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(cartoon of a woman reading a newspaper, and talking to an Amazon Echo Dot that has just activated) I'm pretty sure "random sound of rustling newsprint" isn't your wake word, Alexa.

Go The F— To Sleep, Alexa

Go The F— To Sleep, Alexa published on

The Amazon Echo — known to most of us as “Alexa” — has steadily been amassing a catalogue of modular skills you can add on. Among those skills, though, you won’t find a foolproof ability to tell when you’re talking to it… and when you aren’t.

We have two Echo Dots and a first-generation Echo in our house, and while the Echo can usually recognize its wake word, the Dots are a lot fussier. Our kitchen Dot in particular is pretty fussy about how it prefers to be addressed, and it can take two or three attempts to ask it to “Start a timer for 11 minutes” or “Add broccoli to the shopping list” before it responds. (Also, it may just be me, but after I’ve had to ask several times how many grams in three ounces of grated cheese, the Dot can sound pretty condescending.)

It turns out the problem goes the other way, too. Casual conversations and TV shows alike tend to wake our living room Echo, which often responds with a baffling non sequitur. It can kind of kill the mood of a great suspense moment when Alexa’s clipped tones announce out of the blue that the weather tomorrow in Vancouver, Canada will be mostly cloudy with a high of 18 and an overnight low of 12.

But we’re still doing better than the couple in Portland, Oregon, whose Echo misinterpreted several words in an unrelated conversation as commands to record the discussion and then send it to one of the husband’s employees in Seattle. (Fortunately for all concerned, the conversation apparently wasn’t to the effect of “You won’t believe the bozo I hired in Seattle.”)

And we weren’t among the people who were creeped out by the sound of their Echo devices laughing spontaneously. Here, tool, the culprit — at least according to Amazon’s explanation — was a voice recognition error. In this case, the Echo interpreted some sound or other to mean “Alexa, laugh” and then emitted what by all accounts was a grotesque parody of human laughter. Nobody who heard it has apparently been able to sleep since.

So sure, we’ve had to learn to enunciate very precisely. But all in all, things could be much worse at our end. Okay. Alexa, post cartoon. …Alexa, post cartoon. ALEXA. POST. THE DAMN. CARTOO

Man with e-reader that says "People who gave up on this book also gave up on..." and shows several other books.

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes published on

I’ve become a lot more ruthless about giving up on books than I used to be.

Time was when it would take an act of physical coercion to get me to abandon a novel, no matter how tedious or disturbing I was finding it. But somewhere along the line, I closed one too many back covers thinking, “What the hell was that?”

Maybe it was trudging my way through the back half of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that pushed me over the edge. (It was ambitious as hell, this being Philip K. Dick… but damn, it was a mess.) I do distinctly remember bailing on Tolkein’s The Silmarillion with exactly zero sense of guilt.

Since then, I’ve become a sudden-death reader, tossining books aside for reasons ranging from misogynist writing to an irritating authorial voice. I dumped one highly-recommended book after the first few paragraphs made me realize I was in for two hundred pages of ersatz Neil Gaiman without the insight or wit.

I’ve dropped out of really, really good books because I could feel the clouds of grim foreboding, and wasn’t prepared to follow the narrative down into the depths of despair. Maybe someday I’ll develop the strength of character to return to Mistry’s A Fine Balance, but sweet mother of pearl, was that ever bleak.

Then again, I was wowed by the brilliant Fall On Your Knees, where the plot basically goes “Oh, you thought what just happened was bad? It’s actually so much worse than you think.” And where a novel gives me a perspective I can’t find elsewhere, or explores an idea I’m encountering for the first time, or is otherwise funny and entertaining as hell, I’m a lot more willing to hang in there.

What it comes down to is, in a world filled with terrific books, life’s too damn short for meh.

Okay: your turn. What’s your mid-book deal-breaker? What’ll make you toss a tome, reject a read or spurn a screed? And what books have you given up on?

(woman using mobile device) I keep dialing, but I can't get through to Hachette. (Caption: #1 most-reported issue with the Amazon Fire Phone)

Number one most-reported issue with the Amazon Fire Phone

Number one most-reported issue with the Amazon Fire Phone published on 1 Comment on Number one most-reported issue with the Amazon Fire Phone

I’m not going to pretend I’m indifferent to whatever Jeff Bezos unveils at tomorrow’s announcement. There are all sorts of rumours of cool 3-D razzamatazz and drone technology a leap forward in online search.

But market dominance, technological disruption and all that stuff aside, I’d just hate to see the Kindle — yes, proprietary platform, DRM and all — drift once and for all away from its roots as an e-reader. I like the fact that my Paperwhite lets me read and do very little else; there’s no constant temptation while I’m reading to sneak away and check Twitter or play with Draw Something. (I’m looking at you, iPad.)