.

 

Speaking

Trying to get things rolling again.

I knew the moment I told my neighbor about my new computer program that I had made a terrible mistake. “So you talk,” he said, “and it types the words out for you?”

“That's the idea,” I said. “I'm still training it. It takes a while. Sometimes it makes mistakes.”

“Let's see it in action,” he said, smiling.

I put on the headphones-microphone combo and he began to snicker. “Are you going to take my order? I'd like some nice fries.”

“Hello, ” I said into the microphone. “I am speaking into the computer.” In previous experiments it had worked fine. But now, with my neighbor watching me, I was tense and the speech became: “Andrew, IGT and again year.”

“How much did you pay for this fucker?” asked my neighbor.

“$150.”

“Well, I think it's giving me $150 worth of entertainment. Right now. If that's any consolation.”

“I swear to God, a lot of journalists and writers are using this thing.”

“Let's try something,” said my neighbor. “Try the word 'onomatopoeia'.”

“It's probably not ready for that,” I said “I mean you know—”

“Are you scared of onomatopoeia?”

I said it, and with the computers each pathetic attempt at interpretation he kept saying “$150.”

“On Ahmad UTF,” read the monitor. “I'm not a Kia. Panam´ to petit a. Otto Mott to petit. I know Montville petit a. I hope you don't hurt yourself from laughing so hard.” The last part is me addressing my neighbor.

Of course, to my neighbor, my enthusiasm did not make sense—I looked at the software and saw massive advances, technologies to did not exist 10 years ago, hypotheses made real. $150 for something that would get my words right 99% of the time seems like a miracle, to me. Even if I do have to say “full stop” every time I want a period to appear on the screen. But to anyone not so seduced by things digital, the process seemed rather dodgy. I pity the speech processing company's marketing department.

In truth, I bought the dictation software because the white screen has lately seemed impossible to fill. By talking to the computer, I reasoned, I might be able to come up with new ways of formulating my ideas. And the writer's blockage might fade a bit.

I had also, during the writing of my novel, created some sort of strange bringing feedback loop that starts when my fingers hit the keyboard and only finished when a cigarette is in my mouth, smoke in my lungs. This process is, needless to say, a disaster--the last thing a writer needs to do is associate writing with smoking, unless he has a death wish.

I remember learning to type: an early memory; I was 11. I would sit before my father's old Olivetti Speedball typewriter; it was perched on a heavy wooden desk in the attic of our house in Pennsylvania. The “Speedball” in the name referred to a round steel ball from which the raised letters of the alphabet emerged; the ball would spin when you pressed a letter, then smack against the page, leaving its alphanumeric impression in stern black or lively red ink. The the mark made, the speedball would spin back to its home position, ready for the next letter.

Somehow dictating to the machine does not make me crave nicotine as urgently as touching the keys does. Hopefully I can use this method--I'm using it now--to get some ideas down and to reinaugurate Ftrain.com, all without making last-minute pre-midnight runs to the convenience store on the corner for a seven dollar pack of cigarettes. I will train my computer to understand my voice, and my neighbor will be entertained by my attempts to be an active member of the future.


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Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.

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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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