The internet of unreliable and broken things

or, 24 hours with Alexa.

So I got myself an Amazon Echo Dot. Because I got an Amazon voucher1 and then asked The High Council On Interesting Electronic Stuff what I should get with it and they said: get an Echo Dot, come on in, the water’s lovely.

I have had reservations about this sort of thing in the past, I must admit.2 But I’m semi-convinced by the idea that nothing gets sent out without the wake word being heard. I’m interested in chat interfaces; that’s why I wrote No UI is Some UI, and why I’ve delivered The UX of Text talk at a couple of conferences.3 And I’m sick of waiting for my Mycroft and also not very convinced that it’ll actually be good; maybe it will, fingers crossed, &c.

So, the little box that could arrived. Went through setup, which was terribly confusing. It shouldn’t have been: you plug in the Dot and it glows for a bit and then says, in a calm and unhurried voice, “now use the Amazon Alexa app to set up your Dot”. And you open the Alexa app and… the Dot is already in there. I think this is Amazon trying to be terribly clever and inserting the Dot I bought into my account before it actually arrives in the post. Sadly for them this turns out to be a spectacularly confusing idea, because… what do I do now? Do I say “set up a new device”? Or do I go into the existing device that’s listed in the app and then… what? There’s no obvious setup button in the app for this Dot that I already own. (There is “set up wifi”… is that what I’m meant to do?) I think the Alexa app was originally written so you’d use it to “set up a new device”, and then some Amazon bright spark said “haha with our ultimate control over shipping and stuff we can record which Echo a punter has bought and put it in the app!” without stopping to consider that this completely breaks the first user experience. Well done, Amazon bright spark (golf clap).

Anyway, once I’d worked that out, I couldn’t get it to set up. Tch, eh? The way setup seems to happen is, the Dot broadcasts its own wifi access point named Amazon-1AB or something; the app disconnects you from your normal wifi and then connects you to that network, and does whatever handoff is required to teach the Dot about your house wifi. Except that this wasn’t working; my phone would connect to the Amazon-9YZ network and then… spinner, forever. After a good twenty minutes of faffing around with this, I installed the Alexa app on my iPhone instead and used that and it worked first time. No love, Amazon. Especially since most people don’t have two phones.4

OK. Now it’s set up. Alexa, what's the weather correctly says “Currently in Birmingham it’s 24 degrees and sunny”5, so things work. So I try the next thing: Alexa, play the latest Madness album6, and Alexa, in her calm, unhurried voice, offers to play me samples of the songs and then shills “Amazon Music Unlimited” at me. Haven’t I already got Prime? Oh, I have, but Prime Music it turns out doesn’t actually have much music in it. You gotta pay extra for that. Bah humbug, etc. Fine, let’s do something generic. Alexa, play some jazz. Nope: “I can’t find any tracks matching ‘jazz’”, she says, calmly and unhurriedly. What? None? The little pamphlet even suggests that I say this! Grrrr!

Off to music.amazon.co.uk, which redirects me to music.amazon.com and then pops up a big whiny banner saying “your music account thinks you’re in the US! But your Amazon account thinks you’re in the UK! That can’t be right! Click on this big button to fix it!” and then clicking on the button prints an error. So, y’know, cheers for that. I suspect that maybe this cross-cultural confusion — perhaps I’m somewhere midway between the two? In the Azores maybe? — is why I can’t search for music (there is not much jazz in the Azores) and is also why the Alexa app just throws up its hands in a sort of fit when I look at the music menu. God, do I have to ring them up? Like mediaeval times?

Amazon helpline. (By the way, the way you get help from Amazon (and thank you to popey for this) is that you go to the Amazon contact-us page and then choose the thing you want help with, and then scroll down and choose “Chat” if it’s there or “Phone” if it isn’t, and then you get to talk to an actual person, and the actual people are pretty much always helpful.) I explain the problem and the bloke says, yeah, that’s because your Amazon Music account thinks you’re in the US. I (calmly and unhurriedly) say: I know this, that’s why I’m on the phone, I want you to fix it. He talks me through navigating to a completely different screen7 where I get asked the same question again but this time, remarkably, clicking the button works. Now Amazon Music works. The Alexa app works. Alexa works. Nice one, Amazon bloke.

Still gotta pay for Unlimited, though, which I’m not doing. New wheeze: rack my brains for bands I like who aren’t all that new (so their music isn’t under terrible money embargo) but only had one album (so if I say Alexa, play Band X it’s only got that one album to shuffle, hahaha). This works excellently, and now I’ve also refreshed my memory on Maxinquaye by Tricky, so that’s OK.

A bit of diving around in the settings leads me to turning on 8 Request Sounds > Start of Request, which means that now I can say Alexa and I get a little bleep meaning “I am listening”, just like Picard saying “Computer” and getting the little sound squiggle meaning the same thing.9 This is as it should be.

Cor, there are games on this thing? The Wayne Investigation is a voice-driven game by DC where you gotta find who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. Well, I think it is. I can’t tell. Because it’s not available in the UK. Alexa seems to have this rather quixotic relationship with territories: a whole bunch of stuff is only in the US and then travels out across the Atlantic (and apparently even further out to Germany) in dribs and drabs over time. This isn’t just the stuff you’d expect, such as services (there’s no Pandora integration in the UK, but there’s no Pandora in the UK to integrate with unless you buy a lot of charm bracelets, so I’m not worried about that) but also some fairly core infrastructure bits. If you write “skills”, Amazon’s name for third-party plugins/apps on Alexa, then how they work is different in subtle ways between UK and US. This is weird and surprising and I can’t see how it will do anything other than trip people up and they should jolly well stop it.

More hilarious adventures with Wunderlist, which is where Niamh and I keep our shared grocery shopping.10 Wunderlist haven’t done Alexa integration11, but IFTTT have support for both Alexa and Wunderlist, and there’s even an IFTTT “applet”12 named Add Amazon Echo shopping list items to Wunderlist, so that’s good. Of course, my IFTTT gmail setup was broken so I had to delete it and recreate it, and Wunderlist wasn’t set up to receive emails from me and add them to my list, and then you have to set it up to receive emails from you@gmail.com, not whatever actual real email address you have mapped to gmail from your real domain, and then Wunderlist’s “send emails to this particular list” screen is broken and has been since last year13, but after all that nightmare of fiddling around and divining of underlying technology which would have defeated almost everyone, I can now say Alexa, add squash to my shopping list and it shows up in my actual shopping list that I care about. And it only took an hour of faffing around and it wouldn’t at all have been quicker to just walk to the damn shop, shut up, I don’t know what you’re talking about and your face is stupid.

So. Personal home assistants, eh? Are they the future?

Yeah. They are. Music was playing and I needed to concentrate, so I just snapped Alexa, shut up without thinking and it worked. This is how to make your electronic devices come alive, folks. Assimilated into my life in the space of a few hours without thinking about it; I just reacted to it like I would to a real person. This extends to the point where I felt a tiny bit guilty about saying that; the mark of a gentleman is how he behaves to his valet, after all. I shall try to be less peremptory.

Fine, the current process is rocky. Some of that is that it’s not matured yet (Alexa, when did Vincent Price die? No, not “play vincent price die”, not “christ die”, not “do you speak some price dead”, you stupid pile of undocumented microchips!) Some of it is that basically every large company underestimates how much people’s accounts are set up incorrectly or incompletely; after all, employees have everything set up right, because they know what they’re doing, and so this never comes up in testing. Some of it is because I’m joining dots on three or four very different puzzles: I’m sure if I were to get a Google Home and use Google Mail to send my shopping list to Google Keep and then buy things from Google Shopping, or if I were to get some theoretical Home Siri device and play music from my Apple account and put things in my Apple iCloud account… then all this would be a lot more seamless. But you should beware people who proclaim that technology would be easy if all us heathens were just to renounce our diverse needs and join their true faith. Mastery goes to the designer who can cope with us real people, in all our glittering and varied patterns and colours and desires. Not just the ones who take the easy way out and block you if you haven’t already bought all the rest of your stuff from them too.

Alexa, welcome to Castle Langridge.

  1. from Crunch, my accountants, after I referred someone who signed up; that someone got an Amazon voucher too! So if you are looking for an accountant, do so by following this shameless referral link and I can buy more stuff!)
  2. People who listen to Bad Voltage will know what I’m talking about here.
  3. if you’d like me to deliver this talk at your conference, let me know
  4. technically I haven’t got two phones either, I’ve got ten phones, but that’s not the point.
  5. yes! really! nobody is as surprised as I am
  6. which is great. I particularly like Mr Apples and Blackbird, and it’s on YouTube
  7. Amazon > Your Account > Digital content and devices > Music settings > Your country settings > View music library country settings
  8. Settings > “your device name” > sounds
  9. I can even make the wake word be “Computer”, but that’s a crap idea
  10. because it has background sync, an Android client, an iOS client, a web client, and allows multiple people to share a list. Yes, we’ve tried others as well. This is harder to find than you’d think, especially since I need to copy and paste the content of the list to actually buy it from Tesco, and Google Keep inexplicably doesn’t allow copy and paste
  11. although they’ve been begged to do so by loads of their users it seems)
  12. applet? what are they, java? what was wrong with “recipe” exactly? grr
  13. which I got around by manually editing the HTML in the devtools and writing custom <option value="mylistid">mylist1</option><option value="mylistid">mylist2</option> entries into the empty <select>; I freely admit that this is not an option (ha!) that is open to most people

More in the discussion (powered by webmentions)

  • blinch responded at tag:twitter.... (twitter.com)
  • Birmingham.IO responded at twitter.com Stuart Langridge: The internet of unreliable and broken things by @sil buff.ly/2rcqiUT #PlanetBirmingham
  • Stuart Bates responded at twitter.com I find reliable use cases are limited but I use some daily. Weather in London, next train to London and daily briefing.
  • Peter Gaßton responded at tag:twitter.... (twitter.com)
  • Baldur Bjarnason responded at twitter.com 24 hours with Alexa: kryogenix.org/days/2017/05/2… Is it the future? Yep. Nearly.
  • Stuart Bates responded at tag:twitter.... (twitter.com)
  • andrew mcmillan responded at plus.google.com I got an Echo before Christmas, and a Google Home more recently (in order to be able to develop skills for them) but I've pretty much ended up not usi…
  • Michael Sackett responded at tag:plus.goo... (plus.google.com)
  • andrew mcmillan responded at tag:plus.goo... (plus.google.com)
  • Nicholas/Aquarion responded at twitter.com I'm a little amused that apparently it's easier to use Spotify with Alexa than Amazon Unlimited. Writing skills for it is odd, though.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com I've been reading about skills, indeed. It's only easier to use Spotify if you pay for an account, which I don't :)
  • Richard Vowles responded at plus.google.com Alexa is about as clever search wise as a spade, we quickly have up asking it questions and used it as a timer. When the Google Home arrived we got th…
  • Ryan McDonough responded at twitter.com My current main use case is setting timers during cooking
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com that was gonna be mine too but you can't set names on timers! So I can "set an alarm for 10 minutes" but not "...to take out the chicken"
  • Ryan McDonough responded at twitter.com I start having arguments with mine when it doesn't understand 14 minutes "40 minutes" echo stop. Echo stop, echo fucking stop.
  • Will Cooke responded at tag:twitter.... (twitter.com)
  • Alan Pope responded at tag:plus.goo... (plus.google.com)
  • Dr. Roy Schestowitz responded at twitter.com The internet of unreliable and broken things kryogenix.org/days/2017/05/2… "the current process is rocky." Bugs in the house
  • Tarus BALOG responded at twitter.com Nice post on the @amazonecho by @sil. kryogenix.org/days/2017/05/2… I like the @mycroft_ai I built but no review until I write my first skill.
  • Tarus BALOG responded at twitter.com Nice post on the @amazonecho by @sil. kryogenix.org/days/2017/05/2… I like the @mycroft_ai I built but no review until I write my first skill.
  • Tarus BALOG responded at plus.google.com Vincent Price is dead ?!? Sheesh, you can't just drop that on a guy.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com I was surprised too. It was ages ago.
  • I am Gareth's Complete Lack of Surprise responded at twitter.com