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The internet’s all aflutter with the news: Alexa, the digital assistant inside Amazon’s Echo, Dot and Tap, witness to a murder? Yes, it’s true. But pay no attention to those hysterical, pearl-clutching headlines and conspiracy theorist comment threads: if anything, the reports on this should only reassure you Alexa is not spying on you.

 

 

Read Those Reports Closely: They’ve Buried The Lede
Reassuring reports stating that consumers have nothing to worry about don’t tend to drive a lot of internet traffic, so it’s not surprising that all the stories about this incident open with hair-raising headlines intended to get Alexa device owners to click through in a panic, as quickly as possible.

Yes, it’s true that police in Bentonville Arkansas are investigating a murder in a home where an Echo was present. It’s also true that the police have asked Amazon to turn over records of the device’s recordings and activity records, and that Amazon has refused. Add to this the fact that the police then confiscated the device, and say they were able to extract “information” from it.

Yet the news is still all good in the neighborhood for Alexa device owners, and I’ll tell you why.

 

1. USA Today’s piece about the incident includes two extremely pertinent (and reassuring) bits of information—but 16 paragraphs in, after many will have stopped reading in a mad rush to get home and unplug their Alexa devices:

It’s important to note that “always listening” doesn’t mean “always recording.” The Echo is actually only always listening for its “wake word”…

The Echo only keeps fewer than 60 seconds of recorded sound in its storage buffer. As new sound is recorded, the old is erased. So there’s no audio record made of what went on in a room where an Echo sits.

2. As reported in the same article, the reason Amazon gave for refusing to hand over the data the Echo had sent to the cloud for processing offers further proof that Amazon values its customers’ privacy greatly:

In a statement to USA TODAY, Amazon said [it] will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on it. Amazon objects to over broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course, the company said.

 

So Why Did The Cops Confiscate the Echo and Extract Its Data?
Because it can still tell them some potentially useful things. If someone was making requests of the Echo, that places the person in the same room as the Echo at a specific time, for example.

 

But Doesn’t Amazon Keep A Record Of Requests In The Cloud?
Yes, they do. A separate record is maintained for each Alexa device and is kept private to Amazon’s servers, but you can delete that history at any time in the Alexa app. Click here to view Amazon’s help topic about how to view, play back, and erase history for an Alexa device (Amazon UK customers, click here).

I don’t recommend erasing history though, because it’s partly how Alexa gets better at understanding your specific wording and pronunciation. Erasing history is like starting all over again from day one, in terms of Alexa correctly interpreting your requests. If Alexa rarely misunderstands, then it’s probably okay to delete the history. But if Alexa has gotten noticeably better at responding correctly over time, best to leave it be.

 

But I Was Talking About A Product When Alexa Was Off, And The Product Started Showing Up In Amazon Ads On Websites I Visited! Doesn’t That Prove Alexa Was Spying On Me?
I hear this one from time to time, and there’s a perfectly logical, simple explanation that has nothing to do with Alexa.

When you’re interested enough in a given product or service to be talking about it in your home, chances are about 99% that you’re also browsing it online: looking at listings on e-commerce sites, checking out review sites, doing internet searches about it, looking at examples of it on Pinterest and Instagram, or something similar.

Amazon belongs to just about every online ad and marketing service out there, and consumers automatically opt in for the data gathering that powers such services when they install browser software, sign up for online access to various services and accounts, or accept the terms on various social media and online news or entertainment sites. So you do all this online investigating of some product or service, news of your browsing gets back to Amazon, and Amazon (helpfully?) starts serving you ads for that very product or service across all the sites where its ads appear. Doesn’t sound so spooky now, does it?

Click here to read a Digital Media Mom post I wrote about how to find out what data gathering services you’re already opted in for (probably without knowing it), and how to opt out of them. But be warned: it becomes a game of whack-a-mole pretty quickly, since every acceptance of a given site’s terms of service tends to reinstate the data gathering by default.

The boring, but comforting truth is that when someone who’s already very sensitive to, and suspicious about, privacy issues experiences something that could either be a coincidence or the hint of a pattern, that person is primed to assume a pattern. From there, it’s not far from, “Hey, that’s an ad for the exact laptop I’ve been researching!” to, “Hey, Alexa’s spying on me and Amazon’s lying to me!”

 

So relax: Alexa is NOT spying on you.

 

This is a cross-posting of an article I wrote for my Love My Echo site on 12/27/16.

 

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Logitech offers Alexa integration for its Harmony smart home devices (click here to view Logitech’s own help page about it). You can take advantage of this new functionality with the Logitech Harmony Companion All in One Remote Control for Smart Home and Entertainment Devices, works with Alexa (UK visitors – click here). Currently (as of 12/27/16) rated 4/5 stars across over 650 reviews and currently priced at $129.99.

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Welcome To Digital Media Mom’s 12/26/16 Music Monday!
I’ve got three great finds to share with you today: the complete Handel’s Messiah for just over two dollars, plus two big box sets for 99 cents each.

First up, it’s Handel’s Messiah, performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir – currently rated 4.5/5 stars and currently priced at $2.19. All 43 tracks, from Overture to Amen.

 

Today’s second pick is Big Great Symphonies Box, Vol I. 64 tracks in all, from such great composers as Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven and more. Over 10 hours of music. Currently rated 4.5/5 stars and priced at 99 cents.

 

Finally, it’s the 100-track collection The History of Guitar. From ancient folk strings to mandolin, from Baroque through Spanish, this box set truly does offer an exhaustive history of the guitar and its cousin instruments down through time. Currently rated 4.5/5 stars and priced at 99 cents.

 

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Need a high-capacity memory card for that new phone, tablet, digital camera or gaming console? The Samsung 128GB 80MB/s EVO Select Micro SDXC Memory Card is a great pick, since it’s the latest model from Samsung: a trusted name in electronics. A standard SD card adapter is included, to ensure compatibility across devices. Currently (as of 12/26/16) rated 4.5/5 stars across over 1,600 reviews, and priced at $39.99.

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Fire Tablet Tip of the Week: Where To Find Kindle First Books Each Month

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This is a cross-posting of Love My Echo‘s Alexa 101 post, which I posted to that site on 12/20/16.


There will be MANY more owners of Alexa-powered devices by the end of this month and it occurs to me that there are a few essential bits of information that most Alexa device owners find helpful, and I should probably pass them on this week: for both the givers and recipients.

 

 

Alexa Givers

1. Be sure to deregister any Alexa devices you’ve purchased from your own Amazon account.
Unless you checked that little “this is a gift” box when you ordered it, that Alexa device was automatically registered to your Amazon account. If it’s still registered to your Amazon account, the recipient of your gift won’t be able to register it to their own account. Of course, if you’re intending to run the device for the recipient (e.g., an aging or disabled person), then you’ll want to keep it registered to your own account. Otherwise:

Go to Amazon > Your Account > Manage Your Content and Devices > Devices tab, and look for the new Alexa device(s) there. To deregister a device, click it to select and in its detail panel, click the deregister link.

 

2. Reassure the recipient there’s no Alexa service to sign up for, and no monthly subscription or service fees—beyond what the recipient is already paying for their existing WiFi connection.
This is a common misconception among people who don’t already own Alexa-enabled devices: that some kind of subscription or fee-based service is required to make the device work.

 

3. When you get tired of answering the recipient’s questions about Alexa and the device, send ’em here!
Specifically, use the email sharing link at the top of this post to send them a link to this post. Direct them to the Alexa Help Desk page and the The Basics post archive. If they like to have fun with Alexa, tell ’em to check out the Easter Eggs archive too: that’s where all the past Stupid Alexa Tricks posts are stored.

If they can’t find the information they’re seeking on the site, while I can’t help with individual troubleshooting and setup scenarios (for that they need to call Amazon, see #3 in the Alexa Recipients section below), and while I can’t say what Amazon’s future plans are for Alexa and Alexa devices (they don’t make that information public), I do answer other questions via email. They can use the Love My Echo Contact Form to shoot me an email.

 

Alexa Recipients

1. Be sure to read the Getting Started insert that comes with the device: it’s short, and provides an up-to-date overview of Alexa functionality.
Alexa is an impressive piece of high tech wizardry, and you’ll get much more and better use of her if you start by getting the lay of the land.

 

2. Having trouble with Alexa mobile app installation? Use the web app in a browser instead.
The Alexa device instructions will tell you to install the Alexa mobile app and use it to set up your device, but you can also go to the web browser version (http://alexa.amazon.com) of the Alexa app and complete setup there. You don’t really have to install the mobile version of the Alexa app at all. Note that you’ll be prompted to login to your Amazon account in the Alexa web app, just the same as if you’d used the mobile app, but it’s safe because the web app is an amazon.com site.

 

3. Having trouble with setup and connection to WiFi? Call Amazon Alexa/Echo Tech Support (1-877-375-9365 – 3am to 10pm PST, 7 days). Yes, they will be there, even on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve.
Better still, during periods when Amazon expects there be a lot of new device owners or digital service users—Christmas week, for example—they staff up those support departments to ensure no one will be left hanging on hold for hours.

 

4. You don’t have to be a Prime member or have a paid subscription to any particular streaming music service to listen to music on your Alexa device.
There are numerous free services, and free versions of services, Alexa supports by default. Click here to see Amazon’s help topic about listening to music and media on Alexa (Amazon UK customers click here).

 

5. In the U.S., Alexa can read Kindle books that have Text-to-Speech (TTS) enabled.
This option is set by the publisher so it’s not available on all Kindle books, but where TTS is enabled Alexa can read the book to you, so long as you know the title. Click here for Amazon’s help topic about reading Kindle books with Alexa.

 

6. Are there two household members with separate Amazon accounts, and each wants to maintain a separate Alexa profile so Alexa can keep your music libraries, to-do lists, custom settings and so on separate?
See my post about how to set up a second Alexa profile: Yes, You CAN Access Another Household Member’s Music Library On Your Echo. It’s also applicable to Dot and Tap.

 

7. Alexa does not do open-ended internet searches (and neither do any other digital assistants, regardless of what consumers think), but Alexa can still answer plenty of questions if you know how to ask her.
Alexa can answer plenty of factual questions without any special rules for asking, and when that doesn’t work asking Alexa to “Wikipedia [person, place, thing, event, etc.]” usually will.

There’s a lot Alexa can answer with a plain question, like—say the wake word first, if using a Dot or Echo—: “how many pints in a gallon”, “what’s the tallest mountain on Earth”, “what’s the temperature on the Moon”, “what’s the population of New York City”, “what’s the current time in [city and country anywhere in the world]”, “when will sunset be on [date, up to one year in advance]”, “when will sunrise be on [date, up to one year in advance]”, and so on.

Among other things, Alexa can do math (e.g., “what’s 2,463 divided by 14”), unit conversions (e.g., “convert 3 miles to kilometers”), tell you the current weather and weather forecast for anywhere in the world, tell you when the next full moon will be, tell you how many days it will be till a certain day (e.g., “how many days till Valentine’s Day”) up to a year in advance, and tell you what day of the week a certain date will fall on (e.g., “what day will June 3 be”) up to a year in advance.

Thanks to Yelp integration, Alexa has local business information too. Try queries like, “is there a supermarket nearby?” “is the post office open?” and so on. Alexa will send phone number and address details to the Alexa app—which, don’t forget, you can also access on the web at http://alexa.amazon.com.

 

8. Unless money is no object for you, resist the urge to go nuts with purchases of smart home devices Alexa can control: it’s still the early adopter phase for smart home, which means smart home devices are only going to get cheaper and less buggy, and offer more and better functionality going forward with each new generation.
I’m not saying you should avoid such purchases altogether, I’m just saying don’t get too heavily invested in any smart home devices that may eventually be discontinued, or be replaced by a totally new and not backward-compatible version of the hardware or software.

For example, early adopters of the Philips HUE smart home lighting system have their war stories. Many invested heavily in the first generation HUE system specifically because Philips advertised it as compatible with several non-Philips smart bulbs, which were less expensive than the Philips-branded bulbs, and were shocked when a software update yanked support for the third-party bulbs. You can read my full post about it here.

Stories like that are why it’s safest to invest only in relatively inexpensive, individual pieces of smart home tech that don’t require you to buy an entire system. The only smart home devices I’ve bought so far are a few LIFX multicolor smart bulbs (Amazon UK customers click here for white version of bulb), and I’m eyeing the TP-Link Smart Plug too (Amazon UK customers click here). These devices don’t cost an arm and a leg, don’t require installation and setup of a whole, complex system, are natively supported by Alexa, and will still work as “dumb” devices if support for their smart features is ever pulled in the future.

 

9. Unless you have a photographic memory, resist the urge to enable a bunch of Alexa skills right away.
You need to know the correct command to launch each one, so it’s best to try them out two or three at a time. It’s easy enough to disable those you ultimately decide against, and then you can enable new ones. There are literally thousands of skills available, so expect to take your time exploring the Skills tab in the Alexa mobile and web apps.

Once you start using Alexa skills, check out this post about universal Alexa commands, which includes a list of universal skill commands.

 

10. Get ready for change.
Alexa gets smarter and better with each new software update, but each new software update has the potential to change existing functionality too. Amazon’s Alexa engineers are hard at work making Alexa’s comprehension of plain English better and more flexible, and when they update Alexa with a new, simpler version of a command you’re used to using, the old version of the command may not work anymore or may give a different result.

Be prepared to experiment with slightly different wording when a tried and true command suddenly stops working, and know that when it happens, it’s because Alexa’s going through some growing pains—but it also means she’s getting smarter! Click here to read my post about Alexa’s growing pains with respect to smart home devices, which offers some tips to ensure your smart home setup will be only minimally impacted by future Alexa software updates.

 

11. Subscribe to Love My Echo’s email list to get tips, tricks, Stupid Alexa Tricks, Alexa news, freebies and more each week.
It’s free, you can unsubscribe at any time, I do not share my subscribers’ information with anyone else, I do my best to be inclusive of UK Alexa users, and there’s even the option to subscribe only to a weekly digest that goes out on Saturdays, or to a once-weekly post directed toward those who are interested in topics related to Alexa software development. Click here to subscribe, so you’ll always be up to date with the latest Alexa help and information.

 

This is my last post before Christmas: Happy Holidays to all my readers, and I’ll see you back here next week!

 

      
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Welcome To DMM’s 12/19/16 Music Monday!

If one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2017 is to get more Bible study in, you’ve come on a good day! Today I’m sharing the FREE Faith Comes By Hearing’s audio Bibles: King James Version.

These readings of the Bible are presented in “dramatized” editions, with music and sound effects, or in the case of the New Testament, a “non-dramatized”, straight reading as well. Either way, they’re perfect for use in a Bible study or Sunday school setting, for personal worship time, or simply for listening enjoyment in the same situations where any audiobook would be appropriate.

This week I’m not going to warn that prices are subject to change, because Faith Comes By Hearing has dedicated itself to making dramatized audio versions of the Bible available free of charge to anyone who wants them. This Bible will remain free for as long as it’s listed.

The three albums, the King James Old Testament Dramatized, and King James New Testament Dramatized / Non-Dramatized, can be downloaded in their entirety or one chapter at a time, as you prefer. Please note: if you choose to download an entire ‘album’, the file will be very large and may take a while to download. It’s probably best to tackle that job at home, rather than on a mobile device. Note that you can also “buy” an entire album, then download or stream the individual chapters of interest from the Cloud as you need them, too.

Here are the relevant links:

Faith Comes By Hearing – KJV Old Testament (Dramatized): entire ‘album’

Faith Comes By Hearing – KJV Old Testament (Dramatized): individual chapter listings

 

Faith Comes By Hearing – KJV New Testament (Dramatized): entire ‘album’

Faith Comes By Hearing – KJV New Testament (Non-Dramatized): entire ‘album’

Faith Comes By Hearing – KJV New Testament: individual chapter listings for BOTH Dramatized and Non-Dramatized

 

Now you’re all set to bring Bible study to the car, gym, lunch break, or anywhere else life takes you!

 

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If you’re looking to make that shiny new Echo Dot portable, the JBL Charge 3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker (UK visitors – click here) is a great way to go. From JBL, a top name in premium portable audio, this speaker offers Bluetooth connectivity as well as a USB power port: plug your Dot into the power port, then use the Dot’s Bluetooth connectivity to pipe your audio back through the JBL’s speaker. Currently (as of 12/18/16) rated 4.5/5 stars across over 600 reviews and currently priced at $134.95 (four other colors available).

 

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Fire Tablet Tip of the Week: Where To Find Kindle First Books Each Month

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Welcome to DMM’s 12/16/16 Freebie Friday! Today I’m cross-posting from my Love My Echo site, where I’m featuring an Abraham Lincoln collection and an entire audio library of classic literature that are available for free to anyone with internet access, plus an Audible drama title that’s currently available for free to Amazon’s UK customers only.

 

 

The first two titles are online downloads from Librivox. If you want Alexa to play them for you on an Echo, Dot or Tap device, you’ll need to upload the tracks to your Amazon Music Library. Every Amazon customer can upload up to 250 tracks for free. If space is a concern—and it may be, given the number of tracks in today’s second freebie—you can always download everything to your computer, then upload only the volumes you intend to listen to in the near future to Amazon Music. To access / upload to Amazon Music, go to the Amazon site, login, then navigate to Your Account > Your Music Library. Scroll to the bottom of the left-hand menu bar and click the “Upload your music to your cloud library” link.

First, specially selected for those of us here in the U.S. who may be suddenly much more interested in acclaimed Presidents of the past, it’s Abraham Lincoln: A Commemoration.

April 14-15th, 2015, is the 150th year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This is a collection of pieces to mark that occasion. Whitman’s poems, written shortly after the death, express his intense grief. Here are prose pieces that Whitman composed in the years following. Included too are three other eulogies regarded by Lincoln scholars as among the best, as well as a narrative from one of the doctors who attended the dying president and two speeches in the British Parliament. And finally, three of the President’s own finest compositions: The Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Address and The Second Inaugural Address.

 

Next, it’s the Library of the World’s Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, Volumes 1-7.

The Library of the World’s Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, is a work of enormous proportions. Setting out with the simple goal of offering “American households a mass of good reading”, the editors drew from literature of all times and all kinds what they considered the best pieces of human writing, and compiled an ambitious collection of 45 volumes (with a 46th being an index-guide). Besides the selection and translation of a huge number of poems, letters, short stories and sections of books, the collection offers, before each chapter, a short essay about the author or subject in question. In many cases, chapters contemplate not one author, but certain groups of works, organized by nationality, subject or period; there is, thus, a chapter on Accadian-Babylonian literature, one on the Holy Grail, and one on Chansons, for example.

The result is a collection that holds the interest, for the variety of subjects and forms, but also as a means of first contact with such famous and important authors that many people have heard of, but never read, such as Abelard, Dante or Lord Byron. According to the editor Charles Dudley Warner, this collection “is not a library of reference only, but a library to be read.”

 

Finally, an Audible title that’s currently free for Amazon UK customers only: The Oedipus Plays: An Audible Original Drama (available to Amazon US customers here, but not for free).

The three Theban plays by Sophocles – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone – are one of the great landmarks of Western theatre. They tell the story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who was destined to suffer a terrible fate – to kill his father, marry his mother, and beget children of the incestuous union. He does this unknowingly but still has to suffer terrible consequences, which also tragically affect the next generation.

These three plays were written around 450 BC, with the playwright following the established convention of presenting the story through main characters but using a chorus – sometimes one voice, sometimes more – as an independent commentator that also occasionally participates in the drama. When the audiences of ancient Athens went to the amphitheatres to see the plays, they would have known the basic story of poor Oedipus.

Nevertheless, the power of Sophocles’ retelling made the Theban plays deeply horrifying and affecting – and this is still true now, some 2,500 years later. There is also a strong contemporary resonance for us, for in the 20th century the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud famously adopted the story to illustrate his Oedipus complex, which, he argued, was a condition of the unconscious mind in boys – that they want to sleep with their mothers. It is interesting that through the character of the queen, Jocasta, in Oedipus the King, Sophocles states this unequivocally.

Oedipus the King is well known. The other two are less so: Oedipus at Colonus, which deals with his last days, and Antigone, which casts the spotlight on his daughter, who, as part of the accursed blood line, chooses to act in a way she believes is right, whatever the consequences. Yet they are equally powerful and moving.

This audio production, with Jamie Glover as Oedipus and Hayley Atwell as his daughter, Antigone, is a world premiere audio recording of all three plays.

With the authoritative but modern translation by Ian Johnston, specially commissioned new music from the English composer Roger Marsh, and a cast of outstanding actors, this Audible Original presentation of Sophocles’ Theban plays will be listened to not once but over and over again.

 

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Ready to dress up your second generation Dot? Check out the Fintie Protective Case for Amazon Echo Dot (Fits All-New Echo Dot 2nd Generation Only) (UK visitors click here). Currently rated 4.5/5 stars and priced at $16.99. Available in 12 color/pattern options in the US, 6 in the UK.

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