Thursday 9 February 2012

Calendar Reform and other Good Ideas

In saying that something is broken, and proposing an alternative, you open yourself up to ridicule and worse. If it ain't broke, don't fix it is maybe the mildest form of response. It is broke, but can't be fixed or isn't worth fixing is maybe another.

Since a lot of what I plan to write about here can be seen a bit like Cassandra wringing her hands and wanting to fix something that other people simply don't see as a problem, it's worth starting from a discussion about some things that could be better, but aren't.

The Decimal System

We count in 10s and look at 10 as a round number. But it really is inconvenient. It's only evenly divisible by 5 and 2. How much better would it be if we counted in 12s. Divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6. Or maybe better still, 60, whose divisors are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30. And how lucky we are to tell time in 60s.

Calendar reformists have been at it for a while - wanted to divide the year into 10 months. Doh! How would we have nice thirds or quarter years?

In the UK we used to have 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. That's 240 pennies in a pound, right? And it means that each pound was evenly divisible into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths and twelfths. With 100 pence in a pound nowadays, we only get halves, quarters, fifths and tenths. That was a step backwards.

I propose that we return to a system of 240 pennies in the pound.

Thanks for your idea, Jo, we'll call you, don't call us.

Keyboard Reform

It is widely said that the current keyboard layout was designed because mechanical typewriters had a tendency to jam when two keys next to each other were pressed in rapid succession. So the layout of the keyboard evolved  to limit jamming by placing apart the keys for letters that commonly occurred next to each other in actual words. Effectively - to slow typists down.

Now that mechanical typewriters are a thing of the past, wouldn't it be a good idea to rearrange the keyboard for maximum typing efficiency?

Yes, this has all been said and really hasn't taken off - despite the patenting of the Dvorak keyboard in 1936. In this context see also the chorded keyboard, invented by Douglas Engelbart, who also invented the mouse (which did take off). Maybe hope is not yet lost for this project.

Calendar Reform

And returning to calendars, which engages passionate support among a small number of people. It's true that it would be more convenient for some purposes if the months were of even lengths, and if the 2nd of March were always a Tuesday - we'd know where we were, wouldn't we? Of course there would be disadvantages too, like if you were born on a Monday your birthday would always fall on  a Monday, which would not be much fun for people who don't like Mondays.

A decimal calendar was adopted in France, in 1792, as well as decimal time, but was abandoned in 1805, reverting to our eccentric, but accepted, Gregorian calendar.

The Lesson Being?

Accept the wrong turns in history and continue. The so called standard gauge (the distance between the rails) for railway lines is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (Imperial). A broader gauge would have advantages for speed and stability on main line railways.  It's an accident, live with it, we can work around it. 

In short, calendars and other human artefacts are messy, untidy and in the end quite complex. Any proposed improvement - in all probability - overlooks significant drawbacks and would anyway be hard to justify in terms of investment and disruption.

Er, but not so fast!

This is not about calendars, it's about the Web. It's about the untidiness of the Web today, about the importance of the Web continuing to be open-ended and the powerful "generative" tool it is today. 

It's also about inter-operability, the Web of applications, the basic failure of the Web to provide a meaningfully "working" experience, Javascript errors, usability errors, performance errors.

It's about the increasing difficulty in accommodating an increasing variety of devices, user contexts and types of content. 

Not least it's about the random nature of the technology choices that underpin what we do, how they don't cohere with each other as technology choices and how that limits the "learnability" of the technology as well as its adaptability.

If we are not going to engage in "calendar reform" - we should at least look at what the problems are with what we have today and what the possible benefits and costs of other approaches are, shouldn't we?

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