I’m trying something new – life with Google Assistant, the Google Home Hub, and Google Mini

We’ve been using the Amazon ‘Alexa’ AI assistant through their Echo Dot product since Oct 2017. After about a year of heavy usage, I still think it’s interesting. The family and I have various uses for it. I like that Amazon has various ‘skills’ to hook and connect into other products around the house for home automation. The kids like the timers and parlor games. Nums uses the timer and alarms only – mostly for the kids. What I don’t like is the AI often runs into challenges when attempting to answer more than a basic question. 

I’ve been keeping up on all of the popular or available AI assistants out there for about a year or two. There are plenty (Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby, and Cortana) but there are really only three big players – Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. Sorry, but Bixby and Cortana are still works in progress. 

I really need a good alarm clock, as do the kids. I’ve been heavily considering the Google Home Hub for us to use in the master bedroom, and a Google Mini for Josh to help him set alarms. For some reason (he’s a teenager!), he doesn’t want to walk up in the morning. So here we are. 

It’s been almost two weeks, and the Home Hub is interesting. Google Assistant is definitely smarter than Alexa. I like having the screen to look at the weather, news briefings, and search results. I wouldn’t use the built-in speaker for listening to music, but it is sufficient for everything else.

Lily likes to see the picture slideshow (especially when she is the featured picture of the moment.)

While I’ve connected the thermostats, I don’t have anything else to integrate with it. I still have to connect the alarm system, and I read somewhere that the Iro Rachio sprinkler controller is compatible. However, I don’t have much else yet that is compatible, and that was one of my concerns going in. 

  • Integration with Sonos is coming in 2019 (fingers crossed).  When? No idea.
  • I am planning to replace all four exterior lights (driveway and front door) and I will use smart LED bulbs so I can set them on timers. This won’t happen until the Spring at the earliest.
  • We are planning on installing new blinds in the family room (some with automation.) If so, I’ll look for Google Assistant compatibility. 
  • Currently no integration with our Cozi family calendar and shopping lists.

So that’s it for Google and the Home Hub? For now, I guess. It’s promising, but I wish it did more now in the present.

As for Josh and the Google Mini, it seems to fit his needs. He use his regular alarm clock to look at the time, and uses the Mini to listen to music, set alarms, to ask for weather and the news. It’s a win-win for him. So that’s something. 

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My reflections on 2018 and what lies ahead for us in 2019

While it’s a bit exhausting to go back and review every post from the past year, and I’m always missing something monumental and unforgettable, this is still my favorite thing to do. I find it fascinating to look back at what we did (or did not) accomplish, and what we expected to do in the coming year.

Life, Love, and Family Update

Let’s talk about me:

  • I’m 42, and I think I’m veering dangerously into making “Dad jokes” on a regular basis. This is disconcerting. I have to up my game.
  • Work was very busy for me this year. More so, as I led my first audit here at my current employer. It was an interesting but rewarding experience. Stressful towards the end, but we got her done. I didn’t travel very much for work — virtually a one day trip to Boston that was over in a blink.
  • I’m still losing my hair, which is a little sad. Recently, I started having the hair stylist (Styling is a bit of a stretch for me) cut my hair with those buzzers at a 0.5 which is very short, but seems to keep my haircut tight. I think it makes my scalp and hairline blend together, and shampooing my hair is now every economical..
  • I was chubby again at the start of the year, so I went on a bit of a regimen on counting calories, running more at the gym, and biking more often with a group of guys in town.  I dropped a good 10+ lbs since Jan. Dieting and portion control was important. I’ve also been enjoying the group bike rides. The pace is slower than I prefer, but the camaraderie is nice.
  • I’ve also surprisingly been doing a lot more running this year. I’m not a naturally fast sprinter, but like the dwarves of Middle Earth, I’m dangerous over long distances. I’m currently averaging 3-4 miles per workout, but recently have been able to run 5-6 miles now at a time. That’s pretty good for a guy like me who doesn’t particularly like running.

My wife:

  • My wife is still vivacious, exiting, and gorgeous.
  • Nums started in a new role this year at a new place in NJ. It’s a big challenge to start a new gig after so many years at one employer, but she’s pretty amazing, and always impresses me. Mazel tov!

Joshua:

  • Josh is still Josh. Smart kid, and his wit is getting better.
  • He turned 13 this year so he’s officially a teenager. He’s in his last year in middle school, and will be in high school in 2019. He sleeps a lot more now, and has a tendency to eat a lot more now too. And, ssssh, he’s also a bit more moody these days. Definitely a teenager.
  • I may have mentioned that the transition from elementary to middle school was a little rough for him — faster pace, higher expectations, etc, but he’s been catching on and working improving his skills this year. He still doesn’t have his phone or Nintendo 3DS back yet, but his grades are almost at Asian-Parent-Approved levels.
  • Josh is still heavily invested in karate. He received his black belt in Tae Kenpo in June. Big day for him after all those months of practice. He’s still on the CMB Karate Demo Team, and the kids performed this year at Wells Fargo Center, Arm & Hammer Park, and at Rutgers.
  • Speaking of Arm & Hammer Park, Josh and his middle school 7th & 8th grade bands performed there in April, which I think is cool.
  • Joshua went on his first mission trip with our church. A few kids from our loosely-organized youth group spent a week in Harrisburg PA doing community work. I think he had a good time overall.
  • Josh is moving on up in Boy Scouts. He went away for a week at Camp Kiowa this summer. He’s earned a mess of new badges, and reached his Eagle requirement for 20 camping nights. He was the troop bugler for a few months, but is now a patrol leader in his Troop. He’s currently at Star class.

Lily

  • For this school year, the school district made drastic changes to accommodate all of the students. They moved all kids in 1-3 to certain schools, and grades 4-5 to two other schools. In the transition, most of her friends ended up in the other classroom, so she’s been doing her best to make new friends. It’s not been easy but I’m glad she’s doing what she can.
  • Lily earned her black belt in Tae Kenpo karate in October. She wanted to test for it back in June, but she wasn’t ready. It took a few more months, and then a very intense two week period before the test. She did it, and we’re certainly proud of her.
  • First time ever – Lily went camping for a whole week. Sort of camping. She had been asking to stay at Crossroads Bible Camp for a long while. And she finally got to do it.
  • Lily is still really into Girl Scouts. She completed her 3rd year and is now a Junior.
  • Lily moved on up to a more serious 20″ bicycle with handbrakes and gears this year. A big step up.
  • Lily is still an acolyte at church and  she seems to like the responsibility.

The Cats:

  • The cats are fine. We only had a few successful escape attempts this year, but we caught them quickly after.
  • Scamper is still fat and fluffy. Toasty is still grumpy and disappears for hours at a time. We’re not sure where he goes.

Trips

The Ipes are all about trips and vacations and going places. We didn’t disappoint this year either!

  • We went on a road trip to Charleston North Carolina and Orlando Florida in March/April. We drove in one day to Charleston, did a minor bit of sightseeing, celebrated Easter Sunday at a very nice Episcopal church there, and had brunch. We spent about six days at Universal Studios, the parks at Disney, and just plan old relaxing. We even met up with a few families while down there – some planned, and some not planned!
  • I went on a one day trip to Boston for work, but I barely saw anything.
  • The biggest news has to be our trip to London in August. This was our first family trip to Europe, and first international family trip outside of the Mexico – Caribbean area. It was an expensive trip to be sure, but it was a pretty fantastic trip. There was so much to see and do there, and we tried our best to experience it.
  • Our last trip of the year was a road trip to Pittsburgh and Michigan. One, we’ve been wanting to hang out and see Pittsburgh for a few years now. Two, we haven’t visited our friends in Michigan in a long while, and we were definitely overdue. Pittsburgh was a cool city.

The House

Oh man, we have been doing a lot of updates this year. We have more to do in 2019, but we need to stop and catch our breath for a bit. In chronological order of

  • New cooktop for the kitchen
  • Landscape lighting replacement (ripped out the old lights, installed working replacements / added all new lights)
  • Upgraded our home broadband speeds
  • Removed the legacy horseshoe pits
  • Added new pantry shelves for cans and stuff
  • First floor bathroom renovation
  • Replaced and installed brand new garage doors, openers, and all related hardware
  • Began our master bedroom renovation project

Other Stuff That Doesn’t Fit Anywhere Else

  • I left my beloved OrangeTheory Fitness in January after four years of being a hardcore member. I was very happy with the workouts and the trainers, but I couldn’t make the class schedule work with my own schedule. I was only able to attend either 5 AM or 7 PM classes (both tough for me to make it to), and weekend classes (which are mornings only, and extremely crowded.) I’ve been using Jersey Strong in Robbinsville, which I consider a budget gym, but it’s large and… “good enough.” I occasionally take a class, but often I’ve only got enough time for running for 30-60 minutes.
  • We completed a cool Lego project this year — Lego Voltron!
  • I’ve wanted a dedicated machine for hosting my Plex media server, and with enough storage and redundancy. I purchased and installed a new Synology Network Attached Storage, and it now stores all of our photos, music, home videos, digital movies and shows. I wish the processor was faster for streaming large films, so I am on the lookout for a small but fast PC with an Intel I5 or I7 CPU to act only as the Plex media server.

Favorite Moments

  • I loved getting all of these renovations done in the house, even though they cost us an arm and a leg.
  • I liked that we finally got more pictures on the walls. It’s almost like we live here.
  • I love that we finally made it to the UK. I’ve always wanted to make it to London, and it was worth the wait.
  • Seeing the kids achieving things, like new scout ranks, new levels in karate, etc. I’m proud and happy to see them improve and get smarter every week.

Worst Moments

  • My parents and I still have a tough family dynamic. Especially my mother. It’s been tough to have this situation go on, but I’ve been realizing that my parents have limitations. No matter how much I try to reason with them, it seems beyond their capability to understand or change their ways. And they’re aging and missing out on family experiences and it all sucks. I respect my parents for what they did for us, but I’m frustrated that I can’t help them. It’s a dark cloud that hangs over me every day.

And Finally…. Looking Ahead to 2019

  • Well, I’ve got a business trip to Germany potentially happening in February / March. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it happens. It’ll be tough to be away from my family, but I think it will be a good experience.
  • Our family is planning to make a trip to see Dubai and India this summer. I haven’t seen my family in India since 2004, and my 2nd cousins there have grown up, graduated college, gotten married, and had kids of their own. It’s crazy. I do miss them and would like to see them again. I also think the Ipes will have a good time traveling together on such a big trip. This will be the kids’ first time to Asia.
  • We plan to paint the interior of the house, and add some recessed lighting. We also want to add more landscape lighting to the front yard and side yard, and maybe string lights. Oh, and I do want to replace the backyard speakers if I can sneak it into the budget.
  • I also need to test out the existing network cables in the house, and redo some of them. I paid an electrician last year to do them right, and blargh, they aren’t right.
  • I want to redo the home office, and clean out the guest room, and at least one storage room.
  • I’d love to get more of the basement finished.
  • We’re scheduled to have the master bedroom walk-in closet painted, with new lighting, and a brand closet system installed in late February. Should be nice.
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Wrapping up the Christmas week with a day in New York

The Tree at Rockefeller Center 2018

The Tree at Rockefeller Center 2018

We’ve all been (mostly) off from work and school this week, and it has been pretty relaxing. Sure, Nums had some work to catch up on and I had all these online classes to take at the last minute to earn some much needed Continuing Professional Education credits, but it’s been a relaxing week overall. The kids slept in every day (teenage Josh especially), and I slept in on occasion as well. The kids and I also had a few Nerf battles in the house using some of our new toys.

We decided it would be nice to head to the city at the end of the week to see the tree at Rockefeller Center. We also considered other things we all wanted to do. For example,

  1. Lily wanted to visit Trinity church down in the FiDi and check out the gravesites for Alexander Hamilton and other American Revolutionary War notable figures.
  2. Nums wanted to grab dinner or dessert at Serendipity 3 up on the Upper East Side and see the tree at Rockefeller Center.
  3. Josh wanted to visit the Nintendo store (again.)
  4. I didn’t have any particular needs, but would not have minded finally visiting the One World Observatory.

We considered going to New York on Fri but it was cold and rainy. We pushed the trip back a day to Sat Dec 28 instead.

We were running late trying to find parking in Newark, and then there were train delays as well. The Trinity church cemetery supposedly closed at 4 PM and we were running a big risk of missing our window. Once we got to WTC, we hustled up and out and arrived at the church by 3:55 PM. Would they deny us entry? No, we were worried over nothing. We walked grounds for 45 minutes and no one said anything at all. By this time, I needed a coffee and we had a 5 PM time slot to visit the observatory.

Coffee and cheese danishes now in hand, we walked over to 1 WTC. Now I have some advice to share. When booking the tickets that morning, i was offered an opportunity to upgrade to Priority tickets. For around $4 extra per ticket, you get access to the ‘Priority’ lines when entering and exiting the building. I couldn’t find too much guidance online and while I didn’t want to waste $16 on a dumb upgrade, I remembered long lines attempting to exit Willis Tower in Chicago many years ago. I opted for the upgrade.

Best $16 I ever spent.

The regular line? A long line outside in the cold. Priority line? Much shorter! We soon went inside and downstairs to some Priority security checkpoint. We soon took the elevator upstairs to the 103rd floor, then the 101st. Nice views. We stayed for about an hour, then made our way to the exit. Huge line snaking around the entire floor. But aha! There was a priority exit line. Super short.

Best $16 I ever spent!

Dinner at Anassa Tavern

We took the train to 59th St to try for dinner at Serendipity but there was a 2 hour wait. We walked down the street instead to eat dinner at a Greek restaurant called Anassa Tavern. They had seats and a bar!

After dinner, we walked all the way to Rockefeller Center. Huge crowds. We saw the tree… and the crowds, and some audio/visual show at Saks. The kids checked out the Nintendo store for about 30 min and we took our seats along the window in Purgatory with the rest of the parents.

And that was it for the evening. We took the train back to 33rd St, walked to Penn, took a crowded train back to Newark, then drove home.

Big afternoon and evening and we got most everything done (75%). Nums made reservations for Feb at Serendipity so we’re gonna try again.

 

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Last movie of the Christmas Break – Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

[I’m still catching up on my Dec 2018 posts. 2nd to last one here.]

We went to see Mary Poppins Returns, the 2018 sequel to the original 1960s Disney film starring Julie Andrews. Emily Blunt portrays the fictional Mary Poppins (who doesn’t age – she’s a witch or something, right?), Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack, a lamp lighter (and former apprentice of Bert.)

Set in 1930s London, twenty-five years after the events of the original film, it sees Mary Poppins, the former nanny of Jane and Michael Banks, returning after a family tragedy. In the intervening years after the original story, Michael’s wife passed away. All of their savings have gone towards keeping afloat, and now they are in danger of losing the house.  His sister Jane is lives nearby, seems to be an civil rights activist, and currently single. In the midst of all this, Mary Poppins returns to help the family by lifting their spirits.

While the family liked the movie, I didn’t particularly feel that there really was much to the story. It’s basically a little bit of plot connecting one set piece and musical number after another. While I liked Emily Blunt in the role as Mary Poppins, she was certainly working hard. I mean, she is singing, dancing, making faces, cracking jokes. I felt exhausted on her behalf.

I heard the film is doing very well, and there are already plans for a sequel. That’s fine. If you’re a fan of Mary Poppins or musicals, by all means, see this film. It was a bit too fluffy for my tastes.

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New additions to my life – the Sonos Connect and Klipsch in-ear headphones

I’ve always loved music. I’m a visual person at heart, but music has always been important. I enjoyed my music classes in junior high school. I played string bass for 8 years before college. I keep an extensive local music library. Music fidelity is important to me as well.

Recently, my wife has taken to gently mocking me for the number of speakers I continue to add to the house. I think she supported me originally, but now it’s probably a little ridiculous. We’ve got a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers in the Lounge. In the Family Room, I invested in large Klipsch floorstanding speakers, a large center channel speaker, and a powerful subwoofer. We used to be a Sonos Play:5 there, but I’ve temporarily moved it to the Master Bedroom. Last summer I got the old outdoor speakers hooked up, but I’m seriously considering yanking out the original wiring and cheapo Audiovox speakers, putting in wiring properly and installing a volume control box and nice Klipsch outdoor speakers. I probably won’t do the outdoor replacements until I hang up string lights.

In addition to music, I also really love light.

In December, I added two new components to this audiophile’s life:

My new Klipsch R6ii-II headphones

My new Klipsch R6ii-II headphones

I received a nice pair of Klipsch R6i-II in-ear headphones from my wishlist for Christmas. My previous Klipsch headphones were starting to show serious wear and tear, then finally disappeared. Don’t be suspicious. I didn’t lose them on purpose. The Universe took them away from me. 😉

With the recent Christmas parties and get-togethers all coming up at the time, I was troubled / annoyed that we couldn’t synchronize the music on the first floor. While we can do 95% of what we need independently between the Sonos speakers in the Lounge, and the Sony STR-DN1080 receiver in the Family Room, they wouldn’t be in sync. If you’re gonna have a party, you want the music to be the continuous as you walk from one room to another. 

Okay, maybe you don’t, but I did. 

To accomplish this last 5% task, we would have to invest $349 for a Sonos Connect. Plug that into the receiver, and that achieve the last mile. But for $349? Was it worth it? I went back and forth on this for days, but I had been thinking about it for months. Or at least the cats in my head had been batting it around for a while. My wife honestly couldn’t have cared less (because she’s a practical person), and nobody liked the price tag.

Sonos Connect

Sonos Connect

I had a conversation with my friend Paul about it, and his take was, “Well, YOU seem to care about it because you keep obsessing about it.” It was true. Maybe it wasn’t practical at all, but it obviously bothered me. So I went to Best Buy in Lawrenceville on the day of the 1st party, bought a Connect, set it up, and it works well.

Three parties later, and it’s a nice feature we have in the house. I’m still not happy with the price tag, but what can you do sometimes. If you truly want something, you have to try your best to make it happen. Of course, to make this worthwhile, we’ll need to have many more people over to make use of it.

So, please feel free to invite yourself over in 2019 and come jam with us!

[Now I need to figure out how and when we should budget for the new outdoor music setup, and a Sonos Beam for the master bedroom.]

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My new toys for terrorizing my flesh & blood children – Nerf Rival

In the past few months, the kids and I have been playing this Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. -themed role-playing game. I conducted a short scavenger hunt with the kids in August and it went over well. I even created a ‘Mad Scavenger’ villain persona. 

When October rolled around, I organized an intricate scavenger hunt around town for the kids, and Nums helped out too. Together, they captured the Mad Scavenger, a precocious super villain and her evil henchwoman. Call it a successful mission. So successful, check out who made the cover of the newspaper! We printed out the front page and gave it to the kids to hang on our celebrity wall. If you notice the article on the left hand side, I announced the new adventure. 

Front page of the Dec 2018 edition of S.H.I.E.L.D. Briefing

Front page of the Dec 2018 edition of S.H.I.E.L.D. Briefing

For Christmas this year, I decided on a more physical adventure against Kraven the Hunter. In preparation for the next big mission during the Christmas break, I made a spear from old wrapping paper tubes and stakes, and attached a warning from Kraven and planted it in the front yard. I sent the kids messages via Skype from a Nick Fury ID.  

I also bought the kids two new Nerf Rival Kronos handheld blasters for Christmas. We’ve got a few Nerf weapons that shoot the foam darts, but they don’t fly far anymore (I think the internal springs have worn out) or jam constantly. I figured getting the kids these brand new blasters would be cool and exciting, and a bonus for becoming fully-fledged special agents. Plus they would get a chance to shoot me a lot.Of course, I’m not about to go out without a fight, and neither would Kraven the Hunter or his brother the Chameleon. I secretly purchased two weapons for myself: the Nerf Hera and Nemesis. Both are motorized (using C or D batteries or a proprietary rechargeable battery pack), can hold multiple rounds, and are fully automatic. 

Let me tell you something – they’re fantastic. It is fun!

Now that we have a wider collection of gear, Nums and I decided dusted off our weapons locker idea from two years ago. We bought some pegboard and supplies to make a weapons locker but never got around to it.  During the break, the kids and I hung up half of it. We’ll need to buy two more boards so that we can hang up the rest of the gear. Right now, we’ve placed melee weapons on the left, and ranged weapons everywhere else. More to come. 

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I think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) has got to be one of the all-time great Spider-Man films

Who doesn’t love a good Spider-Man film? Peter Parker is your every day man who dons a suit to fight crime and protect his neighborhood and the city of New York. People love the story so much, Hollywood featured Peter as Spider-Man in countless tv shows, animated series, and movies. We’ve never had an animated film about Spider-Man, or one about Miles Morales – Ultimate Spider-Man.

For those of you not familiar, Miles Morales’ takes place in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe / comic book line. On that alternate Earth, Peter has been Spider-Man for a while until the Green Goblin kills him. Around this time, teenager Miles Morales is bitten by another radioactive spider. As I recall, the film touches on much of the origin story. In this film, the producers and writers have merged his origin story with this somewhat recent development about the Spider-Verse, a strange connection between all of the different Spider-People in different parallel universes.

The film is animated uniquely with much harkening back to the character’s comic book roots. The story of Miles will be unique and original and fresh to many people overly familiar with Peter’s Spider-Man. The music is also pretty good. 

You should go see this movie. And stay for the one post credits scene.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

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Christmas with the Ipes in 2018

During the Christmas holiday season this year, we hosted three separate parties or gatherings of friends and family. We had friends over for a Secret Santa gift exchange, and then separately had my sister’s family, and my wife’s extended family over. It all went well.

When we bought the house, we had the intention to have people over all the time. We didn’t make that happen because we felt partially self-conscious that our house needed lots of updating. We would go over to other people’s houses and they were all sleek and modern and… their names are the Jones and we desperately wanted to keep up with them.

But you know, although the house isn’t perfect, does it matter? It matters that we provide a fun place to get together with family and friends, eat good food, drink, and have a good time. It doesn’t matter all that much if haven’t painted the interior yet or haven’t gotten a nice chandelier yet.

I think we’re feeling better now. In 2019, we are inviting more people over. I swear as God is my witness! 😉

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On Dec 14th we went to see Jay Pharoah perform at Caroline’s

A few months earlier, my wife got us tickets to see Jay Pharoah perform at Caroline’s in Midtown. I’ve never been to Caroline’s and Jay Pharoah is hilarious, so it was a no-brainer.

We both worked from home on that Friday with an expectation that we would leave around 4:30 PM, drive to the city (or nearby Secaucus), have dinner and drinks, then go enjoy the show. Most of that never happened. I got roped into a fire drill at work that took way longer to resolve and complete than expected, and we left an hour late. 

We hit traffic and the rain all the way to Newark. While we didn’t have time for dinner, we made it with enough time to get some stools in the back row of the comedy club. At least it was spacious. 

We had thought as a backup to grab at appetizers at the club and then dinner afterwards, but my wife got motion sickness in the car with all the stop & go traffic, so we skipped eating altogether. We ended up coming home pretty late, and I ate leftovers. She felt better the next day after taking dramamine. 
Not the evening we had planned, but you make due. The show was very good, and all of the comedians were great. Caroline’s was nice and I would definitely go back again.

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The Christmas tree is up!

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