Bloglet, the gentleman's mock turtle soup --
Moss made it sweeter than myrrh ash and dhoup

Back in CAT class again. Time for part two of Steno for Sci-Fi Geeks.

So what can a stenographer do in the Future?

A couple story ideas:

Souped-up Amanuensis

Nobody uses stenographers to take dictation anymore; most people can type, and those who prefer dictating can either use voice-recognition software (fairly accurate, even without extensive training, as long as the speed stays around 160, the dictator corrects his own work, and the errors don't need to be corrected in realtime) or get some low-paid schlub to qwerty it for them off a tape.

But say you develop some kind of motormouth drug and give it to a writer. He froths at the mouth, his eyes bug out, and he starts babbling at 400 words a minute, all deathless brilliance; the kind of inspiration that only comes to the dangerously overclocked. You can't just record it and slow it down for transcription later, because he needs the transcript for editing as soon as he comes out of the trance, before the sweats take him and he's prostrate for a week. Raw, the stuff is gibberish, and he's the only one who can tame it. He can't grasp the structure of the thing unless he's in that liminal state between frenzy and sanity, and he can't do it unless he has the words in print in front of him. If the text is uncorrected before he sleeps, it's like somebody else's dream; flat and senseless.

The stenographer is his collaborator. He downs an accelerator that tweaks the ears and fingers and keeps pace with every word. The stuff is so disconnected that only a sensitive mind-- a critic, even-- can get it down so it looks like language. The trance lets up, the writer draws breath, and he grabs the readout to wrestle it into art before his body gives out. The stenographer is his scopist and his witness. They set to the work together. Kinda like The Gambler for the Devil Dust set.


In Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, a Gargoyle is a much-reviled geekboy who's obsessed with recording every moment of his life, in hopes of nabbing some overlooked intel to sell to moneyed sources. They're pathetic, but they've got sexy, sexy gear. So of course the guy wants an instant transcript of everything he hears; scanning through days of video to find one conversation is prohibitively tedious. Searchable text is the only way. No keyboard for him, though-- gloves. Gloves like every NES-brat of the '80s always wanted. The steno layout is much better suited for for it than qwerty is. On a regular keyboard, the left pointer finger is used for F, R, T, G, B, V, and C. How are you gonna map that in space without tactile feedback? On a steno keyboard, each finger (except the right pinky, which does double duty) can be up, down, or in the middle-- that's all. Easy as anything. He can even strip off his more conspicuous equipment and keep his twitchy fingers in his pockets if he doesn't want to be caught eavesdropping. This sort of dork would be best suited to near-Future cyberpunkish stories. I don't have a hook for him, but I think he's a picturesque figure.

Deaf Cult Shabbas Goy

Text junkies like myself are occasionally horrified to hear stories about Deaf people who decide that all non-sign communication is inferior to sign, and refuse to have any truck with spoken or written English. From my casual trolling around the Deaf web, this sort of perspective seems to be pretty rare-- even the sign-intensive videoblogs I found used text (in ASL, not English, syntax) as convenient-- but extremists make for good Amazing Stories, so let's have a group that shuns all non-spatial discourse. Maybe they're natively Deaf, maybe they're self-deafened, maybe some of them even hear, but they hate oral speech and its lesser imp, text, and only trust what's said with fingers.

But now and then they have to interact with the Hearing world, and that's when they call on their envoy, a kid who, though forbidden speech, has been trained to turn sign into text. It has to be high-speed-- they can't be thought slow or halting-- so he's got to be steno-trained; pencil and paper won't do. It's an honorable job, but an alienating one. They need him, but they can't quite trust him. Alternately, he could be a Hearing kid, selected from the outside to be trained in sign. That's the Shabbas Goy angle. Or flipping the whole idea, the cult could be composed of hacker-types who refuse to communicate in anything but text. Speech in that case wouldn't be inferior in kind; just in utility. But to some people, efficiency is everything.

Away Team

Most of us have spent some time in chat rooms, and the sort of conversational dynamic that can develop in them is worth noting. You can't have ten different people all participating in a verbal conversation at once; they have to take turns. That probably makes for better discourse, frankly. In chat rooms, you'll see volleys of text layering over each other every second, some responding to what came before, and some just blurting out solipsisms unconnected to the thread of the dialogue. It's not unintelligible, because you don't need to be able to follow each word as it's said; you can review it at will and extract what you need from the record. So you've got a team of explorers relaying back information to Command. 20 continuous audio streams would be impossible to coordinate. 20 stenographers, all transmitting data as quick as thought, could be easily be wrangled by a single officer, who'd get a composite idea of the landscape more precise than even video could make it.

Field Linguist

One thing about steno everyone knows: it's phonetic. So a linguist is trying to learn an alien language to codify for Science or whatever. He walks through the city, listening uncomprehendingly, but able to discern word-like patterns instinctively, the way no computer can. As each phoneme strikes his ear, he punches it into his machine, which collates a database of possible-words and helps him piece together what it could all possibly mean. Basically just one more excuse to bring out the awesome Steno-Gloves (damn, I can't wait for those things to get invented), but I'll take what I can get.

Mute Alien

A variation of the Deaf Cult-- a creature with fingers but no vocal chords, who wants to speak like a native. Text-to-speech (unlike speech-to-text) is a doddle, and steno's the only thing that's quick enough. To make this one interesting, you can put in some of those ever-hilarious word boundary errors of the "Schubert's Sarah Neighed" variety.

Hinge Point Relay

Say there's a strange point of space where radio waves from dizzyingly far away-- and impossible to detect even a parsec in any direction-- can be heard and transmitted. There's some sort of localized jump through which speech can pass but nothing else, and no one knows who's on the other end of the line. It's a delicate situation, diplomatically and scientifically, but the pod squatting in the area can only hold two crewmen and their necessaries; any bigger structures seem to interfere with the signal. They sit there for half a year, alternating shifts, tuning in to whatever's out there, and transcribing it all. They've tried sending the audio home directly, but it always winds up scrambled. For now, only the text channel will get through. They take it down faithfully and send it on, the two of them alone in the empty sunlight. And sometimes they get orders to say something back.

Two-Brain Translator

Cut a dude's medulla oblongata. The two sides of his brain are no longer working together. Teach him steno while stimulating one side. Teach him a foreign language while stimulating the other. Now he can take down whatever he hears without paying any conscious attention to it, and then, reading (all jamais vu) the readout he finds his fingers making, he can translate it on the spot without having to pause and listen and pause and think and pause and speak the translation. Instant all-in-one interpreter. Far-fetched, I think, but I kinda like the conceit.

Royal Scribe

This is my favorite one. The thing with stories is you have to make them high-stakes. Now, I find the act of dictionary building totally fascinating, just because there are too many words in the language to be able to cover every possibility. You have to hoard every word that you hear or read, put it into your own personal brand of steno, and then wedge it into the dictionary so that it doesn't conflict with any word or combination of words that's already in there. But there's no way to work that into a story, 'cause if you taking dictation and an unentered word comes up-- you get an untranslate, is all. Egg on your face, but not the stuff of drama. But say you had an imperial court in which every word spoken is not just recorded, but projected, shimmering, into the air by each nobleman's personal scribe. Air Poetry is their means of art and intrigue, and every misstroke or untranslate is an ignominious loss of face, not just for the nobleman, but for his poor button-pusher, who not only has to keep a lexicon of words, but must allow for coinages and puns and attractive flutterings and colors and typefaces to match the mood of his master-- or he's in deadly disgrace, and a new scribe takes over.

I wish I could read these, but first they'd have to be written, and I've got neither the time nor the skillz. But I hope I've convinced you that there's a place for my profession on Mars. Maybe I'll even live to see it. Any of y'all got any more? _
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09:02:11 PM, Tuesday 25 July 2006

It's gray and close and thundering. This weather is for lying in bed, reading under a dyne, with a mug of warm milk and honey and another warm body close by-- maybe two, if one is a cat and the other isn't, and that one's reading too (not the cat)-- and instead I'm here, typing up TV shows. Oh well. Maybe it'll hold 'til tomorrow. _
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09:39:29 AM, Friday 21 July 2006

I'm sitting in my CAT class and there's nothing doing, so I figured-- hey, why not finally deliver on what I've been bleating about for a month?

Why Geeks Should Dig Steno

When I talk to my friends about what I'm training for, they make polite noises and shuffle their feet. Makes sense that most people think it's deadly dull, but how can my fellow geeks not go crazy for this stuff? You've got sleek machines, abstruse software, idiosyncratic coding principles, databases with hundreds of thousands of interlocking entries, and it all depends on the speed link between your brain and your fingers. As a gadget-monkey who loves word salads and twitchy video games, I couldn't help but go crazy for it as soon as I discovered it existed. But there was one small thing nagging at me, and I didn't figure out what it was until just recently: I couldn't picture myself doing it on Mars.

See, all the jobs I'd seen myself in since childhood had always had the science fiction stipulation wedged somewhere in them. When I was four, I was gonna be a tree-climber -- on Venus, where it rained orange juice, and the trees were gummy and sproingy. Then I was going to be a sailor-- of strange seas and empty spaces. Then a doctor. Okay, I'd be a doctor for a platoon of Space Marines, or a doctor in the Bunkers of the Apocalypse, or a surgeon-for-hire among the biomodded scavengers in the catacombs of Neo-Naples.

But there are no stenographers in the future. Y'know why? 'Cause everybody's got a computer that can understand them when they talk. I think this is why my friends seem so underwhelmed by the idea. They just figure it's only a matter of time until speech turns into text of its own accord, as machines comprehend it and spit it back. Y'know what? I don't think it is.

There are a number of realtime Voice Writers working today. They work primarily in the courts, though I've heard of a few doing offline captioning. As far as I know, none of them is good enough to do realtime captioning yet, though I think, as the software improves, some of them will make it. The process works like this: A Voice Writer listens to speech and repeats it back into a sound-muffling device hooked to a laptop, using shortened versions of common words, disambiguating homonyms, adding punctuation, and performing other formatting operations. The voice recognition software interprets it all and spits out a fair-looking transcript as it happens.

Voice Writing is like beatboxing. Beatboxers are pretty impressive, but they'll never replace percussionists. And drum machines can't stand up to either of 'em. While VW is initially much simpler to learn than stenotype, it requires hundreds of hours of training (of the software, not the writer; the innumerable variations of waveforms all translating to a single word must be narrowed to a recognizable range of patterns before the software will be able to identify it) and prodigious vocal skill to do consistently. Speech recognition-- realtime transcription of untrained human speech by computers-- is poor to the point of inefficacy, and I don't think it's gonna get much better in the forseeable future. If it takes years to teach a program to recognize its own master's voice patterns, how can it be expected to understand the strangers mumbling 10 feet away?

The point is: it doesn't understand anything. If a voice writer is good enough, they can turn the quintessentially analogue product of the vocal chords into a simplified near-digital signal. Language-- words, phrases, punctuation-- is already near-digital. Fingers will always be more effective at turning verbal words to written words than vocal chords will, because they're defter, more precise, and silent. Regardless, though, it can't be done at all without a human brain. Computers can take in a symbol and output a corresponding one, but they can't hear speech and turn it into text, because that action requires comprehension of meaning, and Artificial Intelligence, darling of the science fiction world, has never (since the invention of the computer) shown any sign of being more than a pretty plot device. I don't know that it'll ever happen, frankly. Sure, I'd like to see it, but there should be a category of speculative fiction that considers the possibility of it never coming about.

It's certainly more dramatic to have machines that listen and talk back, especially on television. But have you actually used any of the voice-activated stuff popping up these days? They've got it on phone menus, washing machines-- your basic gimmick-prone consumer goods. And they're annoying. Part of that's the speech-recognition technology, which will get better; recognizing a wide range of possible wave-patterns for "Delicate" is much easier than processing entire adult vocabularies. But part of it's just that pushing a button to wash your clothes is a lot less trouble than planting yourself in the middle of the room and singing out your lavanderial imperatives to the aether.

If your machines won't ever know what you're saying, why not use a human? This post has turned into a bolus, so I'll make another one up there about what you can get if you take AI out of science fiction and put in stenographers instead. _
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08:44:57 PM, Tuesday 18 July 2006

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07:49:24 PM, Friday 14 July 2006

Me: {perusing bookshelves before work} Hm. Man, I dunno. I guess I'll read The Song of Roland. Never read that one.
Her: I know The Song of Roland.
Me: Yeah? Is it any good?
Her: {to the tune of "Rawhide"} Roland, Roland, Roland... _
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08:12:14 AM, Wednesday 12 July 2006

Jugband Blues _
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11:08:07 PM, Tuesday 11 July 2006

I love living here. I love our home. _
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11:32:51 PM, Tuesday 4 July 2006

Random song meme, via Fuyukodachi. I skipped foreign language and instrumental songs, and near the end I skipped the third Tori Amos song to come up that I'd never even heard before (my girlfriend's collection and mine have not yet fully merged, but we've made little offerings back and forth) and also the third John Mehlberg song, just 'cause it was getting to be a bit much.

What's up with Winamp's shuffle function, huh? It says I have 12,783 songs-- that's almost 35 days of solid music-- and I got three each of two artists in a 13 song sequence? Also, I kept the poetry that came up, just 'cause it fit so nicely.

Your definitive personal philosophy: Leona Anderson -- Rats in my Room

How I long to taste some cheese!
I could accomplish that with ease.

Your dream job: Avenue Q -- Purpose

I don't know how I know, but I'm gonna find my purpose.
I don't know where I'm gonna look, but I'm gonna find my purpose.

Your love life: Douglas Byng -- An Old Egyptian Queen

In a dim Egyptian grotto with a rude Egyptian motto
Scribbled all across me bust in hieroglyphics

Your personality: John Mehlberg Collection -- The Tattooed Lady

And on her spleen, yes, on her spleen
Was a British submarine

Your friends: Beastie Boys -- Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun

Like Clockwork Orange going off on the town
I've got posse bonanza to beat your ass down!

Your looks: Tori Amos -- Leather

Look, I'm standing naked before you.

Your blog: Cake -- Opera Singer

I am an opera singer
I will sing when you're all dead
I sing the mountains crumbling apart
I sing what can't be said

My blog's got delusions of grandeur.

Your secret evil side: Tori Amos -- Raining Blood

Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Awaiting reprisal
Death will be their acquisition

Guh, I never knew my secret evil side was so godawful campy!

Your artistic taste: W. B. Yeats -- Under Ben Bulben

Irish poets, earn your trade;
Sing whatever is well made.
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter.

Your kink: John Mehlberg Collection -- Shoot the Boot

No, you have to drink out of your rugby cleat! Duh!


What others think of you: Noel Coward -- Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage

Though they said at the school of acting
She was lovely as
Peer Gynt,
I'm afraid on the whole
An ingenue role
Would emphasize her squint

What your ex thinks of you: Magnetic Fields -- The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

No understanding
No closure
It is a nemesis
You can't use a bulldozer
To study orchids

Your inner poetry: Oscar Brand -- Bell Bottom Trousers

One day there came a sailor, an ordinary bloke,
A-bulging at the trousers with a heart of solid oak.
01:50:06 PM, Monday 3 July 2006

I want to go see this, not least because it apparently contains the song "Go From My Window", which I've been obsessing over for the past several weeks. Also the title. What a title! _
03:17:33 PM, Sunday 2 July 2006


Here are your full test results:

- Test Name: The Wonderful Wizard of OZ
- Date: 2006-06-28 12:03
- Test Time: 01:00
- Gross Speed: 129 WPM
- Errors: 2
- Accuracy: 98%


That's qwerty, not steno. I've definitely gotten quicker since I started this sort of work, though-- I tested in around 107 last September and 98 a year or so before that. I passed into the 120 class at school this week, but the first test I took was too sloppy to transcribe. And realtiming I'm much slower, of course, but getting there, getting there.

As a brief aside, I just wanted to mention something: my school's students are overwhelmingly female. I've been in nine classes since I started. In each, there have been 20 or more women and never more than four men. On the other hand, all my teachers but two have been male. But I've never seen any patronizing, lechery, self-aggrandizement, or anything you might cynically expect from such an imbalance. They've been uniformly helpful and professional. Not that that's not the least you can ask for, but I figured it should be noted.

Coming up, I swear, is my essay on Steno in (so far unwritten) science fiction, maybe intermingled with observations about the Oliver Sacks book on deafness I just read, Seeing Voices. _
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07:02:47 PM, Thursday 29 June 2006

Yucca gnocchi. _
06:05:42 PM, Tuesday 27 June 2006

This is one of those "I'm feeling overwhelmed; let me blarf it all over the internet" posts.

Too much to do. I keep a to-do list, but stuff keeps piling up like lettuce in an emu ROM of Burgertime with Turbo on.

So I blog it. Strikethrough beats ticky-box any day. In approximate order of urgency:

Finish this show at work and go home
Cook dinner
Finish stenoing the show I started Monday And figured out how to fix all some of the DigitalCAT problems that were plaguing me in the process! Woooo! (no thanks to the @*&#$ manual)
Finish reading the Iliad for the meeting Sunday Didn't, but then they never told me where the meeting was, so whatever
Steno the show I've got due on Monday Didn't have time to Steno it. Qwertyed it.
Clean my old apartment
Write the essay for an NCRA scholarship
Update my money-tracking program and draw up a budget
Fold and put away the clothes I washed last weekend
Play my trumpet 'cause I haven't in months and I miss it
Teach K. Faure's "Libera Me, Domine"
Finish the Mother's/Father's/(birth)Day present I've been promising my parents
Email friends to apologize for not emailing them
Write blog entry on steno in science fiction
Get a haircut _
04:45:20 PM, Thursday 15 June 2006

Second verse, same as the first, only without so much dreck all over the place.

Kitchen sink (mushroom! mushroom!), Kitchen counter, K. and co-Greek-Geek Chika standing in front of same, Living Room, K. being horrified by teh intarweb, bit of Bedroom with bed, bit of Bedroom without bed.

That's all for now. _
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04:32:49 PM, Thursday 15 June 2006

Kitchen, Living room, Bathroom, Bedroom.

Also one K. took of me, sitting in the kitchen next to our spearmint plant (it's since been joined by a peppermint). Note the awesome-ass custom-built counter in the background. It goes up and down!

Since these were taken, we've cleaned up a lot and decorated a bit, but that's pretty much the layout. I didn't get any of the hall, 'cause it's short and contains nothing of note but a robot monkey, an attack lion, and a lodestone reading "gnothi seauton". _
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06:32:34 PM, Tuesday 13 June 2006

Damn straight I would. How glorious would that be? Well, I'm gradually getting there. Finally passed out of the 90 a couple weeks ago. Failed my first try at the 100 by one error. Been transcribing shows on the steno machine at home. Building my dictionary, doing finger drills, taming my spaz-thumbs. We were all informed yesterday that students who were in Advanced Theory this spring have until September to pass their 90 or else flunk. I guess I'm doing ok. _
06:05:13 PM, Tuesday 13 June 2006

Leonard Cohen Documentary. About time. Hope it's good. _
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03:52:06 PM, Tuesday 13 June 2006

I used to be afraid of overcast skies in movies. Not in real life-- just in movies. Sometimes a movie with a long scene under a gray sky would embed itself in my memory as a scary movie. Then I'd see it several years later and it'd be some dumb old comedy whose budget just wasn't big enough to reschedule the day they had to shoot the beach scene.

In real life, I was afraid of dim lighting, like they had in restaurants. Particularly dim yellow or dim red light. No idea why. It still kind of gets my back up, but it doesn't make me as terribly ill at ease as it used to. _
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05:34:20 PM, Friday 9 June 2006

Watching the choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, sing "The Star Spangled Banner" to an audience comprising the Queen, some bishops, and then-Vice-President Richard Nixon is a pleasantly surreal experience. _
06:28:11 PM, Thursday 8 June 2006

No way we can afford this. We gotta pay off the card after furnishing the new place (which is getting tidier and cozier-- yesterday K. put up the Grey Gentle-Lemur print I gave her for Christmas, and today we should even have internet). Even if we took the Chinatown bus up, we'd have to get to the hotel, 15 miles away, and rental cars scare me. But CHINA MIEVILLE's gonna be there. And JORGE LUIS BORGES is the ghostly guest of honor. And I haven't been to a Con in two years! K.'s never been to one at all! And and and books and geeks and wah! _
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05:40:17 PM, Thursday 8 June 2006

Baroque Revival!

That's what I'm talking about.

(Haven't actually heard the music yet, 'cause I'm at work, but the idea is thrilling to my toes.) _
12:32:01 PM, Wednesday 7 June 2006

Mirabai Knight

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