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Call centers: Where foreign accents now sound less foreign

16 Mar

call-center

When something goes wrong with the cable, or the credit card or a household product, the horrid thought of spending long periods of time on the phone with a call center associate becomes real.

In the early phase of these calls, there is a strong, perky, recorded voice – an American voice – telling you what digits to push. For myself, I usually have questions unanticipated by the automated system, meaning I need to speak with an agent.

That point is reached only after shrewd and patient navigation. The digital world fades away and you are routed to a far off place where call centers are cheap to operate. The agents, God bless them, so much want to help.

“Good day! And how may I give you the extraordinary service you deserve to assist with your problem?” an agent said to me recently.

“Well,” I answered. “To begin with, I don’t need extraordinary service. All I need is good service.”

It’s meant as a joke, but it comes off as nasty. Still, the voice on the other end stays positive. But lately, it’s been a strange voice. It does not sound entirely human.

Hence, I’ve concluded that voice synthesizers are being used to strip away heavy foreign accents. But they do a poor job of it.

First, you can still tell the person is foreign. If the synthesizer’s purpose is to let Americans think they are talking to Americans (and not that jobs have been moved overseas), it fails at that.

Second, it makes communications less clear. An extra layer of audio noise is added, making it more difficult to conduct business.

When somebody is already in a foul mood from being on hold, that’s not good.

What strikes me most, however, is the transparent hypocrisy of this effort – if indeed my theory is correct. All these companies are too cheap to pay Americans to answer their phones, yet they are willing to spend extra money on technology to cover this up.

If anyone has knowledge of call centers using technology to strip away foreign accents, please comment here. I sense I’m right, but it’s only a guess.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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Best Buy to customer: Did you just walk down the street and turn left?

6 Oct

 

Companies that monitor our cell phone, tablet and computer use are growing more and more sophisticated.

Many of us are aware that we are tracked –stalked, actually – by algorithms when we use our cell phone. Our phones are capable of telling advertisers – and I guess the government – when we get up, when we go to bed, the places we visit, what we buy, what we search for, even what we are thinking and certainly what we are saying. Now, according to an article in today’s New York Times, statistical modeling is being used to connect our cell phone use with our table use and the use of our work and home computers.

PrivacyThese devices may have absolutely no connection to each other, but heavy monitoring of digital networks, coupled with some pretty fancy math, links them and us to advertisers.

So while at work you may use your desktop to search for a Paris hotel.  Later that night, on your cell phone, you could receive an ad for the InterContinental Paris Le Grand.

As I have said before in other posts, digital communications – the Internet, apps, etc. – represent wonderful technology but also serve as the biggest con since Ponzi. The con amounts to this: Give us everything we need to effectively and dramatically market you and we will tell you who won the 1976 World Series, the best way to make waffles and the number of Academy Awards won by Robert Di Niro.

This gross invasion of privacy is both offensive and frightening, at least for me.

Maybe not so much for the guy who needs a room in Paris.

Still, there are flaws in the process.

I recently went on-line in search of a digital SLR camera. I found what I wanted and bought it. Since then, my devices have been serving up ads for digital cameras. Made me feel for sorry for the retailers who paid good money to target likely customers. The algorithms are smart, but not smart enough to know that I am among the least likely of customers.

In a way, that was quite satisfying.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The dreaded Star Chamber returns in 21st Century garb

7 Jul

tahrir_square_001

Some people have been wishing me a happy birthday, but it is not my birthday. They were being kind and polite, but they were wrong.

They had been advised by a large, rich, influential corporation to send the greeting, and they did. Prior to this, the large, rich, influential corporation had asked me for my birth date and I gave the wrong one.

On purpose.

It was not to confuse friends. It was to confuse the large, rich, influential corporation and those who acquire its data. I sought to foul the digital path toward me.

I maintain a fantasy that if and when powerful forces decide to come get me, they will go somewhere else as a result of my deliberate misdirection.

In truth, my silly little protests are minor and of no consequence. They are done more for spite than protection.

I’m not afraid of the large, rich, influential corporation known as Facebook (although I probably should be). What I’m afraid of are the people who have easy access to its data and much more; mainly the United States government.

Without evoking too much laughter, one could say the U.S. government today is fairly benign when it comes to privacy violations.  In other words, don’t expect it to come get me or you any time soon. But governments evolve toward darkness rather than light, and ours is rapidly headed toward the shadows.

The progression starts with good intentions. Since the 9-11 attacks, and even before, Washington has worked hard to protect us from terrorists. It has done an exemplary job.

The problem comes as government experiences a gradual desensitization, thinking less and less of our constitutional rights, and an increased boldness, sense of mission and sense of self-importance. Those at the top come to feed on power, like a drug, and need higher doses. It’s a common pattern. Without suggesting in any way that our present government resembles the Third Reich – for it does not — that historical example is perhaps the most explanatory of this tendency toward the gradual erosion of rights.

The good citizen can become monster. It is wholly within our nature.

Well before the digital revolution, I read the novel “1984” by George Orwell. It induced the appropriate amount of fear, but also inspired the idea for a whimsical story. The story takes place in the setting of “1984,” when all actions are monitored by TV cameras. The main character is someone who watches what the cameras record. He does not like his job and does it poorly, leaving a large security breach. In order to break his boredom, he uses the TV cameras mainly to find women.

The story was never written, but it was to have ended with the realization that many people working as monitors were apolitical, lazy and uninterested in advancing the state’s cause. The reality was that people actually were much freer than they thought because no one really was watching them. An underground resistance group learns of this weakness (it is headed by a woman contacted by the main character) and exploits it to lead a successful revolution.

In the digital age, no one needs to spend endless hours watching TV monitors. With minimal human involvement, massive amounts of data are sucked up and quickly analyzed. If you are the type of person the government wants, or if you have done or said something it finds objectionable, a computer spits out your name and the government comes and gets you.

If you live in Pakistan it sends a drone.

How does all this happen in a constitutional republic like the U.S.?

Who approved it? Who rules on its legality?

Star ChamberIn 17th Century England there was the hated Star Chamber.  In 21st Century America we have the FISA. They are similar.

FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The New York Times wrote about it today. Like the Star Chamber, it operates in secret.

Its origins were in approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. Now its 11 members serve as a parallel Supreme Court. The Times says it is “the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.”

It let’s the NSA be the NSA.

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor the government is desperately trying to get its hands on, last month leaked a classified order from the FISA permitting the collection of all phone-tracing data from Verizon business customers.

The Times quotes a source saying the court’s “still-secret decisions go far beyond any single surveillance order,” and that it is establishing a growing body of law.

Which leads back to my fake birthday.

If government spooks, acting in secret, insist on scooping up all data from emails, cell phone calls, Facebook posts, “likes,” Tweets, Instagram photos (software will recognize your face), and God knows what else, try to make it at least slightly less useful for them.

Try simple things at first. If you go to the supermarket and aren’t buying anything on sale, don’t give the Bonus Card to the cashier. If you download a new app, don’t let it track you, and don’t sign on using Facebook, which gives Facebook new data in addition to everything else it has. Be careful with “likes.” They paint a profile of you, as do your contacts if you let others have them (guilt by association is part of data analysis).

And please, don’t write email thinking it is private. Try putting the words “Nikon 3200” into an email. It is very possible that shortly after you will be served an ad by a camera store.

These small bits of advice won’t protect you. They are equivalent to a few hundred people in Tahrir Square. Those few hundred, however, can become a few thousand, then tens of thousand, then a million. Then an authoritarian government is brought down.

And that is why I may love you, but I won’t ever “like” you.

Be vigilant, and don’t give it all away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A hideous Google pleads, “Don’t look at me!”

15 Jun

Google car

The world is filled with great ironies. Here is one of them.

Google, a company unrivaled at invading privacy, does not want to be watched while it works.

Here is the background.

This great innovator of search, which knows so much about what we do on the Internet, knows every word we write in our Gmails, provides the world with pictures of our homes and streets and shares everything it knows about us with the government and any marketer willing to pay, soon will visit the campus setting where I work.

In its desire to record everything there is to record, Google crews will photograph the thoroughfares within the campus and also enter buildings to map interior hallways.

The first they do with backpack-mounted multi-directional cameras; the second with GPS enabled smart phones.

Prior to the visit, an email was sent by my employer to all employees alerting them to the presence of Google crews and asking us to honor a request not to disturb them. That’s reasonable, but it went on to ask us not to photograph them, which is less reasonable, nor even to watch them, which is absurd.

Don’t watch, we were instructed.

Google may have a host of non-ironic reasons for this request, but they were not shared and I can’t think of even one.

It brought to mind those horror movies where monsters plead, “Look away! I’m hideous!”

With each passing day I realize that the Internet, with all its wonder and potential, with its ability to better lives, improve society and educate the masses, has degenerated into the world’s greatest con game. It provides us with the things we desire in exchange for our souls and the inner workings of our brains. Google does this so that it and many, many others can make money.

After receiving the email, I was at first tempted to protest the directive and watch.

But now I’ve decided to take the opposite approach. When this hideous thing enters campus, I’m going to – as requested — look away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Shocking disclosure: TV is Free!

31 Mar

Retro TV

It’s hard to remember old technology. That includes devices popular just a few decades ago.

I was surprised that there are people today who don’t know TV is free.

I tried explaining broadcasting and networks to a younger person who had a difficult time with the concept. He only knew that TV came through a cable. He didn’t know that a significant portion of what is on cable also travels through the air and that with something called an antenna it can be brought onto a screen and viewed.

For free.

And because cable can deteriorate data, the broadcast signal actually is clearer, like a higher high definition.

Old tech

Old tech

This lost knowledge of pre-cable TV is being used by at least one business to draw attention to its product – an antenna. In a full-page newspaper ad made to look like news, the ad’s headline reads: “Public gets Free TV with no monthly bills.”

The “story” that follows says the announcement is being made by CompTek, a company whose phone lines, it adds, are ringing off the hook.” The ad list all the Philadelphia area zip codes that can get free TV, and urges people living there to immediately call CompTek.

It’s highly deceptive, but not really a lie. It fails to mention that every zip code can get free TV, as long as it’s within the range of a broadcast.

“Philadelphia area residents who call the Toll Free Hotlines before the 48-hour order deadline to get Clear-Cast can pull in Free TV channels with crystal clear digital picture and no monthly bills,” the ad says.

“Clear-Cast” is the antenna. No mention that other companies sell them and don’t have a 48-hour order deadline. No price for Clear-Cast is listed in the large ad.

After a hike several months ago in my cable rate, I cut the cord in protest and bought a new-technology antenna. I wanted to save money but also had a spare laptop to connect to the TV for Netflix and other Internet TV.

The new antennae are not like the rabbit ears of old. You can buy them for the roof of your house if you want, but the more popular kind go inside the home. They come in several shapes. Mine is from RCA. It is square and flat and black, about the size of an iPad.  I think I paid $40. All you do is connect it to the TV.

New tech

New tech

Well, that’s not all you do. After you connect it, you have to program it on the TV and allow it to locate nearby signals. It takes a few minutes. The TV runs a sequence of all available channels and grabs the one in your area.

I had hoped to get signals from Philadelphia and New York, but my reach was not that strong. New York was out. Big disappointment.

Still, I found myself running the sequence several times to see if I could capture more. It reminded me of fishing. You hit the button on the remote and then wait and watch the screen for a catch. I actually captured more signals the more I ran the sequence. But this doesn’t mean you can watch all these channels, nor does it mean the position of the antenna can stay the same for all.

Just as people used to move the rabbit ears around to get a good signal, the new antenna has to be moved, depending on the station you want to receive. I generally have two positions. One gets about two-thirds of the signals, the other pulls in the remaining one-third. It is bothersome to have to get up and move the device, but you get used to it.

 

Weather and atmosphere seem to be factors. Sometimes the signals are strong and you get everything. Sometimes a few are weak and they conk out or break up. There are a few you almost never get.

It’s not perfect, but it is a big savings over a monthly cable bill that usually runs toward $150. What I like least is there is no program guide. You may be watching a movie but there is no way to check its title or which actors appear. You don’t know when it will be over or what is coming on next.

And, of course, there is no DVR or On-Demand. You’ll have to use a connected computer to help get around this.

And just a reminder, you won’t be getting any cable stations – no CNN, or Comedy Central or TBS or ESPN. You get only broadcast channels on networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS, plus local stations.

Unlike old TV, most networks broadcast their main channel and a couple supplemental ones. The supplements usually aren’t high definition and the programing is second-rate. Still, there are old movies, old shows and plenty of cooking and fitness demonstrations to watch.

So if you didn’t know, now you do: TV IS FREE.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

Something I recently learned

20 Feb

Library of Congress 12

The Library of Congress, the keeper of everything, is in the process of archiving more than 170 billion tweets. Some of them may be yours.

A Super disappointment for journalism — or a new beginning?

25 Nov

He was unhappy at his newspaper so he quit. Superman did. Clark Kent no longer works at the Daily Planet.

Instead, he may blog.

According to the comics, Superman now believes that news has become entertainment and reporters are nothing more than stenographers. So he moved on.

Connie Schultz, writing for Parade Magazine, warned Superman to be careful of the Social Media trap that awaits him. She called it the “new Kryptonite” and worried that the great and noble Man of Steel could end up tweeting X-ray pictures of sexy woman to gain followers.

Superman’s decision was a jolt to traditional journalism. In my mind, a second jolt came when it was revealed that seven members of Navy SEAL Team 6 leaked classified information. They didn’t leak to a newspaper. They leaked to a video game maker.

While newspapers are only a wisp of what they once were, people still get the information they need. They just get it in different ways. And it’s everywhere, in unlimited quantities and styles.

Traditional journalists won’t admit it, but journalism is flourishing. Because of technology and the accessible, enticing new methods of communication, more people may be practicing journalism that ever before. Talented, intelligent reporters who would never have gone to journalism school or applied to a newspaper have become experts and opinion leaders through blogs and social media. Some make good money; many don’t.

In spite of the poor success rate, media and media-related startups abound. What works is a mystery, but uncertainty hasn’t stopped people from bringing forth an endless variety of information concoctions.

In the September / October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review there is a package of stories labeled: “The future of media (this minute, at least).” Numerous topics are discussed. Prominently mentioned are the web sites and apps that aid reporters in their work. They represent small miracles.

I got dizzy reading about the likes of:

Cir.ca

News.me

Paper.li

Storyful

Storify

Upworthy

#waywireSync.in

Timeline JS

Many Eyes

visual.ly

Sync.in

Etherpad

Evernote

Vyclone

Is that enough for you?

It’s too much for me, but I’m certain there are people using all of these and more.

Rumor has it that in the next Superman comic Clark Kent will use Vyclone to cover a cyclone. He’ll get help from Lois via Evernote while hoping Jimmy can come up with something good and graphic using visual.ly.

As this team operates from some cheap little apartment, Perry White, the once great and powerful editor, will stomp around his vast but unfilled newsroom screaming and cursing – his strongest editorial qualities – and wondering how he can compete with all that.

–By Lanny Morgnanesi

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