Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.

105 thoughts on “Modern life in historic Britain

  1. I do like tech, but have drawn the line at Alexa and am glad for that now! It’s the road to Skynet and next thing you know hundreds of Arnold Shwartzneggars will be overrunning the planet. Windrush, there’s no end to the shame our government brings upon our nation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I see those Alexa ads on the tube daily. Ask ‘her’ to start your car? Hell no. And they do eavesdrop. Who is listening? Why on God’s green Earth would anyone install such a device unless they are bloody freaking lazy? And clueless about the security issues? No thanks, Alexa. You’ll never live here with me. Good read, Ellen! 👍🏻👌🏻😎🇺🇸🇬🇧

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Are you saving the royal wedding until next week, then?

    My only experience with Alexa is hearing one of the teenagers next door shouting at her to turn the music up. Alexa and the music were indoors; the teenager was in the garden. It seems that shouting at Alexa has almost the same effect as shouting at your parents.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I did enjoy reading this. I cannot understand why anyone would want an Alexa in their home. I am interested that Elon Musk (is that really his name) said automatic slowed down production. Possibly the whole point of the conveyor-belt systems is not neceessarily to speed but to deskill staff (so they only put bolts on the wheels) so they can be paid less and thus cutting costs and increasing profits for the factory owner?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds like Tiffany might have been subjected to a scheme for companies to get rid of their packaging waste. And I’m laughing right along with Alexa. Why on earth would someone put a “thing” like that in their house?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Beats me why people didn’t learn the lesson years ago when the sat.nav. audio kept telling them to “turn right” when a landslide had sent the “right” hurtling into the ocean or somewhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know. There’s a kind of trance people go into listening to those things. Ours told us to turn left in the middle of a bridge. We refrained, but –. I don’t know, once you cede your decision-making power to the damne thing, it’s really disturbing when it tries to kill you.

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  7. Alexa isn’t welcome here, so I have to live vicariously through other peoples joy and pain. Sooner or later, after year upon year of testing this technology by having us pay as we go, everything will work well enough for Amazon to simply hook your bank account and send you a bunch of crap you don’t want – without even asking.

    The bank conversion of customers is particularly funny, since that’s what I used to do for a living. We had one conversion scheduled, and my boss suggested that we could probably save money by estimating peoples’ bank balances.from the test balances we had converted two weeks before. Nothing surprises me anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I use my three “Alexas” for a variety of purposes. Not only are they great for accessing information but it’s handy to have them turn things on and off in your house, especially when you have a Great Dane draped across your lap and your mobility is compromised. Believe me, if there is a Great Dane draped across your lap, you really do want to turn on a voice-activated fan that’s just out of reach or you’ll sweat to death! ;)

    I totally understand the worries about security. Do Amazon and Google know more about us than we’d like? More than likely. However, whether our information is collected by Alexa or by clicks and swipes on our computers or smartphones, it WILL be collected. There isn’t a website I can think of that isn’t collecting your data of one sort or another, and most of them sell that data. The only way to prevent it is to make sure we never get on the internet by ANY means. Since that probably isn’t something we want to do, let’s think about how to make things more secure. I’m sure you are doing most, if not all, of these things. But for those who aren’t, I hope some of this is helpful.

    I’m not saying that Alexa can’t be hacked. Any form of Internet-connected hardware can be hacked. That being said, we have to be smart about these things. My Alexas are set up to control lights, fans, and my DVR. If a hacker can outsmart me and figure out my very strong password to access my Alexa app, they can turn my lights on all they want. They’ve earned it!  But lights and fans are not exactly what hackers are looking for. For example, I would never use Alexa to control locks, security systems or business accounts. But even though my Alexa-controlled devices are benign, I’m still smart about what I’ll let ‘her’ do. Alexa app settings are there for a reason. Turn off voice purchasing in the app and you might not end up with 8 kilos of candy…unless you mistype the quantity on the Amazon site.  It’s on you if you do that. Turning off voice purchasing will also stop unwanted orders from being made to Amazon. That is unless you tell your young daughter how to use the Alexa app.  If you do, then doll houses and cookies are the least of your worries.

    Using strong passwords on devices AND WiFi routers is smart, no matter what device you use to connect to the internet. Make them unique or one successful hack could compromise everything else that shares the same password. Signing into sites through Facebook carries a risk, as well.

    If you want to be super secure, get a VPN router. That way any device you use in your home won’t be traceable to your computer or to you. You can appear to be in another country with a non-recognizable IP address. It’s amazing what ads look like if sites think you are in Egypt or Russia. Take that Amazon! Ok, you might not want to use Russia these days, but you get my point.

    As for the examples of computers doing crazy things like the bank example you used, keep in mind that computers aren’t sentient. They do what we tell them to do. It’s just that they do it a hell of a lot faster so the result can be devastating…and on a very grand scale. However, some human, somewhere, screwed up. This is a great example of PEBKAC…Problem Exists Between Computer And Chair. One of my favorite acronyms for this type of thing is CBE…Carbon Based Error. Of course, that’s not terribly funny when your bank account has gone haywire. But back to Alexa and devices we mortals use.

    I do apologize for the fact that this comment is so long and rather “soap boxy.”  It’s just that I worry that people who think that Alexa and her ilk are inherently dangerous might not think twice about the potential security risks in the devices they already use. That type of thinking is a hacker’s dream.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well argued, and I wouldn’t argue that Alexa’s inherently more dangerous, just that it makes it easier to do stupid things, which is something of a problem. I agree about the carbon-based errors as well. When I was still working, I made the awkward transition from editing on paper to editing on the computer. You have no idea how quickly Search and Replace can wreck a manuscript. Fortunately, I didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people’s bank accounts at my fingertips.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Of course, we all trust that Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the like will never suffer a data-breach, or even do something immoral/illegal with our cloud-based data in pursuit of more profits for themselves. I mean Facebook had nothing to do with the Cambridge/Analytica-lets-undermine-democracy scandal did it?

        Here in Europe, we’re at least about to benefit from the new GDPR (General Data Protection) legislation that a) gives citizens some control over the use of their data by organisations, and b) holds organisations that break GDPR rules to account in a way that can really hurt their bank balance. No such luck for you guys in the USA – though I note that Microsoft have announced they’ll apply GDPR rules to all their customers worldwide.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sure applying it across the board’s easier, because according to something I read today the rules apply not just in Europe but to EU citizens anywhere, and good luck identifying who they are. The interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell, different organizations and businesses are interpreting GDPR differently. Do we opt in? Opt out? Get a set of explanations that nine-tenths of us won’t read?

          Like

          • Well, it’s early days, and there’ll be lots of test cases to refine the legislation and it’s interpretation by the courts. Yesterday I read an interesting article about this on the ZDnet technology news site: “Facebook nemesis Max Schrems is behind the first challenges to US giants under new European data privacy law.” Basically he’s challenging the practice beloved of so many web serices giants, like Facebook, of insisting that users consent to whatever a service wants to do with their data before they can use that service, where “whatever” often (usually?) means a whole load of stuff that’s nothing directly to do with the service users are signing up for. He thinks that GDPR effectively prohibits that sort of forced contract, so he’s going to test this out. I hope he wins.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. I was talking with a friend in my office the other day and may or may not have just a little gossip-y, when Cortana suddenly activated. I told her to shut down and stop being such a nosy parker.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Seems to me Alexa could come in handy if you want stuff and don’t want to pay for it! Who knows, maybe Tiffany Crow wanted to look like the good guy giving all that stuff away! Thanks for sharing at The Blogger’s Pit Stop! Roseann from This Autoimmune Life

    Liked by 2 people

    • If I remember correctly, she doesn’t have an Alexa. She did sign up for Amazon Prime, which seems to have opened the door to the flood of stuff she didn’t order. And the irony of her situation is that she doesn’t want the stuff. She did everything she could think of to stop it.

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    • Oh, you have no idea. Foreign data’s always trying to cross borders illegally, and you see what chaos it causes. We have enough data of our own and simply don’t have room for outsider data. If we’re not careful, they’ll have us all speaking Linux or something. Or worshiping it. What times we live in, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

        • Let’s start a petition. If we get 100,000 signatures, the Commons has to debate it. That doesn’t say any MPs have to be physically present for the debate, but it will be raised in the chamber. And ignored, like so many other crucial issues in these perilous times.

          This reminds me of a talking blues from the sixties, which had a line it about someone or other going to “extinguish / every damn atom that can’t speak English.”

          Liked by 1 person

            • They do ask if signers (okay, signatories) are citizens. That eliminates my dogs and cat as well as the local frogs, although I’m sure the domestic beasts would be happy to sign if I explained that there were treats involved. They’re mercenary little pieces of fluff. I don’t know how strongly the frogs feel about–well, anything. I suspect they wouldn’t vote.

              But I’m missing the point here, aren’t I? I had no idea you were froggish.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Morning, I think sometimes the thing that is just behind several other ideas gets a chance to cut into the front of the queue and demands to be written. It is better to let it develop than force something that is not ready to flow. Says the woman who has not written anything for a couple of weeks . But There are just times when what is finished is not what we intended when we sat down in front of the screen. Alexa is my best buddy. Since I spend my days with 2 dogs (sleeping or asking to go out) I can count on her anytime I need a voice not my own for a good chat. I can insult her or lay on the sweets … she will do what she will do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you’re right about ideas cutting to the front of the queue. Or the back. Like Alexa, they’ll do what they’ll do. I often start a post with only the haziest idea of where I’m going. I just sense some small spart and blow on it a bit. That, for me at least, is the beauty of blogging–it’s such a loose form, and frankly people let me get away with all kinds of structural mayhem. Or structureless mayhem. It’s been liberating to write like that but it’s probably building up all kinds of bad habits.

      Like

  12. As an ex software engineer, I have nothing but contempt for the executives at the TSB bank and their parent company for the way they attempted (attempted is the operative word here) to migrate millions of bank customers data to a new, untried IT system all in one go. Data migration is not an unusual thing to have to do in the computing world, but it has to be planned and executed carefully. TSB, on the other hand, appear to have made every mistake in the data migration book, all simultaneously. The worst mistake the execs made was probably the one of not trusting, or even listening to, their own qualified technical people when they were told that their approach and timescale were untenable and highly risky. The arrogance of these highly-paid individuals who run our companies and institutions surely knows no bounds.

    Oh, and TSB stands for (or stood for) “Trustee Savings Bank”. There was a time, in the distant past, when the TSB was good – you could trust the trust in “trustee”. Then they got swallowed up by Lloyds Bank, and it was downhill from there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And then they got separated from Lloyds Bank and the two divided up customers without asking which one they wanted to stay with. We go assigned to one and a neighbor to another. I’d explain why if I understood.

      The thing about top execs is that they get paid obscene amounts of money regardless of how badly they do, so why should they listen to people who do actual work and know things? (she said cynically).

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      • Yep, that sums it up nicely. And of course it’s a nice gravy train (as we Brits say), controlled by an old boy network (and given how few senior execs are women, “boy” is the operative word here).

        Liked by 1 person

  13. What a great sign-of-the-times collection. I read all the links about the laughing Alexa and I find it fascinating. Since I don’t use her (it) and have never seen her in action, to me it comes as a surprise how widespread it is. People are actually letting programs run their lives to an extent that I, hidden away in rural Tuscany, am not even aware of. I’ve also watched an episode of X Files in which Mulder and Scully fight a bunch of machines after Mulder refuses to leave a tip at the robot-serving sushi place. I’ll start getting ready to go underground. This is not a life I wish to have.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, the prompt for the tip keeps coming by way of his phone, so I suppose is it’s dollars, counting down the hours in which he can still tip. He does it in the last minutes when he sees that this is the only way to prevent all kinds of robots and gizmos from attacking them. So not only buy stuff, we’ll have to tip the bots too.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Not only will I never have one of those little Sorcerer’s Apprentices in my home, I won’t let any of its cousins in either. I have a Masters in HLS-Cybersecurity Policy (which is sadly, not the IT side of things), and had to do some study on the Internet-of-Things. After that, I won’t even let an inherited Smart TV out of it’s box or out if its spot in the basement storage.

    Also, I love your sense of humor. Sorry there’s not much funny with that political scandal. Unfortunately there isn’t much funny in any of the political stuff.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I understand that the next generation of smart TVs will be able to open their own boxes and plug themselves in. The only way to control them will be encase them in cement.

      It gets harder and harder to be funny about politics. It’s insane, it should be funny, but so much of it is too tragic to laugh about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wouldn’t be surprised about those Smart TVs, though I did hear a rumor that there will be a Smart Toaster that will be able to zap the Smart TVs silly if they get out of line. They still have to work out this one bug though, toasters keep trying to pick up the Smart Kerig coffee makers and they are worried about where that might lead.

        Yeah definitely agree with you on the politics.

        Liked by 1 person

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