Amazon Echo – I review my new toy

EchoAmazon’s new Echo device, heading out to early adopters at this point, is basically a landline version of Siri, letting you talk into the cloud to get answers, information, and other services. This black tube about as tall as a Pringles can and slightly wider only plugs in for power. Internet access must be gotten through wifi, which you must configure using an app on your smart phone or tablet. The app ends up being a necessary partner in making full use of your Echo. If your Echo can’t answer your question directly, it tosses a search engine link over to the app (a Bing link, of course, because Google is not chummy friends with Amazon.) You can add things to a maintained shopping list by talking to your Echo, but can only remove things using the app. And if you want to configure your Echo, such as giving it a name that it will respond to, you do that through the app.
(Oh, giving it a name. Now there’s a disappointment. The Echo sits there quietly, until you say its name, then it lights up, perks up, ready to answer a question or obey your command. And some of the promotional material made it sound like you could pick a name. Which is actually true in the most trivial sense possible – you get your choice of two names. You can call your Echo “Alexa”, or you can call it “Amazon”. This is not only inconvenient if you happen to have named your two kids “Amazon” and “Alexa”, but it’s a disappointment because I wanted to name mine “Mata Hari”. I really, really, really wanted to name it Mata Hari. Why? Because it’s an honest-to-goodness always-on live microphone sending out things I say over the Internet, to one of the biggest data-gathering operations there is. What kind of sufficiently paranoid person volunteers for that? Me apparently.)
(Note to youngsters and the under-read: Mata Hari was a spy.)
So basically, the devices does things that you could do with a tablet or a smartphone and you need a tablet or smartphone to fully use it. So what’s the advantage to having it? Well, the biggest reason is that it makes your life feel real science fictiony – you’re walking through your living room, you just shout out a question, and a ring of cool lights spring up at the top of this tube, with one light pointing toward you, and level, female voice answers your question. It seems so Minority Report.
(Youngsters: Minority Report is a film from 2002. Science fiction.)
Second thing is that it really can be convenient for the basic things it does. Telling it to set a timer is simply a shout, no matter what you’re in the middle of, what your hands are full of.
The third is that it’s a music-playing device, streaming your tunes to the room… at least, those tunes you have stored by Amazon. As with most Amazon devices, the primary goal is not to serve you but to encourage you to use Amazon services. Buy your tunes through Amazon, and you can request them through this. Subscribe to Amazon Prime, and you have voice command access to the Amazon Prime Music library. It will support whatever things that Amazon chooses to let you access through it, like IHeartRadio. But you aren’t getting your iTunes on this.
I’m no stereophile, I won’t claim to judge sound quality. It sounds good enough to be my ambient music. It plays streaming music without me having to turn on my TV. For me, it’s an improvement. Volume can be controlled by voice command, by remote control, or by turning a ring around the top of the tube.

Once I’d gotten it set up, I put the Echo through some very basic steps.

  • “Alexa, what time is it?”
  • “It’s 1:10.”
  • “Alexa:Set an alarm for 1:50.”
  • “Alarm set for 1:50 this afternoon.” (I would later find that one of its weaknesses is that it wasn’t an alarm, it was the alarm. Try to set a second alarm, and it will indeed be set, but the first alarm setting disappears. Learned that one the hard way.)
  • I decided to try its look-up-in-Wikipedia function. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.” (yes, I have a Wikipedia page.)
  • It starts to read me the Wikipedia for a town whose name is similar to my last name.
  • I try again. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
  • It reads me the introduction to the Wikipedia page for Republic Steel.
  • “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
  • While it is admitting that it didn’t understand what I am looking for, my phone rings. I grab it, and say “Good afternoon.” The Echo starts reading me the Wikipedia page for “Greeting”.
I tried to destroy the Echo by asking it “What is love?”, but it just quoted the Dalai Lama at me.
Another thing it’s good for is keeping the kids distracted for a little while, as they work out what it will do. Yes, they can ask it math questions. No, it can’t tell them how far it is between two cities, but yes, it can tell them how far each city is from here. No, it won’t sing you songs, but yes, it will tell you a joke if asked. The kids added a lot of silly things to the shopping list, and were surprised when it read them back a list with even more silly things (I was in another room, augmenting their shopping list via the app.)
The thing that delighted them most was when my daughter sang  “Alexa: Do you wanna build a snowman?” and gotten the spoken response “Come on, let’s go and play!” (And it even has multiple responses to that question.)
Overall, at this point, it feels more like a novelty than a necessity. Some of what it does, it does impressively well, like hearing a command over other noise in the room. Some it does so-so; it’s generally good at understanding my requests, less so my five year old, but luckily it tends to repeat back what it’s asked, so at least we know it’s answering the wrong question. There are odd quirks in the data set it’s using for some things; ask it to define “sister”, and the one about a female sibling isn’t the first definition, it’s the fourth. Similarly, the definition of “knocker” went through the more lurid slangy sense and a yiddish term before getting to the item that hands on a door.
But those concerns are software, not hardware, and software upgrades, so there is hope for something more full. As the Echo will tell you when you ask it (her? The voice is most definitely a her.) “Where are you?”, she is here, but her head is in the cloud. Additional services could be added without even a download. So this could be more and better; whether it will probably depends on whether enough people adopt it to give Amazon a belief that there should be a future for this. If they don’t, this will be another Apple Newton.
(Youngsters: if you haven’t heard of the Newton… that’s kind of the point.)
The Echo is orderable here. It currently has a steep discount for Amazon Prime users.
Published in: on February 20, 2015 at 3:20 am  Leave a Comment  

What’s up on TV

One of the reasons that I stopped doing the regular reviewing thing is that there is just too much TV today to really stay on top of it. Saw a figure quoted earlier that more than 350 original scripted series had new episodes in 2014, when you count all the cable channels, the major streaming sources, and so forth.

But I have been watching things. And just having come off a batch of watching new things, I thought I’d do some running down, for the two people who still have this one their watch list.

  • The Nightly Show fills the old Colbert Report slot with news commentary humor and discussion, focusing on minority issues. On the first episode, the news humor is quite good. Host Larry Wilmore is a smart and talented man… but his voice grates on me a bit. We’ll see if I get used to it. The discussion panel was a mixed bag at best; you could tell when each of the night’s panel members were Saying The Thing They Had Prepared To Say, hanging it however loosely on the question or conversation of the moment. Overall total, on the good side. And here’s a weird confession: I was kind of hoping to not like this show, as liking it means two hours a week of watching it.
  • I’ve watched several of the non-kiddy Amazon Original pilots of this batch, and as everyone’s telling you, The Man in the High Castle is the one worth watching. It’s an alternate history take set about a decade after the Allies lost World War II. It’s well put together… but my main thought is that whoever the production designer is has just found a dream job. “Here, combine Nazi design and Japanese design with 1960s US.” What more could you ask for as a design assignment?
  • The other originals I watched: despite having some good people in the cast, Salem Rogers doesn’t work. If you saw Bad Teacher and Bad Judge, well, they would’ve called this one Bad Model, but they forgot to cast Ryan Hansen. A supermodel returns from extended rehab and proceeds to terrorize her former assistant and act entitled. It feels compressed and just not funny. Down Dog, about a vapid yoga instructor, deals actually in some of the same realms of that wacky Hollywood, but is mellower, less abrasive, more smoothly done, and still not funny. Cocked uses a standard formula of the offspring who left the family business but must come back to save it and deal with wacky relatives (example: Arrested Development.) It’s got Brian Dennehy in it, which is a good thing, and Jason Lee, which is inconsistently a good thing. It tries for a mix of humor and drama, but alas the humor is not that funny and the drama is contrived. Some nudity for those that like it (although it’s of Symbolically Sexy women for a scene’s needs, rather than being actually sexy), some small LGBT content for a key but unconvincing plot point.  It’s not a show that I would be surprised at getting a few seasons for a while, but I doubt I’ll be watching.
Published in: on January 22, 2015 at 3:44 am  Leave a Comment  

On those of us who try to be funny

In the wake of a recent suicide, there are discussions and articles going around that anyone who tries to be funny is so desperate, sad, and lonely that they are at all times one small step away from taking the Big End To It All option.
People also frequently note that I am often trying to be funny.
So let me start by assuring everyone out there that I am not on the edge, I am nowhere near that edge, I don’t foresee myself ever being at that edge absent real physical suffering or impending complete collapse of intellect.
This is not to say that I am without depressions – really, more frustrations, I’m a very frustrated man in some ways, having squandered both abilities and opportunities (all of which is on me). I feel I have achieved most of what I’m likely to, and there are some genuine achievements in there, but the pile could have been bigger. As a writer, I am both more successful than most people who see themselves as writers and less successful than most of the people folks are apt to think of when they think about writers. And I’ve managed to get myself in a position in life where I’m spending a lot of time doing things that I’m not that good at.
And I don’t always put these things forward because I’d rather be judged on my strengths and successes than on failures and weaknesses. And I make my jokes because they are a success; I am good at finding some combination of things about a given situation that meet in a surprising way. And it feels good not just to amuse other folks (although that is certainly a measure of success) but to simply put it together; it has some of the same satisfaction as solving a math puzzle does for me.
And I am proud of things that I have done, including things that you don’t know about. And while I might not have that many successes to look forward to, there are other forms of pleasure that still await. I have my up side as well.
So if you had any concern regarding me, I appreciate your caring, and can always use support… but I’m not suicidal, merely human, and we all to some degree clothe our wrinkled natural selves.

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Arkansas!

It will be interesting to see where we are at the end of the year.

Published in: on May 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Michigan!

Indeed, Michigan.

At this point, 54% of Americans live in a jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is either available or are awaiting the end of a stay of court ruling to be legal.

Zoom.

Published in: on March 22, 2014 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s Amazon Pilot season again

Amazon has their new pilots available for free viewing. So far, I’ve watched two of them.

Mrs. Nat’s TV was correct when she pegged Mozart in the Jungle as having a taste of the beloved Slings & Arrows behind it. This time, it’s an symphony rather than a theater group that is facing changes, but it’s got that very insider-y, real-except-we’re-exagerating-ourselves-to-be-kinda-epic feel to it. Clearly not a cheap piece to produce (lots of sets, known actors like Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and in the lead, Saffron Burrows), it didn’t catch me up the way Slings & Arrows did, but if it goes to series, I’ll definitely try a second episode to see if it grows on me.

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street felt like it specifically wanted to be The Adventures of Pete & Pete; it’s a narrated story of a group of children in a setting that was basically our suburbs with these fantasy elements worked in (and by the way, that’s a genre I’ve done a couple short stories of in prose, so it’s one I have a taste for.) Alas, where, Pete & Pete managed to have a gentle sense of whimsy and winging it, of not taking itself too seriously (perhaps encouraged by some of its cheap production values. This all feels much more calculated and thus much less fun. Calculated and slick can work in these regards (see: Pushing Daisies), but you gotta have some real magic that this pilot doesn’t show.

Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Smart things have larger effects

I always like stories of smart things having good repercussions beyond what was expected. There was a story a year or so back about the earliest known sound recordings, which were never meant to be played back. The creator of the “phonautograph” was merely playing with how voice could shake a pen that was making a line; it wasn’t until a century and a half later that someone figured out “hey, we can turn this line back into sound!”

I just ran across another of those stories, and it’s about an acknowledged creative genius, Méliès, the early filmmaker (if you saw the movie Hugo, you know the guy I mean.) Due to some problems with distribution, Méliès found that he needed two negatives of each movie. Rather than having two cameras that needed separate operation, he simplified the shooting: he built a special camera that was really two cameras in one, two reels of film, two lenses. Sure, they’d each get a slightly different image, but they were close enough that it shouldn’t make much difference.

You’re seeing what’s coming, aren’t you?

That’s right. a century later, someone paired the two prints back together, and got these early masterpieces in totally legitimate 3-D.

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 3:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Hawaii!

Back before Dr. Mrs. Nat’s TV was a Dr. or a Mrs., back when we had just gotten engaged, well, I felt a bit of trepidation about that… not just because of the usual marriage jitters, but because marriage was being used as a legal tool to keep my gay friends (and even gay folks I didn’t like so much) in a second-class situation. So I got engaged, but the future-Dr. Mrs. and I agreed that if any state legalized same-sex marriage before it was time to book our honeymoon, we would honeymoon in that state.

Which was easy to say, since the state that was actively moving in that direction at the time was Hawaii. When they punted, and it looked like we might have to marry in Vermont. To our vast dismay (and a small amount of relief), Vermont punted as well. Since no state was going to have same-sex marriage before our wedding, we were free to honeymoon where we wished. And yes, we wished Hawaii.

Starting today, plenty of same-sex couples are getting married in Hawaii. May they have wonderful lives together, and wonderful honeymoons. May I suggest Vermont?

Published in: on December 2, 2013 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

On being male at cons

Guys,
Since the way male comic pros treat women at cons is the topic that’s going around (thanks in large part to the brave postings of my pal and collaborator, Tess Fowler), and since I’m seeing a few very odd reactions to it, I feel like I need to balance some of those odd reactions. No one is asking you to stop being human. No one is asking you to never think of sex. No one is saying that if you ever misread a signal, you’re horrible. Few if any are even saying that if a woman shows up and expresses the desire for the sheer unlimited awesomeness of having intimate physical relations with A Real Comics Creator, you cannot find some legitimate mutual benefit in that (but no; I’ve been going to cons for decades, and if you think that is happening to you, at least take a second to figure out if there’s some way you may be misinterpreting it.)
But if you’re trying to bring up sexual possibilities quickly in an environment that is not set up for that, yeah, you’re being a shmuck.
If you’re trying to subtly suggest that there might be benefit to an assignation beyond mutual pleasure and perhaps some genuine possibility of something longer term, yeah, you’re being a shmuck.
If you think that sexual access is something you’ve earned via your awesomeness, yeah, you’re being a shmuck.
If you’re reading sexual signals into things repeatedly at a con, you’re being an idjit. You may be confusing women at a con being in personal presentation business mode (smiling, attentive, and nicely dressed) with a different set of social signals. Notice that you’re not actually getting anywhere, and learn.
Folks: Don’t be surprised when folks you consider talented, or even folks you consider feminist, also show some shmuck tendencies. Being a good artist or knowing how to turn a phrase does not turn off heterosexual drives. Thinking that women can do things just as well as men and should be free to succeed does not turn off the desire to be doing nekkid things with them.
The women who are at a con are not there for your pleasure. Even the women who have spent thousands of dollars trying to emulate an Adam Hughes cover shot are there for their pleasure, not yours, and if your pleasure is gained by detracting from their comfort… or even if you’re willing to detract from their comfort for a long-shot at pleasure… then please find somewhere else to go. Cons get so much better when the women creators get treated as part of the creator class, and for that matter when the women who feel like squeezing their lithe or ample selves into Catwoman or Black Cat outfits aren’t made to feel like they’ve put a target on ourselves.
Almost all of us will have moments in our lives when our drives make us a little stupid, a little awkward, push a little too close to the line. I’ve made mistakes (no, I’m not listing them); please try to recognize them in yourself, and pull back.
And if you see the opportunity to discourage such behavior in other guys, whether it’s taking a moment to give a guy a clue or being ready to physically block something that is getting out of hand, please do.

Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Remington Steequel

I had heard brief mention of a Remington Steele reboot being planned, which brought to mind my key thoughts on doing such a reboot a few years back. For those unfamiliar with the series, it was about a female P.I. who was having trouble establishing herself due to the “female” part of that phrase, so she gave her agency a fake male figurehead, the titular Remington Steele… only to find that a slick, handsome conman shows up, claiming to be Mr. Steele, and insinuates himself into her business.

My main thoughts on reworking this for a more recent time:

  • the key problem with reworking RS is the central “she was getting nowhere because she was a woman” doesn’t play nearly so strongly in modern times (not that everything is hunky dory on that regard, but the conversation has changed.) So either this is a period piece, or she has something else holding her back; if we make her not one of the beautiful people, perhaps disfigured by not disabled, that might work. “Handsome con man” still solves the problem.
  • the key and amazing thing that you didn’t have to change? Casting Pierce Brosnan. Older, confident conman actually would work better in the role than young impetuous one. Yes, it means that the romance aspect is May/December, but even concern about that can be overcome with the she-is-not-beautiful aspect, as it becomes less “desperate older man seeking hot young thing” and more “finally, a man mature enough to see past her surface.”

But it’s a moot point, because it turns out they’re not restarting the series; they’re doing a sequel, the next generation.

Published in: on November 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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