Fire TV Cube = Logitech Harmony + Amazon Echo

Today, I received my Amazon Fire TV Cube right at my doorsteps and was able to set it up in about half an hour including the installation of all my apps — mostly to watch TV shows and movies all over the web.

I would admit it’s a fascinating yet cheap -got it at the pre-sale price of $89– device but only if these factors are present in your setup:

  • Very fast internet connection – the unit has dual-band WiFi ac built-in but an Ethernet (10/100) adapter is included  with the set
  • A Smart 4K (UHD) TV (recommended) or any TV that uses an HDMI input
  • And, if you have an AV system, the receiver(s) -the TV provider box and/or the home theater receiver- must be compatible

It was only a few years back -January 2015 to be exact- when Amazon launched their very first salvo in the home automation market with the Amazon Echo.

The Fire TV Cube
Amazon’s latest play in the very lucrative “smart home” market

They had since integrated the core Alexa ‘far-field voice control and recognition’ technology from the Echo into almost all their line-up of devices including the cheapest Fire TV Stick.

Now with the Fire TV Cube, Amazon had one-upped again the competition by  crossing-over an Echo with the capabilities of today’s web-connected TVs and audio systems.

While the Echo was such a ground-breaking gadget in itself that led Apple and Google to release their own incarnations in the HomePod & Google Home respectively, the Fire TV Cube clearly targets a market segment dominated by Fremont, California-based Logitech: the smart-universal remote control.

Fire TV Cube has buttons for volume control, microphone muting as well as an ‘action’ button

Although the Fire TV Cube set includes the similar remote that comes with any Alexa-built-in Fire TV devices (note: the first 2 generations of the Fire TV devices didn’t have Alexa), it is mainly used to enter information like usernames & passwords to services like Hulu, Sling, Netflix, YouTube, etc., as well as to install and to operate open-source apps.

Amazon advertises the Fire TV Cube as a device to “control your TV hands free from across the room” but the applications and possible uses are so much more than that — all in a very, very small package.

 

Update:  Sometime in October of 2018, Amazon came up with a new version of the Alexa Voice Remote (2nd generation) with TV control for the Fire TV series and now comes bundled with the latest Fire TV Stick (4K) and the Fire TV Cube.  By itself, the new remote costs $30.

It now has dedicated buttons for power, mute & volume (up/down) –  to control some TV functions.

However, the new remote is compatible only with newer versions of the Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Stick (4K), Fire TV (3rd gen – pendant style) and the Fire TV Cube.

Amazon had also discontinued the original, square Fire TV with built-in Ethernet series as well as the Fire TV (3rd-gen, pendant style).

The 2nd Generation Alexa Voice Remote for Fire TV with TV Control

As Dirty As A Charcoaled Rug

Everyone in the in the compound seemed to be awakened by the loud voice from the entrance. Even a nocturnal guy like me who spends the wee hours of the morning watching tacky movies like Bruno and Borat was moved out of bed by the obviously jovial yet familiar voice of a man.

I was not mistaken. It was Kuyang Rey, the buddy of my father-in-law, whose loquacious nature had made the people in the barangay  think that he is good for nothing except for gossiping.

At first, what he was saying was confusing but when I heard the whole conversation between him and two of my uncles, everything became clear.

“We already have a ‘poso’ (manual water pump) and it was courtesy of Kumpareng Andong.”

“Also, just to inform you, since my kumpare is running for the seat of barangay captain, everything that we request from him would be granted.”

“Mind you people, this is our opportunity.”

Once called as ‘barrio’, a barangay is the smallest administrative unit in the Philippines headed by a ‘kapitan’ (captain or chairman) and several ‘kagawads’ (assistants).

All these news elicited excitement from the faces of my aunts and uncles. Some of them inquired if the candidate would be willing to donate a truckload of gravel and sand, hollow blocks or even an entire roof for the house!

One even asked if on the day before the election, Andong would seal his victory by giving every voter of Barangay Burgos five-hundred pesos (about US$ 10).

Amidst the bewilderment, my cousin boasted that the other candidate is capable of providing what this aspiring barangay captain could give.

Manong Tolome can double what you’ve been receiving from your Andong,Untoy (my cousin’s nickname) said with some pride and a look that seemed to challenge Kuyang Rey.

“I heard that Manong Tolome shouldered the electric bill of the Tolentinos, provided all the bottles of beer during the birthday of Sidro, and this is the real kicker–he’s been giving a thousand pesos (US$ 20) to every single voter of Purok 2 in our barangay.

The statement caused quite a stir as well as excitement among my relatives. As for me, I was half happy to hear that Kuyang Rey’s family does not have to go to the neighbor to fetch pales of water to flush out their shit, since they already have their poso.

Although it was such a big deal for them, I was more sad than happy.  Ah, I almost forgot that in a couple of weeks, barangay elections would again take place.

Campaign materials for the Barangay and SK elections along Roces Avenue in Quezon City on May 10, 2018. Photo by Maria Tan

The pomp and all to sudden generosity that we only witness from the mayoral and congressional wannabes had already seeped into the barangay level.  It is just amazing, fucking amazing to witness how some kagawad and barangay chairman candidates could provide a poso or visit a birthday celebrant’s party and shower them with a variety of gifts.  They attend the funeral rites of a friend of a friend, meet and greet the elders, have pictures of them taken carrying a child or kissing a filthy old man and whatever.

They visit you, shake your hands and beg for your vote. Together with their so-called supporters, they roam the streets riding an ‘owner jeepney’ equipped with a loud speakers playing a song by Inigo Pascual with modified lyrics to promote their advocacies.  Same old stupid scene.

What are their advocacies? It varies from very personal to general, but regardless of what their advocacies are, what they would do remain blurry and puzzling.

And let us not forget the one-liners of these “prominent” candidates. Their print ads read “Maaasahan mo” (Someone you can lean on), “Ipaglalaban ka” (I would fight for you.), “Ang Tatay ng Barangay” (The patriarch of the barangay), “Kay Dodong, Panalo Tayo” (With Dodong, We are the winners), “Una Ka Kay Manang Tasya” (You are the priority of Elder Tasya) and other fascinating promises.

No matter how sweet and promising their one-liners are, they do not seem to meet or even exceed the standards of good governance.

The country is very notorious for its corruption –down to the ‘barangay’ level

A perfect example would be the one who campaigned that he is “someone you can lean on”.  Leaning on, in the context of public service, is neither the kagawad who would provide the cases of beer during the birthday party of a barangay member nor the barangay chairman himself would shoulder the sacks of cement for a house construction.

Being “someone to lean on” is a leader who organizes scholarship funds and livelihood programs . To see to it that the jobless are encouraged to join  a business cooperative.  That every barangay member are taught garbage segregation and proper disposal.  That no one is seen consuming alcohol or smoking in public places.   Or, even simply to espouse cleanliness and discipline is to say that the barangay chairman is genuinely someone you can lean on.

Ipaglalaban ka” does not mean that when a person is the cause of a brawl, all he has to do is to ask for the help of kagawad and his wrongdoings would be tolerated and that he would be defended no matter how wrong he is.

When a candidate pledges that “he would fight for you”, it means that he will defend what is morally right even if the deed deems to be unpopular.  Fighting for someone is fighting for the rights of the oppressed whether he is your associate or not.

When someone claims that “he is the patriarch of the barangay”, he should see to it that his words and actions are within the level of acceptable behavior.  He should take concrete steps in maintaining the health and well-being of each and every barangay member by integrating medical missions –just like a father who wants all his children healthy.

He should not take sides during barangay hearings but rather, punish the wrongdoer.  And the punishment should be like that it’s coming from a concerned father who does not want his son to become the bane of the barangay.  The world simply has too many assholes already.

While the candidates enjoy the perception that they are appreciated by the people with their advocacies and promises, they appear to be ignorant with regards to the long-term needs by their constituents.  What they usually offer are short-term and patch-work solutions to the same old problems  that had been haunting and destroying the Filipino values for centuries.

This is where I pity Kuyang Rey and the majority of the Filipino people. While the deed of the politician in providing the poso, the construction materials or even cinema passes (yes, free movies) appears a class act, it totally defeats the concept of self-reliance and value of hard work.

Having lack of money is not an excuse for working-class Filipinos to be dependent on other people –especially the politicians. By giving Kuyang Rey’s family the poso, the candidate did not really help him. It only made Kuyang Rey even worse.

Money for your vote.

After all, it is not the barangay chairman’s task to provide a family a deep well pumping machine; it is the job of the padre de familia to invest all the essential things needed by his family. It’s not the church, DSWD, PCSO or other charitable organization who is responsible for one’s need but the person himself.

Instead of the poso, a well-meaning politician would rather coordinate with the water company so that everyone in barangay would benefit, not only a few families.

Instead of construction materials, why not help the person find a decent job so he can gradually build his own house from his sweat?

Instead of movie passes to get the teen votes, a resource speaker can be invited over to the barangay hall to give English-proficiency classes.

Poso is good for only one family, but an efficient water distribution system is good for the entire community.

A hundred-fifty hollow blocks is good only for Aling Bebang’s comfort room but a job opportunity would enable every father in the barangay to build a house of his dream.

A movie pass or two would be a temporary escape to the harsh realities of life but an English proficiency class could equip them with confidence in finding a job..

Ah, to hell with the shallow minds of these politicians. Politics is as dirty as a charcoaled rug.

As I write this, my drinking buddy texted to inform me that Andong would come over to our compound tomorrow to shower us with paper bills.  Lots of one that depict the face of a brilliant senator who was assassinated at Manila’s main airport in the early ’80s — the five-hundred peso bill.

Maybe the money is enough to buy myself a good pair of jeans, or a cellphone load good for a month, or even a wax and tire black for my dying jeep. After all, the entire barangay won’t even know if I sold my soul or not.

Nah, I’ll just sleep all day tomorrow and Kuyang Rey will never be able to wake me up even with a megaphone.

Toshiba Aurex System 10: Still Playing After All Those Years

On the last week of January of this year, I was reunited with my vintage Toshiba Aurex System 10 hi-fi stereo set that I had been using in Manila since 1984.

I had purchased the micro hi-fi system back in 1982 in the commercial district of Al-Batha, Saudi Arabia.  It was the height of the oil kingdom’s industrial phase and I actually worked in the district of Al-Hair -about 20 minutes from the capital city of Riyadh- for a business conglomerate owned by a sheik.

Life was not only lonely but also very boring in a country whose religion is Sunni Islam and where Sharia laws are strictly enforced.  Moreover, I was there to make a living and not as a tourist on a short visit to explore and to enjoy the desert kingdom.

The unit was way ahead of its time with state-of-the-art electronics, aluminum chassis, metal knobs and excellent overall design.
The Toshiba Aurex System 10 as it appeared in a German hi-fi catalog layout in 1979, with dimensions shown. Top to bottom: SB-A10 amplifier, ST-T10 hi-fi AM/FM tuner and PC-D10 dual-head, stereo cassette tape deck.

During our day offs -Friday and Saturday- we usually go to the big city to window shop, meet friends or relatives of friends, hang around in a park where most expats congregate or just about anything just to keep our sanity until we finish the terms of our work contracts.

Typically, after our working hours, listening to music in our stereo systems provided us some of our great joys while we watched the sun transition from a fiery ball of yellow to a magnificent mélange of orange hues as it hides behind the sand dunes.

The late 70s up to the mid-80s was the peak of hi-fidelity’s  golden years as digital music began its slow-but-sure march to take over the entire music landscape.  I could still recall that early models of CD players where priced as high as US$ 1,000 plus in the few electronics & audio shops that showcased them.

Back then, Sony had been dominating the music scene after the huge success of the Walkman.  Because of its portability & affordability, it also made the compact cassette tape the de-facto standard.

At music shops in Riyadh in the 80s, the average price of an original music cassette was about 10 riyals (about US$ 3) while the bootleg version was about 3 riyals (US$ 0.90).  Like any marketing ploy, the so-called ‘metal tapes‘ (type 4), of course, provided the best sound if you have the appropriate cassette tape deck/player.

I bought the Toshiba Aurex System 10 after I had saved enough money and had grown tired of listening to my growing collection of music cassette tapes on my portable cassette player.

I emphasized music cassette tapes since plain audio cassettes were also the very popular media expats used to record and to send messages to their loved ones back home as the Internet was still reserved for a few people in the academe and government back then.

All machined-aluminum casings!!! Toshiba used the best in electronics such as toroidal capacitors, leading-edge FETS & ICs during those days!
Via the AUX (auxiliary) jack, this vintage Toshiba Aurex System 10 can still play today’s digital devices –iPods, CDs and, yes, MiniDiscs as well as DAT (digital audio tape) players.

Prior to my purchase, I had just watched with envy as my coworkers -specially the senior ones with much fatter paychecks- unloaded and unboxed their expensive, high-end stereo systems with huge speaker sets inside their villas.

Sansui, Denon, NAD, McIntosh, Nakamichi, Tannoy, Pioneer, Marantz, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Teac, Grundig, Kenwood and other leading Japanese, American and European hi-fi brands were the buzzwords those days.  And those systems were really manufactured in Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

I had visited several audio shops in downtown Riyadh before I decided on the micro-sized Toshiba Aurex System 1o because of its uniqueness, design and almost magical impression upon me.

I bought it discounted but complete with a pair of black Aurex (S12W) 80-watts bookshelf speakers for about US$800.  It has a more sophisticated -and expensive- sibling in the System 15 (about US$1,200 without speakers) but it was just way beyond my budget at that time.

The tropical heat and humidity of Manila is no match for the durability of the Toshiba Aurex System 10. The sound is still clean, detailed, powerful and nicely musical.
The PC-D10 cassette tape deck simply needs replacement of a few rubber belts inside. The DC motor & tape heads still function well. This unit has the manual tape controls.

Both models were spectacularly designed and housed in high-grade aluminum chassis that made them withstand the elements as well as high-quality internal electronic components.

And, as a bonus, the Aurex models that were sold in the Middle East had power supply voltage selector switches so that AC power input can be set to either 115V or 230V -depending on where you are or what country you’ll plug them in.

So what are the differences?

The System 15 has a beautiful main amplifier (SC-M15) housed in a one-piece diecast aluminum with an all-DC toroidal transformer that drives 40 watts per channel into 8 ohms (or, 100 watts in ‘BTL’ mode). The back of the amp has professional-grade connectors (screw-on and ‘banana’ plug) for 2 sets of speakers.

The separate pre-amp (SY-C15) came with 2 phono inputs, a variety of switches typically found in a high-end stereo systems plus gold-plated contacts for all the RCA jacks at the back.

The FM-only tuner (ST-F15) has a VFD (vacuum fluorescent) digital display with a 10-button direct/up-down push-button tuning with memory presets capability.

And, finally, a better metal-capable tape deck (PC-D15) that utilized two (2) separate DC motors to drive the reels.  A touch-key tape operation control pad perfectly complemented the elegant unit.

Today, this vintage micro-component system still command a decent price among collectors!!!
The very elegant Toshiba Aurex System 15. Including a pair of speakers, it would have cost me two (2) months salary back in 1982! Top to bottom: SC-M15 main power amplifier, SY-C15 pre-amp, ST-F15 FM-only digital tuner and the PC-D15 stereo cassette deck with 2-motors plus IC-logic control.

The System 10 was a much simpler set with just 3 pieces.   An integrated amplifier (SB-A10) that’s also encased in extruded aluminum with a much smaller DC toroidal power transformer that drives 20 watts per channel into 8 ohms, an FM/AM tuner (ST-T10) with an old-school, knob & scale tuning and a tape deck (PC-D10) with a single servo motor to drive the flywheel & reels plus manual tape operation controls.

You could actually mix and match decks or components from either system and even use two (2) SC-M15 amplifiers in monaural mode via the BTL (bridge tied load/ bridged transformerless) feature to drive a massive 1oo watts per channel.

There were cheaper mid-sized/micro components options during those days like Sony’s FH-7 or Technics’ Concise series but most of them used either plastic or sheet metal housing and did not look as elegant as Toshiba’s Aurex System 15 and 10.

After 36 years, I am still amazed how this vintage hi-fi system can remain to look so beautiful and elegant than some of today’s latest digital audio decks and to sound so impressively– after I hooked up either one my FiiO high-resolution players, iPod Classic or, yes, a Sony DiscMan via the amp’s auxiliary input.

Some things are just way ahead of their times.