Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I see firewood

I take lots of walks with my dog. After the initial block, Lafayette doesn't struggle so much. He realizes that resistance is futile and so, I sense, he starts to relax and enjoy it.

Often, during these walks, and especially at this time of year we pass the remnants of garden work. Occasionally it's just the small pile of leaves that has been raked into the gutter but often, it's a goodly collection of twigs, branches, and even small, wooden logs.

Some people pass these collections of organic material and dismiss them as unsightly rubbish, or at best somebody else's problem. I see firewood. Whether it's to burn in a fire place, or an outdoor fire I see this flammable material as energy to bring me joy and in some cases roasted marshmallows. I don't hold it against these other people that they don't see firewood, in our current moments of life I may require firewood to either keep my home warm or heat my person and so it's of some interest to me. My neighbors probably just want it removed.

The metaphor doesn't escape me either.

I think the whole social media craze is apropos to this as well. Some people see firewood and some people see rubbish. I'm not sure what I see: I have a Facebook account and I have a Twitter account. I've had a LinkIn account for about five years now. Some people look at these tools and dismiss them as time wasting nonsense that reduces productivity and changes us from efficient worker drones into imbeciles constantly checking our e-mail and updating their status in Mafia wars. Other people have turned these tools into useful work related devices which allow their companies to either support their customers better or to get additional information about what they're doing wrong.

I believe most of us are somewhere in the middle; utilizing some of these tools for benefit but realizing that time can easily be wasted frittering away time playing Facebook games. sometimes I feel that there is a small minority out there that has figured out these tools and has efficiently integrated them into their business lives. They're making the most of the time they have in a single day; they've discovered how to utilize the hoot suites and tweak decks so as not to tempted to play Farkle. The education needed to change into one of these mythical beings is out there and it's not too difficult to acquire. I'm on that path now and I'm hoping it doesn't take too long.

Lately, I've tried to change my outlook on other people's projects. I'm much more likely to say yes when asked to devote some free time and effort to a project on which I would have passed, previously. The reason that I've been doing this is that I think I may have been walking away from some projects before I really understood them well enough to make an informed decision. I've decided that spending a few hours here and there might be time well spent and would, at the very least, introduce me to some people who I would not have met otherwise. Although my goal is not to get additional employment, some more consulting work would not go by unappreciated. Although I've not made any additional money from my new mental mindset, I've had some unsolicited requests for consulting quotes and I'm willing to chalk them up to this new technique.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Review of Dragon Naturally Speaking 10

A review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking by Nuance

It's easy to be amazed by voice recognition that is even reasonably accurate. It brings us humans one small step closer to being the master over our computer slave. To have the machine perform even the basic tasks that we need performed by using a voice command can be simultaneously frightening and astounding. Visions of Colossus, the Forbin Project might just be right around the corner and voice recognition brings us one step closer to the corner.

This is all a prelude to my review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10.

I purchased an earlier version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking many years ago, installed it on my Windows machine, quickly grew tired of its inaccuracies although I was still somewhat amazed that it could perform at all. The newer, faster computers can put to rest many of the power issues the previous computers had. I purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 on sale from for about $30 including shipping and have been playing with it for the last month or so.

The accuracy of the software is amazing especially considering the low entry price. My initial intent wasn't to review this product. It was to turn a somewhat daunting typing task into a less daunting dictation task.

The product comes in the small cardboard box, most of which packages the included microphone and headset. Herein lies, possibly, the most distasteful part of this product and that is the uncomfortable headset that is included with it. Granted, I have a pretty big head but not so big that an adjustable headset shouldn't accommodate me. If I'm going to be wearing this product for hours on end I need to be able to do it comfortably and without leaving an impression in the side of my head where the microphone and earpiece are stationed. Aside from the comfort factor, the sound quality and the microphone seemed to work quite well. However after wearing it for 20 minutes or so I reverted to my old trusty Plantronics headset and microphone which I can easily keep on my noggin for hours on end.

I installed the software on three different computers; two desktops and a laptop. One of the desktops and the laptop were running windows XP the other desktop was running Vista. All computers have at least four gigs of RAM and plenty of disk space. The first installation was on the Vista machine and this is where I experienced the most trouble installing the product. I attempted installation and it errored out. I re-attempted installation on the Vista machine and it was successful the second time: total installation time was about 30 minutes or so. The installation on the XP desktop and the XP laptop were much easier and installed on the first try without any hiccupping.

Next was the training. I was presented with six or seven 10-minute passages to read; all of them from books of some sort. I chose Dave Barry, Lewis Carroll, and Dilbert on each one of the different machines (I needed to train them all individually) and proceeded to spend approximately 10 or 15 minutes teaching my computer to understand my voice commands. It was actually a rather soothing experience and each computer easily kept up with me.

A usage tutorial is included in the product it's worthwhile going through it. Simple voice commands are presented in the context of creating a test document and spending 15 minutes working with the voice recognition system is time well spent to avoid frustration later on.

I found the most difficult mindset change to be the necessity to think before you speak. This includes usually enunciating punctuation. It strikes me that since your fingers can't really keep up with your brain, for the most part, transferring intelligent thought through a keyboard to the computer tends to be like downshifting a car. Alternatively, the voice recognition system appears to have no problem keeping up with a steady stream of speech and therefore mentally composing your thoughts before you verbally enunciate them can save plenty of time later on where you might need to go back to correct words, phrases, or entire sentences. I suspect this mindset change will be the crux of the matter. Whether I continue to use this product are not will rest on whether I ultimately feel comfortable composing my thoughts mentally well before I enunciate them.

Considering the fact that the product eliminates me pounding on my keyboard for extended periods of time I hope I am able to make this mindset change.

In closing, I'll demonstrate the accuracy of the product by verbalizing a paragraph that I grabbed off the Internet. From Wikipedia I grabbed the following paragraph and will now proceed to verbalize it so that you can compare it to word-for-word:

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is an English-language pangram (a phrase that contains all of the letters of the alphabet). It has been used to test typewriters and computer keyboards, and in other applications involving all of the letters in the English alphabet. Due to its shortness and coherence, it has become widely known and is often used in visual arts.

And here's my verbalization:

The quick brown jumps over the lazy dog is an English-language pangram open parentheses a phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet). It has been used to test typewriters and computer keyboards, and other applications involving all of the letters in the English alphabet. Due to its shortness and coherence, it has become widely known and is often used in visual arts.

Just so you know, I didn't verbalize the quotation marks so I won't hold it against the program. Not so with the parentheses statement so I'm not sure why it didn't get (like it did just now).

In summary: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 is accurate, easy to install and fun to use. If you're at all curious about voice recognition in its current incantation, price should not be the obstacle that keeps you away from this product.

And, yes, I did create this blog entry using the product.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Twitter and customer service

Ppeople who spend any kind of time on the Internet are aware of the social networking system called Twitter. It's become a full part of the acknowledging that many people use on a day-to-day basis while it's a temporary annoyance for other people who haven't figured out how to integrate it into their business lives yet.

Twitter is sometimes difficult to understand until you've used it for a while. Since it's structured 140 characters, you have to think carefully before you add a tweet sincemany if not most things that you'd like to say would take more than 140 characters.

Some companies are openly embracing this technology and it can be pretty easy to find out which companies those are. I recently had a war experience with CitiMortgage. Their monthly envelopes have been hammering me to move my statements to paperless as it turns out I was speaking with a CitiMortgage on the telephone and asked the very pleasant customer service person if she wouldn't mind moving moving me to a paper of a statement. She informed me that although she would like to do this, she was unable to and I needed to log into my account on in order to turn my statements paperless.

It certainly seems ironic that, on one hand this enormous company has a desire to stop cutting down trees for their statements and giving me my information in bits as opposed to physical atoms. Technology is such a part of my life, that it would actually be easier for me to read my statements online. Therefore, I did have something to gain by going paperless. But at the same time CitiMortgage with its thousands of employees has something to gain also: there is physical labor involved in printing my statement however slight it may be. It cost them a small amount of money for the paper, the ink, and the labor involved in printing and delivering said statement to me every month so there's something that they can gain by switching that to a simple e-mail.

There's another company that I'd like to mention that seems to be doing the exact opposite. For the last several weeks I've been using with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 by Nuance. As a matter of fact, I'm dictating this blog entry with that exact product. I could list off some of the pluses and minuses of the Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 later, but for right now I'd like to mention how they're using Twitter to support their customer base.

Upon receiving Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 a few weeks ago, and after playing with it for a few days,I tweeted that I was enjoying the product and was amazed at its accuracy. Within approximately one hour I received a private tweet from Nuance customer service requesting that I alert them to any problems I may have with the product from that point on. I've not experienced any problems that I would need to bring up with customer service, but it's nice to know that there are looking over the shoulder of America to see if people are using their products and making sure that all was going well with them.

This all came about because I went to the local Milwaukee chapter of LikeMinded: a monthly networking group meets at the Rochambeau coffee shop in Milwaukee. One of the attendees was Jamie, an IT geek from Aurora Healthcare in Milwaukee. Jamie related a story about how his company handles problem reports that they find via twitter and I was duly impressed. It's easy to brush off the fact that a healthcare organization might be concerned about customer support but the fact is there a lease trying to understand social networking and have allocated the necessary resources in their organization to respond accordingly. Whether this remains a long-term part of their offerings certainly remains to be seen because some of these social networking systems may eventually dissolve into the ether, but it's encouraging to know that they get it now and feel that it's a communication system important enough to monitor regularly.

Now, if only CitiMortgage would get it,too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What's going on with Our Next Thing

The Our Next Thing project has been slow-moving as of late. You know it. We know it.

Yes, we've been busy but we've also realized some of our priorities and the Our Next Thing project doesn't always go into the top priority pile. Generally, that is because it's not making money for us so if a moneymaking endeavor comes our way, we often have to put our personal projects on the back burner. That's okay, as long as we're dedicated to coming back to this project, which is definitely still near and dear to our hearts.

We've done a few more interviews in the Milwaukee area, and are now finishing up on the planning for our winter escape from Wisconsin. We will again, be spending two months of our next winter in Asheville North Carolina. Or more accurately, will be spending a month in Asheville and a month in Black Mountain, North Carolina. the two cities are about 15 minutes apart. So we can bounce back-and-forth between the two. We have some friends and acquaintances in both of those cities and are looking forward to seeing them again. We've spent a couple of pleasant days in Black Mountain, so we know basically what we're getting into, but the prospect of spending a month they are is actually starting to get a little exciting. Whereas Asheville tends to be a progressive, liberally oriented city, Black Mountain is a sort of artist colony and the population as probably about a fifth the size of Asheville.

Will be looking for people to interview in both of those cities so if you know of anybody who would like to go under our camera lens, please send them our way. We're looking for people who have made dramatic career changes in their lives and age is quite unimportant. We'll take anybody from their 20s to their 90s as long as their career paths have been diverse.

We also hope to catch up with some of the people that we interviewed at our last trip and see what they've been up to since that time.

I created this blog posting using my new voice recognition system based on Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I'm enjoying the writing ability of this device, but have not totally integrated into my business life. It may be that I need to just work at this thing until it's second nature.