Friday, April 17, 2009

Have a question? Ask the vegetables

I was watching the Masters golf tournament last weekend from my weekend perch, also known as the “Dad recliner.”

I watch golf on TV not because I enjoy it but because I’m usually in need of a mid-afternoon nap and nothing puts me to sleep faster than the soothing sounds of golf.

When I’m watching golf, nothing fazes me. It’s hard to get overly excited watching a guy in bad pants spend four minutes pondering whether to hit a 63 degree lob wedge or a 64 degree lob wedge.

Golf announcers are so calm that I think they should switch jobs with CNBC commentators, if only until our financial markets right themselves. Face it, one of the reasons this country is panicking is that we are constantly being bombarded with the likes of Jim Cramer on CNBC screaming, “SELL. NOW BUY. HOLD. HOLD THEN BUY BEFORE YOU SELL. WAIT! FORGET EVERYTHING I SAID”

I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be holding, buying or selling but I feel like I should be doing something before Jim Cramer’s arteries explode on live television.

If golf announcers ran CNBC, nobody would have needlessly panicked last September. Companies wouldn’t have laid off thousands of workers and General Motors might still be a viable organization. Golf announcers can make even the most dire news sound about as troubling as a smudge on eyeglasses.

GOLF ANNOUNCER 1: Let’s go down to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Steve, you have some sort of announcement?

GOLF ANNOUNCER 2: That’s right Jack. It appears Bank of America only has $2,500 left in its vault. And an elderly lady from Scranton just walked in with a withdrawal slip in her hand. Back to you.

If I heard that information, delivered on CNBC by the honey sweet voices of the CBS golf crew, I’d probably react by adjusting the headrest on my Dad chair and repositioning the remote.

On the other hand, I also would be thoroughly entertained watching Jim Cramer stand behind Tiger Woods on the 18th tee of the Masters and say, “HE’S GONNA HIT THE THREE WOOD. WHAT IS THIS GUY THINKING? YOU GOTTA BE AGGRESSIVE. HIT THE DRIVER!”

However, since Cramer is probably not allowed on the Masters grounds simply because of his reputation, I stared at the TV and slowly drifted into dreamland. I jolted awake only during commercial breaks.

IBM dominated the commercials. During every break, I was forced to listen to actual IBMers, or actors who said they were actual IBMers, talk about systems. Apparently everybody at IBM is working on a system of some sort. They spent the rest of the commercial vaguely explaining what these systems do.

Except for one female IBMer. Her definition was very clear. At least four times during the Masters telecast, she looked directly into the camera and told me that she was working on a system that “allows carrots to tell truck drivers how fresh they are.”

I’m not kidding.

IBM is close to perfecting talking carrots.

Now I was wide awake.

Okay, I’m sure the carrots don’t actually say, “hey buddy, I’m getting a little moldy back here. Might want to pull over at the nearest compost heap and do something about it.”

More likely, the containers are tagged with some IBM-created bar code that’s chock full of information like when the carrots were planted, harvested, packed and when they should wind up on the plate of a four year old, where they will be aimlessly moved around with a fork before being tossed, uneaten into the trash.

But that’s not what she said. She actually said the carrots could tell something.

The only thing this commercial told me was that I never want to drive a truck. Not if it means taking orders from vegetables.

Personally I don’t think the world needs talking food. Don’t enough inanimate objects already talk to us?

My BMW X5 has an on-board navigation system. It’s powered by something called iDrive. These days, anything with a small “i” in front of it can only mean one thing: it’s too complicated for anyone to understand other than the person who invented it.

The iDrive is no exception. Basically I now have a computer mouse in my car. By scrolling up and down, side to side and clicking various links on the iDrive screen, I can change radio stations, control the air conditioning, change the time zone or wrap my vehicle around a light pole because my eyes were on the iDrive screen as opposed to the road.

The iDrive also controls the on-board navigation system. When I click “navigation,” a flashing icon on a map shows me precisely where my car is and can even program directions to a nearby destination. When I do this, the vehicle begins speaking to me.

I mean it actually speaks to me. A perky female voice enters the car and verbally gives me step-by-step directions, often saying things that give new meaning to the word “obvious.”

“Continue driving on the road.”

As opposed to driving through a building.

“Make a legal U-turn.”

She says that when I decide to take a shortcut that only I know about. I’m a guy after all.

“In two and a quarter miles, bear right.”

Two and a quarter miles? Thanks for the early warning. I just spent the last two miles trying to figure out how to get the iDrive to wash my windows.

I thought the woman inside my iDrive was pretty cool until recently, when I realized BMW sold me the laziest talking iDrive system in the world. I live in a neighborhood near a major interstate that was recently extended with federal funds. These are the same kind of funds that President Obama says will be readily available to put Americans back to work “building roads and repairing bridges.”

I question his plan only because I don’t know anybody who knows how to build a road or a bridge. Most of my unemployed friends are salesmen and, like me, are useless when it comes to building anything.

The extension is now open to traffic. Problem is, I purchased my BMW with iDrive and talking female companion before the work was completed. Therefore, the software doesn’t feature the new section of road.

As a result, whenever I enter this new piece of roadway, the screen in my iDrive shows my car driving over a cliff. I have driven over this cliff at least a dozen times.

Not once did Miss Know it All say ANYTHING.

That’s right. Nada. Not, “the road ends in one mile,” or “make a U-turn, even if it’s illegal,” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” or “you are about to die.”

The least she could do is notify a local police department and let the dispatcher know that I’m about to cause myself great bodily harm. But noooo! She remains silent. Should I survive the impact, however, this gal is more than happy to locate a restaurant for me.

My point is that talking computers don’t have feelings. They don’t show passion or concern or respect. They provide limited instructions or information but have no idea how to improvise. Only humans can do that.

Has a voice prompt or voice-activated software ever solved a problem for you? Think about it. I can book a plane ticket simply by screaming my frequent flier number into the phone and letting America Airlines’ automated system do the rest. But what happens if I have a question about luggage? Or meal service? Or a lower fare? Suddenly the computer isn’t so smart and admits it by saying, “I’ll pass your information on to an agent.”

So if you’re an IBMer and you are reading this, stop working on the talking carrot system. We don’t want it. I’ve been eating carrots for 46 years counting the strained variety. They are always fresh, delicious and silent.

Instead, work on a system that lets us talk to each other. Using real words and not voice prompts. While you are at it, please convince my daughter that text messaging is the only form of communication. Verbal sounds work even better.

Let me know what you come up with. In the meantime, Phil Mickelson is about to putt.


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