The Day I Realised I Was One Of THEM

I was always on the rebel side.

It was Us versus Them, the forces of rock and roll and musical freedom struggling against the older generation, those in power, the corporate and musical estblishment whose music was of a bygone age. I was always on the side of “Us” and would never change. Or so I thought . .

Of course, my friend and onetime Caroline colleague Christopher England would tell me differently. Chris has many hobby horses, and one of them is a dislike of “oldie music” and a disdain for how quickly the new young thrusting generation become oldies themselves, despising newer music from a younger generation, and believing that theirs was the only true generation of revolution.  Chris talks about this a lot, but it was not Chris who brought me to see the error of my ways, though funnily enough my moment of realisation did come when I was in his company, sitting beside him in a darkened theatre in central London, waiting for a tech launch.

Chris is my tech mentor in life you see. Even though I have been involved in IT for more than 30 years, and have worked either directly or on projects for the biggest names in the business – Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Compaq, HP – Chris has always been at least two steps ahead of me when it comes to living in the future.

My first ever mobile phone? Reccomended and procured for me by Chris (who had earlier got me into that great yuppie trend of the late 80s, the pager).

It was Chris who told me about the Orange network, which had this unique new geeky feature not available on any other network, the facility to send short SMS text messages. My first messages were to and from Chris.

Christopher England, in hiding.

When, at a technology exhibition in Earls Court in 1992 I tried out a very early video-phone on the BT stand, it was Chris who was the blocky, pixellated face at the other end, jerking around at a rate of about 2 or 3 frames per second (or that’s what it seemed like anyway).  Skype was far, far in the future in those days.

It was Chris who first mentioned some weird tech start up called Twitter, long before it was anything other than a curiosity, and at least two years before it became mainstream.

Not all of his playthings went on to success however. I vividly remember a huge, multi-caller, interactive premium-rate phoneline called “The Villa” which he was an administrator of, into which you could dial if you wanted to meet and interact with people. By pressing commands on the phone you could go into different areas of the villa, meet different people in different rooms, play games, chat etc. It was woefully clunky and terribly expensive, but I can’t help thinking back to it when I see some of the interactions on Facebook.

And so it was that when Microsoft were launching their huge step forward that was Windows 95, it was Chris that I was sitting beside in a large theatre or other such place somewhere in central London. I can’t remember the exact date, but a look back at the launch schedule for Windows 95 tells me that this must have been sometime around, or just before, August 1995.

As we sat waiting for the show to begin, I was very pleased to hear a Rolling Stones track “Start Me Up” being played. (of course, prior to the launch we would not have known that this was a planned part of the whole Win95 theme, in reference to the “Start” menu).

I remember thinking that, after years of big corporate giants being very conservative and oldies focussed in their music for events like this, that it was great that finally they were moving forward, and recognising the value of “our” generation’s music, being young and rebellious, rather than middle aged. Maybe we were winning our battles after all!

And then it hit me, and that one single moment changed my whole worldview on music. This was not big business recognising the value of youthful rebellious music. This was my generation, and our music having been around for long enough that people of my age were now moving up into positions of corporate and government responsibility. This was my generation’s music, in effect, becoming the new “safe” choice, favoured by people drifting towards middle age. This was the moment that I realised that, without so much as a whisper of warning, time had played the cruellest trick of all, and now “we” were becoming “them”.

And sure enough, the signs were there. A new generation of music bubbling under that was not really listened to by my generation, the fact that our music was now increasingly playlisted on mainstream radio . .

From that day on, I could see the truth in Christopher England’s polemic about how closed people’s minds became to everything new over time, and I resolved to think and act differently myself.  And this was a good time to do it, as around about the same time as Microsoft was launching Windows 95 another giant was rethinking its strategy, as the BBC started a revemp of Radio 1, to howls of protest from established presenters and audience, that would see a new generation of presenters coming on board, bringing with them the new wave of dance, rock and alternative sounds that had been there, but ignored for quite some time.

Later I was to end up at Phantom FM in Dublin, where for 11 years I was constantly fed a diet of new bands and live gigs. That really helped me to stay up to date, and I couldn’t help but smile when, on the station’s message board in the mid noughties, I saw listeners complaining about how the new music it was playing now was not the same as the new music it had been playing five years earlier.

“They are playing crap aimed at 16 year olds” these 21 year olds would complain, “not like when we were 16, the music was much better then”.

Having recently left Phantom to strike out on my own, I’m working harder than ever to keep up to date on new music, and try to feature a minimum of 50% new material on my shows each week on Radio Seagull. I don’t have the dislike of oldies that Chris has, but on the other hand I don’t have the dislike of modern music that so many of my contemporaries seem to have grown into.

And, though it is itself an “oldie” now in computing terms,  that’s as good a reason to be thankful for Windows 95 as any.

Steve


Slaving Over A Hot Computer

So that’s it – Christmas over, and nose back to the grindstone.

I have a lot to do in my various different worlds this month – a complex global IT project to manage, a ream of radio shows to put together and present, and a second draft of my second bookRunning Away From The Circus – to complete.

In times past, these would all be involve very different locations and equipment – transmitter rooms on salt-enrusted radioships, bright office buildings and meeting rooms, and quiet book-lined rooms.

These days though, all my efforts in all the different fields end up as gigabytes of data passing through routers and stored in giant data centres.

Ireland is actually becoming a location of chice for many of these vast temples of computing, as our temperate climate makes cooling less expensive.

Pictured above is a so called “hot corridor” between the backs of several hundred racked servers at a location in the west of Ireland.

Warmer than a drafty hold in a rusty radio ship, and cleaner too, but not quite so much fun!

Steve


iPhone 4s Review: An Irishman Talks To Siri

The iPhone 4s has arrived in Ireland from October 28th, bringing the upgraded specs and the new “Intelligent Assistant” Siri to the Republic’s smartphone soaked market.

The improved camera and processor will be welcomed by those trading up, but how does Siri cope with Irish placenames, and an Irish accent? Is it just a gimmick, or a useful interface for the phone?  I put it though its paces with some surprising results, including new weapons technology and a gift for diplomacy.

The iPhone 4 has been reviewed in a million places by people much better than I at judging the smartphone market, so this piece is really focussed on:

  • How it feels for me upgrading from a 3GS
  • Playing with Siri (for fun)
  • Working with Siri (will it do practical stuff for me?)
  • Siri and the local market (Irish accent/placenames)

GETTING STARTED.

If you’re used to the iPhone anyway (and especially if you have already used iOS5 on your older phone) the 4S will be very easy to adapt to – everything is pretty much in the same place, just with extra bells and whistles.

I was moving from a 3GS and found the experience absolutely painless – it takes a while to go through the activation process, but when it is finished, everything has been copied across from your old phone (if that’s what you choose to do) including all your photos, music, apps, favourites etc. The only thing you will need to do is a once-off re-entry of passwords for things such as your Apple ID, email, Google+ etc. (this is a positive – you wouldn’t want someone to be able to access these simply by hooking up to your computer and migrating your data).

In my hands the phone feels much the same, perhaps a little lighter, and certainly more square.  I’m not sure I like the new style of volume buttons, they seem easy to mishandle when simply holding the phone.

Reception seems to me to be identical to my 3GS in difficult places such as my front room, which is in a communications death-zone and only ever gets 1 bar (even right back to my Nokia N95 days).

I have seen today reports of 4S users experiencing battery-life issues, however I’m not in a position to say if this affects my 4S, as I’ve had it on and off the laptop several times during the day doing various tests and copying stuff. I think it is possible that the battery on standby is dropping a little faster than I might expect, but I’ll need another couple of days to confirm that. If some sort of an OS bug is responsible, it should be easily addressed by a patch in any case.

UPDATE: Don’t seem to have the battery issue myself – tested today, 6 hours on standby with 3G, Wifi, Siri and Location Services enabled, dropped 8% in the 6 hours.

The new camera, by the way, is excellent, and the jump in quality from my older 3GS is especially evident. I’ve not had time to try out the video yet.

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AND SO TO SIRI

Siri is the new voice-activated “intelligent assistant” on the iPhone, and the bar that it has to jump for me is not speech recognition itself (such systems have been around for decades, albeit clunky in some cases) but accuracy and more vitally, practical usefullness. By which I mean, yes, it’s fine to have fun playing with the system by having offball conversations, but does it actually do useful stuff that I would need on an everyday basis?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. (I say surprisingly because I’ve used voice recognition systems in the past, particularly on the Mac 12 or 13 years ago, and while they were fun, they took a lot of effort for very little useful return).

But Siri is on the way to greatness. Not brilliant, yet, because it has a few minor glitches, but there is without doubt a set of useful functions already, and this is just the beta version.

So what can it do?

Well let me start with one tiny, tiny thing, that just on its own makes it worthwhile for me.

It’s 7.30am, it’s a bitterly cold morning, and I am trudging up the hill to work, with my iPhone buried deep in an inner pocket to protect it from the rain. I have 12,000 tracks currently in my collection, and am buying new albums at the rate of three or four a week, plus receiving many as promos, and there are simply many tracks on my system that I do not know yet. Even if I know I am listening to the new Florence album, it’s my first time hearing it, and I want to know what the current track is called.

No more stopping and fishing out the phone in the rain to see what’s playing – a simple squeeze of my earphone button and Siri asks me what i want, and gives me the info, then goes back to playing the song. Simple as that. (whatever you ask Siri, and its spoken response to you is echoed on the screen too, as above).

Likewise, if I suddenly get a gra for some Nine Inch Nails while walking up that hill, a quick squeeze to summon Siry, a simple command “Play Nine Inch Nails” or, if I want an actual track “Play Metallica, Nothing Else Matters” and it is straight on.

This works with other content like podcasts too – I tried it with “Play Podcast Feedback” and it had the latest unlistened episode of the Radio 4 show playing instantly.

Likewise texting, or sending emails.

Simply say “Text” and it will ask you for the receipient, then the content, and then read it back to you, and ask if you want it sent, changed or cancelled. (You can also speed it up, for example, by specifying “Text Steve Conway” and it will then only need the content.  This works well for texts, but for emails it tends to only grab what you are saying until the first pause, and then make it the content of the email, which you can only change in its entirity, not add to.

For emails the way round this is to go into email editing mode, and a microphone symbol appears, you can press this and create your email in chunks.  An ability to add to existing content on an email when in fully automatic mode would be good.

The system can read incoming texts out to you, and ask if you want to reply, but this feature is not available for emails – yet.

Likewise, it is easy to set reminders or schedule meetings.

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SIRI IN IRELAND

So how accurate is the speech recognition? How does it cope in Ireland?

The answer is “pretty well” – it seems to have little trouble accepting my commands and emails, and it even copes with Dublin placenames well enough. The few times it flaked out on me were usually in situations where it understood my words, but not what I actually wanted (it will search for such things on the web if you want).

Below is a test I set the phone for an email with a mixture of Irish placenames and surnames.

First is what I dictated:

Hi Steve here’s the plan.

We meet in the city centre at 8pm and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun laoghaire on the 46A, after that we can try O’Shaugnesseys, take a walk along the pier, and then go back into town for dinner.

If you can’t make it please send me text, regards Steve

Below is what Siri typed – incorrect parts highlighted red.

Hi Steve here’s the plan

We meet in the city centre at 8 PM and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun Laoghaire under 40 succes after that recanted electroshock missiles take a walk along the pier and then go back to town for dinner

If you can make it please send me text regards Steve

—-

Recanted elctroshock missiles?  . .

Having said that, Irish surnames are probably a trial for any AI software!

So in review, a very useful tool, will certainly be used by me day to day, and will hopefully get better with upgrades.

Now we’ve done the work, let’s have a little fun:

1> Let’s talk about nature . .

2> – One of Siri’s rare failures, I was trying to educate it on how to find the best alternative music in Dublin, but it had Christmas on its mind . .

3> – Now lets ask it the big question.

OK, how about coming down on one or other side of a current politica; / social divide?

So there you have it. It can copy with the irish voice, knows our placenames, but can’t quite get the hang of our pub names yet . .

All in all, a great upgrade from the 3GS, and a genuinely useful voice interface.

Steve