How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.
But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.
Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.
A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.
Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.
Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.
I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.
Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.
Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.
Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:
The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.
The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:
The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.
Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.
Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:
You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.
I suggested changing that to:
You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.
To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”
Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:
Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.
That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.
So here’s the reworked version:
The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.
As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:
- The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
- understanding the relationships between these moments…
- digital and non-digital…
- designing across and between these moments.
Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.
I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.
I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.
Sunday, March 7th, 2021
This is easily my favourite use of a machine learning algorithm.
Thursday, January 28th, 2021
Saturday, December 26th, 2020
This explains rubber ducking.
Speaking out loud is not only a medium of communication, but a technology of thinking: it encourages the formation and processing of thoughts.
Saturday, June 13th, 2020
I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.
I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.
This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.
In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:
Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.
Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:
Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.
That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:
Black Lives Matter.
What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!
If only it were a tattoo.
Saturday, April 6th, 2019
One evening last month, during An Event Apart Seattle, a bunch of the speakers were gathered in the bar in the hotel lobby, shooting the breeze and having a nightcap before the next day’s activities. In a quasi-philosophical mode, the topic of goals came up. Not the sporting variety, but life and career goals.
As I everyone related (confessed?) their goals, I had to really think hard. I don’t think I have any goals. I find it hard enough to think past the next few months, much less form ideas about what I might want to be doing in a decade. But then I remembered that I did once have a goal.
Back in the ’90s, when I was living in Germany and first starting to make websites, there was a website I would check every day for inspiration: Project Cool’s Cool Site Of The Day. I resolved that my life’s goal was to one day have a website I made be the cool site of the day.
About a year later, to my great shock and surprise, I achieved my goal. An early iteration of Jessica’s site—complete with whizzy DHTML animations—was the featured site of the day on Project Cool. I was overjoyed!
I never bothered to come up with a new goal to supercede that one. Maybe I should’ve just retired there and then—I had peaked.
Megan Sapnar Ankerson wrote an article a few years back about How coolness defined the World Wide Web of the 1990s:
The early web was simply teeming with declarations of cool: Cool Sites of the Day, the Night, the Week, the Year; Cool Surf Spots; Cool Picks; Way Cool Websites; Project Cool Sightings. Coolness awards once besieged the web’s virtual landscape like an overgrown trophy collection.
It’s a terrific piece that ponders the changing nature of the web, and the changing nature of that word: cool.
Perhaps the word will continue to fall out of favour. Tim Berners-Lee may have demonstrated excellent foresight when he added this footnote to his classic document, Cool URIs don’t change—still available at its original URL, of course:
Historical note: At the end of the 20th century when this was written, “cool” was an epithet of approval particularly among young, indicating trendiness, quality, or appropriateness.
Friday, February 1st, 2019
I saw Daniel give a talk at Async where he compared linguistic rules with code style:
We find the prescriptive rules hard to follow, irrespective of how complex they are, because they are invented, arbitrary, and often go against our intuition. The descriptive rules, on the other hand, are easy to follow because they are instinctive. We learned to follow them as children by listening to, analysing and mimicking speech, armed with an inbuilt concept of the basic building blocks of grammar. We follow them subconsciously, often without even knowing the rules exists.
Thus began some thorough research into trying to uncover a universal grammar for readable code:
I am excited by the possibility of discovering descriptive readability rules, and last autumn I started an online experiment to try and find some. My experiment on howreadable.com compared various coding patterns against each other in an attempt to objectively measure their readability. I haven’t found any strong candidates for prescriptive rules so far, but the results are promising and suggest a potential way forward.
I highly recommend reading through this and watching the video of the Async talk (and conference organisers; get Daniel on your line-up!).
Wednesday, November 21st, 2018
When is a space not a space?
Tom talks about ogham stones and unicode.
Friday, September 28th, 2018
The fascinating story of Charles K. Bliss and his symbolic language:
The writing system – originally named World Writing in 1942, then Semantography in 1947, and finally Blissymoblics in the 1960s – contains several hundred basic geometric symbols (“Bliss-characters”) that can be combined in different ways to represent more complex concepts (“Bliss-words”). For example, the Bliss-characters for “house” and “medical” are combined to form the Bliss-word for “hospital” or “clinic”. The modular structure invites comparison to the German language; the German word for “hospital ” – “krankenhaus” – translates directly to “sick house”.
Friday, July 6th, 2018
Testing the theory that putting the word “total”, “complete”, or “absolute” in front of any noun automatically makes for an excellent insult.
Thursday, July 5th, 2018
Hui Jing describes her motivation for creating the lovely Penang Hokkien site:
People who grew up their whole lives in a community that spoke the same mother tongue as themselves would probably find this hard to relate to, but it really was something else to hear my mother tongue streaming out of the speakers of my computer.
She ends with an impassioned call for more local language websites:
If the Internet is meant to enhance the free flow of information and ideas across the world, then creation of content on the web should not largely be limited to English-speaking communities.
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
A really deep dive into the
lang attribute, and the
:lang() pseudo-class (hitherto unknown to me). This is all proving really useful for a little side project I’m working on.
Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
Conceding that a typeface is a tool sounds dangerously close to an excuse: toolmakers cannot be held responsible for things made with their tools, or the tasks leading up to those things. They are only responsible for the making of the tool itself. If a person decides to use a hammer to drive home a screw, then so be it. The hammer was only designed for nails. It’s not our fault the typography doesn’t look good. The typeface is just a tool — you’re using it wrong.
Monday, November 27th, 2017
Before reading this article, I didn’t understand regular expressions. But now, having read this article, I don’t understand regular expressions and I don’t understand linguistics. Progress!
Tuesday, September 12th, 2017
Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Friday, September 8th, 2017
The perils of self-translation.
I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends.
Read to the end for a wonderfully delicious twist in the tale.
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
Some of these really tickle my fancy bone.
That’s the icing on the iceberg
You let the horse out of the cart
What planet are you living under?
That opens a whole other kettle of fish
The cat’s out of the barn
Patience comes to those who wait
That’s right up my cup of tea
Monday, July 10th, 2017
I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.
Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.
Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:
No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.
That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:
Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.
It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:
Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.
Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—
Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.
Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.
Sunday, October 9th, 2016
A fascinating look at an attempt to redefine the taxonomy of online porn.
Porn is part of the ecosystem that tells us what sex and sexuality are. Porn terms are, to use Foucault’s language, part of a network of technologies creating truths about our sexuality.
Reminds of the heady days of 2005, when it was all about tagging and folksonomies.
The project, at its most ambitious, seeks to create a new feedback loop of porn watched and made, unmoored from the vagaries of old, bad, lazy categories.