IKEA Tradfri Lights Working with Hue, Alexa and Google Assistant

Here’s another one of those tutorials that I really shouldn’t need to write but somehow do, because despite dozens of tutorials already existing online, it was only a combination of things that got everything working for me. In short, I already have a Philips Hue lighting set-up and I wanted to add some IKEA Tradfri bulbs to it.

I was in my local IKEA when I noticed that they had Tradfri E14 bulbs. Tradfri is IKEA’s smart lightbulb range, introduced a couple of years ago, and it has become a cheaper option for automating your lights.

The main source of light in the rear of my living room takes 5 E14 bulbs, and although the front half is already nicely Hue controlled, it was always just too expensive to do the rear. A twin pack of white bulbs costs £40 on Amazon at time of writing, or £25 for a single bulb. So I’d be looking at over £100 to make one lighting fixture Hue-controlled! (OK – other options include replacing the light switch, fitting a new light to my ceiling that takes fewer, cheaper bulbs, or just continuing to use the light switch like a normal person).

The key thing here was that the IKEA bulbs are £7 each. £35 (5 x £7) is still a lot, but it’s much more palatable than £105. Sidenote: I suspect that there is some kind of economic theory that explains why I’m happy to pay £35 to automate a light, having previously worked out £105 as being the ‘regular’ price.

Now, over the last year or so, IKEA’s Tradfri range has become more compatible with Philips Hue. Both use Zigbee to connect together, but IKEA’s bulbs are designed for it’s own set-up out of the box, and I didn’t want to invest in that. In any case, I think with one or two hiccups along the way, Hue’s app and connectivity is excellent.

So in theory, it should have been simple. Read a couple of guides online. Watch a YouTube video and away you go.

Well it wasn’t quite that simple.

One of the key things I read was that when connecting a Tradfri bulb to an exiting Hue set-up, you should first power down all your existing Hue lights. For precaution, I also unplugged a couple of Meross power adaptors that I use (these tend to appear relatively inexpensively on Amazon, and are useful for controlling things like desk lights and fans).

Then you need to do a reset of the IKEA lights by flicking them off and then on six times. This should result in the bulb flickering slightly to show you that it’s ready. Despite multiple attempts, I couldn’t discern any flickering. I felt that I was more likely to blow a fuse than get the bulbs into reset mode.

Nonetheless, I pressed on.

Then you need to make sure that the lit bulb and the Hue hub are within 30 cm proximity of each other. On YouTube people tend to use a lamp to temporarily set up their new bulbs. They dutifully place their lamp with Tradfri bulb close to where their Hue hub sits. But I don’t own a lamp with the right E14 screw fitting. So I had to fit a long network cable to my hub which fortunately is not too far from the router or the light in question. The hub’s power cable just about stretched too. This is all worth knowing in case you’re using an exotic bulb type and can’t place the hub near the light fitting in question.

Unfortunately, I repeatedly failed to get the bulb to connect using the Android app. Simply searching for a new bulb should have found it. This was frustrating.

The Solution

I ended up using using an app called Hue Lights. It’s iOS, PC and Mac only, and is not made by Philips. So I used the iOS version on my iPad. And I carried out the process one bulb at a time.

Then flicking the light switch off and on 6 times, holding my Hue bridge to the bulb and using the Touchlink function in Settings on the Hue Lights app, I pressed “Force bulb to join bridge.”

Almost immediately the bulb visibly pulsed, and after an arm-aching minute or so (Remember, I was holding my hub to the ceiling), it was properly set-up. I repeated this 4 more times, one bulb at a time, removing bulbs I’d just added to avoid any bulb “confusion.”

Then I replaced all the bulbs, switched everything back on, and the bulbs now showed up in the Hue app on my Android phone. I could allocate them to a new “Room” and control them properly that way with the Hue app.

But for some reason, none of them were yet being recognised by either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. At first I thought it might take a few minutes for them to register, but time passed by and none of it was controllable via a smart speaker.

In the end, it required me to disable and then re-enable access to my Hue account from within both the Amazon Alexa app and the Google Home app. 

Once that had been done, all the new bulbs showed up, and I was able to set them up into various groupings and rooms as makes sense within each of the apps. It’s worth spending some time thinking about which combinations of lights you want turned on simultaneously. I think that the Alexa app is better for this than the Google app, but you can fight through and eventually get things sorted in Google’s app too. 

What all of this has told me is that adding off-brand bulbs is not for the fainthearted. But then, I don’t think setting up smart homes is especially easy in any case. And as I noted with my recent piece about setting up radio alarm clocks, I don’t think that the apps are as user friendly as they could be just yet.

Still, if you want to save some money, then IKEA’s bulbs are a decent enough way to go, and aside from automating my living room lights completely, I’m now able to dim some lights that previously weren’t dimmable which is a nice bonus.

Building a Desktop National Rail Dashboard

Building a Desktop National Rail Dashboard

For ages now I’ve been meaning to put together a home dashboard: a screen that gives me up to date information about my local railway station with the departure boards showing.

A slightly bigger ambition was to have the dashboard also display times for nearby buses – and perhaps the weather and Twitter news feeds. 

It should have been a relatively simple project, but it seems that live dashboards are either bespoke paid-for things, or are no longer properly developed.

Either way, I decided to do something relatively simple. There was something called dashing.io which is no longer maintained. In its place is a fork of it called smashing. But I couldn’t get on enormously with either.

What I specifically wanted was a dashboard that would be Raspberry Pi powered, and could make reasonable use of a small screen.

Some time ago I bought the parts, but it has been one of those projects that I started and failed to complete. So to get things going, I built a simplified version using the parts I already had:

  • Raspberry Pi – I used a 3 Model B+ although the newer slightly smaller and cheaper Pi 3 Model A+ would probably work.
  • A screen – I used an official Raspberry Pi 7″ Touchscreen. It’s only 800×600 and it’s a shame it doesn’t come at a slightly higher resolution.
  • A micro-SD card.
  • Optionally, I also used a Pimoroni Touchscreen frame to mount it all together. They come in a range of colours.
  • A Raspberry Pi power supply. You’re probably best using a full 5.1V supply since there’s a fair bit of pull to power both the Pi and the screen together. Don’t rely on a cheap old phone charger. That said, mine is powered by a USB port of an Anker 60 W charger.
  • You’ll also need a USB keyboard to set things up initially. The touchscreen will suffice for a monitor.

Now in another world, I’d design something a little smarter and use some nifty CSS to make everything look nice. But as you can see from the above picture, I didn’t do that.

The hardware is relatively straightforward, and in this instance there isn’t really any software to create or install. But there are still challenges!

I’d found a handy link on a Reddit forum that presents a station departure board, hosted by National Rail.

This is the page for Highbury & Islington station in London.

I strongly suspect that this link is using someone else’s API key. I suppose I should really get my own. But it seems to be working fine. As well as a User ID, there’s space for the all-important CRS code and a mysterious H value which I’ve not quite worked out.

The key thing with this is that you need to find the CRS code for the station you’re interested in – the three letter code every station in the UK has. The list of codes can be found here.

While the page is a little underwhelming in design, it does scroll if needed and has neat little features like telling you where the train was last reported, so you can live track your train.

So I had a basic website that I wanted to load up. Now it’s simply a question of launching the Pi on boot, straight into Chromium (the Pi’s default browser) and show the page fullscreen – or in so-called ‘kiosk’ mode. There won’t be a keyboard attached, and the idea is that the device does one thing, and does it well.

This seemingly trivial task took me an annoyingly long amount of time to work out, because lots of people do it lots of different ways, and it seems that some methods no longer work with the current default installations of Raspbian, the main OS for Raspberry Pis. If you’re a Linux expert, then much of this might be trivial. But I’m not, and for me it wasn’t!

That all said, in the end, by carefully following the steps on this page from Die Antwort, I got it all to work using their methodology. I can confirm that this works on the current version of Raspbian (the main operating system used on the Pi) – at least at time of writing.

Note that if you buy the Pimoroni frame as I had, then you’ll want to follow these instructions which tell you how to rotate the screen 180 degrees by default, since everything will otherwise be inverted. You can do this early on after installing the Raspbian operating system below; the precise orientation you choose will depend on how you want to place the screen.

The key thing here is to only install Raspbian Lite, which doesn’t actually include a graphical user interface. But if you go step by step through the Die Antwort instructions, you should get there.

A few things to note for those who are a little uncertain:

  • Once you’ve downloaded the Raspbian Lite operating system, you’ll need something like Etcher to flash the OS onto your micro-SD card. Pop the micro-SD into your desktop computer and point Etcher at the downloaded file. Don’t worry if it’s a *.zip file – Etcher will handle that without you needing to unzip the file yourself.
  • It’s worth turning on SSH when you set-up Raspbian for the first time, so that you can do most of your work remotely from another PC. If you’re not too familiar with this, it means that a program like PuTTY (on Windows) will let you remote into the Pi in console/terminal mode. That makes it easier to copy text from website guides straight into configuration files and the like. You will need to work out your IP address to do this. Type sudo ifconfig on the Pi to find out your IP address. It will probably next wlan0 and be of the form 192.168.1.x. These represent internal-only IP addresses.
  • When you’re setting up WiFi, you need to know and spell your WiFi SSID correctly (That is, your router’s name). Unlike in graphical interfaces, you just type in your WiFi hotspot name rather than select it from a list of available ones. Type carefully! You also need to set your region so that the right WiFi frequencies are searched.
  • When it comes to editing files, the Die Antwort instructions often don’t explicitly say that to edit a file, you should preface the file with sudo nano. e.g. sudo nano /etc/xdg/openbox/autostart in the ‘Openbox Configuration’ section. “Sudo” means act as a superuser or administrator, and “nano” is a basic text editing program in Linux.
  • When you try out launching the screen, do so on the device itself and not via SSH. You can do everything else remotely, but you’ll want to plug a keyboard into the Pi to test when the instructions invite you to type startx — -nocursor.
  • The thing that threw me most was in the section ‘Start X automatically on boot’ – in particular, I didn’t know where the .bash_profile file was to be found or stored. What you need to know is that it doesn’t exist initially and you create it by typing ‘sudo nano .bash_profile‘ from the default location.
  • Nano is a real old-school text editor. But if you’re copying and pasting via SSH, it’s worth noting that right-hand click is paste rather than Ctrl-V as usual. To save it’s Ctrl-X, then Y for yes, and then Enter to save and close. If you’re typing directly into the Pi then type slowly and carefully.
  • Don’t forget that you need to replace http://your-url-here with the link to your website. In my case this was a long link beginning http://realtime.nationalrail.co.uk/ldbcis/departures.aspx?u=…

One further amendment I needed to make to the Die Antwort instructions was to shrink the default Chromium zoom size a little. Because the Pi’s touchscreen is only 800×600, everything looked a little squashed on the screen. After experimentation, I chose 70% as an appropriate size to squeeze a bit more text onto the small screen. To fix this you should add some extra text to the Openbox configuration to scale the browser down, using the delineator –force-device-scale-factor=[decimal]. ie. for 70% of full size use:

chromium-browser --disable-infobars --kiosk --force-device-scale-factor=0.70 'http://your-url-here'

When you test it’s also working, remember that you can break out of the page by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Backspace with a keyboard plugged into the Pi.

If you follow all these instructions carefully, you should end up with something similar to me.

This all gets me up and running, but there are lots more improvements to make!

  • One additional one is the idea of cycling through several screens with different information. E.g. I might add a separate tab to Chromium with bus times. Then I can automatically cycle between the tabs to show different screens. There seems to be a route to doing this in these instructions. Note that other aspects of this page won’t work with the solution employed here.
  • The biggest thing I’d like to change is not have the screen on the whole time. Indeed, during set-up we go out of our way to turn off the screensaver. Ideally I’d love to turn off the screen at certain times and turn it back on at others. This screen is most valuable for me during weekday mornings and at weekends. Outside those periods, I would be happy for it to be turned off, or just be awoken by touching the screen.
  • Changing the look somewhat would be nice. Some personalisation of the style would be good.
  • I think the South Western Railway logo in the photo above is related to the username I’m using. 
  • It would be great if I could load fewer departures on this size screen. Note that because I’m using a touchscreen, it is scrollable. But I’m not looking at a major London terminus so I only need a handful of departures at any given time.

As I said at the start I had previously had bigger ideas about putting together a much more comprehensive dashboard, but aside from the touchscreen’s low resolution not being really suitable for that, you’ll notice in the background that I also have a Google Hub, and to be honest, that takes account of a lot of my needs for things like time and weather (as well as photos!). That said, I’ve still not worked out a simple way to quiz Google Assistant about train departure times. On the other hand Amazon Alexa is great when you set up the skill for your “commute”, but is painful to use for anything else. So creating this departure board is actually a useful exercise.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone else. I’m pleased with the result. It could be better, but it does the job.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde

Anyone going to the Barbican’s latest exhibition is not going to go away short-changed with the number of exhibits on display. This is a massive exhibition exploring twentieth century artistic couplings – and sometimes triplings – that led to those artists feeding off one another creatively.

If I came away with one thought, it was that artists don’t look very far from home when seeing a relationship. I also came away wondering whether or not this was actually a something that would have sat better in another medium. 

There is an awful lot of reading going on here. At the start of each section, a piece of explanatory text explains the details of the relationship, and to put it mildly, these can be somewhat wordy. When you add in all the quotations, the detailed notes alongside the various exhibits and everything else, you probably end up with several thousand words pasted along the walls.

From a practical perspective this means that some of the rooms are very crowded – especially among the earlier areas on the ground floor where space is at a premium. Invariably exhibition goers tend to spend more time earlier in the exhibition than later – assuming there is some blockbuster work the whole thing is gearing up towards. I don’t think I’ve been to an exhibition where the biggest crowds were gathered by the text on the wall rather than the works themselves.

The other problem here is that there are so many big-hitters of the twentieth century art world here that you know that there aren’t going to be that many exhibits for each of them. Only the most prolific get more than a handful of  items – and often those are simply photographs taken either by themselves or friends.

This all make it sound a bit negative, and I really don’t mean it to. The various couplings are interesting and even if some are well known – or have already garnered their own joint exhibitions like the recent Man Ray and Lee Miller one – there is still new information to learn. 

It’s notable that many of these relationships didn’t last the full life of one or other party, and that sometimes the same names would move on to another pairing later. Equally, there are some significant age differences between some of these pairings, while some it’s more about pushing the boundaries of what is or was acceptable at that time. 

I came away a little overwhelmed from it all. You certainly need to give yourself plenty of time to see this, ideally at an off-peak time when you wont’ be fighting crowds just to read some labels.

Late Autumn

I thought I’d try to get my drone up for the dying days of autumn before the leaves have fully gone and the cold settles in. So late afternoon on Saturday I captured some footage over Trent Park. 

I was pretty satisifed with the results, and because I’m seeing Amiina on Sunday evening, I used one of their Fantômas tracks for the video.

I used a 96fps frame rate which allowed me to slow everything down to a quarter speed. However the image is only HD. I usually use 2.7k as a compromise with slightly more versatility than 4k allows on a Mavic Pro. But you can’t get a high frame rate in anything better than HD. The downside is that the image does come out a little soft if you’re watching on a big screen. It’ll like fine on your phone however! (And yes, the Mavic Pro 2 becomes tempting.) 

It wasn’t just video of course. A couple of photos here, and more over at Flickr.

Trent Park Autumn-8
Trent Park Autumn-11
Trent Park Autumn-2

Setting Radio Alarms with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

Across the rooftops at dawn

First a note of caution. This piece was published in November 2018, and it’s entirely possible – indeed probable – that things will have changed if you’re reading this at any point after that date. It’s also worth noting that I’m in the UK, and these solutions may not work in your region. Also, I’m doing this with the Android Apps for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. iOS apps may vary – but hopefully not very much.

It’s not entirely clear when the first radio alarm clock was created, but the Bulova M-781 from 1932 seems the most likely.  It was a grandfather clock with a radio built in that did indeed switch on according to a timer.

What is more certain is that over time, the radio alarm clock became a significant category in the radio world. Most manufacturers of radios built at least one, and probably more, radio models. Most still do. Having a radio turn on and wake you up in the morning is a basic use case for radio. Recall that the biggest radio audiences are to be found in the morning.

Fast forward to 2018 and what do you do to wake up to the radio in the morning?

Well, you could still go out and buy a radio alarm clock. While there are still a disappointingly large number of basic FM models that don’t look like they’ve had a refresh in thirty years, you can at least buy DAB models on most of Europe.

Many people use their mobile phones. But you’ve been busy buying smart speakers to kit out your home. Can you use these to wake up to the radio? In general, they sound better than your mobile’s speaker.

Well, yes you can. But it certainly isn’t easy. Indeed, when I asked a few owners smart speakers if they did it, I was usually informed that it wasn’t possible.

Before I started, I did a fair bit of Googling to see how easy it was. The methods I describe below have only become available relatively recently. So prior to that, the preferred solution was an hilarious hack. It involved recording yourself on your mobile phone saying something like “Alexa, Play Radio 1.” Then use this recording as an alarm sound on your phone. So at 7am or whenever, your phone pipes up: “Alexa, Play Radio 1” and then the nearby Alexa in your bedroom starts blasting you with Greg James. 

Of course if you happen to charge your phone away from your bedroom Alexa, then you could be in trouble. And let’s hope that you didn’t leave your phone in a jacket pocket or a bag the night before, or you forgot to put it on charge so that it went flat and as a result your alarm failed to go off. 

We’ll assume that your use case is that you’d like the radio to switch on perhaps 5, 6 or 7 days a week, with the station of your choice, at the volume of your choice. And perhaps you’d like to have different alarms set for the weekend. 

I don’t think that’s anything too complex. Before we continue, I should note that all the major radio apps have this basic functionality built in by default. BBC iPlayer Radio, Radioplayer and Tune-In all have this functionality – they all also have sleep timers too (BBC Sounds, for some reason, has not yet added this functionality).

But you want to do this by voice. Let’s see how easy it is with the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. Note that I’m using Android apps throughout.


Google Assistant

To make this work, you need to use Routines from within the Google Home app. It might be possible to set this up purely by voice (as you can with Amazon Alexa), but if it is, I’ve not worked out how to do it.

I’ve got to be honest: while it has improved in recent iterations, I find the Google Home app particularly messy. I think it needs a top to bottom redesign since too many important things are buried away in sub-menus. I suspect that most users don’t use the app all that regularly, mostly using it when they set up new devices on their home network. So even if you work out how to do something, when you use the app again some weeks or months later, you won’t remember exactly how to repeat processes you previously worked out.

To set a routine, you should be on the same WiFi network as your Google devices. In other words, you’ll need to be at home to do this.

Within the App you go to your Account, and then Settings. From here you choose Assistant, and then scroll down to Routines

By default, Google has set up a number of example routines – Good Morning, Bedtime, Leaving Home, I’m Home etc. But all of these are voice activated. In other words, it would rely on you saying “Hey Google, Good Morning” to activate the Good Morning routine. 

You need to create a Custom Routine – and it’s entirely possible that in some regions, this isn’t yet possible. Google’s own help page claims that Custom Routines are US only at the moment – but it worked for me in the UK.

Click the + in the bottom right corner to set up a New Routine.

This is the key screen for setting up your routine, and the first box is perhaps the most confusing. Google wants you to have a spoken command for your routine – and that’s not optional. 

Now obviously, if you’re using this routine to wake-up, you’re unlikely to be in a position to say anything to kick-start the whole thing. The good news is that although you have to provide some words, they’re not the only way to fire off the alarm.

So click on Add commands and fill in the box with some text which you’re unlikely ever to need to say.

Press the left arrow to go back and next go into Set a time and day. This is pretty easy to complete, choosing a time and then selecting which days you want it to apply. You also need to select a speaker. And if you’ve grouped several speakers together into a Group you can start this routine on multiple speakers. In the example below, I’m using the speaker I’ve named Bedroom Mini. You can choose whether or not you want your phone to be notified as well.

Use the left arrow again to get back to main screen and you’ll have something like this.

Now press Add action.

Here you’re presented with a text box and a couple of suggestions from Google about setting a volume or giving you the weather. Again, you’ll be able to add multiple actions, so if you do want the weather before the radio kicks in, then here’s the place to do it.

Rather than use written words to set the volume, we’re going to go into Choose Popular Actions. Scroll down to the Your Devices section and select Adjust media volume.

Then press the cogwheel to set a volume level.

Use the top left arrow to navigate out of that menu back to the main screen, being sure not to press it again. That’s because you need to press ADD in the top right hand corner.

You should now have a routine that looks something like this:

Go to Add media and select Radio in the options.

Click on the cogwheel and you again get a blank box asking you type a radio station. Google gives you two BBC examples, but we’ll choose another station.

Again, if you’re uncertain what to type, try a voice command with your Google device first to ensure that you get the right station, and the right version of the right playing. You’ll want to make sure you get the right Capital or Heart!

Use the left arrow to get back to the main routine screen.

At this point you could add additional actions like switching on light bulbs or other smart home connected devices. We won’t bother here.

Then be sure to press the tick-mark and not the left arrow again to save your changes.

Your routines screen should now look like this.

And that should be it. Your radio alarm should be set. 

However, there is a lot I’d like to see improved in the Google Home app to make this easier. Not least the completely non-intuitive way to navigate it. Starting with my profile, then settings and then another sub-menu to even find routines is madness.

My biggest issue, remarkably, is timing! In my tests, the radio didn’t quite come on when I expected it to do. It would be perhaps one to two minutes late. This seems quite extraordinary, and I’ve no idea why, unless there’s some processing time on a Google server somewhere between me updating my routine and Google being in a position to serve it on my Google device.

As a result of this, I would suggest setting your timer early particularly if you value every minute of sleep you get.

I would also note that in at least one instance, my device failed to play the radio at all. An initial beep sounded indicating that the routine was starting, but then nothing happened.

Then there is an issue of zombie routines. In my tests, I twice created a test routine, then having finished with it, I deleted it. But later it returned unwanted and I had to delete it a second time – this time seemingly permanently. 

The next issue is the confusion about requiring some command words for a timer. It’s fine to have the option to use these, but for some routines, you just want them to work at the times of your choosing regardless.

Another key issue is that I can find no way to set the duration of the radio once it has turned on. Many radio alarm clocks will time out after a period of time, and as we’ll see, Amazon lets you do this. It could be particularly annoying if you fail to turn off an alarm when you go away for a few days. 

Finally, there’s no volume fading – the radio just starts instantly at your set volume. Google is not alone with this, but it would be nice to fade in the audio gradually.

Overall, it’s not a great experience using the alarm, with them not starting on time and even failures to start at all. I’d be nervous using it alone. Furthermore, the app is not intuitive, and even finding the right place to set them up is not simple. 


Amazon Alexa

In general terms, I think the Alexa app is somewhat ahead of Google’s right now. It’s slightly more intuitive. and overall I had less difficulty setting it up. Again, this is probably easier to do when you’re on the same WiFi network as your Amazon devices.

You can actually set an alarm by voice with Amazon Alexa! Thanks to Daniel for pointing that out. You won’t have quite the control that going through the app gives you, but this is by far the easiest way to do it.

If you say something like: “Alexa, wake me up every weekday at 8.00am with Radio 4” it should confirm the time and indeed set an alarm.

You can confirm this by going into the Alexa app and looking in the Reminders & Alarms section and selecting ALARMS.

You can go into the alarm and make adjustments to days of the week or the time.

Note that you can’t set up an alarm on the app this way if you want to listen to the radio! You have to first set it up via voice.

Also note that you have no control over the volume, which will be the previous volume set, or add in additional functions like switching on lights or reading the weather to you. Finally, the alarm will come through the device you set it on.

If you want more granularity, then you need to go into a different part of the app. You want to ignore Reminders & Alarms. Instead we now want Routines. 

Hit the + icon to create a new routine.

Then choose the + icon next to When this happens

Select Schedule from the list of options.

And on the Set Time page choose Select next to At Time.

That opens a screen that is mostly blank with a tiny time in the middle of it, defaulting to the current time. Press it and (in the Android app) you get the familiar Android clock allowing you to set the time e.g. 07:00.

Click Done in the top right hand corner of the screen when you’re happy and then choose Select next to Repeat. The default is Every Day but you can change it to specific days, weekdays or weekends. Of course you can set multiple routines for weekdays and weekends. We’ll stick with the default for now.

Select Done and you should have a screen that looks a little like this.

Now you need to Add Action. Press the + next to it. And you get a choice of things you can do.

It’s worth noting at this point that you could add multiple actions here. Alexa could say, “Good morning!”, then play you your news via whatever choices you have set in your Flash Briefing. 

But in this case we’ll just turn on the radio.

So you need to choose Music. Yes, even if you want to listen to Radio 4 when you wake up.

In Song, Artist or Playlist you need to spell out your preferred radio station. And an important note here is that it needs to be available on TuneIn. If it’s not, then this won’t work. If you’re not sure, try using your Alexa to see if it selects the right station.

Then in the Provider section under the word From, choose TuneIn.

Finally, you can set the duration of the timer. The default is 30 minutes. Press Set Time and choose a duration.

When you’re done, you should have something like this:

Click Next and you now have the opportunity to add further actions.

The one other thing we’re going to do is set the volume of our Alexa. Click the + next to Add Action and select Alexa Devices.

Select Volume and you get a slider to choose your volume.

Choose a number you’re happy with, then click Next and Add. You’ll notice that the volume is set ahead of playing the radio. If not then you can move them around using the = buttons.

Finally you need to choose the Echo device that the radio comes from. If you have multiple Echo devices, choose one in the From list. I don’t believe it’s possible to have routines play on multiple devices at time of writing.

Press Create and you should be done. A message will say that your routine has been saved and it will appear as an Enabled routine.

If you need to delete or disable a routine, select it and then use either the disable button to turn it off, or the menu dots in the top right to delete it altogether.

Note that you can also test the routine by going into the routine, pressing the menu button and choosing Play Routine. That should ensure that that TuneIn really does manage to pick the right station for you. This will also let you fine tune your preferred alarm volume.

In general terms, this solution works well, but I don’t think it’s completely intuitive. You might have worked out that you can wake up to a track, or a Spotify playlist (although for me that makes me think of Groundhog Day) but not realised that you could choose a radio station. 

The only key thing I’d like to be able to do is fade up the volume. It starts quite abruptly and a little bit of a fade might be better – although few radio alarm clocks do that.

If you have other smart home devices, such as light bulbs, you could switch those on too by adding a further action to your wake-up routine and choosing Smart Home. Again, it’s not perfect though. I have some Hue bulbs and the Hue app lets me brighten them slowly over time. The Alexa app just allows me to turn them on – albeit I can choose the brightness. A gradual increase in brightening might be nice. The Google Assistant is similarly limited in this regard. 

Other Options

The other thing you could try is IFTTT – the service that allows you to connect devices and apps together using the various APIs the companies make available. 

The only trouble with this is that it can be non-trivial to build these connections, and in any case, I’ve not found a way to do it. 

Summary

I’m really not sure why such a simple use case is so hard to achieve. I really shouldn’t have had to write a tutorial to explain how to do it.

When smart speakers first emerged, they quickly became the best internet radios you could buy – assuming your voice was understandable by the devices, and your choice of radio station was available to stream. Adding alarm functionality to these radios should be trivial.

As I note at the top, all of the above is true at time or writing in November 2018. Undoubtedly both Google and Amazon’s apps and devices will improve over time, and I trust that it will become easier to set a task like this.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Possibly my favourite show on Amazon Prime Video is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly series of novels. The fifth season isn’t due until next year, but the good news is that Amazon has already renewed it for a sixth season!

Harry Bosch has now appeared in something like 21 novels now, and Dark Sacred Night is the latest novel to feature the Los Angeles based detective. Having been forcibly retired from the LAPD a few books ago (he’s still within the force in the TV version which tends to use older titles for each season), Bosch has been working on a part time basis for the San Fernando PD exploring cold cases. Meanwhile LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who was introduced in her own first novel last year, The Late Show, crosses paths with Bosch as he’s following a case that’s a bit more personal to him.

Bosch and Ballard then join forces to try to work out what happened to a young girl who’s body was found some years ago, but who’s murder was never prosecuted. Bosch feels that he owes it to her mother, who he’s been trying to help overcome her own addictions, to find out.

Connelly’s novels are always contemporary and fairly free and easy to read. Here we alternate perspectives from Bosch and Ballard as they both go about their day to day business – particularly in Ballard’s case – and together work the bigger case. Bosch, as ever, is causing trouble.

I always enjoy these novels because they feel like they present something of the real LA, and less the version we have so commonly gotten in TV and film. It feels more like a real character. The same is true of the Amazon series incidentally.

Being part of a long running continuing series, we get small developments in some of the characters’ long running relationships – notably between Bosch and his daughter Maddie, who these days is in college. The only problem I ever have with Connelly’s books is that I read them far too fast, and then have to wait another year for the next one – although last year we got two novels.

At least there’ll be another Amazon series in the meantime.

Greatest Hits Radio

Interesting news from Bauer Media this morning. They’re launching Greatest Hits Radio nationally from January 7th, to sit alongside Hits Radio. Together they will form the Hits Radio Network.

It sounds like this new mostly networked service is being positioned as a slightly older version of Absolute Radio Network. It will target 40-59 “Reclaimers,” playing “the biggest songs of the 70s, 80s and 90s” from artists like Queen, Blondie, INXS and Michael Jackson.

The station is going onto national DAB, but interestingly is also going to replace Absolute Radio on the West Midlands 105.2FM frequency, as well as 105.9 FM in Liverpool (where Radio City 2 was already effectively this format).

This will also be the default AM service across Bauer’s city brands, but with separate English and Scottish breakfast shows.

This looks to be part of a larger dual-pronged approach to radio brands under Bauer. There are the big national brands like Absolute, Magic and Kiss, and now Hits. But importantly, they can sell national, regional and local advertising as Global can do with its brands.

But Bauer looks to be retaining local FM stations across primarily northern England and Scotland. And while I suspect that Global will jump fairly early “nationalising” its stations to a large extent, it’s not certain that Bauer will do this in peak. 

Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

Things I Hate on News Sites

I’m something of a news junkie, and I spend a lot of time reading stories on a reasonably wide range of news sites. I pay for a number of those sites, but appreciate that advertising revenues alone aren’t enough to support any sites – with the possible exception of the very largest.

But there are a number of “features” that we find on many news sites that I find incredibly annoying. This is by no means a complete list!

Video only stories

Depending on what day of the week it is, video is either in or out of vogue. When Facebook was paying everyone to do Facebook Live videos, many sites instantly set up video units to supply these. Then Facebook fell out of love with video and they stopped paying, so everyone stopped making all those videos. Then Snapchat came along, and video was back in the ascendancy. Then it wasn’t. Now we have Facebook Watch and something that nobody is watching called IGTV.

Anyway, I especially hate it when a “story” is published that consists only of a video. The thing is, I can read a lot faster than I can watch a video. I would say that 9 times out of 10, I bail out at this point. No matter how interested I am in the story – I don’t watch the video.

Of course those same videos have subtitles which some have dubbed the return of silent cinema, since producers know we don’t always have access to headphones at time of watching.

But just write the story below the video and give me the choice of either medium!

Music on Videos

Sometimes there are news videos that either don’t have sound at all (perhaps dash-cam footage), or are packaged up to include music. For rights reasons, commercial music (i.e. music you might recognise) can’t be used. So we get library music – that is, music that can be paid for once with no further rights issues arising. That’s useful in the digital realm.

There’s perfectly good library music of course – but it takes time to dig out. More often than not, we get generic “muzak” and it’s just awful. Worse are the videos where the person who made them isn’t aware of sound levels and mixes the music too loudly.

Music can be a very powerful part of a video, but used badly  it draws attention to itself and is just awful.

Unnecessary pictures

There’s a certain daily newspaper site that’s worst at this. Any article they publish includes large numbers of mostly irrelevant photos. Here’s an article about someone. Here are ten photos of that person when a maximum of one was required.

And because that site has been successful, others have mirrored it.

Creating Pages Where There’s No Story

This is common in the breaking news environment. You see a Tweet that might say something like “Politician John Smith has resigned – [URL]”

You click through to the URL to discover that there’s no more story than the Tweet contained. Now I realise that in due course, the newsroom will build out that story and add more detail and context. And I also realise that just because I’m clicking the link at time of initial publication, others may be clicking later. But if you have no further information, why not send a second Tweet when you can offer more details? I’ll be more inclined to click through that way.

The danger otherwise is that I’ll assume all your breaking news links are empty and won’t click. Yet sometimes, the story has been written ahead of time, and the release of it has been carefully timed. E.g. a big investigative piece. If my learned behaviour is not to click the link on breaking news, then you’re not getting me to read a story when you have actually published it in detail!

Creating Pages for Stories That Aren’t Stories At All

I’ve written about this before, but there are two key examples of these stories which can be summarised as:

“What time is the World Cup Final?” and

“Who is Oskar Schlemmer?”

What both of these are doing is relying on the fact that Google prioritises news sites in their search results. So if a “respectable” news publisher has written a piece on “What time the World Cup Final starts” then it’ll get in that news carousel at the top. News sites all know that people will be Googling basic information like this, and so they write a news story to get the clicks. The answer to a question like this should simply be a time. But that’s not good enough for Google’s algorithm, so a writer puts together 500 words on the World Cup final, which somewhere includes the kick off time.

Google has countered this to some extent with its own top level search results for basic information, but it doesn’t stop the news sites.

Needless to say that such “stories” do not end up in print products.

The second example above is from a recent Google Doodle – those cartoons that Google regularly place on their home page where their logo would sit. They invariably celebrate the anniversary of someone interesting, and clicking through on the doodle will take you to a page of search results.

More often than not, the best result is probably the Wikipedia page for that person. But again, if a news site writes a piece about the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, then that ends up at the top of the search results page. When a viewer clicks through.

I can only assume that it’s someone’s job to monitor Google around midnight to see if they’ve put a Doodle up, and if they have, bash out a quick “news” story – probably based solely on their Wikipedia page for background info.

Taboola, Outbrain et al

I loathe these sites. Really I do. The problem is that they’re crack cocaine for news sites, offering both revenues and clicks.

In essence, they’re those “Around the Web” boxes you get at the bottom of news stories from often incredibly respectable sites. They offer supposed further reading opportunities and have a list of stories. But those stories are invariably the most salacious and often misleading stories around. Somehow the murky world of digital advertising means that the economics work. Dubious sites claiming to offer cheap iPhones or whatever, pay these companies to promote their sites of little merit. Outbrain or Taboola pay the host sites on actually quite good rates – that’s why so many sites use them.

There was a great Reply All episode a few months back that told one person’s sad story which was being used by these clickbait organisations for their gain. They couldn’t get the story taken down. But the resulting episode really explained how these “chumbox” services work.

What’s interesting is that these companies do offer more premium versions with less clickbait, but that few organisations seem to take this option.

And I do know that they pay handsomely for those boxes, so news sites invariably keep them up despite dragging down the overall quality of the page.

“Feedback” Stories

Something aired on television and people have opinions on it. Perhaps an actor took his top off on a period drama, or a celebrity did a disgusting challenge in the “jungle.” A story needs to be written, and some junior reporter trawls Twitter looking for comments that back up whatever angle they’re taking. This is particularly the case for any BBC-bashing story, because no matter what, there will always be someone who has a view on Twitter that meets the needs of the writer.

And so we get stories with random members of the public saying things that support whatever thesis the publication is trying to present.

Twitter in Celebrity Death Reports

This is what happens. Someone famous dies. A story is put together. If they’re really famous and really old, then an obituary might already be ready. But there’s the general news story about their death to write. News site writers instantly trawl Twitter and Instagram looking for other famous people’s nice words about the person who has died.

And there lies the problem.

All too often, the first people to comment are not necessarily the people you’d want to hear from. A famous old actor dies, and someone who was knocked out in week 2 of Strictly quickly Tweets their thoughts. I’m not saying that the thoughts of said failed dancer aren’t genuine, it’s just that they’re not someone who’s opinion I’m truly interested in.

All too often the stories are filled with the remembrances from whichever celebrities have Tweeted first rather than looking for the dead person’s peers or family members.