Monday, May 31, 2010

The Ergonomic Argument

What is Steno Good For?

Part One: How to Speak With Your Fingers
Part Two: Writing and Coding
Part Three: The Ergonomic Argument
Part Four: Mobile and Wearable Computing
Part Five: Raw Speed
Part Six: CART, Court, and Captioning

Part three in my six-part series What is Steno Good For?

In part one I talked about how people who used speech synthesizers to communicate could use steno to speak as quickly and as easily as people who use their voices. In part two I concentrated on the fluency that steno brings to prose composition and programming. In this article I want to talk about the ergonomic benefits of steno, with special emphasis on split screen steno keyboard configurations.

When I first started studying steno, I was a qwerty transcriptionist, working for a television captioning company. Three hours of nonstop typing at breakneck speed in the morning, an hour for lunch, four more hours of frantic typing in the afternoon. By the end of the week, my wrists would be screaming, and I started to worry that my temporary day job was dooming my future career. I tried getting a Microsoft Natural keyboard, which claimed to offer a more ergonomic slope to the wrists, but I didn't stop feeling that Friday ache until I was able to abandon qwerty and start using my steno keyboard at work. I mentioned previously how typing each letter of each word can interfere with the smooth flow of composition, and in a subsequent article I'll get into more detail about the speed differential between qwerty and steno, but the relative potential for long-term physiological damage is just as important to mention.

In courtroom dramas on TV, you'll often see a court reporter sitting next to the bench, hammering away on an old avocado-colored steno machine while their notes stream into the paper tray. (Most steno machines these days use LCD screens instead of paper, but I guess directors find the old-fashioned ones more picturesque.) Sometimes TV shows actually go out of their way to cast real court reporters, but more often they'll just get a likely-looking extra, put her in a beehive and hornrims, and tell her to look stenographical. Do you know how to tell the difference between the real ones and the fakers? It's easy.

Watch their hands. Heck, even easier: Watch their forearms. The fakers will be frantically wriggling their fingers, assuming that the only way to keep up with the cross examination is to twiddle away like Glenn Gould on uppers.

The real ones, on the other hand, will be making one clean, relaxed stroke every half-second or so. Their hands will make small lateral movements across the keyboard, but the force of each stroke will come from their forearms, not their wrists or their fingers.

If an average word is six letters long, a qwerty typist has to move their fingers up and down six times in the space of a second to type 60 words a minute. That requires engaging the entire arm, from fingertip to shoulder, rapidly and without any rest for as long as the typist is typing. As one finger finishes firing, another steps up immediately, and the more quickly someone tries to type, the more violent and uncontrolled their motions become.

In steno, by contrast, you get a 14% bonus right off the bat (again, assuming that 6-letter average word length), because there's no space bar; all spaces are inserted automatically by the software. Then you get the ergonomic advantage of pushing each stroke statically from the forearm, like a pianist playing chords, rather than bearing the full force of each stroke a finger at a time. That cuts down on the overall percussive shock. There's also the crucial rest interval between each stroke, which allows the stenographer to relax, redistribute their fingers, and move back onto the keyboard for the next stroke, rather than forcing them to keep their hands always tense and wiggling, a major cause of cramping and typist's claw. And then, of course, the most obvious advantage is that for every six qwerty strokes you type, you only type one in steno. While you're racing feverishly to keep up at 90 WPM, in steno it gets almost boring if the speed drops below 180.

Now, all this is not to say that stenographers never get repetitive stress injuries. Type 40 hours a week for decades, plus countless hours of transcript editing, and even that 700% efficiency advantage won't necessarily spare your hands and fingers. Most stenographers use fixed keyboards that force them to hold their wrists parallel to the floor, an unnatural and unhealthy angle. I started on one of those myself, and coupled with the qwerty typing in my day job, I found the first part of steno school -- when I was only writing at 140 to 160 words per minute, six hours a week -- a painful and worrying experience. My dad, an infrequent computer user who hunted and pecked at a snail's pace, had recently undergone surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, and I knew genetics were often a factor in RSIs.

While still a student, I decided to buy the most ergonomic machine on the market. The choice was simple. Only the Neutrino Group line (the Gemini, Gemini2, Piper, Evolution, and Revolution) allowed not only for a more natural wrist angle -- 45 degrees to the ground rather than parallel -- but, crucially, it also allowed for minor adjustments to be made quickly and easily in a wide range of motion. Now when I feel a twinge, I slightly adjust the yaw, pitch, or roll, and I feel a different set of muscles kicking in to take over for the fatigued ones. I'm not a pitchman for the Neutrino Group by any means (though I've given them favorable reviews, I've always made sure to mention both pros and cons), but they have a fair amount of anecdotal data showing that court reporters with severe RSI problems who switched to Gemini machines were able to lessen or eliminate their pain and numbness in a significant number of cases.

I've provided CART at speed over 200 words per minute for more than seven hours at a stretch, and my wrists felt far better afterwards than they would after only an hour or two back in my 100 WPM qwerty days. Steno lets me be less frantic and more efficient. My ergonomic machine keeps me from locking my arms into an uncomfortable position. I realize that Plover is primarily aimed at people who are not going to be shelling out a grand for an ergonomic steno machine, and that the $60 SideWinder keyboard I'm recommending to amateur steno fans does not have all the adjustable advantages of the Neutrino Group machines, but it does have all the other ergonomic benefits I've discussed in this article. Also, part of my long-range plan in releasing this free software is to greatly increase the number of people who use steno, potentially bringing down the prices of the ergonomic machines as their market size increases from "a tiny fraction of the estimated 40,000 professional stenographers in the US, the majority of whom chose to buy Stenograph brand writers for some inexplicable reason" to "a substantial number of people who spend most of their workdays typing on their computers, who have already switched to steno using $60 keyboards but who like it so much they're looking to upgrade".

Maybe it's a pipe dream, but it makes plenty of sense to me. Computers are a huge part of modern daily life, and RSIs are a big problem for many people who use them. Steno offers a possible solution.

Note to stenographic professionals (court reporters, captioners, and CART providers): I know you don't like being called "stenographers" and I know you think I should call the act of using a steno machine "writing" rather than "typing". Go argue with Truman Capote; it's all the same to me.


Tony said...

Great article, Mirabai! I have been thinking a lot about how to make the keyboard I am developing to lay on top of the SideWinder ergonomic. Not to the extent of the Neutrino-style writers (which would be preferable, of course, but not feasible presently), but more like the layout of the Treal. What's slowing me down right now is exploring what option is best for soldering aluminum, which has just the right properties for the key supports I need.

The ergonomic issues are so much more crucial than many people realize. I have a good friend who had a promising software development career going great guns until one day in 2003 his RSI pain got to be so great that he realized he had to abandon his career altogether.

I saw him the other day, and asked him after all these years if he still had pain. He said, yes, I does to some extent and he still doesn't do any coding on a regular basis.

I told him about my explorations of steno, but of course with his injuries, I don't think it's a good idea for him even to try that. He'll have to make a living as a researcher and direct the work of others. He told me he was actually coding for a while by dictating to a typist, and he found that his voice was getting strained.

Now, you mentioned people not liking to be called "stenographers." Do they associate that with handwritten stenography? What about being called machine stenographers?

--Tony Wright

Abigail said...

Excellent article. The video clip of the "stenographer" (don't know what to say anymore!) taking dictation at 200 wpm was a real eye opener - wasn't sure what that sounded like. And that was only 200! Oh boy. I'm not sure that my brain processed the speaker fast enough. I've got my work cut out for me!

Mackenzie said...

Thank you so much for this article. I have a lot of questions in my mind about these. My aunt's a court reporter and I've been so interested in knowing the difference between her hand strokes and the fake ones'. I also want to know how she could possibly avoid the pain in her wrists.

John @ ergonomically Speaking said...

I came to your website while checking out some ergonomic searches looking for items to review on my site. I had not thought about any products or software related to stenography until reading through a few of the posts.

I'll be doing some additional research on some of the hardware and software you mention on this site and in this post.