Disambiguating the Briefs

The long and short of itWhen you were in school, your English teacher probably asked you—on more than one occasion—to write a brief paragraph about this or that. You may have been asked, also, to write a short paragraph, although it's unlikely the same teacher would have asked you to do both. The reason, of course, has to do with actual versus commonly accepted meaning, and we all know how finicky some teachers can be when it comes to word choice.

Take underwear. No, I don't mean your friend's underwear, because he might punch you in the nose. I mean your own. Go ahead and take off your underwear right now. I'll wait. Okay, now hold your underwear up to the light. What do you see? Depending on your preferences in life, you should be looking at briefs or boxers. If it's a thong, you can't participate in this experiment. Just step outside for a moment and smoke a cigarette, and we'll call you shortly.

Anyway, what you're holding up right now is arguably short, yes? And yet, if you walk into your friendly neighborhood clothing shop and ask for shorts, you'll probably be directed to a different sort of garment than had you asked for briefs. To make matters worse, walking into the very same store and asking for boxers will result in grave disappointment if you were intent on purchasing some really big guys wearing trunks, whose hands are covered by large mittens that aren't nearly as soft as they look.

On the other hand, walking into a pet shop and asking for Boxers will get you medium sized—yet extraordinarily solid—dogs, assuming they have any in stock. But in the very same shop, asking for briefs or shorts may get you arrested if you're overly persistent in the matter, or become quarrelsome. In a similar way, discussing your shorts with an electrician doesn't necessarily indicate a preoccupation with undergarments; it probably means you've noticed sparks flying from your wall outlet, or perhaps an annoying jolt when you switch on your lights in the evening.

If you happen to have a Boxer named Tyson who enjoys chewing your boxers and wears briefs while creating shorts in the extension cord he found in the closet where you hang your shorts, and if he once had a brief encounter with a short postal employee—who may have been wearing shorts and briefs—thereby forcing your attorney to file a legal brief on your behalf, probably in his boxers if you got him out of bed in the middle of the night, and you were tempted, at the time, to box the Boxer's ears, it's likely your problems can't be solved using ordinary methods.

So while it's certainly possible to generate a short paragraph, you may have to resort to setting your tabs wide and configuring your printer for landscape, instead of portrait orientation to accomplish this. A brief paragraph is easier to implement; it doesn't rely on a ruler for physical measurement of its dimensions. In any event, context can't always be relied upon to disambiguate.

Next time: How to avoid feeling hemmed in while hemming your boxers.


Fearing the Polar Vortex

An actual polar vortex

I've been watching the scenario unfold for over a week now, and I have to tell you I'm just plain scared. I don't know exactly what a Polar Vortex is; I just know it's bad. I'm guessing it's a bit like a black hole, only white, and really, really cold. I've seen the term popping up here and there in various National Weather Service forecast discussions, so I know it has to be more than just a rumor.  

400 AM PST WED JAN 24 2007
925 PM CST FRI JAN 26 2007
325 PM CST FRI JAN 26 2007

As you can see, the Hudson Bay figures prominently in the scenario, although I don't understand exactly why. I just know it isn't good. If the Polar Vortex is, in fact, some sort of white hole, then there must be a corresponding black hole feeding it. I'm only guessing here, but if the temperatures are any indication, the black hole would be somewhere near the Arctic Circle, or maybe Siberia. This would account for the whiteness, and the double-digit negative temperatures that seem to be hallmarks of this phenomenon.

Really, I think the only thing to do at this point is break out the thermal underwear, and stock up on hot chocolate and vodka. Make that rum; St. Bernards don't like vodka. Anyway, I guess we'll just have to wait and see if the vortex materializes. As you can see by the actual photo of a Polar Vortex above, they aren't difficult to spot. If everything is white outside your window, that's what you're looking at.

Good luck.  


Section 230's Profit Motive

CDA flowdownI hadn't intended to continue with Friday's topic, but not long after sending that post to the Web someone left a comment on a previous, related post. Responding directly would have resulted in even more material than already exists in the comments there, so it's going to go here, instead. There's considerable discussion on that Agilent case—specifically, why they weren't aware of their employee's actions—beginning with Doubting the Communications Decency Act, continuing in that post's comments, and ending with Shaking the Section 230 Tree the following day. But Mr. or Ms. Anonymous' comment gave me something else to think about, too.

Anonymous said...

Jeff wrote: "a battalion of full-time monitors to keep an eye on the communications of every employee. "

I hardly think so. How often does the FBI call a company to tell them that they are investigating one of their employees? Maybe Agilent has lots of bad employees but I think most companies don't have such problems.

The CDA was intended to protect speech--not to harbor criminals.

Fri Jan 26, 07:48:00 PM UTC

The entire sentence referred to by the commenter was, "While this outcome is undoubtedly vexing for the plaintiffs, a company the size of Agilent would require a battalion of full-time monitors to keep an eye on the communications of every employee," a reference to the impracticality of any large company keeping track of every word flowing through its electronic pipes. While I have no idea how often the FBI contacts companies regarding employee investigations and am similarly uncertain about Agilent's relative level of substandard employees, I can easily agree with the commenter's opinion that the Communications Decency Act wasn't intended to harbor criminals. But the idea that it was specifically intended to protect speech is, I think, debatable.

While it seems clear enough that removing section 230 of the CDA would affect free speech, it would be more of a secondary effect resulting from the en masse exodus of Internet service providers, and countless others, suddenly shouldered with responsibility for their customers' actions. Making the soapbox liable for what the speaker has said—to quote the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opsahl for the second time—would indeed have a chilling effect on free speech; without the protections of section 230, virtually everyone who enables electronic communication would be responsible for its content, regardless of volume, where it originated, or for whom it was intended.

The language of section 230 does have communication firmly in mind, but the commercial aspect certainly isn't an afterthought. You'll remember Magistrate Judge Craven and District Judge Folsom from Friday's discussion, both of whom I'll quote here, respectively.

Congress determined that it wanted to eliminate the resulting disincentives to the development of vibrant and diverse services involving third-party communication, while maintaining the ability of criminal prosecutions by the government for violations of federal criminal law.

. . . even simply responding to notices of potentially obscene materials would not be feasible because "the sheer number of postings on interactive computer services would create an impossible burden in the Internet context."

The Agilent case, of course, didn't turn on obscenity—it had to do with transmitting overt threats—but that isn't really the point of section 230 anyway. The point, it seems to me, is to avoid placing unrealistic barriers before American companies acting as conduits in the worldwide flow of information. One of the first questions to arise when the commercial possibilities of the Web first began to excite the popular consciousness was how do we regulate it? How can we administer and supervise this borderless phenomenon that has no centralized control to begin with?

And how can we profit from it. The Internet, in its pre-Web days, already enabled global communication. Censorship only became an issue when commercialization of the Internet became an issue.


Yet Another Section 230 Test Case

Section 230 strikes again. And again! As you may know, a recent court opinion involving section 230 of the Communications Decency Act found, again, in favor of the service provider; as you may also know, the case is unusual for a couple reasons. But although United States District Judge Folsom's decision was rendered in December 2006, it took an article on CNet this week to bring it to the attention of the blogospheric collective. No doubt it showed up on the screens of the legal community some time ago, but then, I suppose that's one of the benefits of membership.

In any event, it's yet another ruling that adds to the ever-increasing precedent of absence of liability for Internet service providers when their customers are using those systems for nefarious purposes. This case is particularly striking because the purpose was pornography, and child pornography to boot. The perpetrators are in prison, but the parents of the child victim believed that the ISP—Yahoo in this case—should be liable as well, which was the basis for the action. The case is unusual for another reason, too. The plaintiffs tried to use an exemption built in to section 230's language to their advantage; it didn't work out terribly well, but it was a novel approach just the same.

In January 2006, Magistrate Judge Craven had recommended granting Yahoo's motion to dismiss all claims made by the parents of the minor child who had been a victim of the pornographers. In her opinion, she outlined the logic behind those recommendations, including the now-familiar sequence of tests used to determine whether or not a service provider can be held responsible for the actions of its customer. She further recommended that the plaintiffs' claim—being, in her words, "novel [but] untenable and without merit"—be dismissed with prejudice.

The plaintiffs had, among other things, attempted to employ a section 230 exemption—230(e)(1) specifically—designed to allow law-enforcement officials the leeway to bring charges against an ISP, if the ISP is thought to have violated federal criminal law. In her opinion, she explains why this exemption isn't intended for the purpose argued by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs' core argument appears to be that Section 230(e)(1) must exempt civil claims under the child pornography statutes because child pornography is "not to be tolerated" and "[i]f the prospect of civil liability provides a disincentive for engaging in child pornography over and above that provided by the prospect of fines and jail time, then that is a good thing."

Child pornography obviously is intolerable, but civil immunity for interactive service providers does not constitute "tolerance" of child pornography any more than civil immunity from the numerous other forms of harmful content that third parties may create constitutes approval of that content. Section 230 does not limit anyone's ability to bring criminal or civil actions against the actual wrongdoers, the individuals who actually create and consume the child pornography. Here, both the neighbor and the moderator of the Candyman web site have been prosecuted and are serving sentences in federal prison. Further, the section 230(e)(1) exemption permits law enforcement authorities to bring criminal charges against even interactive service providers in the event that they themselves actually violate federal criminal laws.

She finishes with a review of Congress' intent regarding civil versus criminal liability in this context, and also reinforces the impracticality of mass litigation aimed at a high-volume communications provider.

Regarding civil liability, however, Congress decided not to allow private litigants to bring civil claims based on their own beliefs that a service provider's actions violated the criminal laws. As Defendant explained in its briefing, the reason is evident. If civil liability were possible, the incentive to bring a civil claim for the settlement value could be immense, even if a plaintiff's claim was without merit. Even if it ultimately prevailed, the service provider would face intense public scrutiny and substantial expense. Given the millions of communications that a service provider such as Defendant enables, the service provider could find itself a defendant in numerous such cases. Congress determined that it wanted to eliminate the resulting disincentives to the development of vibrant and diverse services involving third-party communication, while maintaining the ability of criminal prosecutions by the government for violations of federal criminal law. In sum, Congress did intend to treat civil and criminal claims differently and carefully crafted Section 230(e)(1) to achieve exactly that result.

In his decision, District Judge Folsom summarized the Magistrate Judge's findings

The Magistrate Judge found Yahoo!'s motion procedurally proper and turned to the merits. Dkt. No. 56 at 7-10. The Magistrate Judge also found that § 230(c)(1) is not merely "definitional," as Plaintiffs argued, but rather is an immunity provision. Id. at 15-17. Next, the Magistrate Judge found that Yahoo! met the elements of § 230(c)(1) immunity: (1) Yahoo! is a provider of an "interactive computer service;" (2) the pornographic photographs at issue are "information provided by another information content provider;" and (3) Plaintiffs' claims treat Yahoo! as the "publisher or speaker" of the third party content. Id. at 18-27. Finally, the Magistrate Judge found that Plaintiffs' federal claim pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2252A did not fit within any exception to § 230. Id. at 29-31.

and, after a relatively brief discussion of pertinent facts and definitions, adopted Magistrate Judge Craven's recommendations and granted Yahoo's motion to dismiss the action. Original emphasis retained.

For all of these reasons, the Court is of the opinion that the findings and conclusions of the Magistrate Judge are correct. Therefore, the Court hereby adopts the Report of the United States Magistrate Judge as the findings and conclusions of this Court. Accordingly, Yahoo!'s Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. No. 17) is hereby GRANTED.

This cause of action is therefore DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

So, it seems we can chalk up yet another victory for the Communications Decency Act's section 230—in the context of child pornography no less—while we ponder the plaintiffs' misguided attempt to subvert its language, and the somewhat negative consequences of such an attempt. What will we learn from the next test case? The mind boggles . . .


Scaling the Paranormal

Sometimes, when I get too happy, I like to bring myself back down a bit with a little high weirdness. There's something about Rigorous Intuition that's uniquely depressing, which is why—for me at least—it's such a great antidote to a bright and sunny day. But during a recent visit, it suddenly occurred to me that something just isn't right, and it doesn't have anything to do with the site. What's bothering me is the same thing that's bothering certain dinosaur researchers. It's the scaling.

After reading about the dinosaur paradox the other day, I began thinking about the relative sizes of things on this planet, or more to the point of this monologue, the relative sizes of things not of this world. The thing is, when it comes to phantasms, little green men, and the incomprehensible creatures that inhabit past and present folklore, the apparitions always seem to be scaled to fit within our physical reality. You don't run across many accounts of otherworldly beings the size of, say, a skyscraper. I don't recall, either, anyone reporting gigantic semitransparent feet wreaking havoc on people's lives. Sometimes the phenomena are abnormally small, but are they ever impossibly large? I don't mean the mothership hovering over downtown Los Angeles. Motherships, after all, are supposed to be big. Motherships fit the scale.

But where is it written that ghosts, extraterrestrials, and other paranormal entities have to be scaled to match the lifeforms who witness them? Where is the ghostly eyeball so immense that it obscures the sky? Where's the apparition that dwarfs our galaxy? Considering their legendary disregard for the physical laws that frame our mortal realm, isn't it odd that paranormal phenomena should be scaled as if their physical existence depends on it?


Why Dinosaurs Could Fly

Wot the . . .

It's an interesting question: How does a 40-ton creature move itself along—or move at all for that matter—on a planet such as ours? If the more massive among the dinosaurs were alive today, they'd be like beached whales; they couldn't eat, or take a walk, or even stand up. It seems something has changed, but what?

One theory is an increase in Earth's gravity caused by a growing planet. A brief article titled Geological Evidence for the Expanding Earth contends the phenomenon can be explained by an Earth that has increased in size and mass.

Many earth scientists have suggested that the Earth has been expanding in size since the time of the dinosaurs. One of the first reasons proposed to explain continental drift (in 1933 by Hilgenberg) was that the Earth had expanded in size causing the continental land mass to split apart.

Other earth scientists note that fitting the land and oceans which existed 65 million years ago on an Earth of today's diameter leaves vast spherical gaps in the ocean floor. These gaps can be removed by reducing the size of the ancient Earth.

In an August, 2002 release, Christopher Cox, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center was quoted as saying that "the three areas that can trigger large changes in the Earth's gravitational field are oceans, polar and glacial ice, and atmosphere," although he and a colleague had already ruled out the atmospheric possibility at that point.

But it seems there's another answer to the dinosaur paradox, too. I stumbled on it by accident the other day, and it engages the imagination at least as well as the reduced-gravity theory. Had our planet's atmosphere been far more liquid than it is today, goes theory #2, the sauropods would have been buoyant; they would have been happily leaping about, instead of lumbering through life, dragging their great tails behind them. In fact, David Esker likes the idea very much, and, rumor has it, is on the verge of publishing a book on the subject.

Either way—lack of gravity or thick, watery atmosphere—I love the idea of those gargantuan beasts floating merrily along like lumpy blimps . . . wait . . . stop the music. I just had an idea of my own, and I'm beginning to like it even more than the other two. Helium! The dinosaurs were filled with helium! No, it could happen. There's evidence to suggest a very different atmospheric composition in those days—far less oxygen, among other things—and who's to say the dinos' lungs weren't perfect for the job? I mean, have you ever seen a petrified dinosaur lung? Neither have I.

They don't exist, and it's because they all escaped, millions of years ago, through the dinosaurs' nostrils and floated up into space and went into orbit around Saturn. Forget Cassini. I think those rings are made of stranger stuff.  


An Awkward Stage

Stage anticsI think I just had an epiphany. All day, I've been asking myself why I feel compelled to satirize everything, even when some of this stuff isn't really all that funny. Tragic, maybe, and often surreal, but those aren't necessarily reasons for turning everything into some kind of joke. Then a little voice whispered in my ear: All the world is a stage!

But that wasn't the epiphany. I contemplated the stage angle anyway, and the gnawing feeling I've had—since childhood, really—that I'm trapped in some kind of bizarre stage production. It's a theater of the absurd, but I'm not just a casual observer out there in the audience somewhere. I'm an active cast member, and the play is interactive. I satirize every situation because every situation is satirical. It's all about perception.

But that wasn't the epiphany, either. After lunch, I decided to take a walk along the seashore. Aside from the absence of any significant body of water around here, I thought this would be the ideal environment for an epiphany, should one occur. I had a couple near-epiphanies, but those turned out to be mostly because of the egg salad sandwiches. Then, out of the blue, something else hit me. Seagulls are like that sometimes.

It wasn't until I returned home that the real epiphany struck: I'm not satirizing anything! I'm merely commenting on the obvious; I'm only recording what I see. This was the misunderstanding all along. In fact, I'm the one being satirized, and not the other way around. The joke, I fear, is on me.

An old man once told me that the best thing for an epiphany is a sharp blow to the forehead. It's still a little bit red, but the dizziness is going away by and by, and I'm pretty sure I won't be having any more for a while. Epiphanies, I mean. So guh.


Correcting the Dragon

Looking over yesterday's dictated and Dragon-transcribed monologue, I'm encouraged by what appears to be a slow but steady improvement in its ability to convert my speech to the text you see here. Yesterday's dictation produced 590 words—although not all made it into the blog post—which required six corrections, making those claims of 99% accuracy increasingly believable. A couple were more misapplication than misunderstanding

This is where the computer models come in to into play, and although . . .

. . . another in accurate inaccurate forecast . . .

while others were very definitely in that misunderstanding category.

Even when you write you're right and the winter storm warning you issued . . .

. . . but make a mistake and the lame blame comes down like . . .

One was the result of my attempt to spell out the NOAA acronym one letter at a time, instead of just saying it outright. I didn't retry, but I've noticed the Dragon has a good grasp of acronyms—and jargon, generally—so it may well have recognized it, had I provided the opportunity.

. . . meteorologists at my local and oh AA NOAA weather headquarters . . .

Evidently, the letter N sounded like the word and in this case, but I guess that's pretty close, especially when the context isn't clear. The remaining correction was due to another one of those brief—and almost certainly unclear—sounds I so often make between words.

In a similar way, and an accurate weather forecast . . .

In fact, I probably was saying something that sounded very much like "anaccurate," and in cases like this it's best to avoid making the correction a permanent part of the speech-recognitions system's updated user files. Slurred words in the system's dictionary only add difficulty to the already challenging task of converting speech to text.


Forecast Discussions

Another sunny day . . . or not . . . I'm sure predicting the weather is a tough gig. It's a complex science, even with modern technology to help you out. Long-term predictions, especially, require a combination of experience, meteorological knowledge, and probably a bit of luck. This is where the computer models come into play, and although you won't hear your local forecaster say it, there are computer programs running constant simulations of incoming storm systems, and the simulations don't always agree. This is why I love reading the forecast discussions generated—in my area at least—twice a day by experienced meteorologists at my local NOAA weather headquarters.

Forecast discussions—simple, text-based advisories typed in caps—aren't intended for general public consumption; their cryptic language and terminology aren't easy to decipher by the layperson, and they often contain disheartening truths and expressions of doubt you won't hear on your local nightly newscast. This is what makes them so much fun.

Over time, you begin to realize that, not only do the computer simulations often contradict each other, they sometimes contradict themselves. Run a model once, and the storm system scheduled to arrive in 72 hours will create catastrophic weather conditions. Run the same model again, and now the system is 100 miles north, resulting in an entirely different and far more benign scenario. Sometimes you can almost see the meteorologists watching this chaos on their monitors and pulling out their hair by the fistful. And that doesn't even take into account the disagreement between the three or four different computer programs that might be attempting to make sense of the same storm system at the same time.

Here's an actual example from the recent past. If the local TV weather guy put things this way he'd probably be fired, but wouldn't it be refreshing to hear this kind of straightforward talk for a change?


It's comical, but at the same time a little bit sad; you have to feel sorry for anyone whose job involves such a high level of doubt and frustration. All you can really do, I imagine, is give it your best shot based on currently available information, and hope for the best. Even when you're right and the storm warning you issued saves lives, your good judgment is quickly forgotten when the next warning results in nothing more than a dusting of snow. It's likely the public won't remember your meteorological good judgment, but every false alarm will be seen as further proof that you have absolutely no idea what you're doing. This is unfortunate, but probably unavoidable; predicting the weather has long been considered a reckless profession by many.

Personally, I don't think meteorologists get enough credit. I imagine it's a little bit like being an air-traffic controller: do your job right, and the only tangible result is another planeload of passengers arriving safely at their destination. Make a mistake, and . . . well, everyone will take note, but not in a positive way. In a similar way, the accurate weather forecast is taken for granted, but make a mistake and the blame pours down (forgive me) like rain.

Anyway, next time someone comments about another inaccurate forecast, you can point them to your local forecast discussion, wherein lies the evidence that things are not always as simple as they seem.


Using a Digital Voice Recorder for Speech Recognition, Part II

Continuing yesterday's exhaustive discussion of the Sony ICD-MX20 recorder I'm using for input to my speech-recognition software, it may be worth clarifying my use of the term high fidelity in the decidedly lo-fi context of human speech. In the larger realm of hi-fi audio, this recorder's 60-13,500 Hz frequency response is laughable; it's a far cry from the 20-20,000 Hz response that defines the minimum qualifications of any recording or playback equipment suitable for the world of music. But when it comes to capturing the human voice for purposes such as speech recognition, this recorder is more than adequate. Of course, frequency response is only one element in the equation; things like sampling rate and the absence of various types of noise also affect the quality of any recording. In any event, my use of the hi-fi terminology in this context is purely relative. It's intended to draw a distinction between using this particular recorder for speech recognition, versus other digital voice recorders that aren't necessarily up to the task.

Like other digital voice recorders offered by various manufacturers, this one uses a proprietary file scheme. Sony's LPEC format results in efficient use of memory, or disk space when the file is transferred to your computer. This is especially important because of this unit's stereo-recording capabilities; two channels are better than one, but also require about twice the space of the monophonic equivalent. Although the MX20 has no native ability to record or play MP3-format material, the included Windows software will convert an MP3 track to the required LPEC format. A 5.06 MB MP3 track I converted in this way resulted in a 1.95 MB LPEC file; the MP3 file had been encoded at a similar bit-rate as that used by the MX20 at its highest-quality setting. Audio quality was noticeably reduced: the high end of the audio spectrum fell into the background, and a subwoofer would have had nothing to do, had this been played back through a hi-fi audio system. It isn't rotten, but you'd miss your brass percussion and anything else that normally lives in the higher treble regions, including, of course, those precious harmonic frequencies that make all the difference between listening excitement and lethargy. Many Podcasts, on the other hand, would be perfectly acceptable after such a conversion.

In addition to a number of other conversions to various Sony formats—useful, I suppose, if you have other Sony-branded audio equipment in your stable—the included software also allows you to save your recording as a .wav file. I wasn't able to reverse the process—WAV to LPEC—so this type of conversion would rely on a three-step WAV-MP3-LPEC procedure, unless there's a Sony CODEC available for this purpose. I'm not aware of one, but that doesn't necessarily mean that one doesn't exist. The included software, according to the documentation, doesn't run on Windows 95, 98, or NT platforms, nor under Macintosh operating systems. Connection to your computer is via an included USB cable. The recorder appears, to Windows, as one or two disk drives: one if the internal memory is used by itself, and the second if a Memory Stick is installed. As you might expect, you can use the memory for storing other types of files as well.

Used as a stereo recorder, the unit excels in its ability to capture conversations that sound virtually identical to the way you heard them yourself, with your own ears. Even when the recorder is in a shirt pocket—and barring extraneous noises generated by bodily movement and rustling garments—the result is virtually identical to what actually occurred. I've made a few test recordings of this nature, and excluding extremely difficult acoustics in very large rooms, I had no trouble picking out individual voices during playback.

Like your computer, the MX20 organizes recordings using the familiar folders metaphor. Regardless of memory capacity, the maximum number of folders is 340 apiece for both the built-in memory and any installed Memory Stick. The maximum number of recordings per folder is 999.

It's possible, using just the recorder by itself, to divide a recording into two parts during recording or playback. It's also possible to add to the end of an existing recording, or overwrite a portion of an existing recording from a particular point. Using the included software, you can also combine recordings. There's no provision for recording while the MX20 is connected to a computer via USB.

Recordings can be assigned a priority, from one to three, which determines how they're sorted. The default sorting scheme is by recorded date and time. Recordings can be moved from one folder to another, and can be erased one at a time or all at once.

You can assign an alarm to a recording. When the alarm time arrives, the unit will beep, or beep and then play back a recording of your choosing. This is useful if you have a hard time waking up to a normal alarm sound; a recording of your mother shrieking at you to get out of bed may be more effective. My personal favorite is a recording of a tribe of enraged baboons, but the possibilities are endless.

Menu operations are via a joystick located between the record and stop buttons on the front panel. On the rear is a switch that's simply labeled hold. During recording or playback the switch functions in the expected way: operating controls are disabled to prevent accidents. When the MX20 isn't being used for recording or playback, the same switch puts the unit into a kind of quiescent state. There's no power switch on this unit, resulting, probably, in a decrease in battery life but also an increase in usability. One benefit of doing things this way is that the recorder is always ready to go; there's no delay while the unit powers up, executes a self test, or otherwise gets ready for work.

Other features and functions include faster or slower playback—which, as usual, doesn't affect the pitch—and a switch on the side of the unit designed to bring out recorded voices after the fact. There's a minijack for headphones, and one for an external stereo microphone; the microphone jack also supplies power to microphones that require it. There's no separate line-in jack. The headphone jack is live during recording for monitoring purposes, and also raises the possibility of using the recorder as a microphone, although I haven't actually tried it myself.

As others have mentioned when reviewing this product, the case appears to be constructed of aluminum, or similar material. The only obvious use of plastic, as far as I can see, is for the battery-compartment cover on the bottom of the unit, the cover over the USB port/Memory Stick slot area, and the control buttons and switches themselves.

It comes with a slip case, which is good enough for protecting the display from scratches when it's in your pocket, and it's acoustically transparent so it can be used while recording. Ear buds are included, as well as a couple Sony AAA alkaline batteries to get you started. An AC adapter is optional/extra, but considering historical noise-related difficulties with portable recording equipment connected to AC power sources, this option may not be desirable anyway.

Taking into account the caveats mentioned—and the assumed potential for difficulty arising from large fingers on tiny controls—my overall impression of this recorder is entirely positive. Two thumbs up, and all that.


Using a Digital Voice Recorder for Speech Recognition

The MX20 with its little buddy the AAA I'm not ready to render a final verdict on the NaturallySpeaking software I've been trying out since just after Christmas; I want to make sure I've held up my end of the bargain—e.g. training, and trying not to fluff my lines—before I do that. But at this point I think I can say something about the digital recorder I'm using as my audio input device. When I was researching the speech-recognition possibilities a while back, I found there was a lack of information on this particular way of doing things; a headset is the preferred method, and therefore discussed in greater depth than a handheld recorder. Maybe this will help someone out there who's negotiating a similar research path right now.

I want to stress, again, that this voice recorder arrangement I'm using is a trade-off; it isn't the ideal situation where speech-recognition accuracy is the primary requirement. Although this method has exceeded my expectations, I don't believe speech recognition accuracy will ever equal what's possible using a high-quality headset. For me, the trade-off is worthwhile because I'm not tethered to a computer by a headset cord, or limited by the range of a wireless headset. The latter is better than a wire but still means I can't travel too far beyond the confines of my living quarters. This way, I can dictate while driving, or when I'm otherwise unable to type on a keyboard. I still have to do some editing, but the time I save by virtue of most of the words already being there is, for me, a compromise I can easily afford. And when I factor in the decreased stress on my arthritic joints . . . well, that's another story, but when it comes to writing, it's this way or no way.

Anyway, the recorder I've been using is a Sony ICD-MX20, which is a pocket-size—about 4 by 1.5 inches—unit weighing in at just under 3.5 ounces. It's available from the usual merchants, including some of the brick and mortar mega-retailers. Prices for this item vary in the extreme, so be careful.

If, like me, you're interested in the Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-recognition software but your computer doesn't meet the minimum requirements for running the current version, this voice recorder is available as a bundle with version 8.0 of the NaturallySpeaking software. The model number for this bundle differs slightly: you would want the ICD-MX20VTP version, instead. For some reason, the existence of this package deal isn't widely advertised, if it's advertised at all. In any event, it's possible to save a few bucks this way, assuming a headset isn't on your list of priorities; this bundle doesn't include one.

The MX20 has four available recording modes, which offer increased recording time at the expense of audio quality. Using its internal 32 MB of memory, the highest-quality mode gives you less than an hour and a half of recording time, while the next step down doubles that time, but cuts the frequency response essentially in half. While these two modes permit stereo recording, the two below that record in mono, and by the time you arrive at the longest possible recording time—nearly 12 hours—the sound quality is abysmal. This may not be catastrophic for brief voice memos, but is unacceptable for any application beyond that. Here's how frequency response is affected by each of the four recording modes, from the user guide.

ST         60 Hz to 13500 Hz     stereo
STLP    60 Hz to  7000  Hz     stereo
SP         60 Hz to  7000  Hz     mono
LP         60 Hz to  3500  Hz     mono

Sampling rates for the four modes are 4800, 2400, 1600, and 8000 bits per second, respectively.

Speech recognition requires the highest possible fidelity, so you're stuck with that high-quality, 1:26 total-recording-time mode unless you spring for more memory, which is, of course, the Sony Memory Stick. Fortunately, memory prices continue to fall, so you can load the recorder with a gigabyte for under $50, thereby doing away with the anxiety altogether. Here's what you can expect from various Memory Stick capacities at the highest recording quality, according to the MX20 user guide.

256 MB    11 hours 10 minutes
512 MB    22 hours   minutes
1 GB         44 hours 55 minutes
2 GB         92 hours 10 minutes

As you can see, there's little need for worry, even with half a gigabyte installed. This recorder uses the Memory Stick Duo, including the Pro version, although the MX20 won't benefit from the Sony MagicGate technology supported by the Pro-designated sticks. It will work just fine; it just won't make use of the Pro version's copyright-protection features.

Battery life is rated at eight hours, using, I suppose, the two AAA alkaline batteries included with the recorder. I didn't keep track of daily usage during the three weeks of life I got from the included batteries, but I'm guessing a couple hours per day on average. I'm trying rechargeable Nickel-Hydride batteries now, but I don't know, yet, what sort of life to expect from those; they're still running on the initial charge. I disabled all beeping advisories, and also the status LED. I left the LCD's backlight on its default setting, which means the light comes on briefly when a key is pressed, or when recording starts or stops. The backlight remains on during any kind of menu operation; this is probably the largest battery drain, aside from normal recording and playback. It's possible to disable it entirely, which would further extend battery life.

There are only two microphone sensitivity levels available on this recorder: low and high. I use the low setting for dictation, since the other setting results in so much sensitivity that even quiet conversations in the next room are recorded. There's also a directional setting, selected by a slide switch on the front of the recorder. This results in a mono recording, which is appropriate for dictation and also activates the unit's noise-canceling mode. This is an interesting feature, at least in the way it's implemented on this particular recorder.

In the old days, a noise-canceling microphone was a purely mechanical device. It worked because sound waves arriving at both sides of the same diaphragm, at the same time, had a canceling effect on the mechanical movement of that diaphragm. The MX20, on the other hand, uses a scheme similar to that of modern noise-canceling headphones: microphones detect unwanted sound, and remove it electronically before it has the opportunity to get into your ears. When the directional switch is used, the recording mode is still stereo, but the left and right channels are used to detect off-axis, out-of-phase sound, as opposed to dictated speech from close proximity. This, it seems, would require a third microphone element, and in fact the packaging boasts a "built-in triple microphone configuration." In effect, this amounts to a three-channel input, which is then merged into a single channel on the recording. High fidelity—as high as is practical at any rate—is an absolute necessity for speech-recognition applications, but the lack of extraneous noise is equally important.

I mentioned, previously, that I'm using a voice-operated record mode during dictation. I know at least one or two of you out there are experiencing some doubt about my sanity, because historically, voice-operated recording schemes have always resulted in the first syllable of a word—or some part of it anyway—being chopped off due to the delay. But in this case there's a buffer that prevents this from happening; nothing is lost because the circuitry is awake and listening, even when the display indicates that recording has momentarily ceased.

If less is more, I'm already on the wrong side of the equation. This will be continued tomorrow.


The Hairy Eyeball

The hairy eyeballWhen I was a kid, the house across the street was my second home. The boys who lived there were about the same age, and our common interests led me to spend a lot of time on their living room floor playing with GI Joes, Hot Wheels, and similar toys of the era. Their dad had a fondness for Bill Cosby records, and this is where I first heard about the hairy eyeball.

To give someone the hairy eyeball, according to Mr. Cosby, meant looking at someone with less than friendly intent. It meant giving someone a dirty look. I never gave the origin of the phrase much thought; I chalked it up to Cosby's comedic genius and left it at that. It would be a bit like analyzing the reasons for the words and phrases—full-goose bozo, for example—that spring from Robin Williams' unique mind. Some people's brains are just constructed in a different way. But today understand, for the first time, what Bill Cosby was really talking about, and it wasn't a joke. He was being very serious.

While inspecting my eyeball for debris this morning, the magnifying lens I use for such things revealed a great deal of hair in my eyes. My eyelashes, it seems, have multiplied a thousandfold due to some unknown trigger that instructs the hair follicles to go nuts. No doubt this is the same trigger responsible for the obscene quantity of hair spewing from my ear canals, as well as the sudden frightening growth of my eyebrows. I used to think Mark Twain deliberately cultivated the weedlike growths above his eyes, but I'm beginning to doubt that theory now.

The truth is, Bill Cosby wasn't trying to be funny. He was quite literally referring to the act of passing this crippling disease on to someone you don't like. He was talking about giving someone the hairy eyeball in the same way you would give someone a venereal disease. Someone gave me the hairy eyeball, and I'd like to know who. I don't know if there's a cure for this, but I'd feel a bit better knowing the culprit is behind bars, or otherwise restrained so this won't happen to anyone else. In the meantime, I've decided to shave my eyebrows, and I'm in the process of plucking out as many renegade eyelashes as I can find to prevent any further spread. It may be too late to save my ear canals. I'm unable to locate my ears; I can no longer differentiate the sideburns from the ear hair. In a similar way, it now seems my mustache—which had been such a source of pride to me—may not be a mustache at all. This would explain the burning sensation in my nose whenever I attempt to comb food particles from the hair that covers my upper lip.

So thanks a lot, Mr. Cosby. I used to think you were funny, but now I'm not so sure.


The Acoustically Optimized Dragon

Is there an echo in here?It turns out the Dragon hasn't been completely healthy all this time. It worked, but not as well as it could have. Since installation, closing the application always resulted in an error, and although this didn't seem to affect the program's operation it was an indication that something wasn't quite right.

I wasn't able to run the Acoustic Optimizer module, which is the part of the application that, as the name implies, attempts to understand and compensate for the acoustics of my particular speaking environment. Since I don't use a headset, and also like to wander around when I'm dictating—and in fact frequently dictate while driving—this function is particularly important. As you can imagine, changes in acoustics during dictation are quite capable of introducing error during the recognition process. For example, a slight echo or delay resulting from sound waves bouncing around in an enclosed space can be easily translated—in the Dragon's mind—to extra syllables in a word, when in fact it's only a reflected sound wave.

Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to track this problem down and—big surprise—the culprit was a Microsoft application interfering with the Dragon's operation. Before I received the Dragon software I had been messing about with a rudimentary Microsoft speech application, which as I recall had been installed as part of the MS Office suite. Uninstalling the Microsoft application solved the problem.

The Acoustic Optimizer module is essentially an intense number-crunching operation that updates and modifies my user files; these are the files the Dragon uses to identify my particular voice characteristics, among other things. Although the system initially predicted a 2 1/2 hour duration for this process, the reality was closer to 20 minutes. The result of this optimization routine is a noticeable improvement in recognition accuracy, especially in the translation of those slurred contractions I've so often mentioned.

So life is good again, and the plan for the weekend is to read the Dragon a few more of the included sample texts to further improve its ability to understand what I'm saying. One side note in this regard: although it's obviously possible to read anything for the purpose of training, doing so requires subsequent corrections, since the Dragon has no way of knowing beforehand what the word ought to be. Dictating the included samples, on the other hand, means the Dragon already knows what the words should be, thereby eliminating the need for correction afterward.

Ideallythis investment in training will pay off in the long term, but from what I've read about the experiences of others—combined with my own—confidence is high.


P.S. For those of you keeping track of such things, this monologue is the result of about 12 minutes of dictation, and better yet, required virtually no corrections this time. Woot! The Acoustic Optimizer in action, I think.

Jokes and Poetry

That's MY line . . .A news item yesterday on NPR focused on a lawsuit brought by several comedians against the editor of a book—a compilation of comedic humor—who evidently used their material without permission. Commentary ranged from the possibility that comedians are taking themselves more seriously these days to the opinion that a lawsuit of this nature is ridiculous on its face because, after all, comedians have always recycled the material of their peers. One commentator mentioned, by way of example, a rather well-known master of the trade who had published a book of his own material, which, the commentator added, was really no different in principal than the subject of the current legal action. As you might expect, others see this as a wholly justified effort on the part of the plaintiffs to protect their intellectual property, and the livelihood that depends on it.

I suppose it's mostly the material compensation resulting from the sale of such a book that lies at the heart of this matter. But for me, the issue has another component quite aside from any financial interest, and it applies, also, to things like photography, music, and art in general. It isn't limited to words, and certainly not to a specific genre such as comedy. It's the idea of creation incarnate, the tangible result of imagination, inspiration, and effort. It's knowing that this particular thing has never existed before, at least not in exactly this way. This is worth protecting; this is what copyright protection is for.

I never thought of comedy writing in quite the same way as poetry, or prose, but after listening to yesterday's radio program it occurs to me that they have much in common. Both hinge on economy of expression; not just any word will do, and too many will sink the ship. Timing is important, too, and in some cases it's everything. In the end, success is a tightly bound parcel of expression, tuned and retuned for resonance.

When it comes to words—and more to the point, particular words arranged in a particular way—they often have attached to them the blood, sweat, and tears of their creators so that simply taking those words without acknowledging the source and circumstance of their incubation is a bit like taking credit for childbirth when the mother has just spent 16 hours in labor and you weren't even in the room.

The Humorous Dragon

Huff, the demented dragonAfter seeing the Dragon in action for a while now, I'm struck by its remarkable sense of humor. Time after time it converts my sentences to language that makes sense, in a way, but is at the same time terribly wrong. It seems to have little trouble understanding big or otherwise complicated words; it's those little connectors that give it the most trouble. As I mentioned previously, I have a bad habit of not only slurring my words but inventing contractions that don't exist naturally in the language. For example, shoulda woulda coulda are three contractions, of sorts, that I would never use in my writing, but which sometimes creep into my spoken language. Years ago, a coworker enjoyed ridiculing my contractions—if they can be called that—of this type. His favorite was yeah but; every time he heard this come out of my mouth he would immediately respond with a series of staccato bursts of yibbit yibbit yibbit. His constant mockery eventually had a chilling effect on our professional relationship, but it's a good example of the sort of syllabic pottage that characterizes my speech.

I'm making the effort to correct misinterpreted words and phrases, but this is no simple task. It's time consuming, and worse, requires me to listen to my own monotonous dictation. There's a stilted, robotic quality to it; it issues forth in globs, like mayonnaise after a week in the summer sun.

Here's an actual poem, offered as proof of the Dragon's wry sense of humor.

Recalcitrant cabins
Your fragrance transports me
To the place of my birth.
Unmitigated monkey shines
Reveal the lost her of quaking turpentine.
Spontaneous rainbow
Pizza satisfies my loss
I crave absorption
And pancakes for dessert.
Seafood and lodging the commune
15 steps forward, and one in reverse.
Caffeinated name can prove
Deriving in the rain
Obliterated dolphins
Behold the mustard stain.

See what I mean? It makes absolutely no sense. Whoever heard of recalcitrant cabins? Here's the same poem as it was dictated.

Recalcitrant cabbage
Your fragrance transports me
To the place of my birth.
Unmitigated monkey shines
Reveal the luster of quaking turpentine.
Spontaneous rainbow
Pizza satisfies my lust
I crave absorption
And pancakes for dessert.
Seafood and lodging become you
Fifteen steps forward, and one in reverse.
Caffeinated nincompoop
Driving in the rain
Obliterated dolphins
Behold the mustard stain.

As you can see, the Dragon needs more training. I'm working on it.

Ballistic Spark Plugs

Wot's that flying out of my hood, then?It's another one of those stranger-than-fiction stories, this time from the automotive world. I was on the highway only a few miles from home, when suddenly there was a loud pop. It was the kind of thing you could feel; my first thought was one of the tires had blown out. There was a loud thumping sound, which at that moment seemed to have the same timing as the rotation of the wheels. So I pulled over on the shoulder, which was where I noticed a strong smell of gasoline. The thunking noise was still there, so this obviously hadn't been a blowout after all. Possibilities were racing through my mind: I envisioned a fuel line flopping around under the hood, spewing gasoline on the hot manifold. Throwing caution and common sense to the wind, I decided to go for it instead of turning off the engine and leaving the car on the highway. Only a couple miles to go, I thought, and if the engine compartment erupts in flame, at least I won't have far to walk.

Keeping my foot on the accelerator so the engine wouldn't stall, I eased the car back onto the highway. The engine was loud—at least as loud as a four-cylinder engine gets. It sounded as though it had lost part of the exhaust system; I thought about the exhaust manifold hanging by a thread, or by a bolt, maybe. I knew this was unlikely in the extreme, but my brain was working through every scenario. I had to stop at a traffic light, and every head turned at the obnoxious sound coming from the little engine. When the light turned green, I managed to get the car moving again. It didn't seem to have much power left as I coaxed it to 45 mph for the remaining mile or so to my house. Shifting to neutral, I was able to keep the engine running with my right foot while I rolled into the driveway and stopped the car with my left. The smell of gasoline had, by this time, turned into the smell of exhaust. I killed the engine and pulled the hood release, reluctantly, not really wanting to know what I might find in that engine compartment.

This is where I should have called the guys at Car Talkit might have made a good puzzler for them—but I didn't. Under the hood everything looked normal—no gasoline or other liquids washing over the engine block. Both manifolds appeared to be where they had always been. It was then I noticed a subtle discoloration on the underside of the hood. A wet spot, sort of, which pointed to one of the four spark plugs on top of the engine. Sure enough, one of the rubber plug-wire covers appeared to be slightly out of place, and I pulled it away with less effort than should have been required. I peered into the hole where the spark plug lives, but it was like looking into a well; I couldn't see the bottom. When I got a flashlight and looked again, there was nothing in the hole at all. The spark plug was gone! This struck me as odd, because generally spark plugs don't just disappear. Sometimes they break in half, and sometimes they just stop sparking, but they don't just go away. And yet, that's exactly what this one had done. With the flashlight illuminating the bottom of the hole, all I could see was the inside of the cylinder, or at least as much as one can see through that tiny spark plug hole. The plug was nowhere in sight.

Gradually the situation became clear. The sharp noise I had heard was the sound of the spark plug being violently ejected from the engine and slamming into the underside of the hood. The discoloration was the result of the spray of fuel and exhaust that had erupted from the cylinder after the spark plug left. Strangely, the plug wire was still intact and didn't appear to be damaged; the ballistic plug had somehow disconnected itself from the wire without destroying it. At this point, the questions became (1) why the plug had been violently blown from the engine, and (2) whether there was anything left of the threads that had, at some point, held the spark plug in place. It didn't seem likely that the plug had worked itself loose—literally unscrewing itself—over the course of the previous year. Had this been the case, there should have been a noticeable decrease in performance, but there wasn't. Up to the point of plug ejection, idle had been smooth and acceleration had been normal; there had been no apparent change in the engine's operation.

When my mechanic arrived later that evening with a set of spark plugs, the comedic quality of the situation wasn't lost on him. It isn't the sort of thing you see every day, but then, this car is notorious for its bizarre problems. Jettisoning a spark plug, to him, was even funnier than the complete disappearance of every impeller blade in the water pump he had changed at about the same time last year. But as it turned out, nothing was damaged and the little car now has four new spark plugs. Evidently the plug had, in fact, simply worked its way out of the engine over time; I'm not mentioning any names, but I think someone forgot to properly tighten it in the first place. I'm lucky because escaping spark plugs don't always leave things in good order when they go; a cross-threaded plug, for example, or damage to the head wouldn't have been out of the question. So, for now, the little car lives on, but I can hardly wait for the next—and no doubt surreal—automotive adventure.


Tormenting the Dragon

If it isn't evident by the somewhat changed writing style so far this year, I'm doing very little typing anymore. I'm attempting to use my new—and still experimental—dictation method as much as possible, which relies on Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8.0 for transcription to the form you see here. I'm making good progress, but it isn't perfect yet. Really, it may never be perfect, but I'm not stopping now.

The recognition system relies a great deal on context, and I've noticed an impressive ability to draw distinctions between words on that basis alone. A simple example is the possessive form of the word it. The Dragon has yet to insert an apostrophe in that word where one isn't required; phrases such as it's pages were yellowed with age never creep into the rendered text. This is gratifying, especially since this error is so common.

As a point of interest, I noted during initial setup that the Dragon was poking its snout into Windows' My Documents folder to get an idea of my personal vocabulary. Among other things, it found my previous blog posts so the Dragon now has little problem recognizing my particular choice of words. It also attempted to search my e-mail client for more of the same, so if you install this—or similar—software you may want to ensure you have arranged things beforehand so it finds files that reflect your vocabulary and style. It's also possible to do this after installation, but sometimes it's easier to get certain things out of the way right off the bat.

But vocabulary is only part of the speech-recognition formula. My bad habit of slurring certain words and inventing contractions combined with the ever-changing surroundings when I'm dictating creates a more difficult job for the Dragon. Although a relatively quiet environment is important to speech recognition, the ability of the microphone to reproduce as clearly as possible the many frequencies of the human voice can't be overlooked. This, I think, has been a problem for some who have attempted to use a voice recorder, or an inexpensive microphone; the fidelity may not be adequate to detect the difference between syllables—and particularly consonants—that act as cues for determining the proper word. This is why so many reviewers repeatedly mention the need for a high-quality microphone. The other weak link, apparently, is the sound card, which may induce noise that confounds the recognition system. In any event, high-fidelity voice input is a necessary component of the recognition formula.

I must now return to the task of correcting certain mush-mouthed pronunciations so the Dragon can better understand what I mean, and not just what I say. Some of my slurred inventions are really quite comical when played back; it's a wonder they can be translated at all.


The Ears of the Dragon

That dragon againEvidently, we made it through not only 2006, but those always-challenging holidays as well. I'm optimistic about 2007; I hope you are, too.

I've been putting the Dragon through its paces as much as possible during the holidays, and at this point I have to say it's working better than I anticipated. Everything I had read prior to actually using it led me to believe the weak link would be microphone quality. I had also read that the handheld voice-recorder setup I'm using would be among the worst possible situations. Expectations were low. However, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Yesterday, I spent some time driving around in the car dictating to the recorder. Road noise and the change in acoustics from the initial training environment should have resulted in sonic mayhem. But surprisingly, recognition was actually quite good; even under these far-from-ideal conditions, it really wasn't much worse than sitting in a quiet room. I'm still having to make some adjustments and corrections here and there, but the trade-off for the luxury of untethered dictation is well worth it. The Sony recorder I'm using has a mode that provides noise cancellation; this in combination with the low microphone-sensitivity setting may mean the system doesn't have to cope with a high level of background noise after all.

I'm also using the voice-operated-record setting, thereby further crippling the capabilities of the recognition system. It just doesn't get much worse than this. So at this point the larger problem has more to do with — as I mentioned before — my significant discomfort with dictation, compared to the far more familiar visual world of typing. This is going to take some time, but I'm making an effort to visualize every word, which will probably never get me to that 200 wpm level that represents the ultimate goal. Still, I'm intrigued with the promise of this new method of writing.