Tag Archives: star trek

The Sweet Sound of My Echo

This is going to be a quickie. I’ve got some more in-depth articles planned for the near future (such as my first few weeks with Apple CarPlay, among other things), but  I wanted to share a simple pleasure I recently discovered.

I’ve been studying for recertification, and music helps my mind focus. But if it has lyrics or too intense a tempo, I can get distracted. The best fit for me, personally, is classical music. Knowing that Amazon has a pretty good selection, I figured I’d put my still-pretty-new Echo to the test, and I asked her, “Play me some Classical Music.” And boy, did she.

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Amazon Prime Music. Click the image to visit their page.

As I type this, I’m listening to the “Classical Focus” station on Amazon Prime Music. The link may only work if you’re a Prime member, so here’s a link for a free Prime trial:

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

Two things struck me, listening to this sweet, lilting music (sorry, classical fans: no crashing cymbals or blasting trumpets on this station): the built-in speaker of my Echo Dot sounds great; and Amazon Music doesn’t have commercials.

Connect the Dot

As you may recall, I had originally intended to connect my Amazon Echo Dot to my more robust home theater sound system, via bluetooth. After all, the Dot comes equipped of notoriously the weakest built-in speaker of the Echo line. But as you may also recall, I ended up disconnecting Dot from my home theater when I upgraded to an A/V Receiver with built-in audio streaming from Pandora and Sirius XM. So I really only used the built-in speaker on my Dot for playing Jeopardy! J!6 Alexa. Music wasn’t part of my plan.

 

 

But when I decided to try out this Classical Focus station, I discovered how much clearer the tiny speaker was than any tabletop AM/FM radio. And by keeping the music coming out of a small speaker in the corner of my living room, I averted the audio overload I would have gotten listening to music on my surround-sound system. After all, I just wanted some light, unobtrusive background music. And that’s exactly what I got.

Less Talk, More– Well, Not “Rock”…

The other revelation was that the music never stopped for station identification, commercials, or even to pause between songs to let me know what I had been listening to. Because that’s what Shazam is for.

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I’ve grown accustomed to commercial interruptions, listening to the free versions of Spotify and Pandora. With my subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio, it’s true I don’t get “commercials” in the traditional sense. Instead, I hear ads for other XM stations, as well as commentary by their on-air talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a ploy to eventually unveil “XM Plus,” with nothing but music. It’s an aspect Amazon has perfected, that I wouldn’t mind seeing other services, well, Echo.

One last thing: when listening to Classical Focus on the Echo, whenever I have to pause playback, I can command Alexa with my voice. Since I’ve changed her wake word to “Computer,” it makes me feel just that much more like Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Hey, when the music moves you…

As I keep saying, “the future is now…” ■

How I Heard My Echo

As I write this week’s post, I’m listening to Pandora Radio via my new Amazon Echo Dot. It’s that rare modern gadget that has no video display (unless I bring up the Alexa app on my iPhone or iPad), so audio quality is made even that much more essential. It was with this in mind that I decided to hook my Echo Dot up to my powerful home theater sound system… and made more work for myself, in the process.

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Connect the Dot, la la la. (Source: Amazon.com, click the image to order.)

Unlike its big siblings the Echo and the Tap, the Dot doesn’t have a very powerful built-in speaker. When Alexa (the Amazon AI assistant in the Echo) speaks to me, I can hear her just fine; but when I want to listen to music, the overall effect is underwhelming. Luckily, the Dot supports bluetooth, so beaming the audio signal to a powerful speaker system is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, my older Sony receiver doesn’t have bluetooth built in, so I needed to pick up a device to add bluetooth to my sound system.

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The Sony STR-DG820. It’s a great receiver; it just doesn’t do bluetooth. (Source: Engadget.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

Logitech makes such a device, their compact Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It plugs into a wall outlet for power, and includes a cable to connect it either to a 3.5 millimeter stereo jack, or to red and white RCA stereo jacks. I ended up using a separate red/white stereo cable set (sold separately) to go from the Logitech adapter to my Sony receiver. Once I programmed my Logitech Harmony remote to switch on the receiver and change its input to the port with the bluetooth adapter, I was able to vocally command Alexa to do the same job without my having to pick up my remote control. She ably flipped on my Sony receiver and had it switch to the proper input, leaving everything else off. The bluetooth adapter was already on (there really isn’t an “on/off” switch on that device), so playback proceeded to stream through my speakers flawlessly.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It’s actually quite small, measuring only 0.88″ tall by 2.00″ wide by 2.25″ deep. (Source: Logitech.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

The problems only began when I turned my stereo off.

You see, when you tell Alexa to connect via bluetooth, she’s more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, asking her to switch away from bluetooth is a more challenging proposition. Since the Logitech box never turns off, it remains in a “ready to pair” mode even if a device like my Echo Dot leaves it. Alexa then sees there’s a bluetooth device out there looking to pair, and, helpful as always, she re-pairs with it. Except in this scenario, my receiver is now off, so I can’t hear Alexa through the external speakers; and since she’s using bluetooth, her internal speaker is off, too. This makes any further communication with her impossible until I turn the receiver back on. But sometimes I just want a weather forecast or a news brief, and stuff like that just doesn’t need to come out in high fidelity stereo!

The challenge I faced was how to turn the Logitech bluetooth box off so Alexa would revert to her internal speaker for non-musical conversation. Luckily, as with so many problems in my life, there was a solution, in the form of new technology. Enter TP-Link’s Smart Plug.

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TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. Make sure you have room for it on your power strip or wall outlet–it’s a space hog! (Source: TP-Link.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

If I couldn’t tell Alexa to turn off the Logitech bluetooth adapter directly, then I would have to have her cut the power to it, via TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. TP-Link advertises Alexa compatibility:

Amazon Echo Voice Control – Amazon Echo (sold separately) lets you control devices connected to the Smart Plugs just using your voice.

Indeed, once I had configured the Smart Plug to join my home network, I added the “Skill” (Echo’s answer to an app) for TP-Link devices in its “Kasa” service, and Alexa had no difficulty turning the Smart Plug on and off with a well-placed vocal command.

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The TP-Link Kasa app in action, controlling their Smart Plug. (Source: eBuyer.com)

With my Logitech bluetooth adapter now plugged in via this Smart Plug, I hypothesized that when I would tell Alexa to turn that Smart Plug off, that would cut off her bluetooth conduit to the external speakers. I put that hypothesis to the test, asking her to turn off the Smart Plug. She gamely did as I said, and the last thing I heard her say out of the external speakers was the compliant “okay.” After seeing that the Smart Plug was now in the “off” mode and that the Logitech bluetooth adapter was fully off, I asked Alexa if she was still there. “Yes, I’m here. I listen once I hear the wake word,” she emitted cheerfully and clearly… out of her built-in speaker, once again.

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A small selection of the many Skills available for Alexa to learn. (Source: AFTVNews.com, click image for their article on Alexa’s Skills.)

I made sure to establish a “group” command to turn on power to the bluetooth adapter, while simultaneously turning on the Sony receiver (via my Harmony remote, another Echo “Skill”) and setting it to the correct input. I called this group “Audio Only,” so all I needed to do was call out, “Alexa, turn on Audio Only.” It’s fun watching the relevant devices switch on and fall in line, like something out of a futuristic movie. In fact, it’s so “sci-fi,” that I was compelled to take advantage of the Echo’s optional alternate “wake word.” Amazon designed the Echo to respond to other words, in case, for instance, you have somebody named “Alexa” also living in your home. The alternate wake words are “Amazon,” “Echo,” and my personal geeky favorite: “Computer.”

I haven’t risked playing a Star Trek episode in Alexa’s presence yet. She hasn’t learned to distinguish my voice from the TV, yet.

Fun fact: if you call out, “Computer: Earl Grey, hot,” she’ll pick from a series of responses incorporating the concept of the Starship Enterprise‘s replicator. Alas, no tea for now; but there is a gadget…

For now, I’m happy with the result of my experimentation. Followers of this blog know how rarely my tech setups work out as planned the first time. It’s true, I would have preferred Alexa to stay off bluetooth when I ask her—thus not requiring an extra device—but this is a satisfactory compromise.

Besides, what other gadgets do you know of that will sing to you on command?

 

 

On Language and Understanding (and Misunderstanding)

Last week, I discussed what happens when I’m called in to fix a problem and it either disappears before I can solve it, or when it gets worse before it gets better. In the scenarios I described in that post, the clients were able to express their issues clearly–it just got complicated when the time came to resolve them. But what happens when the language gets in the way?

I recently saw the film Arrival, the central conflict of which concerns communicating with extraterrestrial visitors. First our human protagonists need to learn the language the aliens use, so the earthlings can speak back to the visitors on common ground. I realized that I encounter a similar struggle all the time, just trying to solve computer and other technological issues.

1. “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?”

I was recently called in to help with a client who couldn’t get her email. “My Outlook isn’t working,” she said. I’m pretty familiar with Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail/address book/calendar program, so I came in prepared to troubleshoot the program and get her back up and running.

She didn’t have Outlook installed on her computer.

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Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters would make short work of some of my clients’ issues, I’m sure. But they’d probably use explosives.

As it turns out, she was using a web browser to go online to Outlook.com to check her email on the web. The browser was having some issues, so she couldn’t get to that website. I couldn’t have solved the problem until I saw what she was experiencing; because in my mind, it only made sense that her “Outlook” was one thing; when to her, it was something else altogether. So now, in addition to my litany of questions starting with, “Is it plugged in,” now I make sure to ask just what program, exactly, is causing the problem… even if I think I know which one it is.

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Yes, but which Outlook?

2. Memory vs. Storage, and the Fat Phone Cord

Terminology in any field can cause communication issues (just ask your local doctor or auto mechanic). Computer jargon can be especially arcane, because some of the terms are too easily confused for one another.

For example, all too often I’ll have a client mistake memory for storage. In computers, both can be measured in gigabytes (GB). Random Access Memory (RAM) or just “Memory,” is made up of chips that (as of this writing) typically store around 8 or 16GB, but only while the computer is on. Storage, on the other hand, either in the form of a Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or Solid State Drive (SSD), can run into the thousands of GB (and a thousand GB is a Terabyte, or TB) and stores data even while the computer is off.

Techtarget.com goes into some detail about the distinction:

Both terms are used to refer to internal storage space on a computer. Memory, usually referred to as Random Access Memory (RAM), is the place where an application loads its data during processing, while a hard disk drive (HDD) is usually the place where data is stored for long or short term retention.

And so, if a client is getting “low memory” errors, deleting files from his hard drive won’t solve the issue, even if it does indeed free up “gigabytes.” Usually, quitting all the open programs is the best fix for a low memory issue.

Another scenario in which terminology can either help or hinder involves networking cables. When I try to talk clients through their issues over the phone, I try to visualize their setup so as to adequately guide them through the solution. If a client is having network connectivity issues and I know they’re not using wi-fi, I’ll ask them to inspect the cord from their modem or router to their computer. Remember, I always try to confirm if it’s plugged in.

A typical network cable uses an RJ-45 connector, which clicks in to the jack on each end, much like how a telephone cord’s narrower RJ-11 connector does. Based on its similarity, I’ll often describe a network cable as a “fat phone cord.” Of course, if I’m dealing with more advanced clients, I can refer to “Ethernet,” “Cat.5 (or 6),” or the aforementioned “RJ-45.” All of these terms apply to the same thing, and that multitude of choices tends to cause more problems than it solves.

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A typical telephone cord (left) with its RJ-11 connector, and the larger Ethernet cable with an RJ-45 plug above it.

3. “Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!”

Finally, one of the most valuable tools in my communication arsenal is metaphor. I think of the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Capt. Picard has to communicate with an alien using the language of metaphor. It’s a fascinating concept, but it’s not just the stuff of science fiction: I use metaphors all the time to make technical concepts easier for my lay clients.

For more on Darmok, The Atlantic has a great essay on the episode here. The episode itself is available to stream or download at several sites, shown here.

Remember the client who confused memory and storage?

Picture a juggler, with a backpack full of beanbags on his back. He’s juggling a few beanbags. Your computer’s storage (be it HDD or SSD) is that backpack. It’s got everything you need, whether you’re using it or not. Your computer’s memory, on the other hand, are the free hands with which you can juggle. The more “hands” you have, the more you can juggle (and some computers are trying to juggle “one-handed!”)

I was speaking metaphorically, Ralston!

I had another client who decided she needed a new computer, because hers was going much too slowly on the internet. A slow computer is a genuine concern, but it’s always important to run a speed test on your internet connection, using a few different devices, before blaming the computer. I use a combination of Netflix’s fast.com and Ookla’s speedtest.net. If the connection is slow across the board, it doesn’t matter how new or fast your computer is. Think of it like this: if your driveway isn’t paved, it doesn’t matter how new or fast your car is; it’s still going to be a bumpy ride. Just remember when you get angry at your computer for being slow: “It may not be the car at fault, but the driveway.”

A view of Hall Street  from Institute Ave.

By all means, get a new car if it’s time. But for goodness sake, get that driveway paved, first! (Source: Worcestermag.com)

I may never be asked to communicate with aliens in a first contact scenario. But I take comfort knowing that I’m doing what I can to help my fellow earthlings communicate with their devices–and each other–a little more easily. ■