Echo Look: Hands-Free Camera and Style Assistant

“Using just your voice, easily take full-length photos and short videos with a hands-free camera that includes built-in LED lighting, depth-sensing camera, and computer vision-based background blur. See yourself from every angle with the companion app. Build a personal lookbook and share your photos. Get a second opinion on which outfit looks best with Style Check, a new service that combines machine learning algorithms with advice from fashion specialists. Over time, these decisions get smarter through your feedback and input from our team of experienced fashion specialists.”

Echo Look from Amazon »

Calculator Vault

Apps like this have been around for several years but I wasn’t aware of them until this morning when a friend told me about Calculator Vault. Looks just like the Calculator app that comes with iOS but when you put in a secret sequence of numbers and symbols, it takes you to hidden folders where you can safely store those naughty photos. Apps like these became popular, I’m told, when teens started Snapchatting.

The Fake PIN features creates “a second PIN that opens a decoy KeepSafe for times when someone pressures you to open your KeepSafe. You can even put photos in your fake KeepSafe that are ok for others to see.”

The Secret Door feature will “masquerade your KeepSafe as another app. With Secret Door enabled, others will see what appears like another app when they open KeepSafe, but you will know the secret to reveal the PIN pad and open your KeepSafe.”

I’m told the only way you’d see these hidden folders — assuming you were looking — is from within the app. Yes, the NSA probably knows about these but your mom might not. You should tell her before she gets busted.

The Perfect MacBook

My MacBook Pro is 3 1/2 years old. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect. So this week I purchased another one, almost exactly like it. (I won’t bore you with the specs) I bought it as a spare but my current machine will become the spare.

I’ve always thought the latest version of the MacBook was better than the one before. Until now. The newest model has a keyboard that just doesn’t feel as good as mine. The Touchpad is bigger than I want or need. And Apple saw fit to do away with the MagSafe connector on the power cord, which kept my box on the table instead of the floor countless times.

M.G. Siegler had similar thoughts a couple of years ago:

“I suspect this new MacBook will be the last laptop I end up buying. Again, that doesn’t mean the MacBook is dying anytime soon, but I believe this will be the pinnacle of the product. We’ll get spec bumps for years to come. But it will be the long, slow fade we just witnessed with the iPod.”

I don’t really fault Apple for this. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that Apple (or any company) succeeded in making The Perfect Laptop. I know, there’s no such thing but let’s say it was 99.99% perfection. And the following year — to meet shareholders expectations — they have to roll out a new model. They’ve got make some changes, right? Isn’t it much more likely those changes will make it worse than better? There’s probably a name for this phenomenon (If You Fuck With It Enough You Will Fuck It Up Syndrome?).

I think this is what happened with their latest MacBook Pro. I’m sure it’s a good laptop and lots of people will buy it and be very happy with it. Just not me.

So now I have two (nearly identical) laptops. One in the bag I take everywhere and one on the closet on hot standby.

State Farm Drive Safe & Save Mobile

If you don’t know this about me already, I’m not very concerned about privacy. I think you should have it if you want it and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get it, but it’s not a high priority for me. Might be someday. Not today. As Estelle Costanza said, “I’m out there, Georgie!” I’m willing to give up some (a lot of) privacy to get some conveniences.

That said, today I activated State Farm’s Drive Save & Save program. Keep a little Bluetooth beacon in my car that works with an app on my iPhone to track my driving. According to their website the track acceleration; braking; turns; mileage; speed and time of day (rush hour, late night, etc)

According to the marketing material (and my local agent) I’ll get an immediate 5% discount and another 20% if I don’t go above the national average of 12,000 miles a year. “More small discounts may be tallied if you prove to be a safe motorist, do not drive over 80 mph and avoid driving between midnight and 4 a.m.” I think I meet all of those goals but we’ll see.

I found this while googling around: “State Farm warns that some drivers already getting a low-mileage discount may see a rate hike. “If you currently receive a premium reduction for low estimated annual mileage (under 7,500 miles annually for personal use) and your vehicle is actually driven more than that, your premium may increase at a future policy renewal period.”

I know this kind of thing freaks a lot of people out. But not me. I’ll try it and if I don’t like the results I’ll stop. And if State Farm fucks me over, I’ll just switch providers.

Augmented audio future?

These are the kinds of possibilities that moved me to buy AirPods.

“Maybe I’d hear updates about store hours or be able to identify places by looking in their direction. Or a museum audio tour could be triggered by your proximity to an exhibit. Maybe I’d get a smartly-tuned audio assistant that sounded like it was perched over my shoulder, perfectly blended to sound like it was in my world versus being delivered via headphones. Or, a universal translator. That’s exactly what the Waverly Labs’ Pilot is promising: the ability to hear a speaker of Spanish, French or Italian in English (or vice versa) in near real-time.”

Voice-to-text note using Siri via AirPods

I created a note on my iPhone using Siri and voice-to-text. (In a noisy coffee shop). Music is great on the AirPods but my primary reason for the purchase was to see if/how AirPods could change the way I interacted with the iPhone. Using Siri (far from perfect) to read messages and email; create and send messages and email; schedule reminders; etc. Without removing the phone from my pocket. [Video runs 20 sec]

Recording phone audio with ScreenFlow

During my working years I always had ready access to good recording equipment. This came in most handy when recording interviews by phone. Good telephone hybrids are expensive but make a big difference in quality.

Since retiring, I’ve used various tools for this task. I’ve mentioned Call Recorder for FaceTime which works well if both ends are using Mac gear. Years ago I tried Audio Hijack but found that glitchy. Probably a user issue.

Yesterday I tried a different setup. I made the call via Google Hangout and recorded the audio with ScreenFlow. I use ScreenFlow to record screencasts but found I could simply turn off the camera and capture the audio. I was pleasantly surprised with the result. ScreenFlow captured the audio in two channels so it was easy to tweak the audio for each. There might be better ways to skin this cat but this is the best combination of easy and quality that I’ve found.

Apple AirPods

I was going to wait a few days before sharing any thoughts on my new Bluetooth headphones but I’ve been so impressed by the initial experience I’m going to share a few first impressions.

  • I thought the regular Apple earbuds sounded fine but the audio quality of the AirPods is noticeably better. A lot better, IMO. Maybe a 25% improvement?
  • Lots of folks complain about how earbuds and the new AirPods feel in their ears. Never a problem for me. I kept them in for an hour two last night and they were so comfortable I forgot they were in. I felt no movement when shaking my head vigorously or jumping up and down. I have no concern about them falling out. I have no doubt I’ll be wearing (?) these more than the wired earbuds.
  • On that point, I was surprised by a new sense of freedom from the wire. (Like I said, this is my first experience with Bluetooth phones) Not having that little wire against my cheeks or snagging on a shirt button changes the experience far more than I would have expected. In a way that I can’t explain, the music feels like it’s in my head, instead of in my ears.
  • Phone calls – Barb says I’m much easier to understand on a call (compared to just talking on the iPhone). I think this might be the result of ambient noise filters built into the system.
  • Voice-to-text works great, even when speaking in lower-than-normal speaking level.

Still trying stuff (Siri commands/inquiries, etc) but these are keepers. Will it fundamentally change how I interact with the technology? To be determined.

Confide for the desktop

Confide is a messaging app with which you can “Communicate digitally with the same level of privacy and security as the spoken word. With encrypted messages that self-destruct.” I installed the app on my phone a few day ago after seeing a story about how it has become popular inside the Beltway.

The folks at Confide sent me an email letting me know they have a desktop version, which I installed on my Mac this morning. In the screenshot below, image #1 is what you see when you get a message. #2 is what you see when you move your cursor over the text.

Security? I don’t think so. I’ll just do a screenshot of the clear text. (click) Image #3 is what showed up on my desktop. Hmmm. The only way I could capture the text was to use my iPhone to snap a photo of my monitor. Pretty clever.