“Alexa, Why Can’t you be Really Useful?”

When will these digital assistants such as Alexa really find some use in the home? It’s impressive but not terribly useful if you ask her for the latest weather conditions outside when you could quite easily get up out of your chair and have a look through the window. I know this tech is still developing but at the moment it feels like more of a ‘wow, I can speak to it, that’s cool!’ novelty than having any real value.

And of course, whatever Alexa or Siri or Google decide to tell you is based on a set of pre-programmed principals set by those organisations. Who can say what those rules actually are, or that they are completely impartial, honest, balanced  responses.

What would be more useful than re-ordering toilet roll is if the chat agent were able to conduct a meaningful conversation with its owner. Perhaps a never-tiring, willing conversationist could help the elderly, lonely person feel less isolated:

“Mr Dremmell, are you awake? Tell me about that time in the war when you single-handedly defended your position for eight days without any backup?”

“Well I’m glad you asked me about that, Alexa. It was the summer of ’44 and I had been assigned to potato peeling duty at the advance base camp. Little was I to know that…”

Of course, the device would need to keep making “oh yes” or “of course” type noises during the recounting  for a genuine interaction but with the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence, this could develop over time.

For the immobile there must be an opportunity for home care and independence:

“Alexa, I’ve just had an accident and soiled myself”

“Don’t worry, Mrs Tabour, I’ve requested a visit from your care organisation and they have advised me that your carer will call sometime between [pause while the system accesses the cleanup team’s schedule] 8am and 4pm [pause again to update] next week on Tuesday. Will this be ok for you? In the  meantime, would you like me to order you more disposable underwear or air freshener? There’s a special offer on that sea breeze flavour you like at the moment.”

 

Urban Warrior

IMG_7366

It’s tough out there on the streets. Two hours each way to make it to my city desk, five days a week. Life doesn’t forgive those who aren’t prepared. Trust me, I’ve seen enough good guys fall by the wayside on the 8:14 from Bromley each morning to know that you have to be mentally and physically battle-hardened to survive.

My kit bag says it all. Multiple zip-up pockets contain everything I need to get me there and back intact. My smartphone never leaves my hand but I keep my energy bank close by because you never know when you’ll need to give it a top-up, especially on a heavy-usage day such as when they livestream the latest Zuckerberg keynote. My Kindle lives in my pack on hot standby, ready to grab at a moment’s notice. Umbrella neatly rolled and stashed to protect me from the British weather as I cross London Bridge. Dual beverage containers, one for coffee, the other for water. Both always fully loaded because I never know if the trek from office to station will turn into a struggle for survival. It’s important to remain hydrated, even if there’s a Pret every 15 metres or so along the route. I can’t be sure that they will all have my favourite juicy vitamin water drink, especially the one with the sports cap. Additional pocket to store leaflets, magazines or free products being handed out in the street. Who cares if you need them or not, it’s free stuff. Finally and most importantly, I keep my sandwiches in the thermally-insulated section. My mum makes them for me every day. She always uses that nice cheese with the cartoon cow that I really like. And she cuts the crusts off.

Good to be Back in the City!

It’s great to be working back in the City of London again – the buzz and the environment is something which you don’t find in many other places. It’s curious that – although I haven’t worked there for a good number of years now – there are still the same patterns and behaviours around the city that I remember from the first time I spent two weeks on secondment at the Crusader Insurance City Office (always referred to as ‘CLO’) over thirty years ago now. Here are my favourites:

  • The walk from London Bridge station to the office twice a day still feels like a high-intensity exercise regime. It’s an unofficial competition to see who can walk the fastest without breaking into a jog or run. Maybe there’s a Parkrun-style web site somewhere for people to enter their times. Choosing the best path through the throng requires agility and the ability to spot meanderers looking at their phones, tourists and those on scooters or hover boards

IMG_6673

  • Commuters love freebie giveaways – unless it’s one of the numerous free newspapers or magazines which the vendors try to thrust into passers-by hands each morning. However, offer a free sample of miracle yogurt or sun cream (for example) and there will be a swarm engulfing the representative which won’t disperse until the product has run out. It’s not important  if the commuter actually wanted what was on offer or not – what matters is that it’s something for nothing
    IMG_6688
  • Continuing the something for nothing theme – commuters love to form a huge queue at the Little Waitrose for a free coffee in the morning. It’s similar to a battery chicken eagerly awaiting its squirt of water and a protein pellet in the morning
  • The sharing of space between commuters, cyclists, buses, runners, construction traffic and general traffic has always been a grudging co-existence. It’s still easy to spot new commuters or tourists as they diligently wait on the kerb for the green man before crossing. Everyone else will take a chance on the red man. I’ve only seen one near miss so far when a guy who was obviously wearing new shoes with shiny soles tried to dart across on the red man and unfortunately slipped over in the middle of the road. He was clearly an expert at recovery because he was back on his feet and scuttling to safety before I could even reach for my phone to open up the camera
  • Commuters seem to develop tunnel vision on the march to or from the office. Keep looking straight ahead and ignore any distractions (apart from freebies, obviously) such as the guy with the unhealthiest-looking pallor I’ve seen since Madam Tussauds who preaches using his own PA system, or any photo shoot occurring on London Bridge. The best I saw was a female model apparently dressed only in cut flowers standing still in the middle of a stream of humanity choosing to ignore her apart from grudgingly  parting to go around her. The only other exception to this rule is when there’s been some kind of road traffic accident, when heads will swivel to get a glimpse for as long as it’s in view

Of course, once you arrive at the office a whole load of different protocols take over, but that’s a story for another time.

In or Out – the question of 2016

So day one of Referendum 2016 and is it me or have the BBC already hit the hysteria button with their coverage? They’re already wheeling out cliche images of a reporter standing on top of the white cliffs of Dover. Here’s my guide to other lazy news images to cross off your scorecard on the way to 23rd June:

1. Portly man dressed as John Bull (double points if he is accompanied by a bulldog)
2. Report on potential expulsion of EU immigrants demonstrated by a graphic similar to the opening credits of Dad’s Army (e.g. – big Union Jack arrow repelling sinister arrows from Europe)
3. Any slow-motion clip of the Union and EU flags fluttering together harmoniously
4. A town crier ringing his bell and directing a confused OAP to the polling station (references to wartime spirit score double)
5. A vox pop segment or panel discussion involving members of the public which offers no insight into the reasons why people are voting yes or no (I’ve already been able to cross this one off and I’m sure it’ll be crossed off again)
6. The cast of Eastenders/Emmerdale/Corrie interviewed for their opinions on the impact on popular drama in the face of a ‘no’ vote (who cares?)
7. Peter Snow/Jeremy Vine bouncing around on space hoppers on a virtual map of Europe
8. A hamster, octopus or venus flytrap (for example) which it’s claimed can predict the result of the vote
9. Any footage of Boris Johnson falling off his bicycle/slipping on a banana skin/getting stuck in a glass lift in Brussels
10. The impact on Britain’s economy depicted by the use of large pound and euro symbols which shrink or grow according to the point being demonstrated by a journalist walking around earnestly in front of them

The Woes of LinkedIn

So many profile pictures on Linkedin have the strong smell of BS about them. Recurring themes include “photo of me receiving meaningless company award for Clipart of the Month in a Powerpoint” and “I lead an interesting life because I’m pictured base jumping from the KL Tower, although in reality my job on the Service Desk at a large international consultancy involves me sitting in a windowless room in Vauxhall, working antisocial hours, talking to offshore developers “.

I’d rather settle for a selfie with Workie.

The Great British…

Following the success of the Great British Bake-Off we’ve seen a number of TV programmes trying to emulate the title – if not the format. The Great British Garden Revival, Great British Railway Journeys, The Great British Holiday, Great British Winter and the Great British Sewing Bee are all titles returned from a quick search on the iPlayer. There is obviously a thought or hope among programme makers that prefixing an activity or noun with the words “Great British” will result in an overnight success for the programme concerned followed by worldwide rights being snapped up and lots of Great British Pounds being made in profit.

So here’s my list of suggestions for TV shows containing the “Great British” theme. Any TV makers who want to use them, all I ask for is a credit in the programme’s closing credits.

  • The Great British Queue – Reality game show where people are forced to queue up in a post office for up to 3 hours (the average length of time spent in such an establishment in real life) and when they reach the front of the queue have to recall as many as they can of the advertisements displayed on the queue-o-vision TV screen incessantly barking patronising messages focussed on the typical clientele. Examples of the adverts would include  the local denture repair store “just smile your way to our store, located two doors down from this post office”, Michael Parkinson life assurance for nearly-deads and the June Whitfield endorsed toilet seat (heated to give pile relief and raises the user to a standing position upon flushing).
  • The Great British Commute – Driving show in which competitors – mindful that they still hold one of the few remaining jobs available in this country – have to drive to work and arrive before their boss declares them redundant for poor timekeeping. On the way they have to overcome various risks and challenges such as confused pensioner driving the wrong way down the dual carriageway, wild animals loose on the road and using the hard shoulder to overcome a traffic jam without being detected by the police. If they do get detected, extra points are given for the least convincing excuse for breaking the law that they can get away with. Similar to any weekday morning on the M25 really.
  • The Great British Rip-Off – Native Britons are given a fixed income and told to live off it for a month without resorting to crime, while increasing tax and inflation erode the value of their dwindling cash. Winner is the last person to emigrate from the country. Hang on… aren’t we all playing that one already?

Information Overload for Travellers

Waiting at Gatwick Airport railway station on a dark Winter Friday night for a delayed train is never a good experience.

This week when I was on my way home from Reading, I was strolling along the platform when I noticed a sign about the installation of new blue lighting on the platform which – it’s claimed – “gives a calming effect to passengers, as proven by a number of european studies”. Fair enough, I thought – I’d been wondering about the blue led panels which had appeared. Maybe they were there as some form of free skin treatment for those with eczema. I don’ t think, however, that a random scattering of them along platforms will have any consistent effect, especially when the train service was so delayed last night that anything short of a luxury spa pampering day is unlikely to have a soothing effect.

Having to wait on the platform for a delayed train (20 minutes last night) did focus my mind on the amount of repetition  of announcements that occur at a station. I suppose that it’s an improvement over the old days of British Rail where you were lucky to find a grumpy member of the station staff to ask about the next train to Victoria, or peer hopefully at the wooden board stuck to the platform canopy with a list of stations for the next train. These days it’s total audio and visual over-stimulation. Every few minutes the Southern CCTV control centre are imploring passengers to keep back behind the yellow line for safety. Is there a team of monitor-watching CCTV staff waiting for someone to step over the line at the wrong moment? It would be much more fun if the announcements were personalised: “Hey, you – yes you – the fat guy in the ill-fitting suit on platform 3. Your train is running 27 minutes late so keep back against the waiting room wall and do not move until it arrives. I’ll be watching!”

As I waited on platform 7, I became aware of a highly-repetitive cheerful, slightly robotic voice delivering pre-recorded platitudes at high volume. When I looked round I noticed a video-projector device shining an image of a virtual assistant who was constantly advising travellers to use the lift if they had a heavy case. If you remember in amusement arcades the Morgana speak-your-future machine where a projection of a human face was played onto a blank 3D head when you inserted 10p – this machine is the modern iteration of it. The appearance of the assistant was spoilt by the fact that the actress playing her obviously had to keep her head still during recording so that it stayed within the confines of her physical presence on the machine. This meant that emphasis could only be given by use of facial features and intonation instead of moving her head. It looked like she was auditioning for a Channel 5 soap given her range of facial movement. Every few minutes the  machine would leap into life and deliver a stunning common-sense revelation, usually concerned with safe use of the escalator. It would be much more entertaining if they added  in other travel tips: “Wearing shorts and flip-flops just because you recently landed from Lanzarote? It’s still Winter here at Gatwick. Station staff are fully trained to deal with hypothermia if your train is delayed <sickly grin>”. Or how about: “Please don’t try and talk to the station staff – they will avoid eye contact with you and can only guess the answer to your question about the next train to Reading”.

I’m so glad I always travel with my iPod.

 

Blue soothing light. "Look into the light, not around it. You train is not late. You will buy three overpriced items from the platform vending machine to eat on your train when it arrives"
Blue soothing light. “Look into the light, not around it. Your train is not late. You will buy three overpriced items from the platform vending machine to eat on your train when it arrives. You will forget to make a delay-repay claim when you get home.”
IMG_4528
Morgana platitude-bot v2. With bemused Network Rail staff.