Automating Email Replies

Over the past few months I’ve noticed some changes in my Gmail. The two changes are Smart Reply, where Gmail provides three canned responses, and Smart Compose, where Gmail suggests text to complete your sentences. One goal of both changes is to reduce the number of key strokes, and ultimately the amount of time, required to respond to emails.

They also both use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to make predictions and refine the selections over time based on your usage patterns. Essentially, Gmail scans emails to try and predict what the most common responses are based on the content of the message and by analyzing responses from your email and others. Here’s a blog posting from Google about using Smart Reply.

I rarely use Smart Reply, though I do notice how it has been adjusting based on my patterns. For example, over the weekend I was confirming the attendance of a player for a rehearsal. She replied that yes, she was coming to the rehearsal. Below are the three Smart Replies. The “yay” definitely seems like something I would write, especially to this particular recipient, including the exclamation points.

Here are three Smart Replies offered for an invitation that I received, which are more generic. Regarding the last response, I would rarely use this one. It’s not my style and I’m sure if I utilized Smart Reply, Gmail would figure that out and remove it as an option over time.

The other option, Smart Compose, provides suggestions of what to type, again based on AI and machine learning. As I’m typing, Smart Compose predicts what I might want to write by offering text. If I like it, then I press Tab to use the text and move on to the next sentence. Smart Compose will also auto-adjust as you keep typing so the suggestions will change as you continue to write.

For example, a friend of mine is sick so I was sending him an email to see how he was doing. Smart Compose is the gray text in gray.

Although these two features are time savers, I do have to wonder who will be training who in the future. Will I pick the best Smart Reply because it’s the best one for me, or will I pick it because it’s convenient and the one I see the most often?

Data Wipe and Rewrite

The gripping conclusion to last week’s post: Data Dealer.

Penelope gulped visibly. Initially she had felt committed to a level 1 wipe, but now confronted with the reality of it actually happening, she was wavering.

As though the woman could sense Penelope’s hesitation, she remained silent.

“I guess…” Penelope started and then took a shaky breath. “I guess I might want option 1.” There she had said it.

Penelope’s mind instantly flashed back to the dumb, idiotic photo she had taken of her bare breasts at age 13. Goaded on by the popular boys and her friends, Penelope had done it. Lifted her shirt, pointed the selfie cam down, tilted slightly to the left, click. Review, giggle, small hesitation, then she hit the share button. The whole transaction had taken less than a minute. She was still living with the consequences, years later. And yes, she would give anything to have this wiped out, even if it also meant erasing her entire virtual identity.

“Who will I become?” Penelope asked.

“What do you mean?” The gaze of the woman’s gray eyes was piercing and harsh in the glow of the bulbs.

“If you erase my virtual existence, who am I?”

“That depends,” replied the woman. “We have an add-on option, but it is costly. We can do a wipe and rewrite.”

“A rewrite?” Penelope’s heart hammered. “A way to change history?”

All those horrible posts about her breasts. The downward thumbs, the altered images of her body. Years of torture gone… with a rewrite?

“Yes. Suppose you posted a bad picture, a questionable Tweet, or inflammatory post that resulted in catastrophe. We can rewrite the history. Though it requires us to go into other people’s accounts and tamper with their comments, feeds, profiles, etc. so it is costly,” the woman reiterated. She paused before continuing.

“There are some privacy considerations. And naturally we can’t change peoples’ memories of what happened, only alter the virtual record of it. Someone might still think one thing, but their profile and feed would show something else.

“Plus, you would have to create the rewrite with one of our illusion specialists.”

“I’ll do it,” Penelope blurted out before she lost her nerve. She had already paid a high cost for her carelessness and would pay anything to correct it.

“Follow me,” the woman said. She turned and waved her arm at the wall. Out of nothing, a door slid open and the two women walked through.

 

Data Dealer

The door closed silently behind her. It slid shut so tightly that when she turned around, she couldn’t see the outline of it anymore. Penelope observed the sparse settings, her eyes tracing each of the four corners in the empty room. The walls were light gray, the color shimmering from the bulbs hanging above.

Penelope glanced at her feed. 15:15, on time. The room seemed small, but it was large enough to have a small couch and a few chairs, she thought, wondering how long she would be standing here waiting. Her eyes flitted quickly around the room’s edges one more time. She was trying to figure out where the data dealer would enter the room.

Her contact had told her that these types of transactions always happened in person, a rarity these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had used her voice to communicate with someone directly instead of sending a message. Even when they were in the same room together. But this meeting had to be in person, she was told. Commanded really. The terms were explicit with no room for compromise. This included the price.

15:17. She looked around again, this time trying to find the door she had used to enter. The monotonous look of the walls was disorienting. She could no longer tell where she had entered from. Would she be able to get out again?

She sensed movement behind her and spun around quickly. A woman stood there quietly, an unreadable expression on her face. A door sealed seamlessly in back of her. Penelope wasn’t sure if that was the same door she had used or not. Or if it was too late to change her mind.

“So, you wanted the total data wipe. Is that correct?” the woman inquired.

“Um, yeah. I think so. Could you go over what I would get with that again?” Penelope asked, stalling.

“It depends on how extensive you want the wipe to be. Level 3 does a wipe on up to 3 social media platforms. In addition to your account, obviously, this also includes mentions of your name, facial recognition tags, blurring any images of you, and all comments and correspondence.

Level 2 is the same but includes more social media platforms plus all your emails and anything obvious on the web.  Level 1 obliterates your virtual existence completely. Which one did you want?”

Stay tuned for next week’s installment.

On Being Nibbled to Death

For about a year after my father died, I attended a weekly bereavement group. We had a few running themes as we tried to navigate our new lives through a fog of grief. One of the recurring themes, exclaimed often by the originator and one of my favorite attendees, was the feeling of “being nibbled to death by ducks.”

Look at the glint in his eyes! Clearly this duck is a nibbler by nature.

This woman, a youngish mother of two children, tween and teenaged, was left widowed when a freaky, rare cancer killed her healthy husband in a matter of months. She came week after week and would often conclude her updates with an exasperated sigh, hands going up in the air, before voicing, “I’m being nibbled to death by ducks!”

We would all chuckle appreciatively, grateful for a little humor to relieve some of the heaviness in the room. Not because we didn’t take her seriously, or understand her plight, but because the image of being nibbled to death by ducks was funny. But we all knew what she meant. One duck nibble wasn’t enough to do any damage. Maybe we could even sustain a dozen or so rubbery bills gently mashing on our skin without feeling any ill effects. Nibbled to death, however, was another matter.

One of the many nibbling specimens we saw in Iceland.

It’s easy for small, harmless tasks to pile up, especially when we’re busy dealing with the urgency of day-to-day matters or competing priorities. Having one or two of these annoying burdens pushed aside is no big deal, something that can be knocked out with a quick spurt of furious energy and motivation when the time comes. But when they start to accumulate, it turns into a project, or several projects. Naturally all of these feelings are amplified when also dealing with strong emotions, or life changes.

I haven’t been to bereavement group in almost 15 years, but I can still experience the sensation of being nibbled to death by ducks. When life gets busy and these insignificant chores amass, it becomes a project. They are no longer the kind of thing I can knock out in 10-15 minutes, but instead require hours of my time to power through them. This might be considered procrastinating for some, and labeled as efficiency to others. Some might prefer to wait until a whole bunch of annoying, tiny tasks pile up before tackling them all at once. Whatever the strategy, with a little perseverance, it’s an avoidable death.

Maybe they’re not so harmful after all.

Vacation: The Digital Photo Aftermath

I recently returned from a fabulous trip to Iceland. Unpacking my suitcase was easy, but I can already tell “unpacking” the digital photos will probably take the same amount of time as the vacation itself. To complicate matters, this was the first trip where I used an iPad, smartphone, and camera to take pictures. I used my smartphone sparingly, primarily when I had nothing else with me or to take pictures to send to people back home. Naturally the iPad and camera do not have the messaging apps I use to communicate with people regularly.

Iceland is full of breathtaking scenery, at times like something from another planet. Every time I thought I had a great view and happily snapped away a few pictures, a few paces further revealed another amazing opportunity. And more images were captured. groan.

A scenic roadside stop to see this lava ring.

I did a few things to minimize the pain of organizing the photos later.

  1. Photographing a sign with the name of the place to give me a reference point.
  2. On my iPad, I immediately put photos into albums with the name of the place before deleting anything.
  3. I reviewed the images on all devices often to weed out the bad ones (e.g., accidental shots, blurry images, over exposed, etc.).

I use Photos on my laptop as my main repository. Rather than import everything as one giant dump from each device, I prefer to upload the photos in batches according to the location or event. This definitely takes longer, but I like organizing as I go and use standardized naming to help locate images later. The process can be kind of tedious, but it also gives me a chance to relive moments, marvel again at the wonders I saw, and help to cement them in my brain.

One of the stunning views from Helgafell (Holy Mountain).

After this part of the process is over, I usually go through the images again on a big screen and do a second round of deletions. Then comes the sharing and figuring out how to send/receive photos with the other people that were on the tour.

As the final stage in the process I like to create a photos album of my trip. This is probably my favorite part, even though choosing the photos can be challenging. All this technology available to take amazing pictures, and yet the process of managing, organizing, and sharing them with different devices and operating systems, is still pretty clunky.

A gull walking on one of the beaches (Ytri Tunga) we visited.

Life Changing Moments

On this day in 1988 I had my first bassoon lesson. It was one of those random, flukey things that can happen in one’s life with a lasting impact. Initially I had decided to play the clarinet, not so much because I liked it, but because it’s a versatile instrument. My band director approached me and said how about I try the bassoon instead. With only a vague idea of what a basssoon was, I agreed and took home the Box.

I arrived home that day, opened up the box, stared at the pieces for a few minutes before closing it again. I decided to wait for my lesson later that week.

Very confusing how the parts fit together, especially in the days before Google and YouTube.

By the end of the lesson, I decided that this was the instrument I wanted to play. I still remember how amazing it was to breathe through the instrument and flap my fingers around to make all these cool sounds. I still feel that way, thirty years later. In that first hour I learned how to assemble the instrument, play an F-major scale and E-flat. More than enough notes to do some damage.

Action shot.

I left the lesson completely enchanted and motivated to practice. In the beginning my practice sessions were short, but frequent. My lips were not used to the hardness of the reeds. But I was diligent and used to practice in short spurts multiple times in a day. I guess it got a little out of control. One of my earliest bassoon memories is of my older brother complaining to my parents that I couldn’t just play whenever I felt like it. I needed restricted practicing hours. At the time I figured it was sibling rivalry and my brother’s failed attempt to thwart my creative genius. For years I was only allowed to play from 3-4 and 7-8.

I have since had a change of heart about that. Some years ago I was subjected to the playing of a new bassoonist, something like a cross between an animal being sawed in half and rusty hinges. I had a new appreciation for my brother’s complaints and a new respect for my parents. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was when I started…

Playing the bassoon is still one of the greatest joys of my life. I feel lucky that the “right” instrument picked me so many years ago.