Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Request

Hey, all. I don't actually know how many people subscribe to this blog (because I just activated Google Webmaster Tools today and they haven't kicked in yet), but it's had a good half a dozen commenters, and I have a feeling there's a lurker or two hanging around as well. I've got a favor to ask you guys. When I tell people about the Plover Project, the most common response I get is, "Sure, steno is impressive. But who's actually going to take the trouble to learn it?" I know that a number of you are looking to become court reporters, captioners, or CART providers, but I know there are others who intend to use steno to write fiction, avoid RSIs, or any number of other reasons. I'd love to get a bunch of blurbs from people who are either starting steno via Plover or are choosing to use Plover alongside their more traditional steno studies. Why do you think it's worthwhile? What's your motivation in learning steno? What sorts of things do you want to do with it? Just a couple of sentences from a few different people would be enough to fill a post that I could link to whenever the doubters raised their eyebrows at the whole idea of a steno program for amateurs. I'll kick it off with a comment from my friend Martin, who works as a draftsman:

"Here's how I look at it: Right now, I type at about 40-50 WPM. If I ever made a change to how I typed, I'd spend at least a month or so writing at like 20ish WPM. If I learned to write qwerty properly, I'd eventually get up to 60-80 WPM -- clearly not worth it. Dvorak, maybe 75-90 -- meh. That Dutch thingie* , realistically I'd probably max out around 100-150ish. Steno, probably about the same. That's worth the time, but it's not worth the money. Plover takes the fastest option and makes it one of the cheapest."

Anyone else have a story to tell? You can write 'em in the comments or email me (, and then I'll collect them and put them together as a post on the blog. I'm hoping to show that there are plenty of reasons to learn steno, and plenty of demand for Plover that will only increase as it develops. After a month-long hiatus, my next Python session is on Monday, and we're gonna work on keyboard emulation in both Windows and Linux. We've got some pretty good leads on how to do it, so if all goes well, Plover will be able to write properly formatted text into any program you like after the next several weeks.

*Velotype, which I showed him this morning after a Plover commenter sent it to me. Thanks, Nicolay!

Friday, June 25, 2010

CART, Court, and Captioning

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

Finally, the sixth and last installment of my What Is Steno Good For? series. The first five sections dealt with using steno in daily life, for conversation, prose composition and coding, injury prevention, typing while walking, and inputting text as efficiently as possible. Plover is being developed primarily with those five spheres in mind.

This section is different. It focuses on people who actually want to make a living as court reporters, CART providers, or captioners. It's also the category that the majority of the Plover Project's current testers, readers, and commenters belong to. In order for Plover to succeed, that proportion needs to change.

Steno as a career is skyrocketing. Official reporters (the ones who work in actual courtrooms) are facing layoffs, but in every other field -- deposition work, captioning, and CART -- there's far more demand than supply. Rates are relatively high (though down considerably from their peak in the '90s, and gradually continuing to decline) and work is plentiful. Certified realtime stenographers can make six figures a year, while setting their own schedules and maintaining autonomy as independent contractors. It's pretty much a dream job.

Steno as an academic-vocational discipline is dying. Steno schools continue to shut down across the country. The national dropout rate is 85%. Student machines cost over $1,000, and DRM-riddled student software runs about $500, so without even considering tuition, students are forced to pay a largely non-refundable $1,500 right out of the gate. Considering the 15% graduation rate and the variable length of study (which ranges from 1 to 6 years, but averages around 4 years of intensive daily practice to reach graduation speeds of 225 WPM), steno school is a fool's gamble for the vast majority of new students. Most schools are for-profit, so it's in their interest to accept large numbers of theory students, selling them their steno machines when the semester starts and buying them back at a steep markdown from the dropouts, who tend to leave around 120 WPM, just in time for the next crop of theory students to arrive. There's no incentive for schools to screen for English aptitude, physical dexterity, or self-discipline, because the students that are all but doomed to fail are potentially even more lucrative than the successful ones, due to the revolving steno machine sale-and-buyback scheme. This means plenty of profit in the short term, but in the long term it spells the death not only of these short-sighted schools, but of the steno professions themselves.

A market in which demand exceeds supply will hold out only so long. Eventually the vaccuum caused by the shortage of stenographers will collapse, and inferior but readily available substitutes such as electronic recording, undertrained voice writers, and non-verbatim notetaking systems will move in to claim the territory. Compounding the problem is that many people think that the career is less than a decade away from obsolescence; 30 years of Star Trek has put the idea into their heads that artificial intelligence is a nut we're close to cracking, and that a computer that can understand and transcribe everything we say to it is just around the corner. I've got lots and lots to say on this one, but let me just lay out the short and sweet version, and you can either take my word for it now or wait for the long argument to come later. (You might also want to read this article for some of the technical details.)

Without true artificial intelligence, there is no reliable speech recognition. Current speech recognition software works relatively well with good audio, clear speakers, and a somewhat restricted vocabulary. Dictation at 160 WPM or less can give good results, especially if the speaker puts in the effort to train themselves and their software, and providing that they have the luxury to stop the dictation and correct any errors made by the software before continuing on. In real-life situations, where the speaker being transcribed can't be induced to slow down, correct errors, or enunciate perfectly in American-accented English -- even with an intermediary "respeaker" repeating the dictation directly into a microphone, inserting punctuation, and correcting errors on the fly -- the software's verbatim realtime accuracy is significantly below that of a trained stenographer. The only respeakers that even approach the accuracy of realtime steno are true voice writers, who spend thousands of hours training their voices, figuring out ways to differentiate the pronunciation of homophones, and creating macros to resolve mistranscriptions. It is not easy to do. I compare true voice writing to beatboxing and steno to playing a drumset in my article Voice Captioning Versus CART. You can read it if you're interested in that sort of thing.

The trouble is that everyone keeps saying "Voice recognition software is constantly improving. It gets better with every new release. Soon it'll be perfect." The first two statements are correct. The third is a fallacy. The software is improving, but asymptotically. Its theoretical ceiling of improvement is far below what's required for consistent, reliable transcription. Speech recognition software doesn't parse language the way humans do. It has no ability to use context or meaning to change sounds into words. It records audio waveforms, breaks them up into little bits, and compares them to a database of other audio waveforms. It never finds a perfect match, because no two humans say the same word in exactly the same way each time. Instead, it tries to choose the closest match in its database of thousands of other tiny fragments of audio. All speech recognition software relies on probability-based algorithms to guess at what's being said. This means that the more common the phrase, the more variants of it will be found in the database, and the more likely it will be to be correctly transcribed.

But the converse is also true. In the architecture class I provide CART for, the phrase "sum of the forces" comes up several dozen times a week. But because the phrase "some of the" is so much more common in normal speech than "sum of the", the VR software would mistranscribe it unless the voice writer figured out a way to say "sum" that sounded completely different from the word "some" and defined it as a custom waveform. There are scads of these soundalike words and phrases in the English language, and the voice writer is at a disadvantage when trying to distinguish them. The steno writer has a number of options to resolve homophone conflicts or to compress a wordy phrase into a single stroke. They can add the asterisk, they can alter the vowels, or they can take a cue from the way the word is spelled. It's much harder for a voice writer to find an alternative way to pronounce a word or syllable, because not only must they pronounce it consistently so that the computer can recognize it each time, but it also can't sound like any other words or syllables that they might be called upon to speak. It's much easier to write a memorable nonsense syllable on the steno keyboard than it ever would be to speak it.

There's also the inherent uncertainty involved in decoding analog speech with a digital algorithm. Even with good amplification, the signal is always lossy to some extent, and the speech processing algorithms are essentially a black box that weigh relative probabilities and then just spit out the most likely one, without being able to incorporate any semantic or contextual calculations. The voice writer is never quite sure what the machine is going to make out of what they said, and no matter how cleanly they speak, they're forced to build in a lot more error correction time into their transcription process. Steno writers can write a word in half a second that took the speaker three seconds to say, and they know with certainty what will come up on the screen when they hit a particular chord. That's an advantage a voice writer will never have. Add in that a voice writer has to speak at the same time that they're trying to listen, and you see some of the difficulties they labor under.

There are some excellent voice writers out there, and I don't want to devalue their talent or the enormous amount of training that goes into the process of achieving accurate verbatim realtime using VR software. On the contrary; I think if people realized how much work it takes to do the job properly with the voice, they might balk a lot less at the idea of learning to do it with their fingers. Unfortunately, the shortage of CART providers, captioners, and court reporters has led to a widespread practice of companies hiring untrained voice writers, deciding that their output is good enough, and dropping both standards and wages accordingly. It's a sad situation.

Because voice recognition is perceived to be so much easier than it really is, and because learning it only requires about $200, a microphone, and a computer, it's much easier to find people willing to give it a chance. After all, if it doesn't live up to their expectations, they're only out $200, rather than the $1,500 albatross steno school dropouts find themselves trying to unload. Imagine if computer programming required a special computer that couldn't connect to the internet or run games or do anything else except write computer software, and that it sold for $1,500. What do you think the state of software development would look like? Maybe some rich kids' parents would buy them the machine, but they'd probably prefer that they become doctors or lawyers than programmers, which is a lot of work for not much prestige. Poor kids would be completely out of luck. Middle class kids might think that programming sounded fun, but they'd probably decide it wasn't worth the restrictive entry cost. Some few people might decide that programming was their best shot at making a good living, so they'd scrimp and save and take out loans to buy the special programming computer plus the lessons to go with it. And after all that, what if they didn't like programming? What if they didn't have an aptitude for it? They were out $1,500 and a lot of wasted effort. What kind of smart, inquisitive, curious kid would make that kind of gamble? What would the field of computer programming look like if this were the only way to write software?

It's the state of steno today, and I'm worried that if it goes on for much longer, the discipline will die out altogether. The only way we can build the next generation of realtime reporters, captioners, and CART providers is if we get people using steno for all sorts of purposes -- not just the ones that will make them an immediate profit. Once there's a pool of amateurs and enthusiasts all using steno in their daily lives, it will be evident how useful it can be and how outdated the qwerty interface has become. Kids will start learning it in their typing classes. Companies will start selling steno machines (hopefully ultra-portable ones!) at consumer prices. People who would feel awkward talking to themselves in public via VR software will embrace steno as the most efficient way to put their thoughts into words.

All of this holds true even if they're only writing at 120 words per minute. It took me a year and a half to graduate from steno school. In that time, I noticed that most of my fellow students dropped out when they were writing between 120 and 225 words per minute. Relatively few of them dropped out before their third semester. They would make fairly steady progress through theory and up to 120 WPM, then plateau. It seems that nearly anyone can get up to 100 WPM or so in less than six months, but that closing the gap between 100 and 200 seems to take much more work. You don't need to write at 225 WPM to reap the advantages of steno. Even 120 WPM is double the average qwerty typing speed, and steno has significant ergonomic benefits as well. Users can overtake their qwerty speed within the first few months of use, then gradually work their way up to higher speeds while using steno to perform their daily tasks, rather than spending 10 hours a week in grueling, boring dictation classes.

Inevitably, some of these people will find they have both a passion and a talent for steno. They'll push themselves to go faster and faster, and eventually they'll arrive at court/CART/captioning speeds. Much like programmers do today, they'll start out tinkering around with the free software, discover a passion and an aptitude for the system, possibly spend some time in a formal program polishing their technique, and discover one day that they're skilled enough to take paying work. These people are the future of our profession, and right now they hardly know it exists. The only way people will bother to learn steno is if the software is free, the steno machine costs less than $100, and the lessons are available online. The Plover Project is an attempt to meet those goals, and to secure the future of the work that I love.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Raw Speed

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

In the introduction to the What Is Steno Good For? series I said, more or less facetiously, that this section would be devoted to "break onto the high score tables of online typing games." Speed for the sake of bragging rights is great and all, but I think there's more than that to be gained from being able to write three times faster than a qwerty typist.

When I tell people about Plover, they often say, "Well, I guess it's cool that you can type 240 WPM, but your job is to write down what other people are saying. I work alone, on my own time. Why would I go to the trouble of learning this whole new system? I type 60 WPM on a qwerty keyboard, and it's never been a problem for me." That's a fair question. Does the ability to type faster actually offer real-world advantages to people who aren't working as stenographers or transcriptionists? Which is the limiting factor: The input speed of the fingers or the output speed of the brain? And if there is a difference, is it only a quantitative one, or can it be qualitative as well?

I've talked about using steno to converse without speaking, the ease and fluency it lends to prose composition, its ergonomic benefits, and its potential in mobile applications. But speed is the most obvious and immediate benefit of steno over qwerty. It lets you get rid of the boring stuff quickly, leaving you more time for the interesting stuff. Whether that means being so blindingly fast at your dull data entry job that you get promoted to something requiring actual intelligence, or whether it means solidifying your ideas in text before they snarl up and blow away, it's a worthwhile thing to do. The counterargument to that, which I hear a lot, is that words just don't come that quickly; it takes longer to think of them than it does to write them, even at glacial typing speeds. That doesn't match up with my experience, and I don't think I'm the only one.

I'm willing to bet that the act of qwerty typing slows down the thoughts of many people. When I type on a qwerty keyboard, I feel my mind splitting along four consecutive but overlapping tracks: One, the word I want to write. Two, the way it's spelled. I'm a pretty good speller, but English is weird enough that the process is never completely automatic. Three, the series of five to ten finger motions it takes to type it. Four, the error checking mechanism that iterates over the first three and confirms that the correct word choice, orthography, and letter position have appeared onscreen. Usually I'll have already started typing the next word when I spot a spelling or typing error in the previous one, and by the time I've pressed backspace ten times to correct two transposed letters, my train of thought will have gotten all tangled up and I'll have to pause for a second to remember what I was writing. Even when I try to pace myself and type more slowly than usual, I'll make an error like this every few sentences, and my flow of composition will have been interrupted half a dozen times by end of the paragraph.

I know this sounds less like an argument for speed and more like the argument for fluency that I made in part two, but I don't think people realize how closely they're connected. Your mind won't let itself leap too far ahead of the words on the screen, so the rate of the words effectively throttles the rate of your thoughts. Add in the constant backspacing and rewriting, and three quarters of your mind is devoted to busywork, while the quarter devoted to producing actual words is forced to wait its turn.

How does steno consolidate those channels of word selection, spelling, typing, and error correction? Well, with word selection you're on your own; the steno machine can't help you there. But then you only have to conjure the sound of the word and stroke out its corresponding syllables. The spelling takes care of itself. No more pausing to remember where the double l goes in "parallel"; just write PA/RA/LEL and the computer will find the proper spelling for you. This is very useful when producing work for clients with divergent specifications. If you're copywriting for one company that prefers the spelling "Web site" (shudder) and another that favors "website", you don't have to spend any thought cycles retraining your fingers each time you switch; just define WEBT differently in your two client dictionaries and forget about it. Same with international spellings. Get both an American dictionary and a Canadian/British dictionary, and your writing can stay the same while your spelling toggles across borders. That also goes for diacritical marks, brand names, trademark symbols, and everything else it's a pain in the butt to write out each time; define it once, and you can just keep writing phonetically without worrying about the extra fiddly bits. Of course, you can do this to a certain extent with autocorrect and autoexpand settings in word processors, but they still require three to five keystrokes per word, and they don't easily accommodate several client or task-specific dictionaries.

That's spelling taken care of. What about typing accuracy? Qwerty requires your fingers to be constantly in motion, and their timing has to be split-second accurate if you want to avoid writing letters in the wrong order. Most people have a few fingers that are quicker than the rest, leading to persistent letter inversion and spacing errors. In steno, there is no space bar, so that's 1/5 of your errors obviated straight off. It's also far harder to make letter inversion errors, because the steno machine registers strokes not when each finger hits the key, but after all the keys have been released. You can compensate for a lazy or overactive finger merely by lifting your hands decisively from the keyboard at the end of each stroke. In steno, the wrist and forearm muscles get to set the pace, rather than the scattershot fast-twitch muscles of the fingers.

Pay attention to how many times you hit the backspace key when writing qwerty, even while typing slowly and evenly. The longer it takes to discover an error, the more backspaces you need to return to the spot and fix it, which means that you're forced either to be hypervigilant as you type or to spend nearly as much time backspacing as typing. In steno, the asterisk key deletes the last translation, not the last letter. Misstroke a six-letter word? Fix the error with a single stroke rather than six. No more leaning on the backspace key, waiting for the cursor to catch up. One stroke to write a word, one stroke to delete it. All of these shortcuts simplify the mental and physical bookkeeping you have to do during the writing process, which speeds up not just your typing, but your thoughts as well.

And what do you do with the time you save from that increased typing and thinking speed? The stuff that isn't typing. Typing is boring. It's not profitable. It's also not scalable. You might think that part of my scheme to hook people on steno would be to tell them how to make money off of it, but to be honest, unless you're really good, really fast, and really dedicated, you're not gonna be able to earn much from it. Realtime stenographers (I'm one myself) make a good living. Offline (i.e., non-realtime) transcription jobs, like gold farming, are only sustainably profitable these days in countries with pretty low costs of living. If there's a transcriptionist in the Philippines reading this who's thinking about using Plover to make their work more efficient, I'd be thrilled to bits to hear from 'em. But in the United States, Canada, and Europe, even stenographic speeds aren't likely to make you enough transcription money to live on. There are too many people working at far slower speeds who can afford to charge much less. So speed alone isn't the answer to everything.

On the other hand, there are a lot of jobs out there that involve plenty of typing. In most of them, the typing is usually the grunt work you have to get out of the way in order to do the fun part of the job: Emails, spreadsheets, reports, text chats, work logs, and assorted administrative chaff. There's also tons of nonprofit and volunteer accessibility work out there that's in desperate need of accurate human transcription. It's not just for altruistic purposes, either. Transcribe your YouTube videos, and it's now accessible not only to the Deaf and hard of hearing, but also to the people who found your video via a keyword in your transcript, people who watch muted videos on the sly at work, and people who are too impatient to watch something to the end if there isn't a transcript to give them the gist first. Add those four groups together, and you've got a pretty good chunk of the internet. At qwerty speeds, it can take almost an hour to transcribe and caption a five-minute video. With steno, you can do it in less than ten.

If I haven't convinced you by now that increasing your typing speed is worth your while, it's probably not gonna happen. I'll turn to the people who are already convinced. The people who play Typestriker and Typing Maniac and The Typing of the Dead, just to feel the flow of words through their fingers. The people who spend their leisure time making speed runs in video games and yearn for that same rush of screaming sweetness in their boring data entry jobs. The people who, bless their hearts, spend months retraining their fingers to use Dvorak for, at the most, a 20% increase in speed. These are the people who should welcome steno with a gleaming eye and a jackrabbit heart. They already know they want to be the fastest thing going. Now, with $60 and a bit of practice, 240 WPM is theirs for the taking. If this sounds like anyone you know, send 'em along to the Plover Project.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Steno 101, Lesson Zero

Steno 101: How to Do It
Steno 101: Lesson Zero
Steno 101: Lesson One
Steno 101: Lesson Two
Steno 101: Lesson Three
Steno 101: Lesson Four

Audio version

Before I start teaching you how to use that nice colorful chart I posted a while back, I'm going to talk about some of the fundamental principles of machine shorthand. Later I'll get into the nitty gritty, but for a first introduction, I just want to give a quick overview on what it takes to turn words into a code that a computer can turn back into words.

The Steno Machine

Today's steno machine is descended from a machine first invented by Ward Stone Ireland in 1910. A steno machine has anywhere between 24 and 37 keys: 22 capital letter keys, 1 to 4 asterisk keys, 1 to 9 number keys, and sometimes 2 optional accessory keys. The asterisk and number keys are all identical to one another; their numbers only vary for ergonomic reasons.

A chord made up of one or more of those keys (also known as a "steno outline") can represent a single letter, a syllable, or an entire word. The letters on the left hand side represent the beginning consonants of words, the keys operated by the thumbs represent vowels, and the letters on the right hand side represent the ending consonants. The asterisk key, struck by itself, represents a command to delete the last stroke from the record. When struck with other letters, it's a sort of wild card, and can be employed for several different purposes, all of which I'll get into later.

Each letter appears in a strictly defined order within a chord, and chords are always read from left to right. When writing down steno outlines for the benefit of colleagues or students, stenographers often employ a sort of pseudosteno, writing the English letters they mean to represent, rather than the actual keys they would press on the machine to write the chord. So the word "braving", which would properly be written "PWRAEUFPBG", would be written "BRAIFNG" in pseudosteno. The stenographer would know to translate the "B" to "PW", the "I" to "EU", and the "N" to "PB" when writing the outline on the machine. Because pseudosteno is much easier for beginners to read, I'm using it to write all the examples in this first lesson. Then in the second lesson I'll start teaching you those "B" to "PW" and "I" to "EU" mappings using the chart.

Principles of Steno

Audio version

Steno is commonly considered a phonetic writing system, though I would really call it more of a phonetic-mnemonic system. Each stenographer has a wide degree of latitude in determining how to write each word, and the criteria they use are fairly arbitrary, as long as the outlines are memorable and easy to write. Most one-syllable words are written phonetically, unless they contain letters out of steno order (STKPWHRAO*EUFRPBLGTSDZ -- more on that in the next lesson) or if they conflict with soundalike words or phrases. Soundalike words are usually differentiated by altering vowels, taking advantage of spelling differences, or inserting the asterisk key in the less common outline.

Resolving homophone conflicts -

Bear: BAER
Bare: BAIR

So: SO
Sew: SWE

Gram: GRAM
Graham: GRA*M

Multisyllabic words will sometimes be written phonetically, syllable by syllable (often with schwa sounds omitted) but will sometimes be truncated, inverted, or mashed together. When you see a slash between two steno outlines, it means that the word or phrase is made up of multiple strokes. A steno machine registers a stroke as complete when all the previously pressed keys have been released, so the slash indicates that the stenographer should lift all their fingers from the keyboard and then write the next chord in the outline.

Syllabic -

Harmonica: HAR/MON/KA
Bungle: BUNG/*L
Dreadful: DRED/FL

Phonetic, shwahs ommitted -

Committed: KMITD
Leverage: LEFRJ
As much as: SMUCHS

Inverted -

Greater: GRAERT
Destroy: SDROI
Really: LAOERL

Truncated -

Prejudice: PREJ
Superintendant: SUPT
Accident: SDENT


Audio version

So far most of the outlines I've shown you fall under the category of "more or less phonetic". Another important tool in steno is the brief, also known as the "abbreviation", "short form", or "arbitrary". Briefs are simply non-phonetic mappings of steno outlines to English words or phrases. For instance, the phrase "from time to time" could be written out:


(Four strokes)

Or it could be briefed:


(One stroke)

Either one will translate as "from time to time" if they're defined that way in the steno dictionary, but the second one is shorter and easier to write. The trade-off, of course, is that "FRIMT" doesn't really sound much like "from time to time", though it's got a hint of mnemonic resonance to hang your hat on. Briefs are counter-intuitive and sometimes hard to remember, but very useful. I'll be saying a lot more about how to invent and use them in subsequent lessons.

The Hyphen

Audio version

In the steno outlines I've shown you so far, you've seen capital letters, slashes, and asterisks. The only other character used in writing steno is the hyphen. Like the slash (and unlike the capital letters or the asterisk), the hyphen is a guideline to writing, and does not actually appear on the steno machine. It represents the middle of the keyboard and is used to differentiate keys written with the left hand from those written with the right hand. A letter with a hyphen after it, such as "T-", is written with the left hand; a letter with a hyphen in front of it, such as "-T", is written with the right hand. Some letters appear only on one or the other side of the keyboard, so it's not always necessary to use a hyphen when writing steno outlines. In this lesson I only use it when it's required for clarity.

Common Short Words

Audio version

Very common short words are usually briefed rather than written out, because the fewer keys a stenographer presses at a time, the less energy they expend and the less likely they are to make a misstroke. English uses words like "it", "the", "is", and "will" so often, it makes sense to write them with only one letter.

Outlines and briefs for common short words:

Can: KAN
Can: K-

Will: WIL
Will: L-

It: IT
It: T-

The: TH*E
The: -T

Is: IS
Is: S-

With: WI*T
With: W-

Be: B*E
Be: -B or B-

If: IF
If: F-

Steno Theories

Audio version

All English language steno theories are derived from the original Stenotype theory devised by Ireland when he invented the machine. Some modern theories depart radically from that first theory. Some differ very little. Theories tend to differ most in their treatment of briefs and how explicitly they write suffixes and vowel sounds. The controversy is often stated as "brief-heavy" versus "stroke-heavy", though it gets a bit more complicated than that. I'll probably write an article summarizing the main points of prevailing theories at some point, but in the Steno 101 series, I'm going to teach you the theory I use, which I adapted from NYCI theory, in turn descended from StenEd, one of the most popular and mainstream modern steno theories. Because I believe that steno dictionaries must be constructed by their stenographers to be truly useful, and that rote memorization of other people's systems is of limited utility, I'll try to leave plenty of jumping-off points where people can adapt the theory to their own purposes. In subsequent lessons, I'll also explain some of the inconsistencies in my dictionary, how they originated, and possible ways to improve them.

This is getting to be pretty lengthy for an introductory lesson, so I'll just mention one more element of stenographic writing, and then we'll try to put everything together.

Word Boundaries

Audio version

The steno machine saves an enormous number of keystrokes by eliminating the space bar. Word boundaries in steno are implicit rather than explicit, but the steno software is able to insert appropriate spaces remarkably well without needing to be told where to put them. In certain cases, however, the stenographer needs to be careful about word boundaries and work around possible overlaps. Misplaced spaces are known as "boundary errors", and they're usually resolved by dictionary tweaking, theory modification, or, in rare cases, brute force. If worse comes to worst, a stenographer can manually insert a space between strokes, though there are usually better ways to work around the problem.

Some examples of boundary errors with and without homophone conflicts:

We're going to the play right now.

He almost makes the play write itself.

The playwright is coming to the rehearsal.

In order to resolve a potential word boundary issue, the stenographer needs to weigh the likeliness of a boundary error against the trouble of figuring out how to avoid one.

"Play right", "play write" and "playwright" from the sentences above occur commonly enough in English that a means must be found to differentiate them. But what about the word "catalogues"? Ordinarily it would be written in pseudosteno:


A smart stenographer would recognize that the components of that word are words in their own right -- "cat" and "logs" -- and try to construct hypothetical sentences in which they'd appear next to each other. For instance, you could say:

"That cat logs 12 hours a day down at the Post Office, catching mice."

It's possible to do, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn't it? The stenographer will probably conclude that the phrase "cat logs" is not common enough to worry about, and put "catalogues" in their dictionary as KAT/LOGS.

Another example:


"From across the banquet hall, he could see the enormous pie nearing the dessert table as its six muscular bearers staggered beneath its bulk."

"This is a pioneering development in the field of pastry transportation technology."

Based on your knowledge of English, is the phrase "pie nearing" likely to come up in conversation as often as the word "pioneering"? No? Then setting the outline "PAOI/NAOERNG" to "pioneering" is probably safe. Still, this kind of probability check needs to be done whenever defining a multisyllabic word in a steno dictionary, and the decisions are not always as clearcut as "catalogues" and "pioneering".


Audio version

You've learned about pseudosteno, differentiating soundalikes, syllabic and non-syllabic outline construction, using single letters for common words, and avoiding boundary errors. Let's put it all together. I'll write a paragraph in English and then show you how I'd render it into pseudosteno.

Clifford held his breath as he waited to hear the hiss of the elevator. He checked his pockets for the fifth time. Still empty. He might belong to the dorkiest echelon of the Intelligence Squad, but he was determined to do his duty. There it went. He tiptoed rapidly out into the hall and dove through the doors as they opened. He let his breath out with a slow and shaking whoosh as his MagnaShoes engaged. Carefully, gingerly, he clomped up the wall and onto the high steel ceiling. Blood rushed to his head. The elevator's doors closed and he felt himself ascending. When they opened again, he would be ready. His fingers twitched above the cloth keypads mounted on his thighs, ready to write down everything they heard over the next 8 hours. He'd do Steno Batallion proud.

778 Keystrokes


171 Keystrokes

BLUE = Briefed Short Words
GREEN = Punctuation
PURPLE = Multisyllabic Words With Schwas Omitted

Monday, June 7, 2010

Mobile and Wearable Computing

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

When I was 10 years old, my big brother William came to visit from California. He was 29, had a mohawk and mirrored sunglasses, worked as an electronic engineer for a tech company in Silicon Valley, and lived in a drainage tunnel because he didn't believe in rent.

My brother William, just after graduating from Cal Poly

He was, needless to say, the coolest human being on the planet. One day he came to talk to my 6th grade class about careers in computer science. He walked into the school wearing a head mounted display that projected green glowing lines of ASCII onto his eyeballs, controlled by a clunky beige laptop strapped to his chest (this was 1991), with a numeric keypad peripheral tied around his right leg, which he controlled using a chording system he'd invented himself. Actually, he'd built all of it himself, putting it together out of spare parts on a whim, and the instant I saw it, I wanted one just like it. It was my first exposure to the idea of writing via chording and my first taste of the dorktastic awesomeness that is wearable computing.

It shouldn't be too surprising that my brother abandoned his wearable rig shortly after he got it all working. It was too heavy and too hot, the display gave him eye strain, and the chording thigh pad was hopelessly slow and uncomfortable.

Not my brother. A guy named Steve Mann.

I've railed often enough against the inefficiencies of qwerty and its tedious one letter per keystroke input ratio, but the one letter per chord ratio of nearly all one-handed keypad systems (Twiddler, Frogpad, Chordite, et al.) is even slower, less accurate, and less ergonomic. The jacked-in cyberfuture of the '90s failed to materialize, and while computers continued to get faster and smaller, they remained external objects, migrating from our desks to our backpacks to our pockets, but refusing to become part of our wardrobes.

Fast forward 19 years. I'm now the age my brother was when he blew my mind by walking into Washington Middle School like an awesome apocalyptic cyborg. Every day I carry a 26-pound bag from my apartment in Upper Manhattan to the subway and settle in for an hour long commute to my office in downtown Brooklyn.

This is actually an old picture. I've gotten a new steno machine and a new laptop since then, and I don't carry the wireless router anymore, since I now use Bluetooth instead. But you get the general idea.

The bag contains one laptop (a Lenovo SL400) and one tablet PC (a Samsung Q1), both running Windows XP; two tripods; a Revolution Grand steno machine; a USB foot pedal for audio transcription; and a bunch of wires and cables. Sometimes I want to get my transcription work done on the train during my commute, so I set up the steno machine on its tripod, press the Samsung Q1 onto its heavy-duty velcro holder, plug in the USB foot pedal and my Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones, and start writing. It sounds less awkward than it is. When the train is crowded, that maneuver is all but impossible, and I'm forced to leave all my fancy transcription gear in my bag. Instead, I reach for my phone. I can't do transcription work on it, but it keeps me entertained.

Part three of What is Steno Good For? was composed entirely on my phone (a Blackberry Curve 8330) with two thumbs and a lot of patience. This is what mobile computing means in 2010: Hunting and pecking on a teeny-tiny qwerty keyboard at 20 WPM. Oh, my 10-year-old cyberpunk self would be weeping. But why are these pocket-sized systems currently the most convenient form of mobile text input? Is this as good as it's going to get? Will we be stuck tip-tapping on our phones with our thumbs forever? I sure hope not. The basic problem is this: If it's small enough to fit in a pocket, it's too small to type on efficiently. If it's too big to fit in a pocket, it's too inaccessible to be available on the spur of the moment. There are two potential solutions to the problem. One, clothing-integrated or clothing-mounted text input. Two, virtual space text input. The first one is easy enough to visualize. The second one is pretty far out there, so I won't be addressing it at any length, especially since I'm concerned that its usefulness will be limited without at least a minimal amount of haptic feedback.

As you've probably guessed, this is the least reality-based article in the What is Steno Good For? series. None of my ideas for wearable steno systems are anywhere close to currently available. My scheme is to get people hooked on free software, free steno training, and $60 steno machines first. Then maybe once there's a critical mass of steno-savvy consumers, some company will recognize the demand for efficient mobile computing and manufacture the wearable computing technology I've always dreamed of. My first job is to convince you that steno is actually an ideal solution to the finger size versus pocket size paradox I referred to before. But first, a quick detour on the subject of head-mounted displays. It's a problem that still hasn't been solved to anyone's satisfaction, even after several decades of trying. They're too heavy, too fragile, too stupid-looking, too headache-inducing. But let's posit that someday soon the problem will be solved, and we'll be able to go out and buy lightweight, stylish augmented reality overlay monitors that look just like ordinary pairs of eyeglasses.

So you're walking down the street wearing your AR specs, watching text hover gracefully over all of the local landmarks. What if you want to interact with that text? What if you want to work on your novel while doing your grocery shopping? Text chat with your friend in Belize while walking your dog? Or, you know, write a blog post on a crowded subway? If you're reading this on a desktop computer, put your qwerty keyboard in your lap. If you're not, pretend. Imagine the keyboard split in half and made flexible, melding with the fabric of your jeans and wrapping around each leg. Then imagine trying to type on it while walking. Do you see how many buttons that is? Even if you leave out some of the metakeys, you've got 33 keys plus enter, shift, and space. Make them big enough to fit your fingers, and they wrap clean around to the back of your thigh. Make them small enough to fit completely in the region where your fingers rest naturally, and it's impossible to type on them accurately. The human hand, the human leg, and the English alphabet seem to have irreconcilable differences.

See? Just... No.

But instead of 36 tiny little squares, what about two panels of ten nested rectangles, plus two more resting under each thumb? Compared to the qwerty layout it's both narrower and shorter, and those 24 panels (22 letters plus two asterisks) can be used to produce every letter of the alphabet plus punctuation, commands, and special characters to boot. At 260 words per minute, I might add -- but this article isn't about speed; I'll get to that in the next one. This is about walking and writing or sitting and writing or lying down and writing or doing the cha-cha or riding bumper cars or running a marathon and writing. Unlike on the qwerty keyboard, where you're constantly moving your hands up or down, left or right, leaving and returning to the home row, in steno the only fingers that ever leave their fixed positions are the right pointer for the asterisk and the right pinky for the D and Z keys. All the others stay put, making touch typing much easier, even under bumpy conditions.

Okay, this is really not doing it justice, but I don't have Photoshop, so it's the best you're gonna get.

Don't want to type on the tops of your thighs? Wear a hoodie and type on your abs with your hands in the pockets. Cross your arms and type on your biceps. The limited surface area required by the steno layout means that you could hypothetically write in steno more or less anywhere you can rest your fingers. Now, because it's a two-handed system it's still going to be inconvenient in some situations, but it's got a good shot at succeeding where the qwerty keyboard was inevitably doomed to fail.

I know this clothing-integrated stuff is still many years away, but even on the slightly less mobile front, I'm excited about the dual screen multi-touch laptops I've posted about recently. Putting steno on those seems like a good compromise between my bulky three-part transcription system and all these full-on wearable pipe dreams, and I know they'd be a big help to me in my daily commute. We take our technology with us almost everywhere we go these days, and we desperately need a more elegant way of interacting with it. I think steno could fit the bill.

PS: Just for laughs, here's my current most successful attempt at mobile steno computing. It is not a practical everyday solution. I use it to CART meetings and other events with Deaf or hard of hearing clients who need to walk around a lot; it worked quite well for a meet-and-greet tour of a client's potential grad department, for instance. But this sort of thing is way too bulky and weird-looking for anything but special occasions. It uses my Samsung Q1, my Revolution Grand, some gaffer's tape, and a Connect-a-Desk. Far from perfect, but all I've got for now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Steno 101: How to Do It?

Steno 101: How to Do It
Steno 101: Lesson Zero
Steno 101: Lesson One
Steno 101: Lesson Two
Steno 101: Lesson Three
Steno 101: Lesson Four
Audio version

A break from the What is Steno Good For series, just in case you've already been convinced by parts one through three and you're raring to get started. Obviously my dream of seeing steno sweep the world and capture the hearts and hands of Qwerty typists everywhere is not going to happen by itself. Efficient touch typing comes with practice, but anyone who knows the alphabet can hunt and peck on a keyboard and get accurate, if slow, results. That's not true of steno. You have to invest a fair amount of time in learning the different chords of the keyboard before you can start writing anything. When I went to steno school, they taught us a letter, then gave us a few sentences utilizing that letter, drilled us for a week until we were writing the practice sentences at about 20 WPM, then added another letter. It meant we spent a lot of time writing stuff like "The ape sat at the top step" over and over again, while my Theory teacher yelled "Use da pinky fingah!" at us in her charming Queens accent. I was bored and frustrated a lot of the time, and I think I could have gone a lot faster if I'd been left to my own devices.

I've been trying to think about how I've learned previous manual systems -- the B-flat major scale on a bassoon, the SNES controls for Super Mario World, the keyboard shortcuts in Vim. Mostly I've gone through a brief tutorial or overview of the system as a whole, and then I've just jumped in and tried to use what I learned, consulting a cheat sheet as necessary until I'd internalized all the patterns. I definitely welcome input from all the steno autodidacts reading this blog, because I'm very curious to discover how you wound up teaching yourselves steno. Ideally I'd love to make a steno theory computer game that offered both tutorials and practice; that's the best way I can think of to learn this stuff. But my programming skills are not yet up to devising educational fast-twitch action games with compelling gameplay and whupsnout graphics, so this is the best I can offer for the time being. First the cheat sheet, then (in a day or two, I'm hoping) the overview/tutorial in boring blog post form. Click to embiggen.

Audio version

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Ultimate Mobile Plover Platform?

Two-screen Linux-based multitouch tablet?

The Kno!

If this is true multitouch, this could be a fantastic platform for Plover.

The article where I got the above video. I'm excited!