November 10, 2011

Deciphering nixies at the Post Office

In the '90s, computers needed remedial reading, stumped as they were by nine addresses in 10. The Postal Service hired 32,000 clerks at 55 RECs to make sense of them. Computers have since learned to see words in scrawls and squiggles the way voice-recognition software hears them in hemming and hawing. The Postal Service says their reading score today is 95%.

What's left over is the handwriting from hell. It pours into just two remaining RECs—here and in Wichita, Kan. Their 1,900 clerks cope with machine-unreadable mail from the whole country. Last year, that included 714,085,866 chicken-scratch first-class letters.

In late afternoon, when volume peaks at the Salt Lake center, a blinking panel showed 67,000 letters awaiting attention—from San Juan, Paducah, Los Angeles, Kokomo. A clerk wearing a headset had hit a patch of pen-pal letters from pupils in Memphis. She was decrypting them at a rate of 800 per hour, down from the desired 1,100.

"We ought to teach kids how to address letters," said Bruce Rhoades, a manager looking over her shoulder. His boss, Karen Heath, stood watching beside him and sighed, "A lost art."

From the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by David on November 10, 2011 8:48 AM

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