Why Active Readback’s No Steno Man is Wrong

Some have seen this video. I got around to it. I have honest reservations about giving someone like him more press and attention, but then, my audience outnumbers him by a lot, so if you all have the data, it’s a force multiplier and family he doesn’t have. You can tell Readback is terrified of us because they don’t have the guts to leave the comments on and get called out on their lies. Let’s take advantage of their fear.

He likens court reporting to medical transcription. I made a short TikTok on that. I’ve spoken to Mitch Li from Take Medicine Back. Emergency room physicians are being pushed out for nurse practitioners in the same way big money is trying to push us out for digital. Guess what? The doctors largely don’t like that their scribes were pushed out, and the quality of medical transcription has been suffering because of its lean to automation. As a matter of fact, as a young reporter, I was getting requests to get involved with medical transcription (MT). That was only ten years ago. Nowadays the Association for Health Documentation Integrity says there’s a transcriber shortage.

Wow, sounds like the exact excuse they’ll use in court reporting.

It’s so bad that they STILL want to attract court reporters to do medical transcription. So how good was automation for MT anyway?

“Automation is so wonderful, please God send the court reporters to save us.”

Well, isn’t it interesting that jerks like no-steno man (NSM) created problems in an industry that they didn’t bother to stick around and solve? “Oh, people are dying from the reckless automation of something important? Exit stage left. Time to try court reporting!” Guess what? We’re not medical transcriptionists, and we’re not letting you destroy our industry without a fight, you jackalope.

Ultimately, I decided to eviscerate your puffery with cold, hard, facts.

His entire line about automating medical transcription and making it cheaper is fluff. What good is cheap, useless, garbage? And make no mistake that automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, or whatever fancy label we want to put on it, is just that. The objective science that exists today says that it’s 25 to 80% accurate from all the major players. When was the last time you had a 20% untran and called yourself “neartime?” This also kills his argument about the technology being revolutionary. He’s comparing our 99% real-world accuracy rating to AI’s 80-at-best average accuracy and calling it revolutionary. This is more like if Google maps led you the wrong way down a one-way street about 20% of the time. It’s not acceptable and we shouldn’t be forced to pretend that it is. If they’re not using full automation, they’re using human transcribers, and that means there are zero efficiency gains from a manpower perspective. This is a hide-the-ball trick of saying technology is better than it actually is to fool investors and consumers. It only fools people who have not seen the trick before.

Next strawman argument by the liar: Court reporting costs have gone up. In actuality, we’re working for less than we were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation. Let’s call this out for what it is, a ploy to get court reporters scared of demanding the rates and pay that they deserve. Less money in our wallets means less money for us to spend on our associations to fight for us. The push to get court reporters to accept less has been largely successful in the last decade, and it has been driven by low-intelligence businesspeople that look at the labor expense as something to be cut no matter who it hurts. There are over a million lawyers in the United States and about 30,000 of us. We’re a rare commodity and need to start acting like it — keeping pricing reasonable, but not abusively low.

Notably, NSM refers to the democratization of technology and talks a good game about how realtime is too expensive for the little guys to afford. Anir Dutta of Stenograph also referred to the democratization of technology in the Speech-to-Text Institute podcast. What does this tell us? This is a coordinated buzzword in whatever business circle they’re all playing in. They’re using democracy as transfer propaganda. Who doesn’t like the sound of democratization in a free society like the United States? This ignores that in actuality adopting his active reporting model would likely hurt democracy in the form of disproportionately hurting the quality of black and minority speakers’ records. We have put immense effort into ensuring everyone has an equal record. Are we willing, as a field, to allow technological snake oil to kill the equality we stand for every day in every proceeding?

The puffery in the advertising is on full display:

Active Readback gets several things wrong in their advertising.

This looks intimidating to a stenographic court reporter that doesn’t grill it a bit. First, questioning our accuracy. How dare they? I just gave the science. They’re not guaranteed accuracy. Nobody can guarantee accuracy. What happens if a word is wrong? Does everyone get the service for free? That would be a guarantee. Tellingly, they make no such promise. Audio available? Stenographers have been using audio for years. It’s called asking nicely or getting a subpoena. Lawyers don’t want to re-listen to depositions anyway, that’s why they hire us. Exhibit handling, stenographers literally led the way and trained clients on that after COVID. The rest of it, hey, we can give all that away for free too, but we like our businesses to be profitable instead of losing $13 million a year like VIQ Solutions. We need profitable businesses so that we can continue to provide the same great service we have for over half a century. NSM’s investors must have their mouths agape. He’s not charging what the market can bear, and that’s a recipe for low returns and disaster in business. I’m pretty sure I learned that in business 101. What’s this guy’s excuse?

The low, flat rate that he talks about in the presentation isn’t really that low, which tells me that this process isn’t automated. Just to break it down, there are stenographers working for less than $4 per page in New York City right now. Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s $480 for two hours. Lawyers can get the tried and tested stenography for a little bit more than the brand new maybe-this-works-maybe-it-doesn’t Active BS. This isn’t a sell, it’s an embarrassment.

“Active Readback, charging 72% of what a stenographer charges for half the quality, guaranteed.” (Parody)

Final point I’ll address is his mention about the shortage and how the stenotype is “hard on its operators.” We’ve been cremating our shortage despite some of the biggest names in the business, Veritext and US Legal Support, actively sabotaging us. Additionally, our technology is a lot easier on the hands than the Mechanical Turk game that Active and others are probably playing. Mechanical Turk lets services crowdsource transcribers. When people buy into active reporting, they’re likely buying into inefficiency and hurting workers.

Stenographers, I cannot stress this enough: Hold your ground. Our industry is worth $3 billion and we control most of that. The people that are trying to convince you to give up and run away are not doing so out of the kindness of their heart. These are liars, nothing more. Now that I’ve peeled back the curtain and exposed some of the flaws, I hope you will follow the Protect Your Record Project motto of “connect, educate, advocate.” I hope you will follow the STRONG motto of “we are strongest together.” I hope that if you found this blog post helpful, you will take the time to donate below.

I also hope that Active Readback will come on here and comment. We do not cower behind censorship like them. Perhaps that is all the world needs to see to know whose version of events is truest.

The more money I make from my media, the harder I can fight.

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Stenograph’s Disrespect of Stenographers Continues with Texas

Stenograph has been in hot water because of its degradation of quality and service. This led to a boycott of the company by stenographers across the country, a boycott which continues to this day. As stated in my Oh My update, Stenograph’s push into automatic speech recognition is not being done properly. It’s being sold as a productivity boost, but available science says AI/ASR is a productivity killer. Anir Dutta, Stenograph’s embattled president, doesn’t care. He ignored a personal letter from me alerting him to these issues.

As if these issues were not enough, Stenograph promised to meet with Texas Court Reporters Association members and address their concerns. The company then retracted its agreement and set up its own meeting, likely to confuse consumers and attempt to manipulate us. TCRA addressed Stenograph’s behavior as follows:

Stenograph claims its plan is to meet with TCRA members.
Stenograph apparently pulls out because one member they don’t like might be in attendance.
Sonia G. Trevino, TCRA President.

Then, perhaps under the delusion that stenographers are stupid, Stenograph decided to hold its own meeting:

Stenograph attempts to create its own meeting in place of the Texas Court Reporters Association town hall.

This is a bait and switch. This behavior is disgusting and in my opinion we shouldn’t condone it as a field. It’s very clear what’s happening. Stenograph does not have an answer for why it is requiring stenographers to get releases for data it wants to steal from us or the liability it wants to be put on us, as per its licensing agreement:

“You understand you are responsible for obtaining consents and authorizations for data we may or may not be using.” – Stenograph (parody)
“We may be using your data to build our digital reporting products, but you’re not entitled to anything from it, which we’ve just unilaterally decided.” – Stenograph (parody)

Since Stenograph doesn’t have an answer, it doesn’t want to be in a position where that’s revealed. Again, I know factually that there are great people that work for the company and great software trainers for the software. That does not excuse what they’re doing. They’re barreling into automatic speech recognition in a haphazard, might-makes-right, and manipulative way that should give us all pause. We are the profession of blatant honesty. You say it, we write it. Can we not agree that this is not a direction we want a company, one that is practically our namesake, to take?

I have a message for Anir Dutta and Stenograph: We may not be computer programmers or $10 million companies, but human intelligence is not linear, it’s on a bell curve. We are not “stupid scribes” for you to play word games with. Words are all we know. We listen to people for a living, and we know when we’re hearing lies. If you have deluded yourselves into believing that you are so far ahead of all of us on the curve that you can lie to us with impunity, then I offer you the same stenographic proverb I offered Naegeli. TKPWHRUBG.

Stenograph’s Phoenix Won’t Rise From the Ashes

There are two ways to handle the November 4 STTI podcast with Anir Dutta, president of Stenograph. I can go point-by-point and try to poke at every little gripe I have, or I can go “big picture,” give people a rough outline, and let people decide for themselves. But first, let me just point out how obvious it is that STTI is a digital court reporting marketing tool. It’s November 2021, they’ve been around for two years, and they have one podcast. Now let’s compare that to a real field. Anna Mar’s Steno Talk first launched in March and is already on Season 2. Shaunise Day’s Confessions of a Stenographer also has done about 30x the content in the time it’s taken STTI to do one. It seems very strange that the “declining, shifting” industry has so much more content. Maybe there’s a lot more to talk about in an actual industry with actual news.

Now let’s do some big picture work. Artificial intelligence, AI, in its current form, is easy to understand. In brief, programmers use a recipe or instructions called an algorithm to tell a computer what to do. The computer is then fed lots of data. In automatic speech recognition, this data might be people speaking paired with accurate or semi-accurate transcriptions. Simply put, the algorithm tells the computer to go through the data and make future decisions based on patterns. Luckily for us stenographers, real life does not adhere to perfect patterns. Investors and companies that trust computers to make them money off of AI have a big chance of failure. Gartner predicted that 85% of AI business solutions would fail by 2022. We now have a real-life example of this. Zillow was using algorithms to predict the housing market. The value (market capitalization) of Zillow’s shares just plummeted $35 billion. Automatic speech recognition, ASR, which is AI for “hearing” and “transcribing” speech, has much larger companies than Zillow working on it. IBM is one of those companies, and for comparison, their market capitalization is, as of writing, about $103 billion. In a 2020 study of IBM, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, companies with a combined market capitalization (value) of $8.873 trillion, the ASR was 25% to 80% accurate depending on who was speaking. My argument? If these behemoths haven’t figured this out, nobody else is close.

What is Stenograph’s answer to that? They mention in the podcast that they created the engine that their automatic speech recognition is running off of. This is meant to assure the listener that though there is clear science and data that suggests there’s no chance in hell Stenograph’s automatic speech recognition is better than anyone else’s, you should just try it, because there’s no risk to you — you only pay for it if you use it. They know that if they can get you to try it, some of you will experience post-purchase rationalization and keep using it even if it’s not very good. We, as consumers, need to be honest with ourselves. ASR is open source. Anyone can play around with it for free, customize it, and sell their version of it. Whatever Stenograph’s amazing programmers have cooked up is much more likely to be a tweaking or reworking of what is already available than a bona fide original work.

The podcast supports my assertion. It’s heavily laden with corporate propaganda techniques. Some common propaganda examples used generally in tech sales:

  1. Fear appeals: Keep up with the technology or get left behind! Buy! Buy! Buy! OR ELSE.
  2. Bandwagon: If you’re not paying for support, you’re not supporting the profession. EVERYONE must have this.
  3. Name-calling: You don’t like TECHNOLOGY? Luddite! YOUR PROFESSION WILL GO THE WAY OF THE HORSE AND BUGGY, HAHAHA.
  4. Card stacking: Our product is new, and wonderful, and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into it. But we are going to forget to mention that it would hurt minority speakers and allow large private equity companies to offshore your jobs with impunity.
  5. Glittering generalities: Think buzzwords. Increase in productivity. Custom-built engine. If you don’t know exactly what something means, the salesperson does not want you to question it.
  6. Transference: This takes someone’s good feelings about something and tries to transfer it to the company or product. Anir did this during the podcast when he said in the future technology will be “democratized.” We live in a republic that loves the concept of democracy. This is so powerful that when I heard Anir say it, I felt good. Good feelings make it harder to remember the bad things people do to us. It’s not really that different from any abusive relationship, it’s just a business relationship.
  7. Ad nauseam: Repeat the same message over and over. If no one stands in your way, it becomes truth. For example, did you know technology is getting better every day? I guess someone forgot to tell that to whatever technology powers Stenograph customer service. Or perhaps technology is not getting better every day and that is a story we are sold ad nauseam.

I do not believe these things to be inherently evil or wrong. A sale is a sale. But when salespeople are used as instruments of ignorance, the wielder has gone too far.

On the topic of tools, some have pointed to our field’s adoption of audio sync and how that was widely hated and is now ubiquitous. Let me go on record and say audio sync hurt our field. Agencies started telling my generation of reporters “don’t interrupt, just let the audio catch it.” We trained an entire generation to sit there like potted plants while testimony was lost. No wonder so many from my generation left the field. They never developed the crucial skill of communicating our need to get every word. Dealing with the very simple skill of asking for a repeat became a harrowing and dreadful experience. More than that, audio sync kills productivity. In a dense layout, my transcription time is somewhere in the ballpark of 20 pages an hour. I used to use audio sync, and on a bad day, my transcription time was probably half that. I doubled my productivity by completely rejecting the “new” technology. I don’t disparage people that use audio sync, it’s a tool in our arsenal. Almost every reporter I know uses it to some degree. But beyond our post-purchase rationalization of “it is a wonderful tool for us,” I have not seen empirical evidence or reliable data that suggests it improved productivity or profit. It made us feel better because we could let some stuff go, and now it’s being weaponized to say “see, that worked out okay! This will too!”

On or about November 2, 2021, I wrote to Anir Dutta via snail mail. A copy will be downloadable below. I was very honest about my intentions. Stenograph had a chance to stop the boycott and didn’t even try.

Maybe its trainers should sue the company for the lost income experienced during the boycott. There’s federal law against false advertising in 15 USC Section 1125. Seems to me that by continuing to press the ASR to consumers against available data and evidence, Stenograph has set itself and its independent trainers up for a massive loss. Stenograph is also potentially cutting into the earnings of its customers by pushing its ASR as a productivity booster when it may very well turn out to be a productivity killer. So if the company continues down this path and finds itself facing lawsuits, you read it here first.

Just to drive home my point about tech sales, I created a computer program that produces thousands of transcript pages a minute. The program code and a sample transcript are available for download.

Then I announced to the world that my brand new program could do transcripts faster than every stenographer in the country. None of you can disprove that. It’s true.

Tell your clients $1 per transcript. This is the situation we are all living together. Caveat emptor.

Day 1 of Stenograph Boycott, Company Releases Pro-Steno Teaser

My Facebook page has become the steno channel. If it’s good for the working reporter, it’s on my page.

And though it may be difficult to read, I do try to keep it entertaining.

Christopher Day calls for Stenograph boycott, November 2021

For anyone that doubts calling out the bad customer service and horrible PR blunders is having an impact, you can stop doubting now. For the first time since March, Stenograph threw up a pro-stenographer image on its Instagram.

Stenograph Instagram, 11/17/21

Truth be told, I still view this sort of thing as corporate appeasement. They hope you will forget that they are screwing the students you mentor and continue to purchase their products and services. It’s a great sign that the Stenograph company wants to appease stenographers, because it means that we represent a large enough part of their customer base that pulling out would hurt. Withdrawing our support would matter. If more reporters heed my words and pull out fast and hard, we’ll be able to end this a lot sooner.

But seeing that image got me curious. I rolled through the Instagram to see the last time a comparable image was posted. There are some nice pictures advertising Q&A by Cyndi Lynch (who is awesome) and some marketing stuff, but nothing nice like this. While that’s a somewhat subjective measure, you can go through all the images yourself and see that the company hasn’t featured a person paired with a stenotype since about March.

The top left is November 2021, the bottom right is March 2021, Stenograph’s Instagram.

I will be covering the STTI podcast with Anir Dutta, Stenograph’s president, soon. In the meantime, if you’re completely confused, just see what I wrote to a student asking about my shenanigans on Reddit.

Follow me and our field gets results. Stenograph is eager to jump into a technology that will disproportionately hurt minority speakers. We are in a unique position to stop that.

AI Researchers Have Similar Expectation & Belief Problems to Ours

Much of my writing has been built around a very serious revelation that the belief that automation will take away jobs is killing industries. I focus on court reporting, but it’s happening everywhere. People are scared to become truckers because of Elon Musk’s claims that he will automate trucking. I’ve looked to many other industries to illustrate this. For other examples, take how it was assumed Uber would take over the world but it hasn’t made any profit or how it was assumed Theranos would revolutionize blood testing and it was all a big scam. Their actions had real-world consequences. To this day, the value of taxi medallions in New York City are decimated thanks to Uber even though it is, as of yet, not a sustainable business model. Technological hype can do big damage.

Well, as a proud subscriber to MIT Tech Review, I came across 10/15/2020 article by Will Douglas Heaven, “Artificial general intelligence, are we close, and does it even make sense to try?” This topic is of great interest to me. After all, the perfection of speech recognition automation would probably put me out of a job and I’m one of the many trying to tell people belief in AI is overblown and that ASR really can’t stand in for a stenographer. I have a moral obligation to keep on top of this stuff so that you don’t have to. Most of the article dives into a distinction between the current model of AI, machine learning, versus a concept called artificial general intelligence, or an AI that could colloquially “do it all.”

And you know what I find, reading that article? They have just as much fear as us. Their AI-centered businesses can fail all the same. They can burn through $20 million in late 90s money and still walk away with no real product.

“We are on the verge of a transition…” 1998. Arguably, we were, but we still don’t have digital brains on the internet as described here.

They have the same issue with charismatic figures promising or claiming things that have little or no basis in reality.

“Superhuman AI less than 5 years away” versus “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Unrealistic expectations can absolutely destroy their field. In ours, this plays out as people not believing it is a viable job. In theirs, this could play out as investors taking all that money propping them up and going somewhere else with it. This has happened before and is referred to as “AI winter.”

They’ve been dealing with AI interest boom and bust since the 1970s.

There’s a lot to be learned by looking directly at what’s going on in technology today. Perhaps most pressing for us is the realization that there is not some kind of magic unending growth built into technological progress. The last century, and particularly the last couple of decades, changed humanity. Technology exploded from no TV, to black and white TV, to the home entertainment centers we have today. Many of us are under a belief that technology will always grow at that pace. We are encouraged to think that not only due to our collective experience, having lived through the technological leap, but also encouraged by the people who stand to gain the most from people buying into that belief and investing into that belief.

Money and attention.

So what we are left with is the same thing I have been writing about for years. The digital reporting stuff is not about efficiency, technology, or anything particularly new or special. It’s about worker exploitation. It’s about moving the field away from one that has a strong support system to one that has no support system or where the support system is controlled by the business owners. It’s about getting you court reporters to believe “technology magic” is taking away your job so that you don’t fight to keep it. In reality, there was a genuine attempt to shift our NCRA that way with Plan B. That failed. We got NCRA 2.0. NCRA 2.0 balanced the budget and put its members before its corporate sponsors, which only US Legal corporate reps appear to have a problem with. Since the corporate powers that be couldn’t get NCRA to kill our industry for us, they threw a tantrum and started pretending NCRA didn’t exist.

Seems like conspiracy theory territory! Except it’s no theory. Check out Benjamin Jaffe. He writes a whole article this year about how digital is the answer to our shortage. But he’s affiliated with BlueLedge.

BlueLedge… sounds familiar.

And what is BlueLedge? A training provider for digital reporting that is basically pretending stenographers don’t exist.

Today we show appreciation to everyone except the bulk of the field, stenographers and voice writers.

To use the words of Dineen Squillante, we are being “out-marketed” rather than losing by any objective metric. The entire game on the digital reporting side has been exposed “we are going to push our version of the future. We don’t care who this hurts.” Guess what, stenographic reporters? Our nonprofits are better funded. Our social groups and support systems are bigger. Our students pools are larger and more invested. All we have left to do is acknowledge our own collective bigness and put our thumb on the scale. We need to start being very vocal about our industry and the projects we are working on.

To that end, if you have court reporting or captioning industry news and you’d like to get it reprinted, please contact me at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com. We can work out a deal where I can use the skills I have built to get your work some extra exposure, you can get your stuff in circulation, and I can use some of the profit to create more steno advertising rather than rely on the incredible generosity of donations. A price point of $200 to $400 per news event is the target. It’s calculated to keep this venture going strong and beat out the deceptive marketing from the digital camp. Even if your organization cannot meet the $200 cost, please reach out. A lack of publicity pushed our field down to where it is today. We can reverse direction there, but we won’t reverse that without a little time, effort, and togetherness.

I Figured Out Why ASR Is So Hard To Perfect

Yesterday I noted the racial disparities in automatic speech recognition study and how modern ASR did worse than the estimates provided in an old patent. I also noted humans are built to get better at just about anything they do. I just so happen to think about this court reporting and automatic speech recognition stuff a lot. It finally hit me why automatic speech recognition has made little real progress in the last 20 years: Language drift. The way that people speak and write English tends to change over time. Great example? I’m a gamer but I’m not entrenched in gamer culture. When someone about six years younger than me said “I’m getting bodied,” I had almost no clue what he was talking about. He was getting beat up by the other team! If you took a look at the video I linked, it explains how words and nomenclature changed drastically in English. Early English, to me, sounded much more French than anything we know today. If you go back only about 650 years, you reach a point where you are unlikely to understand the English language. Giraffes used to be camelopards. “Verily” used to be a word that people used. Even worse, there was no electricity to charge our stenotypes yet. To the chagrin of English purists, language drift appears inevitable. But this is also why we need real people studying and mastering English. It gives the rest of us a fighting chance. That’s why a computer program could never do for court reporting what Margie Wakeman Wells did. The computer would only regurgitate the same rules again and again, never reviewing or assessing new information unless a real person told it to.

What does that have to do with automatic speech recognition and court reporting? Our verbal and written languages are changing over time. That’s why literally now means figuratively, literally! ASR is based off of machine learning. It’s unlikely to ever perfect English because English is ever evolving and never perfect. Let’s say a company compiles enough data and creates an algorithm so perfect that it can accurately understand every single one of the billions of speakers on the planet today. Every single day after that moment, the speech patterns would change just a little bit and would be unrecognizable to the system someday. Of course, there is not a single country or corporation on the planet allocating enough money or personnel to gather that much data in the first place!

As a secondary matter, a system trained to understand all English dialects is inherently less likely to work than a system trained to understand only standard English as far as I know. I’ve written extensively about how bad ASR was with AAVE, as low as 25%. If we train a system for AAVE and data suited for that, there is a high likelihood that it would have worse accuracy for standard speakers. Gain ground on one type of speaker and lose ground on the other. The main way to compensate for that would be to have a trained operator use a specific voice profile to select the speaker. Guess what? That’s voice writing, something our industry figured out two decades ago.

This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to train and be at the top of our game. But my thoughts on AI are shifting from what they were. I used to believe there was some small possibility we would be replaced. I am coming to a place where I do not see us as replaceable under the current model of ASR without a trained operator in every seat. If we’re going to do that, stenography is the way to go!

Thank you to recent donors. My PayPal is open to receive donations for those that wish to contribute to the cost of running the blog. If you don’t want to give something for “nothing,” I also designed a Sad Iron Stenographer mug on Zazzle. The cheaper one, I will make about $0.90 for every sale. The more expensive one, I will make about $10 for every sale. They are both identical mugs, so buy whichever you find to be more appropriate. Nothing will make your Mondays happier than the sad iron stenographer, I guarantee* it.

*Product is not guaranteed to make Mondays happier.

Will Verbit Go Public in 2022?

Verbit’s constant attraction of investor money and recent acquisition of VITAC has set off a few optimistic waves in the media. Verbit bills itself as a unicorn, that is, a startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. Court reporters worried about that kind of classification should be aware that it means nothing. Fyre was set to be a unicorn, and yet Billy McFarland’s venture did little more than light Fyre’s investors’ money on fire and land him in jail. Theranos was valuated at $10 billion. It’s now worthless and Elizabeth Holmes may face jailtime. Powa was a unicorn with a valuation of $2 billion. That didn’t work out either.

I was shocked to come across an article that states that there are hopes of Verbit becoming a publicly-traded company by 2022. Ignoring things that the article gets incorrect, such as the firm being Manhattan-based (other articles state it’s an Israeli company), there are few reasons I can see for Verbit to become a publicly-traded company. Becoming publicly traded would allow investors to see the profit or loss. To give a great example, VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, is publicly traded. It loses money every quarter despite reporting revenue in the millions. Companies that lose money aren’t attractive to investors and that’s why VIQ is about $7 a share today. Remaining private allows companies to continue a kind of “shell game” and operate despite being unprofitable. Based on Livne’s broadcasting of Verbit’s revenue and silence with regard to profit, I suspect Verbit would have the same exact problem, lots of revenue and little or no profit.

Going public would serve only one purpose in my view, an exit for current investors. Current investors could make a big deal about how it’s a company valuated at over $1 billion sitting “on top” of a market that’s allegedly worth $30 billion and watch as new investors dive in and take the bait. In the article above, Livne states the funding rounds were over-subscribed. That means they had a lot of money poured on them in their funding rounds that they did not need. If they’re over-funded, going public clearly wouldn’t provide the company with funds it needs — remember, it’s overfunded — again, it would give the current investors an exit. They get to cash out, some suckers get to buy in, and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. It remains a little strange to me that journalists buy the idea that a company that is maybe half a decade old has automatic speech recognition technology that is better than basically all the major players in the market. Those major players, according to one study, have accuracy levels between 25 and 80 percent.

My prediction is that Verbit will either fail to go public in 2022, or it will go public and take a hard fall sometime down the road after Livne and other investors have cashed out. I sincerely hope it’s the latter, because at least it would be a happy ending for the founder. Verbit finds itself in a precarious position of being a large target for the IRS. In the United States, one is a common law employee when the “employer” has direction and control. Verbit, according to the linked article, is using 30,000 freelancers to carry out its business model. If Verbit does not have direction and control, it cannot assure quality. If it does have direction and control, those are 30,000 employees it is failing to withhold taxes for. Like other companies that rely heavily on independent contractors, Verbit may soon find itself under attack from federal and state tax authorities where it conducts business or earns income. Anyone in the world can confidentially file a form 3949-A that puts Verbit under the spotlight, and that can only translate into headaches for the company and its investors. With that kind of exposure, I would not be investing in the company any time soon.

Even in a world where authorities turn a blind eye and there isn’t a decline in the company’s financial health, Verbit moving public could only give its competitors more information, which is something I’m looking forward to.

Meanwhile, back at Stenonymous HQ, an important meeting with my board of directors.

CART v Autocraption, A Strategic Overview For Captioners

With the news that Verbit has bought VITAC, there was some concern on steno social media. For a quick history on Verbit, it’s a company that claimed 99 percent accuracy in its series A funding. In its series B funding it was admitted that their technology would not replace the human. Succinctly, Verbit is a transcription company where its transcribers are assisted by machine learning voice recognition. Of course, this all has the side effect of demoralizing stenographers who sometimes think “wow, the technology really can do my job” because nobody has the time to be a walking encyclopedia.

But this idea that Verbit, a company started in 2016, figured out some super secret knowledge is not realistic. To put voice recognition into perspective, it’s estimated to be a market worth many billions of dollars. Microsoft is seeking to buy Nuance, the maker of Dragon, for about $20 billion. Microsoft has reportedly posted revenue over $40 billion and profit of over $15 billion. Verbit, by comparison, has raised “over $100 million” in investor money. It reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow. Another company that reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow? VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts. As described in a previous post, VIQ Solutions has reported millions in revenue and a positive cash flow since 2016. What’s missing? The income. Since 2016, the company hasn’t been profitable.

I might actually buy some stock, just in case.

Obviously, things can turn around, companies can go long periods of time without making a profit, bounce back, and be profitable. Companies can also go bankrupt and dissolve a la Circuit City or be restructured like JCPenney. The point is not to disparage companies on their financials, but to give stenographic captioners real perspective on the information they’re reading. So, when you see this blurb here, what comes to mind?

Critical Thinking 101

Hint. What’s not being mentioned? Profit. While this is not conclusive, the lack of any mention of profit tells me the cash flow and revenue is fine, but there are no big profits as of yet. Cash flow can come from many things, including investors, asset sales, and borrowing money. Most of us probably make in the ballpark of $50,000 to $100,000. Reading that a company raised $60 million, ostensibly to cut in on your job, can be pretty disheartening. Not so once you see that they’re a tiny fraction of the overall picture and that players far bigger than them have not taken your job despite working on the technology for decades.

Moreover, we have a consumer protection crisis on our hands. At least one study in 2020 showed that automatic speech recognition can be 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. There are many caption advocates out there, such as Meryl Evans, trying to raise awareness on the importance of caption quality. The messaging is very clear: automatic captions are crap (autocraptions), they are often worse than having no captions, and a single wrong word can cause great confusion for someone relying on the captions. Just go see what people on Twitter are saying about #autocraptions. “#NoMoreCraptions. Thank you content creators that do not rely on them!”

Caring about captioning for people who need it makes your brand look good?
I wonder if a brand that looks good makes more money than one that doesn’t…

This isn’t something I’m making up. Anybody in any kind of captioning or transcription business agrees a human is required. Just check out Cielo24’s captioning guide and accuracy table.

Well, this is a little silly. Nobody advertises 60 percent accuracy. It just happens. Ask my boss.

If someone’s talking about an accuracy level of 95 percent or better, they’re talking about human-verified captions. If you, captioner, were not worried about Rev taking away your job with its alleged 50,000 transcribers, then you should not throw in the towel because of Verbit and its alleged 30,000 transcribers. We do not know how much of that is overlap. We do not know how much of that is “this transcriber transcribed for us once and is therefore part of our ‘team.'” We do not know how well transcription skills will fit into the fix-garbage-AI-transcription model. The low pay and mistreatment that comes with “working for” these types of companies is going to drive people away. Think of all the experiences you’ve had to get you to your skill level today. Would you have gotten there with lower compensation, or would you have simply moved on to something easier?

Verbit’s doing exceptionally well in its presentation. It makes claims that would cost quite a bit of time and/or money to disprove, and the results of any such investigation would be questioned by whoever it did not favor. It’s a very old game of making claims faster than they can be disproven and watching the fact checkers give you more press as they attempt to parse what’s true, partially true, and totally false. This doesn’t happen just in the captioning arena, it happens in legal reporting too.

$0/page. Remember what I said about no profit?
It doesn’t matter if they’re never profitable. It only matters that they can keep attracting investor money.

This seems like a terrifying list of capabilities. But, again, this is an old game. Watch how easy it is.

It took me 15 seconds to say six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth. Many of you have known me for years. What was what? How long will it take you to figure out what was what? How long would it take you to prove to another person what’s true and what’s false? This is, in part, why it is easier for falsehoods to spread than the truth. This is why in court and in science, the person making a claim has to prove their claim. We have no such luxury in the business world. As an example, many years ago in the gaming industry Peter Molyneux got up on stage and demo’d Milo. He said it was real tech. Here was this dynamically interactive virtual boy who’d be able to understand gamers and their actions. We watched it with our own eyes. It was so cool. It was BS. It was very likely scripted. There was no such technology and there is no such technology today, over eleven years later. Do you think Peter, Microsoft, or anybody got in trouble for that? Nope. In fact, years later, he claimed “it was real, honest.”

Here’s the point: Legal reporters and captioners are going to be facing off with these claims for an indeterminate amount of time. These folks are going to be marketing to your clients hard. And I just showed you via the gaming industry that there are zero consequences for lying and that anything that is lied about can just be brushed up with another lie. There will be, more or less, two choices for every single one of you.

  1. Compete / Advocate. Start companies. Ally with deaf advocates.
  2. Watch it happen.

I have basically dedicated Stenonymous to providing facts, figures, and ways that stenographers can come out of the “sky is falling” mindset. But I’m one guy. I’m an official in New York. Science says there’s a good chance what we expect to happen will happen and that’s why I fight like hell to get all of you to expect us to win. That’s also why these companies repeat year after year that they’re going to automate away the jobs even when there’s zero merit or demand for an idea. You now see that companies can operate without making any profit, companies can lie, much bigger companies haven’t muscled in on your job, and that the giant Microsoft presumably looked at Verbit, looked at Nuance, and chose Nuance.

I’m not a neo-luddite. If the technology is that good, let it be that good. Let my job vanish. Fire me tomorrow. But facts are facts, and the fact is that tech sellers take the excellent work of brilliant programmers and say the tech is ready for prime time way before it is. They never bother to mention the drawbacks. Self-driving cars and trucks are on the way, don’t worry about whether it kills someone. Robots can do all these wonderful things, forget that injuries are up where they’re in heaviest use. Solar Roadways were going to solve the world’s energy problems but couldn’t generate any energy or be driven on. In our field, lives and important stakeholders are in danger. What happens when there’s a hurricane on the way and the AI captioning tells deaf people to drive towards danger?

Again, two choices, and I’m hoping stenographic captioners don’t watch it happen.

Aggressive Marketing — Growth or Flailing?

During our Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021 there were a couple of press releases and some press releases dressed up as journalism all about digital recording, automatic speech recognition, and its accuracy and viability. There’s actually a lesson to be learned from businesses that continually promise without any regard for reality, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. I’ll start with this statement. We have a big, vibrant field of students and professionals where everyone that is actually involved in it, from the smallest one-woman reporting armies to the corporate giants, says technology will not replace the stenographic court reporter. Then we have the tech players who continuously talk about how their tech is 99 percent accurate, but can’t be bothered to sell it to us, and whose brilliant plan is to record and transcribe the testimony, something stenographers figured out how to do decades ago.

Steno students are out there getting a million views and worldwide audiences…
And Chris Day? He’s posting memes on the internet.

You know the formula. First we’ll compare this to an exaggerated event outside the industry, and then we’ll tie it right into our world. So let’s breeze briefly over Fyre Festival. To put it in very simple terms, Fyre Festival was an event where the CEO overpromised, underdelivered, and played “hide the ball” until the bitter end. Customers were lied to. Investors were lied to. Staff and construction members were lied to. It was a corporate fiasco propped up by disinformation, investor money, and cash flow games that ended with the CEO in prison and a whole lot of people owed a whole lot of money that they will, in all likelihood, never get paid. It was the story of a relative newcomer to the industry of music festivals saying they’d do it bigger and better. Sound familiar?

As for relative newcomers in the legal transcription or court reporting business, take your pick. Even ones that have been incorporated for a couple of decades really aren’t that impressive when you start holding up the magnifying glass. Take, for example, VIQ Solutions and its many subsidiaries:

I promise to explain if you promise to keep reading.

VIQ apparently trades OTC so it gives us a rare glimpse of financial information that we don’t get with a lot of private companies. Right off the bat, we can see some interesting stuff. $8 million in revenue with a negative net income and a positive cash flow. Positive cash flow means the money they have on hand is going up. Negative income means the company is losing money. How does a company lose money but continue to have cash on hand grow? Creditors and investors. When you see money coming in while the company is taking losses, it generally means that the company is borrowing the money or getting more cash from investors/shareholders. A company can continue on this way for as long as money keeps coming in. Companies can also use tricks similar to price dumping, and charge one client or project an excessive amount in order to fund losses on other projects. The amazing thing is that most companies won’t light up the same way Fyre did, they’ll just declare bankruptcy and move on. There’s not going to be a big “gotcha” parade or reckoning where anyone admits that stenographic court reporting is by far the superior business model.

This is juxtaposed against a situation where, for the individual stenographic reporter, you’re kind of stuck making whatever you make. If things go badly, bankruptcy is an option, but there’s never really an option to borrow money or receive investor money for decades while you figure it out. Seeing all these ostensible giants enter the field can be a bit intimidating or confusing. But any time you see these staggering tech reveals wrapped up in a paid-for press release, I urge you to remember Fyre, remember VIQ, and remember that no matter what that revenue or cash flow looks like, you may not have access to the information that would tell you how the company is really doing.

This also leads to a very bright future for steno entrepreneurs. As we learn the game, we can pass it along to each other. When Stenovate landed its first big investor, I talked about that. Court reporting and its attached services, in the way we know them and love them, are an extremely stable, winning investment. Think about it. Many of us, when we begin down this road, spend up to $2,000 on a student machine and up to $9,000 on a professional machine and software. That $11,000 sinkhole, coupled with student loan debt, grows into stable, positive income. So what’s stopping any stenographic court reporting firm from getting out there and educating investors on our field? The time and drive to do it. Maybe for some people, they just haven’t had that idea yet. But that’s where we’re headed. I have little doubt that if we compete, we will win. But we have to get people in that mindset. So if you know somebody with that entrepreneurial spirit, maybe pass them this post and get them thinking about whether they’d like to seek investors to grow their firm and reach. Business 101 is that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar tomorrow. That means our field can be extremely attractive to value investors and be a safe haven from the gambling money being supplied to “tech’s” habitual promisors.

Know a great reporting or captioning firm that needs a spotlight? Feel free to write me or comment about them below. I’ll start us off. Steno Captions, LLC launched off recently without doing the investor dance. That’s the kind of promise this field has. I wish them a lot of luck and success in managing clients and training writers.

Trolls and You

We try to keep political stuff from being published here unless it’s educational, about court reporting, or about the industry. I’ve been pretty good about this. Commentators have been great about it. The occasional guest writer has been amazing with it. This topic touches with politics, but it’s not strictly political, so it should be fun to learn about.

It’s established that the United Kingdom, United States, China, Russia and several other countries view the internet as, more or less, another theater of war. They’ve had operatives and people hired to create fake posts, false comments, and advance the interests and ideas of the government. The prices reported? Eight dollars for a social media post, $100 for ten comments, and $65 for contacting a media source. In the case of China, they’re reportedly working for less than a dollar. If the host country allows it, you have trolls for hire.

So in the context of stenography and the court reporting industry, seems like whenever we get into the news, there are regular comments from regular people, such as “why not just record it?” Typical question. Anyone would ask this question. There are fun comments like “Christopher Day the stenographer looks like he belongs on an episode of Jeopardy.” Then there are comments that go above and beyond that. They make claims like — well, just take a look.

“…I gonna tell you that in modern technology we can record something like court testimony for hundreds of years back very easily…” “…the technology is smarter every single second…” “…if you store data in the digital format we can use an AI to extract the word from the voice in the data, it will be very accurate so much so the stenographer loses their jobs.” Wow! Lose our jobs? I felt that in my heart! Almost like it was designed to hurt a stenographer’s feelings. Right?

We can store the video for hundreds of years? Maybe. But consider that text files, no matter what way you swing it, are ten times smaller than audio files. They can be thousands of times smaller than video files. Take whatever your local court is paying for storage today and multiply that by 8,000. Unless we want a court system that is funded by advertisements a la Youtube, the taxpayer will be forced to cough up much more money than they are today. That’s just storing stuff.

The technology is getting smarter every second? No, not really. Whenever it’s analyzed by anybody who isn’t selling it, it’s actually pretty dumb and has been that way for a while. Take Wade Roush’s May 2020 article in the Scientific American (pg 24). “But accuracy is another matter. In 2016 a team at Microsoft Research announced that it had trained its machine-learning algorithms to transcribe speech from a standard corpus of recordings with record-high 94 percent accuracy. Professional human transcriptionists performed no better than the program in Microsoft’s tests, which led media outlets to celebrate the arrival of ‘parity’ between humans and software in speech recognition.”

“…And four years after that breakthrough, services such as Temi still claim no better than 95 percent — and then only for recordings of clear, unaccented speech.” Roush concludes, in part, “ASR systems may never reach 100 percent accuracy…” So technology isn’t getting smarter every second. It’s not even getting smarter every half decade at this point.

“…we can use an AI to extract the word from the voice in the data…” This technology exists, kind of, but perfecting it would be like perfecting speech recognition. Nobody’s watching 500 hours of video to see if it accurately returns every instance of a word. Ultimately, you’re paying for the computer’s best guess. Sometimes that’ll be pretty good. Sometimes you won’t find the droid you’re looking for.

Conclusion? This person’s probably not in the media transcoding industry, probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and is in all likelihood a troll. Were they paid to make that comment? We don’t know. But I think it’s time to realize that marketplaces are ripe for deception and propaganda. So when you see especially mean, hateful, targeted comments, understand that there’s some chance that the person writing the comment doesn’t live in the same country as you and doesn’t actually care about the topic they’re writing about. There’s some chance that person was paid to spread an opinion or an idea. Realizing this gives us power to question what these folks are saying and be agents of truth in these online communities. Always ignoring trolling leads to trolling leading the conversation. So dropping the occasional polite counterview when you see an obvious troll can make a real impact on perception. The positive perception of consumers and the public is what keeps steno in business.

The best part of all this? You can rest easier knowing some of those hateful things you see online about issues you care about are just hired thugs trying to divide us. If a comment is designed to hurt you, you might just be talking to a Russian operative.

Addendum:

I understand readers will be met with the Scientific American paywall. I would open myself up to copyright problems to display the entire article here. If you’d like to speak out against the abject tyranny of paywalls, give me money! I’m kidding.