Monday, 21 May 2018

Volume Problem With Amazon Kindle Fires

This isn't writing-related (though I suppose it touches on written communication, and how some Customer Service departments don't seem to be able to interpret or trouble-shoot basic problems). However, I couldn't find any information about this problem online, so thought I'd put it here in case it helps other people. This problem applies to Amazon Kindle Fires directly, but is likely to appear in other devices which can play back media.

I had two Kindle Fires so gave someone else the newest one (I actually prefer the older Kindle Fires - the new ones require closing down loads of open apps every time you use it, whereas the old ones closed apps automatically as soon as you opened another). She registered it in her name so that she could put her own stuff on, though our accounts are connected via Amazon's household scheme.

As someone who has used Kindle Fires for a long time, I was obviously on hand to answer questions. Last night we were testing out the main things she wanted to use the Kindle for. One of them was listening to music or podcasts. We have external powered speakers in some rooms, so we can plug in an mp3 player, phone or media device to play music with better quality sound than the tinny internal speakers most devices have. This has been fine for many years, and worked without problems.

However, this Kindle Fire was behaving strangely - when I plugged it into external speakers the volume dropped to 50%, and there was no way to increase it. I looked in the settings but whatever I set there still got halved when I plugged the speakers in. So the result was that plugging in high-quality external powered speakers actually made the volume lower, when it should be the opposite.

The speakers were Logitech S-220. I tried another set of speakers with the same result: Sony SRS A202. So two totally different brands – plugging them in suddenly stopped the volume going past around halfway (or a bit under). I tried my Sennheiser MX365 earphones – the Kindle again limited the volume. Same with some Apple iPad earbuds. I should add that both speaker sets and both headphone sets work perfectly on every other device (two laptops, a different Kindle, a smartphone, an iPad, a HDD jukebox music player etc).

I suspected this was a bug in Kindle software, rather than a fault in the individual device - the behaviour was too uniform. I said I'd look into it. You know, being nice and helpful.

So I contacted Amazon via Twitter. They knew nothing about it and had no answers, and pushed me towards using Amazon chat instead. I was reticent to do that because I've had bad experiences with Amazon's Customer Services people in the past, but decided to have a go. It didn't work out:


Just to clarify a few things. There are no security issues with finding out how to use a Kindle in general. We shouldn't have to go to support to find out how it works and how to get round Kindle problems; but if we do then we should be given clear answers, not be fobbed off. They could forget the individual device and just imagine it is a generic question about Kindle Fire 7s. It's not difficult. Especially when it looks like it is part of how all those versions of Kindles are set up. (Further - the "connected account" thing is a problem with how Amazon sees things. In reality two people own adn share the device, but Amazon refuse to accept that this is possible, and force it to only be connected to a single person. The real world, and Amazon's policies, don't match up.) Anyway, Amazon Help refused to look into it.

I went back to Twitter and explained that, but a raft of different support staff ("FJ", "RB", "KI", "NV", "RS", "BZ", "TP", "ES", "CN" etc.) kept telling me to go back to Amazon chat or phone help, even though I'd get the same response. Not one of the Amazon staff suspected that Amazon may have set the devices up like this on purpose.

That's my suspicion, anyway (since they won't confirm it). I think Kindle Fires have been programmed to limit the volume to 50% when things are plugged into the headphone/speaker jack. It's mentioned in obscure places on forums, where people run into the problem (such as here), yet Amazon Support don't seem to be aware of the problem.

I further suspect that it is an update implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to something like this EU mandate on "new safety standards for personal music players". Though that mandate also says "the safe exposure level will be the default setting on personal music players but users will be able to override the default setting if they expressly choose to do so. The key is that they make and informed choice, fully aware of any potential health risks." Whereas I can't find any override on the Kindle Fire, so Amazon have either not put one in, or have made it unintuitive to find. I'm guessing Amazon implemented this limit, but just didn't consider the repercussion that plugging quality powered speakers in makes the device quieter than it's tinny internal speaker, when speakers shouldn't be limited. That makes it a buggy implementation of a safety feature.

At the first contact with Amazon they should have spotted what it was about, and been able to start a discussion of it - why the Kindle was behaving like that, how to over-ride it, or how to report it as a bug if they didn't implement an over-ride. The fundamental issue should be "Is this expected behaviour?" If they didn't design it that way, then the device is faulty. If they designed it that way, then they made an error in how it is implemented, and it needs to be fixed via software update. Simple.

In conclusion, there are two issues

1. Amazon seem to have implemented a "safety feature" that limits the volume of Kindle Fires when output is sent to the 3.5mm output jack. Amazon presumably meant to apply it only to headphones, so there should be an over-ride for when using it with speakers. Except there is no obvious over-ride for speakers, so connecting quality powered speakers actually makes the Kindle quieter. It's an example of not thinking through the implications of knee-jerk updates.

2. I dealt with a large number of Amazon Customer Services people and not one of them knew anything about it, they just sent me in circles for a whole morning, telling me to use contact methods that I'd already used and where staff had refused to help - going through the same process again would lead to the same outcome. What should have been simple has instead wasted half a day and is still not resolved or acknowledged. This isn't new. I've had problems with Amazon's terrible communication in the past - see this post and the ones it links to at the start if you want to know more.

Here's a video I made of the problem with the audio output jack on the Kindle Fire:


Update: 23rd May 2018
After all the communications with Amazon a few days ago I was told they would sort it out. On 21st May one email said the "Kindle technical specialists" would ring me "within the next 4 hours".

48 hours later I've still not received a call, a reply, or any answers.

Update: 9th June 2018
Still no joy, even though I have been in touch with yet more Amazon staff via multiple emails and phone calls with Abdhul, and Gokul S, and Kamala R, and ones who don't give their name, and others that I have lost track of. Usually they would ask me a question; I would reply; then a different member of staff would reply with this same copy-pasted text:
I am sorry for any inconvenience caused in this regard.
I have checked our records and I can confirm that mentioned Kindle Fire is not registered under your account.
For security reasons, we can take action or send order information to the e-mail address that is associated with the Kindle registered Amazon.co.uk account. We're sorry for any inconvenience this causes.
Even though this had been explained and got past many times ... the next Amazon person would fall back on this again. Argh. Amazon are incredibly inflexible and unhelpful with their customers, the opposite of being "customer-centric". Support consists mostly of copy and pasting the same messages and repeating things that are either irrelevant, or were resolved further back in the communication chain. And then another staff member takes over and it starts again.

Some Amazon staff seem to think the new Kindle Fires don't work with speakers connected via 3.5mm jack (well, not beyond 50% volume); others say they do; others have no idea. Half the time I'd not even get a response to my message. It's bizarre that Amazon doesn't seem to know how its own devices work.

Someone at Amazon actually rang me on 8th June 2018. They were one of those who thought it should work with speakers at 100% volume. They wanted to look at logs on the device but it involved me ringing back another day, getting the person to whom it was registered to authorise Amazon to speak to me, then passing the phone over. I followed their instructions and after some confusion it seemed that I'd been given incorrect information and they didn't need logs but wanted to factory reset it (which loses a lot of content and requires setting everything up again - email, 3rd party apps etc). I gave them the case ID #0150893141 but it seems that most of the emails and communications weren't part of the details - Amazon staff hadn't been making a note of my answers to their questions. They hadn't even recorded the URL for this blog post with all the background information and video in; and when I asked them to add it, they said they didn't know if they could, so they didn't ask for the URL to record. It's why it is so frustrating to speak to a different Amazon person each time, none of which know the background so you are always starting back at square one. They suggested replacing the Kindle but since that involves setting everything up again I didn't want to do it unless it would fix the problem - if it is how the new Kindles are designed, as some Amazon staff claim, then replacing it wouldn't fix the problem: it would just be a further waste of time and resources. After some communication problems the phone eventually went dead. I waited a couple of hours for them to ring me back but they never did.

Here's another strange thing. You'd always assume new devices had more and better connectivity. It turns out that my 2012 2nd Generation Kindle Fire HD has better connections than all Amazon's Kindle Fire models since 2012. My old Kindle Fire HD has mini-HDMi so I can plug it into an external display like my monitor or projector, and it outputs the sounds and video so I can watch films, look at pictures, or even just browse the web and email on a big screen. After 2012 Amazon stopped including any way to connect Kindles to an external device such as my projector. For the new ones you can only use the Kindle's teeny screen. That makes them far less useful and attractive. I have no idea why the designers keep removing useful (and cheap to implement) features. I would never buy any of Amazon's modern Kindle Fires, HD or not, because they don't do as much as the old 2012 models. Strangely, when I read reviews of many modern tablets - Amazon, Android etc - even in the specs section reviewers don't bother mentioning what wired outputs the devices have any more, only the wireless ones. It's not easy to find the information even on manufacturers' sites.

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Saturday, 19 May 2018

Bad Language

My irregular series highlighting common mistakes that make me want to throw macaroni. Who has incurred my wrath this time?

Enthusiastic shop signs

I took this photo in Shrewsbury. Hopefully I don't have to point out the error (but just in case: you don't add apostrophes for plurals. Well, not unless you are a greengrocer.)


Until is a word. Till is a word. You can use them interchangeably. "I won't stop saying this till it sinks in; or at least until my fingers drop off." Technically you can drop letters and use an apostrophe, since it is one of the functions of an apostrophe (to show omission), so you could write 'til, but there's no point when the word till exists. However, there is definitely no apostrophe before 'till (as seen in the image above) because there is no omission - there's no such word as untill.

In this case there was a happy ending. I contacted GOG and they fixed it:


On to my last annoyance for today. It's not so much a mistake as an irritation. I hate patronising tiers which are all monikers for "best". Here's one from the defunct CoPromote:


They could just have used the traditional Bronze, Silver, Gold; or Basic, Normal, Pro; or Sugar, Cheese, Chocolate.

(I avoid any grading system that includes cats and dogs, it leads to too many arguments.)

Companies always try to make each option sound like it is as precious as their super-special-favourite-customer, but it is such a false bit of marketing bollocks that they just look needy and patronising.

That's me, how's your day been? :-)

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Friday, 11 May 2018

Lost Solace: The Computer Game

Sadly, there isn't yet a computer game (or film) of Lost Solace, despite requests. One day, maybe.

Just for fun I had a think about what games you could play in the meantime; games that capture a feel of the book, or some element of it. This is my short list (the game names link to where it can be bought).


Opal and her armour in Starcrawlers

Opal getting ready to investigate a Lost Ship in Starcrawlers

Starcrawlers (2017)
Pick a female cyberninja and name the character Opal. You have an armoured suit and swords and a rebellious attitude. Explore derelict spaceships while supported by banter from your orbiting ship. Your first main mission can lead to developing an AI companion. This is a great way of living through something that resembles Opal's world.


You encounter some creepy things in Soma

Lots of abandoned environments to explore in Soma - but are they really abandoned?

Soma (2015)
This game is great for the feel of being vulnerable in lonely and dangerous places (the game is set in a base at the bottom of the sea rather than on a spaceship, but there's the same feeling of claustrophobia, and being surrounded by a fatal and alien environment). There are fantastic horror elements in this story of survival and artificial intelligence. Generally it is a slow-burn horror, where you sneak around trying not to make a sound, punctuated by tense scenes where you may have to flee from something you don't even want to look at. You can also watch some creepy live action films that were made before the game's release.


It's clear something's wrong in System Shock 2

 Those "people" need help ... System Shock 2

System Shock 2 (1999)
This is one of my favourite games. I've lost count of how many times I have completed it (along with all the fan-made missions and mods I could download). You explore a spaceship which has been taken over by something alien. There are mutations, psychic manifestations, artificial intelligences, and experiments gone wrong. You are underpowered and vulnerable for most of the game, your only help being the guidance of a companion you communicate with over your suit's radio. This is one of those games where my character hid behind a desk and hoped the creatures wandering nearby wouldn't find me ... and even after they left, I was scared to come out. You can also choose how you play the game, and be a hacker, or a scientist, or a soldier, or an engineer. And be warned that this game doesn't pause while you fix the weapon that has just jammed ...


I don't even know what that is - I ran away before I found out. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Two bloodsuckers. An encounter with a single one is usually fatal ... S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
In this case I don't mean the whole game - much of which takes place on the surface of the irradiated land around Chernobyl. But there are underground sections where you explore abandoned bunkers and tunnels, which really give me that Lost Solace feel. Even though you have guns and armour, you never feel safe. There are deadly enemies that will stalk you, and can turn invisible (only their glowing eyes betraying them); others that affect your mind; hauntings and poltergeists; beautiful yet dangerous anomalies. It is creepy to explore, you never know what to expect, or if you’ll survive, as you scavenge for supplies by torchlight while looking for a way out of the hell-hole. The game is loosely connected to the excellent 1971 Strugatsky brothers novel Roadside Picnic and the 1979 Tarkovsky film Stalker.


Even in a straight corridor, you never feel safe while playing Aliens versus Predator as a marine

I don't want to go through that ominous doorway ... Aliens versus Predator

Aliens versus Predator (1999)
If you want speed mixed in with your horror, then this is it: just make sure you play the marine campaign. (The Alien and Predator campaigns are fun, but not scary, because in those you are the monster; but as the marine you are always vulnerable, despite your hi-tech weaponry.) Some of the levels are set on spaceships, and with others you can easily imagine you are on one since the levels are often tight corridors (with Hadley's Hope being the exception). In this game there is no time to rest. You run. You watch the motion detector nervously. You hear the beeps as something closes in, fast. But you can't pinpoint it. Will it drop from above? Pounce from behind? Ambush you at the junction ahead? You throw a flare into the shadows, but it doesn't help - now you can only see hellish red flickering light, and deeper shadows everywhere else. Death is coming, and you don't know which way to run. You shoot at nothing; you spin and shoot behind, in case it's coming from there. Even on the easiest difficulty level (which is the one I recommend) your heart will often be pounding. You know you'll die if you panic, and the only way to survive is to keep moving, keep calm, cover all directions, don’t waste time or ammo, and watch the dark corners and entry points.

(Note: I refer to Aliens versus Predator by the name it was released under, and which was on my boxed version, rather than the name it now has on sites that sell it - the trend of publishers releasing new games with the same name and then retrospectively renaming the earlier versions is confusing.)


There you go - hopefully at least one game there will give you the Lost Solace feel. Have I missed any? Feel free to suggest others (and say why they fit the book) in the comments. Or suggest games that resemble my other books (e.g. I counted Resident Evil 4 as one of the inspirations for Turner in this list).

Oh, and if you've read all this and don't know what Lost Solace is - it's my latest book.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Focus On The Act, Not The Actor - Cockygate


I'll probably get flack for this, but what the hell ...

If you haven't come across the hashtags #cockygate #byeFaleena then you're probably not an author.

They're applied to a recent issue where the successful romance author Faleena Hopkins trademarked the word "cocky" in relation to romance book titles, a move that has caused widespread consternation.

If you want to get up to speed then here are some possible source articles (I'm not vouching for any of them, but they all contain parts of the background):
I think it was a dick move to trademark the term, and there are all sorts of issues around whether it should have been allowed, the copyright on the font etc. It has really backfired on her, and I support the current attempts to overturn the trademark.

However, the amount of vitriol and hate that has been poured upon her as a person in many places online is totally out or proportion to what she did. Often cruel stuff, and sometimes based on misunderstandings (for example, it wasn't preventing use of the word Cocky, even in book titles - only in those in the same genre). I am not defending the trademark attempt - as I said already, since I am generally against moves like that and favour more open copyright laws - but I always get an uneasy feeling when I see anyone being vilified online in the way she has been, out of all proportion to the foolish mistake she made. Huge companies get a free pass for acting much worse than this every day (e.g. Apple has over 280 trademarks and won't hesitate to take people to court to defend them, as would Disney, Microsoft, etc etc). Look at all the hassle Amazon [here; here] or Paypal [part 1; part 2] caused me, without provocation or reason. Politicians and councils do worse every week and it quickly fades away.

I'm totally for attacking the way trademarks can work and for overturning this. I'm fine with pointing out why this was a bad move on her part and why others shouldn't do the same. But I think it should always be done in a balanced way, and remember that there's a real person involved, who is probably feeling very bad right now (whatever front they put on as a public persona). Critical (in the true sense) is good. Hatred and attacking are bad. We should always also try and see things from the other side, and make sure we are focussing on the act more than on the individual. Some of the stuff I've seen makes me feel like it's a modern day witchhunt, yet the truth is she made a bad business decision that is causing hassle for some other authors but which will probably get overturned - she hasn't killed anyone's children, or exploited resources from poor countries, or deforested countries for palm oil etc etc. It's just worth bearing that in mind.

She closed a few of her social media accounts since the weekend (e.g. Facebook and Instagram) and most ways of being able to contact her, which is always a worrying sign. This blew up very quickly and I think the anger people naturally felt at the action escalated when fuelled by all the encouragement to target her as a person. It makes me feel concerned and also despairing of how the two sides seem to have pushed each other further into separate corners when an ideal world would have seen cooperation and mutual understanding that led to an outcome that benefited all of them (e.g. Faleena dropping the TM issue and apologising, and other authors in turn supporting her over the issues that led to this in the first place: all authors lifting each other up rather than publicly tearing each other down).

An important rule we should always apply to our own behaviour is: don't be a dick. That doesn't mean we can't be activists. It's important to challenge things and change bad things. But don't go overboard and become personal. Always remember that the person we're facing and disagreeing with is just that - a person too. And the image of ourselves we project publicly, especially on social media, is not always the reality.

Update: I was asked "What the hell did she expect?"

In reality, I imagine she didn't expect the magnitude of this response. Whether that's through naivety, or following bad advice, or because trademarks and branding are standard and everyday things in many areas and go without comment. I certainly don't think she expected it to blow up like this.

I know I have misjudged things myself in the past, sometimes badly, both private and public things. I'm grateful I never got called out on them in such a huge way. None of us are perfect.

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Thursday, 3 May 2018

Some Things Pass Me By

Me, in the Chateau de la Rochefoucauld, France, 2012. You may kiss my ring.

In a writers' group recently an author was worried that their book sales might be hampered by coinciding with some UK royal wedding. A few of us didn't even know about one. As I said: "I live in the UK and had no idea that there was going to be a royal wedding. I guess if your target audience are obsessed with rich people and hereditary privilege, then hold back. If your audience are normal, then go ahead, you'll be fine."

I think another author was surprised that I didn't know about this wedding. I suspect that people think I'm pulling their legs sometimes, but - as usual with me - the more outlandish things I say are generally 100% true.

Then again, I will admit that I am not normal. I don't have a TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers. I use a lot of websites but not general news ones like the BBC - I go to sites related to particular topics such as the environment, animals, music, ancient history, horror, and so on. So I tend to know lots about the subjects I'm interested in, and what the current issues are, but not "general news" (which, to me, isn't news, just distraction). My friends tend to be people like me, so we'll discuss music, and games, and food, but not things like royalty or TV programmes. So all that kind of stuff genuinely passes me by. My mum watches TV and is always saying, "Oh, such and such is doing x or y" and I have no idea who she is referring to, because it's some TV celebrity that does not cross the nexus of any of my interests. There you go. :-)

Oh, and I don't believe in marriage either, so it's even less likely to cross my radar! Let alone total strangers I have nothing in common with getting married.

Still, you are welcome as guests at my castle any time.

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