The hidden lives of ordinary things

I’ve just found a new (to me) corner of the web, full of interesting things to read.

Object Lessons
Object Lessons is an essay and book series published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury about the hidden lives of ordinary things, from sardines to silence, juniper berries to jumper cables.

Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific inspiration: an anthropological query, ecological matter, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation—and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.

I love that domain name. Some of the essays I’ve bookmarked to catch up on later include:

How the 50-mm lens became ‘normal’
It’s often called the optic that best approximates human vision, but approximation is relative.

The case for locking up your smartphone
Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits.

How the index card cataloged the world
Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything.

And this poignant, tricky one, too.

Why it’s okay to throw your children’s art away
There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.

It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.

Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.

Send a smile

Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe I’m just a snob, but I’m still reluctant to include emojis in the texts and messages I write. They’re curious things, though.

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning
Sex! Con­flict! In­ter­na­tional stand­ards bod­ies! The brief his­tory of emoji is far more in­ter­est­ing than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be tak­ing a look at where the world’s new­est lan­guage came from, how it works and where it’s go­ing.

It star­ted with a heart.

What comes to my mind first, though, is the smiley face. Where did that come from? Read on.

How the smiley face became a counter-cultural symbol
The yellow smiley face as we know it has been around for over half a century, but where did it come from? And how does it continue to grin when the general consensus says there isn’t much to smile about these days? Here, we trace the origins of the iconic graphic, from its corporate beginnings to its counter-cultural adoption.

There is such a thing as emoji research now

I still can’t bring myself to join in with this, but there you go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Academics gathered to share emoji research, and it was 🔥
Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

[…]

Now, researchers are beginning to turn more seriously toward those research questions. On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

Communication tied up in knots

I think I might have remembered that the Inkas never invented the wheel, but I didn’t know they hadn’t invented writing. It seems so fundamental to civilisation development. Apparently ‘knot’.

The khipu code: the knotty mystery of the Inkas’ 3D records
But, after more than a century of study, we remain unable to fully crack the code of the khipus. The challenge rests not in a lack of artifacts – over 1,000 khipus are known to us today – but in their variety and complexity. We confront tens of thousands of knots tied by different people, for different purposes and in different regions of the empire. Cracking the code amounts to finding a pattern in history’s knotted haystack.

Ok, I can just about understand the like-an-abacus-but-made-of-string category of these strange artefacts, but those types only accounts for two thirds of the ones remaining today.

The remaining third of these devices – the so-called narrative khipus – appear to contain encoded non-numerical, narrative information, including names, stories and even ancient philosophies. For those who love puzzles, the narrative khipus are a godsend.

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New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

[…]

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

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Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

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One space or two? One! Every time!

This has been a bone of contention between me and my better half for a while now. She was trained as a touch-typist back in the Twentieth century. I wasn’t.

One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.
The rules of spacing have been wildly inconsistent going back to the invention of the printing press. The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence used extra long spaces between sentences. John Baskerville’s 1763 Bible used a single space. WhoevenknowswhateffectPietroBembowasgoingforhere.Single spaces. Double spaces. Em spaces. Trends went back and forth between continents and eras for hundreds of years, Felici wrote.It’s not a good look.

And that’s just English. Somewrittenlanguageshavenospacesatall and o thers re quire a space be tween ev e ry syl la ble.

Ob viously, thereneed to be standards. Unless you’re doing avant – garde po e try, or something , you can’tjustspacew ords ho w e v e r y o u want. That would be insanity. Or at least,

obnoxious.

I really hadn’t appreciated how much of an issue this was. Some US psychology researchers sought to determine the correct approach once and for all.

First, they put the students in front of computers and dictated a short paragraph, to see how many spaces they naturally used. Turns out, 21 of the 60 were “two-spacers,” and the rest typed with close-spaced sentences that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.

The researchers then clamped each student’s head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced, and strange combinations like two spaces after commas, but only one after periods. And vice versa, too.

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better. It makes reading slightly easier.

So it seems scientific research is against me. I’m still not changing my mind, though, as the study’s methodology is not without its critics.

No, you still shouldn’t put two spaces after a period
The study used Courier New… This alone makes the test useless. One-spacers already agree that typewriters and monospace fonts use two spaces after the period (except some screenwriters, who use one space). But reading a proportional font and a monospace font are two completely different scenarios. The study even acknowledges this: “It is possible that the effects of punctuation spacing seen in the current experiment may differ when presented in other font conditions.” Of course it’s possible—that’s what the whole debate is about! Why would you use Courier New!

Thoughtfully curated words

It’s so satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that expresses so eloquently something that you’ve been struggling to set down in words and rationally consider for a long time. This is just a part of it.

Curate
Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded.

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so.

That last point chimes with one of Alain de Botton’s chapters in his handbook on how a future society that has fully dropped a belief in the supernatural might still care for itself. It’s worth looking up.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.

Left on the shelf

I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.

In praise of unfinished novels
…A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

[…]

In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.

Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.

For want of a comma, $5 million was lost

See? I told you these kinds of things were important.

Oxford comma dispute is settled as Maine drivers get $5 million
Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

And now read this poem on the importance of the Oxford comma, from Brian Bilston.