tools and writing

I had some reasonable freelance income for the first five months of the year, though things have quieted down considerably here in June. I was looking at income versus business expenses, and I realized I had booked very little on the expense side. Now, I don’t mind paying taxes with the current administration in Washington, but I still like to minimize how much I do pay in taxes. So I decided to indulge myself.

writing and bloggingI bought a one-year subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Now the consensus in the forum for writers and editors to which I belong is that the Adobe pricing is expensive (perhaps bordering on unreasonable). Still, I had a few reasons for making the purchase. One was access to the full-featured version of Acrobat, including the ability to edit PDFs and create fillable PDF forms. Another was Photoshop. I bought a new computer last September, and even if I could have located the CD of my ancient Photoshop version, I had no idea of where to find the license key. Then there’s the web-based portfolio development tool, which allows one to create a visually appealing web portfolio. Finally, there is InDesign, the direct lineal successor (as my classics professor in college would say) to PageMaker. Not sure I’ll do a lot with that, but it might be fun to dabble.

I no doubt will discover other cool things that I can do with Creative Cloud. For example, sometimes I find a recipe in a magazine that I want to add to my recipe software, but which is not on the magazine’s web site. I often scan such things with my Dropbox iPhone app and create a PDF, but the PDF is an image, not copyable text, so I would need to open it in Word or some such thing. I just discovered that the full Acrobat can run OCR on the PDF so I can copy and paste the recipe text into my software. Very useful.

There is nothing in Creative Cloud that directly supports my writing. But with all the tools available, and there are many more than I enumerate here, perhaps I will find some inspiration to give me a kick start and get me back on track with my own writing. Given that my contract writing work has slowed down considerably and I’m feeling somewhat at loose ends, that would be a Good Thing.


putting Alexa to work

One of the cool features of our Amazon Echo devices is the ability to create routines, where you can use a single command to have Alexa perform multiple actions. The first time I tried to set up a routine I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. But I went back to my iOS Alexa app and took another look. That time it all made sense. And then I was on a roll.

Fourth Generation EchoI now have a command that says, “Alexa, it’s dinner time.” Alexa then turns on the light  in the dining area (which is connected to a smart plug), tells us “Enjoy your dinner,” and then turns on KCSM, our favorite jazz radio station.

When we’re done with dinner I tell Alexa, “We’re done with dinner.” Alexa turns off the light and KCSM, then tells us, “It’s time to put your feet up.”

When we head into the bedroom to put our feet up, read the paper, and enjoy our respective apéritifs, we tell Alexa, “Good evening.” Alexa turns on our table-top fountain, also connected to a smart plug, plays KCSM on the Echo in the bedroom and tells us, “Enjoy your jazz and reading.”

When we say, “Alexa, good night,” Alexa shuts everything off and wishes us a good night.

How much fun is that?


our newest Echo device

I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.

Amazon Echo ShowI wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.

Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.

Echo Show MusicOf course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.

Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.

The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.


the end of the road for my internet radio

When I tried to tune in to 70s on 7 on my Grace Digital internet radio on Saturday it displayed a message saying it could not contact the SiriusXM server. This was not a huge surprise to me as I had received an email from SiriusXM some months ago saying that “it has come to our attention that you may be streaming SiriusXM at home using a Grace device” and telling me that my Grace Digital device would no longer be supported. When I went on to Google to confirm that I had remembered correctly I saw that I had, but I also saw that my radio would be completely inoperable by late May. It’s a first-generation device that uses a third-party service and that is all going away. (“The managed shut down…will be completed by May 21st, 2021.”) That was a surprise.

We had purchased two Amazon Echo devices, one for the bedroom and a second for the kitchen and dining area as our ancient Recoton 900 MHz wireless devices kept performing less and less well. But, I thought, I still have my internet radio for my office. Guess not.

internet radioI bought my Grace Digital internet radio in January 2014 while we were still in Gilroy to replace another internet radio that used a rather unreliable technology. I kept it in my office and loved it, as over-the-air radio reception in Gilroy was less than optimal. It moved south with us in 2015 and remained in my office here, where over-the-air radio reception is also far from ideal.

There was rarely a day when I was in my office, either there or here, when I did not turn on that radio. And attached to the Recoton 900 MHz transmitter we used it every single evening with the Recoton wireless speakers in the dining area and the bedroom until we replaced them with our Echo devices.

So now what? I thought about getting a current generation Grace Digital radio, but I don’t quite trust those folks, and was not encouraged by the misused words (“effected” instead of “affected”) and other typos on their support web page.

I realized that an Amazon Echo device (our third) could do everything an internet radio could do, plus a lot more. I have always relied on my internet radio for a quick glance at the time when it was not playing, so I needed a visual display. I decided to buy a new Echo Show 10.

It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it works out.


getting acquainted with Alexa

Terry and I have for many years listened to music in the bedroom while the source of the music was elsewhere in the house. We use a Recoton 900 MHz transmitter with a compatible speaker. The transmitter is connected to the internet radio in my office. We listen to jazz on KCSM in San Mateo six nights a week and a station serving up NPR’s Classical 24 on Sunday evenings. The speaker, obviously, is in the bedroom.

Now this is not exactly new technology. It was, in fact, old technology twenty years ago. Back in Gilroy, around 2001 or so, I had to scrounge around on eBay to find additional speakers and transmitters. So replacing components these days is hardly an option.

I had been following the rise of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo for a while, but never had felt the need to buy one. My brother, who was at least at one time a self-admitted Luddite, had two Echo devices when we were at his house for Thanksgiving in 2019. Apparently my dad (we miss him) bought at least one of them for him. Why Dad bought Brian an Echo and not me I have no idea. But that’s another matter.

Fourth Generation EchoIn any case, I was getting along quite well without a smart speaker. But the Recoton speaker in the bedroom had its problems. It would make awful static noises when I would try to adjust the volume, and I would have to spray the knob with contact cleaner, making something of a mess. That worked for a while, but at some point I would have to repeat the process. Then, one recent Saturday evening I really got tired of the snapping and popping which we would experience periodically. I opened the Amazon app on my iPad and started searching for Echo devices. There were cheaper models, but I wanted quality sound in the bedroom, so I ordered a fourth generation Echo with premium sound, and, of course, Alexa.

It has been a genuine delight. It recognizes all of our favorite radio stations, and I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or Writer’s Almanac. I can ask for a local weather forecast and get it. I have even connected my SiriusXM account so I can listen to The Bridge, which is where my car radio is set most of the time. I can also listen to my Pandora channels. The sound quality is impressive, and the device on the table in the bedroom is much less ubiquitous than that big honkin’ black speaker we had for so long (and still have in the dining area).

Of course, once you have one Echo device…

Amazon Echo DotAfter enjoying our Echo in the bedroom it occurred to me that it would be useful to have an echo in the kitchen. (Naturally Amazon reinforced that idea with the many “ways you can use Echo” emails that they kept sending me.) But I thought that when I’m in the kitchen fixing dinner or emptying the dishwasher it would be nice to have an Echo so I can listen to NPR or music or continue with my audiobook.

So I did, I bought a second echo for the kitchen. It is a third-generation Echo Dot, smaller and a lot less expensive than the fourth-generation model in the bedroom, but perfect for the kitchen. One review I read said that the only difference between the third and fourth generation Dot models is the design. That’s fine. I much prefer the smaller third-generation disc design in the kitchen as opposed to the globe design in the bedroom.

I often listened to my audiobooks with my iPhone in the kitchen, but since the sound went through my hearing aid, Terry didn’t know when I was listening and would start to talk to me. She would then get irritated when I asked her to wait a second so I could pause the audio book. Now, listening to my audiobooks in the kitchen with the Echo Dot, that’s no longer a problem.

Of course Amazon can’t stop there. They kept trying to tempt me with a $24.99 smart plug at a “new Echo owner” price of ninety-nine cents. I finally gave in, so now when we sit down to dinner we can tell Alexa to turn on the floor lamp in the dining area.

We have even connected Alexa to our Shark robot vacuum cleaner and I have it set up so I can ask Alexa to play the radio broadcast of a Dodgers game. We’ll see if that latter works: the first spring training game is Sunday.

It’s all a bit unnerving, but wonderfully convenient and enjoyable. I think the millennials are correct when surveys say that they have no expectation of privacy, but I guess that’s the price we pay for convenience and instant access, Amazon’s claims about privacy with the Echo notwithstanding.


a great cooking and recipe resource

If you were to look at the list of programs recorded on our DVR you would see that most of them are shows from the Food Network. No surprise there, right? All of those programs have been promoting the Food Network Kitchen app for some months now. (Not to be confused with my favorite television program on the Food Network, The Kitchen, which airs on Saturday mornings.)

Rising above the cacophony of Black Friday sales was an offer of Food Network Kitchen at half price: $19.95 for a year, as opposed to $39.95. I couldn’t resist. The content is available across all of one’s devices, including the PC, where it is accessed from the Food Network web site. That means that I can save a recipe on my desktop and then access it from my laptop where my recipe software is. That’s a lot easier than the intermediary text file I have been using to save web address for quite a long time now.

Food Network Kitchen logoThe heart of Food Network Kitchen is classes: both live and recorded. These are real-time instructional videos. I believe that the original intent was that these classes be broadcast from the spacious Food Network kitchen facility in New York City. But COVID-19 and corresponding stay-at-home and social distancing orders made that unworkable. So what I have been watching is skilled chefs offering instruction from their own homes. These folks live in New York City (Brooklyn and Harlem, for example) where housing is expensive and apartments are small. A small apartment means a tiny kitchen and we get to peer into these tight spaces. (In two kitchens the toaster oven sat on top of the microwave. In another kitchen the refrigerator door hit up against the butcher block food prep island.) The chefs don’t apologize; they simply show us what great food one can cook in a small space.

There is much that I love about these classes, and at the top of the list is the fact that they are strictly cooking. There is no underlying plot point, as seems to be mandatory on most Food Network cooking (as opposed to competition) shows. (“Aunt Freida is coming over for dinner this evening, so I am making three of her favorite dishes.”)

The Food Network stars on The Kitchen, the Saturday morning television program, have been taping the program from their homes during the pandemic. Jeff Mauro, Katie Lee (Biegel), Geoffrey Zakarian, and Alex Guarnaschelli have let us see their large, fully equipped, to-die-for kitchens. (Sunny Anderson has not let us into her kitchen at home. We only see the outdoor grills on her deck. I’m not sure why.) But the rank-and-file staffers who bring us the live Food Network Kitchen classes from their cramped cooking spaces really know what they’re doing. I am impressed by their skills.

Food Network Kitchen is designed for a tablet. It needs more real estate than a smartphone offers, and the pause and rewind functionality doesn’t work on the PC when you watch a live class. But whatever platform you use, you can type in questions and have a good chance of getting an answer.

I received a generous thirty-day trial and have kept the subscription going. This is cool stuff.


two earbud sets

I have two wireless earbud sets? Yep, two.

I wrote a while back about buying a set of wireless earbuds for my iPhone from a company called Letsfit and how much I liked them. As I expected, they are great for listening to my audiobooks when I’m doing yard work and I don’t want sweat to damage my expensive hearing aid.

earbudsBut then there is my laptop, which I use for Sunday morning worship at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Hemet via Zoom. I had been using wired earbuds, but I decided that they were a bit too restrictive. Since we are unlikely to return to indoor in-person worship anytime soon, I thought a wireless solution would be better.

My hearing aid uses an Apple technology that allows it to connect to multiple devices. So I can use my hearing aid with both my iPhone and my iPad. But here’s the thing with Bluetooth. Bluetooth earbuds only connect with one device. My Letsfit Bluetooth earbuds are paired with my iPhone and if I want something similar for my laptop I need a separate pair.

I searched Amazon and found a set for $19.95. (Prices for all of these things seem to fluctuate frequently.) The average rating was 4+ stars with input from over seventeen thousand users. I ordered them and paired them with my laptop. They work great for Sunday morning Zoom worship.

Something interesting. When I fired up my laptop and put the new set of earbuds in my ears, the voice that said “Connected” was identical to the voice on my Letsfit earbuds.

I guess the underlying technology is the same on all of these products.


router woes and recovery

Stuff sometimes happens even when you’re minding your own business. Yesterday before I went grocery shopping I checked my email. All was well. When I got home I had no internet access. My router was non-functional. There were no lights lit up on it. None. Completely dark. He’s dead, Jim. It’s a dead parrot.

routerI called Spectrum and the automated voice support was no help, so I enunciated very clearly rep-RE-sen-TATIVE. After twenty minutes on hold I got a real person who was very friendly, but finally agreed with me that I had a dead parrot, er, router.

While I was on hold I used my Spectrum iPhone app to make an appointment at the Spectrum store to swap out my router, but the first available appointment was the next day. The real person at Spectrum told me that I didn’t need an appointment; I could just head over to the store, which I did.

I had to wait a bit for my turn, but once someone came over to help me the equipment swap was very quick. I brought the new router home, connected everything, and waited. No internet access. Another call to that automated lady, a complete power cycle on both the modem and the router, then voilà, internet access!

I did a speed test and saw that I was getting almost twice the internet speed I had before, which is what Spectrum had been telling me for some months that I should be getting.

It’s a cliche, certainly, but it’s also true: all’s well that ends well.


a fun new toy

I lost my hearing aid in the parking lot at Kaiser Riverside during the so-called storm of the decade a few years ago when I was taking Terry home from one of those routine but unpleasant procedures that we older folks must endure every five to ten years. When I went to replace it I asked for a hearing aid that would connect directly to my iPhone without an intermediate device. The clinic’s ReSound line did just that. I love it.

Sometimes, though, I want to use earbuds. The sound quality is better, and when I am doing yard work or exercising I worry that the sweat could damage my hearing aid. The wired earbuds that came with my iPhone 8 have good sound quality, but the frigging things don’t stay in my ear. Not only that, but if I’m doing yard work the cord gets in my way.

Letsfit earbudsI have avoided wireless earbuds because of the price, but our morning news tech guy on KTLA channel 5, Rich DeMuro, reviewed a product from Letsfit that sold for only $26.99 on Amazon. I thought it was worth a try, and with the rewards points on my Amazon VISA credit card the earbuds cost me six dollars and change with tax. (The price, by the way, was $19.95 at last check on Amazon.)

They are really cool. There are four sizes of ear tips and the sound quality is excellent. When the weather allows me to do yard work I can listen to audiobooks without fighting with the cords or worrying that my hearing aid might be damaged by my sweat. The earbuds are advertised as waterproof and they seem to be. The left one fell into my leftover black beans from El Pollo Loco with no apparent damage. (The only time the seem to fall out is when I am using them while eating, which I probably shouldn’t do anyway.)

Practical, fun, and inexpensive. What more can you ask?


when Apple behaves like Microsoft

My first hearing aid required an intermediate device, called an iCom, to communicate with other devices, such as my iPod or phone. It was a pain to deal with I eventually stopped using it.

I lost that hearing aid during what was termed “the storm of the decade” in February 2017 when I was taking Terry out to the car after a routine procedure at Kaiser Riverside. That drive home is perhaps material for another blog entry. The point here is that I needed a new hearing aid.

audible screen shotWhen I went to the hearing aid shop I specifically asked for a hearing aid that communicated directly with my iPhone, without an intermediate device. I got one, and it has worked beautifully, both with my iPhone 5s and with my new iPhone 8, which I got in August. I use it not only for phone calls but with my Audible and podcast apps.

All was well until I installed iOS 13. Now I knew from reports I had read that iOS 13 was buggy, and I held off installing it until iOS 13.1.2 was released. That was the fourth release of iOS 13. Nonetheless, there were still a lot of bugs in 13.1.2, and my iPhone no longer wanted to talk to my hearing aid. Well, it thought it was, but it wasn’t. I had to turn off my hearing aid, open my Audible app, start playing a book, and then turn my hearing aid back on in order to get the two to communicate properly. Most frustrating.

The iOS 13.1.3 release did not solve the problem. 13.2 seems to have fixed the issue, knock on wood.

This is a first world problem, I am fully aware. Still, it is frustrating. We expect these things from Microsoft, but now Apple is doing it to us as well. We should be able to expect better from our tech companies.