Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

I'm going to spend the next few days being as non-radiological as possible.

My family and I will be spending this time at a wild rumpus of folk music and dancing with 120 other pals.  We'll ring in the new year with singing, dancing and a ton of fiddle music, while someone else cooks and washes the dishes.  

Best wishes for a great new year to all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pandora's Other Box

Text-messaging and online social networks are just two of the current tools teens use to make their parents feel hopelessly old. Now it's their turn to feel like clueless geezers, because texting has moved on to the womb.

Expectant moms can now strap on Kickbee, a sensor-filled elastic band that turns fetal kicks into Twitters like the following:
Kickbee: I kicked Mommy at 06:45PM on Thu, Dec 18!
The UK Daily Mail is leading so far in the pun war with this headline:
Pregnancy belt allows unborn babies to open Facebook 'chat-womb'
Uterine hacking (so to speak) is no longer confined to caesarean deliveries. Geeky parents can now consider other possibilities, such as tracking fetal movements with GPS chips and ultrasonic fetal webcams.

Is that a tiny keyboard clutched in that fetal fist?...


(via Smart Mobs)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Text to Speech Just Got a Lot Easier

A new program called Textcast has just made it a lot easier for Mac users to produce audible speech from text files.

If you are a geek like me, your reaction to this is probably, "Dude, we've been able to do this for years."

If you're not a geek, then your response is more like, "Dude, who cares?"

Valid points, both. Let me first suggest why a non-geek would care about this technology. In a nutshell, text-to-speech software is part of my anti-boredom survival kit. Although I am endlessly capable of entertaining myself, my capacity for self-amusement is pretty limited when I'm driving.

I spend at least an hour per day in my car, commuting or running errands. This interstitial part of my life can be pretty darned boring. To keep from going nuts while driving, I listen voraciously to all sorts of audio files, including NPR broadcasts, podcasts and audio books.

However, for all the stuff that I can listen to, there are a zillion other things I'd love to hear but that just aren't available in audio format. For example, I'd love to be able to listen to newspaper stories and radiology journal articles in my car. This is where text-to-speech programs come in.

Text-to-speech software has come a long way. In the old days (5 years ago), most of these programs sounded about as lifelike as Gorgo the Space Robot. Fortunately, things are getting better. Nowadays this software is not only inexpensive, but produces fairly decent speech [1].

For the past few years I've been using several "voices" by Cepstral, which cost me a whopping $30 apiece for the premium editions. Depending on your tastes, they will sell you male or female voices speaking not only with American, but also British, German, Scottish, Italian French and Spanish accents.

Besides the vocal quality, another thing I like about Cepstral voices is that I can control them via the command line. If I want my computer to chat about its urinary habits in a British accent, I just type:
swift -n Lawrence -o ipee3.wav -p speech/rate=150,speech/pitch/shift=0.9 "I pee three times a day"

With several similar commands, I can automate the following process: 
  1. grab a page of text from my web browser and save a copy in a folder on my computer
  2. convert a whole folder of these text files into speech
  3. shove these speech files into iTunes
  4. move all of these speech files to my iPhone
If you are a non-geek, this process may leave you a bit cold. In fact, you'd probably rather take out your own spleen through your nose than write a shell script. For you, there is salvation, courtesy of BitMaki Software: Textcast will do all of this heavy lifting for you for $25.

I haven't yet figured out how to get Textcast to use any of my Cepstral voices, but it will use any of the built-in voices on my Mac, including a rather nice voice called "Alex". To my ear, Alex sounds at least as good as any of my Cepstral voices.

Some Clean-up May Be Necessary...

1. Convert the print version of a webpage

Textcast generally does a fine job of converting webpages to speech. However, it will convert every frakking bit of text on the page into speech. This includes headers, navigation bars, URL's, and other cruft. One easy way to clear a lot of this stuff off the page is to select a "print" version of that page, if available. For example, just about every article in the online version of the New York Times has a link to display that article with the headers, footers and nav bars stripped off.

2. Connecticut and Maryand must die!!

It's the odd radiology journal article that doesn't have the abbreviations "CT", "MD" and "MR" sprayed liberally throughout. Unless you want to hear "Connecticut", "Maryland" and "mister" in a lot of unexpected places, replace these abbreviations with "computed tomography", "em dee" and "magnetic resonance imaging", respectively, before converting your articles to speech.

3. Do some quick hand-editing before conversion

Before you point Textcast or some other program at a text file, consider doing a bit more judicious hand-editing. It's usually easy to spot large piles of cruft and delete them. Unfortunately, this can quickly become waaaaaaay tedious. If you find certain recurrent patterns of cruft (i.e. tables of content) scattered throughout your text, a quick global search and replace may be just the thing. For more complex patterns, geeks will want to trot out their grep tool on the command line to properly flense their files.

4. Use a medical phonetic dictionary

Medical and other technical journals contain a boatload of jargon. Thus, for your average AJR article, Textcast or Cepstral will mispronounce these words as badly as a TV doctor. Cepstral can help prevent this by letting you create a custom phonetic dictionary of your own particular jargon. Alex can likewise be taught certain words using Apple's VoiceOver utility.

5. Use a voice with a foreign accent

Here's one final tactic to make your text-to-speech sound less like a robot -- use a voice with a foreign accent. That way, when a word is oddly pronounced, the accent will cancel out the brain's tendency to interpret it as a speech defect. Don't tell your friends that you used a computer to produce these files -- they'll just assume that the speaker is Texan... 

[1] I would even call it life-like, albeit like a live person with a mild speech defect.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Gift Ideas for Radiologists


Vanessa at Street Anatomy just posted some great anatomy-related holiday gift ideas.

One of these could be just the thing to give your hard-to-shop-for, friendly, local radiologist...

A Solstice Present for Bio Majors

XKCD continues to be my favorite internet cartoon.

Speaking as a physics major who jumped ship to medical school, I especially enjoyed this latest strip (click to embiggen)...

MRI = Mind Reading Imaging?

Can you read someone's mind with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

The short answer is: yes, of course -- we've done it for years.

However, don't get too spooked. The stuff that we are able to read has so far been extremely limited.

Consider the book as a metaphor for a brain. Until recently, we've only been able to read the shape of the book. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has advanced to the point that we can now read some of the Cliff Notes of that book as well.

The latest issue of Neuron describes some fascinating work by Miyawaki et al: Visual Image Reconstruction from Human Brain Activity using a Combination of Multiscale Local Image Decoder. In this study, the authors presented simple visual patterns to volunteers. The authors were then were able to reconstruct the patterns seen from the volunteers' brains using fMRI. Check out the following reconstructed images:

As Michael Russell commented:
It looks like the JPEG compressor in the test subject's brain is set WAAAY too high.
Agreed. Even so: Wow.

The keys to this god-like power are topological maps of the cerebral cortex, such as the well-known sensory and motor homunculi first mapped out by Wilder Penfield.

It turns out that there are also retinotopic maps, connecting retinal stimuli to certain areas in the visual cortex. By imaging functional information directly from volunteers' occipital lobes with fMRI, Miyawaki et al were able to use such retinotopic maps to reconstruct what the subjects saw.

At the moment, it takes a lot of time and equipment to pull off this kind of mind-reading. So, by the time your coworker realizes that you've been undressing them in your mind, you will have already put their clothes back on and decided that they look a lot better that way.

In any event, this procedure will probably only work on information from the sensory and visual cortices, i.e. stuff that you are currently feeling or seeing. It won't work with stuff you are thinking or remembering.

No matter how many medical and legal uses we find for this technology, adolescent males of all ages will immediately leap to more prurient applications. What could horny geeks do with direct visual and sensory recording technology? The internet porn industry immediately comes to mind (so to speak).

For the moment it will be fairly easy to spot fMRI voyeurs -- just look for someone aiming a 7 foot ** roll of toilet paper at your skull. So, until this technology becomes a lot more portable, I won't be guarding my thoughts too closely. Sadly (or gladly), it will be a long time before nerds with iPhones can pull this off. However, that won't stop us from fantasizing about it...

(via Pharyngula)

** the approximate diameter of your typical fMRI scanner

Monday, December 15, 2008

Legs Optional Dancing

Dancing, particularly folk-dancing, has changed the lives of me and my spouse in ways we could never have imagined, and we both have 2 working legs.

As this video clip shows, legs are optional for awesome dancing, as long as the spirit is willing.

Cold Weather Emoticon

We're currently having a cold snap in my area. This is a relative term, of course. The girly-man winter weather here is probably considered T-shirt weather in the Midwest.

Having recently survived a few days of Midwestern chill in Chicago at the RSNA meeting, I can really identify with the latest episode of PartiallyClips...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Australia Braces Itself for Breast Deficit

I don't usually follow the breast literature, but this item caught my eye: 130,000 inflatable breasts have gone missing from a cargo ship bound from Beijing to Sydney.

Ralph, an Australian men's magazine, has urged anyone with information on these missing marine mammaries to contact them ASAP.

It's going to take me a while to shake loose the mental image of a sea full of C-cups...

Avian Genital Tongues

I've recently become a fan of the animated video blog at Deadpan, Inc.. Here's one of my favorites.

(via BizarroBlog)

Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally

My iPhone led me to the best meal I had in Chicago last week.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my RSNA Survival Kit included an iPhone app called Urbanspoon. A random shake of the iPhone linked me to Heaven on Seven, a downtown restaurant specializing in Cajun cuisine.

Five other famished radiologists humored me and went there for dinner one night, mostly on the basis of my iPhone being really cool, and despite the hotel concierge's lukewarm comment:
I haven't actually heard anything negative about the place...

The sign at the door promised about all the spicy and hot food we could handle -- my favorite names: "Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally", "Ass in the Tub" and "Hot Bitch on the Beach".

This promise of heat was continued inside, where a whole wall of the restaurant is covered from floor to ceiling with hot sauce bottles. We thought this was pretty handy, just in case we somehow ran through all 15 bottles of hot sauce already sitting on our table.

As we sat down, we ran into an encouraging colleague from Atlanta. He loves the place enough to eat there every year, and would have given the food 5 thumbs up if he just had a few more opposable digits.

There were way too many tasty-sounding things on the menu for one meal. Being a displaced child of the South, I would love to have tried them all, but somehow forebore. None of us were hungry enough to go for "Jimmy's Big Ass Rib Special", but we were mightily tempted by tall, chilled Hurricanes and a sour cocktail called a "Mother Pucker".

I had a cup of jambalaya, followed by a plate of grilled shrimp and andouille sausage on rice with ravigote sauce. As my dad would have said, it was larruping.

A caveat on dining with multilinguals...

Our group of six didn't match the American monolingual stereotype. Among us we had native or fluent speakers of several languages, including English, Spanish, French French, French-Canadian French, and Nepalese, as well as a smattering of phrases in Russian, Hungarian and Ukrainian. During the evening, we shared many linguistic adventures from the workplace, including the following:
    1. The word "focus" gives native French speakers huge difficulties. Their every instinct, especially when tired or distracted, tells them to pronounce it as if saying "fornicate us".

    2. The tilde can occasionally be critical in medical Spanish. The simple question, "¿Cuantos aƱos tiene su hijo?" normally means "How old is your son?" However, if you want to see the whites of a mother's eyes, just drop the tilde and the question becomes "How many anuses does your son have?"

    3. The phrase "go outside and let the ducks kick you" is an unspeakable profanity in Ukrainian.
A caveat when dining with physicians...

The more physicians at one table, the more likely it is that the conversation will swerve abruptly into medical matters. We were pretty well-behaved until the French radiologist at our table wondered if American andouille sausage was made from actual pig intestine, like the stuff he ate back home. This led to questions about which actual anatomic part of the pig intestine (duodenum? jejunum? ileum? colon?) was used for sausage. By the time this topic finally ran its course, the conversation had further devolved into speculations about whether certain intestinal diseases actually led to tastier sausage (I'll have the backwash ileitis, with a side of Crohn's...).

Non-physicians may be interested (or disgusted) to know just how many classic descriptions of anatomic pathology use food terms (bread-and-butter pericarditis, currant-jelly stools, coffee-ground emesis, salt-and-pepper skull, etc.). I and my fellow radiology residents once considered writing a paper on this very topic, and were able to name 50 examples just off the top of our heads. It's probably good advice to not shop for food or do an autopsy when you're really hungry.

A word on portion size...

Come to Heaven on Seven hungry but be prepared to share. The waitress brought one of my pals a piece of chocolate cake almost as big as his head. That and the key lime pie I ordered were pretty darned good, but way too much for the six of us to finish.

In the words of the Governator, I'll be back.

A Crazy Guy Who Blogs About Radiology

Overheard from an old friend and colleague one evening at RSNA:
"...there's this crazy guy who blogs about radiology under a pseudonym."
Gosh, I thought -- that sounds interesting.

So I asked, "Ummm, what pseudonym would that be?"
"He calls himself the Samurai Radiologist. I've been looking everywhere for a guy wearing video goggles at the meeting. He hasn't shown up at any of the places I've looked."
I suppose that Lamont Cranston and the Scarlet Pimpernel agonized over revealing their secret identities to friends. However, I didn't, because I don't have as much at stake as they did.

My pseudonym is just a way of separating my more turgid prose as a university professor from some of the wacky-ass things I feel free to say in this blog. To its credit, the university I work for has much bigger fish to fry, and could probably care less what I say here.

So, with no flash of lightning, no thunderclap, and no swirling cloak, I unmasked myself. Something along the lines of, "Uh, dude -- I'm the Samurai Radiologist. I left the goggles in my hotel room". **

If you see someone looking vaguely pseudonymous at your next radiology meeting, introduce yourself -- it might be me. At worst, it may start an interesting conversation with some other worthy person.

** I did show him the goggles the next day, and he pronounced them very cool.

Friday, December 5, 2008

RSNA Survival Kit Update

MyVu Crystal video goggles

The MyVu Crystal video goggles I mentioned earlier were a big hit with the flight attendants on my trip home from RSNA. Neither of them had ever seen a set of these, even among the business geeks in first class. One attendant was intrigued enough that she stopped the whole beverage service to take the MyVu for a short spin. Her one-word review: "Awesome!".

The charge on the goggles was ample for 3 hours of video. My brain wore out long before the charge on its battery.

RichardSolo 1800

A significant downside to devices like this are that you have to remember to charge them before a flight. I got so engrossed chatting with pals at my meeting that I forgot to top off my iPhone and battery extender before heading for the airport.

Chicago's O'Hare airport may be a world leader in AED deployment, but it is a world loser in deployment of power outlets for travelers. I finally spotted a cloaked outlet next to a vacant boarding gate and grabbed a few more amp-hours of charge.

As I sat there charging 4 geeky devices, I had a sudden Doh! moment, when it occurred to me that I already possessed a battery extender far more puissant than the 1800. My fully-charged laptop has a huge lithium battery that could power my iPhone all the way to Japan. Even though the seats back in steerage never have enough room for me to use my laptop as a computer, there is always plenty of space to use it as an iPhone charger.

On the other hand, the WiFi at O'Hare was pretty zippy -- fast enough to grab another movie off iTunes before boarding.

Geek cred re-established, I had an otherwise uneventful flight home.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Elevator 2.5

The RSNA is holding its annual meeting at McCormick Place: a multiplex of huge and bizarrely-lit barn-like structures.

Radiologists work all day in the dark, and often commute both ways in the dark this half of the year. We therefore tend to be a bit pallid as a group. This natural pallor is not improved by the odd, not-found-in-nature spectrum of the overhead lights here.

After spending the morning wandering through crowds of corpse-hued radiologists, a lunch-time elevator ride added briefly to my sense of unreality. I did a double-take while punching in my destination, and pulled out my iPhone for the following picture:

Google led me to a floor plan of level 2.5, but so far, not to any explanation of how it got numbered thusly.  If McCormick Place were built by Microsoft, I'd conclude that the level has been out of beta for a few years now, and is now finally safe enough for general use.  Even so, most experienced users would wait a few floors and get off on level 5.0. 

Whatever the reason, I suppose we can be grateful that at least they named it using the metric system. History suggests that it could have been a lot worse...

RichardSolo 1800 Update

I briefly posted a few days ago about the RichardSolo 1800 battery pack. Here's a quick update from the RSNA battlefront on this device.

After lunch today, a friend noted that her iPhone was down in the red. Mine was down to about 40%, so out came the 1800 -- an hour later, her phone was back up to 100%. Another hour later, mine was back up to 85%.

Collectively it seems that we got just under 1.5 full charges out of the device -- an encouraging first test.

Made it to Chicago

I made it safely to Chicago (and the RSNA meeting) from a place that is at least 20 degrees warmer. It was a fine flight until the last 30 minutes, when we descended into a cloud. We then experienced enough bumps to make us think we were hitting snowballs during the rest of our way down.

Chicago currently has about an inch or two of accumulated snow on the ground. The iPhone picture above from my hotel room hints at some of the drear awaiting one without. The wind coming in off Lake Michigan feels at times like it could strip the flesh right off one's face.

Fortunately, I bought all of my winter hiking gear along except for one key ingredient: the polypro underwear. Alas, the Chicago branch of REI is about 3 miles away from my hotel -- a tad too far for me to feel like walking in this weather. I'm only here for a few short days, so I'll just pretend that my legs aren't that cold.