Category Archives: Reading and writing

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!

Messaging for letter-writers: a survival guide

Sending a messageWriting letters…ah, yes – I remember. That was what we did before we texted and messaged all day every day. Mercifully I appear to have survived the transition, but not everyone has emerged unscathed. So, in order to preserve the sanity of all involved, we present the followthehumming survival guide to modern messaging – created specially for those who still hanker after the comforting feel of pen on paper.

That was then This is now
Think about writing a letter. There is no think. Only do.
Search for pen and paper. Tighten grip on iPhone in anticipation of imminent communication opportunity.
If not Twitter, decide on messaging service to be used.
Smile inwardly at hoped-for instant replies.
Note increase in pulse and anxiety rates.
Find suitable writing location. Just keep right on doing whatever you were doing before. No really, don’t even stop walking.
Even lamp-posts are more bouncy than they look.
Consider possible topics, rough target length,
nature of intended recipient and
relationship with same; create broad mental
plan and start writing with the
words, ‘Dear Xxxx.’
Finger-type first fifteen words that enter head, choose appropriate emoticons and add five of each, then add ‘x’
Write letter. Enclose photo(s) if feeling daring. Take multiple photos of own face close to camera with surprised expression and mouth open wide. Attach to message.
Seal letter in envelope, address envelope,
obtain correct postage, take to nearest secure postage receptacle and place within; await
arrival of first of many personal couriers who will carefully transport letter to intended recipient
over a period of several days using a variety of vehicles.
Press send. Feel faintly sick until first reply / Like / Favourite / etc. notification is received.
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to have received letter. If no response received within 8 seconds of sending
message, stride about crossly, shouting, ‘But she’s definitely read it! And she must know I know she’s
read it! What’s she doing?’
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to write reply and send using
personal courier network, as above.
If no response to latest message received and total
messages exchanged <= 30, send ‘sad face’ #selfie. If no
further response received, delete recipient from #besties list.
Receive return letter via personal courier, tear open envelope and read about what happened four days ago. Mentally calculate overall message exchange value to
all parties and adjust self-esteem accordingly.

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.

Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

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.”

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

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.