The Lees and Scum of Bygone Men



The following is a parable about the difference between theory and practice, which Michael Oakeshott frames as the difference between technical and practical knowledge, found as a footnote in Michael Oakeshott’s essay Rationalism In Politics.  I find that it has some bearing, which I will discuss in the near future, to certain Internet debates about pedagogy and software programming:

Duke Huan of Ch’i was reading a book at the upper end of the hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end.  Putting aside his mallet and chisel, he called to the Duke and asked him what book he was reading.  ‘One that records the words of the Sages,’ answered the Duke.  ‘Are those Sages alive?’ asked the wheelwright.  ‘Oh, no,’ said the Duke, ‘they are dead.’  ‘In that case,’ said the wheelwright, ‘what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.’  ‘How dare you, a wheelwright, find fault with the book I am reading.  If you can explain your statement, I will let it pass.  If not, you shall die.’  ‘Speaking as a wheelwright,’ he replied, ‘I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but it does not go deep.  The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart.  It is a thing that cannot be put into rules; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son.  That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy still making wheels.  In my opinion it must have been the same with the men of old.  All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest, they put in their books.  That is why I said that what you were reading was the lees and scum of bygone men.'”

Chuang Tzu

Finding the correct metaphor for text-to-speech


A recent release from the Associated Press concerning the Authors Guild’s concerns with the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature left many computer programmers guffawing, but it occurs to me that for those not familiar with text-to-speech technology, the humorous implications may not be self-evident, so I will attempt to parse it:

“NEW YORK (AP) — The guild that represents authors is urging writers to be wary of a text-to-speech feature on Inc.’s updated Kindle electronic reading device.


“In a memo sent to members Thursday, the guild says the Kindle 2’s “Read to Me” feature “presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry.”


“The Kindle can read text in a somewhat stilted electronic voice. But the Authors Guild says the quality figures to “improve rapidly.” And the guild worries that could undermine the market for audio books.”

The quality of text-to-speech depends on the library of phonemes available on the reading device and the algorithms used to put them all together.  A simple example is when you call the operator and an automated voice reads back a phone number to you with a completely unnatural intonation, and you realize that the pronunciation of each number has been clipped and then taped back together without any sort of context.  That is a case, moreover, where the relationship between vocalization and semantics is one-to-one.  The semantic meaning of the number “1” is always mapped to the sound of someone pronouncing the word “one”.   In the case of speech-to-text, no one has been sitting with the OED and carefully pronouncing every word for a similar one-to-one mapping. Instead, the software program on the reading device must use an algorithm to guess at the set of phonemes that are intended by a collection of letters and generate the sounds it associates with those phonemes. 


The problem of intonation is still there, along with the additional issue of the peculiarities of English spelling.  If have a GPS system in your car, then you are familiar with the results.  Bear in mind that your GPS system, in turn, is bungling up what is actually a very particularized vocabulary.  The books that the Kindle’s “Read to Me” feature will be dealing with have more in common with Borges’s labyrinth than Rand McNally’s road atlas.


While text-to-speech technology will indeed improve over time, it won’t be improving in the Kindle 2, which comes with one software bundle that reads in just one way.  I worked on a text-to-speech program a while back (if you have Vista, you can download it here) that combines an Eliza engine with the Vista operating system’s text-to-speech functionality.  One of the things I immediately wanted to do was to be able to switch out voices, and what I quickly found out was that I couldn’t get any new voices.  Vista came with a feminine voice with an American accent, and that was about it unless one wanted to use a feminine voice with a Pidgin-English accent that is included with the Chinese speech pack.  The only masculine voice Microsoft provided was available for Windows XP, and it wasn’t forward compatible. 


It simply isn’t easy to switch out voices, much less switch out speech engines on a given platform, and seeing that we aren’t paying for a software package when we buy the Kindle but rather only the device (with much less power than a Microsoft operation system), it can be said with some confidence that the Kindle 2 is never going to be able to read like Morgan Freeman.


The Kindle 2’s text-to-speech capabilities, or lack of it, is not going to undermine the market for audio books any more than public lectures by Stephen Hawking will undermine sales of his books.  They are simply different things.

“It is telling authors and publishers to consider asking Amazon to disable the audio function on e-books it licenses.”

This is what is commonly referred to as the business requirement from hell.  It assumes that something is easy out of a serious misunderstanding of how a given technology actually works.  Text-to-speech technology is not based on anything inherent to the books Amazon is trying to peddle.  It isn’t, for what this is worth, even associated with metadata about the books Amazon is trying to peddle.  Instead, it is a free-roaming program that will attempt to read any text you feed it.  Rather than a CD that is sold with the book, it has a greater similarity to a homunculus living inside your computer and reading everything out loud to you. 


The proposal from the Authors Guild assumes that something must be taken off of the e-books in order to disable the text-to-speech feature.  In fact, instructions not to read those certain e-books must be added to the e-book metadata, and each Kindle 2 homunculus must in turn be taught to look for those instructions and act accordingly, in order to fulfill this requirement.  This is a non-trivial rewrite of the underlying Kindle software as well as of the thousands of e-book images that Amazon will be selling — nor can the files already living on people’s devices be recalled to add the additional metadata.

“Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said the company has the proper license for the text-to-speech function, which comes from Nuance Communications Inc.”

This is just a legalese on Amazon’s part that intentionally misunderstands the Authors Guild’s concerns as well as the legal issues involved.  The Authors Guild isn’t accusing Amazon of not having rights to the text-to-speech software.  They are asking whether using text-to-speech on their works doesn’t violate pre-existing law. 


The answer to that, in turn, concerns metaphors, as many legal matters ultimately do.  What metaphor does text-to-speech fall under?  Is it like a CD of a reading of a book, which generates additional income from an author’s labor?  Or is it like hiring Morgan Freeman to read Dianetics to you?  In which case, beyond the price of the physical book, Mr. Freeman should certainly be paid, but the Church of Scientology should not.

Second prize is a set of steak knives


According to rumor, Alec Baldwin ad-libbed this scene for the movie adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, although I’ve also heard that Mamet created the monologue especially for Baldwin’s character, Blake, who does not appear in the original Pulitzer Prize winning play.  A transcription of the monologue can be found here

Blake strikes me as the ur-Father of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, speaking to the id-driven sales force.  In good times, Blake comes across as a parody of all bad managers with his A-B-C rules — he is Stephen Covey’s evil twin.   In a bad business climate, however, he is the bearer of profound Hobbesean truths, and one feels obliged to internalize him and let him whisper in the back of one’s mind, for his is the voice that drives industry.

I’ve never kindled…


My employer disperses interesting technical gifts every Christmas, and this year it was to be the Kindle.  However the endorsement of the Kindle by Ms. Oprah Winfrey had apparently caused a run on the digital reader (thank goodness she did not endorse the American banking system) and so, now in mid-February, we are still not in possession of the item.  Fortunately, the Kindle 2 has been announced and our original order of several hundred Kindles has automatically been upgraded, with a release date at the end of the month.

I enjoy reading and disposing of books, which has led me to be a avid user of the local public library system.  At the same time, I rather enjoying collecting — on a modest budget — titles that I can display on my bookshelves, often unread, sadly.   Browsing my own books, which bring back memories of the periods in my life when I was inclined to peculiar interests — I have a shelf full of Husserl with titles like Ideas I, Ideas V, Ideas VI, etc. ! — is a source of great pleasure. 

Whenever I open one of my books I am uncertain of what will fall out.  Sometimes its orange peels, sometimes the whiff of stale cigarettes from college, sometimes money I thought I had cleverly hidden from robbers.  The other day I opened up a dog-eared paperback copy Benjamin’s Illuminations and naturally came across his essay on unpacking his books. 

My basement is currently filled with crates of Russian books and journals, inherited by my father-in-law from a distant relative and emigre historian of the Russian imperial family living in Prague.  The books this distant relative chose to collect reveal a thoroughly different world in which an interest in the newest theories of evolution existed side-by-side with an interest in how best to uplift one’s serfs.

The digital revolution has made many of these books now generally available, especially with the ubiquity of one-off printing.  But what mind could gather this particular collection together, with its hidden references made through the course of a life, entangling interests into an ultimate statement of a man’s life pursuit.  Absent the fact that a certain man, our distant relative, found something valuable in each of these books, and that by handling each of them we can to some degree reconstruct his life — would any computer program be able to generate this particular collection based on algorithms of selection and indexing?

While I look forward to receiving my Kindle, I find myself secretly believing that books possess an élan vital that Kindles, by their nature, lack.

My friend Mr. Conrad Roth blogged a few months ago about his less ambivalent attitude toward e-books at the Varieties here and here — which I highly recommend to anyone considering the Kindle.  Another friend, Bill Ryan, blogged about his own very positive reaction to the Kindle a few months back, as well as his attitude towards the most common criticisms of the Kindle. 

Always interested in bringing my friends together, I just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to link both of them in one page.

Promiscuity and Software: The Thirty-one Percent Solution


There is one big player in the software development world, and her name is Microsoft. Over the years many vendors and startups have attempted to compete against the lumbering giant, and Microsoft has typically resorted to one of two methods for dealing with her rivals. Either she pours near-unlimited money into beating the competition, as Microsoft did with Netscape in the 90’s, or she buys her rival right out. It is the typical build or buy scenario. But with the ALT.NET world, she seems to be taking a third approach.

The premise of the ALT.NET philosophy is that developers who work within the Microsoft .NET domain should still be free to use non-Microsoft sanctioned technologies, and there is even a certain Rome versus the barbarians approach to this, with Microsoft naturally taking the part of the Arian invaders. The best solution to a technical problem it is claimed (and rightly so) need not be one provided by Microsoft, which ultimately is a very small sub-set of the aggregate body of developers in the world. Instead, solutions should be driven by the developer community who know much more about the daily problems encountered by businesses than Microsoft does. Microsoft in turn may or may not provide the best tools to implement these solutions; when she doesn’t, the developer community may come up with their own, such as NHibernate, NUnit, Ajax, Windsor and RhinoMocks (all free, by the way).

What is interesting about each of these tools is that, when they came out, Microsoft didn’t actually have a competing tool for any of these technologies. Instead of competing with Microsoft on her own field, the ALT.NET community began by competing with Microsoft in the places where she had no foothold. Slowly, however, Microsoft came out with competing products for each of these but the last. MSUnit was released about three years ago to compete with NUnit. ASP.NET AJAX (formerly ATLAS, a much cooler name) competes with the various Ajax scripting libraries. ASP.NET MVC competes with the PHP development world. Entity Framework and the Unity Framework were recently released to compete with NHibernate and Windsor, respectively.

Unlike the case with the browser wars of the 90’s, Microsoft’s offerings are not overwhelmingly better. The reception of the Entity Framework (mostly orchestrated by the ALT.NET community itself, it should be admitted) was an extreme case in point, for scores of developers including a few MVP’s (Microsoft’s designation for recognized software community leaders) publicly pilloried the technology in an open letter and petition decrying its shortcomings.

Microsoft, in these cases, is not trying to overwhelm the competition. She does not throw unlimited resources at the problem. Instead, she has been throwing limited resources at each of these domains and, in a sense, has accomplished what the ALT.NET world originally claimed was their goal: to introduce a bit a of competition into the process and allow developers to select the most fitting solution.

Not too long ago I came across an article that suggested to me a less benign strategy on Microsoft’s part, one that involves ideological purity and software promiscuity. The ALT.NET world, one might be tempted to say, has a bit of a religious aspect to it, and the various discussion board flames concerning ALT.NET that pop up every so often have a distinct religious patina to them.

The relationship between ALT.NET-ers to Microsoft is a bit like the relationship of of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to the world. We do, after all, have to live in this world, and we don’t have the ability or the influence at all times to shape it the way we want. Consequently, compromises must be made, and the only question worth asking is to what extent we must compromise. The distinction between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists rests squarely on this matter, with Evangelicals believing that some sort of co-existence can be accomplished, while Fundamentalists believe that the cognitive dissonance between their view of the world and the world’s view of itself are too great to be bridged. For Fundamentalists, the Evangelicals are simply fooling themselves, and worse opening themselves up to temptation without realizing it.

All this being background to Margaret Talbot’s article in the November New Yorker Red Sex Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?  Ms. Talbot raises the question of abstinence only programs which are widely ridiculed for being unsuccessful. 

“Nationwide, according to a 2001 estimate, some two and a half million people have taken a pledge to remain celibate until marriage. Usually, they do so under the auspices of movements such as True Love Waits or the Silver Ring Thing. Sometimes, they make their vows at big rallies featuring Christian pop stars and laser light shows, or at purity balls, where girls in frothy dresses exchange rings with their fathers, who vow to help them remain virgins until the day they marry. More than half of those who take such pledges—which, unlike abstinence-only classes in public schools, are explicitly Christian—end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse.”

The programs are not totally unsuccessful.  In general pledgers delay sex eighteen months longer than non-pledgers.  The real indicator of the success of an abstinence only program, however, is how popular they become.  The success of an abstinence only program is ironically inversely proportional to its popularity and ubiquity.

“Bearman and Brückner have also identified a peculiar dilemma: in some schools, if too many teens pledge, the effort basically collapses. Pledgers apparently gather strength from the sense that they are an embattled minority; once their numbers exceed thirty per cent, and proclaimed chastity becomes the norm, that special identity is lost. With such a fragile formula, it’s hard to imagine how educators can ever get it right: once the self-proclaimed virgin clique hits the thirty-one-per-cent mark, suddenly it’s Sodom and Gomorrah.”

The ALT.NET chest of development tools is not widely used, although its proponents are very vocal about the need to use them.  Unit testing, which is a very good practice, has limited actual adherence though many developers will publicly avow its usefulness.  NHibernate, Windsor and related technologies have an even weaker hold on the mind share of the developer community — much less than the thirty percent, I would say — an actuality which belies the volume and vehemence, as well as exposure, of their proponents.

With the thirty-one percent solution, Microsoft does not have to improve on the ALT.NET technologies and methodologies in order to win.  All she has to do is to help the proponents of IOC, Mocking and ORMs to get to that thirty-one percent adoption level.  She can do this by releasing interesting variations of the ALT.NET community tools, thus gentrifying these tools for the wider Microsoft development community.  Even within the ALT.NET world, as in our world, there are more Evangelicals than Fundamentalists, people who are always willing to try something once.

Microsoft’s post-90’s strategy need no longer be build or buy.  She can take this third approach of simply introducing a bit of software promiscuity, a little temptation here, a little skin there, and pretty soon it’s a technical Sodom and Gomorrah.