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Are You Talking to Yourself or To Your Computer?

18 October 2011

When Passive Guy practiced law the first time, he became a widely-recognized expert on the use of computers in a law office.

This statement requires a little context. As a group, lawyers are extremely intelligent. However, when personal computers came into the law office in the 1980’s, we learned that, as a group, lawyers who grew up without computers really hated using computers and were not very good at doing so.

So, PG was like the smartest kid in the remedial class.

The one thing computer-impaired lawyers wanted to do more than any other was to talk to their computers. Very few lawyers learned how to type when they were in school. But they all knew how to talk.

PG understands that very few people learn how to type in school today, but spending hours and hours playing around on computers lets people pick up some typing skills. Nobody sat down at a typewriter and played for hours and hours other than professional writers or journalists, so most people who learned how to type fast were students whose mothers forced them to take a typing class in school. (Thanks, Mom.)

During that era, virtually all attorneys dictated a great deal of the written material they produced. They knew that secretaries (that term was still used back then) would turn what they said into letters, briefs and other lovely things. Why couldn’t a computer accomplish the same task? Everyone had watched Star Trek and knew you should be able to talk to computers.

Since PG wrote regular columns and newsletters about legal technology, he regularly received all sorts of free software and hardware from companies who thought lawyers were rich and wanted a piece of the action. Periodically, the latest voice-recognition software would show up in PG’s office.

Understanding the fervent desire of keyboard-deficient lawyers to talk to their computers, PG would always give it a try. After training the software to recognize his particular voice and accent, a process that sometimes took an hour, PG would talk to his computer. After about 30 minutes, PG always decided, unless you were paralyzed from the neck down, voice-recognition was a disaster.

Other than a cheap price, PG doesn’t know what made him purchase the latest version of the Dragon NaturallySpeaking (formerly Dragon Dictate) voice-recognition software program. Maybe he was subconsciously in a Star Trek frame of mind.

Imagine his surprise when the voice-recognition training took about 5 minutes and was optional. Imagine his surprise when the words that he spoke appeared on the screen almost all the time.

Finally, after all the lawyers who couldn’t type died off, a voice-recognition system that actually works had appeared.

So far, PG has found voice-recognition helpful in responding to comments on The Passive Voice, dictating long letters or contract analyses for his clients, creating blog posts and e-mails.

Although PG uses three computer monitors (one for each eye), he sometimes finds it easier to shuffle contract pages that are covered with his inscrutable notes, circles and arrows than he does to look at the same documents on the computer screen.

Sometimes, PG finds it more relaxing to slouch in his chair or walk around rather than hunch over the keyboard.

To be fair, the system is not perfect and if PG is having one of those days when he feels misunderstood, the voice-recognition system will reinforce that emotion.

However, at least for PG, it is a system which is less trouble than it is worth. Finally.

So far, PG has not tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking for book-length documents because he hasn’t completed any lately, but he thinks this will probably be useful. He has found it time-efficient to read excerpts from books into his computer as an alternative to scanning and running an OCR process on them. He hopes this will not lead to rampant plagiarism when he does start writing books again.

His writing style is different when he dictates, however. He is more . . . talkative and finds himself removing a bit more of his first draft than when he creates at the keyboard.

This blog entry is part one of a two-part series on using dictation software to write (and was written with Dragon, but edited mostly by hand). The second part will show up 30 minutes after this one, and is written by Karen Ranney, a novelist who has been using dictation systems to write her books for quite a long time. PG believes you will find Karen’s experience informative. She seems to crank out a lot of words when she talks to her computer.

One important tip if you decide to try Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which may be the only useful stand-alone voice-recognition system still around — you need a good microphone. PG has tried cheap microphones and found they completely destroy the utility of the software system. Go to http://support.nuance.com/compatibility/default.asp and buy one of the microphones that have a high rating. 

Karen’s favorite microphone for dictation is a Plantronics DSP400 Headset which PG also owns and formerly used for dictation. PG’s current favorite is a Plantronic Calisto Headset, which he likes because there is no cable.

One additional benefit to purchasing a high-quality microphone is that it provides great audio quality for Skype or other computer-based video or phone conversations. PG’s wireless microphone also works well with his cell phone.

The least-expensive current version of the Dragon product is Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home – Version 11. If you want to use a separate voice recorder like Karen sometimes does, you will need to buy the more expensive Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 11.

Purchasing Hints: Dragon NaturallySpeaking regularly goes on sale. One strategy to consider is to purchase the Home version, install it and then wait to see if you are offered a cheap upgrade to the Premium version. PG bought his wireless microphone in a nicely-priced bundle that included an upgrade from the Home version to the Premium version.

One final story: A few days ago, PG was working on a document using voice-recognition. His work was interrupted by a business telephone call from a chatty Hollywood agent and PG thought he turned off his microphone before he put it down on the desk.

He was wrong. After he finished his phone call, he discovered all sorts of interesting things had happened with his document. Various parts of his phone conversation were sprinkled here and there and every word in the entire document was capitalized.

You have been warned. Turn off your microphone. Don’t be like PG. (If you are like PG, you will come to bless Microsoft for including a robust multi-step undo function in Word.)

PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Writing Tools

13 Comments to “Are You Talking to Yourself or To Your Computer?”

  1. I just saw a commercial for the Dragon a few weeks back and wondered if it was a worthwhile product. It makes sense to be certain to invest in a high quality microphone, since anything less would be just as bad as being a hunt and peck typist.

    Great story about leaving the software runnying during your phone call! Too funny! I use Google Voice for making phone calls and it will attempt to interpret my voicemail into text that’s then emailed to me. It’s become pretty entertaining to read what the voice recognition comes up with. Fortunately, it’s free.

    • Andrea – You do need to be ready to climb a learning curve to use Dragon. It’s much smaller than it used to be, but it’s still there. As Karen indicates, you have to say the punctuation like “Open Quote”,”Close Quote”, “Open Parenthesis” and “Close Parenthesis”, “Comma”, etc.

  2. Saying the punctuation is pretty easy to get used to, but I do have trouble shutting up when I say something I didn’t mean to say. “PERIOD uh no I mean COMMA errr maybe a PERIOD is better…” It all gets dictated, and I’m not always able to gracefully backtrack.

    Am I remembering wrong? I thought my Dragon software came with a microphone headset. Maybe not. I’m not sure what kind I have, but it works well.

    • Patricia – Some of the old versions of the software came with a headset, but for cost reasons, the included headset wasn’t very good.

      Sometimes Dragon will offer specials that include a separate, good-quality headset, but I don’t think the boxes automatically have a headset in them any more.

      • I purchased the Home version 11 based on your blog post, and yes, it came with a headset. 🙂

        Have a different, better one on order, but it won’t be here until tomorrow.

  3. I used Dragon to dictate notes at work about a decade ago, with an experience nearly identical to PG’s. I can recall stopping my dictation, entering Teaching mode, saying the same word more and more emphatically, imagining this would help Dragon to learn. With each repetition, Dragon’s guessing got worse, not better. It was like speaking English loudly, with a French accent, to someone who understands only French. (Think Steve Martin.) When I tried Dragon again in 2009 I found it had improved dramatically.
    To use Dragon effectively you must understand how the program works. It’s not so good at recognizing single words. It applies its computing power to guessing a word based on context: on the other words around it. Dragon may be only 90 per cent sure of any single word. But as the speaker continues, and the words pile up, Dragon looks at the word string and firms up its choices on this basis. That’s why it types a few seconds behind the spoken word. Dragon teaches itself not just the individual speaker’s voice qualities, but which words he/she likes to place in which context. This is the source of its power.
    The take home lesson is this: to make Dragon smarter, don’t stop and repeat words (at least not very often). Keep talking.

    • That’s a good point, Barron.

      Our automatic response is often to speak more slowly if we don’t think the program is understanding us.

      Accuracy goes way up if you speak rapidly and in more complete sentences. You still have to be a little careful about slurring your words, however.

  4. I’ve used dictation as a means of writing for over 20 years. I started out using microcassette recorders and transcribing the dictation myself. I’ve written the entire first draft of a 100,000 word book while commuting in the car.

    I’ve used Dragon products with several different Sony digital recorders. I highly recommend, based on my experience, that if you’re going to use a handheld digital recorder, you use one designed for dictation. Two that come to mind are the Olympus DS 5000 and Philips 9600 models. Currently I’m using the Olympus DS 5000.

    The great advantage of using digital hand-held recorders designed for dictation, is that they operate with a thumb switch, and not with separate record, play, and pause buttons like the Sony models do.

    The thumb switch allows you to do things like, slide up to record, slide down to stop, slide down further to play back or slide further down to rewind. I highly recommend them. Thanks to both Passive Guy and Karen Ranney for the postings on dictation and writing. And yes, I dictated these comments.

    • RE – You are correct about little things like the ergonomics of a recorder playing a big role in overall efficiency.

  5. I used Dragon to write, but it took me longer than typing with 2.5 fingers. The sound of my voice interfered with my inner thoughts. I had to stop and think, then dictate. Maybe I’ll start again in the future. And the microphone that came with the software wasn’t bad.

    • DG – For me, the more I used the program in version 11, the easier it became to use. I started off with material that was not terribly difficult or complex. Replying to comments on this blog is one example. Once I reached some degree of proficiency with short items, I moved into longer and more complex documents.

      Now I find it relatively easy to use Dragon for legal documents or lengthy letters. I do have to proofread more thoroughly than I do with documents I have typed.

  6. I don’t understand how or why you’d use a hand-held recorder with Dragon. How do you then get the dictation into a Word file?

    PG, I checked Amazon. There’s a version of Dragon sold with a headset/microphone. That’s probably what I bought. I was surprised to see the price range for their various offerings, some quite a bit more than I paid. Maybe I don’t have the same program you have, but I do like what I have.

    • Thanks for the info, Patricia. I did a quick check on Amazon myself for included microphones, but only dug into the top result. Although I haven’t done side-by-side comparisons, my experience with top-ranked microphones is much better than I ever had with freebee microphones.

      On pricing, my experience is that Dragon frequently does sales, particularly when they’re getting ready for an upgrade and their upgrades for existing users can be cheap. If you search for coupon codes, you may find some reasonable deals. With the usual buyer beware caveats, you can also sometimes find unopened packages offered on eBay or Craigslist.

      My experience with upgrades has been that my current voice files are preserved, which is, of course, a giant plus for accuracy.

      Karen has more hands-on experience with a hand-held recorder than I do, so she can provide more detail. However, the basic way it works is that you dictate into a digital recorder (I assume Dragon-style dictation works best), then when you’re back at your computer, you connect the recorder or pull out the memory card and upload the sound file into your computer.

      Once the file is on your computer, you point Dragon at the file and it treats the recorded sound of your voice the same way it would if you were saying the same words in real time. Depending on how good you are at Dragon-speak, you’d have some clean-up to do on the resulting text because, using the recorder, you have no option to do real-time correction the way you do on your computer.

      As mentioned, Karen can give you more real-world experience. Additionally, the last time I checked, you needed the Professional version of Dragon to use a pre-recorded sound file. The Home version doesn’t have the capability.

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