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.

Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

Tour de France 2014 – coming soon to a road near me

In another very satisfying case of things coming full circle on followthehumming, my diary entry for 4th June, 1986 describes the outline of that year’s Tour de France and the prospect of Frenchman Bernard Hinault taking on American team mate Greg LeMond. Here we are 28 years later, and – despite living in Yorkshire – I somehow find myself living on the route of the first stage of this year’s Tour.

In ’86, both Hinault and LeMond rode for the same team – La Vie Claire. Hinault had won the race the previous year and had publicly promised to support the Californian this time around. The events that unfolded during the course of the 23 stages that followed provided one of the Tour’s most unforgettable races.

Despite his promise, the Frenchman appeared torn between supporting LeMond and racing away to claim his own record sixth Yellow Jersey. In an unforgettable stage ending in L’Alpe D’Huez, Hinault broke away in a self-destructive solo attack, only to be reeled in by LeMond before the end. The two riders crossed the finishing line together hand-in-hand and wreathed in smiles. It seemed as if peace had broken out and LeMond’s title was all but sealed – only for his team mate to declare later that night that the race was not yet over.

In the end, LeMond won the General Classification and the first of his three Tour titles, while Hinault took second place and the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains. Their fascinating story is told in full in Richard Moore’s excellent book, Slaying the Badger.

With about a month to go until this year’s Tour gets under way, the difficulties of having two potential winners in the same team are featuring once again, with current Yellow Jersey holder Chris Froome declaring that he would prefer Australian Richie Porte as his Team Sky number two, instead of 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins.

So much has changed since the era of LeMond and Hinault that it’s reassuring to know there are events like the Tour which still have a timeless quality about them. I’ve written before about the way sport can provide a sense of continuity in a world desperately clinging to the coat tails of Moore’s Law – and cycling’s greatest race certainly fits that bill.