Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Assignment #4: Tech Review

Comparing Virtual Personal Assistants

SIRI on an iPhone

I'm comparing some of the AI personal assistants and their smart speakers. SIRI has been around since 2011 for Apple users; you can use SIRI on the iPhone, iWatch, iPad, et al. I don't use most Apple products, so I've never used SIRI, but there have been many jokes online, and on TV, about SIRI, for a long time (especially with regards to her getting things wrong). I assume that SIRI has improved in the past 8 years. However, there are still complaints about her accuracy. Video
Amazon Echo Dot with decorative case (photo from
When I first heard about Alexa and the Amazon Echo, I didn't really understand the appeal. I scoffed, "If I want to look up some information, I can just do that on my phone or computer. I'm not so lazy that I need to ask Alexa to do that."  However, this past Christmas, I decided to get a cheap one (the Echo Dot, which looks like a hockey puck) as a stocking stuffer for my husband. It was on sale, and I figured it would be amusing, at the very least, and we could probably play some music on it.

Picture of Android phone and others

I set up the Echo Dot ahead of time, so that he could use it instantly. It required that I first download the Alexa app on my Android phone and sync to it via Bluetooth. That took me a few minutes, but it wasn't terribly difficult. Once I did that, I realized that I could use Alexa on my phone and really didn't need the Echo at all. The main advantage of the smart speaker seems to be that it has better quality sound for music you play. Also, if you have multiple speakers, you can put them in different rooms of your house. That would certainly be an advantage if you want to use Alexa in a different room (such as listening to music before bedtime). Also, if your spouse doesn't have the best hearing, you can have Alexa call him/her to dinner (or relay any kind of needed message) without having to yell or go to the other room.  Lastly, to use Alexa on my phone, I had to make sure the Alexa app was up and running, and I had to press the speaker button. There might be a way around that, though.  The Echo Dot is supposed to be plugged in and always on, unless you tell Alexa to turn it off. No need to press any button.

When we first used the Alexa, it was kind of fun. We asked it silly questions, used it to play music, and tested its accuracy in questions and searches.  Well, it's not all that accurate, and it does play a lot of songs, for the most part (2 million if you have Amazon Prime, or 40 million if you sign up for Amazon Unlimited). However, when we tried to find more obscure older songs on the Amazon Prime Music, we could only find a few.  I don't want to have to pay for the Amazon Unlimited Music, although it would certainly be worth it if you used Alexa a lot.

The worst part about Alexa is that you can't search Google for answers, and Alexa doesn't have nearly as much knowledge as Google.  You see, Google has Google Assistant.  The different companies don't share. I guess Alexa has its own knowledge base, but it's not as good. That was disappointing.
Different devices that use Alexa (photo from
What I found most useful about Alexa was that I could tell it to add items to my grocery list, or to my Amazon shopping cart. It has access to all of my digital books and could read them to me (I didn't try that feature out). I'm not sure if I could print from there, but at least I could probably email or text myself the grocery list. Or, I could find the list on Amazon from my computer and then print it. I think this is very handy.  The most useful features require more money, though. That is, if you want Alexa to turn your lights on and off, or change your thermostat, you have to buy other equipment for that. I would really love to do that. I don't NEED to do it, though. Alexa is a fun toy, and pretty useful, but it's not life-changing. Video

We sent the Alexa back because we started reading about problems it has with privacy.  Also, when we asked Alexa straight out, "Do you record everything we say?" it did not give a definitive answer. Instead, it gave a corporate CYA reply that basically said, "I only send information back to Amazon when you wake me up." So, it sends everything we say if Alexa is working...assuming she recognized the wake word properly.  That was not reassuring at all! Now, personally, I'm not a very private person. I put practically everything about my life in my blogs, on social media, and on my website. My husband is a bit more private than I am, though, so he didn't like the risks with Alexa.  Fortunately, Amazon is very good about returns, so that wasn't a problem.

I do still have the Alexa app on my phone, though, and I may continue to use it. If I did use an external speaker for Alexa, I would probably order a speaker with better quality sound for playing music.  I wish that Alexa would be a little more useful on my phone, though. For instance, you can't tell Alexa to open another app, such as Chrome or Facebook. I had trouble when sending a text or email. For example, I had trouble texting to my SIL Eileen, whom I text quite often. She's in my contacts twice because she has two different smart phones (one that her husband uses).  When I asked Alexa to send her a text, it would always ask me which number I wanted to text to (even though I mostly only use the one). It should learn easier than that. I should be able to say, "send a text to the last Eileen I texted". Although Alexa supposedly tries to learn your speech, we often had to repeat our requests.  At one point, when a song was being played, we had to repeat the "stop" command quite a bit before it finally stopped playing the song.

I've rarely used Google Assistant on my phone, but with the Android you CAN dictate, and it will type what you say in a note or email, which can be very useful. All of the virtual assistants can do that, to varying degrees. The few times I tried to ask it something, it only understood me about 50% of the time. However, I will say that it works best if there is no background noise. From visiting their website, I can tell that Google Assistant works similarly to SIRI and Alexa in most ways. You can hook it up with additional equipment to have it turn your lights or thermostat off and on. Video

screenshot of Cortana on my Windows 10 laptop
After trying out Alexa, I realized, "Hey, I've had an AI personal assistant all long - Cortana on Windows!"  I usually find the Cortana search box annoying, so I turned it off entirely. However, I turned it back on again, to test it and see if I liked it as an AI. Of course, it will have the same privacy risks as Alexa, but it's also a lot easier to turn off. From what I can tell, its accuracy was not all that great. For instance, when I try to look myself or my husband up on the search (it uses Bing, being a Microsoft product), it never spelled or pronounced our last name correctly. There should be a way to correct it in those cases. Cortana is most helpful for opening programs or for looking up things on Bing (but you will need to type it if the words you're using have an unusual spelling).  Now, all of these AI's do have a beginning training session, where it's supposed to learn your voice, but I found Alexa much easier to train than Cortana.

cartoon about Siri, Alexa and Cortana

One helpful thing about Cortana is that you don't have to have your sound turned on for it to work (as long as your microphone is on). You can also just type your query in the search bar.  Just like Alexa, Cortana can't type what you dictate into Word or some other program (you would need another program, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, for that). However, it can do a lot to help you operate your computer or other device hands-free, such as opening programs, searching on Bing, turning your WiFi off and on, making an appointment, making a phone call (if you have a Windows phone), etc. It seems to have more functions than Alexa on my phone. Video

There's one more useful thing I observed about Cortana.  If you use particular browser add-ons, you can adjust Cortana so that it will open Google (or your preferred search engine) in Firefox or Chrome, instead of Bing in Internet Explorer.  This makes Cortana a lot more valuable to those of us who prefer other web browsers and search engines.

Unfortunately, not one of these devices will play the music that I have on my iTunes, on my computer. I'd probably need SIRI for that, and it would probably only play the ones on the cloud, plus your songs from Apple Music (if you subscribe). It might be possible to pair the new Google Home with iTunes, though.

If you want to just use ONE AI personal assistant...Well, it will probably depend on which type of phone, tablet or computer you have. If you can choose, I would suggest Cortana, even though it is a little tougher to set up and doesn't always understand how to spell names. If you're a Windows user, you already have it. Video

Update 4/19: I just received this email from Google: To thank you for being a valued 2 TB Google One member, we're giving you a Google Home Mini at no charge. We'll even cover shipping. Play music, get answers, and more just by saying "Hey Google."  They had me at "no charge." I can't resist free stuff! I'm going to have to try it out...

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Assignment #3: Lifestyles or Popular Culture Review

My Fave GF Eateries in Little Rock!

Little Rock restaurant signs - made with Collage Maker

We journey to Little Rock at least 3-4 times per year. I have to eat Gluten-Free (GF) because I have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity as well as allergies to wheat, rye, barley and avocado. I use Google or the Find Me Gluten Free app to find GF restaurants. We like to eat out a lot, especially when we travel. I've been riding around the country and sampling restaurants for the past 40 years; my husband even longer (I've only known about my problems with gluten for the past 20 years).

  Gluten Free sign from


Please be aware that if you're very sensitive to gluten, you have a severe allergy, or you have Celiac, that you're taking a big risk any time you eat out, anywhere.  There is ALWAYS a chance of cross-contamination.  If you tell them that you have Celiac or you're allergic, they may tell you that they can't guarantee that it will be completely safe.  All right, now that's over. Back to Little Rock!

Cache Restaurant

 My Cache meal from July, 2018

We usually stay downtown, near the Riverfront, so we've been going to Cache (pronounced like "catch") for years. You can check out their menu. Some of their food is really good, and some is mediocre, but that can vary depending on your visit. Like most of the places I'm reviewing here, they're a bit expensive (an entree will cost anywhere between $20 and $48, with one at $115). However, the portions are fairly large.  It's not that I love expensive food, so much; but I believe that most expensive or "fine dining" restaurants are more likely to cook from scratch and be more knowledgable about the ingredients in their food. Also, it's been my experience that their waitstaff tends to know more about the food, and about food in general. They know that this is part of their job requirements.  Also, restaurants in larger cities cater to a larger population of diners, so they're more likely to have customers that might have allergies or food intolerances. A smart restauranteur will prepare for any kind of food preference, intolerance or trend.

My Cache bread from July, 2018

One of the things I love about Cache is that they have GF corn bread (similar to an English muffin) that they serve you with the food if you ask for it. Also, they have a late-night menu of mostly-fried foods that includes GF fried alligator, calimari and more.  (They'll serve it to you at other times if you ask, too.) It's very good, and GF fried-anything is difficult to find at any restaurant.  I'm also supposed to be eating low-carb because I'm diabetic, so I typically avoid eating the fried food, and I usually only eat half of the muffin, but I'm very grateful that this good GF food exists. They also have a fun bar upstairs that sometimes has a small band. In general, they have great salads, appetizers and main dishes. I seem to recall that one of their waiters told me that their chef or owner had to eat GF, too, so that's why they're more aware of it and can easily accommodate you. They have a great location right on President Clinton Avenue. They change their menu often, so I can't recommend a particular dish at the moment. I urge you to give them a try.

Samantha's Tap Room and Wood Grill

My wood-grilled tacos from Samantha's, October 2018

Another favorite restaurant in the Riverfront area is Samantha's, on Main Street. We only recently discovered this place, but it's really good. It might be the best restaurant in Little Rock. We've only eaten there twice, but we both loved it (and we're a bit picky).  The first time, we were in town around 4pm (we had just flown in from somewhere), and we just wanted somewhere quick to eat. It was one of the few places open in the afternoon, so we took a chance.  We are so glad now that we did! 

Unique salt and pepper cups from Samantha's, July 2018

 I really like their ambiance as well.  For instance, they have obviously taken great care to have cool-looking flatware, salt and pepper shakers, etc. We had a really interesting grey-haired waiter last time. He seemed like someone who would be right at home in an old New Orleans restaurant/bar. He was a very funny "character," and yet also a good waiter.  The food is exceptional. They have a wide range of food, so you can eat light or get something cheaper like a burger. I love their grilled tacos.  They mark the GF foods on their menu, which is handy. I also liked the Chilean sea bass. It wasn't the best I ever had in my life, but it was quite good, especially for a land-locked state (it's not like you're going to find a Nobu in Arkansas). If you have just one meal in Little Rock, this should be your choice. The word is out, though, so make sure you make your "rezzy" in advance because they fill up quickly every weekend.

Heritage Grill Steak and Fin

My cheeseburger and fries (no bun) from Heritage Grill, January 2019
The restaurant in the Marriott, Heritage Grill, is also very good. They're better than your average hotel chain restaurant.  We have often stopped there for a late night snack.  Skip their breakfast buffet because it's not very good and *certainly* not worth the price.  Their regular lunch and dinner menu is excellent, however. Even their burgers and fries are outstanding (they're very large, though, so you might want to share). They don't mark GF foods on their menu, but they're good at going back to the kitchen to ask what's safe for me to eat.  They change their menu often. Now, I know why restaurants do this, but it's disappointing when you find something you really like, and then you come back and it's gone.  But you should be able to find something delicious there, regardless. We've never been disappointed. I love staying at the Marriott, too, but they tend to have expensive rooms.  Besides the food, they make excellent cocktails as well.

Dugan's Pub 

Dugan's steak salad from January 2019

Speaking of cocktails, we enjoy Dugan's Pub. They have decent food and are a little more reasonably-priced than the other places mentioned here (most of their food is under $10).  They have many great snacks, sandwiches, burgers, traditional Irish food, steaks and more. In the past few years, they have started marking their GF foods on the menu, which makes it more convenient for people like me.  I like all of their dishes. Their steaks are outstanding, and so is the steak salad. If you see their pan-fried brussels sprouts on the menu, make sure to order them because they're to die for.  We're not heavy drinkers, but my husband loves the Irish beer - Smithwick's - that they have on tap. If it's cold outside, I enjoy their Dreamy Winter Delight, which is hot chocolate with Bailey's and Amaretto (don't forget the extra whipped cream!).  They also have a yummy Dreamsicle drink (like the Creamsicles we ate growing up) that's good in hotter weather. (Yes, these are more like desserts than alcoholic beverages!)

Delicious hot chocolate drink from Dugan's, October 2018

Besides being a good sports bar, Dugan's also has great live bands some nights, and Wednesday is karaoke night (If you're in town on Friday nights, though, check out the karaoke at Damgoode Pizza down the street). If all that isn't enough, they also own the nice deli next door, Stratton's, which serves breakfast and lunch, as well as having a little upscale convenience store (with some great GF foods).


My filet mignon meal from Wasabi's, January 2019

If you like ethnic food, there is plenty of that around the Little Rock area. We like to go to the Japanese restaurant Wasabi, which is a stone's throw from the Marriott. I'm not a sushi fan like my husband, so I order the filet mignon, which is cooked hibachi-style. You have to tell them that you must eat GF, so that they can be extra-careful.  It comes with grilled veggies and rice, and even their fried rice can be made GF. You can ask for GF soy sauce as well.  Don't get the soup or salad that comes with because they are not GF. Their delicious YumYum sauce is also not GF, unfortunately.  Of course, most sushi is GF, but don't order the California roll because the crab is usually imitation crab, which has wheat in it.

Brave New Restaurant 

My homemade peach ice cream from Brave New Restaurant, April 2018

For special occasions, we usually take Lyft over to my favorite restaurant in Little Rock, Brave New Restaurant. It's a bit further down the river.  They have a great view, and you can sit outside when the weather's nice. It's very pretty.  This is fine dining at its best. They cater very well to us GF eaters.  They even usually have GF crackers, baked fresh from Dempsey Bakery (a tasty GF bakery in Little Rock).  My husband and I love all of the food at Brave New Restaurant. I have yet to get anything there that was less than wonderful. They also make their own ice cream (which is delicious!) and coffee. Last time we went there, it had been raining. We saw this beautiful double rainbow that went from the downtown skyline to the river next to it. Photos don't do it justice!

rainbow over Brave New Restaurant patio, August 2018

All of these Little Rock restaurants have a full bar, so you can order some fantastic wines to go with your food (or other beverages as you prefer). Bon Appétit!

Me with wine at Samantha's, October 2018