String Theory: My Quarter Century As “Steve Conway”

I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)

View from Radio Caroline 1987 – an empty sea

As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.

This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.

Steve Conway in the Caroline newsroom in late 1987.

And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987  is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years). 

And what of the 4 years in the middle?  They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”

No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.

25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.

I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).

I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.

Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.

On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.

Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939?  All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.

When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there. 

Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.

When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.

I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.

When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.

There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.

The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.

The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!

After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.

Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).

It's not our fault we ran the ship aground in 1991. The string never warned us!

The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.

Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .

But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.

I just hope they are as liberating.

Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?

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.

.

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.

.

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