Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Today, something really unusual happened: Siri amazed me.

As I walked across campus this morning, I wanted to listen to one of my favorite recent albums, “Ashes” by the Bedsit Infamy. So, like a douchebag from the future, I raised my arm and spoke to my Apple Watch, whose “virtual assistant” is named “Siri”. I said:

“Hey Siri, play songs by the Bedsit Infamy”

A Recipe for Failure

Speech Recognition, as I’ve discussed before, relies heavily on guesswork, particularly when there are homophones (words which sound identical to other words) or when there’s missing information (maybe due to traffic noise overlapping speech or misarticulation).

Both of the words in this particular band’s name are, well, weird. “Bedsit” is a British term for a studio apartment, and “infamy”, although well known (infamous, even), just isn’t used very often.

I love the saying “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”, and it applies here: when you hear something that sounds like “bedsit infamy”, it’s deeply unlikely that those two words are what’s being said. So, I figured that Siri would “mis-hear” those words as something more common and, well, reasonable. Sure enough, she did:

"Hey Siri play songs by the bed sitting for me"

But, moments later, to my absolute amazement, my phone started playing the first song from the album:

"Now playing: In My Youth by the Bedsit Infamy"

Bridging the Gap between perception and the “real world”

This means that Apple (or Nuance, or whoever’s providing Siri’s logic) has added a logical step that I’ve never seen before in a consumer-facing system, but which has long been present in humans.

Imagine that you’re sitting across the table from a friend, and she says something that you hear as “Hand me that gas”. Unless you’re sitting next to a tank of compressed air1 or something similarly improbable, there’s really no way to complete the request as heard. This is where most natural language processing in speech recognition stops: “I tried to do exactly what I heard you ask me to do, but I can’t. Sorry!”

However, with a little bit more logic, we can bridge the gap between our mis-perception and the world around us. We might realize that on the table, there’s a glass, which sounds a lot like “gas” and is something that I could hand to her. So, without stopping to ask questions, we just hand over the glass, and interaction continues without problems.

So, it appears that, much like humans, when a voice command doesn’t “make sense” (because I don’t own music by “The Bed Sitting For Me”), Siri will now test other phonetically similar commands, to see if any of them make sense. If a similar command (“Play songs by The Bedsit Infamy”) actually can be completed, it’s programmed to do that, instead! But, if there’s nothing even close to what you ask for in your music library, it still gives up:

"Hey Siri, Play Songs by Walrus Taco Logic Board" "I don't see Walrus Taco Logic Board in your music."

Speech Recognition is still really hard

This (small) victory illustrates just how hard good making a good speech recognition interface actually is. Even once they’ve factored out all the environmental noise and figured out the sounds being made (which is no small feat), they’ve still got to match the resulting commands to actual concepts and entities in the user’s life, some of which are going to be really unlikely and hard to predict.

As much as I love mocking and doing terrible things to Speech recognition, even the error-prone systems we have today are amazing. And every time a bit more logic is added to the process, they’ll get better and better, and eventually, we might actually believe Siri’s actually looking out for us.

"Me: Hey Siri open Notes from a Linguistic Mystic - Siri: I'm sorry, but I have standards. Opening Language Log now."

  1. I could have made a gas joke here, but all the good ones Argon.

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Hi, I’m Will, and I’m a Smartwatch Wearer.

I’ve used a Pebble, then a Pebble Steel, for around a year. It seemed silly at first, but it’s wonderful to be able to leave your phone in the other room and trust that you’ll get important notifications or calls when they’re relevant, silently tapped to your wrist. And there are few greater feelings than to be waiting for a call, hear your phone ringing from the shower, then look at your watch and hang up on the telemarketer with the touch of a button.

Perhaps best of all, I haven’t heard my cell phone ringtone in forever as calls go straight to my wrist, silently, and with instant caller ID. Smartwatches may not be for everybody, but they are definitely for me.

So, given that I’m a gigantic nerd and an iPhone user, I bought myself a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel 1 as a graduation gift.

For a full perspective, I recommend this review, but here are a few thoughts that jump out on me:

First and foremost, as Ars Technica pointed out, the Apple Watch is completely optional. There’s no general-purpose use-case where the Apple Watch is the only solution, or the best, and if you’ve got yourself convinced you need an Apple Watch, you’re lying to yourself. It’s a luxury, through and through.

That said, it’s a lot of fun. The little interactions, asking my watch for a quick calculation, paying with it at a vending machine, or using voice-recognition to set a to-do list item, all make me smile. Wearing and using it feels futuristic and powerful in a way that the Pebble’s very simple notification-only approach never did.

Most importantly, though, this feels like the very first iPhone did on release day. It’s good hardware with great ideas, but they haven’t nailed the software and user experience yet. I suspect that many of the current failings will be addressed in the next 6-8 months by updates (just as 1.0.1 made a big difference), and that the second hardware revision will be really compelling, even beyond uber-nerds. But for now, this is an “early adopter” product, and you’re paying a price in growing pains, for the joys of living on the technological edge.

For instance, if you like to sleep with a watch on, the battery life is either barely adequate, or barely inadequate, and charging is much slower than I’d like. You lose about 15% overnight, on top of 40-50% during a typical day, so you’ll need to find a couple hours of charging time each day. It’s a big step down from the Pebble, but it’s definitely workable. If you charge overnight, though, it’s got all the life you need2.

Also, I’m looking forward to the opening of the platform, particularly 3rd party watch faces. 99% of the faces available for the Pebble were ugly and poorly done, but those 7-8 that were good, were really good. I miss that customizability.

Most importantly, society will need to catch up a bit. Your watch (Apple, Pebble, or Android) can do many things, many of them awesome. But you need to realize that you will not look like Dick Tracy.

Instead, paying for my tea with my watch makes me look (and feel) like a douchebag from the future. If you’re going to use your watch in public, particularly if you’re going to talk to it, you need to be comfortable being one of them.

But then again, you silently know who’s calling, when the next bus comes, when a package is sitting on your doorstep, and most magically of all, when it’s about to start raining where you are. So, you’re pretty much a wizard.

Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

“Should I get one?”

The Apple Watch (and indeed, most wearables) can’t really be “recommended” in the conventional sense. The Apple Watch can be really useful. It can be really fun. But if you don’t “get it” and don’t want one, you definitely don’t need one.

So, if you’ve read the description of the magical powers this thing will give you and you’re anything but super excited for the future, don’t give the Apple Watch a second thought.

If notifications sound great, but you don’t care about the rest of it, get a Pebble, and ruthlessly mock me as I place my watch on the charger yet again.

For the rest of the world, if the iPhone’s history is any indication, there’s about to be a lot of growth, and the second generation Apple wearable will be worth watching3 out for.

But for now, if you’re an early adopter or a wearable computing nerd, if you use an iPhone, and if you’re willing to tolerate the price and some growing pains, the Apple Watch is a lot of fun.

  1. Actually, I bought a Sport model in early May, then got an offer to sell it for way more than I paid. So I effectively got to upgrade to Stainless for free.

  2. Unlike the average smartwatch wearer!

  3. #crappypuns #sorrynotsorry

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First, a very important disclosure: The Rollermouse reviewed here was sent to me by Contour Designs as a “review unit”, after they read my enthusiastic review of the previous generation Rollermouse. They made no demands regarding the content or tone of the review I wrote, and, luckily, I actually liked the mouse, so it didn’t come up. So, although I’ve tried to approach this objectively and honestly, caveat lector.

A Rollermouse is an odd-yet-wonderful device. It’s a mouse which moves a cursor around your screen which you control by moving a hollow tube around on a metal bar. If you want the cursor to move up, you rotate the tube away from you, and down goes the opposite. If you want it to move side-to-side, you move the tube side-to-side on the bar. If you want to click, you can push down on the bar, or use a physical button. It’s ambidextrous, can work with any surface of your hand, and can be operated rather effectively with your hands still on the keyboard. They’re odd, they’re expensive, they’re not well suited to FPS gaming, and they’re confusing for the first 30 seconds of any new user’s life. But after those 30 seconds, they’re awesome.

At this point, I swear by my Rollermouse Free 2. Every time I’ve tried something else for mousing, my wrists have rather loudly objected, and several keyboards have been returned because they haven’t played nicely with it. But, the Free2 is not without it’s faults. It has a nasty habit of freezing up when subjected to static shock. The bar gets grimy and unpleasant. You spend altogether too much time waiting for the cursor to catch up to the side of the screen on a widescreen monitor. The Copy and Paste buttons don’t work on a Mac. So, although it’s better for my body than any mouse I’ve used, it still had room to grow.

Today, we’re going to talk about its evolution, the Rollermouse Red. This is Contour Designs’ new flagship Rollermouse, and they graciously sent me one to review. So, review it I shall, with a nod to Ars Technica’s Good, Bad and Ugly review style.

Rollermouse Red: The Good

The first good thing to note is that unlike many manufacturers who can’t leave well-enough alone, they haven’t screwed up what made the Free2 great. The adjustment period was around an hour, and after that, I like it as much as I liked the Free2, and more. No glaring design faults were introduced, there are no “Well, if only they hadn’t…” thoughts, and as near as I can tell, there’s no reason (aside from cost) not to buy the Red if you’re in the Rollermouse market. But a few new niceties jump out.

Rollermouse Red

First, it’s thicker, and this is a good thing. The Free2 is thin enough that most keyboards tower above it, and the Red is just a bit thicker. This means that, for instance, the Kinesis FreeStyle 1 would be just the right height, and with the FreeStyle II, wrist posture would be nice and neutral. They’ve also released a “Plus” size model which has a longer palm support, for those who use the device deeper on their desk. As I’m very firmly an edge-of-the-desk guy, this wasn’t needed, but for some, I imagine it’d be pleasant.

Second, it’s smoother. The bar is now plastic, or carbon-fiber, or something, and is now completely dry. The tube, which is thicker, and nicely textured, now slides even more nicely over the bar than my old Free2. The click mechanism is smooth, the scroll wheel is smoother, and the whole device just feels smoother under the hand, particularly when at the edge of a desk (as the rounded edge of the Free2 was a bit sharp when hanging off).

The Red is also more Mac friendly. Their little “getting started” guide allows the Copy and Paste buttons to work like a charm on a Mac, which is pleasant, and I’m hoping desperately that my muscle memory will realize that someday. There’s also now an option to use the (long-neglected) “Double Click” button for the middle mouse button, to open new tabs while browsing.

Perhaps most impressive is that it handles edge-detection better than the Free2. On the Free2, if you ran out of rod before you hit the side of the screen, you’d use the sliding tube to press a button of sorts at the edge of the rod, which moved the mouse quickly to that side. The Red uses some other mechanism entirely, doing away with these buttons entirely. Yet, it’s done so transparently that I didn’t even notice that change until I sat down to write this review. It’s a very small change, but it’s also very nice.

Finally, the build quality is great. It’s stiffer than the Free2, the wrist rest is comfier to rest your hands on while typing, and the whole thing just feels better designed. On the Free2, if all the feet weren’t perfectly on the level, the mouse would tend to click itself when you put weight on the wrist rest. This has been fixed with the thick-feeling aluminum base on the Red. And, although it’s completely meaningless, the box was really nice, and clearly, somebody in their packaging department has opened a lot of Apple Products.

Although the susceptibility to gunk remains to be seen, and I now live in a state humid enough that I’ve forgotten what “static electricity” means, it appears that they’ve basically made an improved version of the Free2, which fixes a few small issues, and raises the bar in places where it wasn’t even lacking.

However, this doesn’t mean that this is the perfect mouse.

Rollermouse Red: The Bad

The Rollermouse Red’s biggest problems are, sadly, all inherited from the Free2.

The biggest issue with the Red is that they still haven’t addressed the problem of thick keyboards. Keyboards like the Kinesis Advantage, which sit above your desktop, simply will not work with the Rollermouse. In order to slide the bar around, the bar needs to be just slightly higher than the keyboard, so that your flattened palm can roll the ball forward, without your fingers catching on keys, as shown below:

Rollermouse Red Side

Contour Designs helpfully includes adapters to make thin keyboards line up with the mouse. But, the problem is that most mechanical keyboards are thicker, not thinner, than the RED. The stiffer structure of the Red makes this process easier, but if you’re using a thicker keyboard like the Matias ErgoPro pictured below, you’re forced to resort to ugly hacks, like the below, to raise the mouse:

mouse on a piece of particle board

I had very much hoped that the Red would include screw-in feet or lifters, or something to raise or adjust the height of the mouse relative to the keyboard, but sadly, like with the Free2, no such method is included, and before you know it, you’re attacking an old shelf with a hand saw on your apartment’s deck, and sticking the whole affair together with foam tape.

My second biggest gripe, again inherited from the Free2, is the lack of a dual-axis scroll wheel. Most mice these days offer some method of horizontal scrolling, and the fact that a Rollermouse, which is effectively the world’s largest 2-axis scroll wheel, lacks the ability to scroll on two axes is frustrating, bordering on silly. Even something as simple as “Hold this button and move the bar to scroll” would be a revelation, but alas, no. They offer some workarounds if you install their drivers, and you can always hold shift while scrolling vertically with the built in wheel, but this is one of few modern mice lacking this feature.

It’s still not going to work for Call of Duty, or any other game which depends on twitchy, speedy rotation around you. It’s great for Diablo, or Planetary Annihilation, or other games requiring speedy and accurate clicking, but if you need to make quick and large mouse gestures, no Rollermouse, Red or otherwise, will do the trick.

And, there are a few other minor annoyances. The USB cable is permanently attached to the unit (rather than using something like a Micro-USB plug), making cleaning difficult with cable routing. There’s still no easy way to securely mount it to the edge of a desk, leaving you in the land of foam tape. And like the Free2 before it, the Red is just full of nooks and crannies for dust and desk-gunk. Keep your canned-air close, and your cookies distant, because those beautifully sculptured contours are going to catch some crumbs.

Rollermouse Red: The Ugly

Finally, we arrive at the ugly part: The Rollermouse Red costs $265.

This is a mouse which costs more than decent laptop. This is a mouse whose price could buy my favorite keyboard ever and a very nice gaming mouse on top. The price is the only intractable problem with the Rollermice, and is the sole reason I’m not giving them to friends and family for Christmas.

Yet, for me, it’s completely worth it. If somebody broke into my house (and now, my office) and stole my Rollermouse, I’d be on the phone with Contour Design the next day, angrily ordering a new one. This is truly the best mouse I’ve ever used, and given that I use a mouse, now pain free, for 5-8 hours each day, where only a few hours with a conventional mouse is a pain-fest, the price is well spent for me. But for you, it might not be.

Wrapping up

There are three types of people who might google “Rollermouse Red Review” and land here, so I’ll talk to each below:

If you’re just looking at new mice, and you have no wrist pain or ergonomic woes, well, this is a great mouse. It’s accurate, it’s quick, and it’s unusual. It’ll keep your coworkers guessing, and you’ll be wrist pain free. But, you’ll lose choices for keyboards, your desk layout will follow the whims of your mouse, and you just spent $265 on a way to move an arrow across the screen. So, if you don’t play twitchy FPS games, you don’t scroll horizontally for a living, your keyboard is thin-ish, and you’ve got $265 to spend, do the 30 day trial. If you fall in love, great. If you don’t, nothing lost.

If you’re in pain from conventional mousing, and looking for ergonomic choices, try your options. Try a trackball. Try a fancy ergonomic mouse. Try a stylus and tablet, if you’d like. But at the end of it all, if you’re like me, you’ll just get out the damned credit card and buy the damned Rollermouse. This is a lot of money, but for me, it’s saved me from a lot of pain. And if you’re buying your first Rollermouse, buy the Red. It’s absolutely $30 nicer than the Free2, and you’d as might as well go big.

If you’re a Rollermouse Free2 user, or you’re trying to compare the Rollermouse Red vs. the Free2, the big question is whether it’s worthwhile to upgrade to the Red. The Red is nicer in pretty much every way while still acting pretty much identically, so if you love the Free2, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love the Red. If you’ve been looking at getting a second Rollermouse, for work or something, then definitely upgrade.

But, if you’ve already got a Free2 on your desk, I’m not sure that the Red is worth laying out $265 more, as you’ve already got 90% of the awesome right there in front of you. If you’ve got the cash, it’s a great upgrade, and I most certainly miss the Red when I’m using the Free2 at work. But if the upgrade price is a bit rich for your blood, given that the “Free” became the “Free2”, you can always just wait for the Red21.

So, wrapping up, the Rollermouse Red is awesome. It’s an even better version of the Free2, fixing some of the annoyances, without adding new ones. It’s a great mouse, it’s an incredible ergonomic mouse, and it’s an excellent upgrade from the prior models. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best ergonomic mouse money can buy.

Your body may vary, but if you’re hurting, give it a try.

  1. If the “Red2” doesn’t include some reference to Wedge Antilles, I’ll be very disappointed. I know you’re reading this, Contour Design Marketing. Make it happen.

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I recently stumbled upon a wonderful list of 34 CSS “puns”, which deserve both a visit and a comment.

What’s CSS?

CSS, short for “cascading style sheets”, is a markup language which allows you to style your website by assigning types to various objects, and then assigning styles to types.

For instance, the title at the top of this post is given the type “H2”, and in the CSS file associated with the site, it’s given the following attributes:

These specifications dictate things like “How large is the font on the page?” (font-size), how much spacing is there between the header and the start of the post (margin-bottom and padding-bottom), and the size and color of the border (border-bottom) below the header.

CSS is used by nearly every site on the web today to specify format and styling, but I’d never seen it used for punning.

What was particularly interesting to me as a pun enthusiast is that there were actually three different kinds of pun here.

Monolingual English Puns

Some rely on the fact that terms used in CSS also have meaning in English, and are effectively monolingual, relying only on English:

This is my least favorite because, putting aside the sophomoric and uncreative “lol women” punchline, it doesn’t mean anything in CSS. right: 100% means “This element is all the way to right of the screen”, and margin: 0 means “there’s no spacing between this element and the surrounding ones”.

So, although English speakers “get the joke”, it doesn’t make sense in another language. It’s the CSS humor equivalent to pointing at an Afrikaans-speaking cook’s business card and giggling while saying “LOL! His business card says “Kok”!!!”.

Bilingual English/CSS Puns

Some make sense in English and in CSS, and work bilingually:

CSS relies heavily on “nesting”, the idea that you put one style (a bold word) inside a larger style (a paragraph) inside a larger style (“the page”). When you use inherit for an attribute (like font-size or position), you’re just saying that “this has the same value as whatever contains it”.

So, here, in addition to the clear English meaning, this is valid CSS: A monarch ends up with the same position as the family they’re born into. Which, as Game of Thrones has told us, is problematic when somebody increases the margin between your father’s <head> and <body>.

CSS Puns

Finally, some only really make sense to CSS speakers, and hinge on some understanding of the second language. They’re not quite monolingual CSS, but they’re getting close:

Sometimes, you want a style which only applies when one style is inside another (so, for instance, a quoted list looks different than a regular list), and to do this, you specify define the styles separately, then specify the style in the format outside.inside. So, in valid CSS, this is stating that Mario gets twice as large when there’s a mushroom inside him.

In case you needed to make punning nerdier…

So, before this post overflows, I just wanted to make clear that there’s surprisingly little margin between these and other sorts of multi-lingual wordplay. So, set your fear to hidden, and feel free to transition to even nerdier forms of humor.

apology {visibility:hidden;}

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Two quick updates!

Doctor Vowels!

I’ve now passed my Doctoral Dissertation defense, and made the revisions requested by my committee, so I’m officially done with graduate school. If you’re curious, I talk more about my dissertation here, and you can read the abstract here. Now, I’m moving on to a new position at the University of Michigan as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow.

Although I’ve loved my time at the University of Colorado, I’m really thrilled for this next opportunity, and will keep you all in the loop as more fun research comes my way.

Creative Commons License

This site is getting a surprising number of hits (400-500 daily), and I’ve put a lot of effort into some of these posts. So, to avoid any future difficulty, I’ve decided to clarify the license of the content posted here.

As you can see from the bottom of the page, I’ve chosen to put this content under a Creative Commons (4.0) Share-alike license, just as I chose for my Praat guidebook. This license says three important things:

  1. You may share, copy, redistribute, or adapt the content however you see fit. The content belongs to the public, as any academic content should.

  2. If you do re-use or modify this content, you have to credit me for it, link to the license, and show if changes were made.

  3. If you do re-use or modify this content, the resulting content must also be released under the same Creative Commons License.

This last part is the most important. If people are going to put work into a free website, an online guidebook, or even an open textbook, their work should remain free. People trying to make a quick buck should not be able to swoop in, repackage others’ work, and then put it behind a paywall again.

It may seem like a silly thing to think about for a small blog, but these little declarations and our continuing push for open access are the sort of low-level steps that we all can take to ensure that the content we’re producing for education, for science, and for the betterment of the field is, and remains, open to all.

Post Date: March 21, 2015
Categories: site news - personal -
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