fitness · technology

Amazon Halo: bringing 24/7 surveillance and judgment, just in time for the holidays

As if Amazon had not already elbowed its way into our lives enough, now they’re in the wearable health and fitness tracker business. Enter the Amazon Halo.

Amazon Halo silver wrist band and smartphone app.

There are some features that make the Halo different from Apple watches or other wearable fitness trackers. Halo’s wristband doesn’t have any display. To get information, you need the app. But the two features below are more notable and worrisome:

  1. Halo listens in on your conversations all day long, sending it to Amazon for analysis of your “tone”.

2. Halo requests four full-body photos of you in your undies that it sends to Amazon, so it can do a body-fat analysis on you.

Let’s start with the first one. Yes, Halo is actually a tone judger and tone policer, one you’re supposed to pay good money for (well, $99, which includes a six-month subscription to the app). What do I mean here? Let’s see what this review from the Washingon Post had to say.

You train the device to recognize your voice by reading sample phrases, and then it listens out constantly for moments in conversation that go beyond your neutral tone… The Halo plots these moments as positive vs. negative and high vs. low energy, and then applies more nuanced descriptors to them.

Amazon said it spent years training its tone AI by having people categorize voice recordings. The company held internal trials and says it tried to address any biases that might arise from varying ethnicity, gender, or age.

In our experience, the Halo could detect ups and downs in our voice, but seemed to misinterpret situations regularly. And some of the feedback feels, ironically, a bit tone-deaf — especially when judging a woman’s voice.

In short, the reviewers felt like Halo was at best not insightful in judging tone, and at worst kind of offensive. Here’s more from the reviewers:

Now, one thing that people like about biometric trackers is that, once the app has analyzed your info, it then offers you a plan for improving on whatever state it has judged you to be in. But what are we supposed to do about our tone of voice? Does Halo have a plan for that? Uh, no. It doesn’t even tell you when you sounded rushed or sad or irritated or enraged or wistful, much less what to do about it. The reviewers sounded, in my judgment, displeased:

…there are no personalized suggestions based on your tone, such as how to sound less “sad” in the middle of an isolated holiday season during a pandemic.

The Halo has invented a new personal behavior to feel self-conscious about, which we suppose is a kind of innovation.

I judge that last utterance tone as ironic.

On to feature 2)– the analysis of nearly-naked 360-view photos you are supposed to send to Amazon for body fat analysis. Here’s a photo of what they have in mind.

hand holding a smartphone with image of woman in underwear, for 3-D modeling and body fat analysis. Like that’s happening.

So many things wrong here– for brevity’s sake (and because I love them), I’ll make a list:

  • Send identified photos of me (along with loads of other biometric data) to Amazon for analysis, with their wimpy privacy promises? Hell to the no.
  • The accuracy of Halo’s body fat analysis is unproven; the Post reviewers found some problems and inconsistencies.
  • Halo doesn’t even pretend to offer any physical activity suggested based on the information you provide; instead it offers some audio and video recordings from other companies, and you can choose what to do yourself.

Honestly, I could get a lot more information about how some outside authority thought I looked by visiting my relatives. And unlike Halo, they would follow up with customized advice, just for me. Guaranteed.

Readers, have any of you tried the Halo? X-ray glasses? Do you worry about sending loads of data to our technology overlords? Let me know– I’d love to hear your stories, and I promise not to share them with anyone…

mindfulness · technology

Meditation apps: a non-systematic survey

Our lives would be very different if we didn’t have smartphones apps to occupy our time and attention. They help keep us on track with schedules of waking, working, taking breaks, moving, eating, playing games, shopping, and all the other things that comprise our daily routines.

A world inside a phone: the app.

But what about when we want to be still, stopping all those activities or distractions? Worry not, there’s an app for that, too.

Some of the many apps for meditation out there in phone-land.

I’ve added and deleted loads of meditation or chill-out/relaxation apps over the past years. Once the novelty wore off, I would move on to something else, or more likely just revert to my default non-mindfulness routine.

In July, when I restarted a daily meditation practice, I found myself looking for guidance and accountability to help me make sitting a habit. Apps can be great for this– they track your sessions over time and the time you spend each session. They also tend to offer a variety of guided meditations of different lengths and for different times of day and different purposes. Apps are nothing if not extensive in their offerings. Here are some I’ve tried and what I think about them.

  1. For many years, I’ve used old-fashioned recordings of guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. I just discovered: there’s an app for that! The series is available on Google Play for $10 each–look up JKZ series 1, 2, and 3. I use series 1 often, but the others provide that variation I was talking about.
I still own the 4-CD set of these meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. They’re the Chanel suit of guided meditations.

2. Meditation Oasis is one of the OGs of the meditation app world. It started as a podcast and expanded to apps, each focusing on a specific purpose of meditation, like sleep or stress/anxiety reduction. One crucial feature of any meditation app is the voice, and I happen to like Mary Maddux– she is calm but also sounds like a real person. You can add in sounds or music to the background, which I’ve enjoyed from time to time. There are individual apps or bundles that range in price from $3 to $12.

A bundle of apps from Meditation Oasis. Not fancy illustrations or features, but very solid content.

3. The newest app that I’ve added to my meditation routine is 10 Percent Happier, which is a book and a podcast and a blog and an app. Dan Harris is the author of the book (which I haven’t read, but hear good things about). He has brought together a group of some of the best English-language meditation teachers and created a one-stop shopping mall of secular meditations for many aspects of modern life. There’s a coronavirus section, a section for busy parents, and other areas that we care and worry about. I use this app every day– mostly before bed (I do a different meditation in the morning). However, it’s expensive– $100 for a year’s subscription. Yeah. That’s a lot. For me, it’s worth it. There are courses, lectures, and a lot of top-quality content. Can you get great content without paying $100? Oh yes, for sure. But this is an excellent resource if you don’t mind the price.

I like the simplicity of this icon. And it looks like it’s smirking.

4. On the advice of a friend who loves it, I tried Calm, which bills itself as the #1 app for meditation and sleep. Like 10 percent happier, it is very professionally done and has loads of content from a lot of meditation teachers and writers. One thing Calm has that the other apps I’ve tried don’t have is a large selection of bedtime stories. These “sleep stories” are “soothing tales that mix music, sound fx and incredible voice talent to help you drift into dreamland” says Calm. It also has meditations, body scans, video of calm nature scenes with sound, classes, and (as they say) much, much more.

So (as they say), how much would you pay for this? The regular price is $70 a year, but when I clicked on the links, it offered me $42– such a deal!

I did a 7-day free trial (10 percent happier offers a free trial, too), but ended up not buying it. The sleep stories were nice, but I found myself too interested in them to fall asleep. I was really more interested in a meditation-focused app, not a sleep or stress reduction app. But YMMV– a lot of people love Calm. And it’s certainly got all the bells and whistles you would want.

Simple icon, complex world of Calm inside.

5. Finally, there’s one of my favorite stand-by meditation apps: Buddhify. First of all, the name is awesome. Second, it’s cheap– $4.99 for the phone or tablet app. Third, it’s so pretty:

Just looking at this color wheel, opening like a fan, makes me happy.
Just looking at this color wheel, opening like a fan in the app, makes me happy.

Buddhify has the usual varied content, with different voices leading you through a guided meditation. Their approach seems very personable to me; the recordings are part meditation guidance and part therapeutic/friendly reassurance. This is my go-to app when I’m really having trouble sleeping, as I find those voices and words soothing in addition to grounding.

I just saw that Buddhify has an expanded version for $30/year. Here’s one of the features:

Karaoke and meditation together in one app? Done!
Karaoke and meditation together in one app? Done!

Wow. I never thought I’d see the words “karaoke” and “meditation” together in one sentence. But I’m liking it. Maybe not enough to buy the membership, but it’s undeniably cool.

My very unsystematic review has barely scratched the surface of meditation apps. But I hope it offers you some information if you’re looking to get started.

Dear readers: have you used any of these apps? What did you think? Do you have other recommendations? I’d love to hear about them.

cycling · gadgets · technology · trackers

If Garmin is down, did that ride even happen?

Today Sarah and I did our usual Prince Edward County weekend ice cream ride. It’s a perfect weekend ride. 50 km round trip. Ice cream at Slickers in Bloomfield is our destination. It’s vaguely uphill getting there and vaguely downhill coming home. There are osprey nests to look out for and we’ve been meaning to make a new Strava segment, from osprey nest to osprey nest.

Slickers Ice Cream

The ride was great. The ice cream–I had campfire flavour was delicious–and the pool after felt amazing. But the final satisfaction of uploading the ride to Garmin and Strava after, in the shade, with a non alcoholic beer, didn’t happen. Garmin is down. The Garmin connect app on my phone tells me this.

Here’s the work around for manually uploading and transferring files to Strava if it’s really bothering you. Me, I’m waiting it out. But I’m bummed we can’t make our osprey nest Strava segment.

What’s going on, you might wonder?

It’s a major ransom ware attack. Wasted Locker wants millions of dollars from Garmin.

My ride is saved on my Garmin bike computer and it will upload when they’re back in business. It’ll all be fine. I missed seeing how my speeds and times compared to past trips but mostly I’m okay with it.

You? How are you coping fellow Garmin users?

fitness · technology

Making myself (and my body) comfortable on Zoom

Zoom is where we live, work and play now. It’s an all-purpose mode for working. socializing, exercise, worship, therapy, education, politics, healthcare… pretty much everything. I’ll use it as a verb to text a friend, “zooming now; talk later”.

Now that we’re all zooming to everything all the time, people are starting to develop new zoom norms for everything from what to wear in zoom meetings (from the waist up, that is– pj bottoms are always in zoom fashion), to how best to create good lighting for yourself in a zoom setting. Designer/director Tom Ford wrote a piece in the New York Times on how to look good on camera.

There is loads of advice about how to look your best in zoom meetings. Mostly it’s about good lighting, but you can read more here.

One thing I haven’t seen people writing about, though, is how to FEEL good in a zoom meeting. How do you make yourself feel comfortable in a virtual interaction that’s important to you?

I’ve been trying out different body postures and laptop locations and configurations over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve learned a few things.

First and foremost, my body has to be comfortable. For me that means not sitting for hours at my dining room table. I prefer having my feet comfortably on the floor and being able to lean forward and back and move around in my chair, adjusting with pillows or cushions. Sometimes I sit on the floor of my living room with my laptop on an ottoman. That way I can move my legs around and stretch or adjust however I need.

I’ve also tried standing, facing my laptop (set up on an ottoman on my dining room table). That works for a meeting, but not for teaching. If I’m standing while teaching, I want to move around. But I can’t, as I’m tied to the laptop most of the time. This is a learning process, and I’m trying to pay attention to what works and what makes me feel the least creaky over hours of meetings and teaching.

Second, not all zoom meetings are work-related. I go to zoom church on Sundays, have zoom chats with friends and zoom therapy as well. For me, this means finding a body posture and options for motion that suit the purpose and feeling of the activity. I found that I need to sit more forward in order to sing during zoom church. And for therapy, I want to be more physically aware of my body while talking and listening. Both of these situations require a shift in how or where I place myself. I’ve noticed definite improvements in the quality of the zoom experience by paying closer attention to the ways I’m physically holding myself.

Finally, I have zoom yoga to thank for my awareness of my own bodily comfort or discomfort in all these zoom settings. The great thing about zoom yoga is that it’s actually yoga. You’ve got your mat, and you’re actually doing real yoga in your own body, being cued and directed by the instructor online. I found it easy to feel comfortable in the virtual yoga classes, as what I did was the same. What I wore was the same. What they said was the same. Yay for sameness!

With all that is new and different about virtual meetings and activities, reminding myself that I’m in the same body, and that body has different wants and needs in different situations (even virtual ones) has made zooming a bit easier.

Now all I need is some better lighting.

Lots of technical stage lighting. I wrote, "too much?"
Too much?

Readers, how are you managing with doing everything A to Z over zoom? How are your bodies faring? Are you doing anything different for particular situations? I’d love to hear from you.