Saturday, July 10, 2010

Potted woodlouse

Our ancestors were a lot less squeamish than we are about what they'd eat. This fine recipe, courtesy of my former CEO and all-around good bloke Jeff Zie, comes from a 17th century English cookbook. Apparently it tastes like shrimp paste.

Collect a quantity of the finest wood-lice to be found, and drop them into boiling water, which will kill them instantly, but not turn them red, as might be expected. At the same time put into a saucepan a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, a teaspoonful of flour, a small glass of water, a little milk, some pepper and salt, and place it on the stove. As soon as the sauce is thick, take it off and put in the wood-lice. This is an excellent sauce for fish.
Well, seeing as I'm allergic to shrimp, but love the taste of shrimp paste, I'm half-tempted to give it a go. This does, naturally, leave me with two questions.

How do our local Floridian woodlice compare to English woodlice? The initial thought is that the American pill bug is likely to be meatier than your English variety, though whether it will have the same taste is a whole different question.

American pill bug or roly poly, of the Armadillidiidae family

And secondly, what are the criteria for "the finest woodlice to be found"? According to Jeff, they'd be "the ones in top hats". Hmm.

This calls for experimentation. Who wants to join me on this culinary expedition?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Re yr msg

With the advent of the net and mobile phones, we're communicating more and more, but in the process we're having to learn whole new ways to transmit information effectively. Reducing messages to 140-character tweets or texts, or even 420-character Facebook updates, means that we're inventing ways to compress information further and further. At the same time, we're getting used to skimming information streams faster and faster, and extracting the relevant info from it with less and less effort. In the process, information is inevitably lost, and the result is miscommunication, usually without hilarious results.

Basic compression works

I'm not actually talking about the way that we're compressing words. That's actually relatively easy to process. Hebrew elides vowels naturally, and that's quite comprehensible. German portmanteau words are easy to break down and pass into normal speech. We're nearly all comfortable with expressions like LOL, BRB or WTF these days, and we're quite happy with some shortened forms of words.

cu 4 drnks tonite?

is, I think you'll agree, perfectly legible as

See you for drinks tonight?

It's 18 characters instead of 27, which saves you 9 characters - about 33% shorter for no loss of information.

When punctuation gets omitted, that can be harder to parse, but still unlikely to result in major miscommunication. Yes, there are the obvious "Let's eat, grandpa," jokes, where the comma is obviously significant, but those are comparatively rare.


The real problem is when messages are so compressed that they are meaningless. Or when they have several meanings, which comes to the same thing. Here's a real example from texts.

Me: meeting @ yr house, mine, or cin?
Reply: y

"Y"? What the hell does that mean? Is he asking me why I want to know, or what the hell I'm talking about, or does it stand for y[ours]? So the exchange continues.

Me: ?
Reply: def

Well, I've been waiting for ten minutes for each reply, so after 20 minutes I'm still no wiser as to where we're meeting. So I phone my friend, ask the same question, and get the answer, "My place, see you at 7." Ah, so "y" meant "yes", and my friend only actually read the first four words before answering. In 15 seconds of actual conversation, we transmitted more useful information, more accurately, than we did via text. Of course, it would have worked fine if we'd actually sent the following texts, but we didn't. We were too busy "saving time" and sending compressed messages, and the end result was it took longer and was less efficient.

Me: are we meeting @ your house, mine, or the cinema? and what time?
Reply: mine at 7

Sorry, I thought you meant me!

The other problem with this kind of compressed communication is that it's often cryptic and untargeted. Let's take an example like this (fictionalised) status update:

Fred is getting fed up of ppl who make stupid & unreasonable requests they could perfectly well take care of themselves

That may be a perfectly reasonable expression of how Fred is feeling, but it's not good communication. Who's he talking about? What are these unreasonable requests? Does he mean me asking if I can borrow his DVD of Star Trek IV? Did I piss him off? Should I apologise and find someone else to get it from? Or is he, in fact, referring to the fact that his sister just called and asked him to drive 200 miles to help her move some trash from the back yard, even though last weekend he had to drive over to help her pick out a new TV? I honestly can't tell - especially if I know nothing about the sister or her trash.

What inevitably happens is the sort of comedy of errors beloved of playwrights and scriptwriters. I'll get huffy because I think Fred's being rude about me, our respective friends will weigh in on one side or the other or play peacemaker, and eventually, when tempers have flared, we'll find out he wasn't talking about me at all. End result: an evening of unnecessary tension and aggravation for all concerned.

Oh, was that a joke?

To make it worse, humour and irony are often lost completely. It can be hard enough to write humour in long form, as most writers can attest. In brief messages, these can be really hard to convey, and simply adding (jk) or ;) doesn't always have the desired effect. We pick up humour from body language and nuances of inflection, none of which comes through in prose. The emoticon is a great attempt to bring that back in, but it doesn't always work. Here's one I posted the other day:

I don't see why people are being so hard on the English football team: they're just as good as the US.

The responses ranged from LOLs to fury, from both English and American friends. Frankly, I couldn't give a toss about football, and I was just having a friendly dig at soccer fans of both nations, but that's not how it came across to some people.

I never got yr msg

Of course, the biggest assumption we all make is that when we've sent a message, that means the other person has actually received it. I've had days when I'm getting literally hundreds of emails, thousands of tweets, and God only knows what else coming through skype, FB and text. So yeah, I miss messages.

Or else I'm away, don't have Net access, and won't get your message until get back. Or maybe I'm in the air or driving, or my electric is out, or I'm recording VO and have everything switched off, or I'm asleep or sick. There are a hundred reasons why I might not have got your message yet, or may have skipped over it.

A huge amount of aggravation is caused by sitting there, angrily thinking "the bastard never got back to me" or "shit, I need this info right now, when's he going to respond". I've done it. So have you. For all you know, the other person is blithely unaware of this and is sitting on the beach with a pina colada.

All we have to do is keep talking

I'm not advocating that we all stick with proper English, and that modern communications all suck. Far from it. We're developing a powerful and effective new language and new way of communicating emotions and information to a wide audience.

However, as was drummed into me at school, in the cadets, at university, and in business, communication is not about telling people things. Communication is about making sure they understand correctly what you want them to know. Clarity, not brevity, is the essential component of successful communication.

Sometimes, it's better to pick up a phone and speak directly to someone, or go and see them and deal with the issue face to face. It's often quicker in the long run, and there's less risk of miscommunication. (Though, as I've found many times, emails before and after confirming what was said can be invaluable.)

Sometimes, it's better to spend the extra few seconds typing a message in full instead of abbreviating it to the point of ambiguity.

And sometimes, it's better to spend the time and explain what you actually mean, rather than try to squeeze too much into a few sentences. There's still a role for lengthy blog posts in a world dominated by short status updates.

Then again, maybe all I needed to say was:
socmed comms r often poor way 2 get yr meaning across? twitter/fb/txt FAIL :)