• Sweden, England and the letter Y

    There’s a lot that’s funny about the Swedish language. To English ears, the sound of it is probably the funniest part. Why else does the Swedish chef exist? (The Swedish chef exists?)

    But surely the funniest single letter in the Swedish alphabet (and there’s some stiff competition, in the form of Å, Ä and Ö) is undoubtedly Y. What’s so strange about Y, I hear you ask? The pronunciation is what’s so strange.

    Disclaimer: This is the first time in the history of the Internet that a blog has combined the Grey Friars of London, English national football chants and Swedish pronunciation.

    Clear your throat

    Clear your throat

    The Swedish Y starts way back in the throat. It then proceeds to clear the throat of all phlegm. It’s the sound (probably) made by an Olympic weightlifting champion just as he begins to lift the weight.

    It’s not a clear, high-pitched ‘eeeeeee’, and it’s not a quick, solitary ‘ya’. In fact, the closest approximation in the English language is the sound English football fans make when they begin the chant of “England!”

    As all English football fans know, they don’t chant “England” at all. Because the English don’t say “England”, they say “Ingland”. But they don’t chant “Ingland” either. They chant something that football writers have endlessly tried to replicate in written form as “Iiiiiiiingerland” or “Errrrrrngland” or similar.

    That sound they first utter is uncannily close to the Swedish Y. Which brings me to the Grey Friars of London. Thanks to the indispensible History Today magazine, I learnt that the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London wrote of their country using the spelling “Yngland”.

    Dripping in the Danelaw

    Could it be that this is a distant echoing memory of an “Yngland” pronounced as they would have done under the Danelaw? An “Yngland” whose pronunciation had travelled down the centuries to the English football terrace in the mouths of the nation’s commoners?

    If it wasn’t for the throaty chant of “Yyyyyyyyngland” that I know so well, and my discovery of the peculiar Swedish pronunciation of the letter Y, I might not have paused on the Grey Friars and their “Yngland” more than a moment. I would have dismissed it as just another silly peculiarity of pre-standardisation English.

    More links between English and Swedish? Well, Pardon my Swedish!

  • Believing in Santa 

    My son still believes in Santa. Just. A girl in his class at school was sceptical this year, and even suggested that parents did it. He said that was stupid of her to say, because if Santa heard her (and he hears everything, right?) then he won’t be bringing any presents to her this year.

    Don’t tempt fate. 

    This Easter weekend it was the same with the Easter bunny. Everyone says it’s your parents, but does the Easter bunny only turn up if you believe in him, too? Should you tempt fate again?

    As long as he believes, I’m going to go on believing with him. That’s the gift he gave me, the one of discovering that in someone else’s belief, you’re given permission to suspend your disbelief. 

    Don’t stop believin’

    This is the great thing about stories. As long as enough of us believe them, they’re true. The Christian story, given that it’s Easter, is truly extraordinary. As outlandish as any you ever heard. Yet it is truly believed by millions of adults around the world.

    And whether it’s the Christian story or the Hindu story or the story of the Big Bang and the burning spheres out there in the night sky, millions of miles away. As long as enough of us believe them, they’re true.

    So I’m going to go on believing in Santa and the Easter bunny, for as long as there’s someone else to believe the story with me. Because somewhere, in the corner of the universe, maybe he’s right and I’m wrong.

    On the subject of kids, have you tried talking to a three-year-old?

  • Why am I so tired?

    ‘Why am I so tired all the time’ reached an all-time high in US google searches in June 2023.

    People didn’t ask another person. They didn’t ask themselves. They didn’t know, so they asked their computers. They asked a search engine to tell them why.

    Ask AI what’s wrong

    AI isn’t something that will happen soon, it’s already happening. Confronted with the fact that I feel tired all the time, my source of wisdom on the subject is the internet. 

    What if I’m tired all the time because of the screen I am interacting with? Will the search engine tell me the honest truth? Or will it not? Is it in its interest to tell me? And if it is the problem, and it won’t tell me, who will? 

    Screens have more answers

    If I go to a search engine for wisdom on the subject, and nowhere else, will I ever find a solution to my tiredness? Perhaps I will?

    After all, search engines are just connecting us with other real people, right? That can’t be so bad. That is socializing, just on a massive, never-before-known scale. We’ve just supersized socializing. Has it made you feel less lonely, more popular? Maybe it has?

    Perhaps it will tell me I need to get out more, do more exercise, socialize with real people, meditate, do yoga, get better sleep?

    If the screen tells me to stop sitting on my screen asking search engines questions, who will I turn to next time I need an answer?

    Given that the bots are so good, what about us?

  • Politics is looks

    Photo by charlesdeluvio

    The defining factor of Emmanuel Macron’s entire presidency, if he were to resign tomorrow, would for me be the chest hair. Does that make me vapid? The only thing missing was a Galousies discreetly nestled between index and middle fingers. 

    The defining thing about Rishi Sunak is surely his suits. My, that man’s dapper. The defining element of Donald Trump? Undoubtedly his hair. Bojo? Ditto

    Dictator chic

    But these are the image conscious aesthetes of the democratic world, hankering after votes. Surely, autocrats are more interested in industrial policy and geopolitical alignments than hair spray?

    And yet. And yet, in a two-decade career as Russian supremo, what is the defining takeaway for me from Vladimir Putin? Why, that topless horseback riding shot (doctored or not), of course. Either he waxed his chest or he is unusually hairless. Either way, it’s suspicious. 

    Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Where do I start? Despite a long and patchy career in both domestic Libyan and international affairs, this man found time to pretty much define the sartorial cues of dictator chic. First, he brought the Raybans. Then, he upped it with those tasselled army jackets straight outta Michael Jackson’s wardrobe. And finally, he flipped again to full-on Saharan vibe in swirling robes.

    The eyebrows have it!

    I’m not saying what Michael Heseltine did for internal auditing among ministers wasn’t to die for. But really, it was that floppy mop and those eyebrows that won him a place in the annals. 

    Tony Blair was a man imboiled in a lot of politics in his time. But what’s the enduring memory? Surely, that 2001 footage of him wielding his electric guitar as he relived his glory days as axeman in the band, Ugly Rumours.

    And they say only female politicians are judged by their looks… Not a bit of it.

    Want more highbrow politics? How about the damning verdict of the (first?) Trump presidency?

  • Rest in peace, Ike and Tina

    Photo by Bruno Cervera

    This week, a legend passed. Tina Turner has been a defining voice of my life. Once heard, she wasn’t forgotten. We don’t need another hero.

    Her voice was brilliantly described by Juggy Murray of Sue Records, who was played one of her early recordings by her musical and romantic partner, Ike Turner:

    “Tina sounded like screaming dirt.”

    Juggy Murray, Sue Records

    Of the many tributes that have poured in, a large number focus on her strength and example as someone who overcame domestic abuse in her marriage to Ike.

    Where trauma begins and ends

    This led me to Google: Ike Turner. And to read his Wikipedia entry. And to learn that he witnessed his father “beaten and left for dead” by a white man in Clarksdale, Mississippi as a child.

    His father lived for a further couple of years, before dying of his injuries when Ike was five years old. He also had a “violent alcoholic” stepfather and suffered sexual abuse as a child.

    Tina herself had a mother who fled from an abusive marriage, just as Tina would do from Ike years later.

    All I ever knew about Ike Turner was that he was the man who beat up Tina Turner. As a legacy, it’s a damning one. That was all I knew. Maybe he made some good music? I know Tina did. That’s why I know Ike.

    Corporal punishment

    But reading Ike’s Wikipedia entry reminded me of an article I read a few months back about corporal punishment in Mississippi schools. Amazingly, corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 US states, with significantly the highest rates in Mississippi, Ike’s home state.

    In public schools in the United States, black children are twice as likely as white children to be subject to corporal punishment.

    Dick Startz, Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Barbara

    These little, miscellaneous, seemingly unrelated facts make me wonder about an ingrained culture of violence, what that does to those who live through it, and how trauma echoes down throughout the years.

    A level playing field? As long as you’re not from The Wrong Part of Town

  • Nature can be annoying. Good

    Photo by Peter F. Wolf

    Clouds burst. Bulls charge. Birds shit. Sometimes nature just annoys us. Other times, valleys swoop, flowers bloom and sunlight dapples. So, is it ok for us to change nature the moment it irritates us? Is nature only acceptable while it gives us pleasure?

    I live in a marina on reclaimed land. It’s beautiful but entirely manmade. Yet it’s amazing how quickly nature has moved in. Seagulls, spiders, worms, oystercatchers, waxwings, ducks, swans…

    Those damn seagulls!

    Seagulls, of course, are the ultimate survivors. They breed and raise their chicks on our rooftops, pretending they are seaside cliffs. In May and June, they are vicious in defence of their young. Everyone talks about it.

    Sure, their endless wailing squawks are annoying. Their dive bombing is intimidating. And sure enough, this year a firm is coming to clear eggs and nests from our roofs. All will be orderly again. But is that a good thing?

    It’s ok to be annoyed

    The desire not to be annoyed feels of a piece with the very trendy desire not to be offended. Yes, it’s certainly comfortable to live in a world where nothing ever annoys you, but that involves either tight control of your environment or a new mindset.

    A nature that is manicured in order that it doesn’t cause any friction with my mind feels lacking, somehow. As Barry Lopez brilliantly observes in his book Arctic Dreams, what is compelling and awesome in being next to an iceberg is not simply its beauty, but also something more disturbing.

    “I looked out at the icebergs. They were so beautiful they also made you afraid.”

    Barry Lopez

    This disturbance is the reason some people (like me) enjoy being inconvenienced by nature. I love a storm, or a flood, or an inaccessible mountain. I like that something has been put in my way – something powerful and beyond my control.

    If you like your nature less annoying, let me tell you about the day the waxwings came

  • Are we in control?

    Photo by Arseny Togulev

    “Should we risk loss of control of our civilization?”

    This question was posed in the open letter from the Future of Life Institute, an NGO, signed last month by tech leaders including Elon Musk. It was a letter calling for a six-month pause on AI development due to concerns about the speedy advance of the technology.

    What is interesting about the question is that it assumes that we currently have control. Do we?

    Who’s steering this thing?

    Of course, as individuals, we have barely any control at all at the civilizational level. Even collectively, that control is partial and often those partial levels of control are contradictory, acting against each other. 

    This leads to the second unspoken question hidden in the open letter’s original one: would AI not do a better job? 

    AI: the perfect answer

    If there is an omniscient creator, then there is something beautiful in the idea that this creator decided to solve the problem of its errant, planet-destroying children by showing them a path to designing their own obsolescence. Quite brilliant, really.

    And if AI would do a better job, then we can all relax. A better world awaits! As my colleague brilliantly put it the other day – “We could all become their pets” – and let’s face it, some pets have a great life.

    Is ChatGPT really the end of work, and what does that mean?

  • Proximity bias

    The Great Lurch Forward into hybrid working reality has brought with it a whole host of new words and phrases to learn. One of the most interesting is ‘proximity bias’.

    This is the notion that managers will reward those workers closest to them. In other words, the ones that show up in the office most often.

    At your desk by 9 o’clock

    The fear of proximity bias in working relations is obviously based on the most obvious of office culture truisms: that managers like to see bums on seats and are inherently suspicious of remote working.

    But while this is no doubt true of many managers, there is perhaps a deeper and more tenacious psychological element involved here. That of being human.

    Nice to see you

    Most managers care about the well-being of their staff. They genuinely want to facilitate good lives for them and arrange their work days to suit the pressures of their lives.

    But it’s only human to feel closest to someone who you have actual physical contact with over someone you only see on a screen. This bias is surely a natural human response?

    What are you worth?

    The difficulty for companies is that studies suggest a remote worker is often more productive than an office-based one. Which means that the real value of the physical staff member is in boosting office morale and ‘company culture’, as it is known.

    The problem here is that company culture is a much harder KPI (key performance indicator) to attribute to an individual worker than is their productivity level.

    There has been much talk of the two-tier workforce, of less pay for remote workers. But the more subtle realities of proximity bias will likely continue, loath though companies will be to acknowledge it.

    If you don’t come to the office, the robots will – it’s Us versus AI

  • Us versus AI

    (Photo by Andy Kelly)

    Artificial Intelligence is a popular topic. You are either excited about its possibilities, fear its consequences, or a bit of both.

    Copywriters get particularly jumpy. The new ChatGPT chatbot launched on 30 November 2022 by OpenAI (founded by Elon Musk, Sam Altman and others and funded by Microsoft) is the latest impressive reality of AI.

    Like people, but better

    Compared to machines, real people are lazy and inconsistent. That’s just life. I’ve no doubt that AI will soon be not only more consistent, but also a better copywriter than most human copywriters.

    Given that the industrialisation of human labour is essentially the machine process applied for the maximum output from the minimum time and effort, AI wins every time.

    A longer wait until bedtime

    Which always reminds me of a quote from American author Garrison Keillor that sums up his lovely Lake Wobegon Days series, about his childhood home in the Midwest:

    Back for a visit one August, I crossed Main Street toward Ralph’s and stopped, hearing a sound from childhood in the distance. The faint mutter of ancient combines. Norwegian bachelor farmers combining in their antique McCormacks, the old six-footers. New combines cut a twenty-foot swath, but these guys aren’t interested in getting done sooner; it would only mean a longer wait until bedtime. 

    Given that AI will inevitably be not only more consistent at most jobs than any of us could ever be, but also have an output that’s just better, even creatively, we are left only with Garrison Keillor’s implied question:

    What sort of life do we want to live?

    Talking of technology, are you a smartphone addict?

  • My money is your money

    The problem with direct democracy is it doesn’t work very well. Big political questions, which are usually big economic questions, are hard to understand. Who really gets economics? Anyone?

    So, when asked if you want the EU to stop stealing your money, what do people say? “Stop stealing my money!” When asked if you would like to keep more of your cash-money-dollar in your pocket, and not give it to the taxman, what do people say? “Less tax, please!”

    The politics of economics

    That’s exactly what occurred in the Brexit referendum of 2016, and it’s exactly what occurred in the Tory leadership contest vote of party members to select Britain’s new Prime Minister in September 2022. Both times, people made instinctive economic choices.

    Those choices failed to see the bigger picture of economic interconnectedness that means a vote to apparently make myself richer by keeping money directly in my pocket now, can actually translate into me being poorer in the end due to macro-economic effects I don’t understand.

    What’s the point of MPs?

    A Member of Parliament (MP), lest we forget, is there to represent their constituents in parliament. We have chosen them based on their worldview and priorities broadly aligning with our own. We ask them to make the big calls for us.

    If MPs turn back to the electorate and ask them to make the big calls, in referendums, then they are no longer representing us. They become a pointless middleman.

    MPs knew – barring ideological zealots – that leaving the EU was a bad idea. MPs knew that Rishi Sunak was the most competent replacement for Boris Johnson. Their decision to pick him second time round illustrates the gap.

    If MPs renege on their responsibility to represent us on matters they – or if not, their advisors in the relevant fields – know far more about than the average voter, then democracies will continue to get the poor results they are getting used to.

    Of course, we voters are very good at electing appalling politicians in the first place. But that’s our own fault. And it beats being told what to do by a benevolent dictator.

    Remember Brexit? Yes, it was that bad. Let’s laugh about it with some Blackadder goes Brexit