“Alexa, Should We Trust You?”

screen-shot-2018-11-03-at-3-07-46-pm1.png

Whether or not your home contains one of the so-called “smart speakers,” I encourage you to spend 15 minutes with the cover story of The Atlantic’s November 2018 issue. Judith Shulevitz’s “Alexa, Should We Trust you?” serves as a captivating look at the present state of voice-activated virtual assistants and an evenly-weighted consideration of the future of devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.  (Full disclosure: I do not own any of these technologies, but I have seen several in operation in friends’ households.)

Before I share a few more comments about the article, it is useful to identify the distinctions between the pieces of hardware that may be sitting on your kitchen counter or bedroom dresser and the web-connected digital assistants that these gadgets allow users to interact with. The most popular line of smart speakers is the Amazon Echo, which — as of 2018 — 31 million U.S. users have plugged into a socket. The Echo hosts the upbeat female voice of Alexa. The bulk of Shulevitz’s article examines the relationship between human users and this admittedly robotic yet eerily articulate domestic oracle.

Less popular than the Echo/Alexa pairing — at least as measured by units sold — is the combination offered by Google, the search engine titan that powers 90% of web inquiries. Google’s devices, which number roughly 14 million active units in the United States, are identified as the Home series. The web-connected medium that they channel is the Google Assistant. Lastly, one of the most recent entries into the smart speaker market is the Apple HomePod. This cute, bulbous device lets users interact with Siri, the virtual assistant that many iPhone owners are familiar with.

With definitions out of the way, let’s move on to a few teasers in the hopes that you make time to read this worthy piece. The article’s introduction features some noteworthy statistics, namely that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers (i.e. that multiple devices are found in their homes) and that by the year 2021 estimates suggest that there will be nearly as many smart speakers in operation as the number of people on earth. That’s a stunning amount of domestic tech with ears eager to hear what we are up to. As Shulevitz notes, “They [the device manufacturers] want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, car, office.”

25b030254

And the fact that digital assistants like Alexa are constantly waiting for our input is one of the reasons that trust is a central theme that runs through the psychological aspects of human-computer interaction that Shulevitz explores. Users are, after all, not conversing with an entity located next to the kitchen sink; rather, they are speaking to a voice-recognition system whose computing “brain” is housed in gigantic server farms humming inside warehouses far from our homes. In reality, devices like the Amazon Echo serve as portals. Our words pass through them even though it feels like we are speaking with them.

When we employ the “wake word” that cues Alexa or Siri to pay attention, it prompts a system that inhabits a sprawling climate-controlled facility. Our queries about everything from the weather in Miami to the number of Ted Bundy’s victims are then tallied, analyzed, and categorized by the algorithm-infused AI infrastructure. These vast digital networks dispassionately learn everything they can about our likes, dislikes, and curiosities with the ultimate goals of (1) being able to predict what we might next desire, and (2) establishing metrics about how we — and others like us, based on demographics — think and behave. We are entrusting our personal data to Big Tech, and those firms are hungry to harvest it.

Although sharing information online is certainly not a new concept, especially given the billions of people worldwide who use Facebook and other social media platforms, the trust dynamic shifts when the devices we are interacting with can talk intelligently with us. When prompted by a seemingly humane entity, humans can be persuaded to divulge intimate questions and confessions. Large technology companies possess the power — and, in many cases, the incentive — to sell the fruits that grow from these sensitive topics to bidders who want to market products, services, and lifestyle aspirations to us. Consider this potentially unnerving fact from the article: if a web-connected Roomba sweeps crumbs and dog hair from your linoleum, then its manufacturer (iRobot) owns a partial floor-plan of your residence and knowledge of where your furniture is located. (!)

If the preceding paragraph suggests that The Atlantic’s cover story serves as an ominous deep-dive into the dark intentions of Silicon Valley, that would be inaccurate. Instead, the article is far more about our human nature and what our willingness (and desire) to direct questions to small devices that possess a voice — but no eyes, face, or conscience — means about our curiosities and vulnerabilities. We seek to be informed. And we don’t want to be lonely. Increasingly, it appears that we are willing to ask Alexa for assistance with both. What does it suggest about the human condition if we are more comfortable telling the black soup-can-like pod on the windowsill that we are feeling down than we are picking up the phone and discussing that same sadness with a friend?

c90dcc5eb

Judith Shulevitz writes that, “We’ve been reacting to human vocalizations for millions of years as if they signaled human proximity.” And until now, they have. But today, in houses around the world, there are children, teens, and adults holding conversations with voices whose convenient accessibility and lack of moral judgement signal not a human proximity, but the nearness of a tantalizingly powerful amalgamation of trillions of data points arranged in the silhouette of a human form.

That form provides correct answers — at least, in many cases — but can it yield the right answers? And what does it mean if we believe that it can? It is the latter question that I think needs to be carefully considered. Are we nearing a cultural tipping point where humanity deems it desirable to not only request objective clarification from virtual assistants (e.g. “Alexa, how many acres can fit in a square mile?”) but also preferable to seek understanding or comfort from their AI brains (e.g. “Alexa, why am I struggling to make friends at my new school?”) instead of from fellow human beings?

By assessing one outcome of the quickening pace of technology advancement — and, in doing so, identifying a potentially alarming reality — Shulevitz remarks: “The line between artificial voices and real ones is on its way to disappearing.” If (or when) this distinction is fully realized, what will occur to the perceived value of face-to-face interactions? If discussing difficult subjects with a faceless digital assistant becomes good enough — or even better than talking to one’s closest confidants — will humanity have taken a step forward in sync with technology, or a step backward from genuine intimacy? Please, do not delay another minute. Follow this link to The Atlantic’s full article. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me.

Note — The images in this post, which were created by acclaimed illustrator Roberto Parada, are featured in The Atlantic’s on-line article and its November 2018 print edition.

Of Pencils and Passion

21CRITICAL1-superJumbo

If you savor the glossy yellow finish and subtle woody scent of a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, then your heart might soar with joy when you peruse the amazing selection of writing utensils and supplies available from CW Pencil Enterprise. With the tag line “Purveyors of Superior Graphite,” this New York City-based specialty retailer is the expression of Caroline Weaver. In late 2014, the life-long pencil devotee launched CW Pencil Enterprise online; a brick and mortar storefront followed in March of 2015.

I first learned about CWPE courtesy of my dear friend Sandy, who adds unique pencils to her writing kit whenever they catch her eye. Several years ago Sandy came across an article about Caroline and her creative collections in The New York Times. Complete with full-color photos, the expose features a background of the twenty-something entrepreneur and a mouth-watering glimpse into what is available at her NYC boutique. From then on, I have visited CW’s beautifully-designed website semi-regularly when I feel a longing for an analog fix. It features a broad range of specialty pencils, books, carrying cases, erasers, and so much more. Many of her products are relatively rare and/or international in origin, so she is The Source for hard-to find writing supplies.

21CRITICAL3-superJumbo

Please consider paying CW Pencil Enterprise a visit the next time you are searching the web for a unique gift, a quality replacement for the stub you just threw out, or a guilty pleasure like the $9.00 Seed Super Gold High Class Rubber Eraser:

Screen Shot 2018-11-07 at 12.25.07 PM

Before you finish your shopping — or maybe before you begin! — check out Caroline’s helpful selection of pencil-related links on the site’s FAQ page. One of my favorites is How to Find Your Perfect #2.

For those who are curious to learn more, a short video about Caroline and CWPE is available here.

Note — The top two images in this post were obtained from the 2015 New York Times article about CW Pencil Enterprise. The image of the Seed Super Gold Rubber Eraser is from the CWPE website.

Habits — with author James Clear

James-Clear_401_quote_910x512

This afternoon I finished listening to Rich Roll’s interview with entrepreneur and author James Clear, and I was impressed. Actually, I was surprised and impressed. So much so that I am recommending the podcast — which is available in video form on YouTube here — because I believe it will be worth your time if you are trying to either establish good habits or break bad ones.

A regular follower of Rich Roll’s weekly podcast, I listened to a preview of his interview with James Clear last week. It was there that I learned that Clear was being featured as an expert on the topic of habits. Never having heard of the man, I searched the web for details about his education but could find nothing — no evidence of a Ph.D., university affiliation, or history of peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Having read enough books about psychology to know that it is not a field where one can make casual claims, I was suspicious of Clear’s authority on the subject of behavior change. My suspicions deepened when I learned that his new (and only) book is entitled Atomic Habits (2018).

As an English teacher, I can’t imagine any relationship between the words atomic and habits that seems reasonable. After all, atomic most frequently precedes either bombs or energy. And habits seem to have nothing to do with cataclysmic warheads or slamming tiny particles together to produce usable energy. Why didn’t James Clear choose a more authoritative — or at least serious — adjective for his first book? Like strategic or formidable or purpose-driven. Even Life-changing Habits would suggest content that is substantive rather than sensational.

For me, Atomic Habits sounds like a title that a motivational speaker would sell — not an educated investigator who had spent years delving into the science behind motivation, decision making, and cognitive processing. And in order to take Rich Roll’s interview seriously, I was really hoping for the latter. That’s what I thought before I started listening several days ago. Thankfully, I learned that my doubts were largely (though not entirely*) unfounded.

Yes, the title of James Clear’s book still feels like an odd choice. But the man who wrote it seems legitimate even though he has not earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Clear has a passion for understanding the human condition, and he appears to have done his homework. In fact, only several minutes into the interview he references author Charles Duhigg, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Before Duhigg transitioned into long-form non-fiction, he was a respected reporter for the New York Times. In 2012 he wrote The Power of Habit, a brilliant behavioral analysis that features over 60 pages of source notes. As an investigator and a writer, Duhigg is The Real Deal. I highly recommend his book, which I own and have read thoroughly. That’s my stack of hand-written notes next to it.

img_3589-e1541295436907.jpg

Anyway, Rich Roll’s interview with James Clear is very engaging; I learned a number of strategies and perspectives (ways of thinking differently, you might say) that I can immediately implement to encourage the formation of better habits and begin the disassembly of poor ones. For instance, Clear advocates rehearsing the first two minutes of any behavior that you’d like to become a routine. How can two minutes possibly make a meaningful difference? Consider the following example:

Let’s say you’d like to improve your health by taking several 30-minute walks each week. In order to engage in this low-impact exercise, you must first put on the proper socks and shoes, grab your keys, put on your jacket, and walk out the door. Clear asserts that if you move methodically through that two-minute routine several times each week — from opening your sock drawer to locking the front door behind you — that you will ingrain the habit of setting off with intention. Remember: if you won’t step out onto the porch, you can’t take a long walk. Therefore, the most important part of this fledgling habit is arguably its first two minutes.

Obviously, you can’t return to the warm comforts of your family room after this two-minute scenario and expect to see any health gains. So on several of those evenings you continue beyond the two minutes and complete your 30-minute walk. As a consequence of this sustained effort, positive health results will slowly begin manifesting. Meanwhile, the two-minute rehearsals that occur on the evenings that do not extend to the half-hour walk will add value because they perpetuate the habit of getting you out the door. And Clear believes that what prevents most people from establishing positive habits is that they don’t have the discipline to simply begin the process.

Having not read (or even seen firsthand) Clear’s book, I remain cautious in my endorsement of his scholarship. That is why the asterisk* appears in the fourth paragraph. But I am confident in recommending Rich Roll’s interview with this first-time author. Their conversation is very engaging, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the insights that Clear offers as well as most of the well-reasoned answers that he provides to Roll’s questions. Consider giving it a listen, or watching it on YouTube.  Links are featured above. And if you choose to read Atomic Habits, please let me know your thoughts!

Note — The image at the beginning of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

SKOAL Journal — aka Viking Bear

IMG_3564       IMG_3565

On October 10 I began my most recent journal, but I felt ill-at-ease because I had not located an image to complement its red cover. Normally, I outfit each composition book with artwork ahead of time (i.e. before my current one is filled). Earlier this month — while sorting through my supply of untouched notebooks — I felt drawn to this one because of its association with fall’s palate of golds, oranges, and reds. So I grabbed it.

My first entry recognizes the uncertainty of starting without being fully “prepared.”

IMG_3549

For two weeks I continued with a blank red cover. Every time I grabbed my journal I felt the discouraging reminder that I have to find something soon. Then four days ago, I did!

While sifting through my greeting card box — yes, I actually own one — I picked up the viking bear card seen above. The illustration contains small amounts of red, which match my composition book nicely. After a 20-minute session with an X-ACTO knife, a metal ruler, and some clear packing tape, I smiled with pride and satisfaction. My journal was now really ready for writing. 

Where did the viking bear come from? Trader Joe’s — one of my favorite sources for greeting cards. And this means that the cover image only set me back $0.99. A dollar is a heck of a deal when its artwork provides this level of detail:

IMG_3574

On the back of my journal I placed the card’s inside greeting: SKOÄL.

I love the stylized serif typeface* and the small pair of crossed axes. Super cool.

IMG_3575

What does this strange term mean? SKOÄL is the 400+ year-old Scandinavian interjection used during a toast. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it comes from the Danish word skål, which means cup. Also super cool.

My only prior exposure to the word SKOÄL is the brand of dipping tobacco that is still advertised in some magazines. Curiously, SKOAL’s smokeless tobacco has been around since 1934. The brand is owned by the behemoth known as the Altria Group, Inc, which used to be named Philip Morris (think Marlboro cigarettes). Altria was formerly the parent company of Nabisco and Kraft. That’s right — two of America’s largest processed food providers were once owned by the company that participated in one of the nation’s greatest health crises (and misinformation campaigns): lung cancer deaths caused by smoking.

From now on, I am going to envision viking bears whenever I encounter the word SKOÄL. And I might even try using the Scandinavian interjection instead of cheers before clinking glasses with those whom I am dining. Bravery, honour, adventure!

* — If you are curious about the difference between the words typeface and font, please see this informative article from Fast Company.