There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

More Techno Fun

Yesterday morning I found my computer waiting for its password—it had updated and rebooted during the night. That always makes me a little nervous. The computer is eight years old and often slow. A while back it took me two hours and a lot of experimentation to get it back on after an update, and a few weeks ago an update wiped out my Quicken file (I’ve been more careful about back ups since then). This time there were no update-related problems.

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But when I opened my email, I found some very strange messages. Two were automated “not taking queries” responses from agents I have not queried. There were a couple of “you can’t post here because you don’t belong to this forum” emails from RWA forums that, indeed, I do not belong to. A couple of bounce notices from old email addresses. I later found spam emails, apparently coming from my email address, on a couple of lists I do belong to, and at least one friend received a spam link from me.

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Drat. Spoofed again.

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So I dove into the depths of AOL to change my password. I suspect the spoofing had nothing to do with my password, but it doesn’t hurt to change them, and the one I’ve been using, probably since the last time I had some minor disruption in service, was hard to type. I stuck a couple of unrelated words together and had a new password. My computer and the cloud based email system were fine with it.

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My phone wasn’t.

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I put the new password into the generic email app that the Verizon salesman set up for me two years ago when I bought the phone, and was informed, in no uncertain terms, that it was incorrect. Tried again. And again. The very definition of stubborn stupidity, repeating the same action and expecting a different result. I did not get a different result, no matter how often I tried.

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I checked AOL help and found nothing useful, but after spending way too much time on the problem, the passing mention of an AOL android app finally clicked. I found my way to the app store, downloaded AOL, and was back in my email immediately. (And in the evening I figured out how to stop the old app from demanding authorization every time I woke the phone up.)

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What strikes me as funny about the whole thing is that not much more than two years ago I’d never read an email on a phone. I didn’t have a phone that could handle the job. I didn’t know what I was missing, but now I do. The thought of not being able to access my email through my phone has become completely unacceptable.

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I’ve seen no more evidence of email spoofing since I changed the password, whether that was really a factor or not. My Amazon Fire tablet, which until recently was demanding a password every other time I opened my email, sometimes telling me it was wrong, and then letting me in anyway, still doesn’t seem to have noticed the change. So I have three ways to get to my email—too bad my email isn’t more exciting.

 

Flash Drives!

Recently the topic of backing up computer files came up at my local RWA chapter meeting. The next day I had a minor back up problem of my own. Either the monthly Windows update or the middle-of-the-night reboot that accompanied it scrambled my open Quicken file beyond repair. The most recent back up I had of the file was almost three weeks old, and it took a lot of paper (check book, bills paid, debit card receipts, etc.) to reconstruct the missing time (I’m a little OCD about financial records). Not a disaster, took me an hour or so to fix, but it did get me thinking about backing up files.

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I have an external hard drive to which my computer backs up frequently, but I’ve never bothered to learn how to retrieve specific files from it. It just sits there on my desk. I’ve always backed up (with varying degrees of frequency) to flash drives (or, back in the day, diskettes, and I’ll bet I have a box of those in the attic, with no computer in the house that will read them).

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I had been using a pair of 16GB drives, but I’ve been warned they don’t last forever, and they were starting to feel small (!), so I stopped by Office Depot and picked up a pair of 32GB drives (between the sale price and my OD rewards, the two drives cost me 16 bucks and change, sales tax included).

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flash drivesAnd I discovered a cache of seventeen flash drives in a small drawer on my desk, with no idea what’s on most of them, how old they are, how much they hold, or why I’ve kept them. So I decided to take a trip down (computer) memory lane.

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Four small round drives, 16MB each. The blue one is empty. The red one has a tiny file called “autorun.” One yellow one has a few files from 2007 and photos from the surprise birthday party my friends gave me that year. The other yellow one has an early version of a novel (all 640KB of it). Ten years ago those 16MB drives were quite roomy.

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A 128MB drive last used in 2010 has copies of four novels and a financial program Microsoft discontinued, and 45MB of empty space. Took me a minute to figure out how to open that one.

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Another 128MB drive from 2007 (a Corsair Flash Voyager) contains a few random files, a couple of fonts, and a collection of pictures by the artist Kliban.

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A 512MB drive shaped like a bullet has one back up each from my home and work computers, dated 2007. A 512MB Lexar drive holds the 2011 version of my novel that made the Golden Heart finals that year and a collection of landscape photos.

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A red Lexar drive holding about 1GB contains back ups from my work computer dated 2010. A matching blue drive, labeled “downloads,” holds a list of random files and a collection of wildlife photos from 2008 and 2009. Another 1GB Lexar holds birthday party pictures, software I don’t even recognize, and a few random files.

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Moving up to 2GB drives, I have two that I probably bought because they have pretty floral cases. One has a copy of a novel and a back up from December 2012. The other one contains the set up file for a Sudoku program that has long since disappeared from commercial availability and the chapter affiliation files for 2011 for West Houston RWA (I was president of the chapter that year). A 4GB drive in a floral case has back ups from 2014.

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Then came a pair of Lexar 8GB drives, both holding back ups from 2015, and another pair of Lexars, 16GB each, that I started using in 2016.

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Clearly, I could throw most of these drives out right now, and never miss them. But I don’t think I will. It’s fun to poke through them and see what I’ve saved over the years. I’m impressed by the fact that, despite dire warnings of shelf life, every one of these drives opened without a problem (at least digitally—a few of them were a bit puzzling to open physically). I am not impressed by my rather spotty back up practices.

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I resolve to do better with my new 32GB flash drives, rather like carrying an umbrella on an overcast day. If you have it, chances are you won’t need it, but if you need it you’ll be glad you have it.

 

Resplicing the Cord

On October 16 I came home to find my cable service was out. A few days later the technician who came to fix it was unable to fight his way through the bamboo to reconnect the cable, which had come loose from the tap (Nature vs. Technology).

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Thanks to a number of domestic distractions (the check engine light in my car, requiring a new set of fuel injectors; the onset of cold weather, requiring not one but two visits from the furnace repairman and several very cold nights) and the difficulty of finding someone willing to cut down the necessary bamboo, the cable remained unattached until December 21.

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I didn’t go entirely without video entertainment over those two months. Several shows I enjoy on CBS were available on line the day after they were broadcast. I discovered the Comcast streaming app, which allowed me to watch most cable shows on my Fire tablet (but not the local or broadcast channels, which require the user to have Comcast Wifi—my Internet and Wifi are provided by my phone company). I made considerable use of Amazon Prime and watched the second season of The Man in the High Castle on my tablet. I did not dip into my fairly extensive DVD collection except to watch a couple of old movies (Breaking the TV Habit).

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So many weeks of no activity on my TV boxes may have triggered something in the Comcast computer system: a week or two into December the streaming app stopped offering me anything but random college athletics, and the web sites for TNT and the History Channel stopped recognizing my Comcast log in.

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That’s when I finally got serious. Through a friend, I found a handyman willing to help me cut the bamboo (amazing how much bamboo landed on the ground in my back yard—twenty or so 55-gallon bags of the stuff have been chopped up and disposed of, and we’re only half done with that). That’s when I found out that the utility pole actually is in my yard; there’s a fence and a large tree blocking it on the other side of my fence, and it serves at least three houses.

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Bamboo 2

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A Comcast technician came out a couple of days later. Between getting his ladder into position, replacing several ancient connectors, and using his tablet to reset all three of my TV sets (why one person needs three TVs is a question for another day), he spent about an hour and a half on my problems, but when he left everything was working as it should.

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That was almost ten days ago, and I find that much of my habit breaking has stuck. I’ve caught up on a couple of shows On Demand, but on the whole I’ve been much more selective about my TV use, reading more, going to bed earlier, listening to the radio more. I’m glad to have the Music Choice Smooth Jazz Channel back—I’m not a person who thrives on silence, I need background noise.

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Other habits have changed as well. I used to do the Houston Chronicle puzzles every evening, apparently while I was ignoring something on TV, because I now have over a month’s worth of puzzle pages piled up on my coffee table. I used to fall asleep watching TV in the bedroom—now I rarely turn that one on.

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Am I thinking of cutting the cord on purpose? Not any time soon. I like the convenience of cable service. I don’t want to have to manage several different sources for the shows I want to see. But I’m definitely keeping my Internet and Wifi with Frontier. I’ll keep those eggs in multiple baskets for the foreseeable future.

 

Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

Nature vs. Technology

One of the hazards of living alone is that there’s no one else around to handle some task I don’t want to do. If I can’t do if myself, I pretty much have to hire it done. (The benefits include eating cereal for supper, knowing what’s in the refrigerator, and never finding the toilet seat up in the middle of the night.)

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Monday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find the TV, which I had left playing the smooth jazz station on Music Choice, displaying the dreaded “One Moment Please” signboard. Well, once in a while, the channel really does come back on shortly, so I turned on the radio and waited half an hour to call Comcast. The mechanical woman who answers the phone there (and does her best to protect any human being from having to talk to a customer) assured me there was no outage in my area and offered to send a reset signal to my cable box.

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I have never ever had a problem solved by a reset signal, but it was worth a try. When I got a text message half an hour later asking if the reset had succeeded or failed, I replied “failed.” By then I had checked my other TVs and discovered that none of them were working. I tried to explain that to the thickly accented Comcast agent who called me back, but he insisted on trying to fix the living room box. The usual procedure of unplugging the box and plugging it back in resulted only in a total failure of the box to reboot. At that point the agent (in India, I’m sure) gave up and scheduled a tech appointment for Friday morning, the next day that I could be home.

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I use the TV for background noise ninety per cent of the time; I’m used to it, but not having it isn’t a great sacrifice (albeit, given Comcast’s rates, a rather expensive one). So for several days I listened to the radio, watched video on my tablet, read, and went to bed earlier than usual with no TV to distract me.

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Then the reminders kicked in: one email and two phone calls, one leaving a voice mail, on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, I was up early, in time for another phone call at 7:30 and a text message saying the tech was on the way. The next text message, at 8:23, telling me that the tech had arrived, was a bit disconcerting, since there was no tech in sight, but a nice young man did arrive at 9:05. He listened to my description of the problem—the TV box in the living room was out, the one in the bedroom had the right time and the program guide, but no programs, and the ancient TV in the sewing room had no video signal—he immediately knew that the problem was in the outside wiring, specifically in the line coming from the utility pole out back.

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And that’s where Nature came into the picture (or lack thereof). The utility pole is shrouded in bamboo. Wet bamboo, thanks to the overnight thunderstorm we’d just had. The Comcast tech couldn’t get his ladder close to it. He went around the block and approached it from the other side (the pole is actually located on the other side of the fence in a neighbor’s yard). He could see the disconnected line from there, but couldn’t reach it.

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Comcast, he told me, leases access to the utility easement and poles from CenterPoint, the company that handles all the electrical infrastructure around here. Hacking through the bamboo is not the cable company’s responsibility.

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So I called the local tree service that contracts with CenterPoint to trim trees. I had their phone number because they’d left a note on my door a few weeks ago, but as far as I can tell they never did any work in my yard. It seems to me that if Comcast can’t get to the utility pole, neither can the phone company or, more to the point, CenterPoint’s own workers. When the tree service supervisor called back, he seemed pretty unconcerned about pole access, although he did promise to send someone out to look at the problem next week.

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So I’m contemplating the thought of spending a chunk of this weekend hacking down bamboo myself, waiting to see what the tree service says, or looking for someone I can hire (spending a chunk of money rather than time) to solve the problem. And then calling Comcast back and finding someone to actually listen to what I need.

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I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was horrified by the thought of no TV—but she wanted to watch the Astros game last night. Missing that didn’t bother me—I’m glad they won, but I wouldn’t have been watching. I have radios, books, Amazon Prime, piles of DVDs, and the Internet. I can weather a few more days without Comcast just fine.

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But it makes me wonder just who really has jurisdiction over something as simple as utility poles (alas, my neighborhood was built up long before buried lines came into use). And maybe it would be nice to have a husband, son, brother, or nephew who would go out and cut down that bamboo while I read a book.

Bosch: Season One

Last night I finished watching the first season of Bosch. Wow!

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I joined Amazon Prime way back when, partly to access the video collection, but mostly for the fast free delivery of books and other random goodies. I was never really comfortable watching video on my computer monitor (although I have a good one), but until the nice tech from Frontier replaced my antique modem with one that supports WiFi (he was here to fix an actual phone line problem) I didn’t have much choice.

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With the WiFi up and running, I bought a little Amazon Fire HD8 tablet (on which I spend way too much time playing games), telling myself it would be great for videos and music. (Self, you don’t have to make excuses.) I watched the first episode of The Man in the High Castle (very impressive, and I will get back to it), and then I watched the first episode of Bosch. And I was hooked.

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I have not read any of Michael Connelly’s novels about LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, so I can’t talk about how well (or not) Amazon’s adaptation reflects the books, but from the reviews I’ve read, Connelly’s fans seem pleased (and Connelly himself is a producer of the show, whatever that actually means).

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Bosch posterAs a viewer—well, I’ve watched all ten chapters of the first season in the last week and a half, and I’m not a binge watcher, so that tells you something. The acting is excellent (of course, I’d happily watch Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, in just about anything, including Comcast commercials), as are the writing and production values. Los Angeles is almost as much a character as any of the people. The serial killer Bosch is chasing is absolutely chilling (an amazing performance by Jason Gedrick). The mysteries (woven together from elements of three of Connelly’s novels) are intricate and take the whole season to play out.

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Bosch is not episodic, crime-of-the-week television. As I mentioned above, the sections are listed as chapters rather than episodes, and the season is, indeed, one long filmed novel. That feeling was emphasized by the way I watched it—in bed at night, with the tablet on my chest, almost more like reading a book than watching video. It is a much more intimate experience than watching something on the TV set across the room.

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Two more seasons of Bosch are already available, and the fourth will be out next spring. But I think I’ll wait a bit and savor the first season before I dive into the second (which many reviewers claim is even better). In the meantime, I believe I’ll go back to The Man in the High Castle, and that’s barely scratching the surface of the Prime library.

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And I bought four books on Friday, two on paper, two on Kindle. Maybe I’ll go read a while . . .

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