Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TECHNOLOGY IS GREAT WHEN IT WORKS

It was always great to get a new toy on Christmas morning or for my birthday. Of course, depending on the present, the newness often wore off after a day or two, and the thrill was gone. There were of course those exceptional presents (i.e. a bicycle) that continued to bring pleasure, or at least provide usefulness, long after my birthday. I find the same thing with technology, such as the Blackberry cellphone I acquired last year, and now can hardly do without.

Along that same line, I recently became aware that the Windows Vista operating system comes prepackaged with a speech recognition module. For those of you who are not aware of it, I was the primary initiator of the use of voice recognition in our radiology practice, in which we annually dictate several hundred thousand radiology reports yearly using voice recognition, with the radiologist dictating and immediately signing the reports for electronic distribution within minutes of when the examination was accomplished.

Anyone with a minimum amount of technical expertise and a maximum amount of patience can ultimately a use voice recognition to speed and enhance the process of placing spoken thoughts into a print document. At the beginning, this is very inefficient, but once it becomes second nature, then it removes the barrier of the pen or keyboard, and thoughts can flow freely onto the page, virtually without conscious effort.

Of course there are several downsides to this. First, you tend to prattle on when there's really nothing worth actually saying. Second, when you get really good at it, you begin to assume that it is perfect and you don't proofread your documents, and send them wherever they are going even though they are actually not nearly so perfect as you thought.

Having used consumer voice recognition products as well as (very expensive) professional voice recognition products, the recognition system embedded in Windows Vista (and available for download for XP and other versions) is just about as good as anything I've ever used. You will need to spend $60.00 or more for a good microphone with active noise cancellation, but that's about it. The tutorial built into the package was quite good, but there will still be a lot of frustration before the novice feels comfortable with the technology and the result. You'll soon find it easier to say Hashimoto's thyroiditis rather than type it. I will say it again, Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Good luck to you; I'm off to write the great American novel!

GLOBAL WARMING MUST BE A REGIONAL THING

Our condo is at the end of the cul de sac on the right


There is no question that the earth is in a period of global warming. The cause of global warming is less certain; certainly manmade additions to the atmosphere play a contributing role, but it is simply a question of how great or how little the role is.


The polar ice cap is melting and the polar bears are losing their habitat, and the Colorado winter is no longer cold enough to kill the pine beetle and their larvae, so now we're losing the lodgepole pine across the mountain west.

There certainly though seem to be some regional variation in the weather patterns. I have just experienced the coldest days of my entire life, and in fact the coldest days for anyone living in this locale for more than 100 years. In the middle of a series of night time temperatures well below zero was a record setting night of 31° below zero last Thursday. (absolute temperature, not wind chill! ) We also experienced a bit of snow, as you can see from the picture above. The snowfall was not a record, but it added to the overall sensation of cold.

There is nothing evil or sinister about the winter, and without the cold temperatures and moisture, the flora and fauna of the warm six months of the year could not exist. And I guess there's always the philosophical point that the experience of pain is necessary in order to appreciate pleasure. Thus this spring we will be absolutely bursting with joy in Iowa.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What I'm reading these days


In the last couple of weeks, I've had enough time to read three good books. Here are brief reviews that might, or might not, tweak your interest:

BLINDSPOT
Everyone needs a little escape fiction now and then, but this novel has a several unusual aspects. This short novel is a first effort by two historians, Jane Kamensky of Brandeis University and Jill Lepore of Harvard. I would describe it as a murder mystery set in pre-revolutionary Boston, using a portrait painting Scott, an artistically talented "fallen" woman, an educated slave, and various members of Boston society in 1764 to weave a tale of boddice-ripping romance (tinged with a touch of homo-erotocism), slavery and emancipation, women's liberation, and of course, justice. It is written in period language/grammer, and uses a first-person narration by the Scott artist, with simultaneous first-person narration by his apprentice "boy" (as letters to a friend in New York.) The historical picture of period Boston is, I am told, quite accurate, and if only for that alone it was interesting enough for spare-time or travel reading.

DON'T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES
Back to nonfiction, how about a book about lingustics? Seriously, why care about a language spoken only by 4-500 Brazilian Indians, isolated along a short stretch of the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon in central Brazil. As writer Daniel Everett points out, only by being able to talk to them in their native, uncorrupted, tongue will we learn of their culture and life-beliefs, and how these are similar or (in the case of the Pirahãs (pee'-da-hans) different from other cultures.

Dan Everett started life as a missionary-trained linguist, and was sent to the Pirahãs to learn their language so that he might produce a New Testament in their language and thus bring them to Christ and salvation. He spent the better part of 30 years with this small group, with furloughs to Sao Paulo and elsewhere and breaks to get his PhD in Linguistics and later as a scholar in residence in Noam Chomsky's program at M.I.T. (Chomsky, among other things is considered the father of modern linguistics). Even so, it seems that Everett uses this knowledge of the Pirahãs language to disagree with Chomsky's theory of universal grammar as an inbuilt feature of the brain.

His wife and three young children went with him to live in a primitive, isolated environment, and over the years became the only outsiders accepted to some extent, because no one else had successfully managed to learn the Pirahãs language and speak with them conversationally.

The Pirahãs are unique in that they have no religious beliefs or "origin" stories (No other known culture has lacked these). They just accept things as they are, including illness, injury and death. They are always content and happy with thing as they are/happen. Introduced by Everett to the Pirahãs, social psychologists from MIT thought they were possibly the "happiest" culture in existence.

The first part of the story is a narrative of his life among the Pirahãs, and for me, the more interesting. The second part of the book which explains in more depth the linguistic science, is a bit more pedantic, and frankly I just skimmed this section.

For 200 years, missionaries have failed to convert a single Pirahãs. In the end, the Missionary himself was converted. Unfortunately, when he ultimately "came out" as a non-theist, it brought a considerable reaction, and ultimately a divorce from his wife who had been at his side most of the years in the Amazon.

MISQUOTING JESUS
Here I don't want to get into a debate over the inerrancy of the bible. I include it because (a) it was one of the last three books I read, and (b) it dovetails nicely with "SNAKES" in that it is about language - in this case printed language.

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

In this work, directed at the lay public, Ehrman used his many years as an academic textual analyst, concentrating on the bible, to describe how textual analysis can be applied to ancient manuscripts, particularly biblical texts, to determine among the various versions which are most likely correct.

Here is an excellent review by Anthony Campbell. I could say more, but not better, so click to Campbell's review and decide on your own.
OUT OF THE FLAMES
Yes, I know I said "three" books, and I already talked about this one in the past, but it's simply one of the best books I've ever read. By Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, it's about many things, including religious history, rare book collecting, and the early history of publishing after Gutenberg. I recommend this wonderfully readable book to friends at every opportunity.