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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

 

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

The very first iPad was made of wax

21 Jul

Antiquity is full of surprises and incredible technological wonders. It’s a shame to think how many have been forgotten or lost.

My surprise of the day came from learning that the ancient Greeks and Romans carried a portable, reusable tablet that was their equivalent of the iPad. It had two wood-framed pages that could be folded like a book. The pages were coated in wax, and writing was done with a wooden stylus.

To reuse, the wax pages were heated slightly and then smoothed over.

This was literally a “tabula rasa,” the cute Latin term used today to describe a blank slate or a person without preconceived ideas. There are references to such tablets in Homer and the device may date to the 14th century B.C. It is believed they were used by the Greeks and Romans and in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. Evidence of them can be found up until the Middle Ages.

They ancients never lacked for technology and engineering.  They just did it differently; sometimes better. Our 20-year old highways may be crumbling, but the Roman aqueducts still stand.

The Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time: A Reflection

29 Apr

Below is an essay I wrote for Analog, the science fiction magazine. It was rejected, so I thought I’d publish it here. Comments are appreciated.

Decades after its phenomenal success, a reaction to a first reading of Asimov’s “Nightfall”

Author Isaac Asimov

By Lanny Morgnanesi

For more than a year there was a task entry in my Outlook program that said simply, “Read ‘Nightfall.’ ”

Although I am a fan of its author, I had never read this celebrated short story.

Some say it is the best science fiction story ever written. It certainly is Isaac Asimov’s most famous story. Hence, the note in Outlook, which I created after reading a passing reference to the story and its hallowed reputation.

I knew I could find the story quickly online whenever I wanted, and so never quite got around to it … like living in New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. I must have been waiting for a special moment, not wishing to consume the piece lightly.

That moment came in the form of a premonition, or something like one. I was attending a business meeting in a college library. During a break I went over to the stacks. Directly in front of me, at eye level, was, “Nightfall and Other Stories.”

I took it home.

The story was written in 1941 while Asimov was attending Columbia University and working in his father’s candy store. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, whose editor was a man named John W. Campbell.

The anthology I brought home came out in 1969. It contains an introduction by Asimov that is almost as interesting as the title story.

Reflecting on something he produced almost three decades earlier, when he was 21, the author expressed amazement at the story’s popularity and endurance. At the time he wrote “Nightfall,” Asimov had published a dozen stories. Another dozen had been rejected. He would go on to become an incredibly prolific author but never considered himself a trained writer.

Still, in his anthology introduction, he seemed flummoxed that as a seasoned professional he could not duplicate the success of the novice who wrote “Nightfall.”

He says in the intro:

“Now let’s get something straight.  I didn’t write that story any differently from the way I had written my earlier stories – or, for that matter, from the way I wrote my later stories. As far as writing is concerned, I am a complete and utter primitive. I have no formal training at all and to this very day I don’t know How To Write.

“I just write any old way it comes into my mind to write and just as fast as it comes into my mind.

“And that’s the way I wrote ‘Nightfall.’”

The tone almost seems resentful of his first great accomplishment.

Asimov had expected to be paid $120 for “Nightfall.” When the check came for $150 he thought it was a mistake. He called the editor, Campbell, who said there was no mistake. Such a good story deserved more.

Campbell had a personal interest in the work. In fact, he gave the idea to Asimov. It was based on his disagreement with a quote by Emerson … a quote that appears at the beginning of “Nightfall.”

This is the quote:

 

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?”

Rather than create wonder and delight, Campbell believed the sudden appearance of stars (and darkness) after 1,000 years of daylight would drive everyone mad. That is what Asimov wrote about … a planet with multiple suns that is perpetually bright, except for one true night every 2,000 years or so.

The reader learns the planet has no recorded history of these infrequent nights because during each one, the world goes mad and civilization is destroyed.

Over the eons, life has been repeatedly rebuilt from nothing. There is, however, some scattered, vague knowledge of this that is prophesized by an eccentric cult.

Unequivocally, an extraordinary premise for a story.

Yet after so much anticipation, after so many accolades, I was sadly let down by “Nightfall.” I’d like to think it was the filter of time that took the edge off, but I know it was more than that.

How to explain my disappointment with a great, wonderful, brilliant man worshiped by people much smarter and more literate than me?

“Nightfall” maps out a wonderful and inventive idea, but the writer, in my reading, fails to finesse it; doesn’t creatively exploit its potential. I call this kind of writing “idea” writing. The work of Ayn Rand is the same. Concepts are strong; characters and story telling tend to be weak.

My favorite work of Asimov is the Foundation trilogy. Like “Nightfall,” it contains an exceptional scenario and complex, innovative, paradigm-breaking concepts. So rare; so different; so insightful. It is from the mind of someone very special. But it reads the same as “Nightfall.”

There also is the filter of time working against the Foundation series.

Asimov’s work from the 40s and 50s reads as if it were written in the 40s and 50s. It’s not that way with all science fiction of the era. Some writers tried very hard to steep themselves in an entirely new milieu. In an effort to do that, Asimov will give his characters names like Sheerin 501 but then have people smoking on spaceships and treating women passengers like stewardesses.

In “Nightfall” an important and influential character is a newspaper columnist. Newspaper technology, of course, is based on a 15th Century European invention. One wishes, perhaps unfairly, that he would have seen the digital world, or something else, coming.

Still, the young man from the candy store had his touches.

As the panicked mad men and women of “Nightfall” begin setting the world on fire as a way to re-create the light from their disappearing suns, Asimov ends his story this way:

On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of the sun.

“The long night had come again.”

That, from the best science fiction story ever written, gave me chills.

In the anthology, Asimov advises readers to closely look at the other stories to determine why – or if – “Nightfall” is better than the others. He can’t seem to tell. It is almost as if he is jealous of the early success and hopes the verdict elevates another candidate.

The strong reaction to “Nightfall,” apparently different from Asimov’s, suggests that the artist is really not in control of the art.  Without permission, the work goes where it wants to go or where it needs to be, depending on the mind that absorbs it.

Now there’s a subject for a science fiction story … if only Isaac were around to write it.

Lanny Morgnanesi is a writer living in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached at lannym7@gmail.com

 

Machines are smart, but can they think about thinking?

20 Mar

Computers can play chess, Jeopardy and now they can do crossword puzzles. In a competition last weekend with 600 of the country’s top puzzlers, a machine named Dr. Fill came in 141.

The term “artificial intelligence” is usually associated with computers that do such things. I have my doubts. I suspect smart humans are simply slipping their own knowledge into code which then exits a box that does not think. When IBM’s Big Blue was losing at chess, a small army of programmers quickly updated the code.

That’s almost like cheating at cards.

I believe a box is capable of thinking, but before it can someone will have to unlock a secret … uncover a currently unknown approach that will allow a human process to be trans-synthesized by something nonhuman. When this happens, machine intelligence really won’t be artificial. The will have to change the term.

In AI there is debate over whether a machine designed to think should do so like a person or like a machine. The former, once popular, is losing out to the latter. It’s because the former didn’t work very well.

I say it has got to be both. Consider this:

A human – me, for example – is asked a question. The question is: “How many rhymes are in the song Moonlight in Vermont?” The human, me, chooses not to answer immediately but to think: Why such a silly, out-of-context question?

Would the machine do that? Doubtful.

After mulling it over, I would agree with myself that the person asking the question did not do so to delight in telling me that my answer of eight is wrong and instead the correct answer is 10. There would be no satisfaction in that. No, the questioner wants me to say eight and then find joy in telling me the answer is either really high – say 500 – or really low – say one. Maybe it is zero.

In other words, I would use my intelligence to determine that “How many rhymes are in the song Moonlight in Vermont?” is a trick question. Does a computer know what a trick question is?

Only if it can think like a human.

Of course, it doesn’t have to think at all if it has access to every song ever written. All it has to do then is get the song and count. That is not AI.

So what is AI?

And how many rhymes really ARE in Moonlight in Vermont?

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