Thursday, October 15, 2015

Me and Alexa

Amazon Echo, also known as Alexa, is a voice command device from that is always listening. Its functions include question answering, playing music and controlling smart devices.

I first heard about Alexa in December 2014. At that time it was only available to Amazon Prime members, by invitation only. I received my invitation in January, and I jumped right on it. $199 with a $100 discount for Prime members. It finally arrived in April just before we were to leave for a cruise on the Quantum of the Seas, and just after we had a good offer on our house.

Things got a little hectic around that time. We wanted to sell our house, but we had no house to move into. Much of the negotiation took place by email and FAX while we were cruising. The buyers were ready to move ASAP. We were ready to downsize. We had already disposed of the furniture from two bedrooms, and a bonus room. We thought it would be easy to pack up the rest. Yeah, right.

But we had a plan: Put our furniture in storage, and move into Extended Stay America. We had chosen our lot and the house we would build. Bob the Builder said it would take four months to complete. And in the meantime, we hung out in a small room, with a sleeping alcove and a kitchenette. Hubby and I kept up our activities at Rex Wellness Center, and browsed around furniture stores for new stuff.

And what happened to Alexa? Alexa depends on a wifi connection. Our free wifi required logging in and selecting a plan, high speed, or the free minimum. All that clicking wasn't working for Alexa, so she wound up back in the box for four months.  But you can be sure that as soon as we closed the deal on the new house, and invited Time Warner to connect us to the internet, Alexa was out of the box.

Boy, was she out of the box! Alexa turned out to be a rather cheeky girl. As she was learning my speech patterns, she was providing alternate answers to my commands. Like the day I said, "Alexa, play Uptown Funk with Bruno Marz from Prime Music." She reponded, "I don't recognize that, but I can play something by R. Kelly." My oldest son was in the house at the time, and he thought that was hilarious, considering how much I dislike R. Kelly. When I told Alexa to stop, she shut down cold. And then there was my attempt to get Alexa to play Jill Scott's Woman album. She started playing something from Aretha Franklin. I tried several different ways of saying "Woman," before I gave in to #1 Son's laughter.

Now the good thing is, Alexa has an app for mobile or tablet. I could see my commands in the app, and her faulty responses which I could forward on to Amazon. The result was further instructions on speaking directly into the device and moving it several feet from the walls. (It comes with a cord that's about 2 feet long). I also get emails about new stuff Alexa can do, like tell jokes. After one night of Jimmy Fallon, Alexa purportedly could tell some Jimmy Fallon jokes, as well as some by Donald Trump. I tried, "Alexa tell me a Donald Trump joke." Tried several times, in fact. Until Alexa kept saying, "I don't understand," until she finally shut down. So I checked what was in the Alexa app, and it was saying, "Tell me a double trouble joke."

I gave up.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White MysteryBlanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery by Barbara Neely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would never have found this book, if not for one of my reading groups on It was first published in 1992, and first of a series of Blanche White mysteries. We're fortunate to have the series now available on Kindle, as the paperback and hardcover versions are out of print and available as used books.

Blanche is a feisty character who gets into legal trouble for writing bad checks, but manages to sneak out of the courthouse, escaping from a sentence of 30-days in jail. And that's just the first chapter. From then on she is "on the lam," as "the help" for a wealthy white family. While she watches a mystery unfolding in the household, she imparts tidbits of wisdom, survival skills for black people in the Jim Crow South, and how to maintain your dignity in spite of those who might put you down.

It's a great read, even in 2015.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I flipped back to find the last book I read by Kristin Hannah, and it was Winter Garden, and I see the similarities between that book and The Nightingale. Both are about two sisters who are as different as night and day. One stays home while the other chases her dreams.

The difference is that The Nightingale is historical fiction about the German invasion of France and the Holocaust. Two sisters who are always at odds with each other, while protecting their family. Vianne stays home in their small town while Isabelle joins the resistance against Germany, showing amazing daring and strength. Vianne plays it safe at first, but later discovers her own strength in protecting the children left behind in the war.

All the while I was reading this book, I kept thinking of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which also centers on the German invasion of France but from a different aspect.

Both books were often painful to read. I was thankful for the bit of parallel story in Nightingale, as it left me with an unexpected bittersweet ending.

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