Every day is another chance

A nice write-up in the New Yorker about Bullet Journalling, with an interview with its creator, Ryder Carroll.

Can Bullet Journaling save you?
In the next hour, he helped me set it up. “The Bullet Journal is designed to embrace the chaos that is life,” he said. We made a meta page with my intentions for the journal and a “brain dump” for anything on my mind. He had me draw bullet points instead of a checkboxes for tasks, because, he said, “Things aren’t binary; things begin, they pause, they resume, they get moved.” We talked about the BuJo practice of “a.m. and p.m. reflection,” when you look over the day’s notes. “For us, lists aren’t just stuff we have to do,” he said. “Each task is an experience waiting to be born.”

[…]

“Only add what serves you, and be patient with yourself, because it’s a new thing. You’re not doing it right, you’re not doing it wrong, you’re just figuring it out as you go along.” He paused. “It’s another reason why I love the notebook,” he said. “It’s like every day is another chance.”

The notebooks I use for work are based on this, a little. For all the bells and whistles that the million apps and online systems have, there’s something immediate and concrete about pen and paper that I prefer. As he says, things aren’t binary.

As with anything, some people can get carried away with it all, and spend hours creating wonderfully polished, Instagram-friendly pages that would take more time to produce than the actual tasks being listed. But that’s up to them, it’s not a requirement of the system. Thankfully, as my handwriting’s appalling.

And another thing

How often have you thought about your Shift + 7 key?

Ampersands: A beloved character
It began life as a shortcut for scribes and proved just as useful for early typesetters, eventually working its way into the English alphabet as the 27th letter. We collectively dropped it from the ABCs, and the decline of handwriting and manual typesetting made it less useful. But its flexibility and grace have kept it on our business cards and movie posters.

These Quartz Obsession e-mails are typically full of wonderful rabbit holes, and this one’s no exception. Let’s start with a quick introduction.

Where did the ampersand originate?
Developed from the Latin et (“and”), the ampersand, formerly the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, is a character with a cult following among students of typography.

And not just students of typography — the lowly ampersand can count lawyers, entrepreneurs, movie producers and restaurant owners as fans, if these links are anything to go by.

For law firms, the ampersand is a character worth saving
Paul Hastings, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, Proskauer Rose, Baker Botts: the list of new BigLaw titles built on the corpses of ampersands is almost endless. All these firms discarded their ampersands as if they were ashamed of them.

There are practical reasons so many hipster businesses follow the exact same naming structure
There’s also a nostalgic feel to this construction. “At some point in its early history, I’d guess the germ of that trend was an allusion to the common practice in 17th/18th/19th centuries of naming your company after its principals (e.g. Gieves & Hawkes, Dege & Skinner, Marks & Spencer, etc.),” says Simon. “Could be some of your fashion brands want to allude to handcraft, to pre-industrial or non-industrial processes.”

Stereotypography
So far, critical appraisal of the ampersand in Pride & Prejudice has been mixed. On Slate, David Edelstein calls the ampersand one of the “ominous first impressions” that he had to get over in order to like the movie. The Toronto Globe and Mail (or is it “Globe & Mail”?) says the ampersand signals a “contracted, contemporary approach” to the novel. The San Francisco Chronicle finds the typographical choice to be indicative of the movie’s “jaunty approach.” And the Detroit Free Press says “the only thing really new” in the film is “the hip ampersand of the title.”

Contemporary! Jaunty! Hip! That’s a lot of stereotypical baggage to put on a modest piece of punctuation that has been kicking around in one form or another for about two thousand years.

Petition · Restore the ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet
This isn’t just for us. Think of all the uses of the ampersand out there, and all the people and organizations that could benefit from allowing the ampersand back into our alphabet.

We’re not asking for much. And to be completely honest, we’re not exactly sure who calls the shots on these sorts of things, but having Merriam-Webster on our side seems like a good start.

Bring back the Ampersand

It’s fair to say that graphic designers and typesetters are this character’s biggest admirers, though.

Font Aid IV: Coming Together
The Society of Typographic Aficionados is proud to announce the release of “Coming Together”, a font created exclusively for Font Aid IV to benefit the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The font consists entirely of ampersands, to represent the idea of people coming together to help one another. Type designers, graphic designers, and other artists from around the world contributed artwork to the font.

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Design by: Herb Lubalin
Herb Lubalin is best known for his logotypes, or as he called them ‘expressive typography’. One of his most famous works is the Mother & Child masthead he designed for a Curtis magazine, where the ‘O’ in the word mother is a womb for the word child. The use of the ampersand in this design is pure genius.

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Attitudes toward hyphenation and rag settings
In fact, Gill was even more willing to challenge convention than Dowding. Not only did he liberally use ampersands for “and” but he also used contractions (e.g., “tho’”), and superscript letters (e.g., “production”) to achieve even spacing. But most importantly, he advocated that text be set flush left, rag right (though he did not use that phrase) as not only more natural than justified setting, but as the best way to guarantee consistent word spacing. He considered the insistence on justified text to be nothing more than a superstition, remarking that “even spacing is more important typographically than equal length.” In his view justified text existed to satisfy man’s desire for neatness.

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That last link is my favourite, I think. I could read about typography and book design all day. There’s something very calming and comforting in a well set page of text like the one above. Those margins!

So it was a wonderful coincidence to see that today’s Aeon newsletter contained this link about book printing.

What’s as satisfying as a good book? Seeing one made the old-fashioned way, by hand
The director Glen Milner charts each step in the process as bookbinders piece together a new hardbound edition of the memoir Mango and Mimosa (1974) by the British writer and painter Suzanne St Albans. From folding pages to sewing and gluing paper to the leather spine, skilful human hands are front and centre throughout. Milner documents this melding of mechanics and craft with an almost musical rhythm, conveying skills and methods born of centuries of refinements.

Birth of a Book

And would you believe it, that printing and bookbinding company is in Leeds, just 5 miles away from me!

We need more monsters

An essay by Lauren Elkin on Susan Sontag, and why her work matters now more than ever.

Susan Sontag was a monster, of the very best kind
This is how I see her monstrosity: residing not in whether she was or was not likeable, but in her relentlessness, and her refusal to pander. The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monere, to warn. We need monsters like Sontag because they aren’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth: cutting through cant, received opinion, nationalist rote, the efforts of alt-Right bot farms. We need critics who insist on hierarchies of thought and output, instead of buying into marketing hype that makes everyone really, really good, critics who don’t lunge straight for content, for what a book is ‘about’ or what it ‘says’, but who stop to consider form, and style – which, as Sontag shows us, are inextricably bound up in content. We need critics to keep us on our toes, to question authority, sweeping claims, totalising world views. We need Sontag to help us think for ourselves, and be unafraid to speak our minds. And we need her for these things now, more than ever. Maintaining a lively critical capability isn’t just about snark. It’s how we’re going to make it out of these dark days of nationalism and populism with our democracy intact.

Books and beds

I know I could be accused of wishing the days away, but one of the things I look forward to most each day is being back in bed with a good book at the end of it. For me, reading > bed > sleep. For Danielle Steel, however, books and beds are in completely separate universes.

How the hell has Danielle Steel managed to write 179 books?
Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she’s at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A couple times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)

Really, though?

Is it possible to work 22-hour days? Danielle Steel says it is the secret of her success
Steel says working up to 22 hours a day is “pretty brutal physically” – but is it even possible? “No, in a nutshell,” says Maryanne Taylor of the Sleep Works. While you could work that long, especially as a one-off, the impact on productivity would make it hardly worthwhile. “The idea that someone could sustain that pattern effectively – work, write, commit things to memory, use their full brain capacity – is just unbelievable to me,” agrees Katie Fischer, another sleep consultant. If Steel was routinely sleeping for up to four hours a night, she would likely be drastically underestimating the negative impact of it, says Alison Gardiner, the founder of the sleep improvement programme Sleepstation. “It’s akin to being drunk.”

Her approach isn’t one others are recommending.

How to write a novel – four fiction writers on Danielle Steel’s insane working day
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.

She’s certainly a focused author, though.

Danielle Steel’s surprising secret to success
How do you get things done? By doing. Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the best life hack out there and the one so many of us reject because we believe that there is some other, better secret, like being magical or exceptionally talented. Rather than rely on talent and inspiration, Steel just does the work. Every day. All day.

I liked that “Rather than rely on talent” line.

Full stop stop stop

Back in Newport we once tried to set up an art magazine/brand thing called Ellipsis. We had no clue what we were doing, but I always liked the name. I use ellipses frequently — and inconsistently — on this blog, so I really should pay attention to this piece on them from Quartz.

Ellipses
The word ellipsis might be Greek for “to fall short,” but the unassuming symbol has taken on more life than its size implies, a common phenomenon for punctuation marks in lives that are becoming increasingly text-heavy. But as the design and display choices made by tech giants and software designers influence more and more of our behavior, we paused to consider how much weight three little dots can carry.

[…]

A symbol of hesitancy, apprehension, indecision, and more to come sounds tailor-made for the internet. As instant chat became more popular in the ’90s, designers began to use the ellipsis as a “typing awareness indicator.” While intended to reassure the person on the other side that a response was forthcoming…its unintended effect was an intense anxiety when a response was taking too long.

Don’t move!

So today marks the start of National Stationery Week.

National Stationery Week
People of the world rejoice and wave your favourite pen in the air! National Stationery Week is the perfect time to celebrate your stationery pot, a colourful pencil case or your favourite pen.

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Yes, it could be seen as a glorified advert for office supplies, but it raises some interesting questions too about the changing nature of communication and expression.

Does writing by hand still matter in the digital age?
The decline of writing by hand – particularly among young people and children – has been in the news. Last month, paediatric doctors warned that children were finding it difficult to hold pencils due to excessive use of technology. Letters to Santa are increasingly sent by email, and Cambridge University is piloting the use of laptops instead of pen and paper for selected exams after requests from students. Some academics have noted the “downward trend” in students’ handwriting.

But what of the role that handwriting plays in learning and development? And with technology changing how we live and work, what place does handwriting have in the modern classroom? These were the questions put to the teachers, academics and specialists in education and technology at the Guardian’s roundtable event on 27 February.

I sit opposite computer screens all day at work, but am happy to stick with my pen and scraps of paper when making notes.

Note to self — and to the world

An article from Wired on how much we’re relying on our phone’s Notes app.

How the Notes app became our most private and public space
If you want to stare into the deepest depths of my soul, you’ll find it in the iPhone Notes app. Tucked between Hayu – the streaming app I use to watch episodes of Real Housewives in HD – and my calendar, the Notes app contains information about me that no one else knows. There are long, meticulously-drafted messages I considered sending my boyfriend to explain why he, not I, was in the wrong. There are thoughts I’ve had after a few too many vodka sodas, or drifting in and out of sleep. There are lists of ideas and plans that I don’t quite feel ready to share with the world.

And our music and TV personalities are using this too, as a method to shortcut the usual press release and manufacture some authenticity.

Notes apologies are a clear example of the “Kardashian” effect. Rather than maintaining distance, celebrities are increasingly using this communication method to feed into their fans’ desire for a friendship and individual dialogue. This is, of course, nothing but a fantasy that they are happy to maintain in exchange for their fans’ devotion.

This is nothing new, however. Here’s almost the same article from 2016.

Famous people love sharing from the Notes app, although Apple has made it a struggle
In the last year or so, a bunch of celebrities have made public statements by sharing from the Notes app on their iPhones. Taylor Swift did it most recently, but previously, other young stars like Ariana Grande, Amy Schumer, and Demi Lovato made public statements by posting a screenshot of one of their Notes on Twitter or Instagram (or both simultaneously because they’re that social media-savvy).

Here comes nobody

Yesterday there were millions of us, today there’s nobody here at all.

AI fake face website launched
A software developer has created a website that generates fake faces, using artificial intelligence (AI). Thispersondoesnotexist.com generates a new lifelike image each time the page is refreshed, using technology developed by chipmaker Nvidia. Some visitors to the website say they have been amazed by the convincing nature of some of the fakes, although others are more clearly artificial.

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They look like us, and now they can write like us too.

AI text writing technology too dangerous to release, creators claim
Researchers at OpenAI say they have created an AI writer which “generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering and summarisation — all without task-specific training.”

But they are withholding it from public use “due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology”.

Of course, it’s not just AI that’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

How to catch a catfisher
Last year, I found out someone was using my photos to catfish women. He stole dozens of my online photos – including selfies, family photos, baby photos, photos with my ex – and, pretending to be me, he would then approach women and spew a torrent of abuse at them.

It took me months to track him down, and now I’m about to call him.

Machines pretending to be people, people pretending to be other people. At least we’re truthful with ourselves, right?

Be honest, how much do you edit YOUR selfies?
“It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” says Rankin of the project, which is part of a wider initiative to explore the impact of imagery on our mental health.

“Social media has made everyone into their own brand. People are creating a two-dimensional version of themselves at the perfect angle, with the most flattering lighting and with any apparent ‘flaws’ removed. Mix this readily-available technology with the celebrities and influencers flaunting impossible shapes with impossible faces and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

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Every book imaginable, just not your book

Everyone has a book in them, they say. Well, perhaps not.

No, you probably don’t have a book in you
I am a literary agent. It is my full-time job to find new books and help them get published. When people talk about “having a book in them,” or when people tell others they should write a book (which is basically my nightmare), what they really mean is I bet someone, but probably not me because I already heard it, would pay money to hear this story. When people say “you should write a book,” they aren’t thinking of a physical thing, with a cover, that a human person edited, copyedited, designed, marketed, sold, shipped, and stocked on a shelf. Those well-meaning and supportive people rarely know how a story becomes printed words on a page. Here’s what they don’t know, and what most beginner writers might not realize, either.

Perhaps your book has already been written and is somewhere in the library?

Library of Babel
Borges’s short story The Library of Babel is a thought experiment: imagine every possible combination of letters printed out in 410 page books. The library would contain all knowledge and falsehoods, all of the great works of fiction and a true prophecy for everyone in the world. It would also contain all of these things, but with all the A’s and E’s switched, or with X’s between words instead of spaces. Jonathan Basile, a Ph.D. student at Emory University turned Borges’s idea into a (virtual) reality. Every possible book that could be found in the Library can be read online, but to stumble on something meaningful is near impossible, which makes it all the more exciting to try. (Via)

Locking words in

After reading recent articles about the state of the web, you could be forgiven for wanting to turn back to a more reliable and trustworthy method of communication, like letter writing. But have you heard of letterlocking?

Before envelopes, people protected messages with letterlocking
Around 2 A.M. on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a poignant glimpse of a monarch grappling with her impending execution.

But it’s not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, slits, and wax seals that protected written communication before the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To guard her final missive from prying eyes, the queen used a “butterfly lock”—one of hundreds of techniques catalogued by Dambrogio, collaborator Daniel Starza Smith, and their research team in a fast-growing dictionary of letterlocking.

And here’s a demonstration of that locking method.

Letterlocking: Mary Queen of Scots last letter, a butterfly lock, England (1587)
Modelled after images of Mary Queen of Scots’ letter to her brother-in-law Henri III, King of France in the National Library of Scotland.

It looks very fiddly. I wonder if, the night before her execution, her hands would have been steady enough to do this herself. It’s a remarkable document, though.

The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots
Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

What are you reading?

A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.

The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?

I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.

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In HE, everyone’s at it *

* Being deceitful, that is. Or maybe just willfully ambiguous?

Let’s start with Alex Hayman from Which? University

Students need clarity when choosing a university
It has been almost a year since the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a number of complaints about misleading information in HE. Despite the clear warnings, we’ve investigated and found at least six universities included examples of unsubstantiated or unverifiable claims about their standing on their websites, in likely breach of advertising standards. This just isn’t good enough.

Various examples are listed. This is an interesting line from the Guardian.

UK universities ‘still inflate their statuses despite crackdown’
The continued use of assertions about high international status is evidence of the strain universities are under to increase their domestic and international student recruitment, as well as the effects of global rankings.

Hmm. But, of course, it’s not just the universities that are happy to stretch the truth.

Essay mills: ‘One in seven’ paying for university essays
More students than ever are paying someone else to write assignments for them via “essay mills”, a Swansea University study has revealed. The survey of more than 50,000 students, found 15.7% admitted to cheating since 2014 – up from an average of 3.5% over the last 40 years.

[…]

It showed the amount of students admitting to contract cheating, when students pass off a custom-made essay as their own, has increased over time. But Prof Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea Medical School, suggested the number could be much higher, as students who have paid for essays to be written are far less likely to volunteer to take part in surveys on cheating.

Indeed. But what if you want to exaggerate how much work you’ve done, but are a little short on funds? Free fonts!

Times Newer Roman
Introducing Times Newer Roman, a font that kinda looks like Times New Roman, except each character is 5-10% wider. Fulfill lengthy page requirements with hacked margins, adjusted punctuation sizing, and now, Times Newer Roman!

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Times Newer Roman is a sneaky font designed to make your essays look longer
According to Times Newer Roman’s website, a 15-page, single-spaced document in 12 point type only requires 5,833 words, compared to 6,680 for the standard Times New Roman. (That’s 847 words you don’t need to write, which is more than twice the length of this post!)

[…]

Of course, it’s the digital age, so there are some downsides: Times Newer Roman will only work for assignments you have to submit by hand or in a PDF. If you’re sending in a Word document using a custom font that professors almost certainly don’t have installed won’t help. Similarly, Times Newer Roman is only useful for hitting larger page counts; if you have a strict word count limit, you’re out of luck.

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 “

remarkable-meaningless-1

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

remarkable-meaningless-2

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.