technology

Signs of age: when even adults are too young to share your past

A few weeks ago I heard a bang outside and thought ‘car back-firing’, then I wondered if that still happens, and if it doesn’t then what do young people attribute unexplained sudden noises in the street to? The more I thought about it, the more I realised how many familiar everyday things from my childhood (though I grant that some of them were already old-fashioned) are completely unknown not only to children but many adults today and would require explanation in a story. Among them are:

  • the long, frustrating search for a working payphone
  • hoarding coins of a particular denomination (10p for the phone, 50p for the electricity meter)
  • crossed wires on the phone
  • older relatives answering the phone using the old 3 or 4 digit version of their phone number
  • people answering the phone by reciting their phone number
  • yellow headlamps on cars that had been to Europe
  • foolscap paper
  • cheap cameras with no focus control, and separate flash cubes
  • having to limit yourself to taking 24 photos on an entire holiday
  • Betamax vs VHS
  • floppy disk drives (particularly five and a quarter inch)
  • only having 4 TV channels to choose from (and they shut down overnight)
  • piling as many kids as possible in the back of an estate car for a day out, sometimes with a couple of dogs too
  • wondering what to do with the (entirely detachable) ring-pull from a can of pop, maybe getting a moment’s entertainment by wearing it as a ring
  • hoping to hear a song on the radio, or searching charity shops, car boot sales and second-hand record shops for years to find it, instead of being able to reach for spotify or YouTube

This undoubtedly happens to everyone as technology and fashions change, but it does give you a realisation of the passing years. Anybody got any more examples to share from their perspective?

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Autocorrecting my way to poetry

It used to be that I only encountered autocorrect at work, when I sometimes had to use Microsoft Word. Irritating, but infrequent. I didn’t use predictive text on my phone, and I was still on the basic version of my web-based email service (and I tend to write these posts, and many other pieces of writing, in Vim. If I want to get WYSIWYG I go for LibreOffice and so far that hasn’t forced any autocorrect facility on me). Not any longer, however, and it’s providing an ongoing source of fascination.

What is the postcow that my phone’s predictive text keeps insisting I put letters in? Or perhaps the more relevant question would be where is it? Is there somewhere in the world where it makes more sense than a postbox or is it the result of mischievous programmers? When I try to refer to someone as nosy, is the change to norw an attempt to steer me away from being unkind, or does it assume I’m trying to say Norwegian and just haven’t got to the end of it yet? I’m imagining Jesusel, which is the phone’s replacement for the more mundane kestrel, as some kind of avenging angel, but really the bird of prey is by far the more frequent winged visitor to my neighbourhood.

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I can’t believe they left me out of the dictionary

The word marmalade baffled my phone completely and it gave me one of its frequent ‘?spell’ messages. As well as being an item I might conceivably want to ask OneMonkey to pick up from the shop while he’s out, Marmalade is the everyday name of our cat so it comes up in conversation a lot and I had to programme it in. Similarly, for pottering (as in around town, or in the garden) its only suggestion was routering. The stored dictionary clearly isn’t on British English.

We’ve had a tablet computer for a while now, handy for web-browsing and music but not much else. On there, I’m forced to use the allegedly advanced version of the email software, which includes it trying to give me three words I might be struggling to type. Since I would be happier if keyboards were generally like the ZX Spectrum‘s tactile loveliness, I don’t get on well with touch screens and I’m all for shortcuts to save me typing each individual letter. However, when it doesn’t suggest David even when I’ve typed Davi so far, and at every instance of Christmas it tries to get me to use Christian instead, it’s not much help. I do seem to have taught it OneMonkey, however (don’t ask me how) which it now proffers at the most innappropriate moments.

I had an impulse to try poetry using the tablet’s email suggestions, selecting the one in the middle of the three (which I assume is the one it considers most likely) every time I began to type the next word or, even better, when it suggested a follow-on word immediately. Here’s what happened when I tried I wandered lonely as a cloud (by typing on successive lines I, W, L, A, A C then choosing the middle of the 3 words till I’d had enough):

In the first time to the first time to the first time
With the first time to the first time
Line of the first time
And I am not the first
A copy of the first

A writer could have a lot of fun with that…

Accents and globalisation part 3: voice recognition technology

OneMonkey raised the issue of voice recognition changing people’s accents and vocabulary, as they modify their speech in order to be recognised by their gadgets. As I don’t have a smart phone and can’t imagine giving voice commands to inanimate objects I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. I only have a couple of bits of anecdotal evidence about people with strong accents not being understood by phones and tablets, and a particularly trying afternoon where I failed to make the HMRC automated phone service understand a single phrase I said (I suspect they do it on purpose – it is entirely possible that the big companies we see as tax-dodgers have tried to register properly but been thwarted by the byzantine complications of HMRC bureaucracy). None of the situations I’m thinking of resulted in anyone modifying their speech, they just gave up on voice recognition.

Presumably voice recognition on, say, phones is calibrated to a particular mode of speech and pre-programmed with a certain vocabulary. If you stray too far outside either of those it will struggle. Anyone who tries it and fails spectacularly is likely to give up on it as unsuitable, but I imagine if it mostly recognises what you say except for a few words you might try modifying those words until it could handle them. I modify written words, both vocabulary and sentence structure, for texting and tweeting. Naturally, I’m quite verbose (no need to be polite, I know you’ve noticed) and I often write a tweet the way I want to say it then rearrange, shorten, replace ‘placed’ with ‘put’ etc to get within my character limits. I’m not aware of it spilling over into other areas of life, however, and with written words I think it’s easier to keep separate vocabulary pots. In speech it’s easier to get into habits, and if you start pronouncing a word slightly differently you may find that becomes the way you unconsciously do it. The two areas I can think of it happening are where a) a particular accent pronounces the same word very differently from the standard (e.g. bus) or b) an accent doesn’t clearly distinguish between words that the standard does differentiate (e.g. look, luck). It would be fascinating to see how the widespread use of voice recognition changes natural speech over the next decade.

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

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My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).