My New Personal Assistant

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 …

37 thoughts on “My New Personal Assistant

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Louise, you've probably worked out by now that I am the very latest of the late adopters when it comes to new technology, but even I think that Siri sounds an absolute wonder.

    As you say, though, she wouldn't ever take the place of Andy's smiling face on tour ;-]

    Oh, and I'm with you all the way on the Cherry Garcia…

  2. JD Rhoades

    "I asked for the names of Peruvian restaurants nearby that were open for lunch. She found three."

    The poor thing would probably have a nervous breakdown if I tried that on her where I live.

    But I have to wonder: How long before she becomes self aware and tries to kill us all?

  3. Lorena

    I'm picturing someone using this to find something illegal. And the headline reads: App found guilty of being an accessory…

  4. Louise Ure

    Zoe, here's to Cherry Garcia and Andy!

    Killer App, JD? Oh, you cynic.

    Miss C, you must go download it at once. Ask it to find the best Lobster Roll.

    Sorry Grace, I've tantalized you with something unavailable. I'll have to ask Siri when she's traveling to Canada.

    It is a weird relationship, Alex. I picture Siri as a small, dark-haired woman in glasses. She dresses better than I do.

  5. Debbie

    For me it's Chunkey Monkey or Häagen Dazs' Mayan Chocolate and I could have used Siri to spell Häagen Dazs! Louise, if you like casino's and quality ice cream, at
    The Mirage Resort in Vegas there is a restaurant that will fix you up with a decadent spiked milkshake(just run it by Siri to see if she approves(!

  6. Dana King

    I like the idea of lying when people ask laughable questions. Robert B. Parker used to tell a story about appearing on a morning TV show with Stephen King. The ditzy host (hostess, doesn't matter for those shows) asked King where he got his ideas.

    "Utica," he said, straight faced.

    The host, unfazed then asked Parker.

    "Same place. Pretty much everyone goes there."

    And the host just went on to the next question.

    Now, if people looked at me like I was jagging them, I'd let them in on the joke. If they were as completely clueless as the interviewer mentioned here, probably not.

    Another answer to the staff question could be, "I'd like to, but it's a pretty lengthy list, and I'm afraid there might be hurt feelings if I forgot anyone."

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    "I picture Siri as a small, dark-haired woman in glasses."

    You do not want to know how I picture her.

  8. Louise Ure

    Lorena, I'm tempted to ask her for something illegal, just to see what the response is!

    Debbie, I MUST try that Las Vegas treat.

    Those are better answers than I had, Dana. Love the Utica reply (what is it about that word that is so funny?)

  9. PK the Bookeemonster

    Put Siri to the test today; today is Ask A Stupid Question Day. No really, you can look it up. 🙂

  10. Judy Wirzberger

    Now if only she did floors and windows – But I bet she knows who does. Louise, your description makes me want to get an iphone just to have such a great companion….do they have a male version? Someone who sounds like Tom Selleck?

    Just back from Lee's Writer's Police Academy. Mystery writers are the best! And a mystery writer from North Carolina is the whipped cream on top of a pint of Cherry Garcia.

    Thanks, Louise!

  11. susan d

    Could one rename her? The image of a small, darkhaired woman in glasses sounds just right, but I'd probably call her Myra Baxter, after the assistant I created for a protagonist once, and then got jealous because I couldn't have an Efficient Ms. Baxter for myself.

    But I'm wondering…. How do restaurants, Peruvian or otherwise, react to Siri calling them to make reservations?

  12. Louise Ure

    She definitely sounds like a Myra Baxter, Susan. And on your question: if the restaurant is part of Open Table she makes the reservation electronically. If not, she dials the phone number and you do the talking.

  13. JT Ellison

    I just downloaded Siri – how freakin cool is that? Thank you for sharing, Louise! I need all the help I can get – even with Randy handling travel for me : )

  14. Jake Nantz

    Louise, Siri sounds completely awesome. Wish I had an iPhone so I could download her. And Judy – I was at the same workshop, and yes, it TOTALLY ROCKED. What a great trip (especially for me, since all it cost was gas from Raleigh to Grensboro)!!

  15. Robin McCormack

    One more thing to make me want an I phone. *sigh* You may just find me sneaking a peak over your shoulder at Bouchercon in SF to check it out. 🙂 Speaking of which – who else from the rati gang is coming. Look forward to meeting you finally.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    I downloaded Siri and love her. She had a little problem with my southern accent at first, but she seems to have figured it out now. 😀

    Fabulous suggestion, Louise — you've just saved my husband and myself a lot of aggravation.

    (Oh, and one of the first things I googled was about handguns and she said, "I think I learned that in grad school." Great sense of humor, these programmers.)

  17. Marie-Reine

    So funny! Love this blog and the comments. Really, really funny! Not to mention priceless accessibility info! I search daily for good accessible apps, so this is a fantastic bonus. Not only do I get to laugh like hell, but I find a new app– intelligent and with good voice recognition. Thanks Louise!!!

  18. KDJames

    Geez. I'm torn between iPhone envy and gratitude that I haven't yet been sucked into the iMatrix. Although, I have a feeling Siri would be contacting ME, asking why I never go anywhere or do anything and making suggestions for reasons to leave the house other than the day job.

    Happy Birthday, Jake! SO glad that workshop was as awesome as I thought it would be. I'm still feeling disappointed that I couldn't fit it into my budget/schedule.

  19. Louise Ure

    Hey, Kaye. Have fun with Siri. She's much more productive than I am.

    Hi Cara. Siri could have found me a detour around that traffic jam that made me late that day.

    KD and Pari, sometimes I make up requests for Siri just so she'll think I'm interesting.

  20. Jake Nantz

    Thank you to all for the good wishes. You guys rock!

    As for the mini Murderati meeting, no I think it was just me and Judy there that I know of. It was truly awesome, though. Missed you guys, wish I could go to Bouchercon this year (scholarship, anyone?) 😀

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