Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Me and my pal
Originally uploaded by PhylB
I have this dear friend called Carol. I have known her for 18 years and she's one of those caring, loving friends that you know will be there for you through thick and thin. In fact there is only one thing that Carol does that drives me batty and that is the way she texts! When my phone shouts at me Mum, you got a text! in Charlotte's voice, I know there is a message waiting for me. I open it and invariably it is from Thomas, or Marcel or Amanda. Occasionally it says from Carol. Then I start to shake in fear and anticipation of the message awaiting. I know it will be harder to decipher than Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Here is one she sent me on Monday:
  • Jst red it. On way out. P'l b here4A s6 let me no when suits+cd u email Sab2let her no when we'l meet her@restrant?
I know her phone does predictive texting because it is the same as my old one, so I wonder why she goes to all the bother of writing in Greek!
She got in my car and I asked if she'd mind texting Thomas for me as I was driving. I threw her my phone.
What should I write?
she asked.
Rose St corner
I replied.
Thomas had just asked where I would meet him to give him Anna.
A shriek of panic, Oh my God, you've got it doing that thing! she said, you've got on predictive texting
Of course I have - it cuts down the key strokes by 75%, what sane person wouldn't have it on??? So she hits the PQRS button three times, then the MNO button three more and gets the word: Spron.
I say wooooah, no Carol hit PQRS once, she looks very dubious, like I have advised her to go out shopping in a bikini in December, but does it anyway.
Then do I hit MNO 3 times? she asks
Nonononono - just once
. Now she looks dumbfounded, she hits it once, I tell her to hit PQRS once more and of course my phone starts to form the word ROSE, she nearly falls off her seat. She asks if it'll work out 'st' from PQRS followed by TUV and is gobsmacked when I reply yes.
Don't tell me I am finally starting to convert her? Maybe that wouldn't be such a good thing. She is one of a kind - the only one I know who texts in gobbledygook and the only one who sets my mind a mental challenge. If I convert her to predictive texting then I'll no longer approach a Carol text with a mix of fear and astonishment. I won't rant about her texts or laugh about them. I guess what will be will be...
I love you Carol just for being you!


Harry Campbell said...

"[predictive texting] cuts down the key strokes by 75%, what sane person wouldn't have it on???"

Well since you ask, I really question the idea that predictive text makes texting much easier or faster.

Yes, I came late and reluctantly to mobile phones, for a long while used them only very occasionally, and they were usually old-fashioned models borrowed or inherited from friends; but I have now succumbed to the modern world, carry the thing all the time, have a basic but reasonably up to date model, and use it probably about as much as the average person. However, I have never learned to love texting, in fact I hate it with a passion. It takes me forever, it annoys the hell out of me, and I actually doubt that predictive text (hereinafter PT for short) has speeded up the process at all in my case.

For a long time I thought this was just due to lack of practice, or outdated models of phone, and was willing to be swayed by the idea that PT would make things much faster. It really doesn't. Non-PTing involves more keystrokes, yes, but that doesn't make it slower. Running downstairs is laborious in the sense that it takes a lot of rapid movement, but you can do it very fast when you have the knack; a stairlift involves almost no physical effort but is slow and frustrating. Non-predictive text is very, er, predictable. You very soon get the hang of how many times to hit each key to get the character you want and there are no nasty surprises. With PT you have to monitor very carefully: it comes out with some surreal nonsense, constantly demands your attention if you're to avoid gibberish or mystifying ambiguity caused by the phone guessing wrong (we've probably all received PT messages that can only be decoded with reference to the layout of the keypad), and thus greatly reduces your effectiveness. Texting with PT while walking along the street is pretty difficult I find, even dangerous, whereas I'm sure a skilled non-PT-er could text without taking the phoneout of their pocket. (Though they would probably get some funny looks.)

OK, this will depend on the quality of software on the phone, but the dictionaries they use don't seem exactly clever. They suggest non-existent words, fail to learn effectively from the user what words are likely, and don't seem to imagine that, say, a closing bracket a few words after an opening one is probably a better suggestion than another opening bracket or some abstruse typographical symbol that shouldn't even be on offer. My phone is obsessed with women in religious orders. I do sometimes mention my mother by her informal title, but no, I clearly meant to refer to my nun. Do they ever have any idea of grammar? After all word-processors had that kind of thing as standard for years.

So, you've got to put in a lot of extra mental effort with PT, which not only increases your chances of getting run over or walking into a lamppost but is far more frustrating that the honest-to-goodness spadework of non-PT. With my phone you have to be constantly second-guessing it (yet more mental effort). Will it know this perfectly normal word, or if not is there any chance it will have learned it last time I used it, should I take a chance or switch out of PT mode for a moment and key it literally? Twist or stick? I practically hold my breath as I build up the word, piling up more and more correct letter guesses, like building a house of cards until, oops, one letter too many and it comes crashing down into gibberish and I have to start again. Or I delete one lousy letter and all the work I've done in guiding it to the right choices letter by letter is for nothing, I clearly meant jhqlhmvhkjnb4 all along and not kirkintilloch, who's ever heard of such an unlikely word, phone knows best.

I've never begun to understand why mobile phones are so clever in some ways and so incredibly stupid in others. When it comes to anything to do with manipulating text, which is what I do all the time on the computer and am generally pretty fast at, the fanciest models I've tried are no match for the most basic free editing software of ten or fifteen years ago. They are "dumb", gimmicky and buggy, and use their impressive computing power on gimmicks and naff visual effects designed to appeal to kids (of all ages).

Something I once assumed would improve rapidly is the possible length and complexity of a text message, just as the amount of RAM on an entry-level computer has increased exponentially. But for obvious commercial reasons that hasn't happened, so we're still restricted to a few dozen measly characters which must be chosen with great care. Often most of the effort of sending a text goes into brutally compressing it to fit, deleting a superfluous word here, ramming together two words there, replacing "you're" with "u'r" although looks horrible, etc etc. A message that could have been sent legibly and unambiguously by email in five seconds flat takes endless minutes of mangling into SMS form. Here PT is our worst enemy. Look at Carol's message -- yes, it's an eyesore but it gets the message across very concisely: 115 characters I make it. Imagine sending that message in PT. It might produce a more readable and elegant message ("and could you email Sabine to let her know when we'll meet her at restaurant?" instead of "+cd u email Sab2let her no when we'l meet her@restrant?") but it would be about 25% longer at a rough calculation. It would take me hours (and/or cost three times as much) and I'd want to hurl the phone under a bus at the end of it. Sab2let? Sorry squire, computer says no, you must mean racaje8.

Wow, what a rant. Better not send that one by text.

Harry Campbell said...

PS. Here's a thought -- if these sorts of predictive systems are better, why do people so rarely use them for typing on the computer? There are autocompletion gadgets that guess the word as you go along and allow you to select the right answer from suggested guesses. Much better than the kind of "predictive" text which often only "predicts" what you wanted to say three characters ago, rather than guessing ahead, but still too much mental effort in terms of the feedback required. You could pause to evaluate the autocompletion options on offer, or you could just to bash on and type the rest of the word, and guess which takes less thinking power? In short, FEWER KEYSTROKES DOES NOT MEAN LESS WORK!

Phyl said...

Wow Harry, I feel like I should pay you for that it is so long!
Maybe you and Carol could swap numbers and txt eachother 2 yr harts cntent?? ;-)
Maybe I just always text the same thing but my onboard dict copes fine and also offers the next poss word based on what words usu follow eachother. And it works on my frequencies so I lost the nun a week after I got it cos I tend to text my mum more often.
I guess André has a different model tho given he texts once a week to ask where he can 'sick up the kids' ;-)

The Scudder said...

I don't know you Harry but already I feel I'm your friend ! I have taken an instant liking to you.
I couldn't have ranted it better myself .,,. in fact I just couldn't have come up with all those wonderful reasons for not using PT ,, but like you, I too hate it .,., I particularly hate it's lack of grammatical expression ,, having to hunt in some other area for a simple question mark or comma for God's sake ! ,, in fact truth be told I simply hate mobile 'phones ,, period !
Anyway I'm PT's Dad ,, pleased to meet you Harry :)

Phyl said...

Harry is another old work friend who I've known forever dad. If you want to meet him - here's his flickr page:

Harry Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry Campbell said...

Hi Phyl's Dad! Yes, another colleague from way back when, in the dim and distant days when they employed significant numbers of lexicographers and actually wrote new dictionaries and stuff. For my more recent activities you could check out
(Ah, I see comments are not editable on this Blogger thing...)

Unknown said...

I like predictive text. My girlfriend and I still have juvenile fun deciphering things like 'Soybn and happy happy' (Rowan and Harry happy) or 'falcedls' (falafels). I have a friend whose children I now call 'posh and cella' (Soph and Bella).

Phyl said...

I'm with you Rob, I love it - it can be fun - I remember texting Thomas a few years ago how I could really use a snog, only to realize when he replied that I'd texted - Feeling down - I need a pooh! :-)

Unknown said...

Hmmmm .... my phone doesn't get the chance to learn my frequencies because I leave 'pick up the chn' as 'sick up the ago' and she understands.

It would be boring if I taught it my frequencies ... much more fun to try to work out what the odd messages mean!

Snog comes out as song on my phone!

There's a park near by called Callum Brae which comes out as 'callto brad'.

I had the nickname 'Obbie' for a while ... this came out as 'occid' so I got called 'occid' for a while ...

('Obbie' was 2-yr-old Lily's version of Robbie!)

Harry Campbell said...

deciphering things like 'Soybn and happy happy' (Rowan and Harry happy)

One friend of mine now calls me Happy, since that's what his phone thinks I'm called.