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.


glee finale

Glee_logo-1-Tonight is the finale of “Glee” and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m going to be sad to see it end. Well, maybe a little embarrassed. But not slushie-to-the-face humiliated or anything.

Anything you could say to criticize “Glee” would be completely accurate. Yes, it’s WAY cheesy. Yes, it’s basically an hour-long musical every week, which poses the same problem all musicals do (who just breaks out in song like that, really?). Yes, there are plot holes the size of a dinosaur-wiping-out craters, really basic stuff like “how does a high school manage professional-quality productions, complete with stage lighting, costumes and sets at the drop of a hat?” And “are the state requirements to become a teacher somehow not in effect in Lima, Ohio?” and “why did New York City look so much like LA?” “Glee” is guilty of all that and much more, such as questionable guest stars, repeated plot devices and no real concern for the boundaries of space, time and the actual taking of high school classes.

Pilot_GleeBut the “Glee” pilot remains one of the best first episodes of a show I’ve ever seen, hands down. And that’s saying something. I downloaded it from iTunes and brought it with me on my new iPad when I’d been called for jury duty; sitting in that bullpen all day, waiting to be picked or sent home, I put on some headphones and started watching, and couldn’t stop. It was like nothing else on TV at the time in its sheer, unadulterated, so-cheesy-I-can’t-watch-without-crackers, well, glee. I went to a performing arts high school and even we didn’t have a show choir — I was jealous. I wanted in, slushies and all. I loved a lot of the songs they covered, and I found a lot of new artists to listen to, by following the “Glee” versions (handily released on iTunes, of course) to their originals. “Glee” is where I first heard Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Adele.

rachelfinnConfession, though: my enthusiasm waned, after awhile. Somewhere in Season 3 I got bored. I didn’t like the music, the plots seemed more ridiculous than usual. I stopped watching. Stopped, completely. And came back a couple seasons later — something I’ve never done with a show. When Corey Montieth died, I couldn’t help but wonder how “Glee” was going to adapt. As any Gleek can tell you, the Rachel/Finn pairing was supposed to be endgame, in fact, the very focus of the show. Creator Ryan Murphy even had the final scene written, one that would reunite Broadway star Rachel and new glee coach Finn for their happily ever after. Tragically, then, Murphy really was going to have to find a way for the show to go on without its male lead, and without a roadmap to the finish. I couldn’t resist seeing how they were going to pull it off.

NewbiesIt’s been interesting, you can’t deny that. I mean, sure, there was an entire new glee club that got pretty much thrown under the bus for being uninteresting, and the New York City plotline bounced around from one crazy week to another. (Rachel’s boyfriend is a male escort! Santana’s on Broadway! Rachel’s bored of being the lead in “Funny Girl” after a few dozen performances, despite this being her life’s ambition! And wait, we’re all back in Lima, for some very flimsy reasons!) It was downright silly, but it was fun. One of the best things about “Glee”, after all, is that it knows how to laugh at itself, with self-mocking asides and self-referential nods to the absurdity of it all.

But “Glee” was also more than itself, in some very important ways. This show unflinchingly addressed the problems and pressures that young gay men and women face, including bullying, peer pressure and the threat of physical violence. Later seasons addressed transgender rights, as well as domestic violence and hate crimes. The not-such-a-surprise double wedding of Brittany & Santana and Kurt & Blaine was really a celebration of everything “Glee” had done before to give a voice to those who are too often silenced by hate.

640_glee_finale_group_shotSo, this season I’ve watched as the remaining episodes have dwindled down to just this one, and I’ve already been misty-eyed more than once. “Glee”, flaws and all, tugs at my heart a little. It’s heavily laced with nostalgia and it delivers a whopping overdose of schmaltz, and I’ll be watching tonight with a box of tissues ready.

 




three little birds

Until the age of 32, I wasn’t an anxious person at all. I didn’t worry about anything other than the things anyone worries about — will I fall in love, will I be able to pay my credit card bill, will work suck tomorrow. Normal every day things. Then my mother died suddenly, and I was left with a legacy of anxiety — will something happen to me, too, something I don’t see coming. It’s turned me into a minor hypochondriac, unfortunately. I’m always worried. I’m frequently scared. Sometimes — a lot of the time — over nothing. Unfortunately, not always. Once my gall bladder nearly burst. They fixed that. And then my back pretty much broke. They sort of fixed that.

I had a spinal fusion of the L4-L5 vertebrae in the fall of 2012, after injuring my back in October 2011. In that preceding year I’d tried everything — PT, drugs, a chiropractor, cortisone — and none of it did any good. An MRI showed plain as day that surgery was the only other option. The day the neurosurgeon told me about the surgery, describing the hardware they’d install in my spine, I went out in the car and cried, totally terrified. But we went ahead, and a few months and some insurance hassles later, it was time.

The morning of my surgery, I was terrified. No one likes general anesthesia but each time I’ve had it I’m convinced I won’t wake up again. This time, I tried hard to stay calm that morning, even as I feared the worst. And as we got ready to go to the hospital, I thought of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. The song ran through my head on the ride there, and as I was admitted and waited to be taken in. Over and over I heard it, and it must have helped because when they took my blood pressure it was surprisingly normal, given my agitated state, and I stayed calm through it all. As they wheeled me to pre-op, and as they put me on the table, I heard those lines —

Rise up this morning
Smile with the rising sun
Three little birds
Each by my doorstep
Singing sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying, “This is my message to you”
Singing “Don’t worry ’bout a thing
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Singing “Don’t worry ’bout a thing
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”

A few hours later I woke up and it was over.  The surgery was harder than I’d imagined it would be, and, in the long run, while not quite as entirely successful as I wanted it to be, enough so that I got my life back. My surgeon’s nurse, a kind and tireless person who never turned my calls away no matter how often I asked her the same questions over and over, told me once, “The goal of this surgery is not to fix your back. Nothing can fix it. The goal is to make it better, and to make you feel better.” And it did, and I do. I just don’t feel *completely* better, and that’s just the way it has to be. Sometimes I’m angry about that.

But that’s not what this post is about.

Since the day Dave asked me to marry him, and before, even, he’s always been there for me, taking care of me, and telling me not to worry. When he does that, I don’t stop worrying, of course — it’s not that simple — but he says it all the same, and each time something new scares me or makes me anxious, hearing him tell me it’s going to be okay helps a little bit more.

so, today I got this:

20140620-165724-61044127.jpg

on my shoulder, to always have that reminder with me, to remember the times Dave’s told me it’ll be okay and that it always is. Whatever happens, he says, we’ll work it out, and we always do. Maybe a time will come that I’ll remember that right away before the worry starts. But until then, and even after then, this will always be with me

this isn’t our song

Dave and I have a song, a song I love, and one we’ll be dancing to at the wedding this weekend. This isn’t that song. 🙂 But it’s a very nice one. And I think we’re going to have lots of songs over the years — songs for singing along to in the car, songs for dancing, songs that make us laugh. I have a feeling this song is always going to remind me of the year we got married, and all the happiness I know is going to come. It also makes me think of all the wonderful couples I know, the ones whose happiness makes me smile, and how very much I wish them the best. And if this all seems a little sappy, well, I’m three days out, here. 🙂 You should kind of expect it.

Love in the stacks

One of my favorite Friends episodes is the one where Ross discovers that the aisle where his dissertation is shelved, in the university library, is where everyone goes to have sex — presumably because it’s generally deserted. This list from Flavorwire seems like a tailor-made accompaniment: 10 Best Songs About Libraries and Librarians. My favorite quote is from “Swinging London” by The Magnetic Fields: “I read your manifestos and your strange religious tracts/You took me to your library and kissed me in the stacks.”

Here’s the rundown, but click through to the article above for details & song samples.

1. “At the Library” by Green Day
2. “In the Army Kid” by Of Montreal
3. “Swinging London” by The Magnetic Fields
4. “Young Adult Friction” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
5. “Lost in the Library” – Saint Etienne
6. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
7. “Library Card” by Frank Zappa
8. “Fun Fun Fun” by The Beach Boys
9. “Librarian” by My Morning Jacket
10. “Library Rap” by MC Poindexter & The Study Crew

Cataloging at home, for fun

A lot of librarians hate cataloging. I love it. That’s why I’m such a nerd, I’ve even cataloged my entire personal book collection over at LibraryThing. It’s a terrific site, btw, even if you’re not up to such bibliographic devotion. You can find excellent reviews, take part in discussions, find recommendations. And why not catalog your books? Once you do, you can really look at them in an in-depth way. Cataloging is about access. The more you arrange and describe something, or a collection of somethings, the more access you have to it. The more use you can get out of it. And, as an added bonus on LibraryThing, it makes finding other bibliophiles of like minds easy.

But you can “catalog” a lot more than just your books. I like having everything labeled and set up just so. My computer files and folders are very structured. I’ve been using delicious.com for years, and my obsession with defining my tagging system there was epic. (Don’t ask me about Flickr, I beg you — do you want to see a grown woman cry? I’ve got thousands of photos on there and the fact that I haven’t found the time to tag them the way they should be eats at me.)

The reason I fell in love with iTunes from day one is that it’s terrific for organizing your music files. For every file I import, I can make sure it’s got all the right metadata, I can add lyrics and missing details, I can get the right artwork. And when it’s all done, I can find anything in my collection. I can rearrange it and look at it and access it however I want. It’s enough to make my little geeky classification-nutty heart pound. iTunes will import album artwork for you, so that’s easy enough. I use a little shareware program called iArt to hunt down lyrics; it doesn’t always work as well as I wish it would but it was good for getting the bulk of them at the get-go. Beware of lyrics sites, by the way, the ones you find if you just type in “don’t stop believin lyrics” into Google. A lot of those sites have adware and crap that can latch onto your computer. I usually rely on songmeanings.net instead. And lately, I’ve been importing video into iTunes more — there are usually a few free episodes offered every month, and I’ve bought some on Amazon, and so on. So I’m putting those in my iTunes library as well. Usually I’ve got the artwork for those, but if not, Get Video Artwork is a great site (with a boring, if descriptive name) for that.

It’s nerdy in a lot of ways to be this obsessed with organization and cataloging, but otoh, as more and more of our music and movies and books are now digital, I suspect finding ways to organize and access these materials is going to become increasingly important to everyone — not just us geeks.