Razor-toothed Piranhas Seldom Attack Humans

July 1st, 2010

I was reading David Pogue’s always-interesting Thursday New York Times personal technology column, which yesterday was in two parts. The second discusses new mobile phone software called Swype. According to Pogue “It’s a new way to enter text, invented expressly for touchscreen phones…. When you use Swype, you see what looks like a standard onscreen keyboard. But instead of tapping each letter, you’re supposed to leave your finger on the screen and drag through all the letters of the word you want.”


You see? According to Swype, in the picture above “the word ‘quick’ was generated from tracing the path in a fraction of a second, by roughly aiming to pass through the letters of the word. A key advantage to Swype is that there is no need to be very accurate, enabling very rapid text entry.”

But what jumped out of Pogue’s report was the following:

The company maintains that this system is faster than regular typing. In fact, earlier this year, a Swype employee broke the Guinness Book of World Records record for speed texting. (He entered the prescribed test phrase, “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human,” in 35.54 seconds, using Swype.)

“The prescribed test phrase”??? Prescribed by whom, I wondered. By the Guinness organization? This was news to me. Whatever happened to the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”?


Well it turns out to indeed be the test phrase prescribed by Guinness World Records Limited, headquartered in London, England (but now owned by Vancouver, Canada’s own self-made billionaire, Jim Pattison). A Google search led me down several blind alleys, but finally to a site with a thorough answer to the question “Why this particular phrase?” It has to do with choosing the right phrase length as well as both the cognitive and physical challenges presented.

Though it’s too long for a tweet. Hmm….


I learned elsewhere that the current non-software-aided human record holder is Norway’s Sonja Kristiansen. In 2009 she set a Guinness record of 37.28 seconds. Only 21 years old at the time, Sonja demurred that she didn’t feel that her win resulted from regularly sending lots of text messages. “I send 400-500 messages a month,” she said. “There are many who send more messages than me. I’m just very quick, I think.” (A Google translation from the Norwegian interview.)

According to my first online source, Ms. Kristiansen was texting a little faster than the speed at which a woodpecker pecks.

Of course the weakness of this test is that the phrase is known in advance and the contestants can practice for as long as they can stand the boredom. And so LG Electronics, the $50 billion South Korean cellphone manufacturer (and many other devices) sponsored the LG Mobile Worldcup (sic), where contestants shared $150,000 in price money. LG’s January 2010 event involved entering projected scrolling text on QWERTY and numeric keyboards.

Another related Guinness record was set during the contest. Pedro Matias of Portugal established a new QWERTY “know the text in advance” Guinness record by typing “The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell (UK), who filed his patent for the telephone on 14 February 1876 at the New York Patent Office, USA. The first intelligible call occurred in March 1876 in Boston, Massachusetts, when Bell phoned his assistant in a nearby room and said “Come here Watson, I want you.” in 1 minute 59 seconds, thereby shaving 23 seconds off the previous record set by Finland’s Arttu Harkki in 2005.

My goodness, this is leading down an increasingly dull path.

It turns out that the U.S. record holder for the Piranhas text is Utah’s Ben Cook (42 seconds). He however lost to Nuance’s leading speech recognition software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, which transcribed the two sentences in 16 seconds.

I know. I know. You’re wondering who holds the world record for texting while blindfolded. Elliot Nicholls of Dunedin, New Zealand typed a 160 letter text in 45 seconds in November 2007, beating the old record of 1 minute 26 seconds set by an Italian in September 2006.