Category Archives: General

Sable Basilisk

At Telemarq today we were discussing some of the rather good Open Source text-to-speech systems now available, and testing them with some difficult-to-pronounce words.  They did struggle a bit with some of them, but who can blame them?

British names can be challenging at the best of times; I knew, for example, that Menzies is not usually pronounced as it appears, but I must confess to being ignorant of the fact that the surname ‘Dalziel’ is actually pronounced ‘Dee-El’ (which sounds like a class of droid from Star Wars, don’t you think?  “That old DL-4 unit will do fine.  We’ll take that one.”)

While looking at the Wikipedia page, though, my colleague Nicholas noticed the Dalziel coat of arms, which is rather striking, and should eliminate any suggestion that the Dalziels are not thoroughly human. Take a look! (The page does explain the origin too.)

If you examine the expression on his face, it can be fun coming up with captions.

“Listen, laddie, if I’m willing to come into battle armed only wi’ this, are ye really ready to fight me?”

I think Robert Burns would approve, though. “Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; // A Man’s a Man for a’ that:”

Heraldry, of course, has a language of its own.  Your family’s arms might be technically described as “azure a fess or between three mullets argent”, for example, and we are reminded by this Britannica article that ‘a bordure is an ordinary in England, but in Scotland it is never a charge, being reserved for cadency. Some count the roundel as a subordinary, while others consign it to the “others” category as a simple charge.’  

Actually, if you read the article, you’ll understand the above. (I had a splendid teacher at school who believed that a well-educated English gentleman ought to have at least a smattering of knowledge of a range of topics that weren’t in the normal curriculum, and would take the odd lesson out to tell us about them, so I gained some awareness of those who charge a field purpure or a bend sinister with a lion rampant, when I should technically have been learning about Thomas Hardy.  It’s wonderful stuff.)

There are rules to be followed too. The aforementioned article reminds me that “a colour is very rarely placed upon a colour, a metal upon a metal, or a fur upon a fur. “

All of which made me think this would be a fun body of material for training an AI system.  Could you create something which, given a coat of arms, would return the correct heraldic description, and vice versa? And then, phase 2: given somebody’s ancestry and history, could you create a coat of arms for them following the conventions and the rules?  I fancy doing another PhD, so if anybody could kindly come up with a source of funding for this, I propose to create such a system and name it ‘Sable Basilisk’, in honour of the character of that name immortalised by Ian Fleming.

The funder of my research would, of course, have a beautiful coat of arms generated just for them.  If they’re really lucky, it might resemble the Dalziel’s.

The dark underbelly… or perhaps the dark floorpan?

John’s excellent column in the Observer this weekend was a reminder to those of us who enjoy driving EVs that we shouldn’t feel too smug about our environmental impact.  

Electric vehicles have a greater carbon footprint in their manufacturing process than fossil-burners, and it takes a while for the environmental benefits after you drive it off the forecourt to make up for this.  In countries like the UK, where it’s relatively easy to get your electricity from renewable or nuclear sources, that’ll probably take about 6-12 months.  In countries like the US where you’re probably getting a lot more of your ‘fuel’ from coal, it could take several years, and it’ll probably be the second or third owners of an EV who really have a more carbon-neutral vehicle! 

In the intervening period, though, we can feel a little bit more virtuous because — and I do appreciate that any pro-EV points I make in this post might definitely be classified as self-justification! — at least we have moved a lot of pollution away from highly populated areas.  (This is distinct from carbon footprint, which can happen anywhere and has a much greater area of impact.)  When it comes to human health, though, we’re only starting to get to grips with, for example, the damaging effects of the tiny particulates emitted from exhaust pipes — Tim Smedley’s book Clearing the Air is an excellent explanation — and the key thing about them is that they don’t travel very far.  You are more at risk in a cycle lane next to traffic than are the pedestrians a few meters away… especially if they walk on the further side of the pavement.

I’m often annoyed by people who sit stationary with the engine running, while waiting for their kids to come out of school or their spouse to come out of the supermarket… and then I have to remember that the poor things are in such primitive vehicles that they can’t even keep themselves warm in their cars without polluting the local area.


One thing we don’t know much about yet is the longer-term outlook for individual vehicles, because they just haven’t been around long enough.  EVs are generally expected to outlive their internal combustion predecessors because they have far fewer moving parts, less vibration, less thermal stress, and so forth.  Yes, the batteries will have a limited lifespan, but they can be replaced, and they don’t get thrown away: their consituent materials are much too valuable not to recycle.  

What’s also sometimes not appreciated by the Jeremy-Clarkson-watching fraternity is that these aren’t like phone batteries where you have to replace the entire thing. Car batteries are made up of lots of cells packaged into modules, and individual modules or even cells can often be replaced when they start to fail.  Yes, we all know rechargeable batteries do wear out… but they don’t die suddenly; their capacity just decreases over time (or more specifically, as they go through an increasing number of charging cycles, which usually corresponds to mileage).

When Nissan started producing the Leaf, they announced all sorts of plans for how they would recycle and reuse the batteries when they were no longer useful in the cars.  In fact, though, few of these plans have really come into play yet, because cars and batteries are lasting far longer than expected. 

Part of the reason battery life has never really worried me from a practical or financial viewpoint is that battery range has also been increasing.  This page describes a study of Tesla Model S batteries (the Model S having been around longer than most), and includes a nice graph showing the battery degradation against mileage:

Tesla battery degradation vs mileage


Now, I happily drove my previous EV for 5 years, which had a range of about 70 miles.  My current car has a range of around 300 miles.  If it follows this trajectory, then after 20 years of my current 10,000 miles per year, it will still have a range of around 250 miles, which is plenty for almost anybody, and certainly for me!

Let’s talk about cobalt

The issues around the sometimes-worrying mining practices of the rarer elements involved in battery manufacture are well known, and a cause for concern.  Cobalt, in particular, is a key component of current batteries and is mined almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Somewhere in the range of 15-20% of this is done by small-scale mines, often in hazardous working conditions, and some modest proportion of this is done by children.

Certain companies, like Tesla, claim to have eliminated these sources from their supply chain, though how much they can really have achieved this is uncertain.  It’s partly for this reason that there is significant research going into creating cobalt-free batteries, but in the meantime, it is a situation which needs (and is getting) considerable attention.

It is, however, a situation for which we are all culpable, not just EV owners (though we EV owners take more of the blame).  But you’re probably reading this on a device that includes a battery containing cobalt.  And cobalt is used for many other processes too.

Something like 41% of cobalt production is for use in batteries.  And roughly two-thirds of that – about 27% of the total – is for electric vehicles.  (Sources here and here.)  So the proportion of cobalt used by EVs is about the same as the combined use in carbide-tipped drills, paints, and cobalt-based catalysts (the vast bulk of which are used, in fact, for oil-refining!)

So we should treat with skepticism those headlines that suggest that there’s child labour in cobalt mines in the Congo because of EVs.  Yes, some single-digit percentage of cobalt production does involve children, and yes, there’s more of it because of EVs.  We EV owners need to acknowledge that, while also pointing out that EVs represent only a quarter of the cobalt use in the world. Anyone who owns a laptop, iPad or mobile phone, or drives or travels in fossil-fuel-based vehicles… even people who like blue paint — we all need to take responsibility.

And while admitting that our electric vehicles do not come guilt-free, I think we do need to remind that bloke in the pub that powering internal combustion engines has been known to have one or two negative aspects too!  Conscience doth make cowards of us all.  🙂

How to be happy

I enjoy Andrew Curry’s newsletter Just Two Things, which appears in my inbox three times a week. One of his ‘things’ today was a summary of an article in Strategy+Business entitled “Why aren’t successful people happier?

The article is an interview (from a few years ago) with Laurie Santos, who runs a course at Yale on what psychology can tell us about what makes people happy – and especially, what the peer-reviewed scientific evidence from significant studies says.  I’ll quote from Curry’s precis, but the original article is also interesting.

Most Yale classes have 30-40 students signing up. Good ones might attract 100. Laurie Santos’ course on ‘the good life’, launched on 2018, attracted more than 1,000 students. She describes the course this way:

“What if I put together everything social science says about how to live a better, happier, and more flourishing life?”

About a quarter of Yale students take her course, which means she has to give it in a concert hall.

I’m paraphrasing Santos here, but she basically says that our brains lie to us about what is going to make us happy.

Some of this is familiar. We think that money will make us happier, but it only does this up to a certain point, which is around $75,000 a year in the US, according to research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton

We think that material things will make us happier, but they do for only a very short period of time, but then set a new higher baseline.

In fact, once you get to the point where your basic needs are met, more money often makes people less happy.  Also, people with better school grades are on average less happy than those with worse ones. And so on. 

What does make a difference is free time, and time spent with other people, especially time that is more about other people than yourself.

One of her key points is that if you have the option, swapping more money for more free time generally makes you happier than doing the opposite!  (Something I’ve always appreciated myself.)  The concept of ‘time affluence’ is a compelling one.

There are implications for business too, and you can read more in the S+B article, but I shall also be spending some time with Dr Santos’s podcast ‘The Happiness Lab’ (available by searching on your favourite podcast player).  

As she puts it in the first episode, “You can basically get an Ivy League course for free.”  I started listening while shaving this morning, and will continue while driving and walking the dog.  And that’s the great thing about podcasts: not only are they generally free (in the financial sense), but they don’t even impact your ‘time affluence’ either!


Perhaps Methuselah didn’t live 900 years after all?

On Sunday I had a video call with an old family friend, Marjorie, who has just celebrated her 103rd birthday, and is doing well. To put that in context, she was a teenager when the king acceded to the throne. No, not the current king. His grandfather. You know, the one whose daughter reigned for three score years and ten after him.

So I had longevity in mind when I saw Charles Arthur’s link to a rather nice study by S. J. Newman from the Australian National University, looking at the data about other people who have lived beyond 100 years.  The records of supercentenarians tend to cluster in particular geographic areas, and many reasons have been suggested for this.

As the paper says,

The observation of individuals attaining remarkable ages, and their concentration into geographic  sub-regions or ‘blue zones’, has generated considerable scientific interest. Proposed drivers of remarkable longevity include high vegetable intake, strong social connections, and genetic markers. Here, we reveal new predictors of remarkable longevity and ‘supercentenarian’ status.

It’s a nice read, and a good lesson in why those involved in data analysis sometimes need to dig a bit deeper.

The quick summary is that areas reporting large numbers of supercentenarians not only have high degrees of poverty, social interaction, and high vegetable intake.  They are also areas where reliable record-keeping was only recently introduced, or where there may be other reasons for assuming that reports of very old people are not entirely accurate.

Some of this can be deduced by looking at the data directly, for example the fact that “supercentenarian birthdates are concentrated on the first of the month and days divisible by five” or that some areas with numerous residents in their 100s seem to have surprisingly few residents in their 90s.

Sometimes there are other reasons for doubting the reliablility of the data:

The large-scale US bombing and invasion of Okinawa involved the destruction of entire cities and towns, obliterating around 90% of the Koseki birth and death records with almost universal losses outside of Miyako and the Yaeyama archipelago. Post-war Okinawans subsequently requested replacement documents, using dates recalled from memory in different calendars, from a US-led military government that largely spoke no Japanese.

Sometimes, past researchers have had to use their own judgement when assessing individual cases:

Individual case studies often highlight the role of personal judgement, and the potential for both conscious and unconscious bias, during age validation. For example, Jiroemon Kimura, the world’s oldest man, is widely considered to be a valid supercentenarian case. However, Kimura has at least three wedding dates to the same wife, has three dates of graduation from the same school, was conscripted to the same military three times in four years despite the mandatory conscription period being three years long, and has at least two birthdays.

Then there are the financial issues to consider:

In 1997 Italy discovered it was paying 30,000 pensions to dead people


A subsequent 2012 investigation by the Greek labor ministry was triggered by the “unusually high number of 9,000 Greek centenarians drawing old-age benefits”, a notable figure given the 2011 Greek census found only 2,488 living centenarians.

Yes, the sad conclusion is that:

Like the ‘blue zone’ islands of Sardinia and Ikaria, Okinawa represents deprived regions of rich, high-welfare states. These regions may have higher social connections, and arguably may have had higher vegetable intakes in the past, but they also rank amongst the least educated, poorest, highest-crime and least healthy regions of their respective countries.

Lastly, you know those reports that the longest-lived are often people whose lives are characterised by smoking, drinking and unhealthy lifestyles?  The paper has some wry comments about that too:

It is unclear why clinically excessive drinkers or daily smokers should survive at equal or higher rates, and increase in population frequency at extreme ages, unless these lifestyle factors are positively correlated with committing fraud or having an incorrect age.

And, referring again to the decisions of the researchers who build the databases:

A reliance on this type of opinion, where qualitative judgements are employed to shape public perceptions of authenticity, seems to be widely considered satisfactory. This seems particularly the case when explaining the otherwise anomalous health habits of supercentenarians. For example, Maier et al. issued a contradictory statement that Jeanne Calment smoked both one and two cigarettes a day for an entire century, followed by the justification that this counter-indication of health could be explained because she “possibly did not inhale at all”.

It was likewise observed that, from age 20 to age 117, the then-oldest man in the world, Christian Mortensen, smoked “mainly a pipe and later on cigars, but almost never cigarettes… he had also chewed tobacco…but never inhaled”.

Why two people would voluntarily choose to smoke for an accumulated 190 years, yet never inhale, was never explained.

A return to “Ulysses”

After my rather damning post about James Joyce’s Ulysses a little while ago, I decided I needed to make a more determined effort to sample more of it so that I knew whereof I spoke. I would make a serious attempt upon its slopes.

A couple of people suggested that it is better to listen to it being read by a good Irish actor than to read it yourself, and that made sense to me. Many people prefer Shakespeare when acted… but of course Shakespeare was meant to be acted. It’s also written in the language of four centuries ago. Ulysses is modern and was meant to be read, but it helps if a good actor interprets it for you because Joyce was either too lazy or too pretentious to make it easy for you with things like normal punctuation, or, in many cases, identifying who is actually speaking.  

I thought Hilary Mantel’s use of the third person present tense in the Wolf Hall trilogy was also a somewhat foolish affectation, but it turns out to work exceedingly well in audiobook form, giving it the immediacy of a screenplay. It’s a much more enjoyable read than Ulysses, but, again, it helps to have somebody interpret simple things like who the author actually means by ‘he’ in this sentence! It’s not that readers can’t work it out, it’s just that the need to do so imposes friction which is unnecessary and doesn’t, to my mind, add anything. Mantel was a good writer and didn’t need to resort to such novelties to get attention.

Anyway, I love audiobooks, and spent my one Audible credit on this reading of Ulysses by Tadhg Hynes. It runs to nearly 32 hours — almost a French working week — and both he, and Kayleigh Payne, who reads the part of Molly, do a really terrific job. So with their aid, I have now ‘read’ the majority of Ulysses; at least, I got well past the 50% mark, and then skipped to the last chapter. But even having read about two-thirds of it gives me a sense of achievement rather like having finished an exam or run a marathon. I achieved something, but I don’t have any desire to do it again.  Perhaps, since I skipped ahead when the tedium became too much, I can at least say I managed a half-marathon!

I was trying to work out, as I wandered the country lanes listening to it, what attracted people to Ulysses. It has originality, certainly, on various fronts. Few novelists spend as much time discussing defecation, masturbation and menstruation, for example, and one could argue that they therefore miss out on key parts of the human experience! So it’s certainly memorable in places.

But overall, here’s my Ulysses FAQ:

  • Is it compelling? No, it’s a long slog, requiring serious stamina.

  • Is it entertaining? Only rarely. I would chuckle lightly once every few hours.

  • Does it have a good plot? No. It has no discernible plot.

  • Are the characters interesting? No.

  • Is it edifying? No.

  • Is it educational? No.

  • Is it beautiful? No.

  • Is it clever?

Ah, well, there you have me. Yes, I have to admit that it is often very clever. And there’s the rub. I imagine that the more you study it, the more you see in it, and the more you appreciate the cleverness. People with lots of time on their hands — those taking Arts degrees, for example — can probably unwrap many more layers than I did, and so are more likely to think it great.  If you’re an English Lit. student and can set aside a week to listen to it while also reading it, and pause periodically to consult study notes explaining it, then the book would, I’m sure, yield a lot more.  Joyce’s intention was to make it obscure, saying that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality”. In that, he succeeded! I’m sure it’s great material for literary PhD theses.  

But here’s the thing… Is it actually worth that effort? It seems strange that an author should go to so much trouble just to be clever.  I spent about 20 hours in the company of the main characters, for example, without developing the slightest interest in them or any desire to go any further in their company. It’s almost as if the book deliberately has no story, no purpose, except to be clever. And that, I think, is its chief failing.

Now, there is some undeniably great poetry in there. Occasionally Joyce would capture in four words what might have taken others twenty-four, and I would tingle with appreciation. But there were far more occurrences of using twenty-four words for what could have been said in four, or probably eliminated completely, if he’d had a better editor.  (The fact that I felt able to skip the equivalent of about 200 pages without much risk of missing anything important will give you the idea.)

To return to my marathon analogy, it’s as if you’ve been condemned to run for hours through dull industrial estates and suburbs, so when you see the occasional cherry blossom you gasp, “Oh, how beautiful!”.  The real question is “Why didn’t the organisers pick a route through beautiful countryside in the first place?” The book has interesting aspects, but it could have been so, so much better if it had had a plot, interesting characters, less pretentious forms of originality, less unnecessary friction. A writer with the capabilities that Joyce very clearly has could have chosen to overlay his brilliance on a much better landscape, and then he would have written a truly great book.

So I think my conclusion is this: Ulysses has the lowest signal-to-noise ratio of anything I’ve ever read or listened to. It’s like straining hard to detect the snatches of music through a radio with too much static, and discovering in the end that the tune just wasn’t very good.

Infinite dominoes

This is a lovely bit of design. I’m not sure whether I’m more envious of someone who has so much Lego, or someone who has so much time to play with Lego…

(Direct link)

Language Skills for Time Travellers

Greetings, O time-traveller from the past!  Welcome to our decade!

You may have noticed some distinct eccentricities in the English spoken in our time, but here is a quick phrase book to help you understand some of our more curious modes of speech:

2020s English Traditional English
“What’s happenin’?” = Good morning/afternoon/evening
“upskilling” = training
“to incentivize” = to give an incentive to
“cosplay” = dressing up
“going forward” = in the future
“reaching out to” = contacting
“he gifted” = he gave
“wellness” = feeling happy
“poor mental health” = feeling unhappy
“tweeting” = (actually, you probably don’t need to bother about this one any more)

Now, let’s put what we’ve learned into practice. Here’s an example message that might be received by an employee of a company in the early 2020s from the senior management. Using the above table, you should be able to understand it:

What’s happening, everybody? Great news! We’re reaching out as part of our wellness and incentivization program to let you know that, going forward, we’ll be gifting you everything you need to participate in the cosplay sessions, which will take place on the evening before each of the monthly upskilling days. Remember, regular social activity has been proven to enhance your mental health!

What? Wait a minute…! You’re not staying?

Mostly Armless

Here’s a completely unsolicited recommendation for a product I just happen to like quite a bit and have been using for many years.

Having been fortunate enough to have excellent eyesight for the first four and a half decades of my life, I found that, as for so many people, things started to go downhill from there.  One of the first things I discovered was that reading in bed was decidedly tricky, especially if, like me, you like lying on your side, and the arms of your reading glasses are mashed into the pillow.

“Aha!”, I thought, “There’s a solution for this.  I need some pince-nez!”  And I tried experimenting with antique ones purchased from eBay, or cheap ones found elsewhere online. One of my early YouTube videos, nearly eight years ago, was about using them inside a cheap VR headset! But they were never very satisfactory.

And then I came across a French company named Nooz.  They now make a variety of different reading glasses, but it was the Nooz Originals that caught my eye; the pince-nez du jour, available with 5 different strengths from +1 to +3, and with a nice soft silicon bit to grip your nose.

Nooz pince-nez

They come in a pretty indestructible case which fits easily in your pocket or on your key ring, if you don’t, like me, just leave them on the bedside table.  Because one thing I can guarantee is that you won’t look quite as good wearing them in public as the models on the Nooz website.  Or at least, I won’t!

But optically, for a 20-quid pair of plastic glasses, they work really quite well, and they solved the reading-in-bed problem perfectly for me: I’ve used them ever since.

Q wearing Nooz

Now, where are my lorgnettes?

Chatting with the Bard?

Many, many years ago, I asked a friend of mine at Microsoft what he was working on, if he was able to tell me.  I’ve always remembered his response.  “I’m part of my company’s obsessive need to always try and play catch-up with Google.”

Well, the FT reported today that Google will soon be launching ‘Bard’, their competitor to ChatGPT, and no doubt many column inches will be written about their relative merits in the next few months.   Microsoft has invested heavily in ChatGPT and is planning to incorporate its output into the Bing search engine.  Perhaps, for once, they may have done a bit of leapfrogging?  

I doubt they’ll hold any advantage for very long: Google have a lot of very smart and very expensive researchers at DeepMind to draw upon, not to mention elsewhere in the company.  But there’s clearly a race on: if people really do want to get responses to their search queries in paragraph format, or even in essay format, then the novelty value might persuade large numbers who have never even tried Bing to give it a go, and perhaps stick with it.  That could make a significant difference.  (It may also spell the death knell for smaller search operations like DuckDuckGo who don’t have access to the same scale of resources.)

If such technologies do indeed become a key part of search results, then two questions immediately come to mind for me.

The first is the general question of attribution.  Google search is currently a way of finding out not so much what Google says, but what other people say… as prioritised by Google.  But you get back a series of citations of other websites, so you know where the answers come from. Even when people ask Google questions of opinion such as “Is the new Doctor Who any good?” — as, to my astonishment, they apparently do rather a lot! — the snippets that they get back are clearly attributed.

What, however, will happen when they ask such questions and get back a paragraph of human-sounding text that has been completely artificially generated?  How will they be able to judge its trustworthiness?  

I suppose one could make an argument that a bot which is gathering knowledge from the whole web may be better able to assess the wisdom of the crowd than one that returns just a subset of others’ individual opinions.  But it may be very hard to understand the origins of any responses given.  And I suspect people will start asking it more important questions. “My husband has done X, Y and Z. Should I divorce him?”

Perhaps each response will come with extensive footnotes and a bibliography.  That would make academics a bit happier, at least!

The second thought that occurred to me is related, and it made me think of my first ever trip to California back in the early 90s.

My hosts kindly took me to see a college football game at the Stanford Cardinals’ Stadium.  For those unfamilar with the scale of American college sports, I should perhaps mention that the old stadium had a seating capacity substantially larger than the current one, which only seats 50,000.  I remember getting very sunburned knees from sitting on the bleachers in the Californian sunshine. Anyway, as the one and only large football-y event I’ve ever attended on either side of the Atlantic, it was an enjoyable and educational experience, followed by a barbecue afterwards on the campus. 

It was also, though, a memorable introduction to the way commercialism was woven into everyday life in America.  The announcer, narrating the game, would say things like “That was an amazing play from Weinberger, and Stanford fans will also want to know about the amazing deals available at Smith’s Lincoln dealership in Menlo Park.”  It was seamless, the same tone of voice, even part of the same sentence as the official commentary. I had come from a country where you had to switch TV channels to get commercials at all, and ads were carefully segregated, in all media, so you couldn’t mistake them from real reporting.  I was shocked.

How, I wonder, will product-placement be incorporated into the chat-style results of future search engines?   And will we be able to tell?  Sponsors could pay to add a very small weighting to the inputs of the ML model that made it very slightly more likely to suggest cruise holidays than hotels, or to bring about very small shifts in political emphases.  Few individuals would ever be able to detect this had happened to them, but what’s the power of a small shift in tone of voice on a particular subject when applied across hundreds of millions of people?

Update: Since my writing of this over breakfast this morning, Microsoft have announced that the new version of Bing incorporating some of the ChatGPT technology is now live! Here’s the BBC’s initial take on it, and you can try it out at You may not get access to it very promptly unless you (a) have a Microsoft account and (b) install Microsoft plugins on your browser. And so the fun starts…

Deus ex machina

ChatGPT is a fun way to procrastinate. Here’s a recent experiment when I was meant to be doing something more important:

I think these are rather better than some earlier proposals?


I mentioned to my wife recently that I was having another go at reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Rose, who is extremely well-read and knows it because her rather large collection of degrees includes an English Literature one, gave a monosyllabic response.


“That”, I replied, “is a question I ask myself with each page I turn.”

I need to tread carefully here, because I have some very good friends who love Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, but the book is most famous for dividing opinions, so I hope we can remain friends! Many of us are grateful, though, that Virginia Woolf was so dismissive of it, because it shows we are in good company:

“Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th–merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what Eliot worships…”

Now, I admit to not having got very far with it yet (though I have also read and heard recitals of various extracts over the years). But while there are some books where I will occasionally jump to the end of the page to skip a dull section, Ulysses is, I think, the first where I can get bored in the middle of a paragraph and decide that it isn’t worth finishing.

It’s not that I dislike a challenge in my reading. I adore Shakespeare and, I suspect, read more poetry than the average bear. I even like cryptic crosswords. But all of those give you some reward for your persistence, in a way that this, so far, has not.

I suspect that Joyce, like many influencers after him, had just realised, after some fairly lacklustre books like A Portrait of the Artist, that shock and divisiveness are the best ways to go viral. It’s just too bad he didn’t decide to make it enjoyable as well.

Many years ago, I saw a review of the 700-plus-page tome: “Man walks around Dublin. Nothing much happens.” You could make similar claims about, say, Under Milk Wood, but that is, in my opinion, greatly superior. And much shorter. I think I might have enjoyed and appreciated Ulysses as poetry if Joyce had kept it to, say, about a dozen pages.

D. H. Lawrence was marginally more forgiving than Woolf:

“Ulysses wearied me: so like a schoolmaster with dirt and stuff in his head: sometimes good, though: but too mental”

I would agree: it is very clever in places, and Joyce certainly gets top marks for originality, but that can be an overrated characteristic, I think, in literature as in music or art; sometimes there are good reasons why nobody did it this way before now!

So I’m going to make a comparison which probably isn’t often made amongst the literati: Ulysses reminds me of Austin Powers. I saw that movie soon after it came out — on a plane, I think — and it annoyed me because every fifteen minutes or so I would decide it was too stupid to waste my time on, and be about to turn it off, and then something very funny would happen. I would laugh out loud, and keep watching for another 15 minutes. In that way, I may even have made it to the end; I forget.

Ulysses, after pages of boredom, brings up something to make the corners of my mouth curl slightly upwards… and then goes back to obscure tedium again. I fear that ratio won’t be enough to keep me going as far as Virgina Woolf, who famously gave up on it at page 200. Most of us only have about 4000 weeks on this earth, and there are so many enjoyable ways to spend them that I doubt I will squander many more on Joyce. But we will see.

I’m reading an electronic version (partly because neither of us has yet deemed it worthy of the bookshelf-space a paper copy would consume), and e-books have the interesting characteristic of making it harder to tell how far through them you have progressed. But I’m going to suggest that most paper books fall into one of two categories. There are those where at some point you think, “Oh, that’s sad, I’m getting near the end!” and there are those where you think, “Good God, how much more of this is there?”

‘Nuff said.

Ceci n’est pas un acteur

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s very important to keep up to date with AI and ‘deep fake’ technologies, even if you’re not interested in the technology itself.  This is because we regularly need to recalibrate something that, for all its fallacy, is deeply embedded in human psyche: the idea that the camera never lies.  

Being aware of just how easy it is to fake an Amazon review, or an email from your bank, is, I hope, a standard part of every child’s education now, but the capabilities of all computer-generated content are a constantly-moving target and we all need to keep abreast of the state of the art to avoid being caught unawares.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a 1-minute message from Morgan Freeman that has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks:

Also available here.

This is an actor impersonating Freeman’s voice, and a computer-generated video of Freeman himself.  I was then surprised to discover that it was actually created 18 months ago.  The technology will, of course, have improved considerably since then.  One user commented on the video, “How can this tech NOT be deployed in the 2024 election?”

It occurs to me that, soon, you’ll only be able to trust the words of famous people if you actually see them in person (because it’ll be a long time before robotics is as good as computer-generated imagery!)  Perhaps this will herald a return of the popularity of theatre…

(It is, however, also very enlightening to read the sections of Dr Steven Novella’s book talking about the thoroughly unreliable nature of eye-witness testimony, and of memory itself.  It’s not just the camera that’s fallible!)

And when it comes to video, you’ll soon have to trust only people who are not famous, because there will be insufficient training data available online for anyone to do a good fake of them.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser