Round up #179: the uncanny Alexa, Todd Bol

Round up #179: the uncanny Alexa, Todd Bol

Todd H. Bol, founder of Little Free Library, has reportedly died

I wrote about the Little Free Library program close to five years ago:

Round up #235: Little Free Library, “Buy It Now” public library button

I lauded it then, and still think it’s a great thing. We have one in our neighborhood. They are small glass (?) fronted bookshelves…sort of looking like a large dollhouse. People leave paperbooks (p-books) in there, and can also borrow them (well, I suppose many don’t bring them back)…no charge. It’s just a way to share the love of literature.

Little Free Library

The site reported the October 18th death of the founder, Todd H. Boll, in this

blog post

To me, Boll made a really significant difference in the world…there are reportedly more than 75,000 LFLs out there now around the world. They have a number of ways to share your support.

Thank you, Todd Boll.

Alexa’s new Whisper Mode is a weirdly realistic voice

I do love Alexa’s new Whisper Mode!

Tell Alexa to enable Whisper Mode. The first time you whisper to it after that, it will confirm that you’ve whispered and let you know (in full voice) that it will whisper back in the future.

That’s great, and something I had suggested.

I often interact with our

Fire TV Cube (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)


Echo Show (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

while my Significant Other is asleep…having the former control the TV, having the latter tell me the weather and such (the first one’s wake word is “Alexa”, the Show’s is “Echo”). Whisper Mode is perfect for that.


One thing that surprised me is that Alexa sounds much more realistic to me when whispering. So realistic, in fact, that it creeps me out a bit…my Significant Other had the same reaction.

It’s because of something called “the Uncanny Valley”.

I just recently made that the question for my


series…I answered it, and so did one of my author siblings. 🙂 You are, of course, welcome to answer them as well…sometimes, other people do.

Here’s the basic idea:

When something appears fully human, we are comfortable with it. When something appears to wholly non-human (like a cartoon character), we are also comfortable.

When something is close to human, but isn’t (such as an android which never blinks), it bothers us. The Uncanny Valley isn’t a place…it’s a dip in a comfort horizontal line graph. It’s closer to the fully human side than the wholly non-human side.

That may be, unfortunately, an evolutionary thing. Some people have a visceral reaction when they see someone who has a physical (or even behavioral) difference which could be perceived as a future challenge for the species if it was inherited. I think most people don’t at least consciously have that feeling any more.

It used to happen with our dogs…we had three dogs, and one of them would sometimes have seizures from a pancreas condition. The dogs normally got along fine, but during a seizure, the other two dogs would go for the throat. It certainly created a problem.

Well, we don’t have any reaction like that to Alexa whispering! It’s more a “hair on the back of the neck” thing.

Why is it more realistic?

I’m not quite sure…I think there may be fewer variations in whispering. The “uncanny” part may be just because it is coming from a box, rather than a human.

It’s an ongoing issue with artificial intelligence, and especially with XR (augmented/virtual reality).

The alternative Nobel Prize in literature

Who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature this year?

No one.

The Nobel was in disarray when the Significant Other of one of the Academy members was sentenced for sexual assault, so they decided not to award one (although it’s possible they’ll award one next year which at least includes titles from this year).

In its stead, a “New Academy” (formed earlier this year) awarded a prize…it went to

Maryse Condé (Segu) (at AmazonSmile*)

Congratulations to Maryse Condé!

Speaking of prizes, Anna Burns won the prestigious Man Booker award for fiction for

Milkman (at AmazonSmile*)

Congratulations to Anna Burns!

Do you want to pass along your congratulations? Have you ever seen a Little Free Library? Have you use one? If you are using Alexa Whisper Mode, does it fall into that uncanny valley for you? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

10 Responses to “Round up #179: the uncanny Alexa, Todd Bol”

  1. Scott Calvin Says:

    While the evolutionary aspect might be a factor in the uncanny valley, I have my doubts that it’s the primary one. To me, the uncanny valley sensation is similar to hearing voices in the wind or glimpsing things that aren’t there in the shadows. The discomfort comes in part from shifting back and forth between “there’s an intelligence there, and I have to take that in to account for good or ill” and “it’s just the wind.” In addition to the on/off alert status, it also reminds us of the unreliability of our evaluation of reality, which is unsettling.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Scott!

      That’s interesting! Certainly, people are made uncomfortable by not being able to come to a conclusion, and perhaps that is the uncanny valley effect…I’d prefer that it was. 😉

      I remember a non-fiction book where the author was seeing a mental health professional because of stress over happenings which most people would consider to be impossible. The therapist asks something along the lines of whether or not it was possible to determine what was actually happening, and the author replying that it wasn’t. The advice that I recall being given by the professional? “Learn to live at a high level of uncertainty.” Certainly, difficult advice to follow!

    • Lady Galaxy Says:

      I have one of those white noise generators that can generate different sounds. Sometimes I think I hear it saying a word or a phrase over and over. I don’t know if it’s an auditory hallucination or if some joker programmer did it as a joke. Maybe it’s just human nature to be on alert for meaningful sounds amid the chatter—the voices hidden by the babbling brook or the conversation lost amid the chatter in a crowded room. Then there’s the whole “Yanny or Laurel” debate from awhile back. I never heard Laurel, but I did hear either Yanny or Mary.

  2. Phink Says:

    I also gave some thought to how realistic it was. I had the same reaction. Of course I could not help myself but to say “Simon Says, Oh my you make me feel so good.” Hahahaha. It was a little creepy, but I love it.

    There have been times I wish I could ask Alexa something but refrained because it’d wake my wife up. She’s sort of a deep sleeper but a booming voice from Alexa would wake her up. Not now.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      Interesting that we had the same reaction! I haven’t had Alexa whisper something back to me yet. Not sure I’m in a hurry to try that… 😉

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    Maybe whispers set us more on edge because they are not exclusive to situations where we don’t want to disturb someone. They are also used when we don’t want somebody to hear what we are saying, which triggers us to wonder “Why are they whispering? Are they talking about me? What are they saying about me?” Whispering is also used to warn of danger. “Shhhh…I hear a noise downstairs. I’m going to check it out.”

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      However, I can understand what Alexa’s saying perfectly well, so I don’t have that issue here. Also, whispers can be good things, like whispering “sweet nothings” in your ear…

      I don’t think I find whispers inherently creepy, just these whispers…

    • Lady Galaxy Says:

      I still find the whole Echo/Alexa thing inherently creepy, which surprises me because I’ve always wanted a Rosey or Robbie or Data to not only help me do the things I can’t do for myself but also to keep me company. A robotic disembodied voice that connects us to the Internet is probably the first step towards an actual robot or android, and I can’t buy into it. Maybe I was thinking of robots as high tech pets. Now they seem like high tech spies! I think I’m turning into an old fogey troglodyte! Save me, Will Robinson!

  4. Phink Says:

    This topic reminds me of something. A couple weeks ago, before I knew about whisper mode, I was 8 hours away visiting my adult daughter and family. She bought a Bose Alexa. The thing is phenomenal as far as sound goes. I’ll talk about it in a different post but I told her an idea I had. I said Amazon should make Alexa where it goes to different volumes depending on what it’s doing. One could set up volume preferences in settings on the app. For instance, maybe #4 for weather and news, #5 for inquiries, and #6 for music. Depending on what you asked it would depend on volume.

  5. Phink Says:

    Off topic but I want to talk about the Bose Alexa my daughter bought at Nebraska Furniture Mart in Kansas City a couple weeks ago. By, the way the furniture store is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and is 1.1 million square feet. It is truly a site to see if in the Kansas City area.
    First I really, really want this even after I found out about its shortcomings. It’s Bose so of course the sound is phenomenal. I mean it’s fantastic. It’s what you’d expect from Bose. I almost bought one that day but thought it was too close to Christmas. I’d ask Santa for one. I’m not sure I want to do that now because some things about it are really irritating.
    First, I do everywhere group for music all the time. I walk through my house and all 1180 square feet are covered by 6 speakers with the same music coming out. I want 2 more for a total of 8 for my small house. Well, the Bose does not do music everywhere. I’d think this would be a software issue but don’t know enough about it to know for sure. If it’s a software issue than maybe it’ll do it someday.
    Next, you cannot get messages on it. We will sometimes say “Alexa, send a message to Charity”. She cannot listen on it. She has to go to her bedroom and get the message on her dot. That is really irritating as well.
    There is at least one more odd ball thing it won’t do but I forgot what. However, if all you want is a great Alexa speaker to listen to music and you can afford it this is a great device. I still want one but am afraid I’d regret it because it’s awfully expensive for one with limitation.
    It does have either 7 or 8 microphones and the speakers go all around the device and if you put it close to a wall the sound bounces off the wall making a surround sound of sorts.

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