Mirabai Knight is a Certified CART Provider (realtime stenographer for the deaf and hard of hearing) in New York City. When she was 11, her older brother introduced her to the concept of free software. At the time she mocked him for being a soppy idealist, but the idea quietly took root, and now 18 years later she’s thrilled to be responsible for launching the world’s first free stenographic keyboard emulator.
Leigh: I’m very excited to be able to pick the brains of open source pioneer Mirabai Knight, whose project Plover just had their initial public release. Can you tell us about Plover and stenography?
Mirabai: I’ve been geek-identified and hacker-adjacent all my life, but never actually wound up learning how to code until, after years of frustration with the DRM-riddled $4,000 proprietary steno program I use in my CART business, I decided that the world needed free steno software, and that if I didn’t get it going, it probably wouldn’t happen. That might sound conceited, but the overlap between the stenographic and computer geek worlds is bafflingly small, considering how vital efficient text entry is to virtually every tech field.
Before Plover, the price of even a bare bones computerized steno system was around $1,500, so only people who intended to go into a stenographic career (court reporting, captioning, or CART) could justify the expense. There were no opportunities for amateurs, tinkerers, or dabblers, and it frustrated me, because I could see so many non-commercial applications for stenographic technology. That’s when I decided to start up The Plover Project. I knew I needed someone who could wrangle both hardware and software, and I was hoping I could get some elementary instruction in Python along the way. By a great stroke of luck, Joshua Harlan Lifton, a freelance programmer with extensive hardware hacking experience, was renting space two floors above my Brooklyn coworking co-op, and after noticing the call for a Python tutor/developer that I posted on the building’s elevator corkboard, he enthusiastically agreed to help out with the project. A little less than a year later, we have an actual functional realtime steno program that lets you type at 200 words per minute directly into any X window using a $45 off-the-shelf keyboard.
Team Antipodes is a team of three girls “headquartered in Pacifica, California, USA, but dedicated to collaboration with similar teams from around the globe.” They competed in the 2009 FIRST Lego League, placing third in their regional championships, and have extensively documented their work in the form of notes, video and CAD models to encourage others to experiment and compete.
Team antipodes portrait
We caught up with Violet, Emma, Kjersti and their coach, Ken, for an interview via email.
GF: When and how did you take an interest in robotics?
Violet: Ever since I was little, my dad has been exposing me to all sorts ofÂ technology. One of these things was robots. Robots fascinated me because they had a mind of their own. I wanted to be a part ofÂ making these machines and learn more about them.
Emma: The year before we started the team Antipodes my dad was doing a project with it. At first I didnâ€™t want to do it but one day I got bored and started helping him out with the programming. Now Iâ€™m here.
Kjersti: The beginning of my 8th grade year. My friendâ€™s Dad started a team, and he invited me to join it because he found out about robotics through my mom. It seemed like a cool thing to do, so I tried it out. This year was way cooler than my first year.
GF: How did the three of you come together to form Team Antipodes, and compete in tournaments?
Violet: Last year, our coach went to an event at NASA Ames and saw oneÂ of the FIRST robots. He got interested and was inspired to start aÂ team. At first, it was through 4-H, which both of his daughters areÂ involved in. Two of our team members, Kjersti and Emma, were on theÂ team that year. It was not as successful as they had hoped. They had many people who were not very dedicated or interested.Â He gave Kjersti and Emma the choice to craft this yearâ€™s team, and they decided to shrink the team and only include people who were extremely interestedÂ in robotics, so they invited me onto the team.
Emma: Kjersti and I did it the year before and Violet was our friend who was interested in it also. We competed really well. We are all really good friends and helped each other out.
Kjersti: Emma and I were on the original team in 8th grade, but we split off from that and decided to form our own team independently. Violet was our friend who is super smart and seemed interested, so we recruited her. We felt satisfied with just the three of us, soÂ we stopped there.
GF: What have been the most enjoyable, and most difficult, times in the
Violet: The most enjoyable are the meetings, because there are always jokes going around, and theÂ car rides back from the tournaments are always fun because the stress is gone. Seeing the robot, named TOR, do well in the competition is always rewarding, too. Though I have to say, our recent trip to Istanbul was one of the most memorable things in the wholeÂ season. The most difficult times are when it is the night before one of our competitions and things arenâ€™t working like we had hoped.Â Also when the robot is having a hard time at the competition and weÂ don’t know why.
Emma: The most enjoyable have been meeting new people at the tournaments and hanging out. The most difficult are definitely when something is not working right and we donâ€™t know how to fix it and also the long, early car rides to tournaments.
Kjersti: Some of the most enjoyable times have been the competitions. We are there, having fun with each other and at a point where there really isnâ€™t a whole lot we can do the change what we have and we have to be happy. So we are. Some of the most difficult have been the night before a competition. We usually sleep over at our coachâ€™s house the night before (his daughter is on the team) and the whole night we are stressing about our robot and just totally freaking out. Itâ€™s probably when we are the most stressed, and there have been break downs.
GF: How do you feel about competing internationally in the Open European
Violet: We were thrilled when we found out. We fundraised so much and worked hard to go. When we got there, we were overwhelmed. We got to meet kids from all over the world and compete with them. It wasÂ a chance that few get to have and we were lucky enough to get.
Emma: Iâ€™m a little nervous but also very excited, it should be amazing to meet people from all over the world and see how their competition is run.
Kjersti: Totally amazed, honestly. Our goal at the first competition was to not get dead last. We accomplished that, but we never dreamed we would make it to an international tournament. We were trying not to be too nervous or stress about the competition, because we were there to have fun.
GF: What do you do when you aren’t making robots?
Violet: I do a lot of plays. In fact during the season, I was in two different shows.Â Kjersti plays the saxophone and is in the marching band at our high school. Kjersti and I are also in Girl Scouts and a youth group together. Emma is involved with 4-H, doesÂ Cross Country, and horseback riding.
Emma: I run cross country, I do mock trial, Iâ€™m in a 4-H club, and I ride horses three days a week.
Kjersti: I’m in my local high school, Terra Nova’s marching band. It takes up a lot of time and practice, but I love it. I also love swimming and watching movies, but most of my time is taken up by school work.
Ken: Violet forgot to mention that she also does mock trial with Emma.
GF: You’ve decided to take a very open and collaborative approach to your work, as evidenced by the detailed information on your website (notes, designs, video and so on). How and why did you choose this approach?
Violet: We want to help other teams that need an idea of how to get startedÂ and let people see how we came up with our ideas.
Kjersti: It just sort of happened, but with a lot of pushing from our coach. He’s an architect and knows that it’s important to keep track of everything we do, and after a little bit we discovered that it was really helpful, especially since we weren’t always able to meet at the same times. It became an important tool to keep up with each other.
Ken: The reason we share our work and designs with our competitors, and anyone with access to the internet, is manyfold:
First, it’s a general principal of our league (FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to be gracious competitors. Second, we’ve been recipients of openness and help from older teams (most notably the LegoGuards and TechnoGuards), and it was immediately apparent this was the right thing to do. Third, I’ve been impressed by the many accounts of the long-term benefits of 1980′s Silicon Valley openness vs. Boston Area secretiveness. Fourth, it’s consistent with the whole idea of Antipodes (which means location on the opposite side of the globe) to push the envelope of engineering collaboration with students as far away as possible (Australians). Fifth, it took countless hours of web surfing to get started as a new team.Â I realized it would be a valuable resource to have a single location to learn as many lessons as possible from our experience, down to the invaluable detail of remembering to change your tires the week before the tournament and to adjust your programming to account for the better traction.
Matt, as the team’s coach, I didn’t give the team much choice about this.Â I just told them that openness is what we do, and they never questioned it.Â Although, I know they can tell the difference from most of their competitors that don’t show their designs.
GF: What is your creative process like when you work together? How do your projects begin, develop and get completed through collaboration?
Violet: When we run into a problem, or just need to figure how to doÂ something, usually someone suggests a possible solution. Then we start questioning it and trying to figure out every single detailÂ of it. Since there are a few very visual people on the team, this usually involves a bunch of drawings and sketches. If we decide the solution is not going to work, someone else suggests something elseÂ and we start over. Once we agree on a solution we start working onÂ it. Usually we divvy up the work and assign different tasks to different people. If someone runs into a problem with their task, they will ask for advice from the rest of the team. Eventually, theÂ final work will be achieved whether it is a solution to a minorÂ problem or a whole project.
Kjersti: We start with the problem, and basically brainstorm about what needs to happen. There’s a lot of trial and error that goes on, and we try each otherâ€™s ideas, until we find the best one and go with it.
Ken: Iâ€™d like to add that for any major design issue, we always break out the white board. The girls sit together on the couch as comfortably relaxed as possible and one of them volunteers to write the problems and suggestions out on the board in front of the others.
GF: Do you have any words of advice for other girls who are interested in robotics, as to how to get started?
Violet: Don’t let other people hold you down. Your friends may tell you that you are wasting your time, or someone may tell you that you can’t do it. You have to learn to not listen to these people.Â Â Find a robotics team of some sort, or start your own. It is really a great experienceÂ and you learn a ton. FIRST has programs for all ages, and you can contact them about finding a team near you.
Kjersti: I’d say go for it! It’s a lot of work but it pays off in the end. There are more opportunities than you might think to get involved in robotics, so you can ask around, or go to the FLL website to get more information.
The team gave a Google Tech Talk in Mountain View in June, where they discussed their team and activities, and gave a demonstration of their robot:
Having competed in the European Championship in Istanbul, they are seeking donations to help cover their travel expenses. Due to the eruption of EyjafjallajÃ¶kull, the trip was much more expensive than anticipated and as of this writing they are about $4000 short. If you wish to support them, you can do so on their website.
The OTW is mostly by/for women, and most of the participants in its projects seem to be women. Do you have any interest in reaching out to primarily-male parts of fandom? How might that work, if you did?
The OTW’s mission is to provide a nonprofit space, and organized advocacy, for the kinds of transformative fanworks (fanfic, fan art, vids, podfic) that are a) potential targets for commercial exploitation (as in the case of FanLib), B) being squeezed out as Web 2.0 “business models” expand (as in the case of vids on Imeem or erotic fan art on LJ), or c) subject to takedowns or other legal challenges. Many, if not most, of those fanworks were and are made by women, but gender isn’t a central criterion; we protect these sorts of fanworks when men make them, too!
That being said, there are some secondary ways in which gender seems to be influencing the populations we serve and the work we do. First, male fans are somewhat more likely than female fans to be making fanworks that have commercial implications or aspirations (e.g. some machinima, some fan films, some video game design, the commercial version of the Harry Potter Lexicon, etc). Second, not all fanworks are subject to the kinds of economic or legal challenges I’ve just described: for instance, nobody’s doing takedowns of forums or wikis or fan films; male-made movie “parodies” are more clearly understood to be fair use than female-made shipper vids; video game designers mostly approve of and even help out machinima makers, etc. Moreover, in terms of financial support, many male or mixed gender areas of fandom are more economically stable than female-dominated areas, either because more guys are willing to turn their fan-ac into a fan-run business rather than depending on external companies or services, or because they’re willing to support their sites with ads. Women making transformative works have tended, rightly or wrongly, to be wary of ads or other forms of commercial support, fearing that it would give ammunition to copyright holders who already don’t like them or their works.
So the OTW’s goal is really to focus on 1) noncommercial works that are 2) currently subject to marketplace or legal pressures. It may be socially significant that most of those works are made by women, but we want to advocate for them no matter who makes them!
… director of film studies and associate professor of English at Muhlenberg College, where she teaches courses in dramatic literature, popular fiction, and mass media storytelling. Her writings on media fandom have been included in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet and presented at MIT’s Media in Transition conference. Coppa has been attending conventions and buying zines since the early 1980s, when she and her friends wrote fanfiction by hand and circulated it by snail mail. She has been involved in online fandom since the mid-1990s as a writer, list administrator, vidder, archivist, and community moderator. (bio link)
And now it’s time for Geek Feminism to interview her! I’d like to open this up to our readers and commenters. What would you like to ask Francesca about the OTW, fan culture, vidding, and so on? Post your suggestions in the comments, and in a few days we’ll send them through to her to answer.
Edit: I’m shutting down comments now (Wednesday 9th September) and passing your questions through to Francesca. The interview should appear soon!