Alexa, what have I done with my life?

I am now officially one of a large number of people who are obsessed with smart technology. If you are not familiar, I will fill you in.

Smart devices

You may have heard the phrase “Smart devices” being thrown around. Most mobile phones are considered as smart devices because of their ability to connect to diffrent things like TVs and run apps. Currently there is a market for smart devices such as the ‘Amazon Echo’ and ‘Google Home’ which are home audio speakers that have microphone attached to them allowing you to ask commands. You can program the speaker in certain ways so that a particular phrase will make it perform a specific set of actions.

I recently bought an Amazon Echo on a whim simply because I often listen to music in the kitchen and I liked the idea of being able to say “Alexa, play the Beatles” and in a second I have ‘love me do’ pouring into the room. I wasn’t thinking of the extra abilities when I bought it.

The device is great fun for saying things like “Alexa, tell me about quantum theory” or “Alexa, what is the distance from earth to the moon” but you soon realise that is the novelty factor, but there is a lot more to be achieved.

Greater things

A friend of mine is also an echo addict and we recently shared our obsession. Over the Christmas holidays it has been a lot worse. With Christmas. Money to spend, and staying up until 3am watching demonstration videos on advanced programming and tech for smart homes. When someone gets into smart tech it is all you think about. There are hundreds of possibilities out there to explore.

I have since upgraded my smart home to contain security devices, smart plugs, smart lighting, TV control, audio control, advanced Bluetooth capability. It is exciting (for the moment).

Currently when I get home I say “Alexa watch TV” and she will turn on my receiver to the right channel of audio, turn on the TV and specifically switch it to BBC1. She will then turn on the lights in the lounge. At any point I can pick up my mobile phone and it can control all of the devices and some of the lighting in my home.

There is certainly a lot of trial and error involved in getting this right, but when it works it saves alot of time.

My friend who also has an echo not only has the ability to call me through it so we can have phone conversations but he has the ability to “Drop in”. At anytime he can request to hear the microphones on my alexa so that he can hear what is being discussed in my house and to chip in when he feels like it. This is quite creepy. I can imagine this being an idea for a program such as black mirror. Obviously, you can only give certain people this ability and I only give this option to my family and close friends.

Setting the mood

I haven’t yet conquered the mood settings for alexa. You can buy wifi enabled smart bulbs that you can change the colour of and have dimming abilities. Someone online was able to say “Alexa, set the mood” and all the lights dimmed by 50% and changed to a warming yellow. You could program activities so that certain devices have certain colours. Watching a sci-fi film might make the room green, watching a horror: red. These bulbs aren’t cheap though, they’ll set you back £40 a bulb and with some Phillip’s bulbs you have to buy extra compatible devices which cost £50+.

What the future holds

The amazon echo is currently £69.99 and in my opinion the sound quality is good for music. It doesn’t necessarily compete with Sonos or Bose but it is good for a range of different genres. Amazon have released the amazon dot which is half the price. The dot has all the same functionality but the sound speakers aren’t as good. The dot would be useful if you want the listening ability for another room.

I am very excited about the amazon spot which has not come out in the UK yet. The amazon spot is an alexa powered alarm clock, except it has a camera built into it for face time abilities. You can wake up to your favourite music or news. It provides music in the bedroom whilst you’re getting ready for work and various other things. A lot of people are afraid about the privacy by having a camera on the device. In my view though you can just turn the device away from you when you’re changing or simply strap a piece of tape across the lense if you’re that concerned. It would just be cool to have a camera setup to talk with friends or to see outside when the postman shows up.

What you should try

There is a feature with alexa where you can ask her for a recipie and she will read it out step by step if you’re cooking. You could also theoretically set up the prep of a dish in a slow cooker the night before and ask alexa to start it at a set time so that when you get home there is a piping hot meal waiting for you! This would be cost effective as a slower cooker costs the same as a light bulb.

Sometimes if you don’t fancy music it’s fun to enable the Ted talks skill so you can say “Alexa, play a Ted talk on science” and she will go through a play list of talks from around the world.

Alexa is great fun. It is an expensive obsession but finally this tech feels like a step into the future of homes.


Orwellian Wisdom

If you haven’t already read some of George Orwell’s books then I highly recommend them. I can imagine though that the subject matter of some of his titles are not to everyone’s taste. Orwell focuses a lot on poverty and it’s effects of society as well as dabbling in the control the government has on us by painting dystopian futures.

George Orwell was writing his novels and essays between 1928-1950. Although some of the backdrops and parlance used in his books are old fashioned the stories are still relevant and his writing style is a pleasure to read as Orwell always wrote his prose in straight forward clean language. When reading Orwell I never found myself struggling to maintain concentration. According to Stephen Pinker this writing style is known as the classic style:

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. 

(Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style)

Left or Right? 

Orwell also has other themes in his books such as totalitarianism, socialism, communism and fascism. There is an eternal argument between the left and the right politically as they fight between which side Orwell belongs to. When Orwell wrote about communism in 1984 and Animal Farm this was usually the reason that the right believed he was on their side politically. Those more well read in Orwell will realise that his other books more regularly project different points of view. Anti-colonialism and the drive for social improvement through focusing more on emotion needs than patriotic needs shows Orwell’s place in the camp of leftists. I think a more careful study of Orwell will see that he sits firmly on the left. Orwell claimed that it is the problem of capitalism that is creating the difficulties of the second world war.

Big Brother

As well as writing captivating books, Orwell shared some interesting concepts. Many people use the term “Big Brother” and don’t fully understand it is from Orwell’s 1984. You cannot deny that Orwell correctly predicted that our future is rife with security cameras and observailance. Out presence in the world is for everyone to see. I would never tell someone they can’t do this, but I find it scary that children are born, and before they can even develop the ability to process images, their image has been posted on facebook and is imprisoned on a server in America. Children go to school and their parents takes a picture of them in their school uniform before their first day, they are advertising exactly where their child is going to be alone 5 days a week.

Many writers & film makers have stood on the shoulders of Orwell when trying to paint these horrifying future landscapes. A great example of a similar social commentary is in a TV show called “Black Mirror” which is on Netflix. This series with clearly inspired by Orwell but paints a sickeningly bleak outlook.

The Money God

In an early title by Orwell “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” George Cormstock who is the main protagonist has an ending battle with wealth. He has a philosophy that without money you are nothing, you will be an outcast in society and nobody loves you. George let’s this hang over him wherever he goes. He let’s himself endure meaningless work and even prevents moving forward in relationships because he knows he can’t treat his partner. This books seems to reel from another book titled “Down and out in Paris” which is partly autobiographical about Orwell’s poverty when living in Paris.

I can certainly relate to George. I can’t help but think of lyrics from a song called Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve:

“It’s a bittersweet Symphony (that’s life) you’ve gotta make ends meat (you’re a slave to money, then you die)”

I am fortunate in that I have a steady job and earn a wage which is suitable for my means. I can remember earning less money than I did and was constantly being reminded by my parents that I didn’t earn enough. Even to this day they say to me “You should really be earning more money now”. I responded to them “The problem I have is that I can remember earning less money than I do now. I got to a point where I earnt a comfortable wage, then my wage had gone up again. I have noticed that since I became comfortable with what I earn, as my wage has increased my level of happiness has stayed exactly the same so I find it difficult to find the motivation to try to earn more money?” When I told my parents this they had no answer for me.

I can remember telling my mother about a new job and I spoke for about 4 minutes about the potentials for fun new challenges to which she watched with indifference. I then was asked how much the job paid, and when I told her she burst into tears. It seems that only the seal of a decent salary was enough to inspire her happiness. I was disgusted by this transparent display of devotion to the money god.

Final point

I think that deciding your own philosophy in life is an important exercise to understand the world we live in, but to also better understand how we fit in it. I have learnt so much from the wisdom presented by Orwell that it makes me wonder what is available in books I haven’t read. We are so privileged to have a wealth of authors to chose from, and this fills me with excitement.

I hope that people can recommend books for me to read, especially ones that have spoken to you personally.