Adventures in speech recognition

QWERTY-Dvorak keyboard

A keyboard set to Dvorak is a great way to mess with people using your computer. Cy jab anor x. a p.annf ocmln. .bjpflycrb ofoy.mv

The other night I found myself with a bit of wrist tendonitis. It was the final day of Camp NaNoWriMo. I had 3500 words to go, and seven hours to write them in. Not really an insurmountable obstacle, until my wrist flared up. I had a lot of trouble with wrist tendonitis about five years ago, and after doing some research, I decided to switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout, which is supposed to be easier on the wrists. It was designed to be faster for typing the English language, with vowels on the left side of the home row, and the most commonly used consonants on the right side of the home row. The least frequently used letters, including J, my own personal Scrabble-bane, are all along the bottom, the most difficult row to reach.

I’ve never been sure how much the Dvorak layout helps alleviate wrist problems. Soon after switching over, I discovered that the source of my problem was all the Plants vs Zombies I’d been playing. The constant clicking was tough on my mouse hand. I stuck with Dvorak anyway. Though it took me awhile to adjust to it, I’m now a faster typist.  104 wpm, according to the typing test I took a minute ago.  Better than my QWERTY high of 86.

The other night, my wrist flare-up was from drawing right-handed. My rule is that if I have even the slightest hint of tendonitis, I don’t type. Maybe Dvorak is better than QWERTY, maybe not, but either way it can still irritate an already-aching wrist. Most days, protecting my wrists from worse problems (I’m a wimp. I’m not going down the carpal tunnel.) is more important to me than getting another 1000 words. But most days aren’t the last seven hours of Camp NaNoWriMo. I wanted to hit 29,998 words, and I was willing to do the unthinkable.

I was going to shut down Linux Mint, and boot into Windows 8 for a purpose other than playing games that I didn’t feel like configuring through Wine. I was going to try transcription software. Dragon Naturally Speaking was out of the question, because I’m poor. So by transcription software, I mean the default speech recognition application that comes with windows, used not with any kind of decent microphone, but with my computer’s built-in mic.

It quickly became obvious that I would need to go through the software training to tune the software to my voice. The software training involves orally reading a lot of dull facts about the software, with an awkward amount of enunciation. 

In order to make it understand what I was saying, I needed to use the same strategy that Avatar Aang used against Koh the Face-stealer.  “Show no fear. Show no emotion at all. Show no hint of a Massachusetts accent, and for fuck’s sake don’t speak as fast as a Rhode Islander.”

In between repetitive suggestions that I speak like a newscaster and improve my diction, a few of the sentences set off warning bells.

Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

Mitth’raw’nuruodo, before he was Grand Admiral Thrawn. Similar to how my laptop is a nascent tactical wizard.

The training says that if you correct a mistake the software made, it’s “unlikely to make the same mistake again.” In other words, the speech recognition software is not only sentient, it’s better at life than the vast majority of all humans. Including myself.  It also says that the spelling dialogue, used for correcting words, is “very efficient and powerful.” Like a wizard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn.  When speech recognition software turns my laptop into a bona fide lifeform, this is going to be an inconvenient personality for it to have.  This is what file backups are for.

Although the software training appeared to go badly (and I also didn’t do all of it), I decided to attempt writing fiction with it. After all, I only had six hours left at this point, and I hadn’t shaved off any of those 3500 words.  I could go on at length about how stupid it looks when your dialog is surrounded by the words “quotation marks” instead of the real deal, or the many variations I had to go through for every single word. But I won’t do that. You can probably get the gist. It was like the longest game of telephone ever, where everyone playing is also on speed.

Still, the real reason I don’t want to persevere with transcription software (besides the fact that my wrist is now just fine), is the same reason I never tried it before now. Writing well is easier than speaking well. Why would I demote my writing down to the level of my speech?  With careful typing and a lot of rest, I was able to write most of the 3500 words.

A holiday to fill the august void

Summery green, humid pond.

August. You can see the humidity.

In my family, the 4th of July is big enough to imbue much of June with a Christmas-like anticipation. There are even a few days post-4th with same lazy quality as December 26th. Then the rest of the summer lasts for five hellish eternities, eternities as tortured as though they were all spent drinking weak, acidic coffee and listening to that noise the baby from Eraserhead makes. The vicious heat of July stretches into August, and from August to infinity, or so it feels to my heat-addled brain. Even as a kid, my hatred of the endless heat outweighed my hatred of school, and I would wish for September to start. It may not be so hot that I can’t sleep, but it’s still hot enough for the middle part of the day to be an unacceptable, activity-preventing haze. And there are no redeeming holidays.

The only official August holiday I can think of is VJ Day—Victory over Japan Day—and Rhode Island is the only state that still celebrates it. I grew up in Rhode Island, and I don’t think too many people there want to give up a Monday off from work, even while acknowledging that VJ day is creepy and outdated. And even in Rhode Island, VJ day doesn’t do very much to improve August.

Then there’s Lughnasadh. Celebrating the start of the harvest season and honoring the Celtic god Lugh, Lughnasadh is one of eight neo-pagan high days. Celebrations usually involve competitive games. In a group where the attendees tend towards bookishness, this can involve things like thumb wrestling and rock, paper, scissors, rather than races and feats of strength. Voice of experience. While it’s a fun holiday, and a great excuse to celebrate seasonal foods, it is ultimately a religious holiday. So I don’t think it’s going to get the widespread adoption that a Big August Holiday needs.

There is a an enormous roster of made-up* holidays out there, and I think one of them must qualify. Some of them are too specific, or dedicated to foods I don’t like. I’m looking for something that can justify a day off of work, a cook-out, and possibly some activities. After doing some reading (mainly here and here), these are my top candidates.

Sister’s Day

I am a sister. Not a nun, just to clarify, but a female with siblings. This is a self-serving choice, but not one that would do anything for me, since I can’t even imagine my brothers showering me with presents and grilled meat on Sister’s Day. Plus, it would probably suffer from the same food-gendering as Mother’s Day. Dads are supposed to get steak, while Mom wants breakfast in bed and quiche? Who thought of that one? What about steak in bed?

Senior Citizens Day

Acknowledging Senior Citizens, giving them a pat on the back and a steak, and congratulating them for having gone through decades of shit is not a bad idea. Better than pretending they don’t exist. This is also a self-serving choice. It will take decades to pay off, if I live that long, but I will gladly contribute to creating hoopla around Senior Citizens Day if it means that, thirty-six years from now, the youth will prostrate themselves before my throne (ok, it’s a recliner. With a heated blanket) and shower me with gifts they picked up an hour ago.

Left-handers Day

Banks will switch their pens on chains to the left side. Even if banks also decide to close for this auspicious day, they will still do it. Activities could include left-handed games. Like, instead of going out to play normal badminton, everyone plays left-handed. And those of us who are left-handed or ambidextrous defeat them easily. It will get old very quickly for the right-handed folk.

National Aviation Day

I saved the best for last. This is already a federal obversance, and this year it’s on Tuesday, August 19th. I’m not sure if it’s always the same day, or if it moves around based on the full moon or day of the week or airline schedules. According to timeanddate.com, here’s what people do on National Aviation Day:

On this day, some schools organize for students to participate in classroom activities that focus on the topic of aviation. Activities include: discussing aviation history, including the efforts of the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart and other aviation pioneers; and engaging in interactive tasks about airplanes and other means of flight transport, as well as careers associated with the aviation industry. Aviation enthusiasts and students may visit museums about aviation history and technology.  Some people visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina at this time of the year.

That sounds mildly interesting to me, but not if I’m going to do it every year. First, there needs to be a cookout with aviation related activities. Kites, paper planes, and toy rockets can all be brought out to celebrate this day. Maybe a historical storytime for the kids. Of course, there will need to be more movies. Christmas and Halloween have tons of movies. Thanksgiving has a few. Even Independence Day has one. We need to have a movie like It’s a Wonderful life, only about Amelia Earhart, a movie that we can expect to see on TV to every National Aviation Day’s Eve

The point is, National Aviation Day is the most ripe with possibilities for celebration. And even if you don’t do a damn thing besides have a meal with family, if any of that family had to fly in from afar, you’ve participated.


*recently made-up, that is. When someone says something is a made-up holiday, what they really mean is that some person invented it rather recently, instead of a government or religion inventing it quite a long time ago. All holidays are made up, even Christmas, which was designed by a committee including Jesus and Santa.

Reach for the stars?

DSC02326Setting goals always involves a strategic game of self-manipulation. This is difficult to do, since I know I’m doing it, and I can predict my every move and counter-move.

I have a bad history with setting writing goals. While I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month for seven Novembers in a row, and reached 50,000 words for six of them, I never seem to do well with writing goals outside of NaNoWrimo. What happens is that I fall short of my goal, get depressed, set a smaller goal for next time, fall short of that goal also, get depressed, and then repeat the whole cycle until I’m at the point where I’m telling myself, “This’ll be a good writing month if I can just get a period at the end of that sentence I wrote a couple months back.”

July is Camp NaNoWriMo, the free and loose version of the main event in November. On the website, I set my goal as 60,000 words for this month. A goal, as it happens, that I had no intention of actually reaching. If I set 30,000 words as my actual goal, I would likely fail and only reach 14,000. Then get depressed, and shoot for 7,000 next time. See above. So this month, I aimed for 60,000 words, hoping to fail and land at 30,000 instead. Until now, I had even managed to trick myself into thinking this was my actual goal. I had charts and lists to show how much work I would need to do in a day to reach my false goal, and so I believed it was real. Like the Velveteen rabbit. Or not. Pinocchio? Lt. Commander Data?

Anyway, my goal of 60,000 words was alive to me. I believed in it.

That’s the kind of mental chicanery I need to pull with my pessimist’s brain.

Orange Marshmallow Apocalypse is my novel-in-progress about outcast middle schoolers trying to stop the bizarre and devastating effects of a nuclear bomb detonated in upstate new york, in an alternate world where said detonation is activated by magic. Right now, it’s a little shy of 40,000 words, 10,000 of which I wrote this month. I’m still wrestling with how I want them to find out that they may be able to reverse some of the magical effects of the detonation, though not the most tragic ones.

I’m also working on a children’s story about a girl who helps a trio of goblins save Halloween. This one is going better at the moment, although I know I’m going to be way off my word count. I have to choose between a smaller, simpler story that fits the picture book model I agreed on with my friend, the illustrator, or a larger, spookier, awesomer story that will probably be twice as long.

Camp NaNoWriMo has eight more days, counting today. I have 13,000 words left to fail at my official goal by 29,998 words but meet my actual goal, which I am pretending is not my goal.

Pieces of Summer Apparel that We should Burn

As long as it’s not too hot out for fire, that is.

Summer clothing involves a high degree of discomfort. Blame the heat, and blame water sports. Here are some clothing items that I recommend throwing on your next backyard bonfire.

Everything pastel

Science says that lighter colors are supposed to be cooler than darker ones in the heat, but I’ve never noticed an appreciable difference. Maybe this is why pastels are more prevalent in the summer, or maybe it’s some kind of preppy fashion thing that escaped from the country club and hasn’t been picked up by animal control yet. Pastels are watered down versions of real colors. They are the clothing equivalent of coffee with skim milk in it.

Shorts

If they don’t bunch up when walking, then they’re usually too short and involve more pressure to leg-shave. Or (for women’s shorts, anyway) they’re a more practical length but look like I’m supposed to be wearing them to a business meeting or postal route.

Flip flops

Flip flops used to be a mainstay for me. In high school, I would wear them to school with colorful toe socks. It was my thing. Now I can’t stand the way you have to crunch up your toes to keep them in place when walking fast. Forget running in them. And then there’s the irritating slap slap noise.

It should be obvious from this that I also advocate burning high-heeled sandals. I don’t own any, but I bet those ones made of corkboards burn real nice.

Women’s bathing suits

For any activity or event in my life, I wear functional, slightly shabbier than appropriate clothing. For water sports, I wear functional, appropriate…underwear? Um, what? Enough already. Last year I switched to wearing running shorts and bathing suit tanks for all my lake-going needs. Even practical bathing suits feel too much like pin-up wear, and those skimpy bikinis that are impossible to function in (I mean, as some kind of human being that engages in movement and isn’t interested in constant adjusting) can go on the fire first. Small things make the best kindling.

Unisex life jackets

Has anyone ever made a life jacket that takes cup size into account? I’m guessing this could exist, but despite frequent kayaking, life jackets aren’t really an expertise of mine. A quick search doesn’t reveal anything promising. If someone hits my kayak with their jet-ski*, and I’m thrown off and rendered unconscious, I’d rather not drown when my life jacket rides up over my head because I had to take a size larger to fit my boobs.

Plaid dress, froofy goth dress.

Are these sundresses? More importantly, do they contain flame-retardant chemicals?

Sundresses

What makes a dress a sundress versus just some kind of a normal dress? On one end, I’m reasonably certain that some kind of gothy, long-sleeved Elvira type thing is *not* a sundress. On the other end, I think something yellow and billowing with thin straps and actual depictions of the sun would qualify as sundress material. Material—see what I did there? So that leaves every other type of dress in the world as a potential sundress. I might not have much of an idea what a sundress is, but since the items I have previously listed don’t seem like they’d create a conflagration as big as the one I’m imagining, sundresses should also be burned.

Time for s’mores!


 

*Even though nine year-old kids are no longer allowed to drive jet-skis, I still assume that if I’m ever in an accident out on the lake, it will be a jet-ski’s fault. That’s probably not fair, because the most obviously drunk people I’ve ever seen on the lake were in a crappy rowboat with an outboard motor.

Locally sourced, hand drawn profanity

Because sometimes, muttering curses under your breath just isn’t enough.

Fuck this line art.

And fuck that, too.

Sometimes, I feel thirteen again and want to scribble vulgarities all over the back of my science notebook. Maybe an A for anarchy, or a doodle of an angry cow. It’s possible this is happening more lately, as I’m writing a novel about middle school outcasts thrown into an enormous nuclear disaster, but with sinister magic. Inhabiting their mind-space is kind of a mental time travel. And maybe one day, I won’t be able to come home again.

This gave me the instant gratification of pretending to draw a diagram of a mitochondria, while instead angrily writing “fuck fuck fuck” in the margins of my notebook with the kind of grip that embosses the penciled words into the paper. I always hated when teachers insisting on collecting and grading my notebooks. I nearly always had to tear out pages at the back, where I kept my secret life of comics, ranting, and doodles of demonic animals. Also, the out-of-control games of MASH I played with my best friend.

Close up of fuck this line art; "HI"

HI! Look how innocuous I am now.

And yet, the forty-five minutes of drawing it took me to do the linework mellowed me out so that I no longer felt angry about the incident. At least, I didn’t feel angry until I went home and told the story to my partner. Am I allowed to call it linework, or is that reserved for professional illustrators? Am I putting on airs by using this term?

I covertly drew this during my break at work as a number of people passed by, and felt both juvenile and powerfully defiant doing so. But to me, this is what art and writing are all about. Taking raw emotions and persistent problems, then hacking at them with rapid typing, or drawing over them in colored pencil. Juvenile it may be, but it’s also the only way I know to actually deal with my emotions rather than allowing them to drive my life until they expire and fade away.

The fact that other artists and writers exist makes me think that, maybe, I’m not the only one.

Drawing this did end up inspiring a moment in my novel, when one of my protagonists draws a similar picture, then rips it up during an assembly so her mother won’t find it later. I’ll have to draw that one next time I have something to rage about.

Humidfest 2014

In my last post, I mentioned my hatred of hot weather. This inspired me to write a post about all the things I actually do enjoy about summer, like the smell of cut grass, that help to balance all the unthinkably humid aspects of the heat itself.

That didn’t exactly happen. I started to write about cut grass and the wind in the air before a thunderstorm, and ended up on a tangent about all the awful qualities of summer that I hate. But it turned out to be more than a tangent.

It became a brainstorming session. Every Wednesday (because Wednesday is an awful day, the summer of days) from now until August, I am going to write a barely controlled, seething rant post about summer’s sub-par attributes. The posts may even show up on non-Wednesday days, just because there’s so much material here.

Summer trees from depcrepit fire escape.

Summer. Looks pretty, but don’t touch it.

Summer means difficulty sleeping. Summer means clothing I hate. Summer means that trickle of sweat down your back when all you’re doing is standing there thinking about how much you hate the world. Summer means no running or hiking, because you can keep the heat stroke and mosquitos, thank ya very much.

There are so few of us who prefer winter to summer. Every time I meet someone who shares this quality, it’s like sharing a secret winter-club handshake. You might be a Mountain Dew-swilling, monster truck connoisseur*, but as soon as you say, “Why won’t this heat ever end? I can’t wait for fall,” I will know you as a kindred spirit nonetheless.

That conversation doesn’t happen often, however. Small talk, for most people, is something to fill up the awkwardness of elevator rides. For introverts, it’s an unpleasant thing that happens when you’re trying to read. For introverts whose seasonal hatred runs in reverse to that of the rest of the world? Meteorological-based small talk is an angst-filled minefield.

Summer means, when my normal level of irritation with the world in general has been raised exponentially in relation to the relative humidity and number of degrees over 55 Fahrenheit, that the typical weather chat of acquaintances becomes a constant barrage of taunting. Even as I’m wiping moisture off my forehead, chugging water and gatorade, and trying to stay frightened deer-still because movement makes the heat worse, people come up and say, “Isn’t it lovely? I hope you got out today, it is bee-yoo-tee-ful. Enjoy it while it lasts!”

Then every winter, every day, when I’m trying to enjoy the glory and austerity of snow, I hear complaints about the weather from people who decided to dress like it’s any other time of year than the one it actually is.

Enter Humidfest 2014. Here are all the complaints about summer that I hold back during most small talk this time of year.

On Deck: Pieces of Summer Apparel that We Should Burn.

 


 

*You snob. Of course people who enjoy monster trucks can be connoisseurs. They say things like, “Note the sprightly quality to the ear-obliterating sturm and drang of Lightning Warrior Monster as it crushes that line of small cars. Quite uncommon.”