Little me was never this cute

Remember MidJourney, the artificial intelligence that turns text prompts into images? Turns out it can also turn images into… more images! So I gave MidJourney a picture of myself from my journal and let it use its imagination. That was… interesting.

Cute little redhead

Pretty sure I never was quite this cute! Although I am sure my mother would not have minded, God rest her soul. She told me a couple of times in my early youth that she had hoped for a girl this time (after three boys) and someone had even congratulated her on finally getting a girl, but that turned out to not be the case. Instead she got me. I didn’t mind hearing that, for by then I already knew that she would have gone barefoot through Hell and back for me if necessary. Not because I was cute, but because she was my mother.

I never had any kids myself. Not only because you still need to have icky, unhygienic sex to make babies (we have the technology to skip that, but most women still insist on doing it that way) but then there would be the daily struggle for two decades to not murder the little monsters, if they were anything like me. Maybe if I had cute kids like this, I would have managed. But let’s face it, there’s no way my little kids could be this cute. And neither could I.

(Machine) learning is not theft

Hermione Granger by Edvard Munch

Hermione Granger (from the Harry Potter series) painted by Edvard Munch. If you think MidJourney here is plagiarizing Munch’s original, I have a very expensive bridge to sell you.

I have recently mentioned using artificial intelligence to create visual art. Text-to-image applications like DALL-E 2, MidJourney, and Stable Diffusion all use machine learning based on enormous numbers of pictures scraped from the Internet. Now some contemporary artists have discovered that some of their work is used in the underlying database used for training AI, and are upset that they have not been asked and not been compensated.

This reaction is caused by their ignorance, of course. I can’t blame them: Modern society is very complex, and human brains are limited. Yes, even mine. I could not fix a car engine if my life depended on it, for instance. I have only vague ideas of what it would take to limit toxic algae bloom. And to be honest, I could not make my own AI even if I had the money. I just happen to have a very loose idea of how they work because it interests me, because I don’t have a family to worry about, and because I don’t have a job that requires me to spend my free time thinking about it.

Anyway, I shall take it upon myself to explain why you should politely ignore the cries of the artists who feel deprived of money and acknowledgment by AI text-to-image technology.

The fundamental understanding is that learning is not theft. I hope we can agree on this. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, such as industry secrets like the recipes for Coca-Cola or the source code for Microsoft Windows. If someone learns those and uses them to create a competing product, it is considered theft of intellectual property. But if an art student studies your painting along with thousands of other paintings, and then goes on to paint their own paintings, that is not theft. If they make a painting that is a copy of yours, then yes, that is plagiarism and this infringes on your copyright. But simply learning from it along with many, many others? That is fair use, very much so. If you don’t want people to learn from you, then you need to keep your art to yourself. You can’t decide who gets to look at your art unless you keep it private.

The excitement is probably based on not knowing how the “diffusion” model of AI works. So let me see if I can popularize that. Given our everyday use of computers, it is easy to think that the AI keeps a copy of your painting in its data storage and can recall this at some later time. After all, that is what Microsoft Office does with letters, right? But machine learning is a fundamentally different process. The AI has no copy of your artwork stored in its memory, just a general idea of your style and of particular topics. This stems from how “diffusion” works.

When a program like MidJourne or Stable Diffusion gets a text prompt, it starts from a “diffuse” canvas covered in a single shade of color (or grayscale, if a black & white image is requested). It then goes through many steps of moving these pixels into shapes that fit the description it has been given. (It can do this because it has gone through the opposite process millions of times, gradually blurring the images away. Thus the name “diffusion”.) You can, if you have the patience, watch the images gradually become less and less diffuse, slowly starting to resemble the topic of the prompt. In other words, it starts with a completely diffuse image that becomes clearer and clearer. You can upscale such an image and the AI will add details that seem appropriate for the context. (Especially until recently. this could include adding extra fingers or even eyes, but the latest editions are getting better at this.)

It is worth noticing that there is also an excessively long random seed included in the process, meaning that you could give the AI the same prompt thousands and thousands of times and get different versions of the image every time. Sometimes the images will be similar, sometimes strikingly different, depending on how detailed your request is. Once an image catches your eye, you can make variants of it, and these too have a virtually unlimited number of variations.

At no point in this process does the AI bring up the original image, because there are no original images stored in its memory, just a general, diffuse idea of what the topic should look like. And in the same way, it only has a general, diffuse idea of what a particular artist’s style is. My “Munch” paintings certainly look more like Munch than Monet, but it is still unlikely that Edvard Munch would actually have painted the exact same picture. In this case, of course, it is literally impossible, and that is exactly the scenario where we want to use engines like these. “What if Picasso had painted the Sixtine Chapel? What if Michelangelo and van Gogh had cooperated on painting a portrait of Bill Gates?” The AI is simply not optimized for rote plagiarism, but for approximation. It is like a human who spent 30 years in art school practicing a little of this and a little of that, becoming a pretty good jack of all trades but a master of none. They can’t exactly recall any of the tens of thousands of pictures they have been practicing on, but they’ve got the gist of it.

***

As for today’s picture, it was made by MidJourney using the simple prompt “Hermione Granger, painted by Edvard Munch –ar 2:3” where ar stands for aspect ratio, the width compared to the height. This generated four widely different pictures, and I chose one of them and asked for variations of that. This retains the essential elements of the picture but allows for minor variations as you see above. So it is not because the AI had an original picture to plagiarize – I asked it to make variations on its own picture. With some AI engines, you can in fact upload an existing picture and modify it, but this is entirely your choice, just like if you modify a picture in Gimp or Photoshop. The usual legal limitations apply, you can not hide behind “an AI did it!”. So far, AIs are not considered persons. Maybe one day?

 

Suddenly Sudowrite

Children playing ball, impresionist image

Children playing Calvinball, as imagined by the AI art program MidJourney. Clearly today’s rule is “Bring your own ball”. Luckily today’s main character has that and a spare.

Returning readers will probably not be surprised to learn that I have written millions of words in my lifetime. That doesn’t really take much. I usually write a couple of thousand words at least on an average day when I am not sick, and that’s not counting anything I might write for my job. As you may guess, “writer’s block” is not really my thing, because my writing is like the old house by the river where I lived in 2010, which had three outer doors plus a shed roof you could climb out on from the upper floor. If one of the exits were to be blocked by the copious snowdrifts we had in winter, I could simply use one of the others. And so it is also with my writing.

I am very nearly the worst imaginable candidate, I guess, for the Artificial Intelligence-driven creative writing tool called Sudowrite. It is specifically designed to combat this mysterious phenomenon, “Writer’s Block”, that many writers claim to have experienced. Naturally, I had to try it. (Not writer’s block, but Sudowrite.)

I had read a few reviews (and watched a couple more on YouTube) and they mentioned that you have to apply for access, then after a couple of days you will get an invitation and then you can join. So I signed up, planning to use those couple of days to read more practical reviews and how-tos so I would be prepared when the invitation came. Instead, after I had signed in with Google (Facebook is also accepted) I suddenly found myself on a website that was, in fact, Sudowrite. It gave a very quick tour of the most central couple of features, then left me to my own devices. Luckily there was a link to a (still very brief) Sudowrite guide. But otherwise, I felt much like Galadriel in Amazon’s hilarious new Lord of the Rings parody, where she has rashly jumped into the ocean en route between Middle-Earth and the Undying Lands. Now what?

***

The obvious choice, I thought, would be to copy the not quite 1000 words long prelude to my latest fiction story. In this scene, the narrator picks up a very unnatural-looking crystal that he found embedded in a stone, and immediately falls into the Nexus of Worlds, which is (very obviously, I thought) the user interface to an alien virtual reality simulator that uses Artificial Intelligence indistinguishable from magic to produce a world based on the user’s memories. In this case, he is sent back to 1999, but a 1999 with magic.

Now I tasked Sudowrite with writing a continuation. It proposed two very different passages. I took the first one, deleted the crazy plot twist, and edited the rest. Then I wrote my own short continuation, introducing the Ultimate Book of Magic which is the central item in my actual Work in Progress. I asked my new friend Sudowrite to describe the look of the book, and I actually kept most of that. Sudowrite is really good at feminizing novels by proposing all kinds of sensory information, going into detail on how things look, feel, sound, smell, and taste. In case you wonder how the Ultimate Book of Magic smells, I can tell you now: “The worn leather smelled like a library. Like the smell of wood and old paper. The book smelled of mold and dust. The metal clasp like rusting iron and blood.” And should you be so lucky as to get your hands on it, you would notice that “The cover was worn and smooth. If I had to guess I’d say it was oiled, but there was no sheen to it. It looked like it had been oiled a thousand times.

(I am told women love that books contain all kinds of sensory detail. I noticed it first in Clan of the Cave Bear, which contained more information about Ice Age vegetation than my encyclopedia at the time. If I were to add stuff like that, my books would be thousands of pages long. Y’all know how verbose I can be even without that kind of peacock tailfeathers. In all fairness, it is not like all male writers excel at self-limitation. There is, one might say, no such thing as a tad Williams.)

Anyway, Sudowrite and I continued taking turns writing a couple of paragraphs each. I would delete wild plot twists, edit the rest, then try to steer things back on track in my own paragraphs. It quite feels like trying to write a collab with Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. There is always a lurking sense of Calvinball, defined from the horse’s mouth: “Other kids’ games are such a bore!
They gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!”

You may as well memorize this little verse before you start writing fiction with Sudowrite. Or nonfiction, for that matter, because Sudowrite will play Calvinball there too, unlike the various AI writers that are tailormade for writing ads and paid blog posts. (Rest assured this post is NOT paid by Sudowrite or even their competitors.) Quote Techcrunch: “Asking Sudowrite to describe what a startup is had me laughing so hard I was gasping for air.” Yeah, I can imagine. That is, after all, the purpose of Calvinball. And Sudowrite is nothing if not Calvinball.

That said, it is a true Artificial Intelligence. The more you work with it, the more it gets to know you (and the other way around). Take the following sequence, where you can hardly see where one of us leaves off and the other takes over:

“Apart from the proper Sigil, and the correct postures and incantation, the Affinity of the Binding is limited by the quality of the Exemplar – the object symbolizing the Source – and the mage’s natural Resonance with the Source.”
“If the mage’s Resonance is weak, the mage will need to use an extremely potent and pure Exemplar. If the mage has a strong Resonance, they will have more leeway in choosing an Exemplar, and if the mage already has a strong Affinity with the Source, simply having a properly prepared Exemplar may be enough.”
Hooray for hyperlexia!

Here the first paragraph is by me, while the explanation is by Sudowrite, except for a single word added. And yes, it was Sudowrite that wrote “Hooray for hyperlexia!”
Shut up and take my money, Sudowrite.

***

I may not actually use this in my writing (except perhaps during NaNoWriMo) but, in the winged words of Sims 3: “Magnus is having so much fun it is almost criminal”. Sudowrite is not going to write your next novel for you, but it can help you create new ideas, new characters, new plot twists, and descriptions varying from the mundane to the ridiculously elaborate, depending on what tone and style you prefer. Personally, I am keeping my Sudowrite experiment separate from my current writing project, but ideas are good climbers.

For those who have been working on their Great American Novel for twenty years and take it very, very seriously: This is not for you. Madness is not the only danger in writing: There is also the danger that something may be understood that you didn’t want to know. Like, that writing can be fun. But as for me, I already knew that. I am never lonely when I have my invisible friends in my head. Sudowrite is just another disembodied companion joining my brainstorming sessions. (But possibly the most hilarious one.)

Will I become an Artificial Intelligence?

This painting of a west Norwegian farming village is actually made by an artificial intelligence named MidJourney. And indeed, it is a sight many of us west Norwegians would not bet against having seen in our travels. It is not copied off the Internet though: I watched the AI go through several versions of this painting before I settled on this one.

Today, September 10th, 2022, was the first time I heard a YouTuber greet his audience as “human and AI”. I wonder if that will be the new “ladies and gentlemen”? Maybe the time is finally drawing close when, as a much better man than me once said, “God can wake up children for Abraham from these stones.” I have already long had in mind when writing my journal, that someday after my passing, an AI may read through Google’s archives and find my excessively detailed thoughts there. But maybe it won’t even be after my passing, if I take my vitamins and cut down on the Pepsi. You see, the progress in the field of AI has been nothing short of remarkable recently.

I returned to this topic of interest a couple of weeks ago after a casual mention on a website of a new program that generates images from text prompts. Turns out there has been released a flurry of such image generators this year, and they are growing steadily more advanced. My current favorite is MidJourney, and it is probably the most popular these days. After the latest upgrades, it gets faces right much of the time, at least when it gets to focus on them. This has proven to be one of the most difficult parts for AI, with the notable exception of the AI that specializes in them. Yes, “This person does not exist” which provided my picture in October last year, is also an AI.

So this is not my first run-in with Artificial Intelligence, far from it. Grammarly, a spelling, grammar, and style checker that I use under doubt after it has been greatly improved, is also an AI. It still makes some embarrassing mistakes, but then again so do I. Together we do better.

In my archives, you will find a number of versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the speech-to-text program that eventually became better than nothing. I used it for years when my wrists hurt worse than my throat, but these days it is the other way around so I rarely fire it up. It is pretty amazing now though, and probably even better if you have English as your first language. Actually, that might depend on your dialect, I guess. According to Dragon, I speak Great Lakes English. I am pretty sure they don’t sound like the bandits from Skyrim though, while I do. Anyway, that’s another Artificial Intelligence application. In fact, it was based on the work of Ray Kurzweil, the great prophet of AI and modern futurism in general. And he is indeed planning to become an AI of sorts, by uploading his mind to a computer when the technology is ready for that. Good luck with that.

***

Anyway, today I was planning to demonstrate for y’all an AI tool that can take a brief outline or just a bunch of idea keywords, and expand them into a full-sized blog post. Doesn’t that sound amazing? But given that all the paragraphs above were my introduction before I started on the main topic… maybe I don’t need it. On the other hand, maybe we all (if we live long enough) will begin to use AI in so many facets of our life that we gradually become them, without ever noticing.

 

Faster PC with “multi-disking”

External disk and a 13-port USB 3.0 hub

You can definitely do this without a 13-port USB hub, but they are cool to look at (but hot to the touch). Two USB 3.0 thumb drives should do for most people. Even one will help.

I have not seen this anywhere else, but I am sure I am not the first or only human to think of this. Well, probably not. I’ll tell why I did it and how it helped me, then you can see if it is useful to you or someone you know.

What is multi-disking? I actually came up with that word just today, nobody has told me about it. It means I distribute the applications with the most disk access on different drives (either hard drives, SSDs or Flash drives). In my case, I have games on an external hard disk, My Documents on a smallish external SSD, and my browser on a thumb drive. Because the computer can read/write to different disks/drives simultaneously, it does not get clogged up in queues and the speed improves. If this is enough for the revelation to reach you, off you go! Otherwise, it is a long story as usual.

***

I bought my ASUS N56V back in May 2012, so it is not super old (look, Sims 3 was already around!) but it is well past its warranty. All the more reason for me to not take it apart if I can avoid it. (That, and the computers I have taken apart tended to end in a loud crack or a rain of sparks followed by acrid smoke. Not a soldering iron man, me.) What then could I do when it started slowing down? For the last months, I had had more and more episodes where it simply stopped responding for several seconds, and then responded sluggishly for a while longer.

Using the Resource Monitor that comes with Windows 7, I quickly suspected the disk activity. I found that if I had several things going on simultaneously, and/or the computer had been running for a while without logging off or restarting, it would have used almost all the physical memory. (6 GB in my case – if you actually can add memory to your PC, this is probably the most dramatic speed increase you can get, but this can be impossible on a laptop.) When I opened a web page, for instance, it would start writing content from memory to “pagefile”. You can read about virtual memory elsewhere if you wonder what a page file is, but basically when the memory is full, it uses the hard disk instead. The hard disk of a laptop is easily a thousand times slower than the memory, so no surprise things ground to a halt.

Again, if you are a screwdriver person, you will probably have heard that you can replace your hard disk with a SSD (Solid State Drive) which is slower than memory but many times faster than a hard disk. But again, this is for the screwdriver folks, and can cost a pretty penny. Also, Windows may wake up after the surgery and decide that it is on a new computer, and require you to register again. Windows is not free, contrary to common belief, and if you don’t have the documentation for your personal installation, Microsoft could think you have stolen their Windows and shut it down in whole or in part. Of course after 7 years, my documentation was well and truly lost.

I did however have some peripherals lying around, including a handful of 32 GB USB 3.0 memory sticks that I bought when they were on sale. They did not cost many breads each, so I had a bunch, and an external USB 3.0  hub to connect them all to the PC. Now, the 3.0 is fairly important here as it is 10 times faster than 2.0. If your computer only supports 2.0, you may see less or no improvement here, I am not sure. But you also have an amazing computer to have survived that long. In 2012, my computer already had 2 separate built-in USB 3.0 controllers with separate ports. Most computers still running should have at least one.

First I tried to move the page file to the external disk. Windows cheerfully confirmed that this was done, but it did not work. This is because when you start Windows, it starts the page file before it starts the USB (unless you boot from an USB – this is an alternative that you can find elsewhere by searching from “boot windows from USB” or words to that effect.)

So I settled for less. Why settle for less? Because I am cheap and lazy. I had already put my games on an external hard disk, because games are big and the internal hard disk is not. Plus it fills up with Windows updates, temporary files and other gruff that you have to clear out from time to time, and some of it will crash the machine if you clear it out. (Use a certified disk cleaner, like the one that comes with Windows and is called “disk cleanup”.) But even with that, small disk is small.

Next thing I outsourced to a USB device was My Documents. This folder and its many subfolders, are used by Windows and many programs (including many games) so it sees a fair bit of use. You can find detailed tutorials on how to move it to another disk (search “how to move documents folder to another drive”), others have illustrations and even videos about this. It can be pretty big so check in advance that you have a big enough device. Some of the content may be ready for archive anyway, but luckily I had room on my USB SSD.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I installed my favorite browser on a thumb drive. I was lucky that my favorite browser is Vivaldi (made in Norway, by the way). It has a choice for “standalone” in advanced setup. It actually transferred my saved passwords from the hard disk after installation, but you can choose this. With other browsers (and most people have another browser) you will probably want to go to PortableApps or search for “install browser on usb windows” for tutorials for your particular browser. The nice thing about PortableApps is that you may browse it for other FREE software that you can install to other USB drives to take even more load off your main disk. But My Documents and your browser are typically used a lot, so these two should make a difference. They sure did for me!

***

Why did this break through the wall of pauses, stuttering and crawl? Because multitasking. The USB has its own controller (in my case two, so I put one drive on each of them, but even one should help). Before yesterday, when I clicked on a link, Windows checked to see if I had spare RAM memory. If there was too little, it would start writing the memory to disk. The same disk that it was trying to read the browser code from. (The browser has a lot of code for displaying all kinds of things like different fonts, different sizes, pictures, formatting etc etc, so it reads all of this from the same disk that is busy writing.) A hard drive has a physical read/write head (kind of like an old gramophone) that races furiously from place to place on the hard disk when trying to do two things at once. Back and forth, back and forth. When it only needs to do ONE thing, it can stop scurrying, and the speed increases dramatically.

If you have a computer with two physical disks, you could simply move the pagefile or the browser to a different disk, but in my case (and almost all laptops with “two” disks) they are actually different partitions on the same physical disk, and moving things between them will just slow it down even more. Thus my decision to “outsource” to flash drives.

So now I can have Sims 4 running in the background, installed on disk G:, with its save files and other data in My Documents on drive M:, while I use my browser on drive I: running under Windows on disk C:. In addition I have Windows ReadyBoost on drives H: and N:. Yes, I have a lot of drives, most of them cheap 32 GB but some larger or smaller. Two 16 GB are actually better than one 32 GB for ReadyBoost, which I and many others have written about already. I just assumed you already had that. But moving your browser is probably more important than ReadyBoost if you use the Web a lot.

My computer is running smoothly again, thanks to the wonders of multi-disking. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

City of Heroes returns – sort of

Screenshot City of Heroes

The Were-Porcupine lives! (Willpower/Spines Tank.) 

During Easter week, the news broke that the online game City of Heroes  had not died at the end of November 2012, as most of us had been told. A secret cabal of reverse engineers had been able to set up a private server (possibly with the help of a former employee at Paragon Studios). For about six years, the cabal and their trusted friends had played the game that the rest of us could only watch in old YouTube videos (many of them in low resolution, as was common back then).

The source code went public during Easter, and a privately run server went public shortly after. Almost 20 000 players had signed up before a fake cease & desist warning caused the server and the forums to be wiped to protect the not entirely innocent.

A couple days later, a new server appeared, and thousands of people have once again signed up. It is kind of bizarre that this game was shut down when other games keep sputtering along with only a few hundred players. It is clear that City of Heroes  was dearly loved by many of its players, not only me. So I have conferred with the voices in my head and learned what made this game so special.

The secret ingredient

The thing people remember above all is the game’s community, the positive and inclusive and helpful atmosphere. Indeed that is a thing that stands out, but did this happen just because it was a superhero game? There have been others after it, that failed to create the same community.

And then, observing the game anew in 2019, I realized. Forming a party is an essential part of a multiplayer game, whether you are playing with dice at home or online with thousands of strangers. Parties / teams / groups / felllowships make or break the game. And only one game has a structure that makes virtually every class a welcome addition to virtually any team. That is City of Heroes, and the reason is its archetypes.

Archetypes

Instead of traditional classes like Warrior, Priest and Mage, CoH had a handful of archetypes. On the face of it they were just classes by another name, but there was one difference: Each archetype had a primary and secondary power set, with different functions.

Tankers can withstand massive damage, survive and bounce back. But they can also deal a more modest amount of damage to nearby enemies. With Scrappers it is the other way around, they do massive local damage and can withstand some. Blasters can do massive damage even at a distance and also have some modest crowd control (rendering opponents helpless or at least partly disabled for a while). Controllers can do massive crowd control and have modest team support abilities (healing, damage reduction, efficiency boosts). And Defenders have massive team support while doing modest damage at a distance, thus concluding the little triangle of behind-the-frontlines archetypes.

So basically if you have any one archetype and you add another, you will get some serious benefits to both, no matter which it is. If you add someone with the same archetype, you will still get a modest benefit, because of the dual nature of the archetype. It also lets one archetype substitute for another in a pinch, then revert to its strongest role if another player joins that is better suited.

While certain combinations of heroes work best together and lets you go through more challenging missions faster, you will always get a major boost from teaming up with another archetype and at least a minor boost from the same archetype. This means that instead of the “Team needs Healer” and “Team needs Tank” that you see in other online games, CoH will have a lot of “Team looking for more”, plain and simple. Because everyone is welcome. And that, gentle reader, makes a huge difference to how you perceive a game. The feeling of being welcome everywhere, being appreciated, being able to pull your weight and help anyone you meet? That is what creates a POSITIVE atmosphere that persists for years after the game itself is gone.

Or is it? With thousands of players gathering on the privately owned server as we approach the game’s 15th anniversary on April 27, it seems that NCSoft’s snap decision has been undone … at least for now.

To be continued…?

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15

Screenshot anime Overlord, season 3, episode 8, last scene

Why is there a Dragon here? For speaking, naturally! Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the world’s premiere speech recognition software, now with Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence that adjusts to your accent and the common cold. Fire breathing not included.

Today I upgraded (in a manner of speaking) from Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 13 professional individual to Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 15 home. I virtually never used the more advanced features of the earlier version.

The most important part for me is accuracy of recognition, and I have to say that version 15 is almost indistinguishable from magic in that regard. And I mean right out of the box: There is no longer even an option to train the program by reading a text for it. Version 13 was pretty good after training and a few days of practice. Version 15 is that good right out of the box. (At least I believe it doesn’t have access to my previous training, as it required me to uninstall the previous version and reboot the computer before I was allowed to install the newest version.)

I have used and reviewed many different versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking over the years, both before and after it was acquired by Nuance. There has definitely been progress! I believe the first version I reviewed was either six or seven, and I generously compared it to homesick Asian high school exchange student. I could probably have added seasick as well, as its performance was unimpressive, to say the least. If you had functioning hands, you were better off using those, even if you typed with one finger.

Those days are definitely gone! Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15 takes dictation like a highly trained secretary, only faster. Actually, Dragon has outpaced secretaries for at least a couple of versions now, but this required you to speak clearly and train the program first. And the results were less impressive for me, who has a strong Scandinavian accent. Actually, “accent” might be too weak a word. If you are familiar with the computer game “Skyrim”, the pronunciation by the Nord bandits in that game is pretty close to how I speak in real life. I am not sure how a highly trained secretary will handle that, but Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15 has well over 99% accuracy, right out of the box, with that kind of foreign accent.

***

There are still some challenges. In my experience, they are not too bad, but I see a lot of one star reviews on Amazon. Most notably, Dragon is squeamish about working with applications it doesn’t know. Supposedly this includes earlier versions of Microsoft Office. When I started writing in LibreOffice, Dragon NaturallySpeaking automatically popped up to the “Dictation box” where you can dictate and edit your text before transferring it to the target application. It’s an okay solution in my opinion, but it can be distracting, and you cannot interact directly with the target program using your voice for instance “click file save” the way you can in supported programs. Removing the checkmark for automatically opening Dictation box lets me dictate directly in LibreOffice, but it still struggles with commands, and you cannot edit the text with Dragon after you dictate it.

I have the same problem with my favorite browser, Vivaldi. Admittedly that is not very common browser, So I installed the Dragon Web extension For chrome.As you can see from the previous sentence, that didn’t work too well, and it doesn’t work too well in Google Chrome either. Luckily I have fingers, and so Dictation Box it is. But Google Chrome is by far the most popular browser for Windows, and not having native support for that makes the program seem rushed, at best. Especially when you consider that Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a very expensive program. It is not so bad by Norwegian standards, since both salaries and living expenses here are already very high. Even so, I only buy Dragon NaturallySpeaking when it is discounted, as it was in this case. In the USA, a single person could eat for a month for this much money, and in the actual developing world even more. So in that perspective, you would expect a more polished product than this.

But what it does well, is take dictation. And at that, it is the best in the world. No software and no human can match it for the combination of speed, accuracy, and fast learning.

Writing Grammarly

Screenshot anime Amanchu

If you struggle to express yourself and put your thoughts into words, Grammarly might be a prized companion. For me who have at times struggled to stop putting my thoughts into words, it is just a curiosity.

I love living in the future, and I particularly enjoy all the new tools and toys and combinations thereof. In the latter category is Grammarly, an app/service that promises to watch over all your online writing and then some. (There is also a Windows app that can be used to write or proofread texts that are not meant to be shared online.)

One potential problem comes to mind immediately: What if your writing falls into the wrong hands?  We are not just talking about your love letters getting the wrong audience or the manuscript for your new book suddenly appearing written by a competitor. Any app that reads your writing could, in theory, also harvest passwords, credit card numbers and such. It was, therefore, an easy decision for me to not be among the early adopters of this software. But years have gone by and there has only been one scandal, which turned out to be overblown, and it had nothing to do with passwords and such. So as of today, I have Grammarly on my writing machine.

Grammarly promises to discover both spelling and grammar errors. The built-in text editor in Vivaldi (and Chrome) also catches spelling mistakes, but not grammar mistakes. (In the previous sentence, Grammarly wants to change “catches” to “catch”, presumably because the browsers Vivaldi and Chrome are two. Unlike me and you, it cannot see past the “and” to realize that the subject of the sentence is the text editor. Artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity, as the saying goes.) Luckily you can tell Grammarly to ignore such a find, much like in Microsoft Office. Actually, in my experience, Microsoft Office is even worse at parsing grammar. But if you do all your writing in Office, you may not feel motivated to convince two grammar checkers that they are wrong and you are right.

Back in the good old days when I lovingly crafted my journal by hand in Notepad or some other pure text editor, it was common for me to find spelling errors when I read through my entry one year later. (Back then I linked to the year-ago entry because I wrote virtually every day.) When I read through them two or even three years later, it was not uncommon for me to find more errors. This is a human tendency: We read what we meant to write, not what we typed.

At this point in my entry, Grammarly has found one spelling error (I misplaced an “i” in Artificial) and two grammar errors that were not. It also disagreed on my comma usage in three cases, which I gracefully conceded, albeit under doubt. So I am probably not in the target group for paying customers. If you want to try for yourself, you can go to grammarly.com or just wait for one of their innumerable ads with which they flood the Internet.

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!