Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Breath of the Dragon...

Multiple Sclerosis is a thief. It is indiscriminate in its larceny, robbing its victims of both the profound and the trivial. The disease has stolen from me elements that were once the very foundations of my life (my career, a large part of my social life, the expectation that I would one day learn to juggle), and things that by comparison might seem somewhat slight, like the ability to type.

Since my right hand now has about as much strength and dexterity as a latke, typing has become a strictly one-handed affair. I was never that great a typist to begin with, as I was thrown out of my seventh grade typing class after refusing to stop singing "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" during class exercises. The instructor just didn't see the wit in my crooning reference to the old adage that if 1000 monkeys typed for 1000 years, one of them would eventually write "Hamlet". So, I was banished from the classroom, and instead of Typing, was given study hall, which allowed me to take a nice little nap in the middle of the day, but did nothing for my ability to use a keyboard.

When MS robbed me of the use of my right hand, it made typing, which had always been an arduous two fingered affair anyway, into a one fingered nightmare. My ability to communicate via the QWERTY keyboard was virtually eliminated, a major handicap in this day of Internet bulletin boards, e-mail, and instant messaging. How then, the astute reader may ask, am I able to compose the drivel that I post to this blog?

The answer comes in the form of an amazing piece of technology, a voice recognition software program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This wonder allows me to simply speak my thoughts, and see them magically transcribed onto my computer screen. It's like something out of Harry Potter, but without all of the crazy protesters claiming that it promotes Satan.

Without Dragon, I would have been rendered mute to the world of the Internet, and instead would have been left only to rant at Melvin, the giant Kleenex who is my invisible friend. The program has relieved me entirely of the need to type, and if I were to wake up 100% healthy tomorrow, I'd continue using it.

Admittedly, the software isn't perfect. It is usually remarkably accurate, but it does require the user to enunciate clearly, and to speak in a constant rhythm. For a native New Yorker, whose mumbles are often incoherent to anyone who resides outside of The Big Apple, this requirement is something of a challenge. Still, Dragon NaturallySpeaking manages to understand the vast majority of my utterances. It actually learns a user's speech patterns, and gets more accurate the more it is used. The mistakes it does make are easily corrected, with intuitive commands that allow for the quick editing and replacing of any misrecognized words.

To demonstrate its accuracy, I'll dictate some familiar passages, and leave them unedited. Here goes:

Mary had a Little Lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

Okay, Dragon did well with that one, except for capitalizing little lamb. I don't have any idea why it did that. Let's try another example:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Perfect. No mistakes at all. Okay, one more example, I'll try to make this one a little more difficult. Here's the famous soliloquy from "Hamlet" (my old typing teacher be damned):

To be were not to be, that is the question; whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep, no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Okay, a few little mistakes, but really quite good. It garbled the first line, but that could've been the fault of my pronunciation. Incredibly, it got "heir" right. I was expecting it to transcribe "air". The program also replaced "‘tis" with "it is", but that's understandable.’Tis is not used very much this century.

So, there you have it. If, like me, MS or some other malady has affected your ability to type, or even if you just hate typing, you might want to consider Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The program also allows you to use voice commands to navigate software and your computer desktop, but so far I haven't really used those functions too much.

If you do decide to give the Dragon a try, I'd recommend you pick up a quality microphone, as the headset included in the program is pure crap. I'm currently using a Logitech desktop microphone. I previously used an expensive high-quality headset microphone, but the Logitech is much cheaper and seems to work equally well.

Using Dragon NaturallySpeaking doesn't make MS suck any less, but it does allow me to write about how much having MS sucks.

Gotta go, Melvin wants to play Parcheesi (BTW, Dragon got "Parcheesi" right)...



    Because it´s a title?

  2. I took typing and dids pretty well, shorthand Did because my friend did) did lousy, but that's ok, no one uses it anymore. Ditto on learning making punchcards for the compueter (I am old!) With one hand, so ok, but I am right=haned and my good one is right. SSpeech gets sluurred so even the dragon would have trouble. I amuse my kids with a lot of yelling with voice using recordings. It's hard pushing all those numbers (Visa!!!!! 16!!!!!).

  3. Dragon Naturally Speaking and a left-handed keyboard have enabled me to continue to work (I'm a writer), at least for now. I do have some issues with slurred speech, but voice recognition still beats the heck out of typing. I can't imagine what it was like to be disabled in this way 10 years ago.

  4. I had a diving accident in 2004 and I'm now a quadriplegic. I'm just finishing up college to become a website administrator. I use Windows Vista business as my computer's operating system and it comes with great voice recognition software. It is perfect for writing an using the computer. I have previously tried dragon and it is good software but I think the voice recognition software on vista is far superior. I know what it's like trying to find the stuff to make life easier, it's really tough sometimes. Just thought I would leave you that note to let you know.
    p.s. I love the videos, keep them coming

  5. Mark: thanks for the tip. I knew that Vista had a voice recognition program, but since I have Dragon, I never checked it out. Now I will.