Alexa… OWLS!

Here’s a partial transcript of talking to Amazon Echo (with the initial “Alexa” keyword taken out).  Ronin likes owls, so Sarah wanted to get the Echo to play the sound of an owl.

Sarah:  What does an owl say?

Echo: Sorry, I couldn’t find the answer to your question.

Sarah: Search owl sounds.

Echo: Playing samples from “Scary Sounds: Halloween Ringtones” track “Creepy Laugh” [it is a creepy laugh, not an owl]

Tev: Play owl sounds.

Echo: I couldn’t find anything by the artist “owl”. Playing “Owl City” on iHeartRadio.

Tev: Play “owl hoot sound effect” [referencing a specific track I looked up on Amazon Prime Music]

Echo: I couldn’t find “owl hoot sound effect”, playing “Television Theme Songs” from iHeartRadio.

Tev: Play animal so-

Echo: [cutting me off] Playing music by “The Animals” from Amazon Prime.

Tev: Play the track “owl sound effect”.

Echo: I couldn’t find “How Old Sound Effects”, playing Coleman Hawkins from Amazon Prime Music.

Tev: Play the song called “animals – owl sound effect”.

Echo: Playing “Animals – Owl Hoot Sound Effect” [finally plays an owl sound]

[I make a playlist of 4 owl sound effects from Amazon Prime Music, and call the playlist “Owl Sounds”]

Tev: Play the “Owl Sounds” playlist.

Echo: Playing “Owl Sounds” playlist. [plays the 4 short owl clips]

Sarah: I think two of those were Mourning Doves.

Alexa… be less beta

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 8.36.12 PMI got a black box in the mail from Amazon. I didn’t know what it was until I opened it – it was an Amazon Echo. I ordered it back in like November, but they were backordered until June. It’s now June.

Amazon Echo is Amazon’s answer to Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, and Android’s “Ok Google” (or whatever the real name is).

It’s a black cylinder that has a speaker, microphones, lights, some kind of cpu, and wireless connection. All the processing happens cloud-side, so without internet it’s just a black cylinder.

What can it do? So far I’ve mostly used it as a radio. Here are some of the features:

  • Create shopping lists
  • Set timers/alarms
  • Play streaming audio
  • Play Audible audiobooks
  • Answer questions
  • Play news
  • Report weather

How well does it work? Middling, I would say.

You say the keyword to activate listening (can only be set to either “Alexa” or “Amazon”) and then say your command.

Some things I tried:

“Alexa, who was Kurt Vonnegut?” (A: an american author)

“Alexa, how far away is the sun?” (A: 93 million miles)

“Alexa, who wrote the theme song to ‘Orange is the New Black’?” (A: Sorry, I couldn’t find the answer to your question)

“Alexa, how to I make a chocolate cake?” (A: Sorry, I couldn’t find the answer to your question)

“Alexa, play the album ‘The Spine’.” (A: Sorry, I can’t play the album ‘The Spine’ from your music library)

“Alexa, play the audiobook ‘Reality is Broken’.” (A: resuming your audiobook from chapter 16)

The last two reveal some major weaknesses. For music, it uses Amazon Prime and music in your library purchased from Amazon. So if it’s part of the limited library of Amazon Prime, it may or may not play it. For example, the album ‘Flood’ was available free as part of Amazon Prime, but it would not play it until I went on the website and added the album to my library. Why it won’t just play albums that are available to me for free, I have no idea. Spotify integration would be amazing, but since it’s Amazon, they have their own music sales agenda, so Spotify is not available. Pandora is, in some form, though I haven’t tried that.

For the audiobook, it does have access to your (Amazon owned) Audible account, if you have one, and it will play audiobooks… but the controls are very limited. There is no way to skip forward or back a chapter or start the audiobook from the beginning. It’s integration, but only barely.

The Echo does have Google Calendar integration, so you can ask what appointments are coming up. I’m not sure Echo ever proactively alerts you to upcoming events, though.

All in all, it feels very beta, a few functions work solidly, the others are hit or miss. It seems like half the time I ask for an album it’s not available, and questions I ask are usually outside the ability of the Bing search it uses.

“Alexa, do snakes have ears?” doesn’t work. Alexa is no IBM Watson.

There is a “having to know the right keywords” aspect that makes it a nerd product rather than mainstream. For example, asking “Alexa, what is the Drake Equation?” results in a “I don’t know what you mean” but “Alexa, Wikipedia Drake Equation” results in a description of the Drake Equation.

Hopefully it will get some updates – though if you go by the Kindle, Amazon is terrible at updates, only doing them very rarely.

Forgotten tale

Found this file on my hard drive, labeled “Nanowrimo 2013” – Nanowrimo, if you haven’t heard of it, is National Novel Writing Month, it sets a challenge of writing a certain number of words a day and by the end of the month, finish writing a novel.

I’ve tried it a couple times but never made it very far, perhaps because I didn’t have an outline to start and was just “shooting from the hip”.

Anyway, here’s my start in 2013.


NanoWriMo 2013


His blood dripped onto the linoleum, forming a pattern of dots and spotches like a rocharch test before the paper is folded. He watched it impassively, knowing in the back of his head that he should be getting a towel and applying pressure to his arm. Or at least he should be doing something about Jessica, standing across the room, tears streaming down her face, the gun still in her hand, her arm extended in a line pointing at him. He could see she was shocked at the loudness of it, and also that she was surprised she had managed to pull the trigger. Once she got over her surprise, he was pretty sure she would fire again, maybe this time hitting something more vital.

He wasn’t sure how they had gotten to this point. He began to turn it over in his head, to examine the sequence of events, when a loud report inturrupted him, and he found himself falling soundlessly to the floor. As things clouded over, he thought of Florida, walking down that sandy path, the sun shining and a coral snake crossing in front of him, pausing momentarily before disappearing into the underbrush. Then all was darkness.


He was quite sure he heard gunshots. Two of them. He breathed oxygen deeply through his rubber mask, clicked mute on the TV remote, and leaned forward to grab the phone. He pulled the mask aside and dialed 9-1-1 with a shaking hand.


“Welcome,” said Death to Nate, “to my living room.” Death smirked at his favorite little joke.
Nate looked around, taking in a room with upholstered chairs, coffee table, doilies, an old wooden TV console, and standing across from him, smiling disconcertingly, a thin man in a dark sweater and jeans. He sort of reminded Nate of Steve Jobs near the end, only without the glasses. Nate grasped for words, and managed to come up with “w-what?”
Death frowned. Although his joke never got a laugh, it always disappointed him that no one even seemed to notice it was a joke at all. He sighed and sat down, gesturing for Nate to sit. Nate, not knowing what else to do, sat.
“Am I…dead?” ventured Nate.
“In a manner of speaking. That which was you is no longer alive. But seeing as you are here, talking to me, some aspect of you remains. It will all be much clearer in a bit, but for now I’m just going to offer you some tea, and I suggest you accept it. Tea?”
“Yes,” replied Nate dumbly. He looked around the room again. It looked like the living room of an elderly person, it seemed to have begun forming in the 1950s and reached its final state sometime in the early 90s, as if that was as far as the owner had been willing to accept change, and after that had drawn a line and said “that’s quite enough of that!” Through the curtains he could see a quiet neighborhood outside, perhaps somewhere in the northeast. He wondered if he should run.
Death returned with a small tray with two cups of tea, a small bowl of sugar and a ceramic cow with cream in it. Death plopped a sugar cube into his tea, stirred it, and sat back in his chair.
Nate put a couple cubes and some cream in his tea, stirred it, and stared at Death. “So. Are you Death, then?”
Death tapped his nose with a thin forefinger. “Although technically a metaphor, I am Death.”

iOS Spring Cleanup

Spring is in the air, that means it’s time to clean up the apps on my iPhone.

I deleted the following apps – not necessarily because they are bad, but I hadn’t used them in a while or had found other ones I preferred.

  • Weather >.< (cat)
  • Bard’s Tale
  • QuickScan
  • Vidgets
  • Set
  • Penny Arcade gamers vs evil
  • Card Wars
  • Ascension
  • Galcon
  • Squids
  • Game Dev Story
  • Walking Dead Assault
  • VTA
  • PvZ 2
  • Risk
  • Button Men
  • Wizard Hex
  • NS Hex
  • Dicenomicon
  • BGG
  • BGG
  • Trivia Crack
  • Movie Cat
  • Flight Control
  • Wide Sky
  • Momonga
  • Mage Gauntlet
  • Battleheart
  • Epic Angry Birds
  • Wayward
  • Gemini Rule
  • Dawn of Magic
  • Hills & Rivers
  • FitRPG
  • Adventure Bar
  • PAA 3
  • Battle Map 2
  • The Hacker
  • Helsing’s Fire
  • Where’s my water
  • Castlevania
  • Scribblenauts
  • Puzzlejuice
  • Game of Thrones Ascent
  • Font Game
  • Device 6
  • Type-Writer
  • Badland
  • Escape!
  • Keynote
  • Pages
  • Numbers
  • PowerPoint
  • Word
  • Excel
  • Connected
  • Indeed Jobs
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Uber
  • Guidebook
  • Jet Blue
  • Star Walk
  • Trip Advisor
  • Media Stinger
  • Litely
  • Madesquare
  • Photosynth
  • Autostitch
  • Looksery
  • Fuji Camera App
  • Fuji Camera Remote
  • Snapseed
  • iTunes Festival
  • WFMU
  • SidPlayer Pro
  • Mod Player
  • NoiseES
  • SnesMusic
  • GarageBand
  • VidRhythm
  • Traktor DJ
  • THX Tune-up
  • AmbiSci BP
  • Swankolab
  • Color Splash
  • OldBooth
  • PaigeeWorld
  • Manga 101
  • PerfectPhoto
  • Word Lens
  • Speedtest
  • Atomic web
  • G-Whizz!
  • Cloze
  • Oldbooth
  • Bitstrips
  • Lowes
  • Peapod
  • Thingiverse
  • Optimize Me
  • Beer Hunt
  • InMyBar
  • CalorieKing
  • CineBeat
  • Action Movie
  • Cinematic
  • Snapguide
  • Flickr

Tactile Music Box – part 1

The Concept

I was thinking about the problem of digital collections not being tactile enough, and came up with a project idea to make a digital collection physical.

nfc-readerSo the thought here (click for bigger version) is that 1″ square tiles, probably plastic, could have an album art sticker on one side and an RFID/NFC chip sticker on the other side. You’d have a 1:1 ratio of albums to tiles, so if you have a huge collection it might be problematic… or you could just do favorites to keep it more lightweight.

The project idea is a Raspberry Pi 1 or 2 with Kodi (formally XBMC) and an NFC reader. The NFC tags on the tiles would be programmed with the album ID, on scanning one, it would communicate with Kodi to bring up and play that album. I’d want to rig up some play/pause/next/prev controls, maybe buttons, maybe just an IR receiver and a remote.

The nice thing about using a Raspberry Pi is that with a decently-sized microSD card, the music could be stored on the Pi itself. So NFC reader, Kodi, and MP3s are all handled by the same device. The whole thing could be placed in one box, all you would need to do is connect it to HDMI or a headphone jack.

Playing music on the Raspberry Pi

After some looking around, I settled on MOC instead of Kodi, which is very lightweight and allows playing music on command line. I couldn’t quite get it to play a directory, so ended up converting a directory to a playlist and passing that to MOC.

My bash scripting is pretty rusty, but I cobbled something together that functions.

It’s called, and passing it a path to a directory of music starts MOC and plays files in that directory.

if [ -z "$1" ]; then 
echo usage: $0 path/to/directory/with/music

# start the mocp service, if needed
if ! pidof -o %PPID mocp > /dev/null; then
mocp -S
# clear the playlist
mocp -c

# generate a playlist file from a dir search
find $MP3DIR/*.mp3 -maxdepth 1 > playlist.m3u

# add the playlist to mocp
mocp -a playlist.m3u

# start playing the files
mocp --play

# then control the playlist with these commands
# mocp --next
# mocp --previous
# mocp --stop

Next Steps

I am waiting for the NFC reader I ordered (coming from China), once that arrives, it’s time to get physical!

Managing Digital Media

In this modern life, a lot of our purchases are no longer physical, but digital. Although this solves a lot of problems (delivery, shelf space, etc) it creates a host of new problems. Let’s look at some.


First off, there’s just knowing what I own, which is not as simple as it might sound. Setting aside physical media for now (also important if I don’t want to accidentally buy a digital version of a book I have a physical copy of), here’s a quick rundown of media sources I own content (or licenses to content) on:

  • Music
    • Amazon
    • Google
    • iTunes
    • Steam
    • Humble Bundle
    • Ripped from CD
  • eBooks
    • Amazon
    • Sony (now defunct)
    • Barnes & Noble
    • Humble Bundle
    • StoryBundle
    • Kickstarter (direct downloads)
    • Comixology
    • Zinio
    • Dark Horse
    • DriveThruStuff
    • Various PDFs
  •  Movies
    • Amazon
    • Google
    • UltraViolet
    • Disney
    • Steam
    • Kickstarter (direct downloads)
    • iTunes
  • Games
    • Steam
    • GOG
    • Origin
    • Humble Bundle
    • Kickstarter
    • App Store

As you can see, just keeping track of what I own is hard. Oh, that game is on sale on Steam! Wait, do I already own that on GOG? There are undoubtably even sources I have forgotten from this list.

For the inventory issue, one obvious solution is if all the services offered an API, it would be relatively easy to write an aggregator library application which could serve as a central collection title browser. Alas, most of these services don’t have an API, so this isn’t possible. A few do, so some cobbled-together combination of API and manually entered data could be used. It would be a pain to keep manually in sync with services lacking an API, though.


The various services also have various policies regarding sharing content. Humble Bundle, for example, provides DRM-free files that you are free to do with as you wish. I bought a book bundle that included a couple books on programming for kids, I could simply download them and send them to my nephew. Amazon, on the other hand, is extremely restrictive – only certain content can be shared, and then it can only be shared one time and only for 14 days.

Taking a look at music, probably the best case scenario – it’s DRM-free and MP3 is a universal format that basically every device I own can play. I can download my purchased content from every service and collect them on a hard drive connected to a media server in my house. But even this simplest case is complicated by metadata issues, local network issues (occasionally requiring a restart of the media server and/or machine connecting to it), UI issues (for example, Roku’s file share browser is kind of terrible) and software issues (tricking iTunes into using a remote library to allow syncing music to a phone is error-prone). I’m a pretty technical guy, and not above upgrading hardware or software if it’s not working well, but it’s still not a seamless experience in my house – in fact it’s kind of annoyingly glitchy.


I touched on this already, but an important part of having a digital library (be it of music, ebooks, music) is being able to browse that content in a friendly and meaningful way. Some interfaces are ok, some are terrible. iTunes is pretty good for browsing a large number of albums, but browsing more than a handful of books on a Kindle is a poor experience.

Browsing digital libraries also lacks a tactile element that you would have when, for example, looking through a shelf of books. I’m not sure the right solution for this, but there might need to be a physical element added to the experience to feel comfortable. Digital collections can feel very abstract, and any visual (i.e. album covers), informative (comparative widths of books) or tactile (flipping through CDs and turning one over to see the back, reading dustjackets of books) interaction that can be added may help to make digital content feel more “real”.

Brave New World

Clearly, there’s no turning back from the new world of digital media – even CDs and DVDs feel somewhat antiquated now – but we need to ensure that the use of digital media remains intuitive and pleasurable. Right now it’s a jumble of interfaces, sources, and restrictions that need to be sorted out.

This is something I’ll be exploring further.

Rolling Dice on iOS

This is a quick review of some dice rolling apps on iOS, specifically ones that let you make custom dice.

For this example, I’m recreating dice from Roll Through the Ages, an excellent dice game from Gryphon Games.  It’s a six-sided die (d6) with images on each side. In each app I will use the same 6 images and background to recreate these dice.

Here’s what the dice look like in Roll Through the Ages


The Apps

Dicenomicon ($4.99)

This is a deep program, that offers lots of options.  You can set up dice-rolling equations for the most complex and arcane dice math you could ever need.  However, it has so many features that it’s somewhat confusing to use.  It took reading a tutorial to figure out how to create a custom die. It is also not very stable, especially when creating custom dice.  It took me 10 or so attempts to finally get the dice created (when scaling my images to fit on the die face it would crash). The actual dice rolling works nicely, and has good physics. It requires a couple taps to “hold” a die


Photo Dice ($0.99)

The exact opposite of Dicenomicon is Photo Dice – almost no features, but what it does is very easy to use. Creating a new die (only d6, as opposed to Dicenomicon which can do any number of sides) is a couple taps, and assigning an image to each side is super fast and easy (and no crashes!).  Dice rolling is similar to Dicenomicon, but holding dice and moving them around only requires a single tap, so it’s quicker.


Mach Dice ($1.99)

The next step up from Photo Dice is Mach Dice, by the same developer.  It takes the ease of use of Photo Dice and adds the ability to create more than just d6 dice. It also has 5 playfields, so you can set each playfield with a different background image and dice configuration and switch between them.

Mach Dice does have more of a learning curve than Photo Dice, but nowhere near that of Dicenomicon. You create a custom die with a number of square images, then when you add a new die to a playfield, you specify the image set to use for it. The only difficulty here is that all image sets are square images, if you use those images to create anything other than a d6, the images will be mapped on the die face and masked to that shape, so for example a d8 will use a triangular section of the square image you have set.  Knowing exactly where the image will be cropped for any given die requires a lot of trial and error, this could have been made much easier by providing a template for each die face.

The die rolling area is similar to Dicenomicon – unlike Photo Dice, there is some space taken up by a header bar, so plan image placement accordingly for backgrounds.  Dice rolling itself is great, with the same system for holding and moving as Photo Dice.

Dice Forge ($4.99)

Similar complexity to Mach Dice is Dice Forge.  However, creating custom dice is a multi-step affair that you can’t actually do in the program itself. It will export templates (simple unfolded texture maps) that you then have to edit it Photoshop or your editor of choice, then re-import into Dice Forge. It’s not something you can easily do on the go, so you’re going to need your computer to make new dice. Once you import the texture, you add dice to your dice pool – which is an extra step compared to Dicenomicon or Photo Dice, where you just tap a die to add it directly to the table. The die rolling is lackluster, small dice fly across the screen when you click “roll dice” – rather than using the gyro to allow you to shake the dice like Dicenomicon or Photo Dice, Dice Forge uses a “shake” to simply re-trigger the throw animation, which has nothing to do with how you shake the phone. It makes the dice feel less physical. When you hold dice, instead of anchoring them on the table when you reroll, like the other apps, Dice Forge moves them offscreen to a “held” dice pool, so it’s extra steps if you want to view all the dice after rerolling some. There is also a “flyby” mode where the camera rotates around the table showing your roll. It’s pretty but serves no purpose. Overall, Dice Forge has the least satisfying rolling experience of the three. There’s also no option to change the background image.



Dicenomicon has all the features you could want, however it has a learning curve and hasn’t been updated in a while and has some annoying bugs.

Photo Dice is basic but fun to use and cheap – if all you want are custom 6-sided dice, this is the app you should get.

Mach Dice keeps the ease of Photo Dice but adds different die types. Not as many features as Dicenomicon, but also easier to use. Making dice other than d6 requires a little trial and error to see where the crops will happen, but overall this is my favorite of these dice apps and the one I’d recommend most.

Dice Forge has the flexibility to make custom dice of any type, but little else.  The dice are tiny and the rolling doesn’t “feel” as good. Overall it feels overpriced at $5.


Hobbit Part 3 Annoyances

So I watched the third part of the Hobbit last night, and I felt about the same as I did for the first two – it was OK, but had soooo many problems.

Some of the things that annoyed me:


Legolas – he is annoying and not in the book, but he’s such a popular character Peter Jackson put him in.  He’s performing typically Legolas physics-defying stunts, including one particularly silly one where he runs up falling stones in midair to climb back on to a collapsing building.

Dáin – a fun character voiced by Billy Connolly, but his face is done with weird CGI instead of makeup, and he is headbutting orcs that are wearing helmets to knock them out.

Bilbo – now has the ability to throw rocks with unerring accuracy, killing or incapacitating an orc with each throw.

Thorin – the dwarf army of thousands is losing, but Thorin and his 12 dwarves turn the tide by joining the battle.  And when they decide to take on the bosses, suddenly armored rams appear out of nowhere  for them to ride up the mountain.

Radagast – has like one line.  Show a Doctor some respect!

Beorn – you only see him for like 5 seconds jumping off an eagle and turning into a bear in midair then hitting an orc with his paw.

Boss Battles – typical, they just won’t stay dead.  Right after being dunked with a clever bit of physics, Azog manages to defy physics, leaping straight up through a sheet of ice from under a lake.

Ending – kind of abrupt without really explaining how the conflict over the gold is resolved. Nice tie-in to LotR at the end, though.

Miming things in commercials

One thing that annoys me is when I see people doing things in commercials that are obviously wrong.  Like people “playing” a video game who are not using the controller correctly.  Here’s a couple recent ones:

In the American Express commercials with Tina Fey, she swipes her AmEx cards on the wrong edge.  The magnetic stripe is not going in the reader.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 9.24.53 AM

Slightly less wrong but still weird is the Silk almond milk commercial, where the guy pours the milk sideways.  Does anyone actually pour milk like that?

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 9.26.28 AM

Dadaist Spam

Every once and a while, I get dadaist spam.  It’s randomly generated, but I’m not sure what the point of it is, since unlike normal spam, there’s no attempt to make me do something.  There are no links or tracking pixels.  Perhaps a poorly written spam generator that instead cranks out surrealist prose mashups.

Here are a couple:


Subject:  Here Dinger visited her in the summer of 1971.

From: Minerva was the wife of James G.


Lorraine piston engines mounted in tandem pairs on the lower wing.
Creighton currently sits on the House Commerce, Judiciary, and State Government committees.
Back in Camelot, Sophia uses more than just her feminine charms to take control of Arthur’s heart. Everyone got on everybody’s nerves.


Subject:  New York having survived an attempted attack.

From:  I could so easily become.


The shopping occurred at a Target store in Downtown Brooklyn, the Atlantic Center Mall.
However, they were not saved due to prohibitive expense at the time of the early 1960s demolition.
Before the chickenpox vaccine became available there were 100 to 150 deaths from chickenpox among children in the U. Menuhin for bringing the manuscript to the world’s attention.


Somewhere out there, in some forgotten dusty corner of a server, a dadaist script keeps creating pieces and sending them to random people.  Tristan Tzara and William S. Burroughs would be proud.