About a week after my husband and I bought our first smart speaker, an Amazon Echo Dot, my local mom’s blog posted this:
I couldn’t help but laugh. I seriously can’t relate with this line of thinking.
We’ve had Alexa just a few weeks, and I loooooooove it. In fact, I think most parents would find that an “artificially intelligent computer speaker thingamajig” makes an already-stressful life just a bit easier.
How we put Alexa to work
(Sidebar: the device itself is called an Amazon Echo Dot, but the virtual assistant that operates it goes by the name ‘Alexa’… so for the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to our thingamajig-slash-Echo Dot as “Alexa”, okay?)
Three weeks ago, our sweet 9-year-old miniature schnauzer, Kitty, was diagnosed with diabetes (which I will forever call by its Wilford Brimley name, “diabeetus!”). Kitty needs twice-daily insulin injections, and it’s important that they happen pretty close to the same time every morning and night.
I use the ‘Reminders’ iPhone app constantly, but I’ve found that it only works well for reminders in the early morning and while I’m at work, when I’m checking my phone regularly. Many weeknights and weekends, I’ll put my phone on the counter and ignore it for hours.
So when the vet said we needed to be disciplined about the shot timing, I was worried. I needed a way for the HOUSE to remind me, since that’s where Kitty normally is, to give Kitty his shot.
Enter: Alexa! This was honestly the impetus for buying the Echo Dot.
Alexa reminds us twice a day that it’s time to feed Kitty and give him his shot. She emits a soft little chime (which I can control, both the sound and the volume) and says, “This is your reminder to feed Kitty and give his medicine.” She repeats herself a few times, just in case.
Our house is small and open concept, so you can hear Alexa on the entire main floor when she chimes with her reminder. If I’m away from home, say, traveling to visit my parents, the app on my phone notifies me, instead. Puppy meds = done.
2. Music made easy
We’re a music-loving family. The TV is only on when there’s something specific we want to watch—mostly PBS Kids and Pixar movies, with a few exceptions—and right afterward, it goes off. We never use our TV for background noise. When the TV goes off, music comes on.
I pay for a Spotify subscription (I listen to music all day while I work) and both Nathan and I have Pandora accounts, too.
Before Alexa, we would connect one of our laptops to the desktop stereo via Bluetooth. It could be annoying though. If I started using a memory-intensive program on my laptop while it was connected to the stereo, it would hiccup, causing the music to cut in and out. If Nathan’s laptop was connected then mine wouldn’t connect, and it was a pain in the arse. Sometimes my laptop would lose its Bluetooth connection and the icon would completely disappear. I had to reboot my laptop to get it working again.
With Alexa, we connected our streaming radio to the device using the Alexa app. When I want to hear my The Police radio station on Pandora, I just say, “Alexa, play The Police station on Pandora.” The sweet tunes of Sting are soon emanating from the speakers.
If I want the Relaxing Classical playlist on Spotify, I ask Alexa to play it. If the kids want to hear Up, Down, Left, Right by Soundcheck (it’s a catchy techno song from Odd Squad), we ask Alexa.
And it just happens.
I don’t have to open my laptop, wait for a wireless connection, open a program or browser tab, or even pause what I’m doing.
It’s particularly helpful when the kids are losing their shit. In the mornings before school, we’re rushed and the kids are half-asleep: perfect fodder for meltdowns. Squeak will be screaming because he wants to wear pajamas instead of real clothes, and with a super-quick voice command his new favorite song, “Baby Snakes,” by Frank Zappa, will hypnotize him. And with a quick few words, we can change the music from Frank Zappa to U2, and from U2 to Deep Sleep, a Spotify playlist full of zen ambient music.
(That playlist is great for right before bedtime.)
That alone is one of Alexa’s most convenient features, in my view.
3. The shopping list
Our shopping list routine has undergone a couple of evolutions in the 10 years my husband and I have lived together.
Shopping List, B.S.P: Before smartphones. (1) Realize you’re out of applesauce pouches. (2) Stop what you’re doing and locate a pen. (3) Locate the shopping list, which should be on the side of the fridge, or if you can’t find it, locate a piece of paper and start a new one (then later on merge it with the already created one you just couldn’t find, lol). (4) Write down ‘Applesauce pouches.’ (5) Return to your regularly scheduled programming.
Shopping List, A.S.P.: After smartphones. (1) Realize you’re out of applesauce pouches. (2) Stop what you’re doing and locate your phone, or the iPad, or open up your laptop and wait for it to connect to WiFi. (3) Open the list app (we use AnyList). Wait while it opens incredibly slow. (4) Get distracted by Squeak shouting “Mommy, I pooped on the floor!”, and bolt from the kitchen to address the poop-mergency. (5) Return to the kitchen and attempt to remember what you were doing. Fail. (6) Forget about the applesauce pouches. (7) Realize two days later of your mistake when you run out of pouches and the kids lose their shit.
Shopping List, A.A.: After Alexa. (1) Realize you’re out of applesauce pouches. (2) Pause long enough to say, “Alexa, add Applesauce Pouches to my shopping list.” (3) Return to your regularly scheduled programming.
BEST. THING. EVER.
4. The time-out police
If you’re lucky enough to receive a time-out in our house, you serve your time in the same location every time: on the rug by the front door. I have used Siri for the time-out timer for years (“Siri, set a timer for three minutes!”), but if the phone is not right there next to me, it’s hard to get Siri to hear me.
Alexa fills the job of Time-out Police now. I ask her to set a timer, and she does it. Alexa can even set multiple timers and run them simultaneously, which Siri can’t do.
I can ask Alexa to set an 18-minute timer for the roasted vegetables, an 8-minute timer for the pasta, and a three-minute timer for Squeak being an asshole. And she does it ALL without a hitch.
5. Cooking helper
Siri can do this, too, but Alexa is always right there in the kitchen when I need her, whereas my phone could be scattered anywhere around the house. How many cups are in 1.25 quarts, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon, and what’s 2/3 divided by four… why keep that stuff in my brain when I’ve got Alexa to help me out?
6. The weather (especially in Iowa)
Iowa in January is like living with an unmedicated bipolar. Monday it’s 55º, Tuesday it’s a balmy 12º, and Wednesday it’s 33º with a foot of snow. This is just how it works. As a result, “Alexa, what’s the temperature?” and “Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like today?” are common requests in our house.
It’s much easier to ask Alexa (while I’m eating breakfast) than to locate my phone, unlock it, open the weather app, and scroll past all the stinkin’ ads to get to the damned forecast.
Alexa talks, I listen. Mission accomplished. And I know whether or not I need to pack a hat & gloves in Peanut’s backpack.
7. A light in the dark
Back in late 2016, we ventured into the world of smart home devices with a WEMO Smart Plug. It’s a twenty-dollar switch that’s WiFi connected. You can plug anything into it and control it with your phone or with a pre-programmed schedule.
We have a floor lamp plugged in to our WEMO, but you can use it for anything—the CrockPot, the TV, whatever. The WEMO is Alexa-compatible, so I can turn the light on and off by voice, and so can the kids. “Alexa, turn on the WEMO Light,” I command, and voila! Let there be light.
8. The thermostat
The second WiFi-enabled smart device we bought was a Emerson Sensi home thermostat. We aren’t sophisticated enough to need a Nest, and honestly, we’re too cheap. 🙂 The Sensi does a bang-up job, it was affordable ($80), and I installed it in 15 minutes flat.
Alexa controls the Sensi, too. We can say, “Alexa, what’s the temperature in here?” or “Alexa, turn the thermostat up one degree.”
9. All the fun
The rest of the things we ask Alexa to do are just plain fun. Squeak loves to ask Alexa to make fart noises and animal sounds: “Alexa, what sound does a cow make?” Peanut likes to ask, “Alexa what’s your favorite color?” and “Why is the sky blue?”
I can ask her at any time for my flash briefing, and she’ll play the five-minute NPR top-of-the-hour news update. She can ask me Jeopardy questions, and does a “This Day in History” that’s pretty interesting, too.
Addressing the conspiracy theories
I don’t buy into the idea the CIA is listening through our smart speakers. Hell, if I did, I wouldn’t own a smartphone, because if they were going to listen to us at all, they’d use the mic on the phone we take everywhere rather than the device that’s parked in our living room.
Second, as a government employee, I find it laughable that someone actually believes that our government has enough money to hire someone just to listen to suburban household conversations. Yeah, no. We can barely afford pens, people.
Third, there’s no way that a huge behemoth company like Amazon would ever cooperate with the government in an illegal wiretapping agreement. Their entire business would implode if they did, and in this day and age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, something that huge could not go uncovered. It just wouldn’t. Remember when the FBI asked Apple to unlock an iPhone for them? How’d that work out for the government?
Finally, let’s say I’m wrong, and the CIA really is listening. In that case, I want to find the agent assigned to my Alexa and give him or her a nice cold six-pack, because they probably hate their life. The inane conversations they’re stuck listening to would be interested to nobody. I’m participating in no illegal activities, and breaking no laws. I’ve got no secrets to keep from my spouse (except maybe what I am buying him for Christmas and his birthday each year). So you know what? LISTEN AWAY, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. I welcome your surveillance, because I don’t give a shit.
It’s also not lost on me that the author of the original article that got me thinking about this was made on Facebook, a platform that’s sole purpose for existence (beyond its early years, that is) is making money off of others’ data.
To be fair, Alexa has some downsides.
- You can’t talk about her, because she’s always listening. But to her credit, she usually understands pretty quickly that you weren’t trying to give her a command.
- She can’t control our garage door, which I don’t blame her for. It’s Genie’s fault, because they don’t seem to care that their Genie Aladdin smart-door system has no Alexa compatibility.
- She can’t perform tasks in the future, except reminders. She’s perplexed by: “Alexa, play Baby Snakes by Frank Zappa in one hour.” I think this is perfectly reasonable—Siri can’t handle future actions, either—but Nathan has unreasonable expectations of technology. (Apparently he wanted to have Alexa play the song “randomly” while he was out of town for work. The kiddos and I would be sitting at home when, bam, “Baby Snakes” would start playing out of the blue. #JokeFail, Nathan.)
A friend was listening to me talk about my Alexa, and how much we loved it.
She interjected with a sarcastic, “Wow, whatever did we do when we had to actually find a pen and paper and write something down? It was so hard.”
Yeah, yeah. I’m not saying that the old way of doing things was unbearably difficult. But the new way, with my virtual helper, is EASIER. Just because the old way wasn’t killing me is no reason to avoid the new, easier way. Duh.
Plus, if you’re really into crapping on technology and advancements, maybe throw away your smartphone and key fob. Go back to a rotary phone, and a big old 1979 Buick. If you’re going to insult technology, be consistent.
Come on in, Alexa.
My front door is wide open to anything that makes my already-stressful life just a little bit easier. I work full-time. I get up five days a week at 4:40am. I’ve got two kids who are still learning how to speak English. My husband travels most every weekend.
Life is HARD. Parenting is HARD. Momming, especially by yourself, is HARD.
Alexa makes it (a little bit) easier. And for that reason, she’s welcome in my house any day.
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Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash