Saturday, January 14, 2012

Me and my new best mate, Virgin Media

We have decided to switch to Virgin Media for our phone, broadband and TV, but I'm already going off the idea. And it hasn't even been installed yet.

It's the way Virgin talks to its customers. It just doesn't work for me.

So, the envelope with the letter about the terms and conditions says on the outside:

Important stuff (no really, it is)

Then in the booklet, past the picture of the dopey young couple standing in front of a supply of logs (why?) there's this piece of nagging about the installation date:

Get that in your diary now. And maybe stick the letter on the fridge as a reminder. 

Yeah right! Except I don't think of myself as a half-asleep student who can't take anything in unless it's written in snatches of fake chat.

So, Virgin, old boy, you're not going to charm me, or even make me get on with the paperwork with that kind of thing ("pop it back to us in the envelope").

Ways to pay. Well, we had to mention paying at some point, so let's get it over with quickly. 

With us being such good mates and all that, why don't you just give it to me for free?

And, by the way, I'm not thinking of the installation visit as "the big day" either. Just as an afternoon when I have to wait at home for up to 6 hours because, of course, you can't tell me when you're going to turn up.

Nor will I be saying "Wahoo!" when the engineer has got it working.

So far, all that's happened is that a man knocked on the front door yesterday to say he was going to drill a hole in the front wall to run the cable through.

Thankfully, he was glum and uncommunicative, in the proper way.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A philosophy for the middle-aged

Richard Rohr's philosophy for the middle-aged was quoted on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Four on Saturday - in particular, his distinction between the priorities of the first and second halves of our lives.

Rohr is an American Franciscan priest, but what he says here - in a video to promote his book Falling Upwards - is more psychological than doctrinal - as he tries to make sense of and justify older people's different world view.

He is behind the Center for Action and Contemplation, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and founded in 1987.

The flavour of his New Age/Buddhist Christianity can be gleaned from this extract from his 'Daily Meditations', for today:

"Now do not let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and available to everyone."

I haven't read Rohr's book, but I like the sound of what he says - about the second half of life being one in which you can move on from the building, and ego-centred priorities of the first, into one where you can appreciate a wider perspective, and change your values to more positive, and perhaps more generous ones.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

To Hendon from India and Berlin: the triumph of Two Lives

Two Lives: A MemoirTwo Lives: A Memoir by Vikram Seth

The Two Lives are those of the author's great uncle Shanti and great aunt Henny, who lived in Hendon when he knew them, but had met in Berlin before the Second World War. She was a Jewish native of Berlin. He was an Indian student of dentistry with connections in Britain.

Seth describes his dealings with the couple as he became friends with them as their lodger when he was studying in England. But the book is principally an account of their own relationship, which Seth learns about through a series of interviews with his uncle and through the fortuitous discovery, late in the process of writing the book, of a suitcase of his aunt's correspondence with her circle of friends in Berlin during and after the war.

While Seth concludes, meditatively, that great drama can be found behind the quiet facades of any suburban house, in fact, his aunt and uncle's lives were both, in different ways, dramatic and unusual.

Her sister and mother died in concentration camps during the war. Seth's piecing together of that story is moving and powerful, as he is able to quote from the understated letters in which his aunt received heart-breaking fragments of news about her family's last days.

His uncle served as a dentist in the British army, where he lost an arm in Italy. His struggle and eventual success in resuming his profession with only one arm is as heroic as any military exploit.

I haven't read the book: instead I listened to the six CDs of the audio version, read by Seth himself, with a small cast of excellent actors playing the parts of his relations. Seth's own voice gives a unique depth to his story. Its melodies combine with his precise and restrained language to build a picture that is utterly engrossing.

The book is open about its own creation: how Seth was persuaded to write it; how he felt about his relations at all stages of his life and their's; how his judgements were revised in the light of comments from his earliest readers; and how his admiration of his uncle was challenged by a decision he made about his will in the last months of his life.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book was the detailed account of how his aunt picked up relations with her circle of German friends after the war. For each of them, a judgement had to be made: had they properly and full-heartedly opposed the Nazi regime, or had they simply made 'exceptions' of their Jewish friends? Sorting through what had happened and coming to a conclusion about who was a true friend and who would have to be dropped because of the events of the intervening years was a complex and difficult process.

Seth gives a masterful summary of German culture and Germany's contribution to history - both positive and negative -, but admits that his study of the horrors of Nazism for the book poisoned his appreciation of the German language for years afterwards.

Two Lives is more of a project than a book, though it is expertly written up. Its story is both personal and universal. I have listened to it twice because I found so much to admire, enjoy and learn. Nobody could hear it without being moved. I almost feel that I have acquired, in Seth, a much-loved family member.

Memories of Hendon from Two Lives:

18 Queens Road was a large semidetached house about five minutes walk from the Hendon Central underground station on the Northern Line, a couple of stations after it emerged from its tunnel into the daylight. Apart from two small attics, the house was spread over two floors. Each floor had four main rooms.

Downstairs, the sunniest room, with a large south-facing window, was Uncle's surgery. He spent more than eight hours there each day, and needed the light. The surgery faced the front garden with its roses and gleaming professional plaque, and, beyond the busy road, the green expanse of Hendon Park and the hills of Hampstead to the south.

And here it is, thanks to Google Streetview. The front garden had already been paved over when Seth returned to look at it after his relatives had died:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Information as junk food: life in the 'filter bubble'

The Filter BubbleThe Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

Eli Pariser's concept of the filter bubble is a metaphor: he fears we're increasingly exposed only to information that software has chosen for us in response to how we have behaved online in the past. So, we live in a bubble of our own making that filters incoming stimuli, leaving only those that we are likely to respond to.

On the face of it, that's a good thing. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are giving us what we want. The companies boast that advertising is more 'relevant' when it's filtered for us. Amazon's suggestions of what we might like to buy are an obvious result of our previous searches and purchases. But there's more to it than that. Pariser says ordinary search results on Google are also filtered according to our individual online histories.

His starting point is a little-noticed Google announcement in December 2009 that its search results would be personalised, using information gleaned from previous searches and location, among other clues. Pariser asked two friends to test this out, comparing the results they got for the search query "BP". The two sets of results were "quite different": 180 million results for one search, 139 million for the other. One had more investment information in the results; the other had more on the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A bit spooky. But Pariser's point is that it's not good for us to live in a filter bubble: "more and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click." We're just reinforcing our prejudices, seeing the kind of world we'd like to believe in, failing to learn from the unplanned exposure to new ideas and information that, say, a newspaper offers.

I found the most compelling account on the problem in the words Pariser quotes from sociologist danah boyd (sic). She is interested in the information diet we live on: it can be healthy - varied, unmediated -, or it can cater to our worst instincts - "gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, offensive". The danger of the filter bubble is that "we're going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity."

It's a great comparison: if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the shortest, most personal, easiest messages, we must surely find it hard to make the effort to stretch our imaginations into fields we don't normally frequent. It would be ironic if at the exact time in human history that almost all information is available to us at almost no cost, we collectively shut ourselves off from all but the most immediately satisfying in the short term.

Is this the MacDonaldisation of information?

Pariser's book is essentially a polemic on these dangers. It is filled out with some background on human psychology, tech history and the elite group of investors and futurologists who are most influential in how the internet is developing. It's all well done, but I couldn't help feeling that Pariser never quite matches the sizzling argument of his Introduction and first chapter. In fact, to understand the business incentive behind the filter bubble, it's hard to improve on the word he quotes at the start of his first chapter, from Andrew Lewis:

"If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."

Worth remembering, and for more on that, see also the excellent You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

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Craig Brown's unlikely pairings: a future classic?

One on OneOne on One by Craig Brown

Craig Brown's insight as a humorist is that Marcel Proust lived in the same world as Simon Dee, that Churchill and Janis Joplin would have walked the same streets, might have known the same songs, or could have compared views on restaurants.

Such clashes - of our expectations more than anything else - have proved fertile ground for Brown's Private Eye diaries, his column in the Daily Mail and numerous other works.

But in One on One, he sets out to prove some of the links between unlikely pairs in a self-disciplined, almost scientific way. As he commented himself, he wanted to write a book that "played to my weaknesses".

The result is a chain of 101 meetings between famous individuals, each described in exactly 1001 words (he claims: he anyone counted?) So, starting and ending with Adolf Hitler, the book traces a circle which includes the relatively modern (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Michael Barrymore), the grand (Tsar Nicholas II, the Queen Mother), the venerable (Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud), the glamorous (Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin) and the cool (Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol).

Each described meeting is researched from sources listed at the back, so one doesn't need to worry that he's fooling us with imagined encounters. Indeed, after a while, I found myself trying to spot a weak link between strong lines of meetings - but I couldn't find one.

Each 1001 words is a little gem in itself, with Brown skilfully giving us just enough background to fill in the context, but satisfying our gossipy interest with the tiniest details of the particular occasion he picks.

It's a strange format for a book, and at first I wondered whether it was going to prove better as individual bites than as a whole meal. Did its self-imposed structure deny it any other kind of coherence as a book? But after a while, I began to detect a subtle flow in the chapters, as they ran from Tsarist Russia to Hollywood, and thence to sixties Britain, each with its own set of characters and social mores. It is in fact, a wonderful education in politics, literature and history, where one's accidental familiarity with one subject quickly gives way to ignorance about an equally well-known character.

Above all, it is funny, sometimes in the kind of details that dignified celebrities want forgotten, but also in less obvious ways: would we ever otherwise have heard how H.G.Wells spent three hours sucking up to Stalin, concluding: "I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest"?

One on One could become a classic: a 1066 and All That which somehow finds its way into the national consciousness as its reputation spreads. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it, and its rigid organisation gives it a uniqueness that might just be a passport to immortality.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Google: revolution by numbers

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our LivesIn the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

Levy is one of the best informed and best connected journalists writing about tech companies, and this book is the result of more than two hundred interviews with Google staff past and present and his following of the company since 1999. It is, therefore, a uniquely authoritative account of the business and the key people behind it.

Levy paints a picture of a relentlessly rational company - a culture in which you'd be best advised not to make any assertion without a set of numbers to support it. But Google is also a company with imagination, reinventing American corporate conventions unless they can be proved to be a good idea. So, for instance, there was a move to do away with management altogether until it was found, to the surprise of founders Brin and Page, that people actually like to have someone as their boss: it gives structure, and allows them to understand how their work and their problems are part of the company's wider ambitions.

Of the founders, it is Page who emerges from Levy's profile as the surprising natural leader. Introverted yet almost unnaturally ambitious, he is prepared to consider any project as long as it seems impossible. How about harnessing the content of all books ever written? Sure, let's take a quick guess at the numbers says Page: supposing there are 30 million books. Page and senior Googler Marissa Mayer try scanning one as an experiment: 40 minutes for 300 pages. Back-of-an-envelope cost: $10 a book. Total cost: $300m. As Levy puts it: "that didn't sound like too much money for the world's most valuable font of knowledge."

There are wonderful insights like this on every page. Levy is also great on the political and legal problems - with the copyright of books, Google's tortured dilemmas over its presence in China, and over video rights for Google Video and YouTube. And there's an interesting section on how Obama and Google found themselves strangely compatible. But Obama and the ex-Googlers who had joined him in Washington after he became President found that Google's rational approach to problem-solving didn't translate into Washington life as easily as they had hoped.

And for anyone using Google, there are many interesting titbits. You might have already known how Google's initial breakthrough was the PageRank mechanism whereby search results are weighted by the 'authority' of a page as measured by the number and authority of the pages that link to it - like a kind of academic citation measurement.

But the book explains how that is only the start of Google's ever-expanding knowledge about its users and the websites they are searching for. So, for instance, Google assesses the success of its own search results by noting how long it takes each user to click on a result, where it is in the list presented, and whether the user comes back to try another link from the list (which shows they weren't satisfied with the first one). Through such self-educating mechanisms, Google continually improves its performance and makes it harder and harder for rivals to catch up.

Since Google has become so central to our lives, In the Plex is a kind of instruction manual to the modern world. If you don't want to understand the company that has all but succeeded in its ambition to "organise the world's information and make it useful and accessible" you aren't really showing an interest in where we are, and where we're being taken, for better or worse.

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