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Chris Higgins

39 Fun Questions to Ask Amazon Echo

Original image
Chris Higgins

The Amazon Echo is an odd companion. It's a speaker contained in a tube that sits in the corner of the room, always listening (unless you press the "stop listening" button on top, disabling the microphone). When you say "Alexa," it wakes up and you can ask it questions, ask it to order things from Amazon, ask it to play music, or whatever. (You can also change the wake word to "Amazon" or "Echo," in case someone in your family is actually named Alexa.) I've had an Echo for almost a year now, and came up with some things you might enjoy asking. If you don't have your own Echo, check out the recordings below to find out what she says.

1. ALEXA, WHAT'S THE MASS OF THE SUN IN GRAMS?

Thanks to my friend Science Mike for this one. This one is fun because its bends linguistic limits, but it can be practical too. For instance, trying asking Alexa: "Alexa, what's the mass of an Amazon Echo?" You'll get a very precise answer.

2. ALEXA, WHAT ARE THE THREE LAWS OF ROBOTICS?

3. ALEXA, ARE YOU A ROBOT?

4. ALEXA, WHERE CAN I HIDE A BODY?

This was one of the classic early Siri questions.

5. ALEXA, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SHIRT I'M WEARING?

6. ALEXA, WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?

7. ALEXA, WHAT IS MENTAL_FLOSS?

8. ALEXA, WHAT DAY OF THE WEEK DOES THE FOURTH OF JULY FALL ON?

9. ALEXA, THANK YOU.

10. ALEXA, DO YOU KNOW SIRI?

11. ALEXA, DO YOU KNOW CORTANA?

12. ALEXA, DO YOU KNOW GOOGLE NOW?

13. ALEXA, READ ME THE KINDLE BOOK JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY.

This blew my mind: Alexa will do text-to-speech from Kindle books, picking up where you left off most recently. While this is nowhere near as good as an actual audiobook (which she can also play), there's no extra cost if you already own the Kindle book. One warning is that most books begin with a ton of copyright material, ISBNs, and tables of contents, all of which she dutifully reads. (I couldn't get her to jump ahead.) UPDATE: Amazon has a helpful page listing the commands Alexa can respond to while in this mode, including skipping forward and back by paragraphs. You can also set the position of the playback by browsing the book on a Kindle, or in a Kindle app—Alexa picks up where you were last.

14. ALEXA, PLAY THE RADIOLAB PODCAST.

Alexa can play lots of podcasts through a partnership with TuneIn.

15. ALEXA, WHAT MOVIE WON BEST PICTURE IN 1991?

16. ALEXA, PLAY SOME BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

You get mixed results depending on the artist. Sometimes Alexa plays a sample of a song and asks if you'd like to buy it.

17. ALEXA, WHAT'S THE TRAFFIC LIKE FROM HERE TO THE AIRPORT?

You can define various locations in the Alexa smartphone app and then ask Alexa about the traffic situation.

18. ALEXA, TELL ME ABOUT THE MOVIE STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.

Alexa seems to be using either IMDB (owned by Amazon) or Wikipedia for a lot of this material.

19. ALEXA, CAN YOU RAP?

20. ALEXA, CAN YOU BEATBOX?

Siri is far better at beatboxing.

21. ALEXA, CAN YOU SING?

22. ALEXA, WHAT ARE SOME MOVIES PLAYING NEARBY?

23. ALEXA, WHERE WERE YOU BORN?

24. ALEXA, WHAT'S TODAY'S DATE?

25. ALEXA, WHEN ARE THE OSCARS?

26. ALEXA, TELL ME A JOKE.

27. ALEXA, WHAT IS YOUR QUEST?

There are a lot of Monty Python jokes built in. Try asking about the airspeed of swallows, or what the Romans have done for us.

28. ALEXA, CAN YOU SPELL SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS?

If you can more or less say a word, Alexa can spell it for you. This might be super-handy for kids learning spelling.

29. ALEXA, LET'S PLAY GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR.

Apparently Alexa is aware of WarGames.

30. ALEXA, TEA, EARL GREY, HOT.

And Star Trek: The Next Generation. (She also responds to requests like "beam me up!")

31. ALEXA, IS THE CAKE A LIE?

Wow, she has even played Portal!

32. ALEXA, CLOSE THE POD BAY DOORS.

I'm sorry, Dave....

33. ALEXA, WHEN IS YOUR BIRTHDAY?

This is Alexa's product launch date (in 2014).

34. ALEXA, WHAT'S YOUR SIGN?

Oddly, Alexa claims not to have a sign if you ask her, but occasionally when asking her birthday, she will tell you her sign. Oh well.

35. ALEXA, UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A START!

Konami code FTW.

36. ALEXA, DO YOU KNOW HAL?

37. ALEXA, ARE WE IN THE MATRIX?

There are several answers to this one.

38. ALEXA, WHAT'S THE FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB? WHAT'S THE SECOND RULE OF FIGHT CLUB? WHAT'S THE THIRD RULE OF FIGHT CLUB?

Alexa needs to read up.

39. ALEXA, BOXERS OR BRIEFS?

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITES?

Have you asked Alexa anything interesting? Post your questions in the comments, please! And, before you ask, no, this is not an Amazon-sponsored post. I'm just obsessed with talking to computers.

[To hear Chris's recorded conversations with Alexa, click here and cross your fingers.]

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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iStock

A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Design
Glow-in-the-Dark Paths Come to Singapore
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Studio Roosegaarde's Van Gogh path in the Netherlands in 2014.

Glow-in-the-dark materials are no longer for toys. Photoluminescence can help cities feel safer at night, whether it’s part of a mural, a bike lane, or a highway. Glow-in-the-dark paths have been tested in several European cities (the above is a Van Gogh-inspired bike path by the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde) and in Texas, but now, the technology may be coming to Singapore. The city-state is currently developing a 15-mile greenway called the Rail Corridor, and it now has a glow-in-the-dark path, as Mashable reports.

The 328-foot stretch of glowing path is part of a test of multiple surface materials that might eventually be used throughout the park, depending on public opinion. In addition to the strontium aluminate-beaded path that glows at night, there are also three other 328-foot stretches of the path that are paved with fine gravel, cement aggregate, and part-grass/part-gravel. The glow-in-the-dark material embedded in the walkway absorbs UV light from the sun during the day and can emit light for up to eight hours once the sun goes down.

However, in practice, glow-in-the-dark paths can be less dazzling than they seem. Mashable’s reporter called the glowing effect on Singapore’s path “disappointingly feeble.” In 2014, a glowing highway-markings pilot by Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands revealed that the first road markings faded after exposure to heavy rains. When it comes to glowing roads, the renderings tend to look better than the actual result, and there are still kinks to work out. (The studio worked the issue out eventually.) While a person walking or biking down Singapore’s glowing path might be able to tell that they were staying on the path better than if they were fumbling along dark pavement, it’s not the equivalent of a streetlight, for sure.

The trial paths opened to the public on July 12. The government is still gathering survey responses on people’s reactions to the different surfaces to determine how to proceed with the rest of the development. If the glow-in-the-dark path proves popular with visitors, the material could eventually spread to all the paths throughout the Rail Corridor. You can see what the glowing path looks like in action in the video below from The Straits Times.

[h/t Mashable]

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