Spotted on today’s afternoon dog-walk.
I really should have taken a video clip, because others were arriving and it was great fun watching them come into land.
My brother Simon’s comment was, “I hope they watch out for quacks in the ice.”
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?”
We’ve just been re-watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it was just as splendid as ever.
It reminded me of my second visit to New Zealand, in 2007, and the day I spent walking the Tongariro Crossing; a dramatic volcanic landscape where many of the scenes in The Return of the King were filmed.
It’s fun showing it in gritty monochrome, but in fact some of its drama comes from the occasional bright colours amidst a landscape of Martian barreness.
There are vast structures through which you can imagine rivers of heat must have poured.
And some of the rocks look almost like man-made art installations.
This other-worldly landscape emerges from placid surrounding plains, so you can look out and see what life is like back on Earth.
It’s a fascinating place, and makes for a most unusual one-day hike. Recommended, if you get the chance to visit.
On our mantlepiece, we have a small golf-ball-sized piece of volcanic lava that I brought home to Rose after my trip. “Here you are, darling; I’ve brought you a bit of Mount Doom!”
I always had a talent for romantic gestures.
Mobile phones, before and after the iPhone. An image by Josh Heifferich from 2012.
An email today from my American friend Henry Happel included several photos from their visits to us over the years. Lots of happy memories!
One thing that jumped out at me in a couple of the pictures, though, was that my smartphones were clearly visible. Not, as might be the case nowadays, because everyone was perpetually gazing at the things, but because I carried them on my belt, or some other convenient external location:
That’s a low-slung Blackberry 7100t, which was an exceedingly fine device. It had a pleasing phone-like shape because, unlike many other Blackberries of the time which were full-qwerty-keyboard landscape-orientation devices intended only for email and messaging, this was a phone too and had a keyboard half-way between a traditional phone and a qwerty one:
As I recall, it worked exceedingly well and was very nicely made. External technology changes outdated it pretty quickly, but I still think of it as one of the better gadgets I’ve owned.
Note too, of course, that phones didn’t include a camera back then, so I also have one of those on display on my belt. It’s probably a Canon Digital IXUS.
And it wasn’t just geeks like me who valued the usefulness of the phone-holster over any compromises in sartorial elegance. A review of the 7100t at the time talks about how an earlier Blackberry device ‘seems to be finding its way onto the belts of business users around the world.’ Mind you, perhaps most business users concealed it somewhat beneath their jacket…
Anyway, those were the days when phones actually changed significantly from year to year, and shortly afterwards, I could be seen sporting a Nokia E61.
(Amongst other things, this was, I think, the first phone I had which was capable of connecting to WiFi.)
It, too,was generally attached my belt, despite the fact that it was significantly smaller than my current iPhone (except in thickness, where the iPhone wins by a few millimetres). Were our pockets actually smaller back then?
I guess we hadn’t yet discovered that the main reason for having pockets in the first place is to carry your phone! We used to need pockets for things like car keys and wallets, but I’m about to head off to the supermarket and my phone will perform both of those functions for me, so my pockets are otherwise pretty much unencumbered.
Still, if you find yourself directing a period drama set between about 2000 and 2007, you might want to add some realism by picking up from eBay a few of these relics of a bygone age… even if they’re only part of the costumes.
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.
Here’s something I didn’t know until this evening. Havoc can be used as a verb. I havoc, he havocs, we have been havocking, we all havocked. It means to devastate, to lay waste to, as in ‘they havocked the city’.
To ‘cry havoc’, as Mark Antony suggests may be appropriate in Julius Caesar, comes from the old French crier havot, which means, basically, to order an army to lay waste and plunder.
So now you know. I hope that one of the reasons you read this blog is to learn new words for use in day-to-day conversation. What will you havoc today?
And there’s a gold star for anybody who can suggest why I might have been thinking about havoc at this particular time…
Following my post including reminiscences about my early TV memories yesterday, a couple of readers pointed out that I must have been mistaken about TVs with two buttons, one for BBC1 and one for BBC2, which were unable to display ITV. They point out that ITV actually started well before BBC2 (though it was London-based initially and I don’t think it got to us for a while), whereas BBC2, which didn’t start until 1964, was much more widely distributed.
They may be right, though I wasn’t born until 1967 and lived in Africa for the first three years of my life, so didn’t see a television until a few years into the 70s anyway. My memories of what they could do was based more, probably, around the capabilities of the second-hand ones that we and our neighbours could afford, rather than what was the norm for the technology at the time.
But the real reason I think I’m mistaken is that it was actually BBC2 that was difficult to receive on early sets, because it was broadcast using the new, higher-resolution 625-line standard, and TVs that were designed for the older 405-line system often weren’t compatible.
Another thing I do clearly remember, though, many years later, is seeing my first TV remote control, which belonged to my uncle, who worked in television. The device had just one button, which would change channels. By clicking it, you could cycle through all three of them. The great thing, though, was how crude the remote was: it was basically a big piezo-electric spark generator. One you pressed it hard enough to make an almighty click, it would generate enough of an EMP pulse for the TV to pick up the instruction and change channel. I never saw another of these; I guess the system must have been quite rare, which was probably good, because otherwise one click would probably have changed the channels of all your neighbours’ TVs as well!
We were clearly well behind the times, though, if remotes like this one were really available in the States in 1961.
Griff Rhys Jones, in one of his books, talks about being given Coca Cola as a child when visiting the rather grand neighbours down the road, an Australian doctor and his wife:
“Real Coca-Cola was something we never saw anywhere else. Not simply because it was an expensive luxury, but because, like American comic books and ITV, it was something inherently corrupting, although not apparently to Australians.”
This made me laugh out loud. We also grew up with the curse of fake Coke, which was even worse than the real stuff, and with the same general understanding about comics and ITV. (I realise now, of course, that my mother was entirely correct on these points!)
For my foreign readers, ITV was our first commercial TV channel, and, though it started broadcasting in 1955, that was only in London. It took a while to reach us, partly because we lived 30+ miles away from the capital, and partly because many early television sets only had one or two channel buttons on them, to let you switch between BBC1 and BBC2. ITV had a stigma because it was commercial – supported by advertising – and we knew that the very best firms, like John Lewis, didn’t need pay for advertising because their products were good enough without it.
It wasn’t just us, though: this feeling was widespread. A couple of years ago I heard somebody on the radio talking about his working-class childhood in a small terraced house in an industrial town. He described how, if they were watching ITV when somebody rang the doorbell, they would switch to BBC2 before answering the door to avoid potential embarrassment.
Cartoons and comics were similar. We weren’t allowed comic books, in general, being encouraged to read proper things instead, so the dubious and unsociable activities of characters like Dennis the Menace were things we only glimpsed in other kids’ comics at school. And, for us as for Griff, cartoons and comics were particularly suspect if they had come from the other side of the Atlantic (unless they had first been vetted by the BBC).
All of this was very right and proper and I have absolutely no regrets about it. But it does mean that, having married an American wife, I’m now discovering some Christmas children’s classics that had not previously come my way. Even though we (thankfully) have no children ourselves, if you can’t re-live your childhood, or your spouse’s childhood, at Christmas, when can you?
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) is one I can frankly live without. The attempt to capture a Christmas spirit while ruthlessly expunging any mention of its religious origins leaves me cold. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is rather better, though I do think Schulz is better in print than on film.
But, to my surprise, I find I rather enjoy Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the stop-motion animation that has been a standard part of Christmas for millions of households for more than half a century, but which I hadn’t seen until fairly recently. But I discover that its origins were highly commercial.
The original story of Rudolph actually dates back to the second world war, when a Chicago department store wanted a short Christmas book to give away to children. Robert L May, an employee in the advertising department, came up with the story – here’s the original manuscript – and they printed more than two million copies.
A decade later, perhaps not realising what they had created, his employers kindly gave him the rights to the story. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a songwriter, and May talked him into writing a song based around it… with the result was that May and his family, previously in serious financial difficulties, were able to live very comfortably for the rest of his life and beyond.
The enormously-expensive animation was funded by General Electric, who also produced four advertisments for their houshold appliances featuring characters from Rudolph. An interesting bit of trivia is that, a couple of years before, GE had also invented the first (red) LEDs, one of which they were able to use to make Rudolph’s nose glow.
For me, part of the fun comes from the little twists. Hermey, pictured above with Rudolph, is one of Santa’s elves – Wow, what a job, children! – and yet he’s downhearted because his real ambition is to be a dentist. And the elves come up with a nice song for Santa, but he’s decidedly unimpressed. “That ridiculous elf-song is driving me crazy!”
In this day and age, I guess kids might not be very impressed with the animation. But it’s worth considering, while watching it, the vast amount of labour required to create each frame of an hour-long stop-motion animation, using the technology of sixty years ago.
We watched it again a few days ago, though, and one thing jumped out at me as not sounding quite right. The young reindeer are referred to as fawns… and Rudolph will grow up to be a fine buck. I went and did some reading and found out that my concerns were valid, and learned a few other things about reindeer too.
Now, since Christmas cards generally show reindeer with a fine set of antlers at Christmas-time, you could probably use the above to win a bet at the pub.
“Will you buy me a pint if I convince you that Santa’s sleigh is actually towed by cows?”
For more background on ‘Rudolph’, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, and this piece from NPR.
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.
Today I did something I never thought I would do. I went and had a look at ‘Truth Social’, Donald Trump’s own social media platform. This was for a reason that I’ll explain in a minute, but it’s interesting to note that the front page looks quite attractive.
“Truth Social is America’s ‘Big Tent’ social media platform that encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating on the basis of political ideology”, it says. Mmm. It sounds quite a nice place to be. There’s a big button encouraging you to create an account. “Let’s get started!”, it suggests, offering, “Social Media Without Discrimination”.
Well, I had no intention of creating an account, or even allowing it to create any cookies on my machine, but I was interested to see that, if you came across the site without knowing the background, there wasn’t much on the front page that might put a normal person off.
However, I knew the software they were using and so was able to guess the URLs I could use to see the content without signing up. And it was revealing.
You see, somebody on Twitter had posted, side by side, a Christmas tweet from Joe Biden and a Christmas ‘Truth’, as they call it, from Donald Trump. The contrast was so vivid that I thought the Trump one had to be a spoof, and I wanted to see if I could track them down to check.
But no, it was genuine, so I thought I’d share with you the Christmas messages from these two men:
Of course, it would be easy to be selective and deliberately pick unfavourable posts from one side. So, to be fair, I also include the next post from each of them so you can make a more informed decision:
I do not wish to engage in any political debate here, especially not at this time of year, so having presented these Yuletide messages, I will leave you entirely free to come to your own conclusions, at this season of peace and good will to all men.
But I will offer the following benediction to all my readers:
May your festive period, and the coming year for all of us, be filled with one of these philosophies rather more than the other!
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser