Reading with your ears

Before text-to-speech, there was the optophone. It scans the letters in a text and converts them into chords that represent the visual shape of the letter. Instead of hearing someone speak the text, you hear what the text looks like.

This invention was published in Nature in 1914 (!). (By the way, there’s a bit of delicious irony in the disclaimer attached to the 1914 article in its current digital form: “This text was harvested from a scanned image of the original document using optical character recognition (OCR) software. As such, it may contain errors.”) You can access a PDF scan of the original paper for the full details, including the claim that the device “should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing.”

The device conducts a horizontal scan, with 8 “dots” moving in parallel across the letters. Each dot is assigned to a different tone. With no input (totally white background) all the dot-tones are active. When a dot crosses a dark region (text), its tone disappears, so the sound changes. I think they must have inverted this plan later, to turn on the sound when a dark part appears, based on the examples.

With practice, in theory you can learn to “read” words by their tonal patterns. Give it a try! This is the optophone “reading” the letters f, i, k, j, p, q, r, and z:

Not super harmonic, but I can see that it’s possible to distinguish letters. However, it’s a slow way to read, even after practice, which led to the development of more “compressed” versions. In general, the goal wasn’t necessarily efficiency, though – it was an attempt to make available the large volume of existing printed matter to those who could not see, without requiring a translation to e.g. Braille first. Neat invention!

Morse code mnemonics

Morse code just got 10 times cooler – or maybe just 10 times easier to learn!

A few years ago, I stumbled on the mind-blowing binary tree version of Morse code. I was so excited about this that I downloaded a “learn Morse code” app on my phone and started practicing it, gradually working up to faster comprehension speeds. But then I got distracted by some other shiny thing and stopped practicing and Morse code went dormant in my brain.

Two days ago I re-encountered it in this amazing video by the always impressive Nelson Dellis:

Nelson gives us mnemonics for learning Morse code. This is absolutely BRILLIANT since Morse code is already audible. :) After watching his video exactly *once*, I already know Morse code for my name and can recall it with negligible effort:

-.- .. .-. ..

(mnemonic: KAN-ga-ROO i-bid ro-TA-tion i-bid)

*and* I discovered a beautiful symmetry in my Morse name!

I’m truly impressed by how quickly and easily this mnemonic sunk in. Nelson, you rock!

How my car wipers work

Yesterday, it actually rained! So I got to use the long-neglected windshield wipers on my Chevy Volt. They have options that include OFF, INT (intermittent), LO, and HI:

“Intermittent” is the tricky one. There are five options shown by the horizontal white bars. Do they indicate how frequently the wipes happen? Or do they indicate the delay between wipes? Effectively, in which direction does the scale increase? I can never remember this, so every time I end up trying out different settings to re-learn how to use my wipers. In this case, a bigger white bar (bottom) means more frequent wipes, which is the reverse of the order implied by “HI” being on top.

And what’s up with the exponential growth implied by the white bars? Is that real?

As Francis Bacon might have said, “When in doubt, collect data.”

I timed the delay between wipes for each of the five settings. And here’s what I found:

If we invert this to report wiping frequency in number of wipes per minute:

So, nope, the labels on the control do not reflect actual frequency. I’ve been reading Edward Tufte’s book titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and this would be a perfect example of what he calls graphics without integrity. One of his principles:

“The representation of numbers should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.”

Boo, Chevrolet designers! And especially for inverting the order with respect to the “LO” and “HI” markings.

How to check your mail before you check your mail

Recently I discovered a new service offered by the Post Office called Informed Delivery. Once you sign up, the Post Office sends you a daily email around 8 a.m. that contains a PICTURE of each piece of mail that they plan to deliver to you later that day. It’s like getting to peek inside your mailbox from afar… no, it’s like peeking into the FUTURE of your mailbox, from afar!

My understanding is that this service came about because the Post Office already scans each piece of item for routing, so why not share the pictures with the recipients.

Why not indeed? I immediately had to wonder who would request this service. Maybe it’s for folks who suspect that mail is being stolen out of their mailboxes? Or just for those of us with an impatient streak?

Well, having signed up myself, I can now report on my experience. First there’s the signup process. Wow, that was onerous! In theory, you can verify your identity online. In practice, I apparently failed at least one security question (these are like the ones you have to answer to get a credit report, not questions you selected yourself) and then had to wait 72 hours (that’s three days) to try again.

On my next try, I failed again.

For those of us unable to authenticate online, you can do it in person at a participating post office. It’s not enough to show up with id; you also need a QR code that they email to you but mysteriously won’t display in my iPhone mail reader. (The message helpfully suggests that if the code won’t display, print it out instead.) Fortunately, doing a “save all images” from the message meant that the QR code plus 6 other doodads ended up in my Photos and I was able to get properly scanned and verified.

Now I get a mailbox email every morning! It’s great fun. And yet… it also takes a bit of the fun out of the evening ritual of opening the mailbox, not knowing what you’ll find. It remains to be seen whether I’ll continue the service or revert back to surprise mode. :)

GPS navigation in airplane mode!

Recently on a trip to Ireland, in an effort to reduce my cellular data consumption, I put my phone into airplane mode while driving across the country. Imagine my surprise when, an hour later, I checked my phone and found that it was still correctly reporting my location, and giving me directions!

I scratched my head about this for a little while. The moving map was updating my position even in airplane mode! It was also scrolling the map as I moved. So it must be the case that

  1. Google Maps downloads and caches enough information that it can continue to show you the relevant map info even if it loses a data connection to its server, and
  2. The GPS receiver in the phone continues to operate in airplane mode.

This had never occurred to me! I was able to confirm it at other times during the trip. If you try to get directions from Google Maps when in airplane mode, it doesn’t work – you can’t search the maps. But if you get the directions started, then go into airplane mode (i.e., turn off cell data), then it will correctly continue to give you directions. However, if you deviate at all, it cannot re-route you, so you have to figure that out for yourself.

I decided to test this during a recent cross-country flight. Right before a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, I got driving directions from Google maps (see right; it wants me to start on Sepulveda Blvd) and then I put the phone into airplane mode.

A few minutes after takeoff from LAX, we were out over the ocean and Google Maps was still urgently telling me to get onto Sepulveda Blvd:

I checked on the directions periodically throughout the 5-hour flight.

Each time we had made some more progress, but we were so far off the (road) track that Google Maps kept saying to go back to Sepulveda Blvd and start over.

As we got close to the Philadelphia airport, we were close enough to match up with a road (briefly) and the directions made more sense.

So cool! This means that even when an airplane doesn’t bother to give you that awesome moving-map track of where the plane currently is, you can still get it, IN AIRPLANE MODE, on your phone! (But only if you got some directions first.)

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