Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Guest Post: Getting Started with Steno

This is an article written by Mau Bustamante, a steno autodidact who showed up on the Aviary a few months ago, to my great delight. He posted this over there a while ago, but I've been swamped, so I'm just now mirroring it here. It's really cool to see that the expensive steno school paradigm is not the only effective one out there. I knew that already when Stan Sakai picked up Plover on a whim, taught himself theory from a book, and and wound up eventually buying commercial steno software and hardware and becoming a professional CART provider. He's promised to write me a recap post on his learning experience too, but in the mean time, I'm really happy that we've got Mau's account, because he's much more the sort of audience Plover is aiming at. He doesn't intend to make steno his career, but he's happily using it in his daily work and recreational life, which makes me ridiculously excited. It's so cool seeing that it's already useful technology, even though Plover's still got a way to go (I'm still trying to get someone to finish up the Windows port, and I've got to do some tasks for Fly in order for Pragma to be able to finish the next version. Still no word on the dictionary conversion script. Josh says he's going to be working on the just-in-time dictionary entry feature soon, but he's got to get a break from his day job first. Open source development is like a glacier: Slow but relentless, and eventually unstoppable.) So enjoy Mau's post! If you've got any comments or questions, feel free to ask them here and I'll forward them along, or head over to the Aviary and ask him directly!

Getting started with steno - my experience
Mau Bustamante


I took up the Dvorak keyboard some five or six years ago and find it to be much more comfortable and enjoyable to use, though not necessarily any faster. Around the time I started reading about alternative keyboard layouts, I found out about the machines that court stenographers use to transcribe proceedings. However, the high cost of the hardware required to use this technology and the inability to type directly to the computer meant that it was out of the question for me. Some years later, I discovered Plover and tried out the in-browser demo.

Having the opportunity to try out this method of entry with a total investment of a nice gaming keyboard meant an immediate download and a new obsession.

The following narrative summarizes my learning process/approach to stenography right from day 1. It is provided for informative purposes; it is not the official method, or even a good method necessarily, and therefore it is not guaranteed to work for anyone. Read at your own risk.

The beginning

After reading some of the most recent Plover blog posts [1], I jumped straight into the learning phase. My initial approach was the same as what I used to learn Dvorak. I studied the key layout to understand how my hands are supposed to hit the keys. Keeping a picture of the lay out open in another window or writing it down for reference helps a lot to learn the location of the letters [2]. I typed the whole alphabet a few times before moving on [3]. The phonetic makeup of the chording system did take a little to get used to, but once you can wrap your head around this element, the rest kinda falls into place a lot faster.

I read all of the tutorials available [4]. The next step was to try out all the sample sentences and words that I could find. There are common sentences listed on the aviary and the wiki [5]. I tried to make mental notes on how the briefs are put together - most of them have some phonetic logic that is easy to remember...some of them don't at all, but that's just something that you have to deal with and since English is stupid like that too, I didn't mind all that much.

While I began to learn to put together the sounds, I took note of the fact that some keys used on their own represent endings such as "s" or "ing" - this is very useful because it is often possible to attach those endings at the same time as the rest of the word. I spent considerable time trying out all the endings [6]. In the same way that I learned the layout, I'd keep a notepad window open for typing on one side of the screen and the endings list on the other for ease of reference.


I'd like to mention here that learning steno is not something that I restricted to my time on the computer. Learning steno is a day-long exercise... From time to time, I'll catch myself wondering how I can type a certain word or I'll try to follow along with the radio or television by tapping on a desk or something. It gets into your head kinda like the falling Tetris blocks that stay on your mind when you're trying to sleep after playing for two hours.

The continuation

Letters and sample sentences are all good and nice, but after a while, I felt like I should be typing other words that are not part of the lists. I faced three options: I could finger-spell everything, I could spell words phonetically, or I could learn the briefs.

I quickly found out that finger-spelling everything takes just about forever. Speed-wise, stroke for stroke, briefs are the clear winner, but I noticed that it takes a lot of time and mental effort to learn them well enough to recall with any sort of reliability.

With this in mind, I decided to work mostly on getting the hang of producing the individual sounds to build the words from their parts. Briefs moved to the bottom of my priority list. At this stage, I was beginning to get really excited about my progress. Speed was not very good, but it was satisfying to be able to guess how to type the words just by figuring out the component sounds. For those trickier words, I had to dig through the dictionary to find the right way of typing it. Knowing no good way to navigate the dictionary, I decided to harness the power of Microsoft Excel [Appendix A]. This worked out very well because I was able to type an entire sentence at once instead of having to look for the words individually. I've found that there are numerous entries in the default dictionary that are a result of stacking errors or misspellings so be careful about what definition you decide to adopt. Unfortunately, I don't have the experience to identify the best definitions to use with any real confidence. I just stick to one that makes sense in my mind and is comfortable to type. Making sense of the definitions you use is key to being able to recall them quickly. When I switched to Ubuntu, I started to use the grep command on the dictionary file, which meant going back to finding individual words. [Appendix B]

Next steps (wingflaps?)

At this point, I'm fairly satisfied with my progress. I'm able to do most of the operations that I normally do on the computer with Plover, but there are still some rough edges and aspects of it that keep me from switching completely. For instance, it would be great if the number pad or the numbers above the letters were usable. This way, I could use Excel without having to turn Plover off simply because steno in my opinion is just not suited for entering calculations such as 13557/4132*(546-45) efficiently.

[1] http://plover.stenoknight.com/

The appendices are available here
And my lookup file


Stan Sakai said...

Don't worry. I will have one soon! I just have had a crazy couple of weeks trying to get CART transcripts pushed out, preparing for the WA State CCR this Saturday, and also maintaining some level of physical fitness (hitting the gym regularly). So I'm super busy right now because I normally am practicing right up until it's bedtime. But it was interesting reading someone else's account of their auto-didactic experience and how different our initial approaches were. Anywho... Just chiming in to let you know I haven't forgotten.

Mirabai Knight said...

No worries, Stan. I know it'll be fantastic whenever you get around to writing it. ('8