Intelligent Errors Are Totally Book

Pardon this brief interruption of contest fever (see three previous entries) but …

Here’s a nice observation written by Nicole Tourtelot, who toils away here in the Freakonomics office (maintaining this Web site, fulfilling bookplate requests, etc.):

Dubner posted recently about intentionally misspelled domain names, such as Stockpickr.com, that aim to grab clumsy typists and/or poor spellers. The idea that intentionally misspelling the name of one’s own company could lead to increased market share reminded me of the QWERTY keyboard story-another case of intelligent error, although in this story, the goal was inefficiency. Mitchell M. Waldrop, a former senior writer at Science magazine, tells it nicely in his book, Complexity:

“An engineer named Christopher Scholes designed the QWERTY layout in 1873 specifically to slow typists down; the typewriting machines of the day tended to jam if the typist went too fast. But then the Remington Sewing Machine Company mass-produced a typewriter using the QWERTY keyboard, which meant that lots of typists began to learn the system, which meant that other typewriter companies began to offer the QWERTY keyboard, which meant that still more typists began to learn it, et cetera, et cetera.”

In that same vein, someone sent me this post about T9 predictive-text messaging. Because people spend so much time texting – particularly young people – and predictive text is so commonplace, T9 text errors have spawned some delightfully random developments in slang. Here’s an explanation of T9 technology for the Luddites, but in brief, the phone guesses what you’re trying to type.

According to the post, “book” is the new way to say “cool.” With some T9 dictionaries, both words come up as suggestions for 2-6-6-5, with “book” popping up first. After a few careless messages along the lines of “that movie was totally book,” new street lingo was born.

I asked my younger sister if she’d heard of this predictive-text slang phenomenon and she immediately supplied her own example. Among her hipper-than-thou (hipper-than-me) art-school crowd in San Francisco, “jazz” is apparently the new “lame,” for a few reasons: The first is that some predictive-text programs guess “jazz” when you try to type in “lame” (they’re both spelled starting 5-2). Secondly, it’s a classic evolution in the hipsters’ flip-the-script lexicon: using a word to connote its exact opposite. Granted, that last point is debatable — depending on your opinion of jazz.

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  1. prosa says:

    I had thought that the QWERTY layout was the most efficient on early machines due to now-obscure technical reasons. It was not designed as a means of deliberately slowing down typists, once again according to what I’ve read.

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  2. prosa says:

    I had thought that the QWERTY layout was the most efficient on early machines due to now-obscure technical reasons. It was not designed as a means of deliberately slowing down typists, once again according to what I’ve read.

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  3. Tremendous Upside says:

    If typing too fast resulted in continual jamming, then slowing down typists would actually be more efficient in the long run…

    I don’t know that this is true, just pointing out that efficiency and slowing down typists aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive…

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  4. Tremendous Upside says:

    If typing too fast resulted in continual jamming, then slowing down typists would actually be more efficient in the long run…

    I don’t know that this is true, just pointing out that efficiency and slowing down typists aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive…

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  5. nphebel says:

    The qwerty story I was told in economics class was that the jamming occured when keys near each other on the board were typed in quick succession. Thus common letter pairs were installed on opposite sides of the keyboard to prevent the jam.

    At the end of the day, it seems economists and jounalists both love a good urban legend from time to time.

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  6. nphebel says:

    The qwerty story I was told in economics class was that the jamming occured when keys near each other on the board were typed in quick succession. Thus common letter pairs were installed on opposite sides of the keyboard to prevent the jam.

    At the end of the day, it seems economists and jounalists both love a good urban legend from time to time.

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  7. JanneM says:

    As I have understood it, it wasn’t designed to slow down typists, but to make sure that the hammers for consecutive letters would as often as possible come from different parts of the assembly; the risk of jamming is the greatest when a couple of hammers close to each other try to move at nearly the same time.

    And as subsequent experiments with other layouts have shown the QWERTY layout is pretty good; even when you make a layout heavily optimized for one particular language corpus you do not gain more than ten to twenty percent (which is tantamount to a rounding error in the field of user interface design).

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  8. JanneM says:

    As I have understood it, it wasn’t designed to slow down typists, but to make sure that the hammers for consecutive letters would as often as possible come from different parts of the assembly; the risk of jamming is the greatest when a couple of hammers close to each other try to move at nearly the same time.

    And as subsequent experiments with other layouts have shown the QWERTY layout is pretty good; even when you make a layout heavily optimized for one particular language corpus you do not gain more than ten to twenty percent (which is tantamount to a rounding error in the field of user interface design).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0