Friends this side of the Atlantic may not be familar with the story of John Henry, but you can read about him on Wikipedia. John Henry, the story goes, was a ‘steel-driving man’ whose prowess with the hammer was formidable.
At one point, he took on a steam hammer, side-by-side, and won… but the effort also killed him.
It’s not quite clear whether John Henry was ever anything more than a legend, but he has inspired statues, books, animations, compositions by Aaron Copland… and almost everybody seems to have recorded musical versions of the story, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Lonnie Denegan, Harry Belafonte, Woodie Guthrie… to name but a few. For a brief version, here’s Tennessee Ernie Ford, or I rather like the slightly longer story as recorded by Johnny Cash.
I’ve been trying to get ChatGPT to do some recursion, using prompts like “Write a letter explaining how to use ChatGPT to write letters about how to use ChatGPT to write letters”, but the results, though coherent, are not very satisfying.
So instead I tried confusing it with, “Give an example of the kind of question you would be unable to answer, and then answer it.” It did well on the first bit… but ignored the second.
OK, I thought, I’d better stick to something simple, like the question that all hyperintelligent machines should be able to answer.
Not being well up on Italian hits of the early 70s, I only learned about this today, but I think it’s great.
In 1972, the singer Adriano Celentano released a single called ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’. The words are gibberish, but intended to sound like someone singing in English with an American accent – or at least, how such a song sounds to a non-English speaker.
“Ever since I started singing”, he once said, “I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, because I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”
According to Wikipedia, the song was very popular, reaching the top 10 in several European countries, and, if you search, you can find a couple of other versions featuring Celentano, and tributes by numerous groups since. But this is my favourite; I certainly found my foot tapping to its beat… and I thought the choreography with mirrors was great!
All of this reminded me of a trip to Indonesia in my youth, where I ended up playing guitar with a group of guys who thought that Eric Clapton sang about “Snog, Snog, Snogging on Seventh Floor”. (I wrote a post about this and about ‘Mondegreens’ a little while ago… let’s see… gosh! – even that post was more than 16 years ago!)
Anyway, today I started down this particular rabbit-hole thanks to Charles Arthur pointing me at a Twitter thread containing some other linguistic gems, including this clip of Sid Caesar’s performance at one of Bob Hope’s birthday parties sometime in the 80s. A five-minute comedic performance with almost no words that can be understood by anybody:
Now I seize the empty bottles
Take them to the moonlit doorstep
Bid them journey safely onward
Ponder where the gods will take them…
Leave them there beneath the starlight
Leave them there beneath the doorbell
Turn the latch upon the door lock
Climb the stairs to sleep and wonder.
Then the midnight milkman cometh
Creeping o’er the crunchy gravel
Coming to the moonlit doorstep
Coming with the reinforcements.
Bottles new or long-recycled
Bottles young or aged with wisdom
Some have seen a thousand breakfasts
Seen a thousand frost-free fridges
Sat there on the kitchen table
Sat there by the coffee-maker…
Sat there on our autumn doorstep.
Then the milkman, bending over
Clasps the empties to his bosom
Takes them to their waiting transport
Takes them to their future breakfasts
Where, renewed, refreshed, replenished
Sitting by the coffee-maker
Do they talk of where they came from?
Do they tell of other kitchens?
Household feuds, excited children,
Life around the morning table?
Frothing latte, steaming porridge,
Milk with cookies, tea for comfort?
Do they speak of years of service?
Doorsteps grand and thresholds cozy
Meals they’ve seen, and parties hosted
Kettles boiled while crumpets toasted?
Ere their daily task is over
Ere the rinse, and then the doorstep.
Now the milkman, bending over
Clasps the empties to his bosom
Takes them to their waiting transport
Takes them to their future breakfasts…
This is an old sketch, but a decade or so on, it’s still rather relevant at some of the supermarkets I visit:
I’m still bemused, long after we stopped using disposable carrier bags, at how many of these machines still can’t cope with the weight of a bag you’ve brought yourself. Even those that supposedly have a ‘Use own bag’ facility always end up calling a staff member for support…
Waitrose, of course, was ahead of the game on this one. They introduced their self-scan-as-you-shop system about 16 years ago, and we’ve been using it ever since. And if you do prefer to scan at the end using their self-checkout tills, there’s none of this ridiculous weighing business.
As a friend put it some years ago…
“Waitrose? That’s the place where, as you walk out, they mention that it would be awfully nice if you gave them some money?”
It’s rather pleasing that, after all this time, that system still seems to work for them.
Samson had his long hair, Asterix and Obelix their magic potion, but for today’s man-about-town wishing to increase his muscular prowess, I discover that this small and convenient tube of ‘Strength Gel’ is readily available from most pharmacies!
It’s surprising, because Anbesol is a name I knew from my youth. A treatment for mouth ulcers and similar dental complaints, it was packaged as a very small vial of liquid. Well, the strength gel, it turns out, can also be used for this antiseptic and anaesthetic purpose, and, indeed, has such a powerful calming and numbing effect that I’m surprised Simon and Garfunkel didn’t write a song about it.
As to why it might be Adult strength gel, though, I can only leave to your imagination. The packaging is very uninformative about any use in more intimate situations, but I would suggest any experimental applications be done very, very cautiously.
I discover that what has been happening to my waistline recently is perfectly normal and natural, and lots of other people are being tested for it too.
It’s called ‘lateral flow’.
I’ve had lots of fun comments about The Windowizer. People asked things like:
Amidst these customer support questions, I’ve been working on a conference-call version to help you communicate with groups of other people, but if there are more than about three or four participants, it becomes a lot less portable, because they also need some scaffolding to appear in the correct layout. Work needed there.
My friend Shaw also sent me this cartoon:
A think the spirit of Heath Robinson is still alive…
Somehow, these days, I can’t get as excited about the way people push things through my letterbox as I used to, nor as willing to write reviews about the way the package slipped to the floor.
Well, it slipped through the door very nicely, but I think they forgot a third button on the form:
As an aside, I’m also slightly bemused that they still provide a ‘track your package’ link at this point?
|11:03||Deposited through letterbox|
|11:03||Landed on doormat|
|11:07||En route to kitchen table|
|11:08||Delayed by conversation with wife|
|11:00-17:00||Expected arrival time in kitchen|
Mind you, lots of people are more excited about things these days. I got some really great news yesterday that EE had updated one of my handset configuration files.
Time to crack open the bubbly.
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser