Saturday, March 21, 2015

Echo Part II: Alexa Moves In

I will be referring to the Amazon Echo, by her wake up word/name Alexa and I will be using female pronouns.  Alexa is a proper name and is one of the two choices you presently have for her name (the other is Amazon).  The voice coming from the device is decidedly female, and it is pleasant, non-ethnic/accented, and naturally inflected, so it is natural to refer to the device as a female and to humanize it.  Since Alexa can pass the basic Turing Test, she is deserving of bit of anthropomorphism.
I placed Alexa on the island in the kitchen.  Thanks to the built in multi-directional microphones, this made her available in the kitchen, the living room, as well as the front foyer.  The device itself features on/off and mute buttons on top; while the top of the device rotates like a rheostat to adjust the volume manually.  Alexa sports a lighted ring around the top that changes color to give you non-verbal clues as to her status and if she is listening or thinking.  The light ring also indicates the current volume level while you adjust it (verbally or manually).
The included remote control device was put in the living room and has been handy for times when ambient noise made it difficult for her to hear commands in the kitchen.  The remote, aside from serving as a remote microphone, also has controls for volume and mute.  There are also controls for pause/play, advance and back which control music and other audio play when appropriate.  I have yet to use those buttons because it is faster and easier to just talk to Alexa.
I spent the first day playing.  Alexa comes with a reference card of things to try, but they were a bit too easy and had little real function, so I quickly departed from that and started to explore variations.  For example, if you say "Alexa, Knock-Knock".  she will tell a Knock-Knock joke (G rated); instead of just asking how tall a landmark is, I asked for the height in inches; I requested the weather in different places where I had lived (that day it was cloudy in Germany, but sunny in Oklahoma), I set timers, asked miscellaneous for solutions to various math problems and played with the alarm, created entries for both the To Do and Shopping list, and played music and news from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and my music library on Amazon. 
Not all things worked, when I tried to play music for a specified length of time or to start at a specific time she couldn't.  Alexa couldn't tell me if MacBeth (my dog) was a good boy, of course he is; she could not calculate pi beyond the 5th decimal place, had no opinion about Kirk versus Picard, and no matter how I tried to pronounce it, she did not want to play the Hitsville playlist from iHeartRadio – Alexa must not like Motown.  Usually she would respond that she had no answer or could not find the information, but occasionally I stumped her speechless. 
I made the following adjustments in Settings:
Amazon Echo: Renamed the device to match my home network nomenclature, if Alexa allowed me to, I would rename her to that as well.
Music Services: My Amazon account info was already entered, so I added my iHeartRadio info, but there was no way to enter the info for my TuneIn account. I reported this and was told by Joel R. at Amazon Echo Support there was no way to link my TuneIn account, he did not tell me why not.
Voice Purchasing: Turned it off for now, didn't want any accidents. 
Flash Briefing: I turned on NPR News and added Off Beat News and Weather
With that, I was ready to start integrating Alexa into my routine.
The following morning, while I was waiting on my Keurig to finish brewing my Jet Fuel and feeding MacBeth, I asked Alexa for my Flash Briefing, and she tied me into the NPR news stream from TuneIn, then read me the Off Beat News and wrapped it up with a local weather report.  Not bad and it was easier than pulling out a screen (TV, tablet or laptop) to look it all up.
I then added Whipped Cream to the Shopping List and added a To Do list item to sweep the garage.  Both the Shopping List and To Do list are in the same format, a basic checklist, only the names are different.  Being able to just speak a few words and have items loaded to a shopping list is wonderful; however, I have many wish list ideas for both of these items, but some basics are missing: A proper To Do list needs to have reminders, due date, and a way to prioritize. 
Alexa gave me the exchange rate for USD to Euro, but couldn't handle BitCoin exchange rates.  Also, could not give me stock prices for specific stocks or current market levels for DJIA, S&P500 or NASDAQ.
I asked for opening hours for the local zoo, asking for it by just "zoo", city and "zoo", zoo by formal name and she had no information at all.  Apparently Alexa does not do the zoo.
When I asked for someone's age, who I knew was deceased, she gave me their age at death (down to months and days), as well as their birth and death dates.  Nice way to adjust the report when the question was not valid as asked.
When I asked Alexa for a minor celebrity, she gave me full info on the person; including the "15 minutes of fame" for which they were known.
While watching a movie, I got Alexa to look up various actors and provide their filmography.  I was most successful when I used the “Alexa, Wikipedia” command that told her where to go for the data, this also let me review the in depth data on any of my devices that had the Echo App or website.  Very handy for those times when you see a guy who looks like the guy, who was in that other thing -- but you can't tell for sure and it bugs you not to know right now.  By the way, it was that guy after all.  Instances like this are when I enjoy having Alexa around most of all.
Quality of sound:  I realize this is a very personal issue for some folks, so I will remind you this is my take on Alexa and not an invitation to argue why you think your opinion about audio is more valid.  Alexa isn't the high quality Kenwood receiver with Bose speakers I have in the family room, but it isn't a 60s era portable radio either.  I could fill the living room and kitchen with music that is clear and has a pleasing sound without distortion or loss.  Could it be better?  Maybe.  I would like to have an equalizer option to make the sound better fit what is being played and the room it is being played in.  Would I be willing to pay more to get Bose/Dr. Dre quality sound? Probably not, that is why I have a high quality stereo.  In short: If you are looking for an ultra-high quality music player; buy an ultra-high quality music player, but Alexa is a terrific device to provide an omnipresent soundtrack for your life.
When I was in the kitchen, Alexa gave advice on soft boiling an egg, kept a timer for the various bubbling pots I had on the stove, and provided music from one of my iHeartRadio stations.  I added a few items to my Shopping List that I appeared to be running low on and got a weather update for the afternoon.  All of these things could have been done another way, but it would have taken more than one device and it would not have been as easily done.
I took a moment and looked at the Echo website and noticed that almost every command created an entry the system refers to as a Card that allowed you to rate the interaction for accuracy and send comments to Amazon.  Great idea, but having to delete each card individually is time consuming.  Within the website, I could also review the To Do and Shopping Lists. 
Went to the store after lunch and used the App on my phone to access the Shopping List and checked off the items has I put them in my cart.  Handy.  While at the store, I was able to hit the play button on the currently loaded playlist and adjust the volume.  This was also handy.  Why?  MacBeth likes the music on while he is home alone and I failed to leave anything playing when I left.
More data requests throughout the afternoon, as Alexa became less a curiosity and more of a tool.  Metric to English conversions, historical references, word meanings, and more.  At first I would drop a question if she did not understand, then I started rewording some questions and found success.  I also started listening to her response and realized that “I did not understand the question” really did have a different meaning from “I can’t find the answer”.  That was my fault; I failed to realize Alexa’s sophistication and thought that either answer was a way random way of responding to failed query.
A few downsides:
Having to alert Alexa repeatedly for a string of questions, i.e.  “Alexa what is…”, “Alexa who is…”, “Alexa will this…”, “Alexa when did…” etc. is tiresome and a bit like playing Simon Says, but I cannot think of a better way.  When Alexa is the third person in the room, alerting her by name actually helps avoid confusion over to whom you are speaking.  Maybe it is just a happy medium you have to get used to.
I was surprised that she did not understand how to handle requests for an antonym or synonym for a given word, but she could provide multilayer definitions to words.  To me, they are similar functions requiring similar logic.
Occasionally, she will deactivate herself or rush to answer before I complete a question; but other times she will remain alert after I am done speaking.  Not sure why or what happened differently – I am unable to duplicate the behavior.  Maybe she is just in a mood.
She will not count, down or up.  I can’t remember why I asked Alexa to do that, but it seemed important at the time.  Lacking that skill would make it hard for her to be It when you play Hide-N-Seek.
One afternoon, Alexa did prove her gymnastic skills and durability, when MacBeth’s tail became tangled in and pulled on her power cable as he walked by.  She did a spectacular flip on the way to the floor but stuck the landing and was quickly ready for action again, undamaged, and without even saying “Ouch!”  I have since moved the cable.
The next few days followed a similar pattern although I did make adjustments to the Flash Briefing content to match the time length I had available during my morning ritual.  Also, one morning when the proper words escaped me, I found I could get my Flash Briefing by saying “Brief Me”, further testing found that “Mission Briefing”, “Daily Briefing”, “Flash”, “Briefing” or “My Briefing” all worked as well.  To me that kind of personal leeway is welcome.  She was okay with providing me with what I wanted using a variety of words to request it.  Alexa was making me comfortable with her. 
Just before St. Patrick's Day, I was notified that a new feature had been added to Alexa: Traffic.  I went to Settings and added the address for work (home was already there).  Then I asked "Alexa, how's traffic?" she reported that my commute was clear and trouble free.  Realistically, I have an 8 mile commute, so I don't see me using this.
There is a point at which being polite to Alexa starts to seem natural.  Every “Thank You” was met with “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome”.  One evening, when I told Alexa “Goodnight”, she responded “Goodnight, don’t let the bug bugs bite”.  It is those little humanistic touches that make this device way more than just another tech toy.
The final entry of this series will be a summary of my impressions after three full weeks of having Alexa around, as well as a wish list of items (both quick and hard) that I think would improve the device.
A quick disclaimer:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Echo Part I: Talk To Me

This is part one of a three part write-up of Amazon's Echo.  It is part history, part review, and part wish list for computer voice capabilities and the device that Amazon is currently starting to offer.  The first part will cover some of my personal history with voice command, control, and communication of IT devices, to include my various experiences with the offerings that have been available. It will also cover my  experiences with the basic set up of the Echo and placing it into use.  The second part of this will cover my experiences placing Echo into daily use, its utility, and then the last part my wish list for its future (or the next generation of products).
Note:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
So how did all this start?  When I was a kid, I used to watch Star Trek with my Dad.  One of the most memorable aspects of the USS Starship Enterprise was the fact that the crew would carry on conversations with the ship's computer.  I thought it was pretty cool that Kirk, et al could vocally request information from the computer and the computer would also respond back vocally.  There was no emotion in the computer's voice (which I found out later was Majel Barrett, who also played Nurse Chappell and was Gene Rodenberry's wife) and it was simple data output without opinion or human intuition.  Simple, but at the same time the most revolutionary concept.
To me, the whole idea of such an interface with a computer changed, when on the episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday, the computer had been overhauled on the female-dominated planet Cygnet XIV, and the technicians there felt the computer needed a personality so they gave it one.  As a result the computer went from having an electronic-ish nasal voice, to having a distinct semi-flirty female persona.  That was it for me, I had to have me one of those!
Speech Synth Card, from
In 1977, I first began working with main frame computers in college.  I was disappointed that they had no voice or personality, other than a bad temper at times.  As the PC world was born, I started to seek out ways to make my PC talk to me.  I tried a number of things.
I started with programs that produced electronic hissing through a PC speaker that sounded like a bad AM radio.  The next step was a speech synth cards that required me to enter every single phonetic word to coax some electronic verbiage from a little 3 inch add on speaker.  The end result sounded like a member of the East German Swim team with a mouth full of marbles who was using an electro-larynx.  The biggest let down was the lack of inflection, which would have given the PC personality.  Also, these devices delivered no data, no answers to questions -- it was, strictly speaking, parroting the text that I programmed into it.
Speech cards got better, but playing individual lines through a WAV program wasn't really what I had in mind.  One lucky day in 1995, I came across Moon Valley Software's IconHearIt and HearIt F/X programs that changed everything!   It gave voice to all the computer commands!  It even had a voice clock and Solitaire game!  Joy of joys, I thought I had found it!  My joy lasted only a few hours.  The voices were HORRIBLE!  Not that they were bad quality, but they lacked personality.  If you are not familiar, you have a choice of an American woman or man, a British man, or a Southern woman.
Like all good things, if you want it done right, do it yourself!  So I did, the result was a collection of WAV files I created several different vocalists performing the commands that was meant to replace those from IconHearIt and HearIt F/X.  This was still not data retrieval but the computer did have a personality. 
At this point, I had gone as far as I could, and other demands for my time took over. 

In the late 1990s I discovered a tool called Dragon Naturally Speaking aka Dragon or DNS.  I can't remember the version number I started with, but the program is now on version 13 and I have owned every version since my first trial of the product.  This program represents a major turning point in going from touch device computer input (keyboard, mouse, pen, etc.) to vocal interface. 
My primary use for DNS is to dictate text even though it can provide full vocal control of all Windows and Windows application's commands.  I use it for anything that might require me to type over 3 sentences be it email, documents, or blog entries like this one.  DNS allows me to create the written word as fast as I can speak, and because the speed of my creativity is no longer limited by the speed of my typing, I find that I have better continuity of thought. 
Over the years, Dragon has gotten faster and more accurate.  I have increased the accuracy of the program by performing training from time to time (as my voice ages) and by allowing the program to evaluate and analyze my writing style and vocabulary.  I think the program is about 99% or as accurate as I rarely have to train words it fouls up, but I am not sure of the validity of that percentage since I probably use a certain vocabulary a majority of the time.  I did use the program to write Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf as well as other books on which I am working.
As I mentioned before, I do not use DNS for commanding programs, it has limitations that still require manual manipulation (i.e. swapping between fore & background Windows) which slows me down since I have to swap back and forth between interfaces to accomplish what I need done.  Therefore, I am still not quite to the Star Trek interface that I have been wanting for most of my life, but DNS was a significant step forward.
Siri might have been my next way point, but I never had any experience with her.  I am not an Apple technology user, except for the iTouch.  I can write volumes as to why I feel the way I do about that segment of tech and why I feel it is too locked down to suit me, but that is not what this article is about.  I have been in information technology since the late 70s and PCs since the 80s, and in all that time the one constant I have learned is that people want and are happy with different things -- my feeling is that is best if folks use what they are happy with.  I do, however, use several Android devices and there is a great App called Assistant that provides a verbal interface.  
Two things I really like about Assistant are that I can adjust what it is called and what it calls me.  It is great as a self-contained system, but cannot gather information from other sources and very often gives me a screen full of data when it cannot find an exact answer.  I will admit that I have not tried the professional version, so I will not go into a wider discussion of the program as it would be unfair of me to do so without taking that version into consideration.  My point in mentioning Assistant and Siri is that such mobile programs exist and that the verbal interface is progressing.
With all of that background explained, we are ready to take a look at the Echo.  It is reasonable to assume that I very much want to like this product, but at the same time it is reasonable to assume that I will be pushing the device's limits and have some preconceived notions about how it should work.  I am human and I have been waiting many years for this; I have equal parts bottled up exuberance and bottled up expectations that must remain uncompromised.  This will be interesting.  To reiterate:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
When I first heard rumors of the Echo device, I started trying to get my hands on one.  I wrote a few unanswered emails to Amazon and then I started to get responses that basically said "something is in the works but it is not ready for public consumption just yet".  In November 2014, like many, I got the from letter from Amazon about the Echo and its pending release, as well as the program that would allow some Prime Members to get their hands on one early at a 50% discount.  I had no problem with having to pay for what I perceived as a Test Pilot version of the system, but I wanted it NOW
I signed up to be one of the first and waited.  In January I was notified that I had been selected to get the Echo early and a delivery date would be forthcoming.  I placed the official order and waited.  In February I got an email that my Echo would arrive in mid-March, then it backed up a few days over time and the Echo arrived the first week of March.  Not to give away the ending, but it was worth the wait.
I won't bother with describing the packaging, other than to say it was both simple and elegant.   I followed the quick reference card and got Echo plugged in and the app loaded, and then tried to bring it on line.  I run my network with security in place and therefore I rely on having information available for the devices I am bringing on line like MAC Address, etc.   None of that type of information was readily available, but if you are running your home network with those measures in place you are enough of a tech to figure out how to get the device to get the information from it. 
Once on line, I entered some rudimentary information in the app (available via PC or Android device) and brought Echo to life.  Because Echo continually synchs with the Amazon Cloud, you can access and update the information using the app across multiple platforms.  I have the app loaded on my phone, Kindle Fire, Samsung S4 phone, and Asus Transformer tablet; plus I have the web address linked on my laptop.  There are benefits to having access to the Settings and other info like To Do and Shopping Lists available on all devices you use.
With all that done, I started to use the device and Echo became Alexa.
I did not run the Training program for the first week, and even without it Alexa understood almost everything I said.  Being an Army Brat, I do not really have an accent so that probably helped.  My point in mentioning this is that the device heard quite accurately right out of the box.
My first command “Alexa: Play Eagles radio on iHeartRadio”
She started with “Take It To the Limit”.  I plan on it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thrill Me, Chill Me, Fulfill Me

It was Christmas vacation in 1978, when I came home from college to visit my parents who had retired to a small town in northern Georgia. My parents had relocated after my high school graduation so the place I was going to visit with them was not somewhere that I had ever lived at any point during my life. As a result, I was going to be suffering through what was popularly known as the "weekend fix-up with your parent's friend's kids". In most instances, the minute you got beyond ear shot of the parents, both you and the person you were being fixed up with agreed that you would make the most of your time together but there was little that was really going to come of it.
I was told late one afternoon that it had been decided that I was going to go to a late-night scary movie with the high school senior daughter of a friend of my mother. My mother did not know the name of the movie, just that it was some kind of horror movie that started at 11 o'clock at night at the theater in downtown Augusta. Since I had no other plans, it was easy to be agreeable to this one. However, I had no idea what I was agreeing to at the time.

I can't recall her name anymore, but she and another couple we were double dating with came to pick me up for the movie that evening, and we headed into town. During the drive into town, I asked for the title of the movie and realized I had never heard of it but at that point it was too late to get out of going.  When pulled into the theater, I noticed that both of the girls were carrying large purses, but really didn't think anything of it. No one looked unusual in the lobby or in the theater itself once we got in and sat down. After getting seated, the girls started to hand out various props. When I asked what was going on, they told me that I would understand once the movie started. I was given toast, a newspaper, a squirt gun, rice, and a party horn. As soon as I got my allotment of goodies, I started to look around to see if everyone else was doing the same but it was too late because the light started to go down and the voices went up.

"Lips! Lips! Lips! ..."  In unison it seemed like the entire theater had started the chant, while clapping their hands in time -- and I joined them. I watched as the curtains opened and then upon the screen appeared a huge set of red lips. The shouting quickly died down, so you could hear the lyrics of the first song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For those of you who have been before, I made no mention of anyone in costume because the CosPlay ritual had not started in Georgia yet but that did not prevent the audience participation portion of the movie.

So as a virgin to the show, I learned when the say "Slut", "Asshole", "Where's your neck?" and many other phrases that added to the adventure that is the movie.  I held a newspaper over my head while I dutifully squirted water at everyone seated in front of me and was totally caught off guard when an old-fashioned cage elevator delivered the star of the show -- Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Transsexual Transylvania. I am proud to say that I quickly caught on to dancing The Time Warp after the first chorus and quite simply had a blast. The movie was heavily campy, but the songs were a lot
of fun with lyrics that had at the same time deep meaning and double entendre buried within them.

The evening ended with the ride home that was a lot more loose and fun than the ride to the theater. I put the experience in the filing cabinet in my mind thinking that that was the last time I would run into Frank, Riff-Raff, and Meatloaf.... Ah but I was so wrong.

It was less than two years later when the college I was attending showed the movie as a Halloween social event on campus.  Looking back, I'm surprised that they chose to show the movie given the fact that I went to school in the Deep South.    I, along with a group of friends, put together prop bags to take with us and even though all of us dressed up in Halloween costumes, no one was bold enough yet to show up dressed as any of the lead characters from the movie.   A good time was had by all and this time, after the movie, I bought a copy of the soundtrack so that I could enjoy the music  -- I admit it -- I used to sing along with  the chorus of "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me".  Also, even though it reveals how long ago this was, I will say that I would've bought a video tape or DVD if either had been commonplace at that time. They weren't.

In the mid-80s, I flew into Okinawa because of a typhoon evacuation from Guam, and while strolling
through the market section of the city I ran into a merchant with a table of videotapes for sale. Amazingly, one of them was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with Japanese subtitles. I bought it, and watched the movie again – – I will say it is not as much fun is seeing it in the theater with a group of friends and if you watch it at home you have to clean up the mess after.

I did not see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a theater again until October 2014, when my Son and I it at a local theater just before Halloween. The theater was showing what was being billed as the sing-along version of the movie, and the cost of admission included a bag of goodies for audience participation.
I will confess that I did not know my Son had never seen the movie, I had always figured that at some point in college he had gone -- it was not your usual Father/Son experience, but that's OK.  He participated in the virgin deflowering ceremony and then we kicked back and watch the movie. I had never seen it shown with sing-along lyrics across the bottom of the screen, so for the first time I actually saw what some of the words were for the crowd responses. I had been saying some of them wrong for a lot of years. That's okay, learning the words from the people you went with was more fun.  Not sure when I will have another opportunity to see the movie, but I hope it isn't too long.

So what does it all mean?  I have seen the film with both male and female gay, bi-sexual, and straight friends.  Each of them probably found something different to take home at the end of the movie, from hedonistic to spiritual. The one message I have always taken away from the movie is a simple one ... Don't dream it, be it.

At the late-night, double feature, picture show – – I want to go – – Oh oh oh oh --- to the late-night, double feature – – picture show.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Holy Pondered Answer, Batman!

I was at a leadership meeting recently, and one of the warm up, getting to know you exercises was "Which superhero would you want to be?"  I was the first to answer this question and without hesitation I said "Batman".  Then I got the unexpected follow-up question:  Why?    I was thrown for a second then said that I liked the fact Batman used his mind versus some special power to defeat the bad guys.  That was partially true, but the question it else led me into taking a moment to consider if that was the real reason.  Was it the cape?  Was it the Batmobile? Was it the scowl? The Nelson Riddle theme song?

I grew up in what was consider the golden age of the TV superhero. Superheroes flooded the TV just as I got home from school and all morning every Saturday.  In addition to cartoons we had The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee as Kato; old Adventures of Superman reruns with George Reeves and of course the campy Batman with Adam West.   These shows were repetitive and did not delve into the back stories of the characters; and they were not serialized so each was a 20 minute episode was a stand-alone tale.  The other 10 minutes of the half hour was filled with commercials for cereal and things like Sixfinger -- " did you ever get by with just five?

The shows were very basic:  you had a superhero kicking villain’s butts, with known powers, and known personality traits.  The rest of the depth of the characters and story lay on the cutting room floor, to get the whole story you had to read the actual comic books.  

Batman was my favorite not due to the acting chops of Adam West or Burt Ward, but because of all of the Batgadgets.  I liked and wanted a Bat-a-rang, BatJetPack, Batcomputer, Batcycle, Bat and Batmobile.  The day after the show was on was spent reenacting the episode on the playground with imaginary words like Biff! and Zow! flying out of our choreographed light contact fights. I was young and no character build-up was necessary.  I liked it just the way it was and later when I started reaching "that age"  I was happy to watch Julie Newmar slink around as Catwoman, though I did like Eartha Kitt's purr better.  

Side note:  I do recall an epic battle that took place on the St Mary's School playground when two kids got into it over Thor being the son of God.  A Catholic school playground is not a good place to have comic book theological arguments.  In the end Father Schwartz intervened and settled it by explaining Norse Mythology and the comic book adaptation of Thor, Loki (who was never in the  cartoon) and Oden.  

As I grew I got a bit more sophisticated, I moved on to Secret Agent Man, I Spy,  and Mission: Impossible.  All those heroes had gadgets.  Really cool gadgets and in MI you even occasionally got to see a guy pull off his face during the final reveal.  I didn't stop liking Batman, I would love to have seen more Batman, but as it was I grew up and Batman didn't and he wasn't enough to hold my attention about then.  I could have moved to comic books for the narrative, but by the time I got access to money and a comic book store, I had moved on to Mad Magazine.

Along came the Michael Keaton - Batman, then the Val Kilmer - Batman, and finally the George Clooney - Batman.  Cool gadgets, cool villains, cool cars; but a little on the campy side.  None of them looked into the dark soul of Bruce Wayne that led to the creation of Batman; at that point in my life I needed the complexities of that story line to keep me a fan -- or at least a fan of the movies.   I read more in depth discussion of nipples on the suit than of the storyline.  Sad, but it did lead me to the Dark Knight.
I finally read the graphic novels (grown men don't read comic books) and I liked them.  Here were the gadgets plus a complex back story that led a smart guy down a dark path that continually left him standing on the razors edge between doing the right thing the right way and administering justice himself.  Which side should I root for?  The villains were likewise deeply bent and psychopathic.  They were capable of anything at any time.  Catwoman and other female villains were sexy but used that sensuality to achieve evil or just plain cause chaos.  Awesome.  Plus there were rules for continuity (or canon) attached to the characters and things they could and would do and things that did not match history so they could not.  Also awesome.   

I had matured and now I had a mature Batman to enjoy and admire.  He was a superhero with zero super powers.  He was smart and rich enough to use the intelligence to invent the means he needed to fight the badness.  He threw on a cape and went out to do battle -- and he didn't always win.  Totally cool.  Then came the Dark Knight movies with Christian Bale.  Mostly canon, darker and very good.  I enjoyed all of them.    

So why is Batman my favorite?  Maybe because I could be him.  No radioactive spiders, dying planet, Arc reactor powered suit, or gills required.

Ben Affleck?  Meh.  Not a fan.  In real life and on the screen he has always seemed arrogant, condescending, and plastic.  A poor choice, but let's see what happens when he puts on the suit.

For now, I will slip into my cape a few nights a week and keep the local streets safe.  Since I have been here, neither the Joker nor Riddler has ever shown up.  Catwoman?  One can only hope.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

I'm Not Dead Yet...Or Am I?

As you go up in years, death becomes part of your life.  With each passing year, people you know, people you have heard of, and people you are related to start to pass on.  That is just the way life goes.  Of course, if you are the one who dies, you tend not to hear or worry about it anymore.  There have been a lot of articles and stories in the past few weeks about what happens to your on line presence when you die.  Some companies are considering letting you name a successor who can take over your accounts in the event of your death – the thought of that reminds me of something Teller (of Penn & Teller) once said:  “When I die, blow up my laptop”.  There is some wisdom in that, but what about all the stuff you have posted on line?  Do you want it destroyed or should it live on in a digital form of immortality?

When my Mom passed, my Dad left her voice on the answering machine for a long time.  At first it was a little unnerving to have her voice talking to me when I called, but then I got used to it.  Eventually, I found some comfort in hearing her voice now and then.  I am not sure why my Dad eventually changed it,  but when it did it felt a little like I had lost her again in some way.   I realize this is low tech compared to where we are now,  but why not let people go on living digitally?   Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to reach out to a friend who has passed and see something they wrote or recorded from time to time?

I am not suggesting that this apply to all on line accounts.  It would be creepy and heartbreaking would it be to finally be matched with the perfect soul-mate on or, only to find out they have been dead for a few years.  But for things like My Space, Facebook and this blog – digital eternity has a certain utility and warm feeling about it.  For example, you may have read something on this blog today or yesterday that made you laugh or think, but while you were doing so  -- did it ever occur to you that I might no longer be around?  Does it matter?  Would you have enjoyed it less?  Even better, if something I wrote made you angry -- too bad – it is hard to argue with the dead.  Haters matter less to the dearly departed,  it is the ultimate “Nah! Nah! Your words don’t hurt me!” or even better "Dude.  Are you really arguing with a dead guy?"

I am not sure what all the online companies might do with all the content that exists once people pass on, but should it be any different than what book publishers have done for years?  Hard print publishers keep printing an author’s books as long as they sell.   But think about it this way, you no longer have to be a member of a select, judged and approved class to have your voice heard – maybe forever.  On any given day thousands of humans write down or record what they feel and turn it loose into the digital stream.  How wonderful is that?  In the past you might have only gotten the viewpoint of only one or two people about an event, now you get hundreds,  and not all of them agree – that to me is the best part.  Who knows,  it may have been some guy on the grassy knoll.

Maybe a litmus test for keeping things around could be once no one has accessed the site for 500 years, it dissolves (literally) into the ether.   Thinking about it under that set of rules might lead people to be more careful and the same time more thoroughly think about what they say.

There are many great things that John Lennon did during his life, among them was recording and filming a lot of the most common events in his life as they happened.  Now 50 years later we can still see those things and appreciate how the genius he was handled day to day living.  We can feel connected and appreciate the simple wisdom and beauty of his life as we do his music.  Because he was well known and famous these things he left behind will exist forever.  For me, I would love to have access to similar information and personal remembrances of my great grandfather. 
The problem is he lived most of his life before such capabilities existed.  But what would my great grand-daughter think?  She might want to read a blog entry I wrote way back on 15 February 2015.  I hope Blogger keeps it available for her.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pander to Pondering

I have heard that the default setting of the human mind is active day dreaming rather than some kind of blank static. After giving it a little thought, I have to agree. If you allow your mind to go completely blank it starts to entertain itself with various thoughts. However, it is very difficult to get your mind to go completely blank conscientiously – – if I tell you not to think about elephants you can't help but start thinking about elephants.
So, if we agree that the default setting is daydreaming, when is the last time you can remember just sitting and daydreaming? I was recently setting in a doctors office waiting to be called in, so I broke out my phone and started playing a game in order to relieve boredom. After a few moments of this, I wondered what I was losing by not allowing myself to just sit there bored. Even if I did not start daydreaming, I might start pondering other things that were going on that could use some thought. For example, is there a better way to rearrange my basement so that it is more organized. Or, what do I plan on doing this spring to prevent that fungus from growing on the backside of the house where it is shaded by the tree and doesn't get much sunlight. Valid needs that might benefit from a little pondering.
When we lived in Germany, I used the time when I and my son were traveling places on the bus or while we were walking into the park to play chess to make him exercise his creativity. I would point out a person who was walking in the distance and ask him what their background was or if two people were sitting talking, what they might be talking about. There were no limits to the content of the answers; several times I found that we were surrounded by aliens, foreign agents from other lands, and a very alive Elvis hiding amongst us all dressed as a little old lady with a cane. It might sound silly, but it helped him to exercise his mind and his ability to see beyond what was visible.
I have always considered having a smart phone available, during time that might otherwise have been wasted, to be beneficial. You can do email, check on your flight status, or just learn something new. What that phone does not do is allow your mind to be creative – – I'm not talking about simple creation like using letter tiles to create a word for a game but deep creative thinking that requires you to let go of something in your hand and instead grab hold of something that is not concrete but is infinite. We need time to let the mind return to default mode.
Much has been written about people taking days off from technology or escaping from being plugged in. A very valid consideration, in fact I used to take Wednesday nights off from both TV and all other electronics, except a radio, when I was in Kuwait. But I'm not talking about something so drastic. Just once a day, rather than pulling your phone out to check it or to play a game while you have a few idle moments consider staring out the window for the same period of time. Allow your mind to take over in default mode and enjoy a daydream; failing that just take a few moments to think about something going on in your life that needs a few extra moments of thought. Not something emotional, but something concrete that you might be able to solve by giving it consideration. I think you might be surprised to the result.  Be Ralph Phillips.
Who knows, the mind that might've cured cancer instead was playing Candy Crush during the 30 minute train ride to work instead of letting their mind returned to its default setting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

Freedom of expression is too vital to a civilized society to ever allow it to be censored and stifled; it must always be defended.