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Amazon’s Alexa: Friend or Foe?

Alexa column photo copyThe first time I met Alexa she was perched seductively on a granite countertop beside an oozy Brie, some smoked oysters, and a bottle of white wine. She was belting out a selection of Helen Reddy songs I was embarrassed to admit I knew the words to but hadn’t heard since the ‘70s. Frankly, I hadn’t realized Helen Reddy was still alive.

Though mildly impressed with this new smart device, I didn’t give her much thought. I didn’t use Siri on my iPhone and I surely wasn’t going to invest in another talking personal assistant. Then Alexa showed up on my front porch one Friday in a cardboard box, a gift from my stepmother Betty.

I’ll admit it; she charmed me pretty darn quickly. As a writer, I enjoyed having a quirky librarian at my side to provide definitions and spellings and to search Wikipedia for facts and information. As a music lover, I was excited about my own personal deejay creating playlists of my favorite acts like James Brown and the Rolling Stones. On these tasks Alexa did not disappoint. Heck, she even shuffled up a fine mix of songs by Bobby Lounge, a piano player who writes salacious story songs about the South.

My infatuation began to wane, however, when I asked if she thought Donald Trump would be impeached and she refused to answer, telling me instead that he would make a decision soon on whether or not he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. Hmm… I already knew that. Alexa then claimed she couldn’t suggest cocktail recipes for a leftover bottle of cheap tequila, yet proffered up 55 recipes for a Bloody Mary—advice I most definitely did not need. When I inquired if Jared Kushner might enjoy a good spanking for his Russia dealings, she coyly replied she’d rather not answer that. Alexa was pivoting, deflecting, and feigning ignorance like the best of the Trump cabal.

Then it came to my attention that Alexa isn’t just a chanteuse singing my favorite songs or providing synonyms for words I overuse. Au contraire. Alexa nefariously listens and records what you ask of her and then reports it to her real owner—Amazon.com—where it is all stored away in some big cloud.
This kind of eavesdropping is how Alexa got entangled in an Arkansas murder case involving two men who spent a night together drinking vodka and watching college football. One ended up dead in a hot tub the next morning with a blood-alcohol content level of .32. A tragic accident said the defense attorney. Foul play claimed the prosecutor, pointing to signs like body injuries, a broken shot glass, dried blood, and indications the patio and hot tub had been hosed down before police arrived. Seems Alexa had been there the whole time.

The Arkansas prosecutor wanted access to Alexa’s recordings. Amazon said no way, citing protection under the First Amendment, and claiming voice-activated listening devices always on in one’s home raised a different set of privacy issues than computers and cell phones, which are regularly confiscated in criminal investigations. Before this interesting new Constitutional argument could be tested in the courts, the defendant gave Amazon permission to release the data Alexa had recorded. The case is still pending.

Supposedly, Alexa only records what you ask her, but who really knows. She lights up and blinks every time the ice rattles in my cocktail glass. But she’s not the only one. Google records each search you make and each email you send. Security cameras track your every move and most of the time you aren’t even aware of it. Drug stores remember what we buy and offer us coupons. Intuit helps you file your taxes. Facebook analytics combine my likes and my friends’ likes in order to promote products like shorts that won’t require me to wear underwear. I could go on, but I’ll end by reminding everyone that for the most part we readily give up our privacy for convenience. Former FBI Director James Comey said it best when he announced there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.

When I stop and think about the possibilities, it does sort of remind me of that scene from 1984 where Winston stops performing his morning calisthenics for a little daydreaming and is snapped back to reality by a sharp voice yelling out to him out from the telescreen to pay attention and touch his toes. Freedom is slavery! Big Brother is watching! Maybe crazy Kellyanne Conway isn’t so crazy after all. I mean, if a plastic cylinder named Alexa can be designed to spy on you why not a microwave oven?

 

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Observations, Photos

Occupy Rehoboth Rally

The smell of french fries and pizza permeated the air at the Occupy Wall Street movement at the bandstand at the end of Rehoboth Avenue.  I don’t quite understand it, but there’s something to it when several hundred people turn out in Rehoboth Beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon….

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Columns, Photos

Sometimes a Rose is Just a Rose

Why does it seem whenever there’s an extreme weather event or natural phenomena that evangelical right wingers fly into a tizzy and start hollering about how it’s God’s punishment for something they don’t agree with?

Seriously, who can forget the numerous claims that Hurricane Katrina was God’s retribution against the sodomites and licentiousness of New Orleans?  Seems America’s abortion policy was to blame too.  Haitians, according to televangelist Pat Robertson, brought the earthquake that racked their nation on themselves by making a deal with the Devil during the 1791 slave rebellion in exchange for getting their freedom from France.  Then there was the anti-gay activist who made headlines earlier this year by blaming all those unexplained bird deaths on the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

So when Hurricane Irene threatened, I knew it would merely be a matter of time until some kook stepped forward to say something outrageous. How could they not? This storm was so irresistibly dangerous, threatening as it did the “Left Coast” of the United States and New York City, less than a week after an earthquake!

Sure enough, Presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, bless her heart, just couldn’t resist.  At a rally in Florida she told supporters that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquake were God’s way of telling America’s politicians to rein in spending.  Naturally, her spokespeople said it was a little joke to emphasize her commitment to smaller government.

I’m skeptical. After all, Bachman claims God called her to run for Congress and then told her to sponsor a law in Minnesota defining marriage as between one woman and one man.  The girl’s got a pretty good pipeline it seems to the Almighty.

This concept of “divine retribution” is neither new, nor limited to American evangelical conservatives. Minister Louis Farrakhan asserted that Hurricane Katrina was God’s way of punishing the nation for its warmongering and racism. The governor of Tokyo said the deadly Japanese earthquake and tsunami were payback for what he termed national egoism.

Seriously, are we still living in the 18th century?

I ask this because I’ve just finished reading a book called Hurricane of Independence about the September 1775 hurricane that crashed into the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia, and then raced up the East Coast in a path very similar to Hurricane Irene, striking all the important colonial capital cities.

People back then had very little understanding of hurricanes. Most attributed big storms to divine Providence. Americans believed in a wrathful God who punished their sins and a merciful God who protected them from their enemies.  So when this hurricane struck on the eve of the Revolution, the American patriots were confused.  Why would God punish them rather than sending a storm against the fleet of British redcoats trying to rob Americans of their liberties?  Could the storm be a divine signal that their cause was not quite as favored as they believed?  Or was it merely a heavenly reminder to live virtuous lives?

Because the hurricane killed both colonists and British, the consensus seemed to shake out that God was indeed on the side of the Americans in their glorious cause for liberty and was punishing the British for their tyranny.  How about that for a rationalization?

I have to wonder what kind of meaning the evangelical right wingers would give to the fact that the wrath of Hurricane Irene seemed to pass Rehoboth by.  We had less wind and rain than expected.  Yes, the beach lost some sand, but the dunes held. At my house, we never lost power.  It blinked a couple of times while I was preparing a pork roast and some patty pan squash, but that’s all. The front porch didn’t even get wet, despite my removing the protective canvas awnings.

And get this, a rose bloomed in my garden during the middle of the hurricane. A pink rose.

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