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.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Roslyn's Stenoboard Videos

I haven't gotten a chance to watch both of these all the way through, but I thought I should post them so that people who want more information on the StenoBoard can get a glimpse of what the assembly process actually involves. This one is uncaptioned, but it's mostly about the visuals, so the audio can be safely ignored:



And this one, with some ideas of how to make the StenoBoard more like a traditional lever-based machine, actually is captioned:



Roslyn described herself recently in the Plover Google Group this way:
I worked through all the LearnPlover modules in a few months last year on an nkro keyboard before deciding that I really did want to do this as a career. I probably spent about 10-15 hours a week, just fitting it in where I could (I had my three year old home with me most of the time, so it was a bit sporadic). Last October, I enrolled in Australia's only Court Reporting school (distance ed) and had to start again (using the manual machine they lent me) because they teach a different steno theory. I am about halfway through theory now - I do about 15-20 hours a week and we learn to write at 60wpm (from tape recorded drills). The main reason I didn't just continue self-teaching is because of the difficulty in getting a 'real' machine here in Australia. We have a very small industry compared to the US. I have recently bought a Stenoboard and I'm using that in conjunction with StenoTutor - it's really speeding up my progress because it lets me focus specifically on the words I'm writing slowest - I highly recommend it :-). At the rate I'm going, I'm hoping to be through theory and onto speedbuilding in another three months (although life still sometimes does get in the way!)
I think it's really cool that not only did Plover help her decide on steno as a professional career, but that it's inspired her to make videos that she can share with the wider open steno community. Very gratifying and much appreciated!

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.

    {^}{^ase}
    {^}{^uria}
    {^}{^emic}
    {^}{^emia}
    {^}{^oma}
    {^}{^us}

    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.