Alexa as service, Echo as interface

Today, Amazon released new versions of its tablets, as well as a new Fire TV. The latter is generating interest in part because Alexa has been added to it. This means you can use the new Fire TV in a manner similar to the Echo, and be able to play favorite TV shows, too.

The new device supports the new 4K Ultra HD in addition to 1080p, promises to eliminate buffering, supports all the popular streaming apps, and has voice search enabled on the remote. I hope Amazon has improved the remote, because I’ve found that Echo’s remote is no where near as sensitive as the Echo device is, itself.

I like the video support, but I have a Roku and I don’t have a 4K Ultra HD TV, yet. What I’m more interested in, is the Alexa integration. Watching the demo video at Amazon, Alexa will display an answer to the TV rather than verbally.  (Engadget notes this, also.) If you have it play music, it uses your TV’s speakers.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. If you have an Echo and the new Fire TV in the same room, you’re going to have contention over which device answers when you call out, “Alexa…”. While watching the Amazon demonstration video, my Echo responded when the voice in the video asked, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” I’m rather hoping that Amazon gets away from only allowing one to use Alexa, or Amazon, as the device voice indicator.

I’m also assuming you do have to have the TV on for the device to work. Currently I use Echo’s timer functionality, as well as have it play music while I’m working. I wouldn’t want to turn my TV on for both. In this regard, Echo wins. Echo also has smart home integration, which the Fire TV currently lacks.

From a developer perspective, the Fire TV demonstrates Amazon’s new Alexa Voice Service Developer Preview. If you’re a developer, and you have a device with a microphone, a speaker, and an internet connection, you can interface with Alex as a service. First thing that comes to my mind is this opens up some interesting possibilities if you like to tinker around with microcomputers, such as Raspberry Pi. However, I’m not sure how open Amazon is to people tinkering with the service. The sign-up for the developer kit seems to assume you’re a developer for a company with a product to sell.

Like Roku.

This new developer kit joins with the existing Alexa  Skills Kit, where you can create an app that can be installed on an Echo (and possibly other Alexa devices, eventually), such as my favorite, Cat Facts.

Node.js developers, note that Node.js figures heavily with both kits. See? Your mad  programming skills just found a new outlet to explore.

Amazon made, what I feel, is a very smart move with its recent innovations. Rather than compete directly with device companies who control marketplaces, such as Roku, it’s taking the same type of functionality (video streaming), and integrating it into the smart home controller environment. It’s similar to Google’s new OnHub, which takes Wi-Fi routing into the same environment.

Exciting times. Let’s just hope security is considered first, rather than last, with all this cross-line innovation.


Smart stuff

C/Net buys itself a smart home

I admire C/Net for taking the next long step in Internet of Things coverage. The company actually bought an entire house to use as a test case for all things smart.  Not just any home, either, but a large behemoth, which should end up being an effective test for signal range and device conflict.

I’m also in the process of updating my newly purchased home into a smart home. But my home and budget are considerably smaller than C/Net’s. It’s going to be interesting seeing which of the modifications C/Net makes I can afford to apply to my house.

I already have one advantage: since my home is so much smaller, I have decent wireless range all throughout the home. As I recently wrote, I’m trying out the new Google OnHub, though I have an excellent TP-Link router backup. Both provide good, overall coverage.

Speaking of coverage, C/Net’s first smart home article is on ensuring sufficient Wi-Fi coverage. I do have two routers I’m not currently using, so may convert one to a repeater in order to extend the range into the back yard. I’d like to put up a wireless weather station, and I don’t think my current setup is sufficient to cover the necessity of installing the station far enough away from my house to get accurate readings.

In the meantime, C/Net’s newest enterprise should be interesting reading.

Smart stuff

OnHub: Google’s newest Miss/Hit?

Google is known for many things, including being wildly successful and a major cultural impact. But its path is also littered by the skeletal remains of failed projects.

Search, Maps, GMail, Chrome, Android, and some of the Nexus devices—not to mention its acquisition of the ubiquitous YouTube, as well as a successful set of hardware with recent purchases of Nest and Dropcam—are decided hits. But they’re matched by the misses, including Dodgeball, Notebook, Wave, Lively, Nexus Q, and Google Glasses. Reader was successful software that Google abandoned, and Google+ never has achieved the reach of Facebook.

Now we have a new entry into the Google sphere of products in which to dominate the world: OnHub. The question becomes, will it be a hit? Or another miss?


Google's OnHub

I ordered the OnHub as soon as I heard about it. I was intrigued about the 13 antennas and broader area of coverage, as well as the device’s support for the IEEE 802.15.4 (Zigbee/Thread). I was aware that OnHub hides much of the mechanics of a router, which is a negative for the especially geeky. However, I’ve never enjoyed the typically frustrating sessions I’ve had with my routers in the past, so this is one geek who isn’t disappointed.

When the OnHub arrived, I quickly unboxed it and then looked for documentation. I found one tiny piece of paper explaining what the OnHub ring colors mean, and a few words printed on the box. None of this scant documentation happened to mention that the outer case for the device needs to be unscrewed, rather than pulled off. Luckily an online search led me to more comprehensive documentation before I tried to brute force the removal.

My first impression of the design of the device is that OnHub looks like it could be Amazon’s Echo, with a beer gut. That’s OK, though, as I’m fond of my Echo. My second less than favorable impression occurred when I tried to use my existing cable modem ethernet cable, with its fat cord. The top of the OnHub wouldn’t screw on unless I used the ultra-slim but too short ethernet cables Google provides.

After I re-arranged all of my devices so I could move the cable modem closer to OnHub, I plugged it in and waited for the light show that signaled it was ready for set up. I had previously installed the Google On app onto my phone to complete the installation, so when the ring color signaled the device was ready, I held the phone directly over the device. A series of tones later, and I was ready to finish the installation. I typed in the single Wifi name and password, and was ready to go.

Simplicity of Set Up

Google is spot on with its discussion about how simple it is to get OnHub up and running. *It went to the top of the list of devices to recommend for those folks looking to get online for the first time. Its automated upgrades go a long way in eliminating routers with existing security issues that haven’t upgraded in years. Bluntly, I’ve never yet met a router that has an upgrade process that won’t intimidate the average internet user. Not until OnHub. And the complementary Android Google On app and its simplified list of device tweaks demonstrates that Google has discovered that less is more when it comes to most folks and their internet connectivity.

Most folks. If you’re used to accessing your router via a computer and minutely adjusting it to eke out maximum performance and connectivity, you’re fresh out of luck with OnHub. You can’t even supply different SSIDs for 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz frequency bands. Instead, the device changes your network based on its own determination of which is the best. You also can’t change channels: OnHub automatically does this for you, checking available channels every five minutes, and switching you to the one it deems less congested.

On paper, both design decisions sound good. You don’t have to change from 5.0Ghz to 2.4Ghz as you move away from the router to get the best signal (2.4GHz signals are stronger). You also don’t have to check available channels with tools such as the popular Wifi Analyzer, when your access seems to falter. However, some early reviews have stated that the tool does a less than optimum job when it comes to picking both the best frequency and channel. In my own experience, OnHub hit the mark more often than not: I had a strong, fast signal all throughout my home and most of my yard, and when I’ve checked channels using the Wifi Analyzer, Google has generally picked the best channel.

You are out of luck setting up a guest network, as well as finely tweaking your firewall. However, this isn’t a drawback for most router owners. They won’t care about setting up a guest network, fiddling with firewall settings, or even picking one frequency over another. A router that automatically handles many of these tasks is more likely to provide a better service, overall, and especially over time, than one that doesn’t for the majority of homes that have a router. This makes OnHub a bit of a marvel—not because Google (via TP-Link) has created a miracle of engineering, but because a router company has actually looked at the majority of people using a router, and then fine-tuned the device to them.

If Google loses geeks who like to tweak routers along the way, it most likely doesn’t care.

Integrating OnHub

To return to the device, one real physical limitation is the fact that there is only one LAN port, and the USB 3.0 port is **currently disabled. Even when it is enabled, rumor has it you won’t be able to use it for network storage or a USB printer.

If we can’t use the USB port for storage or printing, it could be because Google sees both storage and printing happening wirelessly or via cloud services, rather than via a wired interface. We are, in effect, being tossed into the deep end of the pool, and told to either change how we store data or print, or lose the functionality. This is a little harsh, but not surprising from a company that recently threatened to downgrade a web site’s mobile search rank based on whether the site is supporting best mobile design practices.

Only one LAN port can be a problem, especially if you’re heavily invested in smart home devices, with multiple hubs. Still, this isn’t a show stopper. If you have multiple devices requiring a direct Ethernet connection to the router, you can use that port to connect a high speed, full duplex Ethernet switch, and then connect the devices to the switch.

We’ll see over time how OnHub integrates into the smart home. I’ve already heard from one member of the SmartThings community that OnHub doesn’t support the NAT loopback he needed for his IP cameras. He has passed on a request for this functionality to the OnHub team, though with the availability of relatively simple workarounds, this also isn’t a show stopper.

The Hardware

The OnHub router is no slouch, with Qualcomm IPQ8064 dual core 1.4GHz CPU, 1 GB of RAM, and 4GB of storage. A sensor in the top, currently disabled, will eventually sense the light in the room and adjust the device’s LED ring accordingly.

The speaker isn’t a lightweight, but the only sound you’ll get right now is the tone for device set up.

OnHub has dual-band support for both 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz 802.11ac with speeds up to 1900 Mbps. The range of the device is enhanced via 12 antennas (six for 2.4GHz, six for 5.0GHz), as well as a 13th antenna whose sole purpose is to look for the best channel. The antennas are arranged in a circular pattern, to provide a strong signal in all directions. There is a reflector in the front of the device that boosts the range of the 2.4GHz signal, but if you’re like most people, your device is centrally located, and the extra forward boost is most likely not especially useful.  My suggestion would be to point “front” in the general direction of the farthest point where you want a signal. Forget all the “looks pretty” stuff—you want this baby to be useful.

The Android App

Google provides an Android or iPhone app to access and manage the device. No more typing an IP address into your browser. Rather than being a limitation, the app-only interface is a definite plus for me. I like being able to pull up the app on my Android phone and check to see if everything is OK with the network. I like being able to reboot the router from any room in the house. I appreciate the ability to see what’s happening with all of my devices and how much bandwidth each is using— without having to install specialized software and gimmick my router.

Google On app showing usage for one device

However, there is no denying that the number of tweaks you can perform with the app, is small. You can select to use Google’s DNS servers (default), your ISP’s, or a custom DNS server. You can modify WAN settings, and you can assign static IPs for different devices, set up port forwarding, and enable/disable Universal Plug and Play (UPnP).

Google On app showing paucity of advanced network control

It seems like we’re moving backwards with what we can do with the router, but to repeat what I said earlier: most homes with a router don’t need anything more. The OnHub buyer is not a tweaker.

Privacy Concerns

Two minutes after Google announced OnHub, we were seeing tweets about Google as Big Brother, insinuating itself more into our every day lives in order to better sell ads.

Google states it does not track which sites we go to, or collect the content of any of our traffic. Do I believe the company? Yes, I do. Common sense compels me to believe the company.

Contrary to what Mom tells us, none of us are inherently special—not to the point where a billion dollar company like Google wants to breathlessly track our every movement. And if we’re concerned about tracking for ads, well, if we enable cookies and JavaScript, use Chrome, visit sites that use Google Analytics, and we use Google search, Google has all it needs to determine what ads to display for us.

Just using a browser is the greatest threat to our privacy that exists. Everything else is just a dusting of sugar to make us extra tasty.

There are three privacy settings you can change in the Google On app. The first enables/disables Google’s ability to store data about your network and devices on the cloud; to better understand OnHub use. The second enables/disables whether OnHub anonymously sends usage statistics and crash reports to Google. The last option enables/disables the anonymous sending of the Google On app statistics and crash reports to Google.

About that Smart Home stuff

Knowing the risk with Google products, why did I buy the OnHub? After all,  my router location isn’t going to change just because the router is round and has a pretty light on top. My cable modem is in one room and I have no interest in moving it, and the router has to connect to the modem.  In addition, my existing router was sufficient, though I would have to manually change frequencies when I moved to different rooms in the house to get the best signal. As for router tweaking, I may not like it, but I can do it when necessary.

I do really like the Android interface, and that brought me close to a buy decision. Close, but not close enough.

If all OnHub provided was more antennas and a cool design, as well as automated switching and an Android app, I most likely would have given it a pass. What the OnHub does provide, though, that makes it stand apart from all other routers, is support for 802.15.4: the standard underlying both Zigbee and Thread. To  smart home enthusiasts, the 802.15.4 support is caffeine to wake us up.

I would love to tell you how it all works, and the marvelous things I’ve been able to do with Zigbee/Thread support, but, like the USB 3.0 port and the light sensor, the support is disabled. I will give this to Google: no other company would have the chutzpah to put out a device with its most interesting bits disabled, and expect the device to sell; especially after mentioning that another version of the device by another hardware company is in the works.

So I bought the device in hopes that Google will enable the disabled in my device, and not just consider it a toss and focus on the upcoming ASUS version; that I’ll wake up one day, and my Nest thermostat and Dropcam camera will be dancing a salsa with my router, accompanied by snappy tune coming from the speaker.  I’m betting on the hope that someday, I’ll be able to cast some smart home witchery with OnHub.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the seamless extended signal reach, the Android App that I use to obsessively check out my device bandwidth usage, and enjoy the lack of frenetic  light blinking from the router when I’m trying to watch TV.

Is the OnHub a hit? Or is it a miss? I guess we’ll have to stay tuned for that answer.

Other articles on OnHub:

*Now, if they would just accept that no product is completely intuitive, and they need to provide better documentation in the box.

**The USB 3.0 port is currently enabled for recovery purposes. Whether it will be able to do anything else in the future is anyone’s guess.


My first “zoom” set with Nikon Coolpix 900

Thanks to a little quick action, I was able to snag one of the extremely rare Nikon Coolpix P900.

I have a couple of Nikon DSLRs, but I was attracted to the concept of one camera for all purposes. Changing lens in the field gets tedious, and I’ve missed photos because I have the wrong lens on my camera.

I’ll have a more detailed review later, but I wanted to post my own set of “zoom” photos. These are from my backyard.

leaves in a distant tree from my deck

closer to the bunch of leaves

closer to the bunch

When I zoomed in, I was in for a surprise:

there's a bug on one of the leaves


That Wyoming Pond: newest battle between PLF and the EPA

EPA logo

update: 11/30/15

The EPA has responded to the lawsuit, asking the judge to refer the case for Alternative Dispute Resolution, rather than an extensive and costly litigation. As they note in the request:

  • Johnson did dam the creek without permit
  • There is no doubt this is in violation of CWA
  • The reason for the permit process was so the Army Corps of Engineers could evaluate the risk to the environment for a project
  • Both the Corps and the EPA attempted to discuss the dam with Johnson before issuing the letter of violation
  • The EPA did have a discussion with Johnson after the letter was issued is unsure why he suddenly broke off discussions (PLF comes to mind)
  • The EPA has not issued fines and believes there is a solution equitable to all parties, and asked for third-party assistance in ADR

Reasonable, and not the fire breathing over-reaching agency as portrayed by extremist libertarians, who believe everyone can do anything they want to the water and the air.

Much ado about nothing.


Last year I wrote about a Wyoming family and the big, bad EPA huffing and puffing at their door. Seemingly, the Andy Johnson family was being threatened with outrageous fines, just for putting in a simple stock pond. A little digging, though, showed that the story was far more nuanced. For one, the family had basically blown off any previous attempts at communication from both the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA. It wasn’t until the EPA sent a notice of violation did they respond to the communications—by contacting the press and their congressional representatives.

In the story, I foretold of the likelihood of our friends at Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) being on their way to the Andrew Johnson family’s side. This last week, my fortune telling skills were vindicated, when PLF filed suit in federal court on behalf of the Johnsons. And, as is typical for a PLF court case, the (primarily conservative) media has been inundated with videos and photos of family members, little children, and lots and lots of American flags. An example, complete with strategic American flag placement:

Now the refrain is that the Johnsons are being threatened with millions of dollars of fines, all because they put in a small dam, to create a little pond to water their livestock.


Let’s revisit the Johnson home, courtesy of Google Maps. The Johnson property boundaries are marked by lines in the satellite image, most likely fences. The first thing we’ll notice is that the satellite image of the area shows that the “little pond” is over an acre in size.

Johnson pond via satellite photo

The dock is still there. That’s that white rectangle next to the pond.

It’s a curious thing, this dock. In the court documents, PLF provides a copy of the permit application the Johnson’s filed with the state of Wyoming. In it, the state declares that the permit is “…for stock watering purposes only.” So if the water is for stock watering purposes only, why a dock? Come to that, why does the pond, whose only purpose is to water livestock, need to be stocked with different kinds of trout, ducks, and geese?

As for the livestock, returning once again to Google maps, I checked for the herds of cow, horses, and/or pigs that would necessitate a stock pond over an acre in size.

image of Johnson property

And I found what looks to be a pen with five animals, either cows, horses, or some other animal about that size.

image of stock pen

It is true that cows and horses are thirsty creatures; they need approximately 12 gallons of water a day. But a stock pond with over 5.07-acre feet of water? This is equivalent to 1,652,066.74 gallons. Via a Google search, I found an Army Corps of Engineers document that notes 50 head of cattle only need a stock pond of 3/4 acre. There is absolutely no way that Johnson will have 50 head of cattle on that small 8-acre plot of land.

In their complaint, the PLF lawyers stated the work was exempt as a “construction or maintenance of farm or stock ponds.” But what the lawyers left out is the line that proceeded the listed exemptions, ” Except as provided in paragraph (2) of this subsection, the discharge of dredged or fill material.” In paragraph 2, we find:

(2) Any discharge of dredged or fill material into the navigable waters incidental to any activity having as its purpose bringing an area of the navigable waters into a use to which it was not previously subject, where the flow or circulation of navigable waters may be impaired or the reach of such waters be reduced, shall be required to have a permit under this section

In other words, if you’re maintaining an existing pond, no permit is necessary. If you’re building a new one, however, you need that permit. More importantly, the Army Corps of Engineers needs to ascertain whether the work being done is going to have an adverse effect on the water system.

Now, according to the folks at PLF, the Johnson pond isn’t having an adverse effect on the water system. In fact, according to their court documents (press releases, YouTube video, and so on), as well as an environmental assessment provided by Kagel Environmental LLC, the Johnsons have actually improved the area. But then, the Kagel report also mentions that, in their understanding, any stock pond is exempt from the CWA permit process. Well, we already know this isn’t true, and we’re not experts. But, let’s continue with the report.

In the report, the Kagels noted in their observation that Six Mile Creek terminates in an irrigation channel, and hence does not connect with any water system that would be considered covered under Section 404 permitting. What’s interesting, though, is when you read the permit application the Johnsons made to the state, it does note that Six Mile Creek is a tributary to Black’s Fork River, which is, in turn, a tributary to Green River—a river that transcends state borders and is most definitely under Section 404 permitting.

The Kagels also note that the pond captures the water, but then releases the same volume of water through a spillway. Therefore, they conclude, the pond doesn’t restrict the flow of the water. But artificially inserting spillways and dams into a water can have an extreme impact on the vitality of the water system, as well as an impact on the wild life dependent on it. And it doesn’t change the facts of the case: the Johnsons did dump 12 cubic yards of fill and concrete into the Six Mile Creek without first having such actions vetted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

That 12 cubic yards of material was the amount estimated by the Army Corps of Engineers/EPA. It doesn’t match the 10 cubic yards the Kagels noted in their report. By coincidence, the Kagel estimate places the Johnson discharge just under the limits for Nationwide Permit #18, which allows minor discharges of 25 cubic yards or less, but does require that a pre-construction notification be given to the Army Corps of Engineers for any discharge over 10 cubic yards of material.

The Kagels also claim that the Johnson pond improved the health and vitality of the water system. Returning again to Google Earth, the following are satellite images taken in 2002, 2006, and 2009. Seems to me that creek has always a viable ecosystem that’s natural for the area. No trout, true; but natural.

creek in 2002

creek in 2006

creek in 2009

One other bit in the Kagel report, was a rather odd paragraph in the cover letter for the report:

Before summarizing our site inspection, findings, and conclusions, etc., we’d like to clarify that despite the contention by EPA that they believe the alleged violation site is located in Utah, Mr. Johnson has assured us his farm is located in the state of Wyoming. In a “Letter of Potential Violation” dated May 22, 2013 addressed to Mr. Johnson and signed by James H. Eppers, Supervisory Attorney and Arturo Palomarers, Director, EPA’s Office of Enforcement, Compliance, and Environmental Justice, EPA stated that the alleged violation site is in the state of Utah. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that there may be another alleged Clean Water Act violation in Utah by someone with the same name, or in the alternative, that the EPA simply was unable to accurately identify or determine in which state Mr. Johnson’s farm is located.

This writing is both petty and unnecessarily snarky. That a simple typo would draw forth this paragraph leads one to suspect that there is a degree of personal animosity between Ray and Susan Kagel and either the EPA/the Army Corps of Engineers, or both. A simple Google search proves this to be true: Ron Kagel had sued the Corps, his former boss, related to its actions regarding what it perceived to be conflicts of interest, and what he claims is whistleblower retaliation. In addition, Kagel also claims that the Corps is targeting him in retaliation because of his work with another PLF court case, Sackett v EPA. We don’t know, though, the impact of his work on the case, because it was put on hold for a time. The case was only recently re-opened, and without the same fanfare as the Johnson Pond.

Nothing is ever as simple, or as black and white, as portrayed in press releases and media stories. PLF portrays the EPA as a bully, and Andy Johnson, an innocent farmer. Yet Johnson is a welder, by trade, who stated the pond was for the purpose of livestock watering but then builds a dock and stocks the pond with trout. In addition, in all of the press releases, PLF doesn’t once mention the fact that the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers actually reached out to Johnson, several times, trying to open a dialog about his dam, and what he could do to mitigate any violation of the CWA.

The EPA has already remarked that it rarely issues the fines mentioned in its violations. It has to mention the applicable fines, though, as part of the legal document process. I’ve followed several EPA cases and even with large corporations, the EPA rarely issues the maximum fines it could assess. Most of the time with smaller cases, it just wants corrective action. But saying things like fines of $37,000 a day, or Johnson is facing millions in fines from the federal government, plays well to those who do little more than skim headlines before getting ready to pull out the pitchforks.

A simple pond is less so if you consider the ramifications to the rest of society. If everyone who had a creek, stream, or river flowing through their property decided to dam it up, what would be the overall impact? Rather than majestic rivers, and crystal clear creeks and streams we can all benefit from, we’d have a succession of stock ponds, geared specifically to each owner’s use, regardless of the impact on others. We’d have court fights, and gun fights, and a great deal of animosity between neighbors.

The Kagels map of the pond shows it stopping at the border of Johnson’s property:

map in Kramer report

Returning to the Google satellite view of the property, taken in 2014, we can see for ourselves that the water is backing up on to the neighbor’s property. And one thing the satellite images can’t show is how much the creek’s ecosystem has been impacted by having the dam in its path. Or what exactly happens to that flow of water in a dryer year.

Johnson pond via satellite photo

I’m not a lawyer, but in my opinion, the court case will be a slam dunk. The Johnsons dumped 12 cubic yards of material into a creek, which ultimately feeds into a river that crosses state borders. They did so without a permit. Rather than work with the EPA or Corps, they turned to the Tea Party Press and exclaimed about the little guy and the big bad federal government. As it is, their pond seems to also be a violation of Wyoming state law, since the Johnson’s are, in my opinion, using it for purposes other than watering their stock. I imagine, though, that Wyoming would just as soon be left out of this bramble broth.

We need to take a moment to remember exactly what the Clean Water Act is for, and why the EPA is enforcing it: both exist to ensure clear, clean water and healthy ecosystems that benefit all of us, not just a few. We can’t continue to get caught up in this David vs Goliath romance, manufactured by libertarian interests who would like nothing more than to see our rivers reduced to a series of privately owned, barb-wire fenced ponds, each with their Stars and Stripes flag, flying high.