adventures with alexa

(Wow, it’s been a while since my last post, huh? Sorry about that. There should be another one in a day or two.)

Well, “adventures” is probably a little strong for my experiences with Alexa so far.

I have no desire to own one of those devices that listens to everything you say, waiting to hear a key word. I talk to myself a lot, and nobody needs to be listening to all that.

But now Amazon has rolled out Alexa, its “intelligent personal assistant,” to its tablets, so I’ve been experimenting a little. On the tablet, Alexa doesn’t listen all the time (it would kill the battery) — you have to press a button.

So far, the best use for me seems to be weather reports. I press the button, ask what the weather will be today, and I get a reply in words, plus a display on the screen that gives more detail. That’s helpful.

I can also ask her/it to set an alarm, and that works fine.

I can put something on my To Do list, but I can’t set a reminder for it. The To Do list and the alarm are completely separate, unfortunately. I’ve already sent feedback about this, so maybe it will be fixed at some point.

She (let’s call it “she”) can also do web searches and look things up on Wikipedia. If I say, “Good morning,” she greets me in return and tells me a (possibly) interesting fact.

If I ask about her quest, she tells me that she’s searching for the Holy Grail.

I think there’s a way to get her to say that she’s Inigo Montoya and she’s about to kill me, but I’ll leave that to people who are more entranced with The Princess Bride than I am.

So, useful (or at least entertaining), for a few minutes in the morning, but that’s about it.

So far.

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the bus station mystery — part four

This story started here.

“Who are you?” Kelly demanded.

Stephanie pulled out a card and showed it to her. “Sheriff’s deputy, Huron County.” She was continuing to examine the body of the dead bus driver. Billy had taken the passengers back into the building, and the two women were alone on the bus.

“Wait a minute,” Kelly said. “Let me see that.” She squinted to read the laminated card in the gloom. “According to this, you got this ID when you were fifteen years old, which seems unlikely. And it’s expired.”

Stephanie shrugged. “I put the wrong card in my wallet.”

“And, unlike the passengers, you know that the phone is dead, so I can’t check up on you.”

“Are there other phone lines?”

“We’ll deal with that later.” Kelly sat on the arm of one of the seats. “Now that I’ve questioned your credentials–” She handed back the ID card. “–what are you finding?”

Stephanie grinned. “Now that you’re wondering whether you should have let me touch the body at all.”

Kelly looked suddenly upset. “Look, I… I know, I’m only a ticket clerk, but… I’m responsible for those people in there — to protect them from this storm, and from…”

“A murderer.” Stephanie’s voice was calm. “Yes, this man was murdered. And I have quite a bit of experience, and I also want to protect those people in there, and you, and me.”

She looked at Kelly, who wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I know,” Kelly said, “that we’re supposed to not mess up the crime scene, but, in my opinion, that’s less important than trying to make sure nobody else dies. The cops aren’t coming now–“

“And when they do come, you don’t want to have them find all of us dead, our dead bodies in a series of very carefully preserved crime scenes.”

Kelly nodded. “Exactly.” She smiled. “Is this where you do like Jan Sleet and say, ‘And I know who the murderer is!’ and then point him out? That would be nice.”

Stephanie laughed, moving to sit on the chair arm across from Kelly. “No. I’m just a trained investigator — not a genius amateur detective.”

“Fair enough. What have you… ” She frowned at Stephanie’s expression. “What…”

Stephanie stood up, looking over Kelly’s shoulder. “There’s a car coming.”

Kelly looked around quickly. They watched as a pair of headlights moved very slowly down the ramp from the street, into the parking lot, and around the terminal building toward them.

“Come on,” Stephanie said as she walked to the bus door and stepped down to the wet pavement. Kelly followed her, feeling that everything was getting further and further out of her control.

She wasn’t sure if she felt better or worse when she recognized the car that was pulling in next to the bus.

Mr. Randall reached the door at the same time they did.

“Damn bridge is out,” he said, taking off his hat and wiping his wet hair. He held the door so the two women could precede him into the building. “Couldn’t get home — they were closing it when I got there. Ten minutes earlier and I would have made it. I–” He looked around at the passengers, and at Kelly. “Forty-two couldn’t leave, huh? Have you spoken to the passengers? I can take over — that’s okay.” He drew in a deep breath, preparing to address the room.

“Cody Nugent, the bus driver, has been murdered,” Stephanie said, stepping in front of him and pulling out her ID. “Stephanie Monroe. Sheriff’s deputy, Huron County.”

That stopped him. He froze for a moment, and then he said, “Have you called the cops? The police?”

“The phone is dead,” Kelly said, gesturing at the ticket counter. “We haven’t–“

“Did you check my phone?” He shook his head at them. “You should have checked all the phones.” He turned — the passengers, who were all watching this, apparently forgotten — and walked down the short corridor to his office.

They heard him open the door, and then shout “Shit!”

to be continued…

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lessons in telling a serial story…

…or any story, really.

(This post contains spoilers for the comic book series Empress.)

I don’t know why I started reading this series, and I sort of lost interest partway through, but I kept buying it because it was a seven-issue mini-series. I would have felt pretty silly stopping at issue five or six in a seven-issue series.

But I just read the last issue, and it really impressed me in a couple of ways — and now I want to go back and read the series from the beginning.

In very broad strokes, this is the story of a huge galactic empire, ruled by a king. One day, the king is in a restaurant (or some such place) and takes a fancy to his waitress, deciding to make her his queen. She explains that she’s not really a waitress — her real job is quite a bit more disreputable — but the king stops her, saying that what she was before doesn’t matter. Her life is starting now.

Years later, she has had three children, ranging from a teenage girl to a baby, and she’s decided that life with the king is no longer tolerable (I forget the details, but he’s evil and despotic and cruel and evil and so on). So, she runs away, with her three children, and an officer of the king’s guard who’s devoted to her. And a very short guy with a mustache — I’m not sure who he is.

Anyway, the series — including the issues I never read — involves the captain guy flying them around in various space ships, shooting various of the king’s forces with ray guns, and other thrilling space opera events as he protects the queen and her children. And there are some quieter moments, like interactions with the queen’s sister, who is not really friendly to them (she disapproved of the queen’s former, disreputable, occupation).

In the final issue, the king finally catches up to them. Along with about a hundred of his elite, heavily-armed soldiers.

The captain guy stands up to defend the queen, as usual, but the king beats him badly — not surprising, given that the king is much larger and also armored. But before the king can kill the captain guy, the queen tells him to stop — it’s her that he wants to kill, so he should fight her.

He starts to laugh at this possibility, but then she challenges him, asking if he wants to be known as the king who was afraid to fight his own queen. He tells his soldiers not to interfere, and asks what weapons she prefers. She says no weapons — she wants to fight him with her bare fists. He says that this will be fast, and then she knocks him down.

The next two pages are her beating the crap out of him. At the end of the second page, as he’s lying on his back, stunned, he asks her how she’s doing this.

Then there’s a page of flashbacks of the various times in the series when the subject of her disreputable former occupation was mentioned, but never actually described, and, at the top of the following page, she explains that she was a cage fighter, the best cage fighter. 400 victories, no losses. “I can’t fly a space ship, and I can’t hit a target. But when it comes to fighting? I never lose.”

And this works because the king, and most readers, I’m sure, assumed that, because she’s a woman, her disreputable former occupation must have been something related to sex — a prostitute or a stripper or whatever. But this was never stated — it was just an assumption we were allowed to make. That’s playing fair, like introducing a character and allowing the readers to assume that the character is white and straight — until you tell them otherwise.

The king points out that if she kills him his soldiers will kill her and her children — but she says this will be worth it, and she kills him.

So, there’s the queen, her children, the badly-injured captain guy, and the short guy with the mustache, surrounded by a hundred royal soldiers who are realizing that the “Do not interfere” thing probably doesn’t apply any more. And she says that one thing she has learned as a queen is how to accept whatever happens. They are about to die, no matter what, so they shouldn’t fight or beg — they should accept it.

And her older daughter stands up.

Nobody is going to die, she says, and that’s an order.

She faces the soldiers, telling them that the king is dead, so she is their queen, and they should drop their weapons.

And this works also, because it’s right there in how the story is built, though even the queen didn’t figure it out.

And then, in the ultimate serial story twist, on the very last page, the queen, who recently started sleeping with the captain guy, learns that her devoted protector and lover is not at all who she thought he was. But that’s all she (and the reader) learns, because they’re setting up the seconds series of Empress. Which I will pay more attention to. After I go back and read the first series all the way through.

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the bus station mystery — part three

This story started here.

“Excuse me,” Kelly said, her voice raised to fill the waiting room. “My name is Kelly Fraser, and I’m in charge of this facility at the moment. I just heard from the home office in New York, and I’m afraid that we’re all going to be here for a while. Because of the storm, it’s not safe for the bus to continue on its route at the present time. Also, the bridge that you would have taken to get back on the interstate has been closed because of high winds.”

“So, what does that mean?” the older man asked.

She spread her hands wide. “We have shelter, we have heat, and we have food and water.”

Billy thought that the electricity might not last — it had flickered in storms which were less intense than this one — but he understood that this was probably not the best time to mention that possibility.

“So, they’re not sending help?” asked the woman in the yellow rain slicker.

“Emergency services are dealing with the real emergencies. We will be fine if we shelter in place. If our situation changes, we can call for assistance.”

At that moment there was a big gust of wind and the glass in a couple of the floor-to-ceiling windows rattled. This may have been a factor in how calmly the passengers took the news.

Billy was to say later, when telling the story, that he half expected that everybody there would introduce themselves at that point, but of course they didn’t. A couple of people went over to the newsstand and took newspapers.

After a minute or two, the older man raised his head and looked around. “Somebody should tell the driver,” he said. “That we’re not going on. He should come in here with us, where it’s comfortable…”

Stephanie, the blonde girl, had come out of the office, and Kelly was leaning over to listen to something she was saying, so Billy went to one of the front windows and looked out, shading his eyes with his hand.

“Billy,” Kelly called, “what’s happening out there?”

“The bus is still there. No sign of Cody.”

The woman with the huge purse stood up. “He said he was going to take the bus around back, for gas and maintenance.”

“Well, it’s still right there,” Billy said.

“I’ll check it out,” Stephanie said, and she was out the door.

There was a pause, and then a couple of the others went after her — perhaps having calculated that they would still be under the overhang and protected from at least some of the rain.

Kelly caught Billy’s eye and he held back.

“That girl told me that the phone just went dead,” she murmured. “If we get into real trouble, we’re sunk.”

“What about Mr. Randall’s phone?”

She shrugged. “If one line is out, the others probably are, too.”

“Why did they want to talk to her? Does she work for the company?”

“No idea. They said there was somebody there who wanted to talk to her.”

“Well, we should–“

“Go outside and figure out what happened to Cody. Then we can check the phones, and see what the girl has to say. Come on.”

The bus, the only one parked on that side of the station building, was silent and dark, and there was no sign of Stephanie.

For some reason, Billy went around to the far side of the bus, and there, obviously getting soaked to the skin, was Stephanie. She was clinging to the side of the bus, peering in one of the windows. Her hands were gripping a lip above the windows, and her feet were supported, at least somewhat, by some decorative grooves in the metal as she tried to see inside.

“What…” Billy started to ask, but she hopped down to the ground and moved quickly around to the other side of the bus.

She looked at the closed door for a moment, apparently trying to figure out how to open it.

Billy stepped around her, grabbed the edge of the door with his fingertips, and pulled it out and open. He was about to step onto the bus, but Stephanie held his forearm for a moment so she could get inside first.

“Nobody come in…” she called, but the others followed her anyway.

The bulky body of the driver was crammed awkwardly into the well between the two rows of seats.

to be continued…

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scary writing moments (two)

Scary Writing Moment #1

When you figure out that, before you start working on the next chapter, you should really assemble and organize all the notes you have. They’re on your phone and on your computer and in the cloud and on various pieces of paper — and you need to pull them together before you go on.

It’s going to be a lot of work, and you’ll procrastinate about doing it, but it’s going to be worth it when it’s done.

Scary Writing Moment #2

When you go through all of those notes, collect them and get them all organized, and realize that pretty much all of them apply to the chapters you’ve written already.

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