Virtual Assistant Revisited

My partner received a Google Home mini for the holidays this year. I was (and still am) pretty opposed to having it hooked up in our home. Sadly, I lost the argument. Over the weekend I watched with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as my partner read through the instruction manual, dutifully downloaded the Google Home app on his phone and started to train the device to recognize his voice. Secretly, I was a bit intrigued to see how it worked, especially after my initial post on this in 2016 (read here).

The microphone is creepy to me. I understand the device works through voice activation, but I feel uncomfortable thinking that a connected device could always be “listening”, or secretly recording our conversations (read more here). I expressed this to my partner, really more of a last, desperate plea to dissuade him from hooking it up. He said I was being silly and that if Google did things like that, it would have already been discovered and reported on. Despite his reassurances to me about the microphone, I noticed he turned it off after completing each command.

I thought the microphone on/off button was sneaky. When the microphone is “on” the button is completely white, but shows orange when in the “off” position. This seems opposite to most appliances where a bit of color usually indicates something is on. (see image below, from

We experimented with the Google Home mini to play music. However, unless you pay for a premium service specific songs or artists can’t be requested, but Google will do its best to find something similar. What was really interesting was how Google interpreted different commands. For example, asking for nice, relaxing music resulted in some light pop/rock tunes. Definitely not something I consider relaxing.

Requesting morning music, resulted in an odd mix of top 40’s hits and classic rock tunes. The funniest one for me was the interpretation of whale songs. I meant actual whales (e.g., like humpbacks) singing in the ocean. Google, however, interpreted “whale” to be the name of a musical group or song. I tried the command in different ways trying words like, “ocean”, “nature”, “humpbacks” to get better results. After several attempts, we ended up with some nature/white noise sound. It was hard to tell what it was, really.

I’m still not convinced, but I see how hands-free options are useful.

Keeping Things Empty

One strategy I use to help secretly increase my productivity and keep my house clutter-free is to focus on keeping things empty. Naturally, this only applies to certain things, but when applied routinely it can be effective to make a difference.

Some of the things I aim to keep empty in my physical world are the trash can, recycling bin, compost collector, sink (from dirty dishes), dish drainer, laundry basket, and the clothes drying rack. Most of these tasks are all things I dislike strongly, but also ones that usually don’t take too much time (laundry excepted). By keeping them empty, it makes me feel good, like I accomplished something to take care of myself and my home, even when life gets hectic. This in turn helps me to maintain motivation and stamina to work on other things. Even when I don’t end up working on anything else, I already feel good that I maintained these few small, but vital areas, in the home.

In the digital world, however, I don’t do as well to keep things empty. Some of my emptying goals are my email inbox(es), my “Next Actions” and “Waiting For” folders in my email(s), my digital camera and the camera roll on my devices. This is mostly because the volume and speed with which things accumulate make it really challenging to maintain.

Regarding the digital photos, by “empty” the camera roll on my devices, what I really mean is organize the photos by labeling them or grouping them in a folder and then transferring them to my central digital repository. I often fall behind on transferring the photos to my repository and end up doing them all at once. It usually takes a chunk of time and a lot of patience. However, I am pretty good at grouping photos on my devices into folders right away. This helps me to find things quickly later and gives me a chance to delete out the bad ones to free up memory for things I really want to keep.

If you decide to try out the “keeping things empty” strategy, start small with something easy and manageable. I’ve discovered it’s an uncomplicated way to get some desired results and feel positive.

Managing Expectations

New Year’s always brings about a range of emotions for many of us as we reflect upon what happened the past year and set our intentions for how we want the new year to shape itself. Many of us make resolutions, committing ourselves to goals, aspirations, and promises, most of which are broken or unrealized as early as February. It’s not a secret that the majority of resolutions fail in a short period of time. Part of this is likely attributed to having unrealistic expectations.

I’m an ambitious person by nature and generally goal oriented. After surviving some crushing failures in my life, on both a personal and professional level, I’ve come to appreciate the magic of managing my expectations. This has also been a valuable lesson learned when working with clients and setting reasonable and achievable expectations for both of us.

So what does that mean to manage expectations?

When I write about managing expectations, it means being realistic about outcomes and coming up with contingencies in case things don’t go according to the plan. It means being flexible with what the final outcome might look like. When envisioning your end goals, think about the few things that are really critical and prioritize them. Which things do you have to have, and which ones can you wiggle a bit on or even let go?

I’ve also found it helpful to avoid that devastating feeling of failure when I’m able to define my goal, but not be attached to exactly how it needs to manifest itself. For example, a common New Year’s resolution many people have is to lose weight. Some may focus on a set number of pounds to lose, but perhaps it is more useful to imagine an article of clothing you want to fit instead. Sometimes it’s more important to build muscle and tone than to reduce the numbers. The same end goal can be achieved even though it didn’t go exactly as planned.

Even though I’m goal-oriented, I’ve discovered that remaining flexible, adaptable, and most important realistic about the final outcomes has helped me to feel good about my accomplishments, especially when they don’t happen as planned (or fantasized). Sometimes it can be hard to wiggle on something that you’ve dreamed about for so long, but who knows, the outcome may also turn out better than you had ever imagined.

Holiday Shopping in the Digital Age

A couple of months ago I purchased a bookcase online. It was part of a set that also included other things like a table and chairs, bookends, lamps, etc. all with the same theme. I checked the bookends a couple of times to see if the price would go down and then let it go. About a month after that, I checked the same website for another furniture item. The selection wasn’t great and the online reviews weren’t promising so I dismissed this company and started looking elsewhere.

The problem is that I dismissed this particular company, but they have not forgotten about me. Every item that I looked at more than once on their website, clicked on to read a more in-depth description, or price compared with another site has been emailed to me repeatedly by the company. I receive emails from this company non-stop, sometimes multiple ones on the same day.

The emails are tailored to “match” my interests. For example, many of the emails advertise the bookends I looked at more than once. Or sometimes the emails alert me to a sale going on, especially if one of the items I was interested in is part of it.

Part of me wants to appreciate this customized attention I’m getting from the company. In some ways it’s a nice courtesy to be alerted when an item I’m interested is going on sale. Or to be notified about other items I might enjoy based on past purchases.

However, the other part of me feels creeped out and almost irritated by the constant bombardment of emails. It’s like being hounded by an aggressive sales person in a store when you’re really there to browse and take your time. Even though I’m sometimes tempted to look at the items in these targeted emails, eventually I get so irritated by all the emails junking up my inbox that I end up unsubscribing, or deleting them without looking.

I’ve known for a long time that my online actions are followed, tracked, and acted upon by companies looking to make money off of me. But sometimes it’s so obvious it has the opposite effect on me. Some people enjoy this personalized attention, but for me, it makes online holiday shopping almost as annoying as dealing with the long lines and hoards of people in brick and mortar stores.

Social Media and Political Ads

Recently Twitter and Google decided to ban political advertisements on their services. Facebook, however, decided to let users post them. Considering how influential social media can be, the two extreme policy decisions are interesting to consider.

On the one hand, social media is great at targeting users based on preferences and profiles. This makes it easy for users posting political ads, whether real information or disinformation, to reach their intended audience.

On the other side, social media companies are privately owned and they can make policies about what types of things are permissible to post. However, given the number of controversies in recent years about the strong influence of social media on spreading disinformation/misinformation and causing things like riots, discrimination, and potentially having an impact on the US 2016 presidential election results, it does make these types of policy decisions tricky.

It raises the question of how much control social media companies should have over the kind of content posted through their services. Is it their responsibility to be policing language and controlling what people can and can’t post? And really, how much control could a social media company have when the service is used globally by millions or billions of people. Even a small percentage of users posting inappropriate or forbidden content forbidden would still amount to a large volume to manage.

Even with the restrictions in place to ban all political ads for Google and Twitter, it could still be hard to enforce with global users and a wide range of languages being used. Equally challenging is for Facebook to determine how they are going to maintain oversight on political ads. Will they allow any type of ad to be posted, even if it contains misinformation/disinformation? This could be especially challenging now that video can be manipulated and constructed through the use of AI to create misleading and fabricated content.

So which policy is the right one for a social media company to enforce: to ban or allow all political advertisements? Is there a way to find a compromise in the middle? For the moment, Facebook seems to be allowing all ads to be run, even ones that candidates requested to be removed because they contained inaccurate information or had been manipulated. With the US primaries approaching, it will be interesting to observe the impact of social media on the elections.

Disabling Google Map Review Requests

Every once in a while, Google will repeatedly send me a prompt to rate or answer a question about a place I’ve visited, or looked up on Google maps. The weird thing about this, is it only happens once in a while. The last time it happened, it was for a business I never even visited, or contacted. And Google maps kept sending me reminders to answer questions about this particular place.

My radar went up because as a general rule, I keep my location and web activity disabled (read more about that here and here). I felt curious to know more about how Google was tracking this particular detail and why I kept receiving reminders to rate this place.

I did a few quick internet searches, but couldn’t discover much about why Google was only asking about this one particular place. What I did learn was how to disable yet another hidden setting in Google maps, the one that controls when I was receiving a prompt to rate a place or answer a question about it.

Turns out the settings in Google maps are full of options and features, most of which are turned on by default. This is definitely a good thing to investigate to learn more about what you may be unknowingly sharing with Google.

What really bugs me about this stuff is that so much of it happens without me knowing. I might be okay with these kinds of things if more was disclosed in a way that was easy to understand rather than reading a 50-page End User License Agreement.

Too often we blindly sacrifice our privacy and rights for convenience. The real problem is that I never know what else is going to be done with my information. Filling out a rating or answering a question about a place you’ve visited may seem harmless, but one never knows what else is going to be done with that data.

To disable the rating/question prompt, open up Google maps. Go to the hamburger menu and select settings.

Then go to Notifications.

Once in Notifications, I selected two different areas to disable the reminders and tracking. The first place was “Your reviews.” Observe how everything was turned on by default when I first visited this area in settings.

Then I went into “Q&A and Messages” to disable all the prompts.