Virtual Assistant or Virtual Spy

I last wrote about virtual assistants and using voice commands almost two years ago (Google Home). Since then, the quality and options have gotten much better. Now when I verbally dictate a message, the transcription is near perfect. This is likely attributed to a combination of the system getting used to my voice and improvements made to the technology.

Now that I’ve mastered dictating all kinds of things into my phone, the next step would be to invest in a virtual assistant, like Google Home or Alexa. Like most new technological advances, I’m both creeped out and fascinated at the same time. My first reaction was complete aversion to having yet another device hooked up, synced, and monitoring me in my home. We’re always being forced to make decisions between Control and Convenience.

In addition to my specific voice commands, I want to know what else the device will be listening to? How easy will it be for somebody to hack into it and listen to what I’m saying, or send their own commands? When I first heard about virtual assistants, which all require some kind of command (e.g., “OK, Google”) to notify the device that you’re ready to give directions, it never occurred to me that the device would stay on all the time. I assumed it would be the voice command that activated the virtual assistant, but if it wasn’t alert and ready, how would it register the command was given.

In one sense it’s like voluntarily putting a surveillance device in your home. A recent article in The New York Times, titled “Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do with It?”  described some of the other uses being considered when one engages with a virtual assistant. Some of the options discussed included having the device listen for keywords in conversations to tailor advertisements.

I have to confess that once I started thinking about using a virtual assistant, I considered many scenarios when hands-free voice commands could be useful. For example, I like listening to the radio or podcasts while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. While washing the dishes the other night, I realized I had forgotten to turn on the podcast first. My hands full of suds, I looked longingly at my smartphone wishing I could utter a few words to automatically start the podcast.

The Golden Killer

In recent weeks I’ve been reading articles about the capture of the “Golden State Killer.” The killer eluded the police for decades. He was finally identified after a detective uploaded the killer’s DNA onto a genealogy website to locate him through distant relations. This has raised some concerns.

Many people seem to be of the opinion that if the information was used for “good,” i.e., to capture a serial rapist/murdered, then what’s the harm. I even heard some people say they were okay with having their DNA used to help catch relatives (near or distant) that had committed crimes, whether they consented to their information being used that way or not.

On the other side information should only be used for the reason/purpose it was gathered initially, unless consent is granted. Therefore if information was uploaded on genealogy websites to find relatives, then that information shouldn’t be re-purposed for other uses without consent.

Last week I heard an interview on The Daily, (a New York Times news podcast) with the detective who worked on the case for over 20 years. According to him, he created an undercover account on the genealogy website, not a fake one. He argued that being “outed” by a relative’s uploaded DNA was the equivalent of a relative calling a hotline to report you.

While we might cheer at these new methods that removed one more dangerous criminal off the streets, it diminishes the value of our privacy and our right to protect/control personal information.

What happens when this kind of information isn’t used for “good”?  Or when we disagree about what “good” means. What if one day somebody in power decides to eradicate a specific gene from the human species and starts researching potential targets through DNA and genealogy websites. What if your voluntary DNA contributions help locate relatives that are carriers of this specific gene and they end up being targeted? Would you still think this was an appropriate use of your information? Likely not, but the point is you can’t always predict how/where your information is going to be used once it’s “out there.” Where’s the consent?

The detective made a good point that we need to have discussions about how/when these databanks of information can be accessed, by whom, and for what purpose. However, these discussions should happen before information is re-purposed, especially if it’s a gray area.

Information Gain and Knowledge Loss

On a recent trip to New York City (NYC) I decided to take a cab from the subway to my friend’s place in Astoria Queens instead of walking, one chilly evening. The driver immediately knew the address, including which side of the street it would be on and how far down the block. He even knew which direction he was traveling in and could point out north, south, east, west. He knew all of this without consulting a map or technology once. I was impressed with his mastery of the streets and told him so.

He replied it was because he had knowledge. For the last 15 years he’d been driving a cab. His early years in the business had forced him to learn how to navigate the labyrinthine ways of Queens, without technology. In the beginning, he explained, he used to have all kinds of maps in his car. When someone gave him an address, he had to locate it on the map and then remember how to get there. Through doing this, he had developed expertise in getting around.

He compared himself to other cab drivers, and people in general, who can only get some where with GPS. They’re lacking knowledge, he said emphatically. They can’t orient themselves and navigate. They don’t know where they are because all they do is follow a dot following a line. They’re not aware of their location. 

I’m definitely “directionally-challenged” but I’ve always managed to learned a few tricks about the layout of every city I’ve lived in to help orient and navigate myself through unfamiliar neighborhoods. I use GPS when I need to, but try not to rely on it.

We’re inundated and overwhelmed with information, but somehow we don’t acquire the knowledge to learn anything. We can go around the world with the internet, but yet can’t manage to get around our neighborhood by the information inside our own heads.

Although I love having GPS and maps available, I still make an effort to learn how to get around by memorizing street names and observing landmarks. By identifying patterns and learning basic tips. By studying maps to orient myself and understand my location. It was refreshing for me to have a cab driver that felt the same way.

Creating Order

I recently had a new closet installed in my apartment and some supplementary storage places added under the bed and in the entryway. Part of the reason I added in new storage options was because I seemed to have a lot of stuff that was “homeless.” The storage is there, but I haven’t started filling it because I’m still deciding what needs to go where.

I was discussing the new storage options with a colleague at work and his advice was “choose carefully.” Storage options can be tricky. I love having things out of the way behind a closed door or shut drawer, but I also need to be able to reach and access them. The best is to match necessity with ease of access. For example, my extra blankets are stored on a shelf above my clothes in my closet. I need a stool to reach it, but then again, I rarely need to.

It’s necessary to be strategic about which items are placed where in cabinets, drawers, closets, etc. This is especially important when unpacking a new home. It may take a few tries to get everything in the right place to optimize flow and convenience. Although items can be shuffled around after, it’s kind of a pain. Rearranging closets and drawer contents is a time consuming activity, one that almost always has to be done in one session because stuff will be everywhere in the transition process. I prefer to wait until I have a plan before filling my storage areas to try and avoid shifting things later.

Here’s my plan:

  1. Assess which areas are overcrowded and in need of some storage options. For me the priorities are my tiny, over-stuffed kitchen, hallway closet, and bits of random, orphaned “stuff.”
  2. Determine which items specifically need storage and how often you will need to access them. For example, I stored my towels with the sheets because there were no other spaces available until recently. As these are both frequently used items, it’s definitely something I’m flagging for a better option.
  3. Look at all existing storage options, including ones that are already filled and/or rarely accessed. It may be time to shuffle things around.
  4. Purge anything and everything possible that you no longer use and/or need.
  5. Clear out the calendar for several hours to fill storage areas and rearrange, as needed.

Stay tuned for progress updates.

Contractors: Offline

Every time I’ve had to hire a contractor, it’s always been done through word-of-mouth and referrals. For some reason, it’s not the kind of thing I search for online. When hiring a contractor for home repair, trust and good workmanship are essential. Maybe that’s why I always prefer to ask around. Or maybe it’s because that’s the best way to find the good ones, who are often too busy to set up more modern, digital forms of advertising.

I’ve noticed that the majority of contractors I know, or have learned about through referrals, rarely have an online presence. By online presence, I mean a website, or a company page on something like Facebook, LinkedIn or another form of social media. This makes it difficult to see photos of their work to assess the quality of the home repairs and to find online reviews. Though to be fair, I’ve never looked that hard because I mostly rely on the referrals. In my mind, the referral is one of the best reviews because most often the contractor has done work in that person’s house, making it a personal and intimate experience.

With some services, quotes and estimates can be attained through online services where the requestor simply fills in some details online to get some figures. With contracting work, however, quotes and estimates are done in person after a visit. I’ve tried to get ballpark estimates in advance, but most contractors I know insist on coming to visually assess the work themselves.

I suppose this is due to a combination of factors. Some contracting jobs are a lot more complicated than they seem to be from the perspective of the home owner, something that can only be assessed properly with a visual assessment. Contractors have a wealth of knowledge and experience about when a job may seem to be more complex than it first appears.

The work done by contractors is manual and tactile and it’s as though their processes are designed match. Invoices are done by hand, cobbled together in a disorganized fashion on a word document, hastily scribbled on an invoice pad, or simply itemized in the body of an email. A hold out to a fast-moving electronic environment where everything is readily available online in a digestible app form. But sometimes, you just need a plumber.


Who are your friends?

When I was in college, my father and my aunt would always ask me questions about my friends and socializing. They often asked me if I was in any clubs or groups, who I liked to spend time with, and what I was doing for fun in my leisure time. To them, my social development and sense of community were as important as the academic part of going to school.

I remember a lot of phone calls to them feeling low and lonely because I felt like I didn’t have enough friends. Only to have my father and aunt both pepper me with a lot of suggestions about how to get out there. Join a club. Find some groups at school related to your interests. Go study with your classmates, etc. All very practical advice, but sometimes easier said than done.

At the time I had a full course load and I was working on the side. My large and impersonal college had almost 20,000 students. It had its own subway stop on the 6 line in NYC, but not much of a campus with areas for mingling and socializing with other students. Most of the time available for socializing was restricted to before/after class, when we weren’t rushing off to the next thing.

If I had been in college during the age of social media, I wonder how different my answers would have been. I might not have been able to tell my father and aunt about in-person social interactions, but maybe I could have talked about how many online groups I belonged to, or how many hours I spent “chatting” with others. Or how many people “liked” or retweeted my lasting posting, surely an indicator of popularity. Then again, maybe they would have asked me different types of questions. Maybe they would have asked what social media networks I was on. And who I enjoyed following on Instagram and Twitter. And did I ever meet any of these “friends” offline?

People seem to have a lot of Facebook “friends” or connect on things like Instagram and Twitter, but are they really friends? Many times online connections are made without meeting in person. Does this count as making friends and socializing? Or fostering a sense of community? I mostly use social media for networking, rather than socializing. Maybe I’m a tad old-fashioned, but to me socializing is something done face-to-face.