Category Archives: decision

Thinking about outsourcing transcription or doing it myself

I like reading much more than I like listening to someone talk, and much, much more than listening to myself talk. Text can be quickly read and shared. Audio isn't very searchable. Besides, I still need to work on breathing between sentences and avoiding the temptation to let a sentence run on and on because another cool idea has occurred to me. Perhaps that's what I'd focus on next, if I ever resume Toastmasters; my prepared speeches can be nice and tight, but my ad-libbed ones wander. More pausing needed.

So. Transcription. I could do it myself. I type quickly. Unfortunately, I speak quite a bit faster than I type, so I usually need to slow it down to 50% and rewind occasionally. ExpressScribe keyboard shortcuts are handy. I've remapped rewind to Ctrl-H so that I don't need to take my fingers off the home row. But there's still the there's the argh factor of listening to myself. This is useful for reminding me to breathe, yes, but it only takes five minutes for me to get that point. ;) The other night, it took me an hour to get through fifteen minutes, which is slower than I expected. An hour-long podcast interview should take about four hours of work, then.

I could use transcription as an excuse to train Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11, the dictation software I'd bought but for this very purpose but haven't used as much as I thought I would. It recognizes many words, but I have a lot of training to do before I get it up to speed, and I still need to edit. This would be a time investment for uncertain rewards. I still need to time how long it takes me to dictate and edit a segment.

Foot pedals would be neat, particularly if I could reprogram them for other convenient shortcuts. Three-button pedals cost from $50-$130, not including shipping. In addition to using it to stop, play, and rewind recordings, I'd love to use it for scrolling webpages or pressing modifier keys. I often work with two laptops, so it's tempting. (And then there's the idea of learning how to build my own human interface device using the Arduino… ) - UPDATE: I've built one using the Arduino! I can't wait to try it out.

In terms of trading money for time, I've been thinking about trying Casting Words, which is an Amazon Mechanical Turk-based business that slices up submitted files into short chunks. Freelancers work on transcribing these chunks, which are then reassembled and edited. The budget option costs USD 0.75 per audio minute, which means an hour-long interview will cost about USD 45 to transcribe. That option doesn't have a guaranteed turnaround, though, so I could be waiting for weeks. In addition, I tend to talk quickly, so that might trigger a "Difficult Audio" surcharge of another USD 0.75 per minute, or about USD 90 per audio hour.

For better quality at a higher price, I could work with other transcription companies. For example, Transcript Divas will transcribe audio for CAD 1.39/minute, and they guarantee a 3-day turnaround (total for 1 hour: CAD 83.40). Production Transcripts charges USD 2.05/minute for phone interviews.

I could hire a contractor through oDesk or similar services. One of the benefits of hiring someone is that he or she can become familiar with my voice and way of speaking. Pricing is based on effort instead of a flat rate per audio minute, and it can vary quite a bit. One of my virtual assistants took 14 hours to transcribe three recordings that came to 162 minutes total. At $5.56 per work hour, that came to $0.48 per audio minute, or $28 per audio hour. oDesk contractors are usually okay with an as-needed basis, which is good because I've scaled down my talks a lot. (I enjoy writing more!)

So here are the options:

  • Type it myself: 4 hours of discretionary time
  • Dictation: Unknown hours of discretionary time, possible training improvements for Dragon NaturallySpeaking
  • Foot pedals: Probably down to 3.5 hours / audio hour, but requires a little money; hackability
  • Casting Words: USD 90 per audio hour, unknown timeframe
  • Transcript Divas: CAD 84 per audio hour, 3-day turnaround
  • Contractor: Can be around USD 30 per audio hour, depending on contractor

I'm going to go with dictating into Dragon NaturallySpeaking because I need to train it before I can get a sense of how good it is. It takes advantage of something I already own and am underusing. Who knows, if I can get the hang of this, I might use it to control more functionality. We'll see!

Notes on transcription with and without a foot pedal

I finally sat down and transcribed the interview on discovering yourself through blogging, where Holly Tse puts up with my firehose braindump of things I've learned. It's an hour of audio, more than 53,500 letters, and about 9,500 actual words. The words per minute measurement uses a standard of five characters per "word". This means I clocked in at more than 180 wpm.

I like reading much more than I like listening, and a transcript makes it much easier for me to search and review what I said. After considering the options, I ended up transcribing the interview myself. I even built my own foot pedal. ;) So, here's what I've learned.

I started off by trying to use ExpressScribe and Dragon NaturallySpeaking for automatic transcription. It looks like I'll need to do a lot of training to get this ready for transcription. The fully-automated transcript was useless. I tried slowing down the recording down and speaking it into Dragon NaturallySpeaking (somewhat like simultaneous translation?). This was marginally better, but still required a lot of editing.

I gave up on dictation (temporarily) and typed the text into Emacs, using keyboard shortcuts to control rewind/stop/play in ExpressScribe.

TypeTyping without a foot pedal, 50% speed
Length15 audio minutes
Duration60 minutes of work
Factoraudio minutes x 4
Characters14137 (~ 2800 words @ 5 characters/word)
Typing WPM~50wpm (90 wpm input, 56% efficiency)

I took a second look at the outsourced transcription options. CastingWords had raised prices since I last checked it. Now there wasn't much of a gap between CastingWords and TranscriptDivas, another transcription company I'd considered. With TranscriptDivas, transcribing an hour of audio would have cost around CAD 83 + tax, but I'd get it in three days.

TypeTranscription company
CostCAD 83 + tax = ~CAD 95 / audio hour

Before I signed up for the service, though, I thought I'd give transcription another try - particularly as I was curious about my DIY foot pedal.

I told myself I'd do another 15 audio minutes so that I could see what it's like to transcribe with my foot pedal. I ended up doing the whole thing. I used ExpressScribe to play back the audio at 50% speed, and I set the following global shortcuts for my foot pedal: center-press was rewind, left was stop, and right was play. I ended up using rewind more than anything else, so it worked out wonderfully.

TypeTyping with DIY foot pedal, 50% speed
Length45 audio minutes
Duration120 minutes of work
Factoraudio minutes x 2.6
Characters39400 (~ 7880 words)
Typing WPM~65wpm (90 wpm input, 72% efficiency)

Discovery: Listening to myself at 50% makes it unfamiliar enough to not make me twitchy, although it can't do anything about me being sing-song and too "like, really". That might be improved through practice.

90wpm input was pretty okay. Faster, and I found myself pressing rewind more often so that I could re-hear speech while catching up.

Assuming sending it out to a transcription company would have cost CAD 95/audio hour and transcribing the entire thing myself would have taken 3 hours (including breaks), doing it myself results in a decent CAD 30/work hour of after-tax savings. Not bad, even though doing it myself meant I procrastinated it for two weeks. It might be cheaper if I hire a transcriptionist through oDesk or similar services. With a infrequent transcription needs, though, I'd probably spend more than two hours on screening, hiring, and delegating.

Hacking together an Arduino foot pedal was definitely a win. Transcribing with it was okay, but not my favourite activity. I might send work to a transcription company if there's enough value in a shorter turnaround, because it took me two weeks to get around to doing this one. Good to know!

2011-08-31 Wed 21:45

Decision: Not getting an Ontario Science Centre family membership

From Sept. 5: We had fun at the Ontario Science Centre. I like science centres. I have lots of great memories of going to science centres and playing around with exhibits. We've decided not to buy a family membership for now, though - we'll just buy tickets as we go. Here's what I've been thinking:

Cost of family membership: $120/year Break-even point: at least two visits per year

Exhibits I liked today:

  • Stereoscopic photographs: I always like these. I think depth perception is fascinating.
  • Reptiles (special exhibition): The snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi) was really cool. I also liked the exhibit showing how the fangs of snakes hinge when they close their jaws.
  • Scents: Of the five scents they had (leather, laundry, flowers, earth, vanilla), it turns out that I like the smell of clean laundry the most. So domestic!
  • Oil pumps: Mechanics and hydraulics, yay
  • The globe: I hadn't realized China was so mountainous. I enjoyed seeing the continental shelves and looking at the underwater contours, too.
  • Paper airplanes: The paper supplies were all gone, so I picked up other people's planes and refolded them or just threw them. I liked how they had hoops and a target if you wanted to try stunt or precision flying.

A number of new exhibits joined most of the old stalwarts. I was looking for some of the exhibits I remembered, but I couldn't find them. That's okay! =)


  • Equipment and exhibits make it easier to explore scientific principles (ex: pumps, levers, sound, etc.)
  • Multisensory experience / scale helps in understanding (ex: anatomy, geology, and so on)
  • Special exhibits provide additional reasons to return
  • Volunteers share their interest in science
  • Exhibits prompt you to explore things you might not have sought out by yourself (ham radio, etc.)
  • Exhibits validate interest (paper airplanes can be cool!)
  • Can use exhibits to support classroom learning:


  • Busy-ness and noise can be overwhelming
  • Tends to encourage shallow explorations/entertainment instead of deeper engagement. Hard to slow down and get deeper into something because of background noise, consideration for other people, and distractions from other exhibits
  • Pricey


J-'s grade 8 curriculum topics:

Events that might be interesting:

Back to the decision. We'll probably not pay for a family membership immediately. We'll reconsider this if we find ourselves going again within a year, and if we foresee a third trip within the year. If we end up going twice in a year, then our total cost is roughly the same with or without a membership - no loss there. If we go three times, then we'll end up paying more in total, but that's okay because the membership will cover additional months during which we might make a fourth visit.

We're going to put off getting a membership until we determine what frequency we'd like to go. We've had a family membership to the Ontario Science Centre in the past, and we made excellent use of it including trips to museums with reciprocal agreements. With lots of things changing this year, we're going to hold off on that commitment to avoid the "I'm going to pay for the gym so that I get encouraged to use it" effect. We like science, and there are many, many ways to explore it.

Also - Is it odd that I recognize Ontario Science Centre exhibits described in other museums? I was reading Andy in Oman's blog post about the OSC donations and I vividly remembered most of the exhibits mentioned. Including that land-like-a-cat one, which I tried many times. (Cat-related! ;) ) I had hoped to try it today with my Vibram toe shoes, but it's probably abroad. What can I say? I like science centres. =)

Some of my favourite exhibits from other science centres:

  • The giant soap bubble exhibit from the Exploratorium
  • Tactile Dome (Exploratorium)
  • Catenary arch building blocks
  • Foucault's pendulum traced with sand
  • Newton's cradle
  • Kinetic sculptures
  • Rock polishing and panning for gold at Science North (ah, the stories)

I think one of the things I loved about growing up with the science museum in Manila was that there were often few visitors there. Looking back, I can wish now that it was better patronized, but I remember really appreciating the freedom. I got to spend all the time I wanted building catenary arches, playing with the magnets and iron filings, clapping into that big echo tunnel, or confusing my mind with perspective tricks. Most of the science museums I've been to have been crowded, which is a great thing, but which can be overwhelming. Maybe going on a weekday will help. Winter, perhaps? We'll see.

I felt today's trip was worth the time, money, and opportunity cost. It might have been even better if we slowed down, got deeper into a few exhibits, and maybe tried more of the timed shows. I tend to like mechanical exhibits more than exhibits that focus on screen display or video.

And yes, I still want to spend at least a week in the Smithsonian. ;)

Thinking about getting better at decisions

I like analyzing my decisions. Writing about the alternatives I consider helps me think about them more deeply. Reviewing my decisions helps me learn even more. Sharing the decisions and the thought processes behind them helps me help other people.

How can I get even better at tracking and sharing my decisions? I want to get even better at remembering my reasons for decisions (useful during moments of doubt), revisiting my assumptions, and writing down additional benefits or costs.

I've posted the occasional decision review, but I think I'd benefit from something more structured than my blog. Maybe it's time to resurrect some kind of a personal wiki system.

I'd like to have a system for logging and regularly reviewing decisions. I might prototype this using an Org-mode large outline text file. I already use it to write about the decisions I want to make or the decisions I've recently made. I can go back and write about other decisions I've made, and I can start structuring the file. Using Org Mode will make it easy to organize decision notes into an outline, integrate it with my task and calendar reminders, view table-based summaries, and publish snippets to my blog. If I get into the habit of scheduling reviews and thinking of questions that I might ask myself during a decision review, then I can learn even more from the decisions I make.

Decision: Write about decisions with more structure in Org and with regular reviews

Expected costs: Writing time (the software is free), occasional social risks of publishing decision notes

Expected benefits: Even more confidence in decision-making, ability to help more people with similar decisions, interesting records, fewer moments of doubt (very few already, but just in case!), deeper analysis

Alternatives considered:

  • Don't write about decisions: Right.
  • Write only about major decisions: Small decisions are useful, too!
  • Keep decision notes just as blog posts: Hard to review over time.

Next review: In three months ( 2011-12-11 Sun)

  • How many decisions have I written about?
  • How many decisions have I reviewed?
  • How many notes have I published?
  • How have I used my notes to help improve my decision-making?

Planning for currency conversion

What's the most effective way to convert money for spending during our trip? Here are the options I considered:

  1. Bring Canadian dollars and convert to Philippine pesos at home
  2. Buy US dollars and convert them to Philippine pesos at home
  3. Buy Philippine pesos in Canada and bring them over (paying attention to import conditions)
  4. Use our credit cards as much as possible, and carry a smaller amount of cash (see options 1-3 for handling cash)

Based on the online rates of Toronto Dominion Bank (TD Bank) and the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), it turns out that it's cheaper to buy US dollars in Canada and convert the US dollars to pesos when we're in the Philippines (option 2). That results in 3% more money than bringing CAD and converting to PHP in the Philippines (option 1), and 8% more than buying PHP in Canada (option 3). This is good to know, because we used to buy PHP here. TD buys back US dollars but not Philippine pesos, so that's handy too.

Even better than the cash rates, though, are our credit card rates. MBNA Smart Cash seems to have a foreign currency surcharge of 2.5% or so over the spot foreign exchange rate. With 1% cashback, that results in around 2% more than option 3. We'll probably tally up our expected cash expenses, convert enough to cover them, then use our cards for the rest. I'll still check with MBNA to make sure there aren't other fees to consider.

Your results may vary depending on the rates. It's good to do the math! =)

Decision review: Marrying W-

W- and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary last Sunday. It's been a fantastic year! Time to review just how fantastic it was, and how we can make next year even better.

Reasons for getting married (instead of continuing to cohabit):

  • [X] Build a stronger foundation for long-term plans (including paperwork): Yup, really helps
  • [X] Reduce social friction from uncertain relationships: Yup, worth it
  • [X] Bring families together: More grown-up relationships, too

Our day-to-day lives are much like they were before the wedding, but being married has subtly changed things. Long-term planning is easier when you've got the commitments and paperwork in place.

It's great being able to use familiar words that fit into social structures. I like being able to namedrop my husband, and I grin when W- tells a salesperson that he has to discuss things with his wife. J- occasionally refers to me as her stepmom when she's talking to her friends or writing on her blog. It still takes some getting used to, but it's handier than saying "my dad's… umm… girlfriend? partner?" in situations when referring to people by name doesn't give enough context.

Clear relationships also make it easier to relate to family. I get along better with W-'s family now, I think. There's been a shift in how I relate to my family, too - we're more grown-up and less stressed.

Even though more people are going through life without marrying, it still seems that getting married is acknowledged as one of those growing-up milestones. The simple wedding ring I wear shifts small-talk conversations. People more frequently talk to me about kids than before. Thanks to being part of W- and J-'s lives, I can relate to the anecdotes people tell of family and teenagers.

Life is great.

Next year

Next year promises to be exciting. We've developed great household routines like bulk-cooking, we've been tweaking our space for better flow and organization, and we've been improving our communication practices for an even stronger relationship. With a solid foundation in place, we can step up our game. Looking forward to it!

2011-10-02 Sun 15:20