Sunday, November 25, 2018

the next voice you hear

At the end of the summer, my wife's trusty Toyota 4Runner finally gave out. After sixteen years of reliable, nearly maintenance-free service, it just couldn't proceed anymore. With over 160 thousand miles tallied on its odometer, accumulated on countless journeys, it was the final few miles of a return trip from Slaughter Beach, Delaware that finally did the dependable vehicle in. The non-specific "check engine" light glowed ominously until our mechanic revealed the old workhorse was in need of a new transmission, a costly repair for a car that was pushing two decades on the road. Totally taken off-guard, we made the reluctant decision to purchase a new car. 

Jane! Stop this crazy thing!
On Labor Day, we drove over to our local Toyota dealer, the same one where we purchased our last three cars, including my 2004 RAV4 that sat almost dormant for the 12 years I took the train to work. Once in the showroom, we were approached by the same salesman that sold us our Previa minivan when our 31-year old son was a toddler. The salesman, in typical salesman fashion, told us he remembered us. (He did not.) My wife had done some online research prior to our arrival and reserved a 2018 RAV4 (in red) for herself. Our salesman led us out to the lot and we all climbed inside this shiny-new, pumped-up version of my car – fourteen years newer and chock full of technological enhancements that weren't even considered when my car was easing its way down the assembly line. There was a back-up camera and blind-spot indicators and beeps and dings and other assorted noise that alerted the driver to critical circumambient happenings, as though it was the command center on a NASA rocket launch.

We made our purchase, signed and initialed a bunch of papers and soon, Mrs. P was presented with a giant plastic key fob emblazoned with the Toyota logo. It was explained that the car did not require a key to start the engine. The dashboard sported a lighted button that fired up the engine when pushed, as long as the driver had the fob somewhere on his or her person. My wife joked that she went from driving the Flintsone's car to driving the Jetson's car.

The most important update on the hulking dashboard, of course, was the sophisticated sound system. This computer-operated, digital-displayed system integrated Bluetooth technology, HD radio and the Sirius XM satellite subscription radio. With 30 optional pre-set stations and a large screen displaying a wide variety of information, this system was, at first, overwhelming to those of us who considered an in-dash cassette deck to be hot stuff. Although it wasn't officially presented to us, we found out that with our purchase, we received a free, three-month, trial subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio. Sure, it was cool, but we really only listen to one terrestrial radio station in the Philadelphia area – the one that, bias aside, employs our son. However, free is free, so we gave it a cautious shot. First we discovered a channel that plays only big band and swing classics from the 1940s. My wife and I are huge fans of the music of that era. A little more scouting around unveiled a channel that played only Beatles tunes. Then one that plays early New Wave songs from the early 80s. Then a Billy Joel only channel, hosted by the Piano Man himself. Then, Mrs. Pincus stumbled upon the Grateful Dead channel and it was as though the red carpet to the Pearly Gates were just rolled out for her. A scenario that included twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week of Jerry Garcia and his psychedelic pals was the clincher. Mrs. P was officially spoiled.

After enjoying weeks and weeks of Sirius XM, the pending end of the trial period loomed large. The regular price of continuing the service was outrageous, as was affirmed by a number of emails reminding us of the termination of the free subscription. However, the longer we waited to make a decision, the sweeter the deals became. First, Sirius started dropping the price a little bit with each email. Then, the length of time of the proposed subscription was extended. Then, a combination of lower price and longer time period. Sirius didn't want us to leave, so they finally took a page from the Don Corleone playbook and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. My wife opened an email that enticingly put the price at fifty bucks for six more months and they'd throw in a free Amazon Echo Dot, something with which were were only vaguely familiar and were pretty sure we didn't need. But, we took the offer and we took the free Echo Dot and within two days I found myself setting up this little lighted hockey puck that plugged into the wall.

Talk to me.
Two years ago, we made a major leap into the world of advanced entertainment technology. We bought – not one – but two high-definition flat-screen televisions and signed up for the magical X1 service from Xfinity Cable. The new system came with a sleek black remote control that would respond to voice prompts. I felt kind of stupid talking to a piece of plastic, especially if I was asking to see the latest episode of Sam and Cat. I use the feature infrequently, as there are many other options to make the television do the exact same thing. Honestly, I feel more comfortable pressing a series of buttons than telling the remote what I want to watch... especially when I am by myself. Now, we have a new gadget in the house that is operated by voice commands. Granted, it was essentially free, but we still felt obligated to use it. (Actually, Mrs. P wanted to sell it on eBay, but I thought it would be cool and convinced her to keep it.)

The future is now.
Following the brief, simple set-up, our new Amazon Echo Dot was ready to heed our every command. According to write-ups and explanations about the Echo Dot's capabilities, it could control our television, control our house lights, operate and set our burglar alarm, lock our doors, adjust the heat, see who is knocking at our front door, answer our phone and a plethora of other time-saving duties. But, none of those things in our house are compatible with or equipped for the state-of-the-art technology of the Echo Dot. Instead, we are limited in its potential. Disappointed that our home was not immediately transformed into the Monsanto House of the Future (on display in Disneyland from the late 50s until the late 60s), we were relegated to having the Amazon Echo Dot perform a few amusing tricks. At this point, it was a novelty, like a little trained seal that can do a bit more that balance a beach ball on its nose. Activated by starting each command with "Alexa" (the so-called "wake word"), we get a daily report on the news, the weather, what are our choices for the evening's television viewing and other basic information. We have asked "Alexa" various trivia questions like who played a particular character in a movie or in what year did a certain event occur – questions that could easily have been answered by a few taps on our omnipresent cellphones. We have installed several "skills" (Echo's version of "apps") that allow "Alexa" to tell us daily celebrity birth and death anniversaries. We can also have "Alexa" provide musical entertainment via WXPN (our favorite radio station) or even through our new Sirius subscription. We discovered that "Alexa" can tell jokes, sing songs and recite poems all in her pleasant, weirdly-inflectioned, otherworldly female timbre – somewhat unnervingly reminiscent of HAL 9000.

"Alexa, hi."
To be honest, we are enjoying our time with "Alexa." For the first week, my wife was determined to change "Alexa"'s name to "Janet," after the adorable and obedient android on the quirky TV series The Good Place, to no avail. (The device is pre-programmed to respond to either "Alexa," "Computer" or "Echo" exclusively.)

Resigned to the fact that a name change is impossible, Mrs. Pincus is now focused on trying to get "Alexa" to say "fuck."

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