At Home with Tech

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Category: Tech Diary

Feeling Comfortable Yet?

Our cat has no problem relaxing, and even occasionally expresses her feline Zen for my camera. I find her disposition a helpful reminder to take a deep breath every now and again.

These are, no doubt, strange times. Complete with plenty of stress and uncertainty. So, it’s probably a good idea to take a few cues from our companion animals and chill out whenever possible. After all, it is summer.

So whether you’re hanging out in the country side…

Or beginning to get out again in the big city…

I hope you’re finding some time to relax and recharge. My family and I just returned from a little excursion to the Berkshires.

Find your sunshine.

Tales from a Suburban Commute: Business as Usual?

Are you also nervous about returning to your commute into the city? If you live in the suburbs, you may not be experiencing how life is returning to normal. Here’s my own story getting back into New York City, and what I witnessed.

Last week, I reactivated my old commute from Connecticut into Manhattan on a Metro North train. No, my work schedule hasn’t entirely shifted back, but it’s the beginning of a new normal for me. I don’t think I could have imagined this just a few short months back, but I’ve jumped back into the flow of the physical world, way beyond my limited and carefully curated social engagements during the pandemic.

I’m vaccinated, and I believe it’s finally time to take this step of reintegration. (Hopefully, the Delta variant doesn’t reverse this general trend in my area.)

My Return to New York City
This isn’t my first time back since the pandemic began. I’ve also been in Manhattan on weekends to visit my father, and I’ve recently traveled to the city on another occasion with my wife. We drove in for an event at a restaurant.

All of these trips felt both jarring and entirely normal, but my workday commute was especially surreal.

For those new and former road warriors from the suburbs who are on the cusp of the same return-to-the-office journey, here are my travel notes from my New York expeditions.

Train Parking
I was delighted that my station’s small parking lot was barely half filled. Not having to stress over whether I could find a spot on a workday was a joy. I think all of those empty parking spaces were due to summer vacations and remote work still in effect for many commuters.

New Haven Line Trains
My Metro North trains weren’t packed, but they weren’t entirely empty either. Everyone wore masks. Thankfully, the center seats remained unoccupied, as there was enough room for people to spread out.

I must admit I used to be a fan of taking the center seat, as opposed to having to stand for my entire train ride. No more.

And I think there’s a new, unspoken social-distancing norm not to sit shoulder-to-shoulder. We’ll see how that holds up as trains fill up in the fall.

Off-Peak Tickets
Metro North is not currently operating a full schedule. That means all trains are off peak. So DON’T buy a peak ticket from the ticket machine on the platform like I did. That’s a rookie mistake and a waste of money.

To add insult to injury, I had purchased a 10-pass ticket, because they’re less expensive per ride. (Peak ride, that is.) Thankfully, the train conductor kindly explained to me that you can fill out a form for a refund at the ticket counter in Grand Central Terminal. (If you do it within 24 hours, you can immediately exchange a peak ticket for off-peak rides.)

New York Subways
I couldn’t imagine myself in a subway during the pandemic, but here I was again… just like old times. Almost everybody was wearing a mask, although it’s supposed to be everyone.

The subway trains I took weren’t packed, but there wasn’t really enough space for true social distancing.

New York City Restaurants
My biggest shock as a suburban creature was to see so many New Yorkers happily packed into restaurants, and nobody wearing masks (with the exception of restaurant employees).

Sure, if you’re eating, you can’t wear a mask, but it wasn’t like people were re-masking between courses. There were no masks, and that was it.

The Power of Group Psychology
I’ve got to admit how quickly I was influenced by the group norms I passed through.

Remember that New York City restaurant my wife and I went to? We walked in wearing our masks. I was surrounded by what seemed like a sea of people happily chatting away, and there wasn’t a mask in the house. I immediately felt like some kind of leper. By the second, it became increasingly uncomfortable for me to keep my mask on, and it was off within moments.

The CDC currently says that’s okay for those who are vaccinated. But was everyone in the restaurant vaccinated? It’s impossible to know.

I’m not so sure what this all means about my resolve. Am I a lemming following an irresponsible course? Perhaps, I’m simply acting normal and following the science. To be fair, the guidance on safe pandemic practices is always changing.

Still, the intense power of group psychology is undeniable.

Back to the Future
Taking my first steps in my return to New York City were the hardest. It got easier from there. Much easier.

Do I feel safe? Well, I’m vaccinated. And I’m watching the headlines. For now, I’m okay with my choice.

At some point, you’ve got to go live your life. You can’t stay home forever.

If you want to dip your toe in the water and try a trip into the city, I’d say that now is a decent time for that. It’s not crowded.

Good luck, don’t forget your mask, and be prepared to feel the massive pull from the psychology of the masses.

Be Careful what You Say Around your Tech

When your voice-activated tech misbehaves, the problem may be caused by something you said. Here’s a fix to consider.

I’ve just put my old GoPro to work as a webcam, tethered to my PC laptop that I’m using for my job. Wearing my MacGyver hat, I easily connected the GoPro to my computer with an Elgato Cam Link 4K video converter. This adapter can transform many cameras with a HDMI output into a simple USB webcam.

I prefer my GoPro’s shot to my laptop’s built-in webcam, because the GoPro offers a wider-angle view. That framing gives me more room to use my body language when I talk to colleagues on Zoom. And I’ve found that can help me better connect with people I’ve never met in person.

But there was a problem.

Who’s Controlling your GoPro?
A couple days into its new mission as a webcam, my GoPro inexplicably began glitching out. One day it magically kicked into video mode and began recording my conversation. The next morning, it snapped a burst of pictures during a Zoom meeting. Its little blinking red light was the dead giveaway that there was a gremlin in the system.

Or was there?

I put on my diagnostic lab coat to see if there might be a GoPro setting that was causing the problem. I first upgraded the GoPro’s operating system and then poked around the menu. I eventually came to the voice control option. It was set to ‘on.’

Hmmm….

Is your GoPro Simply Following Orders?
“GoPro, take a photo!”

That’s the fun phrase my eleven-year-old son and I love to blurt out when taking GoPro selfie shots during weekend hikes with friends.

Yes… my GoPro can be voice activated. And it has been reliably obedient for selfie shots during our weekend hiking adventures.

So why wouldn’t its audio parlor trick also be in play during its weekday duties? Of course my GoPro was listening to me during my Zoom meetings! I must have said something that resembled, “GoPro start recording,” or “GoPro shoot burst.”

After my big ‘aha,’ I simply deactivated my GoPro’s voice-control mode, and thankfully, my GoPro started behaving again.

Problem solved.

But my reestablished tech Zen was short lived.

What Did You Say?
Uncovering my mistake brought up a larger question. How much of my tech is always listening to me, and how often is it misinterpreting my words and reacting in ways that it shouldn’t?

My Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker in my home office occasionally interrupts me when I’m on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting, because it thinks it heard me summon it. I usually shrug it off and shake my head, both slightly amused and a tad irritated.

Even Siri on my Apple Watch has awkwardly tried to jump into my conversations.

User Error
I’m not exactly sure what to make of all this, except to accept that voice-activated tech can sometimes react in ways we don’t want. Its skills may be imperfect. But then again, so are humans. That combination can easily lead to unexpected and imperfect results.

As more components of our smart homes begin to possess voice control, it will become increasingly important not to forget what we’ve set up to listen to our lives. (And I’m not talking about the whole privacy question. We’ll leave that topic for another day.)

Sure, it’s cool to control your surroundings with your voice. That said, I hope you talk clearly and remember the right command phrases. It would be a shame if your future tech misinterprets your intent and ruins your day… or worse.

But don’t worry. It’s probably just ‘user error.’

Time for an upgrade?

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