Monday, May 9, 2022

Jarren Learns Steno Part 2

Jarren has released the second video in his steno learning series, and he seems to be getting the hang of it! I particularly enjoyed the part where he tried to draw a picture of the steno keyboard layout from memory.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Please enjoy this fabulous guest post by Open Steno community member Calvin on a recent video on steno that's been making the rounds!

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Hello everybody!

Recently Half as Interesting put out a YouTube video about stenography:


The video is a little tongue in cheek, but overall gives a pretty solid overview of the very basics of how machine stenography works. If the video awakened your inner speed demon and you'd like to know more about steno, then I think you have come to the right place! Plover is a piece of open-source software that translates stenographic strokes into text in real time. With Plover, you can learn and write steno with a cheap keyboard, an inexpensive hobbyist machine, or even use traditional professional hardware.

* What is Plover and Stenography?

Plover is a program that can temporarily make your keyboard act like a stenographer's machine! Instead of typing individual characters by pressing keys one at a time, you'll write by pressing multiple keys down at once, forming a "chord". (Like on a piano!) Once you lift your fingers, Plover pulls from a "dictionary file" in which you store steno strokes and their respective translations. Plover translates this "stroke" instantly to output whatever word or phrase corresponds to the keys you pressed. The keys in steno are set up in a certain order:

a layout schematic of the steno keyboard

And if you're using a QWERTY keyboard with Plover, the steno layout will map to your keyboard like this:

a layout of the steno keyboard mapped to the keys of the qwerty layout

The idea is roughly that the left hand side of the keyboard forms consonants, the bottom middle forms vowels, and the right hand side also forms consonants. When steno is at its most basic and phonetic, reading a chord from left to right yields a syllable for the word you're trying to write. A simple example might be pressing the "KAT" keys all at once to write the word "cat". Some words may take multiple strokes to write (one for each syllable), but common words and phrases often have one-stroke "briefs", which are just faster ways of writing complex words. These briefs can be arbitrary, and you can make your own, but there's usually some mnemonic behind them! For instance, I might simply press the "S" and "G" keys to write "something".

You'll also notice that there isn't a key for every sound. That's okay, though! We get around that by combining multiple keys to form all of the different sounds. For instance, pressing the "TK" keys on the left forms a "D" sound, so pressing "TKAD" would write "dad". This might seem like a lot to memorize, but I think you get used to it pretty quickly! There's even some nice charts that give you a quick overview of what these combinations are.

If all this is interesting to you, here are some other videos to give you an introduction to steno and Plover:
* What can I use stenography for?

Anything! Plover pretends to be a keyboard, so it can send any combinations of key presses to programs on your computer based on the chords you press. Plover has a dictionary that defines what keyboard presses a sequence of strokes corresponds to, and you can customize your entries to send any keyboard shortcuts and words you want. You can kind of think of it as a souped-up system for keyboard macros.

* Is this worth learning?

It can take a while to learn, but the basics are easy. Really high speeds take more time to achieve. But I think if this has at all piqued your interest, it’s worth a try. Learning steno can be a lot of fun, and depending on how fast you type and how much you practice, you might surpass your old typing speed within a few months. Based on a previous community survey, 62% of Plover users surpass their QWERTY speed within a year, and a third of users surpass their QWERTY speed within three months. Beyond the potential speed benefits, steno is also a pretty comfortable and ergonomic way to write. It’s also intrinsically satisfying. If you like to solve puzzles, for example, finding the most efficient way to write a long word or useful phrase may appeal to you.

* Do I need special hardware to get started?

You technically do not need any hardware to get started, but I recommend having at least an NKRO (N-key rollover) keyboard. A popular cheap option would be the K552 Redragon. Most keyboards can only detect a limited number of keys being held down at once due to hardware limitations, but NKRO keyboards can detect any number of keys being pressed at once -- which is important for stenography because you hold multiple keys to make a chord. You can still start learning without an NKRO keyboard, though. Don’t let it deter you, but you'll probably want to upgrade eventually.

If you don't have an NKRO keyboard, some people just kind of roll through the keys in a chord so that they don't press all of the keys at once. This is called "arpeggiating." Plover also has a mode that makes this a little easier. You can find out more about NKRO here.

* How can you get started?

I'd recommend reading through the Art of Chording and/or Learn Plover. Both of these books will give you a good start to the theory of how stenography works, and both books include some exercises to help you get a feel for it along the way.

Beyond that, there are a few practice resources that you might find helpful:
I'd probably start with the steno specific ones like Typey Type or Steno Jig!

* Special Hardware?

If you're thinking about getting more serious after learning a bit of steno, quite a few people make hobbyist machines that will be more ergonomic for steno. There's a list of some of these machines here. These machines not only have a more appropriate form factor, but they often have keys that are easier to press, which can be really helpful when you have to push down 10 keys at once :).

* Where can we find you?

A lot of Plover users hang out in the Plover Discord. We're generally a friendly bunch.

* Anything I should know about the HAI video?

Not much! Overall it's a pretty good overview, but steno is a big topic and you can only explain so much in 5 minutes. I think it's important to mention that stenographers don't just do court reporting. Some stenographers provide captions for live events in real time. Beyond that, I think it's worth addressing the cheeky joke at the end about replacing court reporters with audio recordings. It's a common thought, but in practice, court requires a clean transcript for judicial review or appeals. Experienced court reporters even provide "realtime", meaning their steno translations display for someone in the room to follow along with -- a bit like captioning. Court reporters serve an important role in ensuring the accuracy and integrity of these transcripts. It'd actually be pretty hard to monitor an audio recording of a session in court to make sure it's intelligible in real time, and it would be inefficient to write up a transcript after the fact with an offline recording.