Trying out the new Apple AirPods

We’ve been waiting on the arrival of a pair of Apple AirPods in this household for several weeks. To cut a long story short, they were a much-delayed Christmas present for @FrankDJS and proved very elusive online and in-store.

While I was passing the Regent Street Apple Store yesterday afternoon, I popped in on a whim and asked if they had any in stock. Much to my surprise, there was actually a staff member available to help me. It was an Apple Store, after all. To my even greater surprise, they had some AirPods in stock.

In less than two seconds, I decided to buy two pairs – one to replace the back-ordered pair for @FrankDJS and one for me, to try them out. I’ve seen what they’re going for on eBay, so I figured that if they didn’t work out, I could easily re-sell them.

At £159, they were probably the most significant impulse purchase I’ve made in some time.

As a mature human being and business owner, I had to prioritise doing some paperwork for my VAT return before I could unpack my set. All the time, hearing gasps of delight and joy from the other room, as @FrankDJS started to use his…

See below for some hastily-shot unpacking videos. I thought I’d put them next to my iMac’s keyboard to illustrate relative size.

I’ll be honest: I’ve used the for less than an hour. So my very quick review of them so far is:

  • They were super easy to set up. You simply open the lid of the little case they come in and the nearby iPhone starts to want to ‘pair’ with them. About two seconds later, they were paired and automatically (automagically?) named ‘Richard’s AirPods’. Bless. Much faster and more accurately than every other bluetooth device I’ve owned.
  • Unlike every other pair of headphones Apple have ever made, these actually fit in my ears. All others fall out like they were made for children, or they start to hurt in less than an hour. These fit nicely and there’s not a hint of discomfort.
  • They also stay in! I know this is a basic for earphones of any kind, but seeing as there’s no cable attached to them, their ability to stay put is of prime importance. Given their size, I’d hate to have one pop out while marching through a Tube station.
  • The sound is impressive! I’d travelled home using my Bose noise-cancelling earphones, and they’re definitely not comparable. But there is a nice amount of base and even with a TV playing loudly in the background, I could hear my music very clearly with volume only turned up half-way.

They’re simple to use – almost too simple. Once you have some music playing, you can pause the track by simply taking one of the AirPods out of your ear. Put it back in and the music starts up again. It’s a very natural gesture – think about when someone approaches you to ask a question while you’re listening to music. It’s obvious to both of you that you’re ready to speak.

If you tap the AirPod in your ear twice, you call up Siri. It hears me perfectly, even if I doesn’t respond accurately. Seriously, I’ve become a much bigger fan of Alexa since getting my Amazon Echo Dots. But with more (sigh) practice, I suppose I could get it to call people without taking my phone out of my pocket.

Does this sound a bit underwhelming? I’m sorry if it does.

The fast pairing and quality sound are impressive. But the lack of any volume control or track control (unless you use Siri) is less impressive. I have an Apple Watch, making it easy for me to control my music and podcasts playback without getting my phone out. But really – this should be an option on the AirPods themselves.

I’ve yet to wear them out of the house. This is important, given the funny looks I’ve seen other AirPods owners get, even in our own neighbourhood of Metropolitan Elite Gadgeteers. (That’s the phrase, right?)

I think these will be must useful to me for hands-free work calls while I’m at my desk (or one of the various hot desks I find myself at from time to time) and when I need to pack light. My Bose headphones are magnificent, but boy are they large. The AirPods, in their case, are minuscule by comparison.  They’re light and protected in the case.

But they’re still not connected by a cable or a cord. It’s unsettling. And that’s why I immediately ordered a cable to keep them together. I know I’m not alone, as I’ve seen a few people do this recently. But it means that when they’re not in active use, I can wear them around my neck.

I’ll come back in a few weeks with a more detailed breakdown and evaluation. Right now, I’m impressed and frustrated with their usability. Let’s see what a few weeks of usage does to that opinion…

Enjoying Dun Laoghaire in the sun

I’m in Dublin for work right now, staying here until Thursday night. And lucky for me, I get to stay in the town where I grew up, Dun Laoghaire, which is south of the City. 

I landed to a surprising – but welcome! – amount of winter sunshine, so as soon as I’d unpacked and organised my hotel room, I headed out to walk the pier and enjoy some sunshine, while it lasted. 

Walking the pier was really a Sunday afternoon tradition when I was growing up here. And the crowds today showed that it’s still a popular venue for a walk and a natter. The town has changed a lot since I grew up here, but the coast is relatively unchanged. The pier still faces out towards Dublin Bay and you can follow the path along the coach to Sandycove – so I did!

I walked the length of the pier in record time, so took it a little easier as I made my way over to Sandycove and its Martello tower. And amazingly, despite the cold, there were some people swimming in the sea at Forty Foot. Colloquially known as the ‘Gentlemens’ Bathing Place’, Forty Foot was always known for all-year swimming and a contingent of gentlemen who preferred (and were allows) to swim ‘sans shorts’.  

I came back to my hotel via the new library, the Dun Laoghaire Lexicon. Its striking design is very different to everything around it, but I think it’s fabulous. I know it divided opinion, but I think it makes a bold and confident addition to how Dun Laoghaire faces out to the sea. 

Sun a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. I love coming back to Dublin, especially when I can combine it with work. Now to catch up with some old friends and (hopefully) something to eat. 
 

A tale of two check-ins…

I’ve just checked-in to my hotel here in Dublin and had to share this…

I got a taxi out from the airport and had a surprisingly nice chat with the driver, considering we were discussing Brexit and Trump. We both felt a little helpless and both agreed that focusing on the sunshine was probably more productive, at least for today!

I realised when I got to my hotel that I was probably a little early to check-in and decided I’d only ask to leave my suitcase with them, so I could go for a walk by the sea (I’m staying in Dun Laoghaire, south of the City Centre). 

But I was checked in by the nicest, friendliest Brazilian girl, with whom I had a great chat about coming back home, how London compares to São Paulo and what Dublin is like for a Brazilian. 

We laughed, smiled and treated each other like humans. I got a free room upgrade, so I’m now in an executive room overlooking the sea. 

However, the woman checking in to my right had come from the US and was pretty much berating the staff member who was trying to tell her that her room wasn’t ready. I thought that maybe if she’d started with a smile, or a ‘hello’, the encounter might have gone so differently. 

But, no. As far as I know, she’s still waiting for her room and probably silently fuming at how she felt she was treated. Meanwhile, I’m in my room, admiring the sunny views over Dun Laoghaire pier, have unpacked and am planning a nice walk in the unexpected sun. 

I’ll also be leaving an excellent online review of the hotel, in the hope it goes some way to cancel out the negative one she’s inevitably going to leave. 

Food and exercise: another accountability update

I’ll raise my hand right now – this has not been a good week. In fact, it’s been such a ‘not good week’, that I’ve avoided weighing myself so I don’t have to see the harsh reality. The plan has been somewhat abandoned for the last five days or so.

Don’t worry, I’m not ‘get the paramedics to remove the door to get him to hospital’, but I’ve hardly exercised and ‘treated’ myself to food that was off the menu since before New Year’s day.

For (greasy) example, I had a blow out on Papa John’s pizza on Thursday evening. This was on top of failing to get my arse down to the gym, even with the pleasant prospect of an hour in the sauna afterwards.

Not only that, but I had the leftover pizza for lunch on Friday. Talk about adding insult to injury.

It’s very easy to fall back into bad habits and this week’s cause was pure workload and logistics. Lots of early starts and running about the place made healthy breakfasts more difficult, while exhaustion in the evening made it so much easier to get something delivered.

Oh. And that includes last night, when we used Deliveroo to bring us something tasty from Wagamama. On the upside, it was such a disappointment, I’ll never do it again. Some things travel well – pizza being one of them. Chicken katsu curry is never the same having been on the back of a delivery bike.

Plus – and I know this, having had more than my fair share of chicken katsu curries at Wagamama – the recipe for deliveries is…different? The breaded chicken was bargain basement stuff and the curry sauce tasted like it had some straight from a packet. It was like a Tesco Own Brand version of the meal. An insult to all the amazing versions of katsu curry I’ve had in Japan, too! 😁

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Anyway…all this has left me feeling distinctly sub-par and eager to get back into healthy eating and exercise. I’m lethargic and bloated, feeling very different to the last four weeks – so I can only blame the change in diet.

Tomorrow I fly to Dublin for a business trip that lasts until Thursday night. It’ll be tough to eat as healthily as I’d like, but I’ll bring Huel bars to avoid snacking or unhealthy (but oh-so-delicious) hotel breakfasts. I’m also going to be staying five minutes’ walk from the sea and so will make sure I get some nice walks and/or runs by the sea front built into my days.

And maybe next Saturday I’ll have a weigh-in and see how it’s all going.

Maybe.

Living with Alexa: a few weeks in. Just how useful is the Amazon Echo?

After a few weeks of daily use, it’s time to reflect on just how useful the Amazon Echo Dot really is. A hint? I now have two of them!

After my initial excitement at finally having an Amazon Echo Dot up and running at home, I thought it would be useful to provide an update – if only to see if my excitement has waned over the last few weeks.

Firstly, I now have two Dots in the apartment – one in the bedroom and one in my study. So that’s probably a good indication that the first one (bedroom) was working well. At £49 each (bought with Christmas gift vouchers) they represent a very accessible entry point to ‘speakables’ and the internet of things.

The two are used quite differently.

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How am I using Alexa?

In the bedroom, Alexa is used to stop and start streaming radio, set alarms for the morning, set sleep times (so the music ends after a period of time while I’m drifting off to sleep) and stream Spotify and podcasts. It’s basically a very simple entertainment device and alarm clock.

The bedroom Dot is permanently plugged in to a Beats Pill bluetooth speaker, which really makes it great for listening to music. But even without another speaker, the Dot’s built-in speaker is perfectly adequate for listening to podcasts and spoken-word radio. I just prefer something with more base when listening to music. But it’s strictly not absolutely necessary.

In the study, I’ve plugged the Dot into the external speakers attached to my iMac. There, I mainly use it for timers while I’m working, to get weather reports, to control Spotify while it’s playing and for simple internet searches and calculations. I also use it sometimes to add tasks to ToDoist, thanks to a handy integration.

Some lessons learnt

With a few weeks of daily use under my belt, I’d make the following observations:

  • Alexa is incredibly easy to use. The voice is responsive, pleasant to listen to and understands the huge majority of my questions. You just need to start each query with “Alexa”.
  • Using the “Alexa” word means you’re a lot less likely to accidentally activate the Echo. While you can change this activation phrase to “Computer”, I can’t imagine living with that for more than a few hours – regardless of its geeky value.
  • However, that said, I frequently need to mute Alexa wile I’m on business calls or video conferences, as it seems easily activated while there are a few people talking. And that’s awkward (if amusing) when taking to clients and colleagues!
  • Using my voice to turn off my morning alarm and then get Radio 4 going actually seems to help wake me up. I used to rely on the alarms in my iPhone to wake me up, but it’s just too easy to turn them off and roll over, back to sleep. Maybe that’s just me?
  • I know I’m not getting the full value out of the devices, as they’re not connected to lights or other home appliances. We simply don’t have the need – yet! It might be nice to control the lights with Alexa, but that’s so far down the list of household maintenance priorities, it’s not worth thinking about.

At this point, I still rate Alexa as being more helpful and useful than Siri. Let’s see what Apple does with Siri this year, but it’ll take a lot to displace Alexa in our home. We both love using the Dots and they’re now part of our daily routine.

The initial awkwardness of talking to an inanimate object is long passed and yes, I sometimes find myself saying “Alexa thank you” after “she” has done something, smiling when I year “You’re very welcome”.

Any improvements?

There are still a couple things I wished worked better, and I thin these could all be ‘solved’ with software updates:

  • While Alexa can access my Google calendar, it can only connect to one at a time. I’ve linked my personal Google account to it, so when I ask what’s on my agenda, it only lists in my personal calendar, ignoring my work calendar, which sits in a separate Google Apps account. So, it’s not particularly useful from that perspective.
  • It doesn’t integrate with my preferred podcast player, Pocket Casts. So when I play a podcast via Alexa, it streams it from somewhere, but my Pocket Casts account has no idea and so new podcasts still remain unplayed in my account. No syncing, which can get confusing after a while. A minor problem, but one I’d like to see them address.
  • Alexa will respond to anyone who speaks to it. It doesn’t recognise my voice specifically, so there are security implications! It’s linked to my account, but responds to (most of) @FrankDJS’s commands. Maybe voice recognition will come in future editions.

The bottom line

I think the Amazon Echo Dot is a great device for people who want to test the utility of a speakable device in their home – without shelling out hundreds of pounds. It’s incredibly easy to use and with the power of IFTTT integration, you can make it work with dozens of systems and apps.

MacPsych at the movies: La La Land

I think I went to see La La Land at just the right time. Let’s face it: the first few weeks of 2017 have been pretty miserable from an international perspective and the news shows haven’t held back in delivering a steady stream of doom, gloom and bigotry on a nightly basis.

I also need to preface my review of the movie with an admission that I’m a massive fan of musicals. Always have been. My favourites are probably the classics staring Gene Kelly, whose voice and footwork still give me footsteps. There’s something about people singing and dancing on film that lightens my mood and gets my feet tapping.

Infectiously light-hearted and optimistic.

And that’s La La Land in a nutshell. It reflects and pays tribute to so many musicals, I lost count. There are the ‘dream sequences’ we came to know and love in Gene Kelly’s American in Paris, and the skirt-swinging, stamping attitude of West Side Story.

I was, quite simply, in heaven for the entire film.

But if you’re not a fan of musicals, you’ll probably be more critical and won’t enjoy the (apparently) random songs and dances. You’ll spot the slight ropiness of some of the singing and some of the (slight) mis-steps.

And that’s precisely what I loved about it. In a world where over-produced music is flavour of the month, to see two people skip through a song was a welcome change. The soundtrack has been bouncing around in my head ever since and I think it’ll become one of my most favourite Spotify albums.

The whole experience was a welcome palate-cleanser, helping me forget the shit-show the world has become in the last six month, just for a couple of hours. I haven’t lost my mind completely. I don’t think it’s worth 14 Oscars, it’s just a well-made, fun and light production.

There are better musicals. There are far better soundtracks. And there are definitely better singers! But the combination of song, dance, enthusiasm and timing got me where it counts. If you’re a hopeless romantic like me, sit back and prepare to smile.

Missing my Apple Watch… 

In a sleep-deprived flurry of OMG this morning, I somehow left home without my Apple Watch.

I know, right? Talk about a First World Problem. Actually, someone did:

Anyway, as I waited for my DLR into town, I realised it was too late to go home to get it and hopped on the train without much more thought about it.

But wow – what a difference it made. I realise this evening that I’m a 100% Apple Watch devotee. I missed my notifications, I missed tracking my activity, I missed being able to (basically) check the time without getting my phone out of my pocket. Really, I lost count of the number of times I raised my wrist, only to be disappointed by the bare (if tanned) skin that I saw instead of a watch screen.

Effectively, by leaving it at home for a day, I moved from the hypothetical “How much do you really use your Apple Watch?” to the actual “I use it a lot and I miss it like hell.”

Panic over and it’s safely back on my wrist once more.

There’s probably a very deep philosophical point to be made about having to experience loss to know the value of something – I’m just still amazed I managed to walk out the front door without it.

And if that’s the worst thing that happens to me this week, then I’ll be a very, very lucky man.

We need to talk about Trump

Let’s start with some first principles: Trump is literally not my president. I didn’t have a vote in the election, as I’m not an American nor do I live there. And yes, I know exactly how it feels to have foreigners tell you what they don’t like about your country or your government.

And I try to avoid doing both, because lately the UK is no shining example of tolerance and love. Or even logic, due to the catastrophe that was the Brexit vote. ‘People in glass houses…’ and all that.

I also try to avoid overloading this blog with commentary on current affairs, as it can be quite divisive. I tend to keep that for debates on Twitter. Or over coffee, in person. So if you’re disinterested by this topic, feel free to skip to the next post.

That said…

That said, America appears to have appointed a narcissistic, unstable, petty, ego-driven, volatile and self-confessed sex-offender as president. I emphasise appointed as Trump lost the popular vote and the American electoral system still managed to get him into the White House.

And America may well have doe so in the past. Nixon was not dissimilar to Trump and I’m sure every president since has leaked their own preferences, biases and irrational needs all over the Oval Office. But, I think the difference is that they were surrounded by advisors and officials who could set them straight and ensure no damage was done to the office of the President by a temporary office-holder.

So let’s be clear: I don’t believe US Presidents are automatically examples of grit, determination, logic and wisdom as soon as they win the election. They’re human, just like you and me.

The difference here is we have an outlier on most aspects of human behaviour and attitudes in the White House, who has chosen to surround himself with similar outliers. Or extremists, if you will. People whose views on humanity, society and equality are as far to the right of any spectrum as you might find.

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, I read a veritable chorus of commentary asking for us to ‘give Trump the benefit of the doubt’, telling us ‘the office will impact him’ and that we should ‘take him seriously, not literally’.

We’re just over a week into the Trump Presidency and I’m not going to keep quiet any longer. Yep, he’s not my president, but America is no normal country. Its decisions impact the rest of the world and as we can see, his executive orders thus far have done just that.

He has succeeded in offending and alienating his to closest neighbours with continued inflammatory talk of the ‘wall’ with Mexico and by instigating a ban on entry to the US by citizens (even green card holders and those with joint-nationality) from a selection of mainly Muslim countries. Except, of course, those where he has business interests.

You see? He is quite literally implementing the campaign slogans and it’s only a week into his term. Christ on a bike, what else is he going to do?

He has failed to share his tax returns or to formally divest himself of his vast and complex business affairs. He’s running the White House like a members’ club, giving jobs to friends and family, no more qualified to hold such important offices than you or I. And in some cases, probably less…

This is fascism in action.

Think about it. He’s pretty much mirroring what every nationalist dictator in history has done. He’s promised to rebuild the country, he’s blaming ‘others’ for the downfall of the country, he’s attacking the very system of government he’s supposed to be leading and he’s spreading lies and disinformation about allies and political foes alike. People don’t know what to believe and they’re afraid. He’s using his executive power to implement a nationalist agenda before our very eyes.

He and his administration announced their Muslim travel ban on Holocaust Memorial Day, while also refusing to specifically mention Jews in their press release. It’s like they’re waving their intolerance in our faces and laughing about it.

I’m scared.

I’m not worried that someone whose politics I disagree with is in a position of power. I’m worried that such an unstable and intolerant person has their hands on the levers of power, is busy making new enemies and has the military power to end life on earth.

And to all those American commentators who vilified me on Twitter with their talk of systemic ‘checks and balances’: where are you checks and balances now? Your system of government and electoral method has let you down, allowing a grotesquely in qualified man to take over your country and set it back at least a decade in just seven days.

Now let me tell you what this isn’t. This isn’t me issuing a blanket condemnation of all Americans, or even all the Americans who voted for Trump. Looking at Brexit, we can easily see why angry people use a vote to make a point, without a thought for the consequences.

I’ve been to the US enough times to know that it’s as varied in terms of people as anywhere else. It’s full of talented, thoughtful and broad-minded people. People who more frightened of this development that I could ever be. They’re out there right now, protesting at airports.

What I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t politics as normal. This is one of those times where people need to set aside political differences and stand up for what’s essentially right. Banning and abandoning people purely on the basis of their religion is not government-as-normal. It is fascism.

Our own unelected Prime Minister not only held Trump by the hand in public, she also invited him for a state visit to the UK later this year. This gives him legitimacy and is nothing more than a futile attempt to build some kind of relationship with Trump to offset the economic damage that will come with the kind of ‘hard Brexit’ May is pushing for. She’s emphasising trade and cooperation over human rights.

I’m embarrassed for the UK, especially as countries all around protested the travel ban openly. People need to know that this is not what the majority of people in the UK believe, no matter how appallingly the Prime Minister has behaved.

Remember also, that this is the woman who, when Home Secretary, had trucks drive around areas with suspected high number of illegal immigrants with a ‘Go Home’ message written on the side. And that after fawning over Trump, she flew straight to Turkey to sign an arms deal with a similarly unhinged nationalist clown.

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If Trump comes over here, I’ll be out there protesting his presence, his behaviour and his anti-human stance. The man is a charlatan, a bigot and unfit for office – any office. His past behaviour marks him out as singularly unfit to be President and no seal of office or plethora of officials or machine of government is going to change my mind on this.

He’s had his chance and he’s blown it.

Who’s with me? Who’s going to protest in London if/when he flies in?

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs coming to Canary Wharf

While out for a walk this morning, I noticed that there’s a new coffee shop coming to Westferry Circus here in Canary Wharf: the brilliantly-named Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I’ve only visited one of their outlets, the one around the corner from Liverpool Street. If memory serves, the coffee was delicious – but I was in a rush.

I’ll check them out once open and will of course report back here. It’s a short walk from my apartment and could be a new Saturday morning routine hangout, if they don’t mind me hanging around the place…

Again, what a superb name for a coffee shop!