On Texting

Gawker recently ran a feature on “The Nine Types of Text Messaging Monster”, a description of the different ways in which people us SMS. One of the types they identify is “The Never Call”

There are some people who love to text so much that the phone part of their cell phone has become completely obsolete.

In response to this Rick Webb wrote:

I am one of those people. But let me explain something to you. The telephone was an aberration in human development. It was a 70 year or so period where for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else’s life and they were expected to come running, like dogs. This was the equivalent of thinking it was okay to walk into someone’s living room and start shouting. it was never okay. It’s less okay now. Telephone calls are rude. They are interruptive. Technology has solved this brief aberration in human behavior. We have a thing now called THE TEXT MESSAGE. It is magical, non-intrusive, optional, and, just like human speech originally was meant to be, is turn based and two way. You talk. I talk next. Then you talk. And we do it when it’s convenient for both of us.

Reading this I couldn’t help but think “Yes!!! Someone else gets it!”.

I’ve always had a strange relationship with the telephone. I really don’t like phone calls. I’m OK with functional calls that have a point, a short call to organise something. Brief. But I really can’t stand “conversations” on the phone. Never have. As such, to this day I try to avoid phoning people if at all possible. So, i’m pretty much a texter. But, Gawker do make a good point in their article, one I’ve come around to despite my aversion to calling people.

We’d much rather text most of the time too, but sometimes a call is necessary. The general rule should be if there are more than three questions or the problem can not be solved in three messages, then just pick up the phone and have a short conversation rather than waiting for the back and forth of texting.

These days if it looks like a texting conversation about arranging something is going to spiral into a long series of back-and-forths, then i’ll just call. But still, for the most part I try to only use the phone via SMS.

Photo owned by kiwanja (cc)

What really leapt out at me from Webb’s comment was this idea that the phone is “an aberration in human development”. I really liked:

for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else’s life and they were expected to come running, like dogs. This was the equivalent of thinking it was okay to walk into someone’s living room and start shouting. it was never okay. It’s less okay now. Telephone calls are rude. They are interruptive

Just after I read this yesterday I was talking to someone and our conversation was interrupted by a phonecall. So there I stood like a lemon for a good five minutes waiting for this other conversation to end. It really dawned on me then just how rude the phone is. It really is an intrusion into our lives. My Dad hates mobile phones. To him, the idea that you can be contactable (and are expected to be contactable) at all times, in all places is just horrible. Sometimes I agree.

Nowadays you are simply expected to have a mobile, and to have it at all times. At all times we must be connected to everyone else, and they reserve the right to invade wherever you are at any time. But as Webb points out texting goes someway to leveraging this. Yes, OK, you can get me, but I will read and reply in my own time, and not be subject to your demands on my time!

Is online chat the same? Where does it lie? It is a real-time conversation, but it doesn’t hold the demands of a phonecall…you can take time with your replies, you can even attend to something else then rejoin the conversation. A happy medium?

When is too much ash, not too much ash?

Europe is flying again. Following the 6-day reign of terror of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull, wherein most of Europe’s aircraft were grounded due to the safety implications of flying in volcanic ash-laden skies, restrictions on flight have been lifted allowing us to soar once again.

According to The Guardian
, authorities decided to:

‘establish new guidelines allowing aircraft to fly through low-density ash clouds. Under the new regime, swaths of UK airspace that were no-go areas 24 hours ago have been designated as safe for passenger flights’

This of course was following intense lobbying by the aviation industry who were losing money hand-over-fist due to the ban.

What I find interesting about this is the idea that there is no less ash in the sky this morning than there was last night, but having thought about it (or rather having had their arms twisted) the powers-that-be have decided now that it is safe to fly in such conditions, whilst 24 hours previously it was not.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the absurdity of day-light saving time. This idea that instead of changing our physical habits to match or better suit our environment, we simply change the rules by which we do things. So rather than getting up earlier, we simply change the clocks. Instead of finding alternative arrangements, we simply change the safety rules. Our rules, the rules we imposed, can simply be altered when they no longer suit us. Which begs the questions, are they rules at all?

I am reminded of this video of the late, great Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson was asked to explain Quantum Physics, so in order to help do this, he tells an anecdote about a time when he moved house to Santa Cruz and suffered a burglary. In his efforts to have the crime investigated he discovered that, depending on who he talked to; the Post Office, the Police or the local Newspaper, he lived in three different places at the same time. This he then used as a jumping off point to help describe the similarly contradictory nature of particles in Quantum Physics.

(highly recommended viewing)

Again, what this does is help remind us of the arbitrariness of the rules we create around ourselves, and our propensity to mistake these rules for the real thing. We can move the goal posts at any time, because we made the goal posts.

Now, i’m not saying that we shouldn’t revisit these things. It would be crazy to suggest that having set up some kind of framework for understanding the world or going about our business, that we could not revisit nor throw them out completely. But I think it is important to remember that these are just rules and ideas and guidelines. Clocks, calendars, regulations and maps are imposed on the world, they are not the world itself.

To quote Alfred Korzybski: “The map is not the territory”

Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal

Keith “Guru” Elam, rapper with seminal hip-hop group Gangstarr passed away yesterday after a battle with cancer.

Along with his partner-in-crime DJ Premier he made some of the best music I have ever heard. Whilst Premier probably gets more praise for his contribution to hip-hop, Guru was always a great lyricist/vocalist, who always strove to create meaningful, conscious lyrics, but always with an authentic East Coast edge.

I saw Gangstarr live back in 2002/03 and it was a great show, Guru knew how to rock a crowd. Rest in Peace.


I am mildly fascinated by the idea that different languages have words that others do not have equivalents for. This reminds us of the limitations of language. We think in words, words we draw from our language. So are our thoughts limited by the bounds of our language? Or is it that language is a reflection of our thoughts?

Yūgen is a Japanese word which I love for this very reason. It has no English counterpart; indeed it has been described as “strictly speaking ‘an untranslatable word'”. Furthermore to this, it is essentially an indescribable word, at least in the context of other words. The original Chinese word from which it evolved, according to Andrew A. Tsubaki, was said to be “”to be so mysteriously faint and profound as to be beyond human perception and under- standing.”

According to Wikipedia, you can try to understand it as:

“a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”

Zeami Motokiyo used the following examples to help illuminate us:

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.”

Sun Set
Photo owned by smemon87 (cc)

The Zen master D.T. Suzuki explained:

Yugen is a compound word, each part, yu and gen, meaning “cloudy impenetrability,”

The Zen monk Shotetsu offered this:

“Could it be possible to explain the style of yugen as the feeling you obtain by seeing four or five finely dressed court ladies who are viewing cherry blossoms blooming in full at the courtyard of the South Wing?”

(Suzuki and Shotetsu quotes from Tsubaki). Tsubaki also explains that Yugen is a fundamentally Japanese idea; one that Japanese people have no problem accepting, but that is considered foreign to Westerners. But he also makes the point that this could be due to the fact that in the West we don’t feel the need to name certain aspects of aesthetics.

Alan Watts also alluded to it in The Tao Of Philosophy:

However, when the Chinese Taoists say nature is purposeless this is a compliment. It is much like the idea of the Japanese word yugen. They describe yugen as watching wild geese fly and being hidden in the clouds; as watching a ship vanish behind the distant island; as wandering on and on in a great forest with no thought of return. Haven’t you done this? Haven’t you gone on a walk with no particular purpose in mind? You carry a stick with you and you occasionally hit at old stumps and wander along and sometimes twiddle your thumbs. It is at that moment that you become a perfectly rational human being; you have learned purposelessness.

I guess I like the fact that people ultimately have to explain this word by comparing it to the feeling you get when you see or do other things, such as randomly wandering about hitting things with sticks, or watching geese fly into clouds. Words just don’t cut the mustard. It has its roots in Taoist and Buddhist origins (hence Suzuki and Watts’ interest) which are filled with such notions, that there are things that are just ultimately indescribable. Its useful remembering that our language has its limits, lest we think we can explain everything.

Sunny afternoons sitting on a beach-wall have a whiff of the Yūgen about them, I think.

The Sunshine Set

This sun is playing havoc with my brain. Thoughts want to come out but are being wobbled by the heat. You really can’t beat a sunny weekend, can you? Walking around however I am reminded of this quote from Jinx Lennon

The Paris Hilton international sisterhood walk around the tea hut or sat in their golf carts ….1979-style James Bond in China-syndrome aviator shades made them look like lobotomized wasps.

From The Radio’s “Protein For The Festivals” (feat. Jinx Lennon) (listen to it on Jinx’s MySpace page)

On the iPad, magazines and digital archiving.

So the iPad with all its hullaballoo and hype and backlash, and the backlash to the backlash has finally arrived in a blaze of publicity. People love it! People hate it! People think “looks pretty damn nice, but i’m not so sure I need to buy it”. Apple fanboys are heralding it as the Second Coming, Apple-bashers are lining up to see who can make the most sarcastic remark about its lack of USB-ports or something.

The reviews seem to be mainly positive, and the overwhelming opinion is that its really hard to judge it until you’ve used it. Its that different.

For me the most interesting thing about it, or the thing that would tempt me most to buy one, is the possibilities for reading, particularly magazine reading, that it throws up. Much has been made of its role as a potential savior for the print-industry, and some heavy weights are lining up to support it.

And we are not talking about just throwing up some PDFs. Some people, such as Popular Mechanics, are using this as an opportunity to reinvent the magazine. The results appear to be some mind-blowing publications, with untold possibilities. Brad Colbow has done a great little video exploring some of the first magazines to embrace the iPad.

iPad Magazine Art Direction from Brad Colbow on Vimeo.

The other aspect to these new-fangled magazines that interests me,however, is the idea of digital archiving. A few years ago I supervised a college project which was a prototype for a digital magazine. One of the chief inspirations for the project for the students was the idea of creating digital artifacts that would be kind of frozen-in-time. One of the guys involved particularly lamented the loss of the feeling you get in our web-era of flicking through old magazines and in addition to the content you can discover a treasure trove of design styles, photography and advertising. My Dad has been doing extensive research over the past decade into the history of Dundalk Football Club and in doing so constantly comes across the most amazing bits of design and advertising from by-gone eras, these are the delightful bonuses that you get when you go on a treasure hunt through old publications.

These days with dynamic website creation webpages are not static creatures; they morph and evolve and update on the hour every hour. I was reminded of all this this morning when I stumbled apron a 1958 Time Magazine profile of Alan Watts, maintained on Time’s website. Of course, its amazing that we have this ability, this open resource of history at our finger tips. But there was also something missing. As I read it, what I really wanted was to read it in context. I wanted to see how it sat in that particular issue, were there photos? how was it typeset? what other content featured in that issue? Sadly, none of that is reproduced. What we get is the content from that article neatly set inside the current Time website. Again, I’m not complaining about this, its kind of cool you can read a 1958 article about Alan Watts and get the ability to retweet it, or Share it on Facebook or Digg it. But at the same time, I really wish I could read it in its original format (or as close to its original format as you can get on a monitor…) I know some newspapers are doing archiving projects where you can bring up PDF or images of the original paper itself, and its this kind of thing I’d like to see more of.

This is somewhere where I think the iPad will be able to shine. Colbows video shows just how Time Magazine is going to do this. In landscape mode you get the original article, with its original typography, and layout. The people who are saying the iPad is just a glorified web-browser or that its missing X, Y and Z are missing the point I think. I don’t know of anything else out there right now with this kind of capability for reading and design. Of course, Apple won’t be the only people to make tablets, but I really think the tablet form factor itself will work because of these kind of publications.

Interesting times.

Update:John Gruber and Khoi Vinh weigh in on the Popular Science app. Vinh’s insights in particular are very interesting.

Good Friday

Luke Kelly and the Dubliners – Hand Me Down My Bible.

Come on people let your life begin
Come on people let the sun shine in
Come on people let your life begin
Let it in, let it in