Phones in Cars

From today, increased penalties are applicable in the UK for people who use their phones in the car. Infringers will get 6 points on their licence and a £200 fine. Get caught twice and you’ll find yourself in magistrates’ court facing a fine and a ban. If you’re a new driver, then you risk having your licence revoked.

You can use hands free kits and headsets of course, but it’s illegal to use a handheld phone while driving a car.

As these fines come into place, here’s the latest Seat Leon advert currently airing on TV:

Watch from about 16 seconds.

While I couldn’t swear that the hand we see is that of the sole driver in the car, and there might be an argument over whether he’s “using” the phone, it’s clear that he’s checked the phone to discover it has a dead battery. And from the camera work, the implication is that the car’s moving.

I’m surprised this ad got past the BACC!

It’d have been perfectly simple to edit the ad so that he checks his phone before he pulls away. Yes wireless charging is cool, assuming your phone has it. But this ad is pretty poor and would seem to show illegal behaviour.

It’s pretty clear that lots of people do use phones illegally in their cars, endangering other road users and pedestrians, and that we need to do more to stop it.

So full marks for this campaign and the increased penalties that might make people think a bit more.

And Seat, you may want to rethink your advert.

In Advance of The Nightly Show

This evening, ITV launches its big new entertainment gamble – The Nightly Show. They’ve taken over The Cochrane Theatre near Holborn, and for the next eight weeks they’ve also taken over The News At Ten’s slot. (Recall, this is the slot that only a year ago, the then Media, Culture and Sport Minister was wondering if the BBC should vacate to let ITV have an unimpeded run. Hmmm.)

There have been four weeks’ worth of pilots, and the USP of the show is that it will have different guest host presenters each week, beginning with David Walliams tonight. John Bishop and Gordon Ramsey are also lined up.

I confess that I’ve heard a couple of slightly off-putting things in advance of the show. There’s the suggestion that it won’t be especially political, which is odd in these political times. In an interview in The Guardian today, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television is reported as saying:

‘”It’s not satire with a capital S,” he says. “They’ll poke fun at the news in a broad way, just as most chatshow hosts do.”‘

With a hope that they create lots of viral videos, it feels like it wants to be more James Corden than Samantha Bee or John Oliver.

But you have to set that against a time when we’ve got Brexit, May, Corbyn, Farage, Trump, and right-wing nationalism across Europe. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest bringing it back (they already tried to an extent with Newzoids), Spitting Image was nothing if not political.

So I wonder if hidden camera japes and audience surprises are quite right? In any case, don’t Ant & Dec already do that with aplomb on Saturday nights?

Interestingly, in the US, Stephen Colbert has recently been overtaking Jimmy Fallon for the first time, with the suggestion that it’s because he’s taken a more political line following the election of Trump. Colbert comes from a background of devastating political satire on Comedy Central; Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair.

I also think we need to be bit careful making comparisons with some of these US shows.

Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel all air at 11.35pm on the coasts, not 10.00pm as The Nightly Show will. James Corden and Seth Myers air at 12.35am; long after any sensible person with a job has gone to bed.* This is also why producing viral videos like Carpool Karaoke segments is so important for Corden and his peers.

Calling a show that airs at 10pm a late-night show, is not just misleading, it’s wrong. Upwards of 10 million people are still watching UK TV at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the biggest chat show failure of recent times in the US, was when NBC gave Jay Leno a nightly 10pm slot for a while when he stepped down from The Tonight Show (before booting out Conan O’Brien and dropping Leno back in at 11.35pm, in a particularly unedifying moment in US late night TV show history). Arguably that was a different type of show, and the TV landscape at 10pm in the US is very different to ours.

However, one thing is clear. This show will undoubtedly take a bit of time to find its legs. So tomorrow’s overnights, which will be eagerly pounced upon, along with those of its leadout show, series three of Broadchurch, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

As for the pushing back of The News at Ten – which becomes simply The ITV News, no doubt without the bongs – I would suggest ITV simply settles in that slot on a long term basis. It then won’t compete directly with the BBC, and at 10.30pm there’s no reason why both a more analytical Newsnight on BBC2, and a more mainstream ITV News can’t exist simultaneously. The downside for ITV is that on really big news days, the ratings for the BBC Ten O’Clock news will soar, while late local news bulletins and football highlights will take ratings hits.

* In the central timezone, these shows are on an hour earlier. But the over 60% of the US population gets these shows at the later time.

Misleading Infographics

I find few things more annoying than thoroughly misleading infographics. At the weekend, I was flicking through the latest copy of The New Statesman, and came across an advertorial published by Western Union addressing overseas trade.

The most startling part of the two-page spread was an infographic showing the top UK export destinations.

Now leaving aside the suggestion that WU Edge seems to present itself as the main route for this trade to be taking place, the most startling thing that instantly struck me was the scale of the US compared with everyone else. The size of the circle is significantly larger than any other circle on the page.

But hang on. If the US is worth $66.5bn, and Germany is worth $46.4bn (about 70% of the US), why does the German circle not look like it’s about 70% of the US one?

Let’s find out.

First of all, there are sometimes optical illusions, so I took a ruler out and roughly measured the diameters of the circles on the paper. (All more measurements and calculations from here on are a bit rough, with lots of rounding. However, the principles are correct.)

So the US circle is 28mm across, whereas Germany is 20mm, Switzerland 13mm and so on.

My suspicion is that they’ve sized these circles according to diameter or radius rather than area. Let’s see if I’m correct. Bearing in my mind I’m measuring roughly, here are my results:

If we assume a diameter of 28mm is equivalent to $66.5bn. then you can see that broadly speaking the other widths are in line with the printed numbers on the page give or take the odd billion.

But that’s a wrong way to do things!

If we were being presented with a bar chart, then the length of the bar would be fine. But we have circles here, and if we use radius (or diameter) as our measure, then the area increases exponentially. That’s because, as any schoolboy knows A = Πr2 (or Area = Π x radius2).

To show how this misleads, consider the US circle. The area of that 28mm circle (14mm diameter) is 616mm2.

That implies that $1bn = 9.3mm2.

But if we work back from that, then Germany’s circle should be 23.4mm rather than the 20mm it actually is.

That might seem a small difference, but with a circle it’s suddenly larger as this hand drawn (no compasses available) image shows.

More to the point, if you take a smaller example like China which in the printed chart has a width of 12mm, the calculations show that is should have a width of about 18mm.

An 18mm circle compared with a 12mm circle is significantly larger in appearance.

I’m not saying that anyone politically wanted to make the US look larger than the other countries, but misuse of circles, not taking into account radius, actively makes that impression.

Infographics are great, if they handle data responsibly.

This was a bad example and as a consequence presents a highly misleading picture.

Sneaky Pete

I only seem to write about television very occasionally these days. I suspect I struggle because there’s so much to catch up on at any given time, there’s no time left for writing.

Sneaky Pete is a new series from Amazon Studios provided free to their Prime customers. The hook as far as Amazon is concerned is that the series comes from Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston and David “House” Shore. To my mind, the most important behind-the-camera talent is the executive producer, Graham Yost, who has most recently been responsible for the excellent Justified, and also excellent The Americans. He actually took over Shore as showrunner when the pilot, originally ordered by CBS, moved to Amazon. As a result, the pilot has been around on Amazon’s service for 18 months now, ahead of the series finally arriving.

Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is a con-man completing a short prison sentence for holding up a bank. His cellmate, serving a longer sentence, is Pete. Pete endlessly refers to his idyllic childhood, boring Marius to tears. But we soon learn that Marius had attempted to con Vince (Bryan Cranston). So instead of returning home, where Marius remains $100,000 in hock to Vince, he decides to head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he will impersonate his former cellmate Pete.

Family relations had long broken down, and Marius/Pete now thinks that he might be able to score some cash from the wealthy Bernhardt clan, led by Audrey (Margo Martindale).

Can our fake-Pete convince the family that he is who he says he is, inveigle his way into their home, and then raise the money he needs to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) from Vince’s clutches?

Along the way, we meet the dysfunctional Bernhardt family including grandfather Otto (Peter Geraty), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae) and Carly (Libe Barer), who work in the family’s struggling bail bonds firm, the local police or are a troubled school child.

In some very limited ways, this does remind you of the set-up to the very different Banshee in which a new sheriff was impersonated in a small north-eastern town.

The real hook in this series is that Pete is a con-man, and we see him thinking on his feet, stealing wallets, phones and watches to further his cause. I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, loving the references to The Spanish Prisoner, the mark, long and short cons, convincers, ropers and inside men. I will happily watch any series or film that plays out like this.

The real problem, though, is that so many of us have seen The Sting, Grifters, House of Cards or Hustle, that it’s hard to do something genuinely different. So Sneaky Pete is not about a con-of-the-week setup. Instead we have someone utilising their confidence trick skills to keep their head above water, and one or two larger cons playing out over the ten episode run of the series.

In particular, you have some well drawn characters who don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Police officer Taylor is shown to be a bit of a clown earlier on, but he’s not really anybody’s fool, and Marius/Pete’s relationships with some of the previous women in his life isn’t as one dimensional as would sometimes be the case in this kind of series.

Cranston really only has a supporting role in this series, but he’s properly nasty as Vince, while Ribisi seems to inhabit the role of a confidence trickster perfectly. Lots of faces are familiar from other Yost series, including the peerless Martindale, Julia’s ex Lance (Jacob Pitt) and Vince’s lover and ex member of Marius’s gang, Karolina (Karolina Wydra).

The series does a nice side in colourful supporting characters. I’d have liked to have seen more of Marius’s parole officer James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who drives around listening to motivational tapes, and categorising his parolees as “eagles” or “shitbeards.” Michael O’Keefe is wonderfully sadistic bent cop, and Virginia Kull is great as Katie, who’s trying to lead a normal life, but kinda still loves the thrill of the con.

Alison Wright, familiar to fans of The Americans, shows up as another confidence trickster, Marjorie. I confess that when I heard her accent, it seemed to be the one duff note of the show. Was she trying to British? Perhaps Irish? I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, I thought “She needs a dialect coach.” Then I realised that Wright is actually British (from Sunderland), and that was her real accent. Ah.

The series concludes nicely but ends in a way that lets them go straight into a second series, and Amazon has wasted no time in renewing it which pleases me a lot.

“A portion of the proceeds”

This may seem unfair with respect to charitable giving, but I wonder if there are any more mealy-mouthed phrases than, “A portion of the proceeds”?

You hear this regularly when people are going to be donating something to a charity. The issue is that a “portion” might be anything from $0.01 to 99% of the revenues raised.

Intrinsically, many of us feel good about ourselves when we buy something knowing that there’s a charitable element attached. Do I favour product A over product B because there’s a charitable element with the former? Quite possibly.

And it’s not as though the companies concerned aren’t doing it, at least partially for genuine reasons. Many businesses have specific charities or foundations that they support, occasionally very generously.

But I much prefer an open and honest discussion about what proportion of proceeds are actually going to a charity. If you say a “portion of the proceeds,” I want to know what that means:


  • Is it a set amount per product, and if so what amount is it?

  • Is it a portion of the sale amount of a product? E.g. 50p for each item sold?

  • Is it a portion of the profits of sale?

  • If based on profits, when does something go into profit? (Entertainment products like books, music and films have notoriously opaque accounting practices, meaning that enterprises that look to all the world as profitable, haven’t in fact become profitable in the eyes of the publisher.)

  • Is it a lump sum that’s being donated?

  • Is there a cap to how much can be donated?

  • Is a business or organisation gaining a tax advantage by donating?

Instead of saying, “A portion of the proceeds,” is going to a good cause, I want to know an amount per unit sold, even if it’s capped, or a percentage. Because if you make a big deal about giving 0.05% of your net profits to a particular cause, I’m not going to think quite so highly of you. (Although admittedly, if you’re Apple, that 0.05% of $45.7bn is still a very sizeable $22.9m pa.)

RIP Steve Hewlett

Earlier today, the death of journalist and broadcaster Steve Hewlett was announced by Eddie Mair on Radio 4. He was 58.

Since September last year, when Hewlett had announced he had cancer, he’d been giving Mair a series of interviews describing his various treatments, struggles and trials. The interviews ran fairly regularly on Monday editions of PM, and were very revealing. Hewlett also penned a series of Cancer Diaries for The Observer.

I think I first came across Hewlett in The Guardian. He’d been writing media columns for paper’s Monday media supplement, and he’d appeared regularly as a guest on the Media Guardian Podcast with Matt Wells and John Plunkett. In 2008 he was “poached” by Radio 4 when then controller Mark Damazer started a specific media radio programme. Since then The Media Show became an unmissable appointment for anyone who wanted to follow what was going on in the UK media – from broadcast to print and digital. Hewlett covered it all in his stride, returning to stories when they needed ongoing coverage. For example, he gave regular voice to colleagues of the Al Jazeera journalists held and detained in Egypt, staying with the story until their eventual release. And of course he stayed closely on top of the repercussions of the hacking scandal and the Levison Inquiry, right through to the mess that is IPSO and Impress today.

He always got the best out of his guests, getting to the point and asking the important questions. He explained the issues for a wider audience, but never over-simplified things. The Media Show is mostly live, meaning that although he’d worked behind the camera in the past including famously as an editor of Panorama, he was having to learn the skills of a live production from a presenter’s perspective. Famously, he’d ask final questions to interviewees urging them to respond “Briefly…”

I didn’t know Steve myself. I once got in a lift with him at a hotel in Salford, coming down to breakfast at a Radio Festival. He had a producer in tow, since he was later going to be presenting an episode of The Media Show live from the Festival. I think he probably chaired a session as well. I think I made a poor joke and he smiled.

Yet I know I’m going to miss his insightfulness, his professionalism, his presentational style and his general demeanour.

If you’ve not already, do listen to today’s PM tribute. There were lots of tributes to Hewlett on Twitter, and Nic Robinson, himself a cancer survivor wrote this on his Facebook page.

Broadcasting and journalism are a lesser place without him.

RIP Steve.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro

As a rule of thumb, the headphones you got with your latest audio device are probably rubbish. I.e the headphones that came with your phone.

Every phone I’ve bought has come with some kind of included headphones (or more accurately “headset” since there’s a microphone on them), and in nearly every case, they have been rubbish.

When I say “rubbish,” I don’t mean they don’t work – they obviously do. But they deliver at best very average audio, and in many cases really poor audio. I include Apple in this list.

While over the ear headphones invariably sound better than any other type, the fact is that in-ear headphones are usually more practical and convenient, so I’m regularly seeking out affordable in-ear headphones to listen with.

Before I get onto my most recent headphones, I’ll say a little about others I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I should point out that I tend to use and abuse headphones. They usually follow me everywhere, and cables get caught and pulled, and supplied cases are rarely used.

Sennheiser CX 300 II – I’ve owned lots of pairs of these, because they sound excellent and are very reasonably priced. However, the reason I’ve had lots of pairs is that I found that the build quality wasn’t great and I got through a new pair every 6-9 months. Also, these are headphones only, so there’s no microphone for taking calls.

Sennheiser CX 5.0 G – I’ve recently started using these again after a period of disuse. The quality is excellent, and unlike the CX 300 IIs, there’s a microphone and three buttons for controlling your phone. I have the Android version, the G standing for Samsung Galaxy, but found they work well with my HTC 10. I did have problems with my previous Sony Xperia Z3, with only volume up really working. The reason I hadn’t been using them that much was that none of the included rubber ear bud cases were quite right for me. I solved this by purchasing some Comply foam replacements. These have to be ordered from Comply in the US direct, because while most of Comply’s range is widely available the Sennheiser fitting is not available internationally. But once fitted, the headphones are excellent.

SoundMAGIC E10 – Another headphone I’ve owned several pairs of. These come with a plentiful selection of rubber caps to choose from, and I found them excellent. I still managed to break a few sets over the years, and again, these are headphones only. Recently SoundMAGIC has announced the E10BT which are Bluetooth wireless set of phones. Certainly worth considering, if more pricey.

HTC Hi-Res – When I said earlier that all headphones that come with your phone are decidedly average at best, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The earphones that HTC supplies with its HTC 10 are superb. They fit well, and have excellent sound reproduction with great volume. The only issues I have are that there is only a single button in line, and replacements are really hard to come by. When one ear stopped working on mine, I hunted high and low to find replacements. On eBay I only found a pair in white (I never wear white headphones), and in the end, it was HTC’s service department that supplied me with a replacement pair. But these really are excellent.

I mention all of this so you know where I’m coming from with headphones. Affordable quality rather than over-priced branding. This piece is supposed to be a review the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 however.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - with Remote

Now I’m not going to pretend these are the best headphones on this list. I think I probably still prefer the HTC Hi-Res or Sennheiser CX 5.00 in terms of sound quality. But these do sound pretty good. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable question of their price. While most of the others have been £30+, these come in at £24 at time of writing. Did I mention that they’re wireless Bluetooth?

They come well packaged with a frankly unparalleled array of rubber pieces to make the earphones fit your ear. I find fit the single biggest problem with any headphones. If I can’t keep them in my ears, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says – they’re useless for me. A case in point would be Apple’s standard earbuds. They simply don’t fit my ears, and I can’t keep them in. As a consequence, Apple’s recently launched and ridiculous looking Earpods won’t fit me either. One size fits all? One size fits none more like.

I found that the Ankers fitted my ears “as is” – that it, with the standard rubber caps, but in fact with the entire headphone swallowed by my ears. Once in, they rarely come loose, staying in as I walk or cycle around. The earphones come with a wire that loops around the back of your head and includes a small strap fastener to minimise “hang.” Personally I like the ability to hang the headphones around my neck – it keeps them convenient, but out of my ears for talking to people, listening to announcements or whatever. And of course, should one dislodge itself, then it doesn’t fall straight to the floor.

There is a three button remote controlling volume up/down and start/stop – all of this working via Bluetooth. Pairing the earphones was straightforward, and the controls work well on my Android phone.

The right hand side has a small rubber cap covering a micro-USB charging point. Anker claim that a 1.5 hour charge will give 8 hours playback and that feels about right in my experience. The phones also have a very clever magnetic on/off facility. When you connect the backs of the left and right sides together, they clasp via a magnet and power-off Bluetooth. Obviously that’s essential because there’s nothing worse that your phone ringing on your desk, but forgetting that your headphones are still connected when you try to answer!

A small blue and orange LED lets you know when the earphones are connected, when they’re charging and when they’re powering down, and a small pouch is supplied if you want to carry them around with you.

Overall then, a really impressive package at a very reasonable price.

There are a couple of issues though.

The magnetic clasp works well when it works, but they can come unattached in a pocket and then connect to your phone, slowly flattening the battery at the same time (they should disconnect through non-use though). And the headphones are so discreet, you may forget that they’re there. I accidentally attended a meeting with them around my neck without even noticing.

The biggest problem you will have is the same that you have with any wireless headphones – the battery. Eight hours’ power is enough time that you don’t need to charge them every day (assuming you’re mostly using them for commuting or exercising). But it’s not enough that you don’t need to think about battery power at all. You are going to get caught out without power, and unfortunately, like other wireless headphones I’ve tried, the power tales off very quickly towards the end. The only way you can check power is an audible warning noise when you’re approaching the end. Sadly, that probably means a maximum of 15 minutes before the headphones die.

While the headphones don’t come with a fancy charging case a la Apple Earpods, you can charge them with a standard USB charger. I tend to keep a lipstick-sized Anker power bank in my bag all the time. The issue is that on a practical level, you have to stop listening to recharge. So while you might only require a 15 minute boost to get your through the rest of your journey, that’s 15 minutes without audio. For me, that means keeping a spare set of wired headphones in the bottom of my bag for such emergencies. While micro USB might be a bit fiddly, it does at least mean that you have multiple ways to charge the headphones.

If you love a throbbing baseline, then these aren’t for you. The only other issue I’ve had is down to the strength of the Bluetooth signal. I find that you can’t wander too far from the phone for uninterrupted sound, and occasionally there are signal issues in some areas. I usually keep my phone in left breast or hip pockets, and rarely have problems with the distance to the headphones. However there are certainly more powerful BT units out there – Sony MDR-1ABT over the ear headphones for example.

However, overall, and notwithstanding some limited shortcomings, I can thoroughly recommend these headphones for the quality, sound and convenience. It is liberating losing a wire connected to your phone, although that does mean owning something else to keep charged.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - right hand side

Hans Rosling – Forming His World View on Facts; Not Feelings

In my recent RAJAR piece, I made reference to the sad news that Professor Hans Rosling had died.

Rosling was a Swedish professor of global health, and had found fame in a series of videos and programmes – notably beginning with a widely shared TED talk – that elucidated stories behind data in a way that made that data understandable. And he did this remarkably well.

Over the weekend BBC Two repeated Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population, which if you haven’t seen it, is well worth spending some time with. Some of your preconceived notions and worldviews will be shattered.

Then at the start of this week Tim Harford presented a really superb special edition of More or Less on the BBC World Service to remember Hans. It included memories of the man from people who knew him and worked with him, as well as excerpts from some of the programmes he’s made over the years.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In particular, I went to watch the live broadcast of a programme Rosling contributed to on the spread of Ebola in west Africa, and the ways in which it was combatted. Extracts appear in the special edition of More or Less.

Towards the end of the episode, there was a very powerful moment when producer Ruth Alexander, recalled visiting him at home at the end of last year. Rosling had appeared a number of times on More or Less, and made other programmes for the BBC. He’d still been keen to do another interview, even though he was very ill at the time with pancreatic cancer.

Alexander: “He said to me, ‘Please will you carry on this in your future work?’ And I think what he meant was, will you carry on looking at the facts, forming your world view and reporting on the state of the world based on facts. Not feelings; not what you think is probably true. But what is demonstrated by the facts and the statistics before you.”

Presenter Tim Harford agreed that this was a challenge to all of us.

YouTube-ing

YouTube is a wonderful thing.

From music, to how to’s, to clips from films and TV, to game walkthrough’s and a myriad of thousand other subjects.

But I confess, that I’ve always struggled with the “YouTubers.”

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t personality-driven YouTube videos that I watch. There are the guys at the Global Cycling Network for example, who put out new videos on a very regular basis. Or the photographic programming that Scott Kelby produces.

I suppose it’s really vlogging that leaves me stone cold. While I’m undeniably well outside the age-bracket that these channels tend to target, the relentlessly upbeat and seemingly perfect worlds feel like nothing more than a sugary-sweet US kids TV sitcom.

Two things brought this into sharp focus over the weekend.

The first is the beautifully observed new BBC Three short form comedy, Pls Like. Written by and starring Liam Williams, it’s told in mockumentary format, with “Liam” trying to win a £10,000 competition organised by James Wim (Tim Key) of “Beam” (definitely not to be confused with any similar sounding talent agencies).

Only the first episode is up at time of writing, but it’s so on the mark, that it’s unmissable.

Having watched that video, you might walk away thinking, “Yes, it’s an excellent pastiche, but people aren’t really like that are they?”

It was in this state of mind that I was trying to learn more about Super Chat, a new YouTube initiative for live videos. Essentially this is the ability for commenters to tip video makers – the sort of thing that happens a lot on Twitch. To explain how it works, I watched the following video. This is a real video, and not some kind of arch Black Mirror-esque piece.

It’s the whole hyper-hyper, ring-lighting, primary-coloured, “interesting”-background, fairy-lights, sugar-to-the-max nature of these things that I can’t fathom. It feels similar to the effect of force-feeding a five year-old two litres of full-fat Coke, and their own body-weight in Haribo, in quick succession, before running amok in the John Lewis lighting section.

I fear I’m no closer to understanding the appeal.