My New Year’s Resolution – White Inbox Every Night

I’m setting myself a few New Year’s Resolutions for 2009.

They’ll also be New Years’ Resolutions. Note the apostrophe placement because some of these things are just too good for only one year.

One of them relates to email.

Email is a blessing and a curse for me. Recently – OK, for the last few years actually – I’ve been trying to reform my approach to it in order to get more and better stuff done in a working day.

Some of this includes

  • Not “living” in email (because it takes me away from project domain into message domain)
  • Processing it all in one big batch, two or three times a day where possible
  • Then while I am looking at it, deleting junk and spam on sight
  • Ditching fiddly folders and just using one archive folder because search is all you need
  • Transferring stuff to a paper to-do list or some more appropriate medium
  • Phoning people instead

Additionally

  • I use Thunderbird so to speed things up I’ve got Quicktext (for quick fire templates of readymade “cheat” replies) and Buttons so I can have a lovely massive “Archive this!” button (like the one in Gmail).

So aptly enough, I just spotted this tweet on Twitter from @billt and @suw linking to a new pledge on Pledgebank (built by mySociety who are doing several rather neat things with the web).

I had no problem with the spirit of the pledge. Email was designed for sending and receiving messages. It is not a to-do list – it wasn’t designed for that.

Now and again though there could be a day when I’d need the freedom NOT to check email, so I was initially reluctant to sign.

Then I realised, with some prompting, that this was about inbox rather than pop box. The distinction is important. In other words, if I don’t want to look at email for one day (which is possible and desirable once in a while!), then I can keep to the pledge by not downloading any email at all.

Here we go.

Between you and me I’ll be keeping the pledge whether or not they hit the target number of signatures. But if you fancy joining me – or rather, us, because in this wired world you might as well take full advantage of sincere encouragement on offer from absolute strangers – then you can sign up.

I’ll probably be spending less time on email now, somewhat freeing me to make curries and also visit new places. Incidentally, both of these plans form the essence of a couple of other resolutions.

The Pledgebank system just sent me an email – to confirm my signature on the pledge. Which is a rather apt but not entirely helpful start…

Wordwhale – Fun With Anagrams Via Twitter

wordwhale

Meet the Wordwhale.

If you like solving anagrams, the Wordwhale is now pos(t)ing one daily.

Follow @wordwhale to join the lexical fun.

(You don’t need to be signed up to Twitter to try solving it. You can still view the webpage twitter.com/wordwhale to monitor what’s going on and try solving it. But if you’d like to enter and have a chance of being recognised as first to solve the anagram, you need to be signed up.)

A Pyramid of All the World’s Knowledge

One video which I really enjoyed this year was this 20-minute talk about endangered languages.

I wasn’t particularly following this subject in any great depth before. Let’s just say raw curiosity can take one to some unexpected places.

You can open it in a new window here.

Dr. David Harrison says:

There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and this represents the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled.

But they are rapidly going extinct and eroding under various pressures of globalization, which I will talk about today.

And this loss will be catastrophic for humanity, both in terms of science and technology and culture.

And not just to the people who speak these languages, but to all of us.

Harrison gives examples of the riches which are bound up in just a few of these admittedly obscure languages, including knowledge from medicine, geology and biology.

The most striking thing for me is when he refers to the Yupik language of Alaska as a “technology”. This might be obvious to some, but to me it was an intriguing perspective.

It may be possible to invoke arguments for preservation of these languages on the basis of feelings about old village life and its unfortunate decline. Those kind of arguments may have validity, but Harrison’s emphasis in this talk is on the value of languages to science, technology and the world’s knowledge.

It’s also a heavy blow to the assumption that we have access to all, or nearly all, of the world’s knowledge through the web and through our dominant majority languages. We don’t. Apparently, according to his closing words, it’s possible for these minority language technologies to co-exist with English and so on – although he left me wanting more details.

Harrison depicts the globe’s very uneven language distribution on an inverted pyramid, where the pyramid represents all languages:

83 of the world’s languages account for nearly 80% of the world’s population and I would draw your attention to the base of the inverted pyramid. 3,586 of the world’s smallest languages are spoken by just 0.2% of the world’s population.

It brought me back to this speech from Kevin Kelly, the thinker and founder of Wired magazine, in which he suggests that technologies don’t die. Surprisingly, technologies that we might think are obsolete (parts for steam-powered vehicles, ploughs, stone age knives and so on) can all still be bought from specialist shops – new!

For what it’s worth I usually love Kevin Kelly. Recently I’ve spent several evenings exploring his ideas, to then feel them rattling around my brain for days afterwards. I’m still trying to work out if his towering optimism about technology is a weakness.

Language would appear to be one big exception to Kelly’s assertion that culture tends to accumulate. Retrieving the total benefit from the world’s languages, as opposed to other technologies, will take a huge amount of effort.

If only we could get these guys in the same room for an intellectual deathmatch. Let me know if it ever happens, because hearing them slug it out on matters of technology would be sweet. In the meantime, once I’ve grokked Harrison’s whole entire web presence, I shall be tracking down his book, When Languages Die.

That 20-minute video is well worth a watch and back there I had to restrain myself from quoting the transcript in full. On a tenuously festive tip, the bit about the Tofa language of Siberia might teach you something about the classification of reindeer.

What’s the point of Twitter?

twitter google trends 2008
Google searches for “Twitter” over time, source: Google Trends

This graph shows the huge increase in searches for the word “Twitter” on Google. It could be said to roughly correspond to the service’s popularity and importance.

Or maybe, for some of the non-adopters, it signals their rising levels of scepticism and annoyance in constantly hearing about it.

After some heavy field testing, I have discovered that Twitter is not exclusively for smug fools. Actually I have even stopped coyly referring to an update as a “Twitter post” and just started saying “tweet” like everyone else. Indeed.

Yes you ARE justified in feeling a little online service sign-up fatigue, but this is not another Facebook. The tweet hype will increase well into 2009, so you may as well try it. At least to avoid that kind of feeling of being the only person not on pills at a student disco.

Here’s a decent Twitter tutorial and here’s a persuasive intro to Twitter by Tim O’Reilly, the tech publishing overlord.

Such a medium gives tiny glimpses into the everyday. So if you were ever to meet Tim O’Reilly you could ask him about, say, his horses. That kind of question is officially not weird anymore – should it be that you find yourself stuck for an opener, meekly cowering beneath his guru beard.

The existence of a communication platform based on 140-character messages shouldn’t be shocking. Text messages have been widespread for about a decade. Yet, even among tech people, some of the admittedly valid criticism of Twitter points to this issue of brevity.

Other than being the soul of wit and all that, this is a definite limitation. But every medium has features which can manifest as weaknesses.

Nobody’s suggesting this should be the optimum or dominant form of communication between you and me. It can just augment and support what already exists and fill a niche of its own, just as conventional text messaging has done. Besides, a big part of the appeal are web links which telescope off into bigger “messages”.

As you read people’s tweets over time, you build up impressions. Twitter is months of agonising smalltalk, crushed down to the basic eigenvectors.

So I am intrigued by the pure economy of Twitter communication. It reminded me of other things – its precursors, especially other technologies.

My dad isn’t on Twitter, but when we’re apart he and I often communicate by SMS. The text message he frequently sends me is:

ok

That’s it – low fat communication with no caps, no punctuation, no salutation, no sign-off. A mere two letters and with that the most commonly recognised word in the English language.

My brother gets them too and it’s become a small point of reference in conversation between the two of us. It’s one of those trivial but cherished things that families have in common.

The fact is, because of the context and who it is, these replies from my dad always mean a lot to me. The “ok” signifies several things… I am here / I agree / No problem. It’s usually in reply to a plan or proposal from me, for example an initial text to the parents saying “hi, see you sunday, will pop round” so it’s about optimism and expectation too.

It also reminds me of the ultimate succinct exchange, when the author Victor Hugo was relaxing on holiday and used the high speed technology of the day, a telegram, to send his London publisher a single question mark. Keen to get news concerning sales of his new book Les Miserables, he received an equally terse reply. The first print run had entirely sold out and the publisher’s telegram was a single exclamation mark.

We can speculate why this took place. My theory is that the author was just too exhausted to embellish the message after the long process of getting the book finished.

Did the book REALLY sell out on the first run? Or is that fact included just to spruce up the anecdote (which I first read as a boy in Reader’s Digest)? How would Victor have reacted to the West End’s frilly-costumed musical adaptation?

We need not concern ourselves with these uncertainties. What we do know is, the messages are only rendered meaningful by the “metadata” of CONTEXT, with just enough content to work. See also: the Laconians, who stripped away all the redundancy to deliver pointed, concise, laconic comebacks.

Perhaps tellingly, the second biggest adopters of Twitter have been the Japanese, where wired openness about daily life gives rise to thousands of digital haikus per second.

We should also note that English and Japanese are currently the only interface language options on the Twitter website, although client software in different languages is available. I’ll reserve that line of enquiry for a future post.

The upshot of these examples is: we’ve long known that you can squeeze a lot of feeling or intent into a message with tiny informational content, from a round of applause to a marine distress signal. So the brevity is fine.

But what about Twitter as an echo chamber of self-referential tweets and inane signalling about Twitter itself? “Hello world.”, “I’m tweeting.”, “Which client do you favour?”, “test123” and so on? Well, the channel is open, and I think this is all possibly fine too.

Socially, amateur radio was always a marginal hobby and I guess it still exists in some corners. My awareness is largely informed by the Tony Hancock sitcom episode, The Radio Ham (although I believe enthusiasts hate this term). In reality, I’m told that much of the chatter on the airwaves was to exchange callsigns, establish contact and discuss – wait for it – the newest equipment for doing amateur radio.

Young boy riding by at high speed on a bicycle shouting repeatedly, ‘I am here.’ Perhaps the central and single message of humanity.

A Year with Swollen Appendices
Brian Eno
24 February 1995 (Diary entry in Egypt)

The last time I did a precise measurement of a message’s informational mass, I was studying a module on coding theory. We learnt how to introduce redundancy deliberately, to assist error-checking when sending data signals. It was useful but a bit on the dry side. I much prefer the riffing from people-to-people – and the joy of a communication which even, at times, celebrates itself.