Monday, April 16, 2007

the case for lowercase

"PLEASE CALL ME TO DISCUSS." Stockbroker Gordon’s email to me has been typed with the Caps Lock on.

Great Aunt Frances is fond of using uppercase for her email too; if you keep the sentences brief and the punctuation minimal, email messages revive the now-defunct art of composing telegrams. Perhaps she's even found a discount ISP who charges her by the word.

If I may quote my great aunt:


Brief. Sad and succinct. Evocative. Except for the stray adverb and the stuttered periods, Aunt Frances's uppercase lets us know the gravity of the message. You can almost hear the STOPs.

And when Gordon writes, "PLEASE CALL ME TO DISCUSS," I’m convinced that I need to pick up the phone. Today. Before the stock market crashes. Or more likely, immediately after it crashes. He's not exactly shouting at me (which would be the original interpretation of an all uppercase message, back in the heyday of email etiquette manuals), but he is typing loudly. I can visualize keycaps flying off the keyboard as he hammers out his message to me.

Back in 1985, I remember Rand Corporation's Norm Shapiro and Bob Anderson writing a monograph called Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail. You can still buy it from Rand for $20 if you’re so inclined. Or you can just download it like I did.

If your ISP doesn’t charge by the word.

Norm and his co-author not only advised us to “Shoot with a rifle, not a shotgun” (good advice whether you’re hunting varmints or hammering out email); they also warned us, “Never say anything in an electronic message that you wouldn’t want appearing, and attributed to you, in tomorrow morning’s front-page headline in The New York Times.”

Aha! So this is how The New York Times has been coming up with those headlines; I knew I’d seen them somewhere. They just added initial caps and forgot the attribution. But I’d been under the misapprehension that the Rand report was the one that cautioned against profligate use of uppercase. It wasn’t. Yet plenty of email etiquette manuals did, back when the whole idea of manners in cyberspace didn’t make most people roll their eyes.

In their email style manual, the Yale University Library web site cautions:

“Do not capitalize whole words that are not titles. Capitalizing is generally interpreted as SHOUTING to your reader.”

SHOUTING. How quaint.

But I’m certain that neither Aunt Frances nor Gordon are really shouting. I’m not sure how the Caps Lock key has become stuck on their respective keyboards, but I do realize that accidents of this sort are more common than one would think.

I once had a bad laptop accident involving my Sony VAIO, a 12 ounce bottle of Widmer Hefeweizen with a lemon slice, and a smallish tub of sweet and salty pickled ginger. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll elaborate only so far as to say that even after I used the hotel room hairdryer and all the towels in the room to mop up my poor laptop, I was still typing things like, “tgV&JKM.:: HD:jslDXXF” when what I meant to say was “Hi Jon, Greetings from Redmond.”

By then, the pickled ginger had rendered all the hotel towels a bright purple-pink and I’d figured out why I never use those hotel room hair dryers. Surely an instrument that is insufficiently powerful to dry my keyboard would never be able to dry my hair. And how could such an ineffectual hair dryer smell like that?

Uppercase-only email messages now seem almost as old-fashioned as the injunctions against them. It is far more common to receive a quick email dashed off in all lowercase, typed in the dual-thumb method on a Blackberry.

A few people (and I'm not naming names here) have decided they're through with uppercase for good and insist on signing their names -- which would involve just a couple of capital letters at best -- all in lowercase. In fact, they correct you if you dare to fix things up.

“If it’s good enough for e. e. cummings, it’s good enough for me” they seem to shout louder than an all-caps signature ever could.

Even though it sounds like I'm disparaging those lions of lowercase, they’ve had their effect. Now I’m doing signing off in lowercase too, lest I seem unfriendly or overly formal.

cathy. cathy. cathy.

Cathy’s never going to seem like a formal name anyhow. Even my mother believes I should’ve reclaimed the more dignified and seemly Catherine by now. Catherine the Great. Catherine de Medici. Catherine of Aragon. Cathy’s a cheerleader’s name, the name of a perky girl who can do a proper cartwheel and evince school spirit at the drop of a megaphone.

A quick look through my email tells me that I’m not the only one self-conscious about the capitalization question.

lowercase=fun, informal, friendly
uppercase=loud, stuffy, carpal-tunnel prone

Lately though the lowercase trend has become more pervasive than just in my email or riffling through the output of mid-century poets. Last week I took Muni down to Civic Center to meet Francoise and her niece Clemence at the Asian Art Museum. The Asian Art Museum – as you would expect – maintains the permanence and dignity of capital letters chiseled in granite. Muni does not.

Or, more accurately, Muni no longer does.

I didn't notice the change at the Castro Street station, where I embarked (do you embark onto Muni? Sounds less sticky than the actual experience feels). I was too busy eavesdropping on the girl explaining to her boyfriend that Harvey Milk was “a senator or something from around here” to catch the altered signage.

Nor did I catch the Church Street sign as it passed by the window. Muni wasn't crowded yet and I scarcely paid attention to what was going on as we rumbled under Market Street.

At Van Ness, finally, I noticed.

Was that van ness I espied on the station sign? I remained alert. Perhaps I mis-saw. Perhaps I’ve had one too many Robo-tini.

civic center. Indeed. The perfectly respectable CIVIC CENTER stop had become civic center.

civic center indeed.

I shivered slightly. Lowercase in public places has always seemed so self-consciously hip, like those Mac vs. PC ads that make you love stodgy old John Hodgman rather than that smarmy hip guy that Apple expects you to love. Legislated hipness.

I like conventional signage. I’m sorry. Lowercase seems so transient. So flaky. So outdated from the get-go.

Not that this latest move surprises me. Muni’s always exhibited signs of multiple personality disorder. Look at their weird op-art logo. And Streleski – you’d think that a municipal transportation organization that embraced lowercase signage wouldn’t be so quick to fire Ted Streleski (or should I say “ted streleski”) when they were alerted to his past hijinks. But they did. They dropped Mr. Streleski from their programming rolls like a hot ball-peen hammer.

Muni: Make up your mind! Radical not-so-rapid transit organization or quaint refurbisher of cable cars? Adjunct to the mental health system (after all, Muni harbors more genuine crazies than Camarillo does) or symbol of urban elitism? Muni: Major character in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or backdrop for Clint Eastwood and Don Johnson? Which will it be?

Gordon and Aunt Frances: You keep going with the uppercase.

As for me, the jury is still out about capitalization. I guess it’ll depend on what I spill on my keyboard next.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

calendar girl

Last Saturday, Yoram, Alix, Valerian, and I went to Kepler’s, the venerable Menlo Park bookstore. Besides buying Geoff Nunberg’s witty collection of his best Fresh Air segments, called The Way We Talk Now (which I recommend), I also bought a 2007 calendar.

Was that an eye-roll I detected from the check-out clerk when he rang up my purchases? A 2007 calendar and a chocolate bar imported from New Zealand with Christmas packaging (half off!): surely the signs of a demented bargain hunter, one of those people who haunts garage sales, looking for hideous lamps that almost work.

Even you, I can hear you asking: “A 2007 calendar? It’s already April, Cathy. What’d you do that for?”

It was deep-discounted. 99 cents—not even a whole dollar—for one of those glossy calendars you hang on the wall.

If you’re a stickler for temporal appropriateness, you buy your calendars months ahead of the coming of the New Year. Possibly in October. Or perhaps even earlier if you’re compulsive. You might have to buy one in June if your dentist makes teeth-cleaning appointments six months in advance and you’re due in January.

Buying a calendar in June, 2006 so I'd have it in January, 2007? Crazy. I’d lose it before then; calendars just aren't that big. They can easily fall in among a stack of old Sunday Chronicles and get recycled. Furthermore I have to consider what would happen if we, as a society, adopted an new calendar system between now and then. If I bought a calendar early, I’d be so screwed. Or what if the nutso fundamentalists are right and the rapture is upon us? No need for a calendar then—a waste of funds that could be used to buy one’s way into heaven.

The good thing about buying a calendar in the middle of the year like this is that you know the score. The world hasn’t ended nor has the calendar system changed. And you know you’ll be contributing to your own self-improvement: all those appointments, meetings, and dates you’ve missed so far? You won’t be doing that any more. You’ll have a calendar to consult.

Or look at it this way: 99 cents for 9 remaining months. That’s only 11 cents per month! Normally you’d pay $11.99 for this calendar, at least according to the bar code printed on the back. That’s almost a dollar per month, and even more if you fold in sales tax and so on.

So I got a full order of magnitude discount. How often can you say that? And what else can you get for 11 cents per month? There’s no way to go wrong here.

After all, only three months of the 2007 calendar are obsolete, used up. And even those months, they’re not really used up: they’ll come around again. Next year. You just ignore the day-of-the-week discrepancy—and who pays attention to days of the week anymore anyway, given that we're all transhumans living in a post information age—and you’re good to go until next April. When, once again, calendars are deep-discounted at Kepler’s.

The only downside of this strategy is that you’re left with the less popular—and probably less attractive—calendar themes and photos. Gone are the Warhol calendars, the perfect tropical beaches, and the low riders of East LA. Remaining are Outhouses of the World (I’m not making this one up), Classic Buicks, and Cute Puppies and Adorable Kittens in Soft Focus. Themes that aren’t even good from a hip standpoint of detached irony.

After some hemming and hawing over the calendar collection that remained, I found something acceptable, a wall calendar with photos of Mexico. Not perfect, but reasonably easy on the eyes.

I can see April’s calendar from where I sit. The photo shows a row of high-rise hotels and condos on the beach in Puerto Vallarta at either the waxing or waning of the day; the ocean is shadowy, not brilliant aqua like it is in most photos of that part of the world. The beach is called “Playa los Muertos”, which given the unreliability of my Spanish might mean Beach of the Dead (which sounds like it’d attract a lot of flies) or it might mean something else entirely. I’m not sure.

But the palm trees and strolling beachcombers are lovely and evocative and most certainly not dead. If I could snap my fingers and go there, I probably would.

I’m so glad I didn’t buy the “Outhouses of the World” calendar; I’d have it forever.

I keep my old calendars. I’m not sure why, since if I’m this late for a party that happened in 1998, no-one’s going to be impressed if I show up now, even if it’s the party’s exact anniversary and I’ve brought a bottle of Merlot and some ripe brie. The Lipton Onion Soup dip is probably all crusty by now, the chips stale, and all the other more normal guests have gone home.

“What’re you doing here, Cathy?” My putative hosts ask. They’ve changed in the intervening 9 years from a fun-loving wild young couple to frumpy suburbanites with several elementary school-aged children.

“Uh. The party… The party… Oh. Never mind.” I say. Whatever. I can eat the cheese and drink the wine myself. At home. After I’ve gone to 7-11 and bought some crackers to put under the cheese. It’ll make a swell supper.

I don’t know why I keep old calendars. I really don’t. Here’s a datebook from 2002 – a Mexican theme again – and it just reminds me that I did almost nothing in 2002; it’s not that different from this year really; I could’ve reused not only the calendar, but also all the appointments inside it. Parties I didn’t attend. Doctors’ visits I dreaded. I traveled to Portland, Baltimore, Chapel Hill, Seattle, LA, Memphis, Minneapolis, and San Antonio, but it’s likely I have a frequent flyer statement that’d bring to mind of all those destinations just as well as my calendar does.

Saving calendars would be more apt if I led a more eventful life.

Yoram gave me a calendar from 1968 that he found in a drawer at a used furniture store on Valencia Street. The guy who kept this calendar was no slacker: he didn’t go to Kepler’s on a fine April afternoon and buy the best of the leftovers. Rather he lettered his calendar himself, in a neat draftsman’s hand. At first I thought it was printed, but when you look at the spacing and the minor irregularities, you realize he’s just one neat fellow.

And we learn a lot more about him from his calendar than we could ever from his homepage (or, more likely, his obit). According to his key, there are 7 notable things in Mr. X’s life (any of which might be subject to subsequent cancellation):

Hair cuts;
Dental appointments;
Blood donations;
Kaiser appointments;
Battery charges;
Pay days;
Trips to Monte Rio; and

What more is there?

Look: March was a busy month, between the eye cyst, 7 dental appointments (one for a gold casting of his tooth), 2 doctors’ appointments, and a trip to Monte Rio. On March 5th, he got his hair cut, presumably to impress his compatriots at the Annual Chinese Dinner later that evening.

It wasn’t a particularly good year for his mouth. Four more dental appointments in April. By August, he’s had a tooth pulled, and in September, he’s got a new bridge. But his woes aren’t over. Five more dental appointments are scheduled for December; one he had to cancel “because RS’s flu.”

Life in 1968 was rough for Mr. X. But I like to think that there were some high points in addition to that Annual Chinese dinner. On Valentine’s Day Mr. X got a haircut, perhaps in anticipation of One Hot Date. In April, he celebrated 32 years with the City (and an unspecified number of years against the City). I’m hoping he got something more transcendent than a Five Year Clock. May, June, October, and November had no scheduled dental work; they may also be the months in which you can safely eat mussels. Although I’m not entirely sure. But mussels are chewy and you’d want a nice set of choppers if you were going to attack a plate of steamed mussels. [Note: Don’t eat the ones that didn’t open.]

I’m mildly surprised that Kepler’s still stocks paper calendars like my 11 cents-per-month model. Mr. X might’ve been well satisfied by an Outlook calendar, which is just as tidy as you please. You can edit labels and assign colors to them, so you can block off your days like Mr. X did.

I’ll miss paper calendars when they disappear.

Or perhaps I won’t.

There’s hardly anything written in this Hecho en Mexico 2002 Engagement Calendar. When’s the next year that January 1 falls on a Tuesday?