TidBITS#1160/10-Feb-2013

This issue brings you the second set of our picks from Macworld/iWorld 2013, but that’s only the beginning. In the news, we recommend that iPhone 4S users avoid iOS 6.1.1 unless you’re already having problems with iOS 6.1, and Rich Mogull explains the best way to protect yourself against the latest Flash vulnerability without losing complete access to Flash Web sites. Glenn Fleishman looks at the significant price hikes from in-flight Internet provider Gogo, and Steve McCabe puts the different English dialects of Siri to the test. Finally, we’re pleased to welcome our latest sponsor, Connected Data, makers of the Transporter social storage device. Notable software releases this week include Sandvox 2.7.6, AirPort Utility 6.2 for Mac and OS X Server 2.2.1.
 
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iOS 6.1.1 for iPhone 4S Aims to Fix Cellular Problems

  by Adam C. Engst: ace@tidbits.com, @adamengst

Mimicking what it did with iOS 6.0.2, which worked only with the iPhone 5 and iPad mini, Apple has now released iOS 6.1.1 to fix “an issue that could impact cellular performance and reliability for iPhone 4S.” As usual, there were no further details that might give users insight into what precisely the update is aimed at fixing, and whether or not there might be additional fixes involved.

However, several European carriers — most notably Vodafone UK — have recommended that iPhone 4S users avoid updating to iOS 6.1 because of connectivity problems; we presume 6.1.1 is aimed at addressing those issues.

My take: if you have an iPhone 4S with iOS 6.1 and you’re experiencing obvious problems with cellular connectivity, the update is worth risking. In Settings, tap General > Software Update to update over the air, or download and install the update via iTunes. But if you’re not having problems, or if you haven’t yet updated to iOS 6.1, just sit tight with whatever you’re running now and see what shakes out.

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Connected Data Sponsoring TidBITS

  by Adam C. Engst: ace@tidbits.com, @adamengst

We’re pleased to welcome as our latest TidBITS sponsor an entirely new company — Connected Data, Inc., — whose storage-industry veteran founders last created the Drobo and have now come up with the Transporter social storage device. It’s an odd term — social storage — but it’s apt, since what the Transporter does is enable you to share data across the Internet in a totally controlled fashion. You share with only the people you want, or even just other Transporters and computers of your own, but unlike services such as Dropbox and SugarSync, your data is never stored in the cloud, and there are no recurring fees.

Those fees aren’t trivial, once you’re talking about significant amounts of data, since a 500 GB account will run you $499 per year on Dropbox and $399 on SugarSync (other cloud storage services are similar). In comparison, you can buy a 1 TB Transporter for $299 or a 2 TB Transporter for $399, and never pay anything more (well, until the hard drive dies or you need yet more space). You can even buy an empty Transporter for $199 and install your own 2.5-inch hard drive. And if you use code “tidbits” when you order directly from Connected Data, you can save an additional 10 percent!

From a backup standpoint, the Transporter is quite interesting. Although you can always choose which other Transporters and computers should maintain copies of shared folders, as long as all the data on each of your Transporters is shared somewhere else, you can easily replace a dying drive or install a larger one; the Transporter’s software will automatically bring the data back from the other locations. Joe Kissell and I will be testing this and other Transporter capabilities in the future and reporting back on our findings.

Thanks to Connected Data for their support of TidBITS and the Apple community!

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Isolate Adobe Flash by Using Google Chrome

  by Rich Mogull: rich@tidbits.com
  2 comments

On 7 February 2013, Adobe released an important security fix for Flash Player on the Mac, Windows, Linux, and Android. This release fixes a vulnerability that is actively being used to exploit both Mac and Windows users through Web browsers and via malicious Microsoft Word email attachments (with Flash embedded). While we at TidBITS don’t know currently the details of the Mac exploits, Adobe clearly states Macs are actually being attacked.

Under normal circumstances, we recommend updating immediately whenever an important security patch is released, but in this case, we have a somewhat different recommendation. Instead of leaving Flash on your Mac, you can instead isolate it and thus reduce the attack surface available to the bad guys. This is both easier and requires far less fuss going forward than you might think, and it is how I’ve been using my Mac for the past year or so.

The first step is to uninstall Flash by using Adobe’s official uninstaller application. This completely removes Flash from your operating system, making it impossible for an attacker to target it.

“But wait,” you say, “my kids will kill me if they can’t play those Flash-based Disney games.” Not to worry, there is an easy solution, thanks to Google.

The free Google Chrome Web browser includes its very own integrated version of Flash. Better yet, starting back in November 2012, Chrome sandboxes Flash from the rest of your Mac. This doesn’t mean that Chrome’s version of Flash is invulnerable, but an attacker must first compromise Flash and then break out of the sandbox to attack your Mac. This extra barrier makes it a lot less likely you will be compromised even when vulnerabilities are discovered in Flash. Plus, since Chrome automatically updates itself, you never have to fuss with the Flash Player installer again.

My recommendation is to install Google Chrome, even if you don’t plan on using it as your primary Web browser. Then simply launch Chrome whenever you want to see Flash content. I originally got this idea from John Gruber of Daring Fireball, and over time I’ve found that this simple method of isolating Flash to Chrome works great, especially since an ever-increasing number of sites push HTML5 video to Safari automatically if Flash is missing.

Personally, I decided to switch to Chrome completely since it is, overall, the most secure Mac browser on the market, especially once Google sandboxed Chrome’s version of Flash. After installing Chrome I do two things:

First, I go to Preferences > Settings > Show Advanced Settings > Privacy and disable everything except “Enable phishing and malware protection.” That reduces Google’s tracking, although turning off those other features also slows down both Chrome’s page fetching and your Web browsing speed.

Second, I install the following Chrome extensions (just click each link within Chrome, and then click the Add to Chrome button in the Chrome Web Store page that loads):

Blocking ads and Flash trackers also reduces your attack surface, since ad networks in particular are targeted and sometimes used to distribute malware through banners on legitimate sites.

As I noted, Chrome automatically updates itself by default, which is generally good for security, although there can be a lag between Adobe Flash updates and when those are integrated into Chrome. Fortunately, the sandbox is still there to help protect you.

And that’s it! The entire process of uninstalling Flash and installing Chrome for those sites that still require it takes only a few minutes, and it provides a ton of extra security.

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High-Flying Wi-Fi Tests Prices and Patience

  by Glenn Fleishman: glenn@tidbits.com, @glennf

Call this a heads-up and a bit of a caveat emptor, too. Gogo, the operator of in-flight Internet service for U.S. airlines other than Southwest, bumped its rates in September 2012 and now offers what feels like an arbitrary fee schedule. The firm also announced a significant improvement in bandwidth last year — from a raw rate of about 3 Mbps to nearly 10 Mbps — which should make the occasionally pokey service better.

Gogo used to offer a per-flight rate for roughly $10 to $13 depending on duration, and a cheaper rate for handheld devices, like an iPhone, but no discount for tablets. However, if you paid the more expensive rate, you could switch among devices.

Now, Gogo no longer offers per-flight prices. Rather, they offer 30-minute, 60-minute, and 2-hour plans, plus other time periods for as much or more money as the previous price for a full flight. Colleagues have sent me the rates they have seen on trips in the last week, and they were all over the map (literally), including a “three hours for the price of two” special. On a recent flight on Alaska Airlines to the east coast, I was offered 24 hours for $18.95… for a 4.5-hour flight.

The switch to a 24-hour rate presumes that someone has multiple flight segments, which isn’t unreasonable. But the likelihood of having all segments on planes with Wi-Fi access is slim. The main exception is Delta, which has equipped its extensive fleet; a few airlines with smaller footprints, like Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, have done the same. (Some Alaska planes that ply remote routes lack Internet service. But they come with moose spotting alerts.) The 24-hour rate is also irritating if one has just a single flight, or if the aircraft lacks electrical outlets to keep your laptop alive for anything like the duration of the flight.

One way to reduce costs is to pre-purchase access. Gogo lists a $14 rate for pre-purchased 24-hour access, which can be redeemed during a flight by logging into an account. Apparently, any service you buy lets you switch your active session among devices. I swapped from laptop to iPhone and back by logging in again and activating service on each device.

Gogo also offers a $40-per-month unlimited plan for an individual airline; $50 a month buys unlimited service across all Gogo-equipped aircraft.

Gogo is a privately held company, and doesn’t disclose its financials, usage, or other data. It’s hard to know whether it’s struggling for revenue, which some reports indicate it splits with airlines. Perhaps the company has discovered that users willing to pay have enough elasticity in what they’ll spend that driving away some customers is outweighed by overall increased revenue.

Whatever the reason, unpredictable and inconsistent pricing seems capricious rather than a useful business move. Perhaps Gogo needs to Stopstop and find a simpler solution.

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Cool Products from Macworld/iWorld 2013: Part 2

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

It’s been a tough week here at TidBITS HQ, with the most significant thing brought home from Macworld/iWorld being a bug that sent Adam to bed for much of the week. Thank goodness for the MacBook Air, or TidBITS might have had to call in sick. Here are the the rest of the neat products we saw at the show.

Flint = Square – Card Reader -- The payment processing service Square made waves for small local businesses with its hardware and software system for accepting credit card payments on an iOS device (see “Square Provides Easy Alternative to Cash and Checks,” 8 November 2011). But the little dongle that plugs into the headphone jack and through which cards are swiped is a bit awkward, and for those who don’t use it regularly, easy to forget or lose. A new payment processor called Flint provides essentially the same service, but eliminates the need for the card reader by instead “scanning” the credit card’s number with the iOS device’s camera. The Flint folks at Macworld/iWorld were very clear that the app is not taking a picture of the card, but is instead digitizing the image of the numbers and sending that off to be processed, storing nothing on the device itself. The result is of course the same, but it’s interesting that there’s a perceived issue with using the camera. Flint also offers extras like social marketing associated with the purchase, customized email receipts, and low rates (1.95% + $0.20 per charge for debit cards; 2.95% + $0.20 for credit cards). Currently, Flint is available only in the United States, and works only with Visa- and MasterCard-branded cards. [ACE]

Extend Wi-Fi Range with BearExtender -- Wi-Fi hacking no longer makes the news, but there are still times when you need more than what Apple’s built-in hardware can do for you. In particular, if you’re just out of range of a Wi-Fi network, the $49.97 BearExtender Mini may be just the ticket. It’s a USB-connected, 1000 milliwatt Wi-Fi transceiver with an omnidirectional 2 dbi external antenna (an optional 5 dbi antenna provides even more range). BearExtender claims two to four times the range of the standard AirPort card, which would have been perfect for our friends who moved in next door and couldn’t quite reach our Wi-Fi network while their cable Internet connection was being installed. The hardware is tiny — not much larger than a house key — and it comes with a clip to attach to a MacBook’s screen. There’s even a 16-foot (4.9 m) USB extension cable if you need to position the BearExtender Mini outside or away from interference. (Note: our own Michael Cohen won one of these in a drawing at the show; although he personally has no practical need for it, he may have something more to say about it once his unit arrives.) [ACE]

Image

CamRanger and CameraMator -- The most interesting photography-related development at this year’s Macworld/iWorld was the capability to control a DSLR camera remotely from an iOS device via Wi-Fi. In fact, two vendors were showing off devices. Both the CamRanger and the CameraMator plug into a camera’s USB port and create their own ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks (CameraMator can also use an existing Wi-Fi network). After you connect an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch to the network, you can get a live view of what the camera is seeing and control nearly all of the camera’s settings, such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and the like. Other software and devices enable this interaction (like OnOne Software’s DSLR Remote Camera HD) but require the computer to be physically tethered to the camera. Compatibility with certain features varies by camera. CamRanger lists models and supported features; so far the CameraMator site doesn’t include this information. Both devices cost $299.99, and use free iOS apps to control the camera. [JLC]

Better iPad Presentations -- As handy as the iPad is for in-person presentations and showing off of portfolios, the screen is a bit small to see across a conference-room table. With a Monitor2Go from Mobile Monitor Technologies, though, you can mirror your iPad’s 9.7-inch display on a 15.6-inch screen that can face your audience vertically while you look and work on the iPad’s screen horizontally. The Monitor2Go connects to the iPad (or any other device) via HDMI, rotates and pivots 180 degrees, and has a slot to hold the iPad. It also uses DisplayLink technology to act as a secondary monitor for a Mac or Windows laptop via USB 2.0 (meaning that it would probably be a little slow; hopefully they’ll get the USB 3.0 version of DisplayLink technology for higher performance soon). Two versions are available, the 1366-by-768 resolution Monitor2Go for $299 and the 1600-by-900 Monitor2Go HD+ for $329 — apart from resolution, they’re identical. It’s too bad the resolutions and aspect ratios don’t match the iPad, but Retina-level screens are probably both pricey and unnecessary for viewing from a distance. [ACE]


Street Photography for iOS Users -- Sometimes you want to take a picture with your iPhone or iPad without being painfully obvious by holding your device vertically to use the camera. With the MirrorCase for the iPhone 4/4S, iPhone 5, and iPad, you can hold the iPhone horizontally, as though you were innocently reading something, and still snap pictures and take videos of scenes in front of you. Or, if you’re using your iPad to take notes in a lecture, it can remain flat on the desk while still having a clear camera view of the lecturer’s slide presentation. It’s all done via smoke and mirrors, without the smoke, and the free MirrorCase app handles the necessary pixel-flipping so everything is right-side up (a $0.99 MirrorCase Plus version adds sharing and in-app access to the Camera Roll). The MirrorCase for the iPhone 4/4S is available now for $49.95, the iPhone 5 version is available for pre-order for $59.95, and the iPad version is also coming soon for $79.95. [ACE]


iPad Note Taking with Synced Audio, Text, and Photos -- I’ve long been looking for a note-taking app with which I could record a lecture and have any notes I take synced to the right point in the audio, along with any photos I take. Synced audio and text is fairly common, but an iPad app I saw at the show, the $1.99 Projectbook, may be the first I’ve seen to include synced photos too, which I want as a way of recording the presenter’s slides. But Projectbook is way more than a note-taking app, also storing to-do lists, Word documents and PDFs, Web clippings, images, and sketches. Notes can contain styled text, handwritten text, sketches, photos, and synced audio. Notes and other documents are automatically related by their contents, and you can also tag notes, file them in folders, or organize them by date. I’m not certain I’d want to use Projectbook for task management, at least until the Mac and iPhone versions are available, but it looks to have compelling features for note-taking and information management. [ACE]

Kanex ATV Pro -- For my “The iPad for Photographers” session, I geeked out by delivering my entire presentation from my iPad, wirelessly, using an AirPort Express and an Apple TV. (I wrote about the setup in more detail in the Seattle Times.) But the day before I was to appear onstage, I ran into an unexpected snag: the projectors used at the show offered only old VGA connections. The third- and fourth-generation Apple TV use HDMI connections as the only way to output video and audio, so I figured I’d have to fall back to an iPad VGA adapter, tying me to the lectern for my talk. Talk about an occasion when it was great to have a bunch of vendors on the show floor nearby! I headed to the Kanex booth, knowing that they’ve offered video adapters of all sorts for years, and sure enough, they had exactly what I needed: the $59.95 Kanex ATV Pro. It plugs into the Apple TV’s HDMI port, and includes a port for attaching a VGA cable. There’s also a 3.5mm audio-out jack to output sound. In talking with one of the company’s representatives in the booth, I learned that the ATV Pro is one of their best-selling products, especially to education customers who aren’t able to upgrade older projectors but want to take advantage of the AirPlay media and screen-sharing capabilities of Apple’s latest devices. [JLC]

Givit and BUZZcard Enhance iPhone Videos -- We went to Macworld/iWorld planning to do some video interviews, and while that didn’t happen much for a variety of reasons, we noticed a couple of video app/service combos that might be of interest to those shooting video on an iPhone. The Givit app and service (free for up to 5 GB of storage, $29.99 per year for 100 GB) let you easily clip the best bits out of longer videos, enhance them with motion effects (slow motion, speed-up, replay), add music, and then quickly share privately or to social media services. BUZZcard doesn’t offer editing (and could use more previewing features), but instead focuses on branding videos, helping you add an intro and an outro, plus music and a watermark over the video. It’s targeted at sales professionals like real estate agents and car dealers who need to show off products but don’t have the skills or time for video editing. BUZZcard’s $9.95 per month service currently posts to YouTube after processing the video; a $19.95 Pro service that’s coming soon will host the videos itself. Read on to see our BUZZcard sample video! [ACE]

Best Bag Demo -- The Platforma bag from Strotter deserves mention both for its elegant design and for the performance demo its designer had worked up to show off all its features. The bag converts from a vertical messenger bag to a sling-type backpack, and with the switch of a clip, creates a hands-free platform on which you can work on the iPad. The iPad sticks tight to the bag thanks to a magnetized polycarbonate case that will also hold your iPad to a refrigerator. The $169 Platforma is made of water-resistant leather with bright red nylon lining, features waterproof zippers, and has one internal pocket along with two front-wall pockets and one back-wall pocket, a magnetic flap closure, and a 1.5-inch seatbelt strap with custom buckle. You can read more about it on Strotter’s site, or watch the video we took and branded with BUZZcard. [ACE]

Cooking with iPad and Chef Sleeve -- For as long as I can remember, the computer has been poised to become a digital kitchen companion — and yet most of us still reach for paper cookbooks when standing at the kitchen counter. Part of the problem is that cooking is messy, and while nature may abhor a vacuum, iPads abhor soup. The folks at Chef Sleeve sell disposable iPad sleeves (25 for $19.99, available directly and at Target) that protect the tablet from ingredients that never completely make it into mixing bowls. The booth representatives said the fitted plastic bags are reusable, but I’m not crazy about having to toss excess plastic, even if it is recyclable. However, what intrigued me more was the company’s $34.99 iPad Dishwasher Safe iPad Stand and $69.99 Cutting Board with iPad Stand. Both products are made from recycled wood fibers and a food-safe resin, and — as advertised — can be cleaned in the dishwasher. The stand can hold the iPad in two angles (45 or 20 degrees) depending on which slot you use; I like that the wider slot accommodates an iPad with a Smart Cover wrapped around the back. The cutting board features a slot for the iPad, so you can keep your recipes right in front of your work. Maybe this arrangement will finally convince me to digitize my old index card recipes. [JLC]


Simplest iPhone Holders -- Lastly, we wanted to call out Insanely Great Products, a small California company that was selling oodles of simple, inexpensive iPhone holders and elegant iPad stands. Their shtick? In an industry where many products are made badly in China by low-paid workers, Insanely Great Products is at the forefront of the Made in America re-shoring trend, doing all their manufacturing in Silicon Valley. Though known mostly for software, Silicon Valley has also always had a rich tradition and ecosystem for hardware manufacturing, and everyone at Insanely Great Products participates in building the company’s products, starting with sheets of acrylic, steel, and aluminum and then designing, cutting, bending, etching and assembling each item by hand. The company got its start in the maker-focused TechShop in the San Francisco Bay Area, though they had to purchase some of their own equipment to be able to produce sufficient quantities. If you’re looking for an iPhone gadget that can prop your iPhone up on your desk, hold it to a window, or dangle it from your car’s vents, their ingenious suction-cup and binder-clip holders really do work. And if aluminum, acrylic, and steel are too industrial for you, their natural bamboo iPhone 5 stand, which also can hold an iPad mini at a nice reading angle, is also an attractive accessory. [ACE]


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Investigating Siri’s English Accents

  by Steve McCabe: steve@stevemccabe.net
  8 comments

Once the novelty of asking Siri, Apple’s “Intelligent Personal Assistant,” to open the pod bay doors, or to beam one up, has worn off and you’ve learned what magic phrasings to use, Siri starts to show herself — or, for users in some countries, himself — off as a rather intelligent assistant indeed.

But since Siri is billed as being personal, as well as intelligent, Apple has granted Siri the capability to listen, and to speak, in a number of languages — the original iPhone 4S with iOS 5 spoke English, French, and German, with Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, and both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese showing up in Siri’s repertoire at various dates afterwards.

But let’s be honest here — it’s almost entirely meaningless to speak of “English” as a single linguistic construct: just ask any British speaker of the language what we make of Americans talking of patting someone’s fanny. Realising that there is an entire world of variety within English (George Bernard Shaw only slightly exaggerated when he had Professor Higgins claim, in “Pygmalion,” to be able to locate an accent in London to within two streets; certainly he was right that, in England at least, we notice minute regional variations, and we care), Apple originally programmed Siri with the capability to work in three different dialects — American, Australian, and the tautological British English; Canadian English followed, almost as an afterthought, but sounds the same as the American English voice.

The British English version is one of only three versions of Siri that speaks with a man’s voice, the other two being French and Swiss French; infer what you will as to why Apple chose to flip genders like this. Siri’s British accent, incidentally, would appear to be a generic southern-English variety, with the “a” sound in “ask” and “answer” lengthened.

It is worth noting that iOS offers no way of selecting different input and output voices — if you want to speak to Siri in American English, for example, then Siri will reply to you in the same voice, no matter how much you might prefer an Australian female voice or a British male accent.

(Apple has strongly resisted referring to Siri’s gender, but in the real world, where Siri speaks with a clearly female or male voice, it is nearly impossible for people not to anthropomorphize Siri as female or male. I’m not going to fight it.)

Other languages, too, have been modified and regionalised — German, for example, has been divided into German (Germany), which sounds rather like Hochdeutsch, and German (Switzerland), or Schweizerdeutsch. Why these two dialects have been favoured over, say, Austrian German is as arbitrary a decision as the omission, currently, of Irish or New Zealand English. Similarly, Spanish is available in Mexican, Spanish, and U.S. varieties; French is separated into variants for France, Canada, and Switzerland; and Mandarin into flavours labelled “China” and “Taiwan.”

So how much do these fine-grained divisions between regional dialects of English actually matter? I come from Salford, in the north of England, near Manchester — for “Downton Abbey” fans reading this, think “below stairs” and you’ll have a decent handle on my accent. Alternatively, just listen to any of the recordings I’ve made of my TidBITS articles over the last year. Totally and lucidly comprehensible, I trust you’ll agree, but does Siri? Specifically, does American Siri? How about Australian Siri?

There are plenty of differences between American and British usages of English. I did, when an innocent college student in Pennsylvania in my 20s, make the mistake of asking the young lady next to me in class for a rubber when I made a mistake, and — and I swear that this is true — I did, just once, suggest that I should come and knock another young lady up on the way to class one morning. (That latter young lady is now my wife, incidentally, so perhaps it wasn’t such a gaffe.)

But while it is endlessly entertaining to trot out these classic misunderstandings, the reality is that genuine problems and substantial differences are rare enough that, well, they make for great stories. In daily life, it’s pronunciations of words that really makes a difference. The obligatory “lieutenant” aside — we all know it’s correctly pronounced leftenant, so there’s no point in flogging that one any further here, and, since I don’t actually know lieutenants, I rarely have the need to ask Siri to call one for me — there are differences enough in accents across the Atlantic that a one-size-fits-all Siri might well struggle.

A test, then, was in order. The simple sentence “Schedule some water and butter for quarter to four on the third of February” is quite the minefield. “Schedule,” correctly pronounced “shejule,” is more commonly pronounced “sked-jule” in the United States. “Butter” and “water” both end in an “r” which is emphasized as “arrr” in American English, whereas Brits don’t pronounce that “r” basically at all. The “t” phoneme in these words is also different — the British “waw-teh” becomes the American “wodderr.” In my experience of living among Americans, “quarter to four” is an unusual way of giving a time — “three forty-five” would be more common. And, again, there are the “r” and “t” modifications, even if an American were to use the British style. Finally, the second month is pronounced as something resembling “Febry” in Britain, while Americans tend to enunciate each syllable distinctly, as in “Febroo-airy.” A somewhat contrived sentence, then, but one that contains commands (“schedule,” however you pronounce it), dates, and times — a decent challenge for an allegedly intelligent and linguistically aware personal assistant.

The testing subjects would be me — the control, obviously, speaking the Queen’s English — my wife, Deborah, who grew up in the United States and speaks with a standard midwestern American accent (I love her anyway) and our teenage daughter, who lived in Florida for the first twelve years of her life, has spent the last three in New Zealand, and, to my endless chagrin, has yet to shed her American accent.

I went first. British Siri heard and understood correctly first time. I was impressed. I tried a second time, and, again, communication took place quite nicely. By way of a test, I tried pronouncing “schedule” the American way; he still understood. I switched to Siri’s Australian voice, and started to encounter a few difficulties — “water and butter” was routinely understood as “water bottle.” This, I suppose, is fair enough, given that Australian English has a tendency to turn a “t” found between two vowels, such as the middle consonant sound of “water” or “butter,” into a “d,” as Americans are wont to do.

Then I tried American Siri, and matters became quite bizarre — so much so that I had to take screenshots to be sure I would be able to reproduce Siri’s attempts to understand me. “Sejal Sewalt Rubalcava for 3:45 on 3 February” was her first guess; next came “Sejal someone Trembleton for 3:45 on 3 February.” “Show George Washington for 3:45 on 3 February” was also nonsense, but less so than “Children’s Wincherm both of frequentatives Solecita February.” At this point, Siri had quite clearly given up and was tossing out random words she’d heard other people saying. Certainly, what she was hearing bore little or no resemblance to anything I was saying.

Next came Deborah, with her American voice. She set her iPhone’s Siri to be American, and issued the same instruction — no problem. But when her Siri crossed the Atlantic and became British, suddenly he thought she was saying “Schedule some minor in Barrowford kind of fire and the third of anyway.” Australian Siri did much better — “Schedule someone and butter for 3:45 on 3 February.” Our American-raised daughter was, similarly, understood first time by American Siri, but British Siri heard the same nonsense about Barrowford and a minor, and Australian Siri thought she had heard “Schedule someone Bonofiglio define Vodafone.”

The first word in this sequence, “schedule,” was clearly a problem. It’s a sufficiently high-frequency word within the Siri context that it’s imperative that Siri be able to understand both standard pronunciations, and yet, certainly within American English, it can only handle the American pronunciation, while the British and Australian settings seem able to handle both.

While Apple doesn’t give much away about how Siri parses sentences, it seems fairly clear that the linguistic analysis that goes on when an iPhone sends an audio sample to Apple’s servers for processing revolves around a primarily functional, rather than strictly grammatical, system. In our test sentence, the first word encountered is “Schedule,” which flags up to Siri that we want to add a calendar item; what comes after that word will then include the event, and will likely include some combination of date, time and location. “Tell” and “ask” both trigger text messages, while “call” and synonyms involve phone calls, and in each case will be followed by either a name to be found in Contacts or a phone number.

The problem, then, seems to be that if that first word — the trigger word, so to speak — is misunderstood, then the entire function of the command is likely to be misunderstood. But when I returned to safer, more familiar ground — a time, say, or a date, which is more constrained by certain formats — then Siri tended to fare better.

I was interested to note that, even though all three of us used the format “quarter to four” in our utterances, in each case that Siri understood this, rendering the time onscreen as 3:45, which leads us to another interesting finding.

When Apple first taught Siri Japanese, I decided I had to try it out. I told my iPhone 妻に電話して下さい (Tsuma ni denwa shite kudasai — “call my wife”). Deborah is in my Contacts list, of course, and she’s listed as my “wife” — in English, not in Japanese. But when I told Siri, in Japanese, to call tsuma, not “my wife,” Siri called Deborah. There is, clearly, some rather deft background processing going on here — the meaning of a word or phrase, if we can speak of such when dealing with computers and programming, works on a level at which a flag such as “wife” can be triggered by a number of different tokens — even in different languages.

Siri’s language processing would appear to operate independently of its input and output language preferences, and so I do find myself wondering why we have to keep Siri’s input and output in lockstep. I clearly have much more success when Siri listens to me in British English, but I don’t much care for the British English voice (and I wonder why it’s the only male English voice). Given that output and responses are, seemingly, abstractions of a lower-level processing system, why not allow me to set my iPhone’s voice to, say, Australian? (Alas, there’s no New Zealand voice yet; our iPhones come set to British by default.)

Apart from personal preference — I might prefer a female voice, if nothing else — all synthesized voices are going to sound slightly off, and will annoy us in exactly the way our children do when they consistently mispronounce some word they’ve read but not heard, with the added frustration of not being able to correct the synthesized voice. I’ve noticed, however, that when one hears a mispronunciation in a foreign accent, it’s far less off-putting, and sometimes even charming. So if Siri let me set British English as my input language and Australian English as my output language, I could much more easily forgive her pronunciation missteps. Indeed, why not enable any of the myriad voices that have long inhabited a Mac?

Of course, this might lead to some iPhones sounding like Zarvox, so maybe it’s not the best idea.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 11 February 2013

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

Sandvox 2.7.6 -- Karelia updated Sandvox to version 2.7.5 over the weekend, but then quickly issued version 2.7.6 in order to fix a bug that rendered the Web authoring tool unusable for some users. The Sandvox 2.7.6 update improves stability while publishing or handling missing media and addresses an issue when choosing a banner or favicon image. It also collects all improvements and bug fixes released in version 2.7.5, including an issue where saving a new document to a location other than your startup disk could result in data loss; direct publishing of a .ico favicon file without any adjustment by Sandvox; improved stability working with external media; improved responsiveness working with documents stored on a network-attached storage (NAS) drive; and improved validity of Sandvox-generated RSS feeds, especially those containing enclosures such as podcasts. As of this writing, the Mac App Store version is still stuck at 2.7.4. ($79.99 new, free update, 31.2 MB)

Read/post comments about Sandvox 2.7.6.

AirPort Utility 6.2 for Mac -- Apple has released AirPort Utility 6.2 for Mac, which adds the capability of extending Wi-Fi guest access across a network with multiple AirPort base stations. Additionally, the update enables you to add a WPS-capable Wi-Fi printer and improves international support. In conjunction with these new features, Apple also released AirPort Base Station and Time Capsule Firmware Update 7.6.3, which is available for all 802.11n AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and Time Capsule models. The firmware update can be installed only from AirPort Utility 6.2, and if you don’t need its new features, it may be worth waiting for a bit to see if Apple issues an update to address some complaints that have appeared in the Apple Support Communities. If you have AirPort Utility for iOS on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, be sure to update to version 1.2 to take advantage of these features. (Free, 20.64 MB)

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OS X Server 2.2.1 -- Apple has released OS X Server 2.2.1, with the server add-on for OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion adding a couple of features in addition to some stability fixes. First up, a Caching Server has been added to improve download speeds from the Mac App Store, enabling you to download one copy of the software to your Mac running OS X Server and then distribute that copy to other connected Macs. The release also adds a Time Machine monitoring service that can check to see which computers have backed up (including information on size and time of last backup), Wiki Server support for Retina displays, and a Centralized Certificate management interface. This update fixes an issue with deleting apps uploaded to the Profile Manager, setup failures caused by an SSL error, and problems with upgrading from Lion Server. Additionally, OS X Server 2.2.1 includes a few security patches focused on closing some vulnerabilities related to Ruby on Rails. ($19.99 new, free update, 153 MB, release notes)

Read/post comments about OS X Server 2.2.1.


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