Category Archives: General

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.

A phrase to ponder

Merry Christmas, everyone! (Or Merry Boxing Day, for those of you who receive my posts by email the following day!)

I was browsing the forum of the Dinghy Cruising Association yesterday, and came across a nice line from a Steve Husband, who said he had been told by his dad that

Mother is the necessity of invention.

That probably means something different to everybody, so make of it what you will!

Your history can come back to haunt you…

For those who haven’t been following all the fun activity on Twitter recently, the platform has been going through, shall we say, some challenges!  

For example, Elon Musk, the advocate of complete freedom of speech, has been blocking the accounts of people who even referred to a system that tracked the location of his private jet, despite the fact that it’s based on publicly-available data. He’s particularly got a grudge against journalists, which is ironic since they’re generally the ones who are the most fond of Twitter.

But the latest move is even more amusing.  Musk is clearly concerned about the very significant exodus of Twitter users to platforms such as Mastodon (which is causing mainstream outlets like the Wall Street Journal to publish How to use Mastodon articles).

In the last few days, people started to notice that any attempts to post a tweet containing a link to a Mastodon account have been blocked. So you can’t directly say on Twitter, ‘In future you can find me on Mastodon here….’, at least not with a link as well.   I had to employ some technical tricks to bypass their checks in one of my test Tweets!  Others have done similar things – Ben Gracewood suggests that you can just make a QR code of your Mastodon link and post that…

Well, Twitter has now published a new official policy on the ‘Promotion of alternative social platforms’ from which the following are excerpts:

We know that many of our users may be active on other social media platforms; however, going forward, Twitter will no longer allow free promotion of specific social media platforms on Twitter.

At both the Tweet level and the account level, we will remove any free promotion of prohibited 3rd-party social media platforms, such as linking out (i.e. using URLs) to any of the below platforms on Twitter, or providing your handle without a URL:

Prohibited platforms:

  • Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Post and Nostr
  • 3rd-party social media link aggregators such as,


People have pointed out that Twitter is quite happy to promote itself, and Twitter content, on its Facebook page, which does rather smack of hypocrisy.  And of course, you can happily link to Twitter content from Mastodon and almost any other system on the net.

So I was delighted to discover that back in June, one of Elon’s tweets contained the following:

The acid test for any two competing socioeconomic systems is which side needs to build a wall to keep people from escaping? That’s the bad one!


It’s great fun watching this — a good pre-Christmas drama worthy of a future movie, no doubt.  In the past, I’ve been willing to smile at most of Musk’s eccentricities and cut him a lot of slack, partly because he has still, in my opinion, managed to do more than any man living to combat climate change.  But there is a certain feeling of Greek tragedy to the last few weeks.

Still, it’s could be easy to read too much into this. Mastodon is growing fast – I think the last figure I saw was over 8M users, but Twitter’s millions are considerably more numerous.  While it’s no longer a hip place to be, it’s not going away any time soon (unless it goes suddenly bankrupt!)    My account there is now approaching 15 years old, and I still have it, though I can certainly imagine that I might not have one by this time next year.

And I wouldn’t have any withdrawal symptoms if it went away.  At the start of the Covid lockdown, I was concerned that I might end up spending too much time on social media, so I used Apple’s ScreenTime facility to limit my combined viewing of Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn on all my devices to a total of 15 mins per day. (I don’t do TikTok, and I deleted my Facebook account years ago after my 2017 New Year’s Resolution was to be Facebook-free and I found life got better as a result, so they were the services that mattered.)  I still have that limit in place, though at present it doesn’t include my new Mastodon apps!

I wonder what 2023 will hold for the world of social media.  Blogs, email and RSS feeds, of course, will continue to operate quite happily, and they at least will certainly still be here as next Christmas approaches.

Update, a couple of hours later:

Wow – interesting things now happening on Elon’s Twitter feed….

Screenshot 2022 12 18 at 23 47 53

The poll has 11 hours to run. Now, it may be largely symbolic, because if he stopped running it, but continued owning it… I wonder, if he stepped down, whether the share price would rise enough for him to be able to sell it within too great a loss?

Anyway, I’m left with the difficult voting choice: if Musk stays, we might end up with a world without Twitter, which I think would probably be a better place.
On the other hand, we’d probably still have a Twitter, but it would be his kind of Twitter, which would be worse…

In general, I think a reversion to the old Twitter would be the best, so I voted for his departure in that hope. There’s something to be said for the devil you know.

The devil being Twitter, in this case. I guess that needs clarification…


The best nativity scene?

Spotted this on Twitter. It’s five years old, but I think it’s great!

And I liked the comment below it by Kevin Leroux:

Marty! You’ve got to get Joseph and Mary to kiss at the Bethlehem Ball tonight or it’s all ruined!


Paul Graham is a writer I’ve long admired.

I remember hearing him speak at one of Tim O’Reilly’s original ‘Foo Camps’ in California, and, in that small group setting, he told us about some research he’d been doing, and was drawing some interesting conclusions – but he had stopped because he realised he’d never be able to publish it.

If it were true, it would have general interest, but he discovered (late in the process) that it would also apply disproportionately to certain ethnic groups and would therefore probably be branded as racist, even though he had had no knowledge of the connection with ethnicity when he started researching it. So he stopped working on it, and turned his mind to other things.

I wonder if he had this in mind when he wrote this excellent essay on the modern concept of heresy.

“A heresy”, he says, “is an opinion whose expression is treated like a crime — one that makes some people feel not merely that you’re mistaken, but that you should be punished.”

Here’s an excerpt:

For example, when someone calls a statement “x-ist,” they’re also implicitly saying that this is the end of the discussion. They do not, having said this, go on to consider whether the statement is true or not. Using such labels is the conversational equivalent of signalling an exception. That’s one of the reasons they’re used: to end a discussion.

If you find yourself talking to someone who uses these labels a lot, it might be worthwhile to ask them explicitly if they believe any babies are being thrown out with the bathwater. Can a statement be x-ist, for whatever value of x, and also true? If the answer is yes, then they’re admitting to banning the truth. That’s obvious enough that I’d guess most would answer no. But if they answer no, it’s easy to show that they’re mistaken, and that in practice such labels are applied to statements regardless of their truth or falsity.

The clearest evidence of this is that whether a statement is considered x-ist often depends on who said it. Truth doesn’t work that way. The same statement can’t be true when one person says it, but x-ist, and therefore false, when another person does.

It’s nicely written, and he very carefully avoids mentioning any specific examples of modern ‘heresies’, because, “I want this essay to work in the future, not just now.”

Worth reading and considering carefully.

Thanks to John Naughton for the link.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser