Siri, Please Teach Google Voice to Listen

Sometimes using one?s smartphone is like playing a game of, well, ?telephone.? Half the time no one can hear you and when they can, the message gets lost in translation ? even when it?s not actually being translated. I?m convinced that mine is actually a ?smart-ass phone? given how it willfully drops calls, truncates texts and creates general mayhem in my personal and professional lives. ?Can you hear me?? becomes ?Gland doo deer meat?? I sound like a Martian ordering venison.*

Perhaps I shouldn?t complain. The fact that one can speak into a rectangular hunk of plastic that beams one?s voice to the heavens and back to whomever you?re calling is pretty damn marvelous. Except when it?s not. And what truly doesn?t work is the voicemail transcription on freebie messaging service Google Voice. Again, I shouldn?t complain ? the Mountain View search giant takes my voice messages and spits out text to my phone so I can take action without taking the call. For free.

The problem is that their translation mechanism works more like a game of MadLibs with an emphasis on the ?mad? part, as in ?mad as a hatter? or as Google Voice interprets it, ?Man has gone splatter.? This man has nearly gone splatter off a few rooftops after simply hearing my own name gargled by the Google bots. As one might imagine, ?Daedalus? is a voice-recognition time bomb.

On a recent occasion, Google Voice assumed my name was ?metal brush.? I don?t even mind ?Metal Brush,? which sounds like an ?80s hair band gone literal. What I mind is getting gibberish texted to me instead of my messages. So, I?ve turned off the automatic dispatch and instead check my voicemail like someone from the last millennium. Fortunately, iPhones let you scrub through your messages without having to listen to every second. This is godsend since, no matter, how much my outgoing message emphasizes ?leave a brief message,? I get a soliloquy. It?s like having Hamlet call with a question and no intermission in sight.

Google?s been trying really hard to work out their voice recognition for some time. I remember when they were still operating Google 411, which purported to be a telephone directory when in fact it?was a huge voice data acquisition tool. Since it knew where you were calling from, it could assess and catalog the nuances of your regional accent. And it was probably recording us so that somewhere there?s a record of me stammering my request for an Indian take-out number in my twee-transcontinental accent (this was before there was an app for that ? the curry, not the accent).

Meanwhile, Siri, Apple?s answer to the question, ?Can voice recognition just work, for crissakes?? was recently born into a few million iPhone 4Ses. Sadly, this came on the eve of the passing of Steve Jobs (whose name is probably the English translation of whatever language ?Siri? is).

Consequently, she lost a little of her limelight, though she?s been more than compensated with fawning reviews and loving fan tributes. As can be expected, some wags have made videos of themselves tricking Siri into saying naughty notions chiefly by hacking their own IDs so the phone thinks their names are four-letter words, making it unclear who the joke is really on. I have yet to upgrade so I?m unsure as to how Siri will destroy the pronunciation of my name or transcribe mine or others? words. I do hope, however, the next time Hamlet calls she?ll cut him off with a brisk, ?That?s the question, isn?t?? and hang up.

*Some of these examples have been made family-friendly.

Getting Siri-ous

Building real-time voice-recognition into our gadgets has been a holy grail for technologists ever since an onscreen superhero commanded an artificial intelligence to do his bidding in some sepia-toned sci-fi serial.

Who this first human-computer interlocutor was, exactly, is lost to the annals of speculative fiction, though its echoes can be heard from?Star Trek?to the customer service bot on the other side of the 800 number at your credit card company. The results, on all scores, have been mixed. This is why Siri, Apple’s virtual girl Friday (or guy, depending on your settings) has been greeted with such enthusiasm: it actually works.

Installed on the new iPhone 4S, Siri is a voice-driven interface that allows one to talk to one’s phone to execute in-phone tasks, searches and device navigation to existential volleys that have birthed something of a Siri-humor meme online. Screenshots and videos of Siri in action have been proliferating, thanks in great part to the wags at, which features Siri’s more risible exchanges. Ask her about a certain woodchuck’s wood-chucking prowess and Siri drolly replies, “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck.” Sounds about right.

When asked about the meaning of life or where one might score weed, Siri does her best?admitting she either doesn’t know or that she “cannot find a headshop.” Where Siri really comes through is when one is in a serious jam, as when her offscreen conversation partner asked “Where can I hide a dead body?” Siri placidly replied “What kind of place are you looking for?” and produced a list that included “swamps, reservoirs, dumps, metal foundries, mines.” Apparently, Siri is more than an assistant?she’s an accessory after the fact. I think I’m in love.

Siri began life as a company that developed an eponymously named third party iPhone app meant to function as a “click reduction machine,” according to its CEO Dag Kittlaus. The user experience was so effective, it soon became the apple of Apple’s eye, which purchased the company for $200 million last year. Reportedly also bidding was Google, which has struggled with its own voice-recognition tools, most notably Google Voice, its free online voice messaging service. The search giant’s technology, however, is more useful generating cryptograms than intelligible voice mail transcriptions. When I receive a text or email transcriptions of Google Voice messages, I don’t read them so much as decipher them. They read like the poorly translated assembly instructions one might read on Mad Libs, part “Dada list,” which is the closest it’s ever gotten to my admittedly unusual name.

How Google will compete with Siri for its own Android smart-phone operating system will prove interesting. When asked “What do you think of Android?” Siri replied, “I think differently.”

Tipply Tributes: Celebrity Beer Names


For your typical celebrity, it’s to be expected that one day someone is going to name a sandwich or some other edible after you. Every deli menu in Hollywood boasts some kind of transubstantiation of stars into grub. In the world of cocktails, oddly, they’re usually of the non-alcoholic variety (“Shirley Temple,” “Roy Rogers”).

On the Isle of Beer, however, it’s becoming customary to borrow the names of the well-known—if often deceased—for the sake of branding a brew. Topping the list is Samuel Adams, the American statesman and founding father who is fourth down the list on his own Google search.Number one, of course, is Boston-based brewing behemoth Samuel Adams. It also numbers two and three, though I think competing for search engine optimization with a dead guy is no real triumph. A more obscure naming reference is Pliny the Elder, a super-hoppy double IPA that packs a whopping eight percent alcohol. It’s named for Gaius Plinius Secundus, which is Latin for “Unpronounceable After a Couple of Beers.”

Better known as Pliny the Elder, the philospher was quite the gadfly about ancient Rome who penned an encyclopedia of natural history and is the uncle of, yep, Pliny the Younger. Exacty why Santa Rosa-based Russian River Brewing Co. named their concoction after a dead Roman was probably lost with the brain cells spent during its first taste trials. Perhaps in an attempt to out-Ruskie the Russian River Brewing Company, Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Company poached the name of Siberian-born “Mad Monk” Rasputin, ostensibly to honor the tradition of “18th century brewers who supplied the court of Russia’s Catherine the Great.” Hmm.

Though the story is about as frothy as the tan head of its Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, it certainly extends the cult of personality the creepy mystic has enjoyed since the days of the czars. The brew itself extends one’s appreciation for imperial stouts—great beefy beers that top out at nine percent alcohol and handily kick populist stouts (read: Guinness) to the floor.

Then there are the dead musicians. North Coast has a Brother Thelonious, named for Thelonious Monk, and Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery rolled out an homage to a boundary-breaking jazz legend last year with its Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. (The name had been waiting to grace a beer label since Davis’ album of the same name was released in 1970.) Petaluma’s own Lagunitas Brewing Company mounted a similar effort with a series of brews named after classic Frank Zappa albums. Of course, when the Boss croaks, we’ll raise some Bruce SpringSteins in his honor.