Software and music make magic

February 28, 2013|Kate Coleman

“Hello darkness, my old friend.”

That’s the first line of Paul Simon’s 1964 hit, “The Sound of Silence.”

Recently, the phrase “Dear Emptiness” appeared on my computer screen as I tried to compose a message to a friend.

No, I wasn’t trying to add a new verse to the iconic song. The young man’s name is Antonis — not emptiness. I was trying to thank him, my computer scientist adviser, for recommending that I upgrade my laptop’s operating system so that I would have access to built-in voice recognition.
Here’s the deal: You speak to the computer; the spoken words become text. The idea of sending words from my mouth — invisible sounds for goodness sake  — then seeing those words on a screen amazes me. It’s magic.

Obviously, I needed to work on my elocution, and my computer needed more time to be able to recognize my speech. (That still applies. Just now, my computer heard the phrase “my speech” as “mice beach.” I love the image, but it’s not what I want to say.)

This is my second attempt at taking advantage of available higher-tech features to save time. I can talk faster than I can type. I figured, and friends have told me, that dictation software would help me out.

I bought a program a few years ago and my computer-wiz-friend, Chuck, installed it for me. It worked fairly well for a while, but still included some funny mistakes. For example, when I said, “particular,” it typed “pig killer.” “Pig killer” had no place in a Maryland Symphony Orchestra family concert preview.

I hadn’t read the instruction manual, and didn’t use it very often, so when it totally messed up, I blamed myself and decided to start over.

My attempt at reinstalling the software was almost as ridiculous as “mice beach.”

It required an out-loud reading of prescribed passages so the computer would recognize my words. Saying “comma” or “question mark” would result in the appropriate punctuation showing up in the text. In theory.

It wasn’t working. “Comma. Comma. COMMA,” I repeated, each time more loudly and emphatically. In frustration, I added a few unscripted choice words of my own.

Also, I got bored reading the dull prescribed passages, so I picked up a nearby book of Nora Ephron essays and tried that. It took me a few minutes and my friend Stacey’s laughter for me to realize that wasn’t going to work.

Although it’s not perfect, I am sticking with the new program. Yes, there still are misunderstandings. I said “I screamed,” and the computer heard “ice cream.” “Pig killer” was “pygmy killer.” “Emphatically” was “indefatigably.” The phrase that showed up in place of “appearing” seems inappropriate for a family newspaper.

It reminds me of the old party game Mad Libs, in which random words are substituted for blank spaces in a story. The out-of-context results provide lots of laughs.

And, I discovered a new twist. Singing Simon’s lyrics also works pretty well.

The second line of Simon’s song will be my greeting: “I’ve come to talk with you again.”

Musical magic.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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