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The Amazon Echo and “Alexa,” your new best friend

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 06, 2017
Category: Gifts and Gadgets

READER COMMENT #1: Brilliant! My mother has dementia and asks me every day what day it is.

READER COMMENT #2: I got one for Christmas, and I must say it is fun to ask for the morning news and weather while you’re getting ready to do whatever (it uses NPR and local weather). Or to ask her to play some random song that just popped into your head.

A CAUTIONARY NOTE: “Friendship” is a two-way street. Echo gives. It also takes. Specifically, it takes your queries and converts them to marketing analysis. And it takes a bit more. As a journalist friend reminds me: “You are going to read a story about a mother who sues her ex-husband and gets a court order for the transcripts of conversations recorded in her ex-husband’s home by the all-hearing Echo. And then there’s the story of the girl whose privacy was hacked by a guy who was able to change the code for the ECHO — and published her private communications on Facebook.” What about your privacy? Before you get agitated, let me ask you: That little camera lens at the top of your computer monitor — have you taped over it? You ask: Why should I? Let me ask you: If that lens is just sitting there until you decide to Skype or start a Facebook Chat, why did Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden tape over it?

My mother is turning 100, which calls for certain rituals. I wrote to the “Today” Show, hoping they’d mention her. I wrote to the White House to request a congratulatory letter (“I know her birthday falls after Barack Obama leaves office, but if you could get this letter out before January 20, I know my mother would prefer to get the letter with his signature”). And then I flew to California for the bash.

My nieces, accomplished at many things, played piano and led a singalong of the greatest hits, 1917-2017. We formed a circle around my mother and marched and chanted blessings to the accompaniment of a buffalo drum. There was an excellent lunch or two (some of us are gluten-free) and an extraordinary gluten-free cake. I gave a guided tour of my mother’s life that was astonishingly snark-free [Omitted joke: Why do Jewish men die first? They want to.] My mother was eloquent in response. And then she attacked a pile of presents.

The Amazon Echo left everything else she was given — and every word we said and every song we sang — in the dust.

And for a simple reason: my mother is legally blind. She used to love to read, and now she can’t. And the volunteer reader from Jewish Family Services only comes once a week. This means that CNN is my mother’s primary link to the world of information.

No more. “Alexa,” the being trapped in the 9” cylinder, is the 21st century Library of Alexandria, “Siri” on steroids. She knows all, or almost. If every housebound or visually disabled person in the wired world could have one, happiness would kick loneliness’s ass — there’s no better gift. All you need is a WiFi network, a smartphone or tablet for the connection process, and electricity.

Yes, “Alexa” is “Siri.” But better. To use Siri, you need a device — and dexterity. To use Alexa, you just need the power of speech. Yes, the defaults are Amazonian — Amazon music, Amazon books — but then, Siri sends you to iTunes. Funny about that. But you can access Spotify and iTunes. [There is a smaller, cheaper version, but to buy the better Echo, in black or white, from Amazon, click here.]

Once my brother powered up the Echo, Alexa was the life of the party.

“Alexa, what else happened on February 8, 1917?”

“The British captured Gaza from the Ottoman Empire.”

“Alexa, where did Tony Bennett leave his heart?”

“San Francisco.”

“Alexa, please play ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco.’”

She did.

“Alexa, do you know the music of Car Seat Headrest?”

I can attest: the speakers in that modest cylinder are excellent.

“Alexa, who killed John F. Kennedy?”

“Lee Harvey Oswald.”

“Alexa, What happened to the liner California in February, 1917?”

“It was sunk by a German U-boat.”

We stumped her only once.

“Alexa, will there be an impeachment in 2017?”

Alexa knows your horoscope, but not the future.

“Alexa, what were the closing prices yesterday for [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]?”

Those prices were up. They are often up. My mother has the knack.

The Echo’s features are constantly updated. As I write, Alexa can hook you up to local search from Yelp, movie showtimes, Samsung SmartThings support, Google Calendar — and Audible audiobooks and text-to-speech for Kindle eBooks. I hope my mother’s volunteer reader is up to the challenge, because she’s up against Jeremy Irons.

Suggestion: Buy two. One as a gift. And one to make you wicked smart.