Tag Archives: Typing

The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.

Keys to the Kingdom

In this week’s Loose Wire Service column (which runs in print publications, more here), I write about those unsung heroes of productivity: programs that store globs of text for you so you don’t have to keep typing the same thing.

Last time I talked about how the keyboard is often a quicker way to launch programs and open files than the mouse. It’s just a question of knowing how. This time around I’d like to take the idea a step further: using the keyboard to cut down your usage of the keyboard.

A lot of what we type is the same: Our name. Our address. Thank you letters to Aunt Gertrude. Disclaimers. These are all tasks we could outsource. But to whom?

Well, it depends a bit on what you’re doing. If you’re working in something like Microsoft Word, you’ll find that there are features that let you insert chunks of text just by hitting a couple of keys. While this used to be straightforward enough in earlier versions of Word but it’s gotten more complicated in the latest version.

In fact, the feature is not included; you need to add it to the toolbar at the top of the Microsoft Word window (the program’s help will tell you how.) Once that’s done, though, it’s straightforward enough. Just select the text (and any graphics) you want to reproduce, and then hit the autotext button. Give the selection a name, and next time you want to insert it, just click on the autotext button and then the name of the saved text.

Microsoft, however, clearly don’t consider this an important feature, since they’ve dropped the best bit: being able to recall — i.e., insert — the text by not leaving the keyboard. This used to be done by assigning the block of text a keystroke code — dc, for example, to insert a standard disclaimer text — and then typing it and hitting Enter. Word 2007 won’t let you do that. (OpenOffice’s free office suite will, but the feature is not particularly easy to figure out, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

The problem with doing this is that any text you save can only be retrieved inside the program itself. Which makes it less of a time-saver and more of a time-waster. So if you’re writing an email, for example, you can’t access the text you stored in Microsoft Word. A better solution is to use a program that will insert text wherever you are.

This is where I’d recommend something called Texter, a free program created by the website Lifehacker (itself well worth a visit). Once installed, the software sits in your system tray (the bottom right hand corner of the screen) until you either double click or right click on the icon.

Adding text is straightforward: Just select the text you want to save, add a “hotstring” the keystrokes you want to use to recall it (dc, for example), and then the “trigger” — the key you hit after the hotstring to insert the text (you have the choice of Enter, Tab, Space or, none — meaning your saved text will be inserted straightaway.

Texter works well — and has lots of extra features you can explore. It won’t handle large blocks of text, however: It’s best for small bits of oft-typed text, like a note to typesetters to convert text to italics, or a sign-off (Best regards, Humphrey”).

A more powerful, and commercially minded, alternative is something called ActiveWords ($50), which allows you to do a lot more. (Think of it as developing macros for the less techy of us. Macros are scripts which automate oft-repeated functions or series of functions, like opening an email and replying to it, or selecting a word and then having your browser automatically look up the word on Google.)

ActiveWords also lets you do what I was talking about in my last column — assigning shortcuts to launching programs or opening files. It’s a wonderful piece of software and, if used well, removes the need to ever force your fingers to leave the keyboard. But it’s not worth getting unless you plan to make major changes to the way you work.

I use it for loading files buried in distant folders and for template text I sent to PR companies (though never readers; you get only my full un-scripted attention. Promise.), for inserting phone numbers (I can never remember my phone numbers for some reason) and addresses, as well as for more ambitious tasks like moving text from one program to another.

I’d suggest you start out with Texter and start building a list of the words, sentences or other text that you find yourself typing a lot. If you’re really getting into it a tryout of ActiveWords might be on the cards (the trial is for 60 days, rather than the usual 30; a smart move, since it might take you that long to really appreciate its power.)

A word of warning: Don’t put anything sacred or secret in one of your text strings in any of these programs. It’s tempting to store passwords and bank account numbers and other hard-to-remember and sensitive data.

If you’re looking for something that does that, you might want to check out RoboForm ($30) that can memorize passwords, fill in registration forms quickly and will encrypt your data. RoboForm will work in Internet Explorer and Firefox (Opera, another browser I must have recommended in the past because my wife uses it religiously, isn’t mentioned.)

The trick with these programs is not to dedicate a day to inserting lots of text strings you may never use, but to look over your own shoulder as you work and notice what text you type a lot of. Then get into the habit of saving that in whichever program you decide to use, and assigning a keystroke combination that makes sense to you and will be easy to remember. I guarantee you’ll save yourself time. You may even write more letters to Aunt Gertrude. I know she’d like that.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

How To Report on the Road

image

I’ve always been looking for the perfect way to report on the road — do you write shorthand notes, do you record it all and transcribe it later, do you use digital writing tools like Logitech’s io Pen? Or a combination? Each one I’ve done has fallen down, usually because I get bored transcribing or deciphering my notes. The result is a lot of stuff gets lost along the way.

At a recent conference I ran into a guy who seems to have the answer: Don Sambandaraksa, technology writer for The Bangkok Post, who manages to touch type so fast on a Think Outside Bluetooth keyboard that his fingers are a blur.

image For a big guy it’s impressive display (I’ve got some video I’ll try to upload at some point). He is able to ask questions and keep eye contact with the interviewee (admittedly, with a faraway gaze in his eyes, but that may well be his normal look) the whole time, and when I snuck a peek at what he was typing, it looked good. I tested him out afterwards, and it seems he can do it on most subjects, including obscure Javanese kings.

He then dumps it all in his computer and is able to file quickly back to head office. (He also takes photos and all sorts of stuff on the spot. He’s a citizen journalist in a whirlwind.)

I was sufficiently ashamed to try it out myself. I wish I’d brought a Nokia N800 with me, which would have worked better than the measly notes application on the N95. But I didn’t do too badly — though by no means as fast as The Don. I asked him whether it meant he couldn’t focus so much on what was being said, and ask the right questions, but he said no, he’d been typing since the age of 5 (!) so it was no biggie. And, if his questions were anything to go by, he’s probably right.

Skype Me And A Return To Innocence

Great piece today in The New York Times: ‘Internet Phone Service Creating Chatty Network’ on the openness of Skype users using the SkypeMe function to chat, and be chatted to, by strangers with only a nice chat in mind:

Skype users report unsolicited contacts every day, and contrary to such experiences with phone and e-mail, the calls are often welcomed.

As the author Ethan Todras-Whitehill points out, it’s like putting the clock back but with better features:

It felt like the early days of AOL, another environment in which people contacted others randomly. But voice brings to life the other person in a way that typing cannot, like hearing Mr. Einkamerer laugh at my jokes. The instant-messaging environment is anonymous; with voice, you cannot hide from the other person.

Must confess I haven’t done it, but I think I’ll try. During the short window when it won’t be abused by sleazeballs, marketers and scammers, it might be a nice way to meet interesting new folks.

Another Incentive To Leave The Office

I’m a big fan of AlphaSmart’s range of portable writing devices, which are aimed at students but are good for anyone with itchy feet who does a lot of typing and needs a device with a good keyboard, screen and battery life.

After the Dana, the Dana Wireless and the AlphaSmart 3000, the company has just launched another model which takes the thing a step or two further: the Neo, which has the same full-size keyboard but tackles a shortcoming or two in it predecessors — screen size and memory.

The Neo now has a much larger screen than its predecessors and twice as much memory (512 KB, which doesn’t sound much, but is enough for “hundreds of pages of single-spaced text”. The Neo can communicate with both Macs and Windows and costs $250. Pricey, I guess, for something that’s just a word processor, but these devices have their place, and I’d argue that’s not just the classroom. You can take them on weekend trips for when the muse strikes, on flights when you can’t be bothered firing up a laptop, or even to company meetings to take notes when a PDA+keyboard is too fiddly and the laptop too intrusive.