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…

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.

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.

Exercising My Inner Geek

I have been hosting this website for a long time on a series of computers. There has been a succession of computers in the 16 years: my old PowerMac 7600, my Titanium PowerBook, a Grape iMac, a blue and white G3, a Windows computer bought from Esri, the 2009 Mac Mini, and most lately the 2013 Mac Mini. I upgraded the hard drive in the 2009 Mini back in 2014, but it’s been doing a light load of odd jobs.

I have been using MacOS Server for the web server stack for years now, but I found out lately that the new version of Server that is compatible with the newest version of MacOS (Mojave) removes a lot of functionality, including the web server. I was content to worry about this someday, but now that Mojave is out, I needed to figure this out. I toyed with some different options, but this weekend I thought I would try setting up the old Mini (Tiny).

It took most of the weekend, but in the end, I was successful. What I did:

  • Installed the latest version of macports.
  • Used macports to install apache, MySQL, PHP, BIND, phpMyAdmin and a bunch of other packages.
  • Then I got to work configuring everything, and transferring database info and other content to Tiny.
  • As the pièce de resistance: I set up a proper CA-signed TLS certificate for biickert.ca via LetsEncrypt. The whole site is now HTTPS.

It took a long time, especially setting up HTTPS, but it’s all done. In some ways, it’s a downgrade, going to the old computer. But in other ways it’s an upgrade:

  • The latest versions of the software,
  • HTTPS,
  • Everything automatically restarts when the computer does,
  • It leaves the “main” computer with fewer jobs (iTunes, Plex, UniFi).

And now we can install the OS update at will.

Painted The Kitchen Wall

Sometimes things have been in the job jar so long, the paper has turned to dust.

When we painted the living room, I painted a little swatch of colour on the kitchen wall under the phone. The idea was to choose a colour to paint the kitchen, covering the grey. Well, that was over two years ago. Neither Tammy nor I could make a decision on a colour, and that led to just leaving it.

Today, I was going to do some touch-up painting in the bonus room, and I was faced with a dilemma: should I

  • Take the can of grey paint and cover over the sample patch and touch up the most egregious examples of horrible paint in the kitchen or
  • Finally choose a colour for the kitchen and schedule painting for next weekend?

I chose touching up, but then when I popped open the can, the paint inside it had separated so badly that there was an immovable lump in the bottom of the can and an inch of oily liquid on top. 😖 So I had to go to the hardware store to get paint either way.

I elected to try to colour match the grey and touch up the paint. But as it dried, it was obvious that the colour match was only so-so. So we painted the entire wall. Miranda was using a small brush to do the fine edge bits (covering the beige left behind by the previous owners, and the teal/primer flashes showing between the living room and the kitchen from me). Tammy tore the computer desk apart, and I did the rest. It didn’t take too long, but the difference was such a relief.

The grey arch wall with fresh paint

I even did the horrible bits above the refrigerator. Seriously, how can you miss areas the size of a tennis ball?

That should clear the way for giving the kids’ bathroom a makeover. It’s been waiting behind this in the job jar for years now.

At Least It Was A Productive IT Weekend

Every once in a while, it information technology at our house takes a leap forward. Sometimes, it’s forced, like when the hard drive in our old Mac Mini started to pack it in, threatening to take our photo collection with it, or it’s just overdue, like the upgrade of our WiFi this past winter.

I’d like to think that this time, I was proactive. I identified that while our external media drive wasn’t full or showing age, it was getting older. At the same time, my backup drive at work was full and was six and a half years old. So I ordered a new Western Digital MyBook 6TB drive and replaced the one at home, and I have taken the old one from home (WD 3TB) and brought it to work to replace the old drive here. I toyed with the idea of setting up a RAID array or getting a NAS (network attached storage), but those options were more expensive for incremental returns.

I also have unified my network cabinet with the addition of a 8-port gigabit switch, taking the load off of the Shaw Hitron cable modem and the cheap 5-port switch I had in there previously.

Mean time between failure (MTBF): over 1.2 million hours… starting now

The Internet seems to be more stable, but I fully expect to see Shaw back. Collin (senior technician) came over Monday at 10 and was at our house for an hour and a half. When he left (having set up a replacement cable modem) all was fine. But then someone on the back end at Shaw made one more change… They were supposed to disable the WiFi on my modem (bridged mode), but I think they ended up disabling my ethernet ports instead. Another four hours of texting with Collin later, the Internet is back up. So that killed holiday Monday.

But on the bright side (very, very bright side), when hanging around with Ian in the basement, he sat down at the drums and I showed him how to play a standard “four on the floor beat”. It took a bit to coordinate his hands and feet, but in short order he had it. I let him play against “Night Prowler” by AC/DC, and then I played a 12-bar blues riff with him, and then we played “Summer of ’69 together, with him drumming and me playing my Strat and singing. It was awesome.

Ian’s Birthday Party and Internet Woes

I am posting this on Monday, the day after Ian’s birthday party at Southland Leisure Centre, because last night we effectively had no proper Internet connection. It’s now working and the Shaw guy is coming this afternoon, but more on that later.

Originally, we were going to have Ian’s birthday party on Saturday, but we hesitated and the booking slot was lost. So we had Ian’s birthday party with his friends on Sunday. He invited his friends Ben (with whom he had a sleepover Friday), Ashton, and Tyler, and we also invited Ilia (with whom we went hiking the day before) and Miranda invited her friend Sierra. We had drinks and Doritos and watermelon, as well as a chocolate sour cream cake with chocolate frosting and sour gummy candies on top.

Ian about to blow out the candles (L-R: Ashton, Ian, Tyler, Ben)

The gummy sours were the biggest hit… note to self: more gummies next time.

Yum, cake!

Swimming was from 1 to 3, and the cake and stuff from 3 to 4. It worked out really well, with two exceptions:

  1. Ilia was late and only got about a half-hour of swimming and
  2. Tyler might never have been in a swimming pool before. We really had to supervise him to ensure the number of kids picked up by parents equalled the number dropped off.

Tammy was really happy with the results. The party “room” (really, just an area with movable dividers) was out of the way, and we weren’t rushed or anything. The kids had a good time.

Anyway… on to the network issues.

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Gardening

It’s not much, but it’s a step towards respectability. The front garden has been a semi-neglected thing since we moved in. The shrubs have slowly died off one by one. It was time to do some renovation.

It’s a start. A couple of juniper bushes. Soon there will be more.

Updated May 21

We’ve done some more work on the garden now. Still a couple more shrubs to plant, but the basic idea is in place now.

From the front

From the porch. Grass seed planted around the stepping stones.

C’mon Sun☀️, Melt That Snow!

It seems I brought the warmth back with me from Palm Springs. It’s gotten up to about 7 or 8 degrees yesterday and today, and the snow and ice is retreating. Yesterday, it was warm enough that it melted all the snow from my roof. That let me take down my Christmas lights (finally). Today, I took a look at that ice buildup on the downspout that Tammy posted about, and removed almost all of it. It has almost completely melted when we spread the chunks on the walkway.

Help me, I’m Melting…

Ian and I shovelled the driveway… in reverse. We were spreading snow back onto the driveway and letting it melt. We managed to do quite a bit.

Using solar energy

It felt good to be out. As you can see, it was warm enough to be in T-shirts when we were working. The forecast calls for more snow later in the week, but this will help get the front lawn uncovered faster.

The Day the Furnace Went Out

Dun dun dun! 🎵

I always feared that it would be during a cold snap that our furnace would stop working. And today, at -19, it did. However, we were home at the time, figured it out pretty quickly, and got a guy to come take a look at it within hours, so all’s well. In fact, we even got away with a relatively minor expense: $301.

It started with me working from home. Tammy was off, and I had a chiropractor appointment at 11:45. Both of us had complained to each other in the morning that it felt chilly, but I knew that the thermostat was at 21 degrees, so I thought it was either mental or insufficient air circulation. I went to the chiropractor, and when I came back I found Tammy fiddling with the thermostat.

“The reason we thought it was chilly in here is because it’s only 17 degrees.”

I know nothing about fixing furnaces, so other than checking the pilot light, replacing the filter (dirty) and turning the furnace off for a bit and then on again, there was nothing to do. Tammy called the place whose sticker was on the furnace, and they suggested the things we’d already done. So I headed off for a meeting downtown, while Tammy waited for Rico the furnace guy to arrive.

I got a stream of texts from her in the afternoon.

The furnace seems fine now and the house is toasty. Rico indicated that the furnace we have is a good one that will essentially last forever with maintenance and periodic replacement of worn parts. That’s good news.

It could have been so much worse, like when we were away in Edmonton. 🙀