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Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Tuesday - October 11, 2016

Meet Siri

IMG_0017I was talking to a student recently – on Skype – when I was interrupted by a woman’s voice:

“I’m sorry, Warren, I didn’t get that.”

The voice came from my iPad, which was sitting on my desk. I had said something that woke up Siri, she hadn’t understood what I said, and she was letting me know so I could repeat it.

Siri, if you don’t already know about her, is a computer program that acts as a personal assistant (helper) to people using iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers. Siri can do a variety of tasks (jobs) that begin when the user asks her a question or gives her a command (tells her what to do). She can understand what you say, she knows where you are, and she can search the Internet for information she needs to answer your question.

Siri adapts (changes in a helpful way) to the way you speak and how you use English. The more you use her, the more she learns about you, and the more her answers fit you and your situation.

Recently, Susan Bennett, the original Siri voice, explained how Siri’s voice works and why it sounds so life-like. Bennett is a voice actor. She does commercials (advertisements for radio and TV), sings, and provides voices for other companies and public address services, like the announcements you hear when you walk through an airport.

Siri needs to be able to say almost anything. When she answers your question, the powerful computer program that makes her possible quickly builds words and sentences from a large collection of individual sounds. That means that Bennett, and others like her, must record every possible sound of every letter and combination of letters in English.

You can imagine how difficult that might be. How many “s” sounds are there in English? A lot. For example, the “s” sounds in “hiss,” “snakes,” and “rose” are different. Even short words have many individual sounds: “teeth” has “t”, “ee”, “th”; “lips” has “l”, “ih”, “p”, “s”. Imagine all the sounds that must be chosen and combined (put together) to make all the possible sentences that Siri might need!

To get all the sounds into the computer memory, Bennett records nonsense (without meaning) phrases (groups of words), like “oil your mills jewel weed today.” Bennett did this for four hours a day, five days a week for one month when Siri was first created.

Siri can do a lot, but if you ask a question she doesn’t understand or can’t find the information for, she’ll tell you so you can repeat what you said or ask your question differently. Sometimes she’ll just give you a funny answer. I remember one of the first times I tried to use Siri. I had taken the metro light rail (small train-like system) to meet someone for lunch at a restaurant named “Father’s Office.” When I got off the metro, I didn’t know where to go, so I asked Siri, “Where is Father’s Office?” Her reply – “I’m sorry, Warren, I don’t know your father.”

Today, while I was finishing this post, I tried again. I asked Siri to “give me directions to Father’s Office.” This time she gave me two choices and asked me to tell her which one I wanted to go to.

She’s learning.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo by W. Ediger

Tuesday - August 23, 2016

An Actual Phone Call to My Internet Provider

A few months ago, the company that provides me with home Internet and phone service sold that portion (part) of their company to another business. Since then, there have been many news reports about service problems. I’m one of the customers who has been affected (felt the change or influence).

Below are excerpts (short sections) from an actual phone call I made to my Internet provider (company that provides Internet service) to report my problem. The same company provides my landline (regular phone; not cell phone). The person who took my call was named “Kimberly.”

Kimberly:  What is the problem you’re having?

Me:  My Internet has been slow for the past couple of months. This morning, service was cutting in and out (sometimes working, sometimes not). And even when I have service, it’s running (operating) very, very slowly.

Kimberly:  [Silence.]

Me: So I’m calling to get my Internet service fixed.

[It takes about six minutes to access my account using my PIN (Personal Identification Number used for security purposes) and for me to give her a phone number she can call me at in case we’re disconnected (call ends unexpectedly).  I repeat my phone number three times before she gets it right.]

Kimberly:  Okay, what happens when you have no service?

Me:  Nothing happens. When I have no service, I have no service.

Kimberly:  I mean, are you not getting a dial tone (the stuttering (short, repeated) sound you hear when you pick up a telephone when its not in use)?

Me:  I have FiOS (a type of Internet service using “fiber-optic” wires).  I don’t have dial-up (using a telephone line) Internet service.  And I’m not calling about my home phone service.  I have a problem with my Internet service.  That’s what I’m calling about.

Kimberly:  [Long pause.]  Do you have pets?

Me:  Huh?  What?

Kimberly:  Do you have pets?

Me:  No, I don’t have pets.

Kimberly:  Can you tell me what kind of router (device needed to send digital data, required for Internet service) you have?  I am going to troubleshoot (solve common problems using established steps).

[The call has already lasted 20 minutes and from what I’ve read about other customers’ experiences, I was confident that troubleshooting over the phone would not help. Others have reported being on the phone for three, four, or more hours going through troubleshooting.]

Me:  I’d like to get a service call (repair work done at the location).

Kimberly:  I’m supposed to troubleshoot, but if you request it, I can schedule it.

Me:  Yes, please order a service call.

Kimberly:  Okay, they can be there Monday at 8 a.m. [Six days later.]

Me:  All right.  If they don’t show up (arrive as scheduled), is there a number I can call?

Kimberly:  You can call the number you just called. I have to tell you that if they don’t arrive by 8 a.m., the window (the time interval (beginning and end time) for arrival, usually for work to be done) is expanded (made longer) to 5 p.m.

Me:  Excuse me?  I don’t understand.

Kimberly:  If they’re not there at 8 a.m., then they will be there anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Me:  Are you serious?

Kimberly:  Yes.

Me:  [Long pause.]  Okay, thanks.















~ Lucy

Image Credit:  “The Scream” From Wikipedia

Tuesday - July 5, 2016

Put Another Nickel In

AMI_Multi-Horn_High_Fidelity_200_Play_Jukebox_-_The_Richard_Hamilton_Exhibition_-_Tate_Modern,_London*Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is having you
And music, music, music

That song, Music, Music, Music by Teresa Brewer, became a #1 hit in 1950 and sold more than one million records. I thought of it recently when I walked past a nearby Rocky Cola restaurant, a throwback (something similar to something that existed in the past) to the restaurants of the 1950s, and saw the jukebox inside.

When I was in high school, if you and your friends wanted to listen to popular music you often went to your favorite cafe (small restaurant that served light meals and drinks) and listened to it on a jukebox, a coin-operated machines for playing music. Teenagers spent many hours sitting in cafes, drinking Cokes or milkshakes (a drink made out of milk and ice cream), and listening to their favorite music. Just like in the television program Happy Days.

Jukeboxes were large, brightly decorated music-players (photo 1). Each one held a number of plastic records (circular discs for storing music) and a device for selecting and playing them.

Most records held one song. To play a song, you put a nickel (five-cent coin) into the jukebox, found the song number on a list of song titles, pressed the buttons on the jukebox for the song – a letter and a number, like D3 – and the jukebox found the record with your song and played it.

diner-jukeboxIn some cafes, a special extension of (addition to) the jukebox (photo 2) made it possible for you to choose the music you wanted from your table or at the counter (long flat area for serving food) you sat at to eat.

Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb, also invented the first technology for recording music and other sounds. But it was Louis Glass, a San Francisco bar owner described as a “wild-haired inventor,” who created the first jukebox in 1889. It used Edison’s technology for playing a recording and required a nickel to play one song. Rather than the high-quality speakers of later jukeboxes, Glass’s customers had to use listening tubes, similar to a doctor’s stethoscope (instrument for listening to a patient’s heart or breathing), attached to the jukebox. Only four people could listen at the same time.

The popularity of jukeboxes grew during the early part of the 20th century and was greatest from the 1940s through the mid-1960s. Thousands of them were made by companies like Wurlitzer and Seeburg. In the 1940s, 75% of the records produced in the U.S. went into jukeboxes.

Only two companies – one in the U.S. and the other in the U.K. – make jukeboxes today, mostly for throwback restaurants like Rocky Cola. If you’d like to learn more about jukeboxes, check out How the Jukebox Got Its Groove.

* A nickel is a five-cent coin; a nickelodeon is a coin-operated piano or jukebox, the topic of the blog post.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and Dave’s Computer Tips.


Tuesday - July 1, 2014

Videogames That Make You Cry

800px-Atari-2600-Wood-4Sw-SetThe television and movie industries (businesses) have long worked to elicit (get a reaction from) a viewer’s emotions (feelings), knowing that the more emotionally invested (feeling like you have something to gain or lose) or engaged (involved) in the story you are, the more likely you are to continue watching or to watch again. The video game industry knows that, too.

Long gone (no longer here) are the days when video games were just about shooting (using a weapon, like a gun) people and things to rack up (accumulate; add) points. Video games today, I am told, still cater to (are designed for) players’ desires to hunt (look for things to capture or kill) and hit, but that’s not all players do. For example, some games allow players to save and protect others from harm by using their own fighting powers and skills, letting players feel a sense of heroism (having shown bravery).

According to a video game research company, these are the types of games that gamers say are the most emotionally powerful:

Role playing games 78%
First person shooters 52%
Action 49%
Adventure 48%
Fighting 39%

Role-playing games that allow players to develop or assume (take on; adopt) the identity of a different person are particularly good at eliciting emotions, because of the complexity (many parts) of the story, the way the scenes (settings and situations) are introduced, and the musical scores (music used during a TV show, film, or game) that bring drama to situations.

Now, video game players want to find ways to read (detect) a player’s emotions and allow those reactions to help direct (set the direction of) the game.

Some of these new game consoles (devices that play different games) have devices that can look at players’ faces and read their reactions. Other devices being developed will be able to read a player’s physiological (related to the body) reactions, such as heart rate (how fast your heart is beating), breathing rate (how quickly you’re breathing), and temperature. Those reactions then change how the game reacts, which video game makers hope will make the game-playing experience more real and interesting for each player. (If you’re skeptical about (not believing) a computer’s ability to read people’s emotions, take a look at this report of a recent study showing that some computers may be better at interpreting people’s emotions based on facial expressions (how you move the muscles in your face) than humans are.)

I haven’t played a video game since I was 17 years old, which was, well, a very long time ago. I am of an age (old enough) that no one I know plays videos games, either.

Do you play video games? If you do, do you think games today are getting better at eliciting people’s emotions such as pride (feeling proud of yourself), anger, pity (feeling bad for others in bad situations), and horror (feeling afraid)?

– Jeff

Photo Credit:  Atari 2600 Wood fromWikipedia

Tuesday - November 19, 2013

Smarty Pants*

800px-Being_a_twin_means_you_always_have_a_pillow_or_blanket_handyFirst came smart phones. Now comes smart clothes.

According to a recent Time Magazine article, new on the market (available to buy) or soon to be on the market are clothes that will give us even more information about ourselves or about the ones we love. These pieces of clothing have sensors (devices that monitor or detect something) that help keep track of (check regularly) how a person’s body is doing.

The clothing isn’t just for adults. A new baby romper (one piece of clothing that covers the top and bottom parts of the body, usually with buttons or snaps between the legs), for example, monitors a baby’s breathing and body temperature, and sends an alert (warning) to the parent’s phone if there are problems.

For women, there is a new bra (piece of clothing women wear over their breasts) that is suppose to detect (find) breast cancer. Doctors have warned against relying on this type of technology and say that wearing it should not replace getting a mammogram (a medical test using X-rays to find signs of breast cancer), but this shows the direction that smart clothes may take in the future.

For people who exercise, there is clothing for both men and women that monitors heart rate (the speed of your heartbeat), respiration (your breathing), and calories (units of energy in your body) you burn (use). The information is sent to your smart phone as you exercise.

 Can you imagine wearing smart clothes? What do you hope smart clothes can do for you in the future?

– Jeff

* “Smarty pants” is a name people — usually children — call someone who shows how smart they are in an annoying way, usually by boasting (telling others how great one is) about their knowledge or abilities or by showing off (showing others one’s abilities in an obvious way).

Photo Credit: Being a twin means you always have a pillow or blanket handy from Wikipedia

Tuesday - November 5, 2013

Remember the Color of Your First Bicycle? Me, Neither.

Security_Questions_janetmckPart of living in an Internet world is dealing with (taking care of) security. Sure, you have to have good passwords, but for many websites, that is no longer good enough. In addition to a password, you often need to answer “security questions,” the answers to which only you would know.

The purpose of these security questions is to give the company that owns the website a way of verifying (making sure) that you are you, and not someone else trying to hack (enter illegally) into your account. If you lose your password or are logging in from a new device (computer, phone, tablet, etc.), the website may ask you one of these “secret” questions. And that’s where the problem begins.

For several years now, the questions asked have been pretty easy, such as:

  • What was your mother’s maiden name (her last name before she married)?
  • What’s your paternal grandfather‘s (your father’s father’s) middle name?
  • What was the name of your first pet as a child?

These and similarly easy-to-remember answers have been used for many years by banks and other institutions. In fact, the “maiden name” question was used by banks in Baltimore way back in 1906.

But the Internet provides many sources of information that can make it easy for other people to learn the answers to these “private” questions, especially when people post their personal information on Facebook and other social media websites. So government and business websites have begun to develop more difficult questions. And a lot of people have a hard time finding (and later, remembering) the answers to them.

For example, the government in many U.S. states now asks you to answer three security questions to sign up for the new health care plans. Even when given lots of options (in California, there are 30 possible questions!), people are having difficulty giving answers to them. Some people don’t know the answer to the question, and others have never been in the situation imagined (thought of) by the question.

Here are some that people have had problems with:

  • What was the color of your first bicycle?
  • Who was your favorite childhood (when you were very young) superhero (fictional character with special powers, like Wonder Woman or Superman)?
  • What was the name of the manager at the first job where you worked?
  • What is your significant other’s (wife’s, husband’s, girlfriend’s, or boyfriend’s) favorite color?
  • What is your youngest child’s birth weight?
  • Where were you when you had your first kiss?
  • What is your favorite vegetable?
  • What was the color of your first cat? (!)

Even worse than these are hypothetical questions, questions about things that aren’t even “real.” Here are some more examples from business and government websites:

  • If you could control (determine) your height (how tall you are), how tall would you be?
  • If you needed a new first name, what would it be?

Even if you can come up with (think of) answers to these hypothetical questions, will you be able to remember your answer a month from now? A year from now? In one study, more than 20% of the people forgot their answers to their security questions within three months – and that was with factual (real) questions and answers.

Have you ever seen any security questions that either you could not answer or (later) could not remember the answer to?


Image credit: Security Questions by Janet McKnight, CC

Tuesday - October 22, 2013

The First (Attempt at a) Smartwatch

Seiko_35ABy now, many of you have probably heard about the next big thing (something that is expected to become very popular): the smartwatch. A smartwatch is like a smartphone, but worn on the wrist (the part of the body that connects your hand and arm). As with a smartphone, you’ll be able to check your email, take photos, and make phone calls with it. At least three large companies have announced that they are working on a smartwatch or have already introduced early versions, including Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm.

But did you know that the first attempt at a commercial (made for sale) smartwatch was way back (a long time ago) in the 1970s by Intel? At that time, Intel — the computer microchip (the very small, thin part in a computer that allows it to work) company — bought a watch company called Microma Universal, which made the first LCD — liquid crystal display — watch. (Liquid crystal technology uses light and crystals to make it possible for us to see the numbers of a watch in the dark.) The hope and plan of the head of Intel, Gordon Moore (known also for Moore’s Law), was to develop and add other functions to the watch. Sadly for Intel, the technology hadn’t been developed yet to make the computer chip small and powerful enough to do more than display the time on the watch.

Gordon Moore’s plans didn’t get as far as he wanted and the entire enterprise (plan for the project) was considered a failure. Moore says that he wore the Microma watch on his wrist for many years to remind himself to stay out of (not get into or enter) the smartwatch business, calling it his “$15 million watch.” That’s how much the company lost when it tried developing the first commercially-viable (successful in selling) smartwatch.

You can hear Gordon Moore talk about this attempt by visiting this site. The interview is subtitled (with the words appearing on the screen as you watch) and there is also a transcript available. To see what that first LCD watch looked like, go to this NPR story.

In this day and age (current time) when many people use their cell phones to check the time, do you still wear a watch? If so, why and what kind? Are you looking forward to seeing or owning a smartwatch?

– Jeff

Photo Credit: Seiko 35A from Wikipedia

Tuesday - October 1, 2013

If Your Password is “Password,” Read This

MonkeyEvery year a company named Splash Data publishes a list of the worst passwords of the year. Their list from 2012 shows that, despite all of the warnings about security on the Internet, many people continue to pick some really bad passwords. It is as if they were inviting hackers (people who illegally break into someone’s website or computer) to steal their information.

Here are some of the worst ones. If you use one of these, you might want to reconsider (rethink) your password, or stop using the Internet:

password – Yes, that’s right. Thousands of people actually use “password” as their password. It was number 1 on the list. I guess it’s easy to remember! More interestingly, some people have started to realize that “password” isn’t a very secure (safe) password, so they’ve started using something they think is much better: password1. (Seriously! It is number 25 on the list.)

123456 – No hacker would guess this one, I’m sure. I mean, what are the chances (odds; probability) that these numbers would occur (appear) together in the real world?

qwerty – These are the first five letters of the second row of keys on a standard English keyboard. In fact, we sometimes call the standard English keyboard a “Qwerty” keyboard.

monkey – This is an animal you find in a jungle (see photo), but I don’t really understand why so many people choose it as a password. There is an old expression in English, “Monkey see, monkey do,” used when someone does something just because he sees someone else doing it. Perhaps these people saw other people use “monkey” as a password and did the same thing.

letmein To let someone in means to allow them to enter, to go into somewhere. Here, of course, people are actually inviting hackers to go into their computers.

baseball – Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the U.S., and I personally think it is the greatest sport in the world (Go Dodgers!). This one was number 10 on the list of worst passwords. But what about “football”? Don’t worry, it also made (was on) the list, at number 20.

trustno1 – This is another way of writing “trust no one,” meaning you should not put your confidence in anyone. This is absolutely correct, which is why it is my favorite on the list. People who use it actually appear to trust everyone, since they have made it so easy for anyone to hack into their accounts.


Photo credit: Proboscis Monkey, Wikipedia CC

Thursday - September 12, 2013

Who Owns Your Email When You Die?

527px-Email.svgWhen we die, our car, home, jewelry, and personal belongings go the people named in our will, the legal document that states how our personal property is distributed or given to other people and organizations after we die. In our wills, we name (identify) an executor, who is responsible for carrying out (making happen) our wishes after we’re gone. (For people who die without writing a will, there is a process called “probate,” in which the government decides what happens to your assets (things you own that are worth money)).

But who owns our email, Facebook accounts, information stored in a cloud server (shared digital storage), blogs, online shopping accounts, photo-sharing accounts, and other digital information? Right now, in most states in the U.S., the companies that host them do, such as Google and Facebook.

Most of the digital information online is governed by (must follow the rules or laws of) the company that houses (provides space for) that information. The trouble is, there is little or no uniformity (being the same or consistent) across company policies. Only a few U.S. states — five so far — have passed laws to help clarify (make clear) what happens after death and there is a need for laws to catch up with (try to reach the same level or place as) changing technology.

Right now in the U.S., the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) is working to come up with a set of federal (national) laws that would help with this confusing situation. The ULC is not a part of the U.S. government. It is a non-profit (not intended to make money) organization with representatives from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.), Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ULC does not make laws, but it recommends language that legislators (lawmakers) can use to create laws.

Have you considered what will happen to your digital information after you die? Should your executor have access to it, just like your other personal things? Are there laws where you live to govern access to that information?

~ Lucy

Graphic Credit: Email from Wikipedia


Thursday - October 18, 2012

iPhone Killers

I pulled into the carport (a protected area with only a roof) at my mother’s house late one Sunday night last year, tired after a long difficult day. While driving, I had used my iPhone to talk to my brother who had left early that morning to drive home, almost 500 miles (about 800 km) away. After I stopped, I picked up my phone – leaving the earbuds (small headphone worn in the ear) in my ears – and opened the car door. As I got out, the earbud cord caught on the door and jerked (suddenly pulled) the phone out of my hand.

I remember thinking, “This is not going to be good,” as my iPhone flew several feet and fell to the concrete (hard material sometimes called cement).

I walked to where my iPhone had fallen, picked it up, turned it over, and had my fears confirmed (to show that something is true). The face (front) of my phone had shattered (broken into many pieces). Several long cracks (thin lines) divided the glass face into large triangles and, in the corner the phone had landed on, several small pieces of glass had already fallen out. My phone still worked, but that was the only good news.

I’m sure that many people have had accidents with their smartphones. Where do you think most of these accidents happen? In the car? In the house? And, if in the house, in which room? Who’s responsible for the accident? The owner? Or someone else?

The web site Squaretrade just released (published) the results of a survey about fatal (having a very bad effect) iPhone accidents. For this post, I’m going to assume that owners of other smart phones have had similar experiences.

The main finding (result or discovery) of the survey is that about 70% of accidents are caused by the owner. And about 50% of them happen inside, at home.

The most dangerous rooms for phones are the kitchen (21% of accidents), living room (18%), bathroom (16%), driveway (10%) and bedroom (8%). I’m a member of the driveway group.

Spilled liquids are responsible for much, perhaps most, of the damage to phones. Water (43%) is the greatest culprit (cause). Together, soda (19%), beer (12%), and coffee or tea (12%) account for (are responsible for) another 43%.

About 5% of phones met their fate (have something bad happen) when their owners put them in the washing machine, 9% when their owners dropped them into the toilet, and 6% when their owners put them on top of their car and drove off.

Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. Several months after my accident, I took my iPhone to an Apple Store to see if it could be fixed. The woman at the customer service counter (place where you pay or are served) told me it couldn’t, but that she could give me a new one. I’m not sure why she decided to do that, but, as you can imagine, I was delighted to walk out of the store with a new phone!

Have you had a serious accident with your smartphone? What happened? Was it fatal?

~ Warren Ediger – creator of Successful English.

Photo courtesy of TedsBlog used under Creative Commons license.