Careful Tech 105: A standalone Apple Watch to break bad iPhone habits?


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Jerry Seinfeld, the tech blogger’s spirit animal

Last night, the temperature here dipped below freezing for the first time since the spring. Our furnace fired up repeatedly throughout the night, helping us keep the autumn chill at bay. I know that because it’s easy to tell when the heat kicks on; the roar can be heard from every corner of our small cabin.

Apparently, our daughter had forgotten just how loud (and scary) that noise can be. When the heater first started, her frightened cries crackled through the baby monitor. We tried to settle her down, but eventually I set up camp in her bedroom and comforted her until she fell asleep.

Sleep graph
Sleep graph from last night. The purple stretches are sleep. The large gap around midnight was when the furnace scared my daughter.

All that to say, I didn’t get much rest, and (as I type this in the predawn darkness), my body is protesting. It would rather be asleep, recovering from late-night dada duty.

And if it weren’t for Jerry Seinfeld, that might have happened today. Fortunately, I’ve found inspiration in the comedian’s productivity mantra: “Don’t break the chain”.

The basic idea is that momentum becomes its own motivation. Daily habits, once established, are a sort of perpetual motion machine; you string together a “chain” of days, and you don’t want to stop. There’s magic in the streak.

What’s my good habit of choice? As of today, I’ve blogged and podcasted for eighteen straight weekdays. That chain is long and strong enough to drag me out of bed after a sleepless night. My head may be pulsing, my eyelids may be heavy, but I’m here. I’m typing. The streak summoned me to the keyboard.

And I’m scared to loosen the chain, let alone break it. One slip-up might derail me for good. “Just one day off” becomes “two days off.” Two days off becomes a week-long lull. Before I know it, my blog sits stagnant for months. That may seem overly dramatic, but it’s happened so many times before.

Happily, it didn’t happen today—thanks to the chain. I like to think that Jerry would be proud. ■

  1. Calendar artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

culture tech

“Alexa, please!”: a “polite mode” for voice assistants

Manners do not come naturally to two-year-olds. We’re constantly reminding our toddler that “please” and “thank you” are magic words. “How should you ask for more milk?”, we sigh. “More milk, please!”, she yells, catching on.

As parents, we’re always looking for ways to instill and reinforce politeness in our daughter. We even try to speak courteously when speaking to our various voice assistants: “Alexa, please set a timer for five minutes.” “Hey, Siri! Could you please show the weather forecast?”

This might seem silly. After all, “Alexa” and “Siri” aren’t people; they’re front-ends for voice search algorithms. They don’t care whether we ask nicely or bark like power-mad drill sergeants.

But our daughter is paying close attention when we speak to Alexa; in fact, she’s desperate to mimic the magic incantation that conjures music out of nowhere. Often, she tries to invoke the spell herself: “Alexa, please play ‘Jingle Bells’ by Mickey Mouse!” She nearly always tosses that “please” in there; she’s practicing politeness, which feels like a 21st century parenting win.[1]

Even without an eavesdropping toddler, crafting polite voice requests might be worthwhile. The practice reinforces our own courtesy at least as much as it retrains our daughter. Because of this, I’d like to see the various voice assistants add an opt-in “polite mode”—in which the service would reject insufficiently courteous requests. Leave out the “please,” and Alexa would chirp, “I’m sorry, Matt; you didn’t say the magic word!”

Yes, getting nagged by a robot would be annoying at first. And no, voice assistants don’t care about human conversational niceties. But if our devices can help us establish exercise and meditation practices, why shouldn’t they encourage polite social habits, as well? ■

  1. Fortunately for us, our daughter can’t quite speak clearly enough for the Echo to understand her. There’s only so many times I can stand hearing Goofy belt the little-known third verse of Jingle Bells (“I went out on the snow, and on my back I fell, HYUK!”)  ↩