Category Archives: Language

How to save a week in a day

ClockAt a conservative estimate, I’ve saved around 4 hours today. Yesterday, it was more like 7. The day before, I saved more than a week in a day – possibly the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever get.

My time-saving frame of reference is my usual followthehumming period of 28 years. Back then, according to my diary, I was developing photos through a complex process based on visits to a high street chemist. Then I was taking my printed photos and sending them to friends and family in small physical packages transported by a network of government-owned couriers.

When I wasn’t doing this, I was waiting around for friends with no notion of where they were, how long it would be before they arrived, or even whether I was in the right place.

Then of course there were the times I was trying to find my way somewhere, having forgotten to bring along my unfeasibly large and unfoldable map.

Given that we now do all this and more with a quick finger swipe, we’re surely saving oodles of time as a species…so the question is, what are we doing with it all?

Fortunately we do have one place that might just give us an idea. Google’s annual list of most popular searches is a decent place to get a sense of what the collective consciousness is thinking about when it isn’t watching cute cat videos on YouTube.

Here in the UK last year, we were most concerned with how to draw, kiss, crotchet, meditate, knit, twerk, squat, shuffle, revise and wallpaper – in that order. Our favourite cake recipe was chocolate and our preferred holiday destination was Paris. We were curious in particular about Banksy, Frenchy and Dappy, and what Ebola, ALS, fracking and love were.

Globally, we searched more for the departed Robin Williams than anyone else, and also wondered mightily about flappy bird, the ice bucket challenge, and Eurovision’s Conchita Wurst. And the world’s most searched YouTube video wasn’t actually a cat, but a slightly disturbing mutant giant spider dog.

So it turns out that we’re actually using any time we may have saved to do more of what we’ve always done – gossip, communicate, have fun, discover the world, work, get stuff done, learn new things, and find out what the hell is going on around here anyway.

It’s a case of more (and more) of the same.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. These fundamental interests and activities – and in particular the opportunity to gossip – are exactly what Yuval Noah Harari describes in his excellent history of humankind, as the winning cards in homo sapiens’ powerful evolutionary hand. 

Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow

gone girlMy diary entry for 29th November 1986 is a miserable one. I’m lamenting the fact that – as a notoriously slow reader on a university course involving a fair amount of french and scandinavian literature – I’m doomed only to read only books that I’m told to for the next three years. Turns out I was right, too. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Candide and Barnens ö, just that I couldn’t spare the time to read anything else, even as a bit of light relief.

At one point I started looking for ways to get through my books a bit faster. Claims have long been made for the benefits of speed reading if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort – mostly by cutting down on subvocalisation (essentially, mentally muttering the words you’re reading). Popular approaches include consciously skimming, meta-guiding (keeping focused with various types of pointing) and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which the reader is presented with single words at high speed one after the other. However, the general consensus seems to be that you probably shouldn’t speed read anything you genuinely need to comprehend. And as this piece of research from Reading university says, it’s not actually about speed anyway – it’s about the task you’re trying to complete.

Woody Allen quote

Perhaps a more pertinent question these days is to consider the differences between reading on paper and reading on screen. Many of us spend hours at work reading on screens, yet will tell you that certain documents – dependent on length, content or other factors – demand to be printed out and read on paper. The practical and physical differences between the two activities are discussed in detail in this excellent Scientific American article: The Reading Brain: The Science of Paper versus Screens.

The fact that we’re constantly trying to make screen reading as rich an experience as paper reading shows there’s still something lacking in even the most advanced of e-ink interfaces; not that we’re not having a go:

But why stop at such a one-dimensional way of consuming text? Enter Amazon Whispersync for Voice. Despite its slightly unwieldy name, this is one of those obvious-when-you-think-about-it uses of technology that feels a bit like magic the first time you use it.

Here’s how it works:

1. Start reading on your Kindle using your eyes. Read as much as you want. No bandwidth limits and no buffering!

2. Fancy a rest? Plug in your earphones, press play, and listen to the audio version of the book instead – it picks up right where you left off reading. Now do the ironing while you listen. Or maybe sunbathe. Up to you.

3. Prefer reading at bedtime rather than listening? Bring up the book on your Kindle and the last word you’ve heard spoken is highlighted for you in a spooky ‘we know what you’re doing’ kind of a way.

It may not turn you into a speedier reader, but it certainly gets you through more books.

If only I’d had it back when I really needed it!

Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

How to write a novel

Out, Brief CandleOn the one hand, I’m feel like I’m the last person to give advice on how to write a good novel. On the basis of sales alone, this is certainly true. On the other hand, I have actually managed to produce one (Out, Brief Candle – currently free to download for Kindle to celebrate this post!), so maybe it’s worth a word or two on the experience.

My diary entry for 26th May, 1986 contains my  first-ever throwaway mention of the idea of attempting a novel. Little did I realise then quite how long it would take me (almost 20 years) and how much I would change in the course of writing it (a lot).

Here’s how it was for me.

In my case, I started with a theme. I was inspired by a quote from a book called The Shape of Chaos by David Helsa. It went something like this:

There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories.

As a language student at the time, I was fascinated by Helsa’s idea of the difficulty involved in genuine communication and I wanted to explore it further. I decided there and then to make this the crux of my story.

So far so good. I started to think this novel-writing stuff wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Then came genre and setting. I thought a lot about this, but my late-teenage lack of life experience meant I only felt qualified to write about an imaginary world where I couldn’t be too wrong about things – so I chose to set the novel in the near-future and ended up with science fiction.

Next, I started thinking about plot, characters and general planning. At this point, I reckon I lost about five to eight years during which I graduated, started work, moved house a few times, got married, ruminated about my imaginary world a lot, and wrote embarrassingly little.

Psion Series 3cThe breakthrough came in my late-twenties, when I got fed up with all the thinking, mulling and pondering, and realised I just needed to get the hell on and write something. This turned out to be a revelation. I wrote unhindered by preconceptions of where my story was going; instead, I did it just to find out what would happen next. It was like reading a story I’d never read before, watching it being told as it appeared on the screen in front of me line by line. I learned about characters as I created them. I explored settings as they came to me. It was both freeing and exciting. It was also productive. Despite the demands of family life and eventually three children, the bulk of Out, Brief Candle was written in the following few years on a series of small personal organisers, starting with a tiny Psion Series 3c (pictured) and ending with the big daddy of them all – the Psion Series 7.

Then came the train crash. I wrote thousands of words and had a great time producing them, but I also had a mess on my hands: plot strands that didn’t link, inconsistencies everywhere, character flaws and unexplained events by the bucketload. If I ever wanted to reach the end, I knew I had to start taking things seriously. I started re-imagining and re-describing my characters, now I knew who they were. I created a long overdue timeline of the principal events. I drew out my settings and created backstories where I realised I didn’t know them. And finally, I decided how my story would end, and I worked out what I needed to do to get from here to there. It was a different way of writing and it took a while, but it was worth it.

This gear-change was the best decision I ever made. Without it, I would never have extracted myself from the dog’s dinner I’d created.

I finally wrote my last few words in 2002. I made a pact with myself not to fiddle with the text any further – however strong the urge – printed out a clean copy, and optimistically sent it to myself via registered post as proof of copyright.

When I read Out, Brief Candle now, I can hear myself change over the years it took to write. It’s a story in two parts, and Part Two could easily have been written by some new guy drafted in to replace the author of Part One, who was presumably too exhausted to continue. Despite its many flaws, I’m very proud of it. If you’re out there wondering whether to write something of your own, I’d definitely give it a go. But remember that – like me – you might end up being in it for the long haul.

*I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact original quote, but it went very much like this: “Man longs for knowledge but he has only the words of his speech to use, and these are inadequate. There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories. Moreover, words are little-suited to knowledge since each word is surrounded by the undertones of its own history. Finally, words are inadequate for piercing the essence of reality, since they are merely the indicators of our own memories and these being merely contingent can no more get at the true reality than a spider that has put its nest in the corner of a palace can get at the total reality of the palace.”

Friending, inboxing and googling: how verbing is changing the way we speak

Diary date: 3rd November, 1985Word cloud

It’s the Autumn of 1985 and I’m back at university again, this time for year 2 of my 4 year course. I leave my parents at home with a promise to call or send a letter soon, but with so many student distractions to get reacquainted with, it will be a while before I’m in touch.

If I didn’t pen many letters back then, I write even fewer now. All but the most formal have been replaced by text messages, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

In fact, we’re in such a rush to communicate these days that we’ve even reduced the words we use to describe these activities to the bare minimum. Sending a text message is simply texting, just as contacting someone on Facebook is now Facebooking or inboxing them. Tagging a tweet on Twitter involves hashtagging and sending an email is obviously emailing. Linking up with people is friending, and falling out with them again is described by the Oxford University Press word of the year of 2009: unfriending. And of course searching online is now amply covered by the ubiquitous idea of googling.

It all makes you wonder why sending a letter never quite managed to become lettering, and why watching TV isn’t just TVing or tellying (although in our own linguistically progressive household, it has recently been shortened to simply ‘watching’ – just as standing in front of a mirror preening yourself has become ‘vaining’).

What’s happening here is something that English has a proud tradition of doing with gay abandon, and that’s ‘verbing’ – converting nouns to verbs as the language evolves. It’s not only technology that makes use of this trend – nouns as diverse as butcher, parent, showcase and chair all spawned equivalent verbs years ago that today we take for granted. Linguist Steven Pinker has explained just how common this phenomenon is:

…easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns…

What’s wonderful is the degree to which people care about these changes and how quick they are to take a view on whether they represent positive or negative contributions to the popular vernacular.

My favourite case in point is the recent spat between Swedish lexicographers and global Internet giants Google. When it was proposed that the word ogooglebar (literally ‘ungoogle-able’) should be officially added to the Swedish language as a word roughly meaning ‘something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine,’ Google objected and pushed for the definition to include reference to their brand. Believing that language should be independent of such sordid commercial concerns, the Swedes refused and promptly dropped ogooglebar from their plans.

Swedish lexicographers (playing at home on the moral high ground): 1, Google (playing away from home and forgetting that a language belongs to its people): 0.

The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared 😦

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.

Swedish as a superpower

Swedish ChefDiary date: 20th April, 1985

This week in 1985 I’m working hard on my Swedish, ready for a mid-year exam once I’m back at university in a week or so’s time. I’m reading a book called Barnens Ö by PC Jersild, but since I learned my first words of Swedish just a few short months ago, it’s pretty slow going.

Given that speaking Swedish is about as close to a secret superpower as I’m ever likely to get, it’s worth recording just what all that studying left me capable of in the intervening 28 years. After all, these days a single click and a nano-second of Google Translate is all I need to Swedify followthehumming.

Here’s a quick summary for posterity.

1. I can surprise beautiful Swedish women when they least expect it.

Sadly, this is far less exciting than it sounds – and in fact I have only ever used this aspect of my superpower once. I was an anonymous twenty-year old sitting opposite a couple of blue-eyed, blonde Swedish girls on a train somewhere in Greece in the late eighties. Naturally I was trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at them. They started guessing at my nationality, presuming I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I took a deep breath and decided this was my big moment. “I’m English,” I said in Swedish, “Nice to meet you.” I was then immediately informed – in a fluent English rich in colour and idiom – that I shouldn’t be such a nosy bastard.

2. I know an unfeasibly large amount about the history of Swedish canals.

No, really, I do. Like the fact that the Göta Canal (construction dates: 1810-1832; length: 190km; manual excavation: 87km; principal labour: 58,000 soldiers) which links Sjötorp on Lake Vänern to Mem on the east Swedish coast was designed by our own Thomas Telford. And that it became known as the ‘divorce ditch’ because of all the arguments that couples were supposed to have navigating its 58 locks. I could go on. But mercifully I won’t.

Cleaning in sweden

You can’t beat a nice jumpsuit

3. I am perfectly positioned to know what it’s like to feel untall, unblonde and unhandsome.

I once had a job cleaning dockers’ changing rooms on a Swedish dockyard. I wore a bright red jumpsuit every day with a logo saying, ‘We clean anything, anywhere, any time.’ Even with the perk of the jumpsuit, the job was less than glamorous. At the weekends, I spent my spare time wandering the streets of Gothenburg wondering how a race of people could possibly be so unattainably beautiful. I’m pretty sure I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since – along with a keen sense of appreciation for a nicely-tailored jumpsuit.

4. I can correct people who think that the Swedish Chef actually spoke Swedish.

The Muppets have a lot to answer for. Tell someone you can speak a little Swedish and I guarantee they will find it impossible not to start saying ‘bork, bork, bork’ or ‘hurdy gurdy,’ and generally impersonating the Swedish Chef. It doesn’t end there: Google even offers a version of its service in the language ‘Bork, bork, bork.’ The act of reassuring deluded Muppet fans that this is not a real language never gets the thanks it deserves, but it seems like the right thing to do.

5. I can translate the furniture names at Ikea.

Possibly the most useful aspect of my superpower, I can inform dazed Ikea shoppers that they are standing next to a three-piece suite called cliff, holding a cup called humble, or sitting on a chair called point. It almost makes it worth the 3-hour round trip and 2-hour queue to get into the car park.