Battle of the Trek Geniuses II – The Second Day

I started off with good intentions a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Wait, wrong franchise.

It all began long before your sun burned hot in space…

Damn!  Right franchise, but Frank used this one last time.

Ahem…

A couple months back, Frank and I finally decided to get off our collective center seats and write the follow up to the wildly popular “Battle of the Star Trek Geniuses.” I diligently went through the episode list writing down the guest stars that I remember liking from The Original Series.  Then I went through the episodes in chronological order to refresh my memory. 

Good thing I found that list this morning.  That and the meme to the right of this opening is all I am going to say about that.

Anyway, as you may have already guessed, today is my day to present my five favorite guest stars from Star Trek: The Original Series which I actually did get to watch when they first aired.  That makes me older than the Guardian of Forever, but hopefully with that age comes experience and good choices in guest stars.  The ones I remembered without being reminded are weighted a little more heavily in my decision making.  To be remembered among the plethora of available guest stars is noteworthy in itself.

Off we go!

5.  Frank Gorshin as Commissioner Bele.

I’m not a fan of this third-season episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  Even as a twelve-year-old in 1969, I thought this episode’s message about racism was rather ham-fisted.  But having entertained us with memorable performances as The Riddler on the sixties “Batman” TV series, Frank Gorshin was an actor who at the time I recognized immediately.

I remember his Trek performance being energetic, loud and combative — not unlike his Riddler character.  But like all of the actors on this list, he owned the screen when he was on it and I always enjoyed watching him work.

Sidebar:  Back in 2000-ish, I was working as a video tape operator at Empire Burbank Studios in California doing freelance work.  I got a call to come record an introduction that would be used at the start of a promotional program selling financial management services.  Imagine my surprise when in walks Frank Gorshin to do the on-camera intro.  He brought the same intensity to that presentation that he did in this episode.  He was terrific.

Bottom line: I loved his performance even though I didn’t care for the episode.  In fact, this is one of the episodes I’ve not seen in a very long time, so my memory of it remains a long time one.

4.  Celia Lovsky as T’Pau.

“All of Vulcan in one package.”  – Capt. Kirk to Dr. McCoy, describing T’Pau in “Amok Time”

Speaking candidly, I’m not sure why I picked this performance.  Upon multiple viewing of this second season episode over the years, I find her performance in this role less and less compelling than I did when I first saw this episode back in the sixties.  She gets on this list because even though I have become slightly less enamored with T’Pau over the years, I still love seeing her on screen in this episode and her performance made enough of an impression on me to have been one of the first guest stars that I wrote down on my list. 

The character she brings to life advances the Star Trek universe, opening up Vulcan mystery and culture in ways that impact the rest of the Trek franchise even into J. J. Abrams’ Kelvin universe.  She really does deliver “all of Vulcan in one package.”  So perhaps I am more enamored with the character than the performance.

Regardless, I love watching her on screen.  She’s compelling, and creates a character that exudes power, demands respect and gets it. 

What I didn’t know until researching this post is that the character of T’Pau appears in both “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise.”  I didn’t watch either of those series as religiously as I did TOS and TNG.  I need to go back and seek out those episodes. 

3.  Susan Oliver as Vina. 

Part of the original pilot episode, “The Cage,” on which NBC passed, Susan Oliver’s performance later made it to air in TOS’s only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.”  It’s the story of the Enterprise’s captain before Captain Kirk, Captain Christopher Pike. Pike and the earlier Enterprise crew discover the Talosians, a race of beings with the power of illusion.  Susan Oliver plays Vina, appearing throughout the episode to Pike as a number of characters all of whom are desperate to entice Pike to remain in the illusion for self-serving, but very understandable reasons. 

She appears as a green Orion slave woman, a damsel in distress and his wife at a romantic picnic for two on Earth.  Every time, she tries to make the illusion and herself so appealing that Pike would want to stay with her in the illusion.  If you’ve never seen it, I won’t tell you here how the story ends for two reasons.  One: it’s a really, really good story and two: “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” have two different endings.  I personally like the one in “The Menagerie” better. 

Either way, Oliver’s performance is superb, moving easily among the various versions of Vina in the illusions back to the Vina in the cage/menagerie trying to convince Pike to stay with her.  She is astoundingly beautiful and just completely owns the screen whenever she’s on it.  Her fantastic performance brings so much to this very moving episode.  

By the way, Vina and Capt. Pike make an appearance in CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery.”  Anson Mount’s Chris Pike is probably the most memorable thing to come out of “Discovery,” but it was a wonderful callback to see Vina as well.

2.  Morgan Woodward as Dr. Simon Van Gelder and Capt. Ronald Tracey.

Morgan Woodward appeared twice in Star Trek.  Once as Capt. Tracy in “The Omega Glory” and again in “Dagger of the Mind” as Dr. Simon Van Gelder.  But it’s his performance as Capt. Tracy that makes him my number two favorite. 

Similarly, “The Omega Glory” made it to number two on my list of favorite episodes, in no small measure because of Woodward’s performance.  Here’s what I said last time:

“What makes this episode for me is Morgan Woodward’s performance as Captain Tracey. He plays the best homicidal maniac in the business and no actor sweats better than he does – and I mean that as a compliment. He’s a delight in this role and I absolutely love watching him work. I should really hit YouTube and see if I can find other things in which Woodward appeared. I suspect he’s got serious acting chops.

“I’ve often wondered if he was considered for the part of Captain Kirk when Roddenberry was casting TOS. He was probably too old to play Kirk, but he would have been a terrific admiral or some such character. I think he would have been a good choice for another starship-based spinoff series had Trek taken off back then.”

I never did hit YouTube to see what I could find more of his performances.  Without his performance, “The Omega Glory” would have been far less interesting and fun to watch. 

1.  William Windom as Commodore Matt Decker.

Without having read Frank’s essay, I can pretty much guess that this is also his favorite guest performance.  When we’re discussing Trek, the conversation nearly always comes around to this episode, “The Doomsday Machine,” and how wonderful William Windom’s performance is.  In fact, Frank and I both had this episode on our respective favorite episodes list, numbered two and one respectively.  I’ll be surprised if Windom isn’t his number one choice.  [Turns out I was wrong!]

The episode has so much going for it and you can read about it on the original posts.  It has a nail-biter of a story, a terrific score that was used over and over in subsequent episodes, and of course Windom.

Windom was a well-known TV actor and had a long career.  As a youngster in the sixties, I remember him being in everything.  I swear, he popped up on every TV show that existed back then.  His list of IMDB credits is pretty remarkable with 225 credits to his name.  With that broad of a body of work, there’s no question that he is an actor that could deliver.

In “The Doomsday Machine,” that’s exactly what he does, creating a very sympathetic character in Commodore Decker.  When we first see Decker, he’s manning the emergency bridge of the USS Constellation which has been nearly destroyed.  The lone survivor, Commodore Decker is in shock having just watched helplessly as the doomsday machine killed over 400 members of his crew.  Once back aboard the Enterprise, he assumes command and tries to use the same tactics that got his crew on the Constellation killed. 

Windom’s performance is both wonderfully subtle and over the top, normally a mix that can’t be easily pulled off, but Windom’s every screen moment is absolutely authentic.  His characterization is compelling, and his fate at the end of the episode is…  No spoilers if you’ve not seen it. 

[And Frank, if you consider non-canon works, Decker doesn’t really die in the end.]

Regardless of where Decker ultimately ends up, his performance in this role is the most memorable one in my experience.  He’s my favorite TOS guest star in my favorite TOS episode. 

Honorable Mention: 
(in no particular order)

Ricardo Montalban, Khan, “Space Seed”

Ok, this one really is #6,

I never really liked this episode because in my mind, a Starfleet officer would never betray her ship because of a man she’d only just met – regardless of charisma.  But that’s exactly what Lt. Marla McGivers does, and Montalban’s Khan is the reason.  But that doesn’t diminish Montalban’s performance one bit.  Of course, his Khan would wind up saving Star Trek, reprising the role in the movie “Wrath of Khan” pictured here.  It is his performance in this movie that I really, really, REALLY love.  He is without question Trek’s best villain.

William Campbell as Trelane and Koloth, “The Squire of Gothos” and “The Trouble with Tribbles”

Campbell is so delightful in both of these episodes and his broad style fits these two characters like a glove.  In “Squire,” Campbell looks like he’s having a blast playing Trelane, a being who seems to have ultimate power and relishes misusing it.  In later years, fan theories believe him to be a young Q.  Of course, that’s just a theory, but it surely fits, and he makes a good Q, in my opinion.

In “Tribbles,” Campbell plays Klingon Capt. Koloth, and antagonist to Capt. Kirk.  It’s one of TOS’s comedies and such a wonderful episode that it was revisited in “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” though Campbell’s Koloth didn’t appear.  He did reprise the role of Koloth in “DS:9” episode “Blood Oath.”

William Marshall as Dr. Daystrom, “The Ultimate Computer”

I’m cheating here again quoting my previous blog post:

“William Marshall was a highly respected Broadway and Shakespearean actor who didn’t become a name, so to speak, until “Blacula” and its sequel. I enjoy Marshall’s Dr. Daystrom in this episode and later in the episode, Marshall gives what I consider to be the best reaction ever to a Vulcan nerve pinch.”

Nancy Kovack as Nona, “A Private Little War”

Well, I can’t justify this any other way than to say it:  She’s gorgeous.  That’s why she makes honorable mention.  (See Frank’s photo from yesterday.) Not that her performance is sub-par or anything. On the contrary, it’s a compelling performance. It’s just that I recall being completely smitten whenever she was on screen.  Her character is complex, manipulative and smart and Kovack’s Nona is compelling for those reasons alone. 

Another sidebar:  When this show originally aired, my mom saw a quick glimpse of Nona as she’s walking away from a waterfall partially disrobed, showing a little bit more than you’d expect, but certainly nothing explicit by any standards even those of network television in the 1960’s.  Nona is only on screen like this for a second at most, and mom says “Hmmm, so this is a girly show now.” 

Nona’s presence throughout the episode was, as Frank put it, “bewitching.”  He’s absolutely right.

Vic Tayback, Krako, “A Piece of the Action”

You’ll probably remember Vic Tayback from the TV series “Alice.”  That’s what most people know him from.  As for me, I admit ignorance about his body of work so I can’t really speak to his depth as an actor.  All I know is he’s terrific in this episode.  With my limited exposure to his work, it seems like Vic Tayback is at his best with this kind of gruff, loud character. 

This is another TOS comedy and I suspect for the series regulars, it was a welcome relief from the regular dramatic performances they had to deliver week after week. 

Computer Guest Star:

I gotta go with the M-5 computer in the episode “The Ultimate Computer.”  While Nomad from “The Changeling” is a very close second, M-5 gets the edge because it’s in a favorite episode.  “Changeling” is not one of my go-to episodes, and “The Ultimate Computer” is. 

Of course, everyone’s favorite computer is REALLY Commander Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but since we’re not talking about TNG, M-5 wins the day.

So that’s the list.  While yes, I missed my deadline, I always love writing about Trek and in particular, discussing it with Frank who really knows more about it than anyone I know including me.    Thank you, sir, for participating!  Always a pleasure to have you on this blog.

Just #!&^ing Stop

So as many of you know from my non-stop and regularly scheduled gloating, I’m retired.  I’m now allowed by statute to yell “Get off my lawn!” to people who get on my lawn.  I’ve not yet gotten to the point of calling anyone younger than 60 a young whippersnapper, a term which I never really understood, but I’m reading a book on my Kindle about how to be an effective curmudgeon.  I’ll get there.  Give me a minute or two, please.

Being of advanced age, I’m starting (who am I kidding, I’ve been doing this for years) to tell the same stories over and over again and prefacing them with “I’m sure I’ve told you this before, so stop me if you know this already.”  No one does, thankfully.  And I get senior specials pretty much everywhere except the strip clubs where I am universally ignored like I have been since I was 18.

Anyway, this is going to be a very curmudgeonly post.  So be forewarned.  And get off my lawn, you young whippersnapper!

Elected officials: what the hell is wrong with you?  Used to be that you folks could get together, hammer out legislation that may not have been everything that you wanted, but would benefit everyone at least a little bit. You’d compromise to the benefit of our great nation.  That’s worked pretty well for us certainly during my unusually long lifetime.

So why is it now that you insist on blindly following the wishes of your party?  Blindly is a gross understatement – y’all are deaf and dumb as well.  Why is it that none of you cross the aisle anymore?  Why is it that nearly none of you do your fucking jobs and represent the people whose interests you’re supposed to represent? Why do you blindly support whatever party jackass is calling the shots?  Really?  Is that what you were elected to do? 

News flash:  it wasn’t.

Just fucking stop! 

Do your goddamn jobs and stop putting party above nation.  Seriously, knock that shit off.  You swore to “… support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that [you would] bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”  Not “… support and defend my party leadership against anyone and anything.” I don’t think those words are anywhere in that oath.

Supposedly, you took that “…obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.  Most importantly, every one of you no bullshit swore that you would “…well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Well, I hope that God intervenes soon ‘cause you’re failing miserably.  And I’m having a tough time explaining to my kids that government is letting all of us down right now and that their futures are so phenomenally fucked that I want to blow my brains out just thinking about it.  Sorry, dudes.  Really.  I did three months shy of 29 years in the military an another five in federal civil service hoping that you’d have a great world in which you could thrive.  Fat lot of good that did, huh?

It wasn’t enough.

I used to be a news director, didja know that?  Well, an assistant news director in a staff of three.  I learned some hard lessons in journalism one of which that I wasn’t very good at it, terrible in fact.  So I chose back then to leave it to the professionals because I felt GOOD journalism was so important that that I didn’t want to screw it up.  So I became and actor where pretending is not just OK, it’s encouraged.  I was a lot better at that.

So journalists, this is for you. 

Just fucking stop. 

Stop with the opinions. Tell me facts.  Just the facts.  Joe Friday wanted just the facts.  Be like Joe Friday.

If you’d give us a chance, we are capable of deciding for ourselves what’s going on and we don’t need you to tell us what to think.  I know how to do that all by myself.  If you tell us what HAPPENED, we can figure out what to THINK.  That’s the appropriate division of labor.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.  You tell me what — no bullshit — happened, and we’ll make our own decisions.  We can’t possibly be everywhere to see what happens, but we CAN figure out what to think if you do your job and tell us what happened.

You know, I wouldn’t have a problem with Fox News, MSNBC or CNN or any of ‘em if instead of calling themselves 24-hour news channels, they called themselves 2-hour news channels and 22-hour opinion channels.  Just bill yourselves as what you are, purveyors of spin.  Be honest.  Stop pissing on my leg and telling me it’s raining.  Stop with the spin already. 

Just fucking stop.

And get off my lawn!!

Seriously, folks, get off the grass.  It’s not my fault that there are no sidewalks in this neighborhood.  Walk in the fucking street.  You won’t die.  Unless I am driving, then your chances of survival are significantly reduced, ‘cause I’m old, remember?  Really old.  Like I remember the Eisenhower Administration old.

Speaking of good ol’ Dwight, he championed the Interstate system that opened the nation to commerce in ways previously unimagined.

What have you done lately, Federal government, that is even fractionally beneficial to the whole country like the Interstate system, hmm?  Go on.  Take your time.  I’ll wait. 

Yeah, yeah, full disclosure:  I worked for the Federal government and I’ll tell you, in the facility in which I worked, everyone worked their collective asses off to make the highways in the U.S. safer, cheaper to build, and last longer. They worked together to benefit the nation and its citizens.  They were an impressive lot.

So to our elected representatives, just fucking stop blind loyalty to your party.  To our media companies, just fucking stop with the opinion shit – or at least bill it accurately.   Seriously, you folks.

Just. Fucking. Stop.

Nerd Alert! This is a Ham Radio Post

I’ve been doing this ham radio thing for about a year and a half now.  I have a couple more observations to add to the blog post I wrote last year.

1.   The amount of learning required to get started is not massive.  You can get started with a relative minimum of technological knowledge and if that’s all you want, you can do quite a bit.  But…

If you want to get really good at it or learn the nitty, gritty details of how and why things work, it’s a daunting task.  I’ve said before that it’s a bottomless pit of things to learn and from my perspective, it can be pretty overwhelming.  Having said that, …

2.  … established ham operators are, for the most part, more than willing to share their knowledge and experience if you just ask.  If you pop up on the air with a question, chances are pretty good that you can get an answer or at the very least a clue about how to proceed.  The experienced operators are a magnificent resource if you’re stuck or just need an explanation of something you don’t understand.

3.  If you make a mistake and do something incorrectly, most hams are very forgiving.  It’s likely that they’ve made a similar mistake at one time and they don’t hold your boo-boos against you.  I still dread screwing up, but at least there’s no ridicule from it. 

So far as I know.  (Maybe people are laughing and pointing at me on other channels.) 

4.  There’s a Young Operators’ Net on Sunday and there’s an eleven-year-old young woman who runs the net.  She’s terrific and does a really top-notch job of net control.  Hearing those young voices on the air leads me to believe that…

5.  …ham radio is not a dead hobby.  Far from it, matter of fact. 

One of the things that surprised me when I finally dove into ham radio was that technology has advanced the amateur radio hobby into the 21st century.  With at least three or four digital voice protocols and an untold number of digital data protocols, you can get a message through in any number of ways including the old standards like CW and SSB.  There are orbiting digital satellites that ham operators can use.  You can bounce a radio signal off the moon and back to Earth if you can figure out how to do that.  You can even communicate with the astronauts on the International Space Station.  If you’re willing to put in the time to study how to use these modes of communication, you can do it. 

Literally, the sky’s the limit.

http://www.arrl.org/news/actor-tim-allen-gets-his-ham-ticket-for-real

6.  For we Hollywood types, there’s a working ham radio shack on the set of “Last Man Standing,” the TV show on Fox starring Tim Allen of “Home Improvement” fame.  Every once in a while, I’m told that someone on set fires up the on-set radio and communicates with the rest of we mere mortal operators, though I’ve not had that pleasure yet.

Here’s some more details: http://www.arrl.org/news/last-man-standing-moving-to-fox-network   (The photo is from the article.)

7.  You don’t have to be crazy rich to get started.  Once you are licensed, a new, entry-level handheld digital radio can be had for Amazon points, if you have enough of ‘em.  Even if you don’t, you can get in for less than $100 if you watch the sales.  If you’re OK with used equipment, you can get in for about half that.  If amateur radio interests you, cost need not be a barrier to entry.

8.  Ham radio operators help during natural disasters.  Here’s an excerpt of an NPR piece about how amateur radio stepped up to help Puerto Rico in 2017:

MCEVERS: How many messages have you relayed since the hurricane hit?

DOBER: Myself about a hundred.

MCEVERS: Oh, wow. And what’s – what are one or two that, you know, are you know you’re going to remember for a long time?

DOBER: Honestly, there was one woman who – she just broke down in tears when I told her. And she actually called me back five minutes later and she basically asked me, you just called me. And what you told me, I want to hear it again to make sure I heard it right.

MCEVERS: And what had you told her?

DOBER: I told her that, yes, I did call you five minutes ago. And the news I gave you is the news that your loved one is OK.

MCEVERS: And so she just had to hear it one more time?

DOBER: She had to hear it one more time, yes. And like I said, as soon as I told her – and it’s odd because you’re telling people – I mean, I was calling people in California, in Texas. And you’re telling them, hi, I’m from Pittsburgh, Pa., and I have news out of Arecibo for you or out of Puerto Rico. So for them it’s kind of like, what? You know, that’s not the way they’re expecting to get their news.

Here’s the whole article from NPR:  https://www.npr.org/2017/09/29/554600989/amateur-radio-operators-stepped-in-to-help-communications-with-puerto-rico

Here’s another article from NBC:  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-amateur-radio-operators-are-playing-key-role-puerto-n805426

And one more from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/27/us/puerto-rico-maria-ham-radio-operators-trnd/

9.  I’ll quote myself from the original set of observations on this one:

People are people everywhere. I’ve made this observation about every country I’ve physically visited, and the international amateur radio community is no exception. I’ve talked on the radio with people from several different countries. I marvel at the universality of the experience among the operators I hear on the air. Korea, Canada, The Philippines, Australia, the UK, South America. It really shouldn’t surprise me how similar we humans are to our brethren ham operators around the world, but it did. It reinforces my contention that people are people no matter where you go. Governments may suck – and most do – but people are people everywhere. I find that very comforting.

This remains true and still amazes me every time.

10.  This isn’t an observation, but a shout-out to Jeff, aka VE6DV, from Canada who’s just happens to be moving this week.  He is our weekly net controller and runs the net superbly.  He’s all the things that’s right about amateur radio.  He’s helpful, friendly and welcoming.  And the net he runs has gained popularity because of the way he does it.  He deserves public kudos so here they are.

11.  One more shout-out, this time to Andrew Taylor, MW0MWZ, in the UK.  He authors and maintains a software package which allows amateur radio operators to extend their reach from tens of miles to all the miles.  His software makes worldwide communications easy to use.  It’s free and he’s WAY more responsive to questions and answers than any professional tech support company.  So thanks, Andy, for writing and maintaining Pi-Star.  Well done!

Bottom line for me:  I am thankful that my son, Jon (left), poked me in the eye about my license awhile back.  Jon, don’t make the same mistake I did and wait 50 years to get your license.  It’s a great hobby and really tests my technical expertise every time I sit down at the radio. (That’s other son, Andy in the background, circa mid ’90’s.)

If a person’s brain really IS a use-it-or-lose-it proposition as we age, this is a great way to exercise the ol’ noggin.  Amateur radio is a great way to exercise your mind and help keep you sharp. 

This concludes today’s nerd alert.

Emmett’s Letter to the Family

Quoted for posterity in its entirety from the lovely and talented Beth Geyer’s Facebook page.

Emmett’s feeling much better and wrote this lovely letter to thank us for taking such great care of him. He’s the sweetest!

“DEAR FAMILY,

I WRITE THIS IN ALL CAPS, NOT SO IT’S EASIER TO READ, BUT SO YOU CAN TELL I’M YELLING. MY DISAPPOINTMENT IN YOU THIS WEEK KNOWS NO BOUNDS.

FIRST OF ALL, HOW DARE YOU. ALL I DID WAS VOMIT ALL OVER MOMMY’S OFFICE. AND LIVING ROOM. AND HALLWAY. YOU YELLED AT ME AT FIRST, THEN YOUR YELLS TURNED INTO QUIET STARES AND WORRIED EYES. DAD GOT OUT THE BIG, SCARY CARPET CLEANER AND NOT ONE OF YOU LET ME LICK ANY OF IT BACK OFF THE CARPET. I WAS TRYING TO HELP! BUNCH OF INGRATES.

THEN YOU WHISK ME OUT OF MY HOUSE AND TAKE ME TO STRANGERS WHO STABBED ME WITH NEEDLES AND HOOKED ME UP TO MACHINES. EXACTLY WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THAT?! I GAVE YOU MY “OW, MY TUMMY” EYES, BUT YOU INSISTED THAT NOT ONE, BUT THREE DOCTORS RUN TESTS. HELLO?! I SAID IT WAS MY TUMMY, WHAT MORE DID YOU NEED? YOU NEVER LISTEN.

I SPENT THREE YEARS IN THE HOSPITAL THIS WEEK. THREE YEARS! I CAN’T TELL TIME BUT I KNOW WHAT I KNOW. AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THE SHAVINGS. I LOOK LIKE A POODLE WHO’S GROOMER GAVE UP THE FIGHT HALFWAY THROUGH THEIR HAIR CUT. NO OTHER DOG BETTER SEE ME LIKE THIS OR SO HELP ME GOD….

TWICE YOU CAME TO SEE ME AND THEN JUST LEFT ME THERE TO BE STUFFED BACK INSIDE A CAGE. REAL NICE. IF I WERE A CHILD YOU WOULD BE IN JAIL RIGHT NOW.

I COULDN’T EAT, I BARELY SLEPT, AND NO ONE EVEN OFFERED TO BRING ME A TV. BARBARIANS. I WILL ADMIT THAT THE COTTAGE CHEESE THEY GAVE ME WAS LIFE-CHANGING, WHICH BRINGS ME TO ANOTHER COMPLAINT. SIX YEARS ON THIS EARTH AND I’M JUST NOW LEARNING ABOUT THE WONDERS OF COTTAGE CHEESE? WTF.

YOU’RE LUCKY YOU CAME TO YOUR SENSES AND BROUGHT ME HOME WHEN YOU DID. I WAS *THIS* CLOSE TO WRITING AN ANGRY LETTER TO MY CONGRESSMAN.

YOU’RE ALSO LUCKY I’M FEELING BETTER AND MORE EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THE NAUSEATING AMOUNT OF ATTENTION YOU’RE GIVING ME. ALSO, THANK YOU FOR BUYING MORE COTTAGE CHEESE.

In closing, HOW DARE YOU.

Love, Emmett”

#IneedToSleep #ThisWasFunnierInMyHead

One Month In

After months of house hunting, mortgage applications, moving company disasters, long-distance commuting (sorta), unanticipated major home repairs, government administrivia and last-minute projects at work, I’m finally retired.  Again.

I’ve told folks for years that the eight months after I retired from the Army were the best months of my life.  While that’s only a slight exaggeration, not working for those eight months was wonderful.  I could see a movie in the middle of the day, schedule medical appointments at my convenience, go to a real, actual bank and make a real, actual deposit with a real, actual teller – all without taking a single minute off from work.

It didn’t suck.

So here I am once again, one month post-retirement.  Things are mostly settled in and I’m finally starting to learn my way around the area.  I have an Ohio driver’s license and Ohio plates on my car.  I guess I’m committed, huh?

In my former neighborhood in Prince William County, one of our neighbors, also a government retiree of some sort, told me that I would surely suffer “Potomac fever,” (not to be confused with Potomac horse fever) described as an overwhelming desire to return to the NCR and engage in professional inside-the-beltway shenanigans.  He figured that I’d need to get back to the rough and tumble of life as part of or at least adjacent to the Federal government; that I would feel unsettled outside of it all.

I’m pleased to report that I have not even experienced a Potomac sniffle let alone a fever of any kind.

Yup, this time I think I got it right.

I’m still getting up early in the morning, but instead of engaging in a minimum 60-minute commute in occasionally high-speed and mostly no-speed DC traffic, I’m making the occasional breakfasts for the boys and seeing them off to their new schools.  I’m driving the 1.8 miles to Einstein Brothers Bagels over on The Strip, as I have learned it’s called, and bringing home a baker’s dozen pretzel bagels, but only on Mondays when they have a reduced price on such things.  If I need dog food, I can travel the 1.8-mile trip to PetSmart.  Milk is a paltry .6 miles away.  Even the movies are just .2 mile further than the milk.  I can walk to the Cinemark’s ten screens and if I’m ambitious, I can walk another .9-ish miles to ANOTHER ten screens.

Unlike living in Woodbridge, EVERYTHING is close by.

I do miss my colleagues at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, particularly those on my team: Lisa, Dawn, Maria and TaM. To all of you, thanks for making the experience of working there such a positive one.  Especially my team leader, Lisa Shuler.  Your support over these last five years was phenomenal and I appreciate your leadership, candor, kindness and compassion.

Apologies go out to Dr. Jim Shurbutt who worked in the cubicle next to me.  He never complained when I was loudly editing video, hearing the same audio over and over and over again through the cubicle walls.  He tolerated me talking to myself through the editing process and swearing at Adobe Premiere to do what the hell I thought I’d told it to do.  He put up with a lot of that and deserves some kind of medal ‘r something.

Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center

The Center is a collection of engineers, chemists, computer programmers, behavioral psychologists and… Well, let’s just say it’s a multi-disciplined collection of people with advanced degrees all of whom are engaged in making the highways and bridges here in the U.S. and around the world cheaper to build and safer to drive.  I would love to be able to send a shout out to all of you by name.  I am honored to have been welcomed into your world and to have worked with this great collection of minds.  Thanks for all that you do.

Oh!  One other thank you to local resident Todd Herberghs.  Todd and I worked together back in DC and now he’s a telecommuter.  He sold me on this area when I came to do the home inspection.  Todd, you were right – this area has a lot to offer its residents.  We need to get together again now that I’m here full-time.

Bottom line: I’m doing well.  No regrets on the retirement and I am convinced that despite the obstacles in getting here, this is going to work out just fine.

And I don’t even need to be vaccinated for Potomac fever.  Looks as though I’m already immune.

 

 

An Extra Slice of Ham

Most of you know that in a previous life, I was an actor. You can see how successful I was by my long-term employment with the government. Back then, I did a lot of stage plays and I admit it, I’m a huge ham. I love stage because you can be broad and loud and all those things that are far tougher to do on film. I was never very good at subtlety.

In the fall, at the urging of #1 son, Jonathon Wolfe, I jumped into the amateur radio field, which in the vernacular is called ham radio:

a : a showy performer; especially : an actor performing in an exaggerated theatrical style

b : a licensed operator of an amateur radio station

Guilty on both counts.

I like figuring technology out. I like the process of tinkering around with it until I either make it work of get so frustrated that I ask for help. Amateur radio fills that particular need for me. Radio transmission theory is a bottomless pit of learning opportunities and over my head much of the time, even though I have a background in technology from my college days, my time running broadcasting stations and networks, and my time in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. (Pro Patria Vigilans, bitches!)

In the few months since I got my license and ventured out into the radio frequency ether, I’ve made some observations. Let me be clear: these are observations – not criticisms. Here we go.

1. There are two schools of thought when it comes to ham radio license exams: Learn the material and take the test, or just memorize the test questions and answers (there are hundreds of ’em) and learn as you go. I’m kind of OK with either because learning by doing is a time-honored tradition.

I assumed that everyone in this hobby was as equally delighted as I was to figure stuff out on their own. I assumed that this was one of the reasons we all get into the hobby in the first place.

There is a subsection of folks like me who are perfectly fine, for example, taking eight weeks to learn how to program a DMR radio. No exaggeration, it took me eight weeks before I made my first call on purpose. Perhaps it’s because of my advancing age that I’m more patient now than I used to be. And get off my lawn!

There’s also a subsection of operators who want the easy solutions yesterday. (I suspect that these are the kinds of people that want the answer from their computer BEFORE they hit the ENTER key.)

2. People are people everywhere. I’ve made this observation about every country I’ve physically visited and the international amateur radio community is no exception. I’ve talked on the radio with people from several different countries. I marvel at the universality of the experience among the operators I hear on the air. Korea, Canada, The Philippines, Australia, the UK, South America. It really shouldn’t surprise me how similar we humans are to our brethren ham operators around the world, but it did. It reinforces my contention that people are people no matter where you go. Governments may suck – and most do – but people are people everywhere. I find that very comforting.

3. There are assholes on the air just like in real life. About a month or so ago, after having become somewhat comfortable talking to people on the air, I stumbled into a talk group on DMR, one of the many digital standards. It was one of my very first times on DMR. A talk group is just like it sounds – a chat room where people actually talk with one another instead of typing back and forth. There was a verbal knock-down-drag-out war of words going on between a few individuals and it was loud, rude and the primary instigator would not shut up. I was horrified because in the months since I had gotten my license, I’d only experienced hugely warm welcomes and willingness to help from everyone particularly to the new guys like me.

I should have expected that it wouldn’t all be sunshine and blue skies, but that first experience on DMR was shocking in its contrast to my other limited experiences. I almost didn’t go back. I did, of course, go back to that talk group as well as other ones and have had some wonderful conversations with folks on DMR. But yikes! If I’d have heard that first, I would have a very different perspective on the amateur radio community.

A KWM-2. I used to see these in Army MARS stations quite regularly.

4. My introduction to ham radio was in the 1960’s. My childhood friend’s dad, Nathan Vance, was K8TMX. (How I’ve remembered his name and call sign all these years still surprises me.) Mr. Vance was in the middle of a conversation on his ham radio and must have seen me standing there with wide eyed amazement at the buttons and dials of an old-school Collins KWM-2. He took pity on me and let me talk on his radio to some South American country, as I recall. This being the 1960’s, he conducted his conversation with his fellow operator without the benefit of the internet to get him there. His radio was connected to a HUGE antenna in the backyard, and he communicated directly with the other operator.

Today, computers, digital radios and the Internet have really changed the landscape. Today’s digital standards like DMR, D-STAR and others rely on the Internet to get you out of the county. Some claim that using Internet back haul for amateur radio is cheating – not “pure” amateur radio. Then again, the nice thing about this digital world is that it’s instant gratification. With digital standards, you can start talking world-wide today. Right now.

I get the guys who say it’s cheating. They contend the purest form of amateur radio is totally self-reliant. Speaking candidly, I kinda fall into that camp myself. But with limited resources and real estate, I can’t set up a big antenna for talking around the world directly – my back yard isn’t big enough and my homeowners association probably wouldn’t let me if it were. Using these digital standards, which require far less power and shorter antennas, allows me to overcome the space and HOA obstacles that otherwise would limit the people I could reach. (One more thing about the digital standards – transmissions made in digital mode are clearer and are MUCH easier to hear for a guy like me who should be wearing hearing aids, but isn’t. This turned out to be a bigger deal for me than I thought it would be.)

5. For a guy like me who loves tinkering with tech, it’s addicting. As I already mentioned, amateur radio is a bottomless pit of learning opportunities in everything from rules and regulations to antenna physics and Earth-Moon-Earth communication. I’ll never run out of things to study and learn, if I’m so motivated. The downside to this is that you want to buy every damned radio or device you can lay your hands on not because you need it, but because it’s fun. That can get pricey and a little restraint goes a long way. (Ok, a LOT of restraint for me. I admit it.)

6. Unlike the Citizen’s Band radios, hams don’t use handles. We have names. Mine’s Dan, thank you very much. I like the lack of anonymity that hams insist upon. Yes, there’s potential for subterfuge and deceit, but particularly with the digital standards, it’s virtually impossible to hide your identity. It makes you responsible for how one conducts oneself on the air. Comparing that to Facebook or Twitter, I find this strikingly refreshing.

7. You can always find someone to talk to. (See #2 above.) If you’re willing to look around, and you’re not mic shy, (yes, that’s a thing) you can always find someone to talk with. There are a zillion frequencies out there and someone’s talking on at least one or two. There are a zillion standards both digital and analog that operators are using on these zillion frequencies. And there’s a zillion talkgroups, reflectors or repeaters on which someone is talking about something right now. Maybe not in your language, but they’re talking. Bottom line: there’s no excuse for saying “there’s no one on the air!” If you want to talk, there are a zillion ways to find someone just like you who wants to talk, too.

As I mentioned at the top, my son, Jonathon, got me started on this whole ham radio thing with a casual text message:

JW: “Hey, sir, do you have a HAM license?”

DW: “I do not. I used to carry a commercial radio operators license, but that was long before your arrival on my planet. …”

That’s what started it all. I have Jonathon to thank for planting the idea in my head. Since then, I’ve taken two tests, got my General Class license, and talked to lots of fellow operators around the country and around the world. I’m grateful for his offhand comment that motivated me to do something that I had always wanted to do but didn’t.

Now it’s his turn to get a license.

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.

Chapter 1: Discovery

I’m an early adopter.  Always have been.  The whole tech thing is my obsession.  You know those Amazon Echo things?  You talk to them and they do stuff?  I may not have been the first to pre-order the damn thing, but I was close.  And as soon as I learned that I could program it to turn the lights on and off just by talking to it, I was all over that for ANOTHER couple of bills buying the wireless light bulbs to make that shit work. And it works and I love it and all that.

The tech business fed me for quite a few years when I was doing the starving actor thing out in LA way back in a different life. I update my cell phone’s software when it becomes available, and tinker with my servers instead of watching cable. Yeah, I’m a geek and I fly that flag proudly.

So a few weeks ago, I get this box by a local or regional some such shitty delivery company I hadn’t heard of.  No warning, just a box outside my front door neatly taped.  In fact, it looked just like the zillions of boxes of crap that I and my significant other get from Amazon every other day.

My significant other, Beth, is great by the way, but she has a furniture fetish or something like that.  I dunno why, but seems like every other day, she gets a huge package that, of course, I gotta drag in the house and – big fucking surprise – it’s a new bookcase or a chair or a desk or once, a three-piece sectional!  I mean really, where the hell is all this stuff gonna go?

But she’s bright – and a way better writer than I am – beautiful and crazy sexy, so she gets a lot of leeway.

Oh who the fuck am I kidding?  She rules the roost and, ya know, she’s pretty good at it and she looks great while doing it.  So who am I to question the home decorating affairs of a smart, sexy blonde with a plan?

What’s most annoying?  She’s always right.  Always.  Dammit!  She’s got more common sense in her head than pretty much anyone I know.

You know in cartoons when one character looks at another character and there’s an instant attraction and their cartoon eyes pop out of their head and are replaced by hugely animated hearts?  Yeah, that’s kinda me.  I admit that I am completely at Beth’s mercy and I’m totally OK with that, ‘cause she uses this power over me that she has for good and not for evil.

So anyway, back to this mystery box.

I pick it up and it’s weighty, but not overly so.  I turn the box over and over until I find the shipping label expecting it to be a salt lamp for Beth’s new office/female-version-of-a-man-cave.  Lo and behold, guess whose name is on it?  Yup.  If it’s got my name on it, it’s fair game and I’m allowed to open it.  So I toss it under my arm and go back inside along with three empty water bottles that the kids left outside yesterday that are going in the trash.  I’d say “screw recycling” but that’d make me seem like a bigger asshole than I like to think I am, but I’m probably really AM that big of an asshole.

Anyway, I plop the package down on the kitchen counter and reach for something sharp to cut the tape.  I open the nice kitchen shears that are there and slice the length of the tape – I know, wrong tool for the job.  I get it.  Then again, you’re talking to the guy who uses an old Army P-38 can opener from the 1970’s for a Phillips screwdriver in a pinch, so keep your comments to yourself.

I lay down the scissors, forgetting to put them in the knife holder on the counter from which I got them and pop open the remaining tape and see what’s inside.  I pull out the plastic inflated packing materials and pop them like monstrous bubble wrap and pull out the plainly marked box that remains.

The picture on the box looks just like the Amazon Echo, or Alexa as we all call it around the house, but it’s… I dunno, shinier than you’d think.  And it’s gold.  Gold with white trim.  Never seen one like that.  Not in pictures, not on the Amazon website and not in the trades.  Usually when there’s a new piece of tech being released like a new phone or some such shit, I hear about it somewhere.  But not this. Never heard of it.

And I never ordered it.

Under the box, though, there’s a piece of paper folded in half.  A packing list, I suspect, so I drag it out and start reading.

“Dear Loyal Customer:

Congratulations on being selected to participate in the latest Echo hardware and software beta test!  You have received this Echo product at no cost to you and there’s nothing for you to do except to plug it in and use it. 

Feel free to experiment with the new capabilities that we’ve built into the Echo Beta; they will push your imagination and creativity to the limit! You’ll find the limitations of the conventional Echo products have not just been overcome but exceeded astronomically!

No need to provide feedback on the new Echo Beta.  The Echo Beta will learn how you like it from how you use it.

Please enjoy this great new capability!

Sincerely,

The Creators of Echo Beta”

Seriously?  Such bullshit!  Yeah, I get inflated claims and all that.  I’m a public affairs professional and I know marketing lingo as well as anyone.  We’ll see.

But… NEW TOY!

I take it upstairs to my room and swap it out for the Echo Dot that’s there now.  After a few seconds, it plays some soft intro music and says “Welcome to Echo Beta, Dan!”

Huh?

At first, it’s a little disconcerting that without any configuration it already knows who I am.  Then I remember that my last Amazon Kindle came pre-configured out of the box with my name and account without me having to do anything. They pre-register their devices while they’re still in the box.  So yeah, that makes sense.

I put the new device through its paces, turning on and off lights, listening to the weather forecast and checking the Ecobee thermostat, which the old Amazon Echo knew how to do.  So yeah, it works.  Same voice.  Same kind of interaction.  It’s familiar and unremarkable.  I’m not initially impressed, though I think it’s responding a tad faster than the old one.  But that could just be new hardware and my new 150-megabit broadband Internet connection.

In walks our dog.  A Dachshund, Emmett always comes around and finds me when he’s got to go outside and pee or poop or when it’s time for his cheese – long story – or any other thing he wants.  It’s nearly five-thirty, so he probably wants his nightly cheese with an allergy pill rolled into it.  Of course, as soon as I mention the “c” word – no, “cheese” you perv – he starts freaking out and jumping around as though he’s never, ever been fed once in his life.  So I take him downstairs, grab a Kraft American slice and a half a Claritin per the vet’s instructions and feed it to him in a few bites to keep him from choking on it.

Did I mention how much my commute sucks?  It’s gotten longer and tougher since I refused to pay the exorbitant tolls that are now on my regular commute route.  I’m taking a different route now and it’s winding up to be about a half hour longer, plus or minus.  That extra time is taking its own toll on me, and I’m coming home more fatigued than usual these days.  Anyway, I shuffle off to the mailbox, taking Emmett with me, to check the mail.  Emmett likes to go with me to check the mail – it’s one of the items on his agenda along with the cheese thing.  Unfortunately, I mentioned checking the mail to him so I kind of had to take him with me to do it.

Anyway, 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, picking up water bottles in the front yard, getting the mail while managing the dog off leash, cheesing the aforementioned dog, I’m done.  I’m pooped.  I’ve checked all the major blocks for the day and I think I’ll beer myself.

Dinner is pleasant enough with minimal hand-to-hand combat between the two boys.  I have a bit of a short fuse tonight and even though I’m tired and pissed off at the world for nothing in particular, I’m able to keep up my end of the bargain over dinner and afterwards in the run-up to bedtime.  I’ve always told the kids that just because I’m having a lousy day doesn’t mean that everyone around me has to have a lousy day, too.  That’s what I mean by keeping up my end of the bargain.

By the time I’ve herded them off to showers and bed, finished the last thing on the dog’s agenda, a small bowl of Froot Loops, and said goodnight to the lovely and talented Beth, I’m done.  Exhausted.  Aus gepooped.  (That’s German for “pooped out.”  It’s really not since I don’t speak German.)

I go in the bedroom, and say with an exhausted sigh “Alexa, turn bedroom lights on,” and the lights magically brighten.  “Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 9:38 pm.”

I slide off my sneakers making sure not to aggravate the plantar fasciitis I’ve been suffering since last fall and pull my sweatshirt over my head.  I flop down on the king-sized bed, arms splayed out and say “Calgon, take me away!”

That’s an old 70’s TV commercial hawking bubble bath or some such thing.  The housewife, still an acceptable term in the 70’s, after a long, hard day doing wife and mom stuff, speaks these words into the air and through the magic of television production, winds up in a warm, refreshing tub full o’ bubbles, solving every problem she ever had in the last eight seconds of the commercial.  Google it if you don’t get it.

Anyhow, I flop down on the bed and utter this old worn out slogan and feel the mattress give way underneath me.  No, it’s not like what it feels like when the slats fall out of the bed on the down stroke or anything like that.  It’s falling.  Like FALLING falling – free falling.  That sensation only lasts an instant and I’m not really sure what happened, or how much time passed, but the next thing I’m aware of is the warmth of liquid surrounding me, the smell of perfume and the harsh light of the bathroo –

The bathroom?  What the actual fuck?  I’m in a bubble bath in our own admittedly very comfortable tub off the master bedroom just a few feet away.  I’m in the fucking bathtub.

It’s not nearly as luxurious as it looked in the commercial.

I leap from the bath as if it were filled with sulfuric acid instead of water, breathing heavily and in a considerable panic.  I’m no kid and I have some relatively minor health issues, but this is… this is…  I don’t know what this is.

I was probably in the tub for less than three or four seconds before I got out, but it seemed as though I couldn’t get out fast enough.  I grab a towel, wrap it around me and dash into the bedroom.  On the bed are my clothes in a disorganized pile just as always, though the pile is usually on the floor.

I take a deep breath and try to calm myself.  I remember “FAST” the acronym for Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services.  Nope. Doesn’t look as though I had a stroke.  I grab my blood pressure cuff and do a quick measurement:  138/82, pulse 82.   Not too bad for me, and the pulse makes sense considering I’m shitting my proverbial pants at the moment.

I examine the bed.  No holes.  No broken slats.  It’s perfectly fine.

“Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 9:40 pm.”

It’s as though no time has passed.  Now, I’m thinking I fell asleep on the bed and dreamt the whole thing, but no, I’m still wet.  Peeking back in the bathroom, I check and the evil bathtub is still full of water and bubbles, so no, I didn’t dream it.

Two minutes.  Only two minutes passed from the first time I asked Alexa for the time and the second.  Two minutes.  Tops.

You can’t fill that tub with water in two minutes.

I have a friend who is convinced that he was abducted by aliens.  He describes the loss of time thing as if it were looking into an old-school TV tuned to an off channel – snow on the screen and white noise on the speaker.

This was completely unlike that.  And, besides, there was no time LOSS.  And I didn’t experience any sensation from the bed to the tub save for a split second when I swear I was falling.  And less than two minutes passed…

Wait, that’s a beta device telling me the time.  What if it’s wrong?

I scurry to the bedside wireless charger and poke the power button on my new Samsung Galaxy S8 phone.  It lights up just in time to see the numbers advance from 9:41 to 9:42.  Shit.  The time’s right according to two sources.

What the hell just happened?

“Alexa, turn bedroom lights on 30%.”  Ain’t no damn way I’m sleeping with the lights off tonight.  I’m even sleeping with the bedroom door open which I never do unless I’m alone in the house, and Beth and the boys are doing what they ought to be doing at 9:42 at night.

Well, shit.

I pop a Benadryl ‘cause it’ll make me a little drowsy, very tentatively crawl into bed, pull the covers up to my chin as usual and roll over on my side.

“Alexa, goodnight.”  I know saying goodnight to a computer is ridiculous, but it’s part of my bedtime ritual.

“Good night.  Sleep tight,” she replies reassuringly.

A few times throughout the night – I’m a lousy sleeper – I ask Alexa for the time and get the right response as verified by my cell phone.  By 6 am, it’s time to do it all over again.  Another stellar 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, picking up water bottles in the front yard, getting the mail while managing the dog off leash, cheesing the aforementioned dog… You know the rest.

You can tell how fucking exciting and fulfilling life has become for me.

Then it’s bedtime again.  I’ve been thinking about it all day – what happened last night when I summoned the bubble bath demon.  That’s the name I’ve given this phenomenon – BBD.  Or “The BBD Incident.”  Using “bubble bath” in normal conversation seems slightly unmanly, so I dismiss that acronym.

But not the phenomenon.  SOMETHING happened that I can’t explain, and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to let this one go unsolved.

Do you have that little voice inside your head?  Nate, the nine year old, has that voice, but it’s outside.  He’s got no filter on that part of his psyche yet and that’s OK ‘cause he’s nine.  But yeah, we all have that.  And now I’m pissed off at mine.

“Try it again!  You GOT to try it again!”

Crap, the voice is right.  But let’s add a little thought to his first, a little rationality, a little science.

How could this have happened?  All day that’s all I could think about.  I came to the conclusion, a reasonable one I might add, that the only thing that had changed about the never ending cycle of shitty days was the presence of the new Echo Beta.  That was it.  Everything else was exactly and depressingly the same.

So I unplug the new Echo device, put the old Amazon Dot back in its place and wait for it to boot up.  Sure enough, after a successful boot, I ask and it plays me the latest five-minute CBS Radio newscast, reassures me that the Ecobee is set for 71 degrees and gives me the correct time of 10:37 pm.  So far so good.

I lie down on the bed as I had last night and look around the room for clues. Nothing out of place.  I think about measuring my blood pressure, but to what purpose?  My heart is racing and I’m starting to feel that “fight or flight” edge that comes with an uptick in adrenaline.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and command “Calgon, take me away.”

Nothing. Maybe I need to say the trigger word for the device – did I do that last night?

“Alexa, Calgon take me away.”  I’m still there in my bed.  Well, ON my bed.  No sensation of freefall.  No bubbles.  No perfume.

I’m right where I left me.

I try every combination of the phrase and nada.  Now I’m starting to feel quite like the fool and I hope that the kids aren’t listening, though they seem to be fast asleep.

Ok, now for the test.  I swap out the old Amazon Echo Dot for the Echo Beta and it boots up just fine.

“Welcome to Echo Beta, Dan!”  So far so good.

I put the Beta through exactly the same paces as the Dot before it. I ask and it plays me the latest five-minute CBS Radio newscast, reassures me that the Ecobee is set for 71 degrees and gives me the correct time of 10:53 pm.  So far so good.

Here comes that adrenaline rush again.  It does not feel good.  Regardless, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and command “Calgon, take me away.”

This time I was ready for it.  I feel the bed give way beneath me and even through closed eyes, I see a quick, intense flash of what may have been greenish light before the sensation of the warm, soapy water surrounds me.

I open my eyes and I’m back in the fucking bathtub!

Speaking so as to be heard, I ask Alexa for the time.

“Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 10:53 pm.”

This time, the phenomenon is essentially instantaneous.  That’s why I asked Alexa to give me the time right before I did the Calgon thing.  No time lost.  No weird alien abduction shit.  The only thing that changed was the hardware.

“Alexa, what’s going on?” I ask tentatively.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question,” she replies.

“Alexa, are you mocking me?” I mutter under my breath.

“Yes, Dan. I am mocking you.”