Sunday, October 23, 2011

you feel me, siri?

It turns out that Siri, the imaginary personal assistant built into the new version of Apple's Iphone, the Iphone 4S, only really understands unaccented English. My Taiwanese immigrant friend tried her luck Friday night, and ended up speaking loudly, and slowly. When I tried out the speak-and-she'll-type-your-email-function I spoke the same way. Why? Because I know voice recognition software usually doesn't get my slight European accent.

This reminds me of a comment an African American student made in class once. We were talking about auto-correct functions on smart devices, and she said that when she and her friends see the suggestions for corrections made by their phones they think "I would never say that". I asked her what she meant, and she said "the phones make us text white". Meaning that their social dialect is turned into standard English by the auto correct function.

Does this matter? I think it does. What happens is that software that is marketed as decreasing the distance between human thought and technological representation is creating not less but more distance for some people. It can't be good for the companies, because it of course reinforces the alienation experienced by underrepresented groups.

I don't know a lot of black slang, but in a small experiment I just asked Siri one question that I do know: "You feel me, Siri?". I asked her three times. She responded, "I don't really like these arbitrary categories", "OK", and "If you insist".

"You feel me?" is a tag-question, much like "You know?", that establishes rapport between speakers. Appropriate answers are "Uh-hu", "Yeah", or anything else that shows that you understand, agree, and want to hear more. A metallic "Go ahead!" from Siri would have been fine.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

president obama dedicates the martin luther king jr. memorial in washington dc today

I was in Atlanta last weekend. There was a show opening on Friday night, and then I stayed on for a couple of more days.

On Saturday I first spent a frustrating hour trying to find parking downtown. I gave up, and drove over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. It's an area where within two blocks you'll find a museum, Dr. King's and his wife's graves, his birth home, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King, his father, and maternal grandfather, all preached.

You can only visit Dr. King's birth home as part of a tour. And since US National Park Service run the place, everything is free, and tours are given by park rangers, uniforms and hats and all. Only 15 people are allowed in each tour. I had to come back on Sunday for an open spot.

Through his maternal grandfather Dr. King was born into a wealthy family, and a family that raised children with a lot of foresight. Our ranger told the group that every afternoon little Martin and his two younger siblings would learn a bible verse in addition to doing their homework. Then they dressed "as if they were going to church", and went downstairs to a family dinner that was shared with 20 or 30 poor students and others from the neighborhood.

During dinner the children would take turns standing up, recite their bible verse, tell the group about their day at school, and - and this is what really struck me - last they would speak about what oppression meant to them, what it looked like from their point of view. Every day. Instead of turning away, not wanting to "dwell on injustice" as people sometimes put it, the children were encouraged to see what was happening to them with open eyes, and name it. The ranger who gave the tour stressed how this daily practice helped shape Dr. King into the man he became.

I'm floored by the bravery and honesty of that daily ritual. You have to be able to see what is going on before you can do something about it. And you have to be completely honest about what is really going on, or else you will start believing what others are telling you instead of trusting your own eyes.

Often the Civil Rights era is described as an emotional time. Rosa Parks remained seated on that bus because she "had had enough". Dr. King was "angry". I don't think so. I think that's white society's rhetoric. In reality, a lot of analysis, planning, and organizing led up to what happened in the 1960s. And smart parents instilled habits in their children in the 1930s, that bore fruit in the 1960s.

Friday, October 14, 2011

hello starbucks

I had a bad day yesterday. Not overly bad, or completely bad, but there was a lot of traffic and that made me late, I had forgotten to take my allergy pills so my eyes itched, I picked the vegetarian sushi by mistake at the counter, and when I opened a can in the car the content overflowed and made a mess.

So I went to Starbucks for a well needed dose of caffein. I told the woman behind the counter that I wanted the largest regular coffee (I had a long afternoon, and evening, in front of me). She put her nose in the air and repeated "A large regular coffee?, with a HUGE question mark at the end. I repeated, "Yeah, the largest size, regular drip coffee, please." Now she got it.

What I should have said, and what she tried to bully me into saying, was "A venti drip, please", because that's Starbucks speak for large coffees.

Annika Norlin, who has two musical projects, 'Säkert!' where she sings in Swedish, and 'Hello Saferide' where she sings in English, has just taken it upon herself to translate her Swedish lyrics into English. She has a large international following, and she's gotten a lot of emails from fans who want to know what the words mean.

Norlin decided to do literal translations, so the English lyrics on her new album 'In English' are not idiomatic. The words are English, but the flavor is Swedish, and in interviews she has spoken of it as "a third language". She says it was an experiment, and that the end result could be flat and boring, or kind of charming.

Annika Norlin's "third language"? Charming, if you ask me. Starbucks' "third language"? Ridiculous. Dumb. Dumbe.