Cutting the Cord – 7 Years Later

In April 2011, I wrote a post about how my family and I were going to cut the cord from cable.  Since that time, much has changed in the landscape of cord-cutting, so I thought I’d write a quick summary of where we are today, both in service subscriptions and hardware.

Subscriptions

Initially, we were subscribed to Hulu Plus and Netflix.  Netflix wasn’t even on my radar for the first article, because it was mostly older movies and television shows.  In 2011, it might have even been mailing us DVDs!  Today, we have a few more subscription services, but we also have access to much more programming.  Here’s the list (with prices, including tax):

Netflix ($14.97)

With a 14 and a 10 year old, we have the “4 screens + UltraHD” package.  There have been plenty of times where we are all watching something separately.  Netflix has really upped their game with original content in the past few years, and is absolutely a staple of our entertainment watching.

Hulu Plus ($12.97)

This is still the primary way we watch television.  We add the shows we watch to our queue, and Hulu gives us a managed list of recent episodes when we open the app.  It’s easy to see and review what you’ve still got available to watch.  We stepped up to their “No Commercials” plan, which is about $4 more per month, but is totally worth the time savings alone.  22-minute shows are 22 minutes, not 30.

DirecTV NOW ($42.80)

When this was announced, we jumped in to give it a try.  (Primarily because they gave us a brand-new Apple TV if we bought three months up front.)  We chose their “Go Big” option, which includes 105+ channels, but we get it as a grandfathered discount price of $40/month.  Here’s a picture of the included channels.

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.26.10 AM

We obviously don’t watch all of those channels (this is the primary problem with bundling this stuff in the first place), but we felt like we’re getting a good deal, so we haven’t stepped down yet.  I actually JUST reviewed the list of channels we would lose by moving down a step, and I think I’m going to make the switch to “Just Right” today.  This would drop my monthly bill another $15.

One of the biggest features of having a DirecTV NOW subscription is that your credentials unlock all of the other channel apps.  For example, if you use the ESPN app, you can log in and watch literally any college football game on Saturday.  If you like the Food Network, you can open their app and watch shows from your favorite series.  I like the shows “Better Call Saul” and “Walking Dead,” which I can catch on the AMC app.

HBO GO ($0.00)

Because we are AT&T customers with their Unlimited Plan, and also DirecTV NOW subscribers, they throw in HBO for free.  We don’t watch it a ton, but for free, I’ll watch John Oliver and Game of Thrones!

Hardware

We are really torn on this, and it’s really frustrating.  Primarily, we use a Roku Premiere+, which is outstanding, and has been our mainstay for years.  But the tide is turning, and there are a number of great devices out there.  We also have an Apple TV, and a Amazon Fire TV Cube.  There’s plusses and minuses to each.

Roku Premiere ($40)

Interface: Of all of the interfaces, this one wins.  The interface is just a grid of your installed apps.  Everything else you have to dig a little deeper to find.  It’s perfect.

Remote: The remote is also excellent.  Tactile, rubber buttons and volume control are huge.  It also has a headphone jack on the remote for when you want to watch without interrupting others.

Amazon Fire TV Cube ($120)

Interface: Sadly, this is probably my least favorite interface.  There’s too much retail focus, and not enough easy visibility into the apps, which is my core use case.  While I completely understand, since Amazon Video has a ton of amazing content, this creates an extra step every time that I want to watch TV.  The one big feature this device holds is that it’s also a full Alexa device, that can also control your TV.  “Switch to Input 3,” or “Turn off the TV” are amazing commands that get used regularly in our house.

Remote: The remote is great.  Very well thought out.  Voice search is awesome.  Voice commands are great.  It’s really the software interface that holds everything back, because hitting the “Home” button still leaves you one step from most of the things that you want to use.

Apple TV 4K ($179)

Interface: This comes close to the Roku interface: a giant scrolling list of apps. Where it starts to fall down is that it’s easy to get lost, especially with all of the default Apple apps that clutter up the list.  It’s the remote that makes everything fall apart.

Remote: This might be the worst remote control that has ever been created.  Because it mostly a trackpad, every time you pick it up, you can’t help but press a button.  All directional controls are done as swipes, which sounds awesome, but is actually much slower than pressing a physical button.  Add to all of that the fact that it’s wafer thin, and easier to lose in the couch than you’d like, and you’ll learn to hate it.  Not a fan.

 

Introducing the Smart Deck

We recently renovated our 15-year old wooden deck, and I wanted to share with you how we created a smart deck.  Here’s what it looked like before we started this project (we had already cut the benches up before I took the photo):

OldDeck

This video illustrates how it has changed pretty well.

The technology behind everything is actually pretty simple.  For the floodlight, it’s a standard floodlight hooked up to a WeMo Light Switch.  I’ve had this switch installed for about three years now, and it’s still the perfect solution.  We have 6 more of these throughout our house.

For the colored lights in the deck itself, I took a chance on a set of LED lights that I found on Amazon.com that were listed in the “Works with Alexa” category.  They’re made by a company called FVTLED.  Could not be happier with how they turned out.  Each 10-light kit costs about $100, but has a wi-fi module, a remote control, and an outdoor power supply as part of the kit.

You couldn’t see them in the dark (and I didn’t want to turn them on and wake the neighbors), but there are two speakers connected to a Bluetooth receiver mounted above the deck as well. This allows me to pair an Alexa device, or my phone, to the receiver, and play music through the speakers.

The Grace Digital receiver is small.  Maybe 6 inches wide, and 10 inches deep.

Grace Digital GDI-BTAR513 100 Watt Digital Integrated Stereo Amplifier with Built-In AptX Bluetooth Wireless Stereo Receiver

The Yamaha speakers are pretty standard outdoor speakers.  I had to run speaker wire to them, and they don’t require any additional power to run them.

Yamaha NS-AW150WH 2-Way Indoor/Outdoor Speakers (Pair, White)

 

Overall, I’m pretty happy with how this turned out.  I don’t actually expect that I’ll be running techno dance parties with flashing colored lights, but I love that I have the option.  Most of the time, I expect to be running standard white (or off white) colors.

Have you done anything cool to improve your outdoor living space?  I’d love to see it!

Traveling with Alexa

As you might imagine, I spend a decent amount of my time traveling around the world talking about Alexa.  Because of this, I frequently find myself bringing a couple of devices with me where ever I’m headed.  Early on, I would just throw an Echo Dot in my bag, and coil up the power brick and cable.

I was always worried it was getting knocked around in my suitcase or backpack, so I started looking for a small container or bag to keep it in.  That’s when I discovered Khanka Cases on Amazon.  They make awesome hard-shell cases for each of the different Alexa devices (including the Fire TV Stick and the Echo Show!), and I now take most of the devices with me on every trip because they pack so nicely, and really protect the hardware.  I can’t recommend these enough.  Here they are:

Echo Dot Case – $7.99

echodot

Echo Case – $12.99

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Amazon Tap Case – $10.99

tap

Amazon Fire TV Stick Case –  $8.99

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Echo Show Case – $22.99

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Finally, it’s a little obvious, but traveling with a Fire TV Stick ($40!) should become an absolute requirement for you if you travel any for work.  Having all of my streaming options, including movies and tv shows from Amazon/Netflix/Hulu/DirecTV NOW/HBO GO/Fox Sports Go/Plex available to me in every hotel room is lifechanging.

Do You Know Your Email Address?

I had, without question, the strangest conversation I’ve ever had today.  It fundamentally makes me head hurt to think about it.  It reminds me of a bit from the comedian Lewis Black, where he was consumed by something he heard a woman say in a coffee shop: “If it hadn’t been for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college!”

Anyways, this is a completely real story that happened no more than an hour ago.  I wanted to record this exchange while it was still fresh.

Background

I have a Gmail address that I never use, but it’s only my last name, so I’ve held on to it.  It forwards all of its mail to my primary email address, so I still receive all of the messages.  For several years, I occasionally will get strange registration emails to this address for websites like Amazon, Best Buy, SoundCloud, and others.  I’ve never been able to reach out to the person, however, because the only contact information they provided was MY email address.

Today, I received a registration email from Netflix, registered to that email address.  And then I got another message that they needed to confirm my phone number.

verifyphone

When I clicked on the link, it showed me the entire phone number of the person.  This was the first time that I had a way to contact this foolish person registering accounts with my email address!!

So I decided to text this person, in the off-chance it was a mobile phone.  Maybe I could figure out what the problem was!  The following is a completely unedited text exchange between me and this person.

textmessages

 

Amazing, right?

Wrap Up

You may have noticed that I had the names of two people that had been registering accounts with my email address.  And she knew the other person, because it’s her cousin.

THIS MEANS THEY BOTH THINK THEIR EMAIL ADDRESSES ARE MY EMAIL ADDRESS!  This also, somehow, means that they both think they have the same email address.  I’m betting they’ve never discussed this, but I would love love love to hear her tell this story to her family tonight.

Just thought I should share!

P.S.  Did she say her grandpa brother?  Does she have a brother that is also somehow her grandpa?  This might offer a real explanation for this whole ordeal.

Getting Alexa To Pronounce Ordinals

Today, I’m working on a project that requires Alexa to say things like “first,” “second,” or “twenty-first.”  I’ve gone through a few iterations of creating these ordinal strings.

First: Brute Force Attempt

I started the easy way: I created a hard-coded switch statement for the values from 1 – 10, and used a helper function to feed me the appropriate return value as a string..  Not the most elegant, but it got the job done.

Second: Slightly More Elegant and Scaleable

As my application grew, I realized that I would now need the values from 1 – 50 available in my application.  I added to my switch statement…until I got to 15.  At that point, I realized I needed a new solution that could scale to any number I passed in.  So I started writing some logic to append “st” to numbers that ended in 1, “nd” to numbers that ended in 2, “rd” to numbers that ended in 3, and “th” to pretty much everything else.  I had to write some exception cases for 11, 12, and 13.

It was at this point that I made an amazing discovery.

Third: Alexa is already too smart for me.

While playing with my second solution, I used the Voice Simulator that is available when you are building an Alexa skill.  I wanted to see if Alexa would pronounce the words the same if I just appended the suffixes like “th” or “nd” to the actual number value, rather than trying to convert the whole thing to a word.

This is where the discovery was made.

I tried getting her to say “4th,” and she pronounced it as I expected: “fourth.”

On a whim, I added “th” to the number 2, which would normally be incorrect.  She pronounced it “second.”  I had the same experience with “1th,” which she still got correct as “first.”

If you append “th” to the end of any number, Alexa will pronounce the appropriate ordinal.

My mind was slightly blown today.  Thanks, Alexa.

The Art of the Coding Tutorial

As part of my new responsibilities at Amazon, I’m working to re-write the Alexa development tutorials for a couple of reasons:

  1. We want them to be as easy to follow as possible for developers of all skill levels.
  2. The Amazon Developer Portal and AWS will forever be making changes to their interfaces, and we want to be able to easily keep up with updating our screenshots.
  3. We want to be able to re-use as much of each tutorial as possible, again to minimize the maintenance costs that come with updates.

Before anything else, however, we want tutorials that help developers get from Point A (no Alexa skill) to Point B (published Alexa skill) with as few barriers as possible.

So I ask these questions of you, my wonderful readers:

  1. What are some examples of tutorials that you have found effective?
  2. Which is the best format for you to follow a tutorial?
    1. One long web page that covers every step.
    2. One web page that covers the essential steps, but has links to the “fringe-y” stuff that only some developers will require.
    3. Multi-page tutorial that breaks the process into 5-6 digestible chunks.
    4. A video.
  3. Is it more important to get to Point B, or understand *how* you got there?

Circle Solves THAT Problem

Last week, I had several conversations with other parents at my son’s school about technology, smart home stuff, and our kids.  They were telling me about how they had a “Circle with Disney“, and how that made it so much easier to manage their kids’ time online.  Normally, in a conversation like this, I tend to be the one sharing the merits of some technology (software or hardware) that is somehow simplifying my life.  This time, however, I was on the other side of the conversation, and it was weird.

I’d never even heard of this device.  (What is a Circle with Disney?  I imagined it was a wi-fi router with Mickey’s ears that had simplified software for non-technical folks to understand.)  Even if I haven’t tried something, I’ve usually heard of it, or at least the category.  This one completely caught me off guard.  So I checked it out.

It. Is. Awesome.

circleshot

It’s about the size of a can of soda, and it manages and reports all of the activity and devices that are on your wi-fi network.

You’ve probably seen clever images like this making the rounds on your social media:

wifipassword

The idea behind changing the wifi password every day seems brilliant.  “Kids, do your chores, and I’ll give you today’s password.”

In practical use, however, your kids aren’t the only ones using the wifi in your home.  Your phone, your laptop, your television, your Xbox, your light switches, your lightbulbs, your thermostat, your garage door, maybe even your refrigerator are using it too!  Nobody is going to change the wifi password on all of those devices every day, just to get their kids to do a few chores.

Circle solves that problem by giving you the ability to turn access to the Internet on and off for every single device (or person) on your network without any effort.  This means you can set specific limits for each person or device in your home.

Setting Up Your Circle

When you first set up your Circle, you go through a quick five minute setup, and then the work really begins.  You are presented with a list of every single device that is currently connected to your network.

circle1

I’d love to tell you that it automatically knows the name of every device on your network, and you won’t have to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat to figure some of them out, but I’d be lying to you.  I know my home is far beyond the average, but I have 44 devices on my network currently.  This includes:

  • 4 iPads
  • 3 iPhones
  • 3 computers
  • 2 light switches
  • 2 Amazon Dash buttons
  • 1 Garageio
  • 1 Fitbit Aria Scale
  • 6 Amazon Echo devices (Dot, Tap, Echo)
  • 1 Nest thermostat
  • 3 Rokus
  • 2 Xbox Ones
  • 1 Wii U
  • 2 webcams
  • 2 Apple TVs
  • 2 Nintendo DSs
  • 2 Amazon Kindles
  • 2 wi-fi printers
  • 2 televisions
  • 1 Logitech Harmony remote
  • a few wi-fi lightbulbs

Very few of them were obviously named, so I had to compare the MAC addresses to the Circle app to make sure I had the right one.  Even the iPads only identified as an iPad, so I had to make sure I knew which one was which.  Once you’re done with your sleuthing, however, it is magical, as you’ll see in the next section.  (My recommendation is to go to your router’s home page, and turn a device completely off.  If it disappears, that’s the one you were looking for.  Turn it back on, and mark it accordingly.)

What Circle Can Do

To start, you set up all of the people that live in your home.  For me, that’s my wife and my two children.

20161114_144346000_ios

You’ll notice on most of the screens of the app, there’s a prominent PAUSE button available.  This turns off Internet access for all of the devices in context.  In the screenshot above, that would pretty much turn off everything that I’m managing with Circle.  (You can have a list of “unmanaged devices” as well, that aren’t affected by your actions in Circle.  This makes sense for things like your thermostat, which you’d never want to shut off unless your kids find a way to watch YouTube on it.)

You can also manage access on an individual level.

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You can see above that I currently have five devices, and I don’t have many restrictions.  I’ll take you briefly through each of the sections.

Insights

Insights is for seeing data.  How much time a person was online, how much they used a certain app, etc.  Here’s a screenshot of my activity today:

20161114_144949000_ios

I can open each of those sections and dive into websites visited, time spent at each, etc.  The downside to this, at least in my situation, is that if you have a browser tab open, it seems to count that as “activity.”  It’s especially prevalent when that tab auto-refreshes, because even background activity will be considered activity.  It is only monitoring the traffic from these devices, it isn’t checking to see what the traffic actually is.

Devices

The devices section just shows you all of the devices you’ve assigned to a specific person.  It’s entirely up to you how you assign devices, but my personal rule was to classify anything that has one unique user to a person, and things like the Xbox One, which many people use, to my Home group instead.

20161114_144419000_ios

Opening a specific device gives you the MAC address, as well as a place to edit the Device name.  In most cases, the Manufacturer field will be filled in accurately, but not always.  I wish they would allow you to edit the Manufacturer field as well, but they don’t.  This is also where you can change where a device is assigned, or pause the access for this specific device.  (Circle manages your wi-fi access. It does offer an add-on program for $10/month that can also manage your cellular access.  I’m not using this, but I could see it being handy if you have a child that overuses data or spends time at school playing instead of learning.)

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Filter Level

Filter level is simply some default settings for people of different ages.  When the Circle detects a user trying to access content that isn’t appropriate for their filter level, it will present them with a webpage that lets them know the content has been filtered.  It also restricts the apps/websites they can use, but you can customize all of it to fit your family’s needs.

20161114_144428000_ios

Time Limits

As you’d imagine, Circle lets you set time limits for your users, and also by specific apps.  Many children need access to the Internet to do their homework, but they don’t need to be on YouTube while that’s happening.  This would allow you to limit their access to YouTube to 30 minutes a day, but their total time available could be more like three hours.

20161114_144457000_ios

Bedtime

Bedtime is just another way to manage access times.  You can set a time that everything shuts off for a specific person, so then when they’re supposed to be in their room sleeping, they’re not sneaking in another four hours of Netflix.  Obviously, you can take the devices out of their rooms (as we do), but on the weekends, we tend to be a bit more lax.  This lets you be as lax as you want.

20161114_144438000_ios

Summary

Overall, the Circle is an amazing device for my home.  Not only can I manage, view, and control what my children are accessing, but I also get this control for any additional devices that wander into my house, like the tablets and phones of their friends.  It gives me the peace of mind that they’re not going to venture to places I don’t want them going.  I don’t need angry neighbors asking why their child was watching something inappropriate at my house.

I get notifications every time a new device appears on my network, so there’s no way to sneak your way past the Circle, either.

Finally, I have to mention the Disney angle.  I mentioned that this device is called Circle with Disney.  It wasn’t obvious to me how Disney was even involved, other than the name.  They basically provide a portal on your network at http://mycircle.meetcircle.com.  If you go to that page from any of your devices, it will tell you the specifics about the controls on that device (bedtimes, time limits), as well as a bunch of Pinterest-style photos and links to Disney content.  This seems to be the only real involvement by Disney, which is fine.

circlescreenshot