How to Talk to a Robot

Every time my Google Voice number rings both of my phones I know fun is about to happen. I reserve that number as my junk phone number for borderline reputable Internet sites and free fishbowl lunches. It is usually preceded by my junk Yahoo email. I know if someone is calling both of my phones that their goals of making a sale and my goals of having fun are going to clash.

When I noticed both of my phones ringing I had both of the kids in the car, parked in the garage and playing. My daughter was busy pretending to drive us to the store and my son was bouncing around in the back seat. Back seats make excellent, cushioned play pens in an unmoving car.

It’s always much more fun when a telemarketer calls when the kids are around. I sometimes ask my daughter to talk on my behalf but she always freezes under the pressure. We are still working on sharpening her sarcasm.

So I answer the phone.

Me: Hello? …. Hello?
Lady: (Long Pause) He-hello?
Me: Hi.
Lady: Oh Hi there. Hehe. I’m looking for the business owner.
Me: OK.
Lady: Are you the business owner?
Me: Sure. (At the time I was running a daycare out of my car)
Lady: Ok great. Well we’re offering great low rate loans to businesses like yours (car daycares) and I just have a few questions if that’s ok?
Me: OK lets go.
Lady: OK great! So how long have you been in business?
Me: (Looking at the kids) Almost 3 years?
Lady: OK. (strange calculated pause) Does your business generate more than $10,000 a month?

In a split second of time, I reran the whole conversation over in my head. The personality, the clipped pauses, the uncertain “he-hello”, and the slightly odd progression of the conversation – it suddenly hit me that I was talking to a chat bot. A very convincing chat bot. I’ve had these conversations before but didn’t realize it was a convincing robot until after the conversation. Realizing this during the conversation was like waking up during a dream and I could fly!

Me: Hey wait! You’re a robot!
Robot Lady: No sir. I assure you I’m a real person.
Me: No way! I know you’re a robot! (Changing my voice as if I’m speaking to a child)
Robot Lady: (giggles girlishly) Oh sir!  I am a real person. Can you hear me OK?
Robot Lady: (Changes her voice back to the serious inquisition) Can we continue?
Me: Yes…

I’m right! Her playful tone quickly switched back to a prerecorded “can we continue?” Also, she made no human reaction to my change in voice – which could have called for her to jump off the script to ask why I thought she was a robot. At this point I think I can reset her, forcing her into an endless feedback loop of fun, and agree to continue with the questions.

Robot Lady: Would you be interested in low interest rate loans for your business.
Me: You’re a robot!
Robot Lady: Uh, I am a real person.
Me: Yes you are. That’s exactly what a robot would say.
Robot Lady: No. (flatly, robotic, angry?)

Meanwhile my daughter was getting frustrated trying to open a water bottle.

Daughter: I can’t do it!
Robot Lady: Sir these are questions we have answer. (100% confirmation!)
Me: Can you help us open the water bottle?
Robot Lady: I can’t help with that. (Clipped pause) Can we continue?

She continued with a few more of her robot questions. Eventually and I got transferred to a gruff old man who sounded real. My son was trying to climb into the front seat to join in the conversation.

Gruff: Hey it looks like we’ve emailed you the information already and Matthew is working on your file.
Me: Yeah but your robot called and I told her I wanted to talk to a real person.
Gruff: Oh Matthew will be in touch soon. We won’t bother you with the robot anymore. Sorry.
Me: Can the robot lady come over and watch the kids?
Daughter: NO! He try bite me! Whaaaaa!

-Dial Tone-

I had read this article awhile ago and I have been causally on the lookout for robot callers since. The calls from the Time article are below. It sounds like this same “Samantha West” is back and is now selling business loans.

At least in the 80’s, all the robot girls sounded like robots…

Update: Upon further research, apparently (as of 2013) this Samantha West is guided by a real person who is just punching a soundboard. I imagine this could be true, but if you’re going to call someone with a soundboard it should always include the question, “Who is your daddy and what does he do?”

Target Robot Machine

Here is a letter I wrote to the Target Robot Machine:

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The Target Robot Machine generated an automated response:

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Interesting that they give names to different sectors of their servers.  I’m glad the Robot Machine wasn’t able to crack the captcha code, which would indicate that had become self aware.  Score one for the humans!  This time…

Choosing where to have Baby (sic)

There are a lot of choices to make when you want to have a baby.  You can have a baby in a bathtub.  You can have a baby in the desert.   You can have a baby on a bungee jump.  Some creepy people even have a baby at their house.

We have chosen the “traditional” route and have decided to have Baby (sic) at a Hospital.  Notice the lack of the possessive pronoun preceding “Baby”.  I learned that hospitals do not use articles or possessive pronouns when talking about babies.  It’s all “Baby will sleep here.  Baby will go home with you after a couple days.  Baby will sound an alarm if it gets up and tries to walk out the doors.”  Never “The Baby” or “Your Baby”.  It is either because hospital workers are so overworked that they must ignore certain grammatical constants to save speaking time or that political correctness does not allow hospital workers to assign possession or ownership of another human.

We decided to tour both of our local baby factories before settling on a location.  We toured the Small Hospital and the Mega Hospital.

At Small Hospital the lady was very friendly, but our personal one-on-one tour turned into an eight-on-one tour where a couple of other couples were invited to go along.  The first other couple was cool because they didn’t talk the entire time. The second couple consisted of a 50-year-old woman, due in May, her husband, Paul Bunyan, and their two children, a boy and a girl under 4.  Legends never die, and Paul Bunyan was no exception adding to his resume his ability to impregnate a 50-year-old woman.  However, today the statuesque legend was obviously preoccupied with the fact that they wouldn’t let him bring his axe into the hospital so he couldn’t focus on the fact that his kids were running and screaming all over the place while our tour guide patiently explained exactly what would happen to those of us who have never had a baby before. All of us were intent on listening, but Paul obviously didn’t want to be there.

Paul finally spoke up later on in the tour when Timmy was chasing Emily around the birthing table with a speculum.  The boy crashed face first into the pull-out couch and stood up with a bloody forehead when Paul asked, “So where is the free coffee again? For the husbands?”.  His 50-year-old wife looked at him, incredulous, and then back to the tour guide.  “Actually,” she said, “where do we go to get car seats checked?”  Blood gushed from Timmy’s wound.  After your 3rd kid its probably a good time to get your car seats.  At first I wanted to curse at them, but I then I realized that I am in no way more qualified to fit a car seat to a giant Blue Ox.

Despite the distractions we really liked the Small Hospital, but we headed across the street for our appointment at the Mega Hospital.

At Mega Hospital we experienced a whirlwind tour of the facilities.  Mega Hospital opened a couple weeks ago so we had to excuse some of their dust.  Our guide quickly pointed out the features like, “Here is triage, here is where Baby gets born, here is where Baby gets to sleep, here is your emergency alarm bracelet that plays music when close to Baby that ensures it’s (your?) Baby, here is the menu and they might start up celebration dinners again but you can order a hotdog or whatever when Baby comes.  Any questions?”

She was really excited to tell us all about the technology of the facility but all I noticed was a haggard staff were in search of a break and treated each patient as a burden to their iPhone time.  We even saw a nurse balled up on the floor crying between two double doors because of too much work.  She was not supposed to be a part of the tour.  We also saw some cool dudes walking into the baby center, hats cocked, carrying a 12 pack of Bud Light into one of the delivery rooms.  The alarm sounded and some blue strobes started going off.  The tour lady yelled in her phone that someone was stealing a baby again!

One piece of technology the tour lady at Mega Hospital was especially excited to show us was the Big Blue Button that the husband, and only the husband, gets to push when Baby is born.  It would play a song to alert the entire hospital that you are a new dad!  I imagined myself lurking around the hospital, after hours of labor, giving sideways glances at the other husbands, letting them know that I was going to be the next dad and the next to push that button.  But then the tour lady pressed the button!!!  For a few seconds of my life, That Button was one of the few unique pleasures afforded to the modern man.  But when she pressed it, the magic of the button immediately disappeared and was cheapened to a hokey gimmick. I also expected a great triumphant fanfare as my first official act of fatherhood, but was disappointed that it played a soft, barely audible, lullaby. Lame.

It was then I remembered that Small Hospital said we could bring anything to their hospital as long as it wasn’t fire.  No candles or campfires (I asked).  So I added a Staples Easy Button to our Baby Go Bag.  When the baby is born I get to push the button and declare myself as the father!  “That was Easy!” I will exclaim at the top of my lungs.  I will also yell about how great the staff is at Small Hospital and thank them for realizing that you can’t replace good people with technology.

I will also yell about how wonderful my wife is to the entire hospital and how excited we are about our baby.

Expect a lot of excited yelling this August.

The Dog Clicker

Feedback is an important but often overlooked aspect of any design.  Feedback manifests when a light turns on after the flick of a switch.  Feedback comes when you chirp your car lock. Feedback is also enjoyed when your airbags deploy informing you that the semi did run that red light and that your car did really do a 1080.

It’s when you don’t receive feedback that you irritably notice the uncertainty to if the machine understood the last command you issued.  When you click a button on a website there is a noticeable absence if the button doesn’t graphically “press in” or make a click sound.  Small things like this can send a reasonably calm person into a frenzy, mashing the button over and over again until finally the screen pops up informing you that you have ordered 13 iPads.

Dogs also need feedback to help prevent them from insane behavior as well.  If you don’t give a dog understandable feedback after he completes a command, there is a good chance that he will never be sure that he actual satisfied you by, say, sitting down.  He could think your hand gesture meant for him to shit all over the house.  The dog goes running and shitting all over the house and keeps looking back for affirmation.  Yelling may be a rally call to continue shitting and so he does, all over the kitchen.  When you chase him, he runs into the bathroom and pees on the linoleum and when you scramble after him in the bathroom you slip on the pee and the dog points at you and laughs.  This is a failure to feedback.

The dog clicker was designed to prevent dogs from getting a mind of their own when it comes to completing commands.  A click punctuates each command and the dog knows that sitting was the only command in mind.  The dog is happy to please you and you are happy the dog is not shitting all over the house.

After completing a session of dog training, I needed to buy some hardware.  I selected my hardware and went to the self-checkout.  Sometimes when you buy hardware they try to put bar code stickers on things that are too tiny to scan.  I kept trying to scan the screw.  I really wanted to buy the screw.  They haven’t invented 3D lasers to scan 360 degrees around a screw bar code yet.  It’s because a kid might put their head inside inside of the laser and look at the laser at 360 degrees and go blind and have to be stuck working at Lowe’s for the rest of their life. I was getting mad at the self checkout robot and started slamming the screw on the scanner.

The Lowe’s self checkout Guard came over to see what the big problem was.  He calmly showed me how to remove the sticker from the screw so it could be scanned.  He put it on his finger and scanned his finger.  For a second I was afraid that I was going to have to buy the checkout Guard and wasn’t sure how much a human being would cost and if I was going to have to raise the limit on my credit card and where he would fit inside of my house. It made me sweat so I put my hands in my pocket.  Then the machine beeped.  Feedback.  And the price showed on the screen for $0.19.  Double Feedback.

I noticed that the dog clicker was still in my pocket!  Since the checkout Guard had done such a good job, I clicked the dog clicker. *CLICK* Triple Feedback!  He looked up at me, so  I pet him on the head and told him that he did a good job.  He made a happy face and started panting. Another satisfying Lowe’s experience.

I got a text on my phone that told me I should meet some friends for some food and drinks. With my new screw in tow, I went to the bar.

At the bar the waitress brought us all of our drinks.  When I had confirmed that she had brought everything correctly, *CLICK* I let her know.  She looked around and made a confused face, but knew she did a good job.

After the second round she asked what the heck the *CLICK* noise was.  I told her that she was really smart and being such a good girl.  I pet her on the head and told her to fetch us some food.

Instead of food the manager of the store came over.  He told me that I had to leave the bar because I was touching the waitress without permission.  I told him that he had a really good waitress working for him and he should be proud of how smart she was and she had a really shiny coat and that he must be feeding her food other than bar food.  He asked if I was on drugs.  I didn’t click the clicker since the manager was wrong.  The manager started to get mad at me and said he was going to call the police if I did not leave.  I did not click the dog clicker because he was being a bad boy.

The policeman came and brought a big dog with him. The dog started smelling me when the manager pointed at me.  But the dog kept looking at the manager.

*CLICK* the dog looked at the manager.  *CLICK* the dog started smelling the manager.  *CLICK* the dog started smelling the manager’s pockets.  The manager tried to get away from the dog but it started following him.  I started clicking the dog clicker, rapid fire, and the dog got more and more aggressive with the manager.  *CLICK CLICK CLICK* the dog started barking really loud. *CLICK CLICK CLICK* the dog started biting the manager on the arms and neck.  *CLICK CLICK CLICK*.  The whole bar was watching.

Finally the policeman made the dog stop biting the manager. The dog sat down facing the manager and the cop found a bag of grass inside of the manager’s pocket.  The policeman put the bag in his pocket and told me that I did a good job.  With no audible click I didn’t know if there was some extenuating circumstances to his compliment, but he put his hand up and we did a high five (a form of feedback for cool people).

Then the policeman took the bag of grass out of his pocket and held it in the air.  “The next round of drinks is on the manager!” he said.  The manager wearily sat up with his hand to his head.  The policeman threw the bag of grass to the bartender and the whole bar cheered.  I clicked merrily in satisfaction.

Holiday Inn Express Pancakes

The elevators in the hotel had a swinging door on each floor that you could close over the elevator so people would think that the elevator no longer existed.  I think the idea was that when the fire alarm went off, a magnet would release the door, trapping the elevator behind it.  Anyone in the elevator wouldn’t be able to get off at any floor, except the first.  Also, anyone who tried to use the elevator on the top floors would have to run around screaming that they couldn’t find the elevator.

Since I wasn’t sure how the doors worked, I pulled the fire alarm to see if the doors would close.  Sure enough the door swung shut and trapped the elevator behind it while the fire alarm blared.

I watched people start coming out of their rooms.  They wanted to know what all the noise was about. A lot of people were in the hallway, yelling.  I told them to be quiet while I tried to turn the fire alarm back off.  But it wouldn’t turn off and the door remained shut over the elevator.  I heard people in the elevator screaming, but I banged on the outer swinging door to let them know that help was on the way.

One lady came out of the her room and started screaming.  She said we were all going to die.  When she got to where she thought the elevator was, she screamed louder and started clawing at the wall where the elevator used to be.  I tried to tell her about the swinging door trick but she just kept screaming about dying.  She fell to her knees, clawing at the wall.  I guess she really wanted to ride the elevator one last time before she died.

All of the noise made it difficult to think and I was hungry.  It was too early for the commotion that all of these people were causing.  I walked down the stairs (much faster than the elevator) since we were on the second floor.

I went down to get breakfast.  The pancake machine was broken.  The screen on the machine told me that it was in bagel making mode and that I should press a number to tell it how many bagels to make.  I got mad at the machine because there were not any numbers – just a big “OK” button.  I pushed OK, but the machine still wanted me to enter a number.  “I want pancakes!” I yelled at the machine.  The cleaning lady came out of her hiding room to tell me that the pancake machine only wanted to make bagels and I was going to have to be happy with bagels.  I told her I wanted pancakes but she just threw her arms in the air and went back into hiding.

Then I found the secret panel on the machine.  There are more buttons that just OK at the Holiday Inn Express pancake machine, but they try to hide them because they don’t want you to start choosing things for yourself.  There were a lot more buttons with secret options behind the secret panel!  The machine worked just like a label maker in which you could pick size, font, bold, underline, designs, shapes, and numbers.  I punched through the menu until I had selected the pancakes that I wanted.  I picked the BATMAN pancakes, in the largest size possible, in the maximum quantity of 10.

Then I pushed the OK button.  This time the machine started buzzing, reassuring me that my pancakes were coming soon and that I had reprogrammed it correctly.  There’s a graphic on the machine that showed the Batman symbol scrolling across the bottom so I knew when I would get my pancakes.  Soon I saw multiple Batman symbols scrolling across the bottom and my excitement increased with each one.

Then I started to see batter coming out of the pancake machine entrance.  “That’s enough” I told the pancake machine, but it wouldn’t listen.  The uncooked pancake material kept coming out of the machine and was getting all over the counter.  It was almost touching the muffins.  I started making a wall out of plastic knives since they laid flat on the counter and had more uniform batter blocking power.  The batter acted as a good mortar between the knives and proved to be an effective tool against pancake batter touching the bagels and muffins (possible disaster). When my wall was 15 knives high by 3 knives wide, the cleaning lady came out and started panicking. She screamed about all of the mess she was going to be cleaning up and how it was going to cut into her hiding time.  Pancake batter was dripping on the floor.

Meanwhile I had a big cooked pancake coming out of the pancake machine conveyor belt.  I eyed it with anticipation.  It was not Batman shaped but had jagged edges to look like the machine made a good try, but all of the Batman cakes just ran together into one giant Batman sheet cake.  I was getting impatient with the machine and used the last plastic knife to cut off all I could eat, leaving the rest for the next lucky hotel patron.  Since I was late for the meeting, I was going to have to eat it in the car without syrup. Plus the cleaning lady was making too much noise to enjoy breakfast anyway.

I would say my stay at the Holiday Inn Express was a roller coaster ride, but ultimately a disappointment due to the high noise levels. 2 Shrugs out of 5.

New Pop Culture Alphabet

The Military Alphabet sucks

A: Alpha
B: Bravo
C: Charlie
D: Delta
E: Echo
F: Foxtrot
G: Golf
H: Hotel
I: India
J: Juliet
K: Kilo
L: Lima
M: Mike
N: November
O: Oscar
P: Papa
Q: Quebec
R: Romeo
S: Sierra
T: Tango
U: Uniform
V: Victor
W: Whiskey
X: X-Ray
Y: Yankee
Z: Zulu

Today’s generation can’t comprehend those confusing words.  New pilots usually take 15 minutes to read off their call number to the tower because they simply can’t remember the old words associated with the letters.  What’s a Foxtrot you ask?  There’s no time to look it up when you’ve got a to land a plane or launch a missile.

It has been under-reported that a pilot was sucked out of a hole in the fuselage of a 737 on a recent Southwest flight.  The trainee copilot didn’t know how to land the plane so the head flight attendant had to take control.  Unfortunately, she didn’t know the military alphabet and they ended up landing at the wrong airport.  The flight attendant was fired for safely landing at the wrong airport. An outrage on many levels!

Had the flight attendant known the appropriate codes, she could have easily landed safely at the correct airport in San Diego.  Southwest’s pilots did not think that flight attendants could remember the military alphabet so they never taught it to them.  Fortunately there are many words in the English language that are more readily recognizable to our spastic generation.

Today the FAA and the United States Armed Forces introduced a new alphabet code to make it easier to for all civilians and officials to learn:

A: Amazon
B: Bieber
C: Coors Light
D: Double Rainbow
E: Eminem
F: Facebook
G: Google
H: Handjob
I: Ikea
J: Judge Judy
K: Katy Perry
L: LOL
M: Metallica
N: Netflix
O: OMG
P: Pandora
Q: Quickie
R: Redbox
S: Sheen
T: Twitter
U: Uggs
V: Valtrex
W: Whiskey*
X: Xbox
Y: Youtube
Z: Zumba

Had the flight attendant on Southwest Flight 812 and the tower been on the same page, the conversation may have flowed better:

Flight Attendant: This is Sheen Whiskey Amazon flight Eight One Two on route to Sheen Amazon Netflix requesting emergency landing instructions!

Tower: Eight One Two, go ahead.

Flight Attendant: Our Pilot got sucked out of the roof!  I can’t fly a plane!

Tower: No problem.  It’s just like riding a bike.  We can talk you through a landing at the nearest airport.  Set course at Two Seven Niner to land at Youtube Uggs Metallica!

Flight Attendant: Sir we can’t land in Yuma!  I have sworn duty as a flight attendant to fly these people back to San Diego!  Get me emergency instructions for Sheen Amazon Netflix, Netflix OMG Whiskey or we are Sheen Handjob Ikea Twitter in the water!

Tower: You’re talking my language.  Switch to your Bieber channel,  Squawk 7700.

Flight Attendant: Done.  If you get me through this I’ll take you out for Double Rainbow Redbox Ikea Nexflix Katy Perry Sheen and if you’re lucky we might have Sheen Eminem Xbox.

Tower: Facebook Uggs Coors Light Katy Perry Youtube Eminem Amazon Handjob!

*No changes were made to Whiskey

Credit Card Wife Watch

When credit cards first came out, women were not allowed to use them on their own.  If a woman was found trying to use a credit card without her husband’s knowledge, a savvy shop owner would phone the husband to obtain permission.  Some husbands would even write on the signature line: CALL HUSBAND, underscored by the phone number to his office.

When the shop owner would call, the husband would have to drop his cigar and put down the stack of money he was counting.  The conversation would go something like this:

“Hello, Mr Henderson.  I have your wife detained here at Sears attempting to make a purchase using a bank credit card.”

“You have got to be kidding me.  Is she buying another vacuum cleaner?”

“I’m afraid so, yes sir.”

“Tell her she had better put it back and buy a cheap frying pan instead because I’m going to pound her in the face with the old one.”

“Yes sir!  I’ll release her back in your kitchen in no time.”

We waited until after we got married to combine our finances.  We’ve had a few short talks here and there on what kind of purchases we need to discuss, what constitutes a “large” purchase, and what we shouldn’t worry about as we go about our own business. So far it’s going fine, but we have a few more things to do before becoming a strong financial team.

One new leap in the trust game was adding her to my credit card.  I do not expect her to go crazy buying things (because I am more likely to do that) but extending the control of a block of credit that I’ve always had complete control of and allowing her shared access was not as simple as ordering another card.  It takes a small leap of faith.  Sharing finances and credit involves a mental exercise in trust of each other, but usually necessary and done by most couples. For us it was not a problem and has become a welcome change.

Well, I was pleased to find that there is a technology that takes the trust variable right out of the marriage equation.  It puts the balance back on the Man’s side.  The credit card companies have brought the 1950’s back to the 2010’s with the introduction of a new program called Wife Watch.  I no longer have to trust my wife to make sound purchases when I can simply watch her every move.

With Wife Watch, you will get an alert on your smart phone (or an archaic text message if you prefer) every time your wife tries to make a purchase using your hard earned money via your debit or credit card.  Your phone screen will pop up with a merchant name, total price, and two buttons for you to answer APPROVE or DECLINE.  You can also view an itemized receipt from participating member merchants while you consider your options.  With an approval the order goes through without a hitch.

The system will give you 5 minutes to answer while she taps her toes and the store keeper silently makes a bet if she is going to be denied or not.  You may let the pressure build if you believe a line is forming behind her or she’s otherwise hurried.  She knows she can’t call, pleading for your approval, because it might time out your phone display and she might have to scan everything again.  Besides, you told her not to call when MEN are making decisions.

As the pressure builds, if she believes your finger may be hovering over the DECLINE button, she is permitted to begin returning items on the purchase.  You will instantly feel relief when you see that total price going down.  Then it’s up to you if you still want to sadistically scrub the purchase.

You can even put a ban on certain merchants such as Bed Bath and Beyond, the Grocery Store, or the Beauty Salon.

Wife Watch can also be used for your unscrupulous teenagers. Sorry Jimmy.  I’m afraid you won’t be viewing Dunstin Checks In 2 with your friends tonight. It’s simply too scary.

You’re busy with your life and you don’t have time to put so much effort into trusting your spouse.  Let technology remove that burden.  Wife Watch is available for iPhone and Android 2.1+ devices.