23 December, 2017

Type Different

You can drive a keyboard. If you're average, you can pilot it somewhere between 30 and 70 words per minute, which isn't bad at all. After 40 years behind a keyboard I could cruise near the high end of that range, but I left it all behind. Stenography called out to me with the promise of 200+ words per minute, and I jumped. The Open Steno Project makes the secret tools of court reporting available to anyone with the desire and time to Type Different.

Picture in your mind typing out the word, "and ". In the quiet of your mind, you can feel those three fingers snapping down on the A N and D keys, and then your thumb smacking out a space. You know the shape and timing of the word, "and ". You can type it in under a second without thinking and without error, even though it's four separate actions that must happen in a precise order.

Stenography converts those four actions into one, allowing the stenographer to type faster than lawyers talk.

Imagine that world for a second. Imagine you could hit all four keys for the word "and " at once then smoothly move on in the same way to word after word, spraying 4 or 10 or 6 perfectly spelled characters on the page with each motion. Why stroke 4 keys, when you could lay down 2 or 3 or 4 words in the same amount of time? Who could walk away from a deal so sweet? In fact, why don't our computers already do this?

The rub is, "Dan"

If your poor computer sees you stroke A, D, N, and the spacebar all at once (assuming your computer reads what you typed from left to right), it would have no way to know whether you meant, "and" or "Dan". Even the shift key would offer no clue, because you might want, "And" and not "and". Therein is the awkward difficulty in word-based typing, and why us computer users still slog along with letter-based typing.

Stenography is the science of making word-based typing possible. It's complex, but within the grasp of most people. It works by settling on some soft rules.
1) The keys stroked on a stenographic keyboard are always read from left to right and top to bottom
2) The keyboard is rearranged with consonants clustered at the left and right and vowels in the middle so as to make the largest number of the most frequently used words typable with one stroke. Every remaining word, special character, and control character can be typed, albeit with 2 or more strokes
3) One finger often hits more than one key at a time, making more patterns possible
4) The total number of keys on a stenographic keyboard is actually smaller than the number letters in the alphabet. What is more, some of the keys appear on the keyboard twice -- yes, it works. The combining of keys makes up the difference
5) Stenographic words are typed by sound more often than by spelling, and those sounds become memory helpers pointing toward the shape of each word
6) Why have a spacebar at all? When you're striking a word at a time, it's obvious where the spaces should be, so a stenographer seldom types a space

Steno knows the difference between "and" and "Dan" because the steno keyboard actually has one D on the left side and another on the right. The stenographer can choose to stroke DAN or AND, making it clear to the computer just which he or she meant, and the principle extends to every word there is. Assigning a unique stroke to each and every word is a heady science, but one that's proven its validity over years of the most rigorous use.

Nothing about learning to type at 200+ words per minute comes cheap. 
Remembering back to learning to type, there were many days of frustration when you knew what to type and your fingers just wouldn't do it. Stenography uses half as many keys, but does so in hundreds more ways, so achieving competency takes time. 2 years is the usual minimum time it takes a dedicated student to test at 225 words per minute. Learning to type different is a commitment, not a whim.

Everything about learning to type at 200+ words per minute is rich. 
The exercise of absorbing new rules, the challenge of creating new muscle memories, and the new thinking patterns word-based typing allows are all addictive. The drudgery of typing is elevated for me into a rewarding experience full of wins, level-ups, and discoveries, except the skill I build will be available to me for years to come. This game makes a difference.

I'm not a dedicated student, so 2 years is not in the cards for me. I played at steno for just over a year before I was good enough to start using it daily for everything. After 4 months of daily use, I've almost made it back to my daily typing speed pre-stenography. I've watched others progress faster, and some much faster, but that's okay. I've enjoyed my journey so far, and it's clear I've still got plenty of room to grow. I may never hit 200, but 120 seems sure to happen someday. The quest is fun, and the future looks rosy. I was maxed out typing the same as everyone else, but I'm nowhere near my limits with stenography.

The people at the Open Steno Project are as friendly as I've ever met, and questions are always welcome. If I've piqued your interest, drop on by.