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(cartoon of a woman reading a newspaper, and talking to an Amazon Echo Dot that has just activated) I'm pretty sure "random sound of rustling newsprint" isn't your wake word, Alexa.

Go The F— To Sleep, Alexa

Go The F— To Sleep, Alexa published on

The Amazon Echo — known to most of us as “Alexa” — has steadily been amassing a catalogue of modular skills you can add on. Among those skills, though, you won’t find a foolproof ability to tell when you’re talking to it… and when you aren’t.

We have two Echo Dots and a first-generation Echo in our house, and while the Echo can usually recognize its wake word, the Dots are a lot fussier. Our kitchen Dot in particular is pretty fussy about how it prefers to be addressed, and it can take two or three attempts to ask it to “Start a timer for 11 minutes” or “Add broccoli to the shopping list” before it responds. (Also, it may just be me, but after I’ve had to ask several times how many grams in three ounces of grated cheese, the Dot can sound pretty condescending.)

It turns out the problem goes the other way, too. Casual conversations and TV shows alike tend to wake our living room Echo, which often responds with a baffling non sequitur. It can kind of kill the mood of a great suspense moment when Alexa’s clipped tones announce out of the blue that the weather tomorrow in Vancouver, Canada will be mostly cloudy with a high of 18 and an overnight low of 12.

But we’re still doing better than the couple in Portland, Oregon, whose Echo misinterpreted several words in an unrelated conversation as commands to record the discussion and then send it to one of the husband’s employees in Seattle. (Fortunately for all concerned, the conversation apparently wasn’t to the effect of “You won’t believe the bozo I hired in Seattle.”)

And we weren’t among the people who were creeped out by the sound of their Echo devices laughing spontaneously. Here, tool, the culprit — at least according to Amazon’s explanation — was a voice recognition error. In this case, the Echo interpreted some sound or other to mean “Alexa, laugh” and then emitted what by all accounts was a grotesque parody of human laughter. Nobody who heard it has apparently been able to sleep since.

So sure, we’ve had to learn to enunciate very precisely. But all in all, things could be much worse at our end. Okay. Alexa, post cartoon. …Alexa, post cartoon. ALEXA. POST. THE DAMN. CARTOO

One person hands a fitness tracker to another, who is standing in front of a sign that reads I Will Walk Around All Day Wearing Your Fitness Tracker: $50

Collaborative Economy, meet the Internet of Things

Collaborative Economy, meet the Internet of Things published on No Comments on Collaborative Economy, meet the Internet of Things

As I’m typing this — literally as I’m typing this — I’m realizing my Fitbit Flex has fallen off. (I’ll admit, I noticed the strap was showing some strain, and I failed to act on it.) (Update: Alex found it!)

Pity, because if I could make this kind of business work, I’d do it in a heartbeat. (And I would then track that heartbeat.) I love walking. I’m starting to get tedious at work with my constant suggestions that we turn everything into a walking meeting: brainstorming, strategic planning, repairing the printer—whatever.

The hot new technology

The hot new technology published on No Comments on The hot new technology

Mere hours after I posted last week’s Internet of Things cartoon, news broke that Google had acquired Nest, maker of truly nifty smart thermostats (and now smoke alarms). I’m now wondering how I ever lived without either of them.

At least, the techno-optimist side of my brain is. The techno-grump side (which is a much smaller, wizened little stump that dangles beside my amygdala like some kind of cerebral hemorrhoid) worries that connected devices and the Internet of Things are the first step in our inexorable conversion from customers to hostages.

That techno-grump was also deeply concerned that keying “r-o-b-o-p” into Google yields the autocomplete suggestion Robopocalypse, until Ryan Merkley intervened:

His point is well-taken, although maybe I might have been Googling “robopoop”. It’s only a matter of time before that’s a thing. (Actually, at nearly 4,000 Google hits, I’d argue it already is.)

One last mild FWIW to my inner techno-grump: Google may have taken a little time to implement Do Not Track, but it’s been supported in Chrome for quite a while now.

Meanwhile: my predictive algorithms suggest that:

Things of the Internet

Things of the Internet published on 1 Comment on Things of the Internet

This could also have been a bunch of disembodied hands holding devices, but that might have felt creepy. (Not to mention spooky, mysterious and ooky.)

Updated: And speaking of the Internet of Things, here’s a great consumer-friendly article by Dan Tynan explaining the basic concept and setting out a few of the issues around it.

Captain, I’m picking up something on the sensors

Captain, I’m picking up something on the sensors published on 2 Comments on Captain, I’m picking up something on the sensors

I’ve owned an iPhone now for two years, but I’m still getting my mind around it.

Not the app store, or the display, or the ubiquitous connectivity. But the way the damn thing is so aware of its surroundings.

A motion sensor tells it if it’s being jostled and which way is up. A compass tells it which way it’s pointing. GPS constantly updates its position on the map. Add the camera, microphone, proximity and ambient light sensors and – if you get a few drinks in me – the iPhone will know more about my immediate environment than I do.

It’s not hard to imagine that phone makers could start dropping in temperature, humidity and external pressure sensors, measuring your body temperature, sweatiness and grip. And once they do, you know what they’ve created?

A $200 mood ring.

Oh, you scoff now. See if you’re laughing once that information is aggregated and mapped, clusters of acute anxiety are pinpointed, and Pfizer’s aerial spraying unit responds by blanketing the area with anti-depressants.

Updated: Just when I was thinking I was so damn clever, I searched the app store.