Adapting, writing edition.

Adapting, writing edition.

I’ll preface this with the following: I no longer have the strength or manual dexterity to type with my right hand.

I could write a long post about this, the frustrations of gradual decline, the gradations between touch typing and right hand uselessness, but that’s an angsty topic for a different day. It is was it is, and adaptation is the new name of the game.

Writing via traditional interfaces has become difficult. I’d begun to give up on it in a general sense, outside what was strictly barely necessary for work. This sucks because historically I’d used writing as an outlet to blow off stress and get outside of the occasional morass of my own head. I’ve tried a lot of different adaptations, mostly to no gain. For the sake of this post I will go over one that failed my particular purposes and one that has not.

Didn’t work very well:
Voice to text.
It’s the obvious solution and one of the first I tried. For work related purposes, I ran into two main difficulties, technical and psychological, respectively. For general purposes, a third psychological one comes into play.

First, the technical: the dictionaries of V2T programs don’t play well with the jargon plagued world of scientific writing. They can be added to, but that’s a painfully slow process when it seems like every other word had to be taught. Along with every grammatical variant of it. Neurogenesis. Neurodegenerative. Neurodegeneration. Then add the blizzard of weird acronyms, along with all the cutesy capitalization games scientists like to play when naming their flashy new technique… In the end it felt less like I was writing and more like ii was training some machine learning program.

Perhaps if I invested more time, just sat there and read the bibliography of my last grant application until it got everything right, this problem would have gone away (but, oh, then trapped with that particular program forever, trying to figure out how to synch libraries across devises and versions. Gah) but the other reasons loomed large enough to dissuade me from the investment.

Psychological reason the first: it’s difficult to speak the way I need to write. For scientific writing and its terse structured prose in particular but even for creative writing. Our brains are remarkably good at deconvolving spoken language, and in turn, don’t formulate thoughts into perfect, succinct, grammatically correct statements. Sitting at a keyboard gives us ample time to think and rethink an idea into a statement. This does not come naturally when speaking. There’s a reason why, when practising a talk, we often write it out first. We’re transliterating, without realizing it.

Psychological reason the second: I can’t bring myself to talk at my computer if anyone else is in the room. Just can’t. (Even if this is just overactive self consciousness, I’ll also note that the mike picked up background noise, leading to some hilarious results involving snippets of ambient conversation rudely barging into my proto-grant.)

So the headset mike lies unused next to my computer. Alas.

The caveat before the thing that worked part: while I have found some things that help with writing in general, scientific writing still forces me back to a keyboard, hunting and pecking with my non-dominant hand until my fingertips ache.

Is working unexpectedly well:
Writing on my phone using a swipe based keyboard.
I can do this far faster than I can mono-type on the expanse of a full keyboard, using either my left thumb or a stylus in my right hand. I’ve used both Swype and flexsey, though I currently use Swype as it seems to do a better job interpreting my wildly inaccurate scrawlings. They suffer similar dictionary problems as V2T but they learn as you go and typing something out and hitting ‘add to secondary’ somehow seems less arduous than repeating myself at my computer over and over again. I’ve been amazed at how accurate this input method can be, particularly with words I tend to misspell. Turns out, I can usually get the right word even if I just sort of wing it with the swiping. Even when my hand is a bit shaky. Preposterous. Perfunctory. Predilection. Yep, all of those came out correct in less than a second.
Juxtaposed. Jurisprudence. Jugular.

The strange thing is that the swipe keyboard basically collapses words into complex letters, and thanks to internal mapping of the qwerty layout, I already I know this odd new written language. It’s like discovering I know some insanely efficient shorthand that corrects my atrocious spelling as I go. The fact that it’s particularly forgiving in terms of how accurately you need to hit letters is the key for me. I can keep my hand braced and barely move my fingers, forgoing the need for particularly dexterous coordination.

I’ve taken up writing as a creative outlet again. The idea of putting words into text no longer daunts me. I imagine my stylus as a quill, my phone as a parchment, and marvel at the way technology has brought written communication full circle, except this parchment syncs with the cloud and this quill writes with a tiny capacitive tip that needs neither ink nor batteries.

It’s not perfect, but it’s something.


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