Siri won’t speak in Shortcuts

There are a handful of Shortcuts that I use, a few of which trigger speech as part of their output. At some point, Apple made a couple of changes in this area, one of which had me quite puzzled.

But first, the pleasant surprise change. You can now specify “Siri Voice #3” as the voice to use when speaking your output. This oddly named selection is the traditional Siri voice that we all know and love. This eliminates the jarring sensation of having a usual voice emanate from your Mac or iOS device. (Depending on your platform and OS version, you may have different and additional Siri selections, too. Including my favorite, the Female Irish voice.)

The second, puzzling change, is the necessity to include a “Continue Execution” (Or, “Dismiss Siri and Continue”) action to allow the speech to happen during automated Shortcut execution.

So, if you have a speaking Shortcut where spoken output fails when it’s executed outside the development environment, try including a Continue action to make it work again.

None of Us is as Dumb as All of Us: Goodbye Auto-Correct

I’m giving up on the macOS autocorrect feature. It makes too many inappropriate substitutions, and I don’t always notice they’ve happened. (I’m keeping it turned on my iOS devices, where assistance with thumb-typing is crucial for maintaining my sanity.)

Autocorrect used to be great, and much more accurate. It started going downhill when Apple incorporated crowdsourced machine intelligence into the algorithm. With this highly questionable change, if enough of my fellow monkeys bang out a word and leave it uncorrected, it becomes an acceptable substitution to make on everyone else’s computer. Sadly, as the Trump era has shown us, the world (even Mac users) consists of many ignorant people.

In addition to the problem of “garbage in – garbage out,” there are inevitable software bugs. Several years ago, the vulnerability of a machine-based intelligence became evident when iOS started substituting “⍰” for a lower-case “i.” Apple had to retrain the AI to stop making the mistake. (See this report from New Yorker, and this one from TechCrunch.)

Here are a couple of examples of the maddening behavior that finally drove me to disable the feature:

gordon meyer screenshot of off

I assure you that “off” is not misspelled. And neither is “here,” below.

gordon meyer here mispelled

In addition to the spelling AI, the grammar checker feature must also use mistrained machine intelligence, as I’ve often gotten numerous ridiculous suggestions similar to this one:

gordon meyer

And, ironically, a suggestion about replacing this correctly spelled word with a misspelling, while I was writing the paragraph above.

gordon meyer

Fortunately for me, aside from email, these days most of my Mac-based writing is done in Ulysses, which offers suggestions that are more reliable than those proffered by macOS. Although, I still wonder about the backend privacy of what the Ulysses app is doing to analyze my writing. (I take some comfort that, as a German company, they are likely adhering to stricter EU laws in this regard.)

I’ve been humbled by how much turning autocorrect off has slowed my typing. I’ve clearly grown dependent upon the computer interpreting my fast, sloppy keypresses. Now that I have to deliberately enter words, I’m slower, but I’d like to believe that I’m a little more thoughtful, too.

Book Review: Blah Blah Blah

This 2011 book by Dan Roam is subtitled “What to do when words won’t work.” It’s essentially a primer, a justification, and a tutorial for incorporating sketching into your notes and presentations. For the purpose of increasing clarity, improving focus, and utilizing “both halves” of your brain.

gordon meyer holding book

It’s a big book; about 350 pages. And while the design and illustrations are very engaging and unique, most of the large-format pages are, inevitably, filled with words. Ironically, too many words. There are a lot of redundant and tangential paragraphs that an editor should have pared down or eliminated.

I was given this book by a friend. And I enjoyed it. I also learned a few things, and I thought quite a bit about its methods and arguments. But those of you who know me professionally will attest that I am an avowed minimalist when it comes to instructional design and writing. This book uses, almost literally, the proverbial “thousand words” to describe the “pictures” it prescribes. I had a hard time not slipping into critique mode as I read its meandering and overwritten advice.

That said, there are a few points of particular interest:

  • Words have become our default thinking tool but cannot alone “detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today.”
  • “Words can be used to describe anything, but that does not mean words are the best way to describe everything.” (The author should consider using “depict” in this sentence for clarity and snappiness.)
  • Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham to win a $50 bet from his publisher. The challenge was to write a book using only 50 words, including “Sam,” “Ham,” and “am.” (Constraints breed creativity!)
  • “Language is the single most sophisticated, finely developed, and important technology humanity has ever created. Using words is what makes us human. … it is also our easiest technology to mess up.”
  • School children spend year after year learning how to express themselves using words. But visual education stops at the preschool level, and for most, never develops past that.
  • Too much emphasis on words and language has reduced most thinking to using just “halve our minds” — our visual thinking side takes a back seat too often. The author includes a useful chart that relates simple drawing methods to common categories of information. For example, when dealing with a list, try a map instead.

Despite its length, this book can be a quick read. That’s because pretty much all the salient points are covered in the first three chapters and the two appendices. (One of which is based on the author’s Back of the Napkin business book.)

I recommend this book as a tool for exploring a different way of presenting information. I just wish it were more focused and not quite so gimmicky. You can get a copy from Amazon, of course, or borrow it from the library and skim the front and back portions — after that you’ll know if you want to dive into the blah blah blah of the middle sections.

Book Review: 50 Things to do in the Urban Wild

This heart-filled volume by Clare Gogerty implores the reader to discover, appreciate, and celebrate the natural world that lurks beneath the surface of an urban city.

Or, at least, that’s what I hoped it would do. Such insights can definitely be mined from the author’s pages, but overall, I found the book to be more about small projects suited to suburban (not urban) living.

gordon meyer holding book

The book is charming, and Gogerty’s appreciative enthusiasm is undeniably contagious. But her definition of city life, as a resident of a small English county, differs greatly from mine as a Chicagoan.

But I did discover several hints and perspectives that made me smile, and a few that I will put to use in my own way. The suggestion about creating natural, ephemeral art in public green spaces, is one example of the latter.

While this book didn’t hit home for me, if you live in the suburbs or a small city, I could imagine it really speaking to you. You can find a copy at the Amazon, of course.

Primark is for travelers

Just prior to the end of the Before Times, my wife and I spent about six months traveling and living in Europe and the UK. We learned a lot about extended trips and being nomadic, but the most common question we get about the trip is how we managed to pack for multiple seasons and climates.

We each had a medium carry-on bag, and the equivalent of a briefcase. Both of which were small enough to fit in the relatively tiny overhead shelves of European trains, and not be too much of a burden for carrying through cities. (Once we arrived overseas, we didn’t fly at all, our transportation was by foot, train, ferry, ship, or taxi.)

You’ll find plenty of sites with advice about luggage and what to wear and pack. But the one tip we learned — and never saw documented elsewhere — can be summed up in two words: fast fashion.

That is, we didn’t carry clothes for the three seasons during which we travelled (Summer, Fall, Winter). We bought and discarded clothes along the way. And the best and most useful of those came from the chain store Primark.

Primark, based in Ireland, is known for inexpensive clothing that doesn’t last long, which is perfect for this kind of trip. As the seasons change, replace what you’re packing. Doing this also removes anxiety from the laundry quandary — when your clothes are temporary and cheap, local laundry service or wash-in-the-hotel-sink becomes less worrisome.

How inexpensive am I talking? A whole outfit for less than the price of a meal! For example, I bought $12 jeans, $8 shirts, and a $22 jacket that I ended up bringing home and now wear for doing yard work.

Even if you’re not going on a long-term trip, packing light is always a good idea. And returning home with fewer clothes than you left with opens up room in your luggage for gifts, souvenirs, or other treasures you might find along the way.

An unanticipated bonus is that now, when we look at photos from our trip, not only do the locations bring up happy memories, but so do the long-lost clothes that we are wearing.

Yes, Primark is for travelers. Get a list of their locations from their website and bon voyage.