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Focal Plane

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Focal Plane: Text presentation

This is the twelfth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Previous edition: Remote Utilities.

"I can't read this!" bellows Jean-Elaine Hong as she crumples up a sheet of paper and hurls it at one of her assistants. "Use some normal handwriting for once!"

Two thousand kilometres away, Charles Mudsworth scribbles repeated capital Gs on a chalkboard. "Bing, bang, bong, boong," he says as he reaches each target point. "Follow through each time. The corners don't have to be too sharp. You can flow them a little bit. Let's all do it." The students write their own Gs synchronously with his. "Bing, bang, bong, boong. Bing, bang, bong, boong."

Eight hundred kilometres away from that, Erin Martínez says to what appears to be a thick sheet of paper, "Thailand scored three goals in the last ten minutes to win 3-1 against a defensive minded Hong Kong side at the Asian Women's Championship today." On the sheet appear the words, "Tie land scored three go sin Dallas den minutes two in three won against a defensive minded Hong Kong sigh that the Asian Women's Championship today." Martínez sighs.

What do these scenes have in common? All are related to the growing inability to write in longhand.

Silly sound method

Mudsworth teaches handwriting to disadvantaged adults in Toronto, ON, Canada. His classes are oriented toward those who can understand English well but have never mastered the art of writing it. His advanced class today is working on the capital G.

"Cursive is such a problem because several letters look completely different from their printed forms," Mudsworth explains. "The capital G looks more like a rectangle, the capital I looks like a light bulb, and so on. But whereas most teachers try to avoid making their students notice that, I try to highlight it, to associate the stranger letters with a particular shape."

Thus we see the word "Idea" written several times on one side of the board. "Last week we did the capital I. Idea. Light bulb," he says, pointing to the I's shape. He then starts to write Is on the board. "Flick, click, swish. Flick, click, swish. What we do, we associate a word with each letter. Then we associate a shape with that word. Then we associate some sounds with that shape. That's the Silly Sound Method."

It appears to work, with over a hundred students having graduated Mudsworth's courses in the past two years. Victor Mentorini is one of these, and he says his handwriting has taken a turn for the better since he completed the course. "I leave myself notes all the time now. Sometimes even when I don't need to, just because I like the way my words look."

Notes are stuck onto many objects in his apartment, describing where and when he acquired each. "Writing is like music now. Each letter has a little sequence of notes, so that words are all songs. Like this." He finds a sticky note and writes the word "Goal" on it, with a capital G. "Bing, bang, bong, boong, zoom, flush, clush, clang. It makes words come to life."

Legibility crisis

In stark contrast is Hong, whose editorial office is anything but a hotbed of handwriting. The weekly magazine that she edits, San Francisco Overtime, switched to a paperless office paradigm two years ago. Whilst she is the first to admit that her idea has not wholly eliminated paper from the confines of her staff's floor, she has noted falls in the team's paper purchases over that span.

"We're doing more and more of our editorial work electronically," she says. "Our intranet has a file storage utility where reporters can post their stories, and then editors can post the edited versions. The reporters can also leave notes for the editor or for the fact checking department, and then the reporters can look at the story after it's edited, and the changes will be highlighted."

What was the inspiration for this change? Was it an altruistic attempt to save some trees? An eye on being a pioneer? A new way to challenge the staff?

"I just can't stand handwriting," Hong declares. "Every person's handwriting looks so different that it's almost impossible to read some things. After a while, it got to where I could more easily tell who wrote something than what it actually said. And at that point, I had to take a stand."

But not everyone on the staff buys into the new digital modus operandi. "Out of sight, out of mind," claims SFOT's longtime fashion correspondent Maurice White. "I don't trust anything that hides my words from me. I always print a copy of my articles when I submit them. Partly as backup in case the system goes down, but also because words on paper look different from words on a screen. And most people are going to see my words in the magazine rather than on our website, so I have to make sure it looks right."

Hong doesn't see such resistance as a problem. "I was actually expecting more opposition. But it's encouraging how many of our writers are willing to participate, even though they may still do some of their own work on paper. And it does mean I'm seeing less handwritten garbage."

Instant speech recognition

In Boston, MA, USA, Martínez is trying to create a way to eliminate handwriting altogether. "I call it write free paper. You say what you want, and it appears on the page. Or at least it's supposed to."

She has already solved the physical problems of embedding a liquid crystal matrix and a microphone in the minuscule volume of a sheet of paper. The problem that remains is one of software: speech recognition.

"For a while I had absolutely no idea. Then I started to think about how humans recognise speech. And the answer is context." She is holding another page and trying to transcribe her current words to paper, with varying degrees of success. "If I say to you, 'I visited Bangkok', you know I mean the capital of Thailand, because of the word 'visited'. It only makes sense with a place. I'm having trouble trying to build that sort of knowledge into the processor. Like this time, we got 'I visited bang cock'."

Some try to solve the problem in other ways. Reginald J Goober, founder and CEO of GoobNet Enterprises Inc [which doesn't actually exist however], is a leading proponent of GoobScript, a style that applies equally to handwriting and to printed text. "Here at GoobNet, we make extensive use of GoobScript," he says. "Most of the navigation graphics use GoobScript. The qualifying maps on GoobNet Football use GoobScript. Two other staffers besides myself have handwriting influenced by the objectives of GoobScript."

And what are the objectives of GoobScript?

"First is readability. Every character must look different," he says. "So you have a dot in the middle of a zero, but no such dot in a capital O. Second is performance: it must look neat. Third is efficiency. The shape of each character is chosen to minimise the number of strokes needed to write that character, subject to readability and performance constraints."

It remains too early to tell what influence GoobScript, write free paper, or computer only editing will have on humans' ability to write text. But one certainty is that someone will assume that things were better in the past, someone else will assume that things are better in the present, and someone else will assume that things will be better in the future.

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