Previous “Apple” posts

Try

Friday, October 1st, 2021

As you may be aware, I love my dumb digital badges, including those earned by completing the Apple Watch’s monthly fitness challenges. Those goals are individually tailored to you, based on recent activity. This can often be a source of frustration, as no matter what you’ve done recently, the Watch always demands more. So it was that after a summer of extensive running, my September monthly challenge called for me to burn 30,000 active calories in total.

1,000 calories every single day for a month is a lot, but it might have been feasible if not for an injury I suffered at the end of August. That injury led me to take time off from running, which in turn drastically reduced my caloric burn. As a result, I knew from the outset that I wouldn’t be achieving this particular goal. However, it wasn’t until the end of the month that I saw just how short I’d fall.

On Tuesday, September 28, the Fitness app on my phone showed the following:

4,655 active calories in a single day is absurd, let alone doing it three days in a row. Of course, I realized that things would only get more ridiculous as October neared, because my calories burned would be ever farther off the necessary pace. Sure enough, just as the month was ending, the Fitness app was still urging me on thusly:


This screenshot was taken at 10:50 PM on September 30

At that point last night, with 70 minutes remaining in September, I needed to burn 185 calories per minute. But sure, try. What’s the harm in trying? Come on, don’t be lazy. Just try.

Siri’s Atrocious Fielding Percentage

Friday, September 10th, 2021

Awhile back, I discovered I could hook up my home alarm system to Shortcuts on my iPhone. If you’re not familiar with Shortcuts, they’re a convenient way to automate things. In Apple’s own words:

Shortcuts let you quickly do everyday tasks, and with the apps you use the most — all with just a tap or by asking Siri.

In my particular case, I created Shortcuts to enable and disable the home alarm. For months now, I’ve activated the system in the evening by issuing the command “Set Home Alarm”, and deactivated it in the morning with the command “Disarm”. It was simple, handy, and it felt like the future. Of course, given the fact that I was using both Siri and my Apple Watch, things were bound to fall apart.

Yesterday morning, my “Disarm” command suddenly started returning this:

Siri on the Apple Watch showing information about a 28 year old Smashing Pumpkins song

I suppose it’s possible I might want information about a Smashing Pumpkins song from 28 years ago that I haven’t heard this millennium. Still, it seems more likely that I want to do the same thing I’ve done every single morning for months.

No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get Siri to run the desired Shortcut. I eventually disarmed the system from the PIN pad like an animal, and went about my day. However, in the evening, I hit a similar frustration:

Siri on the Apple Watch getting confused about what alarm I want

This mix-up is a bit more understandable, and I do occasionally set alarm clock-style alarms on the Apple Watch. Still, when I do, I say “Set an alarm for 7 AM”. I include a time, because that’s the most important part of an alarm. Also, just to reiterate, I’ve been using this Shortcut with the exact phrase “Set home alarm” since July.

I tried being more explicit, mentioning the word “Shortcut”, but still Siri failed:

Siri on the Apple Watch failing despite an even more explicit command

After giving it multiple tries (and documenting it all with screenshots), I once again gave up and handled things manually. On the plus side, all of this stupidity did lead me to listen to “Disarm”, which then led me to re-watch the video for “1979”. That really took me back.

This morning, I tested things again, and it all worked perfectly.

Siri on the Apple Watch working exactly as it should

I’m not surprised, because Siri does have a relatively high accuracy rate overall. Siri probably handles 90-95% of my requests correctly. However, it’s that general reliability that makes the failures all the more maddening.

Ted Williams once noted that hitting in baseball is the only place “…where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer”. For something like Siri, however, the better baseball comparison is to fielding percentage. It’s essentially expected that a fielder will make a defensive play every single time the ball gets to them. All-star players will have fielding percentages approaching (and even exceeding) 99%. A seemingly high fielding percentage of 95% is somewhere between mediocre and lousy. Given the high number of errors Siri commits, it would definitely be sent down to the minors for more work, if not cut from the team entirely.

Breaking News: Siri Continues to Be Bad

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

On Sunday, I wanted to know the score of the baseball game between the soon-to-be Cleveland Guardians and the Tampa Bay Rays. I asked Siri “What’s the Cleveland score?”, and it came back with this garbage:

There are times of the year when such a question would be reasonable. Earlier in the year, there were days when the Cleveland Baseball Club and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team both had a game. However, it’s the end of July, and the Cavaliers played their last game 10 weeks ago:

A Cavaliers game from May. MAY!

This is even more embarrassing than the Cavs’ record.

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.