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  

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  


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  


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.


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


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

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  

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil

There is something odd about Canadian sitcoms, in that they can feel quite legitimate, like something made for a minor network in the US, but you don’t hear about them until suddenly, bam, there’s whole seasons of them. That was really the impact of Corner Gas, a show well worth watching. At the moment, I’m Netflixing through the couple dozen episodes of Todd & The Book Of Pure Evil, which is basically early-Buffy-as-a-sitcom. Not a dare-not-miss-this series, but if that sounds like a good idea to you, it’s watchable.

Published in: on September 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Yay, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

Anyone notice their marriage shattering apart last week? Me neither

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

The world of tomorrow doesn’t look that much different

Today, same-sex marriage becomes legally available in New Zealand. Well, not today today; it’s already tomorrow in New Zealand, and tomorrow is the today I mean. And while there certainly is some grousing there, and church groups trying to figure out what they’re going to do, well, as I said, it’s already tomorrow there, so we know that the world doesn’t end today.

Earlier this month, two more US states started licensing same-sex marriages. Minnesota! Rhode Island! Did I forget to celebrate them on my blog? Prob’ly. Most people actually living in those states probably didn’t even blink about it on the day it happened. The oceans did not rise up and take them. Heterosexuality did not lose its appeal.

The U.S. military now recognizes that not only does it have gay men and women in their ranks, but that some of them have spouses, who need support just as any military spouse does. Our forces are no less at the ready for it.
The shrill voices that were warning what would happen if this sort of thing were to elbow its way into our lives, our churches, our classrooms… well, some of them are still the same shrill voices, now inaccurately predicting yesterday, but they are playing to ever more empty halls.
In the time of the way things have changed, historically, this is lightning. Those who got on this train got on a bullet train. And I cannot help to wonder: what change can we make next like this?

Published in: on August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Acting my age

Tried out for a play… not because I expect to get a role, mainly because I like auditions. The show is Noises Off, a fine show (and the movie adaptation of it is quite good), but one without a lot of cast options. If you read through the character descriptions, because of the varying age of the characters, there’s really only one possible role for each actor. For me, it was Lloyd, director of the play-within-the-play (Michael Caine in the movie). The part is not a bad fit for me; the character is loud and frustrated, which are two things within my repertoire. I delivered a reasonable-for-an-audition performance (I think), but there was one other guy tonight who gave at least as good, and this was the third night of auditions, so this was not going to be my role.

But during the last set of readings, they were swapping people in willy-nilly, and for a while swapped me in on a character that I had not applied for: Selsdon, an actor. The character had five lines in the part I read through…. and for four of them, I got laughs. At times large laughs, coming from the director and his assistants. And things hadn’t been getting laughs in this crowd, particularly not Selsdon lines.

So why does this weird me out? Because the Selsdon character is supposed to be two to three decades older than I am. I really didn’t think that I’m ready to pass for decrepit. (In the movie, it was played by 70 year old Denholm Elliott, in his last film.)

Published in: on July 17, 2013 at 6:13 am  Leave a Comment  

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