Reviews

Games, books, and so much more.

As those in the speech-recognition game know, Lernout & Hauspie is the reigning king of speech-to-text software. The speech-recognition segment has made tremendous strides as the technology has become cheaper and more efficient.

The Preferred version of its Dragon NaturallySpeaking 6 (there are several other much more expensive specialized versions) has several features that propel it beyond any previous version of the program. In short, it lets you create and edit documents, reports, spreadsheets, and e-mail without so much as laying a finger on your keyboard. It’s integrated with Word, Excel, Outlook, WordPerfect, and virtually every Windows-based application that uses text.

The most impressive new feature of NaturallySpeaking is its Acoustic Optimizer, which lets the program process and learn from data every time you correct it. The program got the pronunciation of my last name wrong the first time I typed it, but once I set it straight, it didn’t botch Heilman again-which is more than I can say for most people.

The Acoustic Optimizer compiles and analyzes your data as you go, a much more effective process than the previous standard of gradual adaptation from each correction. According to L&H, just set the Acoustic Optimizer to run while you are away at a meeting and you will return to improved recognition.

The program seems perfect for users with repetitive-stress injuries or any other disability that precludes or restricts keyboard use. Along with the standard open and close commands, NaturallySpeaking takes mouse-movement commands and opens bookmarked Web pages when you recite the name of the link you want–though you must learn how to talk to the program to get it to go where you want.

Some of the new features of the program are more amusing than anything. For instance, its Nothing But Speech tool filters out “filler” sounds–better known to you as um and uh–although if you don’t watch out, it will also take out a and the spoken letter M while it’s at it. And I can’t vouch for its ability to handle accents and dialects, since my flat Midwestern tenor didn’t give it many obstacles.

If it’s used correctly, NaturallySpeaking can save not only time, but also wear and tear on your typing fingers–and at $189 it’s never been more affordable. –Dan Heilman

Not-so-ancient history: John Cassidy’s “Dot.Con.”

John Cassidy’s “Dot.Con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold” is the best kind of history. It tells us not only what happened in the dot.com boom and bust, but also why–and what it means for future generations.

Cassidy, who has covered business and finance for the New Yorker for the past six years, explains the Alice-in-Wonderland logic that prevailed during the 1990s. The usual rules of business and economics were briefly discarded as everyone from venture capitalists to investment bankers jostled to get in on the action-a phenomenon Cassidy explains in terms of history, economics, investment theory, and even crowd psychology. The book gives us a complete picture of how a combination of technology, hope, and money drove the Internet economy until it crashed.

There’s a lot of history here, from the creation of the Internet to the formation of the early dot-coms. Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and others all get their 15 minutes, but so do important developments like Mosaic (the first Internet browser) and early pioneers like Marc Andreessen.

Everyone involved in the dot-com bust can learn something from the book: the tech geeks, the investment gurus, the politicians, the economists, the journalists, and the ordinary investors who still may not completely understand what happened to their money or why. Some readers won’t care for the economic information, but Cassidy explains it simply, defining terms and giving concrete examples. By the final chapters about the crash and the ensuing fallout, it’s clear that the dot-com boom and bust can’t be understood without the economic background the book provides.

The best aspect of the book is Cassidy’s wry, ironic tone. The book is not an angry exposé of a swindle, or of a crime perpetrated on an unwilling public; instead, it’s a chronicle of a collective insanity that gripped a country of willing participants-and could again, someday. -Holly Dolezalek

Double bogey: EA Sports’ “Sid Meier’s SimGolf.”

I’m not much of a Sims fan, and I despise everything about golf. So why am I bothering with “Sid Meier’s SimGolf”?

Good question. While this is more than just another golf simulation, and there’s more going on than the standard-issue build-it-yourself fantasies a la “SimCoaster,” it manages to miss the appeal of both types of games.

Your object is to construct a financially and aesthetically successful golf course. The idea is to attract the well-heeled duffers to your course; by getting people to spend their money, you can refine your existing course and build new ones. You can become successful several ways: by making your course extra easy, by wheedling faux celebrities (Jennifer Elopes, meet Jane Fondue) into buying expensive property near your course, or by assembling a crew of sparsely paid workers to fetch drinks for your clientele.

The play element of “SimGolf” is less imaginative. The tournament play relies less on your own mousing skill than on your ability to get the computer to do your work for you. Even though I’m not much of a real-life linkster, I do enjoy a good computer golf game. But it seems the makers of the game are more interested in bringing out the budding tycoon in players than the Tiger Woods wanna-be.

Another down side, this one shared by all Sim games: the annoying “Simspeak,” the incoherent gibberish spoken by the characters. I know, I know–shut off the sound. I still just wish it would go away.

I realize I’m in the minority, because this is an extremely popular game. But I also know there are better Sims games, and I’m positive there are better golf games. -Dan Heilman

USB! USB!: Fellowes’ new USB 2.0 products.

It’s the year of USB 2.0. Or hadn’t you heard? Everywhere one turns these days, there are new products designed to take advantage of the upgraded medium’s common interface and high data-transfer rate, which is supposedly 40 times faster than that of USB 1.1.

The main value of these products for many users is to provide fast, easy access for peripherals and input devices, especially on computers of less than recent vintage that came with only two (or fewer) USB ports.

Fellowes offers a variety of solutions, good for both Windows and Mac users, and for no more than $150 each.

The four-port Swivel Hub is my favorite of the recent crop of Fellowes USB tools. Each port swivels 180 degrees, which should help untangle the rat’s nest of cables from your desktop. Its transfer rates can also be adjusted to either 1.5, 12, or 480Mbps. Fellowes says the device can be expanded via daisy-chaining to accommodate a whopping 127 devices.

Fellowes’ Travel Hub has many of the same virtues as the swivel hub, except, of course, it’s portable. What makes the product good for travelers is that the four ports swivel into the body of the unit, meaning it can be folded up and chucked into a briefcase without worry that any of the ports will collect lint or otherwise be damaged.

Finally, if you just want a solid external USB 2.0 hub that won’t be going anywhere, look into Fellowes’ 4-Port Hub. Listing at less than $90, it’s an economical alternative for those who want a quick, simple plug-and-play solution for their peripherals. -Dan Heilman

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