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On the perils of Express Scribe (software to aid transcription)

As part of the introductory qualitative methods course I am taking, each of us must conduct interviews and transcribe them as part of a larger class project. I recorded the interviews using Easy Voice Recorder Free (for Android), and it worked well for what I needed it to do. (Note to self: Put your cell phone on silent before conducting an interview. The recording device buzzing each time a text message is received is both unprofessional and distracting on the recording.)

As I am not (yet?) a qualitative researcher, I tried to complete the transcribing as inexpensively as possible, and free is the best kind of inexpensive. Rather than using specialty qualitative data analysis software (such as Nvivo), I've opted to go for transcribing and coding in Microsoft Word. Simple, but effective enough for a project of this size. (Of course, there is no reason another program such as LibreOffice Writer could not be used to really get at the "free" goal.) To play back the audio, a colleague recommended Express Scribe, a program by NCH Software.

Express Scribe has a free version which allows one to play the audio and control basic functions (Stop, Rewind, Fast-Forward, Play (regular and slow), etc.) using the function (Fn) keys on one's keyboard in lieu of using a pedal, though it also supports pedals. The function keys are used even the Express Scribe isn't in focus, allowing one to control the audio playback without leaving Word. Super convenient, and the entire transcribing process was relatively painless thanks, in large part, to Express Scribe.

But it isn't all roses.

When I downloaded the free version of Express Scribe, I didn't realize that wasn't all I was getting. Apparently, the free version of Express Scribe (and possibly the paid version?) includes 'extras.' Let's explore the situation.

The first thing that I noticed is that Express Zip had associated itself with nearly every type of archive (e.g. compressed files) on my system. Furthermore, it had given itself a context-menu (right-click menu) entry as "Extract with Express Zip". The picture below shows what I'm talking about.

Express Zip appears in both the context menu and as the icon for the archive files.
Express Zip has weaseled its way into my computer. (Note that the file type icon is very similar to the icon for Express Scribe.)

'Okay, so what?' you might be inclined to say. Surely this is benevolence from NCH Software - free software that might make our lives easier. Except, when one double-clicks a file that has been associated with Express Zip or chooses "Extract with Express Zip" from the context menu, this is what appears:

A pop-up window saying that Express Zip is an install-on-demand component.
Express Zip isn't even installed! All that is installed is an advertisement for Express Zip.

All "an install-on-demand component is required for this operation" means in this case is that Express Zip isn't even really installed yet - just an advertisement for Express Zip is installed! I was curious as to what all Express Scribe had done to my computer, and pulled up the Set Associations window. (The easiest way that I've found to get to it in Windows 7 is to search for "Set Associations" in the Control Panel window.)

24 file types associated with Express Scribe in the Set Associations window. 20 are boxed as being unreasonable.
The 24 file types associated with Express Scribe. Of these, the 20 boxed in red are unreasonable associations.

Now, of the file types that Express Scribe has oh-so-graciously associated itself with, I count four types that seem reasonable and twenty that are unreasonable (boxed in red above). In fact, Express Scribe (Zip?) doesn't even know what to do with some file types (e.g. .iso, a file type for disc images) and instead describes them as "Unhandled Extension Handler Finder". Oh, joy.

"Now, Doug," you might be tempted to begin saying, "Surely you assented to installing these 'features' when you installed Express Scribe!" My retort would be a resounding, "Not so!" While the inclusion of "extras" is a burgeoning trend in free software (e.g. Oracle's Java attempting to install the Ask Toolbar if the option is not unchecked), I carefully read each page of an install to make sure that shit like this doesn't happen. Excuse the language. But not really. These shenanigans are infuriating to me. In fact, I went back through the installer to see what actually transpired. Check out the next two images.

The License Agreement which gives only a hint about the "install-on-demand" components.
The License Agreement which gives only a hint about the "install-on-demand" components.
Every box corresponding to optional software that Express Scribe tries to install is unchecked.
Who has two thumbs and unchecked every single box for optional software to install? This guy.

As shown in the images above, even if all boxes for optional software are unchecked, there are still things installed besides Express Scribe. These "install-on-demand" components are only hinted at in the License Agreement, and one may reasonably assume (as I did), that the components referred to were the ones recommended on the following page. They weren't. Let's see what was actually installed.

NCH Software Suite in the Start Menu program list. I boxed Express Scribe in green because this was what I actually wanted to install.
NCH Software Suite in the Start Menu program list. I boxed Express Scribe in green because this was what I actually wanted to install.

The "NCH Software Suite" comprises no fewer than seventeen install-on-demand components. Keep in mind that none of these seventeen components are actually installed; rather, these are effectively advertisements for them.

So now we have a clear idea of the problem arising from installing Express Scribe. Even when a user is careful and chooses to not select any optional components for installation, Express Scribe infiltrates the system to associate itself with unrelated files to offer you advertisements using 'components' that you did not choose to install. This is the sort of behavior that malware undertakes and, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

cannot recommend Express Scribe or any software created by NCH to colleagues. In fact, I will actively recommend against using it whenever possible. I am not presently aware of a free (open-source or otherwise) alternative solution, but I cannot imagine that one does not exist (or that one would be easy to create). If you know of one, please leave a comment saying what it is and where to get it.

A dialog box confirming that the uninstall was completed.
A standard uninstall may do the trick for removing Express Scribe and the NCH Software Suite.

On my main computer (running Windows 7 Professional x64), uninstalling Express Scribe through Programs and Features in Control Panel seemed to remove the NCH Software Suite and the Express Zip context menu entry. I didn't have quite the same luck on another computer I use, and, if I can duplicate the problems, I will put up a guide for eliminating all traces of this software in the situation that a regular uninstall isn't sufficient.

A note to all software developers: I control what is installed on my computer, not you. Sneaking extra software onto my computer isn't cute or clever. Rather, this is the behavior of malicious software. If your software does this, as Express Scribe does, it is malicious - no matter how useful such software might be.

Update 2015-03-23: I'm working an open-source alternative to ExpressScribe called TranscribeSharp. An early preview release is available here.


On Elsevier buying Mendeley

[Update: Steve Dennis, a developer for Mendeley, posted a comment explaining a bit more about the data collection and privacy concerns some users have with Mendeley Desktop. It adds some pros and cons about the process outlined here.]

Two days ago (2013-04-08) Elsevier (the academic publishing company that is the subject of some controversy) bought Mendeley (the reference manager and a tool often mentioned when discussing 'open' research). The Mendeley Blog does a quick Q&A covering what changes will take place (they take the position that this will be better for everyone), while the folks over at The Chronicle examine the sale with a slightly more critical lens. Some accounts I follow on Twitter began using the hashtag #mendelete, taking an even more critical stance on the sale. (Someone has even made a guide to exporting data from and then deleting one's Mendeley account - useful, even if just for the exporting data portion.)

While it remains to be seen what changes will, in fact, take place, the simple fact remains that Mendeley is not open source and remains controlled by a company that does not have my (and your) best interests in mind. The most important thing for Elsevier is making money, and, for now, keeping Mendeley operating serves this goal. However, my work is too important to rely on a tool that somebody else controls. (I did a pretty thorough post on my views about this after the discontinuation of Google Reader.)

Now, Mendeley advertises itself as both a reference manager (think iTunes for PDFs) and a social network. This social network aspect has generated a lot of data, and many researchers seem to find it useful. Consequently, Mendeley has integrated their web services and their desktop client so that a single account is required to use both. Yes, an account is required to use the desktop software that would work perfectly well without an online account. Sure, it is enhanced by internet connectivity, but an internet connection is not required to organize my documents.

The login window that appears when Mendeley first launches.
When Mendeley first launches, there is no option to skip logging in.

But, an account is not really required. With a teeny bit of work, the Mendeley desktop software can be configured to work without a Mendeley account. This solution comes from the Mendeley support website, and is used to help people launch Mendeley when there are issues with the software and/or accounts. It is a 'feature' for support, but is certainly not something they advertise. The trick is to add --setting General_FirstRun:false (with two dashes, an underscore, and a colon) as an argument to the program when it launches. I'm doing this on Windows, but as Mendeley is cross-platform, it should ostensibly work on OS X and Linux, too. (Let me know in the comments if it does or doesn't work.)

To add this argument, right click the shortcut for Mendeley (e.g. the one on your desktop) and select properties. Then, add it to the box labeled "Target" outside of the quotation marks. Check out the image below.

Mendeley Desktop Properties window with the Target field circled
Notice the argument is outside the quotation mark and uses two dashes (-- not -).

After clicking Apply, you may need to grant Administrator approval for the changes to be saved, depending on your UAC settings. Adding this to the launcher skips the initial window that asks for your account information allowing you to use the offline features of Mendeley in peace. (You can add an account later by choosing "Tools" followed by "Options".)

Now, this option works with at least Mendeley Desktop 1.8.4, but there are no guarantees about 1.8.5 retaining this same feature. (Though there are many uses for this ability in a support context and removing it would be silly.) I feel somewhat assuaged knowing that I can use Mendeley on my computer whenever, wherever. Moreover, if I ever need to install Mendeley and their servers are unavailable, I can still use it.

I'm not Men-deleting my account. Not yet, at least. I'm still holding out hope that the program will be made open-source, assuaging even more of my concerns. There may still yet be hope according to something I saw from William Gunn, Mendeley's Head of Academic Outreach:

A conversation on Twitter between @TheDougW, @mrgunn, and @MendeleySupport.
Apparently open sourcing Mendeley is still being talked about.

So, open source is still being talked about, and the API is remaining open. These are promising signs. For the meantime, at least, I'm going to check out using Zotero in addition to Mendeley. I've been hearing some good things about Zotero, and it never hurts to have options. As the saying goes, "Two is one, one is none."


On a return to blogging after a hiatus

With the winter holiday I returned to my lazy, non-blogging habits. A New Year's resolution did little to change the situation. I suppose one just jumps in, though. I'll try to keep up with things more this semester. Really.

Plans for this semester

I'm currently taking a seminar on statistics education and an introductory course on qualitative methods. While the former is clearly my area of interest, the latter is proving to be more enjoyable than I had anticipated. One of the books for the course is Crotty's The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process which is a bit more abstract than I was expecting, focusing on epistemologies and theoretical perspectives. It is a refreshing change, and I'm currently working my way through Feyerabend's Against Method after having my views on post-positivism challenged. (They seemed to be most aligned with Popper before this academic year.) Other plans include a trip to San Diego for LOCUS-related things and In-N-Out Burger, insha'Allah.

Dealing with Protected/Secured PDFs

Occasionally I'll come across a PDF that is Protected/Secured (it says 'SECURED' in the title bar of Adobe Reader) which are rather annoying to deal with. I've been using Mendeley to organize the articles/books I've read, and I copy the abstract into the software so that it can be searched. Alas, one journal whose articles I often read secure every single PDF so that copying cannot be done. Really frustrating.

Thankfully, this "secured" state is not encrypted or password protected. From what I gather, the state is determined by setting a bit in the file to disable certain features and Adobe, upon finding this information, respects the file's instructions. Not all software respects the file's instructions, and those that don't allow copying without issue. Two such readers are Evince (part of GNOME) and Okular (part of KDE). Both are open source, and both at least have options for disabling the DRM on the files. They are also both available on Windows (as well as many other platforms and are exceedingly common on Linux); if you're just looking for a quick download on Windows, Evince might be better. Either way, problem solved.

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Fixing truncated strings in SAS

SAS, as powerful as it is, behaves oddly at times. The behavior is usually very well-documented, so it is just something that one has to account for. When SAS is creating a string variable, the maximum length it chooses is the length of the first value it encounters: any string longer than the first value is truncated (the end letters are just ignored). For example, if 'CAfter' and 'EBefore' are values, and 'CAfter' is encountered first, then the maximum value for all strings will be 6 and 'EBefore' will be shortened to 'EBefor'. If 'EBefore' were encountered first, there wouldn't be a problem. This can sometimes prove tricky if the data is read in unsorted once and then sorted later.

To correct this, one should manually specify the length the variable should be when it is created, like so:

data ling.vowel;
 set ling.vowel;
 length Group $ 7;
 Group = Class || When;
 obs = _N_;

In the above, the length of the variable Group is fixed at 7. (Group is created by concatenating the variables Class and When).

Sometimes, the truncation is caused instead when the data are imported. By default, SAS only looks at the first 20 observations in a datasetto determine the maximum length of string variables. This can be changed by adding a guessingrows=32767 statement to PROC import (32767 is the maximum value):

proc import datafile="&mypath/vot-data-0921.csv" out=ling.vot dbms=csv replace;

These are the two solutions I've found for truncated strings, and I was tired of having to find the SAS files that I had used them in.

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"End" key not working

Part of my issue with getting CompizFusion to work was the lack of working keyboard shortcuts. For example, Expo (the OS X Expose-like feature) would work when my mouse was placed in the correct corner but not when using <super>-e (the "super" key is what the "Win" key is called on Linux). One recommendation I saw online was to create a file in one's home directory called .xmodmaprc which contains

keycode 115 = Super_L
add Mod4 = Super_L

Not only did this not fix my problem, but I later discovered that my end key no longer worked. Unloading this file from xmodmap (removing the file and logging back in) returned my end key to working status. Two things I didn't think to try at the time:

  • Would End+e trigger expo?
  • I have Third Level enabled, and super is the key to change levels... would this have an effect?

Those are questions for another time, but getting the end key working again was enough for now.

(This is my current, working xmodmap configuration:

[Doug@FLASHMAN-SL ~]$ xmodmap
xmodmap: up to 3 keys per modifier, (keycodes in parentheses):

shift Shift_L (0x32), Shift_R (0x3e)
lock Caps_Lock (0x42)
control Control_L (0x25), Control_R (0x69)
mod1 Alt_L (0x40), Alt_R (0x6c), Meta_L (0xcd)
mod2 Num_Lock (0x4d)
mod4 Super_L (0xce), Hyper_L (0xcf)
mod5 ISO_Level3_Shift (0x5c), Mode_switch (0xcb)

Not sure what all it does, but it seems to get the job done.)

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