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.

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.

Phone Drones: Virtual Agents Answer Customer Service Call of Duty

That a large portion of one?s customer service call are outsourced to India or other exotic locales is old news. We?ve all been patched through to a phone bank half a planet away to speak with someone trained to suppress their native accent and make references to your local weather and high school sports rivalries. Some fast food chains even outsource your drive-up burger order to countries like India where eating cow is verboten to a substantial portion of population.

Lately, tax breaks and a surfeit of college-educated English speakers have attracted blue chip companies like IBM, Shell and Hershey to the Philippines, creating a customer service economy that, due to the 9-hour time difference from its American customers, operates predominately at night.

Companies like MyCyberTwin, however, are anticipating yet another shift in customer service outsourcing ??one that won?t require a legion of nighthawks in Manila, nor pretending to be American ??just human. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, avatars (or, ?virtual agents,? to use industry parlance) can answer complex questions and use rational and logical thinking. Think ?Spock in a Box.?

?By combining sophisticated ?brain? technology with state-of-the-art animation, MyCyberTwin brings a distinct and advanced virtual specialty to businesses,? explains CEO Liesl Capper. The secret sauce behind ?brain technology? is the virtual agents? ability to learn as they go, ?allowing them to consistently get smarter and function at a higher level as time moves on,? Capper adds. NASA has recently implemented the technology suggesting a real-life HAL might not be far behind.

Chat bots have existed in various forms since the mid-60s. MIT?s Joseph Weizenbaum is credited with creating one of the first, ELIZA, a program that used a primitive form of natural language processing to simulate a real conversation with its interlocutor via text-based exchanges. Thousands of so-called ?chatterbots? have spawned since with customer service implementations facilitating millions of monthly ?conversations? (San Francisco-based VirtuOz claims12 million such interactions a month for clients in the Fortune 1000).

But can a virtual agent pass the Turing Test? Developed in 1950 by researcher Alan Turing, the test was originally devised to answer the question ?Can machines think?? and uses natural language conversation with a human as its principle gauge. Though the test has been criticized by such heavy weights as philosopher John Searle for conflating rhetorical manipulation for cognition, the test remains something of a gold standard if only for proving the fallibility of an artificial intelligence?s human interlocutor. The goal of companies like MyCyberTwin isn?t to fool people into thinking their product is human but rather improve the customer experience but interfacing with them in a manner they?re most accustomed ? like humans. As online insurer Esurance proclaims in its current ad campaign ?People when you want them, Technology when you don?t.?

Ultimately, however, most consumers would prefer not to have to communicate with customer service at all, whether that be in Manila or on with HAL on some customer service odyssey. The virtual agent will surely learn this long before the companies who employ — but then again, they can’t hear you scream in virtual space.

Why Do Men Put Their Penises Online?

?To tweet or not to tweet?? ? that should have been the question for former U.S. representative Anthony Weiner whose infamous social media snafu made him and his briefs-ensconced boner a household name synonymous with ?moron.? Not only did Weiner?s foray into softcore porn (and subsequent revelations about ?sexting? with numerous women) provide a wide berth for dick jokes and puns of every stripe (which he?s probably endured since grammar school on account of his name), it cost him his career in politics.

The argument that what one does in one?s private life is should not be subject to public scrutiny went out the window when Weiner made his privates public by inadvertently posting them into his Twitter stream rather than as a direct message to 21-year-old Washington state woman.

It begs the question, ?Why do men put their penises online?? Respond to any ad on Craigslist and, as many can attest, one stands a one in five chance of receiving a poorly-lit jpeg of some dude?s cock. It?s a wonder that no one has started an amateur porn site called ?Craig?s Dicks? comprised exclusively of prick pics culled from the personal ads juggernaut. Chatroulette, the video chat service that randomly pairs participants in two-way tet-a-tets is notorious as veritable museum of male masturbation.The site rapidly cycles through chat pairings with either user given the option to hit ?next? and move on to another chat ? usually within seconds. After cycling through eight live images of users in front of their web cams ? Bingo! ? a crotch shot at the ready.

In the pantheon of paraphilias, exhibitionism is perhaps the most benign though clinicians describe it as ?coercive? since it usually involves forcibly imposing one?s genitalia into another line of sight without their consent. The notion of an old-school trench coat-clad flasher is damn near quaint compared to the lone gunman taking aim at a webcam.

Albeit, confronting an exhibitionist in the flesh is surely a harrowing experience, however, it does permit one the ability to express one?s revulsion, reciprocate with bodily harm or perhaps even flash back (any of which, may or may not be the offenders goal). The online penis parader, however, uses social media to broadcast their exhibitionism from the comfort of their own homes. It combines the privacy end-users of porn expect from direct delivery of content to their laptops (no more embarrassing visits to the ?adult? section of the video store ? hell, for that matter, no more video stores!) with the inversely proportionate ability to broadcast oneself freely, cheaply and nakedly to millions with relative anonymity and without retribution.

This is perhaps one reason that everyone from media pundits to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi came down so, um, hard on Anthony?s weiner. It was if he received the aggregate slap back awaiting all the faceless exhibitionists lurking on the Internet. Consider his monkey spanked. To gauge the size of your “e-penis” click this humorous if NSFW link, which uses your Twitter handle to measure your size online.

Update: Carlos Danger. ‘Nuff said.

Zombie-Proof House Exhibit Opens


We’ve all heard of “panic rooms” and backyard bomb-shelters but when it comes to domestic fortresses, few, if any, have addressed the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. Leave it Robert Wuilfe of Napa’s uber-gallery di Rosa to curate a major exhibition of post-apocalyptic-themed works under the comforting title “Zombie-Proof House.” Billed as a is a “meditation on anxiety and hope in a troubled time,” “Zombie-Proof House” includes works in sculpture, video, photography, interactive installations and a web project. The gamut of End Times scenarios are explored including “notions of shelter, architecture, borders or fortification…” explains the exhibit’s PR. “From examining the personal losses of the financial crisis or questioning anti-immigrant rhetoric, to addressing the climate crisis, or providing step-by-step guides to political protest, the projects in Zombie-Proof House ask viewers to recognize that a future guided by fear is not inevitable.” Though having your brain eaten by the undead might be. Zombie-Proof House opens in di Rosa’s Gatehouse Gallery at 6 p.m., Saturday, June 18. The di Rosa is located at 5200 Carneros Highway, Napa, Artists include Anthony Discenza, HalfLifers (Torsten Z. Burns and Anthony Discenza), Suzanne Husky, Inka Hoots (Joshua Short and Joel Dean Stockdill), Packard Jennings, Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao, Whitney Lynn, Julio Cesar Morales, Lucy Puls and Carol Selter. Curated by Robert Wuilfe