A Date with a Dragon Down the Carpal Tunnel

So you might have noticed that I’ve gone quiet the last couple of weeks. All signals have been cut, so to speak, since I’ve got the geeky equivalent of a mogul skier’s torn ACL: that is, carpal tunnel syndrome (or, perhaps, RSI).

It blows. In every respect it sucks. It’s all-encompassing pain, and it’s a constant reminder of how often I use my hands and, unfortunately, how I’ve neglected to take care of them. Even though carpal tunnel is typically aggravated by genetic predisposition (which I’ve got: thanks Mom, thanks Grandma) there are a great any things you can do and use to avoid it, including exercises, posture, and gadgets. But it still takes time to heal. Not good news for a writer, y’know?

Even though my hands are improving slowly, I still can’t type for very long and I have to be extremely careful about the surface I’m typing on. For example, I learned that the laptop on the kitchen table method (my usual approach) is entirely out for me. Talk about excruciating pain! Although I certainly want to be able to make an investment in my writing career, the timing of this injury is terrible. Day by day I have been finding myself more and more frustrated with the lack of progress. The pain just hasn’t wanted to go away, in spite of the fact that I’ve been resting, taking NSAIDs, and wearing arm splints (which do not make me look like Wonder Woman, no matter how much I squint).

It’s been a humbling experience to say the least. I’m used to being able to do everything at once, to multitask, to be a mom, wife, writer—I typically cough up over 2K words a day between fiction and blogging. At this rate it’s been hard enough just to get daily routine accomplished (laundry, cooking, childrearing: all painful!).

As soon as I realized that the recovery was going to take quite a while, I started looking into software that might make my life easier. One of the predominant names in dictation software is Dragon, which, despite its rather geeky name is pretty business-oriented. People in the health care business often rely on software like Dragon Naturally Speaking in order to dictate large amounts of notes from doctors.

In spite of all the good reviews of Dragon, one of the difficult issues has to do with the fact that it is a heck of a lot of money for me to consider spending at the moment, no matter how much my hands hurt. Bloggers aren’t typically rolling in the dough, as you might imagine. And not to mention that owning a Mac means putting up over $150 more for Dragon, which is actually named Dictate on the Mac platform, than for the standard Windows version. Lucky me. And of course, considering the bad reputation that much speech-to-text software has, I worried that if I spent the $200, I would end up with a product that didn’t even work. Looking for other options, I was unable to find any speech to text software that was either free, trial, or open source. I was ready to give up.

But as it turns out, I was simply thinking in the wrong direction.

Believe it or not, there is an app for that. Nuance, Dragon’s parent company, released a free version of their popular product for the iPod and iPhone demographic. I must admit at first I was positive that it wouldn’t work. However, I have written half of this article using the app from my iPod Touch. Can you tell which one?

There are a few immediate drawbacks to the app. First, you need a mic if you own an iPod. I have a pair of $5.99 earbuds that came with a mic, and they work just fine. But from a usability standpoint, one of the problems common with the Dragon app is that with too much text the entire application stalls and sometimes quits. So you have to know your limitations. There is also no way to save text once it’s been transcribed. That means that I have to dictate small bits of information and e-mail the text to myself as quickly as possible. The result is quite a few e-mails in my inbox. But that saves a great deal of sore fingers, so I’m willing to compromise (this article had 7 separate emails).

And while the speech recognition is quite impressive for a free application, it does require quite a bit of editing after it’s been turned to text. While it does appear to learn words after correction, it’s not always accurate. To give you an idea what text might look like without being edited, here’s a section from The Hobbit, read aloud without any editing:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and in the Mideast now, nor yet a July, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on Ortanique: it was the hobbit hole, and that means comfort.

So, no. I probably won’t be using this to dictate my current novel in progress. But for blogging, emailing, and general note-taking, it definitely does the trick. It helps my hands, it lets me do what I love, and it’s entirely free. That’s the technology age for you. From beginning to end, this article took about an hour and a half to write, about a half hour more than normal. But it’s still a huge improvement over not writing at all! I’ll certainly take it. In the mean time, I can start writing again and hopefully save up for the better functioning full version.