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Bill Bennett



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Livescribe SmartPen – paperless journalist’s dream

If James Bond were a journalist and not a spy, Q would give him a Livescribe Pulse Smartpen.

It’s a larger than average ball-point pen with a built-in microphone and digital audio recorder. This allows you to record audio while taking notes.

An audio recorder built-in to a pen makes it ideal for interviewing people. But it gets better.

The Pulse Smartpen also records handwritten notes and links them to the audio. This allows you to set bookmarks, so you can recall passages of audio instantly by tapping the pen.

And it connects to a PC to back-up your audio and handwritten notes – where you can use the files with conventional software.

It sounds magical. And in practice it feels like it. I used the pen to conduct a couple of interviews and can report it delivers on its promise.

Prices start at around US$150.

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen does journalism

I love how the pen doesn’t get in the way of an interview. People happily talk to a note scribbling journalist – it’s another thing entirely when you shove a microphone in their face.

The sound quality is surprisingly good. One interview took place in a noisy room – yet the Smartpen picked up my questions and the interviewee’s answers without a lot of the background noise.

It was less successful when I did a trial run in a busy café. In a quiet room it works well. An external headphone and microphone are packaged with the pen. Livescribe says this gives better quality recordings but I didn’t use it as it would be off-putting for interviewees.

In practice I found it hard to remember to set bookmarks in mid-interview. After a couple of pages of notes I set bookmarks at the top of each page – this made it easier to navigate when I went back over the interview.

It’s not paperless

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen only takes me part way on my paperless journalist quest– but it does cut the amount of paper I need to store.

When you write with the pen, it puts ink on a page in the conventional way. But to get the best results you have to use the pen with special notepaper – called Dot Paper – which is more expensive than normal paper and only available from Livescribe.

Dot Paper has the buttons needed to control the pen printed on each page – which means you don’t need to struggle with controls on the pen itself.

You can download you your digital handwritten notes to your computer. Which means you don’t need to keep notebooks once they are full.


Dot Paper notebooks are expensive and they are not widely available here in New Zealand – as a journalist I can see myself quickly running out of the special paper. Thankfully you can print out more paper using your own printer if you need some in a hurry – but this is even more expensive than the official paper.

The pen also uses special ball-point ink cartridges – these are only small and at a guess I’d say they probably don’t last as long as normal ball-points.

Paperless positives

One surprising plus was the relatively long battery life, I found the pen works for days without needing a recharge. Also the 2GB of Ram is plenty, I haven’t come close to running out of space.

The pen docks into a USB cradle and downloads data quickly to a PC – usually it just takes seconds. The Windows software bundled with the Smartpen is better than I expected and the small lcd display on the pen is excellent.

Pushing the envelope

The basic Livescribe Pulse Smartpen stores notes as images. Handwriting recognition isn’t included in the standard package, but a $40 add-on from Vision Objects does the job. I’ll be testing this shortly.

I’ve tried feeding the audio from the Smartpen to Nuance’s Dragon Dictate voice recognition software with little success. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else attempting this.

How to write like an old-time journalist

You may call it a blog post, article or something else. A journalist would call it a story. Here’s how to write a good one.

Start your story by telling the reader what it is about. You do this briefly in the headline. Then again in the introduction or intro, which is a stop press paragraph.

Ask yourself:

  • what is this story about,
  • what information am I trying to get across and
  • what points must I make to do this?

Sum up the story in your mind in one simple sentence. This is your intro.

Its job is to tell the reader what the article is about and draw the reader in. As a rule, readers prefer brief intros.

Write so a reader who only gets as far as your intro still has a basic grasp of your story.

How a journalist starts

Newspapers teach journalists to start with a single sentence of between 15 and 21 words. This is what you should aim for, although at times you’ll need to use more words.

As an aside, proper nouns made up of multiple words only count as a single word when you’re calculating the ideal intro length.

You can have one sentence in you first paragraph or two or three. Either way keep it short and crisp.

Next comes the how — how did it happen or, more usually in your case, what happens next?

This is background information or explanation.

After the explanation comes amplification. You amplify the point or points following on from the intro.

Make these points one by one and in descending order of importance.

Last, after making all the main points, tie up any loose ends — ie., add any extra or background information deemed necessary but of lesser importance.

Mozilla offers promising contact manager

Developers have neglected personal contact management in recent years. Microsoft Outlook still dominates, Google has never had a serious offering.

Now Mozilla has entered the fray with Contacts, a Firefox contact management plug-in.

It’s still at version 0.1, not even a beta at this stage. Which means Contacts is clunky and could cause crashes or other problems. Mozilla recommends you don’t use it with your normal Firefox profile.

The still-unfinished software promises to pull all your contacts together from a variety of sources. There are importers for:

  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Gravatar Avatar Images and
  • Native address book (on your computer)

The first three worked on my system. The Gmail importer works when you log into Google . The Twitter importer needs a Twitter password stored in your Firefox password list. The first two work almost instantly, the Gravatar importer takes a few minutes.

At this stage, the contact list isn’t much better than Gmail’s and I found many duplicates and unidentified contacts in my list.

Eventually, Mozilla contacts will allow you to auto-complete names and email addresses when filling on web forms.

For now, it has limited functionality, but there’s potential here. I’m particularly impressed with the data portability – keeping one set of contacts on my desktop and laptop.


Gtalk back-up for Skype

Skype helps people stay in touch with friends and family overseas. It is hard to use for business because it is unreliable.

The problem isn’t Skype‘s technology, but my broadband connection. My Telecom NZ broadband speed is unpredictable because I’m on a plan which gives me uncapped downloads but for most of the day means I share pooled bandwidth with other users on the same plan. In other words, one minute my connection is 3.5Mbps, the next minute I’ve got only 100kbps or so.

Google’s Gtalk voice over IP service copes with the fluctuating bandwidth better than Skype. I suspect this is because it chews through less data.

In general I find there’s otherwise little to choose between the Skype and Gtalk experience. Skype can give better quality audio, but there are times when it is just appalling. Gtalk never reaches the highs or the lows.

For me Google’s voice over IP service almost beats Skype. Consistency is a good thing. I also like the way it integrates smoothly with Gmail – which is my main email client, and the Gtalk instant message tool.

But there’s one big problem. Almost nobody I know uses Gtalk for voice calls although a lot of people use it for messaging. I have dozens of contacts on Skype, but scheduling Skype calls is much harder.

Which means I need to keep both programs installed.

Why packaged software is dead

My weekend search for a boxed copy of Quicken Home and Business 2010 drew a blank.

When I couldn’t get anywhere with physical shops I went to Quicken’s website, then clicked through to the point where I could, in theory, buy a packaged copy of the program online.

I stopped when I reached the confirm purchase page which said; “Quicken will send out your purchase within 7-14 working days after payment”.

That’s 14 working days AFTER receiving payment.

Does Quicken want to sell?

Paperless journalist: Business cards points out it took nine days for Moo cards to accept money, print cards and send them from California to New Zealand.

Why is Quicken so slow? Perhaps someone has to get the CD burner out of the cupboard to make the discs for packaged software.

Next. I went back through the site, found a contact email for Quicken’s ‘presales’ department to query this speed. I needed the software fast, the end of the financial year is approaching and I had a GST return to get out.

On Saturday I emailed this message to presales@quicken.co.nz:

I’ve been all over the North Shore looking for Quicken Home & Business 2010. There are boxed in Harvey Norman at Wairau Park, but no disks. Otherwise no-one seems to stock the software. Is it still available? If I buy direct from Reckon can I come and pick it up from the office?

I never heard back.

The money was in my hand and Quicken didn’t want to take it. Something is wrong here.

In the meantime, I’ve switched to Xero.