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Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Musing on the power of convention

Howard Wainer

Attending Convention

I hope that I have demonstrated that it is not unreasonable to believe that the inertia of convention acts as a drag on innovation. Yet simply recognizing this obstacle will not make the power of convention disappear, nor should it. When faced with a single communication task (for example, reporting the results of an experiment in a research paper), we should first consider the conventional way to do it. If such an approach allows it to be done adequately, then that is a sensible path to follow; fighting convention can age you quickly. If, on the other hand, the task is but the first of many (for example, writing the first of many national statistics reports, with many similar data sets—see Pickle et al.), the cost of fighting convention may be amortized over the long run.

What have we learned from these examples? It seems to me that QWERTY has little to recommend it, and various alternatives have already been proposed. August Dvorak, a professor of education at the University of Washington, patented one in 1936. The 1985 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records tells us that Barbara Blackburn, the fastest typist on record (150 words per minute for 50 minutes, with peaks of 212 words per minute), set her record on a Dvorak keyboard. Obviously improvements are possible and some experiments in design should allow us to build on Dvorak's design. Implementing such an innovation is easy, since programmable keyboards can allow those whose touch-typing skills require QWERTY to keep it, but as we start teaching the new keyboard in schools, graduates who can perform better will transform the old keyboard to the new. One generation should just about do it.

Pie charts have little to recommend them over Cleveland's dot charts; as soon as those who write graphic software replace pies with dots as the default option, we will see the end of this over-used invention.

The 15th century complaints from scholars about the ease of learning Hangul are surely relevant today. Yet that should not dissuade the Chinese and Japanese governments from considering the costs of keeping their ancient writing systems. Perhaps a Hangul-like Chinese keyboard might have more than 34 keys (24 letters plus 10 numbers), but it would surely be far less cumbersome than current methods. If such an alphabet were invented and implemented, the two systems would probably operate in parallel for a while, for old ideas never really die, just the people who believe in them. But eventually offspring of King Sejong's marvelous Hangul alphabet would take over. Other languages have alternative phonetic alphabets (for example, the Unifon alphabet is a way of writing English based on the principle of one letter per phoneme; it was created by John Malone in the 1930s), but they have yet to overcome the power of convention. Still, the cost of maintaining the convention seems much smaller for English than Chinese.

And so, why is a raven like a writing desk? My answer is because both of them can be improved substantially, but the major part of the task is overcoming the inertia of convention, not inventing a superior product.


My gratitude to the National Board of Medical Examiners for support of this research, despite its only very marginal relation to NBME's mission. I appreciate the breadth of their view. I also wish to thank Kyung T. Han for his invaluable help in providing expertise in Hangul so that I have some faith that my description of it is reasonably accurate. My thanks also to Paul Velleman, who showed me how to find both Dvorak and Hangul on my Mac, and to David Hoaglin, whose sharp eyes helped me to say more nearly what I meant.


  • Cleveland, W. S. 1985. The Elements of Graphing Data. Boston: Duxbury.
  • Diamond Sutra Recitation Group. 2004. King Sejong the Great: The Everlasting Light of Korea. Seoul, Korea: Diamond Sutra Recitation Group.
  • www.omniglot/com/writing/korean.htm
  • Pickle, L. W. , M. Mungiole, G. K. Jones and A. A. White. 1996. Atlas of United States Mortality. Hyattsville, Md.: National Center for Health Statistics.
  • Playfair, W. 1801. The Statistical Breviary. London: T. Bensley.
  • Taylor, I. 1980. The Korean writing system: An alphabet? A syllabary? A Logography? In Processing of Visible Language: 2, ed. P. Kolers, M. E. Wrolstad and H. Bouma. New York: Plenum, pp. 67–82.

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