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The people who were Google

Amelia Tait has a great article in the July/August issue of Wired—not online as far as I can tell. She profiles some people who worked for 118 118, a UK phone service which once offered to ’answer any question’, and AQA 63336, a UK SMS service with essentially the same aim.

As a student, I did part-time work with AQA 63336 and very much enjoyed it, so this brought the memories flooding back. Working for the service meant logging onto an online system which would show all the questions flowing into the service. Click on one, and you’d get a feed of previous answers to similar questions which could be sent or tweaked. Or—more fun to my mind—one might have to write an entirely original answer.

This was made much more fun by the brand’s ‘voice’—they wanted workers to write in a wry style, and most importantly, to always have an opinion. If someone asked a yes/no question, they had to receive a yes/no answer, preferably with a dash of humour. And, of course, it had to fit in the length of a text message.

As I remember, there was a set payment per question answered, though the payment varied according to demand so that more workers would log on when the service was busy. As someone who liked the challenge of taking a few minutes to write new witty answers rather than picking pre-written items from a list, this served me quite poorly… but I nevertheless loved the job.

A few months after Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, AQA 63336 led an April Fool’s Day prank announcing their own phone. I’ve never quite worked out whether this was gallows humour from a company who understood that smartphones would kill their business, or just a simple attempt at promotion.

Wired isn’t where I typically turn to reminisce, but Tait’s article provided exactly that.

This post was filed under: Technology, , .

It’s windy in Newcastle

When you think of medical schools in Newcastle, this one might not be the first that springs to mind. Since 2007, it has been possible to study in Newcastle for a chunk of the five-year medical degree award by St George’s University in Grenada. These days, one can study as much as four years of a five-year medical programme with St George’s University in Newcastle.

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‘Silence’ by Erling Kagge

Erling Kagge, a renowned Norwegian explorer, has ventured into some of the most extraordinary places on Earth, from the North and South poles to the summit of Everest. His book, ‘Silence’, is a compilation of 32 profound reflections on the various facets of silence. These reflections are not just theoretical but are born out of Kagge’s personal encounters with silence, such as the profound stillness he experienced during his solo expedition to the South Pole or the inner calm reminiscent of meditation.

Deep down in the ocean, below the waves and ripples, you can find your internal silence. Standing in the shower, letting the water wash over your head, sitting in front of a crackling fire, swimming across a forest lake or taking a walk over a field: all these can be experiences of perfect stillness too.

The book’s structure of short, self-contained reflections lends the book a slightly unfortunate sense of superficiality, which belies the depth of its insights: many of the ideas are interesting and worthy of deep reflection.

I suspect this book would have been best read one section at a time, allowing reflection and consideration. I didn’t read it like that: I read it in a day. I probably got less out of it than I could have as a result, and this might be a book I dip back into from time to time.

Kagge repeatedly refers to silence as luxurious, an opinion which seems to come up with some regularity in the New York Times. I liked how Kagge expanded this idea, not just pointing out the relationship between access to silence and financial wealth but also encouraging us to see silence as valuable in its own right:

Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life. Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.

He also talks a couple of times about the value of silence in a relationship, and the pleasure of feeling relaxed enough to sit or walk in silence with those we love most. This felt especially relevant to me; it’s something Wendy and I have often reflected on.

I have already bought Kagge’s follow-up, Walking, and look forward to digging in—in silence!

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Sunak’s broken bridge

When I’ve been subject to media training, the mantra ‘address, bridge, communicate’ is oft-repeated: ‘address’ the question you’re asked, ‘bridge’ to the wider point you want to make, and ‘communicate’ that point.

Rishi Sunak used this strategy in a pool clip last week after being criticised about leaving the D-Day anniversary events before their conclusion.

Address: ‘Having attended all the British events with British veterans I returned home before the international leaders’ event later in the day. On reflection, that was a mistake. And I apologise. I think it’s important though, given the enormity of the sacrifice made, the focus should rightly be on the veterans who gave so much.’

Bridge: ‘People can judge me by my actions when it comes to supporting the armed forces.’

Communicate: ‘In this campaign, it’s the Conservative Party led by me which is increasing the amount of investment that we’re putting into our Armed Forces to 2.5% of GDP. That’s not something that’s been matched by the Labour Party.’

The problem is, of course, that his bridge doesn’t connect the two statements. The message he wants to communicate is nothing to do with actions by which we can judge him, it’s a pledge about future intentions. It is counterproductive and strange to invite people to judge him by his actions when he is apologising for his actions.

The overall effect wasn’t enhanced by saying, moments after making his political comparison with the Labour Party, ‘I don’t think it’s right to be political in the midst of D-Day commemorations. The focus should rightly be on the veterans and their service and sacrifice for our country.’

So here is a conundrum. As far as I can make out, one of three desperately unlikely and seemingly implausible things must be true: Sunak walked into the pool interview without an agreed answer to the obvious question; an answer which literally asks voters to pay more attention to the error was agreed by his team; or Sunak forgot his prepared lines.

I look forward to Tim Shipman’s inevitable book revealing the answer in five years’ time.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

The Black Bridge

High above the River Wansbeck soars this imposing black bridge, the North Seaton Railway Viaduct, better known as—erm—The Black Bridge.

Work began on its construction in 1925, replacing a wooden bridge built for the Blyth and Tyne Railway in 1859. Until Dr Beeching’s axe fell sixty years ago, trains carrying passengers regularly crossed the viaduct. Freight trains have continued to use the viaduct ever since, albeit in ever-dwindling numbers since the closure of the nearby collieries, with only five freight trains per day in recent times.

Later this year, with the re-opening of the Northumberland line, passenger trains will once again trundle across the bridge, one every half hour in each direction. I’m sure I’ll be along for the ride at some point.

This post was filed under: Travel, , , , .

‘Water’ by John Boyne

I’ve read a few of John Boyne’s novels over the years, and enjoyed them all. It was therefore no surprise at all that I enjoyed this short 2023 novel, the first of a promised quartet themed around the elements.

Set on an isolated Irish island, we follow 53-year-old Vanessa Carlin—who changes her name to Willow Hale right at the start—as she spends time coming to terms with the collapse of her family life. The collapse was caused by the actions of her husband, which are gradually revealed across the whole course of the novel, and in which the world assumes her to be complicit.

The arc of the novel, following Carlin/Hale’s retreat from the world, reminded me a lot of the non-fiction book Wintering by Katherine May—there is certainly a degree of thematic similarity between the two. It’s a novel about reflection, regret and recovery, as well as much more besides.

I enjoy Boyne’s writing for its deep interest in people: his characters seem complete and emotionally complex. I find his novels comforting, even while the content is often challenging, as I can be confident in his robust storytelling skill.

However, Boyne sometimes veers towards cliché in his expression of ideas. I’ve sometimes wondered whether this is a deliberate authorial choice to represent the way that real people often make sense of the world, or whether Boyne has a bit of a blind spot for cliché. In this book, a character reflects on the lack of a word for a parent who has lost a child: a clichéd observation that collapses after a moment’s thought about the speed of change in infant mortality rates versus the speed of the development of English. This stood out because I didn’t believe that the character would give in to that sort of cliché, which made me favour my blind spot theory over authorial intent.

But regardless: I thoroughly enjoyed this, and have already bought the second book of the quartet.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

More ‘Fragile Beauty’

One of the greatest pleasures of attending an art exhibition with Wendy is her reaction to the more pretentious object labels.

There was a moment in Madrid’s Reina Sofia when, after reading a particularly florid text, she just said ‘I don’t have the bandwidth for that’ and turned on her heel. It’s usually hard to disagree.

Wendy wasn’t able to attend ‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A with me, but when I read the label accompanying Richard Caldicott’s untitled triptych, I did wonder what she’d have made of it:

Richard Caldicott’s red, yellow and blue triptych playfully transforms everyday objects – in this case Tupperware food-storage containers – into a sea of colour. The artist’s choice of primary hues references classic colour theory, underpinning hundreds of years of optical experiment. To stand in front of Caldicott’s photographs is to be confronted by a field of light refracted by luminous kitchenware.

I think she may well have furrowed her brow and exclaimed: ‘But why would you want to be confronted by luminous kitchenware?!’

Fragile Beauty continues at the V&A until 5 January next year.

This post was filed under: Art, , , , .

Home and dry

I passed these friendly folk on my way home from work. Most people in the UK think that cows lie down when it’s about to rain, but I’m pleased to report that beautiful sunshine saw me home.

One of the problems with posts like this, which repeat stories that are simply untrue, is that the lie can stick longer in the mind than the truth. One suspects that some politicians may be choosing to exploit that fact at the moment.

The 2019 General Election result showed that being sacked for lying twice was no barrier to gaining the public’s trust—but one wonders whether that trick can be pulled repeatedly.

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‘Cluny Brown’ by Margery Sharp

I borrowed this 1944 novel from the library after seeing it featured in the New York Times newsletter Read Like The Wind. I found it to be a funny and gently comforting read.

The book is set in England in the late 1930s, and the titular character is an orphan in her twenties whose self-confident temperament does not fit the social mores of the time. Uninterested in what is ‘right’ and ‘proper’ for a young lady, she ploughs her own furrow with innocent charm.

In an attempt to get her to conform to her social standing, her uncle sends her into ‘service’ as a parlourmaid in a large country house, with amusing consequences. On the surface, this novel is a traditional farce, but scarcely beneath the surface, Sharp uses that comedy to skewer pretty much all contemporary societal norms. The looming war doesn’t escape judgement either.

Sometimes, I read historical novels and find them a bit of an effort, even if that effort is rewarded by what I take away from them. Not so this book: the pages flew by, and the humour was right up my street. It didn’t feel like I was reading something that was eighty years old.

Some highlights:

She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea—put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors—and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn, or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box—in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.

“She likes to see a young lady who doesn’t put stuff on her face,” said Mr. Wilson. “If I may say so, so do I.”

“Well, it wouldn’t do any good,” said Cluny frankly. “I’ve tried it, but I look worse.”

“They all look worse,” said the chemist. “Only they haven’t the sense to know it.”

The bluntness of a friend in pain is never hurtful.

“Please can you lend me a good book?” he asked politely.

Before answering Betty switched on a second light, which thoroughly illumined the whole room. The conjunction of a highly desirable appearance with a great deal of sense had inevitably taught her much that young girls were not commonly supposed to know: for instance, that a strong light is almost as good as a chaperone.

“Darling,” said Andrew, as they finished their coffee, “would you like to marry me next month?”

“No, thank you,” said Betty. “What a fool idea, darling.”

I have so often thought how in all English art the place of women is taken by landscape. Your poetry is full of it, you are a nation of landscape painters. In other countries a man spends his fortune on a mistress; here you marry a fortune to save your estates.

If you had a smattering of education you would realize that perfection of form can give validity to any sentiment, however preposterous.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

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