A Stenographic Space Odyssey

Chapter 1: Seat Belts

Frank Turner couldn’t stop looking at the picture of his daughter.

“This is going to be a bumpy ride”, Marvin said. “Mmmmm…hmm.” He flicked a few switches. “But we’re looking good.” His deep voice almost had a song in it. Not at all unusual for Frank’s co-pilot.

Frank started jostling in his seat. Everything was shaking in the cockpit.

“Launch, baby!” Marvin’s voice seemed to hang in the air as everything began shaking violently and the two, lone astronauts sank into their seats. Slowly, the rocket left Earth.

Frank forced his eyes to look up and take in what was happening around him. His hands unconsciously dropped by his side, reaching for the handles beside his seat, the picture of his daughter cartwheeled off to his side.

“Dammit!”

Marvin didn’t seem to notice.

“Lordy…” Marvin’s voice was muffled and - like everything else - shaking. Frank thought he heard a tinge of fear, too.

“All clear. Looking.. ood…” Mission Control warbled across the intercom, oblivious to the fact that the world was falling apart.

A high-pitched whine outside the rocket started to sing above the chaos. Clouds whipped past the windows now at insane speeds. But with the climbing speed came steadiness. They were settling into their trajectory. Finally.

Jumping into steno (Part Two)

The same night that I learned about stenography, I also discovered an open-source program for stenography called Plover. I posted a note on Plover’s Discord server, and got in touch with Mirabai Knight, Plover’s founder, who happened to be live-captioning at PyCon! She offered to meet up with me the next day and show me Plover in action during the conference. I couldn’t believe it!

Getting to hang out with a professional stenographer during a talk was pretty amazing. It’s hard to put into words how cool it is to see someone capture a talk in real-time. A technical talk, filled with jargon, coming from a speaker who is probably not thinking about how many words per minute they’re speaking, was being thrown at Mirabai, and she was just…chill. It was so impressive. The experience really helped me appreciate how fortunate we are anytime a professional is transcribing a talk for us. It’s an incredible skill, and a real gift to the communities where it gets used.

Seeing Mirabai live-caption a talk left me with a lot of questions. Here are some of her answers:

All of this amounts to a pretty big change in the steno world; instead of steno being something you have to go to school for and pay up front for (steno machines cost thousands of dollars), it is now something you can dabble in, make your hobby, and see if it’s a good fit for you. In a world where there are fewer and fewer stenographers, this is a game-changer. To quote the Plover wiki:

In most skill-based fields - music, photography, athletics, and computer programming, to name a few - a healthy pool of amateurs makes it possible for professionals to exist. People cultivate an interest, buy some cheap equipment, take a few classes, discover that they love the work, hone their skills with thousands of hours of practice, and eventually a very dedicated and talented few are able to become good enough to make a living at what they love. The rest do it without compensation, just for their own pleasure and enjoyment. This is the natural ecosystem of any difficult skill: A wide base of dabblers and dilettantes at the bottom, and a small number of world class hotshots at the top.

Without a steady supply of amateurs to hold the ranks, it’s difficult for professionals to exist. Many legendary musicians started out with a $50 guitar and a tattered songbook. If every guitar cost $5,000 and the only way to learn how to play it was at a conservatory, how many potentially great guitarists would never even get within strumming range? Plover reduces the $1,500+ initial startup cost of steno to around $70, which means vastly more people can give it a try and see if it might be for them.

I couldn’t wait to get started…

Jumping into steno (Part One)

Before I left for the 2019 PyCon conference, I remember telling myself that I would take some truly excellent notes to bring back to my co-workers at Ansible. I arrived at the first talk, eager to start jotting down as many details of the talk that I could. The speaker launched into their talk and I, likewise, took off taking notes as quickly as I could.

Things went well for about the first half of the talk, but after that my hands were begging me for a break. I went on to the rest of the talks that day knowing that I couldn’t capture the level of detail that I wanted with Dvorak at 80-90 WPM.

I got back to my hotel room with the nagging feeling that there must be a better way of capturing information in real-time. Away I went to the trusty internet to find the answer I knew had to be out there.

After wandering around for a while, unsure of what I was even looking for, I eventually came across something called shorthand. These were systems for fast hand-writing. Close, but not exactly what I was looking for. Then I found it: stenography.

I had seen this before; I remembered watching Matlock, the detective, on television, presenting his case in the courtroom, and seeing the court reporter sitting up by the judge, quietly doing the impossible…capturing every single word in real-time. I remember puzzling about this when I was young and earnestly concluding that it must be impossible. (After all, they were hardly typing, and the machine they were using seemed to be missing an awful lot of keys.)

So, wait. This stuff was real?!

It was real. It was all gloriously real. And damn, that was pretty exciting.

To be continued…