The listening pen

The world of writing has a new tool, described in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. You use the Livescribe pen to take notes on special paper, and it records the sound of whatever you’re listening to. When you tap the point on a note later, the pen replays the sound that produced that note.

To capture a quotation, you don’t have to write down something like this: Pete Wells-“The whole idea of mise en place tortures me.”

You just scribble “mise” or “mep” or whatever. Touch the pen to that jotting later, and the pen plays back the quotation. It’s like writing down the counter numbers on a digital recorder for important things, so you can listen later.

Ideally, this device would free interviewers to spend less effort on getting things down in the notebook, with more time and energy to process what the speaker’s saying. Transfer the notes to a computer, and the Livescribe software can search it. And you can annotate the notes. Ideally.

In real life, the pen can fail at the worst moment, just like any recording device. It may not hear clearly, and record mush. The person next to you may be commenting, and the pen may record the commenter rather than the speaker. The transfer to a computer may suffer the usual glitches. You have to use special paper. And the pen costs $129.95, or more.

I’ll bet it won’t work in the rain.

Used sloppily, without good listening and good notetaking, this device will help you fail. My friend Tom Berner reminds me, “The fault lies not with the recorder, but with the person using it.” Used properly, it can improve listening, which is the key to interviewing.

[Had any experience with the Livescribe pen?]

Published in: on September 21, 2010 at 11:11 am  Comments (5)  

Mise en place

Pete Wells attacked the tyranny of “mise en place” in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. This cooking term refers to “the practice of having all the ingredients and tools set to go before you even light the stove.” You prep most of the foodstuffs and lay them out in little dishes. He sees this pre-arranging “as an unattainable ideal, a receding mirage, a dream of an organized and contented kitchen life that everyone is enjoying except me.”

He discovers mid-recipe that his peppers are moldy; he runs out of space, time, and patience. So he abandons the march-in-step and just cooks.

Wells quotes food writer Sarah Moulton, who abandoned mise en place, despite her professional training, in her cookbooks. She says, “I had as little time as everybody else, and I realized I couldn’t wait to measure and slice and dice all that stuff…. I noticed I’d be mincing the garlic while I was cooking the onion. I’d be cooking the whole thing by taking advantage of what was already cooking.”

Wells closes with a Thomas Keller recipe, which “has you brown the bacon and start chopping and cooking the long-braised collards, then boil the potatoes in their skins, stir sugar into the strawberries and put the chicken on the grill. While it’s cooking, you mash the potatoes and then whip heavy cream.”

In mise en place, you plan everything ahead and lay it out. In the prep-as-you-go, you do the steps in whatever sequences and combinations work for you.

What I’ve just described is like planners versus plungers. Planner writers decide what to say and how, and then type it, often from an outline. Plunger writers type lots of paragraphs, one leading to another in no sequence, and then rearrange them to make sense.

Planning works better and faster if you try out your plan on somebody smart before you type it. Plunging works best if you draft without revising, cut anything irrelevant, rearrange, and then revise.

Which is better? Both give the same results in the same time. Which you choose might depend on how you cook.

[How do your cooking and writing techniques coincide?]

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm  Comments (3)