Hey Siri, tell me more!

This morning I was heading to a meeting 35 minutes away. I wanted to get some last-minute research done. Luckily I have my iPhone set up for hands-free communication.

This is the conversation I wanted to have:

Me: Hey, Siri – tell me about X corporation.

Siri: Ok M’lord…

[I should note at this point that Siri has a very old fashioned view of who I am. She used to call me “Buttface” but that got old quick]

Siri: Ok M’lord, here is what I found…

And then at this point, I expect to go into a dialog with Siri in which she speaks aloud basic info about the people and company I’m working with by summarizing data from sources I commonly visit like Wikipedia, LinkedIn, News and stock market reports, and I can reply with “Hey Siri, tell me more!” to get more info.

After all, Siri ain’t no spring chicken: she’s been around for several iPhones now. That’s decades in techno years.

Sadly, no such luck. Siri has nothing like this capability. Oh, she can speak aloud the most basic of current weather info while I’m driving, and she can read me my latest emails—but only if they’re short. Otherwise, she stops halfway through and prompts me to send a reply.

But she can’t summarize info for me. She can’t fill my car ride with spoken info that would help me prepare for my day. She can’t really act like the assistant I need. I want useful info, summarized and spoken aloud (or not, at my choice). The info she does deliver is in the form of a web search, shown on a screen I can’t look at while I’m driving.

Me: Hey Siri — If I could afford to look at web search results on my phone, I wouldn’t be talking to you in the first place!

Siri: I’m sorry, Buttface, I didn’t understand that.

Me: Oh, so now you call me Buttface?

Siri: Ok, m’lord, from now on I’ll call you Buttface.

It’s this kind of interaction that makes me a bit impatient with automated voice interaction. So I decide to switch to Google Now. “Hey Siri – Launch the Google app.” At least that works.

Me: “Ok, Google, What’s the news?”

Google Now:

Google Now

Me: Oh, good lord. You just defined the word “News” for me. Thanks, Google. I don’t suppose “Put Cortana on the phone” will get me anywhere.

Guess I’ll have to wait and try Facebook M.

 

 

stutter-free AirPlay streaming from Mac to AppleTV

Using AirPlay to stream video from iOS to AppleTV is awesome. But doing the same thing from a Mac (even a fairly recent MacBook Pro) can result in jittery, stuttering video. Here’s how to fix that.

First, verify you can stream video

Let’s make sure you are able to stream video in the first place. If you already know you can do this, then you can skip this section.

Turn on your TV and view your AppleTV. Doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the AppleTV home screen, as long as you can see the AppleTV.

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You already know how cool that is, especially if you add in a home music and video server as well as services like Netflix and Hulu. I’m sure it’s gonna get even cooler over time. But that’s out of scope for this article.

 

Now let’s stream some content from an iOS device to your AppleTV, just to make sure everything’s working.

If you don’t have an AppleTV plus an iOS device like an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you’ll get stuck right here! I’m assuming you actually have Apple devices, and that you keep your devices pretty much updated. Because you’re on top of these things.

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To send the video signal from your iOS device (I’ll call it an iPhone for simplicity) to your AppleTV, sign into your iPhone. Swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen, and click on the icon at bottom right marked “AirPlay.”

appletv-3

You should now see a screen that gives you a choice of multiple devices. Your iPhone will be the one that’s checked. But any other AirPlay devices that your iPhone can “see” will also be in this list. By default, this should include any AirPlay receiving devices like AppleTV that are on your local WiFi network (assuming your iPhone is logged into WiFi), plus any that happen to be nearby and broadcasting a signal.

If you’re not on WiFi (let’s say you’re at your friend’s house), but they have AppleTV, you should still see their AppleTV in this list. No problem. Choose that AppleTV in the list. By default, it’ll just be called “AppleTV,” though if the owner has gone in and given it a name, it could be called something else. I have two of them, and name them according to the room they’re in. For example: “Servant’s Wing” and “Hall Of The Golden Throne.”

You should see an option labeled “Mirroring.” If you turn this on, your device will display video locally (on your iPhone) and also play it on the TV. However, this will use up extra processing power on your device, and may result in video stuttering. So let’s not turn that on.

Click “Done”. Now use your phone to launch a video app, like YouTube. Play a video. Any video. Can even be one of cats playing piano. Better yet, play a prank video from my very funny brother, Greg Benson of MediocreFilms.

When you play the video, you shouldn’t actually see it on your phone. Instead, it should be playing on the TV, video and audio both. Cool, huh? I said it’s a neat party game, because you can have any number of people taking turns sending video to AppleTV this way, sharing your favorite videos in turn.

Did the video play in high resolution without stuttering/jerking or stopping frequently to buffer? If so, you’re probably on a good WiFi network already, or you have a really excellent cell connection with lots of bandwidth. Good for you. Now you know you can stream video to your AppleTV, and you know how to do it. If you’re stuck here, look for other tutorials on how to use AirPlay. There are some networking, iOS or AppleTV settings that, if set wrong, can stop you. But that’s out of the scope of this article.

If you were on WiFi already, but your video was stuttering or low quality, then you might not have good bandwidth from your Internet provider. You can check your bandwidth with SpeedTest.net, or the SpeedTest app if  you’re on iOS.

At this point, you can swipe upwards and change AirPlay streaming back to your iPhone if you like. Or keep having fun watching Greg’s videos. Or videos of cats, if that’s what entertains you.

Stream from your Mac to AppleTV

 

Now grab your Mac. Hopefully it’s a laptop, or you might strain your back (which is also out of scope, but you have my sympathy). Under the Apple menu at top-left, open the System Preferences and click on the Displays icon.

appletv-4

Optional: There should be a checkbox at the bottom-left, “Show mirroring options in the menu bar when available.” Turn that on and you’ll see the AirPlay icon (same icon on the iPhone) in your menu bar at the top of your Mac’s screen.

appletv-5

This optional step makes it easy to turn on and off AirPlay streaming in the future. But you can do everything from the Preferences dialog if you like. If your checkbox option says something else, or is hard to find, then you’re probably using a different version of OS X. Look around a bit. Or update your Mac software. Or ask me to update this article if OS X is well beyond 10.10.x (Yosemite).

Now tell your Mac to send its video output to your AppleTV. You can use the popup just above the Mirroring checkbox, labeled “AirPlay Display.” Or you can use the AirPlay icon in the menu bar if you enabled that checkbox above.

You should see your Mac screen both on your laptop, AND on your AppleTV. You could play a video at this point, and you should see and hear it on the AppleTV. You could even go fullscreen on the video. However, since it’s playing locally AND on your TV, that’s where you get the stuttering/pausing of the video. Your Mac’s video processor is simply working too hard. Let’s fix that.

Make AppleTV your primary monitor

The trick is to have your Mac only send the full-screen video over to your AppleTV, rather than having to do all of the processing work to play that video in two places (at potentially two different screen resolutions). This should be really, really simple. Unfortunately, it’s not. Still with me? Let’s continue.

appletv-6a

Open your Display Preferences again. It will look different this time because you’re sending a signal to two monitors (your Mac, and your TV). Select the “Arrangement” tab, and then uncheck “Mirror Displays”.

You can do the same thing through the menu, in which case you’ll choose “Extend Desktop” (to uncheck the “Mirror…” option):

appletv-6

Now your display will change, such that the AppleTV is displaying something different from your Mac. If you’ve never done this before, your Mac’s display won’t change much, and your AppleTV will be displaying a desktop background with nothing on it.

That’s because right now, your Mac is the “primary display” and your AppleTV is the “secondary display”: it’s been turned into a second monitor.

appletv-7

The arrangement of the blue rectangles shows how the primary monitor (on the left, showing the white ‘menu bar’ rectangle) relates spatially to the secondary monitor. The graphic above shows that if you were to slide your cursor to the right, all the way off your main screen, it would magically appear on the secondary screen, because you’ve created a mega-monitor! Note that both the blue rectangles and the white rectangle are draggable: you can freely configure the arrangement of your mega-monitor. Also note that if your two monitors are set to different screen resolutions, the blue rectangles will show different sizes relative to each other.

Make AppleTV your primary monitor

Let’s switch the arrangement, so that your AppleTV is the primary monitor, and your Mac is the secondary monitor. That way, when you tell your video to go Full Screen (like Full Monty but better) the TV will show the full-screen video and your Mac won’t be doing any extra heavy lifting. Don’t worry, this will all work out.

appletv-8

Drag the white “menu bar” rectangle over to the secondary display.

Whoa, what just happened? If all went according to plan, your display just switched so that your menu bar now shows up on your TV. Your browser, where you’re reading this (or trying to!) probably just scooted over to your TV as well. Cmd+ a couple of times if it’s hard to read!

Watch your video full-screen

Now that you have made your television the primary display, video will be sent to that screen when you go Full Screen, and not be sent to your Mac. Let’s try it. Pick a YouTube video, or a Netflix video, or whatever.  Here’s one (don’t worry, it’s safe for work):

You’ll click the Full Screen icon, generally found at the bottom-right of the video. Different video players (as used by YouTube, Netflix, etc.) will have a different UI, but they all work about the same.

Once you do that, your work here is done. Your video should play full-screen on your TV with far less stuttering, leaving your Mac to just sit there blankly, doing nothing. You can turn down the Mac brightness control to nothing so it won’t disturb your TV watching. Tap the esc (escape) key to exit Full Screen.

Tip: if your cursor still shows up on the screen, just move it. Generally it’ll disappear after a few seconds. Or you can drag it all the way over to your secondary monitor (your Mac).

To disable AirPlay sharing, just choose Disconnect from the display menu or from within the Display Preferences. The next time you re-connect to send video from this Mac, these settings will be remembered, and you shouldn’t have to do anything but Connect to an AirPlay device.

One final advanced tip: sometimes a video will be ‘protected’ and will give an HDCP warning when you try to share full-screen video from Mac Safari to AppleTV. Don’t give up. Just try a different browser. Chrome, for instance.

I hope this was useful to you. Please send a shout-out below!

how to export notes from iBooks

Create useful notes when reading iBooks, then send them all at once! I’ve been using iBooks on iOS to send draft copies of my latest book to friends for review. Emailing an iBook draft is easier and less wasteful than paper.

Tip: if someone emails you an iBook, open the email on your iPad or iPhone and tap the attachment. After some seconds, a popup will appear. Tap the icon that says “Open in iBooks” and presto! The book will open in iBooks.


IMG_0300

When creating notes, highlight several words

Highlight a phrase rather than just a single word. This gets around a design flaw in iBooks’ note exporting. You’re going to lose the context when you export multiple notes, so highlighting several words will allow the recipient to find the location later.


Send the notes

You’ve read the whole book and finished making your notes. Time to send them.


IMG_0310

Tap the bookmarks icon to view Contents | Bookmarks | Notes.


IMG_0302

Tap “Notes” to see all of your notes, and then tap the sharing icon at top-right. A pop-up will appear. Choose “Edit Notes”.


IMG_0303

Tap “Select All” to select all of your notes at once.


IMG_0307

Tap “Share” and another pop-up menu will appear.


IMG_0308

You have several choices, but let’s tap Mail (assuming you use the Mail app). Mail will open a new email containing all of the selected notes.


IMG_0309

You can see that the email doesn’t show much context: only the highlighted words plus the note. If you highlight a longer phrase, the email recipient can search their original text to find the spot that corresponds to your note.

This How To was written based on iOS8.3 — if newer versions of iOS change the steps or the appearance, please let me know! I hope this was useful.

why I ditched Covered California — for now

blueshield-check

In late 2013 we signed up for BlueShield through CoveredCA. Turned out, BlueShield had fed CoveredCA and us a crock of lies: almost none of our doctors signed up with the CoveredCA/Exchange version of BlueShield.

BS, as I like to call them, had advertised their doctor list using the previous year’s non-Exchange list. However, their Exchange reimbursement rates were so low that none of our individual doctors signed up. Not one. Only the big hospitals and biggest medical groups were able to negotiate reasonable (i.e. pre-Exchange) rates with BS. And, by the way, that’s only because of the Obamacare provision that forces the insurers to provide enough doctors for a given geographic area. If it weren’t for that provision, we’d have had no doctors at all in our area.

As an example, when I search for a dermatologist within 15 very crowded miles of my home, I find only one! [Actually, I found three, but two seem to have left the area or couldn’t apparently afford a phone answering service]. And we’re in the crowded Bay Area. It ain’t exactly a doctor desert.

So even though we were paying for Platinum coverage, all of the individual doctors we saw from January through March were considered Out Of Network. We ended up paying the full doctor rate, and were reimbursed by BS at 50% of the rate that BlueShield would have paid the doctor if the doctor had signed up for BS.

Read that sentence again. When you sign up for insurance, they make it look like Out Of Network charges are covered at 50%. Not so. You and I only get reimbursed at 50% of what the insurer would have paid to the doctor, not 50% of what you and I had to pay.

Take the image above, for example. The doctor bill that we paid was over $110, and that was AFTER we renegotiated with the person in the billing department! From the $110 that we actually paid the doctor, BlueShield cut us a check for a whopping $5.60. We ate the difference. Multiply that by all of the doctor visits we made from January through March. There were several. Strep throat, an eye infection, something that we thought was the flu but wasn’t, etc.

In this instance, my wife needed a medical test because of a potentially serious  problem (that luckily turned out to be easily treated because she caught it early). She was at the doctor’s office for over an hour, and saw a nurse practitioner plus the doctor. For this 1+ hour visit, BlueShield would have reimbursed the doctor’s office $11.20. Is it any wonder that the doctor didn’t agree to that reimbursement rate? Who would?

Do you want fries with that?

So I went back to my original dollar analysis for Covered California, and updated my spreadsheet (which you can use with Google apps or Excel) to again compare the options between different plans.

Now that it was February, I was able to re-contact all of our doctors to find out what plans they had actually signed up for. Guess what? The ONLY CoveredCA/Exchange plan that all of our individual doctors (and the medical groups and hospitals) had signed up for was HealthNet. They’d signed up for HealthNet both Exchange/CoveredCA and private (non-Exchange).

Why? Because HealthNet, at least for 2014, kept the reimbursement rates the same regardless of Exchange or private. So the doctors knew they’d get reimbursed the same as before. Hence they signed up.

So my original calculation, that HealthNet was the most expensive, turned out to be exactly backwards. With the exception of Kaiser HMO (which employs its own doctors and so completely controls everything), HealthNet was the cheapest real option, because it was the only option that actually offered us In-Network doctors.

Bah! So since it was pre-deadline, I switched us all over to HealthNet. Total cost for a family of four on the Platinum plan in the ultra-expensive Bay Area: over $2000 a month. Ack! But the math showed that this (or the Silver plan) were the cheapest. In our case, our usage pattern for medicines and doctors was moving very close to what I’d predicted, and the spreadsheet showed that the Platinum plan would end up being the cheapest.

Unfortunately, the CoveredCA site doesn’t make it easy to switch from one CoveredCA plan to another one within the year. I may have been able to do it given enough time and stress, but I was afraid that the terrible experience of signing up in the first place might screw us out of coverage altogether, so I signed us up for private covered through the HealthNet website. Took about a half-hour, and we were approved within a day or so. DONE.

Canceling BlueShield took nearly two hours just for them to answer the phone, and another 45 minutes on the phone with them. Everything about the BS experience was just that: BS. Website, the way they reimburse, the info you get. All BS.

Hopefully we made the right choice. It was certainly an expensive one. If my small business doesn’t show signs of life this year, I may be priced out of the private market and need to look for another corporate job just in order to get my family insured.

I remain grateful for Obamacare: without the changes in the law that prevent us from being excluded, we’d never get care at all for several of my family members without getting and keeping a job at a major corporation. But the prices of healthcare (which weren’t properly addressed by the law as it eventually came into being) are so out of whack, that the reality still only gives us decent coverage because we’re lucky enough to be able to afford it.

This year. For a while.

2015 Update: I checked CoveredCA again for 2015. The plans had changed, and they no longer even offered the HealthNet plan that would cover our actual doctors. So once again I stayed with private insurance. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m very much in favor of the Obamacare provisions that have allowed us to have insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. Otherwise some of my family would not be insurable, even at the current high prices. But I’m disappointed in the actual results. Families can indeed get CoveredCA insurance at reasonable rates, but only if they’re willing to take any doctor, and potentially different doctors every year (given the changing available plans). So in reality, this isn’t much different from an HMO. That’s my takeaway: if you’re going with CoveredCA, you might as well compare prices against a cheap HMO option, because unless you’re willing to pay out-of-network rates, that’s effectively what you’re going to get.

how to stop your alarm panel from beeping

alarm hates youThe accursed secondary ADT alarm panel in our bedroom started beeping again at 4:30 AM last night. Frankly, I don’t CARE why it’s beeping when it does it in the middle of the night. After all, if the house is on fire or someone is breaking in, the big sirens will go off. And if neither of those are happening, then whatever the alarm panel’s problem, it can wait until morning, dammit!

The last several times this has happened—and always in the middle of the night, mind you—here’s what the big emergencies were:

  • MY BACKUP BATTERY IS DEAD! IT’S DEAD, I TELL YOU! OH, MY GOD! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
  • I FAILED TO MAKE MY EVERY-90-MINUTES PHONE CALL TO THE CENTRAL DISPATCH. WHAT IF I’M THE ONLY ALARM PANEL LEFT IN THE WHOLE WORLD?  OH, MY GOD! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
  • I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I’M BEEPING, BUT I’M BEEPING! OH, MY GOD! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!

And so on.

There is supposed to be a setting that would prevent this sort of thing, but ADT can’t/won’t tell me the installer code to let me reprogram the panel. It’s a GTE/ITI Concord, and if you don’t know the programmer code, you’re hosed. Which is yet another reason I recently fired them and went with NextAlarm at less than half the price.

I s’pose I could pay an installer to come out and reprogram the thing, but since I NEVER want the panel in the bedroom to beep at me and wake everyone up, I decided to just silence it for once and all by cutting its vocal cords. I unsoldered the beeper and removed it. NOTE: you should think twice about doing this with your main alarm panel (in your kitchen, or hall, or wherever it is), since those beeps are quite helpful when you come and go from the house.

Here’s how I silenced it:

IMG_1785

  1. First, put your alarm into Test Mode, so if you accidentally set off an alarm, the SWAT team won’t burst down your door. If you have an old-school alarm company like ADT, just call them. If you’ve got something like NextAlarm, you can do this over the web.
  2. Take the panel off the wall. My panel just pulls up and out, so it’s dangling by a couple of wires. No need to snip any wires.
  3. Look at the back of the now-open panel, and you’ll see the circuit board. Mine was held in by some plastic tabs, and also by three tiny screws, which I unscrewed and set aside. Carefully pry the circuit board away from the plastic housing. Now the circuit board should be hanging free:IMG_1781
  4. Look at the back of the circuit board, and you’ll see a small black round thing about the size of your pinkie thumbnail. That little bugger is the piezoelectric buzzer that’s surprisingly loud for its diminutive size. Here’s a picture of it after I removed it:IMG_1783
  5. That buzzer has two pins that stick out from the bottom and go right through the circuit board, where they’re soldered on the front. Look on the front of the circuit board and you should be able to spot the little solder dots that correspond to those pins. I’ve circled them in yellow:closeup
  6. Apply a hot soldering iron carefully to those dots (one at a time of course) and you can unsolder them. If you have large enough hands, you can hold the circuit board in one hand and apply some sideways pressure against the buzzer to help it fall off. For me, the buzzer fell right off as soon as I heated up the second pin.IMG_1784
  7. Toss away that little buzzer! Reassemble the alarm panel: snap the board back into the plastic housing, and screw it back together. Pop it back on the wall. Test it to make sure everything’s working. You’ll hear nothing but blissful silence coming from the panel. Since this was my bedroom panel, and we have another one in the kitchen, I can still hear the other one faintly beeping as I test the system or arm it, so I know all is okay. Now take your alarm system back out of test mode, and you’re done!
  8. Tell your alarm panel what you think of its 4 AM beeping.IMG_1786

 

Covered California – using Excel spreadsheet to compare options

I’ve had the unpleasant experience recently of dealing with the 2013 Covered California website. One of the things you have to decide is which level of coverage to get—Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum—and then which Plan to get. I couldn’t find any online tools that truly compare all of the options, so I built my own spreadsheet.

[Note: there’s a followup to this post here. Spoiler: the reasonable option turned out to be not reasonable at all, and we had to change to the most-expensive option in order to find doctors actually in-network]

The problem was that the existing calculators fail to show the impact of prescriptions and the medical and prescription deductibles. I’ve wiped my own data out and made it generic, and included it below for your calculating pleasure.

What I found was surprising: given my family of four, and zip code just south of San Francisco, there wasn’t a huge difference between the plans and levels. Sure, there seemed to be a big difference, but when I calculated out how much we were actually likely to spend based on the past year or two (doctor visits, number of prescriptions) the numbers looked very different from what the simple “silver or bronze?” calculations showed.

In fact, for our situation (quite a few doctor visits, lots of prescriptions—we’ve got some issues as a family), the projections actually showed the Platinum and Bronze plans to be overall cheapest (though not by a huge amount). The difference was mostly in the amount spent on prescriptions.

We ended up going Platinum, since there was only a relatively small percentage difference in the overall cost once I included the other costs into the equation. The reason was that Platinum offers better out-of-network coverage than the other plans.

However, since I don’t know your family situation (number of people being covered) or your zip code, your mileage may vary. NOTE: this spreadsheet might also work for the Affordable Care Act website (Obamacare). I don’t know since I live in California. But my guess is, it’ll work with minimal terminology changes, if any.

Check it out and see. Download the spreadsheet. You’ll need to enter data in all of the yellow cells. If you don’t have Excel, use Google Spreadsheet (that’s what I used, in fact).

Let me know how it goes.