay skill (at AmazonSmile*)

I’m a fan of Old Time Radio, and I have to say, the demo was fun. It is sort of like Choose Your Adventure, in that you are given choices of things to say and the story continues based on what you say. It does feel like OTR, although not quite as surreal as most of it.

Here are some of the stats:

Alexa Skills
Business & Finance (67)
Communication (20)
Connected Car (8)
Education & Reference (899)
Food & Drink (144)
Games, Trivia & Accessories (1,187)
Health & Fitness (132)
Lifestyle (390)
Local (97)
Movies & TV (82)
Music & Audio (48)
News (701)
Novelty & Humor (319)
Productivity (136)
Shopping (14)
Smart Home (114)
Social (51)
Sports (122)
Travel & Transportation (94)
Utilities (76)
Weather (462)
Avg. Customer Review
  • 4 Stars & Up (690)
  • 3 Stars & Up (1,086)
  • 2 Stars & Up (1,439)
  • 1 Star & Up (1,727)

Now, that’s a lot of one star reviews! It’s the most popular selection.

That may change in the future. It seems clear to me looking at this that they are going to enable paid Skills (as opposed to everything being free). I think that would be a good thing. Right now, there are two main types of content producers…hobbyists or people who are generally content creators and hope to use this to promote their other works, and companies using it as advertising/access (Uber, Domino’s Pizza, and so on).

Paid Skills would change that, with people being able to expect a return on their investment specifically from the Skill. Think of it like paid apps in the appstore…some of them are worth the payment.

Overall, these are good developments and a good sale!

Happy birthday, Alexa!

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project! Do you have what it takes to be a Timeblazer?

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

Echo and Tap on sale today only

April 20, 2016

Echo and Tap on sale today only

Amazon was #1 in the Reputation Institute’s U.S. Reptrak 100 report (they often finish at the top of these sorts of things…which is great!) and to celebrate, they are doing a 1 day sale (they’ve done that before, too).

The

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) is $153.71 (normally $179.99)

and

Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*) $111.01 (regularly $129.99)

This is probably only in the USA, and they say it is only for today.

We use our Echo every day, and I’m surprised, but I use the Tap every day at work.

The Dot, by the way, is not on sale.

I’m going to get this post out right now so my readers on the East Coast have a better chance of seeing it. I may add to it, though.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

*When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Road test: the Alexa Tap

April 7, 2016

Road test: the Alexa Tap

Amazon recently introduced two new members of the Alexa family:

Echo Dot (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

and

Alexa Tap (at AmazonSmile*)

I’ve been living with them for about a week, and I clearly had one misconception before I got them.

I thought the Tap would be more of a novelty, a special events kind of item.

It turn out, it’s far more useful than I had anticipated, in part because of how well Amazon has engineered the experience.

The Dot is fine, and does what I expected. I think that will be the most popular of the three non-Fire TV Alexa devices. It has a tinny speaker, like an old transistor radio, but can be paired with a Bluetooth or wired speaker…and you can do that for less than the cost of the original

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

which we also have.

The Echo is an elegant solution, in terms of combining everything into one piece (speaker and Alexa functionality), although it’s rather large.

The Dot tucks nicely inside our TV cabinet (which has open slats). Both my Significant Other and I think the Dot hears us better than the original Echo, although that might have to do with where it is in the room and what else is going on in that room.

As to the Tap…

I took it to work to test it out. I didn’t bring the charger, figuring it would last for the day without it.

It did. 🙂

I listened to a podcast

The Kindle Chronicles

Specifically, it was the 400th episode: congratulations on the milestone, Len Edgerly!

I listened to some music.

I checked the weather and when a local sports team would play next.

I checked my shopping list, and my calendar.

I had someone play 20 questions with it, demonstrating it to a coworker.

After all that, it was still quite charged.

How do I know?

I asked. 🙂

Just push the button (you have to push the button to talk to it…that’s one of the big differences between it and the original Echo. You don’t have to hold the button in while you speak, by the way. Just push and release the button, and it will start listening. Think of the button as similar to the “wake word” on the original Echo) and say, “Battery level”. You can ask it in a more natural language way, if you want. 😉

After listening to the podcast and having done several other things, it was at 75%.

Oh, before I could do any of that, I had to put it on the Wi-Fi network, of course.

Fortunately, it talks you through that, telling you to go to the Alexa app on your phone (or you could, presumably, do it on your computer, but I didn’t test that).

Even though this public Wi-Fi network required me to tap a box to accept terms, it was quite easy to do through the app. I could have entered a password as well.

The phone, by the way, did not have to be on the Wi-Fi network after the set up. The phone is only involved in the set up, not in running the Tap.

This was not a robust network, and the Tap would sometimes pause while playing, but that was understandable. I have no issues like that at home.

I was also curious, so I tested the microphones.

I started that 20 questions “Skill”, so I could talk to it as I walked around the room…you don’t have to push the button for each response, just to get the skill started.

It appeared to hear as well as the original Echo, which surprised me. I easily got probably five meters (about 16 and a half feet) away from it, and from all sides (I was in a conference room). No problem with it hearing me speaking in a normal tone.

I had figured since you had to be next to it to push the button, it didn’t need great mike quality…but it has it anyway.

I was also fascinated to hear that it seemed to cache a couple of minutes of the podcast. I walked out of the building, heading to my car (which was maybe a block away), and I made it most of the way. 🙂

When I got home and set it back on the charging cradle, it easily reconnected to my homework…I didn’t have to do anything.

The next time I went back to work with it and got to that public Wi-Fi, I had to accept the terms again….but that makes sense.

Everybody who heard it was impressed, even though I didn’t turn it up very loud (we were working and indoors, after all).

I like the “sling” as a way to carry it. Contrary to what some others have said, I find it easy to take in and out of the sling (which you do have to do to charge it in the cradle). The big trick is to put it in and out from the side (there was an illustration showing that when I first opened it). Stick the bottom of the Tap into the bottom of the sling, then just stretch the sling over the top. The other thing is that you want to look to see that you are putting on where the buttons show through the holes so you have access. It isn’t easy to twist it around inside the sling once you have it on the Tap.

Overall, a great experience, and one I expect to usually do every day!

One last note: I don’t have a Wi-Fi hotspot option on my (now discontinued) Fire Phone, so I didn’t test that…but I expect it will be easy as well.

Oh, sorry…one additional thing. 🙂 It paired easily with Bluetooth devices to play them…only the Dot will connect to an external playback device, like Bluetooth headphones.

Update: today, I really came to appreciate the physical buttons on the top of the Tap! I was listening to a Prime playlist (Epic Scores, which is comprised of driving movie scores), and had to answer the phone rapidly. It was great to be able to just push the pause/play button and have it silenced. When I was done with the call, I could just hit it again to resume where I was. There are also up and down volume buttons…that’s also nice, so I don’t need to speak if I don’t want to do that.

Do you have more questions? Feel free to ask by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help!

For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Alexa Tap and Echo Dot: first impressions

April 1, 2016

Alexa Tap and Echo Dot: first impressions

picture of unopened Alexa Tap, Echo Dot, and Sling

They are here…and they are already set up!

As promised, our

Echo Dot (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

and

Alexa Tap (at AmazonSmile*)

arrived on release day.

Out of the Smile box  Back of the Dot Unboxed

I must say, I have never had an easier set up of any connected device!

I pretty much just had to plug them into power and pick a Wi-Fi network. I didn’t even have to enter a password, since Amazon now memorizes my network for me (if I want it to do that).

I already had an

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Amazon Fire TV (at AmazonSmile*)

and

Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote (at AmazonSmile*)

all of which use the Alexa Voice Service. I had the Alexa App on my Fire Phone, so the set-up was a snap!

The Tap did act like it needed to be set up twice, but I suspect it updated itself.

As soon as they were set-up, I could control my lights, ask for the weather, and so on.

Oh, it’s probably worth noting that the devices were delivered to another city (we have Amazon packages get sent to an office rather than our home, for security). I did have to tell the Tap that it was in our city, rather than where it was delivered.

So, not much to say about that because it all worked well. 🙂

I can tell you something to help you.

I bought the “Sling” carrier for the Tap. The device is about as tall as a soda can and a half, and about the same diameter. The Sling (the Tap is battery operated) is a way to carry it (and is designed to help protect it in a drop). I’ve heard people express concern about taking the Tap in and out of the Sling to set it on the charging cradle.

Well, there is a diagram for how you take it in and out. You don’t put it in from the top…you put it in from the side. You just put the bottom of it in the Sling, then you lift the top over it just be stretching it a little bit…no problem.

I have not yet connected either of them to Bluetooth (I’ll do that tomorrow and update this post).

The Dot does have a speaker, although the big difference between the Dot and the Echo is that it doesn’t have the Echo’s Bluetooth speaker. However, the speaker is…serviceable. It’s just fine for conversation, for doing things like telling you the weather. I did play music on it. I’d say it’s a bit like the old transistor radios we used to have. 🙂 I have a tolerance for “tinny” music…my Significant Other doesn’t. I’ll fix that by connecting it to a speaker (there is an included 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm cable…that’s the normal “headphone jack” size).

They can all have the same wake word. The same Skills work on all of them.

Bottom line: we had two more ways to access the Alexa Voice Service within ten minutes…painlessly.

Have any questions? Feel free to ask by commenting on this post.

Oh, and as usual, April Hamilton has a great post on her blog, Love My Echo (not connected to my I Love My Kindle blog):

http://lovemyecho.com/2016/03/31/mail-bag-lme-answers-reader-questions-about-the-amazon-echo/

It may also answer some of your questions. I don’t have a connection with April Hamilton except that we have had some correspondence.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help!

For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

On the Circumference #6: AlphaGo, wake me up Echo

March 21, 2016

On the Circumference #6: AlphaGo, wake me up Echo

The On the Circumference posts contain short pieces which may or may not be expanded later.

Retrofitting TMCGTT

Our

The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip

went live at The History Project on February 29th (figuring that would be an easy date to remember), but I haven’t done much promotion of it yet (outside of my own blogs).

The History Project has mentioned it, as did Len Edgerly of

The Kindle Chronicles

also tweeted about it.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on it. Part of it is adding new things (you can see what I’ve been adding by following the special Twitter account I set up for it, @TMCGTT). However, the biggest work lately has been “retrofitting” earlier entries.

I started out just copying in a bunch of events from

The Measured Circle Pop Culture Timeline

However, I later decided I wanted the entries to be interactive: I want you, when I can, legally, to be able to jump from an entry to being able to read a book/magazine/comic, watch a movie/TV show, listen to a radio show, and so on.

If that’s not the case, I want you to be able to use it as a portal, to jump to news (Google news search, Twitter search…).

Where I can find public domain pictures, I’ve been adding at least one of those as well.

So, I’ve been going back to existing entries…it takes a while.

I could probably improve entries forever, so I set myself a date for when I’ll start promoting it a bit outside my circle (so to speak).

That will be April 2nd.

I may compose an announcement, but I will at least follow some Twitter accounts (The Mary Sue, Entertainment Weekly…)

Go, Go Gadget AI!

When I work with people on their use of technology, I like to explain what they should expect the computer to do best and what the human should do best.

What computers do better than we do is the same thing over and over again. People are terrible at that.

What humans do better than computers, hypothetically, is make decisions.

So, if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again, or if there are specific rules that govern what should be done, let the computer do it. If a decision has to be made, you should do it.

However, as I like to point out, computers are getting better at making decisions…and arguably, we are getting worse at doing the same thing over and over again. 😉

That’s why they are catching up to us. 🙂

We saw that recently when Google’s Deep Mind AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, a human champion, in Go:

Nature post by Mark Zastrow

Yes, Lee did win one of the best of five match…there has been a lot of analysis of what happened there, but maybe AlphaGo just didn’t want to appear to be too powerful. 😉

I used to manage a gamestore, and Go players were serious and sure that their game was more difficult than chess. One argument they would make: you can be a chess prodigy in your teens, but you a Go prodigy in your 50s. 🙂

Indiana Jones 5

After great success in the Force Awakens, Harrison Ford will star in

Indiana Jones 5

which is scheduled to be released on July 19, 2019. Ford will have just turned 77.

There have been a lot of jokes about Harrison Ford’s age…because, you know, that wouldn’t get you reprimanded by HR at work. 😉

Look, I like that a character like Indiana Jones can age. Why cut off all those possible stories at a certain age? You can always go back and do younger stories again if you want.

In the world of Alexa…

Some short points about the  Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) and the Alexa Voice Service:

  • “I’m okay, you’re da-DING”: I’ve seen a lot of complaints about this, and I certainly preferred it the old way. When I now ask our Echo to use our home automation to turn a light on or off (for example), instead of a charming “Okay”, it makes a two-beat sound. They should at least give us the option…I like that my Echo talks to me; that’s one of the main points. I don’t think there’s any technical reason for it, because she still verbally responds to my requests which go to IFTTT (If This Then That)
  • You can now set recurring alarms! That’s great for me…I’m sometimes exercising when my alarm goes off on my tablet, and I have to break my routine to stop it. Now, I can just do it verbally
  • There are now 40 (!) pages of skills! You can also choose to just look at the skills you’ve enabled, if you like
  • For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

 

Echo, Dot, Tap, or Fire TV? Which Amazon Alexa device is right for you?

March 4, 2016

Echo, Dot, Tap, or Fire TV? Which Amazon Alexa device is right for you?

Earlier today, I wrote about Amazon’s announcement of two new devices which will have it’s AVS (Alexa Voice Service):

The Alexa family grows! Two NEW devices from Amazon

I’ve gotten questions about it already, so I thought it was a good idea to do another post comparing the Amazon AVS devices, to help people choose between them.

Overview

There are now five devices from Amazon that have Alexa (from least to most expensive):

There are significant differences between them, both in hardware and in what Alexa can do.

What is Alexa?

You talk to it and it talks back. 🙂

On all of these, you can ask questions and get answers. They might be trivia questions, or the weather, or the news…an increasing number of possibilities.

They can all do that.

The most limited devices, in terms of Alexa, are the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick (they are, I believe, the same in terms of Alexa). They do** home automation, which is one of the main thing I do with our Echo. They can all turn my lights on and off with verbal commands, and through our Harmony remote, control our Fire TV (for some things…see How to use the Amazon Echo and a Logitech Harmony to put on your TV shows). All five also interact with commands through IFTTT (If This Then That) (see Get the most of your Amazon Echo (and Alexa on your Fire TV/Stick))
The Fire TVs obviously show you video, which the other devices don’t do.

Another big piece of the Echo’s attraction is the always on microphone. I can just “talk to the air” whenever I want something to happen. That hardware is available on the Echo and the Dot…but not on the Tap or the Fire TV devices. For the Fire TVs, you use a voice remote (or your SmartPhone with the Fire TV app). On the Tap, you hit a button.

The Echo is also a nice speaker…I like the sound of the music on it. The Echo is, actually, mostly speaker, when you look at the hardware.

What would you get if you took away the speaker?

You’d get the Dot. 🙂

Oh, the Dot will have a speaker…but only of “voice quality”, so it can speak to you. It’s not going to have the same quality of sound for music. However, you can plug it into other speakers, or pair with a Bluetooth speaker for better sound (all sold separately).

The one that is bringing a new ability is the Tap. That ability? Portability. It has a battery (good for 9 hours of playback…and you get a charging cradle for free). It not only connects via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it will connect to a mobile hotspot (your phone can probably do that, but you might have to pay for a plan). Many Bluetooth speakers don’t have that capability. It’s also quite a bit smaller than the Echo: about six inches (about 150 mm) tall. The Echo is about half again as tall (about nine inches, 225 mm…those are just approximate numbers). A soda can, by comparison is about 5 inches tall).

So, what’s the appeal of each model?

The Fire TV Stick is tiny and the least expensive. To use it with Alexa, you either need the Voice remote…or your phone with the Fire TV app. It’s more for TV, but you can use Alexa for information, and for home automation.

The Fire TV is a much more powerful version of the Fire TV Stick. I have one of each.

The Dot is going to give you home automation and information at a lower cost than the Echo or the Tap. It does need to be plugged in. If you want to hear nice sounding music, you’ll need to connect it to other speakers. For me, this will go into the bedroom to control our home automation (the Echo is in our family room). It does have the same far field microphones as the Echo.

The Tap is like the Echo…and is mobile, but doesn’t have the far field microphones. You can carry it with you for music, information, and home automation (as long as you have Wi-Fi or a mobile hotspot). You’ll have to push a button to interact with it. This one will be great for some people with disabilities, although they do need the ability to push the button.

Summing up:

  • You want TV, get the Fire TV or the Fire TV stick…and you get Alexa functionality with it
  • You want portability, get the Tap
  • You want information and home automation, get the Dot
  • You want information, home automation, and a nice speaker, get the Echo

I’ve seen some people pointing out that the Dot doesn’t come with a remote…neither does the Echo at this point (you buy it separately).

More information will come out, although the product pages do have quite a bit.

Note that you can only get the Dot right now by ordering it through an Echo…you can’t order it through the Amazon website at this point.

My guess is that the Dot is going to be a huge hit. You’ll be able to get that Star Trek computer experience in a small, relatively inexpensive device. If you are an audiophile, you already own a great Bluetooth or wired speaker, and the Dot will work with both of those. As home automation becomes more common, the voice control of the Dot will be more attractive. By the way, Wink enabled Nest thermostats now work directly with Alexa. The Dot may seem like almost a necessity, and people will want them in hotels and to have more than one in the house.

The Tap is more of a gadget, a fun thing to have with you. A SmartPhone can already do some of the things the Tap can do. I expect the Dot to be the bestseller (over the Echo as well) out of the three. The Fire TV Stick sells really well, but that’s apple and oranges.

I hope that helps. If you have more questions or insights, feel to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

** It used to be that the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick didn’t do the home automation, and I wrote the post at first reflecting that. However, there had been an update, and when I tested it this morning, it did work…I have updated the post to reflect that

For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


%d bloggers like this: