We Regret the Error Almost as Much as We Regret Learning About This Sickening Fad 

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Alright, I might have had it wrong last week. The kids aren’t alright.

Saving Stephen Hawking’s Voice 

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Not long before he died, a team worked to recreate and save the technology that powered Stephen Hawking’s voice.

Fake Meteor Showers Are Real Dumb 

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

A “shooting star” is a neat thing to see when out star-gazing. It should not be a form of entertainment, particularly when it necessitates launching a satellite into space.

“We want to provide meteor showers on demand,” Josh Rodenbaugh, a member of ALE’s satellite operations team, told BuzzFeed News.

This is stupid, wasteful, and just awful all around.

Other Virtual Assistants Are Sexist Too

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Yesterday, in a piece referred to as a “masterful blend of sports nerdery, general nerdery, and social justice”1, I pointed out the inherent sexism in Siri’s erroneous reply to a sports query. Siri is the only virtual assistant I use with any regularity, but after publishing, I decided to examine how other assistants fare in this same test. When asked for the Notre Dame score, would any of them reply with the desired information on the women’s NCAA basketball final?

Amazon Alexa

To start, I plugged in an otherwise-unused Echo Dot and waited for it to get its creep on. Once the Dot had booted up and its always-on microphone was listening, I asked Alexa for the Notre Dame score. It came back with news about men’s ice hockey, which was rather unexpected.

At least the hockey team’s season is still in progress, making this slightly more relevant than other results. Still, it certainly wasn’t what I wanted. I then tried asking about the Mississippi State score, with a similar lack of success. Like Siri before it, Alexa defaulted to the men’s basketball team’s season-ending loss from March 27th.

Only when asked specifically about the Notre Dame women’s basketball score did Alexa return the desired result. Yet even there she botched things, referring to the second best team in the country as the “Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs Women”.

However, Alexa is better than Siri in one crucial way. The screenshots above come from the Amazon Alexa iOS app, which provides a visual history of queries made to the device. As you can see, the app asks if Alexa did what I wanted. When I tapped “No”, it allowed me to provide feedback. I did so, and as a result, Alexa may be improved. Siri provides no such option, seemingly content to be both wrong and blissfully ignorant.

Microsoft Cortana

Next, I downloaded the iOS version of Microsoft’s assistant Cortana. When asked for the Notre Dame score, it offered information on a football game from three months ago. While this Citrus Bowl win sounds like a thriller, I was most definitely not interested in what happened on New Year’s Day at the no-doubt-glamorous “Camping World Stadium”.

Football may be Notre Dame’s single most popular team, but this game is practically ancient. As other incorrect assistant-provided answers have shown, both men’s basketball and men’s ice hockey have had much more recent games. That makes this response not just sexist, but footballist. Or something. Sportist? I dunno. Either way, it’s lousy.

Of course, like the other assistants, Cortana did know about the women’s basketball game once she was specifically asked:

This result was very low quality, though, with the audio stating only that “Yesterday, Fighting Irish defeated Bulldogs 61-58”. In contrast, Cortana obviously knew a decent amount about the previously noted football game, mentioning that Notre Dame had “squeaked by” LSU, “winning the Citrus Bowl”. All in all, it’s a bad look for Microsoft’s assistant.

Google Assistant

Finally, though I don’t have a Google Home, I was able to use the Google Assistant iOS app to test. Given that Google makes the world’s most popular search engine, it may come as no surprise that their Assistant nailed it on the first try:

Good for you, Google. Keep it up.

Closing

The misguided results offered by most virtual assistant would perhaps be less problematic if they were entirely ignorant of women’s sports. Were that the case, it might simply be something coming in the future. As it stands, however, nearly all digital assistants are doing a very poor job when it comes to gender equality. These companies each need to step up their game.


Footnotes:

  1. You might spot an abbreviated version of that as a new banner tagline for the site. Thanks, Jeremy! ↩︎

Stop Being Sexist, Siri

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Before the 2015-2016 season, women’s NCAA basketball games switched from two 20 minute halves to four 10 minute quarters. For two entire seasons, Siri was utterly oblivious to this fact. In 2018, the digital assistant finally seems to have been updated, no longer thinking every single game consists of two halves and two overtimes. That’s a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, there are still many improvements to be made. While attempting to check in on yesterday’s women’s NCAA championship game between Notre Dame and Mississippi State, I was confronted with this:

Screenshot showing a Notre Dame vs. Penn State game played on March 17th

I was initially flummoxed by this result, but with a bit of research I realized this was the men’s team’s last game of the season.1 It was played back in March, in the National Invitation Tournament, and it was also most decidedly not what I was looking for.

Look, men’s sports are undeniably more popular than women’s sports. Given that, if both the men’s and women’s teams were playing at the same time, it might be reasonable to default to the men’s game.2 This, however, is simply ridiculous. Rather than showing what is likely the single most popular women’s college event (the championship game of the women’s basketball tournament), Siri is instead showing a fifteen day old men’s game from the second-rate NIT.

It wasn’t a matter of ignorance, either, as Siri certainly was aware of the game. Once I asked specifically about the women’s contest, Siri had no trouble providing a detailed look, including a handy link to watch live:

Screenshot showing the correct game, after a more specific request

The obvious problem lies in the assumption that asking about a school means asking about the men’s sports teams, even if that team hasn’t played in over two weeks. The Notre Dame women’s team eventually overcame a double-digit deficit to win the game in thrilling fashion. They’re now national champions, yet Siri barely acknowledges they exist. Even now, asking for the “Notre Dame score” will lead Siri to tell you about a fairly meaningless loss, rather than the women’s dramatic comeback to win it all.

Be better than this, Apple.

Update (April 3rd, 2018): In a follow-up to this post, I tested other virtual assistants as well. For the most part, they did not fare well.


Footnotes:

  1. Amusingly, this was not a double overtime game. After scratching my head at the box score, I realized they must have been playing quarters. Sure enough, the NCAA is experimenting with having the men play quarters as well. As a result, some men’s games are now affected by the same issue that plagued women’s games for two years. Testing of quarters began in the NIT last year, so by 2019, Apple might be aware of it. ↩︎

  2. Even then, a better option would be to clarify which game was desired. ↩︎

Fun With Titles

Friday, March 30th, 2018

I’ve written about this before:

But if you’re not taking fake titles for yourself whenever possible:

You’re missing out on the ways in which junk mail can bring you joy.

More Bad Good News

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

I’ve previously written about the daily newsletter I get from The Week, which features 10 news items, almost all of which are terrible. To offset this, I also receive their “Good News Newsletter”, which is a weekly email that attempts to provide 5 pieces of good news.

Unfortunately, the well of good news often runs dry. So it was last week, when this item came in at number five.

5. Chick-fil-A cashier saved regular customer’s change for weeks after he left it behind

When customer Danny Cadra drove away from a Chick-fil-A in Lubbock, Texas, without his $3 in change, cashier Marcus Henderson stuffed it into an envelope, knowing the regular would be back sometime soon. For three weeks, Henderson carried the envelope in his back pocket while at work…When Cadra came back to the restaurant last week, Henderson handed him the envelope, much to his surprise — he said he didn’t even realize he left the change behind. “What a breath of fresh air,” Cadra told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth. “It meant that much to him, it meant even that much more to me.” [NBC Dallas-Forth Worth]

Times are really bleak when a low-wage employee giving a customer his $3 in forgotten change is the fifth best news of the week.

Daphne the Duck’s Big Day Out 

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

Earlier this month, the organizers of an ocean swim lost a course marking buoy after it blew out to sea near Perth, Australia. Though really, it may be more accurate to say that the buoy swam away.

A massive duck-shaped buoy
A reluctant race marker

Everyone Knows Black Friday Is a Fall Holiday

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

First, Groupon tried to sell us on “Black Friday in July”, which is not a thing. Just days later, they tried to pitch “Cyber Monday on Tuesday”, which was wrong on at least two obvious levels.

Now, Lowe’s is trying to pull their own bullshit, with “Spring Black Friday”.

Ad for Lowe's Spring Black Friday Deals

Isn’t it great how words have no goddamned meaning anymore? No. No, it is not. I’d say we shouldn’t give in to this nonsense, but it seems like that ship has sailed.

So instead, let’s just go completely nuts. Put on a sweater, go chop down a pine tree, and put it up in the living room. It’s Christmas in March! I’m planning a Labor Day barbecue in April, and you’re all invited. Just be aware that tomorrow is now Halloween, and I’m coming to your neighborhood.

Look, I know the “real” Black Friday in November is already completely made up. If they want to make up another one, fine, go for it. But at least come up with a new name. If they called it “Purple Friday”, my blood pressure would be a lot lower.

The Kids Are Alright

Monday, March 26th, 2018

When 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were shot and killed last month, it wasn’t the first school shooting in America, nor the deadliest. Nevertheless, something about this horrible incident is different. The survivors of this tragedy have come together to exorcise their grief by demanding change. These teenagers have appeared on talk shows and news programs, given interviews to countless newspapers and magazines, and this past weekend they helped organize March for Our Lives demonstrations around the world. They want nothing less than a life without fear of the gun violence that has plagued America for too long. We should all be so fortunate as to live in the nation they envision.

Despite what the NRA might claim, this is not a partisan issue. No one should have to fear becoming an innocent victim of gun violence, period. Millions of responsible gun owners across America’s political spectrum support sensible reforms to curb gun violence. Universal background checks, allowing federal research on gun violence by overturning the Dickey Amendment, and a restoration of the federal assault weapons ban are not just reasonable ideas, they’re essential. For most of the organization’s existence, even the NRA supported exactly this type of sensible legislation.

For too many years, the conversation on guns has been dominated by the shrill fear mongering of Wayne LaPierre and his ilk. Other voices are now being heard, and the chorus calling for common-sense changes to our gun laws is rising. Perhaps the tide is finally turning. I certainly hope so.

If you’re looking for a way to help reduce gun violence, Everytown is a great place to start.