Friday, November 13, 2015

Comcast's Voice Guidance feature

Comcast recently launched their (beta) Voice Guidance feature for the X1 cable platform. Tom Wlodkowski, Vice President of Accessibility at Comcast demonstrated it today during his keynote speech at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind’s 85th anniversary celebration and “See the Light” luncheon in Coral Gables, FL. I spoke to Tom about Voice Guidance and the other convergent Xfinity technologies for the blind, visually impaired, and literacy and learning impaired.

People often ask Wlodkowski, “Do blind people watch much TV?” He answers, “Yes! They do watch TV and they want to watch more of it.” If TV is such a visually rich medium, why would blind people be so drawn to something they seemingly can’t enjoy fully? One answer is inclusion. TV content is big part of today’s pop culture, people talk about last night’s episode of Blindspot or The Blacklist the next day at work. TV content is also a significant source of our daily information as well as entertainment.

Most of us are only aware of Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired, but Accessibility now goes much further in the X1 Accessibility features.

  • Voice Guidance navigates the viewer through the channel guide, menus, and info screen. Watch the video in the inset to see how easy Voice Guidance is to set up and use.
  • Video Description adds audio comments between dialog of movies and shows to describe the action or surroundings in a scene that might only be discernible for a sighted viewer. This is not much content equipped with Video Description today but that is growing. In the future you will also be able to filter content that features Video Description.
  • The newest X1 remote control has voice command capability such as “Watch CNN” or “Find Big Bang Theory”. Combined with Video Navigation, the viewer is then instructed to click the left or right button to get to the various viewing options such as “Watch”, “Record”, “Info”, etc., then click OK.

This is certainly just the beginning. Voice control and guidance will continue to expand. According to Wlodkowski, the future will bring partnering with other services, as well as adding voice control to home control and home automation. He wouldn't tip his hand to all of Comcast’s plans, but I believe the technology is solid and possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ready for (and looking forward to) Surgery

My knee has been bothering me.  Sharp pains when I twist the joint and dull aches when I walk, causing me to limp.  Probably did it playing tennis which exerts lots of stop and twist forces on the knee.

I know my body. Sprains or simple overuse would have started to get better by now.  After several weeks of this, I went to an orthopedic surgeon.  Afterall, the knee is a very complex joint, lots of muscles, bones, ligaments, nerves.  I needed an expert to tell me, ice it or not, use it or not, X-Ray/MRI it to see what the problem is.

Diagnosis:  torn medial meniscus (see image to the right).  Surgery in 3 weeks.  My reaction: great! let's do this.  Why am I happy about this?  My wife has warned me there will be pain.  I know, and surgery always has some risk.  But here is why I'm happy about this:

  • I have one of the best surgeons in the country, an extremely talented and skilled doctor.
  • I have health insurance that will cover most of the cost.
  • It is simple and straightforward surgery (for a orthopedic surgeon, not a DIY project). 
  • Recovery including PT is 2-4 weeks
  • The pain will be gone.
  • He found no arthritis in the x-rays.  Not that I'll never have arthritis, but not having any yet should put it off until later years.
So things could be a whole lot worse.  I'm in good health and my problem is very fixable.  Significant changes to any one of the bullets above could have made this very bad news.  

Shit happens, no one has a perfect life.  I got lucky and hit a speed bump on this one.  So let's get on with it and be grateful for what it is.  I'll post some comments post surgery, maybe a picture if any are interesting.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The New Apple TV, a worthy upgrade

The New Apple TV arrived at my door on Tuesday. I had been waiting a long time for an upgrade to the original Apple TV, though this new one is technically Gen4. Like all Apple products, opening the package is a wonderful experience in itself, beautiful, simple, high quality.

The first thing you notice is that the new Apple TV is bigger, same footprint, but a ½” taller and 5.4 oz heavier, you feel that there is more goodness inside. Connections are easy: power, HDMI and Ethernet or wireless, an easy swap out of my existing Apple TV. Installation was very smooth. A pleasant surprise was being asked to place my iPhone near the Apple TV so it would mirror the network settings, speeding up and simplifying installation, very cool. In fact, all my HDMI connections (CATV, BluRay, Apple TV) go through my AV receiver; just touching the Apple TV remote causes everything to switch to Apple TV in my system, easy, but sometimes inadvertant.

The UI is clean and beautiful with a significant focus on apps. The old Apple TV simply loaded content “channels” and you had to go into Settings to Hide the ones you didn’t use or want. To start there are only the Apple apps (Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computer, Apps Store and Settings). You must select the content apps you want (HBOgo, Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, etc) and enter your credentials from your direct account or your cable carrier which gives you access on your Apple TV.  Other apps are available for free and for fee, and I expect the list to be gargantuan like the iOS App Store.

But let’s talk about what is really exciting, the new remote! The remote has a mini-clickable track pad to easily navigate the screen. Siri has arrived and is exceptionally useful here. “Find movies with Bradley Cooper”, a list appears, “just the comedies”, the list shortens. If you ask Siri to “Find The 100”, it returns with content provider options such as "available on iTunes and Netflix", so you can select your preferred or already paid for service. Siri unfortunately doesn’t work with Music, you can’t get results by saying “play smooth jazz”.

Many other voice commands make finding and watching content far easier. Ask Siri what the temperature is outside, fast forward 2 minutes, play from the beginning, what did he say (if you missed some dialog), reduce loud sounds (if you’re trying to be quiet). The remote has great other features such as triple clicking the Home button to toggle closed captions or other functions. The remote has an accelerometer that makes game playing more engaging whether you're playing tennis or flying paper airplanes or battling zombies.

Even the screensaver is a cinematic experience. They are visually exciting to simply watch. The default is the SF Bay Bridge at night, very realistic. Others are 600 MB so they might eat up more memory than you’d like.

Overall the new Apple TV is a great device, and a special early Christmas present. My wife says technology doesn’t age well, so she offered to not wrap it up for the next 6 weeks and let me have fun with it now. To read more about what Apple says about the Apple TV experience, go to

Sunday, September 13, 2015

No Late Fee Credit Cards

18%, 24% or more.  This is the interest rate on your credit card for unpaid balances.  When bank savings accounts are paying 0.1%, 24% seems ludicrous.  Why are they so high?  Usury comes to mind, but that aside, the banks will tell you that unpaid balances represent an unsecured loan from the credit card company.  How can we get around this?  Sometimes you might just miss a payment date that you have funds to cover; you just got busy or forgot.

Why not have a secured account credit card.  Let's say you have a $5,000 credit line.  Put $5,000 in a secured account with the credit card company.  If you're late in a payment or carry a balance of less than $5,000, there is no late fee because the credit card company is holding the money; if you default, they get to cover the outstanding balance by keeping that amount of money in your secured account.

I realize many people use credit cards monthly because they don't have the funds to cover their balance and monthly expenses.  I understand that mode and this idea is not for them.  But many people use credit cards for transaction convenience and safety.  You don't want to carry $700 into the store to buy a TV so you put it on your credit card, probably to also earn points or rewards.  If that's how you use your credit card and therefore the credit card company gets $0 from you annually, wouldn't they prefer to at least hold on to $5000?

Rather than make 0.1% on $5000 ($5 in interest per year), this method would allow you to miss or be late on a payment and not incur a $35 charge plus 24% interest.  I suspect the credit card companies would far prefer the interest and late fees than to have all that cash on hand from secured accounts.  But this is an interesting idea that some card company should explore.  Even if it was a multiple, such as having to keep 1.5x your credit line secured on account.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Kentucky Clerk and Same Sex Marriage Licenses

Quick recap, Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County Kentucky, has been refusing to issue same sex marriage licenses because of her personal religious convictions and beliefs.  There is immense media attention there in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on the legality of same sex marriage earlier this year.  The press has swarmed the county office.  There is talk of contempt of court, hauling Davis before a judge.  Totally out of control and giving Davis far too much attention for applying her personal beliefs to her job.

This is a simple matter.  Fire her.  She has a job and her duties are specific to the laws governing the US and State of Kentucky.  If she does not perform them, then she needs to be dismissed.  If Davis believes that she was wrongly dismissed from her job, she can file legal action.

Davis has a right to her beliefs, to her religion.  But if her job is contradictory to her personal beliefs, if she feels that she is being asked to compromise her convictions, she has a choice.  She can either perform the duties of her job as described by law or she can find another job.  No one is forcing her to embrace same sex marriage.  Furthermore she is a county employee, a servant of the people.  When the people rightfully apply for a marriage license as prescribed by law, what right does Davis have to deny them?

Fire her.  Davis is grandstanding, looking for attention and we not should give her a minute more.  She is forcing her beliefs on the people she serves yet wants to enjoy the benefits provided by the same people who fund her paycheck and benefits.  She won't quit either because she would lose her precious pension.  Fire her and let her promote her own beliefs at her expense and time, not the people's.

A final option, take the high road, Ms. Davis.  Ask for a re-assignment of duties.  Perhaps the county can accommodate you.  If so, great, but if not, you have a very simple choice, do your job as lawfully prescribed by the U.S. Supreme Court, or accept that your beliefs contradict with your job and resign.  Did you even request re-assignment?  Straight up defiance is only going to be met with straight up consequences.  You draw a hard line, the people must take an equally hard line.  Contempt of Court and jail.  Don't be surprised or feel victimized.  You control the situation.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Deleting Phantom Photos from your iPhone

So many photos stored on your iPhone, you probably don’t even know how much space it’s taking.  I recently looked at my usage (in Settings) and saw 3.5GB, way too much on my 16GB iPhone 6.  (Go to Settings > General > Usage > Manage Storage.)  So I imported (backed up) all my iPhone photos into iPhoto on my MacBook.  At the end of the import, I opted to delete all imported photos from the iPhone.  Down to 3.0 GB, still too much.  There were some photos left and many in the Deleted folder in the Photos app.  Satisfied that everything was backup, I deleted everything.  Now 2.5GB, still too much.  No photos on my phone yet 2.5 GB being used?  Where was all the space being used up.

On the Apple Support Communities, I found out that “phantom photos” were taking up the space, but how would I delete them and reclaim the free space?  After much searching, I found out that by manually changing the date back 3 months, 6 months, perhaps as much as one year (Settings > General > Date & Time), old photos would be revealed in the Deleted folder that really never got deleted.  Once they were visible in the Deleted folder, I deleted them all.

Now the Photos app only takes up 94 MB, probably just enough to let it run and all those GBs of space are truly freed up.  Don’t forget to reset your Date & Time back to “Set Automatically” so that your iPhone is back in the present time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Are you ready for the new Macbook's single USB-C port?

The new MacBook is loaded with lots of new features.  The lines are blurring between it and the MacBook Air.  In many ways, I like the new MacBook more, except for one feature, a single USB-C port.  Apple has paved the way for many new technology trends from the 3 1/2" floppy to no floppy to no DVD drive to the flippable lighting port.

USB connectors are a pain.  The connector that plugs into your computer or AC power block can only go in one way and 9 out of 10 times, I attempt the wrong way.  On close inspection I know which way is "up" but it's a pain.  The micro-USB plug is just as bad, I get that wrong and fight with plugging it in, even when I have the right orientation.

USB-C (also known as USB 3.1) will be much simpler, it has no up or down, completely reversible, like the Apple Lightning plug.  And both ends of the USB-C cable are the same, great!.  It also has 12V of power instead of the older USB 2.0 5V.  This means you can do more with the USB connection and run periphers that require more juice for mechanical or processing power.  It is also faster to transmit data, up to 10 Gbps, compared to USB 3.0's 4.8 Gbps or USB 2.1's 480 Mbps.

Now converge the two, new MacBook and USB-C.  Sounds like a great idea, however Apple only put 1 USB-C port on the new Mac which may not sound so bad except this single USB-C port handles AC power, USB peripherals like flash drives & scanners, and display video (like a second screen).  For all those devices that don't have USB-C connectors, Apple (and the enormous cottage industry of 3rd parties) will make adapters available.

More importantly, you need a multiport adapter, like the one available from Apple.  I keep my MacBook Air plugged in all day while I work, I run a second display at my desk, I also need to plug in a flash drive now and then.  This means with no USB-C peripherals available yet, while I'm on the bleeding edge, I need to buy many adapters and carry them around with me.  In 18 months we'll look back at this and say, no big deal, that got fixed.  But in the meantime, I need ports until the rest of my attached world conforms.