Archive for March, 2010

Alice Rigby was the first person who came to mind to honor on Ada Lovelace Day 2010.  In fact I thought of her for 2009, but didn’t manage to write it in time. Here’s hoping no one will mind that I’m just an hour or so beyond the deadline in my timezone. (Let’s pretend we’re in Hawai’i where it’s still not midnight.) Oh, have you not heard about Ada Lovelace or the celebration? has a quick biography of the inventor of software, who lived from 1815-1852.

Alice was a family friend and supporter long before we became colleagues at IBM. Alice was raised in Upstate New York. She played the doting aunt to her sister’s 4 children. Those kids thought the initial “A” in her signature looked a lot like an “S,” which was the source of her nickname “Slice.”  In our house we referred to her by initials “A.R.”  She attended Mt. Holyoke College in the late 1930′s or early 1940′s, and upon graduation took a teaching position in mathematics at a prestigious private girls’ school in Virginia.

She stayed as a high school teacher only a few years before being recruited to IBM in the mid-1950′s. She arrived at IBM during a period of rapid expansion of the IBM workforce, along with my father Mort Frishberg and Dick Bergstresser, the now-retired Director of IBM’s US Scientific Centers.  Both Mort and Dick were Applied Science Representatives in their initial assignments, comparable to technical marketing support specialists. I don’t recall what Alice’s first assignment was.

By the time I met Alice, she had been in IBM about 10 years, and was living in a small house in Saratoga, California. She was an instructor for new technical marketing people along with the rest of her team; her specialty was databases.

For me she was a role model of a single professional woman: smart and knowledgeable, yet interested in continuous learning; a homebody, yet interested in travel; non-confrontational, yet informed about public policy and active in making her views known to public officials. She participated in her church choir, seemingly as much for the companionship as for the musical or spiritual content. She was active in her alumnae association, again both for the relationships and as a way of giving back to the community she felt grateful to. And, she held both her family of origin and her created family of friends close. She supported civility, yet could disagree. She acknowledged discrimination exists, but wouldn’t be strident in challenging the status quo. For example, she loved the sentiment within the aphorism “the brotherhood of man,” but couldn’t abide the surface exclusion of women in the phrase. She took great pleasure in wearing a custom T-shirt celebrating “The Siblinghood of People.” I’ll find the photo of her wearing it.

Alice was not a complainer. I heard her express frustration with IBM only once, late in her career:  She  had a new manager and felt he was underprepared to manage her very experienced team. She said in effect: Why are we, a well-functioning team, expected to train this guy who is going to be promoted beyond our group, and yet we will get no reward or recognition for doing this? He’ll just come in here, try out the latest business school trend on us, and we’ll have to spend a lot of energy helping him either figure out why it won’t work in this context or needs tweaking to make it work. Why not let us manage ourselves instead of training someone less able?  The subtext to me was Why have I been passed over as a potential manager of our group or a similar one? Why are my gaps not supported and coached in the way we provide support and coaching for yet-another newly minted executive?

She was a person of regular habits:  she ate the same thing for breakfast every day.  She smoked daily but limited herself to two cigarettes, one after lunch and one after dinner. She planned her vacation route well-ahead, stayed a few nights with each of several friends in her drive up the Eastern Seaboard, or down the California coast. She bought a retirement home well ahead of her anticipated retirement.

One summer she took an assignment teaching in Brazil for several months, and loaned me her sewing machine and her car, which made this high school student very happy. I remember at least one project I made that summer, but nothing I’ve done in the sewing domain equals her prowess at making a slipcover for her living room couch. While it was not actually upholstery, her project was both an ambitious undertaking and a masterful accomplishment. It required that she first make a pattern before cutting the actual upholstery fabric. When she finished it looked like a professional job, with the pattern of the fabric matching at the seams, and an apparently endless amount of handmade welting.

Alice hid her disappointment as best as she could, when I turned down entry to Mt. Holyoke (South Hadley, Massachusetts) and registered as a freshman at nearby Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts). She had written a strong alumnae support letter supporting my application, which was no doubt influential in my being accepted. She may have been secretly relieved when I made the decision to leave the East Coast women’s college milieu, and return to California to attend UC Berkeley for the remainder of my undergraduate career.

Roughly 20 years later, I was an IBMer. Both Dick Bergstresser (then my manager) and I were invited to her retirement luncheon from IBM. Dick and I were working in Milford, Connecticut, and we made the trek across the country for the celebration in Los Angeles. What a pleasure for both of us to fete this old friend!

When Alice died several years ago, she left no biological children. I will claim her  – if not as an extra parent, then – certainly an aunt-without-portfolio, a quiet advisor, and special person in my life. Perhaps a few of those pesky managers who were thrust upon her ought to pay tribute also.

[I reserve the right to update this piece with further details about Alice Rigby's career and life, as I contact the people I know who remember more about her than I may.]

Tuesday, March 9, we got the next update on YouTube’s automated captioning efforts. I heard it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” afternoon program, in which Robert Siegel interviewed Ken Harrenstien of Google with a (female) interpreter providing voice for the Google engineer.

Audio and transcript are available at

Harrenstien acknowledges that automated captioning today stumbles on proper names, including trademarks and product names:  ”YouTube” that comes out “You, too!” And automated captioning has difficulty with videos that have music or other sounds in the background. But, he characterizes himself as a technology-optimist, anticipating that in 10 years things will be much improved.

Benefits of captioning

Like “curb cuts” which have become the symbol indicating that solutions for disabled people (here, those in wheelchairs) resolve needs for others (strollers, roll-aboard luggage, shopping carts), captions have benefits that extend beyond hearing impairment.

  • Deaf and hearing impaired people can enjoy the huge inventory of videos on YouTube. (The still frame that opens this post is from an announcement by President Obama in response to the Chilean earthquake. Making emergency and other time-sensitive news available to those who cannot hear meets the requirements of laws and regulations in the US. And more importantly, it meets the moral or ethical standards we expect from a civilized society where we include everyone in the polity.)
  • If you’re in a noisy environment or located close to others who will be bothered by the audio, you can figure out what the video is saying even without benefit of headphones
  • Small companies can afford to provide captions on their webcasts, often the heart of learning about new products
  • Non-native speakers of English have a much better chance of understanding speech at ordinary (rapid) rates with the assist of captions
  • Captions provide input to machine translation services, so that there soon will be captions in other languages besides English as well; as automated speech-to-text technology improves, we’re going to see other input languages as well
  • Captions provide much better input to (current) search technology than speech does, so there’s hope of finding segments of videos that might not appear in written form

Professional captioners need not despair

I read the YouTube blog post of March 4 and the comments following it, and recalled the announcement of the limited trial with selected partners last November.  James expresses concern in his comment about the recent YouTube announcement that people, like him, who earn their living as captioners for post-production houses will lose their jobs as a result of the automated captioning.  My response seconds HowCheap’s comment that professional captioners will continue to find work both as editors of the automated speech-to-text and for organizations prefer doing their own captioning. Organizations that produce professional quality video typically start from a written script, adjust for the few changes that happen in the spoken version, and then set the timing of the text with the video.

The huge number of videos on YouTube are uploaded by individuals or by small organizations who may not be aware of the benefits from captioning, and likely don’t know about the tools available.  According to YouTube’s fact sheet: “Every minute 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.” That’s a volume that is beyond the capacity of professional captioners and the organizations that employ them.

A proposal for improving the quality of captions

How shall we improve the quality of automatically produced captions?

I’d like to see interpreter training programs (ITPs) make editing automated captions a course assignment, a program requirement, or a component of an internship. Engagement with spoken language, not one’s own, is a challenge.  People phrase things in ways you don’t; they use unfamiliar vocabulary and proper names (streets, towns, people, products) that I need to look up.  Both ITPs for training sign language interpreters and those for people learning to interpret between 2 spoken languages may allow entry to students whose skills in listening, writing or spelling may be lacking.  How many caption-editing assignments are enough? Shall we also coordinate quality checks by others in the same or a different program?  Such assignments will guide students toward greater appreciation for the challenges of speech in online settings, with a task that provides an authentic service.


In the case of ITPs for sign language interpreters, the improved listening to online speech is great preparation for work settings such as VRS and VRI.  Video Relay Service (VRS) in the US is regulated by the FCC: deaf signers who cannot use the telephone (because their speech is not intelligible and they cannot hear well enough to understand speech over the phone) make use of intermediaries (interpreters) to communicate with hearing non-signers. (Think of simple tasks such as calling the school to notify them that your child will be absent; scheduling a haircut; ordering a pizza for delivery, not to mention more complex transactions involving prescriptions, real estate contract negotiation, billing disputes.)  Video Remote Interpreting (where the deaf and hearing parties are physically together, with the interpreter remote from them) is a service with similar requirements for the interpreter (listening to speech over a phone or data line, and rendering accurate translations in real time).

Broad multi-disciplinary open source content quality

Programs training instructors in English as a Second Language (ESL) could also participate.  Students in speech therapy and audiology would benefit from both the direct engagement with spoken language “in the wild” and with future colleagues in other disciplines. There are advantages to engaging a variety of people who are studying for professions that emphasize expertise in spoken and written English.

Looks like an open source content development effort to me. Yes, it will require a little bit of coordination, but not terrific overhead. How about it, ITP program directors?

Watching the Oscars

Okay, I was embarrassed.  Just a little.  And I don’t need to be anymore.

We hosted the annual Oscar party at our place this past Sunday. Homemade chili, cornbread, slaw, plus tasty salads, yummy side dishes and amazing desserts to share. One guest came prepared with appropriate trivia questions involving statistics and history.

Only one of the guests was hearing impaired. He functions as a hearing guy, because he was a hearing guy for most of his life. After his surgery a few years ago, he’s now got a hearing loss and a hearing aid. I knew that. He knows I know (more than) a bit about deafness and hearing loss, including and especially how to include everyone in a group whether for a discussion or viewing media like this event. (more…)