Liberty Island

DSC02340DSC02350DSC02356DSC02371DSC02391We visited Liberty Island today. It was a beautiful day, and the trip was better than I expected.

The last time I was there (18 years ago), no one was permitted to walk to the crown. The crowds were oppressive and the wait was extreme. This time we went early, the crowds were fine, and we were able to climb to the crown.

Frankly, it’s not that impressive. The statue is iconic, but it’s best seen from the ferry at a slight distance from the island, rather than up close. Climbing up the inside, you see practically nothing, although now we can always say we’ve done it.

But it was a nice day anyway. The ticket also provides access to Ellis Island, and includes audio tours as well. We didn’t have time for Ellis Island this time, but we really enjoyed the ferry ride to Liberty Island. Ferries leave from two docks: Battery Park (Manhattan) and Liberty State Park (NJ) every 40 minutes. The Liberty Park ferry is way less crowded and the park has beautiful views of lower Manhattan and the Jersey City skyline. Definitely the best option.

All in all it was a lovely trip, with great views of the harbor, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry, lower Manhattan from the west side, and of course the Statue of Liberty. Well worth the admission price ($28.50) and a few hours of your time.

Notes on the pictures:

  • Look at that sky! I didn’t photoshop it at all. That’s what it looked like.
  • The second to last picture is the original torch, which is on display just inside the pedestal.
  • The last picture is a view of the entrance from the top of the pedestal. Note the shadow over the pavilion – it’s the statue!
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Siri improvement

I don’t use siri much anymore, since I use a PC and an android phone. But I still have it in my old iPad. I tried a couple of things that gave me trouble in the past, and was surprised to find that siri is genuinely better than it was.

  1. In the past I asked siri “Does Sonos work with Siri?”. The idiotic reply was “Interesting question.” But now … siri responded with a useful list of Google search results on getting Sonos working with Siri.
  2. In the past, siri’s searches were always done through Bing. I had to preface any command with the word “google” to force it to use google. I also used “google” before a query to force it to search google rather than use siri’s artificial intelligence, which was terrible. But, as evidenced by #1 above, siri seems to be smart enough now to know when to search Google.
  3. In the past, I said to siri “Pablo Escobar’s mother”, to see what she looked like. She was a character in the Netflix show “Narcos”. But siri replied “I can’t find Pablo Escobar in your contacts”, which is absurd. I was able to get useful information by either using a complete phrase (“show me a picture of Pablo Escobar’s mother”) or by forcing siri to use google (“google Pablo Escobar’s mother”). But now I said “Pablo Escobar’s mother” and it responded with a search result from Wolfram Alpha that gave her full name. Not very useful, but better than looking for a murderer in my contacts.

I also mentioned in the past that there was a disconnect between speech recognition engine and it’s text-to-speech engine. I said “Does Sonos work with Siri” and siri correctly spelled Sonos, which meant that it understood what I said and also understood that Sonos is the name of a company. But when siri used its text-to-speech engine to repeat it back, it pronounced Sonos as sah-nus. In other words, it pronounced it phonetically, which means the text-to-speech engine isn’t as smart as the speech recognition engine.

I tried it again and the disconnect is still there. By the way, I just tried it with Google Assistant. GA understood me when I said Sonos and pronounced it correctly when it spoke back the name.

Beekman Hotel, NYC

There are lots of five star hotels in NYC. I had no idea how many. And prices range considerably, but some of them are surprisingly reasonable.

I had occasion to stay at the Beekman Hotel. It’s downtown, near the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall, in the Financial District. The property was originally built in the late 1800s, and was renovated a few years ago. The interior is arranged around an atrium, at the bottom of which is a bar/restaurant.

There is also an elegant and ornate french restaurant in the hotel, called Augustine. Although NYC prices for brunch are typically $20 per person, Augustine serves a croissant and coffee for about $7.50. Well worth it to sit in one of the nicest spots in NYC on a Saturday morning.

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Braised Potatoes in the Instant Pot

First off, the Instant Pot is great.

Second, here’s a recipe derived from Molly Stevens’ great book “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking”. There are many vegetarian recipes in it, although it’s primarily about meat eating.

Braising is a cooking method where food is cooked partially in air and partially submerged. The liquid is usually flavorful and the steam above drips back on the food, self-basting it.

The potatoes come out tender, garlicky and slightly scented by bay leaves. Easy, elegant and tasty.

Ingredients:

  • Yukon Gold Potatoes. (Red potatoes work fine as well) If I am eating potatoes as my main course I make 4 medium sized potatoes per person. As a side dish use 2 to 3 per person.
  • 1 to 2 cloves of garlic, crushed. Depends on how many potatoes you make, and how much garlic flavor you want.
  • 1 to 2 dry bay leaves
  • Liquid. Enough to come halfway up your potatoes. You can use water, or vegetable (or chicken) broth.
  • Salt and pepper to taste. If using canned broth skip the salt.

Directions:

Wash/scrub the potatoes. Don’t peel them. Cut them into chunks, the size of golf balls. Smash the garlic with the flat side of a chef knife.

Put all the ingredients into the Instant Pot. Close the lid. Set for 10 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally.

If using a regular pot, try to use one with a wide bottom so the potatoes are on a single layer. If not possible, it will still come out OK. Put all the ingredients in and simmer on low-medium for 20 – 30 minutes, or until fork tender.

 

Alexa Sonos integration

The long awaited Alexa Sonos integration is here. Hooray. Sort of.

I bought an Echo Dot a year ago, in part because I wanted it to control my Sonos Play 1 speaker. Sonos promised it would release an integration with Alexa. In the interim year I’ve found other ways to do it using the Harmony Hub and IFTTT.

The process was:

  1. Set up an activity in Harmony that caused a specific favorite in the Sonos app to play over the Play 1.
  2. Set up an Applet in IFTTT that causes the activity to occur with a trigger word.
  3. Say “trigger xxxx” to Alexa, where xxxx is a word associated with a Harmony activity.

It’s an annoying process, and it doesn’t allow you to create a new activity on the fly. But it worked. I just said “trigger acoustic blues” to Alexa and my Pandora acoustic blues station started playing from the Sonos Play 1.

BUT NOW – the formal Alexa Sonos integration is here. And it’s marginally better than what I had before.

  1. Follow the instructions here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=172&v=UMvTF_pFw5w
  2. Tell Alexa “play acoustic blues station in the xxxx”, where xxxx is the zone name.

If you simply say “play acoustic blues in the xxxx” and leave off the word “station” it will play music from Amazon Music rather than Pandora. There’s only a handful of audio sources you can use, not the full list of Sonos services. For example Spotify doesn’t work yet, and there’s no word if Apple Music will work (I doubt it).

But if you tell Alexa to play a station that doesn’t yet exist, it will ask if you want to create it, and then do it for you. So you can create new Pandora stations on the fly.

The official integration is better than what I set up because you don’t have to go back into any settings to create a new station. But it requires a long command that is very unnatural. And it’s hard to see what took a whole year. The end result isn’t much different than what I was able to do by myself.

What would I have liked? I would have preferred that Sonos was listed as a music service in the Alexa app. Right now if you set up Spotify as your primary Alexa music service, when you say “play the rolling stones”, rolling stones music from spotify starts playing over the Echo.

That should have been how Sonos works. You tell Alexa “play the rolling stones” and music starts playing over Sonos from whatever your default Sonos music service is. If you have a favorite album or playlist, saying “play the name-of-the-favorite” causes Sonos to play.

If certain music services don’t want to be controlled by Alexa (like Apple Music), just exclude them from the Alexa integration.

As far as zones, there should have been a default zone for each Echo. So if you say “play …” it plays on the default zone. You’d have to say the name of the zone if you want it to play elsewhere or in multiple zones.

I’m not a software engineer, but this doesn’t seem that hard.

Update:

I described above the way I thought the Alexa Sonos integration “should” work. Well apparently Sonos thinks so too, but it decided to sell new speakers rather than do a more complete integration.

The first new speaker is essentially the Play 1 with Alexa built in. It’s called the Sonos One. There’s no indication that the Alexa app has changed so default music libraries are still limited to Amazon Music (and Spotify in the future), and default station services are limited to Amazon Music, Pandora, Tunein, SiriusXM and iHeart Radio. To access the rest of Sonos services you still need an app.

This seems more like a better sounding Echo with Sonos built in than vice versa.

This price is $199, which is the same price as the old Play 1. I assume the Play 1 will either be phased out or drop in price. Not much reason to choose the Play 1 over the Sonos One.

Amazon just announced a lower priced version of the Echo. It’s between $100 and $120 depending on the decor. Both the Echo and the Sonos have multi-zone capability.

It will be interesting to see whether the Sonos One sounds good enough to justify double the price.

Using Alexa everywhere

My Android Amazon shopping app was recently updated to add Alexa functionality. It’s strange that the Alexa app itself wasn’t updated to do this, only the Amazon shopping app.

The shopping app has had a microphone icon for some time, so you can dictate search terms to look up items to buy from Amazon. The microphone was updated to use a large subset of Alexa’s features.

What it CAN’T do: Play music, play radio, create a timer, create an alarm, phone calls or drop ins. In other words it doesn’t seem to do anything that will generate sound, other than Alexa’s voice itself.

What it CAN do: Pretty much everything else – answer questions, add to shopping lists, control smart home devices, etc.

The app works with or without WiFi, so you can turn your lights on while you are away from home, or change your thermostat, open door locks, control devices that you’ve grouped in the Alexa app. Or you can just use it at home, in a room that doesn’t have an Echo. I use it when the Echo can’t hear me because the speaker is too loud, or the Echo is obstructed,  and it’s easier to speak into my phone.

Very cool.

 

Fresh Corn and Pinto Bean Salad

Recently I ate at Bartaco in Port Chester, NY, which was a great little bar & taco spot. Lots of different tequilas and a nice selection of tacos and tex/mex food, with several vegan options. The cauliflower taco and the mushroom taco were delicious. There’s a falafel taco as well, just order it without the tzatziki sauce if you want to keep it vegan.

I also had their black bean and corn salad, which was very tasty, and decided to make something similar. The result was great – sweet, smokey, spicy and fresh.

I started with Ina Garten’s corn salad recipe then added some pinto beans and chipotle.

Ingredients:

  1. 3 ears of fresh corn.
  2. 2 or 3 tablespoons of diced red onion, to taste. If the onion is very sharp use less.
  3. 1 tablespoon of fresh basil, shredded, then chopped.
  4. 1 or 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, to taste.
  5. Sprinkle of salt.
  6. 15.5 oz can of pinto beans, no salt added.
  7. 1 jalapeno from a small can of Chipotles in Adobo Sauce, plus 1 or 2 teaspoons of the sauce, depending on your heat tolerance.
  8. 1/4 cup of water.

Directions: Drain and rinse the beans. Add to a pot with the water, jalapeno and adobo sauce. Simmer on low for about 15 minutes. Stir from time to time to dissolve the jalapeno. Add more water if it evaporates too quickly, but you want the water to be fully evaporated when the beans are done.

While the beans cook, cook the corn. I like to boil the ears for a few minutes until cooked but still crunchy. Microwaving works fine as well. Remove the kernels and discard the cobs. Mix the corn with the onions, basil, salt and vinegar.

When the beans are done, mix with the corn. Refrigerate until chilled, and serve.

Optional substitution: If you prefer not to buy canned Chipotles in Adobo Sauce you can substitute chipotle powder. It won’t taste the same but it’s still good. Add about half a teaspoon to the beans, more or less depending on your heat tolerance.