This Week

This week: Voices, Puzzles, Cat-crobatics, and Mary Oliver

A few things I’m noodling over this week, as a snowstorm (finally) bears down on Chicago:

The voice “revolution”

We use our Google Home Mini all the time.

It started innocently enough. The kitchen in our new house couldn’t get WBEZ radio reception. (We’re near a couple different college radio stations that broadcast on a perilously close spectrum.) The Mini has brought music into our kitchen, served as a timer, and answered the occasional question. With a trigger of “Hey Google,” it feels less human than Alexa might.

But I’ve been a bit wary of an always-on microphone, especially as I start seeing Facebook ads for things we’ve discussed in the kitchen.

atlanticnov18The Atlantic’s November cover story dug deep into the implications of the growing voice revolution. Judith Shulevitz asks, “With [smart speakers’] perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?”

As this was swimming around in my head, I put my marketer’s hat on and attended a webinar, “The New Marketing Playbook for Voice.” I was startled to realize just how extensively some marketers are already leveraging (exploiting?) voice. The presenters cited the Atlantic piece, explaining that voice assistants like Google and Alexa will be a huge, game-changing channel. By 2022, half of all US households will have a smart speaker,

Research (and anecdotes) already show that kids naturally talk to speakers. As the next generation is raised with always-on, always-available speakers, they’ll be even more likely to think nothing of conversing with assistants in multiple ways: as the Atlantic notes, as a teacher, therapist, parent — and spy.

Marketers will inevitably adjust their tactics to capture the market — after all, shopping via voice is predicted to grow from $2 billion last year to $40 billion in 2022. And writers will adapt to the syntax and sentence structure.

But I can’t help wondering — how influential will voice assistants become in purchases? And in everyday life? And even if we limit our own usage, can we put that genie back in the bottle?


First he reached for the chandelier. Then he hung from it. Next he did pullups.

And now, Leo swings, multiple times a day.



Leo, the acrobat

9 letters: “puzzle on the comics page”

I often tackle the LA Times crossword that runs in the Chicago Tribune as I eat lunch. For years, I’ve grumbled that the clues can seem outdated, laden with references that previous generations would understand. I recently discovered the American Values Club’s take on the crossword (yes, that AV Club, of Onion lineage) and hungrily downloaded old bundles of puzzles — which take a certain amount of 2007 pop culture knowledge to solve. (This inspires a lot of, “In 2007 I was living HERE, working THERE, riding this train, and listening to….???”)

Recently the Sunday Puzzle came on as I flipped oatmeal pancakes on the stove. I was surprised to hear a semi-contrite Will Shortz half-apologizing for a clue that some had found offensive. NPR wouldn’t repeat it on-air, but a quick search revealed the clue was “Pitch to the head, informally,” whose answer was “beaner” — a term I’d honestly never heard.

Further searching uncovered an intriguing Slate piece by Ruth Graham: The NYT Crossword Puzzle’s Use of an Ethnic Slur Says a Lot About the State of Crossword Puzzling. Graham raises questions about how we define “offensive” and “benign” in an ever-evolving language. Nobody would have batted a mid-century eye at terms like “gay” or “queer,” for one, but now, do such terms merit handling with extra care? And in a puzzle (a game, after all), are the standards different? Should they be?

This week in books: Middlemarch and Mary Oliver

Slow progress

I’m immersing myself in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, my book club’s ambitiously brave pick. We decided to split the 800+ page book across January and February because the long, cold, dark nights of winter are the best time to dig deep. And so far, 300 page in, I’m rather enjoying it. (Though man is it DENSE.)

I also resumed my poem-a-night project and once again read a poem each evening before bed. It’s a nice way to wind down while playing with language. I’ve currently got Mary Oliver’s collected works on my nightstand. Her work is so accessible yet often has layers that I don’t immediately notice — perfect for my brain to chew on in dreams. Yesterday’s news of Oliver’s death gave me pause, but Mary Schmich — whose column introduced me to Oliver’s writing many years ago — wrote the perfect remembrance.

Oliver has long been one of my favorites. Her poem, “The Journey,” stared at me from my desk for four months last year as I mustered the courage to quit my job, and it can provides a good reminder about remaining true to yourself:

The Journey
Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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