Monday, January 27, 2014

I Hear Voices

     In decades past, before the ubiquity of the disembodied voice, we heard the old-fashioned voice.  Remember?  That was the voice that came from the mouth of a person we saw.  And that person saw us.  Take, for example, a judge informing counsel her ruling in a law and motion matter.  "Demurrer sustained…without leave."  Damn! 

         Sometimes you got a few minutes advance notice.  The tentative rulings were on the counsel table for perusal before the judge took the bench.  Or the tentative rulings were on a sheet posted on the wall outside the courtroom.  Attorneys elbowed their way through the crowd of their colleagues, straining to see how they fared.

         Enter technology.  Some courts used a telephone call‑in.  You could call in the day before the law and motion calendar and hear the recorded voice of the judge or his or her clerk read off the tentative rulings, "No. 34, Fleming v. County of Los Angeles.  Summary judgment granted as to counts 2 and 4.…"  Behold the arrival of the disembodied voice. 

         Today when calling a company about your bill or services, it is rare for you to speak to a real person in real time on the telephone.  There are exceptions.  I spent a fruitless 45 minutes trying to resolve a discrepancy in a bill with someone named "Howard" in Bangalore, India.  I have to admit that I do better with disembodied voices.  But that depends on the particular voice I speak with.  For example, the voice I call to pay one of my credit cares is wonderful.  She (most of these voices are female) is warm, friendly and engaging.  She speaks in the current vernacular with a lilt.  When I tell her that I wish to pay the full amount, she answers with, "OK, I will go ahead then and process your payment."  It's charming that she says "go ahead then...."  She gives me my confirmation number at just the right speed so I can write it down on the first try.  I would like to chat a bit, but I don't want to impose on her time.  She gives me a cheery goodbye.  I don't feel so bad about paying the bill. 

         I bet she would be even more cheery if I told her I wanted to pay the minimum due.  I doubt though that she would tell me in the same unbeguiling manner that such a payment would eventually be the equivalent of 28% interest with finance charges, account and special handling fees. 

         I don't care all that much for the voice of my insurance company.  She is too upbeat for me.  She goes through the prompts with a smile in her voice.  I don't need "happy."  Someone just totaled my car.  The insurance lady's ingratiating, cloying voice irritates me no end.  She reminds me of Jack Smith, a popular singer in the 1940's.  He had a radio show in which he rendered songs of the day, no matter what the lyric, with a smile in his voice.  Sorry, but the lyrics to "I Have a Right to Sing the Blues"or "Stormy Weather" just don't work with a smile. 

         But there are other voices I intensely dislike.  Take the voice that repetitively orders me to insert my validated parking receipt in an impossibly narrow slot to cause a gate to lift so that I can exit the garage at the gym.  Her tone is demanding and offensive.  She keeps repeating without pause in an exasperated tone, "Please insert your parking ticket in the slot.  Please insert your parking ticket in the slot.  Please insert…."  Can't help it.  I answer.  "Give me a (expletive) chance (expletive)."  Unfazed, she continues, while I fumble with my ticket.  "Please insert your parking ticket…."  And on the occasions when I accidentally insert the ticket with the black strip on the left instead of the right, the voice becomes louder and more strident.  When I successfully get the ticket in the slot with the black strip on the right, the gate goes up and I tear out of there.  Her crisp "thank you" oozes insincerity.

         Next to the gym at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Pacific Coast Highway there is a gas station where I often fill up and then head north to the court.  The voice I hear at the gas station is not disembodied, but it should be.  Perched on the top of the bullet-proof enclosure, wherein sits the unfriendly cashier surrounded by shelves of unhealthy snacks and cigarettes, is a talking mechanical pelican who comments on the least important events of the day. 

         I am pumping gas when I hear the amplified pelican's voice speaking to me in the argot of a 16-year-old surfer.  "Hey Dude!"  The pelican distracts me from the screaming ads on the video screen on the gas pump.  The pelican offers a comment concerning an unusual phenomenon in the ocean just a few hundred feet away.  Unseasonal warm ocean waters had brought thousands of anchovies near the shore line.  This in turn attracted hundreds of pelicans dive bombing into the ocean to dine on this delicacy.  "Dude, with all these pelicans maybe we should call this Pelican Coast Highway."  "Yeah Dude, cool," I answer.  The pelican's head turns, but his body is erect.  Day and night he stands watch on the rooftop of the market with its unwholesome products, offering an endlessly inane commentary. 

         There is a new movie out called "Her."  It is set in the future and is about a computer nerd who falls in love with the voice on his advanced operating system.  And that brings to mind Siri on my iPhone.  I prefer not to discuss our relationship, but, let's just say, we are good friends.  And I prefer to leave for another day a discussion about the robotic inhuman male voices we often hear on answering machines.  This is a good device to encourage people not to call back. 

         So let's come full circle back to the courts.  Why not have phone‑in oral arguments with voice prompts in the Court of Appeal?  The appellate attorney will call a number and state the case name.  A typical voice prompt will ask, "Does not the Becker case you cite in your brief defeat rather than support your argument?  Please respond.  I didn't quite get that.  Please repeat."  If any attorney stays on the line in the hope she will speak to a representative… it will be a long wait. 

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