Upheavals in my tech life – Part 1: Amazon Echo

// February 7th, 2015 // Echo, musings, Rambling, tech

UPDATE: I still like Echo a lot and it keeps getting better. They’re constantly adding features (including IFTTT and home automation support!) and everything just works. TuneIn had issues one time, but that’s it. I’m extremely happy with it as a household assistant and as a bluetooth audio system.

***

I’ve made or am making some big changes in some small areas of my life. Mostly around technology. Being a self-described ‘technologist’ that means I have to write about it. Hi.

*** Feel free to skip this list and jump right to #4 if you just wanna know about Echo ***

Chief among these are:

1) I’ve jumped ship from iPhone to Android. My new phone is a 2nd generation Moto X running Android 5 Lollipop. As some of you know, Apple and I have gone from a blissful to a troubled relationship of late. Linux boxen out-number Macs in my house now — I’ve even broken down and built a Windows gaming machine because… Borderlands Pre-Sequel, ’nuff said — and my iTunes music library has gone from being a warm, fuzzy vault where Apple kept everything for me to a technological albatross that I had to pull what felt like a bank heist to liberate everything from so I could access all my music from my new phone. Anybody want to buy a Verizon iPhone 5?

2) Along with ditching iPhone, I’m finally weaning myself off Safari (after all, I’m on OSX less and less). It’s a small thing, yes. But when I get around to writing about that, there’s more to it than just changing browsers. Some of the thoughts rattling around in my heads about this: Safari is closed-door Apple kit, but it doesn’t feel as… invasive… as Google Chrome. And Safari is fast. When it’s not beach-balling. But it’s just time to let it go. So do I invest my life more into Google’s ecosystem [and its attendant information Hoovering juggernaut] by using Chrome? I am using their OS now on my phone. And Chromecast is super handy. Or do I switch fully to Firefox all around, despite my love/hate relationship with it? It’s all I use on my Linux machines, but… dammit it pisses me off some times. Or do I split the difference with Chromium? In the end, the integration of all these with things like Lastpass, Yubikey and sometimes 1Password are big deals to me. And they all behave differently. So it’s not an easy decision.

3) Dish’s Sling TV. I haz it. I also haz Roku and AppleTV. I subscribe to Netflix, Fandor and AcornTV. I’ve been threatening, much like George Lucas saying he’s going to go off and do his ‘experimental movies’ and then never doing so, to cut the cord on my cable TV. So now that I have Sling TV and I know I can still watch Venture Bros and Adventure Time, I’m going to do a simulated cord cut. I’m going to rely on everything but my cable TV for a week (starting Monday) and see how that goes. I’ll tell you right up front that I’m gonna break this rule. I’m still gonna watch Archer on Thursdays on my TiVo. And I may use HBO GO, even though it’s tied to my cable subscription. The latter is OK in my book as HBO has announced that GO a la carte is coming. I gotta watch Game of Thrones, y’all. And can I just say, FX and AMC, please get on Sling TV and this will all get tied up with a neat little bow.

4) I have an Amazon Echo. Yes, I’m one of those people who jumped on it first thing. I know. I know. But that’s the thing I want to talk about, now that I’ve bored you to death with all the above. Unless you skipped straight here. In which case, “Weakling!”

First, let me cut right to the chase. I like it. It’s $99 well-spent and I’m happy with my purchase. I’ve tinkered around with computer assistants in the past and they all were terrible. So when Amazon said I could have a PDA with good voice recognition that could play NPR and tell me how old John Hurt is as I wallowed on the couch, I signed right up.

Is it just a glorified Siri? Yes. Or, more precisely, a glorified Cortana. But that’s all it purports to be, if we’re honest. Their ad, the one with the ‘early Richard Dreyfuss’ asshole dad, shows you it can play music, be a Bluetooth speaker, read Wikipedia, tell you the weather or how tall Mount Everest is. That’s what it does. Oh, and shopping and to-do lists which I’ll get to in a sec. But the point being: It was designed to pretty much be a glorified Siri. Or Cortana.

As a glorified Cortana it works really well.

THE BAD

EXCEPT FOR ONE HORRIFYING THING!
IT TOOK ME FOUR GODDAMNNED HOURS TO GET IT SET UP!
BUT I’M IN THE MINORITY SO I’M NOT BITTER AT ALL.
GODDAMMIT.

Yes, I spent four hours the first night dicking around with this thing and it not working. I’d quit and come back. I couldn’t accept defeat. I’d search the ‘Net and try other things. The app just sat and spun. And no, I didn’t call Amazon support because I was not prepared to patiently sit through someone telling me to reboot my router, make sure it’s plugged in, etc. My first damned router was configured with a text file and telnet, FFS. This ain’t my first day at the rodeo.

The way Echo’s setup works is you download an app (Mac, PC< Android or iOS), turn on Echo and it will go into setup mode (the ring rotates orange – there are audio prompts along the way), and you will then connect to it as though it were a wireless access point. If you get stuck here, find that rest button. You then select your WiFi SSID and enter your WiFi password (I believe Echo has two radios, as outlined below). In theory, this is where it connects and finishes setting up, culminating in Echo telling you it’s ready. This is where I was failing. Initially I couldn’t even get to the WiFi setup part.

And the app doesn’t give you access to the Help tab… until you’re done setting up. Duh.

Finally I found someone on Twitter mentioning that there’s a tiny reset button hole on the bottom. Using that to reset Echo and start fresh allowed me to finally get to the WiFi setup and connect Echo to my WAP. Or so I thought. Here it just hung again. Spinning forever. I tried this from my Android phone, an iPhone, a laptop and from an Amazon Kindle FireHD (I bought it on a whim long ago, don’t judge). No go on any of them. And I thought it weird how I still had the same IP address on my laptop when connected to the Echo

A bit more searching led me to a post from someone who had talked with Amazon only to find that Echo uses the same IP range (192.168.11.x) for its internal AP as my router does. And specifically it uses 192.168.11.1 for the Echo. Even changing my router’s LAN IP to something other than 11.1 didn’t help. Presumably this is because with Echo being an AP and simultaneously being a WiFi client, there’s a routing conflict and the Echo probably ends up talking to itself instead of bridging the two networks.

So I set up a laptop to share its ethernet connection over WiFi, ran the setup again selecting this new access point (whose internal DHCP was using 10.0.1.x)… et voila. Echo connected and started working.

THE GOOD

Seriously. I do enjoy it now that it’s working. Saying “Alexa, play NPR” and it almost immediately starting a stream of my local NPR stattion (WBUR) is so much quicker and friendlier than doing this from another device (unlock, open app, pair to bluetooth speakers, etc.) And, on top of it all, it sounds really good. It sounds like a decent Bluetooth speaker system. Enough bottom end for most things and with clear highs and mids. Today I woke up, padded off to the bathroom and called out “Alexa, play Kraftwerk Man Machine.” (The Echo is in my living room, close to the kitchen door.) I enjoyed some of my favorite krautrock as I woke up and made some coffee. Not in the bathroom. I made the coffee in the kitchen. Weirdo.

I checked the weather, since more snow is on the way, listened to what it calls a “flash briefing” of news and then decided to listen to NPR all day. Something I enjoy doing on weekends but often don’t because I hate dinking around with the radio and sometimes reception is crap. And streaming it involves too many steps, so I just don’t. I end up in silence or listening to audio books form my phone. But today I listened to Wait Wait and some other fare and was able to say “Alexa, pause” when I needed to go back and take care of the outcome of that coffee and then “Alexa, continue” when I was back in the kitchen working on a Tricorder I was adding leather to. It’s sweet. Everybody needs a leather-covered Tricorder. I’ll sell you one if you want. But I digress.

As I was working, I realized I should get some Armor All to shine up this leather.
“Alexa, add Armor All to my shopping list.”
“I’ve added ‘Armor All’ to your shopping list.”
“Oh. I’m out of tea, as well. Alexa, add tea to my shopping list.”
“I’ve added ‘tea’ to your shopping list.”
Later I decided to go to Target for a few things before the next potential snowcano/icenami (I’m trying to stop using snowpocalypse). So while there I opened the shopping list and bought the things I’d put there earlier.

Note to Amazon: Notice how I did not buy these items on Amazon.com. Why? Because the shopping list is separate from all Amazon wish lists. It is not integrated into Amazon.com in any way. The shopping and to-do lists ONLY exist in the Echo app. So it was more convenient for me to, while at a shopping establishment, use the list to buy things while I was there.

And, finally, yes I’ve made Echo cuss and say “boobies” and tell me jokes. I’ve had her ignore me when she thought I was either not being serious or she just couldn’t sort out what I said. And sometimes she just doesn’t get things like “Alexa, what year was the book ‘1984’ published?” Some of that is her, some is Bing, her search engine. And, by the way, Mike J. Nichols, sometimes you’re the general manager at Bing or, occasionally, you’re a “film editor originally from Illinois”. But never The phantom Editor (I decided to use your name as a test as I was listening to Chris Taylor’s book at the time.)

So far I’ve been very pleased with both the accuracy of things she does understand and the speed. In fact, I was playing a Youtube video review of Echo and she would perk up and answer the questions heard in the video at the exact same moment as the Echo in the video. Recognizing speech and performing a near-instantaneous lookup and reply is, let’s be honest here, pretty damned cool.

Am I happy with my $99 Wikipedia reader, music player and NPR indulge-my-laziness player? Yep. Knowing that she’ll do more in future is great, but I’m fairly happy with what [granted, little] she does now.

Oh. FYI – “In Cambridge there’s a winter storm warning in effect until 1 AM Tuesday, February 10th. The current weather is 27 degrees with flurries. Throughout the night you can expect more of the same with a low of 26 degrees.” :)

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