39 Fun Questions to Ask Amazon Echo

Chris Higgins
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.]

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

L’Oréal’s New Wearable Sensor Keeps Track of Your Daily UV Exposure

L'Oréal USA
L'Oréal USA

Anyone who has ever suffered a sunburn knows that too much exposure to UV radiation is bad for your skin. But in the moment, it can be hard to tell when you’ve gotten too much sun—especially during the winter, when you might not think you need sunscreen. (In reality, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light, so you may end up getting hit with the same rays twice.) A new wearable sensor spotted by Wired aims to make understanding your sun exposure a whole lot easier.

L'Oréal’s new La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV sensor pairs with a smartphone app to alert users when they’ve had high levels of UV exposure. Developed by L'Oréal’s Tech Incubator in collaboration with Northwestern University engineering professor John Rogers and Swiss designer Yves Béhar, the sensor measures UVA rays (which are associated with skin aging and skin cancer) and uses an algorithm to calculate UVB exposure (which is associated with sunburn and skin cancer).

The UV sensor
L'Oréal USA

At only half an inch tall and 1.3 inches long, the waterproof sensor is designed to be discreetly attached to your clothes, watchband, or sunglasses. The sensor's LED detector measures UV rays as sunlight passes through a small window in the device, then transfers the data to your phone via a near-field communication (the same technology in some hotel key cards). It stores the photons from the UV rays in a capacitor, eliminating the need for a battery.

Based on this data, the My Skin Track app can tell you how close you're getting to the maximum limit of UV exposure doctors recommend per day. It also provides updates about the air quality, pollen count, and humidity wherever you are at any given moment. Based on this information, as well as data about your specific skin type and skin tone, the app's Skin Advice feature will provide customized tips for keeping your skin healthy. It also recommends specific products—La Roche-Posay items can be bought directly through the app, should you desire.

The sensors are exclusively available through Apple stores. You can order one online for $59.95.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER