Category Archives: Science

Reading List October 24, 2005

  • The Entrepreneurial Mind Set (Moore’s Lore) – Dana Blankenhorn is entering the entrepreneurial realm himself and it has caused him to take that position that countries like China and India are developing more entrepreneurs, the US education system stinks and the Baby Boomers have killed the golden goose (the last are my words, not his).  It’s an interesting take on our society right now.
  • The Fall of the Warrior King (New York Times Magazine) – The story of Col. Nick Sassaman, his role in Iraq and how it led to his fall from grace.
  • Good News: People are Social Animals (Fractals of Change) – Tom Evslin talks about why peer-driven services on line have developed, and how/if they will continue to work.

My Dream Machine

In the last year my Grandmother has lost a significant amount of her vision.  Basically she can see shadows and that’s about it, and since she’s 85 she has that many years of ingrained habits that rely on her being able to see.  I know how hard it is for me to adjust to major change at 39, I can only imagine how hard it is for her at 85.

My aunts have been very busy helping Grandmother, taking her to appointments, taking her grocery shopping and all the other daily chores we take for granted.  They’ve also enlisted the help of an agency (sorry, I’m not sure which one) that has provided some guidance in dealing with services for the blind.

One of the things the agency did was provide a special tape recorder (looks like it was made in the 60s) that has symbols on the keys so that a blind person can tell the "Play" button from the "Stop’" button.  To be honest the machine is a real clunker, and I honestly don’t think many of the tapes interest Grandmother.  I also think she misses reading the newspaper and I know she feels more isolated than she ever has, despite my aunts’ best efforts.

So I decided to do a little research and find out what kind of technology is out there that might help Grandmother, and while I’ve found some interesting stuff I don’t think any of it is quite right.  For instance I found a machine that will scan any printed matter and convert it to speech in a couple of different voices and languages that the user can select.  Very cool (and about $2,600), but after watching Grandmother struggle with the buttons on the tape recorder I wouldn’t want to subject her to having to figure out this machine. 

The scanner is just one example of some of the technology that’s available, but I don’t really think any of them will work.  Another example is all the computer stuff I found.  There’s a lot of software out there that lets blind people use a computer for work and play in traditional ways (software that converts screen text to audio) but that still requires someone to know how to use a computer in the first place. What I’m looking for is a machine, probably a computer that can be manipulated via voice by anyone.

That’s led me to imagining what kind of machine I would build for Grandmother if I were a sufficiently talented engineer.  Unfortunately I’m not an engineer by any description, but particularly not "sufficiently talented". I’m going to outline my dream machine below, and if anyone has a suggestion for how I might find or build a product like this please let me know.

My dream machine would:

  1. Work off of voice prompts.  No button pushing or reading necessary.
  2. Could be managed remotely for tech support.
  3. Would provide audio output of information (news stories, directory listings, audio sent by family and friends, etc.).
  4. Would be navigable by voice prompt, and if it doesn’t "understand" commands would provide audio feedback.
  5. Would also act as her phone.
  6. Would be "always on."

I guess what I’m imagining is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course without the thing going evil on my Grandmother.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any features like email, web surfing, etc.  That’s because I seriously doubt Grandmother would ever do those things, but I’d imagine any machine equipped to do what I ask would also have the standard computer stuff available as well.

Actually I think the biggest deal here is the user interface.  It needs to feel familiar to Grandmother, to be analagous to devices she’s accustomed to like a phone or a radio.  I know if we called it a computer she’d never use it, so it could be her fancy radio that she can talk to and it talks back.  Or the phone that has a radio attached.  Whatever, as long as it works and she doesn’t have to push anything.

So maybe she would email, but really it would be her saying "Do I have any messages?" and the machine replying, "You have three new messages."  She’d then say "Play the first one" the machine plays it and asks "Would you like to reply?" and then Grandmother says "Yes" and so on.  To her she’s talking, but to you and me she’s sending an audio email.

Well, I think you get my drift, and now you know why it’s my dream machine, not my reality machine.  What with the aging of our population I hope these voice applications come along sooner rather than later, because I think we’ll need them.  Here’s to hope.

Today’s Reads: July 19, 2005

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics (er. Scientific Studies)

According to this article on CNN’s health site, about 1/3 of all scientific studies are either contradicted by subsequent research or the original results are weaker than originally reported.

It’s time for a steak dinner with a couple of beers, followed by a nice hunk of cheesecake for dessert, and then while I’m at it I might reconsider the whole smoking thing.

Secular Humanism

Dana Blankenhorn writes a long piece on secular humanism that touches on many topics of interest in America right now.  Intelligent design, the separation of church and state, science vs. belief, etc. As usual I don’t agree with some of what he says, do agree with much of it, and think alot because of it.

A couple of paragraphs really grabbed me.  Here’s the first:

Faith is meaningless if it is compelled. If a soup kitchen feeds you,
then demands you pray to its God in order to take that soup, is your
prayer really worth anything? If a school demands your child recite a
specific prayer, to a specific God, at a specific time, in a specific
way, where is the God in that? Where is the faith in that child?

This paragraph provoked a tangential thought process that helped me articulate my problem with evangelism. It is this:

If you need to tell me, repeatedly, why your religion (notice I said religion, not God) is so great then my first instinct is to look for its weakness.  On the other hand if while having lunch together I hear you talk about the wonderful experiences you’ve had while volunteering at your church’s soup kitchen, see your eyes light up when you talk about the great people you’ve met while building homeless shelters, sense the community you feel whenever you chaperone your church’s youth group trips, I see you as a representative of all that is good with your religion.  I may not join (do I really need to for you to have fulfilled your evangelistic mission?) but I will come to believe that your church is a true community of good, of doing what God put you, us, on Earth to do.

The next part of Dana’s post that grabbed me was this:

America is also a nation of 10,000 faiths, all actively practiced, all loudly proclaimed.

We have Bahai and Buddhist temples, Shiite, Sunni and Black Muslims.

We have Maronite and Roman Catholics, Russian and Greek Orthodox. We
have Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish temples. We have a
wealth of faiths invented right here – Mormons and Southern Baptists –
as well as churches that get by merely on their ministers’ brand name…

America is the most religious nation in the history of the planet.
We’re a Christian nation, but we are also a Buddhist one, and a Muslim
one, and a Hindu one. When God hears the prayers of America, he or she
hears dozens of languages, a great cacophony. And then there are the
atheists and agnostics who either don’t know God or don’t care.

All this is worth cherishing. All this is worth savoring. All this
is worth protecting. This is our legacy, it’s what makes us special.

My thought tangent here diverted to the damage that the exclusionary aspect of many religions is doing to our society.  If you’re not with us then you’re against us.

Those same people who stand there and proclaim the greatness of their religion also preach that their’s is the only way.  If I, or you, do not join them we will not be saved.  I will be excluded.  I am an outsider.

This kind of thinking is human in that almost all people surround themselves with people like themselves.  We fear people who are different. Unfortunately many leaders understand how to take advantage of this fear. They use this fear to manipulate us for their own ends, whether it be the furthering of their particular ideology or the gain of power and influence in the secular world.

As Dana points out, the true power of America is that we accept all faiths under our umbrella.  We recognize each individual’s right to believe in their own religion, or to not have a religion.  We are inclusive, not exclusive.   We have overcome our natural fear of "others", although it has never happened quickly (ask the Irish and Italian immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century).

America is definitely a nation of economic haves and have nots, but it is also a nation that has led the way in offering personal liberty.  It is by nature an inclusive society.

My fear right now is of those leaders that would claim America for their particular faith.  America is NOT a Christian nation, nor a Muslim nation, nor a Hindu nation.  It is a nation that accepts all of these faiths and more.  It is a scaffold that supports all religions and none.

To close the loop let me say this:  I do not want to evangelize for America, for the same reason that I don’t want someone to evangelize their religion to me.  I want to lead my life so that I can be a representative of what is good about America.  I want my actions to speak for my belief.

One More Way I Screwed Up My Kids

I just read this little piece about a new study that shows that by throwing a ball slowly to your kid to hit you aren’t helping them at all.  It appears that kids’ brains aren’t wired for slow motion, so by throwing the ball faster you make it easier for them to hit.

you throw something slowly to a child, you think you’re doing them a
favor by trying to be helpful," said Terri Lewis, professor of
psychology at McMaster University. "Slow balls actually appear
stationary to a child."

Add a little speed to the pitch, Lewis and her colleagues suggest, and the child is able to judge its speed more accurately.

"Our brain has very few neurons that deal specifically with slow
motion and many neurons that deal with faster motion," Lewis said.
"Even adults are worse at slow speeds than they are at faster speeds."

To my kids: sorry for setting your baseball careers back who-knows-how-long.

Oh, and I guess this helps explain the success of the old Eephus pitch and my amazingly low slow-pitch softball batting average.

DNA Doodle

CrickdnadoodleTo the left you will see the original doodle done by Francis Crick when he theorized the shape of DNA. Crick, who was one of the two people who discovered DNA, died last year and now the US National Library of Medicine and the Wellcome Trust are digitizing over 11,000 pages of his work.  You can freely view and download any of his collection here.

To me this is the greatest part of the Internet.  If you had told me when I was in college that I could sit in my living room and easily search through millions of pages of information while sitting on my couch I would have said that you were crazy.