Last July, an ad scrolled by on my Facebook feed.
It was an Amazon Prime ad, showing a photo of a black, cylindrical thing called an “Echo” and proclaiming that it was on super sale, for three or so hours only.
Being a total Amazon junky, I was suckered in (tell me those ads don’t work) and clicked on it.
I work in the kitchen a good bit. Some of the stuff I do, like canning and cheese-making, is tedious as hell. You try heating a vat of milk curds from 86 degrees to 100 degrees over a thirty minute period, evenly spaced out, stirring frequently, and see how bored you get.
So I listen to audio books. I listen to so many of them that I have an Audible account and prepay for a dozen or so books annually. That reduces the price per book to a bit less than $10, which is cheap to get somebody to read to you for hours. In addition, once you have credits with them, they run these wonderful sales where you can get three books for two credits.
Anyway, I have blown through several iPods listening to audio books. And I kill them all the same way. They are in the kitchen. To turn them on or off, I have to touch them. And eventually, they get too much moisture on them and they die. Additionally, it’s a pain. Dave comes in the kitchen, I’m deep into peeling peaches and a murder mystery, and he wants to talk to me. He has to yell over the recording and then I have to wash my hands, dry my hands, turn off the iPod and have a conversation. When he’s finished, and I resume listening, I always have to back up to catch the part I missed due to the distraction, and it’s just a royal pain.
To add insult to injury, Dave always has felt like I didn’t want him to interrupt me, and hence would be pissed that he even has to do it.
So, when I read about the Echo, I thought “Bingo!”
You know what happened, don’t you?
Not only did I want one of these devices, it was on super sale. Like really super sale. Like $50 off. Like $129. I clicked “Buy now.”
Here she is.
I just wanted you to hear her voice. Dave loves her.
I don’t have to get my hands wet. She will find my book, play my book, turn the volume up or down, pause, rewind slightly, move to the next chapter, all by voice.
When I bought her, I thought she would merely play my books and allow me to eliminate the dreaded iPod war, but she does so much more than that. She will play music, anything I have in the cloud, and also anything from Prime Music. She serves like a mini-Google.
In the middle of a recipe, if you need to convert tablespoons to ounces, Alexa is your girl. If you run out of soy sauce, just tell Alexa and she will add it to your shopping list (which is then accessible at the store via the Alexa app on your phone). If you want the news, you can either go with the preset stuff or go into the app and select what sources you want to hear and Alexa will bring it to you with your bacon and eggs.
My two favorite Alexa stories are these:
When we had the electrician at our house rewiring our kitchen, we had to leave him one evening and go to the barn to milk. He continued to work while we were gone. When we got back, he asked me what in the world that black thing was. He said that he had to cut the power to that outlet, do some wiring and then power it back up. When he did, of course, the Echo reset.
As soon as he told me, I started laughing.
When the Echo is first turned on, it finds WiFi and then the blue lighted ring lights up, accompanied by some sort of weird music, and finally Alexa says, “Hello.” And as you can see from the little video, she’s not subtle or quiet.
Imagine this guy who never saw one of these things before. He’s paying no attention to the black speaker until suddenly a woman says “Hello.” He said he almost fell off the ladder.
The other story involves a family with four teenagers who came to stay with us over Thanksgiving last fall. The kids found the Echo. They are very smart, very computer-savvy kids, but had never seen an Echo. They wore Alexa out. I am quite certain that she demanded a raise. She was the best entertainment you can think of.
They played with that thing for several hours. She played music. She answered every question you can imagine. She did all sorts of math problems.
And in doing that, they learned something about her. She isn’t the brightest thing on earth. She’s a computer and is very, very literal. If you don’t word the question or command exactly right, she becomes mystified. She can’t intuit very well.
And that’s why I was surprised to see this.
This, of course, is ridiculous.
But if you look around, you can find people who believe this kind of crazy stuff.
When a source is called “Intellihub,” you can bet that it is 1) not a “hub” of anything, and 2) not intelligent. And when they add a nice purple eye-catcher thing saying “SCI-TECH,” well, you know it’s probably bullshit.
If you scroll down the page, you’ll find that the article came from naturalnews.com.
Of course it did.
My goodness, Alexa is recording everything we say?
This, from the Chicago Tribune, is at least a better source than naturalnews.com.
It seems that a guy was found dead in a hot tub with an Echo nearby. And the police thought that they could get Amazon to give them the recording from the Echo and there it would be: the murder happening.
But apparently, law enforcement folks have no idea how the Echo works.
They, like the writer of the silly article above that, thought that Alexa makes a recording of everything you say. Seriously.
Can you imagine the amount of storage space necessary to hold all the conversations that occur in a single home, say, mine, around Alexa? She is on the kitchen counter. Our dining area is adjacent to her. Sometimes Dave and I sit there and talk for an hour or more.
And Alexa is recording all that? All that stuff about which calf might need his horns burned in the next week, or whether or not it’s going to rain and can we put sealer on the deck today? That stuff. Oh, and a recording of me taking Dave’s blood pressure and later on, asking Minnie if she needs to go outside.
They think that because Alexa is “listening,” she’s also recording.
She is not.
She is sort of listening, in a computer kind of way. She’s waiting for the “wake up word,” which we have set as “Alexa.” If she hears that word, she responds, and yes, at that point, she does, in fact, start recording. One of the things you can do with an Echo is conveniently order shit you don’t need from Amazon. Of course you can. They’re not stupid, so Alexa can do this. They need a recording of that.
And apparently, she does keep track of what you asked, and it’s time and date-stamped and stored in the cloud.
Boy, I bet the cloud was crying on Thanksgiving Day.
If I go to the app, which is on my phone, right now, and look, I can find a list of all the things I asked Alexa today. On some of them, I’m asked to confirm if Alexa did what I asked to help the software “learn” my voice. If Alexa didn’t understand me, I can go to the app and answer the questions and help her learn.
The recording for me today consists of:
9 a.m. Alexa, play audiobook.
9:09 a.m. Alexa, pause.
9:11 a.m. Alexa, resume.
9:30 a.m. Alexa, pause.
10:15 a.m. Alexa, add spinach to my shopping list.
12:06: Alexa, what’s the weather?
1:25 p.m. Alexa, what is goldbach’s conjecture? [She looked it up for me.]
1:53 p.m. Alexa, king to the last night. [We have no idea. She somehow decided we’d said her name while we were talking. This happens occasionally, but not often. It probably was a gerund that she separated into “Alexa” and “king.” But notice that she recorded no more than the immediate phrase following what she had interpreted as her wake up word. Not even a whole sentence. You’re not going to solve a murder mystery with that.]
You get the idea.
Interesting stuff, huh?
Anyway, our Echo is one of those appliances that, like our phones, or our computers, or the refrigerator, would be replaced immediately when/if she dies.
And if the ebil guvmint wants to listen to our dinner conversation, they are welcome.
Disclaimer: I do not work for Amazon. If you happen to be interested in an Amazon Echo (or the smaller Tap, or the tiny Dot), use this link. It doesn’t do a thing for me, but does donate a wee bit of change to the Kentucky Sheriff’s Boys and Girls Ranch.