by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I am a whiz at test-taking. Always have been. If you could make a living taking standardized tests, I’d be living on my own private island and flying my personal jet to SoCal only to watch the baseball team I owned play against the Yankees.
This will explain a lot to those of you who’ve wondered how in the world I talked respectable academic institutions into allowing me to matriculate. The answer is that while individual instructors had identified me as an idiot, the exams always said I was not an ordinary idiot but an idiot savant—and that my one skill was test-taking.
The last C I saw on a report card was in seventh grade. First quarter. Handwriting.1
I responded by improving my handwriting and got an A- by the last quarter. I had perfectly lovely handwriting when I got to law school. Then came note-taking. My brain was called upon to send too many messages to my fingers too fast. They got lost somewhere around my pancreas, and the result would have reduced my seventh grade teacher to tears.
Certainly it had that effect on my first secretaries. My unique combination of poor mechanics and an incapacity for linear thought2 made my briefs a nightmare of indecipherable interlineations, margin additions, arrows, asterisks, and the occasional spilled soda.
Whenever I saw two or three of them huddled over a piece of paper, pointing at it and shaking their heads, I knew one was trying to decipher my handwriting. One asked me, “Is there a Rosetta Stone for this brief? Do I have to go to the British Museum before trying to type it?”
True story: I wrote a brief in which I referred to the case as “a striking example of the application of our rules on constructive possession.” My secretary3 (Mary Mowbray, a secretarial4 all-star), typed it as “a stinking example.”
She was right. That was a better translation of the tracks-left-by-a-worm-dipped-in-ink5 on the paper I’d given her than “striking.” When I looked at it later, I had to concede that appeared to be what the worm had written.
But in the meantime, Judge Kenny Williams6 had written a note to my boss congratulating him for “finding a deputy who isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.7 The law’s not bad, but there are some pretty stinking examples of its erroneous application.”
I have since—and consequently—developed a reputation as a ferocious proofreader. It was that or improve my handwriting again, and I wasn’t sure I was capable of that anymore.
So my advancement to word processing has been the occasion of much dancing and high-fiving amongst my assistants. Or at least it was until they learned of another of my shortcomings.
I have short, stubby fingers.8 My mother was an accomplished pianist. It didn’t take her long to figure out—to her chagrin—that I was better equipped for mastering throws to second base than Chopin’s etudes.
And since I was more interested in Biggio, Bagley, and Berkman9 than Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven,10 it was never much of a problem for me. Until I started using keyboards.
I can handle computer keyboards all right. Those keys are manageable. My fingers are stubby, but they’re not . . . garden tools.
But phones are impossible. The keys are way too small. On first glance, the text messages and emails sent from my phone appear to have been encrypted. By a Venusian.
I thought voice recognition would be my savior. Wrong. The worm is still writing my messages—these days by crawling across my phone—but now he’s disguised as thought.
And not especially good thought. My voice recognition program is so problematic I’ve come to think of it as Voice Wreck-Ignition.
I type perfectly lucid messages and they come out looking like they were devised by Navajo code-talkers.
Example: My wonderful cat Bronko died. A friend sent me a nice message of condolence. To which I replied, “Thanks. We are muddling through.” It came out, “Angst. We are Mussolini.”
Fortunately, I caught that one. Can you imagine getting that message from me? How much time would you waste trying to figure out what the hell I was saying? Would you, or would you not go to Google and try to find some reference to Mussolini’s cat?
An international law firm rating service based in London wanted my opinion of Snell and Wilmer. I received the request while on vacation. My response said that and offered, “If you’ll contact me after November 10, I’ll be happy to tell you my thoughts about smelly woman.” Had I not caught it and corrected it, they would have thought I already had.
I tried to send a friend a cartoon I’d laughed at. I got, “Sending you a cartoon; tell a lie light at a lot.” Translation: Kelly and I liked it a lot.
My assistant informed me a request to dismiss an appeal had come in. I joked that usually these don’t come in until after I’ve spent a lot of time reading the briefs, and asked my research attorney if he had written the summary yet. It came out, “He requested a Smith’s on a case I haven’t yet read? How can that be? Jeff, have you ridden to sue me yet?”
A staff attorney wrote me, apologizing for interrupting my vacation with her question. The response she got was, “If that’s my biggest problem this month, it’s going to be a bitter month that I meant to say fading.” (“A better month than I expected after vacation.”) Again, imagine the lost time trying to figure this out.
Some of them are understandable. “Au contraire” came out “Oh, container.” My fault. Asking it to speak French is a bridge too far.
“Lhotse” came out “look sexy.” Again, I guess I was asking a lot.
But interpreting “singularly” as “singerly?” That’s not a word in any language is it? And interpreting “living beings” as “living beans” is simply insulting. Come on, phone, how stupid do you think I am?
I tried to leave an away message saying I was on vacation, listening to my mainspring unwind. It announced that I was “listening to my main screen on wine.”
The sad thing is so many people would not have recognized that as likely erroneous. They would have pictured me sitting in front of a monitor somewhere, hammered, and listening attentively. “Far out, man; it’s talking to me.”
One of my lawyers made a good suggestion for improvement of a paragraph I’d written about the duties of a prosecutor. I responded by pointing out that a good prosecutor “obtains dresses for Crime Victims.” My voice recognition system is apparently unfamiliar with the word “redress.” Either that or it expects more of prosecutors than I do.
My voice recognition system is unfamiliar with a lot of things. Foremost among them, the English language. This can complicate things even when it’s trying to simplify my life.
Sometimes it tries to simplify things by suggesting other words I might have meant since the one I typed seems inappropriate.11 If, for example, I type “recuse” it can be condescendingly insistent that I must have meant “refuse.” Or maybe “recluse.”
This is very helpful, since attorneys often ask judges to “refuse” themselves. Or worse yet, to “recluse” themselves; now we’re not even talking about the right part of speech. As Doonesbury famously put it, about Ted Kennedy, “A verb, Senator, we need a verb.”
But what really frosts me is when it suggests I should descend into gibberish. This happens often when it finds the first letter of the word problematic. I type “spellant” instead of “appellant,” a word it’s seen eight million times in my messages and that now appears with a letter right next to the correct one on my keyboard. How tough can this be, right?
But an incorrect first letter completely defeats its technological brilliance. It’s thrown into hopeless and desperate confusion. It offers me, “smellant,” “smeppant,” and “spellanx.” I try not to take it personally, but I’m with this phone constantly, and it’s distressing that it thinks so little of me.
And I suspect your phone is always with you. It’s hard now to remember how we practiced law without them. So take this as a cautionary tale. PROOFREAD YOUR EMAILS AND TEXTS. Carefully.
This is especially true if, like my editor, you sometimes use your phone for note-taking. She dictated an email to herself that was supposed to read, “Reminder: email Denise Crawford about the bitcoin article.” What she got was a useless, “I am out of the ditch Hartford where do you go in on the car and the.” Obviously, her phone had been left next to the wine cabinet too often.
Or it may just have been that garbled because my editor is a woman. Researchers at the University of Washington found that “Google’s speech-recognition software was 70% more likely to accurately recognize male speech” than female. So my own experience represents the best case scenario.
Forewarned is forearmed. Proofread those emails. If you don’t, you are liable to experience—with a client or court—the kind of embarrassment I almost suffered when I tried to ask a neighbor in Seneca Falls if we could put our canoe in the lake from his backyard. The email was supposed to say, “Can I borrow your dock Friday morning?” Voice wreck-ignition got the vowel wrong in “dock.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Or start working on your handwriting.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.