Is Google recording your conversations without you knowing?

You’ve probably heard about the case of the Amazon Alexa smart speaker that recorded a conversation and sent it to someone.

Amazon has been forced to explain how Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to an Echo userโ€™s colleague without their knowledge. A Portland woman identified only as Danielle revealed the odd series of events in an interview with local TV station Kiro 7, claiming that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent the recording to an employee of the husband. — The Verge

I haven’t got any speakers in my house that record. (Some of the newer Sonos devices can do it. Mine can’t.)

And I don’t think I particularly want any.

The other week, probably triggered by the EU’s GDPR legislation, I got an email from Google suggesting I do a privacy check.

I had a look, and digging around found a page on Voice Activity.

To my surprise, this has dozens of voice recordings, going back about 18 months.

Google voice recordings

Apparently the Google app on my Android phone (actually my current phone and the previous one) has semi-regularly decided I was trying to attract the attention of the Google Assistant (normally invoked by saying “OK Google”), and started recording, then saved the recordings in the cloud.

I can play the recordings. The sound quality isn’t great, but you can make out the words. In none of them did I actually want the Google Assistant. They’re just random conversations with people.

You can turn the option off (well, you can pause it). Which I’ve now done.

It’s good that you can access the recordings, and change the option.

But I wonder how many people don’t know that Google is recording snippets of conversations and saving them on their servers?

Check yours via this direct link, or go to myaccount.google.com and then choose My Activity; Activity Controls; Voice & Audio Activity (where you can also Pause the feature).

Note: the Google App is also available on iOS, so it’s worth checking even if you have an iPhone, not an Android… And of course Siri has similar functionality.

Old photos from May 2008

Another in my series of old photos from ten years ago, this time from May 2008…

Petrol prices shot up this month. This would be about $2.06 in today’s dollars. More amazing is that just four years earlier, the RACV had predicted prices wouldn’t go above about $1.08.
Petrol prices, May 2008

ACMI has put on a lot of great exhibitions, but this one might have been my favourite: basically the history of video games.
Game On at ACMI, May 2008

A familiar sight: trams queued along Swanston Street
Trams queued up due to a protest, 16/5/2008

…and this is why: a protest by pensioners, including Family First’s Steve Fielding, who joined in taking off his shirt, mimicking a previous protest by cab drivers.
Pensioner protest, protest, 16/5/2008

Flinders Street station: Aftermath of a train surfing incident.
Train surfing incident, Flinders Street Station 18/5/2008

May 2008 was the month of my twenty year school reunion. Here in a terrible old mobile phone photo, a bunch of us nose around the school hall – which hadn’t changed a bit.
20 year reunion, Melbourne High School, 2/5/2008

Siemens trains were utterly filthy for years, so it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. This one looks pretty clean.
Siemens train, May 2008

Cruising home like a rock star

Backdated. Posted 26/5/2018

Last morning in Sydney; almost time to go home.

After checking out of the hotel, we headed back to the gallery to see if Sunday morning was a better option for looking at the Archibald Prize finalists than Friday had been.

On the walk, the last of the half-marathon runners were coming through, including one old bloke, jogging along to the encouragement of passers-by and event organisers.

Art Gallery of NSW

Ibis at Art Gallery of NSW

First, a bite in the gallery cafe for breakfast, while trying to keep the ibis away from our food. They didn’t seem spooked by the fake owl.

Then we looked around the exhibition. Some great works, both the Archibalds and finalists from the Wynne and Sulman prizes, also on display.

Funny Hahas and Bloody Galahs - by Craig Handley - at Art Gallery of NSW

From there another walk across the park and a poke around the shops for a bit.

Back to the hotel to pick up the bags, then we headed for St James Station — drawing another bum card, as again due to works we went around the City Circle the wrong way (but hey, that Circular Quay view!!) and had to change at Central for the Airport line.

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay station

Sydney Airport - Domestic Railway Station

No matter, back at Sydney Airport in plenty of time, no thanks to a faulty escalator at the Domestic station.

Flying home Business Class

As I mentioned, we ended up flying back Business Class on points.

The following may seem trivial to people who usually fly Business, but as someone who has only previously flown Economy, I found it an interesting contrast.

The Virgin lounge was pretty busy, and apart from the complimentary food and drink, perhaps little different to the public areas of most airports these days. WiFi and power for a laptop and somewhere to sit are pretty common.

The really luxurious place in the airport is something I’ve only heard about (and don’t expect to ever see inside): the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge.

Perhaps more advantageous than Virgin’s lounge was priority boarding, skipping the queue. Mixed feelings: guilt for jumping the queue, rock star for walking straight in, but fraud for doing it on points!

Priority boarding queue at Sydney Airport

And once aboard – the seats are certainly much more spacious. And personal service – would you like a drink before we take-off, Mr Bowen?

We got a good view as we took off, but you can get that from any window seat.

Taking off from Sydney

Of the eight Business Class seats in the plane, four were taken, four were empty.

Being much a bigger seat, you get more window. And at the front of the plane you get a better sense of what’s going on, as the flight crew chat among themselves, and you can see the pier closing and moving away before the plane pushes back.

Cruising in Business Class

On the way up to Sydney in Economy (departing 7:30pm), we’d been given a packet containing five cracker biscuits and five slices of cheese.

Coming back in Business Class (departing 4:30pm), it was a full meal with a choice of options – I went for the Moroccan lamb jaffle. On a real plate, with real metal cutlery and a cloth napkin.

Business class meal on Virgin

After landing, one of the hosties positioned herself in the aisle to make sure us high flyers got to leave first, without the hoi polloi from Economy getting ahead of us.

And at the baggage carousel, my bag came out super-quick thanks to the Priority tag they’d put on it. (My usual suitcase is actually small enough to take as carry-on, but I generally prefer not to schlep around the airport with it. Plus I had some liquid in it — I’d bought a bottle of hot sauce at the farmers market to take home.)

Priority luggage allowed me to leave the terminal several minutes quicker, and get on a Skybus sooner (I only just caught it), with an earlier train connection home. So it got me home more quickly. Maybe only ten minutes earlier, but it helped.

Some people yearn for the olden days of air travel. The glamour, the personal service.

This of course was a time when most people couldn’t afford to fly at all. But for those who did, there was more space and better service.

Clearly you can still have it — to an extent — if you’re willing to pay for it.

But it’s not cheap. Checking Virgin’s web site, flights to Sydney start from $125 in Economy — for Business Class you’re paying at least $499 (for a Business Saver fare).

I could get used to travelling Business, but my budget isn’t likely to allow it very often. Perhaps I’ll aim for the occasional points upgrade.

Back in Melbourne

Straight onto a Skybus back to the City. Unlike the slow trip on Thursday night, this was a quick 23 minutes, at full speed along most of the freeway. It could have been a minute or two faster if there was traffic light priority when the bus left the freeway at Footscray Road.

Then straight onto a train home — noting that since the removal of seats around the doorways, there are very few spots in the Alstom Comeng trains where you can sit, and have your suitcase with you, but out of the way.

Back in drizzly Melbourne - Southern Cross Station

After a few days of sun in Sydney, I was back in drizzly cold Melbourne.

But with such a relaxing flight home, it didn’t matter a bit.

The noise of art

Backdated. Posted 24/5/2018

Sydney getaway continued. First stop: a bakery in the Queen Victoria Building, the spectacular 19th century shopping arcade, where we grabbed some croissants for breakfast.

Then to Town Hall Station to hop on a train to inner-city Redfern.

A short walk from Redfern Station is Carriageworks, a former… well, railway carriage workshop, where there’s a farmers market on Saturdays, and art in the adjacent workshop buildings, which have been converted into gallery spaces.

Carriageworks market, Sydney

We browsed through the market — I bought a bottle of hot sauce to take home for my sons — then we took a look at the galleries: the Sydney Biennale was on.

The interactive work “Constellations involved a huge white wall and a baseball bat. You take the bat and hit the wall, then listen to the sounds reverberating through the space.

Unbeknownst to the audience, a concert-size public address system, including multiple subwoofers, microphones and related sound equipment, is hidden within the structure. The sound of the impact between bat and wall is amplified by a massive 120 decibels, reverberating throughout the gallery space and the building.

As you can see from the video, when I had a go, there was a bonus, unexpected sound: that of a scared toddler who had just come around the corner, overwhelmed by the noise. Poor kid.

Some of the other artworks were very cool as well, though nothing quite as interactive.

Biennale Sydney at Carriageworks

From there we had a walk around Redfern, to see if we could find any good street art.

Eventually we found a little, but not much. Ever tried Googling for “street art in Redfern”? No helpful results.

Some lovely terrace houses though.

Redfern

Street art in Redfern

Redfern Municipal Electric Light Station

Redfern, looking towards UTS

We ducked back to the hotel to grab the present I’d brought up for my cousin’s daughter (that makes her my cousin once removed) and headed out to Marrickville.

It’s a pleasant walk from the station to the park where we were meeting. It’s a very hilly area, and the council has created small parks in a few spots by closing off streets. Probably too hilly for playing football.

Marrickville, Sydney. Fancy a game of kick to kick? ๐Ÿ‰

A post shared by Daniel Bowen (@danielfbowen) on

Further down towards the park and the river, I noted these height markers — I assume every so often the whole area floods, which explains why some houses were elevated above street level. (Zero was street level, not footpath level. I’m not actually two metres tall.)

Flood depth level at Marrickville, Sydney

A lovely park BBQ with my relatives, then we headed by train and bus to my friend K’s place in the inner-west suburb of Forest Lodge for some nibbles, wine, a home made stew and some entertaining conversation.

K showed us through the nearby TramSheds — you guessed it, a former… tram shed, part of the old Rozelle tram depot. They’ve got a restored traditional Sydney R-class tram in there. (Restored in Bendigo, in fact, the same place Melbourne’s W-class trams are restored.)

Restored tram at TramSheds (formerly Rozelle tram depot), Sydney

It never occurred to me before that the traditional Sydney tram colours are the same as the traditional Sydney ferry colours. (I’ll probably write a separate post about public transport modal branding in Sydney. I find it quite interesting.)

I mentioned yesterday the confusion of Sydney authorities as to whether light rail is tram or train. In Melbourne it’s definitely a tram. In Sydney it’s apparently a train, even though it’s branded “L” not “T”:

Sydney L1 light rail warning

We caught the “L1” Light Rail back into the city.

The train tram was quiet at the western end, but got packed when we reached the Casino.

Sydney L1 light rail

We hopped off at Capitol Square and walked back to the hotel. George Street was awash with young party animals, and relatively few civilians, making it somewhat noisy, and the quiet comfort of the hotel even more welcoming.

Sydney on shanks’ pony

Backdated. Posted 23/5/2018

Hotel buffet breakfast at the Sheraton is an eye-popping $44 per person. This is no big surprise – hotel breakfasts are always expensive.

But they’d said at check-in that we had a $50 credit, so that took the cost down to $38 for the two of us, which is probably cheaper than if we went out somewhere for breakfast. So we dined in — and very nice it was too.

Three course breakfast? Why not! That’s okay — we would end up walking all day.

The locations plotted on my Google Maps timeline for the day aren’t quite right. At no point did we walk on water, for instance. But given the glorious weather, we did explore extensively on foot — and all within a few kilometres of the hotel.

Where we walked 18/5/2018

Heading out of the hotel, in Hyde Park we found preparation for the Sydney half-marathon, and this bloke from a backpacker tour group, minding all the bags while his compatriots were evidently elsewhere.

Minding the bags, Hyde Park, Sydney

One lesson I’ve learnt over the years is that if there’s a particular impetus for your trip, then if possible get that thing done as a priority. Just in case.

So we headed straight to the Art Gallery of NSW to the Lady and the Unicorn exhibit.

Amazing 500ish year old tapestries visiting from France.

When M had mentioned it to an acquaintance who had never heard of tapestries, it was apparently interpreted as some kind of culinary event. Apparently tapestries are delicious… because they’re closely related to tapas.

Lady and the Unicorn exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW

We’d booked for 10:30am on Friday in the hope that being early on a work day, it would be quiet. It wasn’t — busloads of retirees seemed to be coming in, and as we looked around, it got busier and busier. Still good though; if you’re in Sydney in the next month or so, get along.

We pondered also looking in at the Archibald finalists, also on display. The queue just for tickets was getting long, and we could see that inside it was very busy, so after a look around the gallery shop, instead we headed out for more walking.

First up to Mrs Macquarie’s Point, where spectacular views were to be found, and we joined in the other tourists at snapping away at the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

Sydney Harbour tourists

Moreton Bay fig tree at Sydney Harbour

At some stage my phone lost its data connection. Odd – I don’t recall that happening before. There was some confusion getting it resolved, as when I had WiFi, I checked Telstra’s outages page, which said there was a fault in the area. Telstra’s people on Twitter however suggested rebooting, which turned out to resolve it.

Then we walked across the Botanic Garden. Why is it Garden, singular, when Melbourne has the Botanic Gardens? I demand to know. (If you’re wondering they’re a similar size – Sydney 30 hectares, Melbourne 38, though I suppose Melbourne also has a separate garden at Cranbourne).

Sydney Royal Botanic Garden entrance

This VMS was flashing messages for the forthcoming Vivid festival, so naturally I snapped on particular message.

Use public transport - sign for Vivid Sydney

On a recommendation of a friend, we had lunch at the Governor’s Kitchen, the restaurant adjacent to the Sydney Museum.

One delicious yet relaxing lunch later (well, apart from perhaps a little too much traffic noise), we headed back to the hotel for a bit, then out into the CBD proper along George Street.

George Street used to be a wall of buses at peak times, but currently it’s being dug up for the light rail project.

As you can see, they use concrete blocks for bollards in Sydney. Except unlike in Melbourne, these don’t appear to attract litter or decorations.

George Street, Sydney - light rail under construction

Some commenters from Melbourne who may or may not be fully informed have noted that while Yarra Trams might not be perfect, they’d have had the whole thing done and dusted within weeks. Witness the diversion/reconstruction of tram tracks along St Kilda Road – it took about two weeks.

Mind you the George Street design includes wireless technology — the tracks have a conductor rail that will pass power into the trams as they pass over. This probably means more construction impact under the tracks, requiring removal of underground services.

One contact also reckoned that because Sydney authorities don’t know how to build light rail (tram lines), the whole project is (over) engineered to heavy rail standards. That might explain why on a previous visit light rail services were suspended due to a signal fault, and why the following day we encountered a tram/pedestrian crossing with signage that warned us to beware of trains.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Despite it still being light, the sun was going down, and the gloriously warm weather from the middle of the day had gone, with the temperature dropping rapidly.

Taking a somewhat roundabout route, we ended up at the Opera House, where we’d booked a tour.

Being a few minutes early we sat and people-and-seagull watched. Along the water’s edge, restaurant wait staff served a row of al fresco diners, in turn watched by a row of seagulls.

Wait staff, diners and seagulls, outside Sydney Opera House

As soon as diners left, the seagulls would move in on any leftover food.

Seagulls move in, outside Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

At the Opera House, they do a Backstage Tour taking 2.5 hours, which sounds like it might be good, but we decided a simple one hour tour of the building would suffice. It was very interesting, with our guide quite knowledgeable, and some fascinating titbits of information about the construction and history of the place.

The sun had gone down, and Circular Quay and the Bridge were looking lovely in the moonlight.

Sydney Opera House

Circular Quay, Sydney

We kept walking, first back to the hotel, then across Hyde Park to the Bodhi vegan restaurant – another recommendation – for a very tasty dinner. Meals to share that include very delicious imitations of duck and chicken. Fakeducken, you might say?

Back to the hotel. Google Fit reckoned 20,300 steps for the day. Enough walking.