Saturday, January 7, 2017

Dollhouse Cascade Effect

If you read my previous post, you’ll know that a little girl was talking to the Alexa feature of Amazon’s Echo Dot, and the next thing you know it delivered four pounds of cookies and a huge, expensive dollhouse to her home.

And here’s the cascade effect: A number of other people who left their Echo Dot on while watching this story on TV have said that Amazon delivered dollhouses to them. This will become another news story, and on and on. Eventually, the North American continent will sink under the weight of the dollhouses.

public domain dollhouse by Thomas Quine

Echo Dot is voice-activated. How does this work? Well, in order to voice activate it, the thing has to always be listening to you: in the living room, bathroom, bedroom, etc. Um, are you really comfortable with that?

You can imagine what will happen if people add other listening devices to their homes. Men will have to stop any women from wishing out loud for diamonds. (Wait, I just discovered Amazon delivers jewelry. “Honey, I ordered that on accident.”) Of if you have security listening devices installed, you could be watching a gunfight on TV where someone cries for help, and the next thing you know a SWAT team will show up. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cookies and Airlocks—The Perils and Virtues of Voice Commands

A six-year-old girl in Texas was delighted when the family received an Echo Dot for a holiday gift. It features Alexa, the digital assistant that answers questions and handles calendars, etc. The girl asked Alexa questions about cookies and a dollhouse.

The next thing you know, Amazon delivered four pounds of cookies and a $170 dollhouse. Alexa had interpreted the conversation as an order.

All this goes to show the danger of voice commands. It also serves as a segue to an excerpt from my latest science fiction manuscript, Alpha Shift.

 photo by Constantin Barbu 
“Emergency shutdown of docking.” Akajima spoke slowly and clearly into the arm of his chair. The ship’s systems were mostly not operated by voice commands, since past experience had shown that an officer lecturing his crew on how to fire weapons could have disastrous results.

But officers could still speak certain emergency measures into life.

A watch stander jerked his head at a monitor. “Shutdown confirmed.”

Akajima knew that in that distant part of the ship a sheet of metal as thick as the hull had rammed down at great speed in front of the airlock, sealing off the ship from its connection with the shuttle. It didn’t matter if the armor detected by the scan was armored crewmen coming out of the cylinder into the main part of the shuttle in order to board the Panama, or an armored crawler meant to speed its way through the passageways. They were denied.

His next words were addressed to the appropriate crew around him. “Action Stations Yellow. All off-duty personnel confined to their berthing compartments.”

Flashing amber lights and a shrill alarm assaulted the senses—not just any alarm, but discordant high notes mixed with simulated baby screams that threatened to crack the brain case of all who heard. Some off-duty crew had been known to sleep through fistfights in their berthing compartments, but this combination of nightmare sounds would jolt them off the bunks. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Robinson Crusoe and his Girl Friday in Space—Review of Passengers

Suppose you were on a voyage to a colony on another planet, and you’re in one of those sleep chambers. Then you wake up, recover from years of suspended animation, then stroll through the ship—and find no one else awake.

That is the puzzle Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic, finds himself in. When he makes inquiries, he gets frustrating responses from cheerful holograms. He finally figures out he was woken up early—ninety years early. Unless he can figure out a solution, he will die on the spaceship, alone.

As you can see from the previews, there’s a girl involved, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). While Jim wants the challenges of putting his skills to work on a new planet, she’s a writer who paid for a round trip to get new experiences to write about. They are the unlikeliest of couples.

Passengers is a fun and satisfying movie, in contrast to the awful movie Arrival, which I reviewed here. The holograms who give Jim cheerful answers to his awful fate are genuinely funny. And the total despair he falls into after being alone for a year, eating bland food and having no human to talk to, is an experience easy to sympathize with, thanks to the affable and engaging performance by Chris Pratt. Although his portrayal of a man struggling against the universe is good, he gives the most depth to the man struggling against himself.

When Aurora comes along, they have their awkward initial scenes, then an extremely fun date  (I don’t think I’m revealing anything by saying they fall in love.) There are a couple of implied sex scenes I could have done without, though oddly enough Jennifer Lawrence’s swimsuit made me more uncomfortable. But the story goes into full swing as we watch them fall madly in love, do stupid things together, and inevitably throw stuff against the wall.

Although the rotating spaceship, shown from multiple angles, is an awesome spectacle, their artificial gravity wouldn’t actually work the way they show it. And there are problems with the climactic actions scenes—like staring at nuclear fusion without eye protection. But if you want someone who likes romance to watch science fiction, or vice versa, Passengers is a worthy experience.

P.S. In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, wasn’t she named Aurora? Yeah. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The War on December 25

I remember reading as a teen a very detailed newspaper article on how the date of December 25 as the birthday of Christ was a Medieval tradition. That is, there was some kind of important pagan celebration around the time of the winter solstice, and the church simply tacked the celebration of Christ’s birth onto that as a way of coopting the pagans.

But it is well established that the church began using December 25 as the birth of Christ a little after the year 300. This was well before the Medieval period. So what was all that stuff about the date coming from a Medieval tradition?

It was simply stuff and nonsense. Anyone who spent a half hour in an average public library would realize the tradition was ancient, not Medieval. Looking back on the matter, the article was as a subtle attack on Christianity. That is, if the central truths of the faith are just Christianized versions of pagan religions, there is nothing special or uniquely true about Christianity. But the facts were made up.

And the attack would not work, anyway. Christmas may be a highly visible part of Christian practice, but it is not a part of Christian belief. That is, the Bible does not give us a date for Christ’s birth, so deconstructing December 25 does not touch the substance of Christianity.

Now that the knowledge that December 25 is an ancient tradition is widespread, the attempt to deconstruct the date takes a different but familiar angle. The ancient Romans had a festival called Saturnalia around the same time. It originally started on December 17 and later expanded through December 23. So we are assured that the church made up the date of December 25 to coopt the pagan celebration.

Obviously, that is not a match. If these people who want to assert a cynical motive for celebrating on December 25 are going to have the attitude that “close” counts, they ruin their own argument. The Romans had so many feasts and holy days, one could almost choose a date at random and either match one of those dates or be close. The argument defeats itself.

More importantly, there are no ancient Christian writings that said, “The Romans are being gluttons, drunkards, and gamblers during Saturnalia, so let us say that Christ was born close to one of those days, because that will help us convert people to Christianity.” Nothing even close.

The church at that time had their own reason for choosing that date, and it sounds odd to modern ears. They decided that a martyr died on the date of his conception. After making a nice calculation for Easter in the relevant year, they added nine months and came up with December 25.

If you want to say this sounds as odd as the Medieval winter solstice and the Roman Saturnalia stories, go ahead. But this was based on what some early Christians believed, not made-up stories of Christians trying to take pagan celebrations and making them their own.

A more biblical/historical method involves noting that Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist was, and that John the Baptist was conceived right after his father performed a certain priestly ceremony, as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke. Historians then try to figure out when that father’s priestly division was on duty. They tie this together and come up with Jesus being born in December.

However, that historical calculation can be and has been disputed, so we are left with no certain answer.

But, as was stated above, disputes about the date of the birth of Christ do not strike at the Christian faith. Christians tend to be comfortable celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. But it has nothing to do with a cynical ploy on the part of the church to tag along with pagan celebrations. The cynicism is in the minds of people who make such assertions, weak and baseless as they are.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Now THAT’S a Bell

Here is a lovely bell choir that was playing Christmas music at a mall. Along with the normal size bells, there was one in the center about the size of someone’s head.

Actually, it pretty much obscures the head of the person ringing it. But a good time was had by all. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Wifely Concerns—My Vampire Parody

It’s been a while since I posted an excerpt from one of my manuscripts. This is from my vampire parody, where the main character is Dee, a full-time housewife.

To tee up this scene: Dee walks in on her friend Hope, who happens to be dressed up in a French maid’s outfit in anticipation of her husband coming home. After some laughter, Hope goes off to change. The idea is to parody urban fantasy by showing things from a housewife’s viewpoint. 

photo by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau

She heard Dee call her name. Hope grimaced at the maid’s hat in her reflection, noting the polyester didn’t keep its shape well. “It’s no bother. We French maids change all the time.” She wondered if vampires could really blank themselves from mirrors at will. No wonder the females don’t bother with makeup.
Still with the one earring in her hand, she began to work on the left one when she heard Dee’s muffled voice again. Something bad. And how had she missed the sound of a struggle on the sofa?
Hope kicked off the little black shoes. Her nylon-stockinged feet zigged and zagged on the carpet as she charged into the living room.
Two vampires. Stockings or no, she tackled the female vampire on top of her friend. 
It was a klutz move, but it worked: She and her opponent both ended up on their backs. But the female vampire was on top of her, smelling like it had slept in some ditch alongside the freeway. “I just vacuumed, you stupid vamp!” 
Dee was still on the sofa, and Hope got a glimpse of her friend turning into a whirlwind. Now free of the female vampire, Dee whipped a leg up over her shoulder and kicked the male vampire who was holding a sack over her—dead in the face.
“Hey, great soccer kick.” 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mad Hatting—The Correct Writing Environment

If you write for hours on end, you need the correct writing environment. I usually start with pencil and paper in a mall. Why? Because if I do most of my writing at home, I start to think of things I need to clean or throw out.

click to enlarge 

Then I enter my writing into my computer, correcting or making changes along the way. Yes, I use a desktop. I can’t imagine doing creative writing for hours on a laptop.

This makes it easy to research on the internet while writing. Can this lead to distractions? Yes. But discipline is not hard to maintain.

I managed to find a chair at Costco that fits me and is comfortable. Spend the money for a good one. This is not just for comfort—it’s your health.

And, of course, there’s the hat.

The one I really use has Bella, Edward, and Jacob on it. But their faces are so trademarked, they probably owe money to Stephanie Meyer when they look in the mirror.

Okay, I don’t wear it most of the time. But choose wisely, to match your mood.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whiteboards as Science Fiction—Review of Arrival

This is not a negative blog. But when I saw people who should know better praising the movie Arrival, I thought my head would explode.

For this initial part, I’ll say that if you like the star of the movie, Amy Adams, she gives a magnificent performance. If you want to see two hours of her on the big screen going through an array of emotions, you will probably like it.

You just have to ignore the stuff coming out of her mouth or the mouths of the other actors. I am now going to be very skeptical of science fiction movies with A-list actors that are aimed at mainstream audiences. I can sum up this movie with one word: illogical.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Dear Mr. Trump:

With the death of Fidel Castro, a historic opening that may change our part of the world for the foreseeable future will be in your hands.

The Cuban people are already in a state of transition, due to Raul Castro having been the de facto ruler of Cuba for some years, and the more recent Obama initiative of opening relations with that nation.

This is a small window of opportunity that may not be repeated in our lifetimes.

The Cuban people, now deprived of a dictator whom they have known for fifty years, wonder which direction they should go. The fact that Fidel Castro was largely a figurehead for the past several years does not change this.

They have tasted newer freedoms in recent years, and they do not want to go back to the past. They have been ruled by Communism all these decades, they have seen the failure of socialism, and they are sick of it.

The danger is they may want to lurch to the right. Having been used to having a strong man rule over them, they may want another, this time on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

If things go horribly wrong, they will end up being ruled by their equivalent of a Putin.

Now is the time to take diplomatic initiatives. Raul Castro must be told that to the extent he embraces more freedom in his country, to that extent he will be shown more favor by the United States.

Foreign aid is normally counter-productive, because it goes to the foreign governments, not to the people it is intended to help. But in this case, if Raul Castro follows through with true reforms and surrounds himself with comparatively moderate figures in his government, aid should go to him to help stabilize his government.

You have the favor of Cuban-Americans from the way you campaigned. Their older elements will be against showing any favor or giving any aid to the present government, but you can use your political capital, the same way President Nixon did when he went to China, to establish a new relationship with Cuba the same way he did with China, without being accused of being sympathetic to Communism.

Similar opportunities may be found in Venezuela, where their socialist economy is collapsing.

Do not let old enmities stay your hand. I did not vote for either you or your main opponent. But you will have this moment in time to exert your authority and power as president to attempt to prevent either chaos if their government collapses, or a new right-wing dictatorship, a mere ninety miles off America’s shores.


Mark Murata

pubic domain


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