Amazon’s Alexa: Friend or Foe?

Alexa column photo copyThe first time I met Alexa she was perched seductively on a granite countertop beside an oozy Brie, some smoked oysters, and a bottle of white wine. She was belting out a selection of Helen Reddy songs I was embarrassed to admit I knew the words to but hadn’t heard since the ‘70s. Frankly, I hadn’t realized Helen Reddy was still alive.

Though mildly impressed with this new smart device, I didn’t give her much thought. I didn’t use Siri on my iPhone and I surely wasn’t going to invest in another talking personal assistant. Then Alexa showed up on my front porch one Friday in a cardboard box, a gift from my stepmother Betty.

I’ll admit it; she charmed me pretty darn quickly. As a writer, I enjoyed having a quirky librarian at my side to provide definitions and spellings and to search Wikipedia for facts and information. As a music lover, I was excited about my own personal deejay creating playlists of my favorite acts like James Brown and the Rolling Stones. On these tasks Alexa did not disappoint. Heck, she even shuffled up a fine mix of songs by Bobby Lounge, a piano player who writes salacious story songs about the South.

My infatuation began to wane, however, when I asked if she thought Donald Trump would be impeached and she refused to answer, telling me instead that he would make a decision soon on whether or not he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. Hmm… I already knew that. Alexa then claimed she couldn’t suggest cocktail recipes for a leftover bottle of cheap tequila, yet proffered up 55 recipes for a Bloody Mary—advice I most definitely did not need. When I inquired if Jared Kushner might enjoy a good spanking for his Russia dealings, she coyly replied she’d rather not answer that. Alexa was pivoting, deflecting, and feigning ignorance like the best of the Trump cabal.

Then it came to my attention that Alexa isn’t just a chanteuse singing my favorite songs or providing synonyms for words I overuse. Au contraire. Alexa nefariously listens and records what you ask of her and then reports it to her real owner—Amazon.com—where it is all stored away in some big cloud.
This kind of eavesdropping is how Alexa got entangled in an Arkansas murder case involving two men who spent a night together drinking vodka and watching college football. One ended up dead in a hot tub the next morning with a blood-alcohol content level of .32. A tragic accident said the defense attorney. Foul play claimed the prosecutor, pointing to signs like body injuries, a broken shot glass, dried blood, and indications the patio and hot tub had been hosed down before police arrived. Seems Alexa had been there the whole time.

The Arkansas prosecutor wanted access to Alexa’s recordings. Amazon said no way, citing protection under the First Amendment, and claiming voice-activated listening devices always on in one’s home raised a different set of privacy issues than computers and cell phones, which are regularly confiscated in criminal investigations. Before this interesting new Constitutional argument could be tested in the courts, the defendant gave Amazon permission to release the data Alexa had recorded. The case is still pending.

Supposedly, Alexa only records what you ask her, but who really knows. She lights up and blinks every time the ice rattles in my cocktail glass. But she’s not the only one. Google records each search you make and each email you send. Security cameras track your every move and most of the time you aren’t even aware of it. Drug stores remember what we buy and offer us coupons. Intuit helps you file your taxes. Facebook analytics combine my likes and my friends’ likes in order to promote products like shorts that won’t require me to wear underwear. I could go on, but I’ll end by reminding everyone that for the most part we readily give up our privacy for convenience. Former FBI Director James Comey said it best when he announced there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.

When I stop and think about the possibilities, it does sort of remind me of that scene from 1984 where Winston stops performing his morning calisthenics for a little daydreaming and is snapped back to reality by a sharp voice yelling out to him out from the telescreen to pay attention and touch his toes. Freedom is slavery! Big Brother is watching! Maybe crazy Kellyanne Conway isn’t so crazy after all. I mean, if a plastic cylinder named Alexa can be designed to spy on you why not a microwave oven?

 

I’ll Drink My Peeps

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New Orleanians, it seems, will find just about any reason to enjoy a cocktail. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Crescent City.

So I was strolling down Royal Street recently – or it might have been Chartres Street – sipping a Bloody Mary in a plastic cup and heading to the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival to take my place on a panel discussion about humor writing when I spotted an advertisement for an Easter brunch. Cocktails, cocktails, cocktails! No big deal, I thought. Then I noticed the featured cocktails were “Peeptinis.”

The pink drink on the advertisement looked ghastly – whipped cream vodka, Grenadine, and Godiva white chocolate liquor rimmed in pink sugar and adorned with a pink chick Peep. A little glass of glucose. I was slightly nauseated, mildly appalled; yet highly intrigued by this unholy union of alcohol and spongy marshmallow. But it got me wondering: What kind of peep cocktail could I create?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to conceptualize, I thought. Peeps, after all, are comprised of nothing more than granulated sugar, liquid sugar, gelatin, vanilla, and color. Except for the eyes, which are made of carnauba wax imported from Brazil. Carnauba is non-toxic and edible. It’s found in many candies, but also in dental floss, shoe polishes, and car waxes.

Peeps have been around for more than sixty years. Back in the early 1950s the chicks and bunnies were squeezed out by hand one by one from a pastry tube. It took approximately twenty-seven hours from start to finish to create each one, mainly because it took the marshmallow a long time to cool before it could be packaged.

Today, Peeps are produced in rows by a machine called “The Depositor” and the whole process takes just about six minutes. The family-owned Just Born Company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, produces more than 4 million Peeps each day! Classic yellow is the most popular color for chicks and bunnies, followed by pink, lavender, blue, and white. And they don’t stop at chicks and bunnies. Just Born also produces Easter eggs, Christmas trees, jack-o-lanterns, and Valentines hearts.

As I pondered which cocktail I would make with the Peep, I couldn’t help but feel a classic Easter tradition deserved a classic cocktail. I opted to mix a simple “Peep Julep” and I selected an orange bunny Peep with a hint of crème de la orange flavor as the basis for the libation. I felt it would pair well with bourbon in terms of color and taste.

To create a classic Julep one should dissolve half an ounce of superfine sugar in an ounce of hot water. I used the Peep because, after all, it is made of superfine sugar. Next add eight mint leaves plus one mint sprig and press lightly with a spoon in order to release the oil from the mint leaves and the sugar from the Peep. Press too hard and the Peep will disintegrate and, trust me, that isn’t a good look. Add three ounces of good Kentucky bourbon, fill the glass (or preferably a silver cup) with cracked ice, and plant the mint spring in the ice. I fished out the orange bunny Peep, cut a slit in it, and used it to garnish my glass.

Bury your nose in the mint. Sip slowly. Not too bad, if I say so myself.

In retrospect, though, I recommend tossing the wet Peep and using a fresh one, unless, that is, you like the feel of something sticky pressing against your face while you imbibe.

The great Louisiana writer Walker Percy once said bourbon did for him what cake did for Proust. Wonder what he’d say about bourbon and Peeps? I bet I know.

 

Making a Spectacle of Myself

Tell people you’re shopping for eyeglasses and you get a lot of interesting reactions. Some swear by today’s new online optical retailers. Others tell you about the hip but cheap store you’ve just gotta try. Then there are those who wish you good luck with a pat on the shoulder.

I’ve been wearing glasses for more than forty years so I understand the importance of proper eyewear. After all, they sit right on your face, the first thing people see when they look at you. They have to be right.

I’m in the market for a new pair of specs due to an unfortunate situation in a fashionable Manhattan cocktail lounge. There I was feeling snazzy in a navy suit, Hermes tie, and horn-rimmed glasses. The crowd was attractive. The drinks were flowing. And after a full day of intense business meetings, I was beginning to relax into the moment. Then I bellied up to the bar and asked to see a drinks menu.

Damned if I couldn’t read it — not until I held it at arms length and truly focused. The cute but impatient bartender pretended not to notice my optical struggle, but I swear I heard snickering from the two young faux lumberjacks between whom I’d wedged.

Presbyopia — Greek for “old man’s eye” — hits most people between the ages 40 and 50. I’d been fortunate enough to avoid it and smart enough to deny it. But there in that New York bar, it became clear to me that I could no longer ignore my need for bifocals.

Rather than getting depressed, I convinced myself this might be a good time for an eyeglass makeover. After all, I’ve been wearing the same basic style of preppy round oval glasses (known as the P3 style in the trade) since 1988.

My first pair was a tortoise-colored model known as the O’Malley by that smart Los Angeles firm Oliver People’s. It was supposedly inspired by the glasses worn by former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley. At the time, I was working a low-paying publishing job and using all sorts of cost-savings tactics such as bourbon for cologne. The glasses cost more than my rent, but boy did they make me feel smart and fashionable. I still have them as sunglasses now.

The big question in my mind was whether I ought to step out of my P3 comfort zone with a pair of new frames?

My first excursion was to a fancy boutique whose proprietor has a reputation for unique and expensive frames. Well- dressed clients milled about sipping Starbucks and gossiping about mutual acquaintances and Downton Abbey all the while oohing and aahing over the latest stock from France and Germany.   I inquired about a pair of little hexagonal frames that were sort of Ben Franklinesque. Absolutely not, the proprietor said, with a bit of a reprimand. She even went so far as refusing to open the display cabinet.   Instead, she gently slipped a pair of big blue glasses on my face.

“They’re Mikli frames,” she whispered in my ear. “Note the beautiful herringbone pattern. ”

“That’s nice, but I’m not buying china,” I replied, perhaps a tad tartly. Things went downhill from there. After a few more unsuccessful blue frame recommendations she lost interest and so did I.

At my next stop, a trendy, but cheap, establishment, I encountered a big girl with burgundy hair who told me I had the perfect face for glasses. “You’re an oval and just about any style will look good on you,” she said as she plopped a pair of round orange colored eyeglasses on my puss.

Really? I looked like I was wearing two gigantic butter rum lifesavers. Things didn’t get much better with her other selections, and when she came at me brandishing a pair of beige plastic aviator-style frames I slowly backed away. “C’mon, just try ‘em on,” she coaxed, as I darted out the door.

At the gay eyeglass store everything looked remarkably cloned and everything looked remarkable on me, so said the soft-spoken pocket boy on the floor that day. Seriously? I could swear I looked like Martina Navratilova in a couple of those expensive titanium frames.

There were more visits to more stores and more encounters with sales people. Finally realizing the glasses weren’t any greener on the other side, I returned to my tried and true optician, the place where I purchased those O’Malleys so many decades ago and many of my P3s since. I’d heard a rumor the O’Malley had been revived.

As I stood in the store modeling the “Sir O’Malley,” as the frame was now called, I wondered why I’d ever ditched them in the first place. Just as I was about to whip out my credit card, I caught a glimpse of some hip wooden Italian frames.

Well hello handsome…

I picked up a pair of black rectangular frames. They felt good. They fit good. And, most importantly, they looked good on me, in a trendy kind of way.

Eyeglasses are generally thought to have been invented in Italy in the 13th century for monks and scholars. That’s not surprising, considering Italy – and especially Venice – was a center of glass making during medieval times. Early eyeglass frames were made from wood, horn, leather, and bone. These wooden ones represented a marriage of ancient and modern style. They were unique and I was smitten.

When it was all said and done, the bespoke wooden frames with progressive lenses cost me just about the same as my monthly mortgage.   I think maybe I’ll splash on a little bourbon and celebrate, just for old time sake.

Strange Behavior

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I was spreading peanut butter on my bagel the other morning in the Korean deli where I sometimes pick up breakfast when all of a sudden this large woman began hollering. Her hands were waving all around and I thought for a moment she was having a seizure until I realized she was merely experiencing a fervent reaction to the way I was dressing my bagel.

Is it that out of the ordinary to mix peanut butter and cream cheese? I ask because everyone in the deli was staring at me, not her.

With such a rapt audience, I calmly picked up the stainless steel spreader and slathered even more peanut butter onto my sesame seed bagel. I piled it so damn high it looked like a double decker hamburger. The white Styrofoam container could barely close around the bulging bagel. People averted their eyes.

Americans are passionate about their peanut butter. We eat about 700 million pounds per year, enough to make ten billion peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, according to the National Peanut Board in Atlanta, Georgia.

We’re also particular about our peanut butter. More than sixty percent of Americans prefer creamy style. Most men, though, opt for chunky. That’s how former President Jimmy Carter likes his nut butter. And while there are devotees of the big three – Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan – more and more are opting for natural and artisanal peanut butters, which, ironically, is how the stuff was originally produced until the advent of hydrogenation in the 1920s.

Hydrogenation is the technical term for the process that prevents the separation of oils and solids. This means peanut butter doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can have a longer, more commercially viable shelf life. That invention plus the use of peanut butter as a meat alternative for American troops during World War II led to a post-war peanut butter boom and the birth of a pop culture culinary phenom.

Southerners seem to have a special predilection for peanut butter, perhaps because that’s where peanuts are grown. Southerners use it on anything from fried chicken to coleslaw to popcorn and cornbread. Bill Clinton proclaimed his love for the peanut butter and banana sandwich, a delight made famous by Elvis Presley. George W. Bush liked a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey was said to like peanut butter, baloney, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise on toasted bread, with ketchup on the side. No wonder he was never elected president…

Today, bacon, figs, and peaches are popular accompaniments to peanut butter sandwiches in some nouveau Southern restaurants. Peanuts and peanut butter are even showing up in cocktails.

In fact, I read recently in Garden & Gun Magazine about a gastropub called Ollie Irene in Birmingham, Alabama, that’s tarting up that Southern classic bourbon and coke by adding a peanut orgeaut. A gastropub in Alabama? Peanut orgeat? This I had to try.

Peanut orgeat is a highfalutin name for simple syrup made with peanuts and orange flower water. To make it you start by shelling two cups of roasted unsalted peanuts and then pulverizing them in a food processor. On the stove, combine 1.5 cups of sugar and 1.25 cups of water and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for three minutes. Add the peanuts, reduce the heat and slowly bring back up to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for at least six hours.

The next step with the orgeat is to strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the peanut solids. To the thick muddy liquid add one ounce of vodka or brandy and a teaspoon of orange flower water. My advice here would be to just add a shot of Cointreau instead and a little dab of peanut butter to amp up the flavor. Stir. Presto, orgeat. It will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

To prepare the cocktail, simply add two shots of Jack Daniels, one shot of the peanut orgeat, ice, and fill with Coca-Cola. Garnish with a roasted peanut.

The folks at Ollie Irene call their concoction a “Tallulah.” My drinking companions and I called it “Type Two” because we swear we could feel our pancreases working overtime to process all the sugar. It was surprisingly tasty, though a tad pretentious for my taste and probably best suited for a brunch with mixed company.

About that six-hour prep time…well, no cocktail should take that long to prepare. And that my friends is strange behavior worth hollering about.

 

Confessions of a Cocktail Boy

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When Big Rob approaches to take our drink order, I’m immediately smitten. The last time I saw anyone sporting a kilt and a pair of topsiders with such panache was at a sorority party back in Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1983. Of course, the coeds weren’t shirtless or model handsome like Big Rob. And I wasn’t the least bit tempted to sneak a peek beneath their tartans.

One of Rehoboth’s great summer pleasures is sipping a cocktail outside on the deck at Aqua Bar and Grill on Baltimore Avenue. I don’t know why, but a gin and tonic just tastes better when served by an attractive, half-dressed waiter. Tonight, the cocktail boys are in kilts. Last Sunday they wore wrestling singlets. Before that it was dog tags, aviator sunglasses, and towels – a Top Gun fantasy.

This is Big Rob’s first season serving drinks. During the day the tall Loyola University finance major is a lifeguard with the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. In fact, that’s how he found out about this gig. It’s no secret that lifeguards have often worked at Aqua throughout the years. The tips are good.

I ask if he gets a lot of propositions. Just once this entire summer, he says, laughing it off. Most of the patrons are very respectful when they find out he’s straight. He admits it took him awhile to get used to all the attention, but now he’s having a good time. He’s even comfortable rocking the deck clad only in a Speedo – his words, not mine.

The competition among the waiters on the deck is fierce, the free market in action. So, with a wink and a grin our perfect gentleman is off to attend to some other thirsty customers, moving through the crowd with the smooth efficiency of a freestyle swimmer. Did I mention he’s co-captain of his university swim team?

I’m admittedly a bit disappointed by the lack of shenanigans Big Rob has revealed tonight. But, I suppose that’s to be expected, given that all the Aqua cocktail boys are straight as an arrow this season. Bar owner Bill Shields also tends to run a tight ship.

‘Tis a far cry from the 70s in Atlantic City, laments one of my drinking companions, who just happened to work as a cocktail boy at the Hotel DeVille bar when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, that was back when Atlantic City was a major gay hotspot – more so than Rehoboth – before the gambling casinos came in and displaced all the gay bars and hotels.

Now we’re getting’ somewhere…

Unlike at Aqua, the cocktail boys in Atlantic City were full-fledged homos. Instead of lifeguarding, they frolicked on the beach in white speedos, slathering themselves with baby oil and iodine to get that perfect tan and to also hustle up tips at the bars where they worked at night in denim cut-offs and tank tops. Everyone had a moustache.

And they were most definitely propositioned. A lot. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to receive roses or even a giant bottle of Paco Rabanne cologne in addition to hefty tips from a smitten admirer. The French Canadian men were particularly romantic.

Our Ivy Leaguer tells of being talked into posing for nude photos, one of which later ended up in After Dark magazine. The proposition he remembers most fondly, though, came from the bawdy talking puppet known as Madame, a creation and alter ego of entertainer Wayland Flowers who used to haul her around with him to gay clubs. Wayland and Madame appeared on a variety of television shows back in the 60s and 70s before hitting it big with a Las Vegas gig and then a late night television program of their own.

I’m about to learn how wide Madame’s jaw could unhinge when Big Rob returns with another round of drinks. Inspired by the stories of Atlantic City and emboldened by the gin, I ask if he’d mind answering a personal question, one I know is on the mind of every red-blooded man in the bar tonight.

“Go for it,” he says.

“How’d you get the white spot on your chest?”

“From a burn,” he explains. “A buddy laid a quarter on me while I was sleeping on the beach.”

Imperfection is beauty and I tell him so.

When Big Rob departs, one of my drinking companions punches me in the arm. It’s not the question he wanted answered, but, hey, I’ve got some integrity. And besides, I tell him, if you want to know the answer, simply shake his hand. And don’t forget to tip.

Author’s note.  Last night was Rob’s last night at Aqua.  He really liked the story and said the tips definitely improved after it ran in LETTERS.  He’s definitely returning next year to lifeguard and to serve drinks.

 

Jury Duty, Me, and Dominick Dunne

Like most people who believe jury service is an important part of our American democracy, I try to avoid it. Burglaries and drug dealings just don’t interest me. And it seems I’m always called when I’m extraordinarily busy at work or just about to go on vacation.

I began to reconsider my position, however, when I received a letter from the Sussex County Superior Court summoning me for a two-week term of jury duty, beginning just after the fourth of July holiday. Seems there are so few potential jurors in southern Delaware they put you on call for two weeks. And what for? Chicken house arsons? Trailer park perversions? It was too quirky and way too tempting for a writer like me to pass up.

While there is much written about how to avoid jury service, there is very little information about how to get selected. Some experts say you should appear well groomed and well dressed, but not flashy. Others say it’s important to look interested. And, don’t be chatty. Lawyers eschew talkative jurors.

To raise my chances of getting picked, I decided to channel the late Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair writer who specialized in celebrity court cases. He actually came to Sussex County in 2005 to cover the lawsuit brought by Disney shareholders against Disney CEO Michael Eisner over the $140 million deal he signed off on to get rid of Disney’s number two executive Michael Orvitz after only fifteen months on the job.

On jury day, I did my best Dunne impersonation: horn rim glasses, purple checked shirt, and a pressed pair of chinos. From what I recall, the Delaware judges seemed to like Dominick, so I was certain this look would impress.

Per court order, I left my cell phone, electronic equipment, newspapers, and sharp instruments in the car. All I carried into the courthouse with me was a copy of Hillary Clinton’s new book “Hard Choices,” so the lawyers would see I was capable of making the tough choices required of a juror.

A couple of people besides me also brought books, but they were cheap paperbacks with metallic embossed titles. One woman lugged a plastic Igloo cooler. I’ve no idea how she got it through security, but I heard her tell the stern court official who wrestled it away that it contained “some ham samiches and a Dr. Pepper.” A very fat man in a pair of denim overalls showed up with a U-shaped airplane pillow wedged around his neck. A young hipster with Elvis-sized sideburns sported a sweat-stained “ill” Phillies fan shirt. An older black woman came with big pink curlers in her hair. These were my rivals.

Following a short informational video, the court clerk began calling names for the day’s prospective jury pool. My name was announced first. And while he claimed it was random selection, I wasn’t fooled. My careful preparations had clearly paid off, I thought to myself, as I strutted past rows of my peers.

We prospective jurors were next escorted downstairs and into a windowless holding room with a big flat screen television mounted to the wall. There was an air of excitement that soon deflated when the court clerk came in and turned on television game shows. Personally, I would have shown old re-runs of “LA Law” or “Perry Mason.”

As we waited the jury pool began to spread out and self-select around interest groups. Cooler lady joined the “talkers” on the right side of the room. “Watchers” moved in front of the television while “sleepers” went to the farthest corner of the room. I joined the few “readers” in the middle of the room, but soon tired of Hillary Clinton’s pontificating about the transatlantic rifts that opened up during the Bush administration, so I began to eavesdrop on the “talkers.”

Over the next two hours, I learned that goats were better than cows and sheep at pasture maintenance and that Aruba was best avoided as a vacation destination because “they’ll kill you.” I heard there would be a beer garden at the State Fair this year and that nobody believed the new reality show called “Married at First Sight” until Cooler lady claimed it happened to her. Seems she sobered up for the first time only on her wedding day.

When three burly policemen escorted two prisoners in handcuffs and jumpsuits right by the open door of our room, everyone got agitated. Was this it? The court clerk came in shortly thereafter and said we were excused for the rest of the day.

Seriously? I hadn’t sat through “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price is Right” with a bunch of strangers just to be dismissed with the wave of a hand. I confronted the clerk. “Wasn’t there another trial I might be considered for?” “Call in later tonight,” the clerk advised me, eyeing me warily. “We might need you tomorrow.”

Spirits dampened, I headed over to the Georgetown Family Restaurant where Dominick Dunne had lunched every day while he followed the Disney trial. When I asked the waitress to please bring me what Dunne liked for lunch, she just stared at me, slack jawed and silent. I showed her a Los Angeles Times photo of Dunne eating soup in what appeared to be this very same restaurant. Still no response. Outside it began to rain.

I never did get selected for a trial during those two weeks. In hindsight, I’m thinking the Hillary Clinton book might have been a little over the top. So while I cannot report any further about downstate justice, I can recommend a good cup of homemade Lima bean soup if you’re interested.