Follow by Email

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Amazon Echo: You will need to put in some effort

I recently received an Amazon Echo as a gift.  I figured I might as well give it a try.

Although the Echo seems well built, its functionality is extremely limited without other things.  First, the good: the speaker quality is pretty nice and the microphone had not problems recognizing my voice commands right out of the box.

The basic setup was relatively easy.  I did have to download the Alexa App onto my tablet, although I could have also used a smart phone.  It does not seem possible to set up the Echo without having the App installed on some device first.  Once configures, the App is not necessary for some uses at least.

The primary intended use of the Echo is to tie you into Amazon's ecosystem more tightly.  You can order items through your Amazon account, though I did not want to do that.  First, most of what I order from Amazon is still books.  I could order a new book, but often there are used books also available at much cheaper prices.  Amazon did not seem to want to give me access to those, probably because they were sold through Amazon by third parties.  I ended up disabling the order feature as I feared it might start ordering items based on something I said.

The Echo can also stream music.  It default to Amazon's music service.  There are a few other services available, though not many, and you must make the configuration changes through the app to use another service.  I changed mine to Pandora since I do not subscribe to Amazon.  There is no way to play your iTunes or MP3 files you might already have.

Another feature is its ability to answer questions, much like Apple's Siri, or OK Google.  I was very disappointed with Echo's range.  It could tell me the capital of Ohio (Columbus) or the 13th President.(Millard Filmore).  But when I tried a few more obscure questions, it did not know.  When I asked who the commander of the Continental Army was during the American Revolution (George Washington), it could not find an answer.  I reworded the question several ways to make sure it wasn't just confused about the wording.  But despite my attempts, Echo remained as unable to answer the question as an 6th grader in public school.  It also did not know who was president during the Civil War (Lincoln), how many people serve in the US House of Representatives (435), or whose face is on the $20 bill (Jackson).  Google answered all of them correctly.  Echo's knowledge of general facts seemed surprisingly limited.

I was also disappointed that it could not give me a current stock price or several other answers I thought would be easily obtainable.  It also seemed unable to find any individual phone numbers, though it could find them for most businesses.

There are "skills" Echo's word for apps, that you can download and install.  Many looked rather uninteresting, new sounds it could play in background or news sources to recap events for you.  Echo can also be tied to a number of web enabled devices.  Again, this can be handy if you get those devices and want a voice interface to control them, but it's another expense and looks like it takes considerable setup.  I expect the "skills" are where Echo can really come into its own though.  If you are willing to take the time to try them, configure them, and figure out which ones will let you do what you want, you may be able to customize Echo's advanced features to be a real help.

Perhaps I am too spoiled to do so much work though.  I mostly want Echo to work out of the box.  I don't want to spend hours plowing through lists of potentially useful skills and then seeing if they really work.  I'm also still to cautious/paranoid to give all these skills from unknown third parties access to may personal accounts and financial information.

I attached Echo to my Google mail so it can read my appointments to me for any given day, though I could not set up an appointment through it.  There did not appear to be any way to connect it to my email or Google Drive for access to anything there.

Echo could do a few other things like set an alarm for a certain time, or as a timer.  It could also record a shopping list for me, which is stored on the Echo app.  I'd really prefer to save in Google Drive, but that was not an option.

I could see the device being useful around the home if I could tie it into my TV, or my internal music system. The interface has potential.  However, at this point, the limited use of the device makes it something that I likely would not use on any regular basis.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A special "F U" to Apple

I've never made a secret of my loathing of all things Apple.  But being a good father, I've never tried to force my views on my children.  Despite my recommending otherwise, both of them like and use iPhones and iPads for most of their mobile activities.

We went to Hershey Park this week.  My son's iPhone fell out of his pocket while on one of the more extreme roller coasters.  Fortunately, he had an iCloud account set up.  I figure we can use the "find my iPhone" feature to figure out exactly where it is.  When calling the phone, it rang, so we knew it was still working.

I bring up the iPhone web site on my Android tablet using the Chrome browser and get a message that Apple does not support the Chrome Browser for this feature.  I need to try the latest version of MS Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, or Mozilla Firefox.  Ok, I also have Firefox installed and try that.  It still says not supported.  So I make sure Firefox is upgraded to the latest version.  After a short upgrade, still nothing, same message.  Apparently, Apple will not allow any browser running on Android to use the "find my iPhone" feature.

Since we did not have another Apple device or Windows device in the park with us we were unable to find the device.  By the time we got back to the  hotel that evening, the battery in the phone had died (because iPhone battery life sucks and you cannot buy better long life batteries for the phone) and we could not get a location at all.

By contrast, the "find my Android" feature works just fine on any competing device.  Apple has once again screwed customers that dare to use any products outside of the Apple ecosystem.

I will encourage my son to replace his lost phone with an Android, but doubt he will listen.  For me though, it just adds another line in the already extremely long list of reasons why I will never use Apple products.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Potential of the Internet vs. Copyright

In addition to working in IT, I am an amateur historian, which is probably my true passion. I run another blog called Unlearned History which looks at random stories from history that interest me. I am also preparing to produce a blog/podcast that looks at the American Revolution in detail.

My work in these areas is made easier by access to an amazing variety of resources, many of which come from  Some of the major players in IT, including Microsoft and Google, have spent years digitizing books and other works to make them freely available on the Internet.  As a result, I have access to obscure journals, letters, public domain books, and other resources that would have been impossible to access a few years ago without flying all over the country and spending months in various libraries.

Now, I can download all my materials onto my tablet, or store them in the cloud for access whenever I need them. does a great job making the documents available in a variety of formats, including text, Kindle, ePub, and my favorite, PDF.  Most have an online previewer as well, in case you want to look at the book online without downloading it.

If I were going to add some criticism, it would be that the search engine for the collection is a little frustrating, they often have multiple copies of the same work, and multi-volume works do not always list the volume number in the title.  But the amount of access, all available for free, makes me feel guilty for leveling any criticism at all. The site is a treasure trove to anyone interested in history. does more than simply provide historical texts.  It also keeps archived copies of web sites, stores hold movies and audio, and even has an extensive photographic collection of museum pieces and other things.

The big limitation, of course, is copyright.  The site cannot provide access to copyrighted works. Here, I guess lies the basis for my rant today.  Pretty much anything written before 1923 is in the public domain.  Some later works are as well, if they were not properly registered or renewed.  But for the most part, 1923 is the cut-off point.  Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a law extending corporate copyrights from 75 years to 95 years.  Anything already in the public domain (1922 and earlier) remained so.  Anything about to expire, got held in protection until 2019, when the works will (hopefully) begin to fall into the public domain again.

I say "hopefully" because there are efforts to extend copyrights even further.  The primary player in extending copyrights is the Disney Corporation.  Disney's oldest cartoon, Steamboat Willie, dates back to 1928.  If Disney had not gotten Congress to extend the copyright, we could all be watching Steamboat Willie for free on or a thousand other sites.  We could also enjoy Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and later this year, Dumbo.  Disney is particularly apoplectic that consumers might enjoy their old library of cartoons and movies with out kicking back some cash.

There is certainly a need for copyright.  We want to encourage authors, musicians, and producers to make new works, secure in the knowledge that the day they are released, others won't simply copy them and start selling them in competition.  For this reason, they are given a legitimate monopoly on the sale of the work they created, or purchased from the author, for a limited time.

The key is "a limited time".  At some point, the works need to become available to the public, Copyright hampers access to many works.  Often, the original owner of the work cannot be found or does not care about limits or royalties anymore.  Legacy copyrights prevent many works from the early and mid-20th Century from being made available to researchers or even to people who just want to enjoy older works.

The question then, is how long is reasonable for a copyright?  Disney argues that the longer terms provide greater value and therefore more incentive to create new works.  That argument is nonsense with regard to extending existing copyrights.  When Walt Disney made Steamboat Willie or Snow White, he had a copyright of 26 years, with another 26 year extension possible.  Disney obviously had enough incentive with those copyright terms.  Extending them did nothing to encourage him retroactively.

People used this reasoning to challenge the copyright extensions in court.  Sadly, the Supreme Court upheld the law in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003).  The Court held that it was within Congress' authority to extend the copyright term as long as they did not make it forever.  The Court also said the retroactive increase was reasonable just to keep all terms the same length.  The second  part of that ruling especially makes no sense to me.  Copyright has very significant First Amendment implications, since it prevents people from making use of a great deal of information.  As I already pointed out, extending the term retroactively has zero impact on the incentive to create a new work. The Court should have used heightened scrutiny to look at the First Amendment implications of copyright protections and recognized that retroactive extension was not tailored to any valid state interest.  But the Court did not and we are stuck with what we've got.

There are rumblings that Disney may try to extend the copyright once again.  There are attempts to extend copyright internationally through the much criticized Trans Pacific Partnership treaty.  There will likely be other attempts coming soon.  Hopefully, such attempts will fail.

Copyright law has headed in the wrong direction in many other ways.  Until relatively recently, anyone creating a new work had to register it for copyright protection.  Today, however, everything created is automatically copyrighted without having to do anything.  This means that even works from people who don't really care about copies are protected.  Affirmatively telling people a work is in the public domain is still fairly uncommon.

Also, copyright holders used to have to expend resources protecting their rights.  Copyright violations were not criminal matters.  Owners had to seek out and sue violators for civil damages.  If they did not bother to do so within a reasonable time, the courts would declare the work to be in the public domain.  Today, a copyright  holder need not do anything.  The federal government enforces copyrights through criminal enforcement, with civil suits also still available.  An author need not do anything to protect this copyrighted works though.  The government will do it for him.

Right now gives me amazing access to resources up until 1922.  My library has pretty good coverage of books going back to about the 1970s.  Anything in that missing 50 years is much more difficult to obtain.  I might be able to find some used books available for sale from that era, but more likely those works will simply get ignored.

With all the potential that is out there to make information available to the world, copyright should not stand in the way.  Copyright has great value in creating incentive for new works.  That right, however, must be limited so that the public can eventually enjoy those works without unnecessary restriction.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

OK OneDrive, You Are Gone!

I am not a big data user on my phone.  I am usually connected via WiFi at home and work, where I spend most of my day.  I don't stream music or video.  Generally I use about 1/2 GB per month when not traveling.  So I was shocked when my Android Phone warned me when I exceeded 2 GB this month.  I'm up to 2.4 GB so far.  It's not a crazy amount of data, but far more than I usually use.

So, I looked into the details to find the culprit.  It was not even close.  OneDrive (Microsoft's cloud documents app) had used 1.9 GB of data.  Even worse, I don't think I even opened the app all month.  I tested OneDrive a couple of months ago, and uploaded some test data to the cloud.  But since then I have not used it. I much prefer Google Drive, which is where I do all my work (less than 0.1 GB used in Google Drive.

Therefore, OneDrive is doing a heck of a lot in the background.  I cannot imagine what it is doing with all that data.  Either it is uploading and downloading the few measly MB of data I have saved on it all day every day, or it is going through my phone and doing heaven knows what.  I also have it set not to upload pictures except when connected to WiFi and plugged in.  That did not seem to help.

Given that OneDrive is of minimal use to me, and the fact that it is sucking down all my data behind my back, I am uninstalling it now.

I am disappointed that Microsoft still cannot get its act together and design quality software that works efficiently.  There was a time when Microsoft cared about such things, but that was long ago, in another millennium.  Changing CEOs has not seemed to help matters.  Microsoft has a reputation for fat, overloaded bloatware.  The new CEO Satya Nadella showed some promise to get back to this. But my experience with OneDrive speaks volumes to me.

Therefore, farewell Microsoft.  You briefly found your way back onto my phone with the hope that you could be useful to me again.  You failed miserably and I have banished you once again.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Do not buy the "best" tablet

Tablet sales are falling.  Some question whether the class is even sustainable.  In my view, the class has become hopelessly muddled which leads to consumer confusion.

Tablets first really captured the attention of the public with the release of the iPad in 2010, followed quickly by Android tablets.  These early tablets were essentially smart phones without the phone, and larger screens.  One could use WiFi or cell technologies to access the Internet and use various apps for limited purposes.

Others had tried to release tablets long before this.  Microsoft announced a Windows XP tablet edition in 2001.  There were some very real hardware limitations that kept these from taking off.  But the real limitation was that manufacturers were trying to jam an entire PC into a much smaller device.

Doing so is possible, but it comes with real limitations.  A full size processor generates more heat and uses up battery power much faster.  Cutting back on processing power makes the OS run much slower and creates a frustrating experience for the user.  No one wants to wait two minutes (or more) for their tablet to boot up, like we tolerate on desktop or laptop.

As a result, tablets come with real limitations with regard to processing power, ram, drive capacity, etc.  This limits what they can do well.  You can still do quite a bit with a well designed low end tablet.  Those limitations are not debilitating.  A low to mid-range tablet probably has better computing specs than a Windows XP PC from a decade ago.  You can read and create documents and spreadsheets, watch movies, look at photos, play music, play video games, etc.  Maybe the highest end high 3-D graphics games would not play well.  Maybe you might experience problems using just the computing power in your tablet.  But then again, you can either do those limited tasks on a real PC, or use a cloud based tablet solution where the computing power is done on a server.  In short, you don't need to have a supercomputer in your tablet.

Microsoft has been an abject failure in mobility despite multiple attempts to break into the market. Microsoft has either tried to jam all of the large and clunky Windows OS into a tablet, or it has created a "lite" version of Windows that it tries to convince users is just as good as Windows (it is not).

For years, I have railed that tablets should be easier to upgrade.  That  has not happened.  I have accepted that tablets, like smart phones, need to be considered cheap devices that are probably going to be replaced every few years.  I break my tablet screens on a regular enough basis that I have become convinced that regular replacement is inevitable

That said, I never buy the most expensive tablets.  If I were to spend $800 on a top of the line iPad or Galaxy Tab, I would be much more upset when I smashed the screen.  Those higher end devices do very little more than the $150 I paid for a 10" Acer Iconia Android tablet.  If I would have been happy with an 8" screen, I probably could have paid half that amount.  But screen size is important to me, so I paid the extra money.

I have used the tablet for six months now and am not at all disappointed.  I don't play many games on it, and those I do are not graphics intensive.  I mostly use it to access my email and Google drive, or read articles.  Sometimes I use it to remote desktop into other computers, control my Chromecast to watch Netflix, or read e-books.  It has done everything I've demanded of it with no problems.  I am so glad I did not spend another $600 or more for a top of the line device.  I just don't see the point.

Microsoft has tried to break into the tablet market with various versions of Windows, or by making laptops that are creeping ever closer to tablets.  When I need a whole computer, I don't want a tiny tablet with a detachable keyboard.  I want my full size keyboard and mouse.  I want a decent sized screen.  I want a whole computer.  I don't mind lugging around my 15" laptop on the occasions when I need to have the whole computer.  I can then use my much smaller and cheaper tablet for the 95% of functions that do not require that full functionality.  When I want to play video games, I don't want mobile at all.  I want a console connected to a 50" TV with surround sound.  Same with movies: I don't want to watch an epic saga on a 10" screen.  I want the large screen experience.

Getting a tablet that is capable of high end gaming or providing some minor improvement in video (no, I don't need 4k video on a 10" screen) seems pointless to me.  I'm much better off with the cheap tablet, and using price difference to by a 50" HD TV.  I'll also feel far less guilty when I want to replace that tablet a couple of years from now.

Granted, there are some really cheap tablets that are not worth the savings.  You can buy some new tablets for under $50.  But even I would be frustrated with the 8 GB drive, small screen, and overall poor performance.  There is some value in spending more than the bottom of the barrel to get something better. But in the $100-$200 range, there is an amazing variety of quality Android tablets that will not disappoint most users.  For most people, paying any more than that is a waste of money.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Microsoft: Upgrade or Else!

You can mark me down as one of the "conspiracy theorists" in a recent Forbes article about Microsoft's latest service pack scandal.  It is no secret that Microsoft has been doing everything in its power short of brute force to encourage users to upgrade their Windows 7 or later computers to Windows 10.

Put simply, Microsoft has decided that support for legacy operating systems is a pain (and expensive). Although the company promised to support Windows 7 until 2020, it is clear that Microsoft would rather not have to do so.  At best, it will do a mediocre, careless, and inattentive job in providing support for Windows 7, Vista, and 8.1 (Microsoft has already stopped supporting 8.0, telling users that 8.1 is essentially a service pack for 8 that they must install for continued support).

Microsoft as the article link above points out, Microsoft has added an update to be downloaded automatically onto computers that it knows will render some computers inoperable.  It simply has not bothered to fix this issue before adding to its recommended list.  Sadly, Microsoft has a long history of pulling stunts like this to force people to upgrade.

For example when Windows XP first deployed in 2001, it ran well on 256 MB of RAM (1/4 GB).  It could even run on half that, 128 MB.  After several years and a service pack, the OS really seemed to require 512 MB (1/2 GB) to run optimally. But after Windows Vista and 7 came out, additional updates shot up that requirement to at least 1 GB.  Today, running on less than 2 GB causes significant performance problems. Whether this was a deliberate change to convince users to get a new PC with the newer version of Windows, or just sloppy coding since Microsoft no longer cared about users with the older computers, the effect was the same.  Technical people like me bought more memory, but most users just decided it was time to buy a new computer with a new version of Windows.

Another example, even though Microsoft goes through the trouble to make new security updates for Windows XP users even today, it does not make them available to the public.  One would think that patching flaws and security holes would be expected.  But Microsoft says no. Imagine if GM decided that problems that showed up in cars after 10 years were the driver's problem and that recalls or fixes to known problems were not longer required or available.  They would not even notify drivers of these problems.  I don't think that would go over very well.

In the IT world this sort of treatment is nothing new.  Apple has ignored its old products and even sent out updates that destroyed them, like the iOS upgrade that destroyed the WiFi antenna in your iPhone 4.

Microsoft, you may argue, is at least giving away its upgrade.  It is not reaching into our pockets and requiring us to spend more to be able to continue using our computers.  But Windows 10 does do away with some functionality.  Further, it allows Microsoft to get a great deal more information about how you are using your computer.  In other words, Microsoft gets valuable marketing data about you.  Microsoft also has not promised not to charge for Windows 10 updates in the future.  Once you are moved to 10, it will be difficult and expensive to go back.  If they start charging a year or two from now, you are stuck.

Other changes Microsoft is making to Windows 7 seems to be increasing the length of time it takes to start one's computer.  Users are also seeing unusual lag times in other areas.  These were not problems in prior years.  Now, however, they are becoming much bigger issues.  Since Microsoft has a direct financial interest in getting you to upgrade or buy a new computer, its hard to give the company any benefit of the doubt that fixing these problems is beyond its ability.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Kindle - Size Matters!

The new Kindle Oasis just released.  It is Amazon's high end e-ink reader, starting at $290.  It is a very nice product.  It comes with a leather case, a battery that lasts months, and amazing back lighting for night reading. There are now four versions of Kindles, all e-ink, starting with a budget $80 model, and moving all the way up the Oasis.  Even the different models have different variations. If you want the Oasis without ads, with 3G, and with a two year protection, you're talking more like $450.  I like that Amazon offers you a wide range of choices and price points so different consumers can get the level they want at the price they want.

You can, of course, simply download the free Kindle App onto your tablet or phone.  That gives the convenience of carrying around just one device. Kindle's e-ink technology, though, makes it much preferable to reading an e-book on your regular old tablet.  It is definitely much easier on the eyes.

Personally, I have tried the Kindle but never purchased one.  Although I like the e-ink technology, and love the idea of being able to have my entire library at my fingertips at all times, one simple thing continues to hold me back.

All four of the current Kindle models, as well as all past models, come with a six inch screen.  That is barely larger than my cell phone screen, and smaller than most mini tablets.  My eye sight is not the greatest.  I would love to see Kindle come out with a larger screen.

Kindle sells its screen size as being the size of a typical paperback book.  But books come in all sizes. If, for example, Kindle eventually wants to be used in schools, it needs to have a reader that can show text, images, graphs, all on a page that needs to be bigger.  Many books simply require a larger page to display the content as the author intended.

I get that the smaller screen makes the Kindle easier to carry around, keeps prices lower, conserves battery life, and makes screen refreshes faster and easier.  I would happily give up all that for a larger screen though.  With four different varieties of Kindles, is it wrong to ask that just one of them comes with a ten inch screen?  I have been waiting for the bigger screen for years, but Amazon keeps knocking out the six inch screens without any variation.

Come on Kindle! Give us a larger screen with an option of larger type on the page.  Millions of old people with thank you!