as a weekly practice I listen to npr and do a little sketch on one of the stories. take a look, you can click on the illustration to make it bigger!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Talking Back To Your Device Has Never Been Easier

It's talk-back time.

Who hasn't spoken to their computer on occasion? I've heard some choice words exchanged with many a laptop, PC and even the occasional PDA. Most of the time all you get in response is silence.

If you're tired of having a one-way conversation with your screen, relief is in sight. It's been more than a decade since consumer versions of voice recognition software came on the scene, but there were many stumbling blocks — including limited vocabulary and the need to spend an excessive amount of time training.

But the technology has advanced to a new level and is changing how we interact with computers, cell phones and cars. And the integration of voice features could have a dramatic impact on making technology more accessible and ergonomically sound by changing the way consumer electronics are designed.

Advances And Obstacles

"We're right on the edge of a new era of conversational computing, where in certain circumstances your primary mode of interaction with a machine will be talking to it and having it talk back," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley.

EnlargeCourtesy of Mikkel Aaland
Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley, says computer and consumer electronics companies are spending "serious money" on developing a voice recognition breakthrough.
He says the building blocks of voice recognition — computing power and algorithms — are steadily improving. So is interface design.

"No matter how good these systems are, they're not like talking to another human being," he says. So the design challenge for engineers and software companies is to guide people to ask the right questions and give the right answers.

The creator of much of the voice recognition software that's in use in devices is Nuance, a Burlington, Mass.-based technology company. There aren't many other companies with Nuance's reach in this sector. Yankee Group senior analyst Berge Ayvazian says Nuance became the dominant player in this arena by acquiring or partnering with "most of their former competitors," including Scansoft, Dictaphone and Philips Speech Recognition Systems.

Nuance's speech recognition software for PCs is called Dragon NaturallySpeaking (the Mac version is called MacSpeech Dictate and is sold through MacSpeech, which licenses Nuance's software). The company offers a variety of versions of the software, including ones tailored to the legal community for use with court transcriptions and for medical professionals who use it to dictate notes.

Dr. Carlo Tornatore, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at Georgetown University Hospital, uses it to dictate electronic medical records. As a result, these records are available immediately, and there's no delay in sharing them with other doctors.

So what's it like talking to a computer?

EnlargeNBCU Photo Bank
Michael Knight, played by David Hasselhoff, helped foil many schemes in concert with his sidekick, KITT, a talking car, as part of the TV series Knight Rider. Dialogue between man and machine is on the horizon.
"It takes a little time to get used to the idea that you're talking to a screen," he says.

Talking to a machine is a concept that's rooted in the popular imagination. Think of Star Trek and Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, whose sidekick was a talking car named KITT.

Some professionals are using dictation software for longer projects. Dave Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, uses MacSpeech Dictate to speed things along as he writes an oral history of his work. Even though he's a two-fingered typist, he says he wasn't always a fan of this kind of software.

"Up until very recently, I gave up on them," he says. "The error rates were too high. It doesn't do any good if you dictate and you have to correct most of it."

Farber says he made the switch because he was able to start using this software without an extensive amount of training and because he can work without generating a lot of errors. (Read NPR's review here).

Dragon works quickly, in part, because it uses predictive language modeling akin to Nuance's software, T9, which is used on billions of cell phones to predict the word you're trying to type when you send e-mail or text from a mobile phone.

Mobile Talk

Voice recognition is already integrated into a lot of things that we do with phones. Think about whom you talk to when you call directory service, when you book a flight or when you call your bank or credit card company.

Demand for more voice features has been growing especially within the cell phone industry. Voice dialing, which many people use to make hands-free calls on cell phones, is one area where the iPhone was behind the curve — until June, when Apple released its latest model, the iPhone 3GS.

Speech recognition capabilities on many of these phones, like the Samsung Instinct, are powered by Nuance's voice control software, which enables users to press a button to begin translating their words into text for everything from sending text messages to finding a song, or surfing the Web for a nearby business.

"If you can get decent voice recognition into phones, then you can start treating them as personal assistants, and that's going to change things," Farber says.

There's plenty of room for this market to expand: So far in 2009, Nuance estimates that more than 840 million phones were shipped with text messaging capabilities, compared to about 200 million that shipped with voice capabilities.

As cell phones and voice recognition software become more advanced, people are able to use voice commands without having to train the mobile phone first, says Peter Mahoney, a senior vice president at Nuance.

Read To Me

When devices read to you, they're utilizing text-to-speech functions. Amazon's Kindle uses Nuance's software to enable it to read aloud a book, magazine, newspaper or even a blog. You won't hear the voice of James Earl Jones — it's a synthesized computer voice.

Nuance says Dragon has been used by people with some kinds of paralysis and with multiple sclerosis to open up their communication possibilities by facilitating Web searches, e-mail and word processing.

"Dragon can even read back your words to you, so if you have difficulty reading because of dyslexia or some other kind of learning disability, it really enables that capability, too," Mahoney says.

Accessible And Ergonomic Features

The ability to use one's voice to guide a device also makes it potentially more accessible for the blind or visually impaired, provided that the buttons and on-screen menus are also navigable.

The blind community has a lot of concerns about the prevalence of touch screen interfaces for mobile phones and other consumer electronics and appliances because many devices effectively shut out those with impaired vision. (Listen to what Stevie Wonder has to say.)

"Voice recognition technology has really enhanced or increased awareness of accessibility," says Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of the Blind.

It also puts blind and sighted users on "a level playing field," she says, because there is little or no training needed to start using voice recognition features.

"We can't fully rely currently on voice recognition technology just yet," Taylor says. "I do hope that one day we can, but at this point we still advocate for keyboarding."

Keyboards and mice, however, can create problems for your fingers and arms.

Alan Hedge, the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics laboratory at Cornell University, says voice recognition technology can help reduce these kinds of workplace injuries.

"It plays an important role in reducing the load on other parts of the body so that you can work for a longer period of time on a computer system without running the risk of injury," he says.

Many companies now pay closer attention to creating ergonomically sound workstations, and Hedge says that has contributed to injuries going "way down." And while voice recognition technology can be part of the solution, Hedge cautions that overusing one's voice can also lead to injury.

Let Your Lips Do The Talking

Speaking comes naturally. As a result, one common thread with many of the products that now have a voice interface is the feeling of simplicity.

"We should make it the responsibility of the computer to understand us, versus making it the responsibility of us to understand the way the computer wants to speak," says Mahoney, the Nuance executive.

As speech recognition becomes more integrated into the devices we use on a daily basis, we may start to inch away from the keyboard and mouse. And that may foster a more collegial relationship with computers.

Now that's something to talk about.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, August 10, 2009

Haggling Picks Up Steam During Recession

Even before the economy slid down the tubes, Leah Ingram found new religion in haggling at stores. She and her husband, Bill, went from a lifestyle of second mortgages and plentiful vacations to economizing on everything from dentist's office visits to leather chairs.

"I think it is like sport for me," says Ingram, a freelance writer who lives in New Hope, Pa. Shedding the old way of paying full price is like learning to eat healthy and exercise, she says. For her, researching and scoring deals has even become a pastime.

"It's fun to see how much I can save on something that I really need," she says.

To document her new, cost-conscious lifestyle, she started a blog called "Suddenly Frugal" to document the myriad ways in which she saves money. In January, she plans to release a book on the same subject.

Given the state of the economy and climbing unemployment, you'd think haggling is also on the rise. But most U.S. shoppers don't bother. A recent Consumer Reports survey showed only 28 percent of Americans haggle over prices. A separate report from market research firm BIGresearch found 45.1 percent of adults haggle for things other than cars and homes.

However, the Consumer Reports survey found that consumers who haggle succeed as often as 83 percent of the time in landing a better bargain. Buyers had the highest success rate haggling on hotel rates and clothing, followed by jewelry, new cars and airfare and appliances, the survey found.

Those who are practitioners, however, say they enjoy more success than ever in an economy like this one.

Michael Soon Lee, author of a book called Black Belt Negotiating says he negotiates for everything, including eating out. He estimates he saves $2,500 annually at restaurants by negotiating deals with eateries he frequents — getting $10 back on average with every $100 he spends. He gets his doctors to cut him a break on medical bills and dry cleaners to offer him loyal-customer discounts. Lee even got a local gas station to give him a discount for coming in on its slowest days.

"I've talked to many, many vendors all the way from Nordstrom to Best Buy to car dealers to real estate sales people. Everyone is haggling now because this gives you an instant raise," Lee says.

In some cultures, haggling on price is a way of life. For many others, it can feel potentially embarrassing or inappropriate. But Lee says that's a loser's mindset.

"Before you go into the ring, you can't be afraid," he says, comparing the negotiating process to martial arts. "If you are, you've already lost. And you've got to recognize, in haggling, there's really nothing to lose. If you don't ask for a discount, the answer is already 'No.'"

Lee has other recommendations, including doing background research. Figure out how much you spend at a place, and go in armed with statistics. Tell a dry cleaner, for example, what your business is worth to them before asking what they can do for you. Know what their competition offers, and use that in the negotiation. Talk to a manager, or someone empowered to make business decisions.

Also, be comfortable with silence during the haggling process, he says. Sometimes a vendor will fold if you let them think about it over a long period where no one speaks. It's also important, he says, not to counter with a set number, which can just limit the potential discount you might get. Lee says customers should also negotiate for things other than price, like free delivery, or an extra service or feature.

Finally, he says, a good haggler needs to be prepared to walk away artfully. Don't just stomp off in a huff, Lee says. Slowly withdraw, reminding the vendor how much your business means to them, and what a shame it would be for both parties to lose out.

BIGresearch's survey showed a slight decline in the number of people who said they haggle for better prices. The percentage fell to 45.1 percent in April, from 50.3 percent a year earlier.

But retail stores are heavily discounting already in a way they didn't last year, which might affect how consumers behave, says Pam Goodfellow, a senior analyst with BIGresearch.

"Consumers don't feel quite the need to negotiate on price, because they know they're getting a good deal," Goodfellow says. People research before they shop, and use coupons more than ever, she says, but many people have also stopped buying some things altogether. The percentage of people who say they haggle for furniture is down, she notes, but that could be because furniture sales are down dramatically overall.

During a recent trip to Roger's Electronics in Flemington, N.J., Ingram, the freelance writer, admits that finding a killer deal — $700 for a stainless steel refrigerator with an automatic ice maker — dampened her need to haggle as much. She still tried negotiating away the $75 delivery fee. But when she failed on that count, she still happily handed over her credit card.

"Inside, I'm jumping up and down," she says.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Businesses Learn To Make Do With Fewer Workers

The government is expected to announce Friday that the job market shrank again in July. With the jobless rate nearing 10 percent, most of the focus will be on layoffs. But there's another reason so many people remain out of work: Employers, still worried about the recession, are creating far fewer jobs these days.

At Seibel's Restaurant in Burtonsville, Md., waiter Joey Rosenberg is wrapping up the lunch shift. He fills pepper shakers and sweeps the dining room floor. Since the recession began, the 21-year-old seems to do a bit of everything.

"You're pretty much doing, at any given time, more than two jobs," he says. "Like today, we didn't have a buser, so I was bussing all my tables and everything."

Tomorrow, he shifts from waiting tables to working the register.

The reason is simple: Seibel's has 10 fewer workers today than it did at the beginning of the recession, so the remaining staff is picking up the slack.

Since December 2007, the labor market has seen a net decline of 6.5 million jobs. What's happening at this small, family-owned restaurant just north of the nation's capital is happening in workplaces across the country. Instead of replacing workers, employers are operating with leaner, more efficient staffs.

Fewer Job Openings

Lynn Martins, a co-owner of Seibel's, says the smaller workforce saves the restaurant $4,000 in payroll each month — a big help to the restaurant's bottom line, but tough for anyone who might want a job there.

"We probably stopped giving out applications a good two months ago," she says. "We were probably having four or five people a day coming in."

Job openings around the nation have plunged by more than a third in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In real terms, that means there were about 1.5 million fewer job openings in May than the same month a year earlier.

Martins says that until the economy turns a corner, she's reluctant to add workers.

"Looks like we're going to be able to make things work with the crew that we have," she says, adding that an employee who just left won't be replaced.

For the labor market to rebound, not only do employers have to stop laying off so many people, but they've also got to start hiring a lot more.

Shorter Workweeks

Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, says that's going to take time. The average workweek is now just 33 hours — the shortest on record.

Katz says many people on short hours are waiting for the economy to pick up so they can work more.

"Even when some employers start seeing improvements in demand for their product, they still have plenty of ability to increase the hours of their existing workers, before they need to start hiring new workers," he says.

"We really think this is going to be a gradual and slow climb out of the hole," says Cathy Paige, a vice president with temporary service giant Manpower.

Paige says that even when the economy improves, some of her clients won't staff back up to prior levels.

"For example, the casinos. We were there recently on a tour, and they don't have people making change anymore," she says. "They have machines to do that."

Paige says another client — a business services company — has responded to the recession by sending more work overseas.

"We've probably lost 30 percent of our workforce there. They called back a few people this week, but we used to get orders there for 200 or 300 people at a time, and now we consider a big order 25."

Making Do With Less

Martins says she always kept an eye on costs, but the economic downturn forced her to run a leaner business than ever before.

"We learned to do it with less people, they learn to cover more territory, they get better at their job, which kind of weeds out needing extra people," she says. "And sometimes more is not always better."

For businesses like Seibel's, that may be one of the biggest lessons — and legacies — of this recession.

- excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Taxi Service Encourages 'Pay What You Want'

A Vermont man has come up with a business plan precisely sized for today's economy. Eric Hagen is the owner of Recession Ride Taxi, and his sign reads "pay what you want. " Hagen says so far "nobody's stiffed me."Published reports say he is making a profit.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, August 3, 2009

Snoring Can Indicate Treatable Sleep Condition

Larry Barsh is a man with a new mission. The retired dentist from New York City wants to help Americans recognize that they may have obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic condition among snorers that disrupts sleep. Dr. Barsh started a Web site, SnoringIsn'tSexy.com, to help educate patients and help dentists play a role in identifying patients with sleep apnea.

Barsh says the vast majority of people with apnea don't know they have the condition. Dentists are in a unique position to help patients who might suffer from sleep apnea, he says. Typically, dentists see patients more often than physicians, at least two times a year for teeth cleaning.

For an estimated 12 million Americans, disruptive snoring signals the condition obstructive sleep apnea. iStockphoto.com
At Risk

The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 12 million American adults have obstructive sleep apnea. Among older Americans, the rate is especially high: at least one out of 10 over the age of 65 has it.

Doctors don't know exactly why sleep apnea occurs, but it is associated with obesity, aging and anatomy, says Dr. Clete Kushida, a neurologist and director of the Stanford Center for Human Sleep Research and president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

The obstructed breathing can result from a variety of factors, such as a large tongue, a large uvula (that cone-shaped projection of tissue in the back of the throat) or a lot of large, crowded teeth. As muscles relax, which they do when people fall asleep — especially on their backs — the tongue muscles tend to pull back and block the airway.

Understanding Sleep
Learn more about what our sleep patterns say about our health.

What's Behind The Snore? Sagging, Floppy Tissue
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Web Chat: Why We Snore And How To Stop It
Sleep Apnea: Lessons From The Outback

Snoring And Apnea

Snoring is a sign of apnea. Only about 5 to 10 percent of snorers actually have sleep apnea, says Barsh, but everyone who has the most common form of apnea — obstructive sleep apnea — snores. (People with central sleep apnea, caused by incorrect signals from the brain, may not snore.)

"Snoring is an indication of the possibility of a serious medical problem," he says, because sleep apnea is linked to heart disease, stroke, depression and diabetes.

Struggling For Air

During obstructive sleep apnea episodes, snoring patients become quiet for 10 seconds or more — and literally stop breathing. The silence is followed by choking or gagging sounds when the sleeper is partially aroused and breathing resumes. Finally, snoring resumes and the cycle starts over. This cycle can happen anywhere from five times an hour to sometimes hundreds of times a night. Because people with sleep apnea partially awaken to resume breathing, their sleep is fragmented and they are sleepy in the daytime. The lack of breathing also causes the oxygen level in the blood stream to fall, contributing to medical problems.

Treatments Differ With Severity

The gold standard of treatment for sleep apnea is called CPAP, which means continuous positive airway pressure. An air pump connected by a tube to a face mask, sort of like a vacuum cleaner in reverse, gently pushes air up through the nostrils and mouth into the upper airway, keeping it from collapsing.

But the CPAP can be loud and cumbersome, and many patients who could benefit from CPAP just don't use it. However, experts say, for those with severe apnea, it's the only effective treatment.

Surgical procedures can also help by removing excess tissue in the back of the airway or actually moving parts of the jaw or tongue forward. They're particularly effective with younger patients.

Oral appliances that reposition the tongue and mouth help some obstructive sleep apnea patients maintain regular nighttime breathing. Courtesy Dr. Mark Friedman
The Mouthguard

The third treatment option is an oral appliance, which looks much like a mouthguard used in sports or a dental retainer typically used after orthodontry.

"Research shows the oral appliance works to treat mild-to-moderate sleep apnea," says Kushida. Studies have been limited, but the appliances appear to not only treat apnea but also conditions associated with apnea, such as high blood pressure, he says.

There are many brands of oral appliances, but all of them work basically the same way, says Dr. Mark Friedman, who specializes in treating snoring and sleep apnea in Encino, Calif. He's also a professor of dentistry at the University of Southern California. He says the appliances work to keep the airway open and allow for comfortable breathing. They move parts in the mouth out of the way. They move the tongue forward by moving the jaw forward. So, the lower jaw juts forward a certain amount.

One Patient's Experience

Rani Stoddard found that an oral appliance drastically reduced her snoring and apnea. Courtesy Rani Stoddard
Rani Stoddard is one of Friedman's patients. She is a nurse who describes her husband as a gem, since he put up with her loud snoring for years.

"He says, on a scale of one to ten, I was like a ten plus on snoring," Stoddard says. Today, she wears an oral appliance, "and now I'm like a two," she says. "You know, a little mild, delicate (snoring) in the beginning and then ... it's quiet!"

Stoddard can't speak highly enough about the oral appliance. "I'm a believer!" she says, adding that now, she "sleeps like a baby." She says the appliance is comfortable and she can even take a drink of water while wearing it.

Although most sleep apnea is initially diagnosed after a study is performed at a sleep center and a physician evaluates the study, apnea can also be measured at home to determine how well treatments are working. To do this, the patient wears a compact device on an armband with two finger-sensors attached. The device measures a number of respiratory functions, including the amount of oxygen getting into the blood. Friedman reports that Stoddard's apnea has been dramatically reduced as a result of the appliance.

Friedman says the oral appliance is at least 60 percent effective for most patients. "For some patients, it's 100 percent effective," he says.

The Role Of The Dentist

Barsh says screening in a dentist's office takes only a few minutes and a few pointed questions, and dental hygienists can also be trained to screen for apnea. It involves asking whether patients suffer from high blood pressure, if their bed partner has ever observed them stopping breathing during the night, if they feel sleepy during the day and if they snore. A patient's neck size, particularly if it's large, can also be an indicator of apnea.

Friedman, a dentist who specializes in treating snoring and sleep apnea, also asks patients whether they are aware of dreaming during the night. Sometimes patients are confused about why a dentist would be asking such a question, he says.

"But people who don't dream often are not getting into REM sleep," says Friedman, If that's the case, he says, they're probably not getting good deep sleep either. And that, he says, can "lead me to have an inkling that the patient might have a sleep issue."

Since he started focusing on sleep disorders about six years ago, Friedman says the majority of patients with sleep problems are longtime patients. "You would be amazed at the number of people that we have diagnosed within our own practice," he says.

Special Training

Because a sleep-apnea appliance must be fitted precisely to the mouth, Friedman says it's important for a dentist trained in sleep medicine to fit the device. Dentists can take training at various academic centers, but the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, a branch of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, offers courses during its annual meetings.

Although there are many appliances advertised on the Internet and on TV, there are only about 60 FDA-approved devices. Of those, Friedman says, he considers only about six to be effective. And, Friedman says, if potential patients are interested in researching what types of oral appliances are available and most effective, the Academy website is a good place to start.

- excerpt from NPR