Adventures in Windows ReadyBoost

Performance Monitor, exhibit 2

Using two 32GB USB sticks. Light blue = disk read, purple = skipped. SKIP THOSE READS BABY!

Let us talk about the Windows ReadyBoost, why don’t we.

It is a little known (?) part of Microsoft Windows which uses flash memory (such as an USB memory stick, or a SD card) as an intermediate storage between the hard disk and the random-access memory. It was introduced with the ill-fated Windows Vista, which needed more internal memory than was common on new computers at that time. Unfortunately, ReadyBoost was a bit of a quick fix (not to say “kludge” or “desperate attempt”) and not as effective as it could have been. Not being very good at the one thing it was meant for, it pretty much faded ignobly into obscurity. However, the friendly folks at Microsoft kept tinkering with it, and the version that was released with Windows 7 was actually greatly improved. Not that many people bothered to try it. In the meantime, it had become customary to sell computers with much more RAM, both because of lower prices and because it was obvious that Windows Vista need a lot more memory than XP had done. Windows 7, on the other hand, was better than its predecessor at using the computer’s resources.

***

At my home office, I have an office computer and a gaming computer. The office computer is a laptop from 2012. It was a beast of its time, with 6 GB of RAM and a core i7 processor. However, it was also the last computer I bought with a 5400 rpm hard disk and no SSD. (The gaming computer has an SSD and no internal hard disk.) The laptop also came with support for USB 3.0, a technology whose time has now come, but was still fairly rare and expensive back then.

So yesterday I saw a 32 GB USB 3 flash stick at an affordable price in the local hardware store. When I plugged it into my USB 3 hub, the laptop helpfully asked if I would use it for ReadyBoost. However, it could only use 4 GB. It turns out that the stick was formatted with FAT32 rather than NTFS. So I went ahead and reformatted it, then used the whole stick for ReadyBoost.

***

Despite the vague name, ReadyBoost actually does only a few specific things. It does not boost processor speed, despite its name: If anything, it uses the processor a bit more since it needs to perform various calculations and also move data around from here to there to elsewhere. What it does is:
1) When I save data to disk, it first saves them to the USB stick, which is faster. Later it saves a copy of those data from the stick to the hard disk when it has nothing better to do.
2) When I load data from disk, it loads them from the USB stick instead, if they are there. They could be there because I had already saved them there, as above. But they could also be there because Windows has creepily watched what I do and made guesses as to what I am going to do next, and quietly copied just that stuff onto the stick while it was bored waiting for me to press the next key.

So the ideal computer for ReadyBoost has:
-Not much RAM (so you need to swap data in and out of it frequently.)
-A slow hard disk. (Laptops typically had slower disks, before SSD.)
-A fast processor (to move all those data twice as often, and to stalk the user and guess what he or she will do next.)

Now, I have a decent amount of RAM for a five year old machine, but the two other criteria fit pretty well. Given that online articles vary from dismissing ReadyBoost completely to praising it as almost like adding more RAM, I was curious. What would happen?

***

The first thing I noticed was that the small light on my USB stick started blinking eagerly. Watching on the Computer Management app (specifically Monitoring Tools – Performance Monitor), I could see the cache filling up rapidly. Clearly the computer already had opinions on what I would need!

However, as I did various everyday things on my computer, I could not notice much if any speed improvement. Performance Monitor pretty much verified this: Skipped reads stayed stubbornly low compared to total reads, like 2-5%. Not much to write home about. Of course, this was the first hour or two, so if Windows had not expected me to use ReadyBoost, it might not really know what to prepare for. I should give it more time.

After I stopped actively using the computer, something happened. From time to time, there was a small blink in the laptop’s harddisk light, as there usually is when it is left to itself. I still had the Performance Monitor running, and it showed that an increasing number of the disk reads were now skipped. After a few minutes, the hard disk light was on almost constantly, and the monitor showed frenetic activity. Again, this is normal. By now, skipped reads (due to cache) were fairly close to total reads, although not quite identical. But we’re talking about 95% or so for the most part, the reverse of what I saw when I was using the machine actively. This went on and on. I don’t know what Windows does when it has the machine to itself, probably some kind of maintenance, checking and optimizing. I am sure it is some good purpose, at least as seen by Windows. And it sure knows how to use ReadyBoost.

So… first impression: Windows has no idea what I am doing, but it sure knows what Windows is doing. Everybody who already guessed this wins a big fat no-prize.

***

 

Reading up more on the topic, I found that ReadyBoost can use up to 8 flash devices of up to 32 GB each. Some say it can even read and write to multiple drives simultaneously, distributing the load across the various flash drives. If so, the limit would be the speed of the USB 3.0 controller, which should be able to handle around 6-7 drives working at full speed.

I am not quite that adventurous, at least not right away, but the next day I bought an extra USB 3 hub and a second USB 3.0 memory stick, formatted it like the first and plugged it in.

***

The graphics above show Windows having a little time to itself on the second day, after it had gotten used to having two thumb drives to play around with. It seems there is a pretty good match between disk reads and skipped reads most of the time. Which I am sure is a good thing. It is also a lot more than yesterday.

But this is Windows doing Windows things. When it comes to my actual use of the computer, there was still no noticeable difference. But this, I realized, was because the system was already fast. The Asus N56V was, as I said, a beast of a laptop when it came out 5 years ago. Total overkill. Even today, it is more than fast enough to read, write, dictate, play music or video, while sharing the latest Ubuntu Linux torrents in the background. Would I even be able to detect an improvement from 2 seconds to 1.5 seconds when opening a complex document? I needed to challenge the machine, push it closer to its limits. Luckily I knew how to do that.

Mostly out of curiosity I had installed Civilization 6 on my external hard drive. The game from October 2016 is in my Steam library, and was originally installed on the gaming machine, but after a while that machine could not longer play it. I then tried running it on the laptop, which is older and weaker, but the game hadn’t been playable there, as expected. Well, now it was. The graphics were grainy but the game started and ran just fine even with a mid-sized world. HUGE SUCCESS! It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction… ^_^

Basically what I have done is add an extra layer of slow memory / fast disk between the existing internal memory and hard disk. Adding more thumb drives not only increases the size of this layer, but also makes it faster, supposedly.

Is it useful? Not really for small everyday tasks. But it allows new things that were not practical on laptops before, like large sprawling games (Sims 3 anyone?), huge spreadsheets and databases, video recording and editing.

Swordsman online

Sceenshot from Swordsman Online

My first and so far only character in Swordsman Online has TWINTAILS!

I rather like this game, at least so far (level 25). It is distinctly Chinese, but professionally translated into English except for the voice acting. (Of which there is plenty, but there are textboxes with English translation.) Oh, and there are also the rare loading screen with classic-looking Chinese calligraphy, but overall load screens are rare.

Swordsman is based on the Wuxia literary genre, which occupies a similar niche as sword & sorcery fantasy, but arose independently from it centuries ago, and is set in an imaginary ancient China rather than medieval Europe. There is only one race, in every sense of the word: All characters are Han Chinese. There also are no starting classes: You choose your school at level 5-10, and even the more Chi (magic) based schools have a solid foundation of weapon gymnastics.

Another rare trait is seen already in character creation: Everyone is dressed decently (and prettily) at all time, men and women both. There are no bare-chested barbarians or bikini battle-babes. Flowing robes and ornate dresses carry the day.

A probably unique feature of this game is the built-in bot. From a fairly early level on, you can set up the skills you want your character to use and the ways you want them to heal, as well as the condition to stop botting. Then you let them lose in hostile territory to harass the local banditry while you go shopping. (It will only run for a few hours a day, but still.) I haven’t found a way to pick up loot though, so no Chinese gold farming. ^_^ On the contrary, it uses food and potions for healing. This feature is entirely optional and at least in the early game the fights are pretty easy if you just follow the main story line, so there is no need to grind levels. I have just done it for fun, watching my character do heroic fighting on her own.

The game is very story-driven, with interspersed story instances and whole cutscenes where your character mostly does impressive feats defeating main adversaries. These are so few though that they don’t overall break the immersion in the game except during the very first levels which are more of a tutorial. Actually, at level 25 the game still feels a bit like a tutorial, very story-driven and with a slow introduction of new features and lore. At level 25 you can learn about companions, for instance. These fulfill a similar role as “pets” in western and Korean MMORPGs.

Another feature associated with the “story-driven” part is that you can at all times let your character go to the next quest target automatically by clicking on the name of a person or area or even a class or bandit you are sent to fight. Your character will then make his or her way to the place and engage the target appropriately: Talk to a quest person, attack a bandit, or stop to let you survey an area. This saves wrist and means your real-life cartography skill is not relevant to the game. I like this. I have seen it in other Asian games too and I like it, but you can control your character’s travel yourself if you like the immersive aspect of that.

The population seems to be low, but I do see the occasional fellow player in the newbie zones, just very few. There is steady activity in the chat channel though so the game does not feel dead. Also some player actions have effects on the game world, for instance a particular quest gives you the ability to bestow a blessing on all players in an area, with your name highlighted on top of the screen. (This is for high-level players, I assume. I have only been on the receiving side so far at least.) Every area is also dominated by a guild, although I don’t know what effects this has except for the fame. I am basically soloing this far, and I like it that way when I learn a new game.

One reason why I prefer soloing now that my classmates are grandparents is that I just play less than before, and certainly less seriously. I guess I may be starting to grow up finally, but clearly I am not quite there yet!

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

Dragon Professional Individual 15

Dragon from video game Skyrim

No need to shout, the Dragon understands my Nordic dialect right away!

Over the years, I have made a habit of reviewing the various versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Lately, Nuance has stopped using the phrase NaturallySpeaking in most contexts, but it is still the same product, and it is now up to version 15.

As the software has become more expensive again, and as it is already good enough for my limited use, I have started skipping some versions. Dragon version 13 was already good enough that I did not really expect it to get any better. Impressively, Dragon version 15 is actually noticeably better right out of the box.

Dragon version 15 uses a new “deep learning” technology similar to what is used in the most successful artificial intelligence projects. Dragon has always (or at least for as long as I have used it) had the ability to improve based on feedback from the user, as well as adapt its vocabulary and writing style by reading through documents. While these options still exist, there is less focus on them now as Dragon quietly adjusts in the background during everyday use.

Dragon has also clearly had some opportunity to acquaint itself with human speech in general before shipping to the customer: The product is amazingly accurate right out of the box. Longtime readers (if any) may remember that I compared some of the early versions to homesick exchange students from other continents. That time is long gone. Dragon version 15 understands even my “Skyrim” pronunciation of English (I grew up in Norway in the 1960s, where even the English teachers has rarely if ever been to England, let alone America or Australia.)

There is one problem that has dogged this software from the start, and it still remains, even if just barely. When we speak, we don’t actually pronounce periods at the end of the sentence; rather, we slightly change the tone of our pronunciation toward the end, typically speaking less forcefully. Conversely, we don’t actually pronounce a capital character at the beginning of a sentence; instead, we pronounce the first sound slightly differently from the rest. Ideally, speech recognition software might be able to use this to take dictation without requiring us to specify punctuation. Dragon NaturallySpeaking used to have this functionality, but I gave up on it pretty quickly. What actually happens is that even when I dictate punctuation, there is a slight increase in mistakes at the very beginning and end of the sentences. This is especially true if I don’t pronounce some form of punctuation at the end of my string of words, for instance because I run out of breath during a long sentence. I have to say, however, that this problem has been almost eradicated in the latest version of Dragon.

To me, recognition accuracy is by far the most important part of any speech recognition engine. But Dragon 15 has also some other features in addition to the improved accuracy. It has better support for various modern software, and it allows voice activated macros. (I believe this feature was also in version 13, but I did not use it then and I don’t use it now. In any case, functions like “insert signature” should be part of your email software, rather than your speech recognition software.) Also, the big unnecessarily helpful sidebar with examples no longer starts up by default. It used to do, and is also used to permanently displace any windows that happened to be in its way.

As usual, I am including a paragraph where I don’t in any way correct this transcription. This is that paragraph. (It may not be obvious to the reader, but that should be “the transcription” in the first line above.) Dragon used to be available in a few languages besides English; I am pretty sure I saw touch at some point, and Japanese? I can’t find any trace of that now, but I will admit that I have not looked very carefully.

Not too bad, huh? That should of course not be “touch” in the previous paragraph, but rather Dutch, the language in the Netherlands. (It actually got it right this time without correction. Go figure.)

Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.

***

Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.

***

Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.

***

Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

MS Windows troubles

Screenshot anime Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara

This morning was absolutely crawling with chaos. It started as I turned on my home office computer, which had installed updates at 3AM and restarted itself, as it frequently does. It seems like a good idea, to install updates while you sleep. After all, you would not want to miss the latest security patches and improved functionality.

Unfortunately, the new functionality was that I could not log in. Whether I picked my usual account or the betatester account I use for testing games, there was just a brief pause and then Windows returned me to the login screen. No error message. I restarted the computer and tried again. I did various things and tried again and again. No change. I restarted in Safe Mode. Same problem. I restored Windows to last good configuration. Still the same.

I installed Ubuntu Linux, which is a pretty good alternative to Windows for most people, and free. After a little while I switched to Xubuntu (it is really just a different setup, the core is the same as Ubuntu, but Xubuntu is more similar to old Windows versions). Ubuntu is free, like most Linux versions. I use to install it on old laptops when they become too slow under Windows. This is less of a problem these days, but it was a big deal back in the days of Windows Vista.

Xubuntu is nice enough, but there were a couple problems. I had used this machine to provide Internet access to my cabled home network, which includes a Windows 10 machine for playing games, a NAS (home server) for backup and sharing files, and a small old notebook computer for uploading and downloading to and from the NAT without taking up resources on the main machines. But now I could not get Linux to share the Internet. It should be easy, really, there is a choice for it. “Shared with other computers” it says, but that actually only lasted for a minute or so, then I got a message “Disconnected from Ethernet”. (Ethernet is the cabled network, to put it simply.) I did various things and restarted numerous times to no avail.

Eventually I found an USB wireless receiver and connected this to the Windows 10 machine, then told it to share its Internet. This worked well enough, except the NAS (Network-Attached Storage) server did not show up. After changing the workgroup name by editing a configuration file, I got it to show up. But as soon as I tried to copy a file to it, it hung up and show up empty until I logged off an logged on again. This repeated itself for as long as I bothered trying.

I was kind of in a hurry to continue working on my National Novel Writing Month story. Luckily that was saved on a disk I could access from Xubuntu. I copied it to a USB drive, in case I wanted to continue writing on it on the other Windows computer (the gaming computer). I installed WINE, a program that lets you run Windows programs in Linux. I had already read a few years ago that you could run yWriter in Linux this way. (yWriter is the program I use for writing novels. It is written by a programmer and novelist and fits my working style exactly.) It did work when started with WINE, and it found my novel in progress, but the spell check did not work and it did not recognize the names and locations. I downloaded the dictionary and manually copied it to the place it should be. Now it worked except it did not recognize words when Capitalized, such as at the start of every sentence.

Somewhere around this time I decided to reinstall Windows on one of the disks. (I am keeping Xubuntu on the other.) This took the rest of the evening and will continue into the next day or two or more.

Needless to say, there was no progress on the novel this day. But then again, contrary to the slogan of National Novel Writing Month, the world does not really need my novel. Probably.

MOOC update

Screenshot anime Denki-Gai (ep 1)

I am glad I have lived this long! (Picture from Denki-Gai, which is not really recommended except for the funny screenshots.)

Try if you can to imagine what free university studies at home means to someone who, as a child, would read the phone book for scarcity of non-fiction literature.

I just finished the astrobiology course Super-Earths and Life from HarvardX (via the edX MOOC platform).

MOOC, as we have talked about before, are massive open online courses, at this time mainly university-level courses and frequently coming from some of the most prestigious universities of the world. Harvard, in this case, probably needs no further introduction, at least to readers from the western world. So that is kind of awesome. And it will be available to most of the world, thanks to the Android revolution that (according to my estimate) should start in earnest this year (with $20 – $50 Android tablets being churned out for India and other emerging markets). The $20 tablet has actually arrived just in time. Now just wait until it is in the hands of the global middle class: Those who have food security but not luxury. They are going to embrace education in a way that we cannot even imagine, we who had it stuffed down our throat since early childhood.

Be that as it may, the astrobiology course ends on Sunday. (There will no doubt be new rounds of it.) I got 97%, less than perfect but still respectable for a Harvard course I guess. My brain is still working, long may it last! But I am too old to become an astrobiologist. Not that there is detected any biology among the astra so far, but we keep looking. Because we can! Humans are kind of funny that way. Whether lifeforms on other planets think the same way is an open question.

***

I am not going to run out of MOOC just because this one course ends. I still have a couple more weeks left of Programming for Everybody (Python), from the University of Michigan, on the Coursera MOOC platform. These are the two platforms I have used so far. Generally I find Coursera easier, a bit more spoon-feeding while my edX courses have required some more work. None of them have been too bad though, except the “Science of Happiness” course that I stopped following because their anti-spiritual crusade was just too grating. With all due respect for evolution, the human race has long ago reached a point where we can no longer hide behind the “we do what we do because those of our ancestors who did so had more surviving offspring”. That is not my form of happiness. In fact, it was quite painful to watch.

Luckily programming is not haunted by that kind of bizarre left-wing flapping. I used to be a rather awesome programmer back in the day, but it came to an abrupt halt after I burned out on the debt collection software project that fed Supergirl’s father and his large family for many years. I don’t regret doing that, but perhaps I regret that I burned out on programming. It is probably too late to get back into that now, at least in the sense of seeking employment. The best I can hope for is to be able to stay employed at the place where I work now, until death or the age of 75. But you never know. The world is a strange place and we live in the strangest time that has ever been. And so, I am learning to program in Python. I am still not entirely sure what the point of that is. The language looks very strange to me, but it is not particularly hard to learn. Well, it will take quite a bit of practice to be able to code without looking up the various features, but the exercises so far have been pretty quick and easy.

So much so, in fact, that I have signed up for two more programming course: One in C# by Microsoft experts (on edX) and a longer on in Java from a university in Madrid (also on edX). Hopefully the Madrid professors will speak English, despite their names. The blurb for the course was certainly in English, so I am hoping for the best.

The C# course starts in early April, the Java course in late April. There will be some overlap, but hopefully it won’t confuse me. I believe the two languages are related, being both inspired by the C programming language.

For May, I have signed up for a more sociological course again, about superheroes in popular culture. This is definitely not career related, I think. Well, not for my day job at least. ^_^

The Dragon Upgraded

Screenshot anime YowaPeda

I feel like I can go anywhere… With Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium, you can dictate anywhere using a USB microphone, wireless microphone, smart phone or dictation device. (Even so, I don’t recommend dictating while biking!)

In the past, Dragon NaturallySpeaking has been available in several different versions, and I have always used the cheapest one, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home. It usually cost around $100, with the occasional big sale where you might buy it to at half price. As an existing customer, I could also upgrade it to the next version at half price from the start. Last time, two years ago, I also did that; I even preordered it.

This time, there was no question of pre-ordering. Either they didn’t ask me, or I missed it somehow. My first hint that there was a new version available came from a mail that offered to let me upgrade to Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 Premium for €99. A bit more, but then the Premium version has some unnecessary but nifty features. So instead of being my usual cheapskate, I went for the premium version this time. It was already available for download; there was a link in the mail to the website where I could buy it. I checked the requirements and looked for any traps, but that didn’t seem to be anything suspicious. So I bought it with credit card, and could immediately start downloading.

The installation was easy and trouble-free, although it took some time. I first downloaded a small installer program, which then downloaded the big installer program, which then unpacked to a separate folder, which then installed the program in the default location. It may sound a bit complicated, but it was mostly just pressing the “next” button, although I had to choose a directory for the temporary files. I saved them to the network drive in case I have to reinstall on this machine or another. I would also recommend using an external disk for the temporary folder if you have limited disk space, since at some point there will be three big files and folders taking up space simultaneously: The big installer, the folder with the unpacked files, and the actual installation in your Program Files folder. If you have a reasonably new computer, this would probably not be a problem.

Speaking of new and old computers, the two latest versions have each reduced the computing requirements, so that you can actually run version 13 faster on a weaker computer than version 11. Good work!

After installation, Dragon offered to upgrade existing user profiles. This took surprisingly long, even for the profile that was almost empty. Several times I wondered if it had crashed, but I didn’t need to use it immediately so I just checked in on it from time to time, and eventually completed. If you don’t have an earlier version of Dragon, each with an effort to create a new user profile instead. I believe that in this case, you will also be offered to train the program to recognize your voice and improve its accuracy. At least this happened in the earlier versions. It may be that it is so good right out of the box that they don’t bother with that now?

As far as I remember, version 12 looked very much like version 11. Version 13 has a whole new visual profile, so it is obvious at a glance that you are running the new version. The DragonBar, usually placed at the top of the screen, is now just a small button when not in use. If you move your mouse to it, it expands to become larger than it was in the previous version, and the microphone on/off button also becomes much larger. The “Learning Center” (formerly Dragon Sidebar) still takes up the margin of the screen, but it now has a black and white color scheme and also seems to have larger letters. As always, you can minimize or remove this Learning Center if you don’t want (context dependent) hints about what you can do next. Even the DragonBar itself can be minimized to the system tray, and you can access the most common functions by shortcut keys or by voice commands. But that has always been the case, I just wanted to mention it.

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the first thing I noticed when trying Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 was the leap in accuracy. I realize that I have praised its leaps in accuracy since at least version 10, but this time the difference seemed to me bigger than the official count of 15% improvement. 15% improvement does not seem a lot when the accuracy is already claimed to be about 99%. To me, it seems more like it has increased from 99% to 99.5%, which would actually be a doubling of the accuracy in the sense that there would be half as many errors. But I admit that in my case this could be because of an improvement in the handling of USB headsets.

(It is unfortunate that I cannot maintain this level of accuracy for longer texts, because my voice becomes hoarse after a few minutes. But this is an affliction that I share with very few humans. One hypothesis is that it comes from my years of almost complete silence, where I only asked a few questions at work and did not speak at all on my free time. If I take breaks and drink a little water between the paragraphs, I can continue for longer.)

The premium version contains some features not found in the home version. For instance, you can now make the program read back your own voice, not just a synthetic text to speech rendition of the text. You can also use a smartphone as a microphone, or even use recording devices and have the program transcribe them later. There is supposedly also an option to create your own voice commands, basically macros, but I haven’t tested that yet.

In conclusion, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 is awesome. You can actually speak naturally to it, and with very little training it will put your words on the screen and let you control Windows. Upgrading from version 12 seems to make a big difference for me, but your mileage may vary. Upgrading from Home to Premium is probably not a priority unless you have a USB microphone or some other unorthodox input device, but it adds some fun new features.

(As usual when writing about dictation software, I have dictated this entry in its entirety, except for a few minor corrections.)

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13

Squeeing girls from anime Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

This is how I think my readers should react when I write about Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition from Nuance. Somehow that never seems to happen. Let me try again, it’s two years since last time.

I love living in the future. And one of the more futuristic things that I have is the speech recognition software for Windows, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. (Windows also has its own built-in speech recognition, but for those who can afford it, Dragon is definitely the one hardest to distinguish from magic.)

Today I got a mail from Nuance, offering to upgrade my Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Home to Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 Premium for €99. I immediately grabbed the chance, just as I have done every time there was an upgrade for the last five years at least. Was it worth it? Well, to paraphrase a friend of mine, €99 is a lot of money if you don’t have it. This is obviously not a product for the working classes of the developing world, but for Norwegian office worker the amount is trivial, barely noticeable against the high salaries and the high prices up here. And for me at least the effect of the upgrade was dramatic.

According to their website, version 13 is 15% more accurate than version 12 right out of the box. Evidently this has either crossed some kind of threshold in my case, or there was some bug in the version 12 Home in relation to my Plantronics USB headset. The USB headset worked very poorly with the previous version on my laptop (although it had worked reasonably well on the desktop with version 11). So when I wanted to dictate, I had to take off my USB headset and put on an analog headset for the duration, and even then the accuracy was at most marginally better than in version 11. Today after the upgrade, I can use my USB headset again, and what’s more: The accuracy is more than 99%. It still makes mistakes, but less so than my fingers. (And I have been typing for almost 50 years now.)

Back when I wrote about an early version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking here in the Chaos Node, it had only entertainment value for me, although I realized it could be useful for people who could no longer use their arms at all. Some years later a newer version helped save me from disability when my job caused a serious case of repetitive strain injury. At that time it still made quite a few mistakes, but at least I could correct them with my voice. Since then it has improved even more, and I have given it pretty good reviews each time. But let me tell you something: For me, version 13 is a giant leap.

It still makes mistakes, but so few mistakes that I risk overlooking them in the middle of all the perfect text. We are talking about perhaps one error for each paragraph on the first day. The software gets used to the sound of your voice and your writing style and also learns from all the errors you correct, so it gets better the more you use it. So to pull off this level of accuracy with almost no training is impressive indeed.

For those of you who are still here instead of being busy buying it, my next entry will get into some more detail about the installation and differences from the previous version.

(As usual when writing about dictation software, I have used the program to dictate this entry, except for a couple of minor corrections.)

1988 and no time for books

Cardboard box that once contained monochrome display

This box once contained a monochrome display. Those were the days, when we had time to read books but did not know where to find them. (There are still a few books in this box, though. All non-fiction.)

Using my amazing powers of mind, I recently traveled to the year 1988, in a timeline very close to this one. OK, so it is not some supernatural power that nobody else has – it is just a combination of imagination, memory and Google. (And occasionally dice.) But it works for me.

One thing that struck me was how different 1988 was from now. On the surface of it, things were much the same. Most people had already begun to work in the post-industrial economy, for instance, and the cars did not look all that different from now. It was already common for men and women both to work outside home, and (in sometimes unrelated news) divorce was already common. All significant political parties had the same names, at least in the western world, and the borders between nations were the same as now with a few exceptions (mainly in the communist world). Ordinary people ate pizza, watched TV and occasionally had sex. It does not really look all that different.

But then there are the computers. Oh, we had computers in 1988 too. The IBM Personal Computer was launched in August 1981. I already had one at home, and we had a few at the office too, as had many other offices in the reasonably rich world. But they were not really the same thing as we have today. They were slow and primitive in every way. Their capacity was very small. The pictures on the screen were blocky and usually in monochrome, typically green and black, although by 1988 there were color monitors and color video cards (typically bought extra). They were still blocky though.

The power of computers double roughly once every one and a half year. Let’s see: 3 years = 4 times, 4.5 years = 8 times, 6 years = 16 times, 7.5 years = 32 times, 9 years = 64 times, 10.5 years = 128 times … Conveniently, this means 5 years is approximately 10 times and 10 years approximately 100 times. So the computer 25 years ago was 100*100*10 times weaker than today, overall. 100,000 times. This kind of explains why my smartphone is fantastically more powerful than all the computers of my workplace back in the day.

In 1988, we still had physical file cabinets to store the vast amount of paper required by the bureaucracy. Bored housewives were hired to store and retrieve these papers, and spent much of the day with their butt in the air because some uncharted law of the universe ensures that most of the papers always end up in the two lower drawers, no matter what sorting your choose in advance. Many of these later developed severe back pain and became disabled, although around the time the physical file cabinets disappeared and were replaced by virtual file cabinets which you can still see on your computer screen. Kids these days probably don’t know that the folder icon is actually a picture of something that once existed in the physical world.

There are still books in the physical world, but Amazon.com has for quite a while now sold more ebooks than the sum of paperbacks and hardbacks, and the proportion keeps sliding toward more e and less paper. Of course, there wasn’t an Amazon.com back then. At a time when there were no awesome computer games, no social networks and no YouTube to distract me, I still did not read thousands of interesting books, because I did not know that they existed. And even had I known, I would have had no idea how to get them. Even if I knew the publisher, chances were small that the books were imported to Norway unless they were extremely mainstream (and therefore not all that interesting to me). Although I think I discovered Piers Anthony around that time? That sounds early, but I had read him for several years when someone made a computer game based on one of his Xanth books, and the game was rather bad and mercifully forgotten by most of the world long ago.

Now, I can get almost anything from Amazon.com, and in many cases download the books instantly to my lightweight Samsung tablet. But now I have so many fun things to do that I end up not reading many books. There is never a time for books, it seems.