The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, February 28, 2013

RSI Awareness Day: A touch of discomfort

Today, 28 Feb,  is International RSI Awareness Day, so it’s time for my annual reminder to look after yourself at your desk. In previous years, as well as reiterating the basics of ergonomic workstation set-up, I’ve written about the importance of taking regular breaks, the joys of working on paper, the dangers of eyestrain, working safely on a laptop and the potential dangers of mobile devices. This year, I’m returning to the last of these, and in particular, to touchscreen technology.

A couple of months ago, I finally gave in and got my first smartphone. As an RSI sufferer, I’ve been conscious of my tech-life balance since long before it became a buzzword, so I’m not a one for gadgets. I do the hours I have to at my computer for work, then I like to log off completely. As many of my friends know, my mobile is often sitting in the kitchen out of earshot, and often still there when I’m not in the house! Just before Christmas though my trusty old phone, with nice big buttons, finally gave up the ghost and I got a shiny new smartphone to replace it. Having occasionally used my partner’s iPhone, I wasn’t a fan of touchscreens, finding them fiddly, awkward and frustrating, and what’s worse, quite uncomfortable when my hands were bad. People kept telling me that you get used to it and I have to admit, I have … a bit. I’ve tried to adopt the advice given by a friend with chunky fingers and I try not to be too precise with the silly little touch keyboard. He suggested that it’s best to just ‘hit and hope’ and let the predictive text sort out the mess. It does work to an extent, although I’ve sometimes found myself inadvertently deleting a whole message or sending a half-finished one when I’ve hit the wrong ‘button’.

But it’s not sending the odd text that really concerns me in terms of health, it’s the more prolonged use of touchscreen gadgets - smartphones and tablets - that involves lots of awkward, repeated movements of the fingers and thumbs, not to mention slightly awkward wrist positions in the way that people hold devices. Especially with the tiny screens on smartphones, as soon as you do more than check the time, you find yourself having to make lots and lots of very small movements, that because of the accuracy required tend to involve a rather tense hand posture. It’s a classic risk situation for putting strain on the tendons in your hand which over time can so easily lead to cramps and stiffness, then pain and worse-case scenario, permanent damage.

Of course, I can hear you all saying, but I don’t use my phone/tablet for prolonged periods, I only have the occasional check. … Are you sure? If you’re anything like my friends or the people I see around me, you’re probably using it more than you think. It’s become so much a part of people’s lives, that they’re just not conscious of it. Try just for today counting how many times you pick up your phone and how many movements you make each time you “just check”.

And it’s not just gadgets, with the appearance of Windows 8, an increasing number of laptops and pcs are becoming touchscreen. Because the screens are larger, they’re less fiddly and with more text per screen, they obviously don’t involve the constant scrolling motion needed on a smartphone. They do, however, bring their own risks, especially in terms of desk set-up. Any ergonomist will recommend that you have the top of your screen at eye level so that you’re not looking down and putting strain on your neck. They’ll also advise you to have it at least arm's length away as the best focal distance to avoid eyestrain. Even working on a laptop, as I am at the moment, I have it propped up on books so that the screen’s in the right position as well as using a separate keyboard and mouse.
That, of course, makes for a very awkward stretch though if you need to touch the screen, raising your arm to a level that will soon cause shoulder strain and leaning towards the screen in a posture to make any physio cringe!
Touchscreens may seem sexy and intuitively, ‘easier’ to use, but I’m yet to be convinced that they’re good for us.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Google, Wikipedia and the journey from ‘information’ to ‘knowledge’

I watched a fascinating programme on TV last night, Google and the World Brain (available on BBC iPlayer for the next few days for those in the UK) about the whole Google Books project.  It was a story I already knew a little about, but the programme brought lots of different ideas and perspectives together in a very interesting and very watchable way. For those of you not familiar with Google Books, it's an attempt by Google to scan/digitize all the world’s books and make them available online, rather like a huge public library. At first, it sounds like an exciting idea, making ‘knowledge’ available to everyone, but of course, it actually raises lots of important questions; among others about copyright and intellectual property (which I may return to in a later post), but also about access to, dissemination of and mediation of information. For me, it also raised lots of questions about the difference between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’, which a lot of the proponents of Google Books on last night’s programme seemed to use interchangeably.

The proponents of Google Books, and the whole Google project in general, suggest that by collecting all the world’s information in one place, it will allow everyone to access ‘knowledge’ instantly; a kind of ‘world brain’ (an allusion to HG Wells). They put forward the example of a computer that was able to win Jeopardy, a TV general knowledge quiz. And yes, I can see how a clever search algorithm might quickly and easily come up with ‘correct’ answers to simple quiz questions; the capital of Bolivia or the chemical symbol for iron or the year when John Lennon was shot. But is that really ‘knowledge’? It seems to me, there’s a very long and blurry line from uncontested ‘facts’ to ‘information’ to real ‘knowledge’. And crucially, how you navigate your way through the ‘facts’ and ‘information’ determines what ‘knowledge’ you come out with at the end. Until now, that journey has been influenced by your access to information (which in turn is determined by your access to education,  your wealth and status, your gender, your geographical location, etc.) and how the information is presented to you, how it is mediated. Few of us, outside of the most elite academic circles, receive our information first-hand from primary sources; we read about things in books, newspapers, or magazines, we hear things on TV and radio, from our friends, teachers and colleagues. And of course, all of that is mediated by culture, by politics, by our world view. Do we want all our information to be mediated by Google, an American commercial giant? Do we want what we learn about any given topic to be determined by an algorithm written from a particular perspective?  Do we want a search engine that learns what we ‘like’ and only presents us with what it thinks we want to read? Or, to widen things out beyond Google, do we want ‘facts’ to be determined by consensus? Do we want “Wikiality” where if enough people support a statement on Wikipedia, it becomes ‘the truth’? (Thanks to Tyson Seburn for the link to this article containing this great term coined by satirist Stephen Colbert). For me, the apparent ‘democratization of information’ that has come with the internet, Web 2.0, crowdsourcing and the like comes with a lot of caveats.

As an EAP teacher over the past 7 or 8 years, the importance of teaching students how to assess the information they come across has grown immeasurably. The rather dismissive, “stick to what’s in the university library and Wikipedia is banned” position is no longer tenable. Students do and will expect to find most of their information online, so we have no choice as teachers but to help them navigate the best path through. It’s a pressing issue for all educators, but with such a large proportion of the information out there online in English, I think it’s particularly relevant to ELT teachers, and not just in academic circles. With students from different cultural backgrounds and with different levels of digital literacy, on top of the blurring effect that working in a second language can have (grasping basic meanings, but sometimes missing the subtle details), giving our students the skills to make informed judgments about what they read is an essential part of being a language teacher in the modern world.

For many of us, myself included, up until now this has probably been rather patchy and ad hoc, based on our own experiences. Presented with a range of dictionary websites, I can pretty quickly pick out the good from the not-so-good and the downright rubbish, because it’s my area of expertise and I know what to look out for. But when an Engineering student hands in a piece of writing with a reference to a science website, I can go to the website and, aside from a few obvious clues in one direction or the other, I’m really not in a position to accurately judge its reliability. So my resolution for my summer teaching stint this year is to become better informed and more organized in the way I teach my students the skills they need to become more discerning consumers of the information that’s out there, in the hope that they might do a better job of translating that ‘information’ into rich and meaningful ‘knowledge’.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013


Today I used my first hashtag not on Twitter. It's a trend I've been watching and mulling over for a while, and today, it just felt right. After a walk across the park earlier, I posted the following as my Facebook status:

Just watched a squirrel in the park eating a Jaffa cake ... naturally he twirled it around in his paws nibbling the edges first, leaving the orangey bit in the middle to last! #thingsthatmakemesmile

It may not seem that earthshattering to you, and the content of the post is fairly irrelevant, but it was quite a big linguistic step for someone who thinks about language for a living!

I'm generally fairly pragmatic about language usage. It seems to me that if something works for both parties in a communication, then that's fine. It's only when it doesn't work for one side, usually the reader/listener, that it becomes a problem, such as overly informal language in a job application. I’m also pretty relaxed about new coinages. English has always been full of synonyms, so just because there’s an existing way of saying something, doesn't mean we don't "need" a new one; it’ll inevitably fill a slightly new niche (in terms of register or connotation or whatever). I do get bugged by all the fuss made about new coinages - they are not the be all and end all of language and linguistic research! But I guess that's the same in any field, it's always the sexy, quirky stuff that grabs the headlines rather than the mundane or complicated developments, which are possibly more important, but don't make such good copy.

In terms of my own language and communication, I'm not an early adopter, I'll sit and wait and observe until I've got a feel for something and figured out whether and how it’s relevant to me. It took me a while to decide how I wanted to use social media like Facebook and Twitter, but now both, to a greater or lesser extent, have settled into being part of my communicative landscape. Facebook has certainly changed the way I use language. The need to convey an idea in a concise, punchy way in a status update lends itself to looser grammar and punctuation, and I'll happily scatter smilies and random punctuation marks !?!*! (Although, to be fair, I think I've always used punctuation that way in informal letters.) I do agonize over whether to let those habits creep into other areas, like emails. It feels somehow lazy to use a shorthand when you’ve got the space to express yourself more fully, but that’s probably just a personal hang-up … communication should be easy and relaxed and natural, shouldn’t it?

I’m not sure whether the topic-heading hashtag is going to catch on as part of my communicative repertoire, but today it just seemed to capture an idea perfectly, so I suspect it may stay. Think I’m probably too old to pull off the spoken hashtag though … wouldn’t that be old-skool mutton dressed up as linguistic lamb ;)

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