Ask McArdle: Why is my phone’s autocorrect almost always wrong?

Plus, awkward elevator silence

(Illustration: Peter Arkle)

(Illustration: Peter Arkle)

Why is it that my phone’s autocorrect is almost always wrong?

Educating a machine on the finer points of spelling is a daunting challenge. I wrestled with it myself during the development of Stenograph-Bot 3000 (actually an ill-trained bonobo in a tinfoil suit). But some are finding that the autocorrect suggestions they get on smartphones are actually getting worse over time. A legion of factors could create this impression, says Will Walmsley, co-founder and CEO of the Toronto-based virtual keyboard developer, Minuum. “The software could actually be over-learning your personal typing style,” he tells me, “so that typing anything that doesn’t match your personal vocabulary confuses your phone.” To wit, observers note the iPhone was once built to take multiple errors—and ensuing corrections—before it adjusted. However, you now need only accept an incorrect suggestion once, and a “valid transition” becomes a “vapid trampoline” every time. There is also a chance that autocorrect has lulled us into a false sense of security, says Walmsley. “When you begin to over-trust your phone, you start typing faster and make more mistakes, which your phone can only help with up to a certain point,” he says. Errors might also feel “more jolting,” he says, because they’ve actually become less frequent. Steps can be taken to make your smartphone even smarter. Android users can try different keyboard apps, like Walmsley’s Minuum, which reduces the interface to a single row of letters and then uses an algorithm to figure out what you’re trying to say. For iPhone users, there are less elegant solutions—such as entering frequently miscorrected words in your contacts directory. Not only will it trick autocorrect into doing its job, it will make you feel worldly to have contacts named “Urbane Prosciutto” and “Punctuation, Bonobo!”

Which came first: Clamato or the Bloody Caesar?

In the spring of 1858, Charles Darwin was two-thirds through his manuscript for On the Origin of the Species when he received a paper by fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. In it, Wallace outlined a theory of natural selection shockingly similar to Darwin’s own. The two men—Darwin in England, Wallace in Borneo—happened to be struck by the same bolt of inspiration. This is the case with many of society’s greatest leaps forward, be it the creation of calculus, the discovery of oxygen or the realization that clam-infused tomato juice makes for a delicious brunch cocktail. In 1969 bartender Walter Chell was charged with inventing a new beverage to commemorate the opening of an Italian restaurant at the Calgary Inn. Inspired by spaghetti alle vongole, he mashed clams and then mixed their liquid with vodka, tomato juice and seasonings. At roughly the same time, the Duffy-Mott beverage company introduced Clamato juice in California, reportedly inspired by Boston clam chowder. When the product—which Mott’s says it produces through a “top-secret process for mollusk reanimation”—arrived in Canada the same year, it made it possible to enjoy a Bloody Caesar without juicing your own clams. And while it is possible that Chell was aware of Clamato juice, it is impossible to verify. “There’s nobody at the company who’s been here that long,” says Alison Bing, a spokesperson for Mott’s. Their best guess is simply that 1969 “was a big year for tomatoes and clams,” she says.

Any advice for avoiding awkward elevator silence?

Why must we fill every moment with jabber? Luxuriate in the tranquility.

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