My Life as a Blogger, So Far…

I’ve been blogging for a few months now, and it’s been interesting so far. I started simply because I wanted to see what blogging was like and to become more familiar with the blogging world. I have to admit that before I started I only paid attention to the few gadget and Getting Things Done blogs that I had stumbled upon.

I began my blog thinking that I would post an update on what I was doing–for my friends and family–and scientific thoughts and discoveries for those interested in hearing science. My blog quickly became an outlet for general ideas on work-related strategies, providing a connection to those with the same things on their mind as me.

Even though I’m a novice in this vast and and incorporeal space, I do feel that I’m a part of a community. I’ve discovered blogs by individuals with similar interests to mine, and reading their thoughts spur my own which sometimes results in my own post. And, of course, I would guess that my posts cause similar responses from others.

Conversations among bloggers aren’t direct but are, by their nature, referential only. Imagine the connection that actors on stage would feel in a Shakespeare play where the dialogue consisted solely of asides, and you get an idea of the connection that exists between bloggers. It is somewhat akin to scientific journals where one scientist’s paper references work in another scientist’s paper, but no direct dialogue or debate between the scientists with competing theories takes place in print. The difference with the scientific world is that these scientists will usually meet and have the missing dialogue or debate at conferences associated with their field of research. In keeping with the sideways communication amongst us bloggers, I should point out that perhaps this post was a result of Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s Reflections on Blogging.

One aspect that’s missing from the blogging world is the ability to easily see the connections between bloggers’ posts. Trackbacks allow one blog to let another know when they reference that blog, but not everyone uses trackbacks. Technorati shows which blogs link to a specific blog, but if Blog B references Blog A, and Blog C references Blog B, the connection between Blog C and A is not readily available. Thus, knowing when a blogging topic catches like wildfire and when it has limited exposure is difficult. Technorati has the database available to create a Post Map that shows all of the connections that lead from a specific post, like a spiderweb.  Such a device would be akin to threads on discussion boards or the threading feature available on Gmail to follow continuity of topic. If anyone wants to create a Web 2.0 company off of this concept, be my guest  🙂

Linguistics Explains Elmo’s Death Threat

I’ve seen the stories (on boingboingremember the news) about the Elmo kids’ book that has interactive audio and has been telling kids, "Who wants to die!" in an apparent prank by someone involved with making the book. I’ve also read the press release today by the publisher:

the track was recorded as ‘Uh oh, who has to go’ and due to compression of the digital audio file, some consumers hear a different phrase… We are absolutely certain that the audio file was not tampered with.

Covering their ass, I thought, until I heard the audio sample in this news video from KNDU and now I believe that the publisher is correct. The Elmo sentence under question is an excellent example of the psychological principal of Priming, whereby what you perceive can be affected by your expectations. Listen to the sample expecting to hear "Who wants to die," and that is exactly what you hear. However, listen expecting to hear "Who has to go," and then the correct phrase becomes what you hear. Listen to the video a couple of times and force yourself to "expect" the two different phrases, and many of you will in fact switch what you hear depending on your expectation.

Of course, the first person who misidentified the sample as "Who wants to die" wasn’t expecting to hear this frightening threat, so priming wasn’t the reason they had their misunderstanding (even though the sentence demonstrates priming very well). How did consumers hear this unintended death threat, then, if priming wasn’t the reason?

There are two main confusions with the sentence in question: "has" is confused with "wants", and "go" is confused with "die". The Elmo book certainly uses some severe compression scheme to reduce the bit rate necessary to store the speech in the book as the publisher stated–that’s obvious just by listening to it. This compression scheme  distorts the speech (in addition to the speech distortion that occurs from the annoying Elmo voice), adds a certain amount of noise, and reduces the speech bandwidth. All of these could lead to confusions in consonants and vowels perceived in the sentence. I decided to pull out some research papers on speech confusion and see if there’s an explanation for this mix-up.

Classic research on consonant confusion by Miller and Nicely in 1955 looked at the impact of noise and bandwidth on consonant confusions. According to their research, for speech at a +12 signal-to-noise ratio and a bandwidth of 200-1200 Hz (probably not a bad approximation to the sever compression applied to the Elmo speech), the phoneme /g/ will be incorrectly identified as a /d/ as often as it is correctly identified as a /g/ (click on the figure to the right to see the full-sized confusion matrix–the data of relevance is highlighted in yellow). This begins to explain confusing "go" with "die": the word sounds like it starts with a /d/ instead of a /g/ due to the crappy compression system.

The vowel confusion is a little more difficult to explain, but I’ll try assuming that they are represented by the dipthongs /OW/ and /AY/. The vowel sound in "go" has a similar first formant time-course to the vowel in"die" (according to Rabiner and Juang), so again a compression system that limits the bandwidth of speech might make the two vowel sounds more alike.

So now I’ve explained from a scientific basis how Elmo’s "go" could be misinterpreted as "die".

A similar explanation can be made for the vowels in the confusion of "has" with "wants": both words have similar first formants. The consonant confusion with these words is more difficult to explain. Confusing /h/ with /w/ isn’t common according to research by Wang and Bilger in 1973 (Miller and Nicely’s  paper did not look at these consonants). The /h/ is a frication, the /w/ is voiced–the two are rarely confused. I suspect that the compression distortion obliterated the soft consonant /h/ and allowed the user to imagine whatever consonant they want.

This opens a whole new line of work for linguists–alerting companies when their crappy compression systems may cause customers mental anguish (or worse if it’s in a car’s GPS system). You don’t need to mind your p’s and q’s but be careful because, according to Miller and Nicely under the noisy conditions I considered above, the phoneme /t/ is more likely to be heard incorrectly as a /p/ than correctly as a /t/. So, if you get your face slapped at a noisy bar asking a woman if she wants to see your cool trick, at least now you know why.

Select Choices for Satisfied Consumers

Graham Gordon’s post Innovate by giving less choice at Broken Bulbs: Innovation inspired me to write my own thoughts on selection size for consumers.

I’ve thought for a long time that too much consumer choice can be a bad thing. Whenever I read about being able to download any movie or TV show at any time, I envision myself sitting in front of the TV with an hour to spare, and being frozen by indecision because of the overwhelming selection from which I have to choose. Give me 30 channels of actual variety to choose from and I’ll find something to pass an hour; give me every show that was ever made to choose from and I’ll give up and go do something else.

Gourmet chefs have known this for a long time. In the main dining room at Chez Panisse, the culinary mecca in Berkeley that started the California cuisine movement, diners have no choice at all for dinner. There’s one set menu for the night, whatever wonderful menu Alice Waters has decided for the evening. At many restaurants, the most expensive dinner you can have is the chef’s tasting menu, where not only do diners not get a choice but they don’t even know what the courses are until until they arrive at the table.

My favorite bookstores are not the ones with the biggest selection, but the ones with a few creatively selected books expertly chosen by the staff and prominently displayed to guide me to new discoveries. Give me a small selection of high quality and unique items over a massive selection anyday.

Obviously there are many exceptions to this rule–searching for the best price on something that you know you want is the most obvious place where complete selection is beneficial. When I’m searching for the best price on a flight where I know the destination and date, I want a website that offers me every possible flight available so that I can find the best price. When I’m searching for a vacation idea, however, I don’t want a website that gives me every possible vacation choice–I want a site that has selected a few quality options to highlight and whose selections fit my own tastes.

There’s obviously value in the Amazon model, but for me there’s also considerable value in the narrowed-by-experts small selection model. We are seeing a current craze for simplicity in design, and the standard innovation development strategy of Subtraction has been around a long time–selectively restricting consumer choice is consistent with both of these approaches.

Decision Making, Groupthink and Scientific Debate

The January issue of the Harvard Business Review is on decision making, and they cover an array of issues on this topic.  One aspect that got me thinking was the area of group decision making. They point out the dangers of decisions by consensus where decisions are easily made without conflict or debate. HBR points out the relevancy of "groupthink," a term coined by a psychologist in 1972 and which Wikipedia describes as follows:

In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a very rational way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise.

When I think back on strategic decision-making meetings that I’ve been involved in, the least satisfying ones were those where no competing concepts were debated or given serious discussion. By "debated" I am not referring to a simple identification of alternatives followed by agreement (or silence) by everyone that the alternatives should be dismissed ("Okay, Plan A is consistent with our corporate approach. Well, let’s consider Plan B–no one likes that one, do they?" <play cricket_sounds.wav>). The legal system is (simplistically speaking) designed to place opposing viewpoints against each other and let the best one win–respect for this conflict-resolution approach in business could benefit corporate decision making processes. Unfortunately, concepts and viewpoints that conflict with a company’s norm are often immediately shot down as absurd or obviously not worth consideration (see my post on the No Instinct and Bill Kinnon’s on the Idea-Killing Manager).

When I consider healthy discussions that take place in the scientific world, vigorous debate (or at least consideration) of opposing alternatives is critical for the successful development of ideas and identification of promising new areas of research. The ideas that withstand critical challenges from colleagues end up being the most robust and strongest theories. The best scientific labs that I’ve experienced have regular meetings where no assumptions go unchallenged, and alternatives to the consensus thinking are given serious consideration, with everyone in the lab actively participating in this process. If there is a debate over a point or competing hypotheses are uncovered in the lab meeting, people follow up with research/analysis that allows the different hypotheses to be proved or disproved–or at least enough evidence is gathered to indicate clear support of one hypothesis over the others. This approach often leads to whole new lines of funded research, the equivalent of creating a new product line or market.

Now, think about decision-making business meetings in which you have attended. First, how many of them consisted of a couple people doing all of the talking, with the other people contributing nothing to the discussion–their silence an implicit agreement with whatever the primary speaker concludes? Ever wonder why those silent people were in the meeting in the first place? Some may be there as legitimate observers, simply absorbing information to relay to their group or to incorporate into their own group’s process. Most of the silent ones, however, probably have something to say but learned a long time ago that comments contrary to the company’s normal viewpoint are quickly dismissed or given lipservice. Those people who sit silently keeping their ideas to themselves have become "obsolete".

Second, when was the last time that someone followed up on a competing idea by analyzing it and reporting their results back to those who were in the meeting? Rather than summary dismissals meted out to novel concepts or challenges to status quo thinking, one or more people should be tasked to develop the idea further until the evidence supports or disproves the value of the novelty. Spend a little time and ignore the No Instinct. I’m going to guess that people might complain that this requires time and resources that people don’t have, but that excuse has become a routine defense for all inaction these days. Doing the extra work necessary to come to conclusions is what put IDEO on the map. They don’t make critical design decisions by spending 30 minutes sitting around a conference table looking at options on  PowerPoint slides (remember the last time that you sat in a meeting where everyone looked at 5 different designs on a projector or hand out, then everyone agreed on the preferred design–the final decision based on a single inactive graphical representation), IDEO creates several different prototypes and spends time observing and documenting user interactions. A process that requires time and resources, but allows IDEO to optimize their design-decision process.

New Sennheiser Research Center

Sennheiser, a world leader in transducer and headphone technology, just opened a research center in Palo Alto near Stanford University (and half a block from the beloved Fry’s Electronics store!). I went to their open house reception today, which had several executives from their German headquarters, a member of the Sennheiser family, the mayor of Palo Alto, and many of the most prominent audio researchers in the Bay Area.

The recent openings of satellite research centers the Bay Area is an indicator that technology companies are doing well and investing in the long term. Research is usually the first thing to get cut at the slightest hint of financial difficulties, and opening a research center in the Bay Area produces a significant hit on a company’s net profit. Such research centers typically do not provide positive support to revenue for many years, so their formation requires long-term dedication. The formation of these centers is also indicative of the realization by companies that they need to work harder to compete on technology development.

iPods Converge with Hearing Aids

The hearing aid world converges with the iPod world, and consumer electronics in general, as described in this article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The figure shows hearing aid earmolds attached to iPod earpieces, providing a comfortable and secure fit, reducing interfering sound from outside, and reducing leakage of low-frequency sound with the tighter fit. Small, low-power audio earpieces definitely have a market, and the possibilities here are interesting.

(Disclosure: I work for the company discussed in the article but am not working on the consumer technology described. I did that gig at Sound ID).

How a Cochlear Implant Sounds

PBS has a demonstration of what a cochlear implant sounds like to a hearing impaired person wearing one. The sounds were created by a friend of mine at the House Ear Institute, Bob Shannon, who is one of the leading cochlear implant scientists. The demonstration also provides a visual analogy that will be appreciated by those who use digital cameras, showing how the reduction in the "audio pixel" resolution of sound affects quality and intelligibility.

The human cochlea, the snail shell-looking organ, transduces sound from an acoustic wave into electrical nerve impulses that the brain can understand. The frequency resolution at which it does this is approximately 3500 "sound pixels" (the number of inner hair cells, for those of you who know the auditory system’s biology). Cochlear implants attempt to replicate this transduction in place of cochleas that no longer function. These implants have a resolution of around 20 "sound pixels" (channels in the implant industry’s nomenclature). Imagine how the quality of your digital photos would be reduced and how much detail would be lost if the image resolution were changed from 3000×2000 pixels to 30×20 pixels, and you get some of the idea of the difficulty facing implant design and implant wearers.

I remember when I first heard this demo from Bob at a hearing science conference (Association for Research in Otolaryngology) about 15 years ago. I was eating lunch at Crabby Bills in St. Petersburg, Florida and Bob came by with a portable tape player saying, "Listen to this!" and I heard a demo similar to the one on the PBS site. I, and anyone who heard it, was amazed at how understandable speech was even with only 4 "sound pixels", and the perceived potential for success with cochlear implants grew tremendously at that moment.

eMail Annihilation

43 Folders posted an interesting way to start afresh in the New Year with your e-mail. I know few people who don’t complain that they can’t keep up with the volume of e-mail that they receive. 43 Folder’s suggestion is to create a Folder in Outlook (everyone uses Outlook, right?) called DMZ, select everything in your inbox and move it into the DMZ. Now, you have a fresh, clean inbox that can’t intimidate you. Many people have a hard time getting started because they know how many e-mails are in there unanswered that need their attention. This eliminates that dread. Of course, from this point on you have to be diligent, but it’s probably difficult to start being diligent when you have hundreds of unanswered e-mails.

43 Folders suggests that you still need to deal with all of those e-mails in the DMZ zone, but I have a better idea. Don’t even look in the DMZ folder again unless you are looking for past information, and send and e-mail to everyone "explaining" that your Outlook got infected and destroyed your inbox, then ask people to resend any e-mails that really need your attention. Do this every month (kidding).

The Value of Patents

Patents have come under attack recently. A recent report by Booz Allen Hamilton (discussed in a previous post) indicates that patents have no value to corporations anymore and have produced comments that perhaps patents are no longer valuable. On top of this, the RIM-NTP debacle, also discussed here and here, has shone a light for the general public onto the dark and brutal patent underworld in which companies compete in an arena where customers are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve told many people over the years that the most surprising aspect of my move from academia to industry was my discovery of the enormous effort that companies expend towards IP, and how lucrative or damaging patents can be. A well-written patent can protect the value of a company’s technology or it can force other companies to "pay to play" if they want to sell similar technology.

As an aside, you are probably wondering why any company would license a patent to their competitor and thereby enable them to compete. The reason is a pragmatic one: the claims of most patents are not air-tight and if a company tries hard enought it can figure out a workaround, although they still risk litigation. Often, the easiest solution is for both companies to come to an agreement where the patent owner licenses the patent to its competitor for an amount both sides can live with. A common strategy for large companies is to trade patent portfolios with their competitors: Nokia with Samsung, Philips with Sony. These large companies usually all have patents that could tie each other up in courts for years and grind their whole industry into a litigious standstill. Better to trade and allow each other to compete in the marketplace rather than decend into a mutually-assured destruction scenario. Guess what happens, though, to a company that doesn’t have any patents to trade. And if that poor company is a publicly traded one, their stockholders will not be amused.

Therin lies one of my many difficulties with statements that patents have no valuable impact on a company. BAH’s report looked at the relationship between number of patents filed and a company’s financial success and found no correlation. This has been interpreted by many as meaning that patents have no value to a company and that they should stop wasting their time with any patent strategy. I bet, however, that you could walk into any popular lunch spot in Palo Alto and find several people whose companies have either significantly benefited or been hurt financially because of patent issues.

So why did BAH find little or no correlation? I believe that the proper interpretation of their data is simply that focusing on the number of patents filed is the wrong approach to success. Throwing money at developing a patent portfolio does not in itself add value to a company. Patents must be developed strategically and thoughtfully. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.

In my experience, the least valuable patents often emanate from the most prolific patent filer: for them, the slightest notion of novelty (to them) is enough to generate 43 claims. But these patents have received little deep thought and produce little value. Just because an author has published a huge number of books does not mean that they are a great author, and there is probably little correlation between the number of books an author has published and the winning of a Pulitzer/Nobel/Booker Prize. But, this lack of correlation does not mean that there is no merit to writing books.

In general, innovators like to invent, to see their ideas developed. They often have to be forced at gunpoint to work on writing a patent application–there’s very little fun to be had in that activity. Additionally, the most brilliant innovators often fail to see why their ideas could be patented at all–the inventions seem too obvious to them to be patentable.

So, back to my the point that I originally wanted to make. I’ve already pointed out that patents are valuable for trading. Patents are also highly valuable to startup companies. I was at a startup where we filed close to two dozen patents in our first two years. Having a phat portfolio bought us a lot of milage with the Sand Hill Roadsters and allowed them to cross off a gating item for funding from their VC Checklist. And if anyone is wondering if patents can be valuable, feel free to send your question to the CEO of RIM, whose company was recently thought to be in danger of going under and Blackberry service shutting down thanks to patent litigation.

Yes, the patent office is vastly understaffed right now (with 400,000 applications filed last year), and the vast majority of patents issued have no value whatsoever (thus the BAH result: more patents does not equate with greater value). But meaningful patents protect a company’s right to sell technology, prevents others from selling that technology, can be sold and traded, and provide a level of comfort to external investors and analysts. Ignoring wise patent development is done at a company’s peril.