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Leslie Goldman Headshot

Look, Mom! I'm Blogging with No Hands!

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Note: No hands were used/harmed in the process of writing this blog.

Modern-day technology has led to a slew of special 21st-century disorders, the likes of which have never before seen. Wii Elbow, Blackberry thumb, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Laptop Neck strike men and women in the prime of their lives, leaving us physically crippled and emotionally distraught as we find ourselves actually (gasp!) picking up the phone to call someone rather than texting them.

A few months ago, I joined the more than 3% of the US population afflicted with carpal tunnel. Prior to that, I was sidelined by a bulging disc which doctors believe was exacerbated, if not brought on, by years of peering down at a laptop, cell phone scrunched between my ear and shoulder while taking notes (I am a writer by trade.) If you've ever walked into a Starbucks only to see two dozen college students or work-from-homers hunched over their portable computers, then you've seen me. Or at least the former me. Besides completely revamping my workspace, I have, sadly, been forced to reduce my workload as my body heals. And despite what some people may have you believe, sitting around watching marathons of The Real Housewives of Orange County while your friends work, workout, or otherwise lead productive lives can be quite depressing.

"You should just get that voice software," strangers and friends alike suggested. "Clearly, you're not a writer," I would silently judge in return. Letting words flow from your mind down your arms and into a keyboard is an art, impossible to be done purely via spoken word. The way people speak is totally different than the way we write. But when a hand surgeon told me he dictates all of his patient notes via Dragon Naturally Speaking Speech Recognition Software to spare his hands from outcomes such as mine, it hit me: I need this.

Dragon sent me the complete line-up: the software; a headset and Bluetooth; laminated Common Commands; and a number for tech support, which wound up being incredibly useful for this tech-illiterate writer. (I should note, I was sent the product as a member of the media, but comprehensive tech support is available for all customers. I should also note, you may need to turn off your antivirus software before installing Dragon, as it may be mis-recognized as foreign.)

The installation process was fairly easy. While initializing the software, Dragon actually searches your documents and e-mails for common words and phrases, learning your personal language style and preparing to recognize words that commonly precede or proceed other words. In this way, it adopts, say, medical vocab faster for a health writer and historical terms faster for a history professor.

According to Nuance Communication, Inc., which represents the company, Dragon is up to 99% accurate and can work at speeds of up to 160 words per minute (most people speak about 120 WPM). Not even the fastest, most intellectually voluptuous Mad Men secretary can compete with those numbers. And considering the furious way I hunt and peck using two fingers, banging out text as if it were a concerto, it's hands-sparing, too.

The software works with pretty much all of your favorite applications: Microsoft Word, Outlook, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and AOL Instant Messenger. That means I can say, "Search Google for Arianna Huffington" and Dragon will open the search engine, presenting me with my results... or I can say, "E-mail Mom" and my Hotmail subject box will populate with her e-mail address (MommyGoldman@lovestoknit.com, FYI. She loves animal forwards.). You can also create shortcuts for phrases you may use over and over. For example instead of having to type/say "Hello, my name is Leslie Goldman and I am a writer with Huffington Post," I can just say "HuffPo" and the whole sentence appears.

To be honest, it was a bit rough at first. Software aside, speaking out sentences slowly is much different than thinking them and simultaneously writing them. With the headset on, I felt a bit like an operator at a call center; speaking in such slow, deliberate, measured way made me feel like my attorney brother dictating a letter for his assistant. It's just not that natural to actually say the punctuation you want; when you write, you just hit the Comma key to indicate a pause, but with voice recognition software, you have to actually say "comma."( I actually had to hand-type that last sentence because, my God, there would need to be a little genius sitting in my headset to correctly determine which words I truly wanted spelled out.) And if you want to delete something you say "Scratch that" versus simply hitting the delete button.

It takes time for Dragon to learn your language or speaking patterns; as a result, the first time I said "apart" it was translated as "apartheid." "Phrases" registered as "freezes." But according to the pamphlet, the system will start to expect certain words or phrases as it learns my language and voice and soon I will be able to rattle off diseases, psychiatric conditions, and funky names for new workout routines with ease. The more I use it the better it will learn and the more I correct it, the easier a time it will have a recognizing what it hears. There are also a series of training readings you can do -- I chose to read from a Dave Barry excerpt about cyberspace, and later recited Kennedy's inaugural address while seated at my kitchen table.

One of the most fascinating things, I found, is watching your words appear in a small yellow box as you speak them before they pop up on the screen... actually seeing the computer "think" about whether it believes you mean "its" or "it's," and then correctly make the grammatical call, is rather hypnotic and feels like you've stepped into the future.

A note to chronic multitaskers: The software gets feisty when multiple conversations are being had. Do not, for example, attempt to schedule a haircut with an earbud in your right ear while the microphone is on and hooked over your left ear or you'll wind up with words like "highlights" and "Tuesday with Ashley at noon" sprinkled throughout your notes for your Monday afternoon staff meeting.

My first official Dragon-interpreted sentence was "I am now starting to write without my hands" followed by a small giggle. On the screen, it came out, "I am now starting to write without my hands yeah 888." The "888" was Dragon's interpretation of my laugh, which I imagine it interpreted as "Hee, hee, hee." And here is what my first e-mail looked like, uncorrected:

Hi Dan,

This is my first voice activated!! Very exciting. But a little tricky anyhow I wanted you to be the first person to receive it.

Love you exquisite white return return you should resemble please

That last line comes off as sounding eclectically romantic but I must admit, I have no idea what "exquisite white" means and somehow, instead of signing off with my name, it wrote "return return you should resemble please." But we can't all be perfect and with more practice, soon I'll be firing off all sorts of purposefully lovey-dovey e-love letters to my man (as opposed to "earlobe letters," which the software just heard.) By the way, my husband's response to my first venture in voice activated online communication?

It's funny, because from the e-mail I can't even tell that you're now some kind of animatronic half-human.

I may be half-human, but only because I'm now part-Dragon. And while it might have taken me a solid three hours to speak/write this blog, I'm optimistic that pretty soon, I'll be nearing 100% -- scratch that -- 99% accuracy.