Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.

Review: Virgin America

I am writing this from my seat in the main cabin on Virgin America’s VX321 from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles. The first leg of my journey home. I have seen mixed opinions of Virgin America, but my previous flight with them, shortly after they launched, was pleasant enough that I booked this business trip with them flying SFO – LAX – FLL (on a red eye), and the same route back.

Booking 

I booked the flight on their website directly, and the process was simple, and the options for different cabins or other upgrades were clear. The one thing I would have liked would be a more detailed receipt breaking out the upgrades from the base price, though I suspect there as many, perhaps more, people who appreciate them being hidden for when they submit their expenses.

Check In

At the appropriate time an email arrived in my inbox with an invitation to check in. Tapping the button in the email took me straight to the online checkin page with all my details completed. Since I was flying with just one carry on bag, I chose the no bags express checkin option, and that was that. The next page had two buttons, one for each segment of my flight, to load my boarding passes into Passbook on my iPhone.

At The Airport

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Traveling Light

As I write this the view out of the window next to me looks similar to the photo on the right (snapped with my iPad camera moments ago) and I am writing this on my iPad seated in 3A at the front of the main cabin of an Airbus en route to Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale.

Unusually though, even though this was a business trip, I do not have a laptop with me. Normally I would have my trusty 13″ MBP in my bag, but this was a quick trip (I was in Florida for a little over 24 hours), and I did not need to present anything at either of the conference sessions I was speaking at (both were panel sessions).

Instead, I brought just my iPad, my TwelveSouth Compass stand, and a Bluetooth keyboard in case I needed something more than the on screen one.

So how did it work?

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Pebble Update

Given all the issues I had been having with my Pebble watch staying connected to my iPhone, it might seem odd that I ordered a new Pebble Time rather than an Apple Watch. For the last few months though my Pebble has stayed connected to my phone almost continuously. The iOS permission notification, that I used to see regularly, now really only appears when the phone restarts.

Intermittent Disconnects

Also, the problem where it appeared to be connected, but was not getting any notifications, has gone away after a factory reset of the watch (from the watch’s settings menu), followed by switching to recovery mode (press and hold back, up and select buttons for 30 seconds) and letting the phone re-install the latest firmware. The app reinstalled 

Not sure what caused the problem, but I suspect either the update process left something in a strange state or there is something that leaks resources. With the latest firmware though, I haven’t seen it again, so I’m hoping that was something in an earlier version. If I do see it again, at least I know the trick to getting things back to normal now, and while it sounds painful, getting watchfaces & apps back on the watch is automatic once the watch is paired back to the phone.

Audio Issues

I still get the interference from the Pebble when using a Bluetooth hands free system for voice calls. Most noticeable on in car systems, though either the latest versions of iOS and/or Pebble firmware, or perhaps my new car (same make as the previous one, but a few years younger) have made it less of a problem. I haven’t had a chance to do any testing with other devices.

The Bluetooth audio connections for listening to music were fixed with a Pebble firmware update a while ago.

Battery Life

For a long time after I had the issues with battery life (which, I am pretty sure, were actually caused by the Bluetooth communication issues), I had been using the Modern Longlife watchface. With that, I was getting 5+ days regularly from the Steel, with moderate to heavy notifications. I switched to Modern Neue recently, which includes a second hand, and I think it has knocked a little off the battery life, but it is still 5 days between charges most of the time. I have become comfortable with the 20% battery warning and know that just means I need to charge that night, even when it pops up early in the day.

The Good

As I mentioned earlier in my smart watch thoughts post, having the important things that happen online appear on the watch is great, and something I would definitely miss now. The watchface options are unbelievable too, and while perhaps not as pretty as the new Apple Watch ones, they are every bit as functional (perhaps more so if you take into account the fact that they on screen all the time and not just when you activate the screen).

On the app front, there is already a huge selection of apps, but my personal feeling right now is that few are really useful for me simply because I would rather use the watch to be notified of things than to act on them. I do like the Nest remote, but even that i don’t use often. I certainly don’t want to be reading anything longer than a notification on my watch (though I do wish Facebook notifications included at least some of the content too so I cou,d decide whether I want to get the phone out or not).

Crowd Funding Update

Back in August of last year I wrote an update on the status of the projects I have backed on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Eight months on, only one of the projects still ongoing has delivered: Parashoot. Lima and Lono are still promising to ship soon.

I also have a couple of projects not on either of the two platforms: Coin (which finally delivered this week, very late), and Nymi, a biometric authentication project (still to deliver, but different in that they won’t take the money until they ship, so really this is pre-ordering more than crowd funding).

In the meantime I have backed a few more projects:

The Egg

A personal web server gadget. This one was a little personal since I know one of the founders, but I’ve seen one of their early units and the project has some appealing features too, not least of which is the ability to share photos with friends & family without having to upload them to a public web service.

Expected delivery: September 2015

Pebble Time

This will be my third Pebble, and I upgraded the pledge to switch to the steel variant once they announced it. Not much more to say about this one.

Expected delivery: July 2015

Titanium Pens

A set of three (because I couldn’t decide on the finish I preferred & the set was a bargain compared to one or two pens). And, yes, these pens are going to ship without a refill. But they look gorgeous, and the guy behind the project already sells lots of titanium products directly from his site and clearly has a passion for this pen project. It has been incredibly over subscribed though – about 3600% more than the goal.

Expected delivery: July 2015

The Leaders Guide by Eric Ries

A new book project from Eric Ries (of lean startup fame) with lots of unlocked extras. 

Expected delivery: October 2015

Coin: The Card To Replace Them All

What seems like a very long time ago now, I signed up for a crowdfunded project called Coin. The literally credit sized (in all dimensions) sliver of electronics claimed to be able to pretend to be all of my credit cards, selecting the one I wanted being as simple as pressing a “button” on the card.

Well, this week my card finally arrived, much later than they had originally estimated, and after a much longer beta testing period (which I had signed up to be a part of, but was not selected for).

Setting up the card was mostly straightforward (I already had the app on my iPhone and the account set up since they sent instructions for doing that part a long time ago so we could track our order too).

Loading Cards

I had a small hiccup getting the cards sync’d onto the Coin, but once I worked out that the trick was to wait for the phone app to tell me to activate the card and get it into sync mode, it all went smoothly. At least for the two credit cards.

The Starbucks card I tried to load was another problem altogether. The Coin ships with a small card reader that plugs into the headphone/mic jack on the iPhone (similar to the original Square card readers). That is able to read credit cards easily, but when it came to reading my Starbucks card it took a few swipes to get it to read, and even then the number it read from the mag stripe didn’t match the number printed on the card. I have a support request open with Coin to see whether that is expected.

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Smartwatch Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelWith what seems like my entire Twitter timeline getting excited about their new Apple Watches (arriving, one after the other today it seems), I thought it would be a good time to review some of my thoughts on smartwatches, and in particular why I have not pre-ordered an Apple Watch. In fact, not only have I not pre-ordered an Apple Watch, but I have “pre-ordered” (through their Kickstarter campaign) a new Pebble Time Steel watch.

What are the pros and cons of each in my opinion (and remember, that’s all this is – my opinion; you are welcome to disagree with me and choose whichever smartwatch works best for you, or even not get one at all).

Battery Life

This is the big one for me. I already charge way too many things every day (I carry multiple phones for work, typically an iPad and a laptop, and I also have a Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire and a pair of bluetooth headphones that I have to remember to keep charged). My Pebble and my Fitbit One are my best friends w.r.t. charging since they’re roughly once a week! Getting a 20% battery life warning on my current Pebble Steel doesn’t bother me – that’s still at least a day of normal use.

Less than 24 hours seems like a big miss to me. That means one more thing I need to find an overnight charging spot for. The new Pebble Time Steel claims up to 10 days with a colour screen. I just think that Apple could have pushed the technology here.

Overall Design

I think this one is actually a tie for the new Pebble Time Steel vs the Apple Watch (in fact, I’ve seen some photos that suggest they look pretty similar). Neither wows me as much as the Moto 360, but there are plenty of reasons why I am not interested in that family of smartwatches. I do have to concede that the circular design looks stunning though. I would have loved to see a rectangular and a circular design from Apple rather than just two rectangles in (barely – just 4mm) different sizes.

That said, my two existing Pebbles look fine to me, and more importantly don’t scream smartwatch to everybody. I wear my black Pebble steel every day and get very few comments about it. I ordered the new one in black too.

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Meet Alexa, Amazon’s Assistant

I was lucky enough to get an invite for an Amazon Echo device, which arrived earlier today. Here are my initial impressions, after just a few hours playing with the device.

Setup

Surprisingly straightforward for a Wi-Fi device with only two buttons and no display. Out of the box, the Echo beacons out an open Wi-Fi network. Connect your phone to that when prompted by their setup website & follow the instructions. In moments it was on the Wi-Fi & the open network was gone (you do need your Wi-Fi password of course). 

Voice Recognition

At the end of the setup there are some example commands to try. Unlike Apple’s Siri, Alexa (the name of the assistant inside the Echo, or, rather inside the cloud app behind it) really does understand what you say. Even from across the room.

With no other user interface to speak of, Alexa really does succeed or fail on the strength of her ability to recognize voice commands. So far, she beats Siri hands down, and I think even beats Google’s Android voice recognition (which is already very good).

Functions

So far, my favourite function is the voice command access to Amazon Prime Music. “Alexa, play …” Has played the named artist, or album or playlist with only one failure, and not a recognition failure even then: the music was not uploaded into my Amazon Music account & apparently the artist is not available on Prime Music.

The weather and the Wikipedia lookups have been big hits with my three year old, but I can see the shopping and to do lists being more useful over time. As more features are added, I can see it being even more useful, especially integrations into home control systems or the ability to voice text through my connected smartphone without even lifting a finger. Things I haven’t tried yet include the news briefing and the alarms and timers.

Initial Conclusion  

For an initial version, Alexa already has a lot of things she understands (including a great response to a classic science fiction line). The beauty of the cloud app model, as I well know from Devicescape’s cloud based amenity Wi-Fi authentication capability, is that you can add features in the cloud & not even need to worry about pushing firmware updates. Since she is on my home network, the potential for her to become the voice command gateway for the home is huge. Just imagine “Alexa, dim the lights” or “Alexa, make it warmer in here.”

Ongoing Pebble Issues


Update: Check out my more recent update on my Pebble experiences too.

Anybody following along here will know that I have been having intermittent connection issues, as well as bluetooth audio interference issues, with my Pebble smartwatch. But more than that, I have been having issues with their customer support. Not to mention having their Chief Evangelist accuse me of whining, and then block me on Twitter. Great way to treat your customers. Guess she doesn’t want to actually hear from real users. 

On October 17, I was given this answer by one of their support folks:

We well received your logs, and will review them thoroughly and have a reply by Tuesday. Thanks for your patience.

That was a Friday. By the next Friday, October 24, I had still heard nothing other than another canned response on a different case number because I submitted more logs through their app and it generates a new case each time suggesting I upgrade to iOS 8.1 (which I had already done, and which has made no difference).

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Apple Pay Experiences

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Monday of this week saw iOS 8.1 land on Apple devices, and perhaps the most expected feature in the update was Apple Pay; the new NFC based, Touch ID approved payment service that was going to revolutionize how we pay for things. Or not, because of course NFC based payments have existed in Android phones for a while now, and even in plastic credit cards (mostly outside the US, but my Wells Fargo Visa card has both a chip and touch pay capabilities).

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