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Three Wise Guys: Automated Female Voices, Peeling Potatoes

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By Joe Heim, Justin Rude and Dan Zak
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Gentlemen:

LOVE your column and hope you can help with this question: In describing a Global Positioning System, a friend referred to it as "she." When I asked him why, he said the voice was female. That started me thinking: Of the disembodied voices I hear during the day, most are female (on Metro; on automated answering systems at utilities, banks, etc.). Can you explain this?

Pat

Dan: This is a great question, but I think the answer would sound a lot better if it came from a woman, so we've asked our colleague Libby Copeland to give it a shot.

Libby: I myself have a GPS device. My husband and I have programmed her to speak in a British accent because we think it sounds more refined. She still gets us lost. Here's the thing: I'd rather take directions from a woman, just as I'd rather have a woman tell me the Metro doors are about to close on my leg. I feel as though all those soulless prerecorded women's voices are looking out for me. A man's voice would sound less nurturing, too orderly. Too . . . German. I want a relationship with the faceless bureaucracy that is imposing order on my daily routine.

Joe: To follow up on Libby's answer -- and because we have a particular fondness for pretentious responses -- we'd like to invoke a little poetry here. As you can tell from this stanza, the 19th-century English poet John Clare clearly anticipated the effect that public announcements made by a woman might have:

As her sweet voice came mingling on the ear.

Ah, who but knows what woman's voice can do!

To every soul such melody is dear;

Angelic harmony, and beauty too!

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

Dear Wise Guys:

I was peeling potatoes yesterday and wondered about the correct method. Do you peel the potato away from you or pull the peeler toward you? My low-cost peeler worked better coming toward me, but I was always taught to peel away from myself!

Linda

Justin: I am pretty sure you aren't going to do too much damage either way with a standard vegetable peeler, but I figure it's best to consult an expert whenever sharp blades are involved. Stephanie Barrett, lead kitchen assistant and knife skills instructor (talk about a cool job) at Sur La Table in Arlington agreed that potato peeling is a matter of personal preference. "I peel away from me, but I know people who peel towards them," she says.

If you are still concerned, Stephanie offers this alternative: "Cut off each end and then set the potato upright on the counter and use a knife to slice down each side." She admits that this isn't her preferred style. "I honestly think the right way to peel a potato is the one where you don't cut yourself." I think we can all agree on that.

Joe: When did this column turn into Hints From Heloise?

Have a question only the Three Wise Guys can answer? Send it to wiseguys@washpost.com and await their words of wise-dom.


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