Do you hear an Echo?

No, that isn’t some snarky comment about how little I’ve been posting around here: I’m talking about the Amazon Echo.

Echo Dot 3rd Generation

In case you aren’t aware, there has been a bit of a technology war going on, with Amazon, Apple and Google all vying for the lead in the “smart speaker” market. Each has a voice assistant (Alexa, Siri and “Google Assistant”, respectively) and each company sells products that you put around your house. They can answer questions, play music, radio and podcasts, interact with smart home systems, play games, act as an intercom, and a lot of other things. I have been very interested in these, but hadn’t tried them until this year. The cheapest one is the Echo Dot, which normally costs $70 Canadian, and prices climb from there. I was leaning towards the Apple HomePod for a long time as it was reviewed as having the best sound quality, but it also costs $449. I was never interested in the Google Home just due to my general disinterest in Google products. I am a regular customer of both Apple and Amazon. Amazon’s strategy is to price these low, and get them in as many rooms as possible. Apple fought this trend for a while, thinking that people always had their phones with them anyways.

The way these things work is that they are listening for a “wake word”. For the Apple HomePod, it’s “Hey, Siri”, and for the Echo it can be set to: “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Amazon” or “Computer”. Once you’ve got the speaker’s attention, you can speak to it. What they understand is somewhat different across vendors. If you’ve used “Hey, Siri” on your iPhone, you know what voice activated computing is like. Generally speaking: Alexa is simplest but once you know how to ask for something it is very predictable. Siri understands the most complex language interactions but is somewhat erratic. There just is something weird and magical about being able to stop and just speak aloud and having your house understand you. It’s very reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the summer, Amazon has a sale called Amazon Prime Day, and when that came around this past summer, the 2nd generation Echo Dot went on sale for $35. I figured for that little amount, we could try it out. It arrived, and I set it up in our living room, which is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room. You could talk to the Echo from most places on the main floor, but not from upstairs or downstairs. Interest was there at first, but Tammy and the kids almost stopped using it entirely within a week or so. Tammy claims she just never thought of it (especially once I moved it to the piano: out of sight, out of mind) and for some reason the kids just didn’t care. I was the biggest user, but even so it was very limited.

As a person who has worked professionally with computer users and understanding what they want and need, I was very interested in why there was little or no uptake. My suspicions focused on two areas specifically:

  • Since the Echo was only in one location, it was not available in most of the house, including the major traffic areas of bedrooms and bonus room. Nobody built any habits around asking for information or getting Alexa to do something.
  • The 2nd generation Echo Dot has sound quality about equal to a cheap clock radio. You can ask it to play music, but it’s not a great experience. It’s good for voice interactions and that’s it.

The first point is solvable with more devices, and the second pointed towards higher-end devices that cost significantly more. I was wondering if there was a next step in this experiment. I didn’t want to spend a lot to prove my point. Then three things happened:

  1. Tammy started discussing our home security with me. It has been good for five years, but it’s not cutting-edge and needs updating. There are a lot of DIY solutions like Ring Alarm now, and that got me researching home automation and security stuff.
  2. Apple announced that Apple Music will be available on Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo. That immediately changed my thoughts on music and the Echo, because Amazon Music is pretty weak by comparison.
  3. The 3rd generation Echo Dot was released for the same price as the old one. It had significantly improved sound quality and volume.

Black Friday came along, and the Echos were on sale again. With credit card points, I ordered two more Dots (3rd generation) and an Echo Plus for future home automation control (more on that sometime later). And then when Tammy was shopping at Superstore, she spent over $250 and the free reward was… an Echo Dot.

I set the new “Superstore” Dot up and the difference was incredible. The sound quality made music listening pleasant. I moved the 2nd generation Dot upstairs and having a smart speaker in two locations changed the game. Everyone started using them more. So much so that despite my best intentions to make the other Echos I’d ordered something to put under the Christmas tree, I unboxed one of the Dots and set it up in the bedroom. When Christmas comes, we will have five smart speakers all around the house. You will be able to activate it wherever you are. All for practically no cost: $35 and some credit card points.

The experiment continues…

Creating Christmas

Been battling various colds through the entire family and bad weather but finally we have a weekend where the stars aligned and we were able to put up some cheer! Zach was a big help this year being up on the ladder.

This year we have an imp of a cat that I was seriously questioning how to protect the tree…

So we anchored it to the ceiling and did soft ornaments this year, aka teddy bear tree! Turned out pretty good actually 🙂

I got the kids Lego advent calendars this year. Let the building begin!

Christmas Party 2018

Last night was the Esri Christmas party here in Calgary. I was lucky to be back from Regina the night before, but it did make for a hectic Friday, trying to get everything done before it was time for Tammy and I to head out.

This year’s party was a Beary Merry Christmas at the Calgary Zoo, where there are a number of venues that host events. Ours was at the Safari Lodge, along with a lot of other tables of other organizations having their own parties. We got to wander and see the Zoo Lights on the way in, and afterwards.

Tammy and one of the row of dolphins

Looking across the bridge at the lights and Calgary

There was a good turnout for the party, and we got to see Sepideh, Steven and Krisztina.

Selfie time!

It was a good time, with good food. There was a duo playing music for some of the evening, and some canned music in between their sets. Later in the evening, Krisztina, Tammy, Hannah and Usama’s date (I didn’t catch her name) were up and having a good time rocking out on the dance floor. The food was good, with both turkey and beef on offer. No stuffing, though!

There was a photo booth, where we could have our photo taken, first nicely and then we had about three seconds to put on some silly props.

The stormtrooper attacks turkey-hat man!

I got a picture of myself with Brian, who is retiring. I’ve worked for him for 10 years and they’ve been a very good ten years.

Brian and I

We took the train there and back: the Zoo entrance is actually the same building as one of the C-Train stations. With the exception of having to change trains from the Red line to the Blue line downtown, it couldn’t have been easier. Miranda looked after Ian and the house was not burned down.

For the record, since moving to Calgary:

 

NaNoWriMo 2018 Ends

It’s been a struggle for the last week, making my word count while I was in Regina, but Tammy, Miranda, Ian and I have made it to the end of November.

I got a little over 61,000 words closer to finishing my novel, Tammy managed to make 50,000, and Miranda has written almost 15,000 words of a mix of poetry and fiction. Ian made his goal of 4,500 words and then some. He ran out of steam about mid-month but I am tremendously proud of him for doing as much as he did. Yes, choosing a particular month to write like crazy is a silly thing, but written words can be beautiful, powerful things. There are stories inside of everybody.

I want to outline the rest of my novel tomorrow, and I guess I have a date with Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2019. In the meantime, I’m thinking about contributing to a writing anthology: Cold Hard Type. Not quite sure yet, but it might be fun to do over the winter months before starting the editing process.

Now, off to the Esri Canada Christmas party!

🎄

Hello From Regina

It’s been over a month, but I’m back on the road again. This time, I am spending three days with the fine folks at SaskEnergy in Regina. This is the third time I have worked with them and my colleague, Claire, has worked with them before, too. So I guess for the night before a workshop, last night was pretty calm. Three days is a lot of time, so we won’t have to rush as much as usual.

I flew in at 6:30. It’s minus seven this morning and there’s a chance of snow. It’s wintry here without being frigid. According to the cabbie, last week it was -25. That’s lucky we’re here this week instead!

Not much else to report as yet. The kids FaceTimed me last night which was awesome. It’s the last few days of NaNoWriMo and Tammy was only starting her writing when I spoke to her when she got home from work. I passed the 50,000 mark on Sunday, but The End is still in the medium distance. I will write some each night until I get home. Then I might spend the last night of November outlining the end of the novel so that when I pick it up again, I will remember how it’s supposed to end.

Off to get breakfast.

Updated Thursday Evening at 4:48 Central

I’m in the airport sitting across from Claire. She’s flying home to Edmonton at 6:00 and my flight isn’t until 7:25. It’s been a very busy and long set of days here, but good. Last night, we walked out to supper at Victoria’s Tavern. The dinner was good, and downtown Regina looked good with lights in the cold.

McCallum Hill Centre

Today has been very low cloud. Not fog: but it might as well have been. We’re at the airport now, but there’s a decent chance one or both of our flights will be cancelled. While we were sitting here, an Air Canada flight tried to land and was unable to, so it was diverted to Calgary. They might be back later, but not until about 8:30 if the weather improves. There’s no guarantee that either of our flights will be able to land, either.

Updated 5:07

My flight is now delayed 10 minutes. No big deal, right? But that can’t be the start of a positive trend.

Updated 5:47

My flight has not been delayed further. Claire’s plane landed, which is an excellent sign for her. Also promising for me.

Updated 6:21

Claire’s flight has left. That’s the good news. The bad news is that my delay just jumped up. My original flight time was 7:25, and is now 7:50. Don’t know why, but it probably has to do with the inbound flight being delayed to arriving at 7:15. Given that the flight is about an hour from Calgary to Regina, that probably means that the inbound flight is in the air. Hopefully the inbound flight can land, eh?

Updated 6:49

There is a different flight to Calgary: an Air Canada flight leaving at 7:05. It landed successfully and I just heard last call for boarding, so it will be leaving soon. Perhaps there is a good chance that I will depart successfully.

Updated 8:02

I am on the plane and ready to take off. Yay!

Happy 20th Birthday Squeak!

You made it to 20 years old. Yay! Such a moofins you are. It’s hard to believe that many years have gone by since I heard you crying late at night at our apartment door on 15th Avenue in Prince George. From then you’ve had such a happy, comfortable life with people who love you. Happy Birthday Squeak! ❤️ Here’s to more happy days to come.

 

Casper Mattress

Yes, I bought a mattress from the Internet: Casper Mattress.

We’d been talking about replacing our futon mattress for a while. We both really like the fact that with a futon, when the other person rolls over, it doesn’t shake you awake. I had been aware of Casper mattresses for years, because they sponsor ads on some of the podcasts I listen to. I’d told Tammy about them, and they come with a 100-day money back guarantee, so there’s not a lot of risk, and they are really well reviewed.

With her back troubles in the last few days, it seemed like the right time.

What? She didn’t post anything about the fact that she was in the hospital Sunday night? How inconsiderate! Yes, she had seizing muscles in her lower back that are getting better with painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories.

The mattress arrived today (Wednesday) after ordering in on Saturday.

It doesn’t look like a mattress

Rolled up and vacuum packed

Spread out and ready to unseal

Ahhhh

First sleep on it will be tonight. We’ll see if it is worth the money.

New Wash-N-Go Miranda

Yes, folks, it’s the latest in Miranda’s constant quest for a hairstyle she’s happy with. This time, she roped me in as an accomplice.

Miranda with Super Short Hair

Tammy and I have different reactions to it. I think it looks good on her, while Tammy is not so enthusiastic. 😁

The discussion about this had been going on for a few days. Tammy acquiesced and so I got a text yesterday (Friday) afternoon from Miranda asking if I would cut her hair that evening. After dinner when the dishes were washed up I set Miranda up where I usually cut Ian’s hair and started to do the work. I took my time, going bit by bit, trying different looks along the way. I started with shaving up under the back and sides, then slowly shortened the top and shaved the sides up further. I think that some of the intermediate cuts actually were pretty good, but Miranda was adamant that she wanted to have a buzz cut.

First step. You can’t even see the razoring

What is underneath

Shortened right up

Looking pretty good

For my reference in the future, we ended up with:

  • 5 on top
  • 2 around the sides and back
  • 3 transitioning between them

💇🏻‍♀️

Finger in the Dyke

This morning, we finally fixed the humidifier on our furnace. It had been inoperative for the better part of a year since I broke it.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and on that day long ago, I was intending to remove the tray in the humidifier in order to clean it. It had a substantial amount of hard water buildup in it. Unfortunately, when I was putting it back together, I overtightened the float valve and cracked it. I tried for days to come up with a solution that would fix it, but was unsuccessful. I could not figure out if I could buy a replacement part, and the entire humidifier unit cost over $100. So I did what any self-respecting homeowner would do: I turned off the water valve and left it alone.

That is, until I was in there the other morning. I went down to get a loaf of bread from the freezer, and of course, the humidifier was there, mocking me. I popped it open, noted that it was bone dry, and for giggles turned on the valve. A little bit of water flowed into the tray, but then I turned the valve back off.

Then I went down to the freezer again the next day and found water all over the floor. I guess I hadn’t closed the valve tightly enough. I did a better job on closing the valve, and resolved to fix the humidifier this weekend.

I went to Home Depot and forked out the money for the whole replacement, but intended to only replace the floater valve. I managed to do that pretty quickly. I was careful not to over tighten it this time, and I turned the water back on. We also replaced the drum and sponge inside while we were waiting and checking that the repair was good.

Then Tammy noticed water coming down the furnace duct from behind the humidifier. I wrote it off as a splash of water out the back when I replaced the drum, but Tammy insisted that it was coming from where the water line was tucked through the aluminum of the duct. When I looked a bit closer and tried to shift the line to look for cracks, it broke.

So, the replacement unit had a replacement hose and all the fittings, which was good. I removed the brass nut at the end where the hose connects to the water line, and then when I tried to pull the hose out of the valve, it broke there, too! I think this hose was past its best-by date. I would not be surprised to know it was originally installed when the house was built, and that was 21 years ago. That then led to removing the valve from the water line. Which resulted in a stream of water from the hole in the water line. Thus leading to Tammy having her finger on the hole like the little Dutch boy for the next ten minutes or more as I prepared to replace that valve as well.

Eventually, the valve was replace (no leaks). Then I fitted the hose and attached it properly to the valve (no leaks). Then I fitted the other end of the hose to the floater valve, after running the line without any pinches or kinks. Then we turned the water back on, and all seems to be fine without any leaks anywhere.

Tammy with our refitted humidifier

The one thing that has me scratching my head, though, is when we were done, I noticed some schmutz on the corner of my Apple Watch screen. I wiped it with a finger, then used a cloth, and then realized it wasn’t coming off.

Cosmetic damage

I have no idea what I did. It’s not cracked, and I don’t recall this rubbing or anything. Considering what this watch and its predecessor had been through, I can’t imagine what I did. As someone who takes care of his toys, I am pretty bummed right now.