Email-letters

I’ve been attempting to write to people again lately. As in, proper letters on paper and in envelopes and stuck through holes in walls and doors. It doesn’t work though. Ten years ago I wrote to people, and it was reasonably easy although one had to ignore the anachronistic self-consciousness. Now, it feels like writing a telegram, for all the relevance it has to modern life. And doing so on some sort of rare letterpress’d form at that — the mechanics have become harder, the whole thing far less familiar. Where even is there a post box around here? Do stamps still come in booklets? What’s it even cost to send a letter? Only people having weddings send things in the post these days.

I once wrote a little system for writing email-letters. It was a bit like Gmail’s system of having the reply-box at the bottom of the to-and-fro conversation, except it went to further extremes of actually deleting the quoted reply text from emails, and of actually tracking correspondents as entities in their own right and not just by email address. It also prohibited writing to more than one person at once.

It feels like there’s a place for a letter-writing system that really is just email but also isn’t one’s normal email client (be that Fastmail, Gmail, Thunderbird, or whatever). Writing to a friend should be a different act to tapping off a note to a colleague or haggling with a civil servant. The user interface should reflect that. It should be simpler, calmer, and prioritise longer paragraphs and better grammar. (I’ve read similar sentiments relating to the design of the Discourse forum software; the developers of that want the software to shunt people towards better discussions, and I’m pretty sure Google don’t have anything like that idea with the Gmail interface. No one wants to write a letter on a blotter edged with full-colour advertisements for Fletcher’s Fantastic Fumigator, and Google want you to use the exact same interface for work and for social interaction. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.)

I’d still be using my email archiver, but it dates from an age before two-factor authentication, and improvements in the security of email providers broke it and I’ve not yet gotten around to fixing it. Perhaps it’s time to do so.

The Speed Of Response

The speed at which one is required to respond in various forms of a) long-distance communication, and b) woodworking.

I have been thinking about the various forms of long-distance communication that are in common use, such as email, telephone, and snail mail, and in particular the length of time each gives one to respond to what the other person says. With traditional postal correspondence one has ample response time — months if so wished — and this I think gives letters a distinctly ‘thought about’ tone. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with email: although it is easy to quickly rap out a reply to someone and send it without really thinking, there is still the opportunity for leisurely consideration of what you want to say, over perhaps a couple of days. This is not true with the telephone — it is at the extreme end of this ‘speed of response’ continuum and necessitates a faster and less considered reply than even a face to face conversation. Silence just doesn’t work on the ‘phone, and can’t play the important role of reflection and consideration that it does in all other forms of long-distance communication — including postal and electronic mail.

There is a parallel between this increasing response time in communication and the time that one has when working with wood to respond to the tools, materials and workshop environment. Take the saw as an example: a portable circular saw can give you very little time indeed to change your grip, stance or in some other way avoid being hurt — its a bit like a ‘phone; a table saw is more forgiving because the table, blade, fence(s) and work-piece are all (hopefully) fixed in their positions or trajectories and are therefore more predictable, but there is still the opportunity for rashness and accidents — similar to email one might say; the handsaw is the slowest of the saws and as such gives the user much more time to respond to the work-piece moving, or an unseen knot that puts the saw off a bit, or any of a thousand other things that necessitate a response to the timber or tools — I would liken using a handsaw to sitting down and spending an hour or so writing a letter, knowing that far from being a ‘waste’ of time it is just more time spent being close to a dear friend.