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‘User-friendly front door’

I recently read a corporate document that promised the creation of ‘a user-friendly front door.’

I’m part of the intended audience, but I can’t explain what the sentence was trying to communicate. I don’t know whether the ‘front door’ is a website, a phone line, a physical location, a team of people, some combination of the above, or something different altogether. It is, apparently, to be an automatic door: it will be ‘using automation to make processes more efficient’.

I enjoyed the delicious irony of the authors failing to communicate while, at the same time, promising to be ‘user-friendly.’ I enjoyed the mixed metaphor of ‘automation’ making ‘a door’ ‘more efficient’. And, most of all, I enjoyed the fundamental absurdity of a ‘user-friendly’ ‘door’.

I was reminded—as I often am—of this from Jeanette Winterson’s 12 Bytes:

When institutional content tries to be more user-friendly, we get marketing-speak clichés like: stakeholders, bad actors, road maps, blue-sky thinking, low-hanging fruit, facilitators, roll-out … Conferences are the worst. I have been to some of them. By the afternoon I am sweating under the mental pressure of translating non-language. We need writers involved – and we need language that speaks to people. This isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about doing what writers do well – finding a clear, precise, everyday language that goes beyond utility, without jargon, with beauty.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3. I note with wry amusement that the AI conception of a ‘user-friendly front door’ has a knob on the left and a handle on the right, making it entirely unclear as to which way the door opens.

This post was filed under: Technology, .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve five books to tell you about this month: one didn’t make it into the photo above, as it was already back at the library!

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson

This recently published non-fiction book looks at the future of humanity’s relationship with computers generally and artificial intelligence specifically. Winterson draws lessons from the past, in particular from the industrial revolution, and sketches out how our future might look.

I learned a lot from this book and found Winterson’s absorbing. Her arguments about how the future might look are compelling. As with any great writing, Winterson brushes by fascinating tangential ideas which cause a lot of thought and reflection. Two of these ideas stood out for me in particular.

The first was Winterson’s discussion of effective immortality, or the idea that we could upload our consciousness to a device and continue to think forever. The thought horrifies me: the idea of living forever, of going on and on and on without any sense of progress or completion, totally repulses me. I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this until I read this book. And Winterson gently challenges that response, pointing out that it is essentially selfish, denying humanity the benefit of infinite life experience (and perhaps wisdom). A lot to chew on and unpack there!

The second was Winterson’s impassioned plea for science to involve writers. Precision, and perhaps even beauty, is essential in scientific communication, and is a dying art. This chimes with my own ideas about the field of medicine, where clinical guidelines are increasingly poorly and imprecisely expressed, often leading to competing interpretations. This ought to be a key lesson of the pandemic, but I strongly suspect it won’t be learned.

(An aside: I was once involved in writing some national guidance, and suggested a simplified reworking of over-complex advice. Others on the committee felt like it read too much like common sense. I asked what was wrong with guidelines that reiterate common sense if that’s what the evidence supported. I was told quite plainly by the Chair that “common sense” wasn’t the sort of thing this particular national body produced; which raised far more questions than it answered, at least in my mind.)

Additionally, publications in the medical literature are ever-more narrowly targeted as sub-sub-specialities talk to themselves in their own coded language. This has, perhaps, been more broadly recognised, but the response is typically an inelegant press release for public consumption, rather than much-improved writing in the first place.

I think you can probably tell that I thought this book was brilliant, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This 1977 semi-autobiographical novel is chock-full of dark humour. In the post-war period, a teenage girl is sent to convalesce after an illness with her great-grandmother, who she barely knows. Great Granny Webster turns out to be an ice-cold matriarch, seemingly to the point of caricature, at least when seen from the teenager’s viewpoint.

Yet, as the novella progresses, it becomes clear that the titular character is just one among many remarkable and off-beat women in the family, and we begin to understand a little of their background. It may be a “youngest child” thing to find this reminiscent of family conversations about unknown and unplaceable distant relatives—but that’s how it felt to me.

I found this funny, macabre, and strangely moving—it feels like there is a lot in its 108 pages.

Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway

I used to avidly read Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times column, and even listened to the podcast version after that launched. When she announced in 2016 that she was leaving to become a secondary school teacher, I was surprised and intrigued.

Re-educated is a recently published memoir of this period of Kellaway’s life, in which she also left her husband, moved into an architecturally notable house, and stopped dyeing her hair. As with Kellaway’s columns, she injects wry humour throughout, while also writing with emotion and honesty.

I enjoyed this, but it’s a little difficult to disaggregate my feelings about this book from the fact that I already liked Kellaway and her writing.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

Winner of an English PEN Award, and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, I read the 2020 translation by Adrian Nathan West of this book—novel?—by the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut.

The book consists of five stories about major scientific discoveries and the many unexpected negative consequences that flowed from them. The first of the five stories is almost entirely factual, and the amount of fiction in each account gradually increases. It is a book about the boundaries of science and thought, and the personal and worldly consequences of pushing them.

People much better-read and more intelligent than I have found much to love about this book. I found its premise intriguing, but the book itself really quite dull. It had some nice imagery, including a great passage about the life cycle of citrus trees (which I don’t know whether was fact or fiction), but I found much of the prose really quite wooden. I was also surprised by how much the integration of fact and fiction annoyed me: I wanted to know which bits were true, and found this a bit of a barrier to immersion in the story.

I think this is perhaps a book that would reward close study far more than my disappointing casual reading of it.

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

This is a novel which was published in 2018. I picked it up after reading some press coverage of the release of the sequel: it was explained that Pearce had been inspired to write the novel after gaining insight into the lives of women who lived through the Second World War through her study of women’s magazines of the period.

The protagonist, Emmy Lake, is an aspiring journalist in her early 20s who gets a job typing the ‘agony aunt’ page of such a magazine. Unfortunately, she’s also intensely irritating, though the author seems to see her as sympathetic. Interfering, overbearing and terribly earnest, Emmy is a character I simply couldn’t warm to, which rather spoiled the book.

The writing style also grated, with Unnecessary Capitalisation of Random Words, and a frightfully annoying use of adverbs that came to feel like a parody of BBC radio announcements of the period.

The plot was astonishingly predictable and most of the characters barely have two-dimensions, let alone three.

This was just not up my street.

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

What I’ve been reading this month

Jeanete Winterson’s Frankissstein blew me away this month. It was an astonishingly imaginative modern-day re-exploration of questions raised by Frankenstein. Frankissstein told an imaginative story of Mary Shelley’s 19th century creation of Frankenstein, woven together with the 21st century story of a fictional transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who explored the surprisingly intersecting worlds of artificial intelligence and cryogenics. But really, Frankissstein was a book which revisited the questions about ethics and humanity raised by Shelley two centuries ago and asked them again in the context of modern scientific progress. I found this completely breathtakingly brilliant, and it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Good friends bought a copy of Sam Savage’s Firmin for my birthday earlier in the year: if they hadn’t, I would never have picked it up for myself, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose that makes it the perfect present! It was a short novel narrated the eponymous rat who lived in a book shop in 1960s Boston. Born to an alcoholic mother, Firmin taught himself to read and ultimately became well versed in human culture despite an obvious inability to communicate with people. This may sound like the premise for a children’s book, but in fact it made for a charming commentary on the human condition. It was rather moving in it’s own way – and also had plenty of wit. I enjoy authors who employ just a dash of madness to illuminate different ways of looking at the world, and this is most certainly along those lines.

Graeme Simsion’s “Don Tillman” trilogy, concerning a scientist with a probable diagnosis of autism, concludes with The Rosie Result, which I enjoyed this month. The final volume concentrates on Don’s relationship with his son, and was a rather heart-warming way to wrap up the series.

10% Happier was a memoir by lovably self-important American newsreader and reporter Dan Harris, who suffered a panic attack while reading the news on TV. In his capacity as a religion correspondent, he got to meet a lot of people with interesting viewpoints on life, and he ultimately came to find that meditation helped him to become a calmer and more compassionate person. There was nothing earth-shattering in the book, but I did find it witty and occasionally somewhat insightful. It was a fun, light read.

The Swimming Pool Library, written by Alan Hollinghurst and first published in 1989, focused on the relationship between a pair of gay male aristocrats in the 1980s. The older man asked the younger to write his autobiography, and in so-doing caused the younger to reflect on the differences in the lives of gay men in the periods in which they both lived. The novel felt very dated to me, and the way in which both characters were obsessed with sex felt reductive. The descriptions of sexual acts, no doubt deeply shocking in the 1980s, had somewhat lost their impact in 2019. All things considered, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book: I think this is possibly just the wrong historical moment to read it, when the 1980s are too recent in memory for this to seem like a truly historical account, but too far away for the book to feel current and relevant.

I picked up Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and rather regretted it. I’d read that it was better than the title suggested, but it seemed to me to be nothing more than half-baked misinterpretations of ancient philosophy written in a snarky tone and filled with unnecessary swearing. It wasn’t for me.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection this month.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes contained three short stories published in the 1920s, all of which took the form of diary entries about rejected love. All three made me laugh out loud, with some brilliant turns of phrase.

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was a story of a Zimbabwean community uprooted as part of the effort to clean up a township in advance of a visit from the Queen. The story focused on a woman who had “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy”. Gappah created a vivid world with so much packed into it that I was a little disappointed that the story ran to only 41 pages.

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall was a short story told from the perspective of a man whose wife unaccountably turned into a fox. This was far too magical and unreal for my taste, and I found it difficult to understand the characters’ lack of emotional reaction to this quite extraordinary event. I suppose it was an allegory for something, but I’m afraid the meaning passed me by.

Sally Ronney’s Mr Salary was the story of a woman in her 20s, her dying father and her older lover. It was told mostly through dialogue, which felt flat and false to me, and the whole story left me unmoved. But people who know much more about literature than me constantly praise Rooney’s ear for dialogue, so perhaps I’m just on the wrong wavelength or something.

In The Victim, PD James tells the story of a man plotting and carrying out the murder of the new husband of his ex-wife. This felt weirdly pedestrian to me given the subject matter. Maybe there is talent in that, but it made for a surprisingly dull story.

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