Monday, April 27, 2015

Three Rad Things

First, Lars (of Steno Diary fame) has updated Erika's PloverLearn modules to include analytics, plus drills for common briefs! Check 'em out at HaxePloverLearn.

Second, Charles has produced another homemade steno keyboard that's even snappier-looking than the last one:


He also includes an illustrated assembly walkthrough with a bill of materials, which comes out to about $120 in total. Pretty dang slick!

And finally, Stan Sakai, the ever-glorious Plover Poster Boy, has produced a brilliant little three-minute captioned whiteboard video explaining the rudiments of steno:

I'm in awe not just of his artistic skills (he actually drew the Plover bird!!!), but of his power to break down complex concepts into simple examples that nearly anyone can grasp. Seriously a tour de force.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Open Steno App Wins Second Prize at Connect Ability Hackathon!

Last weekend, I attended the AT&T Connect Ability Hackathon at the NYU Ability Lab, a competition to create accessible technology with and for people with disabilities over the course of two short days. When I signed up, I was a bit worried that there would be nothing for me to do, since I don't know how to code, but early on Saturday morning I had the great good fortune of running into Jacob Mortensen, a freelance Android developer, and Rocio Alonso, an industrial designer for The Adaptive Design Association. My friend and colleague Stan Sakai was also there captioning the event, and between plenary sessions he was awesome enough to sit at our table and give us a hand with the work. The challenge was built around four exemplars, people who used various types of accessible technology and who had specific ideas of how it might be improved. One of these exemplars was Paul Kotler, an autistic college student who uses an augmentative and alternative communication device to speak via text-to-speech synthesis. Ever since 2010, I've been interested in the possibilities of using steno to improve the speed and efficiency of AAC. I knew that a stenographic solution might not work for Paul due to difficulties with motor planning, but his video spurred me in the direction of wanting to work on a realtime stenographic text-to-speech solution for the Hackathon.

We initially started with Brent Nesbitt's StenoKeyboard app, an Android-based open source clone of Plover, because we figured that a phone, with its integrated speaker and small display footprint, would offer us the easiest and most portable solution. We also selected StenoBoard for our hardware, because it's currently the smallest, cheapest, and most readily available steno system on the market. It's a bit too bulky to be perfectly wearable, but it beat out every other option that could be rigged up over the course of a single weekend.

For a thorough explanation of our design process, please check out our ChallengePost Page. We called our project (modified StenoKeyboard app + wearable StenoBoard mount) "StenoSpeak for Android". We worked right up to the submission deadline, and our final system wasn't without its bugs and foibles, but apparently it had enough potential to earn us second prize out of 15 teams competing in the Hackathon! Many, many thanks to Jacob, Rocio, and Stan for working so hard on this. It was a wonderful collaborative experience. Also huge thanks to Brent for StenoKeyboard and Emanuele for StenoBoard, without whom we would have been totally dead in the water.

What's next? We'll see. There are definitely some plans in the works, but our next big objective is to find an AAC user who might be interested in learning steno to help us with future iterations of the project. People with disabilities tend to be some of the earliest adopters and most proficient power users of accessible technology, so I'm hoping to find someone who can join our team as a full and active member while we work on developing this technology into a completely workable and replicable open source product. If you or anyone you know uses AAC to communicate, has full use of their hands, and is willing to spend a few months learning steno with our online textbooks, tutorials, and drilling tools, please get in touch!

Congrats to all of the Hackathon competitors, especially the first prize winner, Cameron Cundiff, with his brilliantalt_text_bot, and the third prize winner, the Tranquil Tracker team, with their seriously cool anxiety-tracking biometric device and app. And, of course, thanks to AT&T and the NYU Ability Lab for putting together this amazing competition!

Check out some photos from our whirlwind hacking weekend:

Rocio's wearable prototype sketches.

Stan modeling our ideal (though non-functional) wearable steno design.

The final (functional) wearable StenoBoard design.

The exultant StenoSpeak Team!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Odds and Ends

A few brief Plover tidbits for you on a lovely warm Monday afternoon:
  • On the Open Steno Blog, there's a wonderful essay by Paulo Paniago about his experience with adapting Plover to make it compatible with Portuguese and then essentially building a Portuguese dictionary from scratch! He now uses steno for all his typing, which he says is faster and more comfortable than qwerty. Great stuff.
  • On the Plover Google Group, user grytiffin posted some seriously cool photos of his tripod-mounted Ergodox machine. That looks like a Neutrino Group (Gemini/Revolution/Infinity) chassis holding the two halves of the Ergodox in place. He writes: "I traced, cut and attached 2 pieces of pine to the tripod, and rested the keyboard on the pine. The metal brackets are temporary until I can think of something else more elegant.  Next step, upload a keyboard layout to assign the vowels to the big orange keys." Just gorgeous.
  • Meanwhile, on The Aviary, user skwropb posted a fingerspelling dictionary that force-caps uppercase letters and force-uncaps lowercase letters, which is especially useful for Vim users like me. I've been using it for a while now, and I love it. No more unexpected actions after writing punctuation and then going into command mode!
  • Speaking of useful dictionary hacks, I've recently discovered a way to compensate for Plover's imperfect orthography for medical suffixes.


    When adding "emia" (defined as {^emia}) onto "hemoglobin", for instance, I would get "hemoglobinnemia", with the double n. Adding that extra {^} before the suffix circumvents Plover's orthography module and gives me the correct translation, "hemoglobinemia", without the extra "n". I'm adding these new suffixes whenever they come up by basically doing my "suffix define" stroke -- {^}\{^\}{#Left}{^} -- once, moving the cursor over to the right, and then doing it once more before writing the actual suffix. Comes in really handy when you're doing a lot of medical captioning, like I am.
  • Finally, I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak about steno and Plover at the Google Development Group's Women Techmakers Event last month, and I also wound up captioning most of the talks using Plover with Text-On-Top. You probably won't be able to glean much of what I talked about from my slides, since they're mostly just pictures, and unfortunately the event wasn't recorded, but I thought I'd post some pictures from it, just 'cause it was such a cool experience. There were about 100 people there, and I'd set my steno machine to send simultaneous Bluetooth to my Lenovo Helix running Text-On-Top plus my HP Stream7 running Plover with Vim. I also hooked up my StenoBoard to my Surface Pro so that people could come by during breaks and play on the machine for themselves. It was really fun, and I think I drummed up a fair amount of interest in Plover along the way!

  • And here's a 7-second video of me captioning the speakers as a group of us stood up in front of the audience to answer questions. Don't worry; there was another screen on the other side of the podium that was also displaying the captions, so we weren't blocking them out completely.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Plover-Inspired Geocache Puzzle!

Check out the amazing epistolary tale of Doris Plover, Court Stenographer circa 1935!

I was contacted by someone trying to solve it (it's since been solved, but you can try it yourself for practice; translating the steno is only the first step toward finding the correct location of the cache.) The pedant in me has to admit that the stenography is not 100% accurate for the time period (You never need to write P/KPA* for a period; just FPLT will do, both for Plover and for non-realtime stenographers. Proper names don't need to be manually capitalized either. Also, they probably wouldn't have used long vowels, an asterisk-based fingerspelling alphabet, or S-P to work around a word boundary error; all of that stuff only came in when realtime was introduced in the 1980s.)

But even so, how mindbendingly awesome is this?!? I was absolutely tickled pink to find that it existed. Many years ago I made up a brief steno puzzle of my own for a friend who didn't know steno himself but who was interested in cryptography and wanted to see if he could figure it out without any prior knowledge. It makes me so happy to see that someone I don't even know had the same idea.

Even cooler is that after I helped the guy who was working on solving the puzzle, he made a $100 donation to The Open Steno Project! What a mensch! Money aside, learning that this thing existed seriously made my whole week. Thanks, Mysterious Puzzlemaker, whoever you are!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Monday Miscellany

Just two quick items:

* Emanuele has started a Stenoboard blog. There's only a welcome post on it so far, but if you're interested in the progress of the Stenoboard, you might want to add it to your RSS reader of choice.

* Also, it's not strictly Plover-related, but Drew from the Plover Google Group told me about a Vim plugin that's turned out to be life-changing: Vim-G. As Drew explained:

"It provides a :Google command that lets you run your query direct from Vim. Additionally, if you select a word then run the :Google command, it will search for the selected word."

So I've been able to map my TKPWHREFRPB command to {#Escape}:Google{#Return}, which will open a Chrome window and search for the word under my cursor. This is so great for looking up words while editing CART transcripts! Previously I'd tried to do it by using Launchy, but because there's currently no way to make definitions with predetermined "wait x milliseconds" commands, the processes would get out of sync and wouldn't execute properly. This solves that problem completely. It's still probably worth building a "wait" command into Plover at some point, but now that I have this Vim-G solution, that feature is not as urgent for me as it once was.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Another Awesome DIY Plover Board

Check out this beautiful DIY Plover Board built by Timothy Aveni for less than $100!

Seriously impressive.

Speaking of DIY keyboard projects, The Matias Keyboard Switch Crowd Supply campaign is 176% funded and already shipping out keysets. Josh says he's hoping the Stenosaurus Crowd Supply campaign will go live in the next two or three months, which is tremendously exciting.

On a more discouraging note, our previous go-to low-cost n-key rollover keyboard, the Sidewinder X4, is now well and truly out of production, so prices for leftover stock are climbing inexorably upwards. This is really a shame. At its best, it cost around $45, but now you'll have to pay around $70 for a used one and $150 or more for a new one.

There's currently a Massdrop for a $50 Noppoo Lolita Spyder 87, but that won't last forever, and retail for the Spyder is around $80. I really hope that a new low-cost gaming keyboard with true nkro (not fake nkro like the disappointing $20 Sharkoon) comes around again soon. There's a surprisingly big difference between $50 and $100 when you're talking experimental entry-level steno. I'll always be grateful to Microsoft for releasing the Sidewinder right when I started the Plover Project back in 2010, and I know that all manufacturing efforts have a limited lifespan, but I sure hope something else comes up to take its place.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pre-Stenosaurus Crowd Supply Campaign!

Many exciting things to report!

First off, Josh Lifton, Plover's first developer and inventor of the forthcoming Stenosaurus, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to offload some of the extra custom keys he commissioned from Matias as a way of raising funds for the very nearly imminent Stenosaurus campaign launch. It's already almost halfway funded, but if you're a hardware hacker with a need for quiet, lightweight, feather-touch keys with a dead simple mounting system, go pick up a bag of 150 for $50. Heck of a deal!

Also, the amazing Ed (aka ezyang of Stenomatic fame) has put a Starter Guide up on the Wiki to help ease new steno learners into the fray. Ed's got a lovely friendly conversational style and extremely solid advice. If you're intimidated about where and how to get started, definitely go check it out.

Speaking of new steno learners, Lars has been keeping an online diary of his learning process. He's only been doing it for a week, but he's already up to almost 60 WPM on single-stroke words! Pretty dang impressive.

Finally: Ellis, a technical author and relatively new convert to Plover who's already been able to double his typing speed, recently wrote a blog post on his company's website extolling the advantages of steno for members of his profession. In his post, Ellis included a link to an Ignite Talk Josh gave to the Technology Association of Oregon some months back, which I'd been dragging my heels on captioning for no good reason whatsoever. But thanks to Ellis's post, I finally just sat down and did it. The captioned version is embedded below. It's fantastic five-minute précis of just how powerful and useful open source steno can be. Check it out!