Thursday, April 27, 2017

Using the Echo Dot

I've had my Amazon Echo Dot for a couple of weeks now (since I won it in a raffle). I like the concept, but I just can't get it to do much of use for me.
The main draw for the Echo is voice recognition, used to command the voice assistant Alexa. That part works pretty well. As long as there isn't too much background noise, Alexa recognizes my commands almost every time. When there is a failure, I can use the Alexa phone app to provide feedback and improve the system.

Where I run into problems is finding things that I want to tell Alexa to do. My first thought was to hook up my Amazon Fire TV to the Echo, so I could use voice commands when watching TV. But despite both being Amazon devices, the Echo and Fire TV won't talk to one another. It's possible to use voice commands directly on the Fire TV, but only with a microphone-equipped remote control. If I've already bothered to find the remote and pick it up, I probably don't need voice commands any more.

OK, if video is out, how about audio? The Echo Dot has a speaker, but it's pretty weak, not suitable for much of anything but short responses. Hooking up an external speaker is supported, and I was able to do that with the stereo in my media center. But that doesn't work well, either. If I switch the stereo's input to something else (I also use it with the Fire TV and my PC), then the Echo is useless since it has no output. It's not smart enough to switch back to the internal speaker when the external one isn't available. I suppose I could switch the stereo input every time I want to listen to something, but if I'm doing that, then it would be easier to just use whichever other device is already connected.

If I did work around the speaker issue, what could I listen to? Alexa will recognize podcast names and play the latest episodes, but I'm often a episode or two behind. Plus, it doesn't know what I've already listened to on my phone or PC. Easier just to listen on those other devices than to manually mark which ones were played somewhere else. There's a MLB At-Bat skill for listening to baseball games, but it doesn't work with the Echo Dot. Music works fairly well - I mostly use Spotify these days, and there's a Spotify Alexa skill that works just fine - but with that speaker issue the sound quality is poor. About the only thing I do find useful is the ability to occasionally ask for the latest NPR news headlines.

What about home automation? I have a Logitech Harmony remote for my media center, and it was very easy to link that to the Echo. I can ask Alexa to turn on and off my various preset configurations, but that's not very useful. For instance, I can ask Alexa to turn on the Fire TV, but then I still need the remote to actually do anything (see above about Amazon devices not talking to one another). Same thing for playing DVDs. Might as well just use the remote in the first place.

I also tried lighting control, with TP-Link smart plugs and bulbs which are advertised as working with the Echo with no need for a hub. Getting those connected was fairly easy, but after a few hours, the connection stopped working. Alexa would say that the device wasn't responding, and I'd have to manually turn the device on and off to reconnect. Kind of defeats the purpose of a smart device if you're manually cycling it on a regular basis! I suspect it would work better if I got one of the hub-based systems rather than connecting to the devices individually, but that's a ridiculous expense for a tiny condo like mine.

I love the idea behind the Echo, and I do occasionally find a reason to ask it a question. But it just doesn't do quite enough to make it a reasonable replacement for what I already use.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Squarecells

Another Matthew Brown game, another few hours of puzzling. After playing through all the Hexcells games, I was happy to pick up another of Brown's puzzlers.
Squarecells is a logic puzzle game like Hexcells, but the cells are all square instead of hexagonal. Obvious, yes? That's pretty much where the obvious stuff ends, as each puzzle gets more complex with more limited starting information.

The game starts out easy and gets gradually more complex as you move through each of the 36 puzzles. (Arranged in a 6x6 square in the menu, of course.) Various types of clues - number of pattern cells in each row/column, number of connected pattern cells, separation between pattern cells in a row/column, and so on - show up as you move along. All the different types are combined in the tougher puzzles to make the player's life a little harder.

Brown believes in minimal UI design, and for the most part it works well. There's not a lot of options needed in this kind of game. But I did find myself wishing he'd included one option - different colors for cells once you've marked them as part of the pattern. That was the case in Hexcells, but in Squarecells the color stays the same with a small dot added in the upper right. Not nearly as much contrast, so that late in the larger puzzles I found myself doing a lot of squinting at the screen as I looked for which cells weren't yet marked. It's not a major flaw, just annoying.

I spent a happy few hours working through the puzzles in Squarecells. Well worth picking up for anyone who likes these kind of logic puzzle games.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Updating to Kodi v17 "Krypton"

It's been a while since Kodi released their most recent major update: version 17 "Krypton". I finally got around to installing it on my Fire TV recently.
I waited a while to install v17 largely because I was pretty happy with the older version. Since I upgraded to v16 a bit over a year ago, I haven't had any significant issues. So there wasn't a lot of reason to change. Also, I wanted to allow plenty of time for the add-ons that I use to be updated for the new version. So when v17 was released in early February, I didn't jump right in. In March, v17.1 was released with some minor fixes and that's what I used for my upgrade.

The actual upgrade process went very smoothly. I downloaded the Android version from the Kodi site and installed it using adbLink. Started it up and was greeted by the new user interface featuring the Estuary skin. It's different, but I didn't have any trouble finding everything that I'm used to using.

Everything carried over fine from the previous version except for Trakt.tv scrobbling of MythTV shows. That's not much of a surprise, since my modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on required some pretty specific data from Kodi and the MythTV PVR add-on. This upgrade changed how that data was presented, and for the most part the changes are for the better. It's much easier now to get information about which TV show is being played (specifically, some of the Kodi InfoLabels are being populated by the MythTV add-on). Updating my code was fairly easy, and I submitted the modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on maintainer so other people will get the same changes. Only took a couple of hours for the whole process.

The only real problem I had after the upgrade has nothing to do with Kodi itself. Around the same time, Amazon also updated the Fire TV user interface. Kodi stopped showing up on the home screen of the Fire TV, which means I had to go through the Settings menu to start it. Back in the day I used an app called Firestarter to get around this, but that's no longer an option. Fortunately, there are solutions for this. I had to try several of the things in that list but eventually I got Kodi back onto the Fire TV home screen.

This latest version of Kodi is working out fine thus far. With luck, I'll have another year before it's time to change again.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Various Mysterious-Creepy-Suspenseful Shows

Over the last few months, I've gone through several shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime that have in common a mystery-suspense base, built around various creepy premises. You could call them horror, I suppose, though I tend to apply the horror label more to heavy-on-the-gore, jump-scare shows. These are more about the suspense and mystery.
Stranger Things (Netflix) Season One - The best part about Stranger Things for me wasn't the actual mystery, though that's perfectly well executed (despite laying on the "scary monster" stuff a bit thick). Same with the casting and acting performances, all of which are done well. No, the best part is the nostalgia, because Stranger Things is set in the 1980s in a small town in Indiana. I grew up in that era, and lived in a succession of small towns (and both parents came from small towns in the Midwest). Nerdy kids playing D&D in a basement, people using rotary phones, grainy old standard-definition TVs: it all gives me that "man, I remember those days" feeling. Stranger Things would be a solid suspenseful mystery in any setting, but in this particular one it's a great show for my generation.

The OA (Netflix) Season One - I had no idea what to expect when I started watching The OA - didn't even realize it existed until it popped up as a Netflix recommendation. What I got was an engrossing mystery, told from the perspective of a possibly-insane protagonist who draws several others into her orbit. At least, until the last half of the very last episode, at which point the whole thing takes a very strange and (for me) unsatisfying turn. I'm still glad I watched this season, and if they make a second one I'll give it a chance, but I sure hope they come up with a more interesting ending.

Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - Fortitude is about a town built in arctic Norway, originally for mining, which is in the process of a crisis as the mines play out. There's plenty of political intrigue as science researchers, the miners, and tourism proponents clash. Into this mix comes a series of murders, and the unwelcome outside attention that comes with such things. The characters are really well-written and complex - almost no one is all good or all bad, lots of shades of gray. Gorgeous camera work in the landscape shots, too (at least, as long as you like snow). The big mystery was a bit of a letdown for me, since it was foreshadowed so heavily early on, but it's still a fun ride getting to the answers.

The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - After watching the eight episodes that currently exist, I'm not much of a fan of The Kettering Incident. I enjoyed the build-up of the mystery and liked several of the characters, but it feels unfinished. The last episode just sort of ends, with what I thought was an unsurprising reveal - that particular "surprise" had a whole lot of foreshadowing in the last couple of episodes. Rumor has it that a second season is in the works, which could change my mind if it picks up the story and has a more satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Telltale's Game of Thrones Season 1

I bought the Game of Thrones episodic game from Telltale a while back during a sale, and just recently got around to playing it.
It's unfortunate that the first thing I noticed about this game is how non-user-friendly it is. Installation required me to download direct from Telltale, rather than using Steam or some other distribution platform. (I assume that was because of the sale price, since it's available on those platforms, but I only had the one option.) Then I had to wait through an installation and update process, which was extremely slow. After playing the first episode, I had to download each of the other five episodes one at a time (also very slow). The game runs in a tiny window on my desktop with no option for higher resolution. The graphics are choppy, even more so than in other Telltale games I've played, and on occasion the sound gets out of sync. Several times the game screen blanked out and I had to kill the program to restart, and once it crashed trying to reload my save (fortunately a second attempt worked). It takes a lot of patience to get through all those technical and distribution issues.

Beyond the technical issues, the game shares the pros and cons that go with pretty much all episodic adventure games. My least favorite of these is the action sequences, including one almost immediately after starting the first episode. I had the usual trouble with them, dying several times largely because I didn't understand what was being asked of me (why isn't my character crawling away from the bad guy...whoops, I'm dead...oh, it wanted me to press down instead of up) and had to repeat the sequence. But I was always able to get through it once I'd seen what the game was asking for, and the sequences aren't terrible...just annoying.

This Game of Thrones adventure does a reasonable job of replicating the Game of Thrones feel. The player represents the Forrester family, a northern noble family traditionally tied to the Starks. The game switches you back and forth between various family members in different locations, which is a bit different since most of these kind of games are from a single viewpoint. It's familiar here, though, since the books and HBO show use the same kind of viewpoint switching. There's plenty of intrigue, betrayal, and spiteful enemies, as well as the occasional death of a character who seemed central to the plot.

Both the strongest and weakest points of the story in this game are its close ties to the events in the books/HBO show. On the one hand, I understand that it's a big draw to see the main characters like Tyrion or Cersei or Jon Snow, and to be affected by major events like the Red Wedding. These kind of interactions give the player a feeling of being part of the same world they read about or watch on TV. But the same close ties limit what can happen in the story and make the player's choices seem less important. When you know what's about to happen at the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery, for instance, it seems pretty silly to be engaged in political maneuvering for the favor of Tyrion.

Much of the time, I felt like I was just watching the story rather than being part of it. I could make some small impacts, but some pretty bad things were going to happen no matter what I did. That's a problem with all of these episodic adventure games, but it seemed worse with this one than most. I suppose that's to be expected in the Game of Thrones setting, where bad things seem to happen to most everyone all the time.

Don't expect to learn much in the way of answers at the end of the sixth and final episode. It feels very much like the middle of a story, with only one really big question answered (whether or not the North Grove is a real place). Clearly they're setting up for at least one more season. Had I realized just how much they were going to leave unresolved, I probably wouldn't have played at all until season two was out.

If you're a Game of Thrones fan and looking for something to augment the books/show, this Game of Thrones episodic adventure game is a decent choice. But if you don't like or have no opinion on Game of Thrones in general, I wouldn't bother with this game. It's unlikely to change your mind about the world if you dislike it, and the books/show are a much better way to get involved for the first time.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Killthrax Tour in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids' new 20 Monroe Live concert venue picked a good one for their first metal show: the Killthrax tour featuring Anthrax and Killswitch Engage. Both of those headliners played a full 90 minute set.
When I first saw the announcement for this come through my inbox, I was pretty surprised that Anthrax was still around. I listened to those guys 25 years ago in high school, but had pretty much lost track of them since college. Turns out they've been busy, even releasing a new album last year. All but one of the members were with the band back when I first encountered them (though some have left and come back a few times). They're not quite in Rolling Stones territory yet, but there's definitely some impressive longevity there.
20 Monroe Live has only been open for a few months, right downtown next to the BOB in Grand Rapids. This was my first visit, and I'd say they did a pretty good job with the place. Nice wide stage, elevated enough so that it's fairly easy to see from most anywhere on the floor. The acoustics seemed fine (though with thrash metal it's kinda hard to tell sometimes). A second level has reserved seats with a great view of the stage. My only complaint is that they put the restrooms on the second floor with only one main staircase for getting up and down, so it's terribly congested during breaks in the show.
I showed up a little late on purpose, since I knew the opening bands (Jasta and The Devil Wears Prada) would play for a while. I'm sure they're both fine, but after listening to their albums a bit on Spotify, I decided I didn't really care if I saw their entire sets. I caught the last few songs of The Devil Wears Prada, which seemed fine but aren't really my favorite style. (Side note - during the set change before Anthrax came on, I ran into a guy who actually recognized my Drain STH shirt. Since they haven't existed for nearly 20 years, it's a rare day when someone actually knows who they were! It goes without saying that both he and I were above the median crowd age.)
Anthrax was amazing, in my humble opinion. They looked like a group with 30 years of experience, comfortable on the stage and having fun. I'd been listening to them quite a bit for the last few weeks so I recognized a good number of the songs they played. Quite a few were older, including a couple from the Among the Living album and what may be the most recognizable Anthrax song, Antisocial. Those guys may be getting up there in age, but they haven't lost a step.
Killswitch Engage was a lot of fun as well. They've been around for nearly 20 years, which surprised me a bit when I looked it up. A way to go yet to catch the Anthrax guys, but that's a good long time, and they have plenty of material to show for it. At several different points they played three or four songs in a row in a kind of medley, which I thought was a cool way to give the set lineup some variety. Popular songs like My Last Serenade got played in full, though, which the crowd certainly seemed to appreciate.
Both headliners gave a fine performance, but personally I preferred Anthrax over Killswitch Engage. The old guy in me, I suppose. In any event, it was a great show that I'm glad came through my town.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

An Unexpected Upgrade

I bought a new video card yesterday. I hadn't planned on doing so, but when your old card dies, it's time for a new one.
Sometimes you can tell when computing equipment is on its last legs, and sometimes failure is pretty much a complete surprise. This was the latter. My screen flickered once early on yesterday, which seemed odd but everything kept working. Then an hour or so later, the screen went black and nothing I did brought it back. A single screen flicker isn't much in the way of warning.

I didn't know right away that the video card was the problem, but it was a pretty high-percentage guess. That earlier flickering screen was a giveaway, as well as the fact that I could see keyboard and case lights come on when attempting a reboot. Motherboard or power problems would likely not show any lights at all, and drive- or memory-related issues should show something on the screen (even if only an error). Just to be sure, I broke out an old video card (from several years ago before my last upgrade) and tried it out. That worked, confirming that the video card was the issue.

The card that just died was a NVidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost. It's just over three years old, which is pretty ancient in terms of computing technology. I hadn't had any complaints in terms of performance, and three years is pretty decent in terms of life of a video card that's used regularly on a gaming machine. Using that old card wasn't an option - way too underpowered, which is why it had been replaced in the first place - so I needed a new one. I figured my best bet was to go with a similar card in hopes of the same kind of lifespan and performance.

The 650 is way out of date now, but NVidia makes a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti that's basically a later version of the same thing. I poked around on various shopping sites and found that it was pretty affordable, around $160. That's right in the sweet spot for gaming video cards, at least in my opinion. A bit more than the super-cheap cards with short lives and/or bad performance due to cheap manufacturing, and a lot less than the high-end cards that provide way more power than necessary for my needs.

I do a lot of shopping online, but when I want something quickly it's nice to have local stores. Best Buy had the card I wanted for basically the same price as I could get at online retailers, and they have a store about 15 minutes away. I used their in-store pickup option to place the order, and drove up to pick it up about an hour later.

Back in the day, installing a new video card was a major pain, but these days it's a pretty painless process. Honestly, the hardest part was lining up the screws to hold the card in place against the back of my case. Even driver installation was no trouble, just a quick download from the NVidia site. I did make sure to choose the clean install option so it would remove the old drivers, just in case, but even that was likely unnecessary.

Everything I've done on the computer in the last day or so has worked fine, so I believe the new card has settled in nicely. With luck, it'll be another three years before I have to worry about it again.