The Siri Thing

I was asked to pen a few lines for a Guardian journalist on why I thought Siri was male  in the U.S. and female in the UK. My quote was taken a tad out of context and so offended some folk who either didn’t know I was a technology columnist who makes a living out of irony and flip, or that I’m the most egregious, line-forming mumbler  in British history. So here’s my contribution in its entirety. Make of it what you will.

I don’t know the reason why they chose male and female voices that way: it’s probably something prosaic about licensing or they didn’t have a Female British voice handy, or someone thought it would be good to try it that way first to see what happened.

But there’s plenty of literature to suggest that the gender of a voice is important to the listener. Men, according to researchers from Kansas State University,  tend to take more financial risk if they are given a video briefing voiced over by a woman; the opposite is also true. (Conclusions from this are undermined when it’s added that men are willing to take even more risks if there’s no voice-over at all, which possibly means the less information they’re given, the more comfortable they feel about charging off into the unknown. This might sound familiar.)

Indeed, the problem with most research on the subject is that it tends to be as confusing as that. A paper from academics at the University of Plymouth found that “the sex of a speaker has no effect on judgements of perceived urgency” but did say that “female voices do however appear to have an advantage in taht they can portray a greater range of urgencies beacuse of their usually higher pitch and pitch range.”

We do know this: male German drivers don’t like getting navigational instructions delivered in a female voices. There’s also something called presbycusis—basically hearing loss, where older people find it easier to hear men’s voices than women’s, and can’t tell the difference between high pitched sounds like s or th.

But the bottom line is that Apple may have erred. Brits are notoriously picky about accents: class and regional, and, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh, can’t stand being told what to do by an American female voice. So far so good. But they also found that people don’t like what the researchers called a Male Southern British English voice either. Conclusion: until Siri can do regional female voices, it’s probably not going to be a huge success in the UK.

My tuppennies’ worth: Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative and, well, not American female.

My Favorite Christmas Present

  My favorite Christmas present 
  Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

It’s been a quiet but happy Christmas and I must confess I actually bought this for myself, but I love it: a small wind-up radio/torch. There’s not much call for the torch around here, but I love the sound, the feel and the low carbon footprint this little gizmo brings. Can there be anything more satisfying than cranking a handle to listen to the radio?  Plus, there’s nothing quite like listening to BBC Radio 4 at breakfast.

Old Habits, or New Uses?


Young hospital worker using her cellphone in a phone booth, Jakarta, April 2007

Either she uses the phone booth out of habit from her pre-cellphone days, or else she’s making use of a privacy feature of old technology — the sound-proofing booth — her new technology doesn’t offer.

We Must Do Launch Some Time

Another day, another launch. Thanks to everyone who came last night to the book launch. I’m not actually sure how many book launches one is allowed, but that’s our second in Indonesia (a few photos are here; more to come. Please send me any you have from either Jakarta or Ubud). We hope to do some more around the region and beyond in the months ahead. I’m getting a little better at speaking and autographing, so maybe if I get to your town it might be a decent evening out. Hosts were Alila Hotels’ Kemang Icon, which is a very cool boutique hotel so understated you would walk right past it.

For those of you who don’t attend launches, I don’t blame you. I hate launches too, but I promise ours are different. No readings from the book, for one thing. Speeches under five minutes. (Ok, ten.) No mention of techie terms. No comparing of gadgets. And lots of booze.

Anyway, an exciting start to some major new initiatives from Loose Wire so watch this space. And those of you who have bought the book, please let me know what you think, and please do write up a review on Amazon. Copies can be bought from there, or from Equinox, my publisher.

Where Is Technology When You Need It Part XIV

This has absolutely nothing to do with technology, except that surely there’s some technology to prevent this kind of outburst of law enforcement official mastication by members of the post-death personal care industry? From Reuters: Hearse driver arrested for biting policeman: 

BERLIN (Reuters) – A drunken hearse driver has been arrested in the western German town of Krefeld after biting a police officer taking him in for an alcohol test, police said on Monday.

Police had called for a hearse at a funeral home to transport a body to the cemetery.

“The hearse driver nearly fell over when he got out of the car. Then he had to hold onto everything he could find as he stumbled to the house,” said police spokesman Dietmar Greger.

Police decided to take the man to the station to test his blood alcohol level, but when they tried to get him out of their car he started a fight and bit an officer several times in the hand.

The man was confined to a cell until he sobered up and has been charged with civil disorder and drunk driving.


The Tag Report IV: A Chat With Joshua

Here’s a chat I had with Joshua Schachter, creator of

JW: ok good. shouldn’t take long. i just wanted to find out a bit about you, your motivation for setting up delicious, and the evolution of the tagging thing…
Joshua: yes, it’s totally exploding recently
Joshua: The short version: I started a website in 1998 or so; that kind of thing would later get named a “blog”
Joshua: Anyway, in the running of this site, I collected a lot of links so I could hopefully organize and post them.
Joshua: So I started keeping them in a file, which grew and grew. To be able to quickly find things, I started leaving one-word notes at the end.
Joshua: Tags.
Joshua: I later built a system, around 2002, that was a web-based database for storing my bookmarks.
Joshua: It also had tags, but was not multiuser.
Joshua: I’m not sure if it was 2002 or 2001, anyway. It first shows up in at 2002 though.
Joshua: Then later, I rewrote it multiuser, as
Joshua: That was 2003 or so.
JW: (any reason you chose the name and the punctuation?)
Joshua: So the motivation was mostly because I was solving a problem I had, and then I solved it for everyone.
Joshua: I chose the domain before I had the idea.
JW: ah right…
Joshua: When .us became available, I just registered a few funny items
Joshua: the previous system was called muxway. In retrospect, I should have kept that name.
JW: really? why do you prefer that?
Joshua: Easier to figure out where the dots go
JW: true! the dots can be a problem 🙂
Joshua: up through about
JW: how did delicious get to be so popular? was that a surprise?
Joshua: Not really. The concept is very attractive both to use, as it solves your problem, and it lets you discover lots of interesting things from other people.
JW: how many users do you have now? and how many tags?
Joshua: fifty thousand or so users. Lots and lots of tags
JW: what’s the growth like?
Joshua: Insane
JW: any figures?
Joshua: Oh, I haven’t looked at the numbers a lot. Not a good thing to focus on.
Joshua: Last I looked it was growing by 20-30% a month, but I haven’t looked in a bit.
Joshua: I assume it has tapered off a bit, just because of the growth pains.
Joshua: Call it 15% growth a month?
JW: is it a lot of work for you?
Joshua: 15% looks low, just back of the envelope
Joshua: It’s as much work as I let it be
Joshua: There’s always stuff to do, new features and ideas and so on.
Joshua: I’ve really only gotten started.
JW: is it a fulltime job for you? if not, what is your job?
JW: and age?
Joshua: I’m 30
Joshua: Definitely not a fulltime job
Joshua: I’m not too sure what to say about my day job. I work in an unrelated field
JW: do you intend to make some money out of it at some point? or are you already?
Joshua: I haven’t worried about it yet.
Joshua: I did it for fun and because it’s interesting.
JW: i see… what’s your view of the technorati move on delicious and flickr tags? is this an important step?
Joshua: flickr is much more like delicious. It’s a way to organize your data in a way that is very useful to the user.
Joshua: when i built delicious, i designed it so that it would be useful to me, even if not a single other person joined in.
Joshua: Flickr is similar.
Joshua: If nobody else was using it, I’d still find the site useful
Joshua: The challenge here is to understand how they are different from search, what motivates people to use them.
Joshua: Well, they’re sort of in opposite directions of each other. Mirrors
JW: could you elaborate?
Joshua: Hard to explain; I’m really still thinking about the problem.
Joshua: Basically, the way I think of the what I’m doing
Joshua: is taking the process of memory, and building prosthetics.
Joshua: I want to split storing and recalling into two separate actions with the help of the computer, so that when you tag things you store, you can recall them more easily
Joshua: In doing so, I have also made it easier for you to recall things that other people have stored.
Joshua: Tags facilitate and amplify this.
Joshua: Search is more associated with the recall, whereas tagging is more associated with the storage.
Joshua: Does that make sense?
JW: yes it does. v well put.

Thanks, Joshua.

News: Flushing Nemo

 Wireless Flash reports that the movie Finding Nemo, about a fish that escapes from its tank by getting flushed down a dentist’s spitoon, is inspiring some idealistic kids to flush their pets down the toilet.
RotoRooter plumbers report their technicians in Los Angeles have “rooted out a whole zooyard of critters from American toilets including frogs, ducks and snakes”, Wireless Flash reports. Last week, a plumber rescued a five-week old puppy from a drainpipe in Demossville, Kentucky, and another couple even tried to flush a cat down their commode. Other bizarre animals found in drains include Cornish game hens, pot-bellied pigs and even a talking parakeet.
RotoRooter officials, despite their motto being ‘And Away Go Troubles Down the Drain’, hope to nip the “Finding Nemo” flushing fad in the bud with a campaign called DON?T FLUSH NEMO!, pointing out:
  • Pipes are not connected to the ocean
  • Flushing a fish down the toilet will not help them find freedom. It actually will provide less freedom because the pipes are smaller than most fish bowls, and, er, finally,
  • There’s no fish food in the toilet.
So now you know.