Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Update: Recorded Speech to Text Conversion

Every now and then, I run into someone who is doing qualitative research and wants to know about speech-to-text conversion. Here is an update that will answer some of the questions I have been asked during the past year or so in this area. I know some people will be doing interviews this summer, so maybe this will help. The basic idea is that you have recorded something -- an interview, perhaps -- and now you want to connect your recorder to your computer and have the interview become automatically converted into a Word document. If the computer knows when to insert a colon rather than a semicolon, so much the better. Unfortunately, that's still a dream, according to an article published last week by James A. Martin of PCWorld. Then again, a review by Nate Anderson of Ars Technica indicates that Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a leader in this area, has made great advances in recent years. Anderson provides an illustration of several paragraphs in which Naturally Speaking actually outperformed his own typing at the keyboard -- provided that he first sat down with a microphone and trained the software to understand his pronunciation. Minimum training requires a few minutes; best results come after several months of use. So the program may do pretty well with your side of the interview -- but less so, most likely, with the words uttered by the interviewee, who will ordinarily be doing most of the talking. (Note: I have seen "Naturally Speaking" spelled both with and without an internal space, so you may want to try both if you're searching for more information. See e.g., http://tinyurl.com/58238m for suggested search syntax.) In theory, you could train the software to understand the voice of the interviewee instead -- by e.g., having him/her read a section of text into the recorder, and then teaching Naturally Speaking to understand it later, in the privacy of your own communal workstation, and in that case I think it would be your questions, not his/her answers, that would require repair afterwards (though perhaps you could avoid that by simply cutting and pasting pre-typed versions of your questions into your interview transcript. Naturally Speaking allows for multiple user profiles, so apparently this would require the mere addition and training of another voice account, without having to delete the previously entered account. Best results in this area have traditionally come from dictating into a high-quality microphone directly connected to the PC. Now, however, Anderson says that Naturally Speaking does an "acceptable" job even when the recording was made using the internal microphone on a mediocre MP3 player. Martin's point, in his article, was that the Sony ICD-MX20DR9 digital voice recorder (now about $230 plus $25 or so for an additional memory card) comes with a copy of Naturally Speaking (so you don't have to buy a copy separately), was designed for use with Naturally Speaking, and is listed as a compatible model on Nuance's Hardware Compatibility List. Among the numerous options on Nuance's Hardware Compatibility List (e.g., Headset Microphones (legacy)), there are two for recorders specifically. On the Recorders (legacy) list, only five old models get a three-star rating. On the Recorders (current) list, by contrast, the Sony ICD-MX20 (I assume the DR9 suffix simply means that Dragon Naturally Speaking is included with the hardware) gets six stars -- and is the only recorder that gets more than five stars. I suspect each additional star means, in practice, a somewhat higher percentage of accuracy -- which could translate into many hours of seeking and correcting text. So if you were doing your interviews within the next few weeks, one approach would be to shoot first and ask questions later -- i.e., buy the Sony, train it, experiment with it, and see if it saves you a ton of typing. That might make less sense if you were doing your interviews in a noisy environment, though. There are some differences among versions of Naturally Speaking (ranging in price from $60 (standard) to $1,200(legal)). I'm not sure which version comes with the Sony ICD-MX20DR9. In a detailed review of the software (i.e., not the Sony), Cade Metz of PC Magazine says the "results were pretty darn good," and describes the option of doing voice rather than keyboard correction of errors -- which may be available only on more expensive versions (not sure). Elsa Wenzel of ZDNet seconds Metz's view that Naturally Speaking is the best consumer voice recognition program available. As is often the case, however, users' opinions vary dramatically -- possibly as a function of having the right hardware and/or doing the required system training in the recommended manner. Off the topic of interviews, but of social work relevance: Rita Zeidner of the Washington Post points out Naturally Speaking's productivity implications for persons with disabilities.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Politicizing the Olympics: A Compromise

Some say the Beijing Olympics are a great opportunity to make the whole world aware of Chinese abuses. Others say the Olympics are about sporting competition, and politics should not have anything to do with it. And some seem to believe that it would be possible to depoliticize the Olympics, while others say that will never happen. Possibly a working compromise would be to say that politics should not be allowed to interfere with the actual sporting competition. So, for example, no boycotts by nation A when the Olympics are held in nation B. You send your best and you compete for the gold, period. That would not prevent athletes from having, and expressing, political viewpoints -- as long as the expression did not interfere with the sporting competition itself. Individual athletes could boycott, as long as others were free to take their places. The other half of the compromise, already implicit in the foregoing remarks, would be that everything else is fair game. Political leaders can attend or not attend; Tibetans can block the passage of the Olympic torch; people can protest -- even in the sporting arena, for the world's cameras -- as long as they do not interfere with any athlete's quest for victory before or during an actual athletic contest.

Why the Tibet Protests Are Important

The Chinese leaders will not back down on Tibet. The Chinese people will not let them. The people of China are convinced that Tibet belongs to them. So it seems unlikely that protests on Tibet will make things better in Tibet. They may help, but they may also hurt. The protests are important because they provide a focal point for the world to treat China as a superpower. The sooner the people of the world become sensitized to the dangers that a superpower poses, the more likely they are to unite against it. It's not that people should just band together against a superpower for the hell of it. That's not the nature of the situation. People do, or should, band together against superpowers when they abuse their power. Power tends to corrupt. It seems almost inevitable that, when a country becomes strong, it begins to throw its weight around. "Appeasement" was the word used when, in 1938, the leaders of France, Britain, and Italy caved in to Hitler's demands to annex part of Czechoslovakia, claiming that it rightfully belonged to Germany. It took another year or so for those leaders to realize that, when you feed the tiger, the tiger becomes bigger. The world does not need any more Munichs. China has entered onto the world stage. It is taking superpower-level actions; it is stirring superpower-level irritation; and it is generating superpower-level unity, not only among its opponents, but also among those who were previously undecided about it. This process is healthy. The sooner the world can unite against China, the less likely China will be to commit the kind of costly mistake that, for instance, the U.S. made in Iraq. The world is going to continue to deal with China, and China is going to continue to grow. But, with luck, it will grow not only quickly, but well. The best that could happen, for these purposes, would be that the world would become truly outraged, and the Olympics would become a tremendous embarrassment for China. That way, ten or twenty years from now, the Tibetan incident will be remembered more clearly, and will be likely to have more influence, than the Tiananmen Square massacre has had. The bigger the problem, the harder it is to sweep under the rug. Ten or twenty years from now, China will be a superpower indeed. With luck, it will have the lessons from its "Wild West" period held up for reflection within living memory -- not just weakly resurrected from history books, like in the U.S. Let China take a very large, very visible fall on its face -- not because there is any joy in embarrassing anyone, but because the world does not need any more Tiananmens either.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Iraq: What Happens When They Neglect the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps has consistently accepted about 30% to 40% of its applicants. But what if the nation had maintained a commitment to the Peace Corps at least as strong as its commitment to the military? We do need a military. But we, and the world, have also needed other things as well. Iraq is a case in point. In 2003, American forces quickly seized Baghdad. In traditional military terms, their mission was, as President Bush notoriously announced, accomplished. Yet that is actually where the hard work began; and for that, the U.S. was terribly unprepared. It has taken years to get beyond the cowboy mentality and get serious about engaging the people of that alien land on their own terms. The people of America have been aware, for decades, that they were needed and could be useful in the Peace Corps. But the money was not there. If those tens of thousands of would-be volunteers had been able to enter the Peace Corps, they, their children, and their friends and neighbors would have gone through life with an enhanced awareness of what life is like in other cultures. Some of those people would have become influential in their communities and even nationally. Through their influence, the idea that we could waltz into Iraq, take over, and make sweeping changes, might have raised an appropriate level of doubt among the American population. An ongoing commitment to making the Peace Corps larger and stronger -- on a par with, say, growth in the military -- would also have meant the development of knowledge and infrastructure. There would have been experienced people and systems in place to take over and proceed intelligently when the "mission" was "accomplished." Being engaged with the needs of our fellow citizens in the world is not a nice thing that we do because we have money to burn. It is an essential, minimum counterweight to the fact that we are way over here in North America, not very near to most of the world's cultures, and therefore are especially likely to be ignorant of events and foolish in our expenditures. Better late than never. The Peace Corps goes on, and so does the world. Hopefully some president, someday, will prove determined and able to resurrect the original vision and to surpass it. Doing so would be best, not only for countless people whom we might help, but also for our own futures.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The End of Capitalism as We Know It

Basically, as my dad would have put it, they keep horsing around until somebody gets hurt. The subprime mortgage meltdown is a case study on the topic. When there’s an opportunity to make money, people tend to pile on. They did the same thing in the dot-com bust some years ago. They do it on every market that heads upwards. Prosperity, real or hoped-for, carries its own logic and momentum. People keep going; they ride the surfboard right up to the sand. This ain’t gonna work in environmental matters, though. Sooner or later, somebody is going to make honeybees extinct; or a bazillion square miles of ice are going to cut loose from Greenland and flood dozens of coastal cities around the world; or there’s going to be a pandemic, born of a warmer environment or greater human incursion into animal habitat. Something, anyway, is going to kill a boatload of us, and scare the rest of us so badly as to turn public opinion decisively against the free market. It’s going to happen because people are just going to keep focusing on economic growth until they run head-on into a wall. Because, as my dad would have said, they don’t know when to quit.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Catching Up: Best of 2004: August

Father Knows Best In his memoirs, "A World Transformed," written five years ago, George Bush Sr. wrote the following to explain why he didn't go after Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War. "Trying to eliminate Saddam...would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible.... We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq....There was no viable "exit strategy" we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Late-Night Political News from About.com "The Republican Convention is coming to town. It's coming up at the end of the month. Everyone is getting ready for the convention. The crack dealers are switching to Viagra." —David Letterman "The federal government reported that despite much higher expectations U.S. employers only added 32,000 jobs to the payroll this month. Even worse, folks, the jobs were all in India." —Conan O'Brien "Did you all hear former President Clinton's speech Monday night? It was great. ... You know it made me kind of nostalgic. It reminded me of a different time -- when presidents could actually talk." —Jay Leno "CBS did not carry the convention last night. You know you're in trouble when you're too dull for CBS." —David Letterman "Democrats were reluctant to allow Al-Jazeera in their convention, because they thought their coverage would be biased and hostile. Then they realized it couldn't be any worse than Fox News." —Jay Leno "Michael Moore was in attendance at the convention ... which explains the extraordinarily tight security around the buffet." —David Letterman "As the Democrats get revved up at their convention in Boston, President Bush is fighting back the only way he knows how: by going on vacation! Ah, it's nice to take a rest, replenish your supply of smirks. The vacation was expected, because Bush traditionally takes a month off every summer to relax and avoid reading National Security Warnings." —Craig Kilborn "President Bush spoke with the Amish. He didn't want to, but it was the only group he could find that wasn't upset about the high price of gas." —Jay Leno * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Mental Health Excerpts Researchers studied 156 older adults diagnosed with major depression, assigning them to receive the antidepressant Zoloft (setraline), 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, or both. ... Blumenthal and his colleagues ... found that the group who exercised but did not receive Zoloft did better than either of the other two groups. A very interesting finding concerns the group that received both Zoloft and exercise. These subjects were more likely to again become depressed than the subjects who only exercised. A 1976 study found that physicians spent an average of one minute giving advice and information in a 20 minute office visit. When these physicians were asked to estimate the time that they had spent giving advice and information, they estimated 8-10 minutes. ... Medical students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine have been getting sensitivity training in an unusual way. The class "Medicine & Horsemanship: An Introduction to Human Nonverbal Interaction at the Bedside" teaches them to improve their communication with patients by teaching them to communicate with horses. Combined pharmacotherapy and psychological treatment of depression is more effective than drug treatment alone. This may be because of an increased adherence to antidepressant regimens. Researchers found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease. ... People with heart disease were less likely to recognize humor or use it to get out of uncomfortable situations. They generally laughed less, even in positive situations and they displayed more anger and hostility. ... "We could perhaps read something humorous or watch a funny video and try to find ways to take ourselves less seriously," Dr. Miller says. Older adults who feel they have control over roles they value live longer than those who don't, according to a new study. Being a parent, grandparent or provider can add value to an elderly person's life. And having control over such roles appears to be more important to people as they age than feelings of control over life as a whole. The latest findings on the ability of pet dogs to reduce cardiovascular stress in persons living high-stress lives -- in this case those caring for brain-injured spouses -- shows that dog owners experienced one-fifth the rise in blood pressure during stressful, care-giving activities compared to those without dogs. Moreover, when participants without dogs acquired them six months into the study, their average blood pressure and heart rate during stress- producing situations dropped to match that of the initial group. "Even when controlling for factors like ethnic group, education and occupation, subjects with high leisure activity had 38 percent less risk of developing dementia," according to study author Yaakov Stern, PhD. Interestingly, the study also showed that participation in leisure activities may have a cumulative effect, with an additional 8 percent risk reduction associated with each leisure activity engaged. All three activity categories [i.e., intellectual, physical, or social leisure activities] were shown to be beneficial, although the intellectual activities were associated with highest risk reduction. Depressive symptoms, which include feelings of fear or loneliness, irritability, lack of concentration, and sleeplessness, occur in 19 to 30 percent of people age 65 years or older -- about 5 million Americans. Yet only one percent of those affected receive treatment. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Sell Your House Now (my prediction) As interest rates climb and wage globalization continues, U.S. workers will not be able to afford as much of a home purchase as has been possible in the past. Prices will drop. [Seems I was early. But rising interest rates, due to resetting ARMs, and wage stagnation did turn out to be relevant. Note that it was unheard-of to predict, at that time, that home prices would drop.]

Why We Separate Church and State

I originally posted this to my personal e-mail list in August 2004: * * * * * * * * * Just received this e-mail from a friend: "It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!! "If you agree, pass this on, if not simply delete..." No offense to the friend. She's a great one. But in the spirit of sharing ideas, and responding to ideas when others tell me their thoughts, here's what I say to that: * * * * * 1. Pardon my quoting from the old language of the King James Version, but here's how I learned the passage: "Go ye therefore and TEACH all nations ..." Ramming it down someone's throat is probably not the gentlest or most effective form of teaching. It's not the approach that Jesus took. If someone doesn't want to hear about God, well, you know, they've got a right to that. Just like you don't have to let some religious person -- some Jehovah's Witness, for example -- keep knocking on your door for hours on end. You can tell them to go away. They ought to do it anyway. It's just basic kindness and respect. But if they're too rude to leave you alone, you've got the law to shut them up. Nobody should be forced to listen to someone else's religious ideas, much less endorse them on the national currency. * * * * * 2. I'm not sure how the 86% statistic is calculated. It says 86% believe in God. Just one God. But I think that's got to be false. Consider, for example, Christians and Jews. The Jews don't believe in the Trinity. So ... are they talking about the same God? The Jews don't think Jesus is God; the Christians do. Sounds like a different God to me. Consider the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unitarians, and others who believe in God, but don't believe in a Trinity. Consider the millions of liberal Christians who don't claim to believe in or care about the Trinity. Still talking about the same God? People familiar with questionnaires realize that you can get a lot of different results, depending on how you ask your questions. Consider, for instance, what would happen if an interviewer asked these questions of 1,000 different people: -- Do you believe that God exists? -- If so, do you believe that God is a divine being? -- Is there only one divine being? -- Would angels, or the Devil, be divine beings? -- Would it be all right if someone believed that each divine being is a god? -- Is there only one god? Saying that 86% of Americans believe in "God" is like saying that 99% of Americans don't believe in murder. Well, OK, but ... capital punishment? Is it ever murder, when a soldier kills a civilian during war? How about when police shoot to kill, when maybe they wouldn't have to? How about driving an SUV when you know it is quite likely to kill people in any Honda you happen to hit, and when you know that accidents do happen? Is that murder? Even if they don't prosecute, isn't it manslaughter? Reasonable minds are going to disagree. When I hear that 86% of Americans believe in God, that's like saying that 86% of Americans believe in sunshine. Sure they do: but what does it mean? * * * * * 3. Who is "God"? Conservative Christians believe he is a not a "he," but is rather a "they": three persons in one Godhead. Few Bible passages support the concept of the Trinity, and many oppose it. Example: Jesus, on the cross, cried out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Was he talking to himself? This is all very old, very familiar material. People ignore it because it does not agree with what they want to hear. They claim to "believe" that God is a Trinity, no matter what. But it is a cheap, easy belief. Nobody is going to put them to death for believing in the Trinity. But if that threat did exist, you can be sure that people would be wanting to take a much closer look at the scriptural support for the trinitarian doctrine. Suddenly a lot more people would be honest about their real beliefs. Then we would see if so many people really "believe" in their present God. * * * * * 4. What does it mean for a nation to be "under" God? Are we pretending that he rules this country? I wouldn't think so. My impression, from the way conservative Christians talk, is that the country is going to the dogs. Hopefully they are not trying to stick God with the blame for this mess. I think they must mean that America is "under" God in the sense that we all *should* be following God's guidance in how we run the country. This gets pretty specific, as people are able to imagine God's role in endless detail. Example: "What kind of car would Jesus drive?" But there are no supportive Bible passages for such foolishness, and supportive Bible passages are what fundamentalist Christianity is all about. People who claim not to believe in big government thus sometimes give the impression that they would accept a massive bureaucracy, like the old Roman Catholic empire, if it existed for the purpose of whipping everyone into line. And what line would that be? I have yet to hear a consistent explanation, from fundamentalist Christians, as to whether we are supposed to observe or ignore Leviticus. I thought Jesus and Paul made pretty clear that the Law of Moses was a thing of the past, but that's hard to do when you're so excited about the Ten Commandments. (But see murder, above.) Fundamentalists seem pretty eager to hate homosexuals, but equally eager to ignore all those other laws of Moses. Why, for example, don't they observe the kosher dietary laws? The idea that America should be "under" God sounds a lot like the typical revolutionary attitude: "We don't know what our new world will look like, but we want to see it come -- and if it comes at the expense of blood and destruction, that's OK! That's what we believe! In God we trust!" It is a savage, evil attitude. In the 1700s, the writers of the Bill of Rights were closer to the Middle Ages. They remembered, more clearly than people nowadays, that Christians had tortured and killed Jews, and one another, in various religious wars, in the Inquisition, and in the Crusades -- and that they had blamed this goofiness and evil on God. Ah, but we are smarter now. We don't have to know anything about the history of Christian behavior. We are the first generation that has ever confronted any of these issues. Right? * * * * * 5. I appreciate the writer of the original message, above, for pointing out the similarity between having "under God" in the Pledge" and "In God We Trust" on the money. Neither of them belongs there. The New Testament says nothing about trusting God to lead America. The New Testament is about spiritual salvation. Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers and actors explicitly *declined* to become politically involved. When Jesus looked at the coin, he said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." He did not say, "Hey, this coin should say, 'In God We Trust.'" Once again, we have these supposedly spiritual people, dragging faith into the ugly world of politics, with all its lies and fantasies. Faith, as a result, takes a beating. Christian belief does not come out looking lovely and special. It comes out looking like a tool of force with which you can imprison and kill innocent people. Paul warned about wolves who would come among the sheep. We have wolves aplenty today: religious leaders who know they can whip up a lot of excitement with sordid tales about the latest evil things that some politician or other category of person (e.g., "liberals") are up to now. It's got nothing to do with the Bible, but that's not important. The important thing is to be mad as hell. Christians need to do a little more reading of their Bibles, before they go out preaching to everyone else about what the "true" faith is, or how their own scriptures intend that faith to be practiced or communicated to others. Fundamentalists, of all people, need to be able to point to the Bible passages that mandate inscriptions like "In God we trust" on governmental currency. And if they are honest enough to admit there are no such passages, then they should give it a rest.