Is There An Echo In Here?


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.

Siriously Awesome

My iPhone screen is bigger than yours…if you have the 4 or 4S.

Today was a red-letter day at my house. The Fed Ex man delivered a lovely, small brown box to me today, a box containing my brand, spanking new iPhone 5. Did you hear the heavens rejoicing as I opened that box and beheld the wonder that is a shiny, happy iPhone? Sigh. It’s been a couple years since I got to sink my teeth into a new Apple, so I couldn’t wait to try it.

After I synched it with my MacBook and got connected through AT&T, my first order of business was to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Siri. My previous iPhone was the 4 and not the 4S, so I had never formally made Siri’s acquaintance.

Me: “Siri, I would like you to call me Justine.”

Siri: “Of course. I will call you Justine. What a lovely name.”

Me: “Siri, do you like pizza?”

Siri: “Surprisingly, I haven’t tried that before.”

Me: “Are you my friend?”

Siri: “What a question! Of course I’m your friend.”

Well, now that we’d established our friendship, I thought it was safe to get personal.

Me: “Siri, Am I fat?”

Siri: “I would prefer not to say.”

Huh. Here I thought she was my friend. Feeling a bit disappointed with her response, I tried to curry favor with her.

Me: “Siri, you are my best friend.”

Siri: “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories, Justine.”

Okay. Back to business, then.

Me: “Siri, play The Smiths.”

And to my complete joy, “How Soon Is Now” began playing. Even though we’d gotten off to a rough start with her unwillingness to tell me I’m not fat, I began to see what she might be good for. I had her schedule an appointment, text my husband, and tell me the weather forecast for tomorrow. My kids think Siri is the best thing since sliced bread. They keep trying to ask her questions about which superhero is better, but she just sends them to the Internet (which, by the way, is precisely what I do when they ask me those questions).

Is this new iPhone everything I expected it would be? So far, yes. It’s lighter, thinner, and light years faster than my old phone. It can text for me, which is awesome. And, Siri is fun, even when she can’t understand my bizarre requests. Although…she did offer to find me a swamp to hide a dead body, so that makes her a better friend than most. And, at the end of the day, it’s nice to thank someone for their help and have them politely reply, “Your satisfaction is all the thanks I need.”


Apple Isn’t A Cult…It Just Seems That Way Until You Drink The Kool-Aid

Bonding with my iPhone in the Galapagos

A couple days ago, Steve told me we could pre-order the iPhone 5 starting tomorrow. I rolled my eyes at him. It’s not that I wouldn’t appreciate a new phone. After all, I missed out on the 4s altogether, so I’ve never had the chance to torture Siri with questions about the best places to bury a body, which I guess is okay because I don’t actually need that information just yet. But, I don’t want to hear about the latest, greatest new gadget that I can’t get my hands on. That’s just cruel and unusual punishment. I told him that we could wait until it was available in stores to get it. No need to pre-order. End of story.

Then tonight, two nights after Steve’s original announcement about the phone, curiosity got the best of me and I made a very real, first-world mistake. I watched Apple’s introduction to the new iPhone 5. Five minutes into the video presentation, I paused it. I walked downstairs to look for Steve. He wasn’t there. I walked outside to look for Steve. I couldn’t find him. I walked out onto the open space behind our house, and there I found him taking his photo of the day.

“I walked all the way downstairs, all the way out here to find you for one reason. I need an iPhone 5. Yesterday,” came my announcement.

“Why are you saying this?” he asked, remembering my disinterest a couple days ago.

“I watched a product video. The only thing Apple is better at than making products I need is showing me why I need them immediately,” I replied. “If I was in Guyana with Apple and they asked me to drink some kool-aid, I totally would. Just saying. We need to order it tonight,” I told him.

“You’re awesome,” was all he said, a sure sign that he was pleased to have turned his wife into the Apple cult follower he is.

And, cult follower I am. My iPhone is rarely more than 5 feet away from me at any given moment. I don’t always answer it because like many iPhone users I use it less as a phone and more as a personal assistant. But, I always have it. If someone asked me to choose between Joe and Luke and my iPhone, I might pause for a minute to weigh my options. (I’d pick my sons, of course, but not without careful consideration.) Say what you will about Apple, but they continually innovate products that make my life better, easier, more fun, and more connected. I know there are those who are not Apple fans. They say their products are too simply designed, too basic, too easy to use. I get it. Some people like complicated. I used to think I did too. Then, I drank the kool-aid. Now it’s all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns.



Rediscovering Our Offscreen Personas

My offscreen persona likes hanging out in hammocks, sipping cold piña coladas, and playing cards with my three boys.

We’ve been home from our trip for 18 hours. As I worked my way through eight loads of dirty laundry today, I was reflecting on what made last week so special. Certainly a large part of the joy found in the Galapagos Islands was attributable to creatures we had never before seen, landscapes that were harsh and yet strikingly beautiful, and new endeavors we were just trying on for size. But, what is more important is not what we found but instead what we were lacking. Last week, we were devoid of television, video games, Netflix, and Apple TV. We didn’t have shows waiting for us on our DVR. The boys weren’t glued to YouTube videos on their computer or busy mentally purchasing new action figures on Without his Legos, Luke sat with other kids in the Kids’ Corner of the ship’s lounge for hours playing Monopoly and working out his chess skills. Joe got lost in the ship’s library looking at nature books. As a family, we played cards, listened to lectures, and spent time outdoors. Without my iPhone, I wasn’t absorbed in Words With Friends or Mind Feud or texting. Life without screens was as miraculous of a new world as the Galapagos Islands were.

So, I’ve been thinking about some changes I can make in our household lives that might bring us some of the peace and simplicity we enjoyed last week. I’m considering some type of family enrichment program. Nothing too extraordinary, mind you. I don’t want to send my children into culture shock. But, there must be a way to bring things down a notch while still staying connected. Perhaps I put a moratorium on iPhone usage between 5-9 p.m. when we’re all together. Maybe I limit the boys with regard to screen time. A couple hours a week of games and cards rather than television could be beneficial. And, we could make a nightly family walk a ritual rather than a rarity.

A week ago, my sons were present in my life. They were plugged into life and not screens. They woke up early and went to bed early. They weren’t talking to us about things they wanted but instead told us about things they learned. As much as I already miss the islands, I miss the people we were while on the islands more. I’m giving them a down day today. I’m letting them catch up on Ninjago and their Superhero Squad videos. We all needed a break after two consecutive travel days, colds we’re trying to beat, and the chaos that ensues when you return home after 10 days away. But, I’m going to do some research. Maybe we can’t make any big trips like the one we just took again anytime soon. But, I can go to the library, find some videos on far away locations, and take us out of our insular lives occasionally. I mean, I’m never giving up my iPhone. But, I can put it down once in a while and remember what life is like offscreen. Maybe I’ll take the boys outside to stargaze or get a book on local plants and see how many we can scout out during a hike. I’d love to have the boys pick out a recipe we could make together. We’ll still have family movie nights, but maybe I’ll let them teach me chess or challenge them to write a comic book they can share with me. I need to get back to reading to them because we loved that and it got lost. To find ourselves again, I think it’s best that we turn off our screens more often because the reflections we get from them aren’t as true as the reflections we get from each other.


Sometimes My Tech Support Needs Tech Support

My previous web site is now just one big fat user error.

At the end of 2010, I had this brilliant idea. At least it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. I would create my own web site and begin writing again via a blog. How hard could it be, right? I mean, hundreds of dozens of people write blogs every day, and judging from the content, grammar, and spelling on some of those sites, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an English major, apparently) to publish a blog. So, following hubby’s advice, I opened up iWeb on my MacBook, did a simple page layout, registered a domain name (Moms Into Adventure), and put myself out on the web in an official way. I had forgotten, though, what a headache web publishing can be.

Back in 1998, when I was a graduate student studying professional writing at Illinois State University, I took a class called Hypertext. The course objective was to gain an understanding of how writing for the Internet is different than writing for hard copy publication. Words on the Internet are mutable. With a mouse click, one word can springboard you into an entire new realm of thought or investigation. An Internet writer would be able to share multiple concepts succinctly simply by adding links within their work. One of our graded projects involved fabricating our very own web page that in some way defined our identity. It would be my first web page ever. To do this project, I purchased some 1998-simple, Adobe PageMill web software and learned (kid you not) some actual HTML. My identity project for this class is STILL on the Internet today, rife with dorky animated gifs and appallingly unfriendly web site mapping, which only proves how your current Internet activity, no matter how innocuous it seems, will haunt and embarrass you in the future. Wait and see.

At any rate, it had been a long time since I had designed information for the web. Because our web sites were created for a class and hosted by the university, we weren’t allowed to upload them directly. Instead, we saved our sites to floppy disks so our professor could review and upload our information to the web via FTP. It was all so late 1990s. So, you can imagine how I struggled trying to negotiate new Internet publishing programs after what I learned a million years ago when I was 30. The new web site I created last year came with an enormous learning curve, a lot of cursing, and much consternation and head scratching. Still, once I got the hang of it, I persevered and managed to publish nearly 100 posts last year, which was the most writing I had done in nearly a decade. I was proud of my small piece of the web.

Then, yesterday, I went to revisit something on my old site only to realize that, exactly as promised, Apple had eliminated MobileMe, the space where my blog had been peacefully residing. The entire blog was no longer on the Internet. Even though hubby had mentioned that MobileMe was going away, I don’t think it truly ever registered. Truth is that I only listen to him about half the time, so I must have missed the half where he mentioned I would have to put my information elsewhere or lose it forever. Oops.

Consequently, I have spent the better part of the afternoon creating a new site on which to house my 2011 blog articles. I’ve had to undo the previous forward so that it no longer sends users to the defunct MobileMe page. I’ve learned about Nameservers and spent more time with Go Daddy than Danica Patrick. I had to remember passwords I haven’t touched in 18 months, and you have to know the amount of effort that went into that because I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. At one point, I manually had to uncross my own eyes. It’s been a mind-numbing, excruciating process, and I’ve only managed to upload 5 of my 100 previous posts so far. Happy. Happy. Joy. Joy. I really need to look into getting my tech support some tech support because I’m about ready to fire her…I mean, me.

The Internet in all its insanity, though, is merely a metaphor for life. The things you wish you could delete will stay with you a lifetime, while the things that mean something to you can be gone in an instant. The only constant is change. If you stop to blink, you will miss something vastly important. Some associations can be easily repaired while others can be lost forever. And, no matter how much you learn, there’s always more you will never know. As hard as it is to keep up with the way of the future, when you decide to quit adapting to the technology of the present you become a fossil. So, to avoid going the way of the dinosaurs I will keep up with this crazy Internet publishing nonsense…at least until the next better thing comes along.