Tag Archives: Hulu

Be nice to Alexa

My wife and I spent much of this weekend re-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu. One of the disadvantages to binging shows on Hulu is that you are subjected to the same commercials again and again. I have a newfound hatred for Draft Kings and any other fantasy football league websites.

One of the other recurring commercials was for Amazon Echo, the next generation Siri or Cortana or whatever Google calls its talking computer. Echo is a small cylinder with an omni-directional microphone and speaker that can respond to voice commands. It’s the closest thing we have to standing anywhere on the starship Enterprise and asking “Computer?” I definitely want one.

Echo’s avatar is named Alexa and all queries are prompted by saying “Alexa … turn on the lights” or “Alexa … tell me the news.” Having seen this commercial at least twenty times, something began to occur to me about the user’s behavior. He was being rude.

I’m not just referring to commands like “do this”, “do that”. That’s part of Alexa’s job. The part that bugs me is where Alexa is telling him the news and the user hears an interesting tidbit about NASA and new planets. He cuts Alexa off and asks “Alexa … do aliens exist?”. On topic, but still cutting her off in the middle of a sentence.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lwaxana Troi is addressing the ship’s computer (a bit meta since Majel Barrett voices the computer in addition to playing Mrs. Troi). She says please and “thank you dear” to the computer, or herself depending on how you look at it. Her justification is that computers are making us all impersonal and just because it’s a machine doesn’t mean she should be rude (an attitude Dr. Pulaski had to learn gradually with Data).

Alexa is actually better than the Enterprise computer (no offense to Majel). The Next Gen voice has a “computer-y” edge, more akin to Siri’s delivery. Alexa, at least how she’s portrayed in the commercial, is conversational and clear. We get visual feedback of her talking through the light circle. Echo is really an advance in interactive computers. Not an AI yet, but with sophisticated programming.

So why does this matter? Well for starters if we want to bring gender politics in briefly, Alexa is a female voice. She’s being ordered around by a man, and not allowed to finish telling him about NASA’s new discovery which frankly is more interesting than his dumb question. Now some of you careful studiers of the commercial might have noticed that he does at least seem interested in what she’s saying (we hear a “huh” after the initial news tidbit). Again I need to emphasize how many times I saw this damn commercial.

If you were in the next room, and you didn’t know Alexa was a program, maybe you’d think our user was talking to someone on the phone, and that would be perceived as rude. If you were a child, and impressionable about gender roles and how we should treat other people, you might pick up on the exchange. And this is before we even consider the possibility of sentient artificial life, which seems far-fetched, but is still a very real goal of programmers. Computers are wonderful tools, but someday they may be more like equals (if we’re looking at the human race generously).

Now I’m the kind of guy who yells at computers when they don’t work. I don’t slam my monitor screen like Rosa Diaz, but I’m pretty close (given my tower a thwack or two). But maybe Echo should get us to reconsider that behavior, or at least change how its advertised.

And oh yeah, Menards, commercial metal roofing looks terrible. Last roof we’ll ever buy, my fanny. Seriously, Hulu, would a little commercial variety hurt you?

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On Binge Watching and Original Programming

It’s been a font of riches the last couple of weekends in the Trube household. Last weekend we finally tried Chris O’Dowd’s original series Moone Boy about a middle school age kid growing up in Ireland in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and his imaginary friend (played by O’Dowd). This weekend it was The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt about a girl who was trapped underground for 15 years by a doomsday cult and tries to remake her life in New York City (from Tina Fey and other minds behind 30 Rock). Both of these shows had me screaming at Hulu and Netflix respectively for more seasons.

Both comedies are very bizarre, both in their original premise and in their selection of stories. Moone Boy, with the imaginary friend, is probably the more grounded of the two. I was younger than the main character at the time of the series, but it still brings back a lot of nostalgia for the old technology, hair dos, and goings on (even if I know incredibly little about Ireland from this period). O’Dowd often plays with the premise that everything the imaginary friend says is really coming from the kid so he is often encouraging of the most daft ideas, while maintaining a Hobbes-like skepticism. There’s a lot here that plays like Calvin and Hobbes, including gags showing the kid talking to no-one, lifting his imaginary friend up in a dance move, but we’re not left with the sense that none of that experience is real.

The family dynamic also makes this show. The bit with the fathers admitting how much they can’t stand their kids in the first episode is hilarious particularly the fishing bit. The mother and father relish watching some of the drama of their eldest daughter, until the drama goes a little over the line. And some of the one-liners from the middle daughters forced us to pause the episodes.

Kimmy Schmidt feels like another incarnation of 30 Rock, with some of the crazy energy of those best early seasons. You definitely can see a lot of Liz Lemon attitudes coming out of Kimmy, though Ellie Kemper adds her own ridiculously positive, yet strong energy to the roll. This show does have some of the rough edges that streaming shows tend to have, but mostly in a good way. The auto-tuned beginning alone lets you know this is going to be fun. Casting is spot on, particularly the roll of the crazed preacher who kept the girls underground for all those years. My wife correctly pointed out that the landlady of the building where Kimmy Schmidt lives is Billy Crystal’s wife from The Princess Bride (a reference that would have taken me ages to get despite seeing that movie at least 25 times).

It was a little weird seeing Tina in a role in the show after investing so much in Kimmie in the early episodes. I’m almost wondering if it would have been a better choice to stay out of the way. I love Fey’s ability to create a farce, but when it’s unmoderated it can lose some of its heart. The trial episodes in particular are a mix of the best and worst qualities of 30 Rock, but overall I am demanding another season right now.

And Krakowski is doing some great work in this as well, taking a Jenna Maroney-like character but making her a slightly insecure second wife. At first it plays very much the same note, except maybe tilted 15 degrees to the right, but as we learn more of her back-story and insecurities she’s much more sympathetic and a good friend to Kimmie. I’m leaving out Titus Burgess, but I think he speaks for himself.

If you have either or both of these streaming services, you owe it to yourself to give both these shows a try. I have a feeling many of you will be hooked by the first episode.

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