Macworld Magazine, August 1995

The Desktop Critic by David Pogue

 

Look, Mac-No Hands!

One man’s quest to eliminate the keyboard

 

Caution: this isn’t an ordinary Desktop Critic column. Then again, this hasn’t been an ordinary experience. One fine night, I was the guest at an America Online live chat session: two hours, no breaks, typing furiously, spurred to ever tenser keyboarding by the unhappy comments of people whose questions still hadn’t been addressed. When I awoke the next day, my right wrist screamed in pain. I limped through the day, desperately avoiding such troublemakers as doorknobs, shirt buttons, and dental floss.

 

When the pain didn’t subside after several days, a doctor checked me out. The diagnosis: acute tendinitis.

 

A repetitive strain injury? Me? It didn’t make sense. I mean, I’d been typing 15 hours a day, with no breaks and not-so-hot posture, for ten years. Why should my wrist act up now? It wasn’t like I was under unusual stress,or anything—I mean, other than buying a first house, moving to a new state, and getting married.

 

But the doctor had good news. “I expect you’ll recover fully in several weeks. You just have to make one small change: don’t use your hand.”

 

Sure, I could change. I could slurp food through straws. I could dress in Velcro-lined jumpsuits. I could junk my piano, my pencils, and my floss.

 

But stop using the Mac? That was like telling a flutist to stop breathing for a few weeks. Alas, my new rigid, elbow-to-finger splint sentenced me to obeying the doctor’s orders. The timing stank, though; book and article deadlines loomed all around me.

 

Then it hit me: I could lick this thing. Hadn’t the Macintosh solved all my other problems? Filled with quiet resolve, I vowed to use brains, high technology, and the invincible Macintosh to outsmart my injury. The adventure had begun.

 

 

 

Half-Qwerty 1.2

With my right hand out of commission, I suddenly remembered my left. If only there were some way to type all the letters of the keyboard with one hand.

 

There is. It’s an extension called Half-Qwerty ($395; Matias Corporation). When you press the spacebar, Half-Qwerty turns the left half of the keyboard into the right half—and vice versa. For example, if you press the W key while the spacebar is down, the letter O appears. Getting your brain to flip-flop its instructions to your hands really isn’t as much of a challenge as you might think. Using my left hand alone, I was soon tapping along at 25 words per minute. Better than nothing, right?

 

Wrong. Unfortunately, I was no smarter about taking breaks with one hand than I’d been with two. Within days, I succeeded in trashing the tendons in my left wrist, too. Now both hands were killing me, and both were ensplinted.

 

Clearly, I was going to have to eliminate the keyboard altogether. I decided to call in reinforcements.

 

 

MacTemps

OK, I couldn’t type. But I could still think, couldn’t I? I called MacTemps, a national Macintosh temp agency. I asked them to send over somebody to help me write.

 

The young man who showed up was a model worker: friendly, Mac savvy, and even more eager to work than I was.

 

The writing proved to be no problem. I sat just behind him, dictating; he typed, handled disks, and managed the files.

 

Yes, the writing went fine; the editing is where everything fell apart. “Let’s scroll up,” I would say. “More, more—no, not that much. OK, see that word in the first paragraph? No, down a little—over, over…” It drove me (and probably the MacTemp) crazy.

 

There were other signs that a personal typist was not going to be my long-term solution. The schedule was one: as a card-carrying workaholic, I generally don’t observe nights or weekends. I couldn’t abide the thought of working only during working hours. The second problem was the cost: at $25 per hour, taking bathroom, phone, and meal breaks became a stressful luxury. (Pricing varies by city and skills.) Completing my book was beginning to look like a money-losing proposition. It was time to consider higher-tech solutions.

 

 

 

Power Secretary 2.0

By weight, Power Secretary (Articulate Systems) is probably one of the most expensive programs alive: $2495 for ten floppies and a microphone. But it actually does what it promises: it takes dictation. As you speak into the headset microphone, separating—your—words—like—this, the text magically appears in whatever program you’re using (unless it’s Word 5.1, which is incompatible).

 

This science-fictionish feat of voice recognition comes at a price, however; not just in dollars, but in disk space (15MB), memory (12MB), and equipment (16-bit sound required, provided in my Quadra’s case by my $50 MediaVision sound card). There’s also a considerable investment of time required. You spend one hour training the program by uttering prepared sentences; it then takes about a week of full-time usage before the program’s dictation accuracy improves to tolerable levels.

 

Whenever Power Secretary gets a word wrong you say "correct word." A tiny window instantly appears, listing the program’s next nine guesses. You can select one of those choices vocally. Or, if the incorrect word was a term the program doesn’t know, you can spell it out using the pilot’s alphabet ("Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…"). Over time, after you’ve made enough of these corrections, you and the software come to know each other. Its accuracy—and your speed—improve dramatically. For a temporarily handless guy like me, it looked like the next few weeks might not be so unproductive after all.

 

There were still obstacles to utter Mac bliss, however. My noisy Manhattan environment was one. Power Secretary would thoughtfully attempt to transcribe every car horn, dog bark, or gunshot ricochet it could hear from the street, littering my writing with randomly inserted short words. Furthermore, homonyms freaked it out every time; eventually, I taught the program to distinguish, for example, to from too by pronouncing the latter in two syllables.

 

And Power Secretary handled only the typing. What about pointing, clicking, dragging? The doctor had said that as far as my inflamed tendons were concerned, tapping a mouse button all day was just as murderous as typing. The challenge now was to devise a means of manipulating the mouse, without a mouse.

 

 

Wacom ArtPad

My bright idea: a digitizing tablet. My brighter one: the Wacom ArtPad ($199; Wacom Technology). I had it in my head that these drawing tablets cost hundreds of dollars—but for some reason this particular model cost only $130 by mail order. It’s a hard plastic board, 7 inches square. It comes with a lightweight (no batteries required), cordless pen, which I could clutch even in my splint. You simply brush the pen across the tablet to move the cursor; bearing down slightly is the same as pressing the mouse button. I especially loved the accompanying control panel; it lets you adjust the added pressure necessary to trigger a click. For the sake of my hands, I set the slider almost to zero; thereafter, it seemed that merely thinking about the mouse button produced an actual click.

 

For several days, I used miraculous software (Power Secretary) to do my typing, and terrifically engineered hardware (the ArtPad) for clicking, dragging, and operating menus. Intellectually, I believed my problem was solved.

 

My wrists, however, disagreed. The pain in my right hand changed somewhat, but didn’t go away. I was bewildered—I mean, I was no longer typing, no longer clicking. In fact, I wasn’t using my right hand for anything anymore. Except holding the Wacom pen, of course.

 

The pen! I cursed my foolishness. No wonder the situation wasn’t improving. All day long, even when not using it, I was holding that pen, squeezing it tightly against my splint. I had replaced the occasional muscular stress of using the mouse with a full-time clenching. Clearly, my technological journey wasn’t over yet.

 

 

 

QuicKeys 3.01

Finally, in the middle of the night, I recalled reading something in the Power Secretary manual. Something about using QuicKeys, the macro program ($119; CE Software) in conjunction with the dictation software.

 

Sure enough, if you teach Power Secretary the names of your macros, you can trigger them by voice. Within an hour, I had set everything up so I could launch programs, manipulate menus, and close windows by voice command. And more to the point, I created a QuicKey to generate a mouse click whenever I spoke the words click here. For editing and selecting text, I also taught Power Secretary to understand utterances like page up, double-click, and shift-click.

 

At last I had achieved the seemingly impossible: I could now write, edit, and maneuver on the Mac completely hands-free. OK, not completely: I still used my right hand, in its splint, to nudge the mouse into position before clicking it verbally. But in general I was able to carry on happily, my hands resting at my sides. I thought I’d beaten the system.

 

I was wrong.

 

 

Drixoral Cold & Flu

Just as I started getting cocky, it hit me like a locomotive: a flu virus that made the one in the movie Outbreak look like the sniffles. I woke up one day sounding like Darth Vader with phlegm. You can probably guess the punch line: my voice recognition software no longer recognized my voice. My attempts at writing came out looking like the raving of an incoherent madman. Even more than usual, I mean.

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t forced to sit out the three-week ordeal this flu turned out to be. An Articulate Systems representative suggested that I duplicate my 3MB Power Secretary voice file, in which the program stores the sound of my voice. He proposed that I work with the duplicate during my illness, in effect increasing the program’s understanding of the sick me. When I was well again, I could switch back to my original voice file with no retraining penalty.

 

Sure enough, within a day or two, Power Secretary had caught on. It adjusted its conception of my voice patterns, and the two of us got back to work.

 

The Upshot

I’m happy to report that, after 11 weeks, the pain in my wrists began to subside. Hand therapy helped a lot; the gradual passing of major life stresses helped too. But I’m convinced that, by allowing my hands to rest at last, my voice and macro software turned the tide and allowed my healing to begin.

 

At this writing, I still don’t use the keyboard; I wrote this column, as I did the last several, entirely by speech dictation. By trading up to a Power Mac and a native-mode word processor, l’ve goosed up the speed considerably, too. I can now dictate nearly as fast as I used to type. An added bonus: while Power Secretary may get an occasional word wrong, it never makes a spelling mistake.

 

All of which leaves my rapidly healing hands free for more important tasks, like buttoning shirts, flipping pages, and turning doorknobs.

 

Oh, yeah—and don’t forger flossing.

Contributing editor David Pogue’s latest book is Mac FAQs [Frequently Asked Questions] (IDG Books Worldwide, 1995). May this column serve as an explanation to his neighbors as to why he spends all day talking to himself.