All the things I remember from GCSE English

“‘Above all, these poems are preoccupied with loss.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of Wilfred Owen’s poems?”

Of course they’re preoccupied with loss. They’re about world war bloody one, and the misery of the humans involved, and the scale and magnitude of half a decade of desperation and confusion, when the old order toppled leaving nothing in its place but the industrialisation of death – it is all loss. I cannot answer your question. I cannot breathe for all that blood and gas. I cannot demean that world or its desperate literature by farting out essays of my own.

Nor can I tell you about George and Lennie, plucked from Of Mice and Men thanks solely to its brevity. Their slim lives spelled out a world so foreign to me that I have no hope of commenting on Steinbeck’s use of imagery and metaphor because I cannot get the girl in the red dress out of my head, nor stop the shudders from those clumsy, oblivious hands.

I remember Simon Armitage burning a girl’s hand, the 6 o’clock news in a Scottish accent, and I have the vaguest sense of a poem about race, whose title, I think, has now been censured, and erased from modern vocabulary.

I remember not reading Macbeth, just the summary plots notes at the top of each page, and feeling uncomfortable at our teacher’s attempts to make Romeo and Juliet relevant by highlighting all the references to sex, in a class whose own tender sexuality was already producing enough poems and crude jokes by itself.

I remember being asked why I didn’t participate, and what I was reading behind my text book, and did I think that was appropriate for my age. And I remember thinking, none of this is appropriate, it is brutal.

Your demands are a betrayal of all the characters that support me, and the lines and plots that sing inside me and I cannot answer your question on loss because my loss would be too great. The words are too real, too precious to me, but yet could bare none of your artificial scrutiny, because in this hollowed out war of a world, with its adult themes of work and sex and death blowing in from every corner – they are all that supports me.

And I remember reading, many years later, that there are moments in reading where a hand reaches out and takes yours. And then, bound across the ages, we reach out together and stick two fingers to your question.

1001 albums you must hear before you die (Second edition)

“What did you get for your birthday then?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Some bath stuff, a CD or two and a couple of bits for the kitchen. Oh, and a book.”

Dear Auntie Jane,
Thank you very much for your kind gift, 1001 albums you must hear before you die. It really is an excellent book. As I’m sure you’re aware, I love music and this book will no doubt help me explore that interest further, with the added encouragement of it setting a deadline.

I have begun at once with Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming – after all there is no time to lose, as the potted biographies of John Lennon (Imagine, #475), Freddie Mercury (A Night at the Opera, #786) and Kurt Cobain (Nevermind, #613) so gently remind me.

I note with interest that this is the second edition of 1001 albums you must hear before you die. I hope I have not wasted precious time by listening to a record that is no longer an essential auditory experience. I have used the book voucher Auntie Chris so kindly sent to buy the first edition. I will double-check and let you know.

Sorry to hear you are still in hospital. I wish you a full recovery, but if not, don’t forget to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust before too much longer. I am told it’s excellent.
Your loving niece.

Subconscious credit due to Finnemore for that deadline gag, I think.
Oh, and the people in question are made up in my head.

Don’t copy, link

I did some more company based blogging:

Content structure for content strategy

One of the key messages in the IA world at the moment, in the wake of the rise of content strategy, is that planning content structure is just as important as planning, um, content.

Indeed, many would say they were inseparable, but while content strategy looks at what needs to be said, content structure looks at how it can be formatted, shared and re-used.

Continue reading.

Post live blogging

I did a lightning talk at UX Bristol. Here’s a rough idea.

Change ruffles feathers

Whenever a new technology comes along and with it, new forms of behaviour, you hear a chorus of dissenting voices. From blaming the youth of today to citing an evolutionary threat to human existence, the accusations fly.

Here’s a recent screen shot from Google highlighting just some of the things that are currently ‘killing the art of communication’.


Aren’t we really just bemoaning change? Conflating ‘new’ with ‘bad’ and ‘old’ with ‘better’, forgetting that what is now old was once cutting edge.

Douglas Adams summarised it nicely:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

That’s what we’re doing. And it’s what we’ve always done. When the typewriter became the default way for people to write, we were queuing up to pronounce the death of style, the art of letter writing, and even our own humanity.

“The art of letter-writing has been banished by the typewriter, and these Byron letters may now be examined with as much veneration as one would regard an Egyptian hieroglyph.”

The Pall Mall Gazette, 17th Dec 1896

We’re also becoming much less adept at talking:

“[Do you] realise how much the increasing use of dictation and the typewriter is doing to limit and corrupt the art of speech? That method of correspondence has killed the art of letter writing.”

The Times, 14th Feb 1935

And the loss of the quill is detrimental to us as a species:

“In the spacious days of the quill, letter-writing was in very deed the writing of letters – no tapping of the keys of a machine, no barking of short lengths of jargon into the ear of a shorthand writer or the mouth-piece of a Dictaphone. The rapidly-quickening whirl of the daily round has, with centrifugal violence, shot off the laborious quill-driver into the outer darkness. In this stead, reigns the Robot [and] with the quill goes much of grace in performance and delight in craftsmanship.”

The Times, 21st August 1923

There’s also a matching pattern in education, and probably in every other field of human endeavour.

But the fact is, we communicate instinctively. Our methods might change, our style and language might evolve, but we’re still a social species. We worry about whether we’re becoming less intelligent, antisocial and immoral, blaming technology for this supposed decay. But all we’re really doing is judging ourselves against inconsistent standards which shift with every generation.

However, it is also blindingly obvious that our methods of communication do change. More interesting than applying a crude value judgement to our evolving technology, is thinking about what influences the way we use and develop these new habits.

It’s not the technology, it’s us. And just as our habit of bemoaning change has followed us down the years, so have some of the pressures and influences that cause those changes. Three of the factors that spring to mind are celebrity, acceptability, and the balance of power. There’s cross-over between them, but broadly speaking:

Celebrity: Our fascination with the beautiful people and how they live their lives leads us to imitate; or occasionally the way a community organises themselves around a certain technology.

Then: advertising a product e.g. cigarettes.

Now: Stephen Fry on Twitter (and getting stuck in a lift), Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock becoming one of the focal points of Tumblr.

Acceptability: What the social conventions are of the day – often disputed and seen as part of our General Moral Decline.

Then: incorrectly addressing a superior; listening to jazz music.

Now: getting out phones in restaurants, txt spk, drunken photos on Facebook.

The balance of power: Who has access to a new technology, and how they might use it to further their own cause.

Then: the Gutenberg press, 17th century coffee houses, mass-produced paperbacks.

Now: the drive to get the whole world online in the belief it will empower them; Arab Spring activists reporting and organising on Twitter.

“It is important to understand that new platforms of social media didn’t cause Arab Spring but played a role of communication that aids the revolutions in the long run.”

– Saleem Kassim, Twitter Revolution: How the Arab Spring Was Helped By Social Media

Technology is just the tool. While it might change how we outwardly behave, it’ll take a real shockwave to change our inner nature. Among all this hand-wringing about our intelligence, social activity, and moral behaviour, I think we already know the answers to this: we’re fairly simple, generally social animals who will communicate with whatever method is to hand.

So, no. Technology isn’t killing communication. And if it isn’t driving it either, what influence can UX designers and the whole digital industry have? What should we be concerning ourselves with? Within the framework of ever-shifting technology and stubbornly human humans, I think there are a few areas where we can and should have a voice.

Findability: How do we structure and organise our information so that it can be found by people who are looking for it, without them having to wade through irrelevance? Of course, irrelevance is subjective, so how we serve answers to people with different questions and perspectives. Information science and psychology has led to the Dewy system, taxonomies, folksonomies, tags, indexes, free text search, curation… but the appropriate structure depends on the format. How can we help users navigate through the new and old, the fixed and temporary?

Permanence: Will something be where I left it? People generally want tangibility and solidity of information structures. But the web isn’t a permanent fixture. Snapchat-style messaging further erodes permanence, and then there’s the EU ruling about search results. Who should say when something is/isn’t available? Should we keep everything forever, even if it’s outdated or untrue? Which leads to…

Verifiability: How can users determine what is true and what isn’t? Who has authority – in content and in position? What if there are two competing truths? How can we represent these fairly e.g. the climate change debate? We might grumble that Wikipedia is inaccurate, but at least we know. 75 years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica was considered the ultimate authority, but its imperial tone and single point of view – never mind its accuracy – wouldn’t be any more appropriate on the web today.

These are the same questions which were once asked of our librarians, then the early architects of the GUI and the usable web, and now to us. The same human conversation played out across a different technological framework.

In short, if we were once information architects, the growth of digital means we’re now communication town planners: helping to build structures which react and respond to the way we communicate today, and the way we’ve always behaved.

UX your thinking

Hello, I’m not going to apologise for being a slack blogger, because I’m not sorry.

Anyway, I wrote a think for my employers called “UX your thinking” about how UX can be a mindset as well as a practice. You can read it here.

A hand has come out and taken yours

I wrote someone a letter today. An electronic one, obviously. And that reminded me of a moment – must have been a couple of years ago – when just for a second, the world caved in.

The letter was about depression. Something I have had in a number of guises and severity levels, and something which I generally live with today, unbothered except for a few dark hours. Though aware that it could change at any moment.

I don’t know the person at all who I wrote to, beyond a few basic facts about her life, and that we share a few common interests. One of those interests is BBC quiz shows and we chat sometimes about their interconnected hosts and guests. Victoria Coren (Mitchell), for example.

As I wrote to – let’s call her Julia – I recalled something Victoria Coren wrote in the Observer a few years back. It’s to do, slightly, with depression and it completely took the wind out of me. Here it is:

“Should I wait until I stop waking up in the night in tears for everything I might be screwing up in my own life, holding on to heartfelt faith but doubting my own hopeful actions and inactions, staring my errors and fears and faults and massive life-gambles in the face, praying daily that this risky, bumpy and winding path leads home, before I start judging other people?”

Those words, appearing in stark contrast to the otherwise light-hearted commentary on drugs and the Olympics spoke so instantly and deeply into the state of my own soul, that is, the state of my own wakeful nights, that even though I was in the middle of an office during a busy working day, I simply sat at my monitor and cried. Not just through sadness, but through… recognition?

Now, this blog has lain fallow for a few months, partly due to life taking over, but mostly because I’ve been having far too much fun on Tumblr. Fun laughing and fangirling and -new word coming up- shipping various combinations of fictional people who seem real and real people from whom we’ve extrapolated so much they’ve basically become fiction. I love tumblr, life ruiner though it is.

Shall I tell you who I talk about most? It’s, in no particular order: Stephen Fry; Manic Street Preachers; Victoria Coren/David Mitchell; the BBC in general; Brideshead Revisited; Sherlock; Cabin Pressure; Monty Python… A collection of smart funny people whose public work I enjoy and whose private life I probably pay a bit too much attention to. And writing, music and books.

But, and here’s the point (FINALLY, you all cry), although I collect comedians, it’s not because they’re funny. Funny, I like. But things to knit my soul to… They come in the deeper moments, born when the darkness seems to sparkle. Moments, like the one above, when it feels as someone has been staring right into my very being, and shown me the reflection.

Here’s another one of those moments, which had the same flooring effect, and also makes the point far better than I can. From Alan Bennett’s diaries:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.

That’s when I fangirl the most. Except in those moments I’m not fangirling or shipping, I’m holding onto something, anything, for dear life because it feels as if someone has simultaneously given me the world and snatched the rug from under my feet.

And, back to depression, it’s these moments that in part – I would not wish to do disservice to the friends, family, faith and prayers that also carry me daily – that get me through. The knowledge that I am not alone, and the wider narrative of their lives which indicates that this black dog is neither all nor everything. A reminder that the sun does come. So when I say ‘I like Victoria Coren’ or ‘Alan Bennett’s a really great writer’, I do mean it, but what I also mean is: thank you.

Living in a new world, living in the past

Microsoft are finally fully switching Hotmail over to I still have a hotmail address but I haven’t been moved yet.

I do want to keep my hotmail address. I only use it as a spam repository these days, having moved all my professional functions over to Google. But I’m horribly attached to the name. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, obsessed with Queen and entirely unaware that whatever handle I chose would still be chasing me around the web 15 years later.

In those days of the internet I chose all my usernames and handles based on my inner identity rather than my external name. Fun and anonymity were encouraged and expected. It’s why in the Manics fan world I’m still known as Terminal Young Thing – a handle I picked because I was young, forgetting that one day I may be older, may be wiser. At one point I considered selected a new handle but I realised that the full lyric I’m gonna stay a terminal young thing from Methadone Pretty forbade such a change. So it stuck, and little TYT is still a large part of my online and inner identity.

But that came later. This email address predates even manicsfandom. I picked it because I wanted a Queen-based identity, but one that was female. There aren’t many. Lady Mercy would have been an obvious candidate but I didn’t like it, and anyway, I think it was taken. For a while I used brian_may39 until I realised that it was one thing to use a moniker for an ID, but another thing entirely to use someone else’s name.

In the end I picked a line from The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke. I didn’t like the song that much, I didn’t get any of the mythology references, or care for the art that inspired it. I just wanted a girl’s name. So I became The Nymph In Yellow. It formed the basis of my email address and several other online IDs. It was cumbersome to write and embarrassing to spell out but by the time it had outrun its cuteness, it was attached to too much of the internet to easily move.

The painting that inspired and song that inspired an online life

A couple of years ago, I gave it the slip and created an ‘grown up’ email address. Again I considered closing my antiquated hotmail name, but this I kept it for the past, and for the future. I little knew, aged 13, what a teenager and adult I would become or what my tastes would be in music, books, films and people. Which is why, when I hear the full lyric I can’t help but smile:

Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow

Fairy dandy. Bowie, Brett, Bernard, Wire, Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, all the other Ws on the www dot.

Seems I did know myself after all, half a life time ago.

This week, Stockholm!

In praise of Norwegian, a budget airline company who flew me to Stockholm and back this weekend.

The whole experience was great compared with other budgets carriers, in the general sense that they didn’t actively obstruct every part of my journey with overzealous process, demands for money, or both. They were just, you know, nice and pleasant. Respectful rather than implying things would be a whole lot smoother if I wasn’t there at all. You all know who I mean – and there is more than one of the them – and have enjoyed many hours in their capable hands, I am sure.

Anyway, Norwegian, as well as being decent people also had on-board WiFi. Maybe this is a thing on proper long-distance international flights but I’d not come across it before. So I took great pleasure in telling Twitter and Tumblr that I was 10,000 metres high and IN THE FUTURE.

And not only was there WiFi, but it worked. And by worked I mean it didn’t do any of the following:
– require me to register, or fill in any personal details, at all;
– take minutes to load a single page;
– cap me in any meaningful sense.

All of which are common features of free WiFi on the ground.

OK, there were a couple of issues. It struggled a bit with some https sites because the authentication process got disrupted. Email worked, twitter website struggled but the app worked. And, naturally, it blocks streaming sites like iPlayer but I expect that on a volatile signal. It also blocked Victoria Coren’s website – was it the gambling or the pr0n that triggered it, I wonder? – but let’s be honest, that’s hardly crucial mid-flight viewing, even for me.

On the way home I wanted to see if it kept the same standards. It did. The signal was a little flaky. It probably worked about 75% of the time, but I can’t begrudge them that, being in the clouds and all. (I wonder if it was connecting via the cloud, ho ho ho shut up.)

I also spent more time on their web portal and that’s when it went from a pretty good experience to impressive. It’s the little things. In some situations having a machine follow you across the north sea might be considered a touch intrusive. But when you’re in a metal cupboard in the sky (that description © John Finnemore) and ultimately desiring little more than to be back on the ground, then it’s rather sweet.

Here’s where I am on my journey:

And here’s my specific flight status. 45 minutes to go before we arrive in a rainy London. Although, that weather report could just be static text. Either way, the tiny considerations like that were what made it.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s not just that they had working WiFi, it’s that the whole experience was thoughtful. They could have really hashed this up and I would have still used it, in a grump, bemoaning the fact I was supposed to be on holiday but even though I’m 10,000 metres in the air I still can’t stop swearing at computers. But it wasn’t like that. The whole experience was so gentle and intuitive, it made me want to tell everyone about it.

One final point. See the bottom half of that second screenshot? That’s a video on demand service. It’s early days; there are very few programmes and it’s just on a trial basis, but – it is the future, isn’t it?

Hanging on

A conversation in the work kitchen this morning:

Colleague: What did you do this weekend?
Me: I un-hung a door.
C: Why?
Me: It was in the way.
C: Isn’t that sort of the point of a door? To be in the way? Between you and the other room?

And well, yes. It is. But it’s also the point of a door to open more than 45 degrees without being hindered by a bed. Strictly I suppose the bed was in the way, but the bed is less movable. And I need a bed. I don’t need a door in front of a closet. Especially as the closet will soon be a micro library.

I was going to put the door under above obstructive bed but the handles are not the detachable sort, so it wouldn’t fit. Instead it’s behind my desk doubling as an impromptu notice board and a ‘unique bijou feature’. I think that’s the term. It was a bit of a struggle to move the unhinged door but I managed it without injury. Just. Doors, you will be shocked to hear, are heavy.

I have such DIY plans for my tiny tiny bedroom.

I assembled the desk last week, without any of the necessary equipment. It turns out that although an instruction manual claims you will need a screwdriver, a second person and a hammer, in fact all you need is a pair of scissors, a stack of books and sheer bloody will. Incidentally, this is not the first time I have used books as a substitute for a person, and I doubt it will be the last.

*assumes some kind of Keatsian pose, exits stage left*