Archived entries for Questions

Christmas List 2050

What’s on your Christmas List for 2050? You know, things you’d like but which have yet to be invented:

Socks which match themselves – everyone’s had mornings have there been where you’re already running late and now you’re cursing the sock drawer like a madman, hopping around with one sock on, throwing clothes everywhere and insisting that your wife/boyfriend/mother/pet dog must have hidden the other sock out of spite…

Intelligent suitcases – it’s Summer, it’s the holidays and you’re just about to leave for that long-awaited break. You’re all packed, when you suddenly remember that you’ve forgotten to include your washbag. Damn. You’d spent all weekend sorting it all, packing and re-packing so that everything you needed fitted into your suitcase perfectly, and now your shaving cream means you can’t close the thing.

Intellicase (TM) would solve all your problems by re-arranging and re-adapting itself using only the power of mathematics and a pre-programmed spatial awareness you can’t even begin to work out. You start the holiday smiling rather than swearing…

Finding a free table – you’ve arrived in a new town or city and you’re starving. where’s good to eat? There are numerous apps out there which will cleverly use your location to find, rate and recommend restaurants in the area. You look inside, people are enjoying what looks like absolutely delicious food. “Great”, you think, stepping inside…only to be told that you should have booked ahead, I’m sorry Madam but we’re full.

What’s need is a restaurant app which also lets you know whether the good restaurants actually have any free tables. Proper tables, too, not the ones that they cram together so close that when you lift up your fork, you accidentally jab your neighbour in the face with your elbow.

What would be on your list?

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Rain and reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to reach into the attic, among the big jumpers, mattres springs and those other objects you have absolutely no recollection of purchasing, and get down that dusty old box labelled “Things To Do This Winter”. Like the class bully on the first day of a new term, autumn came along this afternoon in the form of a fierce gale, broke my umbrella and told me just what it thought of my summery memories and long, lazy evenings on the terrace. Not to mention just where I could shove my new sunglasses.

So in the spirit of getting through Winter by taking on something new (always a good way to keep going through the dark days ahead), I’ve started attending a philosophy class, with the School of Philosophy, having studied something of the subject at university. It’s quite different, though, because whereas my studies involved looking at the original texts of Plato, Hegel and friends, this course has an emphasis on the more practical side of things. So it looks at, for example, how to take a philosophical statement such as “It is easier today to triumph over evil habits than it will be tomorrow” (Confucius) and discusses how and why this might be the case. Then the class is encouraged to put this into practice during the week, to look at, say, doing something that needs doing immediately rather than putting it off until another time, and so testing Confucius’ theory in an everyday setting. The idea is that you then at the next lesson discuss the results, and try to work out why a certain philosophical idea worked or didn’t work. To learn philosophy by living it.

It’s only been the second week so far, but it’s certainly been enjoyable. I like the idea of sitting around and giving feedback on how useful, or not, these ideas have been. For me, it’s taking philosophy back to its original purpose of questioning assumptions and trying to talk through the deeper meaning of what goes on in our lives on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the course might have on my usual winter mood of complaining bitterly about the cold and the rain. Why, I might ask, am I feeling angry at the icy rain that’s trickling down the inside of my shirt? Will I be able to see the bigger picture if I’m shivering wreck waiting for a tram that’s 20 minutes late? I can’t wait to find out.

Left in the dark

EU-Speak

Here are some fine examples of the sort of sentences you can find in EU press releases which might leave you unconvinced that, as the EU’s communications chief Margot Wallström puts it, “communicating with the citizens of the European Union has been a primary concern for this Commission from the very start.” It’s not hard to see how the following extracts indicate that citizens tend to be left in the dark over what the EU actually does:

“The Organic Farming Campaign was developed with an umbrella–style approach that serves the interests of organic operators within the EU and empowers them to actively promote organic farming.”

In this press release on organic farming, what on earth do the words “developed with an umbrella-style approach” actually mean? Does anybody use this sort of language in real life? If your next-door neighbour called and told you that “I think we can sort that problem of your faulty wiring/creaking stairs/farting cat with an umbrella-style approach, John”, you’d think the poor man had finally lost his mind. Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me picture what an “organic operator” might be, short of some sort of root vegetable manning the phone lines.

Have you heard what’s on the programme for the Ambassadors Event for 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue? Well, keep this to yourself, but apparently “going beyond an exchange of opinions, this event will illustrate dialogue between artists through creative performances – through music, film, art and literature.” Anyone understand that last part? You can’t relate to this kind of language, in the same way that it’s pretty unlikely that you’d relate to someone who, on walking out of a spectacular concert, and turned to their friends and said, “Man, that was amazing, the way those guys managed to illustrate dialogue through creative performances, it totally blew my mind.”

Fishermen might have trawl nets for fish, it looks like they also need them to understand how EU policies are affecting them. Member states need to step up and improve their maritime policies, says the EU, so according to this press release from July, “the Commission proposed to Member States that they should inject an integrated approach into their domestic maritime governance, which will better equip the EU as a whole to achieve its ambitions for preserving and exploiting the potential of the oceans and seas in an optimized fashion.” How you inject an approach, let alone an integrated one, (“Now brace yourself for this, dear, I’m just going to inject an integrated approach towards tidying the bathroom cupboard.”) is beyond me. Why simply “make the most” of the Summer holidays when you can be “preserving and exploiting the potential…in an optimised fashion”?

Ironically, it is another press release on “How to reconcile the national and European dimension when communicating Europe”, that manages to sum up the conclusion of this post in a surprisngly clear and concise manner. The European economic and social committee (EESC) quite rightly said that more needs to be done at the national and local level because “It is impossible to communicate to 500 million Europeans from Brussels.” What the EESC also points out, however, is that what is badly needed is for the EU “to use clear and simple language.”

You never know, it might improve, if the EU’s communication departments take the time to think about whether or not what they’re actually writing makes sense.

To put it another way, using an EU phrase, if “the integrated thinking which is at the heart of this policy permeates into policy-making and executive action.”

Knight of the Order of the Thistle

I’ve been thinking about establishment. Partly it’s because, in my new job as a journalist on EU affairs, I’ve been in contact with several MEPs and commissioners and this morning I was taking pictures of the president of the European parliament for a feature on, yep, you’ve guessed it, electric bikes.

What also prompted these thoughts is the fact that the “in-house” style at the magazine follows the same style as the Guardian newspaper, i.e. to use lowercase words wherever possible. Writing in this way got me thinking about titles and honours and the establishment in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how my opinions change as I come into more frequent contact with politicans and heads of different organisations. At the moment, I still read a title like “Professor Sir Gilbert Knockbottle OBE PhD FRS LLM FRCP KCB PRA MSTA” with a certain amount of awe, even though I know that for a lot of these titles, it’s a case of approaching the right people with the right words and the right wine.

The other day I was trying to get in touch with somebody who is a professor and a knight, and again as I was dialling the numbers I thought about what I was going to say to somebody who was considered of great importance both in society and also in academic circles, i.e. on paper, both brilliant and charming. I’m not a particularly tied to social convention as such – I’ve worked for Greenpeace, for example – but there’s something about knowing that this person was an established authority that makes me want to make a good impression.

My guess is that the more time you are able to spend on the “inside” – in government departments, royal colleges, academic circles, international institutions and so on – the more you become aware of the tricks used to build up a favourable reputation. Perhaps I’ll come across these tricks the more contact I have with EU officials. Of course, there are exceptions where genuine hard work merits proper recognition. However, I have my suspicions that most post-nominal letters might turn out to be less about long-term committment and more about long-life Chateau Latour.

Fringe benefits

It was time, on Friday, to get a haircut. My hair had grown to the point where it could have housed a small family of birds for the winter; something had to be done. So off I went to the nearest hairdressers, and thus the ordeal began…

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How would you like it cut?”

 (Remember this is in French and my vocab on hair terminology is somewhat limited…) “Well, it’s too thick, you see, so I’d like it thinner.”  

“Right. Do you want it layered?”

“Layered? Er…can I just have it cut?”

“Well what sort of style did you have in mind?”

 “I was hoping to go for the “Now I Have Less Hair Than When I Came In” look that seems to be-”

(Of course now she’s giving me a look that I do not want to see on someone grasping a pair of sharp scissors, so I stop talking. Sharpish.)

“You already have layers, Monsieur”

 “Of course I do! Silly me! You see, sometimes you forget, don’t you? Forget to take the rubbish out, forget to feed the cat, forget your hair is layered….”

“How much length do you want me to take off?”

“Well, actually, can I…sorry, please could you keep it quite long, if that’s alright?”

“I’ve got a better idea”

(Oh, Christ. Here it comes. Skinhead. Mohican. Just A Fringe.)

“Just let me cut it.”

 Well, it was a fantastic haircut, in the end. I wish all hairdressers could be like that from the beginning, instead of making me feel like I’m taking part in some sort of Hairdressers’ Mastermind.



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