Maria left the chat

One of my pet peeves is online tech support chat in which someone or something on the other side cuts and pastes obviously canned responses that are only tangentially related to the actual questions being asked by me, the customer.

Today’s fun experience involves Maria, a human-impersonating-pseudo-lifeform on the other side of a tech support chat. After about 5 minutes of weird responses that looked like someone randomly selecting canned tech support responses, I decided to cut to the chase and get off the topic of their product and on to something a little more, um, human.


maria, you’re not an actual person are you?

I am an actual person
Please feel free to ask your questions

do you know what a turing test is?

what is it ?

it’s an artificial intelligence test designed to perceive whether someone on the other side of a chat is a human or a computer.
based on all of your answers, you would fail the turing test
all incredibly canned and impersonal
it’s very off-putting and feels super weird on my side of the chat
just some feedback in case it makes any difference

Hello and thanks for your interest in our services!

exactly what I’m talking about…

I personally appreciate your attention

what does that even mean?

ok what is that you want to tell me feel free now

I personally don’t appreciate your impersonal canned responses. it’s just bad customer service. if there’s an actual person on the other side of this chat it should feel like it to the customer. Do you understand that?
now you say something like: “Yes dear customer we value your input — all circuits busy, please hold”
just trolling for actual signs of intelligent life here
nothing. okay.

Maria left the chat

A police officer on a public road has a right to privacy?!

In March 2010 motorcyclist Anthony Graber ripped down I-95 in Maryland on his crotch-rocket, hitting speeds of up to 127 mph, and popping a wheelie at almost 100 mph while passing a bus. Not a poster child for highway safety. Admittedly a boneheaded display of highway recklessness by any standard. I do mean “admittedly.” Admitted how? A camera mounted on Graber’s motorcycle helmet captured the whole thing. How do I know? Because he posted the video on YouTube.

In addition to his driving prowess, the camera also captured his subsequent encounter with a Maryland State police officer. But this is where the story gets interesting. Graber’s helmet cam shows him looking backward on the off-ramp, revealing one or two cars behind him (hard to make out in the video). One of the cars behind him may be a marked police cruiser. No sound in the video at this point, so it’s hard to tell if there is a siren or not. He looks forward again and pulls his bike to the side of the road. At this point a grey sedan comes up from the right side and cuts him off, nearly hitting him. A man jumps out of the unmarked car, looking quite normal except for the aggressive posture and agitated look on his face. Oh yeah, and the handgun he brandishes as he moves rapidly toward Graber. In response, Graber starts backing up his bike. (Graber stated later that he assumed he was about to be shot.) Over the next five seconds, the armed man approaches Graber, grabs the handlebars and yells, “Get off the motorcycle” three times. Finally he says, “State Police.”

Graber got written up for speeding, as he should have been. Then he posted the encounter on YouTube, inducing the State of Maryland to invade his home, seize four computers, and charge Graber with violating state wiretapping laws as well as a law against “recording illegal activity.” George Orwell and I cry out in unison, “Are you state officials as nuts as you appear onscreen?!”

The case went to trial in September 2010 in Harford County Circuit Court where governmental common sense made its first appearance. Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. dropped all charges except for the traffic violations. He stated, “Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.” Thank you, Judge Plitt!

The question at the heart of this case concerns the reasonable expectation of privacy that should be afforded a police officer in the execution of his or her responsibilities in a public setting. My take? Let’s start with none and work up from there.

Twitter and the death of blogging

It’s been almost exactly two years since my last post to this blog. When one considers that I am a compulsive writer who must write in order to breathe, this anomalous temporal blogging gap stands in stark contrast. What can possibly account for this 24-month blogging hiatus? My operational theory: Twitter.

Twitter is micro-blogging. Say what you want to say in 140 characters or less. Get in, get out. I think Twitter has stolen my writing thunder. This is not all bad. I post primarily from my phone when I have small chunks of down time. I share personal experiences, voice my pitiful opinions on a variety of topics, read the random ramblings of my friends and colleagues. In short, Twitter gives me social media happiness and a readily available spontaneous writing outlet.

Since I started using Twitter in 2008 I have posted nearly 2,400 tweets. At a maximum post size of 140 characters, that comes out to more than 300,000 characters, or somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words. That’s a lot of blogging, no matter how thick or thin you slice it.

Ironically, it appears that after two years of regular micro-blogging, when I do get back to my regular blog, I write about Twitter. Well, in any case I’ve broken the blogging silence. Glad to finally post something after such a long break. I’m so excited. Gotta hurry and tweet about this.

Rudy: An iTunes love story

The following story is true. The names have not been changed. The guilty are still guilty. And named. The heroes are also named. As they should be.

This story begins in D.C. on a road trip with my wife about one week before arriving in South Bend Indiana for a conference I was attending on the beautiful campus of the University of Notre Dame. The plan was for us to spend one of our evenings in our hotel room eating popcorn and watching the classic Notre Dame football movie, Rudy. Since we were staying at the Morris Inn, just 200 yards west of the historic Notre Dame football stadium, and since my wife had never seen the movie, this seemed a fitting part of our stay beneath the golden dome.

On our flight from New York to Chicago, my wife asked me if we in fact owned the movie Rudy, and if so, whether I had thought to bring it. My response was that, No, we did not own the movie, and that I had, in fact, thought to bring it, but as I said previously, we don’t own it. However, no problemo, says I, because it should be blindingly obvious to the casual observer that all one should have to do to obtain a copy of Rudy is to step foot in the Notre Dame Bookstore. This was my plan.

On the second day of our stay at Notre Dame, I found a gap in the schedule and beelined to the Notre Dame Bookstore where I found multiple copies of Rudy on Blu-ray, but nothing on DVD. Another search by my wife turned up nothing. A third, more thorough search by me turned up a single straggling copy of Rudy on DVD, buried beneath some other Fighting Irish propaganda. For $26! You’ve got to be kidding me. Ha, bookstore prices. Of course. Not a problem. There’s a Walmart in this town, right?

That night we ate at a nice restaurant conveniently located near a Walmart in South Bend, and after dinner we made our way to the DVD section of the world’s most popular store. No luck. Ask the clerk. Ah, they only carry Rudy during the football season. Are you serious? This is South Bend, Indiana, for crying out loud! You’re telling me there isn’t a perpetual demand for Rudy at an arbitrary Walmart in South Bend Indiana on any arbitrary day in the off-season?! Alas, this was, inexplicably, the case.

Not to fear. I noticed a video rental joint not more than a few blocks from here. Surely they will have what we need. A quick stop, one question to the clerk, and the much sought after DVD was in my hands for the sum of 54 cents. We were in business.

Back to the hotel, pop some popcorn (in the break room of the kitchen staff downstairs at the end of the hall — don’t ask), and settle in to watch the DVD on my MacBook. Approximately 10 minutes into the movie, as Rudy races with great emotion through his fellow high school seniors to hit the pad carried by his coach, the movie freezes. We stare at the grimacing Rudy, wondering if he’s going to knock the stuffing out of his coach after he unfreezes. The DVD player on my Mac gives up the ghost and dies. We restart everything, but we’ve lost about 10 minutes of the movie and the bulk of the plot setup. Unacceptable. We instead decide to watch Invictus (inspirational rugby movie, almost the same thing), and commit to plunking down the cash at the Bookstore the following evening.

One day later I scan the DVD shelf in the Notre Dame Bookstore, but find that the random copy of Rudy that I had rustled up a day before has apparently been snagged at what now seems like a bargain basement price of $26. We roll back to the hotel, somewhat dejected, unwilling to romp around town further trying to find a local establishment with enough Fighting Irish school spirit to stock a functional copy of the best Notre Dame football movie of all time.

This is when the voice of Steve Jobs comes into my mind, and I realize that there may yet be a way. I jump on iTunes, and quickly locate the heretofore elusive movie. For just $9.99 (which now feels like an absolute bargain) I secure a downloadable QuickTime movie, consuming only 1.29 GB of hard disk space in the process. No physical disc to secure in some random building in a random town. No plastic to scratch and corrupt. Just a file. Just bytes flowing through the tubes to my laptop and the movie playing for me in my hotel room.

In about the time it took my wife to secure popped popcorn (downstairs, down the hall, etc.), we were watching the elusive movie on my Mac. The beautiful thing is that it may as well have been on my iPad, sitting with the squirrels under the trees near Touchdown Jesus. But it happened to be in the hotel room, on my Mac.

As always, the brilliance of Apple is not, strictly speaking, the engineering (although that’s clearly necessary). It’s figuring out what I want to do, plus when, where and how I want to do it, and then just making it ridiculously easy for me to do that. Most companies ignore that little part because it doesn’t feel like academic or engineering rigor. It’s not “the hard stuff.” But at the end of the day, it’s really just about the only thing that actually matters.

Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!

All your blog spam are belong to us… (part deux)

Another round of “crazy comments from offshore spammers”:

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And now a new feature, “well-written but over the top spam from half-decent writers”:

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All your blog spam are belong to us…

I recently inventoried the blog spam that my filter is catching. I’m amused by some of the offshore messages left in the blog comments. Thought I’d share a few of these (sans URL and full sales pitch, of course) for our collective entertainment.

hello it is test

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And my personal favorite…

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Much offshore spam.

Make this blog a Rocking place for youngster.

Well why all exactly so?

Text messaging is not the devil

About a week ago the Deseret News ran an article entitled, “Parents urged to text teens.” The article quoted me extensively (and accurately) and was pretty balanced. I can’t say the same for some of the comments. It’s interesting enough to read posts on random discussion boards across the Web, but it’s another thing when the anonymous writer calls you out personally. Let me share an example:

Texting is impersonal and rude and drives families apart whether this guy knows it or not. Talk to you [sic] teens and forget the texting, its [sic] meaningless and useless means of communication with your family. Ditch the phones and use your voice and vocal chords to communicate, it does more for your teens and makes it a personal conversation. Texting is not communicating, its avoiding your family and a real conversation with them.

Class is now in session…

Texting is a technology, like cell phones, computers, automobiles, electricity, the wheel, fire, whatever. Pick anything. Technology is not evil. Technology is not the devil. We humans are tool builders and creators, and modern technology is a tool. All tools have both positive and negative usages.

After fire, we had cooked meat plus warmth in the winter, and then soon after we had smoke inhalation, burn wounds, and arson. I’m sure that didn’t stop the enthusiastic “Anti-Fire Coalition” from picketing the campfires.

After the wheel was invented, we had improved transportation, followed soon after by the first wheel accident (followed shortly by the arrival of the first insurance agent). The “Society for the Prevention of the Wheel” gained support for a time, but the technology ultimately, um, rolled over their efforts.

There’s no question that texting is less personal than face-to-face communication, but sometimes that’s the best you’ve got. I never advocated that parents stop communicating and hanging out in the same physical space with their children. My point is that when kids are otherwise unavailable, or are remote from your personal space, there may be significant benefits to texting them when the alternative is no communication whatsoever. Turns out even when it’s not the only option, most teens experience a text message from their parents as a positive interaction. A comparable majority feel that their relationships with their parents are better because of text messaging.

The worked-up commenter fails to grasp (or at least to express) that there is a broad spectrum of activities that can be classed as communication. Some communication methods are intimate, like whispering sweet nothings in someone’s ears, holding hands and kissing. Not the right approach at all times, in all places, or with all people. Some methods are face-to-face but casual and friendly, like conversation over breakfast or casual exchanges between friends. Some communication methods are not face-to-face at all, like a phone call from another state. And some communication methods (brace yourself…) are not verbal at all, but textual, like newspapers, billboards, or written letters. Some even involve computers, like email and (gasp!) text messaging. Now let’s be very clear. Like all tools ever invented, every communication method may be used *or* abused. You can kiss or you can hit. You can verbally express love or hate. You can whisper or you can scream. You can send an encouraging email or start a flame war. Same goes for text messaging…

Newsflash: Text messaging does not drive families apart. However, improper use of text messaging, including obsessive and constant texting by teens to friends (real or imagined) outside the family is almost always emotionally damaging. It weakens the strong family ties that are essential to the healthy development of teenagers. Bone-headed adolescent forays into inappropriate activities such as sexting is morally reprehensible as well as spiritually destructive.

Lecture over. Oh wait, one last comment from the back…

Talk about a dysfunctional family, this guy is promoting his and seems to be proud of it. His family probably carries pictures around in their wallets to remember who they are when they bump in to each other in public.

Yes. Texting can be impersonal and rude.

Same can be said for comments left on online message boards.

An “Internet Safety Podcast” First: Interviewee, not Interviewer

This past week I was a guest on the KBYU-FM Classical 89 program “Thinking Aloud.” I’ve done a few interviews for the Internet Safety Podcast, but this was the first time I was on the receiving end of the thought-provoking questions. The program host is Marcus Smith, and he does a very good job in the interviewer’s chair.

The 30-minute interview aired Wednesday, April 8, 2009, and was made available as a podcast on the KBYU-FM website on April 9, 2009. The program was entitled, “Way Too Wired and Overly Connected.” You can click the program link and listen from the KBYU-FM website or you can go to the Internet Safety Podcast site and listen there.

Here’s the description from the KBYU-FM site:

We have gained many comforts and abilities through technology, but at what price? We’re not looking to rain on the technology parade, but merely to reflect on just how radically our lives have indeed been altered by it. Join us to explore some subtle risks of technology, problems that most people don’t seem to notice or care much about.

CBC Radio — Ideas: How to Think About Science

Commuter recommendation: Turn off the classic rock. Now! You can only listen to “La Grange” by ZZ Top so many times before you realize that you’re wasting your drive time every single morning and every afternoon. If you’re commuting 20 minutes like me, it’s a modest waste. If you’re living somewhere more metropolitan, the cost is far worse.

What, pray tell, do you do with the time if not drum on the steering wheel or air guitar on the emergency brake? You equip yourself with some MP3 capable sound transmission device (iPod, iPhone, Zune, doesn’t matter) and start looking for meaningful podcasts to energize your mind and soul during an otherwise monotonous daily commute.

First recommendation: CBC Radio has a regular broadcast program called “Ideas” in which they explore a stunningly broad area of topics. Regular broadcast reception is limited to Canada and the northern U.S. But courtesy of podcasting, you can enjoy all these programs at your leisure.

A year or so ago CBC ran a 24-part series entitled, “Ideas: How to Think About Science.” Great material, and very thought-provoking. From Episode 1 (“Leviathan and the Air Pump”) to Episode 24 (“From Knowledge to Wisdom”) this series presents a fresh perspective on science, research, and the nature of what we consider truth and knowledge. Whether you agree with every point made or every interviewed guest, the program is bound to cause you to examine the way you think about the world.

My preferred access is via iTunes subscription with content synchronized to my iPhone. Total running time is about 24 hours, which took me approximately two months to work through during my modest commute and occasional pedestrian meandering. (For those of you in the Bay Area, you should be able to bang this out in about 3 commuter days… 😉


Shopping for a Professional to Write Your Thesis? Keep Looking.

As a professor, a published author, and a graduate advisor, I’m intimately familiar with the challenge (and occasional frustration) of learning how to write well and publish one’s way to academic glory. I’m also familiar with the challenge of teaching students how to express themselves in writing. I’m confident it’s one of the most significant takeaways from the graduate school experience.

So I’m intrigued at the rationale that would drive a student to purchase a graduate thesis or dissertation. I stumbled on a website recently, quite by accident, and was struck by the irony. Here’s a snip from the page. (No, I will not provide the URL.)


Here are my favorite tidbits from this literary masterpiece:

Already hundreds of students and business organizations have experienced excellent writing procedures, so you are not going to be a new one.

Whew. Thank goodness. Always makes me nervous to be a new one. Especially at my age.

We professional help you on Custom Thesis or Dissertation Writing or Rewriting.

And I grateful appreciate them for this.

Every member of out team is expert in knowing the best compiling quality regarding thesis and dissertation writing and well aware to provide such superior quality thesis and dissertation that will ensure to get high grades.

Huh? Wait… I get it. My turn… “All your base are belong to us. You have no chance to survive make your time.”

Finally to say, it is our quality that makes students returning back to us.

No doubt. And it is my blogging quality that makes readers returning back to me.