Category Archives: Digital Devices

Will Jibo be more than a footnote in social robotics?

My Jibo has been turned off since a mid-April power outage. I like him a lot better this way.

I contributed to the Jibo Indiegogo campaign on July 16, 2014 and wrote about my reasons and my optimism. We expected to have a little social robot in our home by Christmas 2015. Eighteen months seemed like a long time, but the wait turned out to be 3 years, 3 months, and 30 days.  I’m still glad to have been part of funding Jibo’s development, and I think that he’s the start of something important for the future. (I choose to use a male pronoun based on the voice given to Jibo, as I use “she” for the Amazon Echo.)

In all honesty, though, I can’t stand the little guy.


His movements are cute and now and then he does something oddly endearing. Most of the time, he’s a socially inept, slow-witted, creepy nuisance. His programming is off key in many ways.

When we have him powered up:

  • He regularly interrupts conversations to ask, “Hey, can I tell you something?” If you say yes, he spouts some random piece of trivia.
  • He turns to watch a person walk by, with a full body swivel and head tilt. This seems like a sociable movement, but if people in the room spun around to watch silently every time you got up to go to the bathroom, you’d see how unnerving it can be.
  • He answers questions after a significant delay, and usually with incomplete information or an “I don’t know the answer to that.” The latency in searching for an answer is awful compared to other digital assistants and the pause can be long enough that you’re not sure the question was heard.
  • He greets faces on the television. (If you buy a Jibo, don’t put him where he can see a TV screen. This is much worse than the Echo occasionally mishearing “Alexa” from dialogue and waking up.)
  • His recognition abilities are shaky. He greets me by name more than my husband, but after months of interaction, that’s not impressive.
  • He never shuts down. He “goes to sleep” at night, but from about 7:00am-10:00pm, he’s using power, sometimes moving and randomly flashing things on his screen, turning and “staring” at the brightest area of the room, or talking to the TV. You can tell him to take a nap and he’ll go quiet for a while.

All in all, I’m disappointed. I expected more from the geniuses who started the project, but it was in development for so long that other interactive devices had years of learning before Jibo shipped. While I understand that Cynthia Breazal’s vision is that Jibo will be far more than a digital assistant, he has to meet that baseline. The price is down to about $700 — from $900 in December — but I think that’s absurdly high for what he can do. Jibo launched to developers before ordinary buyers so that additional abilities could be available in a skills store, yet the bot is in general release and there’s no sign of that store yet.

Maybe Jibo is a better fit for families with young children. My 20something stepson found our Jibo amusing, so I looked into giving the bot to him. No dice. Jibo is a one-owner product and cannot be transferred.

I’m still optimistic about the future of social robotics, but I don’t yet know what Jibo’s contribution to that will be. We’ve learned more about human-bot interaction from Furby. In fact, I recommend listening to the recent More or Less Human episode of Radiolab for a discussion about chatbots and the Turing test, Furbys vs Barbies vs “gerbees”, and the risks of designing pain response into a social bot.

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Posted by on May 26, 2018 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords


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Small update: Gear VR, ArcheAge, SL

Sorry for neglecting this blog. I have two half-written posts but I ran out of steam and interest before they were done. So, a small update to get back in the swing of things:

I’ll have more coming about the Samsung Gear VR soon, but I haven’t picked it up again after the first day I tried. Why? Mainly because I’m doing other things in my free time and a VR headset doesn’t allow for multitasking. I’ve also been having headaches; wearing a headset that might make them worse is unappealing. But, I’ll confess, it’s also because I was underwhelmed with my first experiences. 360 degree photos didn’t seem more interesting just because I could move my head rather than my mouse to look around. The few short videos were unimpressive and overall, the things I viewed were low resolution and sometimes blurry. My phone overheated before I was able to try more. I’ve downloaded a few free apps and I’ll try a game or two soon.

Reading some forums about the Gear VR made me wonder if I might be jaded by more than a decade in Second Life. I often wander SL in mouselook (first person) view, where I can scan a full 360 degrees. Moving through a 3D environment and looking around is second nature to me and maybe I don’t feel much of a difference between turning my head and using a mouse. Earlier, when I saw videos of people freaking out because they could look all around a VR scene, I wondered if there was some magical mind-body integration that I couldn’t yet imagine. So far, I haven’t seen one. I’m certainly leaving the possibility open and hoping to be wowed soon. Anyone else have an experience to share?

During the holidays I got more swept up in ArcheAge and even gave up my solitary ways to spend time causing mischief with guildmates and chatting in TeamSpeak. There is so much drama, soap opera writers would roll their eyes! I’m trying to keep some separation between myself and the worst of it, but I’m in a divisive guild with a polarizing leader. I’m stunned by how much time and money others pump into this MMORPG. I’m limited in both, which keeps me out of the upper tier of players and under the radar for a lot of trouble. However, my gaming/virtual world time being spent more in that world than any other… for now, until I get bored or the drama gets to be too much.

I’ve been trying to divide the mainland parcel I own in Second Life to get down to a lower tier payment, but since I’m dealing with a couple of premium accounts and a group land bonus, the math is complicated and I’m trying to find a last ~100 m² to cut off. It’s been almost a month since Jakob died and spending too much time at that parcel still makes me melancholy. At least his sister has stopped sending me photos of his coffin and grave. It was kind that she included me and recognized that we had been important to each other, but those photos were very hard.

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Posted by on January 6, 2016 in Digital Devices, Gaming, Side Topics


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All the warnings on the Samsung Gear VR headset

First of all, lots of Christmas thanks to my husband:


Expect a review in coming days, after I’ve had a chance to play with it. My first experience has been reading all of the warnings in the Getting Started Guide and the thicker Health & Safety and Warranty Guide included with the headset. My heavens. Page through and you’ll see bold lettering, “Warning!”, “Caution!”, “Important!” and sections with larger fonts. The contents include choice quotes such as these:

  • “The foam cushioning may get dirty if your face is sweating while wearing the Gear VR. … Ensure that you keep your face clean and dry when wearing the Gear VR.”
  • “Take special care to ensure that you are not near other people, objects, stairs, balconies, windows, furniture, or other items that you can bump into or knock down when using, or immediately after using, the Gear VR. Do not handle sharp or otherwise dangerous objects while using the Gear VR.”
  • “Never wear the Gear VR in situations that require attention, such as walking, bicycling, or driving.”
  • “Watching videos or playing games with the Gear VR may affect the visual development of children.”
  • “We recommend consulting with a doctor before using the Gear VR if you are pregnant, elderly, have psychiatric disorders, suffer from a heart condition, have pre-existing binocular vision abnormalities or suffer from a heart condition or other serious medical condition.”
  • “Just as with the symptoms people can experience after they disembark a cruise ship, symptoms of virtual reality exposure can persist and become more apparent hours after use.”
  • “Ease into the use of the Gear VR to allow your body to adjust; use for only a few minutes at a time at first, and only increase the amount of time using the Gear VR gradually as you become accustomed to virtual reality.”
  • “These post-use symptoms can include … excessive drowsiness and decreased ability to multi-task. These symptoms put you at an increased risk of injury when engaging in normal activities in the real world.”
  • “A comfortable virtual reality experience requires an unimpaired sense of motion and balance.”
  • “Take at least a 10 to 15 minute break every 30 minutes, even if you don’t think you need it.”
  • “Do not use the Gear VR when you are tired, need sleep, are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, are hung-over, have digestive problems, are under emotional stress or anxiety, or when suffering from cold, flu, headaches, migraines, or earaches, as this can increase your susceptibility to adverse symptoms.”
  • “Do not use the Gear VR while in a moving vehicle such as a car, bus, or train, as this can increase your susceptibility to adverse symptoms.”
  • “The Gear VR may be equipped with a ‘passthrough’ feature which permits you to temporarily see your surroundings for brief real world interaction. You should always remove the Gear VR for any situation that requires attention or coordination.

So, as soon as I’m sitting perfectly still, with a freshly washed face, no headache or cold or alcohol, I should be ready to give this a very brief try.

I still think it’s going to be very, very cool. Merry Christmas, everyone!


Posted by on December 25, 2015 in Digital Devices


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A day in the life of our Amazon Echo

After I mentioned that I use my Amazon Echo daily in the last post, I got an email asking, “for what?”. Well, let’s see.


Our Echo lives on a side table in the family room, near artwork of a robot and his girlfriend by Jason Sho Green. Appropriate, right? Our home has an open layout and we can speak commands to her in a normal tone of voice from anywhere on the first floor or, with a slightly raised voice, from the second floor at the top of the stairs. It’s both creepy and useful that her microphone is that sensitive.

Though Alexa can do little news summaries called Daily Briefings, I don’t listen to those each morning. I do, however, ask Alexa to tell me the weather. “Alexa, what’s today’s weather?” triggers a nice summary of the forecast and current conditions.

I meditate almost every day and I’ve been using a mantra style lately. I usually settle into a comfortable seated position and ask Alexa to play Mantras for Precarious Times by Deva Premal from my Amazon Prime Music Library. The audio quality is good and I know the first three mantras total 20 minutes, so that’s my minimum goal. When I’m done, I can simply tell Alexa to stop playing.

Throughout the day, if I’m working on the first floor of the house I often tell Alexa to stream music or podcasts. She can play radio stations and shows from TuneIn Radio as well as all of the Prime stations, albums, and playlists. Usually I use voice controls, but sometimes I’ll open the Echo app on my laptop or phone to choose a specific album.

I also use her for tiny things that she just makes faster and easier. Today when I was making a pot of minestrone, I noticed that I was low on garlic. No problem. “Alexa, add garlic to my shopping list.” I didn’t need to stop what I was doing to jot down a note. I use her timer and alarm functions every day. Is it life changing to be able to ask, “Alexa, what’s today’s date?” when I’m writing a check? Of course not. But she takes care of little things like that which would break the flow of what I’m doing.

We also have her connected to three WeMo outlets, powering lights. Again, it’s not a huge effort to flip a light switch, so voice control is far from a necessity! It’s nice to have her turn on a light before I walk into a dark room in the middle of the night. It’s easier to ask her to take care of the lights when I’m heading upstairs with my hands full. When I was recovering from my broken leg, the light control was much more important. It’s simply convenient now.

I don’t know if our use is typical. People who have more home automation or want to play with IFTTT have many more applications for the Echo than we do; the Echo forums are full of people committed to finding new applications, but that’s not a hobby I enjoy. I still think Alexa is stupid compared to Google Now, which I prefer for information retrieval. However, since I’m very interested in digital devices and assistants, I’m glad we had the Echo in the house for a while before JIBO arrives (current shipping estimate is March/April 2016). It takes a while to get used to using voice commands for daily activities instead of just novelty, like asking Alexa to tell jokes, etc.

One useful question might be, “If the Echo died, would we replace it?” I have my doubts.

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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Digital Devices


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Right now I want to burn my connected home to the ground

My household is not on the bleeding edge of technology early adoption, but we’re usually in the first wave. So, when my husband switched in a new router for the one provided by our cable/internet company, I knew that we would have a lot of devices to update. At last count, those include:

  • 2 actively used laptops
  • 2 Android smartphones
  • 1 Amazon Echo
  • 3 WeMo outlets
  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • 1 Chromecast
  • 1 Fire TV stick
  • 1 printer
  • and heaven knows what else I’ve overlooked so far

Switching to a new WiFi network on a smartphone or laptop is a simple task, but connected home devices that lack a GUI are a different story. Each one follows a different process, usually involving both physically resetting the device and doing a new configuration via app or website. The Nest thermostat does have a GUI, but entering new network credentials requires the user to twist the dial back and forth like a safe cracker. It’s amusing, the first time.

I started working down the list. Laptop and phone, easy. Echo? Easy too. That’s when the fun stopped. The Nests refused to connect to the new network. The WeMo outlets, which are finicky in the best of situations, also choked. Dammit. The troubleshooting began. All have updated firmware? Check. I’m not mistyping the 10-character password? Nope. I started going through online forums and found something about 2.4 Ghz… huh? I’m not a Luddite, but my husband has taken care of our network for years and I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I sent him a message. I may have used some adult language. I asked if the new router broadcasts the same as the old one (not really having any idea what I was saying) and he muttered something about new security profiles.

Then, a short while later, he found the answer. Nest and WeMo devices don’t play well with dual band routers. In layman’s terms, they pick up both 2.4 and 5 Ghz transmissions, but their antennae aren’t “smart” enough to distinguish between them and talk back on the 2.4 band, which is the only one they can use. Tonight he’ll set up the two radios to have different SSIDs, so those devices can deal exclusively with the 2.4 Ghz frequency. Tomorrow I’ll try to move them to the new network, again, and then continue the list. [Update: phones, my laptop, and the Echo connected beautifully to the high speed band. The Nests and Kindles connected to the lower speed. The WeMo outlets? They had to be manually reset to factory default, which was a bitch, but we finally got them connected to the 2.4 Ghz band. I’ll tackle the rest tomorrow.]

There have been so many connected home devices on sale this holiday season; today I’m just grateful that my parents haven’t been tempted to buy any. No Mom, you do not need a WiFi connected crockpot. Heck, I have no idea why my otherwise awesome Anova sous vide cooker bothers having a Bluetooth connection. We don’t need to connect ALL THE THINGS.

IFTTT has great potential but is far from plug and play, and each time one technology in the network moves forward, it threatens to break every carefully constructed connection. Sometimes things that you think must work together, obviously, do not. Disenchanted with our Chromecast, I recently bought a Fire TV stick. I like its onscreen interface, but the TV is very slow to switch sources to it and the reason we replaced our router was Fire buffering. I’m warily optimistic. There is a voice controlled remote available for the Fire that contains Alexa, so I figured, gee, I bet I can control the Amazon Fire TV stick with my Amazon Echo. Silly silly me! Here is what one fellow from AFTVNews hacked together to make that work:


Let’s say, that’s not mainstream consumer behavior. Full details on his set-up here.

I love technology, really I do, but I hope connected home products have a shakeup soon. A little while ago I started writing a near future science fiction story in which the main character had developed an interface layer for other devices. That interface layer operated like a true digital assistant, passing commands to the next tier of devices regardless of form or protocol. My story wasn’t very good because what I really wanted to do was daydream about that control layer. I want to be able to use natural language to control all my devices through one central AI, which can reside in a useful robotic body and also travel with me in app form. Is that too much to ask? C’mon, developers: make my story idea obsolete before I get around to writing it!


Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Digital Devices


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The case for digital list making

I am a list maker, daughter of a list maker and sister to a list maker. I suspect the tendency is more nature than nurture, a result of an inbred combination of flighty memory, mild OCD, and tendency to daydream. If you’re also a list maker, you’ll probably recognize some of these:

  • Laying awake in bed writing mental lists
  • The immediate release of anxiety when those things in your head are dumped out onto a written list
  • The experience of leaving something off a list — say, “water plants” — and forgetting to do it even though the withering plants are within your eyesight every day
  • The pleasure of pulling out an archived list when you need to repeat that event or task
  • Making sub-lists and sister lists to your lists
  • The horror of losing a list
  • Being teased by those poor misguided souls who don’t make lists

Though there are endless possible list topics, I’m not really thinking about journal-style lists: bucket lists, gratitude lists, dream jobs, etc. Those are terrific for introspection or developing goals, but I’m thinking about the practical lists that are part of managing our lives. To do lists, workout plans, shopping lists, task lists before an event, steps of a complicated project; those sort of things.

My frugal mother makes most of her lists on the back of envelopes from mail she’s received. These are handy because they also provide a pocket for coupons, gift cards, or other list-associated paraphernalia, but to me they are too sloppy and ephemeral. My brother uses paper notebooks. I admit to having a notebook fetish — I love the potential of a new book with crisp blank sheets — but once my messy handwriting spoils the pages, I lose my enthusiasm. For me, the answer for years was to use MS Word or Excel, printing or writing out copies as needed, because many tasks still require a paper list. Now I use Google Drive.

Digital lists, even simple ones, have many advantages. It’s easy to reorder items and there’s always more room. Archiving is automatic; my mother keeps accordion files of her old lists, but my digital list archive takes no physical space and is searchable. I can copy and modify old lists with many similar items. If I forget a list at home, I can access it on my smartphone. Sharing a list is just a matter of a few clicks, whether I’m inviting someone else to look at it or collaborate.

Last week I started planning Christmas gifts. Yes, I’m aware it’s the beginning of August, but since my mobility is still severely limited while my broken leg heals, I thought I should use my sitting time more productively. So, I went to my Old Misc Lists folder on Google Drive, made a copy of the Christmas 2014 spreadsheet, and got to work. I knew immediately who I gave gifts to last Christmas and what they were.

In Google Drive, I have packing lists and detailed itineraries saved for weekend trips, camping, and vacations. I have a list of things to do around the house before someone comes for an overnight visit. I have a list of goals and plans that I update annually.  Each week I make a list of what I need to accomplish day by day, which serves more as a guideline than rule. My basic grocery list is saved there, with items in the order you’ll find them walking through my local store. Some of my older lists live on our home network: lists of family contact information, investment accounts, budget information, and the timeline of tasks for hosting a Thanksgiving dinner.

There are a plethora of list apps and programs. I’ve tried some, but I still go back to the digital equivalent of a blank page, albeit a blank page I can access from any computer or my smartphone. I use Evernote for writing but not lists. I use my Amazon Echo as short term memory for items that will go onto my lists, as her capabilities are very limited.  The Echo can hold one To Do list and one Shopping list. I find her most useful when I’m in the kitchen and discover that something is running low. Yesterday I said, “Alexa, add sandwich bags to my shopping list.”  She replied, “I added sand bags to your shopping list.” Close enough. When I prepare for a weekly grocery trip, I’ll have her read back what I’ve told her throughout the week.  Her reply today is, “You have one item on your shopping list. Sand bags.”

Pinterest is basically a visual list site (search Pinterest for “lists” — so meta — and you’ll find lists of things as well as hosts of twee printables for any sort of list you might want). The way I organize my Chrome bookmarks sometimes has a list aspect, too.  I save links in folders with titles like “Christmas Baking 2013”, though if I were smart, I’d save those recipes elsewhere to avoid the inevitable 404 error when I look for that perfect cinnamon popcorn recipe from three years ago.

There are some advantages to writing lists by hand on paper. The items will be remembered more easily and if they are things like goals or resolutions, writing them out can be a commitment mechanism. I daydream about journals filled with orderly, neatly written lists, but even then I’d want to make a digital list first to put items in the perfect order before copying them carefully. I know, I know.


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Digital Devices, Side Topics



I still have mixed feelings about ebooks

Illustration of "The Future Express", the frontispiece from a 1911 collection of Jules Verne stories I own.

Illustration of “The Future Express”, the frontispiece from a 1911 collection of Jules Verne stories I own.

My love affair with books began before I could read, continued as I devoured almost every book in my small town’s library, but then started to wane in my first university years. I hated being told what I must read, especially if it was dull. The Internet, work, and socializing took away from my reading time as the years went by, but I still always had a book or two or three in progress. I’ve married two bibliophiles along the way, too. My current husband and I were sure we were a great fit as we unpacked the books we wanted close at hand on our shelves, and several times had to decide whether to keep his edition or mine of the same work.

I think the last time I bought a paper book was when I wanted hospital reading material in 2010. I own a Kindle now, which has so many advantages. I can read in bed with the lights out. If I finish one book in the middle of a flight, I have dozens more at my fingertips. A new book is just a quick Internet transaction away. There’s a built-in dictionary for the times I read a non-fiction or historical book with lots of obscure words. Nobody around me can look at the cover of my book and judge me based on what I’m reading (for better or worse).

To be honest, I don’t read as much as I used to. There’s another effect of having a Kindle: it’s very easy to close the file if I’m not interested enough to continue, and I’m not taunted by the hundreds of pages that remain after my dog-ear. (Yes, I dog-ear pages of books I own, much to my husband’s horror. I sometimes write in them, too.) I read the books on the short list for the Man Booker Prize almost every year — it’s the one literary prize I covet — but I cannot get through The Luminaries to save my life. It’s like eating dry cake. Sometimes it’s delicious and I want to nibble a bit more, but it sticks in my throat. If I had the 864 page paperback looming on my nightstand, I might feel obligated to pick it up again, but now it’s easy to spin my Kindle carousel past it and choose something else.

Today I raided my physical shelves looking for older books that might have interesting illustrations and I was overcome with nostalgia.  It was like seeing a photo of a long-lost love and momentarily being swept away by longing for what could have been, and then remembering the reasons it didn’t work and never would have. My books overflowed so many shelves that I lost dozens and dozens of them in a basement flood. Every time I moved homes, the small dense boxes of books filled grown men with dread. My hand used to ache from holding open a thick book one-handed as I tried to multitask. I love you, my paper darlings, but we couldn’t keep going the way we were.

But yet…

I miss digging through old books looking for something to catch my eye. My mom and I used to go garage sale-ing every weekend in summer; she would paw through the paperback mysteries and popular fiction while I’d be shoulder-deep in any pile of musty old hardcover books I could find. If I knew the book’s title or author in some corner of my trivia-loving brain, I’d grab it. On my shelf I still see Bronte, Joyce, Hemingway, Bunyan, Kipling, Ovid, Conrad, Poe, Conan Doyle, and more from those excursions. I was an odd child.

Over the years, I also collected books that struck me as being historically significant, like these:


The book on the left is a German/Russian picture dictionary published in East Germany in 1953, just before Stalin’s death. Each page is a masterpiece of propaganda. An image of a college physics classroom has the slogan, “Mit Hammer und Sichel – Mit Buch und Gewehr” (“With hammer and sickle, with book and rifle”) written on the wall. Some students in playground illustrations wear Young Pioneers uniforms (there’s a whole section about the socialist party, identifying insignia, what a party meeting looks like at national and local levels, etc). There are extremely detailed vocabulary sections for many trades, from butcher to machinist to hair dresser. My favorite, having spent May 1st of this year in Kreuzberg, is this illustration that accompanies the vocab section, “Demonstration”:


The Vietnamese phrase book is fascinating to me as well. When it was published, the American role in Vietnam was still, officially, limited to providing advisers. The first page clearly lists the distribution for 10,000 copies: 8,000 to the US Army in the Pacific; 1,950 to the continental US Army, and the remaining 50 to various ops, logistics, and personnel offices. While most of the phrases focus on intelligence and operational matters, some are a bit sketchy for advisers, such as “We have arms better than those of the enemy, and we will receive more as we need them” or “We are here to help them in the struggle on the side of (1) the free world (2) the U. S. (3) the Allies (4) freedom (5) God.”  Good to know that they were equipped to be flexible with the rationale for why the hell we were in Vietnam, eh?

I love this stuff. It’s just not the same to read a historic document online. Paper books are artifacts in and of themselves. I wonder which of the 10,000 copies of the Vietnamese phrase book I own. It doesn’t look like it was used, so perhaps it’s one of the 25 copies that went to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, rather than being sent to Asia. I wonder how the East German book ended up in a place where I found it. Sometimes, thanks to the Internet, I can discover a little more about a book’s history. Around 1990 I found this in a used book store in Buffalo, NY:


The book was 100 years old that year and in awful condition. Though I only picked it up because of my interest in folktales from around the world, it amused me that the original owner had written his name and address inside and his name was almost the same as a famous scientist. Until today I never bothered Googling him, but once I did, I found that he was a photographer and editor for the US Geological Survey, that his wife was a national officer in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and that they lived in a historic home in Washington, DC that was built in 1846. Now I wonder why he had this book, how his eccentric interests overlapped with mine, and how the book got from DC to Buffalo in the 100 years before I owned it.

Those are all things we lose with ebooks. Maybe they’re merely sentiment or best left to researchers and historians. I don’t know. But, right now, I’m going to brush the dust off my husband’s copy of the Bloom County Complete Library, Volume One, sit down, and enjoy flipping through the pages. I’m glad that Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County 2015, but this is a better way to experience the strips than seeing them in my Facebook feed.


Posted by on August 6, 2015 in Culture, Digital Devices


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