Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Computer Voice Recognition: Not so great

In an article titled Whatever Happened to Voice Recognition? (read it here, Jeff Atwood, a developer I greatly admire, declares the death of Voice Recognition. The problem seems to be that for ten years or more, the accuracy of word recognition has remained at a miserable 80%. An article by Robert Forstner, The Death of Peas, explains the problem in entertaining detail. The code that chooses words has not changed much since the 1950’s, and that code base makes guesses based on probability. Yet humans (not quite including me, I’m afraid) hear words with an accuracy of 98%.

Despite the low accuracy rate, I’m still interested in VR. I tried the 9th version of Dragon Naturally Speaking, and I intend to try the 11th version. The reason is that, even with 80% accuracy, VR is good for writers: for dictating a first draft, and for cleaning up a draft.

I abandoned Dragon-9 for a number of reasons that, cumulatively, made it not quite useful enough. One of these reasons was that I have been typing drafts for over forty years, and I’m not used to dictating. But when I dictate my thoughts, the results can be terrific, and I’d like to force myself to try again.

The final straw for me, in Dragon-9, was that sometimes it mistranslated an entire sentence. It would get almost every single word wrong. (This is not so surprising, by the way; a few wrong words suggest a wrong context, and that implies more wrong interpretations.) Dragon-9 was a bit slow on my laptop, and I would be on to the next sentence before the mistranslation appeared on my screen. Later, when I went through my dictation, I would look at these entirely wrong sentences and wonder, what in the world was I trying to say?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Before we add technology to Futball:

I am one with the hundreds of millions who believe that the World Cup Soccer tournament should have had the necessary technology to allow that obvious British goal against Germany, the one the referees amazingly missed. But before we get to the technology angle, let’s pay attention to the greater problem: there were not enough officials on the field.

The Refs (or whatever they call them in Soccer) were too far from the goal to get a good look. There are only a few officials in a soccer game, and the ball can move fast, so there’s always a risk that the action will move to a goal faster than the officials can get there. In general, the sport can’t afford to have five refs for every game, with two of them perpetually hovering at the goals. But this was a World Cup game!

In baseball, there’s always an ump to handle a close call at home, because an umpire stays there almost all the time. In American football, extra referees are added for the playoffs, to make the officiating more accurate. What is this FIFA thinking? They make a ton of money out of this cup. They could spend a little of it on two extra refs per game.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Britta Cap Falls Off:

I’m sure I’m not the first person to complain about one aspect of the otherwise excellent Britta Water pitchers: The cap easily falls off. When pouring, and when filling, you can get into trouble if you stop thinking about the cap. Our Atlantis pitcher has a long top, and a second flap that is near the handle. You can see this arrangement here.

I’m guessing, but I think that this second flap is responsible for the trouble. Without it, the cap could be redesigned to be more stable when severely tipped. I never use that second flap. When I need to refill the pitcher, I take the entire top off. Why doesn’t everybody? Why did Britta insist on that second opening in the cap?

I’m writing this blog entry because I just realized the obvious: The existence of that flap, and my disregard of it, says a lot about the value of a Britta pitcher, and hints what I think of it: When I take the entire top off to refill the pitcher, it becomes physically possible (and very unlikely) that I will accidentally pour some water directly into the bowels of the pitcher. Those drops would have bypassed the filter, and people could actually drink them! Heaven protect us from such a tragedy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Sansa Clip, and

Two weeks ago, I blogged about buying a Sansa Clip, mentioning that it works well with Podcasts. Now, I would like to say a few nice things about the company I bought it from, Buying the item I wanted was tricky, because it is old news, out of manufacture and hard to find. BuyDig listed the black Sansa Clip plus, so I ordered it.

I got a call from a support person there, telling me that it was no longer in stock. He said they had one left that was pink, would I want it? I decided that I did. I’m a guy, but this device is so small, who will notice the pink? I won’t care if they do. And in fact, the bright color makes it easier to find the little fella when I mislay it at home.

I downloaded the manual for the Sansa Clip Plus, and quickly noticed that what I had bought was a different product. In fact, it was the Sansa Clip, not the “Plus”. (After talking to support people at BuyDig, I’m convinced this was an honest mistake, the result of their desire to help me and fill my order.) If you read reviews and comparisons of these products, you’ll see why I ordered the Plus, and why the Plus sells for more money. But I had already started to use my new Clip, and I realized that the Clip was going to be just fine for my needs; I was not interested in beginning yet another hunt for some company that had the Plus in stock.

I called BuyDig and talked to a manager there. I pointed out that I had paid for a Clip Plus and received a Clip. This manager wanted me to be a happy customer, and we worked something out. I will be happy to do business with them again.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Clever Raspberries:

The birds are not eating our raspberries. The berries ripen to a luscious purple, and they stay on the vines. Perhaps I should not be frustrated at how hard they are to pick. They are there for me, because the plant hides its berries so well. I have to turn over leaves and stalks, peer up from below, approach the plants from every direction, to glimpse the ripest berries. It’s quite annoying, really, but I do get to eat the delicious things, because the plants, unlike, say, a blueberry bush, know how to guard their wealth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sansa Clip: Good support for Podcasts, with Bookmarks:

I’m listening to podcasts with a newly purchased mp3 player, the Sansa Clip. The sound is better than the larger Zen player I used to use, and the bookmarking is excellent; you do not have to take any explicit action to mark your place in a podcast. The Clip just remembers your place, for (apparently) an enormous number of podcasts.

If you acquire a Clip or Clip+, the first thing you must do is go to the Sansa website and download the current firmware. If you look at the “data folders” in the Clip memory before you do this, you will see a folder for music but none for podcasting. After you upgrade your firmware (follow instructions, it’s easy), you will see more folders, including a Podcast folder. Copy your podcasts there, and you’re in business.

BACKGROUND: I wrote this blog item because it was so hard for me to find a player that was good for podcasting. I hope that other people who want podcast players will find this blog item! (If the Apple situation has not changed, Apple iPlayers bookmark files you download via iTunes, but not mp3 files that you acquire otherwise.) Some people have been kind enough to post info about which players are good for podcasts, but such webpages are YEARS out of date. The manufacturers of mp3 players do not boast that any of their products are good for podcasts, as far as I know. And info from reviews is scarce.

I found out about the Clip by rummaging in the Sansa forums, where you can find posts in 2008 and 2009 about problems with the improved firmware support for podcasts. You might want to rummage there yourself before hunting for a Clip. Sansa, for all I know, is including similar bookmarking firmware in their more recent products. You may be able to find this out from their forums, or by downloading their manuals, all of which are online.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Big X:

Several colleges are about to switch sports conferences. Possibly the most interesting move will be Nebraska to the Big Ten. Or possibly, the big news will be a mass defection of schools into the Pac 10.

I don’t understand what’s going on, what the motivations are, or why the results will matter. But I do care about the names. Suppose two schools switch from the Big 12 to the Big 10. Will the conferences have to swap names? “Big Ten” has great press and great recognition; might they keep their name even if it becomes meaningless? Might the Pac Ten become the Pac Twice Ten?”

I have a suggestion for these conferences. Change to some numerically-neutral names like “Red Indians,” “Scalpers,” or “Braves.”

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Offsite Backup: Way off.

Occasionally – I’m too embarrassed to say how occasionally – I make a complete backup of all the computers in our home and store a copy offsite. The probabilities governing offsite backup fascinate me. It’s not very important if the offsite copy gets lost or damaged, because it’s very unlikely I’ll ever need it. I just want to guard against a disaster that might destroy a computer and not affect the offsite copy as well. I can give the copy to a neighbor who lives a hundred yards away. (New Jersey rarely experiences tornadoes, flash floods, or giant forest fires, so a disaster that affects my home is unlikely to affect my nearby neighbor.)

Recently, I made such a backup. I packaged it nicely in a little cardboard box, and arranged to store it at a friend’s house. I put the copy in the trunk of my car, and that week, well, we never quite got together. The following week, my friend and I hardly saw each other at all, and when we did, I didn’t remember the backup. I wasn’t worried. A disaster could strike our house: robbery, fire (oh let’s not mention these things!) and leave my car unscathed.

The next week, my car went to the body shop for repairs. I figured that was great. My offsite copy (encrypted, by the way) was now six miles away from home, and likely to be very safe.

My car returned from the shop looking brand new. I forgot all about the backup.

Last weekend, we went to a wedding in Maryland. I cleared out the trunk to make room for luggage, tossing some old scraps, empty boxes and dirty cloths. It wasn’t till this afternoon that it hit me: I had thrown away the box containing the backup.

Replacing the backup wouldn’t be that hard, but it would be a time-waster, a small cost, a nuisance, and proof once again that I am one spacey person. I thought hard: where was the backup?

It was still in my garage, in a trash can scheduled to go out to the garbage truck next morning. I recovered the backup. It’s now in my neighbor’s home, where it belongs.