Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Black and White Alphabet Posters


Over on The Aviary, Achim has created some black and white steno alphabet posters!

PDF - B&W Steno Alphabet Poster
PDF - B&W Missing Sounds Poster

Really nice, especially for people who prefer a cleaner-looking poster, don't want to use up a lot of colored ink, or have difficulty distinguishing slight differences in color.

Also, from the comments of the recent post on Steno Autodidacts, we've got another fantastic testimonial, from Anonymous SKWROPB. Definitely go and check out the video!

Anonymous skwropb said... I've been using Plover since December 2013. I now type more than twice as fast as I ever did on QWERTY. I do all of my normal typing with Plover and also use it to control i3 Window Manager, Pentadactyl, Weechat, and various other programs. I rarely have to take my hands off my steno machine to do anything.

Learn Plover wasn't complete when I started, but it wasn't hard to figure out the parts that were missing. I didn't do much to record my progress*, but I would say it was about a month before I was comfortable enough to use Plover for normal typing and three months before I was more comfortable typing in steno than QWERTY. I didn't spend much time doing drills. I practiced by transcribing books and playing Cargo Crisis and TypeRacer. For the first month or so, I must have practiced more than three hours a day. I was really addicted.

*I couldn't think of a meaningful way to benchmark my speed, so I didn't bother, but I did put together a crummy video to show people on TypeRacer that I wasn't cheating. It gives a general idea of where I was after using Plover for about a year.

Typeracing With Plover

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Blog Design!

Many, many thanks to Ted for his help in redesigning the Plover Blog layout. It was five years old and feeling pretty dang tired, to say the least. Ted spruced it up with this current simple but sharp design, edited some of the sidebar links to make them more relevant, and is now setting his sights on the design of the Aviary, the Plover logo, and hopefully at some point even the Plover interface itself. If you want to weigh in, feel free to give him your thoughts at the Aviary.

Thanks, Ted! This new layout is a breath of fresh, clean, steno-scented air.

Success Stories from Steno Autodidacts

Back when I started Plover in 2010, I had the idea that it could be a useful method of text composition. I wrote about it a little in What Is Steno Good For: Writing and Coding. I found the ease and fluency of steno incredibly freeing when I used it to write a novel. But I'd received my stenographic training in a formal school, and was already working as a professional stenographer. The real question was whether steno as a means of text input could be useful in an amateur context. Back in the early to mid-20th century, when steno machines were fairly common and machine shorthand could be taken as an elective in most high schools, people wouldn't tend to use it for text composition because the steno notes had to be tediously retranscribed on a typewriter, and it was more efficient just to skip the middleman and use the typewriter directly. From the 1980s through to 2010, only professional stenographers had access to computerized steno machines and translation software, and most of that software didn't interface easily with most operating systems, so without a fair amount of fiddling it couldn't be used to write emails, text chats, or other texts that weren't legal transcripts. Steno was for professionals, not amateurs. Steno was for transcription, not composition. There didn't seem to be many counterexamples, so these two principles somehow took on the force of dogma.

Now that Plover exists, though, just about anyone can learn steno and immediately start using it as a qwerty keyboard replacement. When I explain to people that there's a huge potential user base of people who want to use steno to compose text, I get all sorts of objections:

"Steno is too hard and tedious and takes most people years to learn."

"No one will want to invest the time necessary to become proficient unless they're hoping to get paid for it, and without professional-level proficiency, steno is useless."

"Steno is designed for transcribing external speech, not internal thought."

None of those arguments have ever held much water with me, and slowly but surely my hypothesis is being borne out. People are teaching themselves steno with our free online materials -- not in years, but months. Even though they start out slow, they gradually gain speed while using steno for basic tasks like chatting, writing blog posts, and working at their jobs. Here are a few accounts from people who've successfully incorporated Plover into their daily lives.

Harvey writes:

I got my Stentura 400 SRT off eBay intending to learn steno/Plover as a hobby, and I thought it would be cool if I got up to professional speeds, especially for my transcription work.

I started on the twelfth of May. At about five weeks I completed all the lessons in Learn Plover, picking up on little patterns as I went along. It was somehow easy to memorize the different strokes that make up all the sounds on the keyboard. Honestly, it feels like I breezed through it all. I'd go through a lesson and then I'd do an accompanying drill from Plover, Learn a few times. Then I'd just go through the previous drills to keep fresh. When I felt I was able to, I would try writing new single and multi-stroke words to get a feel for it. That's all there is to it.

I can now write at about 30 to 50 wpm, though the latter is only in bursts. It took me only two months to reach this point, and now I'm mostly just building speed and committing new words to muscle memory. I've enjoyed it a whole lot, too. It's really cool to write in a system that's so different than typing on a keyboard.

I've heard that some people insist that it's impossible to learn steno in two months or that it can't be self-taught. I feel I've proven that wrong; I learned the system to pretty good proficiency in eight weeks. I think anyone can self-teach steno, but the hard part is building up speed. On that I can't comment yet, but I'm sure it'll come with time and practice.

By the way, I wrote all of that using my steno machine.


Ted (who started learning steno nine months ago, though his update at one month is also pretty illuminating) writes:

I’m a learner of Plover on an ErgoDox, I type a little over 100 words per minute, similar to my QWERTY and Norman layout speeds, but the comfort is unmatched and the endurance that I can get out of typing this way is unbelievable. Not to mention that most spelling typos are impossible. (But the typos can be really funny. Like a valid typo for “awesome” is “awful” — just a one key difference. And “goal” can accidentally come out “grade school” if you don’t use the phonetic rules properly) So far the only big problem I’ve had with stenography is that I end up typing huge walls of text for no reason, because my hands don’t get tired and the speed doesn’t discourage my brain from continuing.


Charles writes:

I'm coming up on two years and I'm very comfortable now with steno. I use it for everything now, and have been for at least the past year. I think it took me about three months to be able to write anything I wanted. It really got good when I started to make my own briefs. I have a lot of little things to help with the unix command line and programming in Forth. I haven't really measured my speed either way, but I believe I'm equal to my old speed and getting faster and smoother all the time. More importantly, it's a lot less work now. My fingers don't have to do much! I love the way it feels. I think it's good for my brain too.


Clearly steno isn't just useful for professionals, and isn't just useful for transcription. It's possible to learn it fairly quickly and then to build speed naturally over time while putting it to use. We've just got to get the word out.

If you've had a similar experience to Harvey, Ted, or Charles, will you write me with a brief summary of how long it took you to learn steno and how you tend to use it over the course of your day? I'd like to compile a large collection of these stories that we can show to any naysayers who think that amateurs have no place in modern stenography.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Open Steno Featured on Hackaday



Hackaday: Stenography (Yes, With Arduinos)

Kevin emailed me a few days ago with his awesome USB hack for Stentura 200 (which he says would almost certainly work for Stentura 400s as well), and I was just about to blog about it when I got tipped off to this article on Hackaday mentioning both Kevin's hack and a great write-up on the principles of Open Steno in general. Some of the comments are a bit wearying (to reply in brief: steno is not obsolete; courtroom reporters have not been replaced by speech recognition but by lower-paid qwerty typists; Siri is not going to be able to handle subpar audio, technical syntax and markup, or non-standard accents any time soon if ever), but the article itself is top notch! Highly recommended.

Also, Josh and I are going to be manning the Open Steno Project table at the 2015 National Court Reporters Association Convention here in NYC at the end of the month. I printed up a brochure for it:



And we're hoping to have a functional prototype of the Stenosaurus to show off while we're there. Fingers crossed! I'm also going to be using Plover to compete in the National Realtime Competition, but don't expect too much from me; I have a habit of choking during speed tests, so it's entirely possible I'll crash and burn in the first 30 seconds.

Lastly, if you haven't read Lars's Steno Diary in a while, it's really heating up! After just four months of studying/practicing for 20 minutes a day, he's able to write just about anything he can think of in steno, and he's currently working on putting together a robust dictionary for the purposes of writing, editing, and navigating code. Pretty dang badass.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Beautiful Plover Skin for Rainmeter

Shayne from the Google Group writes:
I've created a little (Windows-only) desktop widget to show Plover's status (running/stopped) in a more aesthetically pleasing way than keeping the window up all the time to watch the big "P". After a few months of working out kinks, I think it's working well, and wanted to share it with you all:



It's a Rainmeter skin with three variants (left to right: bubble, icon, letter), with an AutoHotKey script included that needs to be running to alert Rainmeter.

How it works: the AHK script registers with the Windows shell to get messages whenever windows redraw; any time the Plover window does this, the script checks the window title ("running" or "stopped") and, if it's changed, sends a message to Rainmeter to refresh the skin, changing the colors.

Note that it requires both Rainmeter (http://rainmeter.net/) and AutoHotKeyAutoHotKey (http://ahkscript.org/) to run.

Available for download: http://monochromatope.deviantart.com/art/PloverStatusIndicator-1-01-541857076
Source available, too: https://github.com/shayneholmes/PloverStatusIndicator

How to install it: Download and install the .rmskin file, then run the .ahk file in the installed folder (and put a link in your startup folder so it runs on boot).

It is especially nice if you have a second monitor. Hope some of you find something useful in it.
Isn't it gorgeous? If you run Windows and you want something beyond the blocky and admittedly uninspiring Plover "P" box, go give it a try!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Keyboardio Kickstarter is Live


Back in August, a Plover fan asked the Keyboardio Twitter account if their keyboard would have true N-key rollover. They said they were working on it, and asked us how many keys of rollover we needed. I told them 16 or more would probably do the trick.

According to their Kickstarter page, they have succeeded:

"True N-key rollover (NKRO)

For a variety of reasons, many USB keyboards limit you to pressing 6 keys (plus modifiers) at once. Most of us would never notice this limitation, but an intrepid few really, really need to be able to hit more than six keys at once."

I'm not sure if that was a specific reference to the Plover community, but regardless, the thought is very much appreciated.

The column-based layout and tripod compatibility are certainly ideal for steno. I'm not sure the big ridges between the thumb keys will make for the most comfortable vowel writing, but they don't look sharp enough to be a dealbreaker.

At $300 per keyboard, it's certainly on the pricier side for a Plover-compatible keyboard that's not explicitly intended for steno, but if you anticipate a lot of mixed use, don't want to keep both qwerty and steno keyboards at the ready, and don't want to build your own Ergodox, the Keyboardio Model 1 is certainly an attractive specimen. The Kickstarter ends in 29 days, so you've got about a month to decide!

Monday, May 18, 2015

For-Profit Steno School Under Scrutiny

So it looks like the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is investigating my old Steno School. Hm.

Honestly, I doubt it's any better or worse than most for-profit steno schools. I had a pretty good experience there, all told. The teachers were all actual stenographers, they were all pretty nice (even if the dictation they read us was as dry as lunar cheesedust), and nothing I learned there was actively wrong; it just wasn't particularly relevant to my chosen career. Possibly I would have gotten more out of it if I had wanted to be an actual court reporter, but virtually everything I needed to know about captioning for deaf and hard of hearing clients I had to teach myself. The main benefit NYCI gave me was in the speed testing process, a weekly metric they administered to tell me how quickly I was advancing, plus a financial sting in the form of trimesterly tuition payments, which motivated me to practice more and graduate faster. When you look at it that way, it's not unlike Beeminder, my favorite anti-akrasia device. I was lucky enough to get grants from the State of New York for my first year there, and paid for the other six months with a combination of cash and loans. I also had a job at the time (offline transcriptionist for a TV captioning company) that allowed me to pay rent and go to school while practicing steno 40 hours a week on the clock. I paid off the last of my steno school loans, along with the much more substantial loans from my undergrad degree, in January 2015. Steno has been a seriously good deal for me financially, and I'm not sure that I would have been as motivated to work as hard as I did if I hadn't paid any money at all and had no objective way to measure my progress. If you advance through speeds quickly, like I did, steno school can be a tedious but relatively painless avenue to a profitable, pleasurable, and endlessly challenging career. I'm a bit resentful that they made me go through six months of padded-out and puffed-up theory classes before they let us start taking speed tests, but otherwise I have no regrets.

I was one of the lucky ones. The problem is this: If you don't advance through speed tests quickly, these schools can keep you in limbo for years and finally graduate you in cataclysmic amounts of debt, or even worse -- which is what happens to the overwhelming majority of students, estimated at 85% or more by most accounts -- it can sell you a machine and software for thousands of dollars, squeeze tuition from you until you're the proverbial bloodless stone, then kick you out with absolutely nothing lucrative to show for it. This is bad. But it's certainly not just found at NYCI. Virtually every steno school operates on this model.

The fact is that back in the day, if you washed out from court reporting school, you at least had some shorthand skills you could use to take dictation as a secretary. The School for Stenotype Exclusively, later Stenotype Academy, and much later The New York Career Institute, was founded on this model. It didn't have any admissions requirements, and its tuition was relatively modest. Those that couldn't hack it had their mid-range clerical skills to fall back on, and those that could went on to work in courtrooms and deposition rooms. I doubt that they were graduating any more students then, proportionately speaking, than they are now, but the stakes for failure now are so much higher. You can easily lose tens of thousands of dollars while churning away for a 225 WPM speed certificate that might never be yours -- whether because you don't have the baseline literacy skills to produce a properly spelled and punctuated transcript, because your motor reflexes aren't fast enough, because your fingers aren't coordinated enough, because you didn't have time to practice, or any of a dozen other reasons. And if you don't get that certificate, there are no alternative careers waiting for you. People don't dictate to secretaries anymore. Bosses do their own typing, so typing skills on their own just don't pay the bills like they used to.

Steno schools that operated with nothing but the public good in mind would try to weed out the obvious never-happens and keep only the best possible prospects -- piano virtuosos, video game whiz kids, qwerty champs, and grammar mavens -- to train up into stenographers. But the National Court Reporters Association tried something like that a few years ago. They hand-picked 15 students, all with bachelor's degrees, who went through a rigorous admissions process and then submitted to constant supervision of their learning and practicing time. After two years, one student had achieved 225 words per minute, two were around 180, and the rest had given up.

My hypothesis is this: It's almost impossible to predict who's going to have what it takes to become a professional. Some mysterious combination of factors separated the hotshot professional qwerty transcriptionist with a Master's degree in literature -- who washed out of my steno school class around 140 WPM after two years of trying -- from me, who didn't have nearly the qualifications he did, but who got my 225 in 18 months. There are people who have gotten it in 11 months. Some have gotten it in 9. What do they have that the other students don't? No one has been able to figure that out. But that's why I think that professional certification shouldn't be the one and only goal in the steno world. If most people who learn steno only reach 140 WPM or 160 WPM and can't get a job as professional stenographers, does that mean the whole endeavor was wasted? Well, if they're out $20,000 and several years of full-time slogging? Yeah. That seems like they made a pretty bad decision. But if they're out $100 and a few months of practicing or playing a video game for fun whenever they have a spare moment? 140 WPM ain't chopped liver. If their day job consists of typing, they've just upgraded their qwerty keyboard for a vastly more efficient and ergonomic model.

This is why The Open Steno Project is so important to me. Right now the good name of steno is being spoiled by the exploitative for-profit steno school system. Far more steno students are losing money than making money, and no matter how you look at it, that's not right. That's not how a trade school should work. It might well be impossible to increase the success rate. If lots of people want to study steno, only a tiny fraction will ever become professionals, and there's no way of predicting which ones will succeed, the only ethical solution is to lower the stakes. Allow anyone to play around with steno on their own time, requiring only minimal financial investment. Those that have a knack and a passion for it can undergo more rigorous training and push themselves over the top, where the money is. Maybe that would involve a paid professional training program, but if so the admission requirement should be 150 WPM, at a baseline. The rest can do it for its own sake, for fun or to aid in other text-heavy pursuits. But even if they decide it's not for them, they'll only be out $100 plus whatever time they chose to put into it. They won't be miserably indebted and forcing themselves to work at something they hate and will never be good at. Debt and desperation will not keep my profession alive, and it will not keep my beloved stenographic technology alive. With its secretarial fallback base long since hollowed out, the for-profit trade school model is in the process of collapsing, and it's bringing thousands of financially captive students along with it. If steno is going to survive, it needs to be open and it needs to be free.