Previous “Apple” posts

Alarming Dialog Text

Tuesday, May 25th, 2021

Recently, I asked Siri to delete all the alarms on my Apple Watch. It understood my request, and wisely asked me to confirm it before obliging. After that, however, it gave me a nearly incomprehensible response. I re-read it multiple times, concerned I was losing my mind or perhaps having a stroke:

I deleted all of your alarms. You also have sleep alarm met the conditions, you will need to open the Sleep app delete them.

You also have sleep alarm met the conditions, you will need to open the Sleep app delete them.

The gist of this incredibly poorly written message is that I have a special “Sleep” alarm, which is distinct from other alarms. If I want to disable that, I have to do it separately, in the Sleep app. But this copy has missing words, singular/plural mismatches, and a button that should probably include a verb like “Open”. Yikes.

Lies, Lions, and Statistics

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

Recently, I saw this picture online:

An adult male lion, sitting in a wheelbarrow

Now, that’s not really the point of this post, but it is a funny picture. Take a minute to enjoy it.

In the Reddit comments for this image, someone noted their two directly conflicting desires, to push around the wheelbarrow and to stay as far away from that same wheelbarrow as physically possible. In a reply, another user stated “I don’t think it would be possible to push it even if he let you”.

This led me to wonder just how much a lion weighs. After all, a wheelbarrow is really just an advanced form of lever, one which makes it possible to transport heavier loads than one could otherwise carry. Because I had only recently woken up, I foolishly tried to get help from Siri, asking it “How much does a male lion weigh?”.

A siri reply saying “278 pounds”.

“Huh,” I thought, “OK.”

After a few seconds, I realized it was absolutely preposterous to have received such a precise number in response to my question. Was Siri providing me the weight of a specific specimen, perhaps a famous male lion? Does Siri have a pet lion, and know its weight? Do all male lions weigh in at exactly 278 pounds?

To examine this further, I asked again, and received the same answer.1 Reviewing the response, I noted that this answer was supposedly derived from Wikipedia:

I tapped in, and got a longer summary about lions:

That paragraph of text mentions a range of body lengths for lions, but it does not include any details about weight. In the brief table below that, it bizarrely lists an entry for mass as “3.64 lbs”. This too is a ridiculously precise value, with two decimal places, and one that’s surely incorrect.

Finally, I tapped “See More on Wikipedia”, and got to the page for “Lion”. I searched for both “278” and “3.64”, and found nothing.2 Eventually, I got to this section of the page:

Here, I finally found what I was looking for, a range of statistics for lions. It seems the correct answer to the question “How much does a male lion weigh?” is something like “between 350 and 500 pounds”, or about 25-80% more than Siri’s answer (and 100 times as much as that inexplicable “3.64 lb” value). I still have no idea how this idiot decided to respond “278 pounds”.

Anyhow, it’s 2021 and Siri is still trash. The end.


Update (February 20, 2021): The lion in the original image is “Obi”, and he lives at Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Canada. He weighs ~400 pounds.


Footnotes:

  1. Not a given by any means. ↩︎

  2. Well, almost nothing. Searching for “278” returned one irrelevant result in the “References” section, for library reference number “JSTOR 27858577”. ↩︎

The Apple Watch Is Awfully Early

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021

Today, it’s time for another exciting edition of “Paul’s Apple Dumbwatch”! Strap yourself in, and prepare to be amazed that something can be so broken nearly six years after it was introduced.

February is Black History Month in America, and this year, Apple created a special “Unity Challenge” to celebrate. Earning this badge required closing the “Move” ring on seven consecutive days in February.

The Unity Challenge - Earn this award by closing your Move ring seven days in a row in February

I’m very consistent about closing my Move ring, so I expected to receive this badge on Sunday, February 7th.1 Thus, I was more than a little surprised last night when I saw that it had already been awarded to me.

The Unity Challenge Badge front- You earned this award by closing your Move ring seven times in a row in February

I don’t know how I did that!

The Unity Challenge Badge back - Earned by Paul on February 1, 2021

If a badge requires completing a task for seven straight days within a month, you wouldn’t think it would be possible to earn on the very first day of the month. What can I say? I guess I must be pretty amazing.


Footnotes:

  1. Because so many commenters bought it, I suppose it behooves me to make it clear that the aforelinked Instagram post was digitally edited. After earning the badge fair and square, I changed the title on the message for comedic purposes. The real title was something bland like “Good Job!”. The screenshots in this post are unaltered, save for cropping and resizing. ↩︎

Take a Day Off, Coach

Monday, December 28th, 2020

Regular readers will know about my love-hate relationship with the Apple Watch, which I often refer to as my dumbwatch. While I appreciate the activity tracking it does, I’m often confounded by many of its behaviors. Perhaps my least favorite feature is the Activity app’s “Daily Coaching”. According to Apple, this is intended to “help you complete your Activity goals and Monthly Challenges”. I leave this turned on so that it can helpfully notify me if the day is winding down, but I need a bit more activity to reach my goals.

However, this same feature also nags me at other times throughout the day, in ways that are anything but helpful. I run in the morning most days, but occasionally, I’ll run in the afternoon. At eleven or noon on those days, the Watch will note with alarm that I’m behind my usual pace. I’ll get there, dummy. Worse, this warning sometimes pops up earlier, right after I’ve woken up and put on the Watch in the morning. I’ve even seen it as early as 1 AM, which is just ridiculous.

Other times, possibly because it’s bored, the Watch will issue a needless status update. When the below appeared, it was shortly after high noon, and I was over halfway to my calorie goal.

Here's a look at today's progress - 50% done, halfway through the day.
Begging for attention

I really don’t need or want an Everything’s OK alarm.1

This past Friday, my Watch popped up with this:

The Apple Watch saying “Keep it going - Yesterday, you rocked your exercise ring. Unstoppable, Paul. What will today bring?”

Now, read in the right cadence, that’s downright poetic. But it’s also a rhyming pain in the ass. For the love of Saint Nicholas, that was Christmas morning. The day brought some time lounging about in pajamas, followed by talking with loved ones while sitting around on the couch. Maybe Apple could provide this digital coach a calendar, because shattering personal records on December 25th is simply not in the cards for most people.

The day after Christmas, however, I ran a half-marathon. It was a cold, windy Saturday, and when I was done, I was done. This was my last race in a virtual distance medley. Over the past three months, I’d trained for and run a 5K, 10K, and now a half-marathon. I intended to take it easy and recuperate on Sunday.

So of course, shortly after I woke up the next day, my Watch hit me with this:

The Apple Watch saying “Keep it going - Yesterday was all about your Exercise ring, Paul. Boom! Go for it again today.”

No! No I will not. It is OK to do less some days than others. Boom? Boom yourself, Watch.

What’s maddening about virtual assistants like this is the wildly fluctuating levels of intelligence. The same device that can check both my calendar and local traffic, then helpfully remind me when I need to leave for a doctor’s appointment, is also completely oblivious of concepts like holidays and rest days. Apple and others have created semi-intelligent facsimiles of a human assistant, but it’s clear there’s a lot of work left to be done.

For now, it provides me with a harmless outlet for anger and mockery. The Apple Watch has no feelings, so I’m blissfully free to tell it to shove its encouragement up its own ass.


Footnotes:

  1. As always, the relevant video is archived here.↩︎

Meat-Ax Your Notifications

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

I’ve long advocated for drastically reducing the number of notifications your digital devices are allowed to produce. The artificial urgency device notifications create is unnecessary, and probably unhealthy. Very few notifications are actually time-sensitive, but far too many of us let our phones take us out of the moment needlessly.

It turns out Apple CEO Tim Cook agrees, as revealed in a recent podcast interview with Outside magazine:

Tim Cook: [S]o the action I took was I started asking myself, why do I need all these notifications?

Roberts: Right.

Cook: Why do I really need this? Do I really need to understand things in the moment that they’re happening? And you know — and I started taking a meat ax out to some of these things that would grab my attention but didn’t need to in the moment —

Roberts: Mm-hmm.

Cook: — to free me up to do other things. So — yeah. I learned — like I think like probably most people underestimate how much they’re using it.

Until now, I never had a catchy name for my advice. Now, thanks to Cook, I do. Henceforth, my suggestion that most people should turn off most notifications will be referred to as “meat-axing”. Take back your life! Meat-ax your notifications!

Mimicking a Design Is Distasteful, but Not Illegal 

Monday, September 14th, 2020

Did US Customs and Border Patrol just gloat about mistaking a legitimate (albeit extremely derivative) product for “counterfeit Apple AirPods”? It seems probable.

Algorithm Accountability 

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

The recent word is that Apple’s new credit card has been providing women with substantially lower credit limits than men. Once a single viral Twitter thread raised this issue, breathless “Apple is sexist!” pieces quickly popped up across the web. With precious little data, however, it’s not yet clear if this specific concern is even valid.

The problem, however, is that it could be true, and it wouldn’t even require malicious intent. A credit card issuer could be “sexist” (or “racist”, or biased in countless other ways), without even intending to be. This is the result of a much broader issue, namely the black box nature of how too much of society now operates.

In the past decade or two, secret, unaccountable algorithms have taken control of far too many decisions which impact our lives. Mathematician and writer Cathy O’Neil discussed this broader problem with Slate, in a piece well worth reading. Perhaps a story about the failures of Apple (and Goldman Sachs) is how we push things forward to better transparency when utilizing algorithms. Here’s hoping.

Bad at Rounding and Writing

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

After posting yet another tale of my Apple Dumbwatch on October 7th, I heard from several readers who correctly guessed that my screenshot might be from earlier in the month. In fact, I’d actually taken it on October 4th. Given that, it appeared that the Activity app might actually be doing live or live-ish updates to the required per-day average. Did that explain the seemingly bad math? It turns out the answer is yes, but it also exposes several other issues. Let’s have a look.

First, I looked back at a screenshot from earlier in the day on October 4th. This was snapped at 4:02 PM:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

As you can see, this says “about 79”. I had 2,236 minutes left to obtain, and 28 days (counting the 4th) remaining. How does that math check out?

2,236 minutes remaining/28 days remaining = 79.86 minutes/day

Now, 79.86 minutes per day is sort of close to “about 79”, but it really ought to be “about 80”. Also, remember that at 4 PM, the 4th is already 2/3 over.

My original image was from 10:37 PM of that same day, October 4th. Here it is again:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

As you can see, I’d done some more Exercise minutes since 4 PM. I now had 2,214 minutes left to obtain, and 28 days (again, counting the 4th) remaining. The math on this actually works out to just over 79 minutes:

2,214 minutes remaining/28 days remaining = 79.07 minutes/day

That certainly is close to 79, though again, if you do 79 minutes a day, you’ll come up short. Worse, at this point the 4th was nearly over, yet it was still being counted in the averaging. That seems like a problem.

Finally, I did a check on the 7th, at 11 AM. Here, you can see that the estimate has gone up, as I’ve fallen slightly off the pace:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

One more time, let’s check that math.

2,107 minutes remaining/25 days remaining = 84.28 minutes/day

As before, this is close enough to “about 84” for Apple’s purposes, at least. Clearly, Activity is doing live tracking as the month progresses, rather than just doing one calculation (2560 minutes /31 days = 82.58 minutes/day)). That’s a nice idea, but there are several obvious problems here. Specifically:

  • The current text fails to indicate that the estimate provided is for the remainder of the month. Something like this could be an improvement:

    “Get 2560 Exercise minutes this month to earn this award. You’ve earned 453 minutes so far, so you just have 2,107 left to go. That’s about 84 Exercise minutes a day, for the rest of the month.”

    That would make it much more obvious that this estimate is for the rest of the month.

  • Activity is counting the current day in its averaging, no matter when in the day you are. Surely at 10:37 PM, or worse, 11:59 PM, the current day should not be counted fully in the averaging.

  • Finally, anything over X minutes should be rounded up to X+1 minutes, to avoid ever coming up short. So, 79.8, and even 79.1, should become “about 80”.

It seems I was incorrect in maligning the Apple Watch’s math skills. However, its rounding skills could definitely do with some improvement, as well as its copyediting.

Return of the Apple Dumbwatch Part II

Monday, October 7th, 2019

As long-time readers and/or Apple Watch users know, the Apple Watch encourages wearers to be more active by issuing monthly activity challenges. While these challenges can be motivating, I’ve repeatedly found the Apple Watch to be bad at the math required to track them. I first noted this in November of 2017, and then saw it again in February of 2018.

It’s been 18 months since I last noticed such an issue, however, so I assumed that the problems had been fixed and the math was being correctly computed. Yet, like the living dead, these bugs just won’t stay down. Here is my October challenge:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

This challenge calls for 2560 Exercise minutes in the month of October, and then states that that’s about 79 minutes a day. I found the use of the word “about” alongside a not-at-all-round number like 79 to be rather strange. I guessed that meant I’d need a bit more than 78 minutes a day, and checked the math.

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

In what universe is more than 82 and 1/2 “about 79”? If the claim was “about 80”, that would still be rather wrong. Even “about 82” would be problematic, because it would leave you 18 minutes short of the goal at the end of October. But “about 79”? I can only conclude that the Apple Watch has fallen right off the wagon again.

More on Siri and Numerical Days of the Year

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

When writing about Siri and the Kilomile last week, I noted some strange and useless responses the virtual assistant provided when trying to determine what numerical day of the year it was. Shortly thereafter, I received multiple replies from folks who noted that at least my last query (“How many days until 2020?”) worked for them. I don’t know what changed on the Siri side since my first tests, but this does indeed work for me as well:

Answer: It's two hundred thirty one days until then.

With this answer, we’re at least getting somewhere in the quest to determine what numerical day of the year it is. If we take 365 days and subtract that answer of 231, we get 134. Today (May 15th, 2019) is actually the 135th day of the year, so perhaps Siri isn’t counting today in this. We have to add 1 at the end (or subtract from 366), but we can at least use this to work out the answer we want.

Having finally gotten something useful from Siri, I set out to see if there was an easier method. First, I again tested the real head scratcher from my first post. Regardless of the day of the year, when asked “How many days are left in this year?”, Siri thinks there are three hundred sixty-four days left. That issue persists:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days.

Experimenting further revealed additional problems. I got another weird reply when I asked “How many days into 2019 are we?”:

Answer: It's two hundred thirty days until then.

This phrasing seems to indicate Siri is still living in 2018. On a hunch, I then asked “How many days from 2020 are we?”, and got this:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days.

A quick check reveals that this was the exact number of days from 2020 on May 15th, 2018. Why is Siri living in the past? What sort of off-by-one error have we hit?

Eventually, however, I figured out the exact right question to ask. Reader Michael L. put me on the right path, suggesting “How many days since the first of the year?”

Answer: It was one hundred thirty-four days ago.

This is very close, and doesn’t require subtracting from 365. Still, it’s off by one day, requiring us to remember to add one. What if we instead ask “How many days since December 31st, 2018?”:

Answer: It was one hundred thirty-five days ago.

Success! This gives us today’s numerical day, with no additional math required.

It’s good to know that Siri is indeed capable of doing calendar math. Now the trick is remembering how exactly to ask this question to avoid multiple different weird or wrong answers.