Speech recognition

November 30, 2006

I had to laugh at the video of the Vista voice recognition launch and the failure of the program to recognise even simple speech. Surprised because my current Microsoft voice recognition software is surprisingly accurate, but also reminded of an experience I had as a child.

In 1962, my family was on its way back to Australia following some time living in New Jersey and we visited family in Seattle during the time that the World’s Fair was on. I don’t remember much of the Fair in detail except for a visit to the IBM pavilion.

IBM were showing off their latest research into the development of speech recognition for their adding machines. Anyone remember the adding machine?

Simple to operate. Enter the numbers and pull the handle to add. The IBM World’s Fair version was the same except for the addition of a microphone, which from memory fitted into a box at the back which must have also had a mechanical connection to the arm. I haven’t yet found any information online about this object.

What I do remember is queuing up to have a turn with the calculator. When my turn came, I took the microphone and spoke in my clearest voice something like “2 plus 5 equals” and then waited. In a moment the mechanism chattered, the handle moved and the machine printed out the answer – 8. The IBM man flustered, fiddled with some tone controls and asked me to try again. Same result. Must be my Australian accent, he reasoned. He then went on to explain that this was very new technology and admitted that it had some way to go before it could be relied on. Don’t worry, we will have voice control mastered in a few years time, he assured.

As a result of this experience, I have been patently waiting for his prophesy to come true. Over the years I have listened to demonstrations of various voice recognition programs such as Dragon as they got better and better. Not perfect, but this year for the first time I have started using the software supplied as part of Microsoft Office 2003. It works reasonably well and I have started to think that the bold future offered by the demonstrator at the IBM pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair has finally arrive – only it took 44 years and the latest Vista demonstration seems to suggest that we are still not there yet.


What to believe (again)

November 29, 2006

In an earlier post, I speculated about the circulation of spurious ‘facts’ and I proposed a principle that one should believe nothing you read on the Internet. I was prompted to revisit this thanks to a circulated email list purporting to explain the origin of various phrases and giving a few ‘astounding facts’.

Following my own rules (see September 11th post), I presumed everything stated was false, but in order to satisfy the sender that I was not simply rejecting it out of hand I decided to research a few of the statements.

Actually I could have saved myself the trouble as one of the assertions was that it is impossible to lick your own elbow, and at the bottom of the email was the statement that 75% of people reading this email will try to lick their own elbow. Really? How was that tested? Clearly an email of ‘facts’ that contains such obvious rubbish has to be laughed off immediately.

However, in my quest to confirm my suspicions about other claims in the email, I did discover a wonderful source of information about the origin of phrases. The Phrase Finder is a wonderful site for the student of phrases. Yes I know it is on the Internet and therefore subject to the Rules, but what I like is the cautious consideration of possible origins of phrases, the inclusion of historical examples, and the clear rejection of the popular but mistaken origins that are often given.

I am pleased particularly to see their rejection of acronym based origins for such words as pom, posh and golf all of which have always struck me as ridiculous.

An added bonus on the site is a list of French and Latin phrases that have been incorporated into English. Altogether a great Internet source.

All Time 100

November 28, 2006

Time magazine has just published their All-Time100 list of albums, an exercise always bound to provoke discussion about what should and shouldn’t be included. They have hedged their bets by calling it the ‘All-time 100’ rather than using words like ‘best albums’ or ‘favourite albums’ or even most ‘influential albums’. They give no indication of their selection criteria though interestingly the list is not a bad one. Perhaps they chose the name for the list simply to get the name of their publication in the title.

Naturally there are some personal favourites that are not there, which got me thinking about my own criteria for my all-time 100. I can come up with several factors that would get a record onto the list – those which are unquestionably great contributions to the world of music recording; those which hit the personal nostalgia button but may not have stood the test of time; and those which influenced my own musical development as a young musician. These are not mutually exclusive and any record that hits all three buttons should be first on my list. Interestingly several of those are on Time’s list.

I won’t try to construct a full list here, but here are some thoughts a few on albums from the 60’s and 70’s on the Time magazine list – and a few that are not.

I never owned a Beach Boys record and never sang a Beach Boys song in public, but I would probably now note Pet Sounds in my list, simply for its place in history and the generally held view that it was a musical milestone. Although Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is regarded as being heavily influence by the earlier Pet Sounds, it rates more highly for me as I owned it, sang it and have many splendid memories of listening to it.

The Velvet Underground And Nico would be there (as would Freak Out and The Fugs, although unsurprisingly no The Mothers of Invention or Fugs LP makes the list) as I have such strong memories of huddling around a portable record player in the 6th form common room listening to them and being blown away by the raw sexual power of modern music combined with the references to the newly intriguing drugs. Sure I had already had my mind opened by both The Who and the Rolling Stones (both on Time’s list), but they were obviously tame because they were played on the radio. Listening to Velvet Underground or the Mothers or the Fugs now is not a great pleasure but the memory of where they stand in musical history is.

I can remember where I was when I first heard Blonde on Blonde and Abbey Road, both for me have also stood the test of time and both have provided songs for my own repertoire.

The main contributors to my list though, are those that either provided songs for me to sing or which influenced my musical style.





Simon and Garfunkle’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – the bridge over which I travelled from folk music to rock.

From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Nashville Skyline – great songs, great teenage memories

Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room – folk music that was personal and sophisticated.

 Song to a Seagull, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and onwards to the best of all, Blue – Joni Mitchell’s beautiful songs, intriguing stories, and challenging chords for the young guitarist.


I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul – Aretha Franklin introduced Soul to this white man.(though Otis Redding singing Try a Little Tenderness must share some credit too)

My Generation and A Quick One from the Who and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced – gave our band courage to believe that all you needed was one guitar, bass and drums to play truly great rock.


Getz/Gilberto – led me to a lifelong love of Brazilian music and of jazz, though it wasn’t too cool for a teenager to admit to being able to play Girl From Ipanema.

Similarly with Time Out and Time Further Out – not too cool to admit at the time but Dave Brubeck’s experiments with odd time signatures captured the mathematician in me.

The Broadway Cast Recording of Hair – they don’t write musicals where every song is memorable any more.

It wouldn’t be hard to make it to 100. I haven’t mentioned Fred Neil and Bert Jansch, Joe Cocker and The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears and The Doors, Luis Bonfa and Baden Powell – an eclectic mix which forms part of my personal story and all of whom had albums which would need to be considered for my list. And I haven’t left the 70’s yet. I’d want Graceland and Songs in the Key of Life on the list for a start. Maybe I need to be allowed more than 100!

Looking at these albums I realise how individual each of them are. The songs on Freewheelin’ are so different from those on Nashville Skyline that each record has a clear personality. The LP was a natural extension of the musical suite. Styles, motifs, moods all linked together. What happens when all music consists of individual tracks gleamed from various places and stuck together on an MP3 player or a burned CD? I can’t believe that is not a lesser experience. Surly the great album is greater than it’s parts?

Thanks to a mention of Arthur Mee in a piece in Barista, I found myself dragging out my old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia for a wonderful stroll down the overgrown and winding track that is my childhood memory.


I don’t recall thinking that it was old fashioned when I read it in the 50’s and early 60’s, though I was probably reading a 1920’s edition. Perhaps it was because my father had read The Children’s Encyclopaedia as a child himself when it was published as a fortnightly magazine, and our bound version therefore seemed modern in comparison. There was no reason why I should have noticed it’s age anyway. The style of design seemed to be pretty much the same as most of the other non-fiction books I had at the time – two column text with full-page width black and white and sepia pictures (some photographs and some line drawings) and the occasional colour plates in odd places, seemingly unrelated to the chapters they appear in. Much of the information was not noticeably dated as it largely consisted of bible stories, history, poetry, natural history and so on. Even if I had noticed that it had a chapter on the promise of the League of Nations to bring peace to the world or that it lauded such contemporary writers as HG Wells and John Galsworthy, I don’t think it would have reduced my interest in reading a section virtually every day. How could you not be transfixed by a book which reproduces the entire length of the Bayeux Tapestry in the same volume as an article that examines the question “What is Truth?” or a pictorial explanation of how china plates are made?

The things that strike me now, flipping back through the pages, is how much I still remember. I can picture myself as a child, sitting on my bed learning French phrases and pondering the wonders of the solar system, studying various heraldic devices and practicing magic trick. It also occurs to me that the somewhat random flow of articles probably introduced me, at a very early age, to the rambling cyberslacking that I still engage in.

All in all, I do owe a lot to Arthur Mee. I may not have fully taken on his moral Methodist teachings, but I have acquired a great deal of useful knowledge about a vast range of subjects – and not just so I can do crosswords and trivial pursuit nights.