#17: Debt, Delivery, and Databases

Apple Card

Yes, it’s a credit card.  Yes, it’s from Apple.  But let’s get past all of the marketing hype and talk about what this card really is.

In short, the Apple Card is like any other credit card.  You can make purchases with it, and if you pay it off on time, it’s basically a free short-term loan.  If you don’t pay it off on time, you incur interest charges (and the reported interest rates I’ve heard around the web vary wildly.) . Mine is 12%, but I have one of the highest possible credit scores, so your mileage may vary.  If you pay it off every month (or day), the interest rate won’t matter.

There’s a couple of features that are nice, but as someone that uses several credit cards for travel and work, I’m constantly evaluating whether or not they’re actually worth using.

1) Cash Back.  If I just use the physical card (it’s gorgeous, super heavy, and made of titanium), you get 1% cash back on purchases.  If you use Apple Pay with the card, you get 2% back.  If you buy something directly from Apple, you get 3%.  You receive your cash immediately, as soon as you pay some of all of your balance.  It’s a cool software feature to pay your card, and receive an alert that they just gave you $2.94.

2) Daily Payment. I can pay my card once or several times a day.  I tend to like to make payments that are the same amounts as the transactions, so that I’m treating each transaction as its own item that I’ve “paid off.”  I actually wish they would implement some features to make this possible, so that I could just pick an individual transaction, and “pay it.”  It would be nice to see a list of my transactions, and which ones have actually been paid off, rather than trying to reconcile payments with transactions.

3) Reporting.  There’s some good reporting built into the Apple Wallet software too.  It lets me easily see how much I’ve spent, where the money went, and how much cash back I earned, all on one screen.  I still think this could be better, but for the first version, this is pretty decent.  (I’ve been using this card on my Lyft account while I travel for work, which is why my transportation category is so high this month.)


So that’s the quick highlights.  Now, if you’re looking for my guidance on whether you should get one?  I’m not sure.  I think there are better options, even if the software is cool.  I’ve been using my card a bit since August 2019, and I haven’t earned $100 in cash back yet.

I spent $1815.73 in August, and got $22.50. (1.23%)
I spent $2831.14 in September, and got $49.26. (1.74%)
I spent $545.11 in October, and got $11.00. (2.02%)

Because I travel quite a bit for work, I am also using the Delta Reserve American Express card, and the Marriott Bonvoy Visa.  These boost the miles and points I earn quite a bit, and the value of those points seems to far exceed the cash back value that I get from the Apple Card.  (As an example, in the last 6 months, I’ve earned enough Skymiles from Delta to fly my entire family of 4 to New York City roundtrip, first class.  That would be nearly $1600.)  Now, part of that is because I’m already flying on Delta a bunch, and my Diamond status with them also contributes.  But the credit card is really the multiplier that makes it all happen.

The most interesting part of my Apple Card experiment has been how much it’s changed my behavior around using Apple Pay.  I mean, I get an extra 1% just for tapping my phone instead of swiping my card!  I’ve found myself asking folks in the drive thru window if I can pay with my phone, and I’m disappointed when someone doesn’t offer it.  (I’ve even had Wendy’s give me my meal for free when I asked, because they couldn’t accommodate!) . We’re still in the early days of mobile payments, but I’ve been surprised how many places are equipped to handle it.  I’m definitely looking forward to the future!

Delivery

As I sit here waiting for my Echo Buds to arrive today, I’m really in awe of where we are today with our deliveries.  This isn’t a long section, but you might learn something new along the way.

1) Amazon now offers ONE-day delivery.  ONE DAY!  I’m sure I don’t need everything delivered the next day, but what an awesome option when I do.  I’m looking forward to enjoying my Alexa-enabled earbuds later today.

2) You can see your mail every day.  If you haven’t heard of USPS Informed Delivery, you should really check it out.  I get an email every morning with photos of all of the mail that will be delivered that day to my house.  This includes a list of packages and tracking numbers, too!  This is especially cool when someone mails you something you weren’t expecting (and weren’t told about), so that you can make sure to get home and grab it when it arrives.

3) UPS My Choice is also awesome.  UPS My Choice is similar to Informed Delivery, but with more data.  You can get a notification every time your package moves in the UPS network, and once it’s out for delivery, they even let you track the location of the truck it’s on.  Super awesome when you’re expecting something exciting.

Databases

For the last entry in this letter, I wanted to briefly talk about a database service that I’ve been using to build many of my Alexa skills.  It’s called AirTable, and it’s awesome, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

First, it’s mostly free.  At least at the volume that I’m using it for.

Second, I tend to collaborate with others on my software.  It’s really difficult to write the entire application, and gather and curate all of the necessary data to make the app work.  Airtable makes that kind of collaboration incredibly simple, and it does it with an interface that is friendly even to those that don’t regularly build software or work with technical tools.  It basically looks and acts like a spreadsheet!

The reason I, as a developer, like it so much, however, is because of what it provides that makes writing software easier.  I can use their API to make calls directly against my data, and retrieve what I need in a JSON format.  And it’s fast.  There’s also an SDK if I want to make targeted calls to update records, for example.  I tend to use the SDK for insert and update operations, but for read operations, I find it easier to make direct HTTPS calls thanks to some helper functions I wrote for myself.

Their technical documentation gives you actual code samples, using your data and structures, that you can copy and paste directly into your code, and it works!

There are lots of cloud database options out there, but I have yet to find one as user friendly, inexpensive, and powerful as Airtable.  I wish the other folks in this industry would take notice, because they’ve really figured it out.

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

echo

Amazon Tap Case – $10.99

tap

Amazon Fire TV Stick Case –  $8.99

firetvstick

Echo Show Case – $22.99

echoshow

 

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?