Monday, 1 February 2010

Automatic writing


I wish! Finding time to write blog posts is always something of a struggle (and of course it was idiotic to land myself with two blogs to keep up) so I find myself eagerly seeking new ways to make it easier. I already travel almost everywhere with a laptop, but evenings in hotel rooms or long train journeys are often spent working rather than relaxing. Posting by phone is beyond me - I am a slow texter, writing words in full and scrupulously correcting mistyped letters.

What I really wanted, I mused, was a device that would transcribe my thoughts as I look out of the train window. This reminded me of a Russian short story I read many years ago, about an inventor and writer who developed a machine that would record his thoughts. With such a device, he thought, he could write masterpieces! So he settled down with his machine to compose his magnum opus, only to find later when he looked at the tape, that it read something like, "Sitting by the blue Black Sea...why is the Black Sea blue?...why is it called the Black Sea when it looks blue?..." and so on, at great length. I did wonder about a dictaphone, since I already use voice recognition software, but that requires privacy, and is consequently of limited use. Other people may regard it as okay to sit on the train and talk into a recorder - I don't. (Actually, there is something of a problem with the voice recognition set-up, as I always forget to turn off the radio, and my voice, dictating, gets muddled up with Jenni Murray talking about female innards, or Martha Kearney sounding like a slightly benign terrier as she makes some politician squirm.)

Well, late last year I took the plunge and bought one of these. There was a bit of a setback the first time I took it away with me - no longer attached by an umbilicus to the computer, it ceased to function, so that I found myself at a meeting, ready to take minutes, with nothing but digital paper, so I had to scrounge. Some protracted chasing of the supplier followed (I was put off buying it from Amazon by people who had trouble getting replacements, but in retrospect, I'd as soon fight with them as anyone else) and the new one eventually arrived just before Christmas, just when I didn't want to play with it.

The smart pen, which is a little on the fat side for comfort, writes on "dot paper" which you can even print yourself (though given the price of printer ink, I can't imagine there's much saving) or which can be bought in variously-sized numbered notebooks. When it's docked after writing, it uploads the used pages to your computer, where you can save them. As well as recording writing it can perform some computational functions and record sound (which is disconcerting when you turn it on by mistake and hear yourself wittering away).

One of my concerns was that the charge might not hold up for more than a day's meetings, but on a recent London trip I used it for several days without having to recharge. I could have recharged it with the laptop - it's just a USB connection to the charging "cradle" - but it's not really set up to use with more than one computer at a time, and I didn't want to compromise it on my first trip away from its parent. In fact, it can connect to more than one - you just have to remember that you must upload its information to both before deleting anything. Once the data is uploaded there is a web-based desktop to store it so that you can access it from anywhere. I must admit I haven't used this very sucessfully yet, but that may be a function of my hopeless broadband rather than a software failing. Social networking is available through this site, but that's not something I am likely to make much use of. Much more practical, from my point of view, is the associated OCR software which translates my scrawl into text that can be transferred to Word.

I've written a couple of blog posts with the pen - not this one - and minuted a number of meetings. My minuting style will have to undergo some change for me to turn the uploaded text into a proper record: I am having to remember not to use the abbreviations I spent years honing, and to write more clearly than I tend to: unlike the voice recognition software, the OCR doesn't learn my personal idiosyncrasies. (Of course, it wouldn't be any use at all if I wrote in shorthand, but happily, I never learnt.) Despite the fatness of the pen, I didn't notice my hand cramping more than usual after a day of writing. One thing you do have to watch - it rolls very readily. A number of reviewers reported having pens roll onto the floor, but this can be combated by wrapping a small elastic band round the top (unaesthetic) or just Being Very Careful (my preferred option, until it does barrel its way off a table, at which point I'll regret ignoring the advice).

Altogether, I'm reasonably pleased with it so far. Perhaps I should add that the pen comes in black (to match my clothes) or silver, with 2 and 4GB memories. I have no idea how the latter works in terms of everyday use, though I went for the 2GB version. I don't plan on using audio recording much, so I can't imagine it will be an issue. I'll try to remember to post an update later in the year. One caveat: they are pretty expensive, and I shouldn't think they are going to come down in price anytime soon. And I wonder if the new Android/Google phones might start to fulfill many of the functions before long.

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