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BLOG: Rush Limbaugh, Siri, and the wrath of the technocrati

John Cox | April 20, 2012
On his Tuesday radio broadcast, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh described a technical problem with his iPhone and Apple's Siri voice assistant, encountered on his drive to work that morning.

If politicians were tech companies

Apparently calling someone "clueless," and prone to "saying things which take a gigantic, steaming dump on logic," and the creator of an "Old-Testament-Level of ill-will" doesn't qualify as ranting or as an indicator of "poor analytical skills."

Tamas' final non-technical conclusion: "Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled [sic] against Limbaugh for his epic iPhone story is one he rarely hears: It was pretty boring."

But even a cursory reading of the radio show's transcript, posted at reveals something much more like the befuddlement of a "consumer power user," as Limbaugh terms himself, over encountering a technical problem that he had not run into before.

In Limbaugh's account, he's on his way to work Tuesday morning trying to do voice dictation, something he's done in the past without problem, using his iPhone, Siri, and his in-car Wi-Fi and LTE connections. First, nothing happens and then he gets transcriptions that bear no resemblance to what he spoke aloud.

Following along in Limbaugh's account, his first conclusion is that something is wrong with Apple's Siri servers: the "system is down" he thought. Then, after seeing the strange Siri transcriptions of his spoken words, he thinks that possibly "someone hacked" Apple's Siri servers and that it must be affecting many other iPhone users. It's Limbaugh's listeners, in calls and emails, that later raise the issue of Limbaugh himself being personally targeted and personally hacked. But he finds all of these latter speculations "unsatisfactory."

Here's how he begins his description: "Now, if there is anybody in this audience listening that writes for an Apple or high-tech blog -- or if there is anybody listening to this program that works for or at Apple, Incorporated -- you have to hear what happened to me this morning."

There's no suggestion of being hacked or targeted, no hint of a conspiracy. It reads much more like an end user asking more experienced users for technical help. Overall, no one would mistake the blogosphere's response as that of the New Testament's Good Samaritan

Limbaugh describes his mobile system in the car: he uses an iPhone 4S, with the car's built-in Bluetooth entertainment system, and a Wi-Fi connection to a "Verizon LTE hotspot," presumably the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4620L (reviewed recently by PC Magazine) or something very like it.

He describes, accurately, how Apple's Siri dictation feature works (you can compare it with Smartplanet's more detailed account from November 2011): "[The way that] Apple iPhone dictation works is you hit the microphone button on your keyboard, and that immediately establishes an online connection with Apple servers somewhere. The dictation does not occur, the translation does not occur in the phone. What you say is transmitted at whatever connection speed you're using -- 3G, 4G, or Wi-Fi -- to Apple servers wherever they are. The speech is then transcribed to text by a company called Nuance, which makes Dragon Dictation, and that's the voice-to-text aspect of Siri in the iPhone. So you say, "Testing one, two, three" and hit the microphone button. Apple's servers then transcribe it and send it back to you, and it displays on your screen."


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