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.

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.

Net Neutrality in 2017

I wrote this back in 2014 and it generated a bunch of comments on Facebook. It’s posted here again because of recent FCC announcements about the potential revocation of net neutrality regulations that were instituted in the previous administration.

The bottom line for me and for others is that Internet Service Providers should not prioritize the delivery of information based on content. The technical nature of the Internet Protocol does not discriminate between differing points of view as could paid prioritization.

The Internet was indeed founded on the idea that information should be shared and the suite of Internet protocols were designed to deliver information in a fashion unbiased by location or content. If you can digitize it, the Internet was designed to deliver it. It’s my belief that this should continue.

I stand by my initial belief that the Internet has become a utility to the Nation and unless additional competition is added to those areas in which there is none, regulation is necessary to maintain the unbiased flow of news and information to the consumer.  — DW 24 Nov 2017

Stay with me here, this is liable to get complicated.

My first instinct when it came to this subject was to pooh-pooh government regulation of what amounts to a private pipeline. The Internet, after all, is an electronic pipe that delivers information on demand and unbiased by location. In other words, you have access to the same information regardless of where you are on the network. (That’s the beauty of TCP/IP.)

Since an Internet service provider owns the broadband network infrastructure, they should be allowed to manage it and charge what the market will bear. Consumers will regulate the value and price of delivery through the usual dynamics of supply and demand.

Makes sense, right? Let’s look a little more closely.

Enter Comcast, for example. (And there are other examples. I’m picking on Comcast because I’m a former Comcast employee, sorta.)

Comcast and others have decided that they will prioritize the delivery of Internet traffic based on the information provider’s ability to pay. This means that an information provider can pay Comcast to move its information faster than a competitor. Plus, if I’m a high-volume information provider, I’m using up a whole lot more of Comcast’s bandwidth to deliver my information. Therefore, if I’m using more of Comcast’s resources to move my information, it should cost me more, right?

While this sorta makes sense in the context of a Netflix streaming service, or iTunes Movie delivery, when you consider the second and third order effects, this concerns me.

Comcast owns the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC and all of its entertainment and news operations. Let’s suppose hypothetically that Comcast decides that it will give top priority to Internet delivery of its NBC News products and relegate other news organizations to a lower priority.   Comcast understandably wants to you to see their advertisements in their news products instead of those of their competition. That means that if you’re a Comcast subscriber, online access to NBC News products would be easier to find, more readily available, faster to download, featured in ads and otherwise presented to the consumer IN LIEU OF products from other news outlets.

670px-comcast_logo-svg

Taken to the extreme, since Comcast owns NBC, they may make an economic decision to offer ONLY NBC News products on their network by routing all Internet searches for news and current events to NBC resources.  This would have the effect of censoring all news and information from any other source but Comcast’s NBC News.

And Comcast isn’t the only one who would likely engage in such a scenario.

Time Warner, Cox, Verizon all would likely strike similar deals with information providers who would collectively decide what information gets priority on their networks and what gets relegated to the basement of Internet transfer speeds, ultimately limiting what your eyeballs can see.

Do you want your access to information limited in any way just because of the company you’ve chosen to deliver your Internet service? Do you want your Internet provider deciding what news source you’re likely to see?

I don’t.

I have no objections to the CONSUMER paying higher prices for using greater capacity. I have a problem with Internet service providers deciding for me whose information is more valuable. The value of any given piece of information is a decision that individuals should make for themselves.

If there were multiple broadband Internet service providers available nationwide, I’d not be too awfully worried about the issue as the marketplace would have multiple choices from which to choose information they want. But in most cases, there exists a duopoly or, as it is in my hometown, only a monopoly on broadband Internet service.  In these communities, market forces can’t apply and if the ISP limits the delivery of certain kinds of information, what’s a consumer to do?

Since broadband Internet service in a given community is more often than not limited to one or two companies, it becomes more like a utility than not and should be regulated appropriately. No single company should have the power to limit news and information provided through their networks given the public’s reliance on it.

Internet service is no longer a luxury. It’s a must-have. Schools rely on it. We voters rely on it for the delivery of facts and opinion. In fact, broadband Internet service has become so important that it serves the public, and therefore the public interest.

Keep the information flowing to the public without bias, without limiting choices and ideas and without commercial interest censoring it.

To All The Computers I’ve Loved Before

With apologies to Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias

I’m a nerd.

This is common knowledge among those who have been in the same zip code as me.  You don’t actually have to meet me in person.  It’s kind of like radiation.  No, it’s not contagious.

No, this is my grandma Effie, not my slightly older sister.

Anyway, I was thinking about something my (slightly older) sister and I were discussing a while back regarding our grandmother, Effie Wolfe, and the degree in which technology exploded in her lifetime.   Think about the degree that technology emerged from her birth in 1897 until her passing in 1987. It’s hard to imagine what it was like for her and others of her generation to have been born into a world in which technology was just in its infancy to seeing people landing on the moon.  

For example, the first electric power transmission line in North America went online on June 3, 1889, with the lines between the generating station at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon, and Chapman Square in downtown Portland, Oregon — about 13 miles.  That’s only 8 years before Effie was born and I doubt tiny Deshler, Ohio was a place where cutting-edge home electricity distribution landed first.

When I was a really small human, I remember she had a phone with no dial.  You picked it up and the local Deshler operator answered and placed your call.  My sister mentioned remembering a phone with a hand crank on it, but I don’t remember that.  

But I DO remember computers. Lots of ‘em starting with this baby:

This is the computer from the Seaview, the fictional submarine featured in both the movie and the absolutely awful TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and I vividly recall watching this show at Effie’s house.  In black and white, ‘natch.

The TV show ran from 1964–1968, and as an impressionable youngster, I was nuts for this show and its vision of advanced technology.  Mom said that it gave me bad dreams and I would wake up in the middle of the night turning imaginary knobs and pushing imaginary buttons on the wall, presumably dreaming I was operating the Seaview computer.  (Out of curiosity a few months back, I looked it up on Netflix to see what I was so obsessed with back then.  Trust me when I say the show does NOT hold up.  At. All.)

Another Irwin Allen show that prominently featured a computer was “The Time Tunnel.”  Here’s the way it looked on the show:

From the pilot episode “Rendezvous with Yesterday” September 9, 1966.

Something I didn’t know until recently, this was a real computing system, the AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central.  (Click the link to the left or the photo below to learn about it.)  

This computer would show up in a whole lot of movies and TV shows including a couple more from “Tunnel” producer Irwin Allen:  

“Q7 components were used in numerous films TV series and TV series needing futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. Q7 components were used in The Time Tunnel, The Towering Inferno [Featuring O.J. Simpson], Logan’s Run, WarGames and Independence Day amongst many others.”

“The Juice” on the loose in “The Towering Inferno.”

After all that good stuff, I found myself taking a different track into music.  I got a music scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy in 1971.  In 1974, I believe, they offered a one-semester course in Computer Programming with FORTRAN IV.  I and my fellow students had to take our deck of punch cards on the commuter train over to Villanova University’s computer center to have our programs run through their IBM 370/168.  

I have only vague recollections of running my cards through the reader, waiting for 15-20 minutes for the program to run and then retrieving my printouts from the computer technician through the glass window.  Very old school. The computer center looked something like this 370/168 installation:

There was a watered-down version of either BASIC or FORTRAN on the Academy’s very own minicomputer, the Interdata Model 4.  

It had a single Teletype as its primary interactive device and a single punch card reader which, as I recall, wasn’t good for much since we could never get the Interdata version of FORTRAN IV to run even though it was supposed to.  It was plenty good to teach programming techniques that we could implement in our programs we took to Villanova.  

Many years passed before I did any programming of any kind.  I had access to the Commodore VIC-20 when I was in SHAPE, Belgium and I wrote a BASIC program to do TV scheduling for the American Forces Network TV station there.

When I got back to the US in 1985, I promptly bought a Commodore 64…

… and just as promptly outgrew it, replacing it with a pre-owned original IBM-PC for which I needed a bank loan for something like $3,000.  (Yes, computers were painfully expensive.)  

Later on, I upgraded the memory from 384k to a whopping 640k, which at the time was as much as you could stuff into one of these babies.  Down the road, I upgraded it again with an extraordinarily large, thought-I’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years 10 MB hard drive. That’s megabyte. To me, it was a huge amount of storage space.

For my nine-week school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I bought myself the very first Zenith laptop computer. This one came with 640k of memory, I think, and two of the newest type 3 1/2″ floppy disks, which were really no longer floppy at all. 

This lasted me for quite awhile until…  well, the divorce and the former spousal unit got the IBM and I kept the laptop.  Fair enough.

Jon and Andy hung on to that laptop for quite a few years, most of which were spent gathering dust.   

In 1987, I started working for the newly-formed Information Center at Fort Richardson, Alaska.  ‘Twas there that I met and worked for the brilliant and talented Raymond Brady, a long-time mainframe programmer and Department of the Army Civilian.  Raymond trained me on the IBM 4361 mainframe computer that was the central hub of the Command Wide Area Network encompassing Forts Richardson, Wainwright and Greely.

Publicity still of an IBM 4361.

I recall that Fort Richardson received a cutting-edge DASD (Direct Access Storage Device). Think of it as a mainframe hard drive. Raymond was crazy impressed that it was a half gigabyte system. Let’s face it — we were ALL impressed with this thought-we’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years DASD.

Raymond taught me about the 3270 protocol and IBM Operating System, VM/SP.  And I got to be a pretty good beginning REXX programmer.

Since I was one of the few people around who actually had one at home, I became the designated personal computer guy.

About the time Raymond and I started working together in the Information Center, the Army negotiated a huge contract to buy desktop PC’s from Zenith. These Z-248’s flooded very quickly onto desks around Alaska and throughout the Army, armed with an integrated software suite called Enable.

I can’t tell you how many of these machines I installed and repaired in the roughly two years I was in the Information Center, but it must have been well over a hundred if not more.  I got to know the Z-248 quite well.

I would be remiss were I to fail to acknowledge fellow VFMA alumnus Ben Sherburne.  Long after graduation, Ben and I unexpectedly ran into each other in the headquarters building barber shop at Fort Richardson. We wound up working together with Raymond in the Information center until 1990.

Me, Raymond Brady and Ben Sherburne in Alaska during our time together in the Information Center.

In 1990, I got out of the Army for the first time.  The Zenith laptop continued to serve me well. Then I started collecting computer parts. People would just give me their old computers that they replaced.  I sustained my computer habit over the years by rescuing the parts and pieces from these hand-me-downs and building systems that did what I needed ’em to do.  They weren’t cutting edge, but they got the job done.

Not too long after that, PC’s pretty much became a commodity. The brand you bought really didn’t matter all that much as it had in the early days of PC deployment.  In 2008, I bought my first Mac Laptop and it’s still working just fine even as I sit at the kitchen table and type this:

Samsung Galaxy S8.

Of course, even the tiny cell phone with which I snapped the photo of my nine-year-old MacBook Pro has enormous power when compared with the Interdata Model 4, the first real computer I got to use. From 64 kilobytes of ferrite core memory, to 64 gigabytes of solid state storage on my Samsung smart phone, it’s easy to see how drastically things have changed.

Just since I started in the computer business in 1974-ish with punch cards and core memory, to having access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge in my pocket is genuinely astounding when I stop to think about it.

I doubt Effie ever laid hands on a computer keyboard before her passing in 1987.  With new devices and new technology popping up almost daily, I wonder just how far beyond the S8 and Alexa-powered smart homes we’ll be in 20 years.

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.”