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Echo Questions With Responses

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.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
gutenberg.org
gutenberg.org

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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