Category Archives: Productivity

The Pros and Cons of Dictation

If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve your writing. At times it’s not directly related to the craft itself. Sometimes it just has to do with your own efficiency and time management. One thing I like to do in order to save time is utilize dictation software to increase my writing pace.

This could mean turning out a rough draft a little quicker. Other times I use it to draft a blog within a matter of minutes. Thirdly, I use it to transcribe handwritten notes or drafts onto the computer because it’s more efficient to dictate then to write it again.

Dictation is a fantastic tool and it’s mentioned in two previous blog posts written by guest blogger Descript. However, it’s not without its downfalls. If you’re considering getting into dictation to quicken your writing pace, here are a few pros and cons that you may want to be aware of in order to better determine if dictation is truly for you.

Cons

1. It can make editing a bear, especially when it comes to writing fiction. If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction chances are your characters have names very unlike Bob and Sally. When you say an unusual name the dictation software will try and form it into a common word or phrase that it sounds similar to. When going back to edit, this can prolong the editing process because you constantly have to replace “coal” with “Cole.” And that’s not even a weird name!

Now I know what you’re thinking- just use the find and replace feature, right? Wrong. It won’t hear you the same every time and may slightly alter the phrase. Also, if it sounds like something that’s in the middle of a longer word it will replace that too and just make things even more of a headache.

While I find that it’s easier to use dictation for things like essays or blog posts, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it for fiction. I do use it for rough drafts. Sometimes I have to read over a sentence that makes absolutely no sense- read it out loud- to try and figure out what I was really trying to say.

2. There is a slight learning curve. When you have to say punctuation out loud such as, “comma, end quote, he said, period” it takes some getting used to. Some people choose to skip over punctuation during the initial phase and put it in later. You also have to think out loud. This is a challenge for me because a lot of my brainstorming and writing happens internally. Also, it may not be easy for everyone to lock themselves in a room away from family to get time to think out loud.

Pros

1. Whether you’re a fast or slow typist, either way, you can speak faster than you can type. I know that I can dictate up to 6000 words per hour. That is, if I don’t stop and take breaths. Obviously, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re going to write. Even if you get 4000 words in an hour with dictation, it’s better than typing at 1000 words for hour.

It can double your word count or it can cut your writing time in half so that you have more time to do other things such as reading or editing or whatever else you want to do. Maybe something that doesn’t involve writing?

2. If you have carpal tunnel, arthritis, or any kind of hand or wrist injury, this can save you a ton of pain and grief. Typing all day for hours on end takes its toll on your joints. Not to mention you’re either sitting down with butt in chair or standing still to do it. I personally don’t have the desire nor muscle coordination to work on my novel while walking on a treadmill but some people can manage it. The headset I use has a cord long enough to allow me to pace my office while dictating. It also allows me to shut my eyes, lay down on the floor and put myself in the scene, talking openly about what my imagination sees.

3. It improves your voice and public speaking skills. With practice, you become more clear in what you want to say and how you’re going to say it with less thinking. If you’re looking to become a better public speaker, dictation may just be the ticket.

4. Using an app on your phone it becomes much easier to take notes anywhere at any time. Granted, if you’re in a crowded train station it may be hard for your phone to pick up your voice among all the noise. But 9/10 if you’re taking notes into your phone, a quick memo will be recorded and you can come back to it later.

I’m not normally one to write just anywhere. It’s usually either a quiet coffee shop, a local writers center, an airport, or my home office. However, in attempts to be more prolific, it helps when I can dictate a quick note or idea into my phone. We all have those ideas at strange times or in strange places and then we think, “Oh, I’ll remember this later. I don’t need to write it down.” Raise your hand if you’ve had this thought…then later lost the idea.

If you can think of any other pros or cons, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you are already an avid dictator, please let me know which software you prefer and where you do most of your dictating.

Happy dictating.

RB

NaNoWriMo 2018: Baby Steps, Pacing, and Ye Holy Writing Time

As most of you know, NaNoWriMo 2018 has already begun. We are four days in and things are going rather well on my end. But as I promised, this month I will post two blogs a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays. And look! I’ve already fallen behind. But I’m okay with that and I’ll tell you why.

NaNoWriMo 2018

Previously this year I participated in the NaNo July Camp in which I challenged myself to post a new blog every day for 30 days. While it was an interesting and… challenging challenge (I guess that’s why they call it a challenge!) it really did push me to my limits and I eventually ended up burning out.

Not ideal…

But I proved to myself that I could accomplish the feat. It wasn’t always easy. I don’t see myself doing that challenge again. This month for NaNoWriMo 2018 I am finishing the edits of In Articulo Mortis while writing the second installment. I keep pushing back the release date for the first book because editing is taking a lot longer than I originally anticipated. Truth be told, the writing of the rough draft is the easiest part. All you have to do is put words down. They don’t have to make sense and characters’ names can change. It can be pure craziness but that’s part of why rough drafts are so much fun!

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” -Terry Pratchett.

Many times writers sit down to write and we may have a few scenes in mind or maybe a character but we don’t have it all figured out. Even “plotters” who painstaking outline their stories before sitting down to write that first draft will encounter some surprises along the way.

So while editing one novel and writing the second, I’m trying to uphold the promise of posting 2 blogs a week. A large part of my success this month is going to depend on how I finish out this 4 day weekend. I got a head start by using two days of vacation.

I’ve also been staying active on my Instagram account, engaging with other writers. So while NaNoWriMo 2018 is kicking off, there are two important lessons that I’ve learned. And I think some of this month’s blog posts are going to focus on the lessons I’ve learned from writing every day as opposed to only writing when I feel inspired.

NaNoWriMo Lessons Learned

If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, I’m sure you’ve come across 1,000,001 sayings, advice and clichés. But the thing is – they are all true. In today’s post let’s discuss Baby Steps and Writing Time.

Baby Steps

I’ve always held myself to really high expectations. I’m talking unrealistically high. I expect myself to come home from a full day of work and sit in front of the computer for hours on end and churn out the next Great American novel. And I expected it to be easy because I know that I’m a smart person and that I’m capable. However, I fall into this trap of making things way too hard on myself. It is so much easier to break a task into smaller portions to accomplish it.

Granted, I still have extra time on the weekends where it’s okay to spend a few hours in front of the computer trying to get the words out. However, this is a rare luxury. Even if you’re just getting 500 words down a day you’re making progress. Don’t get down and don’t be too hard on yourself because you’re not writing 10,000 words a day and some other author is. This can lead into the whole “don’t compare yourself to someone else’s progress” advice.

Every artist works at their own pace.

I’m sure some painters can paint a masterpiece in a week and some might take months or years. We’re all different and that’s okay. The importance is that you’re always moving forward and working toward your goal.

I’m currently reading a fanfiction that’s in progress and is such an inspiration to see the author post the new chapter every week – sometimes two a week – and each chapter is a little over 1000 words. This may be lightspeed to some people or this may be really slow to others. The point is, it doesn’t matter. This author is making progress every week, every day, towards their final destination. It’s okay to take baby steps. It’s better than taking no steps at all then beating yourself up for it because you didn’t write 10,000 words.

Keep Writing Time Holy

When you’re around other writers, they understand, “Hey, this is writing time. This is work time.” But when you’re around a lot of people who don’t write or who are not creative, they just don’t understand. It’s equally frustrating when no amount of explaining helps it sink in.

They see your hobby, or your life as an artist as fun and games. They don’t see it as work. And therefore they don’t respect as work. They often selfishly think, “He/she can write later. There is plenty of time for that, therefore they should be able to spend time with me doing this and that.” Wrong.

Family and friends can be selfish when it comes to your time.

It is very important that you tell your loved ones that your writing time is sacred. It’s work time. No, you can’t go to the movies right now. No, you can’t go out to dinner tonight. No, you can’t watch so-and-so’s baby. If you have a writing time scheduled, stick to it. If you don’t, you’re doing a huge disservice to yourself. And after all, you are in a relationship with yourself longer than anyone else in your life. Your relationship to yourself matters most.

It is vital to love yourself and honor your own promises before anyone else’s. And as for the people in your life, I guarantee there are others out there who will respect you, your time and your decision to be a writer. It may take some trial and error to find the right people but if I can find them, so can you!

Happy Writing!

-RB

A Brief History of ASR: Automatic Speech Recognition

Dear readers, I apologize for the month long hiatus but I assure you that it was much needed. Today’s post is a guest post. If you’re interested in writing one of these, please reach out to me via my contact page here.

This article is originally published at Descript.

This moment has been a long time coming. The technology behind speech recognition has been in development for over half a century, going through several periods of intense promise — and disappointment. So what changed to make ASR viable in commercial applications? And what exactly could these systems accomplish, long before any of us had heard of Siri?

The story of speech recognition is as much about the application of different approaches as the development of raw technology, though the two are inextricably linked. Over a period of decades, researchers would conceive of myriad ways to dissect language: by sounds, by structure — and with statistics.

Early Days

Human interest in recognizing and synthesizing speech dates back hundreds of years (at least!) — but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that our forebears built something recognizable as ASR.

1961 — IBM Shoebox

Among the earliest projects was a “digit recognizer” called Audrey, created by researchers at Bell Laboratories in 1952. Audrey could recognize spoken numerical digits by looking for audio fingerprints called formants — the distilled essences of sounds.

In the 1960s, IBM developed Shoebox — a system that could recognize digits and arithmetic commands like “plus” and “total”. Better yet, Shoebox could pass the math problem to an adding machine, which would calculate and print the answer.

Meanwhile researchers in Japan built hardware that could recognize the constituent parts of speech like vowels; other systems could evaluate the structure of speech to figure out where a word might end. And a team at University College in England could recognize 4 vowels and 9 consonants by analyzing phonemes, the discrete sounds of a language.

But while the field was taking incremental steps forward, it wasn’t necessarily clear where the path was heading. And then: disaster.

October 1969 The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

A Piercing Freeze

The turning point came in the form of a letter written by John R. Pierce in 1969.

Pierce had long since established himself as an engineer of international renown; among other achievements he coined the word transistor (now ubiquitous in engineering) and helped launch Echo I, the first-ever communications satellite. By 1969 he was an executive at Bell Labs, which had invested extensively in the development of speech recognition.

In an open letter³ published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Pierce laid out his concerns. Citing a “lush” funding environment in the aftermath of World War II and Sputnik, and the lack of accountability thereof, Pierce admonished the field for its lack of scientific rigor, asserting that there was too much wild experimentation going on:

“We all believe that a science of speech is possible, despite the scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.” — J.R. Pierce, 1969

Pierce put his employer’s money where his mouth was: he defunded Bell’s ASR programs, which wouldn’t be reinstated until after he resigned in 1971.

Progress Continues

Thankfully there was more optimism elsewhere. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPA (the agency now known as DARPA) funded a five-year program called Speech Understanding Research. This led to the creation of several new ASR systems, the most successful of which was Carnegie Mellon University’s Harpy, which could recognize just over 1000 words by 1976.

Meanwhile efforts from IBM and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories pushed the technology toward possible commercial applications. IBM prioritized speech transcription in the context of office correspondence, and Bell was concerned with ‘command and control’ scenarios: the precursors to the voice dialing and automated phone trees we know today.

Despite this progress, by the end of the 1970s ASR was still a long ways from being viable for anything but highly-specific use-cases.

This hurts my head, too.

The ‘80s: Markovs and More

A key turning point came with the popularization of Hidden Markov Models(HMMs) in the mid-1980s. This approach represented a significant shift “from simple pattern recognition methods, based on templates and a spectral distance measure, to a statistical method for speech processing”—which translated to a leap forward in accuracy.

A large part of the improvement in speech recognition systems since the late 1960s is due to the power of this statistical approach, coupled with the advances in computer technology necessary to implement HMMs.

HMMs took the industry by storm — but they were no overnight success. Jim Baker first applied them to speech recognition in the early 1970s at CMU, and the models themselves had been described by Leonard E. Baum in the ‘60s. It wasn’t until 1980, when Jack Ferguson gave a set of illuminating lectures at the Institute for Defense Analyses, that the technique began to disseminate more widely.

The success of HMMs validated the work of Frederick Jelinek at IBM’s Watson Research Center, who since the early 1970s had advocated for the use of statistical models to interpret speech, rather than trying to get computers to mimic the way humans digest language: through meaning, syntax, and grammar (a common approach at the time). As Jelinek later put it: “Airplanes don’t flap their wings.”

These data-driven approaches also facilitated progress that had as much to do with industry collaboration and accountability as individual eureka moments. With the increasing popularity of statistical models, the ASR field began coalescing around a suite of tests that would provide a standardized benchmark to compare to. This was further encouraged by the release of shared data sets: large corpuses of data that researchers could use to train and test their models on.

In other words: finally, there was an (imperfect) way to measure and compare success.

November 1990, Infoworld

Consumer Availability — The ‘90s

For better and worse, the 90s introduced consumers to automatic speech recognition in a form we’d recognize today. Dragon Dictate launched in 1990 for a staggering $9,000, touting a dictionary of 80,000 words and features like natural language processing (see the Infoworld article above).

These tools were time-consuming (the article claims otherwise, but Dragon became known for prompting users to ‘train’ the dictation software to their own voice). And it required that users speak in a stilted manner: Dragon could initially recognize only 30–40 words a minute; people typically talk around four times faster than that.

But it worked well enough for Dragon to grow into a business with hundreds of employees, and customers spanning healthcare, law, and more. By 1997 the company introduced Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which could capture words at a more fluid pace — and, at $150, a much lower price-tag.

Even so, there may have been as many grumbles as squeals of delight: to the degree that there is consumer skepticism around ASR today, some of the credit should go to the over-enthusiastic marketing of these early products. But without the efforts of industry pioneers James and Janet Baker (who founded Dragon Systems in 1982), the productization of ASR may have taken much longer.

November 1993, IEEE Communications Magazine

Whither Speech Recognition— The Sequel

25 years after J.R. Pierce’s paper was published, the IEEE published a follow-up titled Whither Speech Recognition: the Next 25 Years⁵, authored by two senior employees of Bell Laboratories (the same institution where Pierce worked).

The latter article surveys the state of the industry circa 1993, when the paper was published — and serves as a sort of rebuttal to the pessimism of the original. Among its takeaways:

  • The key issue with Pierce’s letter was his assumption that in order for speech recognition to become useful, computers would need to comprehend what words mean. Given the technology of the time, this was completely infeasible.
  • In a sense, Pierce was right: by 1993 computers had meager understanding of language—and in 2018, they’re still notoriously bad at discerning meaning.
  • Pierce’s mistake lay in his failure to anticipate the myriad ways speech recognition can be useful, even when the computer doesn’t know what the words actually mean.

The Whither sequel ends with a prognosis, forecasting where ASR would head in the years after 1993. The section is couched in cheeky hedges (“We confidently predict that at least one of these eight predictions will turn out to have been incorrect”) — but it’s intriguing all the same. Among their eight predictions:

  • “By the year 2000, more people will get remote information via voice dialogues than by typing commands on computer keyboards to access remote databases.”
  • “People will learn to modify their speech habits to use speech recognition devices, just as they have changed their speaking behavior to leave messages on answering machines. Even though they will learn how to use this technology, people will always complain about speech recognizers.”

The Dark Horse

In a forthcoming installment in this series, we’ll be exploring more recent developments and the current state of automatic speech recognition. Spoiler alert: neural networks have played a starring role.

But neural networks are actually as old as most of the approaches described here — they were introduced in the 1950s! It wasn’t until the computational power of the modern era (along with much larger data sets) that they changed the landscape.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stay tuned for our next post on Automatic Speech Recognition by following Descript on Medium, Twitter, or Facebook.

Timeline via Juang & Rabiner

This article is originally published at Descript.

The Top 6 Benefits of Writing

Hello, readers! My week hiatus from writing after that really intense month was bittersweet. On one hand, I felt that I was burning out at the end of July and needed a break. On the other hand, this past week has been one of the most emotional and stressful weeks I’ve experienced in a long time. At first I thought that it was just a weird phase. However, I have read in the past about how beneficial writing can be to one’s mental health. It prompted me to do some more research. Below, I have listed what my experience has led me to believe are the top 6 benefits of writing.

The Top 6 Benefits of Writing

1. Relaxation/Eliminates Stress

By getting my thoughts out on paper, I can unwind from the work day or get my ducks in a row for the day ahead. Writing helps me vent all of my frustrations or reflect on what I’m grateful for. It can also helps me put my struggles into perspective.

2. More Productive/Wakes Me Up

When I wake up a little earlier to get my morning pages done or work on my blog, I feel more productive. It allows me to start the day off right and wake my brain up before the commute to work. It helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something.

3. Learning New Things/Establishing Community

Whether it’s expanding your vocabulary, or learning about new topics by researching things you want to write about, writing helps you learn! Last month I was constantly learning. I was also constantly reading and connecting with other writers and bloggers.

4. Helps Memory

Writing is a mental exercise. It trains your brain in so many ways. You can stockpile ideas before you lose them or store memories from trips. I know I don’t want to forget that 7-course sushi dinner we had in D.C. or the artful displays of Fish Bone Alley in Gulfport, Mississippi (blog post to come). Some people use it to record their dreams and they end up finding it much easier to remember them when they wake up, after practice.

5. Better Sleep

Feeling grateful for my life, relaxing from a hectic day and getting my emotions down on paper can ease my mind into sleep faster. I sleep better when I write. And better sleep is never a bad thing!

6. Faster Typing/Writing Skills

At my day job I’m often teased because of my fast typing rate. People are always amazed, especially when I can type quickly without looking at the keyboard. When they ask how I do it, the answer is simple. It’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice. Practice. (That was a theater joke).

Still don’t believe me? Check out this fantastic blog post by Gregory Ciotti on the psychological benefits of writing: https://www.helpscout.net/blog/benefits-of-writing/

Happy Writing!

-RB

July Camp NaNoWriMo 2018: Blog Challenge Complete

Dear readers, the July Camp NaNoWriMo 2018 has come to an end and with it, my self-imposed blog-a-day challenge. I have to say, when I first got the idea for this challenge it was about three days before the start of July. It seems like yesterday. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up or that I’d run out of ideas. However, thanks to a remarkable camp cabin and all of you, I’ve been able to persevere.

What I Learned During July Camp NaNoWriMo 2018

Above all, I learned that I am more than capable of writing over 50,000 words in a month. In fact, much like my high school years of running cross country, I find myself crossing the finish line thinking that I could have pushed myself harder. There were nights I came home from work and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in front of a computer screen, but I found a way. There were days that I could’ve gotten ahead by writing multiple blog spots in spare time, but I didn’t.

This month has proved to me the importance of the phrase “slow and steady wins the race.” Too often do I have the notion set in my head that I can sit down and dictate an entire novel’s rough draft in a weekend. While I’m sure it’s possible, it wouldn’t be the greatest to edit. There is something very satisfying about seeing that NaNoWriMo progress bar go up a little each day. (I’ve been trying to create my own spreadsheet in MS Excel to track my words off-season. Any suggestions are appreciated in the comments below!)

Overall, I had a blast this month and proved to myself that I am capable of accomplishing what I set my mind to. While it’s something that I’ve been aware of before, sometimes we all need a little reminding.

What’s Next?

While I do plan to regularly post on my blog, going forward I will no longer be posting every single day. I’m sure my subscribers will be thankful to give their inboxes a break! I do look forward to spending more time on my fiction.

At the end of August, my novel, In Articulo Mortis, will be released for Kindle and in paperback in 2019. I will be making a few promotional posts and sharing excerpts . Other than that, I plan to continue travel and minimalism blog posts. I will also be accepting guest posts from other bloggers.

In addition, I’d like to start doing an “Author Spotlight” series. Perhaps once a month? Feel free to leave any suggestions or input in the comments below.

How Was Your July?

If you participated in July Camp NaNoWriMo 2018, how did it go for you? What did you learn from the experience? If you’re not a writer or didn’t participate, that’s OK! Please feel free to share your successes and stumbling blocks this month in the comments below!

Thanks for sticking with me!

-RB