The Continuing Story of Echo

I’ve had to change Alexa’s name.

Unfortunately, Alexa was in “earshot” of both the living room television set and my wife’s more recently acquired Echo Dot. The Dot is a sawed-off version of the original Echo. As far I can tell, stature is only difference between the two Amazon entities.

The default “wake word” for both units is “Alexa,” which summons the cloud-based artificial intelligence answering to that name to do your bidding. Artificial is an appropriate adjective, but I question the noun it describes.

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Signs of Trouble

Early in our relationship, Alexa was jumping in whenever she heard her name on TV. Usually, she claimed that she didn’t understand the question. At other times, she launched a lengthy Wikipedia reading, leaving us to theorize about the relationship between what she had heard and her response.

This was often unintentionally amusing, but it did not happen so frequently that it crossed the border into annoying. That brings me back to the Dot.

The Dot was installed in my wife’s art studio, a location which is about as far from the kitchen location of the original Echo as you can get and stay within the house walls. It soon became apparent that any commands issued to Alexa Dot in the studio were also heard and obeyed by Alexa Echo in the kitchen.

I was instantly irritated and initially puzzled when Alexa Echo would inexplicably burst into song as I was trying to follow hushed dialog on TV. It didn’t take long to determine the problem. My wife and I have very different tastes in music.

So, Alexa Echo is now just plain Echo. The other alternate waking names are “Amazon” and “Computer.” My personal choice, “Hey, Dumb Ass,” is not available, yet.

Using “Amazon” would have been a costly mistake, as I frequently use that word in normal conversation, and rarely in a good way. Echo is ever-ready to order something for me, and I really don’t need a string of appearances by pizza deliverers or ride-sharing services

I was tempted by “Computer,” with its Star Trek connotations, but I wisely concluded that name would be an insult to Computerkind throughout the United Federation of Planets.

Experiments in Culinary Science: The Meatloaf Incident

I readily confess to watching waaay too much television, but I redeem myself by eschewing soap operas, game shows and “reality” programs. Right?

OK, in the interest of full disclosure, every now and then, I watch bits and pieces of The Chew, but not intentionally. It just happens to be on when I fire up the satellite box, and I don’t switch the channel. I guess that makes me a willing watcher — or just a lazy one.
Sometimes, I actually (gasp) learn things. However, I am not allowed to practice anything I may think I’ve mastered. My wife has forbidden me to cook,  ever since The Meatloaf Incident.
Contrary to what some might think, The Meatloaf Incident had nothing to do with the musician who goes by a roughly similar name.
A decade or two ago, my daughters had requested that I make a meatloaf “with potatoes.” The rationale behind this request remains forever shrouded in mystery.
I’ll do anything for love. Like a bat out of hell, I obliged. Although I had no further guidelines, I proceeded to substitute raw, shredded potatoes for the bread crumbs I would normally have used in my standard meatloaf manufacturing process.
I should have realized that something wasn’t quite right with this methodology. The ground meat and potatoes showed a real resistance to being mixed. In fact, they almost seemed angry to be in the same bowl. The final product was not exactly what anyone might call paradise by the dashboard light.
I tried a piece, pronounced it strange but edible, and put the loaf in the fridge for the upcoming weekend. That was an excellent plan until my then girlfriend arrived at my house that Friday night while I was still at work.
Hungry, she scouted for food possibilities and spotted what appeared to be a normal, run-of-the-mill meatloaf. I had not thought to mark it with a warning label. A fan of cold meatloaf sandwiches, she fixed herself one and was totally unprepared for what her taste buds discovered. Her description of her reaction included much standing over the sink and spitting.
My defense was “my daughters made me do it,” but that testimony was thrown out of cooking court. My sentence was to never, ever, under any circumstances, prepare dishes which might be eaten by anyone other than myself.
Despite this harsh judgment, I did serve the meatloaf to my daughters that weekend. Perhaps they were simply being polite (there’s a first time for everything), but they both dutifully completed their meals without negative comment.
For crying out loud, two out of three ain’t bad.
Although I previously stated that I had been subject to a complete cooking ban since The Meatloaf Incident, that’s not entirely true. I actually still do some cooking, in a culinary mad scientist sort of way. The difference now is that all my kitchen creations must be in full compliance with the stipulations of the unwritten but rigidly enforced Meatloaf Incident Agreement.
Take my ongoing, somewhat dubious experiments with lasagna, for example. Did you know that the ingredients you can sandwich between layers of lasagna noodles are virtually infinite? Yes! It’s true!
Ingredients tested to date, with wildly varying results, have included salsa, pork sausage, spinach, pepperoni, habanero peppers and bacon. Much to my credit, I had the foresight to pre-cook the bacon before assembling the lasagna, which probably saved a call to the fire department during baking.
All of these current and future experiments in good nutrition, of course, require that I pay special attention to the “lurking ingredients/no surprises” clause of the MIA. I must relay, either verbally or via written note, exactly what’s inside anything I create and leave in the refrigerator for an unsuspecting consumer.
I can live with that. More important, so can my wife.

Different Strokes for Married Folks

The time has come, indeed, the time is long overdue, to address the issue that has been tearing married couples apart for decades. I am referencing, of course, irreconcilable differences in television program preferences.

My wife, Mary, gravitates toward “reality” (and I use that word very, very loosely) and drama shows. Drama I can take or leave, depending on how far it strays into soap opera territory. I liked L.A. Law. I liked Hill Street Blues. Hell, I even liked Desperate Housewives, until the people behind the show seemed to forget that it was a spoof of soap operas and let it devolve into the real thing.

Reality shows I hate. How can viewers ignore the fact the people in the show are surrounded by cameras recording everything they do and say? The Hawthorne Effect kicks in immediately as show participants react to the camera presence. Beyond that, raw footage is intensely edited to move events in whatever direction the producers want it to go. Reality. Hah!

I am at the complete opposite end of the television spectrum, deeply immersed in science fiction, liberally seasoned by comedy and fantasy offerings. I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief for 20 to 40 minutes.

Of course, television is an escapist medium for most of us. Mary says she just wants to watch something that doesn’t require a lot of thought.

I think all day,” she said. “I don’t want to have to think when I get home.”

Luckily for me, my job doesn’t put a lot of strain on my brain. For me, it makes no difference whether a show amuses or amazes me, as long as I am entertained. If the subject matter sticks in my mind for a bit after the program ends, so much the better. If anything, I probably think too much.

I once made the mistake of criticizing my wife’s choice of the Home and Garden Channel as a top choice for her viewing options. I mean, how many different damn ways can HGC find to choose or remodel a house? And why have I never seen a program on gardening? The answers to those questions are: “a number too large to be expressed by a non-mathematician” and “gardening is your job.”

Then came the day she came home and found me watching an episode of Doctor Who in which a hospital was staffed by nurses who happened to have cat heads. Seemed perfectly acceptable to me, as one who has been watching the Doctor for decades. Mary didn’t think so.

Don’t you ever say anything about what I watch again,” she warned me.

I think I already knew that.

Dissecting our DVR “series manager” shows the diversity of our TV tastes.

Hers – Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, The Biggest Loser, Project Runway, Big Brother, Nurse Jackie, So You Think You Can Dance, Top Chef Masters, American Idol, Brother vs. Brother, Flipping the Block, Downton Abbey, Project Runway All-Stars, The Voice, Property Brothers, Fixer Upper, Master Chef and Curvy Brides.

Mine – The Librarians, Falling Skies, Extant, The Last Man on Earth, Outlander, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Man Seeking Woman, Black Sails, Vikings, Banshee, Person of Interest, The Big Bang Theory, Hell on Wheels, The 100, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Doctor Who, Marvel’s Agent Carter, Strike Back, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Last Ship, Sherlock, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and iZombie.

Ours – Mike and Molly, Madam Secretary, The Amazing Race and Survivor.

Yeah, yeah. The Amazing Race and Survivor do, in fact, qualify as reality shows. My explanation for watching The Amazing Race is getting a peek at other cultures around the world. For Survivor, which is basically Big Brother staged in some godforsaken wilderness, I have no excuse, other than I’ve been watching it since the second season after Mary introduced it to me not long after we started dating. Tradition? Inertia?

So, a whopping four of 47 regularly recorded shows in our house are watched by both of us. Not a lot of common ground there. One might even think these widely divergent viewing habits might lead to conflict.

One would be correct. Believe it or not, many of these programs share time slots. What was an otherwise compatible couple to do?

The easiest solution to sidestep this dilemma was to own more than one television set. We did, but then, who was to be banished from the comfy living room couch to the bedroom to watch a lesser TV set from an angle not really intended for long-term viewing?

I decided that I would make the supreme sacrifice and watch my programs in the basement. There, I feverishly devoted every moment of my spare time to constructing a home theater – complete with surround sound, a 1080p projector, 96-inch screen and reclining, stadium seating. The projector is connected to a satellite box, Blu-ray player and computer. A refrigerator well-stocked with craft brews is only a few steps from the door, and salty snacks always seem to be within reach.

I owe it all to reality television.

Person of Interest Finale Held Fanatic Fans Hostage

Warning: This blog contains spoilers for anyone who has not up to date on Person of Interest episodes.

There’s nothing like a cliffhanger TV finale to keep fans at a fever pitch, especially when a network hasn’t announced whether the episode ended the season or the series.

Viewers were left hanging when Person of Interest aired “YHWH,” episode 22 of its fourth season, on May 5. Rumors that the series was done ran rampant. CBS kept fans hanging for nearly a week until a 13-episode fifth season was announced.

I was awed by the ending scene of the finale, as main characters, including The Machine, faced death while Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” blared in the background. Fears of cancellation overpowered the depth I saw in this episode.

The conversation Finch had with The Machine in this episode was touching and revealing. The Machine addressed Finch as “Father,” not “Admin.” The Machine’s apology for failure, questioning her/his/its life purpose and thanking Finch for creating it showed how much it has evolved beyond hardware circuits, programming code and a Boolean algebraic perception of the world. The Machine has become, as Mr. Spock might have observed, illogical – not unlike the humans it protects.

A whole lot of gray was stirred up in Coldblooded Killer Greer’s assertion that Samaritan is the Good Guy in the AI battle. The current condition of the world makes it hard to deny that Humanity needs an angry, Old Testament-style Yahweh ready, willing and able to smite all who offend it with corrective action, i.e. execution. On the other side is the Machine, allowing Humanity to have free will up the point where it must intervene. This offers plenty of philosophical separation for continuing conflict.

If CBS had definite plans to ax Person of Interest, it had a perfect set-up to end it all in the wall of Samaritan bullets Finch, Reese and Root faced (and would probably not have survived in reality) as the episode ended. The door was left open to what could and now will be an incredible fifth season.

I was overjoyed that the network chose to walk through that door rather than slam it shut.

The fourth season of this superb series had numerous key moments. Heading the list was the apparent shooting death of a regular character, Shaw, by Samaritan agents in early January. The rest of the team became resigned to her death, with even The Machine telling them to give up the search.

Shaw’s status was kept in the dark until late April, when fans got a glimpse of Shaw in a vehicle side-mirror as it sped away from a one-step-behind Root. Root’s frantic search for Shaw in this episode elicited fear that she might have simply been chasing a well-crafted Samaritan illusion fueled by her own renewed hope. Accustomed to having Root ride to the rescue in multiple episodes, I tend to lose sight of the fact that Root entered the series as a villain who kidnaps Finch.

Confirmation of Shaw’s continued existence reinforced my suspicion that The Machine wanted the team to stopping looking for Shaw because it wants an asset inside the Samaritan organization. Perhaps the next season will bring an AI tug-of-war for control of Shaw’s mind. Samaritan would be the underdog in that contest, given Shaw’s loyalties and mental toughness.

Person of Interest is an action-packed, regularly humorous take on the larger issue of human existence and its uneasy relationship with advanced technology. CBS made an excellent decision to give another season. I hope the show tallies enough eyeballs to motivate the network to not only extend its next season but give it numerous additional full-length seasons.

First Completely Recycled Television Season Planned

(New York, New York, July 10, 2016) – Coming this fall: A television season in which absolutely everything aired will be something you have seen before.

Long-jaded viewers may have anticipated this development over the past few decades, as networks have broadcast fewer new episodes of every series each season. Last year, the networks, ever mindful of their profit margins, committed to only two episodes for each new series. They authorized a mere six for returning hits, saving three of those for “sweeps” periods.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that even though viewers may never again see an entirely new television program, they may not know it.

The new season will be built on continuing exponential advances in computer power and three-dimensional modeling, which have enabled producers to mine the vast raw materials of past hits and re-manufacture them in an infinite variety of ways. Beloved actors and actresses, whether living or dead, can now reappear in digitally rendered “new” scenes, even uttering “new” dialog.

“We can digitally create ten ‘new’ 26-episode programs featuring anyone already ‘in the can’ for roughly what we paid in salaries for one hit show last year,” claimed Juan Morrtyme, television industry spokesman. “I think most viewers are going to be amazed by what we’ve been able to do with some of their old favorites.”

Although none of the networks plan to make previews of their new programs available before they air, complete schedules and synopses for the new season have been released. A sampling of announced offerings created from network pooled video resources follows.

WKRP in Minneapolis (Sundays, 8 p.m., CBS) – The zany adventures of an ensemble cast of misfits struggling to make a success of a mediocre Midwest radio station. Starring Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, heartwarming but plucky associate news producer; Ed Asner as Lou Grant, crusty but malleable station manager; Gordon Jump as Arthur Carlson, bumbling station owner and aspiring appliance repairman; and Loni Anderson as Jennifer Marlowe, a mind masquerading as a voluptuous blonde secretary. Promised guest stars include Gavin MacLeod as luxury oceanliner captain Murray Stubing; Ted Knight as ineffectual on-air newsman Les Nessman; Jan Smithers as Georgette Franklin, Nessman’s girlfriend; and John Moffitt as the producer.

M*A*S*H*E*R (Mondays, 10 p.m., CBS) – The madcap mishaps of an ensemble cast of misfits struggling to make a success of a mediocre Mobile Army Surgical Hospital Emergency Room. Starring Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, wisecracking but skilled surgeon who sets new standards in male sensitivity; Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman Potter, the unit’s gruff but infinitely wise administrator; George Clooney as Dr. Douglas Ross, a gifted but troubled visiting civilian doctor; and Anthony “Goose” Edwards as another, somewhat less troubled, civilian sawbones. Expected cameos will come from Loretta Swit as Nurse Carol Hathaway; Juliana Margulies as Maj. Frances Burns; Jamie Farr as Dr. Anna Del Amico; and DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy.

Mad About Seinfeld (Saturdays, 9 p.m., NBC) – The manic antics of an ensemble cast of misfits struggling to make a success of a mediocre marriage in the Big Apple. Starring Jerry Seinfeld as Paul Seinfeld, the earnest but confused husband; Helen Hunt as Jamie Buchman-Seinfeld, the difficult but lovable wife; Jason Alexander as George Seinfeld, Paul’s conniving but endearing brother; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jamie’s incredibly ditsy but forgivable sister. Recurring roles will go to Michael Richards as Peter Van Nostrand, the Seinfelds’ properly British apartment neighbor; Brian George as Babu Bhatt, a luckless restaurant operator; and Jerry Mathers, as the Beaver.

All 117 internet television networks have fleshed out complete opening new season schedules employing the new technology, and they have a healthy stable of reconstituted mid-season replacements waiting in the wings. Among the more promising titles ready to take the stage are My Mother, Car 54; L.A. McBeal, That 70s Happy Days Show, Married Unhappily Ever After With Children, Charlie’s Angelwatch, My Favorite ALF and Oh Noooo!: the Mr. Bill Impeachment Hearings Show.

“With more than 60 years of television programming in our archives, the possibilities are endless,” Morrtyme concluded.

Taken from “FutureNews”

Truth Is An Amusing Concept

By Richard E. Berg