Alexa’s constraints make it a better assistant

“OK Google,” I said to my Pixel phone, “pause.”

I expected my music to stop playing. Instead, Google Assistant offered me the top search result: PAWS, an animal advocacy organization. This isn’t the only time Assistant has failed to catch my intent. More than once, I’ve said “never mind” after inadvertently invoking the Assistant with the wake phrase, only to be told that “Nevermind” was an album by Nirvana.

Don’t misunderstand me (even if my phone does). The versatility of Google Assistant has its perks. I love being able to set time or place based reminders. If I want to know how tall Angelina Jolie is (5’7″) or how long it will take me to get to my parents’ house (23 minutes), Assistant is ideal.

No, the problem with Assistant isn’t its lack of capabilities, but its lack of constraints. You can say anything to it, and it will respond. Even if the response is unrelated to what you need.

In contrast, Amazon’s Alexa has a large but limited vocabulary. My Echo may not know the phone number of the local CVS, but when I say “pause,” there’s no ambiguity—paws have no place in its syntax. If I say “Alexa… never mind,” it doesn’t mind. It just drops the conversation.

And, as it turns out, that’s what I want in a voice-activated assistant. I know what Alexa can do, and I know she’ll do it when I ask. When I need a search engine, I’ll talk to Google. But, for now, Alexa is my girl Friday.

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Posted in Me

It’s time for Republicans to step up

The 115th Congress has begun. Republicans enter the session feeling triumphant, with majorities in both houses and a Republican (albeit a rogue one) in the White House. Indeed, even as unpredictable as he is, President-elect Trump is clearly on the side of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans on a lot of issues: lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations, reduced environmental regulation, and hawkish foreign policy, to name a few.

But there’s a difference between being an ideological conservative and being a… well,whatever it is that Donald Trump is. And the next two years will show who are the real conservatives—those Republicans that actually stand for something bigger than themselves—and those who are political hacks.

The evidence will begin mounting early, as the president-elect’s nominees for the executive branch come up for confirmation. I’m not calling on the Republican senators to reject every nominee that disagree with. I’m calling on them to reject those that don’t represent good government. Not “good” in the sense of “how Democrats think it should be.” But “good” in the sense of “will strive in good faith to do the job effectively.”

Here’s the oath of office that all civilian appointees of the federal government must take, per U.S. law:

I, name, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Can anyone really believe that Rick Perry, who said he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, will “well and faithfully discharge the duties” of the head of that department? Will Jeff Sessions, the presumptive nominee for Attorney General, really “support and defend the Constitution,” when he clearly believes that Constitutional rights do not apply to all Americans?

Yes, it’s time for the real Republicans to stand up. Now is the time to show that they are fighting for a better America, rather than a better position on Trump’s naughty-or-nice list.