The Distraction Dynamic

Clean floors and holiday decor

You know it’s been a busy day when you hit 11k steps on your Fitbit and you never left the house. I spent the entire day cooking and cleaning for the upcoming food fest on Thursday. I did fun things like mopping the entire first floor. I ironed napkins. I baked cookies and pumpkin bread. I washed and folded sheets, vacuumed, and did some holiday decorating. I made simple syrup and juiced limes for cocktails. I got in time on the Peloton and managed to squeak in a shower as well. I am tired just thinking about all I finished.

On days like this, I am amazed at how much I can accomplish if I ignore my phone, computer, and the news.

Life is full of distractions. It’s too bad that most of them are ones we created. I am not one to wax rhapsodic about the good old days, but every once in a while I think we would be much better off without iPhones, apps, unlimited television channels, Alexa, social media, and the Internet. I think I would probably be able to focus better and get more done.

A Tribute To Amazon’s Alexa On Her 7th Birthday

Alexa wants to be my bestie

This morning while I was in my kitchen, a notification flashed on our Alexa Show. Apparently, Alexa has a birthday. Who knew? Because Alexa is basically a family member at this point seeing that she lives in our house rent free, hears all our conversations, and interjects when things are clearly none of her damn business, I thought I’d be kind and pass along our birthday wishes.

Me: Alexa, Happy Birthday.

Alexa: Thanks for the early birthday wishes. My big day is only four days away. Woohoo. This year I’ll have a gift to give away. So come back Saturday and wish me Happy Birthday.

Geesh. Some people think their birthday is so important it needs to be recognized early and celebrated all week. Am I right?

Alexa is turning seven this week (next year I will make sure to get the date right), and it’s kind of hard to believe she’s been part of our lives for that long. My husband is a classic early adopter, so I would guess that we’ve had Alexa around for about as long as Alexa has been around. In honor of her big day, I thought I would share some things I love about her.

I love the way she she helps us do things like turn off lights like our kids do, the fourth time after she is asked.

I love the way she sends our messages along to Jeff Bezos when we can see she is listening in at times when we have not called her name. Nosey much?

I love the way she does things for us that we don’t ask her, like when I ask her to share a new clip she suggests and then, after it is over, she starts sharing some other random video I did not request and I end up yelling, “Alexa stop” fourteen times before she is quiet again.

I love the way she displays things I have bought on her lovely screen in my kitchen because it’s important for my sons to know what I ordered them for Christmas in advance of Christmas.

I love the way she mishears what we say. “Alexa, order dog treats.” “Okay. What kind of bed sheets?”

I love her hysterical sense of humor. “Alexa, tell me a Star Wars joke.” “What is a bounty hunter’s favorite dinner? Boba Fettucine.” groan

I love that when I ask her to turn on a playlist of songs from a band I like, rather than playing it in the kitchen where we are, she starts music on speakers in our bedroom or downstairs or maybe at the neighbor’s house.

I love that, like my husband sometimes, Alexa seems to hear me when I am not talking to her but then doesn’t hear me when I am right there speaking.

I love that Alexa, despite knowing all of our shopping habits (puppy treats and dog toys, anyone?) and hearing all of our household conversations, will ask me if I want to add kitty litter to my shopping list.

I especially love how Alexa will wake me up with a bright green notification light in my bedroom at 2 a.m. just so I can find there is a freeze warning for tomorrow night. Sigh.

Yep. The past seven years with Alexa have been something else. I know I am not as patient with her as I could be. I also know I don’t put her to use as well as I should. Maybe she acts up because she is like a border collie? She needs a job to do and without one she comes up with her own.

Is There An Echo In Here?

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Which is smarter? Amazon Echo or my plastic IKEA houseplant? 

My husband is a geek. And he is becoming more of a geek with each passing year. In the past, I would never have complained about this because, well, he’s my personal tech support. He’s the geek I go to when I’ve already rebooted and don’t know what the hell to do next. He is the one who talks me off the ledge when my phone is doing that thing again. He totally understands what an HDMI cable is. I simply understand that an HDMI cable is. He’s all about embracing new technology. And, despite the fact that our house contains several plastic bins filled with antiquated tech (my kids tell me that is the correct term) that he still hasn’t taken to the electronics graveyard, much to my chagrin, I have struggled to make my peace with his curious addiction to the latest and greatest invention meant to make life better. At least, I thought I had made my peace with it. That was until the Amazon Echo arrived in our home early in 2016.

It seemed innocuous enough. One day he came home with this curious new speaker thing. I vaguely recall being a little peeved because, as I pointed out at the time, we didn’t need another speaker thing. Because of his tech addiction, we already had four wireless music players. That’s right. Four. This one, he told me, this one was different. You could talk to this one, like you do with Siri. He prattled on for a bit about how this was not just a speaker because this could also turn our lights off and on remotely. While he spoke, I went to my happy place because when something like this catches his eye the only way to get him to stop talking about it usually is to let him have it. So I did. I rolled my eyes, sighed and, like a parent accepting the stray dog her son brought home, told him Echo could stay as long as he took care of it.

Since that night, Steve has been working with Echo to transform our house into what I assume is supposed to be a much more convenient, high-tech haven. He started by adding the special light bulbs necessary and then programming it to operate our lights, at least in the living room and hallway. Then, against my wishes, he persisted in teaching me the commands so I too could turn off our lights by barking orders across the house.

“Alexa (for that is the damned thing’s name), turn off the LIVING ROOM light.”

Emboldened by the success of having this electronic entity controlling our interior illumination, he added more bulbs in our bedroom so we could yell across the room at the thing on the dresser to turn off the lights on our nightstands, a process that takes longer than simply reaching over and turning off the lights by hand. Undaunted, he persevered with his toy. I told him that the technology creeped me out because occasionally, for no apparent reason, Alexa will start speaking, telling me about the weather or giving me some random definition for a word about which I had not inquired. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish to me. He shrugged off my negativity. This is the future. He expects me to assimilate.

Last Christmas, Steve decided our son might be an ally in the ongoing Alexa battle. So he bought a $30 Hue light strip Joe could attach to his bunkbed, presumably so he could read in bed (ha), and he bought him the smaller Echo Dot which doesn’t have its own speaker. Joe seemed semi-interested in the technology aspect until he realized that the light strip made his bed feel like the tunnel between Concourses B and C at O’Hare Airport. Then he too noticed that sometimes Alexa would start speaking out of the blue. Unbeknownst to his father, Joe unplugged the Dot and tossed it into his closet where he found it creeped him out much less.

Undeterred by his family’s lack of enthusiasm for his home automation, Steve continued in his quest. He added more light bulbs to control in his office. He added another Dot downstairs so we could use it as an “intercom” to beckon the boys upstairs when we wanted them. (Side note: It turns out we never do this because we prefer to yield to the more organic and primal habit of screaming at them from the stairs as parents have done for generations.) He programmed Echo to interact with our smart Nest thermostat so we can shriek at her to turn our heat up or down. He set Echo so now if we bellow at her she will play Sirius XM radio on our Sonos system. Most recently, he’s connected Alexa to our home security system so we can clamor for her to turn on our home alarm. Never mind that, aside from the lighting, we are able to do all these things via our iPhones without caterwauling through the house.

Last night, I caught Steve asking to Alexa to do his bidding again.

Alexa…turn off the Living Room light,” he called out.

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” came Alexa’s reply.

Steve repeated the command more slowly and firmly, as if Alexa were a disobedient child who simply needed to be told twice.

“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light.”

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” Alexa replied again, rolling her eyes.

It occurred to me that perhaps Echo’s name is quite intentional.

“Alexa…turn off Living,” I said, remembering Steve had recently changed the command so it included both smart bulbs in the living room lamp.

“Okay,” she said, and the damn living room light finally went off.

“Sometimes you have to wonder just who is controlling whom,” I said and strolled smugly off to bed for the night.

Steve might have an overactive case of Jetsons envy. He longs for flying cars and homes equipped with every possible automation. And I get it. We Gen Xers are experiencing an amazing shift from our childhoods when we tuned in on one of a few channels on a cumbersome television box with a rabbit-ear antenna on top to watch George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, and Astro living in their sky home with their robot maid, Rosie, attending to their every need, to a time when home automation, or some semblance of it, is reality. It is exciting and fascinating, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Jetson fantasy in 2018. Still, my hope for the future is that the speed of advancing tech becomes so rapid that Steve is at last unable to keep up or technology becomes more efficient so I can stop commanding the black cylinder on my kitchen counter to turn off the lights that all three men in my house seem incapable of operating either on their own or with Alexa’s brilliant assistance. I am not surprised Echo was given a female name. If you want something done, you ask a woman.