“If you type two spaces after a period, you’re doing it wrong.”

 Words  Comments Off on “If you type two spaces after a period, you’re doing it wrong.”
Dec 032011

I’m a beginner in the work of writing for strangers.  I’ve spent years writing reports for people I knew fairly well.  I knew their strengths and weaknesses and wrote accordingly.  But writing for a wider audience is more difficult, so I am always on the look out for tips and good advice.

Recently I came across an article on Slate, a site I visit to read the Doonesbury comic strip.  It is a 1,400 word diatribe against people who put two spaces after a sentence, rather than one.  Read it here if you’re interested:

It includes this quote from a typographer: “in terms of what you can do wrong, this one deserves life imprisonment.”

Wow!  And I thought it was just a matter of personal taste.

The article isn’t just abusive, it does explain how the ‘two spaces’ custom arose, and what purpose it served.  In some places it is a reasoned article, in others simply angry.

I mention it because it struck me as an example someone lacking a sense of proportion.  Are there really people who want to see other people jailed for life, just because they have failed to keep abreast of modern typographical conventions?

I doubt it.  They are just getting angry about something which is, for them, a frequent source of irritation.  Then, being angry, they use disproportionate language to address the world about a problem very few people care about.

Aha!  That’s the real problem.  They know in their hearts that the vast majority of people don’t think they are important.

Poor things.

It’s a mistake I never make.  Honestly, I never ever do that.

But I do use ‘two spaces’, and now I have to decide whether, after forty-odd years of typing, I need to uproot an ingrained habit.

Or should I just rely on software to correct my sloppiness automatically?

 Posted by at 13:27

Wholesome and Nourishing

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Wholesome and Nourishing
Nov 232011

Many, many years ago (it was in the 1970’s) I applied for an operations research job with a manufacturer of sweets.  (The Americans call it ‘candy’.)  During the selection process – a weekend in a very expensive country house hotel – every table carried dishes of the firm’s products.

I don’t much like sweets so I ignored these.  However, some of the other candidates had sweeter teeth and occasionally someone would ask a fellow candidate to ‘pass the sweets’.  Whenever the word ‘sweets’ was used, in this or any other context, one of the selection staff would intervene and say ‘We don’t make sweets, we manufacture wholesome, nourishing foodstuffs.’

After hearing this mantra a few times, it began to stick in my gullet.  After the whole two days I must have heard it a few dozen times.  Why, I wondered, did they insist on such a cumbersome phrase to refer to their product?  Could it be that they were ashamed of producing something so trivial as candy? Were they trying to suggest that their work was necessary for the survival of the species, and not just offering a bit of fun?

Now, in 2011. I find myself wondering whether the current epidemic of obesity can be traced back to that sickening euphemism: the illusion that candy is a foodstuff.

 Posted by at 13:01

How aware am I?

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Nov 212011

Why am I so determined to make awareness the goal of life?  Well, here are two reasons.

The first reason is that it is the feature that sets people apart from animals.  A lion or a dolphin may be clever and resourceful and, of course, superbly equipped to do what they do, but are they aware of that?

It’s possible for dolphins, perhaps.  We haven’t decoded their chirps and squeaks.  But even if they are aware of their world, their awareness is limited.  Unlike us, they have neither a microscope nor a telescope (two instruments of almost equal hope) let alone a large hadron collider.  So it seems very unlikely that they are aware of synapses and viruses, or quarks and  neutrinos, or galaxies and supernovae.

(Mind you, we don’t know what awareness is impossible for us due to our physical limitations.  We may be missing out on all sorts of dolphinesque treats.)

But if our wide awareness is our unique feature maybe we should develop it as much as we can.

 Posted by at 01:33

Wide awareness at minimal cost

 Quakers  Comments Off on Wide awareness at minimal cost
Nov 192011

Wide awareness is not enough. We also need to disturb the Universe as little as we can. We are a burden to the Universe and, in our own interests we should minimise the burden.

This is, in part, an obligation echoing the principles of physics. Nature herself works by minimising action: soap bubbles seek a shape of minimum energy, a thrown ball travels the path of least action.

One good reason for following this principle is our limited understanding of the world. If we don’t fully understand what is going on, isn’t it prudent to avoid making waves? Being “green” is one way of sticking to this principle: we should consume as few resources as we can, leave as little waste as possible, avoid wasting energy.

These two principles – wide awareness and minimal burden – are in competition. Acquiring new information – increased awareness – inevitably makes a disturbance.

Our natural desire is to want to know about earlier times and most distant future, about the largest systems and the smallest particles, about the near at hand and about the furthest reaches of space.

But the best way is to gain this knowledge with only the smallest impact on the wider world.

 Posted by at 14:53

Awareness is provisional

 Quakers  Comments Off on Awareness is provisional
Nov 182011

Being a physicist – well, at any rate I was one once – I am acutely aware of the temporary nature of any insight. Newton understood things a bit better than Galileo, but then along comes Einstein and our ideas have to change again.

So, accurate awareness must always include awareness of the limits to our awareness, its incompleteness.

And even our knowledge of those limits is limited.

The source of a lot of trouble in our lives is the mistaken conviction that, on some points at least, we have “got it right”. Or that someone else has. If we were more careful to admit we might be wrong, we could avoid a lot of even more serious errors.

 Posted by at 09:39