There should be an image here!For posts to this site, I try to write about things that are immediately useful for seniors — or anyone else, I suppose, but seniors primarily. Immediately useful things are good, but sometimes one must invest effort in doing things that might not seem immediately useful, but which pay off in the long run.

Convincing casual computer users to practice skills which do not solve an immediate problem can be difficult. Most users learn only those things that they need to accomplish an immediate goal. This leaves the gaps in their knowledge, and actually prevents them from learning what they could do if they had invested more time.

For instance, this paragraph is being written by my computer using speech recognition. I am investing time and energy in becoming proficient at it. Since starting to write this section, I have not touched the keyboard or mouse. This has been a big challenge. The last time I tried speech recognition, things did not go very well. The software package was Dragon Naturally Speaking. That was several years ago. I have not tried their products recently, so they are probably much improved. This paragraph is being written by the speech recognition program that comes standard with Vista and Windows 7. You can find it hidden away in the accessibility section. It can also be installed in XP from Microsoft as a free download. [It might be private-labelled Dragon software — I no not know. Stranger things have happened.]

When you enable speech recognition, a tutorial is available to help you learn the basic commands. This is cleverly combined with a learning program which allows the computer to understand the way you speak while you are learning what it expects for commands. This tutorial is mercifully short compared to the early training programs of the first speech recognition applications.

Immediately after finishing the short tutorial, you can start dictating emails, letters, and generally do anything you would do with a keyboard or mouse. The main difficulty for me is to remember to insert punctuation marks as commands (!). Yes, every punctuation mark including the open and close parentheses has been entered by speaking a command (PERIOD for “.” etc.).

Is this awkward or difficult? Yes, it is a little awkward at first. I had visions of Victor Borge. But remember how hard it was for you to learn to write with pen and pencil. We spent hours copying letters and trying to write as children. I type very fast with the standard keyboard, but I paid dearly to gain that skill. It did not come naturally. By any reasonable standard, speech recognition has become a useful tool more quickly and with less effort by me than the equivalent level of expertise in writing with pen or typewriter. Speech recognition leverages off skills that you use daily, but typing is an isolated skill that must be learned for itself. BTW, I include mouse usage as part of typing. Even though a mouse seems more natural than a keyboard, try teaching a roomful of novices how to use one when they have never done it.

In addition to dictating everything here, I saved a draft, opened a browser, and surfed the Internet without using my keyboard. The only real problem I’ve had is fielding a phone call while dictating and forgetting to tell the computer to stop listening!

What do you think? Is the effort to use speech recognition an investment or playing? Is there a difference? Have you had experience with other systems?

Conserve electricity: My homepage is iGoogle. When it comes up, on the left side is a graph of the hourly usage of electricity in our house — not history, I mean the usage up to about 12 hours ago. This happens automatically because I established an online account with SDG&E (see their website to learn how to do it). Then enable this function through iGoogle. Not all utilities offer this service. SDG&E is able to offer it because it installed the new smart meters and because it agreed to cooperate with Google to evaluate whether people will use it. Want to see your electricity usage? It is free. I installed it as a conservation tool, but it has other uses. When we were in Colorado, I knew that our agents had a showing of our house because they turned the lights on.

[Photo above by James Vaughan / CC BY-ND 2.0]