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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.

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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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Roundup: Star Wars, holiday tech gifts, ArcheAge, yada yada yada

Thank you for all your kind comments about Jakob. Once the waves of grief subsided, I started finding peace with his death. His illness was never going to have a happy ending and it’s a relief to let go of the constant tension of worry and sadness. I don’t have to dread a new crisis each time his sister writes to me. His funeral is Thursday and I’m grateful that it was easy to send flowers to a village in the Rhineland from the other side of the world. Jakob will always be part of who I am.

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Image above from Berkeley Breathed of course. Some heresy: I really don’t care about the new Star Wars movie. I adored the first film of the original series. Robots! Space! Scary creatures in the desert! Darth Vader! Star Wars action figures moved into my Barbie Dreamhouse. After that? Meh. The other two in the first series were fine. A date took me to a midnight premiere of The Phantom Menace and it was hard not to dim his enthusiasm with my wtf exclamations. I hope the new movie is good and more coherent than the last few. If you see it and it’s awesome, let me know.

What technology is on your holiday gift wish list? I’m seeing a lot of hits on my review of the Amazon Echo. I’ve had mine a year and still use it daily, though there’s plenty of room for innovation and improvement. If you’re still looking for ideas, I’m pretty excited about the Anova Precision Cooker I picked up recently ($129 from the Anova website, more expensive elsewhere). This Gizmodo review explains why, with plenty of food porn. As for me, I’ve asked Santa for a Samsung Gear VR. I see it as a starter headset and the device that could spread VR from the narrow band of the innovator market segment into the early adopters.

I’ve remained moderately active in ArcheAge long after I thought I’d give it up from boredom, which says something about the game though I’m an atypical player. I’m not social, I don’t spend lots of money, and I don’t play for hours on end (except for a lazy afternoon on the weekend, perhaps). I’ll never be in the top tier but I’m satisfied. This week I moved from my boring guild of farmers and fishermen to a high level guild that often leads faction raids. I was evaluated on my level, gear, and had to pass a voice interview before I was accepted. It felt good to do my first sea raid with many of my new guildmates and to be praised for my play style. Earning the admiration and respect of one’s peers is a boost, no matter what arena that takes place in. Until No Man’s Sky arrives for the PC next year, you’ll probably find my gaming time spent in ArcheAge.

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Lately I’ve been in Second Life a lot more, relearning how to make small talk and upgrading my neglected avatars (I love the Maitreya Lara body so very much). This week I need to attend the RL holiday party for my husband’s company and that small talk practice will help tame my shyness at the event. Part of that is learning to apply filters to my stream of consciousness again; I’ve had a few years of not holding anything back when talking with my husband and Jakob. When a new acquaintance recently asked some probing questions, in a conversation where I felt that optimistic honesty would be appreciated, I told him the truth about Jakob and my health struggles. His response was more robotic than actual robots and he vanished in a cloud of dust. Ha! I’m not a roleplayer so if I’m asked a personal question that I’m willing to answer, that answer will be true. It will take practice to get back to answering truthfully without spilling my whole life, no matter how nicely phrased.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Side Topics

 

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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:

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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!

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Digital Devices

 

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Roadmap for personal robotic development

We’re on the cusp of robotic assistants appearing in home and office use; not just silent machines vacuuming our floors (or in my experience with the Roomba, getting stuck under our furniture) or in industrial applications, but interacting with us for daily tasks and presenting themselves in anthropomorphic ways. This is on my mind a lot, but last week’s MIT Technology Review article “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits” kept gnawing at me. I’ve got some questions:

  • Why are the first wave of personal robotic assistants so cute and kid-friendly?
  • Is it necessary to train potential buyers with entertaining ‘bots before they will use serious applications?
  • Do cute robots trivialize the potential of these machines?
  • What have we learned from other sources about what adults might want, need, and — most importantly in the long run — actually use?
  • What does the product roadmap look like between Roomba and Rosie, and beyond?

In my previous work life as a project and product manager at Internet companies, it was important to consider not only the current product my team was building, but the competitive landscape, latest research, and how we hoped to iterate the product in the future.  The product roadmap got more speculative the further forward it stretched, and in Internet time, that could mean it was blurry a mere 12 months ahead, but I had some idea where we planned to go. Combined with research, reporting, and user testing, that roadmap would drive the requirements for the next version.

With a number of companies heading in simultaneous, differing development directions, I wonder what the roadmap looks like to people on the inside. Does Cynthia Breazeal want JIBO to become the Furby of 2016, just as irrelevant years later? Is she counting on more adult applications to come from third-party developers, or does she have a track in mind that goes beyond the lovechild of WALL-E and Siri? I look at the “Future Life with Pepper” video from Aldebaran Robotics (below, in Japanese but very easy to understand) and I find it unimaginative and silly.

Some of my irritation with how Pepper is shown could be cultural; I like kawaii things, but I don’t want an infantilized assistant with a high voice. That might say “non-threatening and friendly” to others, but it says “annoying and dumbed down” to me. I would love to have a moving robot with hands right now, if it could fetch or carry things for me while I’m steering my wheelchair or gripping crutches. Stir onions on the stove while they carmelize. Let the dog out. Pick up the ball of yarn I dropped that rolled across the room. Don’t play peek a boo with me when I’m crying, ffs. How useless!

Does the roadmap for personal robotics have to pass through Candyland? Though I find it frustrating for myself as an early adopter, I can see how it could be a viable path. It’s a non-threatening way to get robots into a family home. Children might engage with a cute bot more frequently and naturally than adults with a more serious one, and I suspect that like a digital assistant or a DVR, robots will have more perceived value when used regularly, while that value might be hard to explain to a non-user. Teaching children to comfortably interact with robots could be important to the roadmap in a Wayward Pines First Generation sort of way: they are the future, and when robotic technology has advanced so there are more home and office uses, they will be the programmers, designers, buyers, and users.

Do we have data that could point to what older users want from personal robots in the near future? I’d suggest looking at tablet/phone apps, gadget purchases, and use of digital assistants now. Mail, chat, videos, photography, weather, maps, social media, music, games, search, stock updates, fitness tracking, and news. Communication with other devices on the same network. Notifications delivered in a personalized, prioritized way. Immediate answers to relatively simple questions. Reminders and a calendar.  These are all things that are perfectly suited to a stationary, voice-controlled robot with a display screen. If I were designing a bot of that sort for my personal needs I’d add in: can take dictation and save longer notes, can read a piece of text and answer basic questions about it (“How many cups of flour do I need?” when reading a recipe), can send voice/photo/video messages to other bots of the same/similar type, can act as a receptionist for my mobile phone when I’m home, can interact with my accounts on video sites and the Chromecast/future device attached to my TV (“Play season 2 of Archer on the family room television”), and more.

I think that even at that point in the roadmap, a stationary robot with personality, like JIBO rather than the not-very-clever, screenless Amazon Echo, could be exceedingly useful for remote relationships of various types. My family is spread across the country and my friends are around the world, and just from my own life I can think of many use cases. I can also imagine such a bot as an assistant at work. In a few years, with better communication between devices and programs instead of maintaining silos of information, even this level of robot could be a daily helpmate to many people.

When we start to consider a robot with mobility and limbs, however, we need to think in 3D. The Pepper video fails greatly in that regard. The only shown use of mobility is that Pepper can move toward people and its hands are used for games or expressions. I doubt that’s all we want, but the development path between that and a fully mobile bot with useful appendages that could do housework, for example, is unclear. Our homes have different floor types, thresholds, stairs, and obstacles that must be overcome before we start to consider the fine motor control and grip needed for simple tasks. Still, I can imagine a robot not too far off that could operate on one floor of a home or office and handle small manual jobs as well as providing entertainment. At times, most of us could simply use an extra set of hands to hold, stir, open, carry, or balance something. Is that enough to justify the work necessary to make a mobile robot?  Probably not. I can see the first viable generation of mobile home robots being developed and marketed for the elderly or disabled, with uses customized to those populations as well as the functionality of the stationary bots. When might that be? 10-15 years from now?

It seems that the next step after that is currently undefined. The technological gap that remains before we reach the dream of a robot butler or housekeeper, able to do physical work in any setting, is huge. Maybe we need to give some thought to the roadmap and where we really want personal robotics to be in 20-30 years. Are charismatic androids the best robotic supplement we can imagine?  Maybe there is a fork in the path, where we separate companion bots from more utilitarian bots. Maybe the development curve of smart home/office technology will intercept the robotic curve at a point where the robot can be the control interface, but not need so many skills built in.

Along those lines, I’ve embedded a video below about the characters in the AMC series HUMANS. It’s interesting if you’re watching the series, but even if you’re not, it introduces the androids (“synthetics” or “synths”) as they’re imagined in that parallel present and the interactions that humans have with them. I think that full-service androids like synths are often seen as the endpoint of the personal robotic roadmap. Should they be?

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Personal technology and temporary disability

Silver lining: while my broken leg heals, I’m in a good position to reflect on how personal technology can play a role in surgical recovery (or temporary/permanent disability, or quality of life for the elderly). Now that I have the energy to sit at my computer for a while, I’ll reflect on how that technology has changed in the past few years and the near-future opportunities, as well. I’m still taking narcotic painkillers now and then, so I won’t promise to be coherent.

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Social contact

Having a smartphone with various messaging options and friends/family who use 21st century communication protocols makes such a difference. I’ll contrast my experience with that of my hospital roommate. She was in her early 60s and had a cell phone of some sort, but she only used it for voice calls. That’s better than only having the hospital landline, but still not the best solution. Why not?

  • Annoying in close quarters: I heard every detail of every conversation she had, day or night. While this sometimes provided entertainment — I got to hear her embellish the story of her surgery with each call and gossip maliciously about people she had just spoken with — it was infuriating when I was tired and in pain. The other side of that coin is that she had no privacy. With text messaging, I was able to converse silently at any time.
  • Phone tag vs message threads: One afternoon my roommate was bored and I think she called half the people in her contact list without getting an answer. She left some messages, sighed a lot, and then flipped on the TV. I had conversations underway with my husband, local friends, and distant friends from Oz to the Orkneys, and if there was a pause of minutes or hours while someone slept/worked/ate/did something else, it was no big deal. Asynchronous communication means you don’t always have to stop and start a conversation, but can pop back into a thread as time allows.
  • Presence indicator: In a related vein, when I was having a bored mopey afternoon like she had, I could see who was active online rather than fishing through my address book.

Part of the isolation of being housebound or in the hospital is that the ability to participate in the lives of others is reduced. It’s impossible to attend parties or go to events. Social media allows me to still have a presence in those activities. I won’t argue that watching a concert video my friend posted is the same as going along, but Liking and commenting on it shows I’m aware of and interested in her life; it helps refresh our connection. I can read and watch news to stay connected to the larger outside world, but social media keeps me connected to the more personal spheres.

There are options available that I didn’t use: Skype or FaceTime video chats, for example, or keeping up with other social media platforms, or trying to use Second Life on my phone. Now that I’m home, I can return to virtual world socializing. I don’t have much of an attention span for it yet, but I know I’ll appreciate being able to travel, dance, drive, and simply move through a three dimensional world.

Personal entertainment

I can clearly remember the first time I played an arcade game: Centipede, in Buffalo Children’s Hospital, early 1982. 33 years later I sprawled in my hospital bed and played far more advanced games on my phone. I also had access to a couple hundred CDs from my collection and limitless music streaming on various platforms. I could choose from thousands of streaming movies and TV shows.

My hospital provides each patient a television with a decent selection of basic cable channels. It’s quite nice, but at night when there was less demand on the WiFi network, I propped up my smartphone and streamed Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Being able to choose something for myself when I was dependent on others for my basic needs was invaluable. In a little way, it helped me remain me and feel less lost in the pain and humiliation.

Even now that I’m home, when I can’t sleep I flip open TuneIn Radio Pro and listen to a podcast or play a silly matching game until my eyelids are heavy. Those are much better options than staring at the ceiling and obsessing over the ache in my leg.

Home automation

My Internet of Things automation options are few right now: an Amazon Echo, two WeMo switches, and Nest thermostats. None of these were options for me a mere five years ago, however, so it’s interesting to consider whether they make a significant difference. For me, I think the answer is a firm, “Yes, but….” Yes, these devices make several things much easier and enable more independence, but there is so much potential just over the horizon.

While I can’t climb stairs easily, my bed is in our first floor dining room. The Echo and my Android smartphone give me the ability to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and run the fan if I’m a bit overheated. The Echo recognizes the WeMo switches but not the Nests, which is annoying.  I can say, “Alexa, turn on family room,” to have her activate that WeMo switch, but the IF recipes that can pair Echo with Nest are clumsy hacks, things like “if I add any item to my Echo To Do list, set the Nest to 72 degrees.” There’s significant room for improvement.

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I’m lucky. My stupid body might injure easily, but it also heals like a champ. I expect to be walking again by Fall and my gadgets can go back to being toys more than tools.  For now, though, I’m glad I have more options than I did just a few years ago.

 

 

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Digital device round-up: Disney MagicBand, Amazon Echo, Apple Watch

Feeling mousy

Disney MagicBand

This is about user experience, not just about Disney. You can sneer about Disney if you like, but they are awfully good at designing and managing the experience in their American parks and hotels. The first time I saw “cast members” in Florida vacuuming up puddles after a brief rainfall, I must have been around 12 years old, but the implications stuck with me. The Disney experience is controlled, planned, and created to make a specific illusion, nature be damned. And, I’ll be frank: if you splurge to indulge in the full experience, booking through Disney, staying in one of their resorts and using their transportation and restaurants, everything is consistent, integrated, and cheesy but fun. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Disney fan and my stepson is in his 20s, so I don’t have to deal with the corporation on a regular basis, but I enjoy their parks.

So, this Wired article on the Disney MagicBand is fascinating. A design team was given the specific directive to eliminate friction points in Disney World experience. They came up with a wearable wristband… but the design story and the implications are so much more.  Really, read the article.  It’s about the design process, trading privacy for convenience, and invisible technology. I found it inspiring because I’m a huge fan of user-focused design.

Amazon Echo 

I’ve had Alexa (the trigger name for the Echo) for a few months now and I still find her useful for basic things. I use the timer, alarm, and add to shopping/to do list functions many times each week. It’s incredibly useful to be able to say, “Alexa, set timer for 18 minutes,” while my hands are full or, “Alexa, add salsa to my shopping list” as I shake the last globs out of a jar. That’s difficult to convey in marketing. It’s like trying to convince my parents to use a DVR; it’s hard to understand how useful it is until you live with it for a while, but then it becomes part of daily life.

I suspect that they’ve updated the Echo to hear “Alexa” more easily, or perhaps to be less selective about the pronunciation, because she’s reacted to the TV more in the past couple of weeks than in months before. When I’m watching a show and a disembodied voice suddenly says, “Hmm, I didn’t understand that,” it’s an uncomfortable reminder that she’s always listening. And, she’s listening carefully. I can be halfway across the house and talk to her in a normal conversational tone. Other than what I’ve mentioned above, I use her to stream some podcasts and radio shows, tell me the weather forecast, and play the top news headlines, but I never use her for information I’d get from an Internet search.  Google Now is so far ahead in that functionality that using the Echo is frustrating.

Apple Watch

If someone is going to make a breakthrough, usable design for a smartwatch, the excellent team at Apple is probably the one to do it, but the Fusion article “Class anxiety, brought to you by Apple” nailed a lot of my thoughts. The author makes a point that while many household budgets had to stretch to afford Apple products in the past, it was possible. The fact that anyone from an Uber driver to Mark Zuckerberg could have the same phone was somewhat egalitarian. However, by setting such high prices, they’ve established the edition watches as status items. Let’s be honest, even the $349 sport edition is spendy for a peripheral. The Apple Watch is intriguing, though I think that smartwatches are another example of DVR marketing: hard to understand how/if they can be life-changing until you use one. I stopped wearing a watch decades ago because I find them uncomfortable and distracting. This won’t be the product that changes my mind, and if my husband is going to have an expensive watch, he’d prefer the Leatherman Tread:

 

A personal update 

Jakob was admitted to the hospital yesterday. He was so weakened by chemotherapy that walking a few steps left him exhausted, unable to breathe, heart pounding. He hasn’t been able to eat and the limited nutrition from meal-replacement drinks hasn’t been enough. (For new readers: Jakob — my SL partner — has stage IV stomach cancer that metastasized to his brain. He has had surgery, radiation, and his first cycle of chemo.)

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Digital Devices

 

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Privacy vs. personalization: finding a balance

Try to discuss data privacy with someone outside of the tech world and an indignant, “I don’t have anything to hide!” usually comes up. Yet most of those people not only have locks on their doors, they have doors! Maybe even curtains or blinds on the windows. What nerve, wanting to choose who can rummage through their personal things and watch their every move.

When I worked at a huge Internet company, our first steps into collecting data for the purpose of personalization were made with the best intentions. If we must show you ads in order to provide a service at a reasonable price, isn’t it better if the ads are relevant to you? Focus groups said yes. Won’t you be more interested if we help you find content and services that are connected to topics you already visit regularly? Those certainly had a higher clickrates. There was no nefarious goal but a desire to provide a more compelling product and minimize complaints. Over time, of course, the data gained a value of its own and that thin line between serving and exploiting users has been breached again and again.

This season of Parks & Rec has featured smart satire about a tech company that offers exciting products and services, but with utter disregard for personal privacy (though the company motto is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”) The clip above is one example, where Gryzzl sends gifts to the townspeople of Pawnee that are startlingly appropriate. And that’s the thing: personalization can be wonderful, but when it’s done based on data gathered without your knowing consent, it isn’t ok.

Living with an Amazon Echo, I’m realizing what it’s like to have a digital assistant with very few ties into my personal data. It’s not good. It could be so much more useful by integrating with my email, messaging, calendar, network folders, and my Internet-connected devices. In fact, without those connections I don’t think it can be successful. Though I have some friends who are almost off-grid and others that have overshared since birth, I try to take a middle path: I want the benefits that come from detailed and accurate personal data smartly integrated, but I want my information protected like it was the Crown Jewels and never used or shared without my clear and unambiguous consent. I would like to require reauthorization to use my data, on a regular basis, perhaps every year or two. I believe I should be able to review the data that is collected and how it is being used, and be empowered to request deletions and amendments.

On the theme of reviewing what is collected, I downloaded a copy of my Facebook data this week. Even though I have a good idea of what I share and wasn’t concerned, the contents made me angry. What was in there?  Every event that I had been invited to, not just the ones I had accepted. My entire list of Friends (of course), but also requests sent/received but not accepted. My “Friend Peer Group” was categorized as “Established Adult Life”. Fair, I suppose. They had all of my Wall posts, including activity notes from apps that I have set not to share and that never appear on my Wall on Facebook itself. Every app I’ve used even once to enter a contest. Then, there was the ridiculous Ads Topics list, apparently for targeting purposes. Some of the items seem to be misunderstandings of my other data. Here, take a look at some of the bizarre ones, with my snarky commentary:

  • #Pro-Ject  [huh?]
  • #Harvest (wine)  [wine is lovely, but someone else can pick the grapes, thanks]
  • #Phonograph  [I also like my velocipede]
  • #Jesús Arellano  [who? I have a friend with that surname, but I do not have a friend in Jesús.]
  • #Farmer  [???]
  • #Calendar (Mac OS)  [I last used an Apple product in 1982]
  • #Gramophone record  [for the phonograph, duh]
  • #Shoe  [just one, please]
  • #World  [I keep my stuff there.]
  • #Colors (TV channel)  [?? Apparently a Hindi station. Hmm. I’ve got a color TV?]
  • #Extras (TV series)  [I’ve been an extra, but… I have no idea.]

None of those are particularly awful. It’s not as if they’ve wrongly labeled me as a two-time felon with a heroin habit. However, the items are inaccurate and stupid. I’m torn between more emphatically liking things that appeal to me and liking everything, to screw with the data.

If you’re willing to give away some privacy for a benefit, it’s incredibly important to read the fine print. I smashed my smartphone this week (insert lots of cursing because I’m not at my upgrade date), which gave me a reason to visit the Verizon Wireless website. I wasn’t aware of the Verizon Rewards/Verizon Select program before this, and sure, it sounded appealing: earn points by simply paying my bill and use those points for gift cards and discounts. Great. What’s the catch? Oh, it’s a big one. They’ll analyze my data and sell it to marketers to target ads at me. Here’s an excerpt from their participation agreement about what data they’ll use:

  • Addresses of websites you visit when using our wireless service. These data strings (or URLs) may include search terms you have used.
  • Location of your device.
  • Apps and device feature usage.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics provided to us by other companies, such as gender, age range, sports fan, pet owner, shopping preferences, and ad responses.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics developed by Verizon.
  • Information about the quantity, type, destination, location, and amount of use of your Verizon voice services and related billing information (also known as Customer Proprietary Network Information or “CPNI”).
  • Other information about your use of Verizon products and services (such as data and calling features and use, FiOS service options, equipment and device types).

Wow. There is no way on earth that I would opt in to that. I’m happy with Verizon’s service, but this? No. To make matters worse, a Time article about the program included this quote from Louis Ramirez of dealnews: “If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls.” Hell no.

The balance between privacy and personalization is extremely tough to achieve. I dream of a near future with useful devices, charismatic robots, and meaningful connections in the Internet of Things. That requires me to extend limited trust to corporations who have done little to nothing to earn it. At the same time, it has become clear that putting trust in any level of government is stupid; it makes the most sense to assume my personal data is being collected and can be retroactively searched and misinterpreted to suit any agenda. Whether or not I have anything to hide, I choose to have curtains and doors and locks on those doors; I want and deserve the authority to control access to my personal life.

For now, I seek to find a precarious balance by using privacy tools online (HTTPS Everywhere, Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Privacy Badger, and sometimes Tor). I skim Terms of Service before clicking, and I don’t install apps or programs that want more than I’m willing to give up, no matter how appealing they are. I don’t trust Google, but I choose to use many of their products because they work together and I don’t spread my data across a bunch of services. I have long-term alter ego accounts that I can use if I need, as well. These methods are occasionally annoying, but the whole result is something I can live with. I can keep my optimism and quiet my paranoia, and maybe that’s the best I can hope for right now.

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

 

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Review: Amazon Echo (updated)

My Echo arrived on Christmas Eve and I’m happy with her as what I expected her to be: a music player with some bonus features. As a digital assistant, she’s woefully incomplete. For the sake of not twisting my brain too much, I’ll refer to the Echo as “Alexa” and with feminine pronouns, since Alexa is the device wake phrase and she has a feminine voice. It’s also important to say, for review purposes, that I am an English-speaking Amazon Prime member in the US and I’m blind to the experience for someone who isn’t. (I made some updates to this post on Dec 31 based on questions I’ve received.)

If you submitted your name to Amazon to be invited to purchase an Echo, pay attention to your email. The invitation that I received had an expiration date a week after it was sent, and since it was buried deep in my Gmail Promotions tab, I didn’t see it. I was on the Amazon site for something else and went to the Echo page out of curiosity, which is when I saw that I could add it to my cart. Later I searched Gmail and found the invitation email dated 4 days earlier. If you’re getting impatient, consider that I asked to buy the Echo on the first morning it was available, I’m a long-time Amazon Prime member, and my invitation didn’t arrive until mid-December.

Setup in our household was simple. Plug her in, download an app, enter the WiFi password, and done. I think it took longer to get her out of the packaging. The device herself is black and a bit taller than a bottle of beer (or hard cider, in the photo below). She needs to be plugged in for power, which limits her location somewhat. I’ve already started to feel annoyed because I’d like one upstairs and downstairs, but I’m not about to pay for two when I have JIBO arriving next year, so Alexa gets unplugged and hauled around. She reconnects to the network and says “Hello” within a minute after I move her.

echo_and_cider

The microphone is very sensitive. There’s no need to shout or stand right next to the device.  I can give commands in a conversational tone from across the room, even when music is playing, and there is also a remote for more distant use. If the idea of having a sensitive, Internet-connected mic enabled in your house creeps you out (it should, frankly), it is easy to mute. I haven’t had big problems with getting Alexa to understand me. “Alexa, play something by Bastille” got a response like, “I heard you say you want me to play something by best deal, is that right?”  “No, Bastille.” “Shuffling music by Bastille.”  “Alexa, play music by Thievery Corporation.” “You’d like to hear music by Hal Leonard Corporation, is that right?” “No.” “Ok. What would you like to hear?” “Theee-verrr-eeeee Corporation.” “Shuffling music by Thievery Corporation.” Ok then.

How’s the sound quality? Well, I grew up listening to cassette tapes in crappy players, so I’d say it’s brilliant. Audiophiles would disagree, but it’s a hell of a lot better than my previous speaker solution: propping my smartphone inside a metal bowl. Volume control is good and can be done either by turning a ring at the top of the device or giving voice commands. “Alexa, volume down.” “Alexa, turn it up!”

I’ve been listening to more music since Alexa entered the house, which is nice. “Alexa, play something by Kate Bush.” “Shuffling music by Kate Bush,” replies Alexa, and starts to play whatever she can find on Prime Music. Alexa will also pull from iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio, and I could upload 250 of my own tracks to Amazon’s cloud storage for streaming (or up to 250,000 files for an additional fee). The music available to stream on Prime Music is fairly substantial — I have about 10,000 songs in my library there and have only purchased 4 of those tracks. (It did take some time going through the listings and adding albums to my library, but each add is a one-click process.) I can also connect my laptop or phone via Bluetooth to use Alexa as a speaker. “Alexa, play NPR” makes her play Detroit Public Radio on TuneIn.  “Alexa, play program Radiolab” makes her find the latest podcast. “Alexa, play Jingle Bells” made her find that track on some children’s album. However, “Alexa, play something by Mozart” leads to “Shuffling music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart… You don’t have songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Actually, I have dozens of Mozart tracks in my Prime library, but they are listed by the performer’s name or “Various Artists”. I would have to give the name of a specific album or track. Annoying.  Of course, you can purchase digital music through Alexa. One Click ordering is enabled, but it can be turned off or you can add a 4-digit pin that is required before a One-Click order will be executed.

Alexa will also maintain a To Do list and a Shopping List, but the functionality is limited.  You can add items verbally, but then the list is only accessible in the Echo app. You can’t delete items verbally or have the list read back to you. This can lead to exchanges like this:

Me: Alexa, read my To Do list.

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me (silence)

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me: Nothing.

Alexa: I added nothing to your To Do list.

At least it will be an easy task to complete.

If I ask Alexa for the weather, she will give me local conditions and the forecast for the next 24 hours. “Alexa, what is the temperature in Celsius?” was a fail; she told me today’s weather, in Fahrenheit, and then I had to ask a second question to have her do the conversion. I can ask her for my “Flash Briefing”, which currently gives me the top-of-the-hour news from NPR and the BBC (you can also have her read top stories in a variety of categories via text-to-speech, but I find that painful). I’ll admit, it’s nice to roll over drowsily in the morning, mutter “Alexa, flash briefing”, and listen to the news while my eyes open.

As far as answering questions, Alexa is like Google Now’s stupid cousin. Emphasis on stupid. Things that Google Now would answer easily trigger Alexa to reply (paraphrased), “Hmm, I can’t answer what I think you asked me, but I have sent a Bing search to the Echo app.” If I wanted to search Bing on my phone or laptop, I would have, so I consider every one of those a significant fail. There is also a learning curve for me to understand the limits of her natural language comprehension. “Alexa, when did Austin Powers come out?” was not understood, but “Alexa, when was the movie Austin Powers released?” got me a quick answer.  Sure, she’s programmed with some cutesy answers like other digital assistants, but I’m not looking for her to impersonate Scotty; I want her to tell me what hours my favorite local Thai restaurant is open today. Fail.

Alexa has Timer and Alarm functions, but they are very basic. I’m used to being able to tell Google Now to remind me to do something at a particular time or place, “Remind me to get potstickers at Trader Joe’s” or “Remind me to call my mother at 8:00 Tuesday morning.” Those are both perfectly executed by Google Now. With the Amazon Echo, I’m limited to “Set timer for 30 minutes” or “Set alarm for 4:15 pm.”  Handy, but not impressive. It’s also impossible to leave a note for myself or someone else, which I consider very basic functionality for a standalone digital assistant.

As far as family friendliness, Alexa does not have a parental control setting that can be enabled or disabled. I find it frustrating that she warns me about explicit content before playing songs that have that tag. I’m an adult woman. If I want to listen to Lords of Acid, I don’t need a warning that they’re going to be obscene. On the Echo forums, people have complained that while Alexa will not swear, she will define swear words. It seems that Amazon has already changed some of the Echo’s programmed responses based on forum feedback, leaning toward G-rated responses and “Ask your parents.” Ugh!  Note to Amazon: many households do not have delicate snowflake children in them, and it is a mistake to hobble an electronic device because of the Disney crowd. Add a parental control or obscenity filter that can be turned-on by choice, if you must, but please make the default suitable for adult purchasers. At least, let me turn off the explicit content warning!

Bottom line? I really, really like the Echo as a voice-controlled music player. Until she’s smarter — and that could be hard to do with the databases she is given — she’s not much use as a digital assistant.

Update, New Year’s Eve: Having lived with Alexa for a week now, the novelty is gone but I’m working her into my daily routine. I ask her to play my Flash Briefing each morning when I first come downstairs and am puttering around, feeding the dog and starting coffee. Surprisingly, having a voice-controlled timer/alarm has turned out to be a usability win. I have lots of timer options in the house, built into the oven and microwave or on my smartphone, yet when I had to check baking in 12 minutes, I almost always relied on the clock and my memory. Telling Alexa to set a timer for 12 minutes is something I can do while my hands are full and I’m busy. It feels like no extra effort and adds a lot of benefit.

My 21 year old stepson came over for dinner on the weekend and he was really impressed with the Echo. Alexa kept a stream of Foo Fighters music going in the background while we ate, told us the weather and some bad jokes, and by the end of the night he was asking me how much a Prime membership costs.

I still use Google Now as my primary digital assistant, but Alexa has her role too. For me, part of the point of having an Echo is training my own behavior: I think voice controls are the home automation UI solution for the next decade or so — supplementing and often replacing smartphone/tablet controls — but it takes time to develop a habit of speaking a command instead of using a screen.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2014 in Digital Devices

 

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Random thoughts and Rudolph

Ever start to write about a topic that’s just too large, leaving you wallowing in drafts and rewrites for days?  I did that with a post I began on the weekend, so I started another post to publish while I was thinking. Wouldn’t you know it, the second post is turning into a monster, too. A couple random thoughts will have to do for today, since it’s almost Christmas and I’ve got some last minute elf work to finish!

Playing Rudolph

My Amazon Echo arrives tomorrow. It’s not a comprehensive digital assistant, but I’m hoping it will be a decent voice-controlled music player/Bluetooth speaker with some bonus features. Since my personal data is mostly in the Cthulu-like tentacles of Google, I’d be more excited if Alexa (the Echo) and Google Now could work together (but no — Alexa even uses Bing for search results. Ugh.). I’m envisioning a near future where I have three disconnected digital assistants: Alexa, JIBO, and Google Now. That’s far from optimal user experience. Google Now is almost always in my pocket, JIBO can be moved around the house, and Alexa needs to be plugged into a wall, so I’m seeing Alexa in a niche role, sitting between my writing table and the kitchen to play music and answer simple questions.

I’m critical of Facebook for many valid reasons, but as a place to keep in contact with people I truly like but never see, it’s fabulous. A photo I posted yesterday got “likes” from people I’ve known for more than 40 years and less than 6 months. Family members, high school friends, college friends (from the late ’80s), college friends (from the early ’10s), colleagues at two companies, and friends met first in virtual worlds (gaming/SL). People who are spread around the US and Europe. People ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. People with white, tan, and brown skin. Married/single/partnered, straight/gay/who knows. Military veterans and lifelong hippies, people all over the political spectrum. Of those whose religious faith I know, Catholic, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, atheist, agnostic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Buddhist, and Southern Baptist are all represented. My Australian and Islamic friends were slacking or my list could be a teensy bit more diverse.

I don’t put ads on my blog (though, since it’s a free WordPress site, you might see some). However, I do have links to non-profit organizations in my sidebar. If you do some charitable giving at this time of year, please give them a look. Kiva allows you to make small loans to entrepreneurs and farmers around the world who fall outside of the commercial credit system. Your money is repaid and you can loan it again and again. Doctors Without Borders has been stretched to the limit with the Ebola crisis this year. I have a slight preference for supporting Partners in Health, founded by anthropologist/physician Paul Farmer.  PIH does amazing and caring medical support work; I just don’t have a nifty logo in the sidebar for them yet. (Doctors Without Borders foolishly, in my opinion, rejected offers of assistance from medical anthropologists with experience in West Africa, whereas PIH takes a more holistic approach. They’re both excellent groups and use their resources well.)

This isn’t the easiest of holiday seasons, but if you celebrate at this time of year, enjoy! Christmas is my tradition, so I wish you a happy one.

Merry-Christmas-3-Hd-Wallpaper

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2014 in Relationships, Side Topics

 

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Amazon Echo: it’s hard out there for an early adopter

Really, Amazon? Give a gal (and her credit card) a break!  Now tempting me is the Amazon Echo, announced and offered today. What the hell is it? Well, it’s a speaker, streaming audio device, and a digital assistant (like Google Now or Siri without a screen), and as TechCrunch points out, it could be a cash machine for Amazon.

I’ve been a Prime member for years and I’ve had an Amazon.com account for almost 20 years, and we’ve already seen with my JIBO pre-order that I see the potential for a stationary digital home assistant, so of course I requested an invitation to purchase one. At $99 for Prime members, and since I don’t have a working Bluetooth speaker right now, the price is pretty good. My husband has been bothering me for Christmas gift ideas, too, so I could rationalize it that way.

TechCrunch‘s analysis is probably on point: Prime members buy more from Amazon, they get a 50% discount on the Echo, and you can be sure that voice-controlled purchasing will be a feature. I’m fine with that. I’ve got most of my shopping impulses under control (except for robots and digital assistants, it seems). If I could notice the dog food is getting low and simply say, “Alexa, order Acana dog food,” and have it check my order history, confirm size and variety, and place the order, I’d do a happy dance to streamed Amazon Prime music.

The privacy-aware part of me squirms a bit when I think about the multiple relationships I have with Google and Amazon, but I think they are still beneficial exchanges of data, money, goods, and services. I’ll probably order the Echo if I get an invitation in the first round. Probably.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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