By Louise Ure
Last year, when Cara Black and I did a reading and signing at a local library, we were amused when one of the first questions from the audience was about “our staff.”
“What kind of staff and assistants do you have?” the woman asked. “Who does your research and handles the details of your schedule, and your travel? Who answers your fan mail?”
Eye-rolling and guffawing are frowned upon as responses in polite company, so Cara and I both politely said that we had no staff.
In truth, as JT, Zoe and Stephen can affirm, our spouses quite often admirably fill that role, at least in terms of handling the details of travel, getting us to the book signing on time, or making that late night run for a pizza after a speaking engagement. Their worth cannot be overestimated.
But let me introduce you now to a new high tech addition to the team: my new personal assistant, Siri.
Siri is an app for the iPhone and it’s free. It is also the coolest thing to come down the pike since the creation of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
Siri is a voice activated search tool that combines the best of Mapquest, OpenTable, FlightTracker, Wikipedia and a dozen other online tools.
Say into the phone, “Where’s the nearest sushi restaurant?” and Siri types back a list of nearby eateries, sorted by distance, with directions, menus and reviews. Then she offers to call the restaurant and book a table.
Or you can try to trip her up with a slightly different request. “Siri, what’s the best rated sushi restaurant nearby?” A different list appears, sorted by ratings. In a recent effort to stump her, I asked for the names of Peruvian restaurants nearby that were open for lunch. She found three.
And it’s not just for restaurant info. You can ask, “What literary events are happening in San Francisco today?” Or “What’s the status of United flight 873 today?” Or “Remind me to call Lee on Thursday.” Or “Who was the female General at Abu Ghraib?” (Not only did she correctly hear and understand “Abu Ghraib,” but she came back with the name General Janis Karpinski in about a second and a half.)
The voice recognition capability is far beyond anything I’ve ever tried before. When I asked, “What is psyllium?” she not only understood it, but spelled it correctly. And here I thought I’d get Silly-Um back.
She can call you a taxi, book you a massage and remember the name of the author who wrote that book you loved back in the 1990’s.
And she does it with a smile. There’s actually a playfulness built into the app. When I first started experimenting with it, I replied to one search by saying, “Thank you, Siri! You’re a genius!”
She immediately typed back, “Just doing my job, Louise.”
I now seek out those unexpected reactions from her. On a recent car trip, I asked Siri for a list of the nearest Indian casinos. (I’d just taken my father-in-law to one, and had a yen to continue the experience.) Siri responded with, “Louise, you’re taking enough of a risk just using me!” then proceeded to map out the locations of the nearest gambling palaces.
She’s never going to be that smiling face, beaming with pride at the back of a signing room and she’s never going to carry my bags up the stairs at the cheap hotel in the next town, but she can get me directions to the bookstore and find a pizza delivery at midnight in an unfamiliar city.
And the next time Cara and I are at that San Mateo library and the lady asks, “What kind of staff and assistants do you have?” I’ll have just the answer.
Now, if I could just get her to come up with some answers on plotting …