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.

What Court Reporters Can Learn From Y2K

Remember when the world was supposed to end? Computer programs were going to crash. Massive delays could happen. It was the doomsday that never happened about 21 years ago.

It turns out Y2K was a pretty big problem in the computer programming world. Computer memory used to be incredibly limited. To get around this limitation, many programmers designed programs to save dates using fewer numbers. MM/DD/YY was shorter than MM/DD/YYYY. The result of this design was that in the year 2000, many programs could believe it was the year 1900. Booked a flight? Good luck finding your 100-year old reservation in the system. Clocked in at work? You were going to be 100 years late. Had a bank account? They were going to owe you 100 years of interest. Anything where dates and computers were important was in danger.

That danger came and went because programmers went to the media. Programmers whipped up a frenzy of attention to the issue, and the people that pay them took the issue seriously. Millions of dollars were spent to fix old programs, and the result was that Y2K went down in the public’s mind as a hoax or joke.

There are a few things stenographic reporters can mirror here. We too have a looming crisis. Our reporter shortage is well documented. The average age of NCRA membership is 55. For all the reasons listed in the PCRA article, digital reporting and automatic speech recognition is an inadequate replacement for the stenographic court reporter. Indeed, I’ve even “pontificated” that if we fail, it will cause much more severe delays than courts already experience.

We too have people that need to buy in. Court administrations, private attorneys, captioning purchasers, and educators are all examples of people we need to buy in the same way banks, airports, and others bought in and helped stop Y2K. Ultimately, these are the people injured if we fail to recruit more reporters, and the least we can do is let them know. The schools are not going to survive long with the offshoring of the jobs. The rest of them are going to suffer from a quality issue.

We too have seen this coming in advance. For over 7 years we’ve been pushing out initiatives to recruit reporters. NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno have all grown more robust and organized in that time. We still have a good 7 to 10 years before the majority of reporters cross the retirement threshold and reality tells us whether we’ve won or lost. That’s 7 to 10 years to change the outcome if you think we’re losing or keep the lead if you think we’re winning.

Most importantly, we too can win. Programmers were facing an unprecedented issue and worked to fix it. They did not fix everything perfectly; a nuclear weapons plant had a little hiccup after all, but they fixed everything enough that nothing catastrophic happened. They had a choice, and they chose to be leaders. As I told many students on February 2021, we too have a choice. We are not facing an unprecedented issue. We are facing a labor shortage. We don’t have to do this perfectly. As I explained yesterday, the corporations that are trying to bump us out of the field are far from perfect and their arguments are completely hollow. There are so many of us that with even the slightest effort, we will eclipse whatever anti-steno propaganda is put out there. We just have to do it.

My art skills inspired me to become a blogger.

Drillmaker for Students/Educators

A student recently explained to me that they had to create a drill for set of briefs they wanted to learn. In my view, the best way to do this would be creating a repetitive dictation of the brief(s) a person wants to drill, marking that for dictation, and then practicing at some kind of speed. I know minimal computer coding, and have made tools to try to help students and educators cut down on busywork in the past, but because my coding knowledge is so limited, I’ve never quite mastered it enough to make it easy for people, and consequently, the tools I’ve designed go underused.

I plan to continue to do research and make a real effort to make these tools accessible, but in the meantime, I have a workaround that anyone can do from their computer in five easy steps.

Step 1:
Get the code. Go to my Dropbox, highlight the code text, right click it, and copy it. You can also use CTRL+C when things are highlighted to copy them. Don’t waste your time reading this image, it’s just demonstrative.

Copy it because I’m about to ask you to paste it.

Step 2:
Paste the code into this person’s website. Note that when you open the site, they have some code there already. Just paste right over that or even delete it.

I am about to paste right over that code.

Step 3:
Once you have pasted the code in, go to line 5. There should be a line that says “possible.” Inside those brackets, you put whatever terms you want to show up in your drill. In order to make this work, every phrase or word you want must be surrounded by quotation marks and separated by commas. In the example below, I show what it would look like if you wanted to drill red, yellow, and green.

Put whatever words you want in there.

Step 4:
Once you have set up the words you want to appear in the drill, click the green “run code” button on the bottom right. A black box will pop up. If it says program start, the program is working. If it talks about an error, something went wrong. If it says program complete, it’s all done.

That’s the green run code button. It looks like a sideways green triangle.

Step 5:
After approximately one minute, the program will finish. You will have a file called Drill.txt on the left side of the screen. You can copy your drill into Todd Olivas’s slasher to help you mark it for dictation. If you need help dictating, see what I’ve written about that here.

Remember, this works with any words you want, even if they’re from a George Carlin routine.

I know that this is not ideal, but it is a fast and easy way to get long lists of words without having to painstakingly write and copy them multiple times. I really hope it helps. Special thanks to the student that gave me the idea.

Addendum:
Shortly after releasing this post I changed the code and Dropbox link to a much faster version of the program. It avoids repeating the same word twice and works in one second instead of fifty. The only drawback is that if you only put one item in your word list, the program will run forever without giving you an error message. Please put at least two items in the list.

Additionally, after sharing what I was working on with the Open Steno community, Joshua Grams created an HTML file that is much easier to use. Just download it and double click to open it in your browser. It does not randomize the words, but it does repeat whatever you type into it as many times as you ask it to.