Words & Stuff

rr: Tablespoons

(3 May 1998)

"'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.)"
Lewis Carroll

I'm sure that people have been tempted to write directly on their computer screens for almost as long as there have been computer screens. But even after touch-sensitive displays were invented, writing directly on the screen couldn't be done until the advent of software that could interpret hand-written characters, a remarkably difficult problem to solve in the general case. (Douglas Hofstadter claimed, in his July 1982 "Metamagical Themas" column, that "The central problem of AI is the question: What is the letter 'a'?"; see also various other places in Metamagical Themas for further discussion of the enormous variety of shapes that people who can read and write English will recognize as the letter "A" -- and similarly, of course, for other languages.)

These days, increasingly ubiquitous Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs, not to be confused with Public Displays of Affection) like the PalmPilotTM have brought a form of handwriting recognition to the mass market: the special modified alphabet called Graffiti®. Graffiti comprises pretty much the set of shapes you would expect if you took plain uppercase block letters and modified them so they could be drawn with a single pen-stroke. A surprisingly easy character set to learn, but the recognition technology is not as advanced as one might hope: first you have to learn the computer's alphabet, instead of it learning yours, and then you often have trouble getting the computer to correctly recognize the letters anyway.

One of the first PDAs, however, went about solving the problem in an entirely different way. Apple's Newton® not only recognized anyone's handwriting (rather than requiring the user to learn a new alphabet); it learned over time to adapt itself to an individual user's handwriting. Many of the early discussions (and jokes) about the Newton's handwriting recognition software were, I'm told, based on tests done in "guest" mode -- in which the system did not learn the user's handwriting. I'm told that under real use, the recognition software quickly became quite adept.

Which doesn't make the discussions and jokes any less amusing. In sad note of the passing of the Newton, I present this five-year-old piece, even though it's been widely forwarded on the Net. I considered attempting the same sort of trial with a PalmPilot -- but since Graffiti works on individual characters rather than words, the results would be far less entertaining.


By Robert McNally; copyright © 1993 by Robert McNally.
Permission is granted to reproduce this if the copyright remains intact.

This poem was generated by entering Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" into an Apple Newton. Nonsense words in the original were each written three times to get the most consistent match.

Teas Willis, and the sticky tours
Did gym and Gibbs in the wake.
All mimes were the borrowers,
And the moderate Belgrade.

"Beware the tablespoon my son,
The teeth that bite, the Claus that catch.
Beware the Subjects bird, and shred
The serious Bandwidth!"

He took his Verbal sword in hand:
Long time the monitors fog he sought,
So rested he by the Tumbled tree,
And stood a while in thought.

And as in selfish thought he stood,
The tablespoon, with eyes of Flame,
Came stifling through the trigger wood,
And troubled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and though,
The Verbal blade went thicker shade.
He left it dead, and with its head,
He went gambling back.

"And host Thai slash the tablespoon?
Come to my arms my bearish boy.
Oh various day! Cartoon! Cathay!"
He charted in his joy.

Teas Willis, and the sticky tours
Did gym and Gibbs in the wake.
All mimes were the borrowers,
And the moderate Belgrade.

See also Scott J. Kleper's Newton Misspellings page.

Graffiti, besides being a means of mass communication widely practiced in cities ancient and modern, is a registered trademark and PalmPilot is a trademark of 3Com Corporation or its subsidiaries. Newton is a trademark of Apple Computer, Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. So there.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>