Playing with Speech Recognition Software

Perhaps it’s the coolness factor, or perhaps I’ve just watched one too many sci-fi movies . . . whatever the reason, I’ve always been interested in the idea of talking to the computer, giving it commands, and having the computer execute functions based on voice input.

Over the years I’ve experimented with Microsoft’s built-in speech recognition software a number of times. I used it occasionally under Windows XP, and after moving to Windows Vista I decided to give the latest version a try. I worked through some of Vista’s initial speech training, but I have not yet completed any of the supplementary exercises that are supposed to improve speech recognition accuracy. Even without these additional exercises my initial impression is that Vista’s speech recognition is much better than its XP predecessor. I certainly found the text editing commands to be superior to those of the previous version.

Nevertheless speech recognition brings with it a certain level of frustration. There are times when the words appearing in my document bear absolutely no resemblance to my utterances. Sometimes the software seems to just get stuck. A voice command that has successfully worked several times previously simply stops working, and no amount of repetition (in any tone of voice) will encourage the software to start accepting my commands again. Perhaps it’s just tired of listening to me.

Beyond just wanting to experiment with the software to see how far it has progressed, a student recently asked if the library had voice recognition software. Under traditional library mentality it’s difficult to imagine a student sitting in a public area speaking aloud to a computer. Under the current model of information commons areas and group collaboration spaces, the idea is not so far-fetched. Somehow though, I imagine this student quickly becoming an annoyance to other patrons – not from speaking aloud, but rather from the endless repetition of some word or command that the computer stubbornly refuses to recognize.

In trying to create this post and the previous one with speech recognition software, Windows slyly pretended that it didn’t recognize the word “and.” Instead it pretended that it was the word “end,” and responded by pressing the End key when I simply wanted to type the word “and.” There were other pages and glitches along the way, and at times it was easier to simply type corrections than to talk Windows through them. Ultimately, I can still type a document faster than Windows and I can complete it through speech recognition. Needless to say some additional training is still required – for both me and the computer.  The coolness factor is still there, so perhaps between my improved “broadcaster” voice and a few more training sessions the software and I will arrive at a happy medium.

Talking Tags

We’re currently in the midst of a library catalog redesign. Last week we had an open discussion forum to look at some of the new features that are available in the new release as well as some optional enhancements. On the enhancements side we looked at a book jacket service as well as LibraryThing. LibraryThing offers a set of enhancements which include tags, similar books, and other editions. I personally find the similar books feature to be very useful, and of course tag clouds are beginning to show up in more places.

LibraryThing sparked several interesting discussions. Two of the discussion points focused on issues that I’ve heard a number of times when discussing tagging. One point emphasizes the detail and specificity of Library of Congress subject Headings. The other point highlights the ability of keyword searches to retrieve content that users need. If we already have subject Headings and keyword searches, why do we need tags?

I think this is a valid question which deserves an answer, but perhaps not necessarily the answer one might expect. I don’t think of tags as a replacement for subject headings or keyword searches. Instead, the tags provide a function that goes directly to the core of web 2.0 technologies. Tags allow users to organize and interact with content in a way that is meaningful to them. Tags may also help users find books in the catalog, and it’s great if that happens. But I think it’s more significant that tags allow users to truly work with the content contained in the library catalog rather than just passively reading a screen and perhaps jotting down a call number.

In the end I don’t know if we’ll add LibraryThing enhancements to our catalog, but it’s definitely worth consideration. The product that has a lot of promise, and it sparked some interesting discussion during our forum. Many people saw the immediate value that these enhancements could add to the library catalog. Perhaps most importantly, we had a number of students present for our discussion, and THEY saw the benefits these enhancements would bring. That’s what’s it really all about, after all.

Selective Installation of Apple iTunes

In my last post I wrote about some of the unwanted "extras" Apple bestowed upon me and many other unsuspecting users with the last iTunes update. A number of sites have carried stories about this issue. For additional reading, see these:

Apple pushes MobileMe surprise to XP, Vista via iTunes update
Apple "sneaks" MobileMe prefs into Windows via iTunes update
Apple Adds, Then Pulls, MobileMe from iTunes 8
An inside look at Apple’s sneaky iTunes 8 upgrade

Now these extras were not system crashing, virus spreading, life threatening pieces of malware that will bring the Internet to its knees. To me though, they were junkware – pure and simple. For the record, my junkware criteria is very basic. When I’m installing software, any unrelated software simultaneously installed on my system without my knowledge is junkware. I don’t care whether it comes from Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo, if it’s not essential don’t foist it on me. If it IS essential, let people know!

As I said, these extras didn’t crash my system, but my XP machine is getting older and really doesn’t need any additional overhead. Once I discovered them, I removed them. However, there is a way to selectively install only the components you want! To find simple yet detailed instructions, give this article a read:

Slimming down the bloated iTunes 8 installer

(Special thanks to Sachi Wilson for finding these instructions and sharing them with me.) The first page gives a nice description of all components to help you decide which ones you want. The second page gives the instructions. I followed the steps listed, and they worked like a charm. They were very straightforward, and the custom installation was very quick. As simple as these instructions are though, there are still some users for whom the command prompt is foreign territory, and they just won’t feel comfortable with them.

So only one question remains. Why didn’t Apple just show the choices and let us opt-out on the installation screen?


Et tu, Apple?

Anyone who has ever set up a new Windows computer has dealt with the frustration of the factory installed JUNKWARE. Ads for AOL products, antivirus and game trialware, and a host of other applications, shortcuts, and garbage clutter up the desktop until you take the time to remove them. Even after you’re up and running with a slightly cleaner system, you’re still plagued by sneaky add-ons that installed with applications that you want. I’m really tired of continually removing Yahoo toolbar, Google desktop, and Picasa!

So far though, Apple has been pretty up-front about what they’re trying to do to your computer. When I have an Apple software update, it usually tells me if it’s trying to install iTunes or QuickTime or both. So . . . a few days ago I was working on my desktop computer and I wound up in the Control Panel box. What’s this? MobileMe? I didn’t install that. I remember reading about a lot of problems iPhone users were experiencing with MobileMe, so I knew it was an Apple thing, but I didn’t (knowingly) download it, and I certainly didn’t (knowingly) install it. As I scrolled through the list, I also came across Apple Mobile Device Support. Apparently these two little gems were dropped in with the last iTunes update.


Apple is like a lot of other companies. They do some things right, and they do some things wrong. So far though, letting users know what they’re updating has always been one of the things that they’ve done right. I’m really disappointed that they’ve taken the new direction of slipping things in on unsuspecting users. What’s next? Apple Toolbar?