Alexa vs Siri

by dichroic in daily updates

Our Amazon Echo finally arrived. I’d originally wanted it for Ted’s birthday last December, but Amazon was doing a phased release. Once I signed up for the waiting list, it finally let me order in around March and the thing itself has just arrived. On the plus side, as a Prime member I got it for half price.

The Echo is supposed to do a bunch of stuff – tell you the weather, various other useful facts, play music, let you put stuff on a to-do or shopping list, set a timer. To let it know you’re talking to it, you start each utterance with “Alexa…” So far the most fun thing I’ve found to do with it is to have it compete head to head with Siri – giving the same command to the Echo and as a voice command to my Apple phone.

Alexa wins on hands-free use; I think you can set Siri to wake when summoned by voice, but only when the phone is plugged in.

Alexa is also better at music. You can tell her who to play and if you don’t have that artist in your Amazon library (which appears to consist of music you’ve downloaded from Amazon, but I didn’t think I had much) and are a Prime member, it will play that from the Prime music library. Siri will play any music on your phone, and will also play iTunes radio – but I tried that out the other day and was very unimpressed. (I set up a radio station similar to one I have on Pandora, with lots of different music I can sing to, and while Pandora grasps the concept of singable music (she refers to it as “acoustic sonority” and provides me a wide range of music where I can tell that the different seeds (songs or artists) I put in are influencing the music choices, with the iTunes radio even though I listed lots of songs and performers, the whole station seemed to be keyed to the first song I listed. As that happened to be “California Dreamin’ “, it decided that what I wanted was music that could have been performed on the Sonny and Cher show. It probably goes without saying that that was not what I wanted – I just like the song’s harmonies and folk-rock sound.)

Alexa and Siri both do well on the weather. I suspect this will be the prime use for the Echo – I can check weather on my phone or iPad, but it will be convenient to do it handsfree as I’m getting ready. Alexa also can provide a news report, which can be customized. It can read my Audible audiobooks, but I’m more likely to keep having my phone do this, since I need to use headphones t hear well when I’m erging. (I used to use earbuds attached to an iPod clipped to my waistband; now I use my phone with Bluetooth headphones.) It was nice that when I told Alexa to read my book, it went to my current location. (I have the audio version that’s synced with my Kindle so Amazon is supposed to be remembering where I am in it – this isn’t an unexpected invasion of privacy.)

But where Siri way outclasses Alexa is on information. Alexa can provide Wikipedia entries, but Siri harnesses true websearch capabilities. The result was that Alexa was totally confused by “What is the value of the Dow Jones index today”, and “what is the Dow Jones” just gave me the Wikipedia entry for it – not too helpful. Siri brought it right up. When I asked “What is the right temperature to cook fish to?” Alexa was again baffled. Siri websearched, and came up with a table of safe cooking temperatures at the top of her list of responses – but to see it I’d have had to open it up, which since I didn’t have my phone open at the time would have meant putting in my password or fingerprint. Not the most helpful thing when you’re cooking and have raw fish all over your hands.

Verdict: nobody’s perfect yet, but both are god enough to be useful. Siri is better – but only when your hands are free.

made it back in one piece

by dichroic in daily updates

I survived all that driving. The trip down may have been the hardest one so far, because I went at the end of (almost) a full workday. I think my eyes and brain play less nicely together when I’m tired, which makes highway driving harder. The way back was the easiest trip so far; I deliberately didn’t row out rowing or kayaking before leaving the lake so I wouldn’t be tired. But I think the bigger factor was that I followed Ted all the way home. That way, I was focused on his truck for much of the time, at a stable following distance (and it’s big enough to obscure what’s in the lane in front of it) so my eyes didn’t have to keep changing focus as much. He’s a good driver, too, and is beautifully easy to follow because he keeps a very consistent speed and it’s easy to predict when and why he’s going to change lanes.

I’m glad I won’t have to do that 2-3 hour drive again any time soon, but I think I’m close to the point where I wouldn’t let driving nerves dictate my decision on, say, the best way to get to the airport or whether I want to go to the mall in the next town over.

Also, we’ve now bought a nice 6-person table for the deck and a tandem sit-on-top kayak, in our continuing quest to make this house a great place to have guests. So we can feed more people at once, and if people with kids visit (or people like my mother who I’d be uneasy at allowing to kayak alone) we can take them out in the tandem. It also handles well enough when paddled solo – you get fairly wet in a sit-on-top kayak so that will be nice in hot weather.

In everything else, I’m being dilatory. Just bought our airfare to Philadelphia for a trip that’s only a month away, need to get moving on organizing this year’s Black Sheep Retreat (people from up here staying at our lake house to attend the Black Sheep Gathering), need to buy a ticket for my mom to visit us in August.

this is me, alternately pouting and waffling

by dichroic in daily updates

My husband and cats are still at the lake (because when you’ve worked at the same company for 19 years you get more vacation time, and when you’re a pampered housecat you get All The Benefits – unlimited time off, healthcare, food, housing…). Not sure the cats really enjoy the lake views, but they do like watching all the birds around there, as well as having more room to run.

Meanwhile I am at work, and the weather is absolutely gorgeous. Hence the pouting. (Also, I’m working on a very boring task just at this moment, and I don’t have a window.)

So now I just need to decide if I want to join them all at the lake this weekend. There’s only one thing against it: the drive there and back, solo again. There are lots of reasons for it: getting out on the water again (though Saturday is apparently going to be cloudy); time with Ted (though if I don’t come down, he might come back a little early); helping to load up the cats for the trip back (no fun, but necessary), getting to see the very nice outdoor table and chairs we bought last week that were delivered today. That one reason against it translates to 5-6 hours driving in exchange for < 48 hours there, though (same as any other time we head down for a weekend, but at least usually we can keep each other company. for the driving itself, of course I don’t really want to do it, but then it would be that many more highway hours between me and that incident in Taiwan, or that many practice hours for my eyes and brain to work together, however you choose to see it. I was looking at it in the most morbid way, earlier: which would I regret more, if I went and died in a highway fatality or if I didn’t go – and Ted was the one in the bad accident? The answer to that is surprisingly easy: I’d feel much better about trying and failing (though my last thoughts would probably be “told you so”) than I would about missing those last moments with him. Fortunately both of those outcomes are phenomenally unlikely, but I did just come up with another way to think about: if I go, I will regret it for the last hour or so of the drive each way (or maybe even only on the way back, like last weekend). If I don’t go, how long will I regret it? But the other way around is, if I don’t go, we’re likelier to go next weekend, whereas if I do go we might not. Sigh. Really, I’m OK at the big decisions – it’s the small ones that kill me.


by dichroic in daily updates

It’s very weird being home all alone without either Ted or the cats.

By which you can tell I survived all the driving. The way down went pretty well, except that due to the holiday traffic a trip that can be done as fast as two and a quarter hours took three and a half hours. In a perverse way that made the driving easier; the first hour and 3/4 was largely stop and go traffic. Even the lane changes in dense traffic weren’t difficult, thanks to a combination of my Taiwan-honed reflexes and the friendliness of Portland drivers. (I don’t think it’s widely known, but drivers here are amazingly polite – some of that stems from strict yield-to-pedestrian laws but it applies even on highways.) Ted took back roads (resulting in one predictably carsick cat) and arrived about twenty minutes after I did. Even with the delay, the whole drive went pretty well for me.

The way back was a bit rougher, even though it was a much quicker drive. I’d feared it might be: there’s a part on the way back that typically has me dozing off when I’m a passenger. I wasn’t feeling sleepy at all, but after about an hour and a half, whenever I’d blink my eyes hard (to keep them moist) I’d feel like my brain skipped out for a second, which did make me a bit nervous. So that part wasn’t fun, and it went on for a while. I think I’d have felt better with a wakeful passenger, there to spot if it seemed like I was dozy. I stopped at the last rest stop (thee are three along the way) to do a little stretching and a few jumping jacks, and that seemed to help, plus once I got into the last stretch off I-5 and onto 217 and 26 I knew I was almost home and would be OK.

Ted is staying there all week and would really like me to come down next weekend; I’d have to drive down on Friday and back on Sunday. My options are:1) don’t go; 2) drive and tough it out; 3) take Amtrak (train is about as fast as driving but add a couple hours between the walk to light rail, light rail ride to get there, and extra time to find and wait for my train since I haven’t been to that station, and time for Ted to pick me up in Eugene); 4) drive but get someone to go with me – which would be more feasible if we had actual friends here, but I could ask someone from work. Hmm.

I have canceled our CSA shipment, which I’d otherwise have to pick up on Friday after 5 to maximize my options. Thing is, staying in Portland for a weekend isn’t exactly punishment!

getting prepared

by dichroic in daily updates

OK, I think I’m ready for my long drive today.

I’ve persuaded my car and phone to talk to each other. This is trickier than it sounds; the car has Bluetooth but not streaming audio, which means that phone calls and GPS directions from the phone are piped through the car speakers but not music (or audiobooks). For some reason plugging the phone in to the car’s USB port didn’t work, but plugging it in via old-fashioned headphone cable did. (I like living in the future but sometimes I’m not quite far enough into it! I hope to buy a car in the next year or so and will look for one with streaming audio. It’s not only expensive cars that have it; one I’m considering is a VW Beetle.) So now I have Phryne Fisher to keep me company on the drive, or I can switch back to the car’s satellite radio if I want something more upbeat.

I’ve also got my totem (not really) jewelry on: a glass pendant I bought on Etsy with a scene that looks very much like our lake, (this one) and a bracelet like this that is stamped with the phrase “There is no honour in turning aside from adventure”. It’s from the movie version of The Dawn Treader and Reepicheep says it. It’s not in the book – and I feel a little odd using the quote for that reason because I am so much more a book person than a movie person – but it encapsulate’s Reepicheep’s character so perfectly that I’m sure CS Lewis would have written the line if he’d thought of it.

There was something else I wanted to write about so there might be another entry today … if I can only remember what it was. Something trivial: I do remember that.

two challenges down for the week, one more to go

by dichroic in daily updates

Or two, depending how you look at it.

Yesterday I had my birth control implant (Implanon) taken out, because it was at the end of its three-year life, and a new one put in (Nexplanon this time – same idea next generation and I have no real idea what the difference is). I wasn’t looking forward to this, since removal involves basically cutting a hole in your arm to pull the old one out, but it wasn’t too bad. A shot of Lydocaine and a small incision that didn’t even bleed too much; she started cutting right away and then stopped for a minute when I told her it hadn’t gone numb yet but even that first cut only hurt a little. Putting the new one in just uses a gun sort of thing (link has line drawings of insertion) so that’s easier than taking the old one out. I’ll be 51 when this one expires, so I may not need another one.

This thing has worked great for me; I haven’t had a period in three years (or a baby either – actually it has the same theoretical effectiveness as the Pill, but it’s more effective in practice because you don’t have to remember to take anything). This varies – some women do have periods or spotting, but for me it’s been completely bloodless.

Next challenge was this morning’s breakfast with the company CEO. This is one of those things where you can just sign up to get a chance to talk to the guy in person; he was going to be in town so I did. There were actually two of us, which I think made for much better conversation because we were able to bounce ideas off each other, remind each other of thigns, and offer slightly different perspectives on what’s going on in the local office. (The CEO mentioned to me afterward that he normally does this with one person at a time and often they’re a bit tongue-tied.) Good food, too; we took him to a local coffee grinder’s that has their own coffeehouse.

The next challenge this week (or maybe challenges plural) happens because Ted has been working at the same company since 1996. As a result he has about a week more vacation than I do. He’s taking all next week off, while I’m only taking Tuesday. As a result, I need to drive separately to the lake house this weekend, so I have a car to come back in. It’s about 2.5 hours each way, though the trip down might be up to 3 hours with holiday-weekend traffic. This will be my longest drive since that incident in Taipei, but I think the glasses have had their effect. My brain has had plenty of time to come to accommodation with the way my sight changed after LASIK, which is what I think sparked the original panic attack in November 2009. I’ve also had enough experience with this to feel sure now that even if my head feels odd or light, my brain isn’t going to explode and I am not going to have a stroke. It’s been 5 years and that is plenty long enough to be crippled as a driver. I’m still a little nervous but recent drives have been going well including driving on the highways across Portland to and from the airport a couple weeks ago. (I could take Amtrak if I had to, but that would be half an hour to the station there, a trip similar to the time to drive, and then another hour back to my house, riding MAX from the train station. An extra hour and a half for me plus an hour round trip for Ted, taking me to the train station.) I have a Phryne Fisher audiobook to listen to; it’s volume 20, the last one so far and the only one I haven’t read so it’s a special treat. Also, I think Phryne, fearless pilot and racecar driver that she is, ought to be a good influence.

a long entry, because I don’t have time to make it shorter

by dichroic in books, daily updates, knitting, musing

It’s not that I haven’t blogged in the last week – but it was a work-related rant so I made it a private entry. Also, I spent last week on a work trip to Toledo, so I was mostly either at meetings or in transit. Landed back in Portland at 1, drove home (yay me – no issues or brain weirdness this time), transferred a few things to a backpak and headed to the lake house for the weekend. Unfortunately it was fairly windy all weekend so we didn’t get much rowing in; Saturday we kayaked a bit and then Sunday I took my open-water single out but only for 5km. (Poor Ted had a headache and didn’t get to row at all. So not much distance, but I operate on a general principle that any is better than none.

Another of my general principles is that I will only knit for other people is a) they are related to me or b) I really want to. I put a package in the mail today for someone who makes me really want to – we’re not close but she’s put conscious effort into maintaining our friendship over many years and it’s really meant a lot to me, especially with all of my travel. So I guess I just ruined that surprise somewhat – maybe I’ll write more about it later.

There have been another couple of entries I’ve been mulling over. One hasn’t gotten written because it’s going to take a lot more focus than I’ve had so far to give it, but I can summarize: if you actually read the Jewish and Christian Bibles, it turns out that they talk mostly about how to regulate your own conduct (the Torah is also about how to run a communit, but in those cases it’s about structured action and setting up laws, not making your own judgement). What they don’t talk about, and in both cases militate strictly against, is judging other people’s conduct. Similarly, an online acquaintance pointed out that in the Torah, “the prohibition against pork is mentioned twice. There’s 30+ instances of not engaging in various kinds of “evil speech.” So, really, there’s a better argument for eating a BLT than there is for critiquing someone’s choice to eat one.”

The other thing I want to talk about is in response to reading Sarah Vowell’s essay collection “Partly Cloudy Patriot” (which I liked a lot in general). She mocks people comparing all and sundry to Rosa Parks, with a couple of odd and egregious examples (Ted Nugent?) including people who were actually trying to stifle others’ freedoms. But where I disagree is where she goes on to say that really, no one can be compared to Rosa Parks “except maybe that young Chinese guy who faced down cannons in Tiananmen Square”. For one thing, I’d rather stare down an angry bus drive, even if he calls the cops, than a cannon. But avoiding that comparison (because there’s plenty of praise and respect to go around and it’s not a zero-sum game), there are lots of people even just in the US struggle for Civil Rights whose bravery, I’d say, was on a par with Mrs. Parks’ – all those young people on the Freedom bus, for example. Hosea Williams and John Lewis on the Pettus Bridge, on the March to Montgomery. Anyone who walked ten miles to work rather than taking a bus during the boycott. And all the people I can imagine in circumstances I don’t know of, putting out arson-born fires, facing mobs, sitting at soda counters. More importantly, if we put our heroes and hera on too lofty a pedestal, we make them unique and inhuman – and impossible to live up to. I’m not diminishing Rosa Parks in any way when I say that she was just a woman, a good and brave one – I’m just stressing the possibility and the responsibility to live up to her example.

(In My Life with Martin, Coretta Scott King discussed the question of whether Rosa Parks’ action was preplanned, and whether she was chosen to take that action. No idea, but if it was, I don’t think that diminishes her bravery either. It’s probably harder to have to look forward to danger than to do something dangerous on the spur of the moment. And if your character is exemplary enough that the people who know you choose you to be the prow on the ship of their movement, that’s a tribute.

not buying stuff I don’t need

by dichroic in daily updates

Re the Hugo Awards: I wonder if “coming in below No Awards” will make it into the lexicon to mean something that’s terrible or that’s never going to happen. (This thought was sparked by a comment on Ravelry from someone whose relative had informed her that she was expected to make them a specific (and ugly) sweater: “stashed way down past the bottom of my to-knit list below the not gonna happen ever section”).

I wonder if I could go for some period of time – say a year or two – without buying any more items in certain categories, though with some exceptions allowed.

Clothes and shoes, for instance: I think I have everything I’d need to wear for any event or climate I’m likely to encounter, from a formal wedding (assuming I’m a guest, not in it!) to a business presentation to a hike in Patagonia. (OK, maybe I’d need more supportive boots if that hike was a backpacking trip. But I’m not planning on anything like that!) I do not need anything more unless I’m replacing something that’s worn out or gotten wrecked. This does mean I can buy one pair of shoes at the moment, because I’ve recently tossed two pair of Mary-Janes, brown and tan – the uppers are shredding on one pair and the rubber soles somehow turned hard and were cracking on the other. Also, if I ever find a replacement for my favorite skirt ever – or learn to make one, because it was just a simple tiered skirt of printed cotton with an elastic waist – then I won’t let rules stop me. It fell apart and had to be tossed probably fifteen years ago and I’ve missed it since then.

Yarn: I do not need any sock yarn for a very long time. I have enough yarn for about three sweaters for me (one winter, the rest light or short-sleeved). I don’t need any yarn unless it’s for a specific project, and I don’t need any knitted objects I don’t have yarn for, unless they’re gifts for someone else.

Jewelry: I have some earrings that I wear a lot. When those get lost they need replacing – though I also have lots and lots of beads and can make some of them myself. Otherwise, maybe some souvenir jewelry – museum gift shops sometimes have great earrings, and I value unique local things like my rhodochrosite necklace from Buenos Aires – but otherwise no.

Books: well… I’m not made of stone! I do think I need to start buying more of my books in paper copies rather than the easy gratification of Kindle versions. I don’t expect my e-books to be there for me in my old age. E-books of some sort, yes; the particular ones on my Kindle now? No, I don’t trust Amazon quite that much. If it’s a YA fluff and my life would be no poorer if I couldn’t reread it in ten years, an e-book is fine. For something I want to have with me in a decade or three, I need to go back to buying physical books, and probably hardbacks.

The problem with all of this is, I like shopping. Sometimes it’s a recreational activity rather than an errand, especially if I’m going something like going to the Portland Saturday Market. I know it’s supposed to be better to be a minimalist, but I enjoy having stuff, whether it’s wearing cool clothing (the problem is with the not-so great clothing that sneaks in!), petting colorful yarn, or wearing jewelry that has a story. The other side, though, is that my houses (plural) feel like they have too! much! stuff! in them, it’s frustrating to realize that you love something but haven’t work it in a while because you have too many other things, and I’m sure I could be using my money better (among other things, surely it would be better to give money to charity instead of buying things I don’t need or even entertainment that’s not a memorable experience). Not sure how to reconcile this.

a year’s time

by dichroic in daily updates

Today is my dad’d first yahrzeit – the anniversary of his death in the Hebrew lunar calendar.

Memory is not circumscribed by a candle

For this first anniversary of your death,
I was so happy to find a proper yahrzeit candle –
plain white in a glass cup, made to burn the
prescribed twenty-four hours.

But I don’t have twenty-four hours to sit by it –
though you’re gone, I still have a living to earn
and candles aren’t safe when guarded only by glass.
You worked so hard for our welfare – you
would not want me to lose either my job
or my house to the irony of a rogue flame.

And so I blow the candle out when I leave,
though your day has hours more to burn.
but only the physical combustion has ended.
Your memory still glows, as it did yesterday
and as it will when this memorial day, too, has blown out.

I did go to the Chabad last Shabbat. It was a mixed experience – the rabbi was welcoming and a few other people talked to me. The service was mostly him chanting at the front of the room, very fast, with a lot less congregation participation than I’m used to (I think in a more traditional and long-established setting, everyone else would know the prayers as well as the rabbi does and would be chanting or mumbling on their own, not in unison). I wouldn’t have known when to stand for Kaddish anyway. I’m glad I went; it was interesting. Don’t think I’ll be going back, or not often.

And also I got this, to have by me at work – apparently electric “candles” are just fine.

I am having a hard time with this

by dichroic in daily updates

My Dad died last May, but in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of his death is next Wednesday. Jewish practice is to recite Kaddish on the anniversary of a death or on the Shabbat (Sabbath) before. It’s not something you do alone; this is one of the prayers that traditionally requires a minyan, a gathering a ten Jewish adults (traditionally, men).

There is one and only one shul near me (Jews of various inclinations use the words synagogue, shul or temple to mean pretty much the same thing. Shul is shorter to type.) It’s a Lubavitcher Chabad, part of the Chassidic movement. Those three unfamiliar words have a ton of history and explanation behind them; the short version is that this shul proclaims that its mission is to serve all Jews in the area, and though they say that “We don’t call ourselves Orthodox, just Jewish, and we serve all Jews,” their practice is very traditional.

There is a cluster of shuls in NW Portland, about half an hour away by car, 45 minutes by MAX light rail. I’m not familiar with the area and don’t know if there’s much parking nearby. THere are two Conservative synagogues, one Reform temple and a Reconstructionist Havurah within a few blocks of each other. I probably lean closest to Reconstructionist, myself. (Their self description is “Reconstructionist Jews espouse a progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life which integrates a deep respect for traditional, communal Jewish practices with the intellectual and political impulses of democracy and pluralism.”) I don’t know anyone at any of those places, and trying to phone just sends you to a machine.

I’ve spoken to the Rabbi at the Chabad. They had a place to email and he mailed me back promptly and set up a time for a call. I was worried about how unegalitarian they might be. They do have a divider between men and women, but it runs front to back, so men and women sit side by side. I can live with that. But he also told me that since I do have a brother, I am not supposed to say Kaddish for my father. All four of the other shuls are egalitarian, and the Reconstructionist havurah in particular says “Our overall community is progressive, intellectual, honest, egalitarian, and embracing of diversity. We include many interfaith families and people of various ethnic backgrounds and income groups. We are queer-friendly, and the congregation includes members in a wide range of professions.”

So it should be no-brainer, right? But I don’t know. For one thing, the Chabad Rabbi was extremely welcoming. He was very careful to say phrase it as “this is the way we do things, we’re not saying it’s the only right way”, and to tell me that I was very welcome. He specifically said no one would stop me and he himself wouldn’t say anything if I did stand to say Kaddish. He also said if I sent them my dad’s name and his parents names, they’d study a Mishnah (oral teaching) in his honor – even if I didn’t attend myself they would, if I emailed the names. They friended me on Facebook, even. And when I asked around in a liberal Jewish group on Ravelry, lots of people reported very positive experiences with Chabads, even when coming from more liberal backgrounds. And there’s the anthropological aspect – I’ve never really been to a completely traditional service. Might be interesting.

My brother thinks I should just light a candle (Yahrzeit candle, another tradition) and say the blessing myself, but I think I really want the support of a community. So do I just walk in cold to one of the farther away places, where I don’t know anyone but the outlook might be closer to mine, or go to the way more traditional place nearby that’s welcomed me, whose outlook might make me uncomfortable in some respects – but that was gracious and respectful of my concerns?

Another possibility – the Reconstructionist place has a Wednesday minyan. I could do the Chabad on Shabbat and go there on Wednesday – but it’s 8:30-9, so I’d be getting to work around 10 instead of my usual 7AM.

For the record, my dad wouldn’t care much if or where I said Kaddish. As my brother remarked, his Jewish identity was strong but mostly secular.

ETA: Oh, and I forgot to say, this Saturday the Reconstructionist place’s service is a “Camp Havurah service”: a “musical, fun, upbeat Shabbat morning service that features sing-a-long style prayers”. Nice, but maybe not when I want to come say Kaddish.