It’s been too long, but life happens

I haven’t been on here to post anything since April 2015. But I’m “out and about” online everywhere if you want to find me.

Eventually, I may get back to regularly blogging. My wife and I recently bought a Roadtrek Class B RV and we’ve talked about sharing our experiences as new RV owners.

In the meantime, though, you can find me on Twitter at @aribadler, which is where a lot of my online interaction occurs. I’m also on Medium, which may be where I post the RV adventures. I really like the simplicity of that system.

It’s been too long without doing anything formal in terms of blogging, but life happens and sometimes I’m too busy living to write about life.

I hope 2015 treated you well and you have a fantastic 2016.

Cheers!

 

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Amazon put an echo of the future in my kitchen

The Amazon Echo, currently residing on our kitchen table...

The Amazon Echo, currently residing on our kitchen table…

Due to an apparently insatiable need to try new technology and a big incentive from Amazon for its Prime members, I decided months ago to sign up as an early adopter of the new Amazon Echo. It arrived Monday and it’s been a good experience overall so far.

Sure, not much time has passed, but as with any new device, I spent a lot of time focused on it the first couple of days to run it through its paces, much more than it will usually see out of me in a normal 24-hour period.

For those of you who don’t know, the Echo is…well, it’s tough to describe. I suppose you could call it a personal assistant of sorts. Although, since my wife asked it to do the dishes and it couldn’t, I guess she’s stuck with me for the manual household chores. (In a bit of Star Trek-nerd type fun from the programmers, when she asked it to make dinner, the device replied, “I’m not a replicator.”)

So, back to what Echo is. Maybe if Siri and Google Now got busy and had a kid, it would look and act like the Echo. It does a lot of what they do, albeit not always as well in some instances. Its search system relies on Bing instead of Google; one strike against it in my book. But it has features that make it handier than either of the iPhone and Android assistants. For example, the always-on microphones make for a much more real hands-free “hands-free experience” than you will get with most mobile phones. You can revel in the full Amazon sales pitch if you’re interested in more.

The usual subdued black box with screaming orange interior is nothing new to anyone who has ordered Amazon devices lately.

The usual subdued black box with screaming orange interior is nothing new to anyone who has ordered Amazon devices lately.

I found set up simple enough. The device requires a plug as it is not rechargeable. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about that because it makes it less portable. But I see something like the Echo serving a family’s needs better in a kitchen or living room anyway, not being toted about as some sort of imaginary friend in a tube. Besides, having one less thing to worry about recharging in our house is a welcome relief.

Once plugged in, the Echo boots up and asks for a WiFi connection through an app you need to download to your Android or iOS device. The app then becomes your home away from home for Echo, for those times when it needs help to help you, or if you want to check on the history of what you and it have chatted about. (It’s also used to help train Echo to understand you — although that’s more about regional dialect than some sort of security.) You also access your shopping and to-do lists via the app, as well as give feedback to Amazon by answering the question, “This is what Echo heard you say…did it hear you correctly?”

Once it’s up and running, that’s it. It just sits there, waiting for your request. You can ask for the weather, or a news briefing, or to play some music from the Amazon Prime Music catalogue – to list just a few examples. I’ve seen some reviewers complain about the Echo as a terrible music speaker, but I actually thought it sounded pretty good. It’s certainly as good if not better than the small Bluetooth speakers we’ve used to amplify our mobile phones.

One other thing I saw a reviewer smack the Echo for was that, as he claims, sometimes the device just ignores you or doesn’t hear you. But if you read further into his review, it only happened to him when music was playing at a high volume. Well, imagine that, if there’s loud music in the room, you have to speak up to be heard! I’ve had no problem with the Echo ignoring me. It’s even heard me from the room next door if I raise my voice just a little, much as I would if I was talking to a person in the next room. My wife has had to learn to pause just a split second between saying the command word and then making her request. Stringing it all together into one quick sentence means the Echo may not hear the first word or two of the command and give you something you weren’t asking for.

As I noted, the Echo, which for us goes by the command name, “Alexa,” has been a guest in our home for less than a week, but so far it’s fitting in pretty well. By the way, you can change the assigned command word from Alexa to Amazon, but that sounds even weirder to me. Supposedly, Amazon plans to provide an option to change the name to something else eventually.

Below are some videos with notes shot during my first use. (These were some of the initial commands I said to the Echo, so that’s probably why I sound so stiff and formal. In the few days since I have learned to be more conversational with the device, as odd as that may sound.)

The box contains the Echo, power cord, remote control and magnetic holder for the remote.

The box has the Echo, power cord, remote control and magnetic holder for the remote.

I’ll write again when some more time has passed. By then maybe I’ll know if Amazon has created the first generation of “Computer” from Star Trek or “HAL” from 2001: A Space Odyssey!

Here’s an example of checking the weather…

And the news…

And, of course, as a Monty Python fan, I always test new assistants with a vital scientific question…   🙂

It’s time to redefine the redefining of friends

golden retriever puppiesNearly four years ago, in February of 2011, I wrote a blog post about social networking and redefining the word “friend.” Since then, that post has consistently been near the top of my stats page for number of views. I just read it again and while the basic premise is still sound, some of what I talk about doing there has changed for me. The staying power of that post seems to show how much people are still struggling with social networking vs. interacting with people in real life. So I thought it was time to update the post with how I handle accounts now.

As I said back then, you don’t have to follow my lead. I don’t believe in social media rules but rather best practices. There are some people who are better at it than others, not because they are gurus or follow a strict code, but more because they have found a way to exist online that works for them and the people with whom they interact.

In 2011, my four main social networks were Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare. In four years, how I handle my interactions on those accounts has changed a bit, and I no longer use Foursquare after their disastrous break up into Foursquare and Swarm. That move by the developers led me and many others to abandon them as quickly as they had abandoned the core function and attraction of their original app.

Instead, I find myself spending more time on a network that didn’t even exist in early 2011: Google Plus. I’m still on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but some things have changed, and I’ll go into those after I talk about G+.

Google HQGoogle Plus (+AriAdler)

Anyone who interacts with me regularly knows I’m a big fan of Google products. I like they way they are integrated in an effort to make my life simpler through interconnected apps. Some folks like to malign Google Plus as “the Facebook killer that failed.” But here’s the problem with that statement: G+ was never intended to kill Facebook. It is a very different network. I’m on there multiple times every day, either sharing information in my own posts, sharing what others have posted, or visiting one of the many communities I have joined that bring together aficionados of just about anything you can be interested in talking about. I use G+ as the main repository for photos that I shoot, which is now done entirely via my Android phone or my Google Glass (and backed up automatically). And I will follow anyone who seems interesting and doesn’t seem to be a spammer. Their system of Circles that allows me to categorize people and decide who receives all or just some of the posts I share is easier for me to use than Facebook’s system, but that may be a personal preference. Circles also are integrated with Google Contacts and the network is integrated with Gmail, Google Calendar and other Google apps. It’s a way to keep my finger on the pulse of the universe while traveling aboard the Starship Google.

I find I interact with people who have shared interests more than anyone else. Most of my family and friends aren’t using G+ because many of them didn’t see the need to check it out once they settled in on Facebook. I don’t think many of them know what they’re missing, but I’m not one to judge. You should find the network you like, you understand and can work within well. Then enjoy yourself and don’t worry about what others are doing or telling you to do.

— Followers in 2011: 0 —

— Followers today: 1,330 (plus 1.1 million views of my profile pages) — Following today: 3,513

facebook hqFacebook

Back in 2011, I was much more open about becoming “friends” with people. I used to accept invitations from just about everyone and then kept them sorted by lists. I don’t do any of that anymore. Instead, I’m more cautious about who I allow to become a “friend.” I purged a lot of people from my account. I still have “friends” who aren’t friends and so I’m always aware of what I’m saying and sharing, as everyone should be on every Internet-connected system.

I find that I spend more time interacting with family on Facebook than any other social network, with coworkers and people I went to high school with a close second and third. As I mentioned earlier, many of them were on Facebook first and haven’t found a compelling reason to keep up two different types of accounts.

I do find Facebook’s systems frustrating and have honestly spent most of my time on there only because of work needs, then while I’m there I take up shared conversations with friends and family. I visit it, generally, only twice a day but could easily abandon Facebook faster than any other network I use. For some reason, I find Facebook to be a bigger useless time-suck than Google Plus. That’s not to say G+ won’t have you spending a lot of time online that you should be spending doing other things, but when I’m done that time spent just feels more useful on Google+ than on Facebook. Tip: If you haven’t figured out how to turn off auto-play videos on Facebook, go do it now. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to get back. It will change your life.

— Friends in 2011: 800 —

— Friends today: 904, but different people make up that list now. — 

twitter hqTwitter (@aribadler)

Things haven’t changed a lot in terms of how I use Twitter. I have a lot more followers than I did in 2011 and am following a lot more accounts. Back then I noted it was a free-for-all, a “hodgepodge,” even. That remains true today. It’s an eclectic group that I interact with on Twitter, and I tend to interact with brands and companies more there than anywhere else online. I am on there multiple times per day and it has become the number one place that I schedule posts with news or interesting links via my Hootsuite account. (Google Plus’ API doesn’t allow scheduling things through Hootsuite for personal pages yet, but there are times when I’ll share things on Twitter and won’t share them anywhere else even when I can. I’m not sure the API change will alter that pattern.)

One thing that has changed significantly is how much Twitter has affected my professional life. Many journalists use Twitter now to break news or report on events. I have interacted with more journalists about and for news stories on Twitter in the past year than I probably did in the previous three. That type of interaction is expanding exponentially and I suspect it will continue to for a while.

— Followers in 2011: 4,339 — Following in 2011: 3,876 —

— Followers today: 7,502 — Following today: 8,220 — 

linkedin hqLinkedIn (Ari B. Adler)

I used to think of LinkedIn as “the Rolodex of social networking,” and I think it still is to some extent. I have more business-related and professional interactions on LinkedIn than anywhere else, and what I share there via posts reflects that. I’m on it a few times each week as notifications come in from people who want to connect with me. I don’t use it to its full potential, I’m sure, but it’s just not something I find compelling enough to spend time on. I find its interface clunky and counter-intuitive. Still, the connections you might have on LinkedIn could prove invaluable for a career some day, so I still recommend you check it out if you haven’t. Just remember that sometimes people want to connect with you not because of who you are but because of whom you know. Be careful not to be used as nothing more than a connection to someone else. Even heeding my warning, of course, I still tend to be pretty loose with my requirements for connecting. If I can find a shred of a reason to accept your connection request, I’ll do it.

— Connections in 2011: 500 — Connections today: 1,825 —

I’d be interested in hearing how your use of social media has changed over the years. It wasn’t that long ago that I was jumping on Twitter to figure out what the heck it was all about, because a younger professional in my office was making waves with it and I wasn’t about to get swamped and left behind. Now, it has become so much more routine to be on social media. And yet, years later, it’s still one of the most misunderstood, misused and undervalued opportunities for spreading a message than anything I’ve seen in my many years as a communications professional. I’m still learning and plan to do so for years to come. I would urge you to do the same, “friend.”

 kitten best friends

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to read my writing. Happy New Year — and here’s to a fantastic 2015.

Don’t forget to watch your back so you don’t get run over by a speeding DeLorean on Oct. 21…  🙂

Back to the Future date

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,600 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

In the battle of streaming devices, the viewer wins

Through various deals I couldn’t refuse, I’ve ended up with three different streaming media players. A family member asked me to choose the “best one” and, honestly, I can’t really say for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Roku system. They all have pluses and minuses and it really comes down to what ecosystem you prefer to be in.

apple tvFirst, let me point out the one major player I don’t own is Apple TV, although I’ve been around when family members have used it. If you want something simple that you can hook up to a TV to sling the content from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, it seems like a slick system. And, since Apple doesn’t play all that well with Google or Amazon, it may be your best choice for an iHousehold, although it is by far the most expensive option at around $100.

Second, let me note that I am probably biased in my criticism because as I mentioned, I landed all three devices with good deals that cut my final cost down. Certainly, if you pay the full price for anything you’re going to be a little more harsh in your analysis than if you find it at a great discount.

Now, for the reviews:

Roku LT ~ $55

Roku LTI’ve owned and used this Roku for several years now. It was the first streaming device I purchased and I’ve been happy with it since day one. It was the entry-level box but I’ve never found a reason to upgrade. It does what I want and the number of “channels” available is constantly increasing. I use it for a variety of streaming options, including: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, PBS, NASA TV, Google Play Movies and, finally HBO GO. (I say finally because for a long time, Comcast had its customer service head buried in the sand and wouldn’t let its paying subscribers use HBO GO.) There is now a stick version available and there are fancier models that do more, but for basic connect and go usability at a reasonable cost you can’t beat the Roku LT.

Google Chromecast ~ $35

Google ChromecastI purchased the Chromecast when I found it on sale, and recently bought a second one when I was able to get it for a significantly reduced price during a holiday promotion. Set up is reasonably simple, although it seems to be a little wonkier in finding and maintaining a wi-fi signal than the Roku. I use it for slinging stuff wirelessly from my phone and Chromebook up to the TV screen. That “stuff” generally involves HBO GO, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, YouTube and Google+ Photos. The ability to cast my Android phone’s screen up to a TV is a huge plus, as well. (That will come in handy when I want to screencast my Google Glass to my phone and then cast my phone screen to a larger monitor when doing demonstrations.) I also have found the screensaver you can post to your TV via the Chromecast when not streaming something is great.

Amazon fireTV Stick ~ $39

fireTV stickI wrote a blog post about the fireTV stick when I first bought it so you can read more details there. I’ve used it a lot for Amazon Prime Video and a weather app. We’ve used it to view pictures and it will even play some games that you can download. I suspect I would use if more if it was on our main TV in the house and not a secondary one. But it’s very handy having it in the family room where the workout bike sits. It seems to hold a wi-fi signal very well, although in all fairness to the Chromecast, the fireTV stick resides a lot closer to the router than the Google CC does. If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, I see no point in owning this device. The majority of benefits come from its ability to stream Prime movies and music.

My Recommendations

As I wrote early on in this post, what ecosystem you live in is probably going to be the best determiner for you when considering whether to go with Amazon or Google for your streaming sticks. If you dabble in all of them, I’d recommend a Roku device. You can access nearly everything that the Amazon and Google sticks can — and certainly the bulk of what you would want to stream in terms of videos and music. (I will give the nod to the Google CC if you have all-access music on Google Play. Casting that to an Amazon stick isn’t possible and on Roku it requires a third-party app that isn’t great.)

If you’re heavily invested in the walled Apple garden, of course, then you’ll probably want to take a closer look at Apple TV. But for the rest of us “free-range streamers,” start with the Roku, then add a Google Chromecast or an Amazon fireTV stick depending on whether you’re a more frequent visitor to the Google or Amazon universe. I’d argue that with the costs ranging from only $35 to $55 — if you pay full price — you can’t really go all that wrong with any of them.

Or be like me — buy all three and establish a beachhead for the day when you finally convince your spouse you don’t need to pay for 500 cable channels when we only watch half a dozen of them. I’ve heard HBO is looking at offering a standalone subscription service, which means my wife and I could catch Game of Thrones without paying a monthly cable bill. I can’t wait…

winter comcast meme

Farewell to the House

After four years of service as the Press Secretary for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, my time in the Legislature has come to an end. Due to term limits, my boss could not run for re-election. The new Speaker decided to “go in a different direction” with the next press secretary and so I’m saying farewell to the House.

The last full session day was Thursday, Dec. 18, which went past midnight and so we technically had a bonus session day that went from midnight on Friday, Dec. 19, until about 6:45 a.m.

My wife, Jessi, was around the chamber for most of the night and helped me document my last real session day. (I will be returning to the House floor on Dec. 30 to take part in Sine Die — when the Legislature adjourns “without day” — but that doesn’t really count as a real session day.)

It’s a bittersweet time in my career, when all the crazy hours, incredible social media frustrations and triumphant media relations moments cascade down around me and swirl about among my memories. But that aside, here is a collection of photos and videos shot by Jessi and I during those last hours, with some commentary to help provide context. (You can click on each picture to enlarge it if you so desire.)

Speaker Bolger office

This is the hallway outside the Speaker’s Office. When I got to work on Thursday, Dec. 18, I decided to document a few things that had become routine — something that we all risk no matter where we work. I used to always tell new employees to stop and look around from time to time – that no matter how busy they were, they should take a minute to revel in the amazing building where they were privileged to work.

Speaker Bolger office sign

The main hallway inside the Speaker's Office suite.

The main hallway inside the Speaker’s Office suite.

The actual Speaker's office - the place Jase Bolger always thanked visitors for allowing him to borrow. That sentiment is part of what made him a great public servant. I spent a lot of hours at that big table during strategy meetings.

The actual Speaker’s office – the place Jase Bolger always thanked visitors for allowing him to borrow. That sentiment is part of what made him a great public servant. I spent a lot of hours at that big table during strategy meetings.

The Speaker's desk is at the end by the window; this is an angle shot while standing at the table in the previous photo.

The Speaker’s desk is at the end by the window; this is an angle shot while standing at the table in the previous photo.

This is an old Speaker's chair - at one time it actually sat at the rostrum on the House floor but has since been replaced. Many of us have memories of sitting in this chair waiting to see Speaker Bolger; it seemed a fitting place to pass the time.

This is an old Speaker’s chair – at one time it actually sat at the rostrum on the House floor but has since been replaced. Many of us have memories of sitting in this chair waiting to see Speaker Bolger; it seemed a fitting place to pass the time.

This was the last press conference I helped Speaker Bolger with. He was speaking about the roads deal reached between the legislative leaders and Gov. Snyder. The press conference was held in the Governor's Capitol Office Parlor. If you take the Capitol tour, there are times when this room is open for viewing.

This was the last press conference I helped Speaker Bolger with. He was speaking about the roads deal reached on Thursday between the legislative leaders and Gov. Snyder. The press conference was held in the Governor’s Capitol Office Parlor. If you take the Capitol tour, there are times when this room is open for viewing.

I lost track a long time ago how many times I've gone running up and down these steps before, during and after session. This is the back stairwell that leads up to the House chamber. It's behind a "No Visitors Beyond This  Point" sign in the main Capitol hallway. I guess that will be me now.  :/

I lost track a long time ago how many times I’ve gone running up and down these steps before, during and after session. This is the back stairwell that leads up to the House chamber. It’s behind a “No Visitors Beyond This Point” sign in the main Capitol hallway. I guess that will be me now.

Here is a video of the last time I said the Pledge of Allegiance on the House floor for a regular session, which was shortly after midnight on Dec. 19 when we started a “new” session day. I will always remember saying this for opening every session, but especially when we had a school group in the gallery watching us. Few groups can say the Pledge as loud and proud as a group of elementary schoolkids!

This is a very private place behind the scenes, as it is the House Republican Caucus Room. The House Democrats have one, too. It is a well-heeded rule in our caucus that what is said in this room stays in this room. It's a place where I saw Republicans spend many hours debating policies and issues with fervor but always ending with their friendship and camaraderie intact.

This is a very private place behind the scenes, as it is the House Republican Caucus Room. The House Democrats have one, too. It is a well-heeded rule in our caucus that what is said in this room stays in this room. It’s a place where I saw Republicans spend many hours debating policies and issues with fervor but always ending with their friendship and camaraderie intact.

The House Press Desk, where the Capitol Press Corps sits during session. I spent a lot of hours standing at this desk providing information and cajoling reporters, not to mention taking a few good-natured hits in return.

The House Press Desk, where the Capitol Press Corps sits during session. I spent a lot of hours standing at this desk providing information and cajoling reporters, not to mention taking a few good-natured hits in return.

Jessi took this shot, so I'm not sure what was happening. It appears I was watching a vote go up on the board. She has several shots of me standing like this throughout the night. I never realized how much I cross my arms while observing things!

Jessi took this shot, so I’m not sure what was happening. It appears I was watching a vote go up on the board. She has several shots of me standing like this throughout the night. I never realized how much I cross my arms while observing things!

Jessi took this picture, too, of Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey. I don't know what he was watching or what he was thinking; since he lost his primary election and won't be returning, I can't even imagine it. In his farewell speech, Foster told the House that we need "more politicians who are bad at politics." He is absolutely correct, and will be sorely missed in the GOP Caucus next year.

Jessi took this picture, too, of Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey. I don’t know what he was watching or what he was thinking; since he lost his primary election and won’t be returning, I can’t even imagine it. In his farewell speech, Foster told the House that we need “more politicians who are bad at politics.” He is absolutely correct, and will be sorely missed in the GOP Caucus next year.

The Speaker's job is so intense and so stressful; people have no idea how much a legislative leader and his family must endure. I love this shot that Jessi took though, because it shows Jase Bolger sharing a laugh with a colleague on the floor. Often, no matter how stressful things had gotten, Jase would let others lighten the mood with a joke and then laugh right along with them. It helped us all relieve some stress.

The Speaker’s job is so intense and so stressful; people have no idea how much a legislative leader and his family must endure. I love this shot that Jessi took though, because it shows Jase Bolger sharing a laugh with a colleague on the floor. Often, no matter how stressful things had gotten, Jase would let others lighten the mood with a joke and then laugh right along with them. It helped us all relieve some stress.

This was a chance shot that I took with Google Glass as everyone was leaving the House floor after session adjourned on Friday. I happen to glance over and catch Speaker Bolger wishing Speaker-Elect Kevin Cotter well as he prepares to take over next year.

This was a chance shot that I took with Google Glass as everyone was leaving the House floor after session adjourned on Friday. I happen to glance over and catch Speaker Bolger wishing Speaker-Elect Kevin Cotter well as he prepares to take over next year.

I didn't know Jessi had taken this picture until days later. It was on my last trip down the back stairs after session ended on Friday morning. A classic shot that I'm so glad she took.

I didn’t know Jessi had taken this picture until days later. It was on my last trip down the back stairs after session ended on Friday morning. A classic shot that I’m so glad she took.

It was just after 8 a.m. on Friday and we'd all been at work well over 24 hours. But that didn't stop Speaker Bolger from agreeing to do an interview with Frank Beckman for his radio show. It's a testament to Jase and his willingness to be open with the media right up to the very end. It also documents that even while talking on a phone, he has to use his hands to explain concepts to people. :)

It was just after 8 a.m. on Friday and we’d all been at work well over 24 hours. But that didn’t stop Speaker Bolger from agreeing to do an interview with Frank Beckman for his radio show. It’s a testament to Jase and his willingness to work with the media right up to the end. It also documents that even while talking on a phone, he has to use his hands to explain concepts to people. 🙂

The previous picture was shot on my Google Glass, and unbeknownst to me, Jessi was taking a picture of me taking that picture! This angle also shows how the Speaker's office was already being torn down and boxed up, but he and I were still working, because there was still work to be done.

The previous picture was shot on my Google Glass, and unbeknownst to me, Jessi was taking a picture of me taking that picture! This angle also shows how the Speaker’s office was already being torn down and boxed up, but he and I were still working, because there was still work to be done.

The last shot of me in my empty Capitol office before I left. Maybe it was best that I ended my work day about 27 hours after it ended, because by then I was ready to leave.

The last shot of me in my empty Capitol office before I left. Maybe it was best that I ended my work day about 27 hours after it started, because by then I was ready to leave!

This is a video I shot on the House floor with my Google Glass. It was of Speaker Bolger’s final time at the rostrum for a regular session day. It includes his farewell to the chamber and the last time he says, “The House will stand at ease at the call of the chair.”

And that’s all folks!

Set your TV on Fire with Amazon’s new stick

Amazon FireTV Stick boxI pre-ordered the new Amazon fireTV stick when it first became available and it arrived about two weeks ahead of schedule. I took the opportunity to use my Google Glass to produce an unboxing, setup and operational overview video. It’s presented here in three parts so people can choose to watch only sections they are most interested in or all three if they so wish, as I shot them assuming you would move from one chapter to the next.

One of the key things to keep in mind is that this device is really going to shine only if you are an Amazon Prime member. What is the point of having a device that can stream hundreds of thousands of movies, TV shows and music tracks at your command unless you have that library available to you?

Amazon FireTV Stick box contents

As you’ll note in the first video, the contents of the box include the stick, a power cable, a power block and an HDMI extender dongle. Note that unlike Google’s Chromecast (which I also own), Amazon strongly recommends that you use the power block to power your fireTV stick instead of using the USB power port on the back of your TV.

In the first video, I unbox the fireTV stick and give an overview of the box contents and offer some commentary about the device compared to a Google Chromecast:

In the second video, I show part of the set up of the fireTV stick:

In the third video, I get into the final installation and set up, as well as sharing the Amazon cartoon that runs when you first install and then some of my initial operations of the fireTV stick:

Note that at the end of the third video, I mentioned I was going to check out the smartphone app. I did and it worked very well as a remote and for voice searches. I just didn’t think it was compelling enough to shoot a video about.

A few other things are worth mentioning here that did not come up while I was shooting the videos because I found them buried deeper in the personal settings area of the menus. I mention them here because I was excited to find them and I don’t think they are all that obvious when you first look into the fireTV stick’s capabilities.

Amazon Fire TV Stick screenshotThe first is that the stick lets you use a selection of built-in photos as a screen saver or — even better — you can select albums you have in your Amazon Cloud Drive and pull your own pictures up to act as the screen saver.

Amazon FireTV Stick screenshot

The second thing is that the fireTV stick will serve as a Miracast device so that if you have a smartphone capable of using this technology, you can mirror your phone’s screen to your TV to share it with an audience. That has some great potential for holiday gatherings when you want to share a collection of photos or videos with the family all at once instead of waiting while they pass your phone around.

Because I just started using the fireTV stick today, I can’t offer any long-term, objective reviews of how it works or how it will hold up after a period of constant use. But my initial impressions are positive. The price is $39, compared with $35 for the Google Chromecast — so the choice may very well come down to which of the two universes you are more deeply embedded in. For various reasons, I have one foot in both the Amazon and Google universes, and both feet are at levels deep enough to be in over my ankles. So, for the cost, having the flexibility of providing both operating systems in my house made it well worth the investment, and I’d probably say that even if I had not received the fireTV stick half off by pre-ordering.

No matter what you decide to do though, never lose sight of the fact that for less than $50, you have a technological device your great-grandparents could have never imagined becoming commonplace plugged into the back of a TV that our parents and grandparents probably never imagined would be in every home. “Mind-blowing” might not even cover it.

The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and months prior in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood their post-Election Day news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.

Technology rocks, just don’t let it roll over you

20140617_111045_754_xA recent family vacation helped prove once again that modern technology rocks, but if you’re not careful, it can roll over you.

Aside from my Google Glass developing the dreaded foil bubble design flaw  during the trip, things went nearly without a hitch. Unfortunately, the one hitch I had could have been a major problem. To be fair, modern technology helped it from becoming one. OK, now I’m starting to write in circles, so let’s just get to it using the old format of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Jessi, the kids and I headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a week with four mobile phones and Google Glass in hand, plus a Kindle Touch, a Kindle Fire and a GoPro camera. We took no laptops or iPads, opting for the smaller screens and less chance for potential distractions. I knew cellular service on the island we were headed to would be spotty at best, but we did have WiFi in the house we rented.

20140619_080739_725_xThe Good

Google Glass — until it broke — worked great as a camera, video camera and travel aid.

The mobile phones (an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S and Motorola Droid Maxx) all performed admirably. They served as phones, messaging and email units, travel aids (via a Delta Airlines app and Google Maps) and cooking timers, as well as cameras, gaming devices, news readers and social media conduits. The ability to take pictures, including panoramas and photospheres (Google Camera on the Maxx) is becoming increasingly easy and impressive. The fact that the list above is as long as it is while talking about a single device you can hold in the palm of your hand or put in your pocket is still astounding to me.

The Delta app has proven more useful over time and if you fly with Delta, you should use their app. You can learn about your current flight’s status, check seating locations, carry a digital version of your boarding pass and even track your checked bags to make sure they’re headed to the same vacation spot you are.

The Kindle Touch served as Jessi’s book reader for the trip, from the plane to the beach — always ready due to it stellar battery life and always readable thanks to its e-ink technology and anti-glare screen. Its small size made it portable and easy no matter where she went.

The Kindle Fire served as my book reader, as well as video player so I could catch up on a TV show I’ve started streaming through Amazon Prime, as well as a magazine reader and a gaming device. (On a side note, did you know Prime members can download TV episodes to store on your device to watch when WiFi isn’t available? I didn’t — but I’m glad I learned about it before my 5 hours of flight time one way!) One of the fondest memories I think all four of us will have is the laughs we shared while playing The Game of Life on my Kindle Fire around the kitchen table for several nights.

20140620_100914_201The GoPro camera was a loaner from my brother-in-law and I’m glad we had it to capture some underwater pictures and videos to add to our collection of memories. Because he also has the WiFi attachment for his 2nd version GoPro, it meant we could watch the videos each night by streaming them to an app on my phone. Besides again causing me to stare in wonder at how technology has changed and improved, it also meant we could critique our video shoots before we headed out snorkeling again so we knew how to adjust our shooting techniques.

The Bad

There are not a lot of items to list in the bad category. Certainly, traveling with devices means having to take care of them, and we made sure everyone had solid cases protecting their mobile phones. Battery drain is always a concern, except on the Droid Maxx, but since we turned off the cellular and data services during the day, the phones all performed well as cameras without giving us much worry about battery life.

When traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands, you must be careful not to suddenly trigger a cell tower on the British Virgin Islands. The signal is better, but also a lot more expensive!

Of course, having technology with you means having the world with you, which in some ways is an unfortunate interference when you’re on vacation. But that’s not really the fault of the technology, but rather of our inability as human beings to let go of the daily rat race and just enjoy wandering the maze slowly while seeking the cheese.

The Ugly

For some reason, when you return to the U.S. mainland from the U.S. Virgin Islands, you need to go through U.S. Customs. This happens at the airport in St. Thomas, which means it’s more laid back than say the Customs unit in Atlanta. But it also means you are in a building where your cellular signal is weak at best.

While still at our rental house, I used the Delta app to check in all four passengers and load boarding passes onto my phone via the WiFi connection — or so I thought. Technically, you’re just loading the passes into the app, not downloading them to your phone. What this means is that you need a WiFi or cellular connection while opening the app to use it if you want to see your boarding passes. Unfortunately, this was not going to happen for me in the U.S. Customs area of the airport in St. Thomas!

The customs officer was extremely friendly and forgiving of the technology snafu. He let Jessi and the kids wait to the side with all of our luggage while I went back outside to try to find a signal and open our boarding passes. He even gave me permission to bypass the long line and come right back to him once I had our boarding passes.

IMG_20140624_070017477_HDROutside, the signal was still weak and the app refused to sign me in and grant me access to our boarding passes. So, after a couple of attempts, I went to find paper boarding passes. Ironically, it was technology that again made things easy even though it was technology that made things more difficult to begin with. Delta has self-serve kiosks at the St. Thomas airport. I just had to log into one of them and since I had already checked us in, it simply asked if I wanted to reprint our boarding passes. I did and within minutes we were through Customs and headed to the security checkpoints, paper boarding passes flapping in our hands. (Just one more reason you never wait until the last minute to try to catch your flight!)

I’ve used the electronic boarding passes before without any issues, but it has always been in areas with strong cellular service. This was the first time I had tried going sans paper, and on the way down, the system worked flawlessly. I’m nearly certain it will again when I travel next week, so I’ll try going all-digital again, especially since I know the Delta kiosks have my back in case of failure. (Also note the update I posted below!)

Sharing the memories

As I wrote earlier, I think technology rocks. Sure, there are flaws and there are times when it can be maddening, but most of the time it’s beneficial and it still makes me shake my head in wonder at how far things have come.

Just last night I used technology again to help share our memories. Using Google Plus, I created an event and then invited Jessi and the kids. We now can each upload our photos from the trip to this event, granting access to all four of us to see the trip from different perspectives. It also eliminates the need for, “Hey, remember that picture you took of X? Can you email it to me?” I could, but that’s sooo 2012.

IMG_20140618_145738124_HDR

 

UPDATE: Here’s an idea to address the issue of having a boarding pass on your phone but no cell phone signal to open the app and view the pass. When you first load the boarding pass after checking in (which means you had a signal at that point), take a screen shot on your phone. That way, you’ll have a usable facsimile of your boarding pass available in your phone’s camera roll whether you have a network signal or not!

What are we supposed to remember?

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_DayWhen you look back on your family history, your own personal history and, perchance, your involvement or recollection of mankind’s events later deemed to be historical, what do you remember? More importantly, what are you sharing with young people, be they family or not, so that they know what they’re supposed to remember?

I’ve been thinking about memories and life events a lot lately, no doubt because of several that have happened to me. My eldest daughter recently turned 18, is about to graduate high school and will be a college student sooner than I will be able to comprehend. I got a notice the other day (on Facebook of all places), that reminded me 2015 is the year of my 30th high school class reunion. I had to nod and laugh when a classmate posted, “Wait, don’t we have 15 years until this happens?”

And today is Memorial Day — a holiday designed for us to remember those who have served and sacrificed in our name as the protectors of life and defenders of freedom.

I recently started keeping a list of things that kids today won’t understand as time passes and references made by my generation will lose their historical and sometimes humorous meaning.

I was originally going to write a post looking at how life has evolved so rapidly in the past 30 years, and how the next generation or two are more likely to take modern conveniences for granted even more than my generation has.

I’ll hit on that list in an upcoming blog post, but today isn’t about remembering things to laugh about. Today is about remembering those killed in action while serving their military, serving their country, and — whether you agreed with the cause or not — serving you.

imdb memorial dayI watched the movie Memorial Day (again) last night because my wife hadn’t seen it yet and it seemed apropos to see on Memorial Day Weekend. It wasn’t a high-action summer blockbuster so you may not have heard about it, but it’s a well-done tale of two soldiers, one who serves in Iraq in the mid-2000s, as well as his grandfather, who served in WWII. It’s not a war movie so much as it is about the memories of war and sharing them (or not) with family.

Without giving any spoilers not already available from the movie’s summary paragraph, a key moment occurs early in the film in a conversation between the WWII vet and his grandson when the boy asks about the war. Initially, the grandfather is extremely reluctant to share any tales, but then this exchange occurs:

Grandson: “It’s Memorial Day.”

Grandpa: “You’re damn straight it is.”

Grandson: “What am I supposed to remember?”

That’s what gets the grandfather talking — the realization that people don’t know what they’re supposed to remember if generations don’t pass on stories and information about a time that was and will never be again. We must never forget why we celebrate Memorial Day, which is to honor those who died while serving in the military. Do not confuse it with Veterans Day or, as has become more commonplace unfortunately, as the official start of summer vacation season. Please lower your flags to half-staff, because that’s more important than lowering the cover of your grill for your backyard feast. Because Memorial Day is different from other flag holidays, you also need to raise the flag at noon, which is more important than raising a beer to celebrate summer.

It’s Memorial Day. Today is about remembering those who have given the last sacrifice, who deserve to have a tear shed for them and their families, and who have earned our greatest measure of respect.

May they all rest in peace.

(Photos courtesy of IMBD and Wikipedia.)