Text to speech changed me

Text to speech has changed my life as an academic. Some of this change is positive. In the past, preparing for graduate classes meant printing reading materials, collating, stapling, hole punching, reading, highlighting, remarking and even creating vocabulary definitions for unfamiliar words. In addition to keeping a running tally of what was read, downloaded and printed, I often color coded the edges of the stacks of paper by week on the syllabus. A single class typically filled 2x 3″ to 5″ binders.

Then I got an iPad.

This meant printing would be replaced by transferring the readings to my device. There are a lot of ways this can go wrong. I want to focus on how you can use my experience to have things go right. I’m sure there are more elegant ways, but I email them to myself with keywords in the subject line. I have google drive through my Virginia Tech account, WVU and a personal account. It works well for large files. I have free Dropbox, Evernote accounts and even 300gb attached to this rarely used blog, but…

…it is by far easiest to email it.
I open mail on my phone, download the attachment and tap open in iBooks. The first thing I do in iBooks is to file it, typically in a “collection” by the name of the professor that assigned it. Within the collection I save it by week due, author, year and full title. Another advantage of VoiceOver is that it will read the full title even when only the first few words show on the screen. Mac users may notice that iTunes is not even an option. iTunes can burn in secure file deletion Guttman 35 pass overwrite He… Nevermind.

I mentioned in a previous post some of the benefits of scan tailor. I frequently export .pdf files to tiff images to deskew, divide pages, or crop them in scan tailor. I then create a new document in adobe pro from multiple files and run them through OCR in Adobe. Often, I do it to articles from JSTOR that have already undergone OCR, but that it is simply not of satisfactory quality.

Why? Because I can have my iPhone and iPad read them to me. When I listen while I read, my retention is better than either alone. The speed is adjustable, so I push myself to read faster and stay on task longer than I would otherwise. Most people find their mind wanders when reading or find themselves repeating sections. When I listen while I work on something menial, say dishes, folding laundry or walking (running not so much for reasons described later), my retention is still much higher than not reading at all. These tasks are best for reviewing difficult material a few days later. Walking on a treadmill is an exception. I find that I can become so engrossed in even mundane reading that I completely loose track of time. I put a board across the arms of the treadmill to hold my books, laptop, iPad or phone and walk pretty slowly, 2 to 3 miles per hour. Shortly after, I find myself irritated that the treadmill is automatically shutting off so quickly, which it only does after 2 hours.

Use VoiceOver to read to you.
Under “Settings->General->Accessibility->VoiceOver” turn VoiceOver to On and adjust the reading speed. (Or just Tripple-click after setting up below).

VoiceOver changes the way your phone works and it can be a real pain in the ass. This is especially true if you get a phone call, so it is nice to be able to turn it off quickly until you get used to it.

Go to “Settings->General->Accessibility” again at the very bottom and turn on Tripple-click and select VoiceOver. Now you can turn VoiceOver on and off by clicking the home button three times quickly. This is the same way you can switch applications.

Listen to a .pdf in iBooks. After opening a book in iBooks, tap on the text to tell VoiceOver you do not want to use the buttons. Then use two fingers to swipe up and VoiceOver will read to the end of the document. This is great if you can keep your phone stationary, but as soon as you rotate the phone, VoiceOver will stop reading and tell you the phone is in landscape or portrait mode.

Lock the orientation.
Double click the home button to bring up the app switcher of the last four most recent applications. Now swipe them away to the right to reveal an icon of a lock inside a clockwise arrow.

Skip auditory representations if graphs and tables.
To avoid hearing a line full of dashes as “dash dash dash dash” ad infinitum tap below the graphic to select a line of text, then swipe down to continue reading from there.

Window shade.
The window shade can be kind of scary if you accidentally turn it on with a Tripple-tap. Turn it off the same way. The window shade blacks out the screen, but it still responds to your touch. It can extend your battery life while reading from a larger screen such as a PC.

Using two fingers to read one letter at a time. This feature is probably beneficial for people who actually have accessibility needs. Pretend to stab one of the three stooges in the eyes and rotate your fingers in their eye sockets to bring up a menu to select lines, words or characters. For advanced navigation on web pages you can also select headings or links.

Reading and listening to .pdf files on a PC
Adobe Reader (the free one) and Adobe Pro (the paid one) both include text to speech accessibility features. They are hidden under “View->turn on read aloud.” Then “Read to end of document” The speed can be adjusted in both too by digging in the preferences. Be forewarned making changed while the read aloud function is on often results in crashing the software. Microsoft Sam and Anna are fairly annoying voiced, and for $20 you can get two voices from AT&T’s research labs. Unfortunately as of CS4, autoscroll does not keep up with the read aloud. Often the adobe read aloud will report “empty page” even when there is highlightable text. Fixing this is generally more trouble than it is worth. Most of the time, you iOS device will read it without any trouble.

I now spend a lot less time attending to the needs of printers, buying ink or paper. I feel a little indignant when I am expected to print to something on paper. I feel a lot less organized in part because of the undeniable gravity and seriousness my stacks of papers previously had signaled to anyone unfortunate enough to need desk space near mine. Now, I look like I a screen ager who might simultaneously be on Facebook rather than paying attention in class. I can do most of my electronic reading without having to summon great reserves of my attention, ear plugs, stars aligning, etc. I often cover readings multiple times at a lower attention level as well. I sometimes find it more difficult to read my remaining analog assignments, and this is disconcerting. I no longer keep track of unfamiliar words I encounter, nor note authors whose diction is particularly arcane. I can look words up more quickly by tapping on them now, but tend not to as this would interfere with the VoiceOver interface. Even in later paper days, I could pick up a phone and speak “define exogenous” to google and get satisfaction. I have only recently discovered the Tripple tap to turn off VoiceOver. It remains to be seen if this will help improve my vocabulary or gloss it over in a high speed voice of context.

My daughter and I have been playing with Festival text to speech in UNIX. We wrote a script to tell us the time, from one we found that said a random number. These are baby steps toward a possible I/O for the robot we are dreaming about. I was inspired by the “head-less” (no monitor attached) Raspberry Pi ($40 computer the size of a deck of cards) asterisk installation that would announce its IP address over its speakers. Asterisk is a free telephone software capable of, among other things, jamming telemarketer machines with a IVR phone tree. Interactive Voice Response is both text to speech and voice recognition. Having this run on something so small and inexpensive is very exciting.

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