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Writing about History in 2011


Last January I reported on the way technology is changing the craft of writing history. Just one year later, things have changed radically again. For example, I am talking this article into my computer hands-free. When I speak, the typed words appear on the screen. (Continued below)



Speech recognition software is not a new thing. Your new cell phone or car may already respond to verbal commands. Soon all computers will.  But getting a machine to accurately take complex dictation has been a long time coming. I purchased a popular software called Dragon Naturally Speaking because the program (including the headset) dropped in price to under $40.

dragon naturally speaking softwareIt took about 20 minutes to “train” the software to respond to my voice. It spells about 95% of the words correctly on the first pass. Repairing errors requires learning voice commands and the user must remember to tell the machine where to put the punctuation and when to start a new paragraph.  

Okay, I’m back to keyboard typing now. I don’t use the speech software often, but it has one incredible advantage for history research because I am constantly transcribing old newspapers. That is a tedious job and not even the best optical scanners can effectively turn an 18th century copy of the New Hampshire Gazette into digital text. So now I simply read the old newspaper aloud into a microphone, and my robot secretary does the rest.  

Writing in the cloud  

Keeping track of thousands of notes and computer files and photos for future articles and books is a daunting task. I’m usually working on five or six articles at the same time. It can take years to fully flesh out a single history column and the pieces can easily get lost. Last year I dappled with an online note taking system called Today I couldn’t live without it.  

To the right of my desk there are over 200 manila folders with ideas, many sent in by Herald readers that I hope to develop into newspaper articles. When an article moves to the top of the list, I create a virtual folder in Evernote and upload everything related to the topic – pictures, Web pages, clippings, audio files, emails, quotes, random thoughts. The program holds and sorts any data in any medium. 

Because Evernote is “in the cloud” I can access my files from anywhere. Because it is also a database, I can sort and search every entry instantly. Evernote can even recognize words that are inside a picture – so it can “read” a road sign inside a photograph. Often the software spots connections that I have missed.   

Using this program I can now take notes, for example, on a computer at the Portsmouth Athenaeum or the public library, and access it from my office, or even from a cell phone. I keep a backup on my hard-drive, just in case, but Evernote has been so successful that the company recently announced it has received $20 million in investor funds. – and it’s free to online users. Yes, free, which fits my budget.   

As a book author and journalist my greatest fear is a computer crash just before a publishing deadline. It has happened and files have disappeared. Last year my technology guru set up a back-up system using a popular cloud Web site called Dropbox. As I am typing a new article, like this one, it is available instantly on a separate computer set up and running in another part of the house. If one machine crashes, I simply move to the other. If they both explode, the files are still saved and instantly available to me online. I sleep easier now.  

CONTINUE Hi-Tech History Writing 

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