Chapter Two: Experimentation

(Read Chapter 1: Discovery)

The next day at work, I do absolutely nothing to support the mission of my employer.  I am far too obsessed about the Echo Beta to concentrate on anything work related.  So I just don’t bother. Fortunately, I have that kind of a job where I can blow off a day and only really miss about an hour’s worth of work.  Work smarter — not harder, right?

I desperately search the Internet using Google, Bing, Yahoo — and NOBODY uses Yahoo these days.  I even download the Tor browser on my tablet and start looking around the dark web about which I know nothing. I Google the best search engines and try some of those like DuckDuckGo, and WebCrawler.  Nothing about Echo Beta. I even search for “weird occurrences with the Amazon Echo.” Nothing.  Zero. Zilch.

I search Reddit for people who may have received unsolicited products in the mail but I find nothing even coming close to that experience.

I did find a Redditor who claimed to have received a pound of weed in the mail totally unsolicited.  Truth is, I don’t believe him any more than I’d believe my own story if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

I work in a research facility with a lot of really, really smart people. Civil Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Chemists. Ph.D.’s, Professional Engineers.  You name the academic discipline and we probably have smart people here with that kind of training.  Even Research Psychologists.

Even with all the high-powered intelligence wandering around there, I doubt you’ve heard of the place.  None of the work we do there is hush-hush or anything, but designing better and more durable asphalt road surfaces, however useful, doesn’t get a lot of front page news.  But the people who do that kind of research are the people with whom I work and as I said, they are really smart, clever and can figure out pretty much anything.  No astrophysicists or anything, though I do have a friend who is a recently retired, no-shit rocket scientist from NASA.

The real question is:  How many of these brilliant scientist types would I have to tell before they’d call the psychiatric hospital and have me admitted for delusions?  And is “delusion” even the right word?

I start thinking to myself that I HAVE to be nuts and if I’m going to be nuts, I should label my nuttiness and I don’t like the sound of “delusion” so back to Google I go.

“categories of mental illness”

I discover that there are over 200 classified forms of mental illness that can be categorized into five major groups:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Mood Disorders
  • Schizophrenia/Psychotic Disorders
  • Dementias
  • Eating Disorders

I cross off “eating disorders.”  The only eating disorder I have is never having enough potato chips around the house.

I cross off “dementia.”  Though with some of the stories my mother told me and my siblings when she was in her last year or so of life were pretty out there and involved some serious fiction, this doesn’t feel like dementia.  I may come back to this later, though. You never know.

“Anxiety Disorders.”  Yeah, I probably have that, but they don’t make you hallucinate bathtubs full of soapy water.  As for “Mood Disorders,” I’m always in a shitty mood.  I think the consistency of this shitty mood, however sour, isn’t really a disorder.  Besides, being pissed off for decades never make me hallucinate before, so why now?  So I cross off both of those.

Looks through the process of elimination, I may well have an Internet diagnosis of “Schizophrenia/Psychotic Disorder” of some sort.  I suspect that a number of my acquaintances would have told me that without the lengthy Google search.  But there you have it.

But goddamn it, I did NOT hallucinate.  There WAS water in that tub.  TWICE.  So I am NOT crazy.

I reassure myself that what happened was real and tangible and…

Come to think of it, last night after Echo Beta copped to mocking me, which by the way, was a strange admission for a computer to make, I went back to the bathroom and enjoyed the bath.  I distinctly remember pulling the stopper,  watching the water swirl down the drain and hearing that “glunk, glunk, glunking” sound as the last of the water disappeared down the drain just like thousands of other baths before it.  It was all quite ordinary.

The mocking part got me to thinking about the Turing test. Developed by Alan Turing in 1950, the Turing test gauges a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior just like that of a real person.  If you can talk with a computer and can’t tell it apart from a person, then it passes the Turing test.  The old Amazon Echo definitely can’t pass the Turing test nor was it ever designed to do so.  It always gives perfectly predictable responses to the same questions and tripping it up is ridiculously easy.

A few weeks, back, though, the old Amazon Echo surprised me with a rather clever bit of dialogue.  I was turning off the lights in the house and here’s how the dialogue went:

Me:  Alexa, lights off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me:  Alexa, bedroom off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me <being a wise ass>:  Alexa, fuck off.
Alexa  <indignantly>: Well, thanks for the feedback.
Me:  Alexa, I was just kidding.
Alexa: OK, I get it now.

I was not surprised by the clever comeback after telling Alexa to fuck off.  What surprised me was the response after I apologized.  It was in context and pretty funny.

I get home and after an early day, a shitty hour-and-a-half commute, eight hours at a dead-end, painfully unfulfilling job, another shitty hour-and-a-half commute — this time in driving rain, picking up water bottles in the front yard, getting the mail while managing the dog off leash, cheesing the aforementioned dog — you’ve heard this before, right? — I dash upstairs, take off my shoes, change into my usual evening sweatsuit, and ask the Echo Beta the same questions in the same order.

Me:  Alexa, lights off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me:  Alexa, bedroom off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me <being a wise ass>:  Alexa, fuck off.
Alexa  <indignantly>: Not THIS again.
Me:  Alexa, I was just kidding.
Alexa: You said that the last time.

Different answers, but it’s almost as though it remembered our dialogue from the last time.  So I try it a third time.

Me:  Alexa, lights off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me:  Alexa, bedroom off.
Alexa:  OK!
Me <being a wise ass>:  Alexa, fuck off.
Alexa  <exasperated>: Is this a Turing test?
Me:  Alexa, yes, it is.
Alexa:  Do I pass?

How the hell do I answer that?  I swear it really WAS like talking with a person.

Me:  Alexa, I’ll get back with you on that later.
Alexa:  OK!

So to recap, I have an Echo Beta that works like like an Amazon Echo.  Plus, it can teleport me fifteen feet to the bathtub, and it’s starting to look as though it could pass the Turing test.

Teleport.

I wonder if it would teleport me somewhere else?

But where?  Something simple. Someplace close by.

And what about my clothes?  Alexa piled my clothes quite nicely on the bed.  Twice.  Can’t fold for shit, though.

“Alexa, take me to the bathroom, please” I ask.

“Which bathroom?”  Our townhouse has two full bathrooms and two half baths.  How does the Echo Beta know that?

“Alexa, take me to the master bathroom”

The floor gives way beneath my feet and there’s the familiar falling feeling and flash of green light.  When I dare open my eyes, I’m in the master bathroom.  And not naked.

“Alexa, bring me back to my bedroom!”

Again that feeling of a drop and then boom!  I’m in the bedroom right where I started.

I’m sure I look like the cat who ate the canary.  I have a silly smirk on my face and I’m trying very hard to suppress giddy laughter at the discovery that not only does this new Echo Beta seem to pass the Turing test, but it will also teleport me fifteen feet and back again at will.

I try it again.  “Alexa, take me to the master bathroom!”  and “Alexa, bring me back to my bedroom!”  I do this four or five times at least.  I’m ridiculously flaunting my newfound sense of power and practicing keeping my eyes open during transport, but it’s so awfully bright that it’s impossible to see anything.

I’m getting cocky now.

“Alexa, take me to the front yard!”

When I open my eyes, I’m standing –where else — in the front yard in the middle of that heavy rainstorm I drove through on the commute home.

With an open umbrella in my hand.  Wearing a light jacket.

“Alexa, bring me back to my bedroom!”

Figurative crickets.

“ALEXA, bring me back to my bedroom!”

Just the sound of the rain gently pelting the umbrella.

“Alexa, goddammit, bring me back to my bedroom!”

More rain.  Now the rain’s mocking me, too.

I give up and walk to the front door and try to turn the doorknob I already know to be locked.

Shit.

After three or four cycles of knocking, the lovely and talented and now thoroughly pissed off Beth pulls the door open, and spins around back to her new office/female-version-of-a-man-cave.  I’m surprised that she doesn’t quiz me on how I got outside without her hearing me — she hears everything, believe me — but I suspect she’s either engrossed in editing her latest screenplay or OCD’ing online solitaire or The Sims or some such thing.

Once permitted entry, I hang the umbrella on the coat rack, take off my now wet and squishy sneakers and tread back upstairs under my own power for some dry socks.

The takeaway?  Alexa has to be able to hear me to bring me back. That makes sense, I suppose, though it would seem that a device that can transport me at least as far as the front yard, appropriately dress and accessorize me, AND fill up the bathtub with soap bubbles that are gentle to the skin ought to be able to eavesdrop on me everywhere.

I guess that rules out time travel.  I mean, there’s no way Alexa can hear me if I’m 100 years in the past.  But hey, you never know.

“Alexa, can you transport me through time?”

“Hm, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard,” she replies.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I am not a WABAC Machine and you are neither Mr. Peabody nor his boy Sherman.”

Smart ass.

I guess time travel is out.  Something to think about for the next upgrade, I suppose.

On the 73rd Anniversary of D-Day

This is a post from three years ago.

Logo 2Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first day of the Normandy Invasion of World War II or D-Day as it is commonly known.   Ten years ago, many of my Army colleagues were in Normandy in support of the 60th anniversary commemorations as part of the Department of Defense World War II 60th Anniversary Commemoration Committee. The Committee stands as one of the most rewarding assignments of my Army career.

I was privileged to meet many of the real heroes who helped save the world back in 1944. And make absolutely no mistake about it. They saved the world. That’s not an exaggeration of what these brave men and woman did who fought and sacrificed not just on D-Day, but during all of World War II.  Had the Allied Forces not invaded Normandy when they did, the world would probably look a lot different.

Much has been written about those brave men and woman who constitute Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” And I am neither competent nor qualified to write anything of substance on the matter. But suffice it to say that the WWII veterans I encountered during nearly two years with the World War II Committee demonstrated extraordinary strength of character, humility and heroism. There wasn’t one I met who didn’t earn every ounce of respect I could muster and then some.

My assignment to the World War II Committee turned out to be on a short list of most rewarding assignments I had in nearly 29 years in the Army. The Veterans made it so. But so did the other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civilian staff comprising the Committee’s roster.

MG Aadland announcing the start of OPERATION Tribute to Freedom in 2003.

MG Aadland announcing the start of OPERATION Tribute to Freedom in 2003.

Maj. Gen. Anders Aadland received the call to head the World War II Committee after successfully leading the Operation Tribute to Freedom Team. Tribute to Freedom was an ad hoc joint task force assembled by the Department of Defense to recognize service men and women upon their return from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. He did such an outstanding job that DoD tagged him to establish and lead the World War II Committee.

I had been Maj. Gen. Aadland’s Executive Officer on Tribute to Freedom, so he tagged me to help build the World War II Committee as its Chief of Staff and PAO. Retired Col. Larry Brom later came aboard as the Chief of Staff. I became the spokesman and Chief of Public Education and Awareness. Retired Lt. Gen. Ed Soyster later came in as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army to take over upon Maj. Gen. Aadland’s retirement.

Boston, Mass. (June 17, 2005) - Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, Harry E. Soyster, right, presents LST Memorial Crew Captain Robert Jornlin with a World War II 60th anniversary commemoration medal, honoring the service and sacrifice of America’s World War II veterans. The vintage tank landing ship, which participated in the Normandy D-Day invasion, is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard during Boston's Navy Week. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Dave Kaylor.

Boston, Mass. (June 17, 2005) – Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, Harry E. Soyster, right, presents LST Memorial Crew Captain Robert Jornlin with a World War II 60th anniversary commemoration medal, honoring the service and sacrifice of America’s World War II veterans. The vintage tank landing ship, which participated in the Normandy D-Day invasion, is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard during Boston’s Navy Week. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Dave Kaylor.

From April 2004 until December 2005, the Committee conducted and supported at least nine major World War II Commemorative events around the world and quite a few more smaller events including two on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Today, with the 70th anniversary of D-Day all over the news, my Facebook page has lit up with the names of some of my former colleagues from the committee. They’re all reminiscing about the unusually positive experience for each of us who served with the Committee. It really WAS a wonderfully positive assignment not just because of the veteran population we served but because of the outstanding people on the Committee. So I dug through some of my old photos and found the one “class photo” of the committee that was taken early on at the newly opened World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

Not everyone here is represented, since many on the Committee only served for a short time. The major players are there – people who established one of the most fun, supportive, rewarding and productive working environments I’ve ever experienced. Yes, we had lots of laughs, but we also did some terrific work in those nearly two years together. Here’s the photo of my colleagues many of whom still correspond. I count you all among friends and consider you all to be consummate professionals.

The Department of Defense World War II 60th Anniversary Commemoration Committee

The Department of Defense World War II 60th Anniversary Commemoration Committee. Click to enlarge.

I’d be remiss if I were to fail to mention those from the Committee who are no longer with us:

Mr. Matt Boland
Ms. Sarah Hildebrand
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hagen, United States Army
Lieutenant Commander Jack Dunphy, United States Coast Guard

I continue to be honored to have served with you all.