Captioning the Moment

By law, UK broadcasters must make sure that a minimum percentage of their output is subtitled. This week, I’ve been finding out how this is done.

Traditionally, a typist would be listering to the broadcast and entering the words using a stenography machine. These have a keyboard that accepts syllables rather than individual letters, and complete words would appear to viewers.

However, this method has been superseded by a technique called respeaking. Rather than a typist entering the words by hand, they listen to the audio and speak it into another microphone, where it’s converted into text by software.

So why not simply take the broadcast audio output and convert that directly into text? The computer would have to work out what is speech and to filter out any background noise such as applause, then it would need to be able to accommodate for different people’s accents and mannerisms. Lord Prescott, for instance, is notorious for not finishing his sentences.

Even today, a person can identify the correct content much more effectively than a machine, and can cope better with understanding one voice than thousands.

Respeaking also has two advantages over traditional stenography:

  1. It can take between two and five years of full-time training to use the keyboard at 200 words per minute. Respeakers can reach trainee standard after six months.
  2. The typist’s fingers are left free to make other adjustments, such as the position and colour of the text on the screen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to assist me in my own writing. While writing this entry, I opened too many browser tabs and other applications, leaving not enough memory to run the software. I could have rebooted the computer to free up space, but I instead typed it out by hand.

A Place to Speak

Over the years, I’ve been to poetry gigs in many different locations.

In most cases, there are only a few legal requirements, including the correct insurance, a PPL licence if music is involved, and an alcohol certificate if drink is served.

For this reason, pubs and cafés are a common choice, and many bookshops, theatres and libraries are able to help. And there are plenty of alternatives. A friend launched her novel in a bank, while my own Hotchpotch event has previously taken place on an ancient warship.

And now I have somewhere new to add to the list: a virtual reality studio. On Saturday, Second Space took over the place for one night only.

This studio is largely open-plan to allow two or more players to battle against each other wearing VR helmets. As a result, there’s an area large enough to seat 50 people comfortably.

The other unusual factor in this gig was the extent of technology involved. Each poet was accompanied by computer-generated fractal imagery such as you might find at a nightclub, plus short films screened between performers.

Even before I knew about this, I’d discussed with one of the owners the possibility of holding a special Hotchpotch there, as we’ll celebrate our 10th birthday in March 2020. From seeing how well the Second Space performance was staged, I’ll start making plans now and we’ll be all set for next year.

Paper View

Last week, a friend was complaining about a major writing competition that still only allows postal entries. I’d also submitted work because it’s a prestigious publication, but I agree with her point of view. Considering the hundreds of manuscripts that must be received – versus the tiny portion that makes the final cut – this seems a colossal waste of paper, not to mention the needless postage time and cost.

Many competitions offer the postal route as an alternative to an online submission, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any issue with posting work that must be physically held to be appreciated. But there are still a bunch who want normal prose and poetry to be sent on paper.

English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until the 1990s, this was how submissions were made. Internet access and e-mail accounts were generally the domain of academics and computer enthusiasts. Come the next decade, however, and newer technology began to creep into people’s homes. Nearly 17 years after the millennium, online access is nearly universal in the Western world, and postal submissions now look incredibly outdated.

That’s not to say I don’t like a paper book. In fact, some recent research has concluded that sales of e-books are falling. But a book is the final product; the process of gaining the interest of an editor or a competition judge ought to be as quick and cheap as possible.

Yet I would like to understand the other side of the argument. Do you run a publication that only wants submissions on paper? How does it benefit you? What would make you consider accepting online entries?

 

AMENDED Review of the Freewrite by Astrohaus.

Freewrite croppedImagine if a writer like Ernest Hemingway was reanimated and thrust into today’s world. Chances are that he would see a computer and recognise the QUERTY keyboard as it’s very similar to a typewriter, then figure out that the words appear on a TV screen instead of paper.

And like a typewriter, the Freewrite aims to do one task and do it well: to allow a writer to record words electronically without being distracted by the Internet or the many options of a word processing application.

I was an early backer of the project; as such, Astrohaus sent my unit last week. Having had time to evaluate its features, here are my conclusions.


The Freewrite is a sturdy beast weighing about 4lbs. There is no mouse, touchpad or touchscreen facility. Instead, you use the keyboard for almost every feature.

Unlike a modern laptop, the keys will last longer, being a chunky Cherry design reminscient of the BBC Microsystem. They make a satisfying clackety-clack, although this also makes it too loud to use in an average library. Like a typewriter, there are also no arrow keys, only a Backspace button, plus Pg Up and Pg Dn to view previous work without editing it. It’s ideal for the writer who wants to force him- or herself to write words without worrying about editing them.

Aside from the power key, there are two washing-machine-style switches: one controls the wi-fi – to back up only, not to surf the Web – and the other selects a folder so the writer can work on up to three documents concurrently. The screen is e-ink, the same technology used in a black-and-white Kindle. While a valuable battery-saver, it does take a little time to become accustomed to the inherent technical delay betwen pressing a key and seeing the character on-screen.

But the Freewrite does, in some ways, feel like a prototype that’s not quite ready for mass-production.

Consider the Send button, which instantly e-mails you a copy of what you’re writing. Nestled between Alt Gr and Special, it’s far too easy to hit it inadvertently and find multiple drafts in your inbox unexpectedly. The user also needs to press two buttons together to start a new note. Perhaps a similar approach to Send would save these accidental messages.

As I’m British, I chose the ISO keyboard, although an ANSI version is available. That might explain why the Alt Gr button acts so inconsistently. Hold it and type ‘abcdef’ and it should show ‘攢ðeđ’, but sometimes it shows nothing, and there’s no apparant explanation.

AMENDED CONTENT: In the first version of this entry, I said I was also baffled why it’s so difficult to use multiple cloud services simultaneously; the Freewrite currently supports Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive. I use them for different purposes: the former for local document backup, the latter for online-only or collaborative documents, and the other for short reminders. However, Astrohaus responded to me that in Advanced Settings, folders A, B and C can be mapped accordingly.

I’m also unable to edit any Evernote notes, as I’m told it’s ‘created in another application’. I’m aware this is the fault of Evernote, not Astrohaus.

It is possible to map individual folders through the online interface Postbox, but once it’s mapped – even in error – it’s apparantly impossible to disconnect the folder unless you delete it. Can’t someone be allowed to correct a potential mistake?

I would also care to see less overall reliance on Postbox; a basic setting such as font size, for starters, ought to be adjustable on the unit itself rather than through the Web. Every time the writer needs to use Postbox, it’s through a browser, and there’s a potential to be distracted – the very factor the Freewrite is trying to eliminate. It should only be neccessary to use a browser for retrieving backed-up files. The Special key is currently used only to scroll through display options. Any additional features could easily be accessed by using a Special+[button] combination.

There’s a further opportunity being wasted here as well: to bring the whole experience offline if the writer chooses. The Send button might be given a secondary function of sending a draft directly to a printer, and/or backing up onto a USB stick.

I’ve been struggling a little with the battery too. The Freewrite doesn’t seem to charge unless it’s switched off; other devices will charge while you’re using them, albeit more slowly. A percentage indicator showing the remaining power should be a given.


For all the negative points identified, I’m nonetheless convinced the Freewrite does the one thing it set out to do and does it well: provide a distraction-free writing experience. I’m typing this entry on the machine, and I’m finding it’s already forcing me to change my style. If I notice a mistake earlier on, I’ve been making a note in square brackets, eg, [two paras up, correct ‘sending’], then moving on.

It’s worth remembering that even large companies don’t always hit the mark with a new product. Early adopters of the iPhone will remember the major flaws that took a couple of versions to iron out. Similarly, the first Freewrite firmware update might solve some of the issues.

I’m confident the next generation will feel less like a proof of concept and more like a replacement laptop for the serious writer, but you can buy a good Windows PC for much less than the Freewrite’s $598 (£413) price-tag. The question is whether Astrohaus can capitalise on its unique selling point and convince writers that their flagship product is the better investment.

Between Two Stools.

I don’t think Rebecca Woodhead reads this blog, but in August’s Writing Magazine, she covers the subject of extroverts and introverts, as I did in a previous entry. But she takes it one step further, adding a middle category of ambivert.

My research shows this is not a horrendous neologism – in fact the term was invented in the 1920s – but I still hadn’t hitherto heard about this third way. It also turned up a wonderful WordPress post that goes into more depth about the subject than I will.

In the article, Woodhead argues that writers should aspire to be ambiverted and that few fall into the extrovert category. Yet in my experience, I’ve found that many already are extroverts; indeed I can think of a number who actively invite audience questions, or can’t wait to offer their views on a hot topic.

I can identify with the needs of an ambivert or introvert, as I’m quite fond of solitude. This is generally because I’m tackling a task that requires it, such as typing, editing, or reading – the very activities that make me a writer. But often, I’d much rather be reading my work out on stage, or answering audience questions, or negotiating with publishers.

Quite independently of the -vert spectrum, but not unrelated to it, I’ve been mulling over the notion of right- and left-brained people. It seems this theory is now outdated, as research shows that both halves of the brain generally work in tandem. Yet I still think my ‘dominant side’ has shifted at some point over the four years I’ve been writing fiction.

I have a BSc Music Technology degree because when I left school, I wanted to be in the music business or the radio industry. I used to delight in recording the perfect sound level, learning MIDI Commands, or editing video footage. In other words: what used to be termed left-brained activities. These days, I’m more inclined towards my fiction, speech-based radio stations and podcasts, and appreciating others’ artistic expressions. These were considered right-brained activities.
Perhaps I’ve always been at least partly right-brained but I hadn’t unlocked it until I discovered fiction. Alternatively, it’s maybe because I’ve had more success with writing, or at least more external validation, that I’m now subconsciously inclined towards chasing these rewards.

That external validation is a classic extrovert trait, and why I still place myself in that camp.

Giving The Finger.

As writers, we should all protect our most valuable tools of the trade: our fingers. Lately, I seem to have been using them a little too much. I’ve taken leave for a week, and I’ve seen a physiotherapist. So this post is brought to you by Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software.

This type of technology has improved enormously since Stephen Hawking was kitted out with a synthesiser. Only today, I found a CD-ROM containing ViaVoice 98. That was a nightmare to use. You. Had. To. Speak. Each. Word. Individually. Nowadays, you can speak in your everyday voice.

Dragon is actually relatively accurate, even though I have a Scottish accent. That said, it reset itself for no obvious reason as I was about to type this entry so I’ll need to recalibrate it. I don’t mind because the calibration text is excellent, including excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dogbert’s Management Handbook.

Just as handwriting can produce different results from typing, so can dictation. By speaking the words out loud, you can hear the cadence as you go along, or if you have a new idea while writing, you can record it before it’s forgotten.

One word of caution, though: it’s not cheap. Dragon for individuals starts at £79.99. Happily, if you own Microsoft Word, you already have this feature. Have a look at the Help menu to find it.

EDIT: Since writing this entry, I’ve been advised that the facility is not available in Office 2010 on XP.