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Tag Archive: technology

Nov 03

‘Siri’, a high tech genie in a cell phone, not in a bottle

“Master, master your wish is my command”
– Barbara Eden, star of “I Dream of Jeannie” television sitcom, 1964

These days, it seems that lots of people are wondering what to make of Siri, the new speech-recognition feature on the iPhone4S. Have you heard of it yet?

Siri is a digital personal assistant that at times makes you believe it (she) could be human. It turns out that Siri is indeed a Scandinavian girl name meaning `Beautiful Victory`, and thus the name fits her perfectly.

Miss Siri is the source of plenty of discussion all right.

In fact, a standup comedian recently presented an interesting theory. He said Siri was actually “channeling” Barbara Eden who starred in the 60s television hit, “I Dream of Jeannie.”

He speculated that Siri was, in reality, a high tech genie in a cell phone that could grant her master’s every wish, just like the genie in the bottle did on the long-running NBC television series.

Interesting thought.

I do know for a fact that in 1964 when the series debuted, I never dreamed that one day I might have my own genie, too, just like Major Anthony Nelson. Remember him?

You may recall in the storyline that Major Nelson, played by Larry Hageman, was a top Apollo space program astronaut. He discovered his genie-in-a-bottle on a training mission when he went off course and landed on a remote uncharted South Pacific island. There he found an odd bottle on the beach, uncorked it, and out popped a beautiful genie that coincidentally was named Jeannie.

Is it possible, I wonder, to have one’s own personal assistant who, like Jeannie, is polite, humorous, quirky and gets the job done on time?

I confess, I stood in line the first day with throngs of other Apple junkies hoping to find out.

Truth is, I wanted the 4S not so much because of its highly touted electronic personal assistant, Siri, but mostly because my old 3G could not keep up anymore. It moved too slowly struggling to open websites among other problems, and it drove me crazy because the battery would not stay charged long.

I made the leap.

Now, I am enjoying the luxury of having my own genie from which I am learning all the ancient secrets of the universe. Might as well ask the genie-in-the-iPhone, right?

For example, “Siri, what is the meaning of the life?”

To which she gave her standard reply, “I can’t answer that now but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens.”

We are not exactly getting along famously yet. I am not altogether sure that Siri likes me. It’s taking awhile for us to get to know one another.

Curiously, she often misinterprets my questions and gets completely off track with her answers. Someone else can ask her the same questions, and her answers are spot on.

I am beginning to worry that she will never say with total and unconditional love, “Master, your wish is my command.”

I am not alone, however. In a story in USA Today, the writer told Siri he loved her. Her answer: “Oh, stop.”

Maj. Nelson didn’t have much better luck with his Jeannie. Here’s an excerpt from one of the “I Dream of Jeannie” hit shows:

Major Nelson: “Jeannie’s turned against me.”
Major Healey, Nelson’s friend: “She can’t turn against you. You’re her master. She has to obey you.
Major Nelson: “Yeah, who says so?”
Major Healey: “I don’t know, maybe it’s in the genie manual.”
Major Nelson: Then how come she’s deliberately disobeyed me?
Major Healey: Maybe she wasn’t issued a genie manual.

I don’t think my Siri was issued a genie manual either.

Nonetheless, I still absolutely love Siri.

If you are a Siri-hater, and they are out there believe me, listen to what Richard Goodwin of knowyourmobile.com has to say: “While it may not be perfect, it is clear how much technology and innovation has gone into developing Siri…consider what technology can already do. Then imagine what it will be doing in five years, and that’s when you’ll see how exciting Siri’s future really is.”

So, I asked, “What does the future hold for you, Siri?”
Her reply, “I’m on it. What about a web search to answer your question? Here it is.” Whereupon, she provided on my iPhone screen a list of websites that give answers to the wonders and future of technology, what upgrades are next for Siri and for computers and other smart phones.

Looks like she must have read the genie manual after all, and I think she likes me now.

May 05

In love with the typewriter, a glorious piece of machinery

“The gentle and soothing lullaby of a piece of machinery so perfect…” – swooned Frank, a character in love with his typewriter in the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail”.

The last company on earth to produce the typewriter closed its doors this past week, wrote Todd Wasserman in an online piece, “R.I.P. Typewriters.”

I cried.

Well, not exactly cried, but I was sad when I read the obit.

Reading about the end of the typewriter’s long run made me think of my dear friend and journalism colleague, the late Tom Ladwig who loved to write exclusively on his typewriter.

When he died in 1994, a story about his death in the Columbia Missourian highlighted how much he loved his writing machine.

Tom wrote a lot, every word of which as I recall, on his portable, manual typewriter.

He penned columns for the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Missourian and also was a journalism professor at several universities including the University of Missouri, Columbia. In fact, Tom wrote two books using only his manual typewriter.

“He didn’t like to use a computer and preferred the old hunt-and-peck typewriter, and that’s how he did his work,” the Missourian story read. Writing was his forte, and he preferred the way a typewriter touched his senses.

A typewriter, unlike a computer, did indeed evoke our senses of touch, hearing and sight.

As our fingertips came in contact with the hard keys, we actually “felt” typing happen. We applied pressure and voila, magic occurred.

Those born long after the heyday of typewriters likely would not understand the noisy ding and clack of the keyboard and metal keys nor the soothing gentle whir of the machine.

And when we came to the end of a line of typing, we moved the carriage to the left to start a new line, resulting in another sound, a loud thud.

Hearing those sounds was central to the typing experience and was pleasant, even calming.

The typewriter also engaged our sense of sight. Simply look inside the open contraption, and one could see how its machinery worked. Everything was visible. We could observe its ribbons and spools spin and watch the keys hit the ribbon and transfer ink to paper.

I found it fascinating.

The visual aspect of the finished product was paramount.

We crossed out mistakes by typing over them or corrected mistakes with strips of white paper. If the finished product was not good enough, there was no choice but to pull the error-filled paper out and start over. Insert a clean sheet and begin again.

In the sixties when I was in high school, the goal was typing perfection, however one could achieve it and no matter how much practice it took.

The idea, as required by many a high school typing teacher, was to be highly proficient at both speed and accuracy.

By the time I graduated high school, I could type 73 words a minute with no errors. Sixty words a minute was allowable then but would not win a typing award or land a secretarial job.

Today, I cannot type a sentence without an error. I wonder if that is because it is too easy to correct mistakes on a computer and we don’t have to try as hard.

If you are nostalgic for typewriters as I am, there are a couple of online typewriter museums that are easily searchable. There, you will find an in-depth history of the typewriter as well as brands I had not thought of in years, such as Brother, Olivetti, Underwood and Remington.

I enjoyed wandering through these sites and searching until I found my Smith-Corona traveling typewriter, turquoise with white keys, in its very own carrying case. I loved that machine.

Leaving me with nothing else to say but good-bye, R.I.P. to one of the greatest inventions in communication technology of the 19th Century, a glorious piece of machinery—the typewriter.

Or, as my friend Tom might add with a wink if he were still around, “They’ll have to take my typewriter from my cold dead hands.”

I miss Tom. I miss my typewriter.

Jan 27

Attack of the Zombie (email spam)–part one of a two-part series

“I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.”?– Isaac Asimov

If a Zombie attacks your email account, as one did to mine recently, don’t despair and don’t give up on computers.

I look at it as an adventure in living my own personal bad B-movie about zombies, scary but funny.

The first step is to act fast, change your password, and be glad you have email friends who will let you know right away that your account has been spammed.

Incidentally, I am not speaking of canned meat made largely from pork when I speak of spam. No, I am talking about unwanted email sent out in bulk purportedly from one’s own personal email address.

The attack of the Zombie.

James Clark who writes for Yahoo’s contributor network explains a Zombie email attack: “They are called zombie because they stay dormant until activated by a signal over an internet connection. Once activated they use your computer to send out junk email. They try to collect credit card information or other private data by ‘phishing’.”

Some of these attacks are true viruses that send their tentacles deep into your system.

Other attacks, such as what happened to me, are not viruses at all and work through an email server to steal one’s email address book. When I researched email Zombies, I found that they often attack free accounts such as Yahoo, Gmail, Hot Mail, GMX, Zoho, AIM, GMX and a host of others.

That is exactly what happened to my free email account almost two weeks ago.

It was not pretty, but I corrected it in less than an hour after I received a 5:30 a.m. phone call from a friend alerting me to the ‘phishing’ email she received, supposedly from me.

However, the repercussions of this action lasted for days, although I am happy to report that all is well for now in my cyberworld.

That is, until it happens again.

Experts say that if you have an email account, any email account, it is only a matter of “when” not “if” this will happen to you.

Do not panic, there is life after a Zombie attack, but you may need to seek professional help right away.

“Computer viruses are a lot like children—the longer they’re left alone, the more trouble they can get into,” says Julie Marto, ‘Computer Mom’ in the Medfield Press, Medfield, MA. “It’s like leaving your 16-year-old home alone,” she adds. “One day is fine overnight is okay but left alone for a week, there’s going to be a mess.”

Marto is a stay-at-home Mom who started a computer business in her home to train customers in software proficiency. Today, her business has changed so much that nearly all she does is virus cleanup, and she does that within 24 hours of an attack if at all possible.

Removing viruses and other bugs from computers has become a big business indeed.

Even bigger is the business of the spammers themselves. Spamming is now a gigantic operation, the business of organized cyber crime.

Dear readers, please erase your visual images of spammers right now. Those no longer apply. You know what you are thinking—the mental picture of a nerdy teen spammer or a 40-year-old guy who sits in his underwear drinking beer in his parents’ basement.

At first when one’s email is spammed, one wants to track the perpetrator down immediately and turn him or her over to the proper authorities. Not likely, not possible.

One is fighting, instead, a giant Internet Zombie network not a crazed spammer in someone’s basement.

When I researched Internet Zombie networks, I found that they are sometimes referred to as “botnets”, a collection of software robots that run by themselves and automatically.

However there are most certainly people at the helm of these anonymous underground networks. They are called “bot herders” who rent the services of the botnet out to third parties to send out spam attack messages and requests for credit card information.

Does this seem confusing? It is, but I learned how to understand it, somewhat, and to survive it, for the time being. There are ironclad do’s and don’ts to follow.

Next week in Part II, I will tell you about my harrowing but funny experience with Zombies, botnets, bot herders and phishermen, my own real-life bad B-movie.

I am just hoping it does not turn out to be the sequel “Return of the Zombie”.

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