Back to the Future

Hey, I have moved away from talking about technology recently, and while I’d like to shift focus a little bit, I want this post in particular to be accessible, and for anyone to be able to read and understand my point.

She is only trying to help.

The topic of this post is going to be artificial intelligence, and it’s usefulness in everyday life. Without realizing it, most of us use computers which have been fed incredible amounts of data each and every day. These computers, which we only see in the form of the information they give us, provide information to us which relates to our lives in almost every conceivable way. It doesn’t matter whether you are googling a tidbit of information, looking for directions from a GPS unit or mapping service, checking Facebook to see what people you don’t really talk to much are up to these days, or, in the example I’m going to focus on, asking a voice-controlled, disembodied robot that lives in your phone about the weather. Using any and all of these online services requires a ton going on behind the scene. However, that is not the focus of what I would like to discuss today. Everybody has misgivings about voice control technology, about how it is well behind what it should, or could be in 2012. However, in using Siri (my example since I do not have an Android device on hand), most everyone I speak to says they don’t really use it that frequently because of how often it fails them, and it ends up wasting time. I’d like to pull back the curtain a little bit and try to explain how this type of voice service actually works, and how you can use it more to your advantage.

Seems creepy, but if that’s what you want,
it’s available.

The fact is, most people have no idea what their technology is capable of. It really can only do what a programmer or engineer has designed it to do, and will never be capable of anything more. People ridicule Siri for being unable to, for example, turn off radios like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. While they may have a point, this is not a failure of the technology. It may (read:probably will) at some point in the near future support those features, but currently simply is not set up to perform those tasks. You would never type “Mom’s house” into Google Maps and expect it to find your address and locate your childhood home, because that would be incredibly creepy. But the fact is, a Google software engineer could certainly program that functionality into Maps pretty easily, but only if you have your mom as a contact in Gmail, and then only if your home address was assigned to her. Conversely, Siri is perfectly capable of finding your mom’s address when asked, and taking you there on a map with one tap.

I find that Siri’s most useful functionality is when you are trying to store some information with multiple, sometimes nested parameters. The examples I use most frequently are: setting alarms, timers, noting appointments and setting myself reminders. These are all tasks that would require at least a minute, even if you are well versed in using Apple products, just because there are many parameters that are required before your phone will actually remember all the information that is required. However, when using your voice, it becomes child’s play to set up a meeting, because you can just say one phrase containing all that information, and Siri will parse it for you, and generally speaking, if you know how she listens, will be perfect almost all of the time. When Siri fails me, it is almost always a failing in my speech, or a case of mumbling.

Siri will even help you get a job!

Another common issue I have with Siri is that I will end up having trouble connecting to the network, and she will ask me to make a request again. While Siri has gone offline in the past on Apple’s end, I find that generally when this happens it is because I’m walking away from my apartment, and therefore I end up in a dead zone where I have very weak Wi-Fi from home, but haven’t moved onto 3G yet. I now avoid doing this, and never have this connectivity issue. Again, these are problems that Apple can, and surely is, fixing, but they are certainly not failings of the technology itself, if you know what to look for. With the newest version of iOS, version 6, you can actually make reservations at restaurants with your voice, or check movie times, or post to social networks. All of these things make different small aspects of our lives just a little bit simpler, and it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Finally, the thing that people complain about most with regards to Siri specifically, is that sometimes when trying to find information, she is “unable” to do so and defaults to asking if you would like to search the web for the information you requested. Considering that this is all that most other voice systems are capable of doing, Siri is light-years ahead of it’s time. All that is required to make Siri work seamlessly is when you are doing a voice search, add the words “Search for…” at the beginning of your query, and she will go straight to a web search which will more than likely provide you with the information you are looking for. Siri is not a search engine.

One Direction, they’re

With the announcement of the next iPhone scheduled for Wednesday, September 12th, also bringing updates to everyone who uses Siri, with the public release of iOS 6, I hope that people will take this information to heart and use internet services the way they were meant to be used, as opposed to complaining that they don’t work in ways they were never meant to.

I hope you all enjoyed learning a little more about Siri with me, you can see now why we’re such good friends.

Everything I know, I was taught in graduate school.

In my time as an unemployed human, I have learned a lot about myself. I have likes and dislikes, just as everyone does. For example, I know that I like being employed, and I don’t like looking for a job. At the start of the summer, I didn’t realize that I liked being employed as much as I did. Having a reason to be up and out of bed is a very satisfying feeling. As it stands right now, most days if I didn’t get up, nobody would even notice for most of the day. While this sounds like a dream for most, having it go on for more than a few weeks is actually quite demoralizing. Having a task, or several, to accomplish over a series of days, weeks, or months is wonderfully fulfilling. Generally speaking, I could very easily come up with a long list of things that could occupy my time for years on end and would be incredibly rewarding, but given the nature of our modern society, this just isn’t realistic. I would run out of money within a month or two, given that I am already massively in debt.

Speaking of debt, another thing I have learned about myself, and perhaps about the nature of modern society itself, is that indoctrination into our scholastic system is certainly one of the most important steps in a young or medium person’s life. From a very young age, one most of us certainly cannot recollect, we are put into groups of like-aged and like-parented small people with babysitters who have been trained to imprint upon us a certain manner of absorbing knowledge and vast quantities of information no single person could ever be expected to recall past adolescence (if you don’t believe me, watch Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader). It is also expected that during this time we interact with these like-aged individuals, for no other reason than that it will serve us well later in life to be able to converse reasonably with people we have never met (though some people you meet throughout the day will make you strongly doubt that they are capable of reason, or intelligence). Teachers, especially those who decide to mould these young minds, are incredibly important to our continued development as a species. Certainly it is ideal that parents can work during the day, and that their children aren’t simply left to roam the streets, which was certainly the origin of schools. More importantly though, teachers are expected to be able to teach their pupils the things that their parents learned in school, but either don’t have time to pass along to them, or don’t remember well enough to be able to pass on.

From a very young age, I was told that I had a lot of potential. Parents, teachers, principals, many older people I met would impart this idea of potential on to me. I still don’t really know why they said that to me, because it gave me a false sense that everything would be alright, and that if I didn’t close any metaphorical doors in my life, I would be able to do whatever I wanted and everything would work out just fine. Truth be told, I still actually believe this is true, if I wanted the status quo, I could have it and be very successful. The jobs I aspire to, doctor, astronaut, nuclear scientist, these are all absolutely goals I am capable of achieving if I apply myself to the task and get a little bit lucky. However, for them to become reality, combined with the way I spent the last 6 years of my life, would take tens of thousands of dollars and probably at least half a decade. This is time and money I simply don’t have, already being in debt and 24 years old.

The problem, and the main reason I am way past those dreams, starts at the age of 18. I had unlimited potential, and I had (still have) a instinctual curiosity for science. The idea trying to be smarter than somebody else in a competitive sense did not appeal to me in the slightest, and so I had no desire to apply to medical or law school at that time, even though practising in either of those fields would have been incredible. In a hopefully humble-sounding way, I like to think that I have a higher-than-average capacity for absorbing and processing information and external stimuli. Given that, with my love of science and reason, taking chemistry at a post-secondary level seemed like a really great idea. Everybody I had ever spoken to, other than chemistry teachers, absolutely detested chemistry, or at the very least enjoyed the subject matter but found that they were terrible at performing experiments or grasping the associated concepts. This would be a prestigious choice of degree which would have very little competition, where I would be free to learn without external pressure and where average or slightly above average grades would allow me to sail through the program. After all, my entire scholastic career had been about learning, and being perfect had never really appealed to me if I understood the material. This is a phrase I have repeated ad nauseum, almost as an excuse, to anybody who suggested that the discrepancy between my grades, and the grades I was expected to have based on my apparent intelligence, was of concern to me.

The truth is, as I considered this summer applying to medical school for next year, I really think I could be a doctor, or astronaut, or lawyer. Given the requisite training in these professions, I am sure I could cure, or space, or law, wonderfully. But this just isn’t the case in our modern society. There is a very well-defined path for absolutely everyone who wants to be more than anything. By that, I mean that anybody who is able bodied could be a garbageman, or dishwasher, or cashier. These things are not difficult, but as we have all certainly seen at one point or another, it is possible to be terrible, or to excel at any of those jobs. Growing up, I saw people who were good at things, and people who were absolutely hopeless. From this, I surmised that if I was able to work hard for 6 years at something that most everyone considered extremely difficult, that anyone capable of basic factual analysis would see that I was capable of doing, or at least learning to do, most anything.

I thought I had figured out the way the world works, and that if I was able to earn a Masters in Chemistry, that it would qualify me for any job that was considered to be less intellectually rigorous than that. The logic of that statement still resonates with me to this day, and I still ultimately believe it to be accurate. Very little of what I did over the course of the 4 year undergraduate degree or one year of masters required any specific skills that I feel nobody else is capable of given similar instruction. Some intellectual constructs and theoretical concepts, as well as a lot of the mathematics associated with those topics, is beyond the reach of most ordinary people, but those people are more than likely completely fine with that. Additionally, there are also many concepts and associated mathematics which are well beyond my mental grasp, though I know people who frolic through those fields of expressions and equations like a meadow of daffodils.

The basic idea of this notion is that once I have learned all that is known thus far (and a little more) about the NMR of halogens, and prepared a 133 page document summarizing that knowledge, I should be able to walk into a meeting with someone, show them what I am capable of learning to do, and immediately begin learning to do what they need of me. In exchange, they would make an allowance available to me consisting of enough money to pay off my loans in some haste, and to acquire a modest house, car and the like in a matter of years. I am confident that if given that opportunity, I could pleasantly surprise someone with my capacity for learning.

However, what I have found of society is quite a bit different. After completing the above document showing that I am capable of learning about *murmur murmur blurb*, I am qualified to continue to do that exact thing in other buildings, or possibly to manage the facility that exact thing happens in, or even to teach that exact thing, and what I learned to be able to learn that thing, but not in an official professorial capacity, which would require 3 more years (at least) of doing that exact thing.

I never really wanted the body of my life’s work to consist of a continuation of the work of the person who took a risk on me and allowed me to learn in a space he had worked very hard to claim at a university to have students work for him, advancing a field which he and many others have a strong interest in. I am not saying that to take away from him, or from anyone in the lab, because post-secondary academia is a very proud, important profession that I wouldn’t want to take away from anybody. It just isn’t where I want to spend my time.

While I was learning all about halogen NMR, I was completely enthralled by it. But there comes a point when there is nothing more any subject matter can do for you, and this happened to me midway through my graduate studies. The same thing happened when I was working in retail electronics at Canada Computers. I was mesmerized and blown away by the world of consumer and business electronics and computing, and soaked up information about it like a sponge. Being immersed in anything you don’t fully comprehend but long to know holds a certain fascination for me. But, after about 6 months, at which point I started to see patterns in the consumer world and in electronics, the entire store which had held so much pleasure for me while I was learning about it was suddenly completely flat and predictable, and I got bored faster than a tree at a saw mill, or Timon at a Pumbaa convention, or a lake at an ice fishing convention (these are going downhill fast). While I never completely lost my interest in chemistry (or even NMR specifically), academia doesn’t appeal to me as a place to spend the rest of my life. Similarly, while I will still follow the capacity and speed doubling of RAM, CPU speeds and cores, and flash memory, now that I know it is inevitable, it does not pique my acute interest in the way it once did. Even entering chemistry in my teens, it was always my dream to work in a lab, researching interesting and new practical applications of cutting-edge technology, to put it to use in a meaningful and productive way in the world.

The truth is, though, as I am coming to realize, is that this is just not possible for me specifically, without some help, and perhaps some luck. I need to get in front of people with enough clout to actually make that happen, and show them what I am capable of, given the opportunity and resources. If I can show someone with the ability to make those kinds of things happen what I can do, I’m sure I can surprise even myself with what I can achieve.

In the end, I want what we all eventually want, to meet someone, or a group of people, that can be counted on to notice that we are awake and out of bed, and to share my life (space and time, which is really all we have) with them in the pursuit of contentedness. And to have a meaningful, positive impact on the world. Happiness is just a nice bonus.

To summarize, I have learned a great deal about a wealth of different subjects in my time on this Earth, and I am itching to apply that, and give a little back to the world that gave me so much. But first I have to get past the sad misconception that I only know what I learned in graduate school.

My Favourite New Toy

This is a post I have been waiting to write for some time, and today is as good a time as any. I feel good finally doing another product review, it has been FAR too long since I did one, and I have gotten new toys in that time, so here comes what will hopefully the first of many reviews in the next little while.
For those of you who are familiar with my previous posts, I love anything that incorporates Bluetooth technology, be it a phone, computer or peripheral device. I own 3 different computers or “smart” devices which have Bluetooth connectivity, and I use Bluetooth technology more than once per day on each of these devices. However, when trying to leave the house to do something that required I not take anything with me, I found I was at a bit of a loss in terms of listening to music.

I have Bluetooth headphones (on-ear), but when I take them off they take up a lot of space, and can’t easily just be put away anywhere, which is inconvenient for running errands or places where I don’t have a bag or place to put things. Alternately, the first pair of Bluetooth earbuds I bought (which I decided did not even merit a review, more on that later) have a dongle at the end which contains the battery and Bluetooth transmitter. While this does allow for wireless listening, it does not make the experience any less bulky or cumbersome. The whole issue I have with wired headphones and wires in general is that they are prone to tangling, and the more wire you have, the easier it is to tangle.

This leads nicely into my review for today, which is for Plantronics’ newest Bluetooth earphone model, the Backbeat Go. These earbuds are as simple as it gets, with all redundancy having been removed. Aside from the actual cord which holds together the earbuds and which carries in-line playback controls, these are essentially as minimal as earphones can get.

Normally, at this time in a product review which starts off saying how simple a concept and design is, this would be the place for a caveat about sound or manufacturing quality, but such a drawback doesn’t exist for these earphones. They sound incredible, and are built very solidly, with no visible failure points. Another concern with earphones, especially ones which are not mechanically connected to any device, such as by a 3.5 mm connection, is that they might fall out of your ears and be lost forever. This doesn’t seem to be a concern with these headphones, as they also have detachable earloops on the buds which are perfectly designed to be flexible, but rest against the inside of the ear, feeling comfortable, but snug.

The in-line playback controls under the right ear are absolutely perfect for changing tracks and volume, as well as answering calls and activating voice control (another wonderful product, Siri, also becomes much more useful when you don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket to pick new music, text, or make calls). I should do a review on Siri soon, though it would be more reflective than a review, as it’s been thoroughly reviewed in many other places. Is it against the rules of writing to refer to something in parentheses once you’re outside of them? Oh well, creative liberties…

The cord connecting the two earbuds is also quite high quality, far above the plastic you would find in regular earbuds, and it is also thick in one dimension, resembling linguine. This means that the cord can really only bend in one dimension, and as such, there are far fewer tangles in the cord than would be found in normal gauge wire. While on normal headphones implementing this would be far too heavy, in practise on these headphones, with the weight of the wire resting on the back of the neck, there is no pull at all on the ears, and so no increased likelihood of the headphones to fall out.

These earbuds have a battery life of anywhere from 5-8 hours continued use in my experience, and will last with minimal battery loss for several weeks. They charge by micro-USB, which is behind a flap on the right bud, and take about an hour to fully charge.

When these earbuds were first announced several months ago, they were not available in Canada, and having them shipped here was almost prohibitively expensive. Now, however, they are available in Canada for $100 dollars, and if you are on the move a lot and like listening to music, I highly recommend these. If you have ever fumbled with earbuds and a shoulder bag of any kind, these are your sanity’s salvation!