The unpopular case against good spelling punctuation and grammar

The sad thing (i feel) about these types of discussions is that they tend to be dominated by bookish adults who absolutely love the medium of written language or, parents who are worried sick about their kids, struggles to learn to read.

If your job is to teach kids to read the idea that the importance of literacy is over stated presents an existential threat, and is therefore offensive, but as a severely dyslexic adult or a high functioning illiterate, let me make the case.

We shouldn’t assume that the only way to acquire knowledge is through reading. I only read my first book age 17 during a dull and arduous rugby tour. Now I would say it’s not unusual for me to consume three books per week, having them read to me by my kindle. I also proof read my outbound emails using text-to-speech software.

My feeling is that people should not wait for literacy in order to start learning. As someone who had to sit through hundreds of hours of reading bangers and mash, I can attest that reading aloud and making mistakes in a book that you know is well below your Maturity and intelligence level does nothing for yourself esteem.

My personal view based on my experience growing up, is that if children are slow to learn to read, other roots have to be found for them to access information.I feel; often educators are very dogmatic about children’s ‘need’ to learn to read. They do of course, but if they are experiencing delays, that should not be allowed to impact other subjects.

if people are bad readers, that is a bandwidth issue, you need to find another way to bring on band with for them. i.e. youtube, podcasts, TV, text to speech software and many more options.

I often feel this is really more about schools unwillingness to fight for resources for these children.  If the adults are freaking out what chances do the children have? My other observation is that some things can be learnt later. I have only just learned to touch type and am learning to code now. which my wife reports has improve my writing accuracy.

I passed all my exams and read Biology at Imperial because my mum negotiated me having a reader and  a scribed for my exams.  I went on to work at the BBC, and simply used Voice driven software to work. Luckily for me the normal requirement for literacy was just dropped.

My personal feeling is that a big issue, is that access to opportunities is denied to people who do not have good literacy. My personal view is that literacy is important, but that is not a synonym for essential.

Normal people find it hard to conceive of how someone could operate with a low level of literacy, but the truth is you can so long as yours self-esteem remains in tact.

Ironically, my biggest issue is literacy pedants, patronising people who want to spend time talking to me about phonetic mistakes in my e-mails to them which, given the meaning and the intent of the message has been transmitted is a waist of my time and ‘theres’.

I very much agree that RRR should be taught in the most time effective way.  I also agree there are massive opportunity costs, the greatest of which is the persons self esteem.

If a standard has to be upheld then for me that standard has to be ‘adequate communication. Could you understand what was meant? So long as the signal is discernible  from the noise, the spelling and grammar are good enough. When i notice that someone has a bad stutter, I both feel for them and at the same time envy them, although they must have been teased as a child, I imagine they are generally treated with more good grace than i am as an adult.

What your key-board says about you.

What can key-board layouts tell us about the fundamentals of human nature? All people are willing to do something stupid in order to conform.

I found it very hard to learn the alphabet as a young child. It took me a long time to get those 26 letters in the correct order. Imagine my dismay when I realised that the keys on a keyboard where not laid out in the same order as the alphabet.

Qwerty is better optimised for typing than if the keys were laid out in alphabetic order. So why not dump the alphabet and just get kids to learn the ‘Qwertybet’?  At least that way there would only be one 26 letter long sequence of random letters that we all had to handle?

Three reasons: Switching costs, network effects and coercion. 

There are a large number of people who’s brains would melt if filing cabinets had to be reordered to be in a qwerty layout. Nobody running a library wants that head ache, that cost. Even though it would save everyone the need to learn anything as you could just glance at any computure keyboard to see the order.

The alphabet is a well established system that is so widely used it is stable and not going anywhere. At the point in life were you meet these things you are a child and can be coerced into a school and forced to learn two redundant systems.

There is never a point were the problem becomes so acute that all 6.3 billion people using the roman alphabet are going to get together and agree to drop the alphabet in favour of a Qwerty layout.

Too big to die

So people are willing to tolerate redundancy if something is useful and works. Systems can grow beyond our ability to control them. The alphabet and qwerty are too big to die.

Qwerty is an insult to common sense: It was designed before computing made it possible to look at word and letter frequency properly: More than 3,000 English words utilise QWERTY’s left hand alone, and about 300 the right hand alone. Great if you are left handed,  but for the majority of the human population that is pants.

The Villain

So why don’t we switch to a better system? There are vested interests: That evil keyboard manufacturing lobby with their vast financial resources stop the politicians from imposing the change just so they don’t have to up date there machines. NO! of course that is in’t the reason.

I am a cyclist and I would like the council to narrow the main road near my house and put a bike lane in. No doubt if you ask the CEO of Ford if he wants to reduce the amount of car usage in the uk their answer is ‘no’ but the specific reason I am not getting my bike lane is local  officials don’t want a row on their hands.

It’s the same reason I have never heard of a boss walking in to an office and saying ‘Oh hey guy’s: you will have noticed that all your keyboards are different. I have switched you over to Colemak. Most of your short cuts are unchanged, but now you can type more words using only the home row. In 2-3 months for most of you this will result in a marginal increase in typing speed. So we are all going to get more work done in the long run, but for the first few days, when you type it will feel like you have had a stroke’.

Survival of the fittest

This is called ‘inertia’ it literally means a systems resistance to change. Like a car, when it is moving at 50mph inertia is the force stopping it from slowing down, when you push-start a car, inertia is the force that has to be over come to get the car moving.

The key thing to remember is nature does NOT produce perfect systems. A common, miss understanding is that ‘Survival of the fittest’ means the ‘best’ animals/products win out. The trouble is that fittest actually means ‘most able to reproduce’ not ‘best’ in any global sense. So we have a costly car base transit system even though mass transit might be less polluting. Cars are better able to ‘reproduce’ because they are able to reinvest more of their profits into marketing. In the UK we use a badly optimised keyboard layout and an incredibly unrepresentative first past the post voting system because those systems were adopted first and most importantly ‘work’.

Good enough

You also have to remember that you are looking at a snap shot in time. It is possible that as cities get bigger the cars size will mean that it becomes unfeasible for planners to continue to provide for a transit system based on the personal car. But the tiny, tiny benefits that alternative keyboard layouts offer over Qwerty make it hard for me to imagine a large scale move away from qwerty ever happening. There is too much inertia, the switching cost are too high. It pains me to say it but it is also possible that rather than a malevolent lobby keeping the car supreme it could just be that that system is so stable it is unlikely to change any time soon.

The World can seem like an infuriating and confusing place if you aren’t willing to take a system level view. Its easy to think that shady deals are being made in back rooms, and that is why you are missing out, but I find it reassuring to think that more often than not its just simple incompetence. Qwerty is like a buck toothed stupid reseptionist at an ok hotel. They do the job. It may be possible to find a smarter, prettier person to do the job, but is that necessary?

As soon as you realise that often things aren’t supposed to be ‘perfect’ but just ‘good enough’ the world seems like a less malevolent place. In fact isn’t it a wonderful thing that we live in a world were there are people who toil away to make better keyboard layouts?Somewhere in the world someone is solving a problem you don’t even know you have.

Rather than being frustrated by how stupid my keyboard is, I think it is a wonderful reminder that the world isn’t perfect. Every were I look there is the potential for me to do things better than  they have been done before.

The magic Words

‘I am not suggesting you …… ’ Have to be the most freeing words in my life. That simple phrase makes it possible to live my own life without conforming all the time. Those five little words said to anyone who questions your approach allows you to slip away to freedom and not become embattle explaining your actions.

This crazy layout is a reminder that you don’t have to do things the way other people do them. I rent cars when I need them despite the fact that many, many people think i will ‘need’ to own one at some point. I have switch to colemak because its better, but the great thing is: Its ok to be utterly indifferent to the car ownership status, keyboard layouts, diets and parenting strategies, (to name but a few) of other people because people will do ‘stupid’ stuff again and again and again literally millions of times so long as they get the result they want most of the time and thats fine! All I have to say is: I am not suggesting you do it this way’ and then in the words of Dr House Md ‘The best thing about being an adult is that I can do pretty much what ever I want.’

Every day when you sit down at you computer it can remind you that you don’t have to break the system, you don’t have to change the system or conform to it (unless you want to?)

Going back to go forward.

Almost on a whim I have started to learn to touch type. This is something that i never thought that i would be able to do.

I grew up as a dyslexic child. When i was about the age of 12 for some reason my mum and dad took me to go see a psychiatrist. This was a special occasion they weren’t the garden variety psychologist that i was used to seeing for my dyslexia.

Thank fully this guy was able to confirm what I and my parents knew: I was very bright for a boy of my age. but it was also true, that i had some pretty profound learning difficulties. Towards the end of the conversation this very powerful man said something that i will never forget and as i sit here now slowly but surely touch typing this blog, I am emotionally processing it on the fly. My dad ask ‘would it help if we got him to learn to touch type? I have heard that that can be very good for their spelling?’  To which the doctor responded: ‘No, I doubt this boy will ever be able to learn to touch type (with 10 fingers).’

So that was it, i got on with other things. I stopped even trying to learn this skill and never really thought much off it again. that was untill a year or so ago when i was sat down of an evening as I often do learning computer programming. this involves a lot of transcribing example code into text documents. So I had to learn to tab between windows. One day it suddenly occurred to me that i was not looking at the keys at all. I was still typing in my usual ‘hunt-and-peck’ three fingered style, but my hands were flying around the key board.

I turned to my wife and said ‘hey look at this: I am touch typing’. In my head I thought: well it turns out that F*ing guy was wrong.

Now was he? I know that I had tried very hard to learn to touch type in qwerty, and that i had never got on with it. So although I was now touch typing, it was not in a typical 10 finger style. it was with the furious style of a mad wizard using their hands to conjure a spell over a cauldron, but typing by touch, I was.

A little while ago I read a book called the first 20 hours. The author Josh Kaufman switches from qwerty to the colemak keyboard layout. He did it to increase his typing speed. Colemak offered me a much bigger advantage, as I saw it: ‘no peekin’. As the keys are not where they are indicated on the keyboard, I had to learn this layout by ‘touch’.

Looking into it online all the alternative layouts have their detractors, but the main point they seem to be making is that it is not worth the hassle and the time investment to switch from qwerty. ** But I am learning 10 finger typing for the first time. There is universal agreement that it is worth investing the time to learn to touch type, if you don’t have this skill. So for me it made perfect sense to go with the most:Ergonomic and comfortable system – Your fingers on QWERTY move 2.2x more than on Colemak. QWERTY has 16x more same hand row jumping than Colemak and there are 35x more words you can type using only the home row on Colemak. Fastest – Most of the typing is done on the strongest and fastest fingers. Low same-finger ratio.

The big difference for me of this layout is that your fingers almost never,  if ever have to jump from the bottom to the top row or visa-versa. I don’t know for sure but, i think this has made it much easier to pick this layout up. I am on day 7 of learning colemak.

So perhaps the good doctor was right: I never would learn to touch type ‘normally’ but maybe in the end that didn’t matter.

**  = is the point were i had been typing for an hour. 509 words or 8 words per min in real typing speed.

It you are embarking on a touch typing journey. Best of luck.

Right I now need to put my hands in some ice!

How Zero Marginal Cost, will cost you

If you haven’t grown up in a world of endless abundance it is hard to get your head around it. A friend of mine is in the army and does survival training. He told me a a great story about being out on secondment with the Canadian Army and was there to see how they train their troops.

My friend told me that some people just know how to get by in a ‘survival situation and other people really struggle.’ He was riding around on a snowmobile and jumping off to see each of the trainees dispersed through this frozen landscape and told to fend for them selves.

One of the recruits was found freezing to death, sat on her back back getting its contents wet, huddled over a tiny fire made from twigs. The fire had been going for so long at that size that it had dug a 12inch pipe into the snow. She was using it to keep her hands warm and sort of pain free while she slowly became hyperthermic. They had to tell her the training was over and get her back to civilisation.

Contrasted with that: there was another guy who had grown up in the Canadian Country side. When my friend saw his condition he couldn’t believe it. This guy was a big bloke. He had worked out that al the trees around him were brittle and that he was big enough to simply push whole trees to the ground in a circle so there trunks and branches overlapped. He had lit such a big fire that when they found him, he was dress down to his vest sat by an enormous fire sweating. Not only that he had time to set snares made from saplings. If memory serves this guy hadn’t caught one rabbit, he had caught three. They found him chilling out, eating cooked rabbit, claiming he was fine if a little board. So they left him out there for a few more days. I understand that he could have been left out there indefinitely.

My point is that if you have grown up in a suburban setting were fire wood is bought and payed for, then you will have a restricted view of what fire looks like. You might even think of it on a completely different scale. Your experiences put invisible walls up around you. This can happen even if you might be n some danger.

It’s called ‘absence blindness’: If you haven’t seen something done a certain way before you may make the imaginative leap, and be able to see how it could be done but If you have seen something done a certain way and that way works, to conceive of it being done differently, is an incredibly hard thing to do.

Its only human to assume that the way you have seen it done thousands of times before is the correct way. Social proof is telling you not to waist too much time or effort trying to be different. A life time of experience has shown you that your efforts will probably be waisted. The only problem is that you might not be able to see that your context is now completely different. We are not lighting a fire at home with logs that were bought as a treat. In this instance if the fire dies, its  not just disappointing. In this situation if the fire dies, we could as well.

I am 32. The world I grew up in was not one of endless abundance. My mind formed in a world where things cost money. That isn’t the world we live in now. Slowly and invisibly the world is changing all around us. Like an odourless combustible gas our atmosphere is changing. I don’t know if one spark will create an explosion but I have seen endless examples of the effect of Zero Marginal Cost at play.

A Maths teacher I know asked his team aged class why they weren’t taking notes? One of them said that they could simply photo the board at the end of the lesson. It was as ridiculous to them, that he wanted them to make notes, rather than sit and listen and understand what he was saying. After I here that story I stopped carrying a note pad around with me and started using my smart phone as a photo-logger. The idea didn’t occur to me because i grew up in a world were photo’s had a cost. In my head I wanted to leave room on ‘the film’ for photo’s of people. Photo’s on a phone now have effectively zero marginal cost. It is advantageous to be more frivolous with them.

Its not up to anyone of us to create every single coping strategy for this brave new world. I think the best defence is to foster relationships with people who hold genuinely diverse views. I reckon that platoons that walk off a cliff, do so in lock step.

A Young Mans Thoughts on Aging Like a Pro

CGP Grey is a frankly great internet content producer. When I first found his work it really excited me. I now look forward to each new http://www.hellointernet.fm/ podcast and always watch his youtube videos with interest. On Grey’s blog i came across http://www.cgpgrey.com/blog/i-have-died-many-times. This blog is my unsolicited response to what i think was a fascinating article.

Grey’s main point in this article is that we die many times during our lives. We are not now the same people we were 10 years ago. I think that creates a problem, how best to handle this reality?

How Age Changes Us: 

Physically every cell in our bodies has been swopped out, but also our actual personalities change. As a general rule when you are young, you are a more pleasure seeking version of yourself, in the middle part of your life you seek more power, and toward the end of your life you value honesty in those around you: these past versions of your self have died.

How Happiness Changes With Age

There is also the U-shapped happiness curve. The start and ends of someones life tend to be the happiest and the bit in the middle is the tougher bit. My personal view is that the unhappiness of middle life is because you either have to stair into the light and accept how the world really is and make the best of it, or you remain somewhat a child and suffer the consequences.

When you are young there are an enormous number of potential futures open to you, and society in the form of school and university have simplified and mandated the number of possible decisions available. By the time you are 32 and have a house and child many of your possible futures have been closed down, but a number are still open.

Its less a galaxy of potential futures and more a small convenience store of possible futures. Its on you buddy, you have to call the shots and there is no-one else to blame if it doesn’t work out well. If you leave the shop with a twix and wish you had a kit-kat or even some fabric softener, thats tough shit. You have only yourself to blame. With decisions of that magnitude at play: Its no wander middle life is tough. By the time the clock is run down on your life the number of potential possible futures is dwindling fast, so all that is left is acceptance and the happiness that results.

Happiness As An Each Way Bet. 

I am at the start of ‘Middle life’, having accepted that a typical  pattern is that I am heading into 2  or 3 decades of relatively low levels of happiness, how do i dampen those depths. Where do I find the psychological suspension springs that will stop me grounding out. I am also aware that nothing in the universe is for free. If you hedge against the bad, that limits the good times.

In my twenties I didn’t hedge against the bad times, I was all in on pleasure: a policeman came to my student house because a friend and I had got so drunk we were making a newsanse of our selves. In the most Withnail moment of my life to date when the copper asked me why I was so drunk, I responded without missing a beat “Because i have been drinking pints of wine!”. The hang over was horrific on every dimension that a hangover can be. If you chemically lobotomise yourself and go on the rampage in South West London, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, don’t be surprised if the next day there is some damage control to do.

Contrast that with last night: For the first time in eight months I went out for a drink with another man about my age. I had two large glasses of chilean merlot, a pint of Cobra and a pleasant chat. I walked in the door at 9:15pm, caught my wife up on my meeting offered her a hot chocolate before bed. and thought: ‘Gosh I feel a little jolly’. Clearly the young man who ran drunk across the roof tops of Fulham Marry Poppins style is gone.

I don’t know what set of circumstances would activate another night of debauchery typical of my university days. I don’t hang out with many people in their late teens or early twenties and when I do, i tend to slip into the background because ‘I have been to this circus before’. I expect it would take an new legal mind altering drug that everyone was raving about to come onto the market. Such a thing might be fun enough to trick me into behaving like and idiot again. Possibly I would sit down and use it under safe, controlled circumstances, and I would methodically work out what my minimum effective dose was: Something I have never done with Alcohol because I learned to use it through trial and error when I was young and stupid.

My Reflection:

If I concentrated and direct a beam of attention to it, i can see that I am quite different from my past self. But you don’t feel or see these changes taking place. Everything is changing all at once so there is no frame of reference in these shifting sands.

Our minds are set up to make sense of the world. We couldn’t function without the illusion of solidness. As i sit here typing, me and my laptop feel solid. However I know that really I am a cloud of electrons, and that my consciousness is in fact an emergent property of several systems working in conjunction in my brain. If you have ever lost a lot of weight in a short time, you will know that your reflection in the mirror takes on a hypnotic quality. There is something really odd about having a reflection that doesn’t match your minds mental image of yourself. When i lost 3 stone it took months for my internal mental self image to catch up with reality.

We Are Not Unique or Special

Not only do we have the elision of solidity, we also think we are unique. A typical error is to assume that our personalities, thoughts and feelings are so unique to us that we can predict our future feelings better than someone else who has simply done what we are seeking to do before.

When I was 19 I met a TV Assistant Producer. He told me that he still wasn’t sure if he was doing the right job and that he may leave TV. I was flabbergasted: I could not believe my ears, this guy was doing a job in an industry that I was busting a gut to get into and he ‘wasn’t sure’. Clearly this guy and I were very different. I felt sure that I could ignore his views and carry on. When I was a TV AP i would be for-filled and happy. Nine years on I was sitting at my desk as a TV AP, and surprise surprise I felt exactly the same.

More recently I was sat in a co-working space in south east London Plotting Wine Rides World domination with a child on the way. A civil servant was sat opposite me, and we were making polite conversation. He said in a knowing way something I had herd many times before. “When you have a child, your priorities change and the way you approach things will to’. I thought: ‘Clearly this is a sad grey man with no ambition.’ That wont happen to me. Suffice to say, I had a kid and the next day my world tilted on its axis. It has nothing to do with ambition, but the direction is now different.

We Are Built For Procreation Not Happiness

Our perception feel so real. The images coming in through my eyeballs and my memories feel so much like loading up a DVD and watching a film back that it is hard to believe they are not. But think about the substrate these memories are written in. Its not the hard plastic of a DVD, memories are being laid down in the soft grey mush of your brain. Is it any wander they distort over time?

An elephant never forgets. We are a long live species and that is why we have the amazing memories we have. Historically humans hunted buy stitching fishing nets together, and making bows and arrows. It takes a long time to learn that stuff, so we have evolved to be a long lived species with good memories. This memory isn’t there to make you happy. Its there to keep you alive long enough to have grandchildren.

You don’t need a perfect film of the time you made your bow in your head, you need one that is could enough to let you make a functioning bow when this would breaks. Hence humans memory is good enough: not perfect.

What To Do

So given that I am in a place where there is still so much to be gained, and I have much I don’t want to loose, I can’t trust my mental faculties and I have no objectivity, how do I chart the right cause?

Try and be Wise: Smart people learn from their mistakes, Wise People learn from other peoples.

Accept loss is inevitable: If you loose £10 that has roughly twice the emotional effect that being given £10 has. We are naturally predisposed to find loss painful, this is so we act to stop it. That bird in the hand really seems twice the one in the bush. But you know what £10 is £10, sometimes you have to make logical choices not emotional ones.

Get out of your head regularly. Sun light is the best disinfectant. I need an external storage facility for my ideas. Only when you have your ideas outside your head can you separate them from the emotions you felt when you generated they and judge them as harshly as you would if they came from someone else.

Don’t be hung up on happiness: Its very hard to put lightning in a bottle. All happiness really is, is the reward centre of your brain firing to re-enforce some behaviour you engaged in. If you do something to increase your Social Status i.e. get a promotion, you will be happy. If you do something to increase your Certainty: buy your first home, you will be happy, If you do something to increase your Autonomy, learn to drive, you will be happy. If you do something to increase your Relatedness: connect with someone and make a friend or if you do something to increase fairness i.e. break bread you will be happy. But the feeling has to subside or it wont re-enforce the next important thing you do that actually makes your life better.

SCARF

Achieving and then sustaining a given emotional state indefinitely, is a ridiculous and unobtainable goal. Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness are my yard sticks. My hope is that If  I work on those things, my emotions will look after themselves.

References:

Social: Why our brains are wired to connect

Thinking, Fast and Slow

End of History illusion

EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE ON HUMAN GROWTH

What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars