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Sunday, January 8, 2012


Ever use Siri on an iPhone 4S? I have, and I find her tremendously useful!

Female Assistant?

Even if she wasn't connected to a bunch of knowledge bases, the value of having Siri recognize what you say and turning it into text is simply immeasurable.

And why do I ascribe her a gender? Because her voice is a very polite female on my iPhone. She is my personal assistant when I don't have the time to type into the tiny iPhone keyboard. When I need to take notes, I can use my earbuds with a built-in mike. (Note: for the British, Siri is a man, baby. You see, in the UK and France, Siri is male, while in America, Australia and Germany, Siri is female.)

So Much Easier

How do I use Siri? My main use for Siri happens when texting or typing in a note or an email. There is a little microphone icon in the keyboard. Just tap that icon and suddenly you can speak into it and it converts what you say into inserted text. So Siri takes excellent dictation, and you don't have to wait all afternoon to get it transcribed.

This helps when texting. Now, you should never text while driving, but if you are in the car at a stop light and your time is limited, Siri can help. When composing a long email, I have used Siri to get most of it in. Even when she can't convert all the text, it saves 99% of the time of typing. Bad words in the text? Select the words, hit the mike icon, and say it again.

Helpful Tasks #1: Just Waking Up

I recently had my Oregon Scientific timepiece fail in an annoying way. It is usually utterly dependable, since it syncs to the atomic clock transmitted by WWV Fort Collins Colorado and because it automatically updates to the Daylight Savings Time. I have been using this for setting an alarm for years and years and I would wake up to it. But the other day I accidentally knocked it to the floor and somehow the alarm time got reset to 12:00 AM. And that's not a good time for the alarm to go off! And let me say that the interface for setting an alarm on that thing is opaque to me. I tried everything, seriously. Groan.

As it happens, I charge my iPhone next to my bed, so I just started using Siri to set an alarm. "Set an alarm for seven AM" works just fine. Problem solved! But I will have to change the alarm sound to something other than that blaring klaxon!

You see, the iPhone syncs to network time (which also comes from the same source) and it also has the logic for updating itself automatically to Daylight Savings Time working perfectly. Apple's wonderful UI expertise to the rescue!

Helpful Tasks #2: Factoring Numbers?

For the second task, you are going to laugh. I am a closet mathematician, a number theorist. When I drive to work in Cupertino, I take Summit Road where the addresses are all 5 digits and to my right as I drive are the odd numbers. I doubt any of you share this hobby: factoring 5-digit numbers in my head. I just can't let one of those numbers go by without wondering what its factors are.

For me it just passes the time. And it keeps my brain working on interesting things while doing the boring driving. One 5-digit number sometimes takes a couple of minutes to factor. Others take longer. Sometime I will do a blog post on how I do this in my head, which will bore you to tears, I'm sure, but you don't have to be a genius to factor 5-digit numbers in your head the way I do.

Usually, when the traffic stops in Los Gatos, I check my answer by using Siri. I ask her "What are the factors of twenty three thousand four hundred ninety one?" and I get the answer. This is because Siri is connected to, amongst other databases, the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine.

The reason I used the example 23,491 was because I actually factored it wrong in my head: I wasn't looking for the prime number 13 to divide it twice. But now my built-in algorithm works a little differently. Ahem.

How Does That Work?

The science and art of voice recognition has been steadily advancing over the years. The main hold-up to productizing the technology has been processing speech with no gaps between the words. Or is it the computational linguistics? Or detecting accents?

To combat all these complex variables, Siri apparently has a focused task. In plain language, she knows what you might be asking her for. There is another thing that matters: a phone has a close-up microphone and already has software and hardware designed to single out your voice and make it clearer. This is a huge benefit, and makes the task of speech-to-text much easier.

Another thing Siri has that makes interaction easier is name assignment: equivalencing. I can simply say "Tom Zimmer is my oldest brother" and now I can say things like "call my oldest brother" or "send my oldest brother a text". And it works! But don't expect her to be able to call your dead uncle.

And if you replace the user's name in the contacts list with a rude phrase, then some can be offended. So let's not do that!

Put an Accent On the E

I would be very interested to hear how Siri is performing in the non-English versions it supports: German and French. How does it respond to a Bavarian accent, for instance?

I know in English, accents can be troublesome. I also know that there is a British, an Australian, as well as an American version, so there is some allowance for accents. But Irish accents -- how do they perform? Not so good, so far.

However, I have seen a video where a fellow with a northern Indian accent uses Siri and it works just fine. It only stumbles when he tries to use an Indian word. But it got all the city names (and correctly understood that when he said Bombay that he really meant Mumbai).

If Siri doesn't understand your accent, you can type in questions to Siri using this technique. Just say a word, then click the word before Siri has a chance to answer. Voila! Text box and keyboard.

And what is my accent? Well, I live in California. So my accent is Californian. You see, I'm clever enough to not to claim that I have no accent. There are plenty of American accents. Perhaps some southerners have issues with Siri as well. How about Texans? I would love to know!

Helpful Tasks #3: Texting

Communication is important. In the car, wearing a Bluetooth headset is useful. And, so far, the cops won't pull you over for doing it, unlike when you use those highly noticeable white earbuds. But mind how you look. When you get a text, you can press and hold the headset button to get to Siri and ask her to read you the text message. Then you can text back in a similar manner.

This might not be as easy on a motorcycle. There is the road noise. And of course if you are using a helmet (I hope so!) then it's hard to hit that button on the headset. Are there solutions for this? Of course! Just use a Bluetooth helmet headset. With the mike and the earbud inside the helmet, the noise problems are managed better.

But, when I was just sitting in my car at lunch time, I have had chat conversations using Siri and they went spectacularly well.

When I first used an iPhone, I felt like I was holding the future in my hand. Each new iPhone gives me that feeling again, with GPS, retina displays and Siri: it's really more of the future brought to you first by Apple!

And check out that iPhone 4S camera too!


  1. In a primary school class, one of the famous mathematicians was able to rapidly answer the question, "what is the sum of all integers from 1 to 100?". He observed a pattern:

    100+1 = 101
    99+2 = 101
    98+3 = 101

    There are exactly 50 pairs of those, since they must meet halfway between 0 and 100 (50+51=101, and 100 - 51 = 50 - 1 = 50 sets, i.e. collection length = end - start + 1), thus 50 x 101 = 5050.

    I am interested to read your future blog on how you factor numbers in your head.

    1. Yes, K. F. Gauss was a clever one, wasn't he? Factoring numbers is all about finding patterns and being able to keep a hopper of figures handy in short-term memory. You may be the only person interested in how I can factor 5-digit numbers in my head! But I do it; it's good practice. Rust never sleeps!

    2. I am interested because I was always doing calculations in my head, but I didn't get exposed to the importance of prime numbers, and later in life realize the significance of number theory to cryptography, etc..

      For example, when I multiply two numbers, I break them in to parts and then add, but not necessarily the same parts we do in typical hand written multiplication, e.g. I might add 9 to 91 to get 100, multiply then subtract 9 times the other operand. This is trivial and I am sure you long ago did that too.

      I also work out complex thought processes about new theories and algorithms in my head, also for example when I am driving. Although here, I had to remain alert for chickens, pigs, tricycles, pedestrians, vehicles doing U-turns from the right lane, etc. at any moment without warning nor signaling.

      Somewhere between 6 and 10, I would play number games in my head until I would fall asleep.

      I have read your new blog on Prime Numbers. I learned a few tricks that I wasn't aware of. Thanks!

    3. Recently I was relaying that Gauss solution and explained it a different way, as adding numbers from both ends between 0 and 100, mirrored about 50:

      100+0 = 100
      99+1 = 100
      98+2 = 100
      97+3 = 100
      51+49 = 100

      So 50 x 100 + the 50 in the middle that has no mirror image.

    4. Of course, I have a blog post that begins to explain some of the tricks I use to factor 5-digit numbers in my head. Oh, I see now that you have read it. Yes, those tricks are just a smattering of the set I use.

      The tricks that you use are all familiar to me. I use them all the time to multiply big numbers in my head. I often resort to algebra when multiplying numbers if I think it will simplify the calculations.

      Some of the tricks I learned from Feynman. He was really good at guesstimation: a genius at it.

      It sounds like it might be a bit more dangerous to do a lot of mind-work in the car while driving in the Philippines!

    5. Oh and I forgot the most annoying, signaling right suddenly moving to the right lane, then suddenly doing the U-turn 30 meters in front of my fast moving vehicle. ;)

      I think there is a book about the tradeoff:

    6. There are laws against that here, fortunately.

      And driver's education courses that people can't pass unless they learn proper road etiquette. That being said, there are also people coming here from foreign countries where no such laws or education exist.

      It's important not to outdrive your brakes. Whenever I did that, it was generally disastrous.