Thursday, January 11, 2007

The method

A fascinating peek behind this particular magician's curtain:

Why all this need for speech? Long after we’ve fully retooled for printed silence, we still feel residual meaning in the wake of how things sound. Speech and writing share some major neural circuitry, much of it auditory. All readers, even the fast ones, subvocalize. That’s why so many writers — like Flaubert, shouting his sentences in his gueuloir — test the rightness of their words out loud.

What could be less conducive to thought’s cadences than stopping every time your short-term memory fills to pass those large-scale musical phrases through your fingers, one tedious letter at a time? You’d be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow. The 130-year-old qwerty keyboard may even have been designed to slow fingers and prevent key jamming. We compose on keys the way dogs walk on two legs. However good we get, the act will always be a little freakish.

The faster I speak, the better my tablet PC transcribes. It won’t choke, even at bursts over 200 w.p.m. The real hitch remains accuracy. When in the groove, my speech software is remarkably precise, far more accurate than most typists. But no machine makes phonetic distinctions as fine as humans do, and my software’s recognition engine doesn’t model meaning. So where my fingers might stop at changing “sign” to “sing,” my tablet can turn my words hallucinatory without limit.

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