By Daniel Hubbard | May 30, 2011
Back in March, I wrote about a wonderful conversation I had over the phone with my dad. I was looking at a Sanborn map that showed the neighborhood where he was born. I had a few questions about it for a presentation I was preparing and thought I would give him a quick ring. I told him what I saw and he filled in amazing details and asked me to look for things on the map and tell him what I saw. We talked for a long time. It was such an enjoyable time that we decided we needed to do it in person. Well, that get-together has come and gone and now it is time to go through the recording and extract the information.
Anyone who has ever transcribed a recording can tell you that it is amazing how much of human conversation consists of pauses, “um,” “hmm,” “okay,” and utterances to that effect. There are often a few brief moments that were apparently understandable or obviously ignorable at the time but afterwards, one can only marvel at how anything was understood. Then, suddenly, the flood of information will start, overwhelm the poor transcriber, then stop just as suddenly, leaving one wondering if anything important is being said. There is a great deal of anticipation involved in processing a flow of information. When the conversation twists and turns, ones natural anticipation ability isn’t a very good guide. Perhaps I’m being a bit overly dramatic but the point is that people don’t communicate as smoothly when they are just sitting and talking as we might think. That makes transcribing a challenging endeavor.
The interview was really interesting for both of us. I got the Sanborn Maps up on my big monitor and blew each one up to the full screen. It made it very easy to see what was actually being discussed. There was no point in recording whatever misunderstandings that would have occurred if we couldn’t see details.
It was incredible to me how much Dad remembered. He often questioned details about the maps and we discussed things until we fit his recollections to the maps. He was thorough. The alleys and banks and bakeries were checked. Dad pointed out the houses that are long gone and he remembered the names of all the families that lived there. He remembered the layouts of the shops, where the counters were and where the aisles ran.
To make it all understandable later, I tried to mention addresses or identifiable places out loud as often as I could. That way when listening later, it wouldn’t matter so much that I couldn’t see fingers pointing and hands waving. I recorded the whole interview using Garage Band (Apple software for recording and audio editing) straight onto my computer.
For transcribing I exported the interview to iTunes so that I could use the play/pause button on the keyboard, which is much more convenient than using the mouse when you are typing.
I tried typing along as I listened but transcribing isn’t easy as the conversation weaves strangely and the person speaking changes every few words. If you are concerned about accuracy and your reflex is to fix your mistakes instead of keeping up with the audio, falling behind is inevitable.
I have the free Dragon Dictation iPod app and not really expecting success, I tried letting it work on the recording as the sound came out of the speakers. Speech recognition is a nearly miraculous business anyway and I didn’t really expect it to work on two different voices at the same time, especially when they came out of speakers. It didn’t work, not even close. The result was gibberish but it was worth the one minute experiment to ensure that I would not discover afterwards that it would have worked.
I decided to try a halfway solution. I listened to a bit of the recording, paused it and spoke what I’d heard into the microphone using unnaturally good diction. While the speech recognition program churned away on what I’d just said, I listened to the next bit. This seems to be the fastest way, though I will have to massage the text to divide what I said from what my father said. Otherwise, it will read like a multiple personality monologue.
Adding Pictures to the Recording
Back in Garage Band I have started to add images to the interview. I clip a small region of the map that we were discussing, put it into a separate file and drag it into Garage Band and place it in a podcast track at the time I want. Later, after it is exported iTunes, it shows a section of map just as we start to discuss that area. There was a bit of trial and error getting the size and resolution to give a result I liked, but it works.
I decided to edit down part of our virtual wanderings and wonderings and put it into this post to show what I’ve done. In it we headed north one block from the building where he was born, took a detour to the school he attended and then returned back down the other side of the street to where we started. I put in map images that show just about all the places we talked about. Here you can download that part of my Interview with Dad complete with illustrations. It has been a rewarding project so far.
As much as I like the geeky details of this, the real point is to preserve time—preserve my father’s memories of his neighbor in the 1930s and preserve our conversation. With a little care, someday a great-great-grandchild might get to hear some long ago memories. The techy fun is just a means to an end.
Later this year we’ll try to walk the downtown with the 1924 Sanborn map, a 1948 Sanborn map and my Dad’s memories. We’ll see if we can take a walk in the 1930s and 40s.