Joho the Blog » 2010 » May

May 30, 2010

How to wreck a nice beach

No, this is not about BP. “How to wreck a nice beach” is an iconic phrase for speech recognition software, just as “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana” is for semantic disambiguation. The first is an automated rendering of “How to recognize speech.” The second consists of two sentences that look similar, but each word (except the indefinite article, I guess) plays a different role in the two sentences.

This comes to mind because there’s an interesting post by Repression Jones about a book on the history of the vocoder by Dave Tompkins, along with about an hour of vocoded sounds. Vocoders were originally designed to encrypt voice transmissions. But, run a music synthesizer through it and out the other end you get the 1960s.

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May 28, 2010

Linux on a stick

I’m excited. On the plane ride today, I got Linux loaded onto a USB stick which I then used to boot my Acer One netbook into Linux. Nothing special about that, but because Linux saves onto a 4G section of my USB stick, I now have a tiny, portable OS that saves the stuff I download and create.

My netbook comes loaded with Windows XP on one partition and Android on another. But it’s a particular sucky version of Android, and I’ve found I’m not using it for anything. But I’d rather not be running Windows when I don’t have to. So, the portable USB-ized Ubuntu is perfect for me.

It took me a few tries to get it so that the USB saves the stuff I create while running Linux, and I’m not entirely sure why the slider that sets up the save area was grayed out. Eventually I booted into Linux off of another USB stick, and then used Linux’s own “create startup disk” feature to erase (and format?) the USB stick, which then, at last, let me set aside a save area.

Unfortunately, I have not yet found a way to tether the netbook to my Droid so I can avoid the $15/day Net access charge at the hotel while running Linux. So, for now I’m booting into Windows and using the fabulous PDAnet app.

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May 27, 2010

Non-linear Braille reader?

On the Media had a very interesting interview about the drop in Braille usage from 50% of the blind to merely 10%. It gave me an idea.

Would it be helpful if the blind had a device built into computers, or attachable via USB or whatever, that had eight fingerpads (or maybe ten, with the thumb ones along the bottom) each of which could form a Braille character? Instead of running their fingers across a strip of Braille characters, the computer would create a burst of 8 (or 10) characters simultaneously, on a timed tick the speed of which the user could of course control. So, instead of reading by getting the letters one at a time, you would get them 8 (or 10) at a time. Might this speed up the reading of Braille?

It seems closer to how we actually read: In word-sized clumps, not letter by letter. So, to provide words as Gestalts, this finger-tip Braille display could in each tick present as many words as can be presented in 8 characters; words of more than 8 characters would be presented in as many ticks as it takes, with perhaps a slight change in tempo or an auditory cue to let the user know that the word is not yet complete. But, all of that is just software.

I did a quick patent search at Google Patent and didn’t immediately find anything. Is that because this is not a good idea? Or am I just bad at searching for patents?

fingerpad braille for non-sequential reading

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May 26, 2010

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prof. Michael Sandel

We went last night to hear a conversation between Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks. Very interesting, although it actually turned out to be Prof. Sandel interviewing Rabbi Sacks, rather than an actual conversation; I had been looking forward to the two of them digging into a topic — perhaps justice? — more mutually.

I didn’t take notes — it was not an open-laptop sort of event — but here are some highlights, filtered through my own interests and my faulty memory.

Rabbi Sacks began by saying that the theme of his new book, Future Tense, is that the current Jewish self-narrative is flawed. We see ourselves as history’s victims. We need instead, he said, to see Judaism as we did until relatively recently: not as a burden but as a privilege. He followed that up with a discussion of the theme of his book The Dignity of Difference (in the UK, he said, no one reads books, but they read book titles, so he tried to compress the message to four words), perhaps to forestall the assumption that that privilege is unique among all religions (which is the common understanding by non-Jews of what Jews mean by “chosenness.”)

Rabbi Sacks is an orthodox Jew with a highly pluralistic and urbane attitude. Indeed, pluralism was at the heart of his remarks last night. He referred several times to The Dignity of Difference and talked about universalism of the Enlightenment as an error: The differences among us should not be dissolved into a universal humanity, but should be maintained as a source of dignity and identity even while recognizing some universal imperatives. Across these lines we need to learn to talk with respect and with openness. (He thinks that America now is the home of engaged, passionate moral debate, whereas Europe and England are old and tired. Prof. Sandel urged him not to watch TV if he wants to preserve that illusion.)

Judaism, he said, is a religion of conversation. He said it is the only world religion for which all the sacred texts are anthologies of arguments: the Bible tells of conversations between Jews and G-d, and commentary is all arguments among the Rabbis.

Later he said that we should not be afraid to talk with those who radically oppose our ideas because we should have confidence that we will not be changed by them; that struck me as at odds with the idea of openness. Later still he said (quoting someone) that wisdom is the ability to learn something from everyone. Put these together and you get a realistic idea of openness: Openness to learning something, but no realistic expectation that the Jew will be convinced by the Nazi.

Faith for Jews, he said, is more or less the opposite of how the term is generally taken. It does not mean having confidence in one’s beliefs, but doubting them. [Many Christians would agree.] Jewish faith, he said, exists in the dissonance between seeing how the world is and how it should be. That is why, he later added, Jewish faith binds Jews to the Jewish law: The task is not to hold a set of beliefs but to heal the world. There is no Jewish faith without that.

I was therefore glad to hear that the Rabbi’s next book will be a response to what Prof. Sandel called the “fundamentalist atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens. Sandel asked why their attacks on religion are of such broad appeal. Rabbi Sacks said that it’s because religion has been presenting its worst face to the world, that of intolerant fanaticism.

Prof. Sandel asked — to a murmer of approval from the crowd — whether Jews are too intolerant of differences among Jews. The Rabbi said yes, that we need to respect one another as Jews even across the wide spectrum of observance and belief. He also said that the incivility of Israeli politics is extremely dangerous. He said that the Jews have lost their homeland three times in their history, and in every case it was because we were squabbling among ourselves. He thinks the only hope for Israel’s future is to embrace plurality among Jews and among all who live in the area. We need to learn to live together. (He did not go into detail about what that would mean politically.)

Rabbi Sacks ended by, in response to an audience question, talking about the importance of Jews appreciating culture other than their own. He declared his love of Shakespeare and of Beethoven’s late string quartets [good choices! :)] Trying to describe their beauty, he was for the first time that evening at a loss for words.

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Pew study of reputation management

From an email about a new Pew Research report:

WASHINGTON – More than half (57%) of adult internet users say they have used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online, up from 47% who did so in 2006. Young adults, far from being indifferent about their digital footprints, are the most active online reputation managers in several dimensions. For example, more than two-thirds (71%) of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online.

These findings form the centerpiece of a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that looks at reputation and online identity management in the age of social media. The report is based on a telephone survey conducted in August and September of 2009 of 2,253 adults, ages 18 and older, including 560 cell phone interviews. [snip]

  • Monitoring the digital footprints of others has become more common: 38% of internet users have searched online for information about their friends, up from 26% in 2006.

  • People are more likely to be found online: 40% of internet users say they have been contacted by someone from their past who found them online, up from 20% who reported the same in 2006.

  • Social networking users are especially attuned to the intricacies of online reputation management: The size of the adult social networking population has more than doubled since 2006, and 65% of these profile owners have changed the privacy settings for their profile to restrict what they share with others online.

When compared with older users, young adults are more likely to restrict what they share and whom they share it with. Those ages 18-29 are more likely than older adults to say:

  • They take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online – 44% of young adult internet users say this, compared with 33% of internet users ages 30-49, 25% of those ages 50-64 and 20% of those ages 65 and older.

  • They change privacy settings – 71% of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online. By comparison, just 55% of SNS users ages 50-64 have changed their privacy settings.

  • They delete unwanted comments – 47% social networking users ages 18-29 have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29% of those ages 30-49 and 26% of those ages 50-64.

  • They remove their name from photos – 41% of social networking users ages 18-29 say they have removed their name from photos that were tagged to identify them, compared with just 24% of SNS users ages 30-49 and only 18% of those ages 50-64.

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Facebook’s conspiracy theory

Herkko Hietanen, a Berkman Fellow, posted this to a mailing list. I’m reposting it with his permission, FYA (for your amusement):

I have been using Facebook for a while with an account name which is the Finnish equivalent to “Ano Nymous”. My aim has been to see how the service adapts to information that other people tell about me. I have tried not to tell anything to Facebook about myself. Or, well I did tell it that I was born on the Finnish independence day in 1917. Of course the service does know my 20 friends.

Today the system suggested that I should join two groups. One is “Cambridge”, which I guess the system determined from my IP address. The second one was “conspiracy theories” -group.

Is the irony of the service starting to get off the scale or what?

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May 25, 2010

Who were you friending in 1973

It’s the 50th anniversary of what became, arguably, the first digital social networking tool, PLATO. In its honor, the PlatoHistory site has posted a list of what some of the current Big Names in computers were doing when PLATO Notes, its message board, went live. There’s also a free conference, with Donald Bitzer and Ray Ozzie keynoting; Bitzer created PLATO and Ozzie founded Lotus Notes which was originally modeled on Plato notes.

(For the record: in 1973, I was spending a year between college and grad school, being a handyman, writing badly, and pining. And you?)

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May 24, 2010

Lost in a hole

[NO REAL SPOILERS ALERT:]

I recognize that because there was a five year gap between the last time I watched Lost and last night’s finale, I may not be the best-grounded person to offer a critique. Nevertheless…

In 1931, fourteen members of the British Detection Club published The Floating Admiral, a collaborative mystery. The rules were simple: You wrote a chapter that extended the previous chapters, and sent the entire manuscript on to the next mystery writer in the club. You also had to write the solution you had in mind when you wrote your chapter, but that solution was not passed on to the next writer. All of the solutions were included at the end of the published book. The result was a pretty good British mystery novel, with a tour de force final chapter that amazingly made sense of the entire concoction, even after one of the middle chapters introduced a wealthy of sticky information about British tide schedules.

The Floating Admiral managed to make sense of the clues strewn about. Lost seemed not to give a damn. Admitting again that I stopped watching after the first season, it seemed to me that the original idea in that first season was that the characters were in Purgatory. The writers abandoned that line when the Internets guessed it too quickly. The writers then began complicating the plot, some of which seemed to be heading toward an explanation of what the heck was going on (the steering wheel, the Dharma, the time travel) and some of which seemed to be merely arbitrary pointers to the fact that the island was magical (polar bear, the lottery numbers) and thus didn’t need detailed explanation. Then, about two years ago, the writers decided on what was really going on and forcefully turned the narrative’s wheel in that direction, introducing a (rather lame) mythology about two brothers, the flash-sideways, etc. Meanwhile, they had all the cruft from the previous years to deal with.

So, they punted. The magical elements were left as arbitrary and absurd, even though they had been presented to us as clues. Instead, the writers decided that Lost was really about character narratives. Fine, except that it spent a couple of hundred hours keeping us going (well, some of us) by dangling plot bait in front of us.

So, I understand that many people are happy with the resolution of the character narratives. But, I think Lost wrote itself into a corner from which it had no honest escape.

[SPOILER ALERT:]

You know Jack stuck in a hole from which there is no escape escape by capping the light? That was the writers expressing their own plight. You know Jack magically escaping from the hole and dying happily? That was the writers’ symbolic wish-fulfillment.

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May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner should not have been possible

The world is less curious, reasonable, fun and awesome now that Martin Gardner has died.

The Nature of Things / Martin Gardner from Wagner Brenner on Vimeo.

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May 22, 2010

Understanding spectrum

Christian Sandvig explains spectrum and spectrum policy in this Radio Berkman interview.

Christian — who is both brilliant and a wonderfully generous colleague — textifies the main points here.

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