Walls have ears!

How we voluntarily sign away our privacy… Google Home Privacy - Reboot Social

“I am sorry, can you repeat that?”

I looked at my wife. I hadn’t asked her anything. She was watching “Love it or list it” on TV and not paying any attention to me. I wanted to ask her if she was hearing voices, but thought better of it. That wouldn’t sit well.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my Google Home Assistant that had quipped up – always eager to help. Except, I hadn’t asked for any assistance. Apparently somebody on TV had said something that sounded like “OK Google,” the trigger to wake up the assistant.  The assistant is always attentive; always listening – just in case you are talking to her – Holly, the voice behind Google Assistant.

My relationship with Holly is new – about a couple of months old. We are still getting used to each other. She calls me by my first name and recognizes when someone else is talking to her. Until recently, I had been with Siri – the intelligent personal assistant from Apple that came with my iPhone.

In some ways I feel that I am breaking up with Siri.

With Holly, Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, all vying for my attention, I feel like Lou Bega when he sings his version of Mambo No. 5A little bit of Monica in my life; A little bit of Erica by my side; A little bit of Rita is all I need; A little bit of Tina is what I see…

Seriously speaking, voice as an interface for controlling devices is here to stay.

The convenience is undisputable. Whether it is calling someone while driving a car, or setting the timer while you are cooking, the voice commands combined with the artificial intelligence inherent in some of these devices are transforming our homes into technology hubs.

But, that is really not my point. It is about privacy. The privacy that I have chosen to give up.

In a way, it is like a modern day version of Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlow’s play. I am signing my privacy away to an AI version of Mephistopheles. All for the cool factor and the convenience of technology, with scant disregard for future implications.

Nearly five years ago, I wrote a post titled “Five facts about privacy that may catch you unaware” in which I focused on how companies and businesses infringe on our privacy for financial gain. And now, here I am voluntarily cozying up to my artificially intelligent assistant who, admittedly, records everything I say to it.

I am comforted by Google’s declared statement that only I have access to this info.

Sure. That works for me.

However, I worry that Google’s hands could be forced – by a Government, or a Judge, or for the right price.

I realize that the transcripts that I see from the Google Assistant are confined to the conversations that I started with “OK Google” or “Hey Google,” nothing else. But, by default the device has to listen to every word that gets said around the house to be able to respond to the right trigger words. There is no other way it can be an efficient assistant. It just politely stays out of the way until it is spoken to, like a fly on the wall.

Walls have ears!

Occasionally I worry that there is nothing preventing Google, Amazon, Apple, and others like them from expanding the ability to record conversations beyond what they currently do. After all, the devices are in the room and have the ability. Currently they choose not to, but they could. And when I am not at home, my smartphone steps in and tracks exactly where I am, and where I have been to ever since I set my “location” services to “on” in the device’s settings.

Once again, it is a choice that I have made, for the convenience of better search results, and finding my way around a city. I can turn it off, but I haven’t.

Privacy be damned!

After all, I have nothing to hide. Except, that time I played devil’s advocate and supported Donald Trump; and the time I strongly expressed my disillusionment with Trudeau Government’s policies that impact middle-class citizens; and that other time when I gave advice on using free movie streaming sites, and many such conversations that can come back to bite me, if taken out of context.

But then, if media reports are to be believed NSA and CSEC routinely monitor communications of individuals that they deem suspicious. If CSEC wanted to track my communications, they would not need assistance from Google Home to do that.

Governments have to do what they need to do to keep the country safe. So, I sort of condone it.

However, in the hands of a private company, such personal information could be far more dangerous. Imagine Google, Facebook, or Apple having complete data on your search history, what you talk about within your home, where you have been to, and potentially who else was with you!

You don’t have to imagine, they kind of already do.

Until now, the bigger players in the business appear to have behaved responsibly. And, consumers like you and I have bought in, and are vested. We like the convenience and the efficiency it brings to our daily lives. But, it only takes one corporate executive to think like J. Edgar Hoover and leverage the data and the power of knowledge of people’s personal lives and secrets.

For now, I am not worrying about it.

I am more concerned that one of these days my Google Assistant will turn around and tell me,

“Sorry, I have a head ache, ask me later.”

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An expensive date night…

“Excellent choice,” the server, who introduced himself as Victor, appeared impressed with my choice of wine.An expensive date night - Reboot Social

As someone who is not opposed to picking a wine from the right side of the menu – based on price – I was quite pleased with myself.

My wife and I were at an upscale Thai restaurant attached to the 60 Thompson Hotel (now Sixty Soho) in New York City, celebrating Valentine’s Day. My daughter had picked the spot based on the chef’s reputation.

“It won’t be cheap,” my daughter had warned me. “But, it’s Valentine’s Day.”

Though I am not a big fan of showing affection to loved ones on specific days, I had decided to go along.

The restaurant was dimly lit, with an exotic club feel to it.

Once we were settled in our seats, the server started with the water test, “Would that be sparkling or flat?”

We picked tap water.

My store-bought reading glasses didn’t seem to be much help in reading the glossy wine list and menu. A flashlight app would have helped. Unfortunately, my phone – at that time – didn’t have one.

Picking the wine was harder. The wine list was big.

Big wine lists throw me off; especially when the wines are not listed in an ascending order of price – low to high. Trying to land on a wine that you would like and also fits your budget can be tricky when restaurants don’t stock up on brands and grapes that you recognize.

An expensive date night - Reboot Social

Wine list snap shot from Gramercy Tavern

I must admit that I like my wine. But, I have no illusions about my knowledge of it.

By no means would I consider myself a connoisseur. At best, I may be an oenophile – I know what I like but cannot vouch for its pedigree. Once I get past the more commercialized wines – Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay – I am in unfamiliar territory. I personally believe that a lot of wine drinkers are like me and don’t understand or care about primary, secondary, and tertiary flavours in a wine, as long as they like it.

As a rule, I make some basic assumptions while ordering wine at a restaurant.

I assume that all the wines in the list are good enough to be served at the restaurant. After all, someone hand-picked each one from the thousands of producers and vintages out there. So ego aside, ordering a cheaper wine on the list is acceptable to me.

However, we were on a date night. I was willing to break my “keep it under $50” rule.

After prolonged scouring of the wine list, I picked a Pinot Noir with a name that I could not pronounce. At $72, it was priced substantially below the median price of the wines on the list.

I was ready to taste.

Victor brought the wine to the table and presented it to me with a flourish. I nodded in approval. By that time, I had forgotten the name of the wine that I had picked and only remembered it was a Pinot Noir.

As I went through the whole “nose, legs, body” routine, I wondered how he would react if I said I didn’t like it. I dismissed that thought since I had read that you can only return a bottle if it is “corked,” the official term for wine going bad. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

The wine indeed was excellent! The server was right. I mentally patted myself on the back as we proceeded to order our meal.

The food was less complicated.

Creative appetizers followed by gourmet seafood mains were testament to the Chef’s skill and fame. As we moved on to coffee and dessert, I leaned back and savoured the experience. All told, the evening was a success. Clearly good for some brownie points with the wife.

As we discussed our post-dinner plans, Victor brought our cheque.

There appeared to be something wrong.

I had done some mental math as we were ordering. The bill was almost twice the amount of what I had expected it to be. Pulling out my reading glasses I went through the bill line by line. Everything appeared to be in order except for the Pinot Noir with the unpronounceable name which was billed at $240 – over three times the price than what I had seen in the wine list.

Finally, as Victor came by to collect my credit card, I pointed out the error. Apologizing for the confusion, he quickly went back and fetched the wine list and flipped the pages to the offending item. He pointed out the price to me, it was $240! I looked at the bottle which was still at our table; sure enough it was the right Pinot Noir!

Perplexed, I looked at the wine list again. Then, I realized my error. Just below the one that I had ordered was another Pinot Noir – the one I thought I was ordering – listed at $72. Somewhere along the ordering process, we had gotten our wires crossed! When the wine was presented to me, I had not paid attention. I was too cool and nonchalant about it.

A costly mistake!

As we paid and headed out to a nearby bar for a night cap, I wondered if it was completely my fault.

Should Victor have reconfirmed my wine pick with me?

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Disclaimer: The Thai restaurant referred to in this post has since closed.The dollar figures shown in the post are from my memory and may not be exact.

My scary encounter with allergies

Encounter with allergies - Reboot SocialFor a few minutes there I wondered if I was going to make it.

Funny, the kind of thoughts that cross your mind when you see your own mortality staring you in the face. A couple of TV police dramas I had recently watched flashed through my mind. They always started with people meeting untimely ends.

I briefly considered calling my wife who was at a customer meeting. I didn’t see the point.

I wondered if I should call 911, then decided against it. What it wasn’t anything serious?

Later that day, when I told my wife what had happened, she rolled her eyes. I could hear her unspoken words, “overreacting again!”

It had started out as a normal day.

I had decided to work from home since I had been scheduled for some routine medical tests that morning. Medical tests and procedures seem to follow your age than your ailments – this test at forty, that test at fifty, and so on. The instructions for the tests were clear, I had to be fasting from the previous evening, and stop drinking liquids from early morning on the day of the procedure.

I was more concerned about work. I had a jam-packed afternoon with back-to-back meetings. I wanted to make sure that I got back home on time and got a bite of food before picking up from where I left off.

The tests went like clockwork. They roll you in, do their tests, brief wait, and get you out the door.

Relieved that I had made it back home on time, I quickly grabbed the first thing that I could find in the fridge and absent-mindedly started eating it as I parsed my work emails for anything important.

Something didn’t feel right.

I ignored it. I figured that it may have something to do with my gulping down food after having starved for nearly a day.

My face felt funny. I touched it and realized that it had swollen up. I couldn’t explain it.

I looked at my plate. It couldn’t be the shrimps, I told myself. I had eaten shrimps all my life. After all, I come from a coastal town in India. Fish is what I grew up with. As I tentatively took another bite, the swelling seemed to get worse and extend to my neck. I was beginning to have trouble breathing.

Panic started to set in.

I left the food and contemplated my options. If I was really having an allergic reaction to the shrimps, I had to get help.

I called my doctor’s office and tried to explain to the matter-of-fact receptionist that I had to see the doctor, in a hurry. She calmly told me that I could get an appointment in two weeks. My doctor was on vacation. Trying to keep my calm, I persisted. She finally relented and offered to get the backup doctor to take a look at me.

About twenty minutes had elapsed, and my swelling had stabilized since I stopped eating.

I quickly made my way over to the doctor’s office, a five-minute walk from my apartment.

“So, this is not normal?” The sub-in doctor asked as she pressed my face to determine if the swelling was painful.

I wasn’t sure of what she was implying.

I wanted to tell her that I had a normal face like everyone else, but stuck with a simple “no.”

As she went through my medical history, the swelling seemed to subside. She prescribed me some allergy pills and suggested that I come back if the symptoms persisted, or go to the “Emergency” if it got any worse.

As I was leaving, a thought seem to cross her mind.

“Try drinking a lot of water, it may be due to dehydration,” she advised as she moved on to her next patient.

Once home, I went straight to the Web to look-up “face-swelling related to food.” I quickly realized that my experience was not unique. Many others had encountered similar symptoms – all triggered by the simple act of eating food.

A message board chat-string titled “Jaw Swells Up When Eating” seemed to explain it best. The issue was attributed to a blocked salivary gland – often caused due to dehydration. The remedy was simple – drink a lot of water, suck on sour candy, or eat spicy food. Reassured that I may have found out the root-cause of my problem I decided to try the hydration option before resorting to the allergy medication.

A few hours later, I felt as good as new!

Until that day, I had not paid any serious attention to allergies or the plight of the people who live with it all their lives.

Sure, I have family members who are allergic to nuts, seafood, eggs, the list goes on. But, until I lived it I, had no appreciation for what it can entail. The everyday discipline that is required to ensure that you don’t accidentally consume or touch something that you shouldn’t must be daunting. The anxiety that comes with a child susceptible to allergies must be even worse.

How do you trust foods that you have no control over? It could literally mean life or death!

Surprisingly, I had not come across anyone with allergies in India until I was well into my late twenties. Perhaps people had higher tolerance to food groups, or there was less awareness, or both. A friend’s daughter was identified as “lactose intolerant.” The suggested alternative to milk was Prosobee, a soy-based infant formula not available in India at that time. My friend had the means to get it, but what if she hadn’t?

Then there was the situation with another friend whose wife was identified as allergic to him during her pregnancy. I didn’t quite believe that it was a real thing until I read this article in BBC titled “I’m allergic to my husband.”

Apparently, it is a medical condition!

As I meet more and more people who live with allergies, I can’t help wonder if our obsession with clean and sanitized environments is partly to blame for our predicament.

Irrespective of the reasons, I now have a new found appreciation for allergies.

But for now, I am thankful that I can eat shrimps again!

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A dozen things I like about living in an apartment

Living in an apartment - Reboot Social

When it comes to living in an apartment versus a house, most of the people I know lean towards a house.

I get their pro-house arguments – larger spaces, more privacy, potential equity growth, and other such benefits. Clearly, apartment living is not for everyone. But, if you have considered rightsizing or see yourself living in an apartment down the line, this post may give you some perspective.

Before I get into it, I must add that this post is purely based on my experiences in the building that I live in and will be different from the experiences of other apartment dwellers. If you would like to read about some of the negatives that can come with a condominium, try “Ten things about downsizing to a condo that you should know.” I use the terms apartment and condominium interchangeably in this post.

So, here are a dozen things I like about living in an apartment.

I can take off at whim: When I lived in a house, taking off for extended periods of time required a fair amount of planning. To begin with, I had to make sure that the house looked lived in. This meant that among other things, I had to arrange for lights to be turned on and off, newspapers and flyers cleared from the porch, snow cleared from the driveway. The last thing I wanted was to attract opportunistic intruders. Now, I lock and leave. I let the building management deal with any emergencies that may come up. As someone who travels frequently, this works great for me.

I don’t get door knockers: I only get visits from folks that I really want to meet with. No longer do I have to explain to young door-to-door sales guys why I don’t want my water-heater upgraded nor do I have to deal with folks who try to convince me that their God is better than mine. Surprisingly, I still get calls from people trying to sell me duct cleaning services. I need to figure out a way to stop that one.

Things don’t go bump in the night: I never quite figured out all the things that made creaky or unexplainable sounds in our house, especially in the night. Needless to say that apart from my fridge’s ice dispenser occasionally making strange sounds and my printer deciding to do a heath check, I sleep worry free. I no longer feel the need to keep a baseball bat under my bed.

No need for club or gym memberships: Technically, I do not need to go to a gym or maintain my club membership to stay healthy. The modest gym, swimming pool, squash, and tennis courts in the building work out great on that front. I do not have to try to beat my friends for primetime court bookings or worry about getting to the club in inclement weather. However, since I have not been able to convince my fellow club members to move into the building, I still end up at the club for a quick hit and a beer.

Room with a view can be relaxing: Watching the neighbours go about their business in the sub-division where my house stood was fine, in a bonding sort of way. But, watching everyday life – people, cars – and the four seasons roll by from a higher floor has a different feel to it than when seen from the ground level.

No more trying to time the snow plows: Unlike some of my friends, I never particularly enjoyed shovelling snow on my driveway. I no longer dread the sight of city snow plows that always seemed to appear just as I finished up, and pushed mounds of snow right back in front of my driveway. Now I gleefully watch the synchronization with which the plows conga line through the streets around my building.

No more searching for disappearing garbage bins: Weekly garbage disposal at home came with its own small challenges. From garbage bins that fly away and rodents that tear up the bags, to missed pick-ups, the whole garbage disposal experience was occasionally painful. The garbage chutes and recycling bins in the condominium make the process seamless and smooth.

No more trudging in the snow to pick up mail: This may seem trivial. But if you still get letters – or more likely bills – in the mail, this can be a blessing. Having to wade through a foot of snow and slush to find that you have no mail can be quite frustrating. Going down to the lobby level to pick up my mail works great for me.

I never get surprised in my shower: The water pressure in my house never seemed adequate. Perhaps, it was something that I could have gotten fixed. The water temperature always seemed to be influenced by what other people around the house did. In my condo I take the water pressure and the temperature for granted. No more getting scalded or the shower turning ice cold.

Leave the maintenance to someone else: Most people I know are not very good at meticulously keeping track of batteries in smoke detectors, cleaning filters, and servicing heat pumps. I am no different. In a condo, someone else keeps track of service dates and maintenance requirements leaving you to worry about the associated costs.

Forced minimalism: I see this as a positive; my wife may have a different view. We are forced to only keep things that we really need and use. Keeping the condo clean is a whole lot easier than cleaning a house, especially since it is all in one level. I am seriously considering a Roomba.

No more waiting for deliveries: Timing the UPS guy can be tough. I now do not worry about the delivery guy leaving packages outside my door or in my unlocked mailbox. In the past, I have had to swing by the courier depot to pick up my parcel because I missed the drop off window. As I make more and more of my purchases online, the Concierge service in the building comes in real handy.

So, there you have it.

Four years ago when I moved to a condo, it was sort of a leap of faith. Now, I feel that it was the right move for me and my family.

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If it weren’t for the money…

If it weren't for the money

I am beginning to wonder if I am a boring person. It’s the kind of stuff that no one will tell to your face.

I do not have a “passion” to pursue, like most others seem to have. I am afraid that may put me in some sort of boring, passionless minority.

I read posts about people giving up lucrative jobs to pursue their passion. People seem to quit jobs to pursue trekking, photography, dancing, travel, yoga, baking – the kind of stuff that I wouldn’t give up my day job for. The article I read was a little light on how these people made ends meet.

Perhaps, they were independently wealthy. Had to be.

I wracked my brain to come up with things that I am passionate about. I could only come up with things like hanging out with friends; listening to music; playing some tennis and squash; enjoying good food; and writing the occasional blog post.

The trouble is that I can do all that without quitting my job.

Nevertheless, that article triggered some introspection.

Was I shortchanging myself?

Sure, I like my job. But, if money were no object, would I still do it? Or, do something else?

Most of us don’t have “enough” money to chuck up and leave our jobs; so the concept of exploring satisfying alternatives that pay less, or don’t pay at all remains just that – a concept.

So, we stay.

The prospect of taking a lower paying job in pursuit of happiness has a nice ring to it. But, in most of our cases it is clearly not practical. Also, there is no guarantee that grass will be greener on the other side. But, if you don’t take a chance, how will you ever know?

To some extent, you can argue that peace of mind and happiness trump money.

But, you can’t pay your bills with happiness.

I have always envied people whose jobs allowed them to take long sabbaticals or career breaks to pursue other things of their choice. What better way to figure out what else you can do with your life – both in terms of fulfilment and financial security – other than a paid experiment like a sabbatical?

But that is wishful and unlikely to happen for most of us.

As negative as it sounds, what is more likely to happen, as we have seen time and time again, is that such breaks come unplanned through workplace shifts, corporate downsizing, or some such event.

If it were to happen to you, and you have a financial cushion, would you consider exploring satisfying alternatives? Would you pursue your passion, at least to rule it out as not practical?

I realize that this is a rhetorical question, and the answer would differ based on your stage in life. But, based on what people seem to be doing, certainly it is food for thought.

Most people I know will go right back into job hunting mode. Perhaps that is old school and boring.

I have thought about this for a while.

At many stages in my career, I have been to the point where I wanted to throw it all up and walk away.

If it weren’t for the money, I would have.

My version of the golden handcuffs!

And yet, money has only been one of my motivators. Strangely, I have never felt the need to be super rich. On the other hand, I have always felt grateful that I was not poor. I consider myself fortunate in some ways when compared to others that I know who seem to have bigger problems than I do.

So, status quo works for me.

But, status quo is bad in a fast-paced business world with artificial emergencies and deadlines. It’s all about moving the corporate needle forward as the stragglers fall by the wayside.

Don’t get me wrong. I do like what I do for a living. But, every once in a while, I feel like asking,

“What’s the hurry?”

Perhaps it’s time…

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No touch. No talk. No eye contact!

No touch. No talk. No eye contact.

I wouldn’t have noticed the dog if my wife hadn’t stepped into Sephora.

I chose to wait outside. I figured people-watching on Union Square would be more interesting than helping her pick out shades of lipstick and nail polish. Plus, the last time I tried to guess the ones that apparently worked best with her skin, I wasn’t close.

No brownie points there.

At first glance, it was just another guy walking his dog. But there was something unusual about the equation between the dog and the man. The dog looked young and nervous, glancing up at the man every so often, almost as if it was looking for his approval.

Then I noticed that the dog had a jacket that read “In training. No touch. No talk. No eye contact!”

It was a dog in training – a service dog, or a police dog, I presumed.

Union Square can get busy. Tourists abound as they wait in line to catch the famous Cable Car ride – the San Francisco experience. As the two employees went through the motions of manually pushing and turning the cable car around, I realized that automating the turnaround certainly would make it more efficient. But, the whole drama would be lost.

As sporadic clapping erupted, I looked at the dog. It seemed to handle the crowd well albeit in a nervous sort of way. When another random dog came sniffing, it seemed to waiver for a second, but some secret command or a tug on its leash – not visible to me – seemed to get it back on track.

The trainer appeared no less focused than the dog. Watching the dog and its every reaction and yet trying to look casual, like any other man with a dog.

He walked the dog closer to the rail that kept passersby away from the cable car lines.  A flock of pigeons merrily pecked away at food debris left by tourists. The dog’s ears perked up. Once again it seemed fidgety and on the verge of losing its composure. You could tell it desperately wanted to chase the birds. Clearly, the dog was being tested for its ability to handle distractions. On some unseen cue the dog stood up on its hind legs with its paws on the rail and calmly watched the birds. As the pigeons jostled each other for food, the dog looked at the trainer for approval.

In my books, the dog passed the test.

Self-control. Discipline. Toe the line. Obey orders. The dog had displayed it all.

As I walked away, I felt bad for the dog. I wondered what it did for fun. Did it ever get to play fetch with its trainer? Or, was that only for pet dogs?

In a weird sort of way, I could relate to the dog – always being taught to behave, to be disciplined, to be good.

“And lead us not into temptation…” I didn’t have to grow up Christian to remember the Lord’s Prayer from my boarding school days.

And yet, occasionally fallible as we all are, forgetting to behave.

Unlike the dog.

Which makes me wonder – what about all those people who don’t follow rules or blatantly break them? Like the ones who park their cars in spots designated for disabled people, or the ones that cut you off on the road, or squeeze into the exit lane at the last minute ignoring all the folks who patiently followed the rules and stayed in line for over thirty minutes?

What about the ones who get ahead by being rude and obnoxious – the squeaky wheels? The ones who drive their personal agendas? What were they taught?

And then the bigger question: What should we inculcate in our children? To be compassionate, caring, and altruistic?

Or, to look out for number one?

Perhaps there is a middle ground…

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