Geeky Good-byes January 2017

February 8, 2017

Geeky Good-byes January 2017

2016 was noted by many people for the number of celebrities we lost. I looked at reasons why that might have been true (and might continue to be true) in

2016: the Year the Stars Went Out?

while at the same time looking at previous history.

This year, I’m tracking it more closely in

2017 Geeky Good-byes

At the time of writing, I’ve made 19 entries just for January 2017. Unfortunately, I may add more…we sometimes don’t hear about deaths right away.

That page is really just a listing, without much narrative.

I wanted to take this post (and I may do one once a month) to a look at a few who really stand out to me. That isn’t to diminish anyone else: we geeks honor everyone who has every done a geek-friendly part or created a geek-friendly work.

Dick Gautier

I was surprised that Dick Gautier didn’t get more mainstream coverage. He was an author and a stand-up, and was nominated for a Tony in 1961. He appeared frequently on TV, including game shows. For geeks, though, he may be best-known as Hymie, the KAOS robot who becomes a CONTROL robot (not unlike Rogue One’s K-2SO, without the snark). Gautier was an unusual combination of being traditionally attractive, and yet funny and comfortable with geek-friendly roles (he would also voice characters for The Transformers and G.I. Joe…for more details, see that Geeky Good-byes page: 2017 Geeky Good-byes).

William Peter Blatty

Blatty was the bestselling author of The Exorcist, based on a real case, and the basis for one some still consider to be the most frightening movie of all time. He also wrote The Ninth Configuration and Legion, but I want to call attention to I’ll Tell The I Remember You, which was more of a memoir. I have a couple of quotations from it in my book of quotations, The Mind Boggles: A Unique Book of Quotations (at AmazonSmile*). It shows more of his philosophy.

John Hurt

John Hurt was one of those rare actors who had both mainstream success and respect (including two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win) and a range of geek-friendly roles. The latter include one of the most referenced scenes in movies (in Alien), 2013’s Snowpiercer, the H*llboy movies, more than one Harry Potter movie as Mr. Ollivander, 1984, Watership Down, and more.

We regret their passing (and those of the others on the Geeky Good-byes page), and thank them and those closest to them for their contributions to our lives and the lives of geeks to follow.

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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.

 

Emerald City is the Oz TV series L. Frank Baum would make today

February 3, 2017

Emerald City is the Oz TV series L. Frank Baum would make today

Note: this post is going to compare the current NBC TV series with the original L. Frank Baum book series and the 1939 Judy Garland musical version. There is no way to do that effectively without revealing elements of the three works which would be a surprise the first time someone reads/watches them. Therefore, this is part of our Spoiler Zone category of analysis and this is a

SPOILER ALERT

No doubt, some people watching the

Emerald City TV series on NBC

are shocked and offended that a beloved children’s classic has been turned into a depraved show with sex and violence.

Others are probably delighted that a daring reimagination has taken a namby pamby, bland story and made it into something more mature, relevant, and realistic.

As a long-time Oz fan, my guess is that people of either opinion haven’t read the “famous 14” original L. Frank Baum books in the main series.

The Wonderful Stories of Oz (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Oh, they may have read the first book, perhaps, or seen the 1939 musical with Judy Garland. The most famous book actually doesn’t match the rest of the series very well (for a good in-universe reason) and is one of my least favorites, and the movie was so different that it wasn’t a hit when it was first released (despite what had been a very solid “fanbase”, arguably one of the earliest).

L. Frank Baum himself makes a statement before the first book starts which could lead to the idea of Oz being just all happy:

“Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”

That last line is simply not true, especially if you continue through the other books.

No nightmares and heartaches? In the first book, there are over 100 deaths (mostly animals hacked to death with an ax by the Tin Woodman). Slavery is common and an ongoing theme in Oz. The Scarecrow is dismembered.

Now, you could argue that the tone is different: that this is “fantasy violence”, like cartoon violence. You might guess that the emotional anguish we see in Emerald City is not like the way people react in the books. Violence is committed against animals and “non-meat” people who can’t be killed anyway (after the big change in Oz). The gun violence in Emerald City would never happen in Baum’s Oz.

You could argue that…but it’s pretty easily refuted.

Take this passage from Rinktink in Oz:

“They found on every hand ruin and desolation. The houses of the people had been pilfered of all valuables and then torn down or burned. Not a boat had been left upon the shore, nor was there a single person, man or woman or child, remaining upon the island, save themselves. The only inhabitants of Pingaree now consisted of a fat little King, a boy and a goat.

Even Rinkitink, merry hearted as he was, found it hard to laugh in the face of this mighty disaster. Even the goat, contrary to its usual habit, refrained from saying anything disagreeable. As for the poor boy whose home was now a wilderness, the tears came often to his eyes as he marked the ruin of his dearly loved island.

When, at nightfall, they reached the lower end of Pingaree and found it swept as bare as the rest, Inga’s grief was almost more than he could bear. Everything had been swept from him—parents, home and country—in so brief a time that his bewilderment was equal to his sorrow.

Since no house remained standing, in which they might sleep, the three wanderers crept beneath the overhanging branches of a cassa tree and curled themselves up as comfortably as possible. So tired and exhausted were they by the day’s anxieties and griefs that their troubles soon faded into the mists of dreamland.”

This was devastation perpetrated by humans on humans, out of a motive of greed. They destroyed everything in wanton violence and enslaved the people. This had a genuine emotional impact on the survivors.

Okay, yes, one of the survivors is a talking goat, but still. 😉

This takes place outside of Oz proper, but is in a nearby land and it is part of the Oz series (and the Land of Oz and characters from it are part of the book).

That is hardly the only part of Oz that deals with “dark” cruelty. Some characters enjoy inflicting pain…here’s an example of torture from The Emerald City of Oz (one of the famous fourteen, not the TV series):

“By this time the jailer had tired of sticking pins in the General, and was amusing himself by carefully pulling the Nome’s whiskers out by the roots, one at a time. This enjoyment was interrupted by the Grand Gallipoot sending for the prisoner.”

That was pain for pain’s sake, and the General was being tortured.

In the books, the Tin Man becoming the Tin Man is very different from Emerald City, although I liked the way they did it on TV, making it more integral to main character relationships.

In the books, a regular human falls in love with a young woman who lives with a woman who doesn’t want her to marry. The older woman pays a wicked witch to prevent the marriage. The witch enchants the woodchopper’s ax to cut off his leg. It’s replaced with a tin leg, and that doesn’t discourage the chopper. The witch continues the enchantment, and eventually, the woodchopper has had all of his parts replaced with tin ones…which ironically makes him not love the girl any more.

What about guns?

There are many guns in Oz…even a gun-tree where a musket is picked. At one point, someone is instructed to only use a gun as a last resort: “…I do not wish to be cruel or to shed any blood–unless it is absolutely necessary”.

The Wizard in the books, by the way, is much more like the one in the TV series than in the Judy Garland version…he does some very self-serving things, and while he later becomes a member of the “cabinet” of the ruler, he wasn’t an innocent, sweet person in the early stories.

There is one big difference between the Oz books and Emerald City: sex. Sex is a big part of the TV series, and it gets talked about (not explicitly shown) a lot. That doesn’t happen in the Oz books…although there may be an argument for why that is true, besides simply the cultural standards of the time. No one ages in Oz (after a change happens): babies stay babies, and have to be cared for by other people. It’s unclear what would happen if someone became pregnant. People who come to Oz from the outside world do remark on people (and I’m using that term broadly to include supernatural beings) being attractive, but Emerald City’s libido is front and center.

Baum did have “dancing girls” in his stage productions, and I suspect that if he was making a TV series today, it would be as “sexy” as Emerald City is.

My guess is that he would also produce child-friendly versions: in the early 1900s, he was trying a lot of things…silent movies, stage shows, crossovers, tie-in books. Disney had nothing on Baum in multi-platform use of characters.

I’m a fan of the Oz books, and I look forward to and enjoy the episodes of Emerald City. Before criticizing or praising the TV series for being different from the books, you might want to read the books…and then decide. Even if you disagree with me about what Baum would do, you still will have read the books…and that’s a good thing. 😉

Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think about this by commenting on this post.

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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.

2017 Oscar noms

January 24, 2017

2017 Oscar noms

This is very preliminary, almost live-blogging. 🙂 I’ll call out the geeky nominees as I catch them, sometimes shortening the names. After the announcements, I’ll formalize it more and add some comments.

Some thoughts:

  • How can you nominate an animated movie for Special Effects (they can do anything)? Kubo was
  • Now Oscar-nominated movies: Suicide Squad, Passengers (multiple), Star Trek Beyond, Trolls
  • Really, really looking for noms for Hidden Figures (our favorite movie probably in the past year), and none so far. There’s the first! Adapted Screenplay. Octavia Spencer was nominated: yay!
  • Moana and Zootopia are nominated for Animated Feature
  • Arrival is cleaning up, but not Best Actress. It is, I think, one of the most nominated movies, with La La Land (which we have decided does not count for as geek-friendly), Moonlight…maybe Manchester by the Sea (this is pretty much live)
  • Hidden Figures nominated for Best Picture…Deadpool was not
  • I thought having former Oscar honorees announce the nominees in pre-recorded segments, and mixing high profile and less high profile categories, worked
  • Lin-Manual Miranda is closer to an EGOT (Emmy Grammy Oscar Tony) with a nomination for a Moana song…although worth noting that “You’re Welcome” wasn’t nominated, leaving Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s road to an EGOT a bit longer… 😉 Seriously, it’s not going to surprise me if The Rock eventually gets an EGOT, just not right away

Best Original Song

  • Justin Timberlake for “Can’t Stop the Feeling” for Trolls
  • Lin-Manual Miranda for “How Far I’ll Go” for Moana

SFX (Special Effects)

  • Doctor Strange
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Doc Short

Documentary Feature

  • Life, Animated

Editing

  • Joe Walker for Arrival

Sound Mixing

Rogue One is Oscar-nominated, thanks to this category (and Visual Effects)

  • Arrival
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Sound Editing

  • Sylvain Bellemare for Arrival

Production Design

I really thought Hidden Figures might be nominated here.

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Passengers

Live Action Short

Animated Short

Best Animated Feature

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

 Supporting Actor

No performances in geek-friendly roles nominated

Supporting Actress

  • Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

Makeup and Hairstyling

  • A Man Called Ove
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad

Costume

  • Colleen Atwood for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Cinematography

  • Bradford Young for Arrival

Adapted Screenplay

  • Eric Heissener and Ted Chiang for Arrival
  • Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi, Margot Lee Shetterly for Hidden Figures

Original Screenplay

  • Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster

Original Score

Not Moana? Well, “score” now often doesn’t mean songs, but La La Land was nominated

  • Thomas Newman for Passengers

Foreign Language

Directing

  • Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Lead Actress

No performances in geek-friendly roles nominated

Lead Actor

No performances in geek-friendly roles nominated

Best Picture

  • Arrival
  • Hidden Figures

Where can you legally stream any of these Oscar nominees without paying additional money (subscriptions required)?

Amazon Prime:

  • Life, Animated
  • The Lobster

Hulu:

Netflix:

  • The Jungle Book
  • Zootopia

2017 Oscar nominations video:

Complete list of nominees from the Academy website:

http://oscar.go.com/nominees

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

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!

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.

My take on…Emerald City

January 23, 2017

My take on…Emerald City

“Your past does not define you. Your mother does not define you. All that matters is who you wish to be…and how hard you’re willing to fight for it.”
The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) played by Vincent D’Onofrio
Mistress – New Mistress episode of Emerald City
teleplay by Justin Doble and David Schulner
based on the books by L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum would have turned the Wizard of Oz books into a television series.

He was personally involved in taking them onto the silent silver screen, the stage, and in tie-in books.

It’s reasonable to assume that in today’s market, it would have been cutting edge. Baum had “dancing girls”, and ethnic humor.

The books brought in contemporary events, and commented on them (even if one ignores a theory that the first book had to do with the gold standard).

As a big Oz fan, I can take that into account in watching the new adaptation on NBC:

Emerald City

If the series feels a bit “Game of Thrones”…well, it would have. Baum would have looked at what was successful (and loved and critically lauded)…although he would also have walked his own path.

Given all that, how faithful is Emerald City? How do I like it?

I am always careful about spoilers, so I will warn you ahead of time that I will reveal some small details in this post, while avoiding major plot points. If you’d like to be surprised by every allusion, I’d watch the first four episodes before reading this (you may find the first two episodes bundled together). Outside of that, you should be good.

So, MINOR SPOILER ALERT: DETAILS

I’m quite pleased to see that the people writing Emerald City are clearly very familiar with the “Famous 14”, the first main 14 books written by L. Frank Baum. There are many familiar names and locations, even if the characters (both of people and places) aren’t the same.

It’s important to be clear that it is the books, and not the 1939 movie with Judy Garland, that form the basis. It’s also not just the first book, the one most people know (and which is one of my least favorite of the series).

That said, there is one startling reference to the 1939 movie which I think is a mistake (and for the reason that it is too meta, too much of a distraction for me). The Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, adding another geek-friendly credit to the resume, following playing Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk on Daredevil…and of course, Edgar in the original Men in Black) reveals his true name to be “Frank Morgan”. That’s the name of the actor who played the Wizard in the MGM musical…it’s not from the books (where the Wizard’s name was Oscar Diggs…with a lot more in-between).

The names in Emerald City otherwise mostly come from the books: Ojo, Mombi, Ev (another “land” in the Oz books), Tip, and so on. I don’t think we needed that fourth-wall break here.

The universe rules in Emerald City are more akin to rules in the first book than in the latter ones…which does make sense, based on the chronology. People (and animals) in Oz can die, and do…frequently and sometimes violently, in the TV series. In the first book, there are over 100 deaths delineated.

Later in the book series, the rules change and no one dies (although it’s never quite clear if visitors to Oz, such as Dorothy, can die in Oz…not just the readers, but the characters don’t know, and the latter speculate about it). People can be destroyed and feel pain, but can’t be killed. There is a reason for that…

Will that happen in the TV series?

Seems unlikely. Emerald City is what I call “a real Bleak Show” (as opposed to a “Freak Show”). That is certainly a popular tone now: “the world is bad and people are worse” (see, for example, Zack Snyder’s version of DC). It’s not at all new: stories like that go back a very long time. It’s just not my preference, and not my world view, but clearly, it can be resonant. Just about everybody in Emerald City does…at least questionable things, including Dorothy. In the original books, they weren’t all sweetness and light: characters often argued with each other, although after the significant shift happens, most people have the goal of getting along (they just aren’t always perfect at it). That’s one of the things that sets the original Oz books apart from many other putative children’s books.

This series is likely to revel in violence and sex (although not shown explicitly…while sex is certainly implied and discussed, this is still a network show. Violence is shown), so I think deathlessness is an unlikely choice.

Overall, the acting is good, the writing is good, and the direction seems good. I like the art direction and some of the Easter Eggs (with the exception of the reference to the 1939 movie). In particular, I thought having “Cassidy” show up on a poster for a lottery (which, interestingly, uses dollar signs for amounts…but that could be the Wizard’s doing) was a cute reference to Executive Producer Shaun Cassidy.

One change I might have made is that I find the score a bit intrusive…it’s almost always there telling us how to feel, like a laugh track in a 1960s sitcom. That’s not to say that the music is bad or jarring, it’s not (I like the themes)…it’s just that I don’t need it there as much.

So, Oz with reference to drones, crop circles, opium, physical therapy, transgender bathroom use, and a cellphone (although the last one isn’t new: The Wizard of Oz invented the cellphone)? For me, that works. Would I still like to see a series that was tonally more like the later Oz books? Sure, and I think we will. For me, one of the signifiers of great art is that it can be adapted in many different ways and still survive…they become more than plots, and characters, and settings. As with Shakespeare and West Side Story and Forbidden Planet, Oz is greater than any given adaptation, and enhanced by divergent visions.

That’s what I think…feel free to tell me and my readers what you think (or to ask questions about how Emerald City relates to the Famous 14…I’ll mask spoilers if necessary) by commenting on this post.

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* 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.

Welcome, vammers! Our Virtual/Augmented/Mixed/Merged Reality coverage starts here

January 15, 2017

Welcome, vammers! Our Virtual/Augmented/Mixed/Merged Reality coverage starts here

To paraphrase Alexander the Great, I have laughed because there are new worlds to conquer! 😉

For a few weeks now, I have been exploring the universe of Virtual Reality, by virtue (so to speak) of a

Samsung Gear VR headset (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

and my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge SmartPhone.

As late as the end of 2015, I was questioning whether Virtual Reality was “ready for prime time”. I am now convinced that it is, and that we’ll start seeing significant consumer adoption of VR and Augmented Reality this year (2017).

In this post, I want to explain why that is, and give you an introduction to the technology…as well as some speculation and resources.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology which allows a person to apparently substitute another place for where they actually are. It might be a wholly fictional world, or another location (geographically and/or chronologically) on Earth. Currently, that’s typically accomplished by wearing something like goggles (or a headset) which places two screens in front of the person’s eyes, at the same time masking visual perception of the “real world”. Rather than seeing the screens, the person will perceive a 3-Dimensional world. A hallmark of VR is the ability to “look around” the scene: the VR tech is aware of where the person is looking, and adjusts the image accordingly.

The idea of Virtual Reality goes back to at least the 1930s in science fiction, and the technology became more possible in the 1990s. Fictional depictions include the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the 1990s Saban series VR Troopers (“We are VR!”), and the Otherland novels by Tad Williams (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*).

While VR is fairly specific in its definition, it is sometimes broadly used to encompass some other technologies. In this blog, we’ll be covering (at this point) four type of simulated experiences: Virtual Reality; Augmented Reality; Mixed Reality; and Merged Reality. That’s why we came up with the term “Vammers” for people who are using these types of tech.

They break down this way:

  • Virtual Reality: this replaces your current world for at least one of your senses (it could just be what you see, but it could also include sound, and increasingly “haptic feedback” ((touch))). You can not see the real world at the same time
  • Augmented Reality: characters or other objects are superimposed over the real world. You still see the real world around you, but you also see something else (simulated) over it. The most popular version of this has been Pokemon Go, although there have been other apps for some years
  • Mixed Reality: people may just refer to this as Augmented Reality (AR), and the difference is somewhat subtle. In Mixed Reality, the simulated object is “aware” of the real world and reacts to it. That’s not just the “player” or “experiencer”: it may have an awareness of where the ground is, for example. That’s already happening: AR characters don’t tend to appear to be floating in the air (unless that’s appropriate for the character), and Instragam filters follow your actions
  • Merged Reality: this is new, and is a term used by Intel for its Alloy headset (YouTube videos). This is essentially the opposite of Mixed Reality. The headset maps the actual location (say, the furniture in a room), and then masks it with a story-appropriate appearance: a table might “change into” a control panel on a spaceship, or into a rock in a haunted forest

My guess is that people will just use two terms: Virtual Reality when the real world is not visible, and Augmented Reality when it is. I don’t think most people will care about what is aware of what in casual conversation. However, VAers just didn’t sound as good. 😉

Why do I think it will take off in 2017?

As noted, VR entered popular consciousness by the 1990s, and it was possible to try it in arcades at that time (it can be argued that the Viewmaster, introduced in 1939, was a primitive, stationary version of VR…and there were earlier technologies that attempted it). It never became part of our most people’s lives, though; what’s different this time?

The easiest way to explain this may be to first address the barriers that impeded adoption before:

  • It was too expensive or not available for the home. While you can still spend more than $500 for a self-contained VR set, the Samsung Gear I mentioned above can be had for under $100 (well within the range of many consumer electronics). It is powered by a SmartPhone (specific ones), which can, of course, also cost over $500…but if you already have one, getting into VR has become affordable
  • People got nauseated or vertigo in VR. That was largely caused, as I understand, by “latency”…as you moved your head, the image would lag behind and then catch up, which could cause that feeling. I don’t notice any significant latency with my set up. I have let people use it who ranged from the age of 13 to 88…a couple of people have mentioned feeling disoriented when removing it, but no one has claimed to be too uncomfortable in VR. When shopping in the store for “experiences”, they rank how “comfortable” it is
  • You have to be plugged into something. That’s not true with my headset…after all, it’s running off a SmartPhone. There are still ones (including expensive set ups) where that is true, but it’s now an option
  • You look stupid. Can’t help you there. 🙂 I don’t think it’s stupid-looking…not more than many other things we do for entertainment

That takes care of some of the assumed negatives. I think it’s why some tech writers are underestimating adoption this year…they were very aware of the limitations, and either expect them to still be part of the experience, or want it to be perfectly resolved. For the average consumer, things can be good enough. It’s a bit like when Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007 (I’m best known for my coverage of the Kindle, e-books, and Amazon). E-books had been around, but they were only really being used by techies who didn’t mind plugging a cable into a computer to transfer an e-book they had downloaded. When Amazon made the Kindle wireless, it made it “good enough” for consumers, even though the technology has vastly improved since then.

What are the positives? What can you do with it?

People talk about the “killer app”, some driving reason to use a new technology. I think that’s there for VR now…and I think it might surprise you what I think that it is.

It’s video. Especially, that’s Netflix.

I like watching Netflix so much better in VR than on my TV. It appears that I am watching Stranger Things in a movie theatre. That’s in part because of the apparent size of the “screen”…but there is actually a theatre environment visible around me. However (and I didn’t know this at first), I can also look up at “the ceiling” and select the “Void Theatre”. That has the advantage of letting me place the screen anywhere I want by moving my head…even on what is the ceiling of the real room. I can be doing floor work exercises, and be watching Netflix wherever I want it to be. Hulu also recently introduce an “experience” (that’s what apps are called in VR). Amazon Prime Video is missing at this point, but in my most popular blog, I Love My Kindle, I predicted in my annual post

The Year Ahead: 2017

that Amazon will significantly get into VR/AR this year.

Samsung also has a browser, and I can go to other sites and watch video. I even have my own page on this site that works for there, although I have just started it:

The Measured Circle’s Theatre

When I’m in VR, I visit that page (which I’ve bookmarked) to launch public domain video I’ve linked there. I find it really cool to be watching an old movie or TV show (like Captain Video) in VR. 🙂

I should mention at this point that the headphone jack is still available to me, so I can listen on headphones if I want.

There are many other things that I’ve done.

One that I tend to show to other people is a VR exploration of the actual Chernobyl (site of a Russian nuclear incident). It’s amazing to “walk around”, say, the hospital (I work in healthcare), or the amusement park which was going to open shortly after the date of the incident.

Other experiences include seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, or watching Steph Curry warm up. There are also simulated experiences…Ocean Rift is a popular undersea simulation, where you can “swim” with dolphins or be in a shark cage (don’t forget to look behind you!)

There are also games. One, called Smash Hit, is an old arcade style “rail game”…you are moving forward at a speed out of our control, like being on a roller coaster (on rails). As you move, you “throw balls” at pylons, getting more balls for breaking them. It’s more complicated than that, but like many games, starts out easy. It can be hard to remember that even after you’ve passed a pylon, it’s possible (if you have time), to “look behind” you and fire in that direction at the one just passed.

You may be wondering how you “throw the balls”. With some systems, you could do it holding a controller, or even have something detect the position of your hands and your gestures (that will expand much more in the next couple of years). With mine, there is a “touchpad” on my right side of the headset…I tap the side of my “scuba mask” to throw the ball.

Video, games, and there is one more big element: social interaction. There is a platform, vTime, where you can go chat with other people, or even put on a lecture (which can be recorded). What you (and they) will see is an “avatar”, a cartoon representation of you. You can choose how you look (although only humans, from what I’ve seen), and your voice will be your voice (you need a headset, but I have earbuds with a built-in microphone I use for my phone…those should be fine). I think it might be possible to mask your voice. Oh, and you can be in odd locales…I’ve been in space and Liverpool (not at the same time).

This is going to be a major reason why people use VR, and may even be that “killer app”. It could get quite wild, but to some extent combining the anonymity of the internet with the immediacy of videochat may appeal, but I also expect there to be business and academic applications.

Now, just to be fair, I want to mention something I do think is a drawback. It really seems to burn through my battery charge…using it for an hour could take up more than a quarter of it. Having it plugged in would solve that problem…but that’s just a different hurdle.

There is a lot more I could tell you (and I expect to do so in this blog, The Measured Circle), but there are other resources which have already been covering it:

and if you want to see more of the things you can do, here is the

Oculus store

Okay, vammers! 😉 What do you think? Do you have other questions? Experiences you want to share?  Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think 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.

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.

2017…destined to be weird?

January 8, 2017

2017…destined to be weird?

Is there something weird about years which end in 7?

I mean really weird…Bigfoot, flying saucer kind of weird. 😉

Weird things are reported every year, but for crashing into the public consciousness, it’s hard to beat years which end in seven.

1817…the Gloucester Sea Serpent…and a sea serpent necropsy!

Sea serpents had been seen in the area before, but 1817 was a major flap off Massachusetts. The Linnean Society examined a supposed baby specimen and gave it a scientific name: Scoliophis atlanticus. That identification has been disputed

1897…mystery airships from space!

While the mystery airship wave really started in late 1896, it’s in 1897 that we start to see them interpreted as alien spacecraft (before that, “mystery inventor” was one of the popular theories. In April, it’s reported that an occupant dies and is buried in Aurora, Texas. A newspaper also reports a calf being lassoed from a UFO

1947…the dawn of the “Flying Saucer Age”

Unexplained flying lights and vehicles (including foo fighters and ghost rockets) had been reported before, but on June 24th 1947, Kenneth Arnold described the movement of odd-shaped flying objects he’d seen as being like a saucer would make if you skipped it over water…which then became the term “flying saucer”. Many sightings happened in the following weeks…and what now be the most famous case, the Roswell Incident, occurred in July of that year

1957…UFO car stops!

Within a month of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch, a major UFO “flap” happened in Levelland, Texas. The “evidence acceleration” here was “car stops”…vehicles stopping working when a UFO is near, and sometimes spontaneously working afterwards. Investigators of this multiple-independent-witness case, included the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. In this nationally publicized case, everybody seemed to agree that something happened, but the Air Force and others suggested it was natural atmospheric phenomena (such as ball lightning). Car stops were reported in later UFO cases.

1967…Bigfoot filmed!

The term “Bigfoot” was popularized in 1958, but the game clearly changed when a Bigfoot was reportedly filmed on October 20, 1997. That widely-publicized and seen footage of a Bigfoot looking back over its (generally believed to be “her”) shoulder has been parodied many times, and is still the image many people have of Bigfoot. Also, on May 19th, Stefan Michalak has burns which he claims are from a UFO

1977…the Dover Demon!

In Massachusetts in April, a strange, small humanoid is encountered. Famed cryptozoologist Loren Coleman names it the “Dover Demon”

1987: Gulf Breeze!

Unusually clear UFO photographs are in the news, reportedly taken by Ed Walters. There is a lot of investigation in this case (particularly since it was supposedly an ongoing phenomenon), coming to different conclusions

1997…Phoenix Lights!

In March, lights in the sky and structured craft are reportedly seen in several states by thousands of people…and filmed. Even the Governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, is a witness, although initially making fun of the idea of an extraterrestrial origin

2007…Space Shuttle footage!

On August 6th, a space shuttle films what some believe is a UFO

2017…???

This sampling of many weird events from years which end in seven suggest that we may have something that happens this year that is particularly memorable, and perhaps either unprecedented or on a new scale (of impact, or of the quality of evidence).

What do you think? What did I leave off the list? Can as good an argument be made for other year-ending numbers? 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.

The Resolution Solution

January 1, 2017

The Resolution Solution

We are almost to the New Year, and statistically

http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/

about half of Americans usually make resolutions. That’s good, because “People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions”.

What percentage of people are successful in achieving their resolutions?

Just eight percent.

Why is that? Is there something wrong with 92% of the people? Does 8% of the population have a “keep your resolution” genetic mutation? 😉

As a trainer, I can tell you…the problem is probably with the resolution, not the person.

Resolutions are like any other goals I talk about on the Wellness Wall.

First, don’t base your resolution on results, which tend to be out of your control. For example, don’t resolve to lose ten kilos or twenty pounds in 2017. There are so many factors which could affect that, including good ones, like putting on muscle weight.

Instead, base your resolution on actions you will do. “I will walk at least 10,000 steps at least three days of every week.” If you aren’t sure what actions will help you realize your vision, consult with someone (like a Registered Dietitian for intake options).

Second, keep your goals small and your dreams big! When you set a resolution for an action, it should be something you are comfortable you can achieve 90% of the time (flukes are going to mean you can’t do it every time, or at least, you shouldn’t commit to that). If 10,000 is a challenge, make it 5,000.

Third, only increase your action goal slowly. Do one action over and over until you are a bit bored with it, then slightly increase and stay at that level until you are bored with that. 🙂 You want lots of success, so you’ll keep doing it. If you make 10,000 and decide to keep going with no end point in mind, you’ll go until you fail…and then you won’t want to try it again.

Fourth, it’s all about the framing! It’s not that you HAVE to exercise, it’s that you GET to exercise. Very few people in the world have the luxury of exercising just for their own wellness, not to accomplish a task! Find a reason: exercise to benefit something else, not just you. Taking care of yourself is taking care of others.

Fifth, track and reward. You need to know you are meeting your goals, and you can’t do that if you don’t track. Consider letting yourself buy a present if you are consistent in the goal (not for a single mighty effort). Three months of hitting your weekly goal 90% of the time means you go to the movies, for example. Don’t make it an unhealthy indulgence…you don’t want to equate being unhealthy with a good thing. Yes, exercising more means you can eat more good food (calories out/calories in), but don’t tell yourself that you deserve a glazed donut because you’ve been working out so much.

Finally, consider sharing your progress with others…that helps motivate some people.

You’re not going to be just one year older…you are going to be one year better! 🙂

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.

“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!

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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.


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