Musing about Peccavi and Twitter and accessibility

I was born in Calcutta, the city that served as British India’s capital for the majority of the Raj years, born a bare ten years after India gained independence from the Empire. British India was still very much a part of people’s lives when I was growing up, with tales, often apocryphal, of unusual events and traditions.

One of the Raj “traditions” that used to make me laugh was the insistence that the First Secretary of the Bengal Government could not see visitors until after he’d fiinished the day’s Times crossword. Never proven, but fun to think about, particularly if you were in a queue in Writers’ Building.

There were many apocryphal stories; one set (of three stories) in particular was of considerable interest to me, given my passion for words and puzzles.

  • Charles Napier, when capturing the province of Sindh in 1843, was meant to have sent a telegram with just one word on it: Peccavi.
  • Colin Campbell, similarly, is meant to have sent one that just said Nunc Fortunatus Sum when he arrived in Lucknow.
  • And, to complete the set, Lord Dalhousie is credited with sending just Vovi when annexing Oudh.

Peccavi. I have sinned. Nunc Fortunatus Sum. I am in luck now. Vovi. I have vowed.

There are many arguments as to whether any of these events actually happened, with people focusing on particular angels and particular pins. For example, it is said that a 17-year old girl named Catherine Winkworth wrote in to Punch to say that Napier should have said Peccavi, and that the Punch cartoon published in May 1844 was directly as a result of the letter, that Napier never said it.

I don’t know the answer, there is no evidence that Napier actually sent the telegram. But there is evidence that Napier was born in Whitehall, that he went to school in Celbridge in Eire, a place with a history of 5000 years of habitation, a place that had a school since 1709, that “Ireland’s richest man” then, William “Speaker” Conolly, built his mansion there at the turn of the 18th century. So there is some likelihood that Napier was educated enough to have said it. As I study the other pronouncements attributed to Napier, I tend to have some sympathy with the view that he actually sent the message, even if Miss Winkworth did write a letter a year later.

For the purposes of this post, it doesn’t actually matter whether Napier said it or not. What matters is the accessibility of the story.

In the past, the Peccavi story would only have made sense to people who understood Latin and who had a facility with Empire history and geography. A limited set of people.

Today, if Napier were alive and he used Twitter to send his message, he could have sent one that looked like this:

This ability to compress context and associate it with communication is critical. It is an example of what David Weinberger was referring to when he said “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”.

The implications for accessibility should not be underestimated. In the past, Peccavi was an “in” joke amongst well-read people. Now, it can be shared by all, with links providing the context and background required to “understand the joke”.

I think this is a big deal. It is one of the reasons why the web is different, the ability to associate content and communication with compressed context.

Of Twitter and cricket and business models

Here’s something you don’t see every day:

Some wonderfully evocative phrases:

  • allen bowling feeling bitter
  • woodfull declining warners sympathy
  • one side unplaying cricket ruining game
  • time decent men get out game

So where is all this from?  Here’s the story:

Due to restrictions on commercial radio in the United Kingdom in the 1930s, radio stations were established on the continent to beam programs directly to the United Kingdom. The main station was situated in Paris. One of its advertisers was the Gillette Safety Razor Co. which sponsored reporting of the controversial 1932-33 cricket series played between Australia and England in Australia. These were the days before live radio and television broadcasts of international sporting events. Each day a reporter cabled very brief descriptions of play to Paris where they were transformed into full scripts which were then broadcast to the United Kingdom.

The State Library of New South Wales has seen fit to make the cables available to the world at large, a great and laudable gesture. You can read all about it here, and get to the original cables as well. How wonderful.

Looking at the cables reminded me, at least in part, of Twitter, in terms of the brevity of message, the use of abbreviated words, the terseness of communication. And I couldn’t help but smile at the “business model”, which, bluntly put, was “Typescript, commissioned by Gillette Safety Razor Company”. How long before I receive sponsored news on Twitter, with just a few tweaks on the 1930s model? One way becomes two way, the subscription process is democratic, the subjects covered are infinite, and the writers are global microbrands in HughSpeak?

My thanks to Lloyd Davis for tweeting me about it, and to CityofSound for covering it in the first place, where Lloyd saw it.

Twitter from Aristology to Zeuglodont

Aristology: The science of cooking and dining. Abjured, even denigrated, by Nero Wolfe, on the basis that both cooking and dining are arts, not sciences. Now more commonly defined as both an art and a science, covering the preparation, cooking, presentation and eating of food.

Zeuglodont: A type of carnivorous whale. Now extinct. Also referred to as phocodontia.

Aristology. A word I first came across when I was about ten, when I started reading Rex Stout. Although Stout first used it in Three At Wolfe’s Door, that was not where I happened upon it. It was when I was reading The Doorbell Rang, surely one of the ten best mystery novels ever written.

It was in the reading of Nero Wolfe that I developed a keen interest in food, in all aspects of food. And, I daresay, sometime in my life I will start growing orchids for similar reasons.

What has any or all of this to do with Twitter? It’s like this. Some time ago, during the debate on continuous partial asymmetry triggered by James Governor’s post, Stu Berwick, an old friend and colleague, made a crucial comment. By keeping it short and to the point, he crystallised something that everyone knows but not everyone appreciates. Twitter is both a communications medium as well as a publishing platform.

Now for me one of the ways of testing something as a publishing platform (as opposed to a communications medium) is the depth of language used, the breadth of subjects covered. So I started “testing” Twitter. What I did was enter “random” words into Twitter search, and observe the results. I converted that into a game. The rules were simple:

  1. I had to know the word and what it meant
  2. It had to be a word that had found its way into the language proper, as opposed to one that was “technically” included, that made its way only because it formed part of an obscure branch of science.
  3. The number of results returned had to be zero.

I read a lot. I have been reading voraciously for over forty years. I read widely. And I have a good head for words, coupled with a decent memory. Years of playing around with crosswords and Scrabble have, if anything, sharpened my vocabulary.

Yet it took me several attempts before I found a zero. Aristology was my best for some time, with just one result returned, until I tried zeuglodont. Bugloss returned two, which was pretty good.

Try it. You’d be amazed at just what Twitter already contains. Which bodes well for its existence as a publishing platform, despite the number-of-characters limit.

[Why would I even know a word like zeuglodont? Simple. The way I remember words is by remembering their size and “shape”, where the shape is a pattern represented by the consonant-vowel sequence. When I try and recall a word, the first thing that comes to me is the size of the word. Then sequences of letters come. And finally the whole word emerges. That process is not alphabetical, although I can sometimes help it by going through the alphabet once I have the word’s length and shape. -UGLO- is a very unusual shape in this context, occurring only in two words as far as I know, bugloss and zeuglodont.

more on why retarded hippies like me use Twitter; and a defence of the Long Tail

Today I “met” someone via Twitter. Dallas W.Taylor. The Dallas Taylor, as in “Crosby Stills Nash and Young Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves“. The Dallas Taylor who played drums on that album shown above (Deja Vu),  on the first album Crosby Stills and Nash, on the first Stephen Stills album, and on the two Manassas albums.

[And not the Dallas Taylor who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for a short while in 1953. Or any other Dallas Taylor.]

I’m delighted to learn that there’s a new band in the works and that there’s new music to come. For sure I will be buying it, I want to support a childhood legend. My wish to support him grew even stronger when I found out what Dallas has been doing in the decades since. Go here if you want more information on the work he’s been doing on addiction intervention.

An aside I can’t resist, germane to this discussion. I read an article in the Times today trashing the Long Tail, referring to a study I studiously avoided mentioning till now; it smelt of trolling. But now I can’t resist. The headline was, believe it or not, Long Tail Theory Contradicted As Study Reveals 10m Digital Music Tracks Unsold.

Turns out the study was done by Will Page, Chief Economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance. Yes, as in the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and the Performing Right Society.

Now I shall resist the temptation to say that it’s a bit like reading a report on why cigarettes don’t cause cancer written and published by Philip Morris, or maybe on why gas guzzlers have no impact on climate change written and published by General Motors. I won’t say that. Having successfully resisted that temptation, I will state that what I can glean about the study looks quite reasonable. Except for a couple of points. A couple of big points.

First, Long Tail actually requires you to make the right Long Tail things searchable, findable, sellable, buyable. Not just any old things hanging around in inventory like elephants-without-colour. The right things. Too much of past inventory management focused on what was sold, what wasn’t sold. Whereas what should be measured is intent, not sale or purchase. How many things, Long Tail things, didn’t get sold despite the intentions of buyers? Mary Modahl, in Now or Never, a worthwhile book written at the turn of the century, makes that point very well. Nowadays, understanding buying intentions is at the heart of VRM, particularly unfulfilled intentions.

The Long Tail may not always be visible in a business environment that has been Hit Culture dominated, at least partly because industries in such environments are so far away from the customer and her intentions. How else can we explain the fact that it would appear no one considered that it would be worth while to re-release the Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen versions of Hallelujah as physical CD singles last week?

Long Tail is about what happens when the costs of discovery and contracting drop in an environment where inventory can be managed flexibly and dynamically, making the case that there’s a lot of people wanting to buy a lot of things that they can’t buy because of unavailability, high search costs, high fulfilment costs and so on.

Second, even if the study’s conclusions were right, they will not continue to be right. Because people like me will buy the songs and albums of people like Dallas Taylor, even more so if he starts connecting up with the Greg Reeves and Chris Hillmans and Joe Lalas and Al Perkins and Paul Harris and Fuzzy Samuels.

You see, these people are part of the Long Tail. Many today have not heard of them. But enough have. Even measured in readers of this blog, there are enough. Even measured in Facebook friends, there are enough. Even measured in Twitter followers, there are enough. Enough to form a Long Tail.

So people will buy their music. And not necessarily through traditional routes either.

In the meantime, I will continue to relish the sensation of being in touch with someone whose name used to adorn my wall as a teenager.

Missing the Whale: Will we soon pay to see it?

Twitter stayed up throughout the Mumbai terrorist crisis; at least that’s the way it seemed to me, everything just worked. Never spotted the Whale.

And then today, a few minutes ago, there it was, in all its splendiferous glory, reproduced here for newcomers:

Sightings are getting rarer and more fleeting. So, according to traditional scarcity economics, we should soon be willing to pay to see it, right? :-)