Friday, February 17, 2017

Heeeeeeere's Connie!

Note: I have also posted a YouTube video about this.

When software changes the spelling of names, sometimes it’s a hoot, and sometimes noot.

Let me introduce you to Connie Maculatum, the poison hemlock plant.

Actually, the name is Conium maculatum, but apparently certain Microsoft programs automatically change scientific names into words that the programs think should be there. One of the best-selling books of the Christmas 2016 season, and one which I received as a present, contained this error. I doubt that the authors or editors intended the text to read “Connie.” But apparently, even after the correct name is written, Microsoft changes it from scientific accuracy to one of its standard, approved list of words. This might happen even after an author reverses the change.

It gets personal sometimes. One of my lab students last fall had the last name Cotten. In case your software changed it, the name ends with an -en. I had to write this twice in order to get Word to accept this spelling. But when we recorded her grades in Excel, it kept changing the spelling to Cotton no matter how many times we tried to correct it. We apologized to the student. She, however, has had this experience so many times that she hardly reacted. Her birth certificate, the IRS, and the university might have her name with the correct spelling but, dammit, Microsoft is determined to change her name to Cotton.

Science magazine reported that twenty percent of genetics articles that have been published online contain incorrect names of genes because Excel automatically changed them—and refused to unchanged them. One example is the gene septin-2, abbreviated SEPT2, which Excel changed to September 2. This happens even in the top journals. Notice: twenty percent of papers.

Technology is supposed to be our servant, but it determines the framework of reality. You have no choice but to enter information into Microsoft software in a prescribed format and to accept whatever form it comes out.

For centuries, people have had to accept occasional and embarrassing misspellings. The nineteenth-century report that Edgar Allan Pee had published a new book is probably apocryphal; in fact, I might have made it up. But at least newspaper and book publishers had the option of spelling it correctly.

I studied, and am now trying to rescue, an endangered plant species: the seaside alder, Alnus maritima. If I see this plant referred to on websites as Alnus maritime one more time, I think I am going to scream.

I don’t mind Microsoft underlining words that it “thinks” are misspelled, so long as I have the option of overriding its “decision.” It’s the automatic, silent, and unstoppable changes that I hoot.

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