Jun 16, 2011

Why sum ppl rite lyk this

Are more people engaged in writing today than they did a decade ago? Definitely more than they did two decades ago, right? Let's see now.

Earlier (i.e. when I was a teenager), the most common or important reasons to write were:

  • Academic: Exams, notes, reports
  • Official: applications, memos, forms, files etc.
  • Personal letters, letters to newspapers
  • Creative and professional writing (fiction and non-fiction)
But in recent times, with digital devices and sites, we add:
  • SMS texts
  • Social media posts and comments (blogs, tweets, comments etc.)
  • Online forums
I can't think of anything significant in the original list that has died out; some have just been replaced by a digital alternative, and the likes of "letters to editors" were always a fringe activity. Also, note that the new additions are mostly of the casual writing variety.

If my thesis is right, then it may explain why so many people publicly use "modern" spellings (i.e. sms-ese) even on channels that don't call for it. So you have people going "u hv ppl gng" even on Facebook when you might expect only a tweet or an sms to undergo that treatment. Two factors seem to be at play here:

1. A common observation in computational linguistics is Zipf's Law which says that if you order words by their frequency (in any reasonably sized collection of documents), and plot a graph of its rank against its frequencey, you'll see a graph like the one on the right (taken from here). The first few words (the top seeds) have the most frequencies, and this rapidly dies out to give a long tailed distribution.

It is empirically observed that the rank of a word in this ordering will be inversely proportional to its frequency and this proportion is constant (allowing some leeway here).

Many words in language (let's exclude "function words" like "the", "of" etc.) are "homonyms" i.e. they are used to represent more than one concept (e.g. "fan", which could be an instrument providing artificial breeze, or a supporter). There are words like "set" and "run" whose different meanings are estimated to run into the hundreds.

The explanation for Zipf's law is (I don't know if this has been scientifically proven) that since speakers want to conserve energy, they want to use smaller words and want to reuse words (listeners would prefer the opposite: they'd want to hear unambiguous words).

The point of discussing this is that people are inherently energy conscious (read lazy) and would want to reduce the amount of work that they have to put in to create something. So writers would prefer smaller codes (i.e. shorter spellings) and let the reader figure out what they meant to say 1. You may have encountered the meme about how you could leave out (usually vowels) or jumble a lot of characters in a word or sentence and people would still figure out what you meant (works for "rspnsblty"; also see this post). So in many cases, a energy-conservant writer would be able to use this to his advntg (notice that I can't leave out "a" in that word).

With time, trial and error, and some form of community editing would leave us with a new set of acceptable lexemes (i.e. word forms) which seem to also have the desirable property of annoying older sections of literate society.

I believe spellings are arbitrary conventions, and there's nothing particularly sacrosanct about one specific code set. But that doesn't mean that "as u lyk it" wouldn't irritate the hell out of me, just as I'm sure Geoffrey Chaucer would find it hard to navigate the English spellings I take to be correct.

2. So far, I've conjectured that casual, off-hand writing has increased and that writers inherently prefer to expend as little energy in accomplishing their task as possible. There is one more factor at play: the permissiveness of the readers.

We are taught (correct) writing at school and we were expected to keep that up when we wrote for official or public purposes. We would get a clip in the ear for writing "Delhi wz da capital of India" (indeed, it would not even occur to us to write that way), and people would snigger if office memos or personal letters went that way. They probably still would. However, the modern increase in casual writing, where correspondents want to primarily exchange information without regards to form, it is incredibly easy to write shorthand and get away with it. Older fogeys may insist that anything you write to them be less insulting, but most people who cared about their spellings would just gnash their teeth in private and think of you as a whippersnapper of no merit.

This lack of censorship freely allows these forms of spelling to spread in the community unhindered. Soon, this spills over to other, more formal mediums as well.

In fact, I'm convinced that lexicographically, we are in the middle of a great and visible shift (I don't know if it qualifies to be a "Great Shift"). Usually, such changes happen over a large period of time, and aren't readily apparent. In this case, it is exploding under our noses.

What is worrying though is that in addition to a (somewhat) logical compression of a word ("you" -> "u", "people" -> "ppl"), young writers indiscriminately drop characters. I see "awsome". I see "wats need of raincoat,enjoy d rain". And I see "rememeber u ask me to to bring the...". There isn't enough 'sic'-ness in the world to cover this ailment. Is there an excuse for lack of attention to your writing?2

We as readers now encounter more text than we did before, which means some of us spend a lot more energy in comprehension than we used to. Do we now appreciate good writing more than ever? Should we be grateful that perhaps a Zipfian Law of appreciation has now kicked in?

1. I realise this argument fails if you ask why do writers ramble on, instead of choosing to write smaller texts? I'd argue that here ((just like in not paying attention to your spellings), the energy saved is in not having to edit. It takes effort to be succinct and so the rambling approach suits a "stream of consciousness" approach. Result: the reader is left to navigate endless verbal meanderings. I'll take the hint and stop here.

2. A related post from the past: What's your excuse for writing badly?

Jun 15, 2011

String theory

IBN Live quotes Extreme Tech, a technology website, as saying:
The innovative doodle that Google put up for the country and jazz guitarist, songwriter and inventor Les Paul resulted in $268 million in lost productivity.
The calculations are basically a house of cards made of slabs of back-of-the-envelope calculations built on a foundation of assumptions. Still, even if I ignore the number or method, the exercise annoys me. Consider the positives:
  • Several million+ people, who may not have heard of the pioneer Les Paul, now know who he was.
  • Instead of muddling 5 minutes on Facebook or Powerpoint or thinking about what they'd do after work, they spent time with a new toy, and some of their neurons (especially on the right hand side of the brain) welcomed the change.
  • They marveled at the current state of web technology and some of them resolved that day to learn to build such cool things.
  • By listening to what others had done with the audio-doodle, they figured out that great music can be made even from humble instruments. Some dusted off their old guitars and others made appointments with musically-inclined friends and teachers.
I wouldn't know how to calculate it, but I guess that whatever the loss to numerical productivity and annoyance to neighbours, the contribution to human knowledge and creativity was firmly in the black.

And if you want to pluck a few strings again, here you go.

Jun 14, 2011

"The Myths of Innovation" by Scott Berkun (O'Reilly Media)

Scott Berkun is an author and blogger, a former Microsoft man. I began reading his blog a couple of years ago, and have found most of his posts interesting and even provocative. In fact, he makes a point of being strident in his views about management, public speaking, and thinking.

"Myths of Innovation" is his second book (the first was about project management, and the third is about public speaking). Ordinarily, I'm wary of anything with the I-word in the title because most people use "innovation" to indicate a vague sense of novelty and as synonyms for invention or creativity. They've either never thought what they mean by it or use it just like they use most other verbose polysyllabic words. However, Berkun has often suggested that perhaps it would be good (for our collective mental health no doubt) if people could stop using the word "innovation", I was reasonably sure of being spared the fertiliser.

I'm not saying that the expressed need for (more) innovation is hollow or just a fad. Most industries and societies at some point in their lifecycles need to change (indeed, are compelled to), in order to survive, flourish, grow, or just to avoid dying of boredom. Doing new and useful things is immensely challenging and interesting, and some people are going to be very inclined to try their hand at it. If they are also of the reading type, then "The Myths of Innovation" will be a useful book for them.

These myths are obviously not in the mould of hand-me-down stories. They are better understood as being assumptions, unspoken ideas that take insidious home in minds. Take, for instance, the idea that some of history's greatest inventors were hermits, working in wooden cottages bouncing ideas off the house cat. Okay, not so much that, but the notion of the solitary innovator, having to single-handedly fight off the status quo, has always been great material for long-lived stories and trivia questions. Any reading of history easily debunks many of these stories. Edison, the archetypal inventor, had an army of researchers and technologists. Steve Jobs, innovator extraordinaire, needed to find his Woz, his Ive, and many more. Yes, they had to fight the proverbial systems, but they had cohorts. The revision history of any innovation, to use a software engineering term, will show the grubby fingerprints of many, with several increments and roll-backs. One thing will be certain: the more the longevity of the innovation, the more it would have evolved and the more the people involved.

Berkun tackles this and other such myths, including some counter-intuitive ones such as "Innovation is always good". Anyone forced to listen to an annoying ring-tone in a public space would know that isn't quite true. The book is engaging (and well-referenced) with a variety of anecdotes and discussions, and there are no homilies.

Towards the end, moving away from the negative tone, the book turns into a checklist of various suggestions, "hacks" of interest to the creative innovator. Perhaps Berkun didn't want to limit the book to a list of things you shouldn't assume or avoid doing. It's by no means comprehensive, but useful nevertheless. He also encloses an excellent bibliography. Sure, you can spend time reading them all, but to me, the message of the book is that if you think you want to innovate, what you should do is: just go ahead.

I reviewed this book as part of O'Reilly's Blogger Review Program. This is the first time I've done so, and it was mostly motivated by being able to read this particular book for free. Sorry Scott :-)

I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program

Jun 6, 2011

Alain de Botton and "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work"

That I am a little reluctant to describe Alain de Botton as a modern philosopher probably reflects more on my self-image and the image I want to portray to the world. In this post, I will be describing a book of his that I quite enjoyed and since, in the minds of my friends, modern-age philosophy is often bolted to the shelf of professionally vague self-help bestsellers, I worry about what they may think.

But Alain de Botton himself (or rather his website) comes to the rescue, describing him as "a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life.'". That's a reasonable description. de Botton is not a prescriptive writer, but one who seems to possess both the leisure as well as a unintrusive acumen to write about us humans and the worlds we inhabit. Without telling us what to do next.

I heard of de Botton via Dhammo (thus giving me a chance to pay the favour back). I first read "The Architecture of Happiness", a quaint book about different spaces of the constructed variety, lowly office buildings and grand cathedrals alike. But this post is about "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".

Perhaps I am taking the easy way out, but I don't have as much to say as much as I have to quote from the book. We spend a significant portion of our adult lives at "work", says de Botton, but we don't discuss it very much. This is perhaps not so true any more - blogs and tweets are devoted to dissecting our work-lives in detail or making throwaway comments during the day; but it is true that we do not compare our experience across professions: art curators do not break commiserative bread with brain surgeons, cricket umpires do not swap notes with database administrators.

Apart from being a lurking presence during the day and a quiescent ghost in the hours between work, what is so special about work? Our ancestors (including our parents) probably never made so much of it, the way we charge so much of our potential happiness to it.

"...the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy."
In the book, de Botton follows people to work, talks to a wide variety of people going about their daily business, observes, and makes conjectures, even about himself. It is fascinating, an unexpected kind of voyeurism, watching rocket scientists prepare for a routine launch, shaking your head at a power engineer whose weekend hobby is to trace the paths of power lines, ride up and down elevators with business consultants. Satisfyingly (and sadistically), their lives are as interesting (or boring) as ours.

Perhaps the most interesting and poignant encounter is with a career counselor. He deals with mid-career clients who can no longer keep up the facade of knowing what they want to do and students about to plunge into the depths that plague all of us, while dealing with his own professional anxieties. Like a dentist with a vague sense of dread about the pain in his molars.

de Botton notices that the counselor has a notice pinned to a door containing:

"a quote from Motivation and Personality, by the psychologist Abraham Maslow [...]: 'It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.'"
He observes the counselor helping a woman deal with the attempt to discover what she really "wants to do" (familiar question at any age?), by attempting cathartic writing sessions not just about what these people like, but also what they envy. What else can you do in that short span of time, in the rapidly falling sunlight of life?

A de B takes an aptitude test; when its results come back:

"I recognized my desire to submit to the report’s conclusions in the hope of quelling my doubts about my future. At the same time, the report failed to inspire any real degree of confidence and indeed, the more I dwelt on it, the more it seemed to signal some of the limits of career counseling as a while.

It struck me a strange and regrettable that in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation had for the most part been abandoned to marginalized therapists practicing their trade from garden extensions. What should have been one of the most admired professions on earth was struggling to attain the status open to a travel agent.


But perhaps this neglect was only an appropriate reflection of how little therapists can in the end make sense of human nature."

He ends the book by noting that “If we could witness the eventual fate of every one of our projects, we would have no choice but to succumb to immediate paralysis." However,
"Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble."