Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 – part 2

“If you don’t listen to everything, you won’t understand anything.” When dictating, speak in statements, or at least phrases. Don’t stop randomly, for instance between “the” and noun.

I have now had the new version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking for a couple days. With my throat condition, that probably corresponds to a couple hours for those of you who talk a lot. I intend to use Dragon to dictate this entry, but I I will still need to make corrections. Perhaps you won’t, if you are a native English speaker without too much accent or dialect.

I am impressed by how quickly  Dragon has adapted to my voice.  It certainly happened much faster than with any earlier version. In all fairness, I also have more experience with Dragon now. For instance, as I mentioned in my previous entry,  I have made sure to perform training at different times of the day and at the beginning and end of a “speech”.

(I actually dictated the previous paragraph without making any corrections, but that’s not the rule for longer paragraphs yet.)


A problem with browsers: I haven’t heard about this from anyone else, but I have found Dragon to operate erratically in text entry fields in browsers. This could be a serious drawback, considering how much time we spend on the Internet these days, both at home and in the office. At first I thought the problem was only with Opera, which is my browser of choice. This program is not explicitly supported by Dragon, and in version 11 the text field where I write my journal was marked as unrecognized. While I could try to dictate there, the result was usually pretty bad. In version 12, Dragon alternates between “unknown text field” and “normal mode”. If I dictate while in normal mode, it seems to work well enough. If it is in unknown mode, I can usually just wait and it will switch to normal mode  after a few seconds. Even so, the hotkeys don’t work, and corrections  frequently mess up the text a little. So for longer texts,  I tend to use the DragonPad and just paste the result into the browser.

Unfortunately, I have similar problems in Internet Explorer when using Google+. Again, this may be a problem with that particular application – even typing can sometimes be sluggish in Google+ – but there are tens of millions of people who use that application frequently. Then again, it might be just me. Since I am one of the first to actually buy the product, there aren’t much in the way of reviews for me to compare with.

Is this a big deal? After a few days, you would probably not need to make corrections every time you post. A more serious problem might be if parts of the text are missing because you dictated while it was in “unknown field” mode. Again, this could be peculiar to my computer – there certainly doesn’t seem to be any problems in the demonstrations on YouTube. (Then again, they use neither Opera nor Google plus.)


 I haven’t had any problems with other programs. Dragon works beautifully with yWriter, the program I use when writing fiction. It seems to work fine with all kinds of notepads, whether plaintext or rich text. The commands for opening programs, switching between programs or clicking on buttons work as expected. And the on-screen help which came with version 11 makes it unnecessary to memorize the handbook with its dozens and dozens of commands. I am sure there are a number of features that I am never going to use, but better that than the other way around. And in version 12 you can even turn off features at a very detailed level if you’re afraid of activating them by mistake or if you simply need more speed.

You guys, I really feel like I can’t get across how smart this program is. When I first tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking approximately a decade ago, I compared it to a drunk and homesick high school exchange student. I compared version 11 to a native English speaker with a college education. But version 12… It is like a professional secretary with a genius IQ. Oh, it still has problems now and then, but it has only spent a couple hours with me, and there are several sounds in English that Scandinavians of my generation simply cannot pronounce. I am not sure any of my English-speaking readers would be able to understand me that well after listening to me for a couple hours.

Because I have spent decades mostly in silence, I cannot dictate a long entry like this without taking breaks. My voice simply dries up. If not for this physical handicap, I would be sorely tempted to do exactly what Nuance proposes in its slogan: “Stop typing, start talking.” It really is that impressive.

The Dragon has landed!


Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 became ready for download today for us  existing Dragon users who had pre-ordered. I’ll come back to the installation shortly.

For those who do not know, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a voice input program for the Windows computer, and the leader in this category. It takes dictation but also allows you to open programs, search the web, compose mail and edit existing texts without using your hands. As such, it solves an acute problem for those who don’t have hands or can’t use them. For us who have hands, it is most useful for dictation. It is fast and, with a little practice, amazingly accurate. The new version claims a 20% increase in accuracy, putting it well above 99% accuracy with 15 minutes of training. In practice, it takes longer, but the program keeps learning the more you use it. When you see an experienced user work with Dragon 11.5 (the previous version) it is “indistinguishable from magic”.

Installation:  The download link from Nuance arrived by email before I woke up in the morning. A separate mail also contained link to the training video. While I am personally a fan of reading, the training video will surely be welcome by dyslexic users, another core customer group. (The program can also read text out loud, even text you have not dictated.)

The download process proceeds in several steps. You first download a tiny download manager program. It does not really matter much where you save this, it is very small. This program must be run to start the main download. The main download is a compressed file, but still close to 3 gigabytes. This must again be unpacked to a larger set of files before the actual installation. During the unpacking process, both the compressed file and the unpacked file take up space simultaneously, and that’s before the actual install into the Program Files directory. This program is not recommended for people with small disks!

It is recommended that you back up the compressed file so that you can install from this if your computer suddenly crashes or if you simply decide to buy a new at some point.

The download went without glitches, but the install itself caused me some trouble. A ways into the installation, the program warned me that several processes had to be closed down before it could continue. Three of these were unknown to me, and did not appear with the given names in Windows Task Manager. I had to break off the installation and reboot the computer, then run the install again. The install did not automatically resume, and if I had not taken note of where the unpacked file was saved, I would have had to restart from the compressed file. I would recommend you reboot your PC before you start downloading, and not start any unnecessary programs until after the install is complete.

After installation, the software offers to let you register the product online. There is also an online activation which is necessary to continue using the program. The registration and the activation are unrelated tasks.

As a user of version 11, I had my existing program removed automatically and my user account upgraded to the new version. This takes some time even on a fast computer. New users will be led through creating an account instead, and the system checks the quality of your microphone input before asking you to read a text to attune the program to your voice and reading rhythm. You can skip this step and train the program by correcting mistakes if you want. New users also get an offer to let the program read through their email and documents to adapt to their vocabulary. This is a separate task from adapting to your voice. Again, you can skip this and just train the program through use, if you are impatient, but there will be more errors during your first few days of use if so.

Accuracy training: Since Dragon was complaining about my microphone, I bought another, an analog headset to replace the digital USB headset. I established a new user account and started over from scratch with the new hardware. This microphone passes Dragon’s test with flying colors, but the new account doesn’t have any of the accumulated experience with my speaking. Newsflash: It certainly wasn’t useful right out of the box!

My experience is probably not typical, since I am a foreigner to the English language and also have a chronic problem with my vocal cords – my voice grows “rusty” many times faster than a normal human – but I think we should still consider this. After all, most people aren’t native English speakers, or if they are, they have dialects or accents. And your voice does change with use even if more slowly than mine. And my experience is that it takes several hours for a new user before Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 becomes truly useful. So don’t buy this program an hour before you need it. Set aside a couple days at least to become good friends with it before you start working together.

Not only does your voice change after you have used it for a while, but it is also slightly different from morning to evening. So it may be a good idea to do some reading training at different times, to help the computer get familiar with your voice. It is not necessary to read all the way through the exercises, you can click finish at any time. Also, try to make sure that you read the exercises in the same way that you speak to the computer when you dictate. For my part, I have found that I have a tendency to speak faster and in longer stretches when I read something, compared to when I dictate my own thoughts. For some reason I also tend to read louder – perhaps a habit from my school days? We used to be required to read aloud in class.

Features: The previous version mostly improved the user interface, introducing context-sensitive help in the form of the “Dragon Sidebar”. It also expanded support for more programs, and the engine was made more efficient. Version 12 has very few changes in the user interface; it supposedly includes 100 new features, but I don’t expect to need more than a few of them. Most of the development this time seems to have concentrated on the technical: In addition to the improved accuracy, the program also runs much faster, especially on new computers where it now takes advantage of multicore processors and extra memory. Additionally, even the home version can now take advantage of mobile phones as microphones: If you have an iPhone or an Android smartphone and it’s on the same Wi-Fi network as your computer, you can dictate to your smartphone and have the text appear on your computer screen!

One feature I thought was included in the home version, but which evidently isn’t, is playback of your own dictation. On the other hand, the program includes an excellent synthetic voice which can read what you have dictated (or any other normal text). This will begin to come in handy when the accuracy approaches 100%. Dragon doesn’t make typos; when it makes a mistake, it writes valid words, usually words that make sense  next to each other, but not the words you intended to say. We who have been typing for decades, will naturally look for typos when we proofread our text. It is all too easy for us to overlook that a wrong word has been used, such as “is” instead of “isn’t”. But chances are we catch it when we hear it out loud!

That’s all for this time, but I hope to be back with glowing praise when the accuracy approaches 100%. ^_^


Dragon 12 is coming!

Nuance Communications will once again show you the great power of science! Be happy, you!

And by Dragon, I mean Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the speech recognition software that not only takes dictation but lets you control pretty much any aspect of your personal computer. Well, as long as you use the most common software, at least. It lets you say things like “Search the web for Princess Bride” (which will, in all likelihood, be interpreted by any nearby humans as “Search the web for Russian brides”) and your favorite search engine will appear in your favorite browser with the requested information, at the speed of thought. Well, unless you have the newest computer like I have, it may be at the speed of very slow thought, but I never said otherwise, did I? ^_^

Dragon 12 is not actually out yet, it won’t be ready for download until August 9, but I have already pre-ordered it at half price as an existing customer. (And in Euro, even, which is already ridiculously cheap compared to my native currency, the Norwegian krone.) I would not take the chance of forgetting to order it while it is still cheap. Although it does not feel as I am going to forget it in less than two weeks, I probably will. The power of Now is strong in this one. Or it may be the first shadow of Alzheimer’s, the two are hard to tell apart.

In the meantime, I have Dragon 11, which is also pretty good. But while people who work at BBC may get 99% accuracy out of it, that is not the case for a foreigner to the English language such as I. So the 20% increased accuracy of Dragon 12 could be helpful. Other reviews of Dragon 11 indicate that the accuracy is more like 96% right out of the box and 98% a couple weeks later, improving rather slowly after that. Still not bad. I mean, 50 words is like a modest paragraph. Only getting one error in a paragraph is pretty good. If version 12 can improve on that with 20%, so much the better.

Of course, the errors you get with speech recognition are different from the classic typo. Typos usually consist of transposing two characters, or getting a character too much or too little. Speech recognition errors tend to replace one word or phrase with another, and with today’s highly advanced artificial intelligence, the replacement phrase will probably be grammatically correct. Mine likes to swap “they” for “I”, and is also particularly fond of the phrase “naked English speaker” (which I am not – I am not even a native English speaker).

By coincidence (if such a thing exists), I recently gave in and installed my version 11 on the portable computer. (I still don’t know when I’m going to fix the big desktop – probably not until the summer heat is over.) It works surprisingly well, considering that I no longer run it from a SSD. Hopefully the new version will be able to continue to use whatever data accumulates in the meantime. (Remember, the program gets better and better the more you use it.)

And hopefully I will still be around in August so I can give you an actual review of Dragon 12. Or you may want to buy it yourself. I don’t know how well it fares if children are screaming in the background, though.

Cute hiragana practice game

Darugo’s Hiragana Practice.

There are three versions of this game: One on the web (for free), one without sound for Android phones and tablets (also free), and one with sound also for Android (cheap). I have downloaded and tested the free version for Android. So far it works flawlessly on my Samsung Galaxy Note, which is something in between a phone and a tablet. I can imagine it being hard to draw on a small phone or a bigger tablet, but on large phones and the Note it works quite well.

The game lets you choose any of the hiragana (Japanese letters that stand for a syllable instead of a letter, such as “ha” or “chi”. Some syllables are just one letter, namely vowels and the letter “n”.) Once you have chosen one such letter, the program demonstrates how to draw it. Each letter is drawn in a particular sequence. Even if you make the final result look just right, it is supposedly considered a severe breach of etiquette to draw the parts in the wrong order. With calligraphy, an educated person can see this at a glance, so children are drilled to get it right.

After the demonstration, you get to trace the letter with your finger (or a pen, in the case of Galaxy Note) as long as you want. The program shows your lines in a different color than the outline of the letter, so you can see whether they match. You erase it between each time. When you feel confident enough to draw it, you get a blank page to draw it on. Well, more like a grid, but without letters. The program then checks that it falls within acceptable bounds. You can repeat this as well.

There is also an example word for each sign, with a cute childlike drawing. This is presented as the “backside of the card” so you don’t look at it while you are drawing. If you have the paid version of the app, you can hear the word spoken by a real Japanese girl. Or so it is said. I would not know. With there still being millions of Japanese girls, it does not seem impossible to get one to speak a few dozen words.

And this, dear reader, is where things get weird. This is a super cute app, and eminently suited for children in both its presentation and its basic task. It seems extremely child-friendly. But outside of Japan there are probably very few children who feel the need to draw hiragana, or even read them. Which makes me wonder if the app – or at least the one with sound – is aimed at some kind of pervert who gets ticklish all over at the sight of severely underage kids dancing and waving and saying cute things in genuine Japanese. There are rumored to be weirdos like that. Well, I suppose this is one of the more harmless things you can do if you have this mind defect. As long as it does not cause you to capture real Japanese girls and force them to draw hiragana. (Not counting school teachers, who are paid to do this.)

More about speech recognition

Pretending to think intelligently!

 That’s right! I just need to pretend to think intelligently! Just like speech recognition – it just pretends. And sometimes it slips badly.

It is true that I wrote yesterday’s entry with Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition, except for a few words. What I didn’t mention was all the corrections I made. When I say that the software has the capabilities of a young adult, this is partly praise for the software but also partly reflects my cynicism of the human race. Humans lose concentration, get distracted and make typographical errors; computers do not. Instead, computers completely lack the ability to understand what is said, so will without hesitation write the most insane things if that’s what your speech most sounds like.

I am sure most of my readers will get much better results from Dragon NaturallySpeaking (or other speech recognition) than I do. My Norwegian accent is quite noticeable, and my large vocabulary mostly comes from reading. There are, to put it bluntly, a number of words I use regularly which I can’t say for sure that I have ever heard spoken. English is my third language, and back in the 1970s even my English teachers did not actually speak English like a native. Well, they spoke it like a native Norwegian! Almost the only actual English I heard while growing up was pop songs. Perhaps as a result of this, I can sometimes reduce the error rate of my dictation by singing difficult passages. (I am however reluctant to do this if the neighbors upstairs can hear me…)

Another difference from most of you is that my voice gets hoarse* after only a couple paragraphs. (*And yes, Dragon of course wrote “horse” there originally.) I simply speak so little that my body can’t take the strain of speaking out loud for more than a couple minutes without a long break. This means I can only take a few phone calls each day at work, but it also means that dictating an entry for my journal takes much longer than typing it. Although I can actually speak more softly to my computer than I can to the customers, another bonus point for speech recognition over humans. But for most of you, this problem does not exist. Almost every human I have met seems able to talk continually for hours… ^_^

Finally, there’s the question of training. If you speak clearly and without too much accent, the software works OK right out of the box. But the more you use it, the more reliable it becomes. This was quite noticeable with version 9, which I used extensively. At that time, I had serious problems with my wrists. For this reason I found myself using speech recognition even though it was less than perfect (and less perfect than now, for certain.) After weeks of use, it actually started to get used to my pronunciation and my choice of words. I am sure the same would happen with version 10 and 11, but in the meantime my wrists have become much better, when my throat has become worse. (In fact, Nuance Communications claims that it’s learning abilities have been significantly improved. In my very limited experience, this seems to be true.)

So when you see the many YouTube videos of people using Dragon NaturallySpeaking quickly and perfectly, you should take into account that they have probably spent weeks training the system, in addition to having an almost perfect pronunciation. Even then, I would guess that some of those videos are not the first try, or perhaps even the second.

But under those conditions, the software is indeed able to take dictation faster and more reliably than the vast majority of human beings. Let’s face it: Even with an error or two or three, you would not be able to transcribe that fast unless you’re a highly trained professional.

I have dictated this entry as well, and with two space heaters humming loudly in the background. That we try to dictate this paragraph without making any corrections, just to show you the difference. My throat is starting to get sore, but on the other hand this to fairly long entries have given the software the charms to get better used to my pronunciation and vocabulary. As you can see, it still makes a number of mistakes. But at least it doesn’t make typos. Back when I included links to my year ago entries, I would lead to throw then after a year and almost without exception find several typos in them. Then the next year I would read through them again, I still find a couple typos. It is really hard to read what I have actually written, not what I intended to write.

Of course, this is true with speech recognition as well. And it can get even more creative with its arrows than typos. <– – Error included as proof. If you are dictating a business proposal, you should definitely either let it rest overnight and read it again in the morning, or let someone else read through it before you send it. Then again, that’s probably a good rule anyway.



Unrecognized life of speech recognition

I will show you the great power of SCIENCE!

I’ll show you the great power of science! (By dictating this entry in Dragon NaturallySpeaking.)

Robert Fortner has an article called “Rest in Peas: The Unrecognized Death of Speech Recognition“, which unfortunately has gained some attention. Unfortunately, because even though it may be factually correct, it is highly misleading. There is a graph early in the article, where the reader’s attention is still fresh, showing that the error rate in speech recognition reached a minimum in 2001. Presumably this is correct according to some kind of research. But then he follows up later in the article with repeated mention of a specific product, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This projects the impression, at least unless you read very carefully, that the accuracy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking has not improved since 2001. This is exactly the opposite of the truth.

As it happens, 2001 was about the time I first tested Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which was then in version 5. I was not impressed. In fact, I compared it to a drunk and homesick Asian high school exchange student. Unless your body was seriously damaged, this software had little more than entertainment value, was my conclusion. While you could probably not type faster with your feet, I think it might have been a close race.

I skipped version 6 and tried again at version 7. It had improved, but had still mostly entertainment value to me. It continued to improve with version 8, at the end of 2004. Then in version 9, in 2006, it actually became useful even to me who has a noticeable Norwegian accent. The improvement up to version 10, in 2008, was less dramatic. Even so, it was with this version of the program (at least to me) crossed the “uncanny valley” and became comparable to talking to a fellow human. Version 11 did not change the speech recognition engine, as far as I know. It was mainly an interface and usability update, and in my opinion it does not deserve a new version number, but should have been called 10.6 or some such. So it does indeed seem that the accuracy of speech recognition has reached a limit – but in 2008 rather than 2001.

Meanwhile, Microsoft keeps improving its own speech recognition which is inherent in its Windows operating system. It is still lagging behind Dragon, but the distance is less than it used to be. It is not impossible but Microsoft may overtake Nuance, if Nuance can’t make their speech recognition engine more accurate than it is today.

But even today, speech recognition is far from dead. It doesn’t actually understand what you say, but it is able to take dictation with the best of them and use your computer hands-free (demo on YouTube). That’s pretty impressive for something that’s supposed to be pushing up daisies, don’t you think?


Google+ +1

Privacy issues is the most cited reason why people move from Facebook to Google+.  Me, I’ll probably be both places until all my friends are on Google+.

As a long-time fan of Google (I wrote about them when they were just a research project), I applied for my Google+ account about a day after the news broke. I got a couple invites from early adopters, including one old friend now working at Google, but it still took until yesterday late afternoon before I got in. Ironically, I first got through on my mobile phone.

If none of this makes sense, “Google+” is the name of Google’s new social network. Google actually had a couple of these before, Orkut being popular in some non-English-speaking countries, and Buzz being popular mostly with rabid Google fans and the extremely social. (Needless to say, I was on, but  squarely in the first category, so it was mainly used as en echo of my Twitter and Blogger accounts.) I would never join a social network whose name reminded me of workout.

Google+ has been so hyped in media lately, I really expect you all to have heard about it.  The question asked in mainstream media is: “Is Google+ the Facebook killer?”

I don’t think it is a Facebook killer, simply because  Facebook has ruled the roost for so long, it has picked up virtually all the people who don’t really care, and just joined because everyone was there already. They are not going to leave unless Google buys Farmville.  So Facebook will probably continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

The question nobody asks yet is: “Is Facebook the Google+ killer?”  The answer to this is clear: It is not. Only Google can be the Google+ killer, and with the current popularity they would get a lot of badwill if they shut it down. If they commit some atrocious privacy blunder, like reversing the visibility of entries or something, they may yet lose. Otherwise not.

Google+ is simply superior. It caters to the people who actually care, the people who join a social network to stay in touch with people they actually know (or, in some cases, wish they knew). In Google+, you don’t have just a gray mass of friends all being created equal. You have circles of friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, alumni, in-laws, ex-laws, and people you met during your vacation. Well, actually only the first three of these were predefined, but you can create a new circle simply by giving it a name and dropping someone into it.

Whenever you post something, Google+ has a line under the post showing which circles you are posting to at the moment. If some of these are not on Google+ yet, it also offers to mail them your update instead. If you see some circles that you would not want to read your post, you just x them out. If a circle is missing, you add it. There is of course also an option to post it to all your circles simultaneously. Or for the more bold, extended circles, which is the circles of your circles. In other words, friends of friends. Or you could pull out all stops and make it public, so that anyone in the world who googles for your name may at some point in time find it. Kind of like I have done here since 1998, you know. I’m still alive, but then again I have not insulted the Prophet (peace be upon him) and have no intention to start now.

In addition to total control of who sees your post in the first place, you can also regulate who gets to repost it on Google+. Obviously you cannot stop people from using cut and paste, but in that case the trace ends with them, and it is up to them to prove they didn’t just make it up (or photoshop it, in more extreme cases). Or so say the wise: I have not tested or even looked for this feature. It is not really made for someone whose white boxers have been on the Internet for years.

If you go in the other direction, extreme attention-seeking, you can also add a notify request. Normally people are only notified when you add them, but you may want to have Google send them a notify mail if you have to break an appointment, for instance, or if someone in your family dies, I guess.

Google+ comes with two types of chat, three if you count the mobile “huddle”. One is an ordinary text chat, which I am not sure whether now also supports video. Quite possibly, but I only have video camera on my job machine, and it is extremely secret.

The other type is a group video “hangout”, in which a person starts a video chat alone and Google+ broadcasts to whatever circles he allows that he is hanging out. Up to ten people can stop by and chat at the same time, like a video conference.  (Not sure how common those are in the first world, here in the zeroth world they have become pretty ordinary.) They can also watch YouTube together. Hey, I know some Happy Science promotional YouTube clips if you insist. Seriously, I don’t see myself ever using Hangout. It sounds about as much fun as Hangnails.

The mobile client is currently only for Android, but the iPhone client is supposedly waiting for Apple to allow it on their market.  The Android client has a clean, simple interface (as has the web version, of course; it is Google.) It has two features of its own: Huddle, and direct photo upload.

Huddle is another type of group chat. It has been compared to group texting, but seems to use the Internet rather than the SMS protocol so presumably is free if you are in a wifi zone or have a flat rate plan. I haven’t tested. It is probably less useful than the marketing implies, unless it somehow has the power to make your friends’ mobile phones ring. Or people get into the habit of staring at their Google+ mobile application when they don’t do anything else. Seeing how I always do something else, I am probably not in the target group.

Direct photo upload is probably the easiest to misunderstand, but luckily it is actually better than it sounds. When in the Photo part of the mobile app, you can watch your own and your friends’ photo albums, but there is a small camera icon at the top. Using it brings up a standard mobile camera screen (I suppose all smartphones have camera these days) and you just snap a picture as usual. But instead of saving on your phone’s SD card, it uploads it to a private photo album in the Google cloud of servers. From there, it is up to you to share it with your friends or just look at it at night before going to sleep. Whatever. It is like a huge memory card in the sky, basically, which you can access from wherever you can sign in to Google+.

Google+ also has a news stream, Sparks, which brings up the latest on whatever topics you have marked as your interest. (For instance Meditation,  Kindle books.) It is really just a persistent Google search which you don’t need to retype every day. The reason why it is grouped with the social software is probably that you can share it with your circles easily. Or perhaps Google just likes to search for things.

What is conspicuously missing yet is simpleminded games, but comments in the code imply that games can be added easily. I wonder if it will be possible to turn off incoming game requests. Possibly, since this is something people hate about Facebook.  I don’t notice it much, since very few of my friends are of the type that play Facebook games. But I understand some people get reams of purely game-related message on their FB page.

Anyway, it is pretty much as expected. I like it. +1

A lamentation or three

Toward the Light…

Today I finally got around to installing Wimp, the extremely legal music streaming service from Norway, on a Linux computer. I had it on my smartphone, but the interface is like an old aunt’s attic where just one look makes you decide to search for something later, if at all. The PC interface is better, mainly by virtue of having more space for the clutter.

And then I found that my only playlist on Wimp was now empty. All music by Knut Avenstroup Haugen was gone, without a trace and without a goodbye.

Knut Avenstroup Haugen is a Norwegian composer, in fact he lived for a while in Kristiansand, the city where I work. He is of the classical (non-crazy) school, making actual music rather than the sound of factory machines or kitchen utensils. And he made the sound track for the online game Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. The game is too evil for me to play in this late stretch of my life, although it certainly showcased the power of the personal computer for gaming. Some of the songs however are in a class of their own. Or at least they are to me.  Three of the songs from the Cimmeria part of the game are lamentations, similar to the classical lamentations once popular in church music, but more direct, more raw, closer to the barbarian dirge which they represent in the game.

Now I probably differ from every one of my readers in my love for a good lamentation. There are few things that can so certainly perk me up if I feel a bit below the top. In all fairness, I used to be immune to sadness for many years and even now rarely feels its touch, even after having recovered it through the mystery of meditation. So this may work entirely opposite in people given to depression. In fact, I suspect it would. But for me, a good lamentation fills me with the joy of beauty. And these are my favorites: ‘Ere The World Crumbles‘, Ascending Cimmeria, and especially Memories of Cimmeria.

They were gone, just like that. Now that is lamentable. I notice that they are also gone from one of the two parent companies of Wimp.no, Platekompaniet. So there seems to be some disagreement, perhaps, between the composer (or the artists, or the publisher) and this particular music chain.

The thought struck me, of course, that maybe Haugen had converted to the One True Faith and retracted all his worldly music. This is the kind of thinking that is never really far from my mind, I guess. Although I have yet to retract all of my worldly entries from my journal.

But the fact that I am right now playing his music on the Swedish competitor, Spotify, kind of goes against the conversion theory.  So I have sent a mail to Wimp and asked for an explanation. Being that they are Norwegian (and labor is extremely expensive in Norway compared to the less successful nations, such as yours) I don’t really expect an answer. Consequently, I don’t really expect to continue to subscribe to Wimp beyond the last month I have already paid for.


Now, a few more words about lamentations. As I said, they may be a bit unnerving for the depressed, and I certainly don’t recommend them for the suicidal, for the precise reason that I love them:  To me, the essential beauty of the lamentation is that it lifts the soul toward Heaven. This was presumably why the genre was originally conceived. The primordial dirge may have been just the senseless keening of the bereaved, but it probably evolved even at the dawn of history – if not before – into a religious function.

After all, by the faith of the earlier ages, at the time of death the soul was evicted from the body, but rarely had much idea of what to do next, nor was it usually motivated to move on. People tended to die young, and often senselessly or brutally, in the midst of their attachment to the material world. Their immaterial part, the soul or spirit or shade or whatever people thought it was, therefore was thought to hang around for at least a while after their demise.

This is where the advanced dirge / early lamentation comes in. As the confused and frustrated soul attends its own wake, probably trying in vain to communicate with its family, the ceremonial singers (and instrument players, if available) begins performing this hair-raisingly beautiful song. The soul is touched by its beauty, and lifted on the power of the music and the implicit prayer, it begins to forget the trivial attachments of the world and rise toward the Light. This, then, is the function of the lamentation: To lift the spirits of all who participate, accompanying the soul of the deceased for a ways on its journey toward the blessed afterlife, whatever that might be in that particular culture.

Or perhaps that’s just me. I am not exactly your average human, I guess even when it comes to music…


A Dragon reborn

One Dragon in hand is better than pain in two wrists.

From my LiveJournal:

Today I received my copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11, the newest and best in speech recognition software. I use the home edition, which is theoretically priced at $99 at Amazon, but can frequently be bought at a lower price (especially after the first few weeks). The new version is said to be 15% more accurate, but you are not likely to recognize this right away since version 10 was already 99% accurate (for native English speakers).

If you are one of those people who habitually speak, this program is like science fiction. I can dictate text, of course. But I can also say “start OpenOffice”, and the Dragon will start OpenOffice (which is now supported in the same way as Microsoft Office). Or I can say “list all windows” and the Dragon we give me a list of all the open program windows and let me select one of them. Or I can say “switch to Opera”, “switch to OpenOffice”, or “search the web for cats and dogs living together” and Dragon will do just that. (Except it just thought I said “search the bed for cats and dogs living together”, which is still beyond its capabilities, I am happy to say.)

Unfortunately, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is not designed to run on Linux. While some people have got it to run under WINE, it needs to be restarted frequently, and of course it cannot execute operating system commands.

This is one impressive piece of software, and it gets better the more you use it. You can also allow it to rummage through your documents so it can get a better idea of the things you habitually write. You can also train it by reading texts that are prepared for that purpose, but this is not strictly necessary. It works decently right out of the box, and quickly learns from its mistakes when corrected (unlike some people!)

I already wrote a bit about it when I ordered it. My impression now is much the same, but slightly better. As you can see from my LiveJournal entry, I had some fun with giving commands to Windows. I know some of these where available also in the previous version, but there was no easy way to remember what was possible without thumbing through the manual. Now there is the “Dragon Sidebar” which presents a list of the most common commands right there on your screen.

Unfortunately, this sidebar has a bug: After I closed it, the icons on my desktop were moved out of its way. I have a row of icons on the left edge of my screen, where they are out of my way. That is also where I docked the Dragon Sidebar. It’s default position is on the right, and it is possible that it works as intended if you keep it there. Perhaps they simply never tested the other positions?

Another quality-of-life improvement is the ability to work with more programs than before. Well, actually it worked with a lot of programs already, but only to a limited extent. Mostly it only has full functionality in Microsoft Office and its own dictation box / DragonPad (basically a copy of WordPad). In other programs it had limited functionality: You might not be able to select text you had already written, it might not automatically capitalize the word after a period or exclamation point, or corrections might truncate the text. At least those where the errors I encountered most often.

These problems still exist, but not in as many programs as before. Dragon 11 supports OpenOffice and Google Docs, two popular free alternatives to Microsoft Office. It also has better support for other browsers than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, although it still has some problems with Google Chrome. (I am writing this in Google Chrome, for some reason. I usually have both Opera and Chrome open at the same time but pointing to different websites.)

Well, that’s enough for tonight. I can only speak a limited number of words in one evening, after all. Besides, I’m not used to thinking with my mouth, so it is slower than typing. And I still have to correct a mistake or two in almost every sentence. This version is said to be better at learning from its mistakes than ever before. If the same could be said of me, however, I would already be in bed now!

Ordered Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11

You think computers strain your eyes, you should see what they can do to wrists. Or vocal cords… Unless you use Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software from Nuance.

Amazon.com has helpfully informed me in several mails over the last couple of weeks: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11 is coming! This may not be exciting news to you, but perhaps it ought to be. Among technologies available to the public, this is one of those that come closest to science fiction. Basically, you dictate to the computer or even give its orders by voice instead of keyboard and mouse.

For me, there is a more personal reason also. Back when my wrist hurt so much that I had to seriously consider whether I could continue working, Dragon NaturallySpeaking was one of the things that saved my health and my job. Possibly the most important thing, although more physical exercise also helped turn the tide.

Ironically, starting around that time I began to experience problems with my vocal cords. After many years of mostly silence, and a gradual change in lung function, I can no longer speak as much as I want. Luckily, the latest versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking are able to take dictation even when I speak quite softly, more softly than I can do at work. In a manner of speaking, speaking to my computer is now better than speaking to a human.

The reviews I have read all agree that NaturallySpeaking 11 does not quite deserve its number: It is more like 10.5, there is nothing really revolutionary. The user interface has supposedly been improved, both visually and with new voice commands that are more intuitive to use. Accuracy is supposedly improved by 15%, and the program learns faster, both from the corrections you make and from ordinary use as it gets familiar with your vocabulary. This sounds like a good idea: version 10 has an unfortunate tendency to write “naked” instead of “native”, and sometimes also “breasts” in stead of “breath”. I like to think that would go away if it became familiar with my vocabulary!

There is also another practical reason why I would want the new version. The old one only works on one of my computers, the one that broke down in November and that I repaired again in February. The new version also works on 64 bits operating systems, including Vista and Windows 7. This should cover my needs for the next few years, if any, regardless of what happens to my old Windows XP computer.

This entry was dictated with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, so it isn’t all that bad. I hope to give you my personal experience with the new program sometime next month. In the meantime, you might want to save up money if you are interested and don’t live in Norway where even common people have plenty of money. And not only they, but even I. Or at least I can afford $100 to have my computer understand me better than a human…