meep (meep) wrote,

Capturing an unexpected moment

I'm nearing the end of a book called The Magic of Terry Pratchett, a mostly literary biography of the author.

Pratchett had a form of early dementia which had effects on his typing ability (partly how it was detected), and here is the bit that I wasn't expecting:

[Pratchett] could dictate to Wilkins, but as dedicated as his assistant was, he couldn't be around every time Pratchett wanted to write. The solution, much to both men's delight, was technology. Pratchett's first point of call was an application called Dragon, a dictation programme that had become, more or less, an industry standard. Pratchett and Wilkins, who had made their computers speak in 1981, were always going to love the idea of finally being able to talk back to one. Dragon was excellent for taking the minutes of a meeting, capturing memos or drafting emails and was an essential tool for many people with vision problems. What it struggled with was creative writing, especially -- and with no small irony given its name -- creative writing set in fantasy universe. Fortunately, help was at hand. Pratchett had complained online that Dragon was simply not good enough, and been contacted by the team behind an application called Talking Point, which worked alongside Dragon but had a more sophisticated artificial intelligence that 'learned' a user. Pratchett was able to 'train' the programme by reading aloud from an Arthur C. Clarke novel and feeding the computer with his entire back catalogue to digest overnight. The result was a workable system that meant Terry could walk into his office and begin to write as soon as he opened his mouth.

Dragon is the app I use for my work now, though I'm still training it. I gave it a bunch of my work documents and emails to sift through, and it highlighted words that weren't already in its dictionary. Then I trained it on those terms.

So now my Dragon profiles knows insurance-related terms such as: COLI (corporate-owned life insurance, pronounce "koh-lee"), ORSA (own risk and solvency assessment), IOVAs (investment-only variable annuities), and more. Jargon city, woot!

I'm not sure Talking Point still exists as a company separate from Nuance, the makers of Dragon (, as it looks like their website was last updated at the end of 2018. Dragon does have the capability to be trained on one's own documents currently, and it does seem to be okay.

In any case, I was not expecting to have that connection to Terry Pratchett.

The Magic of Terry PratchettThe Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a biography of Terry Pratchett with a specific focus on his literary (and other) work. It's obviously written by a Pratchett fan, but a fan with a journalistic bent. Burrows does point out that Pratchett was often a (deliberate) unreliable narrator with respect to his own life (when the stories were perhaps a bit -too- good) and tries to dig up confirmation of particular parts of Pratchett's past. There are quotes, notes, and anecdotes galore (plus pictures!)

What I particularly appreciated in this book, which is often missed in other author biographies, is digging into the whole business of publication. Burrows does trace the development of Pratchett's literary approach in terms of themes, complexity, plotting, characterization, etc. He also gives time to the business of novel publishing: the marketing, printing runs, the issue of translations, picking cover illustrations (what was up with the Germans?), etc.

The book is chronologically ordered (mostly), has amusing and/or informative footnotes (this is just a tribute), and is very well-paced. Anytime I thought he might be veering into too much detail, Burrows moves it along to the next theme. I love that he covered so many dimensions of Pratchett's work, and I learned a lot about Pratchett I never knew before*.

*The most touching detail to me was Pratchett's use of Dragon to transcribe his writing in his latter years. That's because I just started using Dragon because of physical problems preventing me from typing. It gives me another, unexpected connection.

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