The Timble

Anyone who has seen Tim Berners-Lee do any public speaking knows that he speaks very quickly. Too quickly, in fact, for non-native speakers, and some native speakers, to follow along. The words seem to tumble out of him, long after his mind has moved onto the next thing he’s planning to say, and the thing beyond that. W3C’s communications lead will frequently signal him to slow down, and Tim will step down to a slower-than-normal rate of speech and slowly build back up to his own “normal” auctioneer rate.

It’s not a coincidence that he’s one of the creators of the Web. From working with him at W3C these past few years, I’ve observed that his mind does seem to spin at a few cycles faster than the norm. He makes connections quickly, and even when I don’t agree with his conclusions, I admire his ability to grasp situations rapidly, and to revise his opinions progressively as he is given more information. He also shows a remarkable humanist take on topics, not just a technologist take. The Web, for him, was always less about the technologies involved than about the goals that could be accomplished with those tools; technology is necessary but not sufficient, just a means to an end.

And Tim is impatient to get to that end. It’s reflected in his rate of speech. It’s clear from the way he moved on from the solved problem of HTML (including XHTML and HTML5, mere refinements on the basic approach), to the idea of linked open data. People laughed at the Semantic Web a decade ago, and now companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are scrambling to put their own stamp on it, and governments are deploying it. Once again, Tim was ahead of the game, leading the pack.

On the W3C staff, we laugh about how Tim (or “timbl”, his email shortname and IRC nick) types as quickly as he speaks, with a cornucopia of typos. Sorting out the jumble is left as an exercise to the reader.

Some people can understand the spoken word at an astonishing rate. I once called a blind colleague, who listens to his screen-reading software at treble-speed, and he impatiently told me to speak more quickly. If you’re a seeing (and hearing) person, and you get a chance to listen to a blind person use their screen reader, prepare to be blitzed and dumbfounded. Paragraphs roll by at a modulated buzz, and you’ll be lucky to pick up a word or two; menu navigation is a staccato of half-spoken stutters as familiar items are tripped through like a stone skipping across water. Tim doesn’t speak that fast, thankfully… he speaks just fast enough that you have to listen carefully.

That’s why some of us on the W3C staff have developed a new unit of measurement: the timble. 1 timble is the uppermost rate of speech at which a normal person can understand what’s being said in their native language. On average, I’d guess most people speak in the range of 0.5 to 0.7 timbles; screen-readers are often operated at 2 or even 3 timbles; southerners (I live in North Cackalacky, USA) speak at about 0.4 timbles.

I recently teased TimBL about the timble at dinner in Bilbao, Spain, after he’d given a wonderful presentation at a local Web conference at a very equitable 0.8 timbles. He graciously offered an alternate definition: speech at more than 1 timble is difficult to understand; speech below 1 timble is simply boring.

One thought on “The Timble

Comments are closed.