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 PR Pet Peeves

On the whole, I find PR people to be great —  helpful, quick and thorough. But some have their quirks. I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to anyway. Here are some of my current pet peeves, all of them including examples I’ve collected over the past few days. Let me just first say that of the 100 or so communications I have had with PR people in the past week, these represent a small minority. But you know who you are!

The Who Are You And What Do You Intend To Do With My Daughter? Response  I have a stock email I send PR people when requesting information, review units or software to test. This stock email includes a list of the publications I work for and my title. Not everyone seems to read it. Here’s one: “Thank you for your inquiry. xxxxx passed your name onto me and he has asked what your intention is on requesting the device.” Just once I’d love to write back “I fully intend to elope with your device and have many, many children with it out of wedlock” or something less suited to a family paper. Sadly, I’ve not done that yet.

The Yes, There is Google, But How Do I Know You’re Really A Journalist? Gambit Not everyone believes me when I tell them I’m a technology columnist. Is it my name? Does it sound shifty? Neither do they seem to know how to use Google, which other people have found to be an excellent background research tool. One email I got this morning: “In order to do this I will need to verify your credentials. Could you please send me a couple of links to technology articles you have written.” Of course this kind of email also crushes one’s ego: “You mean you haven’t heard of me? Outrageous! Make-up!”

The How Is The Review Going Email? Approach Here’s one I got this morning: “I wanted to check in with you to see how your review of xxx is going.” I try to be a nice guy, but if I told everyone how my review of their product was going, I wouldn’t actually have any time to review any products, or write peevish posts like this. The problem is threefold:
– It’s rude not to respond, but by doing so you invite more.
– If you don’t respond, you get more anyway.
– The truth is I have no idea how it’s going. I know PR people would like to know when the column might be due, and I sympathize, but folk like me may have dozens of columns on the go at the same time, and just because we’ve requested a review unit/copy of your product, doesn’t mean we have a clear date set as to when it may appear. If I see something I’d like to review at some point I fire off an email. Then the device sits in a drawer until the planets are aligned and I feel cosmically ready. Really. Just because you launched your product this month doesn’t mean that’s when I’m going to write about it. Honest.

Only one thing worse than this is people calling me in the middle of the night, unaware of something called timezones (usually PR people who work for watch manufacturers, oddly enough) to ask me how the review is going.
“Right now, you mean? Right now I’m dodging flying furniture from my recently awoken wife while also testing whether your product works when flushed down the john.”
“Oh. Is this not a good time?”

The I’ll Let You Review My Product If You Let Me Review Your Copy Before Publication Response Here’s one I got a few days ago: “We would be more than happy to provide a sample unit for your review. However, we would like to preview any articles that you write based on the unit, before they go to press. If you are happy with this, please reply to the affirmative, and we will have your unit shipped via express FedEx within 3 business days. The reason we ask this is that a previous newspaper article had several minor factual inaccuracies, that could have been easily corrected with a quick review of the draft copy.” Er, no, is this short answer to that. Firstly, my publications frown on this kind of thing. Secondly, who in their right mind would agree? Why would a journalist allow the person they’re writing about approve their copy before publication? Would anyone ever trust that journalist again? Finally, what is this person grumbling about? They got a review, with a few “minor factual inaccuracies”, and they’re upset? Sometimes I wonder whether some people even want people to write about their product. Harumph.

The We Got Amazing Coverage In Your Rival Publication, Isn’t That Just Grand? Email This doesn’t seem like a big problem, and it’s not. But why bother? Are we supposed to be so impressed that we immediately feel the need to write something too? Journalists don’t like to be second to something, and don’t see coverage in other publications as evidence that they should start covering the story. In my case, I usually ditch any idea I had to write the story, unless the other coverage seems off, in which case I feel it’s time to do a “more balanced look”, which is journalist-speak for writing something the PR people will inevitably hate.

The If You Won’t Write About Us, We’ll Find Someone in Your Company Who Will Gambit This is one of those sinister ones, where PR firms cut a deal with a journalist to give them the scoop. It’s usually along the lines of “We’ve got this great story/product/event/announcement/report and we’re happy to share it exclusively with you if you publish it”. I try not to get involved in these. First off, because I’m allegedly a columnist, I don’t need scoops, but I also don’t like the implicit compromises that come with it. Mainly, I feel as a journalist you’ve already become hostage to a PR company’s agenda. They want something out in your publication and you’ve agreed to provide it. I’m too prickly to go along with that, most times. Sometimes these compromises are explicit. The offer often comes with a threat: “We need your response by such-and-such a time, or we’ll take the scoop elsewhere”. That always makes me bristle. (I bristle easily.) Call me old fashioned but I reckon readers deserve more than some cut and dried deal between PR and journalist.  

OK, with that off my chest, I’m now going to promise to try to be a better journalist for PR folk. There are some truly great PR people out there who try to move mountains for journalists, with rarely a thank you or even a nod of the head. They deserve better. We journalists should treat you PR people with respect and civility, and shouldn’t ride roughshod over you on our way to your clients. Actually we shouldn’t ride over you at all, roughshod or not. I just wanted to use the words “roughshod” and “bristle” in the same post. Now I have, so I can stop.

Fixing Friends’ PCs

I don’t have a huge number of friends but those that do like me and trust me enough to ask me for computer help. That, or they are just too cheap to call a professional.

Part of the problem is, it’s horrible to try to fix someone’s computer over the phone. I get a headache just trying to talk someone through the menus, the options, the dialog boxes. It’s painful, and rarely successful. So they tend to think less of me at the end of it, which I wouldn’t mind so much but that their opinion of me was pretty low already (“You’re a technology columnist? What kind of job is that?”) . Even if they bring their computer around it’s usually something I can’t fix, or even figure out most of the time. If I do figure it out, they give me a hug and then promptly forget about it (or else tell all our other friends how hopelessly geeky I am because I fixed a computer.)

Another part of the problem of being a tech repair guy is you’ve got to know what questions to ask. It’s like being a doctor. It’s no good assuming your friend was doing something normal with the computer when it broke. I’ve learned that much. They were probably using it as a doorstop, trying to make bread with it, licking the screen, or trying to fold it where it shouldn’t be folded.

But of course they won’t tell you outright. Much too embarrassed that a) they were doing something that might have at best voided the warranty, at worst broken the law and b) their ignorance would be exposed by venturing any explanation. So you, as the doctor, have to ask the right questions, such as “What exactly did you touch when it went, as you describe it, ‘pflitz’?” One friend could only get certain keys on her brand new laptop to function, so I went through lots of complicated tests to establish which keys actually worked. (A diagonal line to the right from the E,R and T keys, if you must know.)

I played around with everything until it eventually occurred to me to ask whether she had spilt anything on the keyboard. “Yes, some water,” she said, innocently, as if it happened all the time (which it possibly did). “But I wiped it all off.” Aha. She needed a new keyboard. That took about an hour out of my life, and my entreaties to her to drink over the sink and not the laptop in future fell on deaf ears. Tip: If you’re fixing someone’s computer, ask them first, not just “what were you doing with your computer when it went ‘pflitz’?” but “what did you do and where did you go today?” Chances are you might get some clues about what really happened to the computer (including visits to the toilet, bathhouse, pub, Disney World, Mud Wrestling World Championships, whatever.)

And to my friends: Please feel free to call me with computer problems, but be honest. If you used it as a frisbee or as a curry plate, let me know. It really helps.

How To Eliminate Offline Swaging And Avoid A P-Punch

I read a lot of press releases in a day, but usually I try to read them in the early morning, because they seem to make more sense then. Don’t ask me why. But rarely do I enjoy reading a press release; they’re boring, self-promoting (of course), hard to decipher and often not closely related to my field of work (technology column-ing). But I’ve just received one (subscription required) which I found a joy to read, and reaffirms my belief that my chosen profession (technology columnist) is the right one.

I reprint it here in full, so you can enjoy it as much as I did:

Device Technologies Introduces Push-Lok™

Simply Elegant Technology Precisely Space Daughter Boards from Chassis or Mother Boards

November 2004 (Newstream) — Device Technologies, Inc. is pleased to announce a new product line of Push-Lok™ Printed Circuit Board Standoffs that eliminate offline swaging of screw machine standoffs.

When seated, the pre-assembled drive pin secures the Push-Lok Standoff to the chassis to maintain its integrity under standard tailgate drop-tests. The fastener portion has a minimum protrusion but will sit flush with a shallow dimple in the chassis.

The latch is both flexible and secure enough to allow for easy assembly of the daughter board and eliminate the need for torque driven screws. Field Service, repairs and modifications are equally efficient by simply deflecting the flexible latch.

DTI’s complete Push-Lok solution also offers a P-Punch, spring loaded pin driving tool to allow easy assembly on the production line. Push-Lok is made of UL94V2 Type 66 nylon and UL94V0 on special order.

Now, some of you may be wondering just how much offline swaging of those screw machine standoffs these Push-Lok thingies manage to achieve. Well, I’ve checked with MA-based Device Technologies, who not only make Push-Lok™ printed circuit board stand-offs (as if!) but also design, manufacture, and sell cable management solutions, including cost effective and NEBS compliant Spring Fast® Composite Grommet Edging, Fast-Drop™ fiber optic radius control modules, and I am here to tell you, right now: It’s a lot.

Under standard tailgate drop-tests (this ISO-approved test involves dropping a standard Push-Lok standoff off back of moving pick-up) the integrity of the Push-Lok is maintained, and if you really need to mess around with it in the field, you can just deflect the flexible latch. Just make sure you’re not showing any shallow dimples on your chassis, especially in front of anyone’s daughter board. If you do, get ready to be P-Punched.

How (Not) To Pitch A Blogger

I get a the growing feeling that we bloggers are being targeted more than we were by PR folk. Sure, there’s the Warner/Secret Machines/MP3 blog debacle, where a Warner employee used some hamfisted tactics to get some bloggers to write about a Warner act. But there are other tactics too, and some are more impressive than others.

I lead a double life as a technology columnist — indeed, that’s why this blog exists — so I get quite a lot of PR pitches, some of whom are hoping I’ll do a column on their client, some of whom are just looking for a blog entry. All of this is fair game, and assumes a degree of professionalism on both sides.

But I didn’t realise until today that there are media “lists” of bloggers out there who are now being targetted by PR types. I received a pitch from a US-based public relations company for the Motorola DCP600 Digital Video Home Entertainment System. The email began thus:

As a blogger focusing on news and trends within the technology sector, I thought that you would be interested in this innovative home entertainment system from Motorola. Please consider covering this new product in your blog. Feel free to contact me if you need further info, have any questions, etc.

Fair enough, except for a couple of things. First off, the email address used has never been posted on this blog, and has only been used for spam, phishing attacks and Nigerian email fraud for the past year. The only exception: A pitch by another PR guy, back in June 2003. So where did they get my email address?

A quick email later, and the PR company tells me: “I received your information through a media research database.” Fair enough. Bloggers, clearly, are being tracked, and that’s probably no great shakes. But why the out-of-date email address? And why no basic data which might shape the nature of the pitch, such as I also happen to be a technology columnist for Dow Jones?

What makes it all a tad weirder is that the pitch is for a product that was announced in January, seven months ago, and won’t be available in the stores until “either October or
November (in time for the holiday shopping season)” — another two or three months away. Not exactly a hot story, either way you look at it. If I was half-asleep (not that unusual, I admit) I might have just edited down the attached press release and bingo! Motorola would have had a bit of free publicity to keep their product bubbling away on the search engines until the product actually appears in the stores.

Bottom line: I don’t mind being pitched. And I don’t mind it that much if the product is actually either too old to really get excited about, or too far away from the stores to burden readers with it. But couldn’t these media research databases, and the people who use them, do a bit of basic research (it’s called ‘Googling’) before they fire off their pitches? We bloggers, just like journalists, are a sensitive lot and hate to feel we’re being taken for a ride by folk who haven’t done their homework first. Otherwise it looks dangerously like spam.