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I write about a lot of things — whatever’s going on in my life at the time, whether that’s traveling, getting in shape, reading, etc, and sometimes thoughts about where I’m headed, or where I’ve been. As a former librarian I’m a little obsessed with books, and as a tech geek I love all things Apple, Kindle and in-between. I love food more than it good for me, and my viewing habits range from “Downton Abbey” to “Modern Family”  to “Game of Thrones” and back around again. I have two cats, a wonderful husband, and the rest is subject to change without notice.

Periscope is my new time-waster

periscopeLately it seems like I find out about every great new thing from the Facebook group I belong to for our upcoming Disney trip in September. These ladies (and gentlemen) know about every deal, sale, neat trick and cool new gadget out there. The other day one of them mentioned that you can watch the Wishes fireworks at Disney World on the Periscope app, almost every night.

What’s Periscope?

Apparently Periscope’s been around for months, but I’m just finding out about it now and I don’t think I’m alone — according to Social Media Week, lots of people are on Twitter asking what the heck it is. Periscope (owned by Twitter, and tied into that network) lets you broadcast live video to the world — and lets everyone else watch broadcasts anywhere, in real time. Your Twitter followers get a notification that you’ve gone live, and anyone else can find you through keyword searching or — here’s the magic, in my opinion — by geographic location.

Florida on PeriscopeSo by looking at the map, I can check to see who’s broadcasting from the Happiest Place on Earth, for example. Last night Dave and I watched the Wishes Fireworks, and we had our choice of three or four “scopes” to get the best view. We were watching a scope from the Golden Nugget pool in Las Vegas the other day and heard about the fire at the Cosmopolitan. I keep looking for scopes from the Buffalo area, or Niagara Falls, so I can get a taste of home, but so far just one guy broadcasted for a few minutes while he was waiting in line for the Superman ride at Darien Lake.

That’s the thing, there’s a lot of random stuff on Periscope. A lot of “here at Amy’s party” or “walking my dog” or “hanging with my girls at the bar”. And I hope you all are having a great time, but I can’t say I’m interested in watching. I’ve also got to assume there’s a huge potential for more-than-G-rated scoping going on, but I’m going to steer clear of that entirely and would imagine you’d do the same. (Unless that’s your thing. No judgement.)

people I followBut there are also people who broadcast regularly, and once you follow them, you get notifications every time they go live. (If you find notifications pesky, you can turn those off, of course.) Apparently some people are in the Magic Kingdom every day. I can’t join them, but through Periscope I can pop in where they are any time. You can tweet to the user while they’re broadcasting, and if they choose, they can answer verbally. So if you ask how the weather is, or if there’s a long line at Haunted Mansion, you get a real-time answer.

I’m not much of a content sharer. If I used Periscope to broadcast, there’d be a LOT of video of George not playing with a toy mouse, since he invariably stops whatever he’s doing as soon as you point a camera at him. But most people these days LOVE to share, not to mention the potential for brands, marketing and celebrity publicity. So I think in the future there’s going to be a lot to watch on Periscope, both mundane and exciting.

You have to excuse me now, though. There’s someone riding the WInnie the Pooh ride RIGHT NOW and I have to stop what I’m doing and watch.

Periscope, my new favorite time waster. :)

 

George Takei’s “Oh Myyy!” on sale today for $1.99 in the Kindle Store

Who doesn’t love Uncle George? His book on how he became a social media juggernaut, Oh Myyy! – There Goes The Internet (Life, the Internet and Everything Book 1), is on sale today in the Kindle Store for just $1.99. (click through for discount!)

The Amazon Echo (finally): Alexa, what’s the meaning of life?

Amazon Echo So, we ordered an Amazon Echo in February. It finally came about two weeks ago.

First, I should explain what the Amazon Echo is. Basically, it’s Siri (or OK Google) for your house. You plug it in, and ask it things, and it responds. It also can coordinate with smart home devices, so once you’ve got those all hooked up, you can walk around feeling a little like Jean-Luc Picard. (“Alexa, lights. Lower. Damn you, Alexa, that tea is cold!”)

Second, the wait. Amazon released the Echo in 2014, but on an invitation-only basis. In other words, you had to request an invitation to buy one. I’d claim it was a marketing ploy, but I honestly think they haven’t got that many of them manufactured yet. As a Prime member, I requested my invitation sometime last year, and was finally able to place an order in February. It arrived in the first week of June, which was about two weeks sooner than had been predicted. The question is, was it worth the wait? And, was it worth the price? The Echo was initially $99 for Prime members, but that deal has ended. Currently the the Amazon Echo can be ordered by anyone for $179. (estimated ship date as of this writing: July 14th)

Set up

Setting the Echo up is ludicrously easy. You plug it in — and as an aside, the plugging in is kind of nice. As in, there’s no battery concerns with this thing, because it doesn’t run on batteries. You need an outlet, but most homes still have those, so it’s actually nice for once to not be worrying about one more thing to recharge. There’s a quick wireless setup via an app you download (iOS, Fire, and Android both available, or the desktop). And that was it. Again, I appreciate that there weren’t a lot of hoops to jump through.

Questions and Answers

 

In order to talk to the Echo, you use a “wake word”, which is not at all like a safe word for robots though it sounds like it is. Your “wake word” choices are limited to “Alexa” (the default) and “Amazon”. It’s impractical for us, at least, to use “Amazon”, since we talk about Amazon all the time (as in, whether an order arrived, or whether a movie we want is on there, and so on). They’ve said something about adding new “wake words” eventually, and we very much wish they would. I’d prefer something like “Agnes” or “Beelzebub”.

So, the Echo hears the “wake word” and then listens to what you ask it, and replies. Simple, but not really, because — look, this thing is new. There’s stuff it can do, and stuff it can’t. It can tell you the weather and the news and what year “Avatar” was released, but it can’t tell you when “Jurassic World” is playing in your area, and it can’t tell you when the Tony Awards are on. It can read you entire Wikipedia articles, can tell you knock knock jokes, and has a few smart answers to some trick questions. It can sync with your Google calendar and add things to it, but can’t tell you if you’ve got something scheduled on the 19th. You can order things from Amazon that you’ve ordered before (and you can turn that function off, if it seems too fraught with possibilities for error, which it does to me — “Who ordered fifty jugs of cat litter?!”). You can make lists, you can get traffic updates, you can get recipe help, set timers, and hear sports scores. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot it can’t answer. Which is kind of a pain, but because all of the Echo’s technology is in the Cloud, I’m willing to be patient about it.

There’s one other advantage for the truly lazy among us. With Siri, my iPhone has to be plugged in for it to automatically answer “Hey Siri” queries. Either that or I have to, ugh, actually pick it up and touch a button. So tiring. But truthfully, sometimes my phone’s in another room, not plugged in. The Echo takes all of that out of the equation.

Music

The Echo is a Bluetooth speak, so you can pair devices — your iPhone, for example — with it and listen to music that way. To be frank, I don’t have any use for this feature. We have other speakers we already use. I’m told that in the world of Bluetooth speakers, the Echo’s sound quality is so-so. You’d be silly to buy it for just that reason, though.

We have used it to listen to Prime music, though. As Amazon Prime members, we have free access to the Prime music library. While there are some glaring omissions (no Prince! no Maroon 5!), there’s a lot of great music there. I can say, “Alexa, play George Michael” and she’ll shuffle through his catalog. There are some ready-prepared stations and playlists, too. It’s Amazon’s version of Pandora, essentially, and since we’re getting it for free as Prime members already, it’s a nice feature.

(Side note: You can upload all of your music to Amazon, too, and listen to it through the Echo. But right now you’re limited to 250 songs for free, and $24.99 a year for 250,000 songs. Frankly, that’s crazy. I’m not paying a yearly fee to listen to my own music. Google Play lets you upload all your music for free. Amazon, get with the times on this one.)

gechoShopping

Supposedly you can shop through the Echo. On Amazon, of course, and (I think) items you’ve ordered before. I can’t say that’s too useful for me, since we don’t tend to order the same things over and over again on Amazon (or if we do, we subscribe to them).

But you *can* make a shopping list through the Echo. Any time you say, “Alexa, add Fiddle-Faddle to the shopping list”, she does. You can access that list through the app. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it’s a good 75% of what we use the Echo for. Running low on eggs? Tell Alexa. Need to add more mushrooms to the FreshDirect order? Tell Alexa. Realize that you’re about to eat the last Hostess cupcake? Tell Alexa. She won’t judge. Seriously, it sounds stupid, but this is hugely useful for us. We tried keeping a plain old pen & paper list in the kitchen, but half the time when I realize I’m out of something, I’m busy cooking, or just on the couch and too lazy to move. And since Dave and I both have the app on our phones, when we’re at the store, one or both of us, we’ve always got the list with us.

Things to Come

The Echo really is just a slightly stupider Siri for your house, at this point. But the reason I’m still a fan is that since its hardware is basic and all of its functionality comes from the cloud, there’s no knowing what it’ll be able to do in the future. Since it was released last year, they added voice control for Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, a funny Simon says feature, and integration with home automation devices. Rumor has it they’re releasing an SDK for third-party developers, and at that point, things could get really interesting.

When All is Said and Done…

I like our Amazon Echo. It’s a fun gadget. The problem, though, is that I can’t recommend it at the price. $179 is just too steep for something like this — at least now. Maybe when home automation become more prevalent, then I could see it being justifiable. But I wouldn’t have paid $179 for this. I’m not sure I would have shelled out $99 for this — I bought the Echo myself, but used some gift cards I had to do so, so it wasn’t like shelling out hard-earned doubloons. Still, a hundred bucks for something to keep a shopping list on and tell us whether or not tomorrow is going to be a pool day? That seems silly. Basically I’m saying it was a great thing to get, as a gift, but I wouldn’t in good conscience say — as it is now — it’s worth the price tag.


Color your own Red Wedding – Game of Thrones coloring book out this October

khal_drogo

Khal Drogo, From the online Game of Thrones coloring book.

Given my recent return to coloring, this caught my interest — coming October 2015, a “Game of Thones” coloring book. From Daily Dot:

Forget the Red Wedding and the Purple Wedding. Thanks to the newly announced Game of Thrones coloring book, you can make sure all of your infamous nuptials are hued in Jazzberry Jam, Purple Pizzazz, or Razzle Dazzle Rose.

The new coloring book for adults will feature 45 images based on characters and scenes from the series. Presumably, the activity will be a particularly vital form of therapy for stressed-out fans of the series. Now you can finally give Joffrey his royal due by coloring him a nice shade of Eggplant, or imbue all of the Three-Eyed Raven’s visions with a hue of Robin Egg Blue or Granny Smith Apple.

Until October rolls around, Westeros fans can play with this unsanctioned online coloring book instead.

Coloring books

catcolorHave you ever sat down to color with your son, daughter, nephew, niece, some other young person, and when they’ve wandered off ten minutes later, you’re so engrossed in your artistic creation you barely notice? An hour goes by and you’re still coloring away? It’s happened to me more times than I can count. Kids’ coloring books are a lot of fun, but now there are more challenging options for adults, too.

Coloring books for grown-ups are popping up on Amazon’s bestseller lists these days — some popular titles are Enchanted Forest and Secret Garden. These books and others like them feature complex, detail-heavy drawings that can take days to fill in, with endless opportunities for creative choices. I very much recommend Creative Cats — I happily spent days coloring in my first selection, proudly shown here. The paper quality is excellent and pages tear out for easy use.

I was kind of obsessed with my crayons, as a kid. I treated them more like toys than tools. I had a Crayola Caddy and would rearrange the various hues according to all kinds of complicated schemes. I was convinced they had personalities — gender, moods, backstories. Yellow Green and Green Yellow, that’s an obvious conflict right there. Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber were having a clandestine romance. And the primaries, simple Red, Blue Yellow, White, Black, these were the ruling classes of the caddy, settling inter-color disputes and passing down judgement on caddy proximity. My crayons re-enacted their own episodes of Game of Thrones on a daily basis, though with less bloodshed and much rarer beheadings. (There was a sharpener, though.)

crayonsSadly, the Crayola Caddy of the 80s is no longer made, but I recently received the Ultimate Crayon Collection as a birthday present, and the possibilities are endless once more.

If you haven’t colored in a long time, give it a try. It’s a great way to relax, to focus, to take your mind off anything but the fierce rivalry between Red Orange and Orange Red, and the fate of Crayola society as we know it.








Kindle version of Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” on sale today only

I love getting Kindle books at a steep discount — I keep a wish list of all the books I want (it’s a long list) and watch for sales — which I promise to always share here!

If you’re a fan of “Wicked” — the show or the book! — head on over to Amazon. The Kindle version of Gregory Maguire’s turn-the-whole-story-on-its-head book, Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, is on sale for just $1.99 today only.

 

Wolf Hall: book review

whallI’ve only watched one episode of Masterpiece’s “Wolf Hall” mini-series so far — I’m saving the rest for a binge-watch at the end. Damian Lewis is so perfect for King Henry I can’t believe I didn’t think of him before. Mark Rylance isn’t how I pictured Cromwell exactly, but he’s wonderful as well. It seems like a marvelous production. Despite that, though, it’ll never match the experience of reading Hilary Martel’s novel for me. Wolf Hall was one of the finest, most engrossing books I’ve ever read.

Reposting my earlier review here…

The hardest book review to write is one for a book you loved. It’s difficult not to gush, to come up with useful analysis, even look for weak areas, when all you want to do is ramble on and on about how exceptional it was. Talking about Wolf Hall is like that for me.

Mantel turns the character of Thomas Cromwell on his head, leading us away from all we’ve previously been told of him. Not a villain here at all, he is merely a man, and a fairly good one. He is an ambitious man who strives and reaches for more, but one who is compassionate, feeling, and deeply thoughtful. A commoner from the worst of beginnings, he manages to rise to high office on merit, and no small amount of intelligence, alone. He lives, he laughs and he mourns, and mostly he builds for the future. Reading every line, even when it is not Cromwell speaking, feels like you are reading his mind, hearing things as he would have, seeing as he would have seen, and feeling as he would have as well.

Wolf Hall takes place during the heady years when Henry VIII pursued Anne Boleyn, then split the church in order to take her as his wife. Throughout these pages, Anne is a palpable, throbbing presence, always felt if not all that often seen. (“She says yes, yes, yes, then she says no,” one man describes her aptly in her absence.) And Henry himself is captured so perfectly, as both prince and man —

“The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being: you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.” (p. 392)

But it is not only the famous Mantel brings to life, it’s also the lesser beings, the people of London, of York, of Whitehall and Putney, Calais and Essex. People of the court, people of the streets, people of the kitchens of the great halls of England. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, it all seems to be contained on these pages.

The details, the atmosphere, the craft in which words are spun and tales are told, all of this combines to make Wolf Hall a work of literary art. I devoured every word and longed for more, and cannot recommend it enough.


That Jesus knew where his towel was.

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, the Earth was unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, and so the idea was lost, seemingly for ever.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I was raised Catholic. I sporadically attended Catholic school, and I made my confirmation a little late, but I got there in the end. I don’t practice anymore, but I know that in the eyes of the Church, that doesn’t make me any less of a Catholic now. I won’t quibble the distinction, but I will say it’s a one-sided relationship these days. I’m not an atheist (though it would be fine if I was). I don’t know what I believe exactly (and that’s okay too). There’s a really cool frood sitting in the Vatican right now, but in my opinion, at least, there’s still a long way to go to get back to the guy who told us to just love one another.

jesus

For the record: I’m not debating whether or not Jesus existed in this post, and if he did, if the real man bore much resemblance to this guy. That’s a whole different conversation. This is the J.C. I learned about as a kid, so that’s who I’m talking about here.

When I was a little church-going girl, it was the 70s. My church had folk masses every week, and everyone’s hair was a little long. That’s where and when I learned about Jesus. Jesus, as I was taught, was a really nice guy. I mean, super nice. He was always friendly and considerate, and he never gossiped or had a bad word about anyone. He loved his parents. He was a carpenter like his dad (okay, stepdad). The first time he performed a miracle, it was to help his mom — come on, how sweet was that? He had long flowy robes and pretty eyes. He multiplied loaves and fishes so no one went hungry (too bad you can’t get restaurants to do that with a fish fry during Lent). He rode a donkey. He didn’t give into peer pressure. He was nice to sick people and poor people and lepers, instead of being mean to them like everyone else was. He held a nice dinner party for all his friends. What’s not to like? We’d go to church and sing nice songs about how awesome Jesus was, accompanied by a strummy guitar and maybe a tambourine. It was all uber-pleasant, and more than a little groovy.

When I got older, though, church stopped being so sunshine-y. Religious instruction became more and more about what we weren’t supposed to do, about what was sinful, what was wrong, what would send us to hell. As an adult, it’s only gotten worse. Everywhere I turn I see people who calls themselves Christians preaching hate and talking about sin with a fervor that surely, you would think, could be put to better, more productive use. They focus on judging others around them, ignoring what John said about casting the first stone, and they’re so angry. So scornful. So miserable and not at all cool.

I don’t understand it. Jesus spent his whole life being kind. He wasn’t negative. That doesn’t mean he agreed with everyone around him, or didn’t know that there were evil people, or sinners, in the world. He spoke out against cruelty and prejudice and larceny and greed. But whatever he considered sins, he didn’t spend his precious time on that. He focused on being nice instead. Considerate. (And by sometimes hiding behind the couch — whenever anyone asks me if I’ve “found Jesus” it’s the first place I look, and he’s ALWAYS there. He’s such a bad hider.) Accepting. Friendly. So would it be so hard to give what he did a try, instead of focusing on hate?

I’m not going to change how anyone else thinks, and I’m not really trying to. But every year on this day, I think, “Good Friday? Well, not for one guy, it wasn’t.” Jesus was a nice guy, and he went through a lot of crap. Personally, I don’t think spewing hate is a good way to say thank you, should one be so inclined to do so. Instead, you might want to try being a little more hoopy, a lot less judgy, and a little nicer, on the whole. Really, that’s pretty good advice for us all.