Know when Alexa is listening

The news is filled with stories about the Amazon Echo devices are spying on you. Well, that's overstated and ill-defined. (You've consented, so technically it's not "spying'.)

The Echo devices do indeed record what's going on in your room. They are constantly listening for the "wake word" that activates their processing. Unless you've changed it, the wake word is "Alexa." Determining if "Alexa" has been spoken takes place locally, on the device, so your recordings aren't constantly leaking out of your home.

But, if the device determines that you did say "Alexa" (even incorrectly) the recording of what you said after is sent to Amazon's servers for analysis. You didn't really think your $49 plastic computer was doing all the processing itself, did you?

In the Alexa app, you can set your Echo devices so that it plays a tone whenever it thinks the wale word has been spoken. This is well worth turning on because you will discover just how often the Echo mishears you. (Spoiler alert: very, very often.) And what you say following that tone is uploaded in a recording to Jeff Bezo's personal email.

Or maybe it's not. The problem with all of this is that Amazon, unlike Apple and even super-creepy Google, hasn't documented what they do with your recordings. You can go into the Alexa app and delete all your recordings (if you're able to figure out how) but there are no assurances that they are truly deleted. It's possible they're are only removed from the list you see. Unless and until Amazon becomes transparent about their practices, all you can do is hope and trust them.


Digital vs Print publishing in a niche market

Two years ago, Craig Conley, Fredrick Turner, and I published a book, The JINX Companion. It's a reader's guide for a magazine that is very important in the community of performing magicians.

As you might imagine, publishing books for magicians is a small and specialized business. Although there are very highly-regarded and successful publishers in the field, Conley and I both have publishing experience, so we decided to tackle the project ourselves. Additionally, among our team of four (Michael Warwick is our contributing production specialist), we have technological expertise than is atypical in both publishing and magic.

We sell The JINX Companion in three formats:


  • Print-on-Demand: Production and fulfillment is provided through CreateSpace, which as an Amazon company also provides access to that marketplace. Additionally, we sell the printed copy on our own website (via a CrateSpace storefront) and at select magic shops.
  • PDF: Order processing and delivery is using Payloadz.
  • iBooks: Apple provides order processing and delivery via the iBookstore.


We are releasing the sales and lifecycle snapshot below with the hope that it will be useful to magic publishers who are considering digital releases. (Click to view a larger version.)

JinxCompanionChartThumb


Tinderbox: rediscovering an old friend

The Map of Chicago Magic is a side-project of mine. I started it in 2008, but after a couple of years of manually editing the Google Map, I had to give up on future updates as it become impossible to find, order, and maintain the data set. (A victim of its own success, in many ways.)

For more than a year now I've been working on extracting and cleaning the data so I could re-launch the site with a new, more sustainable approach. I don't have a lot of time to dedicate to this project, but I wanted to keep it living.

Recently, I finally reached the point where I was ready to begin authoring the re-imagined site. I was lured by static generators such as Webby, Django, Blogofile, and so on. I spent a good 20 hours or so researching and trying out countless versions of those type of tools. I also looked into using Wordpress or Moveable Type. Without getting specific, the problems I ran into ranged from seemingly abandoned projects, poor documentation, and frankly overly complex and obtuse approaches to relatively simple problems.

In the end I turned to using Tinderbox from Eastgate Systems. I've been using it for over a decade for my Usable Help blog, but honestly, I hadn't touched the code behind that for more than five years. My under-the-hood skills were rusty, and lots had changed since the last time I got into the details. But starting from scratch, and with just 3 or so hours of work, I had a functional prototype up and running. And when I decided to generate a KML file for use with Google Earth,it only took about 30 minutes to add that feature.

So while the lure of "something new or trendy" is strong, sometimes it's better to dust off a familiar tool and just get to work. There's a lot to be said for commercial, documented, and stable software when it comes to actually shipping something. Thanks, Eastgate.