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That Time Straight Men Got Upset About an Elsa Hashtag

There was a scattered piece from Devin Faraci that circulated rather widely the other day. It started with the premise that fandom is broken because fans demand things from the people creating the comics, movies, and games they love. He emphasized demand, but he conflates it with online petitions and requests (that seem absolutely benign), with harassment and death threats. A comparison (which he picks up from Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club) is drawn between fans on Twitter wanting Elsa to have a girlfriend in Frozen 2 with the negative reactions to Ghostbusters and GamerGate. He muddles through a bunch of stuff about how the internet makes it easier to demand things, and behave poorly, but he paints with a broad brush. After all, he wouldn’t have a job if he was a nice guy on the internet.

I’ve been fuming about this since I read it the other night. There is no place for death threats, at all. No one objects to that. Rolling that in with every other form of criticism, feedback, fan fiction, and conversation is entirely objectionable. A Disney princess hashtag that a teenage girl started! Don’t bully creators, go bully teens into silence? What?!

While I don’t personally want to see Elsa presented this way, or for Steve Rogers’ to be gay, people are allowed to say these things. People have been saying these things about fictional characters for a very, very, very long time. And honestly, retroactively making a character gay is a thing that happens in fictionalized entertainment, even if I think it’s generally handled poorly. Coming down hard on fans like this reinforces a negative view that people seeking representation in media are the same as those seeking to push change out of comics, and out of their lives. I don’t think these particular things are the best ways to address representation, but so what? Who does it hurt? Entertainment Tonight asked Idina Menzel about the campaign and she gave a supportive response, but clearly stated that she has no authority over that, and fans should pursue things with Disney. So far, the only “important” people freaking out about the fans are Jesse and Devin. The fragility of straight white guys never ceases to amaze me.

Later, after his post was circulated widely, Devin wrote a separate, thoroughly-confused piece about how people read his writing wrong, and they should definitely be demanding a “queer princess” from “decision makers” but they shouldn’t petition “creators” of Frozen 2. You see that he separates creation from decision. Work-for-hire writing, and directing, from intellectual property. Then he says that the filmmakers have power and it’s not just Disney, also he says he was really tired when he wrote it and didn’t think it would be a big deal, so… There we go with people not understanding his writing.

Why bother asking for people of color, and women, to rally around him if he’s just going to make insulting comparisons to GamerGate that demonstrate he doesn’t understand any of these issues? Why write a follow-up piece about how the pressure needs to be applied to get the representation he’s fighting for? He also thinks everyone should be nice to creators – but still critique things like he does and presumably get in internet-fights with screenwriters? Perhaps the real issue is that he wants to be a gatekeeper controlling what constitutes an appropriate reaction to media.

Unfortunately, the cord for the mic Devin tried to drop got all knotted up around him.

As I wrote earlier, I was fuming all day about this because it basically gives a bunch of assholes free reign to be jerks. Go look at the winning comments on Devin’s posts, and the responses to his tweets.

105 votes in agreement with ‘Samcvb’ over his comment that he can’t wait for “the death of Nerd Culture” because people feel too entitled. He then goes on to lay out the reasons why “The Force Awakens” wasn’t really that good because it appealed to entitled fans, and wasn’t like “Old School George Lucas”. Cognitive dissonance is aaaaaaaamazing! Devin, and the people that support him, betray that they really object to people who don’t agree with them, and those are the entitled ones.

Here the Elsa fans are, lumped in with that. And the Star Trek fan fic writers, and even me.

I wrote about how disappointed I was to see Midnighter get cancelled because he was the only gay man leading a comic book from DC or Marvel, and it lasted 12 issues. He is not included in the slate for the DC Rebirth event, but all the safe, comfortable choices are. “Please come back, straight white men, we love you.” My negative reaction to this can be easily categorized as entitlement. I demand to see my interests reflected in the work of these artists. Only that’s not the whole truth. I want to see a diverse world that we are all part of represented in these works. Part of that is ego – wanting to see someone you sympathize with represented – part of that isn’t – wanting to see other characters as fully developed people so I can empathize with experiences that are not my own. What gay men are straight readers, and movie-goers, empathizing with in Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Star Trek? (Good luck with this question!) Also if a reader doesn’t think that they can empathize with a gay character because they’re not gay, then they should double-check the meaning of the word empathy.

The free market is also brought up often when rallying against inclusion. According to some, stories are written a certain way because it will sell. Then it sells, and it reinforces that the story sells. No one ever got fired for writing about a straight white male lead. You’ll see lots of these writers talking about the importance of diversity, and how they shouldn’t be criticized because they support the idea of diversity. You know, if someone else can make it work. Blowing up planets and multiverses is hard enough without having two dudes express, “I love you, bro” to each other. No one should have the temerity to campaign for diversity because that’s up to the creators who are making sacred art.

What about creator-owned works? Indie film? People that don’t see themselves in the world, and aren’t employed by these massive companies can certainly take matters into their own hands. Those works can provide an outlet but not a lot of satisfying watercooler talk. They also usually lack the polish of corporate works so it’s a trade-off.

We collectively want to share experiences, which is one of many reasons why corporate-owned characters are so appealing (another big one is capital to pay for high-quality product, and the almost mythic longevity of the product). Is it so surprising that desires are unmet? That people connect on the internet to talk about their wishes with others? It shouldn’t be so shocking that the yearning is bounced back at the product, and the creators. “Wouldn’t it be perfect if this was the way I imagine it?” (Not always! Really! But that’s fine!)

It’s ridiculous to meet every request and expectation – of course it is. Artists have been managing feedback since art was paid for so I guess it’s a thing artists can live with.

“Hey, can you do this thing? I want this thing.”

“No, that’s not what I’m doing.” Or “I didn’t have that in mind, but there’s something else I’m working on.”

That’s a little idealized, of course, but is that so terrible? Would it be so terrible? Are things really so broken that the unwashed masses should be shouted down because we’re all the same as those who go to reprehensible extremes? I certainly don’t feel any kinship with those that would speak about harming others, and I deplore Devin misusing his position to lash out at a Disney princess campaign.

2016-06-01 09:00:00

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Intelligent Assistants and Restaurant Web Pages

Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about software that can converse with people and then present information or accomplish tasks in a natural way. Even in an advanced demo, when Google Assistant was demonstrated on stage at Google I/O 2016, it’s not like talking to a person. It is pretty similar to talking to the Enterprise Computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and subsequent shows. That’s also what Amazon’s Lab 126 strives for with Alexa. One of the programmed responses to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is” I want to be the computer from Star Trek!”

Google Assistant has the added advantage of working in demos, and not as a real-world product yet. I don’t doubt their technical prowess but it’s pretty easy to put an intelligent assistant in front of someone and find all the flaws.

How well these assistants will work for each individual will also depend on the context they are being used in, and the contexts that are covered by devices around them. Google demonstrated an understanding of this by talking about the different contexts that Google Assistant will operate in, including the home, car, and on the phone. Amazon hasn’t integrated their Alexa products in the way Google has outlined. It’s pretty strange that owners of an Amazon Echo (or any other Alexa enabled device, including the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick) can buy the Amazon Echo Dot as another Alexa device in the home, but the devices have no understanding that there is any relationship between them. When Dan Moren got his Dot, I asked him on Twitter how it dealt with being in the same room as his Echo. The answer is that they both take queries and respond. That’s not very intelligent.

A key part of Google Assistant’s demo was that it could order things for you through services Google has partnered with, like GrubHub or Instacart. Since this is a platform that permits third party developers, competitors like Postmates or Amazon Prime Now could theoretically integrate the same way and users could select the integration they want from the available options. (Amazon Prime Now seems like a stretch!)

Recently, on an episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, host John Siracusa criticized Amazon for sticking you (and Casey) with Dominos, and said it all had to do with paid partnerships. That’s not the case. Alexa can’t order pizza. If you ask her to, she will look through your Amazon order history for pizza, and if she doesn’t find anything, she will inform you that she’s added “pizza” to your shopping list.

Alexa added pizza to my shopping list.

There’s no integration with Domino’s or suggestion of Domino’s. You get that when you add the Alexa Skill for Domino’s. A third party skill (like an app) that is added and configured through the Alexa app. When you add the skill you are prompted to login with a Domino’s “EasyOrder” account. Alexa is a thin layer between you and Domino’s, like grease, or dignity. The commands are “Domino’s” and not “Pizza” because no one owns the word pizza on the platform, Domino’s simply makes the only Skill for ordering pizza. Any Domino’s competitor can make an equivalent skill and they wouldn’t be impaired by Amazon any more or less than Domino’s. Domino’s just does weird tech stuff.

If these assistants take off, then having a Skill — or whatever the Google Assistant equivalent is — could be as valuable as a restaurant having a web site. And not just any web site, a modern, up-to-date website that loads. Perhaps we’ll see SquareSpace add these Skills to their plans? Or there might be some horrible Wix variant that offers the same? Viv, a Silicon Valley startup from the people that brought us Siri, seems determined to use a paid development platform which is, at best, nebulous.

Amazon makes a big deal out of making an Alexa Skill in 15 minutes with Node.js so maybe there will be a small market for web developers to add this to the list of services they provide when making websites? Certainly seems less cumbersome than an iOS or Android app.

However, users need to add these integrations ahead of time, not in a moment of pepperoni-pineapple-pizza pique. That can be as discouraging as saying you need to download an iOS, or Andorid, app for every restaurant. (A problem Google wants to solve with Instant Apps.) Viv seems to solve this by not really giving you any options.

Not all restaurants bother with online ordering infrastructure and instead rely on an intermediary company, like GrubHub or Postmates, filling that role. That can be beneficial for consumers because they can rely on a handful of Skills instead of one-off Skills. It will leave consumers wondering which Skill they use to order their pizza. Is that restaurant on GrubHub or Postmates? Are they on Uber Eats? Amazon has no universal search across their Skills to allow for comparison shopping for delivery. Google Assistant doesn’t appear to either. I say “appear” because Sundar told the “car” to order “curry” and that’s so abstract that it simply seems unlikely that it operates in that way.

What about Siri? It has no third party integrations aside from companies Apple selectively partners with. Yelp is a partner and handles almost all food-related queries. If you tell Siri, “Order Pizza” she provides a list of nearby restaurants with pizza on the menu and their Yelp star ratings. That’s it. Tap them to go through a maze of ordering things. Even if you have a favorite restaurant, and a usual order that you want to trigger, she’ll never understand any of it. Food is just a list of Yelp results. I would argue that Apple’s approach here is the worst. I hope that WWDC in June will bring some news about Siri integrations being offered so we can at least elevate Siri to the same level as the other assistants, as imperfect as they are.

And at that imperfect level we can start to wonder where it was we last ordered pizza from, and what it even was that we liked so very much. If we even have to consider the context, the hardware for the order, then this brave new world has so far to go.

2016-05-26 08:07:00

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Sony Settles in Suit

Yesterday, news broke on Deadline Hollywood’s site that Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks have settled for $13 million. This is not an admission of guilt on Sony’s part.

In September of 2014, a class action lawsuit was filed by Robert Nitsch against DreamWorks Animation, Pixar, Lucasfilm Ltd., The Walt Disney Company, Digital Domain 3.0, ImageMovers, ImageMovers Digital, Sony Pictures Animation, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The lawsuit was based on things turned up during the DOJ anti-poaching case that affected other Silicon Valley companies like Adobe and Apple.

Here’s the 27 page filing from September of 2014 about the alleged general level of involvement of each company.

On March 31st of this year, BlueSky was the first to break ranks and settle for $5,950,000. This is also not an admission of guilt.

Deadline’s Dominic Patten guesses that DreamWorks Animation will likely be the next to settle, if only to move along it’s acquisition by NBC/Universal. I agree, but it’s also likely they’ll settle next because I don’t see Disney settling soon. Disney managed to acquire most of the conspiring companies (Pixar, Lucasfilm), or found them (the defunct ImageMovers). While Digital Domain 3.0 is sued, it might be protected by the various legal shell-games that transpired to found it. If they do settle, they’d also likely settle before Disney.

I’ve previously discussed my feelings on Ed Catmull, and on Tim Cook defending Steve Jobs – They were not warm feelings.

Ed Catmull and George Lucas have statements on record that this was essentially for the greater good. That with the low margins of the industry, this was the way things needed to be done to keep costs from getting it of control. Ironically, almost all of the studios in the suit have suffered, not blossomed, with the exception of these ringleaders’ own enterprises. Perhaps the real cheat was getting all the other studios to stop competing by enticing them to hamstring themselves? Where would Sony Pictures be if they hadn’t joined with Ed?

2016-05-02 08:50:00

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Can the Fire TV Stick Hold a Torch to the Apple TV?

I just wanted to have a clever title, but the short answer is that it depends on the amount of money you’d like to spend, and what you will have the device do. I didn’t say what you expect the device to do. I expect unicorns, and rainbows to shoot out of either device, but they don’t do that. You also need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber in the United States for the device to be worth anything at all.

Why even? I know, I know. The device has been around for a while, but I didn’t have one because I had read all the reviews about how inferior it was to the Apple TV. It’s a great time to look around, especially since there are so many software, and services changes (like the monthly Prime options, and add-ons) since those initial Fire Stick reviews were published. In fact, as I write this, the Fire TV Stick went on sale for $5 off, so maybe you should try it to?

If you buy your Fire TV through Amazon it arrives partially configured for you, like a Kindle or Fire tablet purchased through Amazon. The device comes with a power cable that’s only slightly longer than the one Amazon includes with their Fire tablet — which is to say that it’s too short.

Voice Remote vs. Siri Remote

The Voice Remote Amazon sells with the Stick is slightly different than the one that Amazon sells with the full Fire TV box, but the difference is material quality. The remote is a triangular prism with rounded edges. Even though the bottom of it is “point” of the prism, it’s blunted and sits flat on surfaces. The whole back panel slides open to reveal the battery compartment. This is not a fancy, rechargeable remote, but the compartment opens and closes solidly, and because it’s the whole back of the remote, you’re not left with a wobbly panel like many other plastic remotes.

The top face of the remote has a microphone button, a circular D-Pad with an inset selection/click button in the middle. There are two rows under the D-Pad with a back button, a home button, a button with three lines, a fast backward button, a play/pause button, and a fast forward button. There’s nothing mind blowing about this, and with the exception of the three lines, it’s all completely obvious what each button does. (The three lines usually pull up settings, or a list, but it’s dependent on where you are in the interface.)

A small notch in the top of the remote is where the microphone is contained, but you don’t need to hold it up to your mouth in order for it work.

What really struck me about the remote was that there was no way to adjust the volume. After using the 4th generation Apple TV since October, I had become accustomed to having volume buttons. Let me tell you that not having them is really, really, really, annoying. A tiny little IR blaster in the top of this could have fixed that issue. Alas, it’s not meant to be.

Funnily enough, I can change the volume with my Apple TV remote, which will kick me to the Apple TV HDMI input, and then I can hit the Home button on the Amazon remote and it’ll kick me back to the Fire TV. The joys of modern technology.

Long-pressing the home button pops up a small menu with options like “Sleep”, similar to the Apple TV. Otherwise, you just wait for the horrible screensaver to come on (they have animated transforms on the still images they use but the filtering produces a visible grid effect.)

Bluetooth Keyboards are supported, as well as virtual keyboards inside the Fire Remote apps Amazon makes for iOS, Android, and Fire OS. Failing that, the onscreen keyboard is a breeze with the D-Pad. I am of the opinion that Apple missed the mark with their onscreen keyboard row, and narrow touch surface with the 4th generation Apple TV, but some people enjoy the sensation of wiggling their thumb to skip over letters more than I enjoy it.

The “back” and “home” buttons are unambiguous with the Fire TV interface, because back always goes back, and home always goes home. Compare this to the Apple TV’s “menu” and “TV screen rectangle” buttons.

One point to Amazon for ergonomics, one point to Amazon for not making it out of glass, one point to Amazon for unambiguous device orientation, one point to Apple for Volume, one point to Amazon for mostly unambiguous buttons, and one point for Apple for a rechargeable battery.

But what about the complicated motion sensors and the touchpad? The motion sensors are superfluous because they only come into play in games which are horrible to play via the motion sensors. The touchpad is great for precisely placing the “playhead” for video, but also punish you with the virtual keyboard row, and no clear sense of direction when compared to a D-Pad. I don’t find the touchpad on the Siri Remote to be preferable to the Amazon D-Pad, but everyone’s just going to yell at me for that, so whatever you like is the best thing ever.

Home on Fire

The initial boot process is funky (there’s a warning not to touch anything, which isn’t friendly). There’s also a video with an animated guy introducing you to the features of the device. I don’t typically enjoy tutorials, but it’s short and very directly communicates functions, as well as where to find certain things in the interface. Sadly, it’s possible that something like this might help with the unintuitive process of setting up an Apple TV. (Here’s a screen with almost nothing on it. Have a nice day.) The video is also present in the system if someone feels like they need to rewatch it.

As for the interface: The left side of the screen has a vertical menu to switch between different views on the right side of the screen. It defaults to “Home” which contains:

  • A thin banner ad that doesn’t stick at the top, and you can only select by purposefully navigating up to it.
  • Featured Apps & Games
  • Prime Originals & Exclusive TV
  • Featured Subscriptions
  • Prime Recently Added Movies
  • Prime Recently Added TV
  • Prime Recommended Movies
  • Top Free Games
  • Recommended Apps & Games

Fire TV Home Screen

So when you turn on the device the easiest thing for you to get to is whatever you were last doing, or something Amazon is promoting. It’s a mixed bag, depending on your tastes, and it rotates. You might see the 1989 Batman movie, Veep, Bosch — or anything else. About half of what it presents to you is already included with your Prime membership, and the other half is an upsell. Unlike the Kindle, and Fire tablets, the overt advert at the top is not a “Special Offer” you can pay Amazon to remove. It’s there for everyone.

Tapping on down from “Home” to “Your Videos” shows you layers of your video library interspersed with the same Prime Originals, and Recently Added fare. There’s also “TV Shows” and “Movies” which offer other mixes of Prime “Recently Added” and “Recommended” entries.

Next up is “Games” and first time Fire TV users will see Crossy Road highlighted as a free download for them to enjoy. Only you won’t enjoy it on the Fire Stick because it’s not powerful enough to run the game smoothly. I’m baffled why games are even offered since they are mostly unresponsive.

In the “Apps” section you’ll find apps that Amazon has added to your cloud library, but didn’t download on to the device. Think of it as a starter pack. Netflix, Sling, Showtime, Hulu, Vevo, Bloomberg TV, Crackle, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio, and whatever “WatchESPN for Fire TV” might be. Unlike most bundled applications you can remove these from the device, and from the cloud. They can be added back to your cloud, and device, at any time through the store if you change your mind in the future.

If you have a Fire tablet, and get an app that’s also available on the Fire TV, you’ll see it in your cloud library too. For example: Disney Movies Anywhere has a Fire tablet and Fire TV app and is present on either.

There’s a YouTube app, but … it’s blue. This threw me off since it didn’t share the same branding as the iOS YouTube app and I initially wrote it off as some third-party client I wouldn’t bother with. Turns out, it’s actually the YouTube app.

If you hit the D-Pad and pass over an app buttons to download or look at details appear, and the detail screens offer up info for the developer, a warning if guidance is suggested, a review rating, and which input devices the application works with — like the Fire TV Remote and Game Controller. You can also see something you can’t find in Apple’s tvOS App Store and that’s what permissions the app will need. “Access coarse location” for example, or “Record audio” in the case of CBS All Access (WHY?).

Unfortunately, games are also displayed in the “Apps” view so you’ll see repeats here. I do wish they had actually separated them completely since they’re separate categories of the interface.

Lastly, in the main column, are Music, Photos, and Settings. All of these are populated with what you have purchased, or uploaded to Amazon. Because the photos, and music are not stored on the device, you may notice lag while the contents of the view populate, but the device is still responsive. It doesn’t lock up every time you pass over a category it needs to pull down album art for. I do wish it was more aggressively cached.

The Future of TV is Content

You’ll notice that I kept referring to seeing many things over and over in the interface. That’s a benefit, or a weakness, depending on how your brain is wired. It can be nice to see the same information displayed under different categories, much in the same way Netflix might display a movie under both comedies, and their recommendations for you. This isn’t like the Apple TV home screen interface where every application sits in a spot, all the time. That’s the only place it exists, and it can be organized into a folder. Amazon’s approach is very much about putting content first, and getting you going with it.

Unfortunately, Amazon’s only content-first about content that is available through Amazon. Anything from inside of a third party app is not available to you as anything other than that app’s icon. For example: You’re watching an episode of Transparent, and you decide you want to take a break and an episode of Friends on Netflix. You open the Netflix app, watch your show, and close the Netflix app. In “Recent” you’ll see the Netflix icon, not Friends, next to Transparent.

This is a different approach from Apple where TV and films that Apple wants to promote are displayed at the top of the interface where you’re hovering over those icons, but the interface isn’t inserting those recommendations to live with the application icons.

In terms of applications though, I’d say that both Amazon and Apple offer a comparable selection of media applications. You’ll see similar brands present on both platforms, and offering similar experiences. Apple offers media companies the chance to make TVML applications, where they only need to specify a few options and a standard interface is populated with it. Amazon doesn’t offer that, and every application has to provide for itself. Think of it like an apartment complex that offers furnished apartments, and an apartment complex that doesn’t. One apartment complex will have very nondescript furniture identically placed throughout, and the other apartment complex will have everything from apartments with only an inflatable mattress, to pads bedecked with designer decor. That’s a little what it’s like poking around in the apps.

Both Apple and Amazon have the annoying issues surrounding authenticating applications. It’s a familiar process of going to a URL, and entering an alphanumeric string to grant the TV access to services.

Amazon does have a neat trick that Apple does not, and that’s the presence of additional services that can be tacked on to your Amazon Prime bill for a fee. This is similar to paying for Showtime’s monthly subscription through Apple, except you don’t need the Showtime app to see the content, it’s in your Amazon library, interspersed with all the other stuff, and accessible in all the same ways. The app is optional. Amazon’s made a big deal out of adding on more, and more of these services over time. This makes interface inconsistencies, or authenticating things, unnecessary as long as you’re logged in with your Amazon account.

Second Screen Mirroring Fling Cast

I just don’t know what to say when it comes to Amazon’s efforts to ape Apple’s AirPlay, and use Google’s Cast (née Chromecast). There’s no unified Brand that assures you, “Hey all this stuff works together!” You can’t even reliably count on Amazon to support services across all of Amazon’s devices. For instance: I can mirror the Fire TV to a Fire tablet, but not the entry-level Fire tablet. I can, however, use Second Screen from that same tablet to play Amazon’s videos on my Fire TV while the Fire tablet shows IMDB info, scenes (chapter markers), playback controls, and a draggable playhead. That’s only the Fire tablet though, the Amazon Video app for iOS doesn’t offer Second Screen. Confusing? Yes.

The other trick is finding applications that support any of this. Some of those applications use Amazon’s Fling branding from their Fling SDK. This is not exactly taking the world by storm.

However, the things that use Google’s Cast seem to work with Amazon’s Fire Stick as long as you have an app on both the sending and receiving device. Netflix’s iOS app does work with the Amazon Fire TV, and YouTube’s iOS app works as well. Hilariously, Amazon Video for iOS can’t stream video to the Fire Stick, only to the Apple TV. Though none of this is really obvious since you have to install these apps that don’t use any Amazon branded terminology. It’s not the almost-any-app ability of AirPlay.

The Lady in the TV

The entry-level Stick does have voice services, but you either need to buy a voice remote separately, or use the iOS, Android, or Fire OS remote app for that voice functionality. I opted for the model that includes the voice remote, a $10 premium over the entry-level device, but well worth it so you don’t have to fish out the phone, or tablet, app every time you’d like to use Alexa. (Just spend the $10.) This gives you quick and easy access to Amazon’s Alexa — it can do almost everything that the Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap can do, except set timers and pair Bluetooth. You can even use Alexa here to order the much sought-after Echo Dot.

While Alexa is very speedy at processing my requests once I’ve said them, there’s an occasionally a lag of a few seconds for the Fire Stick to get in a state where you may give the voice command to Alexa. You might hold down on the button for 1-3 seconds before the screen changes over to the dark overlay with the blue line indicating you’re allowed to speak. If you start speaking right when you push the button, the first 1-3 seconds of your command won’t be recorded.

Alexa has search functionality, and can search things outside of the Amazon library, but only certain things … The notable exception is that Netflix is not present in voice search results. This is a huge oversight and Amazon should swallow their pride to entice Netflix to participate. Almost everyone buying one of these is certain to have a Netflix subscription, so it would be in Amazon’s best interests to see that the Fire TV is the preferred device for accessing Netflix.

Using the Alexa interface to play music has a peculiar shortcoming in that it pops up a modal dialog over the screen you’re on with the album art, title, etc. for what you asked it to play — and then it just stays there. There’s no button to jump to that song playing in the music interface, and if you navigate away from it, it’s gone. I do wish that playback occurred in the music section instead of here. A feature Amazon offers, X-Ray Lyrics, shows a karaoke-style list of lyrics that scrolls in sync to the music — but only in the music interface, and not in Alexa’s music playback dialog box.

Sorta Kinda

If I don’t sound extremely enthusiastic, it’s because I’m not.

At the end of the day, the device you use might come down to where your content lives, or the quirks of how you like to browse. It might also come down to your pocketbook, because at $160-200 the Apple TV is a very expensive box to stream non-Apple shows and services on. At $40-50 you have the same “channels” at the same rates as Apple, in addition to a bunch of other stuff. Also? If you need access to iTunes and AirPlay, it’s less expensive to buy the 3rd generation Apple TV (which Apple still sells!), and a Fire TV Stick. I don’t really recommend you do so, that’s a hypothetical.

2016-04-28 08:25:00

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Canonical Pizza Toppings

These are the canonical pizza toppings:

  • Any item you want to eat on top of a pizza.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Also:

  • 🍍

2016-04-27 07:45:00

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Amazon's Standalone Prime Video Plan

Todd Spangler, writing for Variety:

The e-commerce giant is now offering its video-streaming service in the U.S. independent of the Prime free-shipping program. Purchased separately, Prime Video will cost $8.99 per month — one dollar less than Netflix’s most popular plan.

[…]

In addition, Amazon is offering a new payment option for full Prime membership of $10.99 monthly, with no annual commitment. That’s 33% more than than the $99 annual Prime membership, but Amazon said many customers have been asking for month-to-month flexibility with the program.

I was pretty confused by this move, at first, because it’s a greater expense for the customer. A year of Prime Video is significantly more expensive than a year of a full Prime membership with all the benefits that entails. Indeed, if you go to your Amazon account settings, it provides you with a helpful spreadsheet about how you probably don’t want to downgrade to a Prime Video membership.

Comparison Chart

“Hey, bro, are you sure you want to do that? C’mon, bro.”

There is a different story to tell, of course, and that’s the story about people who are on the fence about making a yearly commitment for $100. That’s a big risk for customers to take, where is $8.99 a month is a smaller risk. Because a full Prime membership is such a deal over the Prime Video membership, it’s also easy for Amazon to encourage those people trying Prime Video to upgrade for a savings. Lower barrier to entry, and an up-sell that’s actually a discount. No one Amazons like Amazon.

This is not a Netflix replacement. Even though Todd Spangler’s piece references the cost of Netflix and Hulu several times, the services are different enough that they don’t overlap as much as one might think. I’m not sure anyone will buy Prime Video because it’s a dollar cheaper than Netflix. They’ll buy Prime Video in addition to Netflix.

Amazon also has those add-on subscriptions that can dramatically increase the cost of this Prime Video rate. Consider the Showtime add-on, which is $8.99 a month as well (compare that to the $10.99 a month rate for Showtime’s standalone app). If you get Prime Video with Showtime, than you’ve doubled your rate. Starz is also $8.99, Sundance Doc Club is $6.99 … Anyway, these add-ons add on. However, like the Prime Video monthly plan, you can cancel any, or all, of the add-ons and they won’t renew for the next billing period, and many offer seven-day trials.

The biggest problem with this Prime Video push is that Amazon still doesn’t offer anything for the Google Cast (née Chromecast) or for the Apple TV. Their mobile, tablet, and web apps all work, but it does seem that their efforts to get into your TV could be improved. The Fire TV Stick is fine for video, but it has severe non-Amazon-Video shortcomings.

I even wonder if part of the reason for the %33 markup on the Prime Video service might be to cover the cut Apple would take of any in-app subscriptions on the Apple TV? That’s not so far fetched, but the markup might just be coincidence. If that was really the plan wouldn’t they have rolled out a tvOS app with the announcement? Though it might be something they have room to pursue later.

2016-04-18 07:54:27

Category: text


Sunsetting Midnighter

I go through comic buying cycles where I buy them, or I don’t buy them. Peaks and valleys of poor and plenty. Comics that are available to purchase electronically, and don’t create unsightly stacks on shelves in my living room, make it very easy to buy when the mood strikes me. When Amazon acquired ComiXology, they immediately removed the ability to purchase comics from within the app and the whole thing was just a little more annoying. Instead of getting to the end of an issue for a series I was catching up on, I’d go to a browser, find it, and buy the next one. Time heals all wounds so when I got my Fire tablet, I could very easily purchase comics again and I set about doing just that. One of the series I bought was Steve Orlando’s run on Midnighter which started last June. The trade paperback for the first volume is available in stores now, and it collects issues 1-6. For some reason it’s not available via Amazon until the end of the month, and it’s $2 more expensive to get it digitally than to have a book printed and shipped to me. The economics of comics publishing are totally lost on me. I just bought each issue individually, including the rest of the run not included in the first volume.

The Rave

One of the reasons I picked up Midnighter is because he’s gay. It’s still pretty unusual to see gay men in comics as anything other than side characters, or 1/16th of an ensemble cast. Being about a gay character doesn’t give the comic a pass on being good. In fact, I’m quite critical when it comes to the way gay characters are written, because it can turn into limp stereotypes, or be such a “non issue” that it feels divorced from the rest of the character. Steve Orlando’s writing did not disappoint.

The art comes from a variety of artists for the first few issues, but ACO is definitely the main artist, and his layouts work really well at depicting Midnigher’s process as the fight is progressing. Anticipating and planning each move.

Fork

The character of Midnighter had almost always been paired with his husband, Apollo. They were on a superhero team roughly analogous to The Justice League, where they stood in for Batman and Superman. Although the creators have said Midnighter is more like “The Shadow meets John Woo”. This run of Midnighter put him all by himself, his relationship with Apollo seemingly over — or on hiatus. The character now had a whole book to himself, and lots of room for character development, and some humor.

Goat

In a comics podcast I listened to about Midnighter, he was compared to Wolverine from the X-Men (and every other Marvel book ever) in terms of his disposition. I think that’s more apt than just calling him “gay Batman”. When Midnighter is doling out justice, there is a slightly higher body count.

Midnighter is also not coy about his identity and uses it on his online dating profile. This does lead to some issues that Bruce Wayne doesn’t have, where Midnighter has to tag everyone he interacts with with a subdermal communicator just in case someone tries to get back at Midnighter through them. You know, well-adjusted dating stuff.

Dating Profile

While the book references events that have happened to Midnighter outside of the series run (like working with Dick Grayson, who is a super-spy now, or something) I never felt lost. It’s easy to just accept the info and move forward.

Grayson

The one thing I wish they hit a little less hard was the fight-computer in his brain. He talks about it a lot. It’s like, we get it dude, you can predict everyone’s moves. I wonder if that was leaned on so heavily because new readers might be picking up the book during the run.

The Rant

Unfortunately, the same week Volume 1 came out was also the same week DC Comics announced “Rebirth” their “don’t call it a reboot” reboot of the DC Comics titles. This is, like, the 5th or 6th time DC has retconbooted their entire line. Part of that reboot includes dropping titles, like Midnighter. It seems there will be a couple issues to round out his run, but it’s not coming back. By pure happenstance, all the comics with LGBT title characters are also gone. No more Batwoman either.

Midnighter is the only DC Comic I’ve read in years. I followed everything having to do with Green Lantern: Rebirth, and the subsequent books and Green Lantern events, until Brightest Day when everything started to unravel and I realized I was just buying a book where all the drama came from the Wacky Prophecy of the Year. So it’s a good thing there’s going to be 4 Green Lantern books a month now.

According to some of the comics nerds that are way more knowledgable about these things than I am, Midnighter didn’t sell well to store owners, who were not stocking it. However, it sold comparably to some other titles in the direct market.

Midnighter #8 sold 10,400 copies to the direct market and it BOGGLES me. How many retailers just didn’t order it at all??

Deathstroke, a character I have no particular connection to, is going to get his 3rd comic in 5 years, even though the sales for that have been hovering around Midnighter’s. I guess it’s easier to pitch conservative, longtime readers on trying something they know they feel tepid about rather than a title with a gay guy?

Aggressive Sausage

Marvel doesn’t have prominent gay men leading comic titles either. DC won’t have one much longer. Here’s a list of all LGBT characters in comics in DC and Marvel books. If you’re surprised by some of those names, it’s because the characters have been retroactively changed. This is frustrating when you realize that these comic pages are what the studios mine for movies and TV shows these days. I’ll admit that I was fantasy-casting a Midnighter TV series. Why not? Greg Berlanti, the guy behind DC’s TV series, is an out, gay man. Fortunately, DC Comics’ announcements this week nipped that fantasy-casting right in the bud.

It’s certainly possible that Midnighter, or Apollo, or another gay guy, will show up as a background character in one of the Rebirth titles, but that’s not very appealing to me. I’d be very put off if he was canceled and one of the titles they’re keeping recasts a straight character as a gay character. “Hey, we found this character from the 50s on the floor that no one liked so we made him gay, here you go. Nominate us for some GLADD awards.”

When Midnighter concludes, DC and I can go back to ignoring each other.

2016-02-20 17:00:00

Category: text


The Talk Show With John Gruber 146 ‘“They Might Be Giants” With a Spanish Accent’ With Special Guests Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi ►

That is a long title. Anyway, this is a surprise second appearance from Craig Federighi and a first for Eddy Cue. I recommend listening, since this sort of thing is still pretty rare, but I wouldn’t go into it expecting much in the way of answers, just some additional information. This seems like Apple responding to Walt Mossberg’s post on The Verge. Which … Well, it’s not like they lost Walt Mossberg’s number (if anything Contacts would have left them with several duplicates of Walt’s number).

Gruber can’t really press them to answer things or he would lose access to these VIPs. Eddy and Craig take this opportunity to explain away software quality concerns as mostly just the rumblings of a loud minority. Numbers of subscribers, transactions, and users are cited by Eddy to refute quality issues.

Quoting an install base, and number of users, isn’t really a good way to examine whether or not a product is good. Services, and software, are a subset of the total package that Apple provides. The total package might be the best, but not all of the component products. Especially in the case of the iPhone where Apple’s 1st party solutions can’t always be worked around, or are too much of a hassle to work around. Internet Explorer 6 had an enormous install base and tons of active users, but that did not mean Internet Explorer 6 was a good piece of software. It was part of that package.

Craig says that the metrics don’t show these problems. As the guys on Accidental Tech Podcast pointed out, metrics are no guarantee everything is working. The wrong things might be measured, or omitted, and then it looks like things are fine when they are not.

A minor example that doesn’t even seem worth sharing: The audio stopped working on my 4th generation Apple TV. No clue why. No audio on the videos or in the interface. I restarted the box and it worked. That was not a crash, and the system showed no awareness that it had lost it’s audio abilities. So is that logged as a metric, or does that not even register? It isn’t reproducible, and I have no reporting capability for it. That’s an example where it is possible to have a problem fly under the Radar.

Frankly, I’m a little confused they chose to do this. It draws more attention to the issues that people have been complaining about, particularly amongst tech journalists and Apple enthusiasts, and denies the problems exist. It might have been better if they stayed silent and worked to address concerns without having to deny them.

2016-02-12 14:45:00

Category: text


Firebug

The recent post about my frustration with Apple’s Music app for iOS, and my preliminary observations about Amazon’s solution have had some ups and downs since then. I have not necessarily resolved all of my problems (more on that later), but I am having a bit of fun. I’ve shared some of these thoughts with Marko Savic in Unhelpful Suggestions 13: ‘MarkoGyvering the Situation’.

Have You Heard About Cesium?

Until the post went up, I had not heard about Cesium, but several people that read my post reached out to ask me what I thought about the application. I’ve since looked into it, and it won’t resolve my underlying issue of the library on my iPhone losing, and altering data, because Cesium accesses that same library. Cesium is a different kind of player, so it may comfort people that are not having library problems, but would like a different player solution.

Amazon or Amazon Prime?

I didn’t have Amazon Prime at the time I wrote the post. I had a free trial from aeons ago, but I only have Prime shipping benefits through my boyfriends Prime account. That kind of benefit sharing didn’t allow me to access any of their digital content so I mostly relied on people telling me that it wasn’t very good in order to feel like I wasn’t missing out on anything. I also found out there is a “household” program where certain benefits beyond shipping can be shared by adults, and kids, in the same household. Instead of going down that road, I upgraded my account to a full Amazon Prime account. $99 seems like a lot, until you realize that you’re spending $8.25 a month, and I estimate I’d easily get that level of value out of the membership.

This prevented me from evaluating Amazon’s Cloud Music Library — where you can upload 250 songs to Amazon, and they’re available to you through their player, either streaming, or as a download. For an additional $25 you can upgrade that 250,000 songs. What the hell? I took the plunge on that too. It’s roughly analogous to iTunes Match — a service I didn’t pay for — or Apple Music’s iCloud Music Library during the trial.

Anything available on Prime Music is also available for streaming or download to my library (as long as I maintain my subscription, similar to Apple Music). This opened up elements of the Amazon Music iOS app that were not previously available to me. Without these membership levels, you only have access to your Amazon MP3 purchases, which was enough for my initial post — but I was feeling the urge to see a little more.

I found the utility of the app increased dramatically. Playlists, recommendations, stations, etc. I have to say that recommendation systems are often derided in favor of the human touch — at least that’s a narrative that Beats started — but all of these music services use recommendation systems to some degree. There are playlists in Prime Music made by people, and radio stations, all that you would expect. Apple Music tried to do this pairing as well (matching you up to a list an editor crafted by hand using only the finest vellum), but I found their recommendations to be complete misses. Amazon has even less data about me than Apple does because I’ve made far fewer purchases with Amazon, and almost everything I’ve listened to for over 10 years has been through iTunes, or the Music app. Yet, here’s Amazon, with two twigs and a piece of gum, and they nailed the indie-electro-synth-pop I was in the mood for.

However there was a drawback: Uploading my library. I downloaded the Mac app and installed it. While I find the iOS app to be beautiful and responsive, I can’t say the same about their Mac app. The app feels like an Adobe Air app. Gray, blurry, compressed graphics — just generally weird. There were also bars all over the place instead of the paging interface I appreciated in the iOS app. I very quickly decided that I would be spending as much time with the Mac app as I spend with iTunes these days. I opened the tab to upload my personal music and dropped my whole iTunes Library folder on it. Perhaps that was not the way to go, because it seemed unhappy with trying to add some elements which were not music tracks. Any Amazon MP3s I had previously purchased also turned up as a red “duplicate”. This onboarding process could really be improved, and is not even remotely polished. Once the upload completed, I was left with many albums where one album should be. Albums featuring multiple artists had been split up by “album artist” which … is wrong. Editing the “album artist” field to “mixed”, like iTunes had them listed, combined the albums. iTunes, and the iCloud Music Library, both have similar problems trying to figure out where music from an external source goes on import. I’d call it a wash. As long as changes stick, unlike what’s happening with my iPhone’s media, then I’m fine with putting in a little elbow grease. At least it feels like I’m doing something and not just throwing my hands up in the air.

I’m still evaluating what’s up, but I remain more positive about Amazon than Apple for music right now.

Kindling

What started as a small exploration of Amazon’s Music app for iOS spiraled wildly out of control and I ended up not only buying an Amazon Prime membership, but an Amazon Fire tablet as well. Whoops.

What’s even more worrisome is that I used Prime Now to get a Logitech K480 BlueTooth keyboard shipped to me so that I could try typing on it. I’m typing on it right now. Yikes.

Why in the world would I want to do such a thing? I’ve owned an iPad (3rd generation) since it came on the market and I’ve never once bought a special keyboard to type on. I haven’t bought a special subscription service to fill it full of media. Even though that’s an old clunker, it can run circles around this Amazon Fire tablet. I could even be using this keyboard — the one that I am using with my Fire tablet to write this post — to write on my iPad. I could be in Editorial, or Byword, flicking my fingers over the keys. Why am I using what is essentially a plastic toy? Am I regressing? Is this the 1990s PDA I wanted when I was a teen and couldn’t have? Bring me the finest Sharp Zaurus in all the land!

It’s all pretty inexplicable. I have to assume that most of this is tied to using something that is new. A mere novelty to do something novel with. Heck, I can even read novels on the novelty.

The build quality and hardware doesn’t warrant any in-depth review. It’s a sub $50 consumer electronics device with a touchscreen, two cameras, an SD card slot, and a battery. That means every part of that is compromised, even the power cord it ships with is a joke. It’s not an iPad, or iPad-like device. Think of it more like a thin-client for cloud media services, and storefront for digital or delivered goods. Low price barrier to entry, you can chuck it around or give it to people, etc. It’s lack of best-in-class ambition allows for this. If you want an iPad than save $50 and don’t buy this.

You can, however, live the Picard dream and do this to your desk:

Is any of this better than iOS? Better than using my iPhone 6 or my iPad? Not really. Amazon’s Fire tablet is a device designed to service Amazon’s ecosystem and provide an easy way to engage with Amazon so that you’ll hopefully buy more things through Amazon. I have already done that. I joined my ComiXology account to my Amazon account, and I’ve installed the comics app. I’ve read a “trade paperback” of The Wicked and the Divine that I bought through a Goodreads recommendation. It all just builds on top of itself. One layer after the other.

That’s something I do think is missing from my iOS experience. Well, “missing” — like I desperately need more ways to spend money. In the same way that Amazon’s stuff feeds into the ouroborous of Amazon, Apple feeds into next fall’s Apple hardware. Unfortunately, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the content solutions Apple is providing for me on their very nice hardware.

Almost every book I’ve read in the last 4 years has been in iBooks. I stopped buying comics on my iPad when Amazon bought ComiXology and killed in-app-purchase, but I didn’t replace that with any Apple service. Every movie I’ve purchased digitally has been in iTunes, and nearly every rental as well. I’ve bumped into all the awkward parts of those exchanges. Books that refresh, or lose my place. An iBooks app that opens to my library and slowly animates a book toward my face has lost all its magic. The iBooks app sticking red badges on books I’ve already read. A movie rented on the iPhone not appearing on the Apple TV and requiring me to AirPlay from my iPhone to my Apple TV like an animal. The changes to the Music app pushed me over the edge to finally try some other vendor for these things.

The other day, former analyst, and former Apple employee, Michael Gartenberg asked this on Twitter:

Services I use. GOOG: search, mail, photos, music, voice MSFT: iPad Office AAPL: everything else. Facebook: none you?

I wedged a response into 140 characters but here’s a better one:

  • Google: Search, mail, maps.
  • Microsoft: Work email through Outlook for iOS.
  • Dropbox: Cloud storage.
  • Adobe: That menubar thing that crashes.
  • Apple: Music purchases and playback, movies, apps, Siri (to set timers), iBooks.

And now:

  • Amazon: Kindle, comics, Prime Music, Prime Video.

Does that mean it’s a good idea to type up a blog post on a Kindle Fire tablet? No, of course not. Would I go scrounge around eBay for a Fire Phone? HA. HAHAHA. HA.

No, I’m just exploring new things I had previously dismissed because they weren’t Apple. “Only Apple” is something that the Apple executives like to say in presentations, but the thought of only using Apple services doesn’t make me feel excited. Instead I worry about what will go wrong with them. What data loss I will experience? What media will be unavailable when I reach for it? What service will behave differently on one Apple device than another?

If I have an iPhone in my pocket, a flaky Apple TV, and the cheapo Fire tablet to throw around than that’s really something I can live with.

Firestarter

I’m the trouble starter. Several people in my life were poking fun at me for buying an Amazon Fire tablet, including one of the cohosts of my podcast, Dan. Dan also puts HFCS pancake syrup on his waffles and I can’t abide it. So I sent him something.

Punkin’ instigator. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

All this Amazon talk, and the ridic Fire tablet purchase seems to have inspired Apple collector Stephen Hackett to evaluate the Fire tablet. This made me laugh quite a bit. Stephen is someone that appreciates craftsmanship and design and … I’m not sure he’s going to write up anything pleasant about it. His hands-on, first impression seems to bear that out:

BREAKING: the $50 Kindle Fire feels cheap.

2016-02-12 09:00:00

Category: text


Unhelpful Suggestions #13: MarkoGyvering the Situation ►

Marko and Joe talk about frustrations with Apple’s iOS Music app, and Apple Music. Then some experiences with Amazon’s Music products, the Fire tablet, Soylent, and cupcakes.

2016-02-08 23:35:00

Category: text