Language observations #231 – crescendo

Recently on CNN:

“The situation reached a crescendo when…”

I find this secondary usage quite interesting. My background in classical music makes his usage quite jarring to my ear. To me, the more correct word to use in this instance would be ‘climax’. The word crescendo originates from the Italian ‘to grow in sound’, so logically it cannot refer to the moment when the final growth point has been reached. But yet, the fact that the meaning of the word has been changed by users unaware of its specialised meaning makes me realize that words cannot easily be controlled and pinned down to a specific meaning. Language is malleable, adapting to those that use it, and does it matter what the ‘correct’ meaning is as long as it is understood by the listener? This article by John E. McIntyre describes it quite succinctly.

The lesson: change and adaptation of our language as as much a part of us as natural selection. Don’t fight it.

Get the basics right – address your users correctly

At least get my name right
At least get my name right!

This is a rookie error. We all understand that a system will need to send out a number of automated notifications, but they should be as personalised as possible to carefully mask the fact that they were programatically generated. Using the format “[surname, first-name]” is extremely impersonal. No humans would communicate like this. Just call me Zayne! However, I guess I should be grateful that at least they spelled it correctly…

Let’s start again

I haven’t truly written anything for a long time. I have spent so much time consuming content that I forgot how important it is to create content. In fact I’m sitting here right now trying to think what I should write next. It’s really not that easy if you haven’t done it for a long time. You really need to practice this skill. It’s the same as playing piano-if you don’t do it for a while, your fingers don’t move the way they used to. Believe me, I know. I recently started playing the piano again after almost a 2 decade hiatus. I found myself struggling to drum out even the most basic exercises that I used to be able to rattle off without even thinking.

What I have found lately is that I’m so caught up with reading and learning and discovering knowledge, that I don’t give myself the time to properly process that knowledge and output it in my own unique voice. Yes, I’m extremely good at trafficking that knowledge and passing it on to my social media followers and in itself, this is an important form of expression which should not be discounted. However, it only shows the types of knowledge I’m interested in, not what my thoughts are on that knowledge. If I had to look back on my twitter feed, I would say that it’s more of a Pinterest for interesting articles, rather than a unique collection of my own thoughts and expressions. I would say that it’s a rather 2D version of who I am, when what I really want to express is the full 3D version of me.

What also hinders me is that I think I need to say something unique and original, and this thought creates an inertia that makes it really difficult to start writing anything at all. I guess it’s that inner critic that we all have – some people are simply better than others at muzzling this critical imposter.

However, I always seem to remember that it’s the stream of consciousness that we should embrace and simply write down whatever comes to mind. This is what I’m trying to do at the moment. I’m also speaking this out aloud while I write it down, which I’m finding surprisingly effective. It brings a new dimension to my writing; I can now lead my writing from my voice. This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for my music creation; my best instrument is the one I’ve had all my life and the one that I can use without even thinking. But again, I can only feel comfortable doing this in a private place where no one can hear me. As I type that, I realize just how strange it sounds; I’m talking about my voice ad my best instrument, but I too self -conscious to use it in front of people! I guess that’s one of the continuous struggles in my life.

This resurgent need to express myself as been fueled by an assessment I recently completed, called StrengthFinders. It gave me a lot to think about, as well as some clear and practical ways how I can capitalize on my strengths. I feel that I’ve been neglecting these parts of me for too long now and need to bring them back out into the light. This is the first step towards that goal.

I hope you’ll enjoy the trip with me. If you don’t, that’s fine too.

Take a step up

I watched a very interesting TED video yesterday – A monkey economy as irrational as ours by Laurie Santos. Laurie, along with a team of students from Yale performed a series of experiments to try understand why the human species makes the same illogical blunders over and over again. Their focus was on the financial mistakes that we’ve seen over the course of humankind’s history. She initially posits that perhaps we put too many clever systems in place and then can’t keep track of them or can’t manage them because they’re too complex for us to manage. Her other supposition is that perhaps we make these mistakes over and over again because we’re hardwired that way. They experiments she performs end up proving the latter.

I can’t help feeling a little down by this result. These problems are hardwired into our very DNA from at least 35 million years ago. Trying to change habits we develop during the course of our own lifetime are difficult enough to change; what about a habit rooted in our very essence for the last 35 million years? That’s certainly going to take more than an Alan Karr seminar or two! But deep down I feel that these shackles we’re born with are there for the singular reason of allowing us to overcome them in order to advance along the next evolutionary step. Up until now, evolution has been governed by the selfish gene – the self-preservation instinct of the individual. We see this in every interaction we have with our environment, the other members of our species and indeed other species too. What if the next step in evolution is to step beyond the preservation of self and instead rise to the preservation of the species? Understanding the system we are a part of and making the necessary changes and individual sacrifices in order to keep the species alive? That would be the first step. Understanding the complex subtle interplays involved in the world around us and balancing the survival of our species with the survival of all others around us would be the next.

Noble thoughts, but possible? I think so. Now it’s just a case of convincing the rest of you.

Usability…

I’m on a usability drive. I want to make sure that whatever website or web app I write is immediately and easily usable. So I’ve almost finished reading Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think”. Great book, great style of writing. So now I think of everything in terms of usability. Take the coffee cups that Vida e uses. They don’t cater for my style of coffee drinking. I like to drink my coffee hot. No patient waiting around for it to cool down so that it doesn’t burn away the lining of my throat (if there is such a thing). I want to get that caffeine rush and I WANT IT NOW! But what’s with these pathetic mugs? Sure they look pretty, but how are you supposed to hold the bloody things? You put your index finger through the eye and the cup automatically slips down so that the cup is pressing against your middle finger. But the cup is hot, so you can’t keep it there. So you rush that first sip so your finger doesn’t burn, but because you have to take a sip really fast, you end up taking a rather large slurp, larger than you normally do, and you burn your tongue, palette and anything else that’s in the path of the burning hot l(j)ava. Using a straw would just be poncey and it would probably melt. So I either have to wait for the coffee to cool, or steadily burn both my middle finger and tongue/throat, etc.Who thought these mugs were a good idea? A designer, probably. One that doesn’t actually drink coffee. Probably one of those typical Capetonian hippy-types that only drinks spring water and the occasional dainty porcelain cup of Chamomile tea. Probably with the pinky pointed skywards too.Would it not be too much to ask that everyone does usability tests? I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to offer a free cup of coffee in exchange for a few simple questions, such as: “can you actually drink out of this mug?”. I’d be the first to put my hand up for that.