Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Primordial Alphabet Soup

I was listening to an interesting story on the radio tonight about an effort in India to produce keyboards that can type in Hindi. (Gosh, that's exciting! Tell us more!)

The problem is that Hindi is a phonetically written language. The "alphabet" of Hindi consists of over 100 symbols. Urdu is similar. To type in Hindi, you must either invent a very large keyboard, or learn a very complex style of typing which involves multiple keys per symbol.

Pictographic/ideographic writing styles are even worse, with literally over 10,000 symbols (many a complex combination of a base of symbols that numbers merely in the 100s to thousands). Now we're talking a really large keyboard. No laptops for these folks.

When writing by hand and ink was in use, this may not have mattered much. I assume that writing speeds are relatively similar across writing systems. (Although I may be wrong, I don't think a Japanese writer takes significantly longer to write "Can you read me now?" than an English writer would).

But with the advent of computers, this is changing. Computers represent an environmental evolution selection mechanism, weeding out written languages which require "too many" symbols. Inefficient writing styles (at least for the purposes of producing input that a computer can process) are weeded out of the population, with only the most efficient remaining. This is why most of the countries with less efficient symbolic representations are adopting "standard" keyboard sizes of a little over 100 keys.

In attempts to further reduce keyboard sizes and increase portability, there are a number of approaches. Most involve either "chording" (the simultaneous pressing of multiple keys) or the familiar "texting" approach on western cell phones, where each key represents multiple symbols that you reach by multiple clicks of the key. Neither is very consumer friendly.

If there were a language that had a written alphabet of only 12 characters (the number of keys on a standard cell phone keypad), I bet it would win the race. (Most languages, like English, have 40-50 phonemes, so 12 is really pushing it).

I wondered if whether advanced speech recognition in computers could eventually nullify the alphabet race. In theory, native speakers could dictate their text and the computer would handle the symbols. Like writing speeds, most speaking speeds are within the same order of magnitude of each other, conveying information at a similar rate. There would no longer be the evolutionary range of variation to make selection meaningful.

But on reflection, I don't think speech recognition will put the alphabet evolution on hold. There are too many ways where keying information into a device is more efficient, or at least more circumspect. And as long as there are keyboards, the alphabet evolution will continue.

May the most efficient alphabet win.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Time For A Second Life?

I heard an interesting story on Marketplace tonight about how Reuters has established a full time reporter to cover the business news in another world.

The world of Second Life.

I've written about Second Life before, noting the blurring of the lines already between Real Life and virtual reality environments. Evolving from multiplayer game environments such as another popular space World of Warcraft, 3D virtual environments are starting to interact more and more with the real world in terms of commerce, social science, education, and relationships.

There are now people who spend most of their working (and perhaps waking) hours in Second Life. And they make an actual Real Life living from it. From selling virtual real estate, to designing virtual clothes, houses, or anything else your imagination can conceive, these people are selling their services and "goods" (Second Life has a concept around the ownership and transfer of virtual goods that protects the intellectual property of the virtual creation).

Second Life has it's own economy, and just like any other nation state, it has a currency with a floating exchange rate with U.S. dollars. Money ("Linden Dollars") can be exchanged for Real Life money. Weird? Not really. What is money but a virtual construct, anyway? Those greenbacks are a marker that can be exchanged for goods and services at floating market rates. They can also be exchanged for other currencies at floating market rates. There is no intrinsic value to that piece of linen other than that we consensually assign to it. Linden dollars are exactly the same.

So much the same that serious, Real World business reporting has started full time coverage of this economy. So much the same that Congress is actually debating legislation taxing goods and services sold in these virtual environments.

People are now creating virtual goods that people want to buy, as well as selling services previously only available in Real Life (teaching classes, mass media reporting, wedding planners, DJs, sex workers...). This isn't Virtual Reality anymore. It is Real Reality that has moved into the online world. (Which is why it's not called Virtual Life, but Second Life - a life in addition to the one you have in the Real World).

There is no reason why this shouldn't continue to grow and evolve. Meetings that now take place in person, or particularly meetings that take place via video teleconferencing, can move into Second Life settings. Services such as architecture and design, entertainment performances, sports, business consulting, counseling...all of these are already starting to take root in Second Life.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could fight the Iraqi insurgents in Second Life instead of Real Life?

Keep your eyes on this space - City of the Future coming here soon.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Step Away From The Voting Booth.."

"Lay down your voter registration card slowly, and put your hands in the air!"

Looking ahead to the Nov. 7 elections, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, said "the American people aren't going to say in the face of war we need to be weaker, and in the face of economic challenge we need higher taxes and more regulations and more lawsuits. The Democrats have promised both." (AP news)

I wasn't there for the briefing, but I think the rest must have gone something like this...

"I mean it!" an agitated Mehlman shouted. "If you even think of voting for a Democrat, then we're just going to go on weakening the economy and expanding the Iraqi conflict till you're so scared you can't even see straight. If I so much as hear the word Liberal, we're gonna blow this fucking insurgency into a full scale global war! Bwa ha ha ha..."

Mr. Mehlman was then hurried out of the briefing room by concerned aids. One unidentified man was heard whispering to the RNC chairman "Oh Great! Why don't you just tell them everything? For this scam to work, we need to make them scared of the rest of the world, not us you fool..."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

5 Million Deaths

I just read about a war that, had it occurred in the United States, would have resulted in approximately 5,000,000 deaths over the span of a few years. There has never been a time where so many Americans have died as a result of war.

In the US Civil War, there were approximately 185,000 violent deaths. Out of a population of 20 million, this is almost 1% of the population.

One report today out of John's Hopkins estimates 655,000 violent civilian deaths (out of a population of approx 26 million, or ~2.5%) since the invasion of 2003.

Good data out of Iraq is difficult to obtain. Causes could be either a total lack of administrative control of the country, or a desire to obfuscate the data. Neither of these is a good thing.

There are sites which attempt to track the "body count" which range as low as 44,000, but these are sites which only count verifiable deaths reported in the media. The 655,000 figure reported in the Lancet article was developed using statistical polling techniques.

But let's take the numbers reported out of Baghdad, where at least reporters can talk to the local morgues and get a low end count. Baghdad has had an average of 60 reported deaths a day for the past few years (some days higher, some lower - September's rate was actually 88). This number is a little over 1% of the estimated population of between 5 million and 6 million. We can make an assumption that there are rarely fewer deaths than the reported number, and almost always more. So, even using reported numbers, we can reasonably posit that between 1-2.5% of the civilian population has been killed as a result of this war.

If this occurred in the U.S., the equivalent would be over 5,000,000 dead. Given social connection statistics, everyone in the U.S. would know at least 2-4 people they considered close to them who had died. How would you feel if 5 million Americans were killed as a result of a war declared on our country? How would you feel about the instigator, however well intentioned they might be?

There has never been a "clean" war. War brings with it the other three horsemen of Pesilence, Famine, and Death. Always. The ones who suffer the most are the civilians unfortunate enough to live on the battlegrounds. Always.

Which is why war is considered to be an immoral, unconscionable choice unless it is to defend yourself against a clear and present danger of being killed.

It's possible that the invasion of Afghanistan met this ultimate criteria. It's very clear that the invasion of Iraq did not, and does not.

And yet there is still at least a third of our population who support this war. I wonder if they ever ask themselves - what would justify the death of their loved ones if they were in the battlezone?

This might be all the explanation needed behind the numbers behind another recent poll in Iraq, where 47% of Iragis favored attacks on US Troops. Almost 80% wanted US Troops to withdraw within the next year.

According to a recent Zogby poll, an overwhelming majority of 72% of American troops serving in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year, and more than one in four say the troops should leave immediately.

So, we are in agreement. Overwhelming majorities of both the Iraqi and the American people feel that the US should withdraw from Iraq within the next year. If the current administration truly feels that democracy is the reason we are at war in the first place, then their marching orders should be clear.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Let Truthiness Prevail

One of the discussion groups I belong to recently had a raft of postings around the topic of childhood immunization. The raft rapidly became a rift, with the riff raff chiming in with a variety of opinion, rumor, and anecdotes. Only one actually posted data from a peer reviewed study on the topic.

This discussion group consists of people who are generally considered bright and well educated, all having graduated from Top 50 Universities across the U.S. So why is it that the discussion was not more objective, analytical, and evidence based?

Take your pick.

Jack Nicholson was right ("You can't handle the truth!").

Martin Luther King, Jr. was right ("Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and consciencious stupidity.").

Bertrand Russel was right ("Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.").

Steven Colbert is right ("I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart...Truthiness is...not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true.")