Category Archives: Popular culture

How to save a week in a day

ClockAt a conservative estimate, I’ve saved around 4 hours today. Yesterday, it was more like 7. The day before, I saved more than a week in a day – possibly the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever get.

My time-saving frame of reference is my usual followthehumming period of 28 years. Back then, according to my diary, I was developing photos through a complex process based on visits to a high street chemist. Then I was taking my printed photos and sending them to friends and family in small physical packages transported by a network of government-owned couriers.

When I wasn’t doing this, I was waiting around for friends with no notion of where they were, how long it would be before they arrived, or even whether I was in the right place.

Then of course there were the times I was trying to find my way somewhere, having forgotten to bring along my unfeasibly large and unfoldable map.

Given that we now do all this and more with a quick finger swipe, we’re surely saving oodles of time as a species…so the question is, what are we doing with it all?

Fortunately we do have one place that might just give us an idea. Google’s annual list of most popular searches is a decent place to get a sense of what the collective consciousness is thinking about when it isn’t watching cute cat videos on YouTube.

Here in the UK last year, we were most concerned with how to draw, kiss, crotchet, meditate, knit, twerk, squat, shuffle, revise and wallpaper – in that order. Our favourite cake recipe was chocolate and our preferred holiday destination was Paris. We were curious in particular about Banksy, Frenchy and Dappy, and what Ebola, ALS, fracking and love were.

Globally, we searched more for the departed Robin Williams than anyone else, and also wondered mightily about flappy bird, the ice bucket challenge, and Eurovision’s Conchita Wurst. And the world’s most searched YouTube video wasn’t actually a cat, but a slightly disturbing mutant giant spider dog.

So it turns out that we’re actually using any time we may have saved to do more of what we’ve always done – gossip, communicate, have fun, discover the world, work, get stuff done, learn new things, and find out what the hell is going on around here anyway.

It’s a case of more (and more) of the same.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. These fundamental interests and activities – and in particular the opportunity to gossip – are exactly what Yuval Noah Harari describes in his excellent history of humankind, as the winning cards in homo sapiens’ powerful evolutionary hand. 

Hacking around

MovieParties headerWhen I’m not following the humming, one of my other lives is as the Producer at MovieParties, where I sell movie scripts for kids’ parties. A few weeks back, a message from my ISP told me that the MovieParties website had been hacked and that they’d taken it offline as a precaution. They invited me to restore a clean backup and reinstall the latest versions of all the required plugins.

Yeah, right.

Many late nights and a complete rebuild from scratch later, the site was back up, leaving me with a sore neck and an impotent sense of rage against the machine.

While I was working to recover my hard-won Google ranking, my brief flirtation with hacking was still raw; but a friend reminded me that hacking has its roots in something altogether more constructive and altruistic. After all, if the bright young things at MIT in the 60’s hadn’t played around with code with a similar level of obsession, the free and open source software movements – and probably the Internet itself – may well have taken a lot longer to evolve. Sometime in the early 80’s – probably around the time of my followthehumming diaries – hacking in popular culture started to mean bad stuff, rather than the good stuff from which it had evolved.

If I look back my usual followthehumming timespan of 28 years to 1987, we were hacking around on machines like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro and later the Amstrad CPC. We spent hours copying out BASIC programs from computer magazines and de-bugging them when they gave us the inevitable RUNTIME ERROR. We were close enough to the guts of these machines to gain a sense of how they worked and to understand the way the software that ran them interfaced with the hardware they sat on.

With the laudable exception of the Raspberry Pi, there’s little around on a decent scale that does a similar job today. Everything is BIG. Big machines, big networks, big data. The fact that you can alter something somewhere on the other side of the planet is cool, but this same distance can also breed indifference if it’s not part of something constructive – and I don’t just mean Minecraft. Without the intimacy of hardware and software barely big enough to handle one another, the consequences of hacking round for any reason at all are harder to see, let alone feel.

Bienvenue à 1987

DiaryIt’s always exciting to open a new diary in my followthehumming story. This time the new year is 1987 and – if I had but known it at the time – it’s full of promise. I’m on a year abroad from university and living in Royan, on the French Atlantic coast. I’m about to start a relationship with my future wife and to make some friendships which turned out to be very important to me. My first entry of the year is to apologise for the ridiculous ostentation of the new diary I’d just bought – France didn’t seem to be big on them at the time, so I had to settle for this one.

Back in January 1987, I had no idea that I would one day be living in a futuristic world of selfie sticks and vaping, avatars and hashtags, unfriending and trolling…let alone that I’d be writing about the differences between then and now in a blog that can be read almost anywhere in the world!

New year obituary: The death of appointment television

TV boxesI spent an idle half hour on 30th December 1986 looking through the TV schedules in the New Year issue of the Radio Times – a simple matter back then with only 4 channels to worry about – circling with a red biro all the stuff I thought I might like to watch. If only I hadn’t then had to remind myself to sit down and watch them when they were actually being broadcast, I might even have been able to enjoy some of them.

It wasn’t long till we had a better solution of course. Videoing stuff on rather large VHS video tapes meant you needed a new box under your TV, but finally let you record something to watch it later, as long as you got all the programme’s timings and other details right, and assuming it was broadcast as planned and didn’t overrun. The effort involved meant that you really had to want to watch something, so those bulky tapes became prized items, named and stored.

Programming your video became slightly easier with the adoption of VideoPlus+ codes – tortuous number sequences allocated to each and every programme, which when entered into your video recorder magically came up with the right date and time for the broadcast you wanted to record. After a brief foray into laser disks, next came DVDs with their size advantage and superior quality. They were clearly a winner, but the fact it took ages before you could record onto them made sure the VHS format stuck around for years – with the dual format VHS/DVD player still persisting in many houses even today.

DVD player

And then our patience was rewarded, and we got what we thought we’d needed all along: the world turned digital, hard disks got big enough to hold lots of programmes, TVs somehow started recording stuff inside themselves, iPlayer and its equivalents meant you could start to catch up on things online, Sky launched their Sky+ box and Virgin did the same with TiVo. Now, there’s no red-circling needed. Instead, I flick through the listings for my favourite channels either on the web or on the TV, press a single button to record anything that even remotely takes my fancy – either a one-off or an entire series – and create a cache of good telly for any time I feel like watching it (mostly when I’m ironing: it’s not all glamour in the 21st century).

All these changes mean old-style appointment viewing is now limited to special occasions, flagship series or live broadcasts – and as a consequence, the number of times the family congregates in the living room to watch something we all have a shared interest in has dropped dramatically. With the possible exception of Christmas, we no longer ask if there’s anything interesting on TV tonight. Instead, we contemplate the mysterious cache of TV that we’ve already recorded and wonder whether we’ll ever make any inroads into it.

Even when we are watching, we’re often multi-screening – busying ourselves on tablets, laptops or phones – with the TV playing a bit-part in the background. The minimal effort now required to actually record something means that our commitment to viewing it is equally low. We treat electronic storage as a near-infinite commodity, and as a result we value what it contains substantially less.

Perhaps that’s why many of us still have a box somewhere full of precious and often grainy TV programmes, trapped magically inside 240 cubic centimetres of black VHS plastic.

Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow

gone girlMy diary entry for 29th November 1986 is a miserable one. I’m lamenting the fact that – as a notoriously slow reader on a university course involving a fair amount of french and scandinavian literature – I’m doomed only to read only books that I’m told to for the next three years. Turns out I was right, too. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Candide and Barnens ö, just that I couldn’t spare the time to read anything else, even as a bit of light relief.

At one point I started looking for ways to get through my books a bit faster. Claims have long been made for the benefits of speed reading if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort – mostly by cutting down on subvocalisation (essentially, mentally muttering the words you’re reading). Popular approaches include consciously skimming, meta-guiding (keeping focused with various types of pointing) and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which the reader is presented with single words at high speed one after the other. However, the general consensus seems to be that you probably shouldn’t speed read anything you genuinely need to comprehend. And as this piece of research from Reading university says, it’s not actually about speed anyway – it’s about the task you’re trying to complete.

Woody Allen quote

Perhaps a more pertinent question these days is to consider the differences between reading on paper and reading on screen. Many of us spend hours at work reading on screens, yet will tell you that certain documents – dependent on length, content or other factors – demand to be printed out and read on paper. The practical and physical differences between the two activities are discussed in detail in this excellent Scientific American article: The Reading Brain: The Science of Paper versus Screens.

The fact that we’re constantly trying to make screen reading as rich an experience as paper reading shows there’s still something lacking in even the most advanced of e-ink interfaces; not that we’re not having a go:

But why stop at such a one-dimensional way of consuming text? Enter Amazon Whispersync for Voice. Despite its slightly unwieldy name, this is one of those obvious-when-you-think-about-it uses of technology that feels a bit like magic the first time you use it.

Here’s how it works:

1. Start reading on your Kindle using your eyes. Read as much as you want. No bandwidth limits and no buffering!

2. Fancy a rest? Plug in your earphones, press play, and listen to the audio version of the book instead – it picks up right where you left off reading. Now do the ironing while you listen. Or maybe sunbathe. Up to you.

3. Prefer reading at bedtime rather than listening? Bring up the book on your Kindle and the last word you’ve heard spoken is highlighted for you in a spooky ‘we know what you’re doing’ kind of a way.

It may not turn you into a speedier reader, but it certainly gets you through more books.

If only I’d had it back when I really needed it!

Hello – you must be my wife!

Poitiers town hall

Poitiers Town Hall in France – I met my wife on the front steps 28 years ago today…

Ever since I started re-reading my diaries for followthehumming, I’ve been counting down to the day I met the girl I would one day marry.

And so here we are. 26th October, 1986.

28 years ago, today’s the day.

Just for the record, here’s the ‘how did it happen?’ bit:

Back in 1986, I was about to start a year abroad in France, teaching English in a junior school in Royan. Unbeknown to me, my equally blissfully ignorant wife-to-be was going to be doing the same thing in the nearby secondary school. We met on a basic teacher training course in the regional capital, Poitiers, and were both immediately disappointed to find out that another English student was going to be living in what we had already separately decided was going to be ‘my’ town. My (as it turned out, entirely inaccurate) diary entry for the day we met tells me this unwanted female interloper was “a year older than me, and quite serious” and that – on the train journey we took together to Royan once the course had finished – she was not terribly talkative. This was October 1986, yet by Christmas not only had there been a bit of a turnaround, but we’d set out on a relationship that has now survived 28 years and three children.

The tiny, insignificant events that all had to come together perfectly for us to meet still amaze me – as do the ever-widening impacts that our life together has had (yes, I’m talking about you, kids!). If ever there was a moment of singularity in our own personal universes, our meeting was surely it.

Identifying the absolute key moments in the randomness of our lives before we met is impossible. I asked to be sent to that particular town in France because of a previous family holiday nearby – the only overseas holiday we ever had as children. But what were the events that conspired together to make my parents choose to travel to that specific location when they did? My wife’s request to teach near Royan was similarly based on the flimsiness of chance. She’d had previous experience nearby as an au pair, something that could have taken her almost anywhere.

In some ways, the odds that we would ever meet at all seem vanishingly small. But of course that assumes she is The One, and that no other Ones could possibly exist – a theory that neither of us – rather unromantically, I’m afraid – subscribes to. Perhaps a more interesting question might be to ask what the odds are of meeting someone who it’s highly likely you could end up spending your life with.

Well, it turns out someone has already given that particular question a decent amount of thought. Researcher Peter Backus published a rather tongue-in-cheek paper in 2010 entitled ‘Why I don’t have a girlfriend‘ in which he used Drake’s equation (suggested by Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the possible number of alien civilisations in our galaxy) to work out the size of the pool of his potential partners. By focusing on a variety of measures of compatibility and practicality (things like age, education, location and mutual attractiveness), Backus determined that there were 26 women in London at the time that he could possibly have a ‘wonderful relationship’ with, and that the odds of meeting one of them on a given night out in London were about 0.0000034%, or 1 in 285,000. This may sound rather depressing, but in a very satisfying and odds-defeating postscript, Backus ended up meeting someone and marrying her last year. Here he is describing his paper:

My conclusion? Well, I’m not sure there is one, other than to confirm that life is full of tiny moments of coincidence that almost all have the profoundest possible impact, however insignificant they may seem. And that sometimes, if you’re as lucky as I have been, they can work their random magic in a way that transforms your life.

Messaging for letter-writers: a survival guide

Sending a messageWriting letters…ah, yes – I remember. That was what we did before we texted and messaged all day every day. Mercifully I appear to have survived the transition, but not everyone has emerged unscathed. So, in order to preserve the sanity of all involved, we present the followthehumming survival guide to modern messaging – created specially for those who still hanker after the comforting feel of pen on paper.

That was then This is now
Think about writing a letter. There is no think. Only do.
Search for pen and paper. Tighten grip on iPhone in anticipation of imminent communication opportunity.
If not Twitter, decide on messaging service to be used.
Smile inwardly at hoped-for instant replies.
Note increase in pulse and anxiety rates.
Find suitable writing location. Just keep right on doing whatever you were doing before. No really, don’t even stop walking.
Even lamp-posts are more bouncy than they look.
Consider possible topics, rough target length,
nature of intended recipient and
relationship with same; create broad mental
plan and start writing with the
words, ‘Dear Xxxx.’
Finger-type first fifteen words that enter head, choose appropriate emoticons and add five of each, then add ‘x’
Write letter. Enclose photo(s) if feeling daring. Take multiple photos of own face close to camera with surprised expression and mouth open wide. Attach to message.
Seal letter in envelope, address envelope,
obtain correct postage, take to nearest secure postage receptacle and place within; await
arrival of first of many personal couriers who will carefully transport letter to intended recipient
over a period of several days using a variety of vehicles.
Press send. Feel faintly sick until first reply / Like / Favourite / etc. notification is received.
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to have received letter. If no response received within 8 seconds of sending
message, stride about crossly, shouting, ‘But she’s definitely read it! And she must know I know she’s
read it! What’s she doing?’
Estimate whether sufficient time has passed for intended recipient to write reply and send using
personal courier network, as above.
If no response to latest message received and total
messages exchanged <= 30, send ‘sad face’ #selfie. If no
further response received, delete recipient from #besties list.
Receive return letter via personal courier, tear open envelope and read about what happened four days ago. Mentally calculate overall message exchange value to
all parties and adjust self-esteem accordingly.