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Upheavals in my tech life – Part 1: Amazon Echo

// February 7th, 2015 // Comments Off on Upheavals in my tech life – Part 1: Amazon Echo // 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.



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 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.


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 Why? Because the shopping list is separate from all Amazon wish lists. It is not integrated into 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.” :)

A Spaceship of the Imagination

// September 19th, 2014 // Comments Off on A Spaceship of the Imagination // Rambling

soti_1 I built this recently for the Atlanta Star Party to auction off for their charity.

It’s an 18″ (plus stand) replica of the Spaceship of the Imagination from the new Cosmos series.

A little more info here on my G+ account and hopefully some build notes and pics later.

Why I left after 12+ years and why that makes me sad

// November 19th, 2013 // Comments Off on Why I left after 12+ years and why that makes me sad // Rambling

UPDATE: I’ve moved most of my former Pair-hosted sites to Media Temple and I’m also managing a client’s hosting there as well. I’m pretty happy with MT overall for managed-hosting needs. Agghosting and its clients is running on its own server over at Linode and I’m super happy with this [unmanaged] machine.

I recently had to abandon ship from my preferred hosting company of some 12+ years, Pair Networks. Seriously. I once loved them and recommended them left and right. The falling apart started, I now recognize, once I moved from my old and no longer offered plan to their new shared hosting. It was fine for a while. I didn’t host everything there — this blog, for instance, isn’t — but a handful of sites for which speed mattered to me (and some I moved when space became an issue, prior to the move to the ‘new’ system) were there.

Now they’re at Media Temple and they’re fast and reliable again. And the price is the same. I just feel sad that Pair let me down. Like an old friend who suddenly snubs you. I was planning to move Ruining It for Everyone there, but the performance failures made that untenable. It’s still at Dreamhost which was meant to be temporary (and is still more reliable and faster than my Pair account had become). I’ll move it to Media Temple soon, too.

But back to my Pair problem… Sorry. This is long and I didn’t originally intend to spew all this, but it’s happening now so just hang in there… (more…)

Kickstarter Projects – Sticky Post

// November 15th, 2013 // Comments Off on Kickstarter Projects – Sticky Post // Rambling

Kickstarter projects I’m supporting (and maybe you will too). =)
I’m excited that some of these are local projects (Stompy, Brattle, Hexy and Modkit)


Funded or Ended

A surprise for Liz

// July 7th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // art, Rambling

Several years ago I illustrated a short piece written by my pal Liz Argall. It was a very simple B&W thing with very few words. I think it turned out OK. Well, today I ran across the files and decided to try out some digital brushes on my new tablet. So, here’s a blast from the past and a little surprise for Liz.

(click to enlarge)


So… this happened. For better or worse.

// June 28th, 2013 // Comments Off on So… this happened. For better or worse. // art, Rambling, Uncategorized, weird

Because of this

this now exists. I’m not saying it’s right… just that it exists.

Elegy to a Racist

// December 4th, 2012 // Comments Off on Elegy to a Racist // musings, Rambling, Rants

I started thinking about this around November 6th, 2012. You can make the connection, I think. And then today I read Ashley Miller’s story of how she lost her father… to racism. So I put all the words into some sort of order, and here they are.

Elegy for a Racist

“I ain’t apologizing. That’s just the way I was raised.”

“That’s an excuse, not a justification.”

So you’re a racist in 21st century America. Welcome to the fringes. Oh, no, you didn’t realize did you. You thought you were still mainstream, salt of the Earth, true blue. Perhaps you’ve surrounded yourself with others like yourself and that helps you maintain the illusion. Or, at the very least, you’ve cowed those around you with your bile and wrath, so they won’t challenge you or call you out. But the truth is that the society you live in no longer accepts you as rational, as educated, as ‘normal’. And it doesn’t care to hear your arguments contrariwise. No, sir or ma’am, you are a minority. You are an ‘other’. The society where you fit in has grown and matured. It has left you behind. You and that hateful lump of smoldering rotten coal that simmers in your heart.

You’re unwanted. You are an artifact of an age, time and place that no longer exists. The words you once loved to use as weapons – now so actively listened for that – even muttering one under your breath is a risk you rarely take outside the walls of your home. And you will sit there, festering and growing colder and harder as you begin to feel the isolation of being an outsider. And not so long from now, you will become a fossil — Bigotus Americanus. And people will look upon you with new eyes, eyes not clouded by the hate you’ve kept burning and tried to pass down to your kith and kin. And they will wonder how you lasted as long as you did.

Yes, surely a few of you will survive long into humanity’s twilight. Your kind are always around, lurking. But no longer in the numbers you once enjoyed, comfortable in the rocking chair of self-satisfaction and privilege you once lazed in. You are now, and they will future be, pariahs. They will be secret outcasts who dare not speak their mind lest they be tossed out of humanity’s warmth. Hiding as you and your kind have made others hide.

But you, you original sinner, you will be long gone.

Good riddance.

Getting to your iCloud calendar from iCal 4 (OSX10.6) or a CalDAV client

// October 13th, 2011 // 67 Comments » // Rambling, tech

UPDATED 10/15/11 with new instructions!

I work in an environment where all the machines are tied to a single sign-on system and all the users, be they Mac, PC or Linux, have their home directories mounted from a server at login. Right now, OSX Lion won’t work in that environment, so all our Macs are running 10.6 or 10.5.8.

But what if I want to use my iCloud calendar from work via iCal (or another CalDAV capable client**)? It’s pretty damned easy, actually, I’m happy to say.

Maybe this is published somewhere, maybe not. But I figure a couple of my peeps might benefit from me posting this up. So here goes.

  1. Get your calendar set up and up to date in iCloud first. Don’t monkey with doing that after the fact.
  2. It just got easier. Skip to step 10 and ignore the steps below that says [SKIP]
  3. [SKIP] Open in a web browser and go to your calendars. Click on the circular ‘wireless’ icon to the right of the name of the calendar you want to use. The calendar you want to use must be shared.
  4. [SKIP] Note the name of the server right after webcal:// (example:
  5. Open iCal 3. (I’ll be referring to iCal from here on, I can’t say for sure how other CalDAV clients will respond).
  6. In iCal, go to Preferences -> Accounts and click the add account button (+)
  7. Select CalDAV as the account type.
  8. Enter your iCloud username (for instance, and password
  9. [SKIP] For server address you need to slightly modify that server name you jotted down in step 3
    If the server was, you would replace www with caldav and enter
  10. For the server address simply enter “” (I don’t know when this started working, but it does.)
  11. Click create. If presented with a choice of two possible servers, choose the one that says, not — IF YOU GET AN ACCESS NOT PERMITTED ERROR then you’ll need to use the greyed out instructions instead.
  12. Live large. Your now have your iCloud calendar and reminders in iCal. You might want to change how it refreshes, if you’re like me and want control over that. Push may not work as well in iCal 3. Otherwise, it’s a full CalDAV implementation; add, delete, modify, etc.

** Update: I haven’t been able to get it working in Lightning/Sunbird yet. But it’s most likely a matter of forming the URI correctly. It should be somehting along the lines of:[unique ID]/principal/
or some variation thereof. I’ll try to work on this more tomorrow.

Update 2: It appears they’re also using CardDAV for contacts (hooray for standards!). The path for that would start[unique ID]/carddavhome (Thanks MacRumors forums!)
As of 10/15 6:30pm EDT I have NOT been able to get this working in Address Book 5. If you want to take a stab at it, I do know that Address Book 6 uses a URI like:

https://[username][unique ID#]/carddavhome/card/[long srting].vcf
(The %40being necessary as you can’t have two @ in there but need to include an email address as a username.)

Update 3: So they’re not using a SRV record to do it as far as I can tell (but they are using Akamai so there’s at least one layer of abstraction). Next…

Yours in nerdery,


Some remarks on how Fukushima is not Chenobyl

// March 14th, 2011 // Comments Off on Some remarks on how Fukushima is not Chenobyl // Rambling

Disclaimer: I am not a nuclear scientist nor do I work in the nuclear field. I am, however, a staunch proponent of science and work with physicists and other scientists, but I have no qualifications beyond a fairly serviceable brain and a willingness to study, learn and listen.

First, this is a great post from William Tucker at WSJ. Two thumbs up. Also, if you’d like to follow the basic facts minus the hyperbole, please visit the NEI page on the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi.

Second, I thought I’d share some comments from one of the professors from my department. Prof. Richard Wilson (bio) has been active in humanitarian aide, outreach and education for many groups and has been especially vocal about arsenic poisoning and cancers from man-made problems (including radiation exposure). That said, he’s also a realist about nuclear energy, having worked in and around the field for decades. (FYI – He will be on NECN tonight at 6 and 9) In an email to all re: the Fukushima situation, he’s said:

The reactors all shut down at the earthquake automatically unlike Chernobyl. The problem then is to cool the core since the circulating water through the steam turbine has stopped.

Just after shut down the power level is 8% of full power (plus an extra 4% in neutrinos ). This drops in a well known way. (The Wigner Wey law of 1949) Roughly exponentially. After 10 hours it is about 1% and on to 0.1% after a year.

Note there the first thing we need to set straight: The plants shut down as expected and nothing was breached. It’s a cooling issue, full stop. Chernobyl had no containment and this more modern (but still not ‘modern’) plant does. If this were “a Chernobyl”, hundreds would be dying right now.

In Japan, there was no power from the grid to operate the pumps. Emergency DC power worked for a short while. Emergency diesels started up as planned but failed after 8 hours in one plant and longer in another due to flooding. In the absence of cooling the water cooling the core began to evaporate. At the power plant there is now basically no electricity. It took perhaps an hour or two for the top of the core to be uncovered and heat up (this time must be known but I do not know it). Then the core starts heating and the chemical reaction begins between the zirconium cladding for the fuel rods and water. This disassociates the water and Hydrogen is released.

You can see where this is going.

At TMI [note: TMI = Three Mile Island] cooling was interrupted by stupid manual action almost at once and 2 hours later hydrogen was produced which caused an explosion INSIDE THE CONTAINMENT at about noon (exact time in my files) 8 hours after the initial accident. In Japan the hydrogen and other gases were vented and the explosions were OUTSIDE (where they did no important damage) and much later

Cooling of the reactor is now maintained by sea water flooding the containment. (maybe also the reactor vessel but I do not know this) This can cool the reactor core by conduction through the pressure vessel. But the water is not circulating and stem is produced which is being vented. It is claimed that there is filtering for radioactivity but I do not know this for certain.

It seems to me that this can be continued indefinitely at least until electricity is available at the site.

No ‘Chernobyl’. Not even close. Not even in the same ballpark, much less the same type of incident or type of reactor.

Note that there are still TWO (2) barriers to release of radioactivity even if the core has completely melted which I believe is unlikely.
(1) the pressure vessel which seems intact
(2) the containment.

I believe that both these will continue to hold and the only problem will be in the controlled realease. Noble gases will be released but these do not interact much in the body (you breath them in and then breathe them out) Of these krypton is the longest lived.

Cesium is normally solid and even if the containment fails, the cesium may not evaporate . (Indeed at Chernobyl which was very hot very little of the strontium evaporated and did not contribute appreciably to the radiation dose.)

The highest recorded dose so far in the region of the plant is 150 mrem/hr (1.5 mSv per hour ). The natural back ground is about 300 mRem/yr Acceptable one time dose for accidents is 80 Rems for an astronaut and 20-40 Rems for a clean up worker.

And, finally, Dick’s prediction:

No one in the public will get acute radiation sickness and probably no one in the reactor staff either
No 0ne will have problems from iodine ingestion
There will be minimal cesium releases and not one fatal cancer will be CALCULATED (using the standard pessimistic formula) from the doses to the public.

This is to be compared to 1,000-10,000 direct, measurable and definite deaths from other earthquake problems

So, to all the Chicken Littles out there saying we have to stop and ‘review’ our nuclear programs (“ohmygawd ohmygawd!”) because of an incident that its so far outside the norm as to be unique, let me remind you of two things:

1) We’re CONSTANTLY reviewing our designs and programs. That’s how science works. And safety is THE primary review concern in nuclear energy production. Do you seriously think they’ve overlooked earthquakes??? That’s why we’ve gone on to design new and safer plants… so they’ll be as safe as possible. And they can be as safe as you’re willing to allow. Unless you also want to be stingy and would rather continue to dump pollutants into the atmosphere until we run out of oil.

2) “As possible” – Nothing can be made 100% safe. Everything is a weighing of risks against needs. That said, I didn’t see anyone calling for the halt and review of petroleum energy when BP polluted miles of ocean and coastal regions. No one’s called for a halt to automobile and coal pollution to review the deaths it causes each year.

I’ve heard several people toss out the “but what about a worst case scenario???” to which I want to shout “THIS IS THE WORST CASE SCENARIO!” And so far, it’s being contained despite the age of the technology and the crumbling of the infrastructure around the plants. This quake was unlike anything before it, and yet, despite the events leading to it being ‘worst case’, the crisis at the plants is not worst case.

What does your call for a ‘moratorium’ hope to do? Address the obvious? Ask the same questions that are asked every day in meetings and design reviews which seek to create safe, clean energy? No, it’s histrionics seasoned with a little bit of good ol’ political grandstanding. The incident at Fukushima is certainly worrisome, but it’s not an indictment of nuclear energy.

And it’s certainly no Chernobyl. Humans & Science 1, Histrionics & Emotion 0.

It’s the simple things…

// February 4th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Rambling, tech

I have a scratch volume consisting of several drives in a software RAID setup on my Mac Pro at work. One of the more annoying things is that when I set it about ingesting something, toddle off to do other work while it does so and then come back more or less when it’s done, inevitably the drives will have spun down and I’ll have to wait for them to spin back up. It’s not a long wait, but it’s annoying one. Especially as I can’t, say, eject the camera that’s connected while they’re spinning up.

Boring. GimmeGimmeGimme. NowNowNow.

I don’t want to disable drive sleep because the machine does sit idle sometimes. So what’s a girl to do? Google the pmset options and figure out how to fix this annoyance, that’s what. Turns out, it’s totally configurable (when you have “Put the hard disk(s) to sleep when possible” enabled):

sudo pmset -a disksleep 40

You can take a look at what your basic settings currently are with:
sudo pmset -g

Now my disks won’t spin down for 40 minutes. So if I wander off to lunch, they will spin down. If I’m just taking a bit too long to get back to an ingest/capture/encode, I don’t have to wait for each drive to spin up and the volume (and machine) to become ready. This works for any drives that are directly controlled by the machine (be it a Mac Pro or a laptop). It’s not relevant to any RAID which is hung off a controller card or enclosure with an in-built controller.

Just thought I’d share. Especially since I haven’t posted anything here in ages…