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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 14, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Mighty Trains, Walkable City, Alexa

So we were heading for Barnes & Noble to sign books that were stacked up waiting for my signature, when, to my surprise, we discovered that Barnes & Noble was completely dark. On a Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. that isn't expected. But then we looked around and realized that most of Friendly Center was dark, except a few lights down at the south end.

The power outage included the whole new western end of Friendly Center, too. As my wife and I thought about where to go for dinner -- I mean, if you can't sign books, then of course it's time to eat -- we had to eliminate all our favorite spots at or near Friendly Center. We decided on Osteria, at the corner of Westover Terrace and Mill.

But that shopping complex, too, was dark.

Thus we discovered that apparently a major trunk line in our power system runs along Wendover -- or else these two nearby shopping centers both went dark by coincidence.

One happy surprise: At the corner of Pembroke and Northline, where Forum VI used to be, the light was out, and Greensboro drivers were actually obeying the law and treating it like a four-way stop. This is miraculous, because we've never seen this at non-working stoplights in the aftermath of snowstorms and ice storms in Greensboro. Usually the people on the "bigger" street treat it as no stop at all, while the people from the "minor" street are left to pray for a chance to cross or turn.

But there at that intersection, almost everyone was obeying the law, and the result was that traffic was slow, but not snarled. Every lane moved at regular, quick intervals. And I say to those few who "snuck through" after a car that legally went through the intersection -- aren't you clever, to cheat the system and move out of turn.

In the anonymity of your car, nobody will know it was you who did what you did. But you'll know that you are, in fact, a barbarian, unfit for civilized society. Civilization depends on people doing little things like obeying traffic laws and respecting checkout lines, without having a policeman there to enforce compliance.

If everyone acted like you, O thou barbarian, civilization would end. But most people keep civilization going by voluntarily acting decently -- in spite of those who seek only their own advantage, without thought of fairness or equity, let alone kindness and generosity.

*

Most Romantic Hallmark Christmas movie I've seen: Karen Kingsbury's Maggie's Christmas Miracle.

Since I loathe having the name of the book's author embedded in the movie's title, and I don't believe in "Christmas miracles" apart from the birth of Christ some two millennia ago, this one had to overcome some hurdles to win my attention.

And be aware that "Most Romantic" does not imply that it does not partake of all the Hallmark Christmas movie formulas. It does. But I loved the characters, the actors, the dialogue -- everything that was under the control of the filmmakers. (Especially Lauren Guci as the son of the divorced mom, but the whole cast is terrific.)

And since the audience would be deeply upset if the formulas were not followed, being formulaic is not a "flaw" in a Hallmark Christmas movie. If you don't like formulas, why in the world would you be watching one of them in the first place?

And no, I am not going to give you any more review of the movie than that, because if I tell you anything about the story it will spoil all the "surprises." Since the formulas are quite predictable, there aren't any actual surprises, but the story unfolds in such a way as to leave us guessing how our expectations will be fulfilled. Why ruin the fun?

*

Have you heard the phrase "chain migration"? If so, please notice that you are seeing hypocrites finally casting off their sheep's clothing. Now we know that those people who kept saying, "We don't hate immigrants, just illegal immigration," are now confident enough to show their true xenophobia.

Here's why. "Chain migration" is a pejorative term for America's long-standing policy of allowing legal immigrants to bring their family members along with them. For people who come from cultures where extended family is an important component of their lives, that "chain" of immigration can have a very far reach indeed.

Why did we have that policy? The basic reason is that once upon a time, America put great stock in family connections. How could we attract the kind of immigrants we wanted -- hard-working people who would live stable, law-abiding lives as they used or acquired valuable skills -- if we didn't allow them to bring their families along with them?

As things stand right now, "chain migration" is a bit of a fantasy. For instance, I helped to sponsor the immigration of a political refugee from an African country. His own government had already tried to murder him (they thought they had succeeded, but he lived), and he came to America on a tourist visa and then applied for political asylum.

Our laws recognized that if he left his family behind, they would suffer greatly at the hands of his enemies, so his wife and his children under age 21 were allowed to enter America legally when his application for asylum was granted. But his oldest son was over 21, so even though he was in no less danger than the rest of the family, our somewhat brainless law was perfectly happy to leave him at risk in the home country.

Instead of coming in with the grant of asylum, he could only come in as a "chain migrant" -- as a family member of a legal immigrant. That's at least a decade of waiting to be able to join his parents and the rest of his siblings. When he does come, he'll bring his wife and children, since he has married while waiting for our "chain migration" system to grind along.

Do you get the picture? Those family members are not simply hopping on a plane and coming here as soon as a relative gets citizenship. There is a long waiting list -- unless you're from a mostly-white country. Then, as a holdover from a century of racist immigration policy, you can bring your Norwegian, Finnish, Scottish, or New Zealander relatives pretty much whenever you want.

God forbid that people of color would want to unite their families in their adopted homeland.

The people who are up in arms about the evils of "chain migration" can no longer hide behind opposition to illegal immigration. "Chain migration" consists entirely of legal immigrants, without exception. And they wait a long, long time before they can unite their families. But these xenophobes would cut off even that lifeline.

So when they say, "We only want immigrants who will benefit our economy by having valuable skills," they're lying. Because well-to-do immigrants would not come here if they did not believe they could bring their families with them. I mean, would you?

But our economy does not need the rich from other countries -- they already live wherever they want in the world. What we need are the brave and adventurous, the ambitious and hard-working. Immigrants from many countries quickly outstrip many native-born Americans in their eagerness to gain education and training.

For instance, with my asylum-seeking friends, both parents had doctorates in their home countries, but finding that racism in America denied the validity of their training and experience, the wife went to school at UNC-G and became a nurse, as did their oldest daughter. Their sons have excelled in college and are now poised to enter America's upper middle class.

Isn't this what the opponents of "chain migration" claim to approve of? Yet they would bar that oldest son from coming to join the rest of his family -- even though he has already proven that he is just as hard-working and enterprising as his naturalized-American siblings.

There are some phrases today that provide temporary respectability to racists and xenophobes in America. Just as "white privilege" is a thinly veiled excuse for hating, silencing, and denigrating everyone of a certain race, on the basis of skin color alone -- in other words, racism -- so also "chain migration" is a way to argue in favor of tearing apart the families of legal immigrants who are contributing strongly to our economy and culture.

Our immigration policy is already harshly racist, with decade-long waiting lists for family members from non-European countries to join their American-citizen relatives. And that "decade" is really optimistic: Family members from Mexico and India have a wait of 17 and 20 years, respectively. Filipino family members wait 24 years -- even though the Philippines are a former American territory.

(Let's remember, however, that Puerto Ricans are not "immigrants" at all -- they're already U.S. citizens before they buy a ticket and come to the mainland. It's as legal as a North Carolinian moving to New Jersey and voting in elections there.)

This meager, racism-snarled lifeline is still too much for the anti-chain-migration crowd. They want to cut it off entirely.

Right now, nearly 2.5 million siblings of US citizens -- i.e., legal immigrants who have become naturalized, tax-paying citizens -- are waiting out their time before they can get a green card.

I'm a child of immigrants, as are all of you. Yes, my ancestors came here many generations ago, in an era before racist quotas were installed; my earliest ancestors to immigrate came on the Mayflower (yes, I really am descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of "The Courtship of Miles Standish" fame). But that's just an eyeblink of time in the history of human migration.

We are a nation of immigrants -- and quite often the worst sort of immigrants, too. Not law-abiding people who obeyed the law of the nation they came to, but instead "pioneers" who broke the law and crossed into Indian land, settling there in defiance of many treaties. Their illegal immigration established the new boundaries, and brought about the dispossession of nearly all the native citizens of those lands.

But now, the descendants of those ill-behaved illegal immigrants now have spawned a lot of citizens who think that genuinely law-abiding immigrants must be stopped, especially those with dark skins and difficulty speaking and understanding English.

Opposition to "chain migration" is, in my opinion, a confession of a fearful, prejudiced, hate-filled heart, eager to believe the worst about law-abiding people because of their races and nationalities.

It is a rejection of the very principles that made America the greatest nation in the world, the light to all nations. We drew away from their homelands the most ambitious people of the middle and lower classes and gave them the chance to live and work, with their families, in a nation where citizenship did not depend on ethnicity or language, but on your willingness to subscribe to the principles enshrined in our Constitution.

I'm ashamed of the fact that "chain migration" is decried shamelessly by people who purport to have American values. Immigrants, with all their flaws, made our nation the greatest economic and military power in history -- as well as the third most populous nation in the world.

On average, the people who give up everything in their home country to come here are among the best, the brightest, the most ambitious and productive people from their home countries. On average, over the long haul, they improve our economy far more than they drain it -- just as our own ancestors did. Upon arriving they have little money, and may drain our economy a little, for a while; but in the long run, they become equal citizens, if not superior in their ambitions and attainments.

One of our great strengths is that there are now native-born Americans who look like people from every land on Earth. When we look at a crowd of Americans, we generally see at least a few who could walk the streets of Tokyo, Mumbai, Accra, Quito, Djakarta, Tehran, or Veracruz and be accepted as native born -- not just people who could walk about in Warsaw, Palermo, Amsterdam, Oslo, or Athens and be taken for natives.

We are the world -- or at least a fair sample. It's one of the reasons why people of every nation look to us for hope. In their hearts, countless millions of people all over the world are secretly citizens of the United States of America.

But there are those among us who want to put a stop to our history and declare that America as a land of opportunity is now dead, and only those already living here can participate.

God help us if they ever succeed. We've elected a president willing to mouth their doctrines, but not a Congress, and I hope they never again come this close to success in their short-sighted and, in my view, wicked goals.

If they ever close the door to legal immigration and the uniting of families on American soil, I will spend the rest of my life trying to kick that door open again. Because that is a redefinition of "America" that I will never accept.

In our inn, there should always be room for humble taxpayers to expand their families.

*

When I was little, trains were America's main transportation for long trips.

Sure, my family owned a car. There were only three or four kids in our family then, so we all fit in a 1950 Buick sedan -- with one of us sitting or standing on the front bench between Dad and Mom.

Yeah, nobody actually loved their children then, so we didn't pin our kids down in car seats relegated to the back so that air bags wouldn't kill them, and so that they were cut off from adult conversation and from any kind of view.

In fact, many people used handy child seats that hooked over the back of the front seat, raising the child up for better viewing -- and ensuring that in case of a sudden stop, the child in that seat would be hurled through the windshield even if nobody else was injured.

I remember riding there -- at a time when I was old enough to talk to my parents and get answers. (Even when seat belts became legally required in cars, my family still ignored them until 1975 or so.)

For really long trips, my father built a platform that fit between the front and back seats, making the back seat into a pretty good bed, where three short kids could easily sleep. Our usual family trips were just under 800 miles -- either from Santa Clara to Salt Lake or from Santa Clara to Benton City, Washington. For us, that was a car trip.

But a few years earlier, when we moved to Santa Clara from Salt Lake City, my dad had already gone on ahead with the family car, so to join him the rest of us traveled as most Americans did in those days: by train.

Our initial trip was from Salt Lake to Benton City, where our double-first-cousins lived (my dad's sister married to my mom's brother). There was a direct passenger train connection from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Pasco, Washington, where Uncle Sherm must have picked us up.

And because everybody traveled by train, there were plenty of departure dates and times. As with air travel today, you could pretty much go whenever you wanted. And there was good passenger service to every major town in every state.

We stayed with our cousins in their wonderful farmhouse for days or weeks -- I can't keep track of the calendar now, so there's no way I'd have any concept of it when I was five. Then Uncle Sherm drove us to Portland, Oregon, where we caught the train to San Jose.

So yes, Hal David and Burt Bacharach, I knew the way to San Jose ... you got on a train with a ticket that said you were going there!

I remember the excitement of walking out onto the long platform or along gravel medians until we reached the engine. At that age, of course I had someone holding my hand, because I would certainly have touched all kinds of parts which, if they moved, would have severed my arm or dragged me into the machinery.

So I was aware of the raw power and peril of the train -- not just the engine, but also the wheel assemblies on every car, and the couplings, and the passages between train cars.

However, the train also represented freedom. Climb up that short but steep stairway into the train car, and you would soon be swept away.

Airplanes have never given me that sense of adventure, largely because even when you sit by the tiny window, you can't see anything. Aerial views don't show you scenery. Usually you just see clouds, and if the ground is visible, it's so distant that there's just not much that's interesting to see.

But from train windows, the whole country is there -- all the scenery, all the weathers. You really experience the journey as the scenery sweeps along; yet you can get up and walk around in a way that's uncomfortable and annoying on a plane.

There's that little matter of a train trip taking 67 hours -- and three transfers -- to get from San Jose to Greensboro (for instance), compared to about nine hours and one layover via Delta Airlines (not counting the time spent standing in line and being humiliated by the Transportation Security Administration).

But to a five-year-old, 67 hours in a train is nothing, because you can walk around and see things and play. On the train, you can go to the toilet whenever you need to, without having to make a big production of stopping the car at a gas station that Mom thinks might be clean enough for our childish bums to be applied to the seats.

Three days on a train was way better than three days in a car, even with a couple of luggage-hauling transfers along the way. (After all, on a car trip we'd have to haul all the luggage into a motel room every night anyway.)

We could feel the trains fading away, though, even as children. The double-decker commuter trains still ran from San Jose to San Francisco, but it was a real adventure for us to ride them when we went up to meet Dad at his second job in the Hillsdale Mall near San Mateo. I loved the train but I knew that it was only to be used when the car wasn't available.

So even though Mom hated driving on the freeway -- it was called "Bloody Bayshore" because all accidents there happened at upwards of sixty miles an hour, while on El Camino Real, speeds were generally under fifty, and between stoplights you rarely got up to that speed anyway. The train was the fast way and the safe way.

That was 1957. Before Americans fully committed to playing traffic roulette, with (for instance) 35,092 people dying in car accidents in 2015, and more than a million since 1990 -- and that's since seat belts and air bags seriously cut the fatality rate.

In recent years my wife and I have sampled train service here and there. The trains that go into and out of New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC have decent schedules and fair accommodations. But these are really commuter trains, or nearly so.

If you want to go to other cities -- even major ones -- you're lucky if there's one train a day, and its arrival and departure times are both inconvenient and unreliable.

If you're counting on a sleeper, then you really need to be as short and thin as people were in 1957. Trains haven't gotten any wider, nor beds any longer.

And instead of a soothing clickety-clack, the tracks are poorly maintained, so that what you get is a thunkety thunk.

When you're awake, it means that it's devilishly hard to operate a computer mouse -- the cursor is constantly jumping all over the screen.

And if you want to sleep, well ... you get constant vibration of a very non-restful kind.

So I haven't made the switch away from airplanes and cars to trains for my long-distance travel. I have ridden a few specialty trains, like taking a room in a private car for a fall foliage trip to Charlottesville VA about a year ago.

But recently I found a better way to get most of the pleasure of a train trip with none of the inconvenience. It's a Canadian series, airing in our area on the Smithsonian Channel, called Mighty Trains.

The first one I saw was about the White Pass and Yukon railroad, starting in Skagway, Alaska and ending up inside Canada. Supported financially by tourists from cruise ships, this fairly short railroad climbs quite steeply, crossing over deep gorges and braving the possibility of deep snow.

The shows are carefully designed for every kind of train aficionado. If you're fascinated by the actual machinery of railroading, you get to see inside the guts of the locomotives as the mechanics prepare them for the demanding climb (and equally demanding descent).

If it's the scenery you want, well ... you get it, and with a much clearer view than you could ever get through the train window. You can also see views of bridges and trestles that you could never see from inside the train.

The show also takes you into the towns for brief visits, where you can overhear the conversations of longtime railroad workers who have experienced this route over and over.

Then I watched an episode about the transcontinental Canadian -- a historic railroad with daily service in both directions from Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal. The Canadian government subsidizes the train as long as it offers service to small communities along the line, so don't expect it to be an express trip!

However, I loved the episode, with its passages through mountains, across prairies, and into the wet and wild Ontario countryside.

Neither episode made me want to actually make the trip. The White Pass and Yukon railroad was actually terrifying to an acrophobe like me. I'm glad to know how old and sturdy those bridges are. I'm never, ever going across them with my actual body.

I have a hard enough time going up and over the automobile bridges connecting the Outer Banks of North Carolina to each other and to mainland America. (I've learned that you can't safely drive a bridge while squinching your eyes closed so you don't see how high up you are.)

As for the Canadian, it isn't as scary -- but I'm not sure I'm up for that many days in a train. The food has to be better than the wretched stuff you get on Amtrak trains, because Canada has standards, and it might be clickety clack rather than thunkety thunk, because Canada seems to care about its infrastructure.

But I'm betting the beds aren't a speck larger.

I love this TV series because I get a fix for my railroad addiction, and it reduces my temptation to actually buy a ticket and ride a train. Not until the government commits to taking as much care for maintaining the tracks and bridges as it takes for repairing and expanding the Interstate network.

*

And while I'm talking about railroads, do you want to know the real reason trains can't regain their place as a major means of transporting humans from city to city in America?

All the old railroad stations used to be within walking distance of downtowns -- especially in towns too small to have more than a couple of taxis.

Now, cities have moved their commercial centers far from the railroads, which are as likely to take you to a slum or a warehouse district as to the city itself. You're left stranded.

There is a solution, and it's one that Americans are already voting for, not at the ballot box, but by the prices we're willing to pay for the homes we buy.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck, we are shown that when a downtown is made pedestrian-friendly, the value of apartments, townhouses, condos, and houses near the walkable part of the city soars. The demand for a walkable downtown is real.

Why? Not only is it healthier to walk or ride a bike to the grocery store, to the drugstore, to work, or to the train station, it's also quicker, because when you get there on foot (or, in the right cities, on a bike), you don't have to drive around and around to find parking.

Greensboro is planning to build more downtown parking structures. These are absurdly expensive on a per-car and square-foot basis -- it amounts to a huge government subsidy to car owners.

If car owners had to pay the actual costs of creating and maintaining their parking spaces, they couldn't afford to operate a car. That's no joke. The taxes paid by everyone are injected into car-parking subsidies.

For the cost of these new downtown parking garages, Greensboro could actually pay for and maintain a decent bus service -- which, at present, we do not have, though there have been real improvements since my family moved here. (Covered bus-stop benches, for instance, exist in much larger numbers, though not everywhere they're needed.)

But between our zoning laws, which separate residential and commercial as widely as possible, and our traffic designs, which do not require easy pedestrian and automobile pass-through between the vast parking lots of big-box stores, you can't live in Greensboro without a car.

Yet ... many people do, because they have no choice. They're poor. Cars are expensive. The kind of car that poor people can afford is usually unreliable. How do you keep a job if you can't count on getting there?

Downtown parking garages do nothing for them.

A step-on, step-off streetcar system would vastly improve their lives, if it went everywhere.

Half-measures do nothing.

But cities that commit to pedestrian life have been succeeding, as Walkable City documents over and over.

What makes a city walkable? Some of the ideas have been known -- and proven -- for decades. For instance, when they build these two proposed parking garages, as they certainly will, they could demand that the street level have no parking at all, just ramps up to the parking levels above the street.

That means that only the garage entrance would take up street frontage. The rest of the frontage could be retail spaces, which the management of the parking facility would be required to keep occupied at all times, which would keep the price down. No plywood window fronts, no going-out-of-business sales, no pawnshops and Halloween pop-up stores.

Instead, they would be shops with low enough rents that entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop stores could afford to stay in business. Little galleries. Barber shops and hair salons. Lunch places. Hobby stores.

That would mean that walking from your car to the rest of downtown would be part of the downtown experience. There would be window displays to look at, shops to walk into: visual interest and a sense that there's a reason to be a pedestrian on this street.

Contrast that with the existing dead-street parking facility downtown, and the equally dead-street baseball stadium in Greensboro. If you kill the street, how have you helped improve "downtown"? Where the street is dead to pedestrians, the downtown is dead. Parking garages and stadiums -- anything without window frontage -- is the rot that kills downtowns.

Malls are hardly better. You still have a long, boring walk to the mall from the lunar landing zone where you parked.

But think of Friendly Center, where you can park anywhere in the east (old) or west (new) sections and then walk to many stores. Between the trees and brickwork crossing the parking areas and the many storefronts, it's always a much more interesting walk than anything downtown.

Cars are here to stay, of course. I'm not giving mine up, and I don't want you to give up yours, either (though if you'd either learn how to drive in snow or stay off the roads when it's snowing, I'd be grateful).

But wouldn't it be nice if, when we think, "I need to go get milk so we can have breakfast in the morning," we had the option of walking to the grocery store instead of pulling the car onto the street and then searching for a parking place at the store?

Maybe it will all become moot when Amazon.com starts delivering cold milk and frozen foods by drone.

But human beings are social creatures. Even introverts get lonely, and we need a sense of being part of the hustle and bustle of urban life. Even in small towns -- or, perhaps, especially in small towns, it feels good to pass many people who are also on foot, to smile and nod, to recognize a friend now and then and stop and chat.

It's all part of the walkable city. We used to have it. We can have it again. All we need is for government to stop making horrible decisions. Let us live in apartments above stores, please! Not just downtown but anywhere! Let us open small shops and workplaces inside houses that are still residences! Stop using foolish meddlesome laws to prevent us from living like humans!

*

Dancing with the Stars just ended its most recent season, and So You Think You Can Dance had its 14th season this past summer. While changes have been made, I have to say that it makes me happy that two such very different dance shows can still find enough of an audience to attract advertisers.

Most people can tell at a glance that I'm not a dancer, but in fact, I secretly am. When I was in college, I was both slender and limber enough to take some modern dance and stage movement classes, and I learned ballroom dance at home and through a home study course (yes, really) in college.

My wife can attest that at times in my life when I was not asserting kinship with hippopotami, I have been a reasonably agile dancer -- after all, she was my partner in that home study social dance class -- and I have long been a fan of some of America's brilliant dance companies. (Alvin Ailey, for instance, and Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, as well as several important ballet companies.)

I wish that Greensboro's local dance companies didn't have raucous recitals that are little more than talent shows, with uncivilized dancers in the gallery hooting and shouting at the other dancers' performances. They think they're being supportive, but they make the idea of attending such performances insupportable.

If the local dance studios trained their dancers to treat the music and the dance with decorum and respect, so they didn't have to turn up the volume of the music to migraine-inducing levels to be heard at all, we might start to develop an audience for well-trained dancers and artistic choreography. (Let young beginners have recitals for the people who love them and think they're cute, the way piano teachers arrange recitals for beginning piano students.)

The quality of dance we see on television -- especially So You Think You Can Dance, which has had some truly magnificent performances over the years -- point the way toward good art in many cities. Unlike CDs of perfect orchestral performances, which severely damage the ability of less-than-perfect local orchestras to attract an audience, those brilliant television dances can't be listened to over and over.

To appreciate a dance performance, you have to give it your full attention. And if our local dance studios would remember that and help the audience to rivet their attention on the performers on the stage and the music they're dancing to, we might be able to have living art from the artists living among us.

When London had the greatest theatre in the world -- during Elizabethan and early Stuart years -- the population of London was 50,000. In Greensboro we have six times that population. If we wanted to, there's no reason to imagine that we could not have a lively renaissance of our own.

But great performances require, not just great performers, but also great audiences that appreciate what they're seeing.

Not that the London audience was all that sophisticated. Adult theatre companies like the one Shakespeare worked with were in constant competition with "cute" companies of boy actors -- children acting adult parts.

Which is rather like watching hamsters perform -- darling, yes, but really, if that's good enough, why should Shakespeare bother writing real plays?

Think of most television shows as being the equivalent of those boys' companies, satisfying us with minimal exertion. But if we went to the theater once a month to see a play or a dance concert or hear a live orchestra, then those performers would thrive, and we might attract (or hold on to) better and better performers.

Here we are in a city that has the Eastern Music Festival every summer, and university-level performances all through the year ... and yet we seem to delight in our ignorance of what they're doing.

The university artists do take delight in showing off how sophisticated they are, so that some of their offerings every year are rather awful, designed to make the audience feel stupid for hating such deliberately unpleasing art. But they also perform things, from time to time, that untrained audiences can delight in. You know, the way Shakespeare did, because Shakespeare was never trying to be too cool for his public.

*

I've been growing so accustomed to speaking to Alexa in two rooms of our house (in the kitchen, on an Echo Dot; in our bedroom, on a Kindle Fire tablet) that in my car I find myself wanting to change stations, not by poking at the screen showing my Sirius-XM favorite stations, but by saying, "Alexa, play the Holiday Traditions station."

Of course, in my car Alexa can't hear me.

Is it worth getting a device with Alexa on it? There are pluses and minuses, of course. In our bedroom, for instance, if I call out to Alexa to change or even stop the music, she sometimes can't hear me unless I get out of bed and stand right next to the Kindle Fire.

This rather defeats the purpose of having a voice-activated control system.

And Alexa has some severe gaps in her abilities. Even though I subscribe to every possible Amazon music service, so I should be able to get, in every room, all the music Amazon has to offer, Alexa can only seem to find artists and songs -- not albums or genres.

If I ask for Alexa to play Peter Paul & Mary's 1700 album (the one with "Leaving on a Jet Plane"), I'm out of luck. I can ask Alexa to play Peter Paul & Mary, in which case I get a random selection of their good and bad songs -- and yes, fan though I am, they had some very, very bad songs in their career -- or I can ask for an individual song by name, and then ask for another by name when that one is finished.

That's something Amazon's Alexa-programming group can surely fix.

And genre recognition is impossible -- when I ask for "religious Christmas carols" I get gospel and soul -- not at all the same thing.

And then, in classical music, there's the performer vs. composer problem. How do I ask for the Leonard Bernstein performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring? If I ask for Handel's Messiah, I get almost no useful response. I have to load my Messiah collection from my hard drive and play it manually.

And Alexa has no concept of "soundtrack." Ask for the Soundtrack from, say, A Room with a View, and what you'll get is the Audible.com narration of the book the movie was based on. Very lovely, but not Kiri Te Kanawa singing a magnificent aria about somebody's grandfather, whose Italian title I can never remember, and which I therefore cannot get Alexa to play for me.

(Yes, I now know that it's "Mio Babbino Caro," but when I first get up in the morning I cannot be expected to have such information at the forefront of my aging brain.)

Then there's the amusing problem that you can't discuss Alexa in the same room with her. She's always eavesdropping, so if you say, "I can't get Alexa to play the Neville Mariner Messiah," Alexa will say, "Searching for Neville Mariner Messiah songs," which will soon be followed by her sad confession that she can't find any songs by "Neville Mariner Messiah."

We have learned, when in the same room with an Alexa machine, to refer to her as "the creature." Only then can we discuss Alexa without having her constantly interrupt our conversation with her reports on her failure to carry out commands we didn't issue.

To me, these are minor inconveniences. This morning, I said, "Alexa, play Arthur Fiedler." Because this longtime conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra had something like a million albums spread over five decades, Amazon Prime has a lot of orchestral music under that name, all of it listenable.

Yes, sometimes the Boston Pops made some pretty Muzak-like recordings of pop songs, but they pass quickly, and as often as not I recognize the Boston Pops recordings as the ones I've long regarded as definitive.

And let's remember that with their very large income from recording, the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler was able to hire some truly brilliant performers. The virtuosity of many of these performances is breathtaking, as string and wind sections play difficult music up to tempo and without a single false pitch.

All of this Alexa brings me without my having to (a) take up disc space and spend money on individual copies of the recordings and (b) walk over and type or punch in my music choices.

Now, Alexa can't be blamed for your own choices. When I ask for the Ray Conniff Singers, I can't fault her for playing me their most awful songs as well as their best. (Either way, it's a trip down memory lane; people today have no idea how the Ray Conniff Singers dominated the radio in the 1950s and '60s.)

And sometimes when you ask for somebody you know for a few tunes, you can have some wonderful surprises -- Henry Mancini was responsible for some remarkable music, serving as something like the John Williams of his day.

Sometimes Alexa misunderstands what I want. But then, sometimes I misunderstand what my wife wants, and she still seems to like keeping me around. Think of Alexa as a very eager, helpful house servant who is still learning English but does your bidding whenever she can. To me, that makes her worth keeping on the payroll.

As to Alexa devices ... the Echo Dot needs to be augmented with a good set of speakers, but the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet has speakers that are as good as the speakers in my car -- that is, the music is as good as the music in my car, what with all the road noise.

I haven't yet tried some of the fancier Alexa machines yet. I'll report on those after I get a chance to work with and listen to them.

And we haven't yet tried out Alexa's other entertainment features. You can ask her for a "quotation" -- either specifying a particular source ("a quotation from Winston Churchill") or none at all ("read me a quotation"). Or you can ask Alexa to tell you a joke (and since it's from Amazon, you know it will be politically correct).

You can also ask Alexa the answer to trivia questions -- some of which she'll know, and some of which will completely baffle her.

Hey, she's not Alex Trebec ... she'll never get snooty with you because you don't know the answer already.

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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