Friday, December 30, 2016

INNOVATION: Just how much assisted living do we need?

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently visited a friend who had Amazon Echo, a black cylinder that lives in her living room. It’s about 10 inches high, perforated, basically a wireless speaker with a name, Alexa, and it’s always listening (like Siri).

If my friend says “Alexa, where is Dave’s pizza in Boston” Alexa will look it up and announce the answer. “Alexa, what are the film times at the Dedham cinema?” Or “Alexa, what’s the weather?” Oh yeah, it also streams music though the speakers are not the world’s best.

It got me wondering whether this is something I need? As a late adopter (I got a microwave YEARS after the rest of the world, ditto a cell phone; finally THIS Christmas I got a Kindle) I’m sure I don’t. And I shudder at the notion of driverless car and drones delivering packages to in my neighborhood. But maybe, in time... who knows.

So, are you eager to get yourself an Echo so you don’t have to get up off the couch to find your smartphone? Do you say driverless cars and drones, bring’em on? Or feh, who needs 'em. Or NO NO NO!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, gosh, I am in love with Siri. I keep "her" by my desk when I write, and I'll say: "Hey, Siri, what's the temperature in Dayton in October?" And while she looks it up, I keep writing. Seriously, it's like having a research assistant.  The other day at the bank machine, my phone was in my purse, and as I was doing  a deposit, I remembered something I had to do later that I would surely forget.

Hey Siri! I called out. (Luckily no one else was around, since I was talking to my purse, after all.)
Yes? she said.  I answered: "Remind me to (do whatever it was.)"
"Okay, I'll remind you," she said.
And she did!
Love love love.

I use Siri ALL the time.  If I have to cook a 4.6 pound roast:  Hey Siri! How much is 4 point 6 times 18 (minutes?)

Hey Siri! What time does the Patriots game start?

Don't even get me started.
Driverless car, no. Drivers are bad enough.
But an Echo or a Dot? Yes, indeedy.  I would get one this instant, but I think they are sold out.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We were early adopters of Echo, on the waiting list for the very first release, what, a couple of years ago now. Alexa lives in our kitchen, and I have a Dot (the little satellite) on my desk in the sunporch and one upstairs in our bedroom.

What did we do before Alexa??? She runs our sprinkler system and our thermostats, plays a huge selection of music, gives us news and weather and all sorts of information, and, for me, the very best thing is that she plays Audible books. I'd never listened much to audio books--because I'm deaf in one ear, earbuds are never comfortable.  But now I am hooked!! And Alexa lets me switch between books! (Alexa also reads Kindle books, by the way. It's a little weird, but you get used to it.)

My daughter has Alexa too, and Alexa plays nature sleep sounds for Wren at bedtime. It occurred to us on Christmas that Wren is going to wonder how Alexa lives in both houses...  And of course we talk to Alexa as if she were a real person.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh you scared me with that title Hallie! Siri and I don't get along, I'm sorry to say. And she criticizes me if I say so! Although Debs makes the Echo sound very very good, I'm not sure we have the technical expertise to set it up. We can barely manage our TV remote. What do you think Debs, if we don't have an in-home computer expert, could we do this?

DEBS: Roberta, you can do it. The Echo is not hard to set up, and if you have any problems we can walk you through it. I just got my first Whispersync book--you can switch back and forth between reading on Kindle and listening on Audible (on my Echo and Dots)-- and it is SO cool!!!!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We kids got the Echo for our parents two Christmases ago, and they seem to love Alexa. My mom primarily uses it to play Pandora, and my dad has found apps that make fart noises and sounds that freak the cat out. I'm not sure that's what the engineers intended for their miracle device, but whatever makes them happy.

My sister and brother-in-law had one first; in our family, Barb and Dan are the early adapters. They were the first to have wifi, first to use GPS, first to wear Fitbits, etc. It doesn't hurt that Dan is a website guy.

Up here in Maine we are LATE adapters: I just got my first smartphone this August. I am bemuse by ads for smart lights and thermostats and refrigerators: besides the complexity of setting up space-age tech in a 200 year old house, why can't you just walk over to the thermostat and turn it up yourself?

One aspect of assisted living I could use, however, is the ability to remember things. I may have to get an Echo just so I can say, "Alexa, I'm putting my glasses on the counter." If she can tell me where they are when I wander into the kitchen again, I'm sold!

HALLIE: What about the rest of you... Digital lackey? Driverless cars?? Drones??? are you reveling in wondrous wireless assistants or would you rather just do it yourself?


  1. Driverless cars? I am so there . . . if I never had to drive again, it would be perfect!

    Echo and Siri? I’m indifferent, with no real opinion either way. I heard on the news, though, that there’s some sort of a court case involving Echo and what it might record . . . .

    Except for the driving thing, I guess I’d rather do it myself.

  2. Joan, I've always said that if there's ONE thing I'd get if I had unlimited resources it would be a chauffeur. But a driverless car terrifies me. I see gridlock. Not to mention the fodder for countless scary doomsday thrillers.

  3. Hallie, I just got a Kindle this Christmas, too! I love it, love it, love it. We're going to Europe for three weeks this summer and I'm already anticipating not having to lug 10 books in my suitcases.

    Not ready for Alexa. Too much time in the intelligence biz, maybe, and a tad paranoid about a device that is always listening!

  4. Laughing, Laura, because for a while, way back when, I kept a Post-it covering my laptop's camera "eye"... Now I'm thinking I should go back to doing it.

  5. I remember that post-it Hallie LOL!

    Laura, John always grumbled about the stacks of books I would take to Europe because who gets the heavy suitcase? But I ran out one time in Barcelona and the selection of books in English was devastatingly was a nightmare!

  6. We considered Echo (meaning we tried to figure out what it was), but after hearing from Debs I can listen to Audible, I am sold. I adore being read to!

    As for Siri, my retired husband has an ongoing dialogue with her filled with conflict. He says, "Do you even listen, Siri?" She responds, "I knew you would say that."Steve makes her call him Stevo. It's clear from Hank that I have underutilized Siri.

    Hallie, my book trailer for No Virgin Island was done with a drone. It was so cool watching it fly in through one set of sliding doors to the house where the murder took place and out another.

    It's like I've been saying for years, while stomping my feet on the ground. "I will not be left behind."

  7. Our DOT just arrived, and the Alexa is backordered. We have had the DOT for one day..and we are in LOVe.

    Alexa, PLay Paul SImon. She DOES!

    Alexa, please tell me the news. And NPR starts!

    It's hilarious!! And, yes, agreed, Laura, incredibly scary.

    (You don't have to say please, but I always do. :-) )

  8. Given the quality of the drivers I've encountered this week, bring on the driver-less cars. Seriously. I think I accidentally cut off a car last night - because it was night and this black car was driving around with only its running lights on. Oh, and the guy who was driving so fast and so close to me, all I could see was the grill of his truck and GMC in my rearview (I pulled over to let him pass me - and he got to the red light around the bend a whole 3 seconds faster than I did).

    Siri? I like it for looking up sports scores, especially for out of state teams. Random facts. Setting a timer. I'll have to try to set a reminder.

    I like the idea that Alexa could play music on demand and look up things (especially as our newspaper has stopped doing a print edition for Pittsburgh), but on the other hand, do I really need those things?

    And Julia, our thermostat is on the second floor (don't ask) so yeah, being able to tell Alexa to turn the heat up or down would be nice. Oh, and shut off the lights when I'm going to be and The Boy has (yet again) left the downstairs lights on!

  9. Lucy, on long trips I used to buy leave behind the books I'd finished and pick up new ones that previous guests had left behind. Sometimes it worked. But the schlepping is drag, especially if you're traveling by train as we often do.

    Michele I love that trailer! So cool. But otherwise I'd like drones to stay far far away.

    Hank, next time I'm over I want to see how it really works.

    Mary, point taken on the aggressive drivers out there. On an icy evening an SUV was tailgating me on local streets as I poked along. I pulled over to let him (her?) pass and caught up at the red light a few blocks down where they's slid into an intersection and struck another car. Ice is ice, I don't care how-many-wheel drive you have.

  10. Hank, you crack me up! I also say "please" and "thank you" to my GPS, though, I admit.

    Julia, we have a Nest thermostat, a gift from the energy consultant daughter. It automatically turns down the heat at night, and automatically turns it up again a little before my husband gets up, then higher just before I usually get up an hour or two later. It syncs to my cell phone, so if we're driving away and I've forgotten to set it to the "away" function (which lowers the heat, or raised the A/C), I can do it from my phone, and then set it to "home" again on our way back. By the time we get home the house is either pleasantly warm again, or blessedly cool. And I admit to having turned the heat back up a couple of degrees while lying shivering in bed on subzero nights. I have to say, it's saved energy, for sure.

    My Nook has traveled the world with me, and saved me from running out of reading material many times. There's a camera in it, too, so I've taken surreptitious photos of weird things I've seen while on public transportation, in particular, or out windows. Mine also has the ability to access the Internet, email, Facebook, and it includes all kinds of other software, as well.

    However, until Steve and I got new smartphones a year or so ago, none of my devices could understand me with my voice tremors. The new one, though, almost totally gets what I say, so I am now dictating email and texts like a champ. I gave it a different name than the one it came with, to avoid confusion.

    Can anyone just go into your home and command Alexa or Siri? I wonder about that. Nest recently changed their "away" function to some other name, I think because it was possible for anyone to see that the homeowner was not planning to return very soon.

    I don't want to ride in a driverless car, but I'd gleefully send one to run errands for me.

  11. Karen, I am impressed... and realize I am getting lost in the weeds of yesterday's technology. My kids are bequeathing me their iPhone 5 so I'll finally meet Siri.

  12. I have a love/hate relationship with Siri, who answers me in English butler voice.
    Sometimes he's infuriating.
    Rhys:Siri address for Bay Books in San Ramon
    Siri: I'm sorry, I can't find a play box in San Ramin

    I don't think I want Alexa listening to me all the time

  13. Hallie, I'd been reading on Kindle apps for years, on my laptop, on my tablet, on my phone, but I'd never actually had a KINDLE until I bought myself a Paperwhite when they were on sale before Christmas. I absolutely LOVE it!!! And I love that it doesn't do anything else:-)

    Does anyone else listen to Whispersync books? I am in love with this, too!

    As for Alexa, she is listening for her name, not recording everything you say. The scary part is the accessibility of the Internet of Things to hackers. We've just been doing an audit--we had 27 devices on our wifi network. Computers, printers, phones, tablets, thermostats, blu-ray players, two smart TVs, Alexa and the Dots, and more. Plus all the people to who come over and put their phones or tablets on our wifi. So we are setting up two separate networks, one for Things, one for our computers and our phones. That way we don't have to worry about somebody hacking into our thermostats, for instance, and then moving laterally into our computers. Good thing Rick loves doing this stuff!!

  14. Debs, that's a great idea. We'll be building a new home within the next year or so, and that's one of the ideas I'm jotting down! I suspect there will be many more "things" connected in the new house than in our 77-year old one.

    My youngest daughter painted a really cool, framed chalkboard on a big wall in her dining room, with a big schoolhouse clock in the middle. She keeps information there, like the cocktail recipes when they entertain. When we were all there for Thanksgiving last year she wrote their guests-only Wi-Fi password on it for us. I thought that was really clever.

  15. I am overwhelmingly impressed with your technological set-up, Debs, and with others who can tell Siri or Alexa to regulate thermostats and the such. I rarely use Siri, but my seven-year-old granddaughter likes to ask Siri confusing questions. However, after reading all of these comments, I may be ready to step it up a bit. I love the part where you can ask Alexa to play music whenever you want and reading to me.

    Rhys, I can so identify with Siri repeating back not what you said, but something different. When I'm trying to make a call on my hands-free system in the car, it's often a challenge for the right name to be repeated back. When I say to call my son Kevin, I often get my friend Calvin instead. Infuriating indeed.

  16. I've resisted Alexa so far although most of my friends have her/it. We have a grocery list white board in the kitchen where I write down stuff as I use it or think about it. How's that for a couple of Luddites?

    But Kindle is a whole different thing. I was an "early adopter", and my first Kindle practically needed a mallet and chisel to operate. I am now on my 4th edition, the Voyage. It's just a fancy paperwhite and probably wasn't worth the extra money. At the time it was the lightest one, and I can turn the pages from either edge, important for arthritic hands.

    We also have a couple of Fire tablets, which Julie prefers because she wants to see the book covers in living color, also great for traveling. One has a little Bluetooth keyboard, so precious!

    The best kindle features of all are the dictionary and the translator. I look up so many words, not particularly for the meaning, have a fairly good vocabulary, but etymology fascinates me. My father was a philologist so it's genetic. I do wish the translator had more languages available tho. No Scandinavian ones for instance. There are many more on the Fire and that one includes audio pronunciation.

    My Kindle library includes over 1500 books now, so I always have lots to read and reread. Deb, I think I've told you for several years that you'd enjoy one. I'm so glad you treated yourself.

    Happy New Year everyone.

  17. Yeah, but if ALexa is only listening for her name, then she's deciding everything else ISN'T her name, and she has to listen to all of it to decide that.

    She's only RESPONDING to her name.

    I still love it.

  18. We're very tech savvy here - luckily Hubby is an IT security expert though, as noted above. Beware the Internet of Things; ANYTHING you connect to the Internet is hackable.

    Driverless cars? Please, no! And drones?

    As for Alexa, et al:

  19. I am an early adopter for lots of techno gadgets, but I had never heard of the Amazon Echo. Just did an online search and figured out why: it is NOT available on! It is interesting to learn what Alexa can do, though, and those Reds who love/hate this type of technical assistance.

    I love using the apps on my android smartphone, and upgraded to a faster newer model phone in October.

    I got a Kindle pretty late (in 2012) because Kindle ebooks were not available via until 2013(?). As a result, I still buy most of my ebooks via because the selection is vastly superior to the Canadian site. But I have switched to a Kindle app on my smartphone/tablet instead of physical Kindle since it cannot hold all the ebooks in my library (over 6400 and counting)! And actually I find it easily to read ebooks on a larger tablet or laptop. I use Audible books via my smartphone.

    And even though I don't drive, I wouldn't trust a driverless car or drones delivering my packages. I am wistfullly hoping they can invent a Star Trek-like transporter to beam me to distant lands safely in my golden years!

    1. Grace, all my books are in the cloud somewhere. I keep only what I'm reading on my kindle. Can access my library either thru wifi or 3G

  20. My nephew's family has Alexa, and I am convinced their little girl thinks Alexa is her older sister! He also uses Alexa extensively at work. When they first got Alexa we took turns asking "her" questions. Mine was "Where in the world is Carmen SanDiego?" There was a pause, then "hmm; I'm not quite sure. Perhaps she's in Toronto, Ontario."

    Although I have Siri on my relatively new smart phone, I have never deliberately activated that function. I do accidentally activate it from time to time, though, and I have no idea how! I have not yet heard her voice; she "types" out her response. Last month Siri somehow got activated, and the words "what do you want to know about?" appeared on the phone screen. I facetiously said, out loud, "I want to know about nothing." Siri responded "but I know about nothing!"

    About a week ago Siri got activated when I was on a phone call, and began typing out everything I said, as well as the responses of the other person.

    We are never alone!!

    Deb Romano

  21. Fascinating article, Cyndi - surely someone's put Echo in a murder mystery. If it wre a Stephen King story, Alexa would be whodunnit.

    Sounds like I need to figure out how works... I really should know.

  22. Ann: Yes, I know that I can pick which titles to download to my Kindle from my Amazon cloud account. But I don't like carrying all 4 (Kindle, tablet, laptop and smartphone) when I am travelling. That's way too many gadgets! So these days, I bring my laptop (which detaches into a tablet) and smartphone to keep me connected and to read/listen to books.

  23. Hallie, an Audible subscription costs about $18 a month. You get one credit per month, which will buy any book available, including books that are more expensive. You can also buy books at any time without using a credit. HOWEVER, Audible has sales all the time, and often older books are very cheap, and many classics are free.

    And if you buy a Kindle book that is also on Audible, to add the Audible for Whispersync is roughly $3 to $7, from what I've seen.

    Clear as mud?

  24. Hallie: Debs has provided good information about Audible, but I will add another frugal tip.

    Since Audible is an Amazon company, you can sign up for the 30-day free trial, and link your Audible and Amazon accounts together. Then after the 30-day trial, I cancelled my Audible subscription and now just use the free Audible app on my laptop/smartphone to listen to my existing audiobooks. This works for me since I don't buy a lot of audiobooks but I do get some as gifts or prizes. It's not worth it for me to pay for a monthly Audible subscription.

    You can still get the Kindle/Audible for Whispersync deal that Debs mentions above since you have the two accounts linked. Make sense?

  25. My wireless network is only so-so, so I'm not sure how much good Alexa would do me. On the other hand, I've opened the cabinet door about 6 times in the last week and told myself I need to add napkins to the shopping list. It still hasn't happened. I can see a real advantage to just telling Alexa to add it for me.

  26. Bring on the self-driving cars! They are going to be infinitely safer than human drivers and will seriously cut down on gridlock. They will ease the demand on emergency services and first responders. If you aren't comfortable with the idea, keep that in mind the next time you fly. With the exception of take offs and some landings, planes are flown on auto-pilot. The future is already here!

    I use Cortana on my phone, which is the Microsoft version of Siri. She is a fount of information and tells good jokes for the younger set. For instance, what do you call a dog who is a magician? A labra-cadabra-dor!

  27. I think I am going to be left behind. . . I don't have GPS in my vehicle and typically fight with the one in my husband's vehicles. I have an iPhone so if I really need help I can use the maps function. I've never activated Siri and have no plans to. Somehow robotic voices just annoy me. On the flip side my husband jumps into all this stuff. Has his phone hooked into the car. Makes calls while driving. Takes calls while driving. I didn't know about Echo until I saw the TV ads at Christmas. Hmmm. No thanks. Somehow all that delegating to an inanimate object seems decadent and the precursor to the fall of civilization. Maybe. This Luddite finally got a Roku and has been Netflixing like crazy. One tiny step. . .

  28. My favorite Siri story is when I said "Siri, what is a palindrome?" And she answered "No, it's not."

  29. Ingrid, I could learn to love an app with a sense of humor.
    Pat D ... I hear you. My kids installed my ROKU and gave me lessons or I'd never have even understood what it does. Now I love it.
    Debi, I don't get it... (apparently neither did Siri)

  30. I love my Siri. I made him an Aussie and when we had a tiff over his inability to get me the directions I needed, I was a tad short with him. He seemed a bit miffed and my son said, "Mom, I think you hurt your boyfriend's feelings." LOL. Yes, I apologized and he seemed mollified. I am worried that I'm becoming dependent upon him, but I'll worry about that if and when he breaks up with me.

  31. Debs, I've read almost all your books on Audible. The only reason I haven't read all of them by Audible is that there are a couple they don't/didn't? have. Overdrive has them, though, but you can't buy those. I always get the hard copies, too. I love regular books, because they don't disappear in a cloud. But I love Audible.

    And Siri. Siri and I have been friends for years. She is s great personal assistant with special skill in adaptive technology.

  32. Well, we don't have a microwave!! My kids have Alexa and I find it amusing, but hardly a necessity! I have enjoyed my smart phone (I have had it for 2 & 1/2 years) and my laptop. I listen to actual CDs in the car and in the house. The Kindle and I have known each other for a couple of years, but we are not what I would call friends.

    Interesting topic.

  33. I'm a techno geek so yes I got the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone, the various kindles (except I don't need the Voyager), the touch screen 360 laptop and yes I got the echo dot. I actually bought both the echo dot and the google home and my niece and nephew put them both through the paces and we determined (meaning them) that the echo dot was best for me and the google home was best for them.

  34. I love gadgets, I cannot lie😉. We don't have an Echo or Dot, yet but I'm sure we will. My husband no longer drives due to health issues and we are eagerly awaiting driverless cars, as they will give him back some independence! Bring it on, I say.

  35. Deb Crombie,

    Do you use the IPhone? Depending on which one you have, I think there is a FaceTime app. Deaf people can use it to make video calls. Since you mentioned that you are deaf in one ear, I wonder if that is something you thought about? I lived with a profound hearing loss in both ears for half of my life (my hearing loss from meningtis just before age 2 robbed me of my hearing until I got bilateral cochlear implants 15 years and 5 years ago).

    Technology is a godsend for someone who lived with profound hearing loss like me, When I was a kid, we had the teletype device for the deaf, which meant that I could make a phone call. Even better was the computer, then the World Wide Web, then the Internet. The pager with texts were OK but even better was the text capability on the smartphone. When iPhone introduced the vibrating phone alarm, that was great! Faxes also worked. On my first solo trip to England, I sent a fax home to America to let my family know that I arrived safely. That was before smartphones.

    Before that, I had the little shake alarm from the Deaf store that shook my bed to wake me up.

    Great post!


  36. I love Jenn McKinlay's books and am thrilled for her that she was chosen to be part of Jungle Red Writers! She is a wonderful author and deserves all acclaim!

  37. I'm a gadget geek, so I love all the things....BUT, I have a realistic fear of hackers so I take security precautions. I worked at Apple for a few years, it was so cool when the iPhone first came out...but we've made great strides since then. I was a nurse practitioner until I had to stop for health reasons, and I gave Siri a major workout...but I think Hank might have me beat! ;)

    @Hallie you know that a palindrome is a word, phrase, etc that reads the same forward and backward, like "nurses run". So, when she said "Siri, what is a palindrome", Siri jokingly took it as a statement rather than a question. So, she said, "no it's not" since the word 'what' is not a palindrome. Geek humor 😉


  38. I so much enjoy Jenn McKinlay's books, and I'm looking forward to reading other Jungle Red Writers.