Smart speakers aren’t ready to take over your home, yet

Artificial assistants in smart speakers can do some tasks for you to make your life easier but they are a long way off from turning you into a couch potato. Vinay Ram, a 30-year-old product manager, bought his Echo Dot (Rs4,499, Amazon.in) as soon as it was launched in India in November. “I’d seen an Echo a year ago when Alexa could only understand the American English accent, but mine is very responsive to Indian accents, switching seamlessly from Odia, Malayalam and north Indian English accents,” he says.

How smart speakers work in India

Ram who works for a Bengaluru-based smart-home automation company, Silvan, has set up the TV set-top box with Alexa and now asks the device to change the channels for him. Alexa also controls the air conditioner and room temperature and is automated to switch off all lights if the device hears “Good Night”.

Ram’s wife, Sapna who works from home, plays interactive games like Hangman with the smart speaker, and streams music from Saavn. Together, they give Alexa up to 50 commands in a day. Though he loves it, Ram reluctantly admits, “It’s a luxury rather than a necessity.”

According to data released in January by Amazon, Alexa smart speakers now offer integration with more than 12,000 skills tailor-made for Indians using its digital voice assistants, including the ability to play devotional songs, interactive games, services like Housejoy, Zomato, music apps like Saavn and informational apps like ESPNcricinfo—all of them free, without any subscriptions.

Vinay and Sapna can’t do without their Echo Dot. 
Continue reading “Smart speakers aren’t ready to take over your home, yet”

Kitchen gadgets that will make the food themselves

Kitchen gadgets that will practically make the food themselves

It’s time to try something new kitchen gadgets. Retire your drab old whistle-cooker and wok, and bring home smart appliances that use the best of technology to make cooking easy. We tell you of the best ones.

The Prepd Pack lunch box is a smart one with an app that helps you plan and prepare your lunch, and track your food’s nutritional value so you can control what you eat.
The Prepd Pack lunch box is a smart one with an app that helps you plan and prepare your lunch, and track your food’s nutritional value so you can control what you eat.

Kitchen Gadget: Prepd pack 

The Prepd Pack lunch box is a smart one with an app that helps you plan and prepare your lunch, and track your food’s nutritional value so you can control what you eat. The start-up began as a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000 and ended up raising more than a million dollars for reimagined lunches.

The main case is an elegant rectangular box that can house a versatile modular system of containers with smart magnetic cutlery. The highlight is, of course, the app (free for iOS, Android) which helps you prepare lunches in advance. Prepd has tied up with chefs and nutritionists to create a library of prep-friendly recipes tailored for a broad range of diets, appetites and health goals. The app also makes a shopping list based on your choice of lunches for the week, and tracks calories. It can connect to other health apps like HealthKit on iOS, to track your health and fitness.

Continue reading “Kitchen gadgets that will make the food themselves”

Run your business with these apps

With clients across the world and in different time zones, Delhi-based chartered accountant Shitij Bahl, who runs his own taxing and accounting firm, needs to keep a lot of information handy on his phone when he’s travelling.

“You never know when I will get an urgent request from a client to see all their documents. The whole 30 MB of it,” says the 33-year-old. He relies on mobile apps to respond quickly and efficiently—Google Suite to organize team schedules and track projects; Zoho Invoice to send GST-integrated invoices quickly; and Dropbox, where he keeps all client data so it can be shared efficiently with just a link. If, like Bahl, you tend to travel on work, here are a few essential apps to keep handy.

Photo: iStockphoto
Continue reading “Run your business with these apps”

Ways to spot fake news

Fake news is not a new phenomenon but social media platforms have made it much easier to spread rumours and lies.

During the demonetization move in November 2016, a WhatsApp forward convinced people, and even news channels, that the new Rs2,000 note came embedded with GPS trackers. The story turned out to be false.

According to a report in March by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the number of internet users in India was expected to cross 450 million by June—241 million have Facebook accounts and over 200 million are on WhatsApp.

Be aware of fake news

Many of these users have been mobile-first users of the internet, so they are not aware of the fake email forwards and online frauds of the desktop era. They tend to think the messages they get are genuine.

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It’s important to know the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

It doesn’t help that most fake news operators do not write stories that sound obviously false. They work with half-truths, turning them into believable news. “They fudge the numbers, Photoshop images, take a photo from an old source or from another country and try and sell it as statistics or a photo of something that it is not,” says Sandeep K. Shukla, head of department, computer science and engineering, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and project investigator at the institute’s Center for Cybersecurity and Cyber Defence of Critical Infrastructure, a centre for research on cybersecurity.

“On Facebook and WhatsApp, people share news that looks scary, spicy or confirms their bias without even reading it.” 

Professor Sandeep K Shukla

The tools for building fake stories are getting more sophisticated. A research paper by professors at Stanford University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, published in 2016, demonstrated how a new video-making tool can now recreate an old news clip of a politician by changing both the expression and content. Audio advancements mean you only need 20 minutes of a voice recording to replicate it.

To counter this menace, multiple fact-checking organizations have come up, all of them trying to get to the source through filtering tools, automation and collaboration. Internet giants like Facebook and Google have tied up with fact-checking organizations to check the news they show on their feeds. In September, Facebook ran advertisements in newspapers in India, Kenya and Britain, detailing tips on spotting fake news. “The future looks positive with auto-checking of suspect stories, data mining and probabilistic reasoning,” says Shukla.

Continue reading “Ways to spot fake news”

Phone, computer, tablet—are multi-screens at work a distraction?

There was a time when Sriram Rajamani’s 1-hour, 30-minute commute to work from north Bengaluru to the centre of the city felt like a complete waste of time. Today, multi-screen devices help him use the time advantageously. “While my driver braves the traffic, I work on my laptop with a tethered connection via my phone and use it to answer emails, schedule the day’s meetings and get work done,” says Rajamani, managing director, Microsoft Research India Lab.

With the emergence of new technologies, we are all becoming multi-screen creatures, moving from one device or screen to another for all sorts of activities in a typical day. Multi-screen behaviour has become the norm, according to a 2012 consumer insight study by Think With Google, Google’s research arm on data insights. The study suggests there are two main modes of multi-screening—sequential screening, with people moving between devices, and simultaneous screening, with them using multiple devices simultaneously.

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Multi-screen behaviour has become the norm
Continue reading “Phone, computer, tablet—are multi-screens at work a distraction?”

What makes online games like Blue Whale so addictive?

What makes some online games so addictive that players are willing to harm themselves, even attempt suicide?

The Aerosol Challenge, a 2014 game, involved teenagers spraying themselves with deodorant at a distance of just a few inches from their skin, to see who could endure the pain the longest. It left some children with horrific burns.

In the Pass-out Challenge, young adults would choke themselves to the point of passing out in an attempt to reach an euphoric high—recording it all to post on social media.

The Fire Challenge saw people spraying themselves with flammable liquid and then setting it aflame, all for an online laugh. Neknominate had them drinking increasingly potent combinations of alcohol—this too led to some deaths. The Blue Whale game, the latest, sets tasks over a 50-day period, the last of which is jumping off a high-rise.

During Roman times, gladiatorial shows were a show of strength and violence. The Middle Ages turned execution into spectacle. Now, it’s online games like Blue Whale, says Shubha Madhusudhan, clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru. “We have always had narcissistic personalities, sadists and psychopathic deviants in our society,” she says. The internet has just made it easier for all of them to connect with the vulnerable.

But what makes online gaming so addictive?

Continue reading “What makes online games like Blue Whale so addictive?”

Event: Talk at Eurocon – Trends in Indian Fantasy/SF

Pinch me. I’m giving a talk at Eurocon.

I’m writing this in a train, looking out at a blur of a rainy French day. On my way to Amiens from Paris. Amiens is a small town in France, where Jules Verne was born. A town where this year’s Eurocon 2018 will be held this weekend, Europe’s biggest convention for science fiction and fantasy. I’m heading there to speak about Indian fantasy and science fiction and my work. The amazing titles that are coming out of my country, the debut authors who are experimenting with a desire to read more Indian speculative fiction.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. There is a reason. (And this should’ve been another blog, but frankly I’ve become just too busy to write blogs. Hoping that would change soon).

Earlier this year, I said bye to my home for 10 years, Bangalore and moved house and husband to Zurich. It was in the middle of February and for a month, the only things I saw outside my window were cats and snow. I also met a lot of Swiss officials for the various paperworks it takes for two people to move in their 30s. (Yet. Another. Blog)

It gave me a lot of time to reflect and work. And travel. Quietly, without social media. It’s freeing, by the way, to have a hiatus from the online world. You should try it.

I managed to set up new home, finish my third novel in Anantya Tantrist series (another blog on that too. Soon. I promise), wrote a 20 page comic about Anantya, with a fantastic artist and three short stories which are going to come up in various anthologies around the world. I also travelled two continents, to a lot of cities and attended lectures in ETH in Zurich and MIT in Boston.

As I said, there’s a lot happening so I won’t write many blogs. Or maybe I will, because there’s so much I have to share! Well, I’m talking to a bunch of Europeans at the Eurocon. Telling them stories I bring with me to their country. Our stories. Wish me luck, peeps! I’ll tell you later how it all went.

Meanwhile, leaving you with a fantastic illustration done for Eurocon. See you soon.

 

 

Shifting? Get help from a smartphone

Shifting to a new city comes with its own set of hassles. You have to find a place to stay, haggle with apartment owners, disclose personal information like whether you eat meat, stay out late, and how much you earn. Then there’s Wi-Fi, air conditioning, cable TV and other services to take care of. And that’s just the beginning. From getting furniture to figuring out food and modes of transport while handling work in a new city, the process can bog you down completely. We list a few apps that can help ease the transition.

Find a place to stay

Do you eat meat? Are you married? How long do you plan to stay? Save yourself these and other probing questions by simply renting an apartment from an online home rental company like Nestaway (Android, iOS; Nestaway.com). Search a place, visit it, pay a token amount to book it and move in. The house is furnished, with a ready kitchen, appliances and Wi-Fi, so you just need to carry your suitcases. Nestaway is available in Bengaluru, Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), Hyderabad, Pune and Mumbai. Grabhouse (Android, iOS; Grabhouse.com), a Quickr company, provides services in these areas as well as Kolkata and Chennai. It offers what they call cocoons, aesthetically done apartments. Bengaluru also has the option of RentMyStay (Android; Rentmystay.com), which rents out furnished flats on a daily or weekly basis, for up to 11 months. Continue reading “Shifting? Get help from a smartphone”

How to rock disappearing status updates

Disappearing status updates are the new thing to do over on Facebook and Instagram. Even Whatsapp makes sure they stand out. We give you some tips on how to use the disappearing status update on all three social networks.

Why you should do disappearing acts

First made popular by the Snapchat app, disappearing status messages are all about instant emotions—what you’re feeling, seeing or experiencing—expressed through a combination of pictures, videos, GIFs and illustrations, with a 24-hour expiry time. Social networks such as Facebook and Instagram highlight such status updates to make them stand out from the regular ones that you see on your timeline. Messaging platform WhatsApp has a dedicated column in the app, while Instagram and Facebook show the Stories updates in the row along the top, highlighted with a red circle around profile pictures. Using it means your profile becomes top-of-recall on someone’s timeline. It is perhaps a good way of gaining followers.

Tell a story

It could be the story of how your day is going, where you are working, what you’re attending, seeing, eating, or just anything funny. The best status messages push users to see more updates. Play with posts to tell a story about something. Pictures or videos of a concert or sports event, behind-the-scenes at a party, tutorials on a skill set you know best, or a series of genuine personal questions to which your followers can respond privately.

Have some fun

There’s a reason why disappearing status messages offer mixed media. Continue reading “How to rock disappearing status updates”

7 signs that you are addicted to social media

Feel you are addicted to social media? Here are the signs to look out for and what you can do about it.

Notifications are taking over your life

Brr. Boing. Beep. Your phone keeps calling, blinking, beckoning you, and you oblige again and again, while you’re studying, working, eating, dating or sleeping. It’s stressful and you have Fomo (fear of missing out) attacks in the middle of the night, when you wake up to check yet another beep. A study, conducted by a team of professors from the University of Southern California, US, in January 2016 and published in the journal Psychology Reports: Disability & Trauma, looked at people’s brains while they surfed social media and found that they responded to notifications much faster than they did to traffic signals. Ofir Turel, the professor who led the study, rated the need to check almost as high as cocaine addiction. 

Change it: “We speculate that addictive behaviour in this case stems from low motivation to control the behaviour,” Turel said in a press release. Try switching off all push notifications on social media apps. Head to Settings>Notifications>Off for each application. This way, you will have to make the effort to open an app to see the notifications.

The 11th Like makes your day

Getting more than expected likes on Instagram and Facebook can give you a high—and you may feel depressed if the response is tepid. According to a report by Britain’s National Health Service, released in September, social media posts are responsible for a spike in depression and anxiety in a quarter of women aged 16-24. Continue reading “7 signs that you are addicted to social media”