Recently, I fell into and continue to struggle with something of an existential crisis. The source of my angst has two roots, the personal and what I will call the philosophical. The two sources weave into a fabric of questions for which I have no answers. Hence, I have written little for Blind Confidential since the “Letter to our Investors” article by Sy T. Greenbacks. I don’t feel motivated to write news articles and my creative muse seems to have left town to celebrate Memorial Day without me.
I’ll start with the personal. I worked for Freedom Scientific for six years and left for personal reasons about 18 months ago. I think we did some pretty innovative shit in JAWS, PAC Mate, OpenBook and the other projects I managed. I honestly still believe that JAWS remains the king of screen access utilities because of my commitment to inventing, Eric Damery’s commitment to selling and Joe Stephen’s commitment to coding features to deliver far more contextual information to users than any other screen reader at that time. Thus, my career in AT started when Ted Henter and Jerry Bowman hired me and will continue into the future.
Now, I work for and study at U. Florida. My personal research into methods to convey multidimensional semantic information through non-visual stimuli keeps my desire to discover happy. My work at the Rehabilitation Engineering Resource Center keeps my more practical, engineering side happy. The experimental programs I write for the smart house and to demonstrate the issues regarding semantic information makes my hacker self happy. I feel that I live a fairly enviable life these days as I get to work on topics ranging from linguistics to psychology to neuroscience to computer science to software engineering and, I can honestly say that, unless I choose to do so, I never get bored.
So what is old BlindChristian crying about now?
I have a deep fear that no one, outside of a few accessibility advocates and other researchers, gives a shit about my work or that of others (my friend Will Pearson for instance) and, even if we make some profound breakthroughs in the area of increasing the efficiency with which a blink can access a computer, no one will see it implemented in a real access technology product, commercial or open source.
When I talk to people who hack on open source screen reading problems, they tend to feel that a good API and solid speech technology stands as the key to the third generation of screen access programs. In my mind, UIA and the gnome accessibility API layers definitely demonstrate a step forward but they still base their delivery systems in a serial manner, hence, the information presentation remains linear and inefficient.
The paper I published at CHI 2006 and the article in the March AccessWorld both describe the fundamental problem I try to address in my research. In short, almost all speech and Braille programs used by blind people to access computers and other information comes in a stream of semantic bits, typically either a syllable or pause. A user can increase the efficiency by increasing their speech rate but, ultimately, the limit on the amount of information they can receive in the time allotted for a task is bound by the number of these semantic bits they can hear in that amount of time.
The guys who make the really cool, Direct X based audio games, David Greenwood for instance, without studying the science behind their interfaces, deliver very complex scenarios using up to 32 simultaneous audio streams; screen readers deliver one. Thus, the game players can do far more in the same amount of time than they can using a screen reader at work. Their game play demonstrates credible, albeit anecdotal, proof that the mind can handle a lot of simultaneous information.
My research studies the “why” and “how” these game interfaces can do some much more than standard AT. This brings me into the different sciences I mention above and, as a result, the philosophic side of my existential crisis.
What ever happened to concepts like truth and appreciation of expertise in the United States?
Back in the sixties and seventies, When I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, virtually every kid in the neighborhood could recite the names of astronauts, high profile scientists and, of course, the batting averages and ERA of our favorite baseball players. Today, I will venture a bet that if we sampled a randomly selected group of 1000 ten year old kids around the US, fewer than 100 could name an astronaut (current or retired) and fewer than 50 could name a scientist who is not a member of their family. Meanwhile, more scientists work in laboratories around the world today than throughout all of history since the first researcher figured out how to make a wheel or strike stones together to create a spark.
Many adults if asked to identify a single living scientist could probably think of Stephen Hawking as he has transcended the laboratory to become a media figure. If he hadn’t appeared on Star Trek, the Simpson’s and other icons of pop culture, people wouldn’t remember him either. If asked to name two, I think only a small minority of the sample could do so and three or more would stymie all but the statistical noise in our survey.
A hundred years (or so) ago, Harry Houdini, the legendary illusionist and escape artist, turned his attention to debunking claims of the paranormal. Scientific American magazine offered a substantial prize to anyone who could prove that the seemingly paranormal events that occurred during Spiritualist ceremonies were not simply tricks of an illusionist. Houdini joined the jury and zealously debunked every claim of the paranormal to which he received permission to test. The remarkable fact of this bit of history does not fall into the genius of Houdini as he, one of the greatest performers of such tricks in his day, could far more easily see through the techniques the Spiritualists used to con people into believing that they could communicate with the dead and other paranormal activities. The truly incredible facts that have survived the famous Scientific American challenge sit in libraries all over the nation in the collection of newspapers from that time. Houdini’s debunking of the trickery consistently made the front page of newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle.
At that time, Houdini’s discrediting of claims of the paranormal interested people in all walks of life. His efforts made mainstream news and the Spiritualist movement, although it still has some followers, fell from the role of fad religion of the day to a handful of screwballs in upstate New York.
Today, though, James Randi and his educational foundation (JREF) offer a prize of more than a million dollars to anyone who can convince a jury of magicians and scientists of any claim of the paranormal. Once a year or so, some charlatan shows up in Fort Lauderdale (Randi’s home town) and tries to claim the prize. JREF sets up an experimental framework and, more often than not, the candidate withdraws the entry. The few who let the experiments continue all failed the test.
Why, then, doesn’t James Randi and other skeptics organizations including the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) which was formed by Carl Sagan, get any coverage in the mainstream media?
Because Americans no longer trust scientists. As my research definitely falls into this realm, I feel a bit like a man screaming loudly while alone in a desert. I can express my ideas but the cactus and lizards don’t care.
My friends on the religious right probably think this attack on distrust of science tries to single them out. Quite the contrary. I’ll leave the nonsense about intelligent design, the denial of much astronomical theory, even the denial of plate tectonics to others to dispute. The people who subscribe to these belief systems get enough crap from we intellectual types so I’ll leave them alone.
When, however, I hear absolute bullshit from more “enlightened” individuals, I cringe. I hear people who tend toward leftie politics make completely uninformed and absolutely incorrect assertions about everything from nuclear power to the power of crystals, I want to scream. Quantum teleportation, popular among the new age nuts, has no basis in fact and, when studied for an article in Lancet, was demonstrated to have no basis in reality. Its advocates, though, claim that there are so many things we don’t know that the instruments used by scientists haven’t yet been invented that can measure anything from their aura to their chi.
The alternative medicine freaks have been bamboozled by an industry with revenues in excess of $50 billion annually. The purveyors of all sorts of herbs, crystals and God knows what goes into some dietary “supplements” claim they have no money to fund research into their efficacy and, since the Clinton administration, can sell their products with virtually no regulation. Legislation gets introduced into Congress when some kid dies from a heart attack brought on by “Herbal XTC,” a product that could be sold legally until fairly recently. As there were no trials, potential side effects could not be discovered until teenagers started dying on baseball fields.
I leave the century long fraud of homeopathy apart from the rest of unproven alternative remedies as it may just be the longest running con job in the history of mankind. They claim that their remedies, sold as alcohol or water based tinctures, contain a “shadow” molecule of the thing that made you sick and, according to their “law of similars,” will cure you of your ailment. A “shadow” molecule is, according to these nuts, created when one dilutes a substance to a point of 1 unit in more than Avogadro’s number of molecules of the alcohol or water used as a solvent. Even people with the tiniest bit of knowledge about chemistry can see through this nonsense. Plain and simply, the homeopaths sell little jars filled with alcohol or plain old H2O for a very significant price.
One part of me wants to know why I didn’t choose confidence man as a career path as I’m a damn good liar and preying on the sick and desperate is the American way after all. My resentment toward this particular branch of pseudo-science stems from the tens of thousands of dollars I personally spent chasing alternative “cures” for RP. I tried everything from acupuncture to enemas to macrobiotics to all sorts of herbs. I traveled hither and yon to chase someone who published an article in Yoga Journal or Vegetarian times about their amazing cures for RP. As this blog is called “Blind Confidential” one can assume that none of these methods worked.
Most recently, a friend of mine who believes strongly in the powers of “healing touch” and some ancient Japanese art of putting one’s hands near the effected part of a person and channeling the energies of all of the other practitioners of this ancient art, will cure anything from constipation to cancer and, therefore, a little case of RP shouldn’t be too hard. To amuse my friend, I let her practice away and, as I expected, nothing happened. I then gave her an article that ran in Nature (one of the world’s top three or four science journals) that, with a very strict experimental framework, completely debunked the idea of “healing touch.” The most remarkable thing about the article in Nature is that it was written as the report a 12 year old girl submitted to her local science fair. If a 12 year old junior high student, even an especially bright one, can set up a framework that can debunk a whole movement, it must be extremely bunk.
So, why do the masses hate us scientists and intellectuals?
As everyone has demonstrated, the level of understanding of science and mathematics started to decline around 1981 and nothing has stopped its down hill plunge. We have a president who denies the science reported by the people he appointed at NAS, NSF, EPA and elsewhere. We have talk radio that repeatedly makes jokes about the Ivory tower. We have the Internet where any idiots with a conspiracy theory ranging from a denial that man has ever landed on the moon to an ability to tie the Knights Templar to the Kennedy Assassination can find an audience. We have the religious right, the new age center and the atheist left all claiming that even the most well founded theory remains theory and not fact, obviously misunderstanding the use of the word theory but willing to accept a hypothesis that conforms to their spiritual or political beliefs better than the body of published science that has been subjected to the scientific method, the scrutiny of the author’s peers and the test of time.
Too often, I her people, from all backgrounds, say that because some other scientific principle that had been generally accepted was disproven then absolutely everything is temporary and nothing can be described as true. Fine, I can actually accept this argument if it is accompanied by an experimental framework with which they can test their hypothesis and that can be independently reproduced. Until then, I tell them to defer to the experts and then get told that MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and the other great institutions of research around the world have formed a secular religion of their own and won’t even test an alternative hypothesis. When I explain how science in the academy works by confirming or denying other scientists work and that anyone who can disprove a major theory will make so much money that she’ll never need to work again, they return to their completely unfounded belief that the academy conspires against the regular people. When I illustrate my argument with examples like Pons and Fleishman and the Korean geneticist in the news recently, they further their point by claiming that the world of scholars tosses some things out from time to time to maintain credibility.
It’s 2006 and I find myself arguing with reasonably intelligent adults about concepts I learned in junior high school. I find these anti-science people to accept items that conform to their world view and reject anything else. From all perspectives, Americans claim that everyone, from the media to the president to scientists to preachers to philosophers to engineers to medical doctors do nothing but tell lies. Truth is dying a slow death in this nation as the populace increasingly refuses to believe in anything concrete. Imagine, if our founding fathers, all bright stars of the enlightenment could hear truck drivers deny the work of the world’s leading scientists if their personal opinion differs at all.
If something doesn’t change, we will enter another era like the “dark ages” in which a select few maintain the knowledge inside places like Cambridge, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge, UK. Who will be the El Cid who comes along and discovers the modern equivalent of the library in Toledo that kicks off the next renaissance?
Finally, returning to my personal angst, I feel that my pursuit of universal accessibility, shit, even marginal accessibility to many more things than we have today, is the most quixotic idea I’ve ever believed in trying to accomplish. Maybe the lunkheads of the world are right and none of the science and engineering really matters.