Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Amazon Alexa, Meet Shakespeare Geek

Show of hands, how many of you have an Amazon Echo device, lovingly referred to as Alexa?  If you've got one, I've got a treat for you.  If you don't, let me explain what it is.

You know Siri, right?  Take your phone out of your pocket, his whatever button it is to invoke her (I can never remember if it's hit-twice or press-and-hold), ask your question slowly and carefully.  Then ask it again because she didn't understand you.

Imagine if a Siri-like assistant what just kind of there, in your house, all the time.  Amazon Echo is a device that sits on your kitchen counter (for example) with it's excellent microphone and speakers, waiting for you to talk to it.  "Alexa?" you ask - from the next room.  She bongs to let you know she's awake.  Then you ask your question - "What's the weather going to be like tomorrow?"  "How did the Red Sox do?" "When is Tom Hanks' birthday?" and she happily responds, to all of those.  Oh and there's also "Alexa, put eggs on the shopping list" (which will sync to your mobile phone for when you're at the store), "Alexa, what's on the calendar today?" (syncs to Google calendar) and all kinds of other personal productivity tricks.  My kids use it to help with their homework, from checking their math and state capitals to setting timers for reading.  It's also a streaming music player.

It's really quite cool.  Everybody knows "that guy" who never lets a question go unanswered, always grabbing for his phone and asking it right in the middle of the conversation so that everybody knows the answer (heck, I am that guy).  Now you can still do that, only it's as if Alexa is another person in the conversation.

And now she's connected to Shakespeare Geek.


It's always been easy to get facts about Shakespeare - just go to Wikipedia, which Alexa can do.  And it's always been easy to get quotes (if somebody hasn't made an Alexa app for quotes yet I'm sure somebody will), but I find quote databases boring.  Too many to choose from, without any kind of context.

Well, Shakespeare Geek is different.  I've loaded it up with "trivia" about Shakespeare, rather than plain old Wikipedia entries, to keep it interesting.  I've also coded up as many of our original jokes as I could shove in there.  There's also a bit of a quote database, but I tried to do it more in "fortune cookie" style, where you're supposed to treat Alexa like a magic 8-ball, getting her to answer a question for you.  "Alexa, ask Shakespeare Geek his opinion."  / "Talkers are no good doers."  That kind of thing.

Hopefully I can grow it over time!  I really want to add something like a "Shakespeare in the news" feature that can be linked to something dynamic that's different every morning.  And of course the trivia/jokes/quotes databases can always grow.  What I'd really like to see is a bunch of downloads and hopefully some good reviews so I know that the effort will be worth it.  My kids know all this trivia and all these jokes, so other than as a neat demonstration it's not really something I'm building for myself.  It will be much more fun to know I'm keeping it updated for 500 people, than for 5.

Have fun!

Look! I'm a Helicopter!

I may have mentioned, one or two thousand times, that my daughter is finally learning Shakespeare in class.  Last week she had her first test.  Beforehand we went through the obligatory joking, me telling her to find some other place to live if she doesn't ace it, her saying, "I know, I know..."  That sort of thing.

She has the test.  Texts me when she gets home from school, "That was the easiest thing ever."

Gets her grade back on Friday - a 92%.  She is *livid*.  The school actually posts scores online ahead of time, before you ever get to see the exam, so she doesn't know why she got a 92 or what she got wrong.  It's Friday night, she and I are at the dress rehearsal for her dance recital, and she is standing there in full makeup and costume grilling me over the answers to the questions she can remember (e.g. whether "feathers heavier than lead" counts as an oxymoron) and basically planning all possible outcomes for what might have happened.  Stupid error on her part?  Fine. Stupid, but fine, her fault.  Question that she flat out gets wrong because she did not know the answer? Again, fine. Wouldn't be happy about it, but wrong is wrong, and that's how we learn what right is.

What she's preparing for is the technicality, the matter of interpretation / opinion, the answer where it's technically right but arguably not exactly what the teacher wanted.  She's bracing herself for this outcome, and what she will do if that's the case.  I suggested that she bite her thumb at the teacher.  She thought that was a great idea.  I said no, that's not a great idea, don't do that. As we followed the stage managers out onto dress rehearsal, she told me that if necessary she's going to need me to bring the full force of the blog down upon him, to right any wrongs that may occur.

Well we got the test back.

Wrong answer #1:  "Which of the following things does Lord Capulet call Tybalt?" followed multiple choice answers like "saucy boy" and some others that I'm sure I would not have remembered.  She picked one.  Answer was actually "all of the above".  Oh well.

Wrong answer #2: What city does the play take place in?  She wrote verona.  As in, without a capital V.  Got partial credit.  That's just one of those "What are ya gonna do?" moments. It's technically wrong.  I'd like to see how many kids didn't actually write down Verona at all, for comparison, to see how important it is.  I wonder if she'd capitalized it but spelled it wrong (Varona?) whether it would have been a partial answer or not.

Wrong answer #3:  Here's where it gets interesting.  The question was, who brings the invitation list to Romeo to read it?  She answered, "A Capulet servant who can't read."  The answer the teacher wanted?  "Clown." (Which is ironic because when they read the play in class, that's the role she played.)

Again, I can see why he wanted that answer.  But my daughter doesn't understand why hers is wrong. The First Folio (I checked) does say "Enter Clown", even though his actual lines are prefaced with "Ser" as in "Servant".  My daughter asked me why he's even called a clown, he doesn't do anything funny.  I tried to explain the role of the clown as a specific thing, he's not just some random clown wandering through the streets, how many of the plays have somebody in that exact role, but my heart wasn't in it. I thought about bringing up terms like "commedia dell'arte" but I thought I'd lose her, plus my understanding of that area isn't strong.

All in all, not the worst showing.  2 out of 3 mistakes were just silly, and 1 falls into that bucket of "there's lots of ways to answer this question and I didn't pick the one the teacher wanted".  The most important lesson, from where I sit, is that she takes her understanding of Shakespeare very seriously and wants to confirm at every opportunity that she does, in fact, know what she's talking about.  I'm ok with that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More Capulet-ish, Really

I have been waiting a long time to have conversations about the text with my daughter, and I couldn't be more excited now that it's happening. Every day she brings me a question that makes me say, "I don't know, I'll research it."

Today's question?

Rosaline is a Capulet, isn't she? She's invited to the party, and on the list she is referenced as "my fair niece".

So why, then, is it ok for Romeo to be head over heels madly in love with her, but when he finds out that Juliet is a Capulet, he says, "My life is my foe's debt"?

The best answer that I could give my daughter - who was the messenger for other kids in her class - was that we're talking about really extended families here, and "cousin" or "niece" didn't necessarily mean like we mean it, you are the child of my mother's brother or something.  Instead it meant something more along the lines of "kinsmen," as in, "We are related by some combination, but you are not my child or my sibling. Therefore if you are of my generation I will call you cousin, if you are younger than me I will call you niece or nephew."  By extension, Romeo's problem with Juliet isn't so much that she's a Capulet at all, but that she's the daughter of the head of the family (just like he is son of the head of the Montague family).


Which then led to the question (man, sometimes these kids are quick!), "Then what the heck is Tybalt?  He's a cousin, right?  Why is Rosaline no big deal, but Tybalt is right in the middle of everything?"

Good question!  My best answer was that he was very close to the Lord and Lady Capulet, and grew up with Juliet, almost as if they were brother and sister.  Which is later explained after Tybalt's death, so I think that there's some textual evidence to back that up.

How'd I do?  Is there an easier or more accurate way to explain that?