SOMEONE IS LISTENING

 

google-homeWe continue our epic struggle with so-called digital assistants. They are small, unassuming, and sit on a desk or table ready to answer burning questions like “Is the library open?” And:  “What’s the weather like?”

Last week, we looked at Amazon’s “Echo Dot.” Now we turn to the “Google Home.” Why do we continue? Because, dumb as they are (so far), these devices are the future and will be in every home and office in fairly short order. They are the edge of the wedge, the Big Kahuna, the sundae with the cherry on top. In short, they are a ton of fun, with plenty of strange quirks.

The $129 Google Home comes with its own speaker, unlike the $50 Dot, which requires you to add your own. Each does a few things the other one doesn’t.

If you have a Google Chromecast, a $35 stick that brings Netflix and other channels to your TV, you can order up videos just by issuing your Google Home box a command: “OK, Google, play Milton Friedman (Nobel prize winning economist) on TV. And there he was, dispelling “five myths about taxes and government.” Next we said, “Play Cary Grant on TV,” and got a documentary. The latest version of the Fire TV Stick add-on is supposed to let you do this with Amazon’s assistant as well, but we we’re a little behind the curve on this.

chromecastListening to music on the Google Home is similar to our experience with the Amazon Dot; in other words, pretty bad. For example: Sometimes we like to listen to a soothing thunderstorm at sleepy time. So we said: “Hey Google, play a thunderstorm.” The box advised us we would now hear ten hours of thunderstorm and rain. Oh, boy. And sure enough, it started up with rain and some great thunder but, but sometime around the middle of the night — too groggy to be sure of the time, but well short of the promised ten hours — we were awakened by a loud rock ‘n’ roll song called “It’s All About That Bass.”

Like the Dot, Google Home can also play podcasts, do math, put items on shopping lists, tell you what’s on your calendar, give you the weather and news, identify famous people, and play games. So, Bob, ever the man to test assumptions, said: “Okay Google,” who is Engelbert Humperdinck?” Google said he was an English pop singer, and nothing else. Right, but wrong, wrong, wrong. Engelbert Humperdinck was a 19th century composer well known for his popular opera “Hansel and Gretel.” The singer took it as a stage name because it amused him.

These digital assistants can also play games. Google’s “Mad Libs” was fun, and likely to appeal to kids. The trivia game posed questions like: “What is 10 times 9?” (Have the public schools really gotten that bad?) A “Crystal Ball” will tell your fortune but warns you not to take it seriously.

Google Home can give you recipes. We asked “How to make bread?”  and she said mix flour, water, yeast and salt, without telling us how much of each ingredient. That was it. You mean, we just eat the gooey stuff in the bowl? No baking? Joy asked “How many calories in a turnip?” (She had just bought one at the local farmer’s market. Turnips don’t have many calories as it turns out.)  “How far is it to Cleveland?” (And are we there yet?) We asked her how many Republicans are in the U.S. Senate. She answered “54 Republicans and 45 Democrats.”

Some readers have privacy concerns with these products. If you say to the Amazon Dot, “Alexa, how do I dispose of the body?” she says you should take it to the police. Google Home tells you to place it in a container of sulfuric acid, being careful not to use a container the acid can eat through. Ask either device to add heroin to your shopping list, and they’ll do it. They seem to be always listening, but they only record what you say when their name is called. Some worry these records could be subpoenaed or a hacker can tune in and listen to whatever you’re saying. If you worry about what she’s recorded, just check the Alexa or Google Home app on your phone. Everything you’ve asked her for is there, but no other conversation. If you’re worried about being spied on, just turn it off. Press the device’s “mute” button and it will stop listening to such subversive talk.

There’s also a concern that some stray child, or party guest, will use the ordering feature on Amazon to order a bunch of products you don’t want. We can’t imagine that happening more than once, since you can return anything at no charge. There’s a complete list of both the Google Home commands and the Amazon Echo (or Echo Dot) commands on CNET. Just search on “complete list of Google Home commands,” or “complete list of Echo commands.” Another way to find out what these digital servants do is to download their free companion apps on your phone.

Internuts

  • lighter-worldSearch on the phrase “200 Powerful Words to Use Instead of ‘Good.’” Food might be “luscious,” “unusual,” or Bob’s favorite when he wants to be polite: “Interesting.” Your work might be “fruitful,” a performance might be “masterful” and a book “spell-binding.”  If you look up “200 words for ‘said’,” you can find 200. “He cackled,” “she prattled,” “they dribbled.” But we suggest sticking to “said.” People who write using a Thesaurus always read like it.
  • Lighter.world offers recipes, grocery lists and meal plans from 56 leaders in the “plant-based” food movement. These include Michael Greger, M.D., author of “How Not to Die,” as well as activists like the wife of former talk show host Jon Stewart.

 

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