A Scary Home Companion

echoAmazon has come a long way since the days it shipped books and bowling balls at a loss direct to consumers who ordered such products on a new-fangled invention called the internet. Out of necessity, but also with an intuitive sense of the future, Amazon pioneered robotics to manage vast warehouses, and they invested hugely in hyperscale computing systems to manage all the order traffic and analyze consumer buying behavior in an almost insidious way. Soon they were trying out their algorithms to guess, for example, what a buyer of “In Cold Blood” and a wood-chipper might be swayed to add next to his order.

When they analyzed their in-house computer usage and identified periods of light usage, Amazon took a page from the Hotels.com playbook and began to rent out unused computer cycles to anyone who needed a boost. At first it was just a way to monetize a commodity with a limited shelf life. Now Amazon is a leader in what has come to be known as Cloud computing, butting heads with unexpected competitors like HP and IBM (whom they beat out for a Cloud contract with the CIA – once the kind of client IBM considered inviolably loyal.)

I saw the movie “Manchester by the Sea” the other day, and was greeted at the opening by a logo for Amazon Studios, the production company behind the possible Oscar contender.

Books. Vacuum cleaners. Hollywood movies? It seems there is no industry that Amazon feels compelled to ignore.

And as with Cloud computing, Amazon has recently embraced another fast-emerging technology: the so-called “Internet of Things.” Known as IoT, the technology allows simple devices and sensors embedded in practically every appliance to collect and share enormous amounts of data specific to their environs. Cars, refrigerators, Fitbits, cell phones, chip-enabled credit cards, cows headed to slaughter – all house tiny devices capable of revealing real-time and accumulated data like speed, temperature, location, altitude, seat-belt usage, number of times you went to the bathroom, whether anything came out, and on and on.

Amazon, along with several other firms looking to embed themselves like ticks into their customers’ hides to predict and coerce behavior, has released into market an IoT gadget called Echo which is enhanced with an AI (artificial intelligence) feature called Alexa. Echo owners talk to the device which recognizes the name “Alexa” when spoken; in response it can do these things:

  • Play all your music from Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more using just your voice
  • Fill the room with immersive, 360º omni-directional audio
  • Allow hands-free convenience with voice-control
  • Hear you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even while music is playing
  • Answer questions, reads audiobooks and the news, reports traffic and weather, gives info on local businesses, provides sports scores and schedules, and more using the Alexa Voice Service
  • Control lights, switches, and thermostats
  • Always getting smarter and adding new features.

Always getting smarter? Is that the kind of thing people really want in their kitchens? Like a demonic toaster that burns the image of Satan into your bagel? Or like that blender that keeps lunging for your fingers?

Recently, police in Arkansas got the idea that Alexa may have eavesdropped in on a grisly crime. Once someone summons “Alexa” the device starts recording what it hears – presumably that’s how it’s always getting smarter. The cops think a dead body found in suspect James Bates’ bathtub was not the result of an accident, but of murder – and they want to test the theory by listening to what Alexa heard that dark and stormy night. Perhaps Bates addressed “Alexa” at some point before the drowning which activated Echo’s recording mechanism that stores what’s spoken to it in Amazon’s cloud – and kept on recording as Bates strangled his acquaintance in the tub.

The police asked Amazon for assistance and got the snub; naturally Amazon refused the request so as to allay potential customer fears that the all-seeing/all-knowing company is spying on them and might cough up incriminating or embarrassing info whenever law enforcement asks more than twice.

But how long might the Amazon stonewall last? Will it stand firm like Apple, only to watch helplessly as the FBI slurps up the data anyway? And is Amazon, despite its vaunted security, absolutely immune to a foreign hack attack that might result in the posting of millions of juicy conversations? (Husband to his wife Alexa: “Alexa, drop the whisk, hike the skirt, and get your ass on the counter for some of the old in-out.” Alexa the Wife: “Oh, you nasty boy.” Background noise of eggs sizzling in a pan along with intermittent grunting.)

Oh, the possibilities are endless – which is why Echo (along with Google’s Home and Apple’s Siri) is such a scary home companion.

Manchester by the Screenwriter Handbook

Stop now if you plan to see “Manchester by the Sea” and don’t want to be spoiled.

Casey Affleck plays a downtrodden man named Lee who toils away as a janitor outside Boston. He learns one snowy day that his brother – who has a cardiac problem of which he is well-aware – has died. The brother is divorced from a shrew of a wife, and leaves behind a 16 year old son who once was close to his uncle Lee until some bad shit caused Lee to go into exile from Manchester. Lee shows up to meet with his brother’s lawyer, presumably to discuss the last will and testament – only to discover that the brother laid out a comprehensive plan for Lee, unbeknownst to him, to become the guardian for the son. Naturally, Lee is flabbergasted. He’s unprepared for the burden and has no desire to move back to Manchester where he had become a pariah.

But as I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help thinking: is this even possible? Could a person legally establish another person as a future guardian without that person’s prior knowledge and agreement? The man knows he has a bad ticker and could drop at any moment, so he sets up a plan backed with financing for his brother take care of his son – but doesn’t bother to inform anyone of his choice except the lawyer? And the lawyer in the movie acts like a first semester 1L, surprised that the document he drew up for his client hadn’t been shared with the principle named to carry out the wishes herein.

This is a key plot element of the movie, and it smells a bit bullshitty. Overall a good film with strong acting, but the screenwriter needed that formulaic midway plot motivator to keep the movie going, so…

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