2017 Podcast Picks

I haven’t done one of these lists in a few years, looking back through my archives I found my first list from 2008. Many of those podcasts have faded out of existence and I no longer listen to any of the others — with the exception of Daily Tech News Show, a spiritual successor to Buzz Out Loud. If you’re curious, here are my lists from: 2009, 2011 and 2012.

I subscribe to a lot of podcast, so I’ll just highlight a few shows I added to my subscriptions in the past year or two.

99% Invisible

Hosted by smooth voiced Roman Mars, this weekly show is ostensibly about architecture and design. Almost every week I find myself learning a bit of trivial or a little behind-the-scenes information that changes how I think about the way the world is constructed.

Website
Wikipedia

Episodes to check out:

Oyster-techture — Surprising importance of Oyster’s in NYC’s past and future.
Coal Hogs Work Safe — How stickers promote workplace safety in mining.
Half Measures — The history of metrification in the USA.

Reply All

Reply All is kind of like a cross between “behind-the-music” and Encyclopedia Brown for the internet. I previously highlighted their episode covering the history of Livejournal in Russia and the real possibility that it’s now an FSB spy tool.

Website
Wikipedia

Episodes to check out:

Long Distance – Part I & Part II — Host Alex Goldman receives a call from a telephone scammer, befriends him and travels to India to investigate their operation.
Antifa Supersolider Spectacular — Hosts discuss the origin of “Milkshake Duck” and other twitter weirdness.
The Case of the Phantom Caller — A woman in New Jersey is getting strange phone calls to her office from unknown numbers. The hosts investigate and uncover an interesting scam.

Stuff You Should Know

This show has been around since 2008, I’m really surprised I have not heard of it until this year. Twice per week the hosts spend about 45 minutes doing a deep dive on a pretty-much-random topic. I’m not sure how else to describe it.

Website
Wikipedia

 

Episodes to check out:

Cake: So Great. So, So Great — The history of cake is more interesting than I would have guessed.
Who Committed the 1912 Villisca Ax Murders — A murder mystery from 1912 and possibly the origin of the Ax murder trope.
How Multiple Sclerosis Works — The title says it all.

My week with Alexa

For Christmas, Santa brought me an Amazon Echo Plus, a gift I didn’t know I wanted. Over the holiday break I’ve been taking a deep dive into most of its features – including dabbling with writing an app skill.

It’s a great device, here are the highlights.

Privacy & Security

Even though I’ve become accustom to carrying a powerful listening and tracking device in my pocket 24/7, the idea of an always-on microphone in my home listening to my family’s conversations makes me extremely nervous.

The Echo’s “drop-in” feature amps up my paranoia even more though. With this feature enabled, approved contacts can listen-in and talk via the Echo’s microphone and speakers. Kind of like an intercom… across the internet. A cool feature no doubt, but it’s not much of a leap to think that Amazon/NSA/other bad actors might be able to turn this feature on silently.

When you bring a device like this into the home you’re making a decision to trust Amazon with the most private data. It’s important to step back and think about this for a moment. Do I trust Amazon to keep my data private? Yes, until I’m given a reason not to. Amazon even recently took steps to protect their customer’s privacy in a murder trial. They’re off on the right foot in my opinion. Should I be more paranoid? Maybe.

On the security front, the Echo hardware itself is likely very secure. Amazon’s online store and their cloud hosting services have a great security track record (to my knowledge). Securing hardware and software from viruses, hackers and breaches is one of Amazon’s core competencies. I’m confident that the echo will remain free of security issues.

Voice Assistant

Alexa’s ability to do basic voice assistant tasks like taking down lists, setting alarms and reminders, playing music, etc is on par with Siri (the only other assistant I have experience with). Where Alexa really excels is in finding answers to random facts and sort of… spontaneous responses. For example, “Alexa, good morning,” will be met with a random bit of trivia or other information. Alexa’s weather and precipitation reports are much more thorough — though neither Alexa nor Siri seems to know about windchill factor.

The Echo’s voice recognition also seems slightly better, especially with my kids, who Siri cannot understand at all.  This positive is counter-balanced by need to say commands more  precisely. Alexa is more like a voice controlled computer than an AI.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll mention it anyways. Actually ordering items from Amazon.ca via Alexa is flawless. Alexa lists the full price including taxes and shipping, with an expected arrival date. If you make a mistake, you can cancel anytime before it actually ships. I can only imagine how cool this would be in cities with 1 hour delivery.

I have been using Siri on my iPhone since day one and by comparison Amazon Echo doesn’t really add a lot functionality that Siri isn’t able to do. Yet the fact that the Echo sits in a stationary location with a microphone that’s able to pick up normal conversation from across the room, has lead to a mental shift in the way I use it. I don’t have to pull anything out of my pocket, or yell and wonder if my phone is charged. And our house has been full of music, not having to futz with anything makes music streaming a breeze.

Skills & Flash Briefings

“Skill” is what Amazon calls the voice apps that run on the Echo and it’s one only area of the ecosystem that could use major improvement.

Invoking is skill is extremely clunky, you have to include the name of the skill + the precise action you want to perform. For example, “Alexa, ask the weather network for the current temperature”. I think the reason for this is because Amazon has opted for a simple development model (more on that later) that involves zero AI.

Secondly, the skill marketplace is pretty lacking, most of the available apps seem useless or boring. I assume this is because the Echo has just entered the Canadian market place. Some of the US players like Domino’s and Uber still don’t have skills for Canada and I’d love to see a Skip The Dishes skill.

Flash briefings are pre-recorded news snippets that play when you ask Alexa about the news. Sort of like podcasts short, timely podcast. They’re exactly the type of on-demand news I’ve been looking for. I presently have Daily Tech News show, my local Winnipeg CBC radio and Alexa’s weather report in my flash briefing queue. My only complaint is that already listened briefings are repeated throughout the day. Since CBC updates hourly, but DTNS is only daily, I end up having to skip DNTS if I check the news more than once per day.

Smart Home

Santa brought me the Echo Plus, which means it is also a smart home hub. So far I’ve only set up one Hue light strip to replace dang hallway lighting. It’s definitely neat, but at the same time it feels like a gimmick. I wonder if smart home might not be a fad that dies off in a few years. I mean, when exactly did we collectively decide that flipping light switches was too much work? And normal white-ish lights were too boring?

I’m still waiting for a few items to be delivered so I may have some more thoughts on this in a few weeks.

Building a Skill

If you’re interesting in building Alexa Skills, I recommend taking a look at Alexa’s Fact Skill github repo. It’s one of the simplest type of skill, took me about 30 minutes to get rolling.  Skills are pretty cool and very simple. Basically node.js functions that run on AWS Lambda.

Once I started digging in to the development environment, I understood why talking to Alexa can be so clunky. When developing a skill you are required to assign precise phrases to a specific function. So you sort of have to think of every possible permutation of things someone might say when addressing your skill. This leads to a robotic/binary interaction where users have to say precise commands.

Hopefully in the future Amazon is able to wrap skills in AI or something clever. For the time being, it’s a good choice that really lowers the barrier to entry for developers.

Surprise: Amazon Calling

Amazon allows you to call any North American phone, for free! This feature flew completely under my radar and has just totally obviated the need to ever have a home phone, period.

Conclusion

Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation growing up, I was consciously aware that a lot of the technological advances depicted in the Star Trek universe were bound to be come into existence much sooner than the 24th century.  We’ve seen cell phones effectively mimic Star Fleet communicators, tablets are basically PADDs and we have ubiquitous flat screen displays; Amazon Echo combined with smart home gizmos brings us one more step closer to living on the Enterprise. Hell, you can even change Alexa’s wake word to “computer.” With an IFTT rule and a smart tea pot, I bet it’s possible to set up a response to “Computer, earl grey, hot.” We truly are living in the future.

I think Amazon should also be commended for a great Canadian tech roll out. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. We’re often second class citizens when it comes to tech releases and it’s nice to see full support for Canada in The Echo. Kudos.

Roughnecks on the job.

In this video, experience professionals make one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever seen, look as mundane as me writing this post from the comfort of my own home. Literally everything in this scene could kill or maim any of these guys if someone loses focus. I’m having a bit of a hard time describing exactly why this video struck me, I just find it stunning.

Redditor StevosaurusRex gives a helpful play-by-play of the action:

the water keeps the rig floor clean by washing away the mud as it comes from the hole. they drop in slips to hold the pipe at the right height so it’s easier to get their tongs in place (the roughneck steps on the slips). one tong pulls, the other runs backup, just like you would with a couple wrenches at home. you can see steel cable (attached to the tongs) bouncing in the air. if that cable breaks and the driller (only guy not working 🙂 ) has too much pressure on it, those tongs could come around and kill/maim those guys.

use the mud shield, because that stuff is slick and makes life not great. not sure what device they’re removing, but it gets a quick check and goes into new pipe. two tongs (make up and breakout) attach the two sections of pipe and the spinning chain is a great way to get the threads started, but will also kill/maim if it breaks.

see the guy in the green hard hat fighting to hold on to the heavy as hell, slick, unwieldy pipe so it doesn’t kill/maim the rest of his crew? he’s tired, but he’s fighting hard because that slinging pipe will make him unpopular with what’s left of the crew is he lets go.

Nylas, an email client for 2016

I have been experiencing an unusual burst of adventure and excitement surrounding some of the tools I use. Over the past week and a half I have been trying out Nylas N1 as my daily email client.

Nylas is an open source, extensible email client. It follows the recent software development trend of editors like Sublime Text and Atom. The app focuses on core functionality and relies on the community to add features and visual themes. As a developer you can build the app yourself and use it for free, but you’re locked out of some of the paid functional. So, I signed up for the free trial to give it a full shot.

Nylas has three features I was most interested in:

1. Social Sidebar

When you open an email, the right-hand view pulls up social info for the sender. Including their Twitter picture and other social links. I thought this would be kind of cool and useful. However, I ended up ignoring it entirely.

2. Read Reciepts

Back in the bad old days of Outlook Express (and beyond), you were able to send a “read receipt” to your recipient. IIRC this depended on a proprietary (or non-standard) attachment. The recipient would have to acknowledge the read receipt, then an email would be send back to you in the background and your local copy of OE would process it and produce a “read” checkmark somewhere in the UI. A horribly Kludgy and inefficient process!

Nylas handles read receipts with a server-side process, similar to the way Mail Chimp, etc track opens and clicks. It’s totally seamless.

I found this to be a compelling, albeit creepy feature. My main complain is that the there was no in-app way to disable the notification. Though, seeing someone open your email immediately after sending it, then not hearing back from them (ever!) is also horribly disheartening.

3. Snooze/Send Later

Prior to Nylas, my email client (both on desktop and mobile) has been Google Inbox, prior to that I was using Mailbox. A key feature with both clients was “snooze,” it allows you to basically resend an email to yourself at a later date (or location). My stress level surrounding email decreased 1000% when I started using snooze, I can’t live without it.

I had assumed that Nylas’ snooze feature would sync with Google Inbox’s snooze. Unfortunately they don’t, so Inbox on my phone had no knowledge of the snoozes I’d set in Nylas. Bummer.

Send later is sort of the opposite feature to snooze. It’s a great way to compose an email to a client at midnight and have it automatically send during regular business hours, for example. In the past I’d used Boomerang to send later with gmail. I had been missing the feature since Boomerang is not compatible with Inbox. Nylas’ send later works as advertised. Bonus.

Conclusion

Nylas is good. It’s been a long time since a decent alternative has entered the email client arena. I recommend you give it a try.

Unfortunately, there’s one big issue. The search, it just doesn’t seem to work right. I found myself switching back to inbox to search almost every time.

And there are a few other minor issues that will prevent me from using it.

  • It’s slow. I found significant lag between issuing a command and it actually being sent to the server.
  • Emails are unsorted. I’ve grown quite accustom to the way inbox groups email by day. Nylas just shows one big ugly list.
  • Minor email rendering issues. Sometimes emails appeared to be super wide and off the screen.
  • Lack of enhanced email. Google Inbox shows useful snippets for certain types of emails (orders, receipts, newsletters, etc)
  • Other minor UI issues. Various parts of the UI seemed a little unrefined. These issues varied somewhat depending on the theme I was trying, leading me to wonder if the theme API is buggy.
  • Read Receipts, snooze and send later are all paid features. It’s hard to argue that these features combined are not enough to justify $9/mo and since they rely on Nylas’ servers they couldn’t really exist without paid support.

These are all fairly minor, I know. But for me they add up to a deal breaker.

Peach Came From a Can

Social app Peach hit the interwebs over the weekend, harder than a late 1990s grunge-esque anthem skipping on a discman playing through a cassette tape adapter.

You could write off peach as another social networking app for tech groupies. But you’d be missing a very unique feature.

Chatbots.

(Sorta. They’re almost more like command-line keywords.)

Peach does this one little thing that I’ve never seen an app of this type do before. A series of text commands enable quick access device sensors and various other APIs. For example, `move` posts the number of footsteps the device has recorded today, `gif: keyword` returns a gif search, `here` posts your location, etc.

I’m not sure whether to call this innovative per se, chatbots have existed on IRC for decades and Slack does something similar with third party app integrations.

However, Peach is the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing implemented for purely entertainment purposes and I find it extremely interesting. Mostly likely, an early sign of things to come.

If you do check it out, add me, I’m ohryan.