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Tuesday 31 January 2017

Review - Saroo Brierley: A Long Way Home

Saroo Brierley: A Long Way Home
Saroo Brierley
A Long Way Home (also titled 'Lion') (4*)

A remarkable true story, recently retold in the film 'Lion', about the search for his birth family by a man from India who years earlier had been adopted by Tasmanian foster parents after becoming hopelessly lost on the Indian railways at the age of five. The book tells the fuller and more accurate version of the incredible story. The writing is fairly artless, but I thoroughly enjoyed this uplifting tale.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Monday 30 January 2017

Review - Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn

Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn
Barbara Pym
Quartet in Autumn (4*)

This initially seemed a dull book about four elderly people who work in the same office, all approaching retirement. I picked it up during the process of sorting out books to take to the charity shop, began reading, and was hooked by the author's gentle humour. The author was a favourite of Philip Larkin. This was one of her last novels. It was published in 1977 and made the Booker shortlist.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Sunday 22 January 2017

The Restless Friend

From Great Heck and the Norfolk Broads to Southern Rhodesia: the contrasting lives of childhood friends.

Norfolk Broads 1940s

High on the mantelpiece in the back room of the house where I grew up, were photographs of my mother and father taking turns to wear a captain’s hat at the wheel of a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads. My dad’s pipe is jauntily raked at an angle that would not have been out of place in someone commanding a much larger vessel. He puts on a show of self-importance while my mum looks relaxed and happy. How young and carefree they seem; from a time before I was born. 

My dad remembered this post-war holiday fifty years later. They went with his school friend Freddy and wife Sylvia. My mum, Freddy and Sylvia went on ahead because Dad had to work the first Saturday. He took his suitcase in the firm’s van and was dropped off at Heck railway station, between Selby and Doncaster, where he took a direct train to Norwich. He remembered the splendid sight of Ely Cathedral in the evening sun. He was young, the war was over and he was off on holiday with his new wife and friends: for all of them the future was rosy. 

You might be surprised to learn there was ever a direct train from Heck to Norwich, but during the war the tiny station at Great Heck gained unusual importance due to its proximity to No. 51 Heavy Bomber Squadron, R.A.F. Snaith, a short distance along a country lane between Heck and nearby Pollington. Also at Pollington were army barracks and one of the largest Women’s Land Army quarters in the country. Some 3,200 extra personnel were drafted into a village of 650. My dad’s train was a residual wartime service. He actually caught it on the very last Saturday it ran.

Great Heck has no railway station at all now. It disappeared around nineteen-sixty along with its neighbours at Temple Hirst, Balne and Moss. My dad once took me there in the nineteen-fifties to watch powerful Atlantic and Pacific locomotives race through non-stop on the East Coast Main Line between York and Doncaster. By then the station had already declined into obscurity and might never have been heard of again had it not been the site of the terrible Great Heck rail crash in February, 2001. Even that is often referred to as the Selby rail crash.

Pollington Airfield has also gone. A few derelict hangars remain but the runways and taxiways have all but crumbled and the site is used now by haulage and storage companies. For much of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies it was a popular off-road spot for learner drivers to make their first juddering attempts at starting, steering, stopping and changing gear.

Back in the photographs, it is Freddy’s cap they are wearing. On leaving school he had initially begun to train as a ship’s officer, but wartime on the ominous North Atlantic convoys had left him restless. He exchanged his sextant for the cricket team and a job in a railway office. The drudgery was too much. While my dad remained in his small Yorkshire town, Freddy left for the champagne air of colonial Southern Rhodesia, seeking excitement and adventure over caution and insularity. Sylvia followed soon after with their two young children. That is what wives did in those days whether or not they really wanted to. 

They left in 1952 and lived very comfortably for a time. Whites in Rhodesia had servants, sizeable houses with pleasant gardens and swimming pools, and good health care and education. The climate was wonderful and it was one of the richest communities in the world. I don’t know whether Freddy ever came back. Online ships’ manifests only show Sylvia and the children spending five months in Yorkshire without Freddy in 1955, but the records are incomplete.

What I do remember is that each Christmas Freddy sent my dad a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. My dad thought it the affected urbanity of a smug high-flier and was irritated by the complacent, patronising content. But children have time to read such things: the features such as ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’, ‘Humour in Uniform’, ‘Life’s Like That’ and ‘Test Your Word Power’, the biographies and articles on technology and medicine, the condensed books. I still, for old time’s sake, go straight to the piles of back-issues in holiday cottages and waiting rooms. Thankfully my word power fairs better now. It is easy to see why it was once one of the highest-circulation periodicals in the world, despite all the junk mail that comes with it.

The gift subscription continued into the nineteen-sixties despite nothing ever being sent back in return, not even a Christmas card, as we did not know Freddy’s address. It may have been in Bulawayo. One year the subscription stopped. Perhaps he had decided not to bother any more. We gradually forgot about it. It was a long time before we heard what had happened.

Two decades later, Sylvia unexpectedly returned to England, alone and penniless. It transpired that Freddy, clever with money, had made a small fortune on the stock market, but had also developed an alcohol problem. Eventually he left and moved to Hong-Kong where he later died. Sylvia had remained in Rhodesia (by then Zimbabwe) until, forced by the economic and political situation there, she returned to Yorkshire. She had not been allowed to bring any money out of the country. She came back to be near her daughter, but her daughter died fairly soon afterwards. Sylvia spent the rest of her days in our small Yorkshire town on benefits in a bedsit, surrounded by second-hand furniture.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

The Mighty Micro

A shorter version of this piece was reposted as a "New Month Old Post" on the 1st December, 2023. 


Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
In August, 1978, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist, computer scientist and world-leading expert on the future of computing, placed a letter in a time-capsule at the London Planetarium. He hoped to be present when capsule was re-opened in the year 2000.

The capsule was sealed at the press launch of Omni, a glossy futuristic science magazine. Asked why the proposed opening date was so close, Evans replied that although it was only twenty-two years away, the changes about to take place during these two decades would be so stupendous as to transform the world beyond recognition. The computer revolution would bring about more changes in the next twenty years than in the whole of the two previous centuries. We were about to experience rapid, massive, irreversible and remorselessly unstoppable shifts in the way we lived.

Evans’ letter listed four predictions about which he felt most confident. One was that the printed word would become virtually obsolete; another was that computer-based education would begin to supplant teachers; a third was that money, in terms of physical bits of metal and paper, would almost have vanished; the fourth was that substantial and dramatic advances would have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence. His only uncertainty was about the pace of change. His predictions might take a decade or so longer, or they might occur more quickly.

Sadly, neither Evans nor Omni survived to the year 2000. Evans died in 1979 and Omni ceased publication after the death of its founder in 1997. It is not even clear what happened to the time-capsule or whether it was opened. The London Planetarium closed in 2006 and its building is now called the Star Dome and houses Madame Tussaud’s Marvel superheroes attraction.

Before his untimely death, Evans was however able to explore and expand his predictions at greater length in his 1979 book and ATV television series The Mighty Micro. As well as the four predictions in the letter, he thought we would soon see self-driving collision-proof cars, robotic lawn mowers, doors that open only to the voices of their owners, the widespread commercial use of databases and electronic text, a ‘wristwatch’ which monitors your heart and blood pressure, an entire library stored in the space of just one book, a flourishing computer-games industry and eventually ultra-intelligent machines with powers far greater than our own. Every one of these things seemed incredible at the time.

But it was the social and political predictions that were most mind boggling. Evans foresaw a twenty-hour working week for all, retirement at fifty, interactive politics through regular electronic referendums, a decline in the influence of the professions because of the widespread availability of specialist information, the emptying of cities and decreased travel as we worked more from home, and the fall of communism as underprivileged societies become astutely aware of their relative deprivation. 

I remember how fantastic and exhilarating this view of the future seemed at the time, but it gave me a serious problem. By 1979, having escaped my previous career in accountancy, I was more than half-way through a psychology degree trying to work out what to do next. If Evans was to be believed, and I believed a lot of it, then most of the then-present ways of earning a living were in jeopardy.

What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious: something that involved computers. So like Evans, I looked for ways to combine psychology with computing, and after gaining further qualifications that is what I did. From this perspective it is fascinating to revisit Evans’ predictions, thirty-eight years after he made them, and seventeen years after their target date. How many were correct, what would have surprised him, and why?

Some who have revisited Evans’ book have tended to conclude he got more things wrong than right, but I am not so sure. Undoubtedly, he over-estimated the pace of change, especially the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence, yet recent commentators insist this is now imminent. Stephen Hawking, no less, has warned of the terrifying possibilities of machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. On the other hand, it may still be as far away as ever. It remains unclear what qualities such super-intelligence might have, or indeed whether intelligence might actually have an upper limit (rather like the lower limit to temperature). Perhaps our inability to imagine these things defines our stupidity.

What of Evans’ not-so-bizarre predictions? I think many of them were right, albeit a little later than anticipated. Taking his three other most confident predictions: the printed word no longer predominates, but has not been displaced entirely; computers now pervade education, although not in the way Evans imagined; and nearly all significant financial transactions are now carried out electronically. 

Many of Evans’ other predictions have also come about. Self-driving cars are almost here, and we already have automatic urban metro trains, vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers. Smart locks and personal biometric monitors are available if you want them, and the whole twenty terabytes or so of the American Library of Congress could be stored on a less-than-book-sized hard-drive. No reasonably complex business could now function without computers and the computer-games industry is one of the biggest wealth creators in the world.

Where Evans was wrong, if can be regarded as wrong, was that he was no seer. He was unable to foresee the innovative new uses of computers. He only saw them from the viewpoint of the nineteen-seventies. Rather as early motor cars were understood as ‘horseless carriages’, he could not escape the prevailing mindset of their time. Those who do, if they also have the luck and determination to see things through, become world-famous billionaires. Evans was no Henry Ford or Bill Gates.

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
Dr. Christopher Evans talks about educational software
Take computer-based education for instance. Evans correctly envisaged that it would become important and pervasive – he thought it would be built upon deeply engaging techniques from the computer games industry – but along with most other computer experts in the nineteen seventies, he thought it would take the form of computerised teachers that assumed a didactic, tutorial role in leading, coaching and directing individual learners through subject matter. Few foresaw how much we like to learn in social groups rather than in isolation at home, or that we do not react well to being closely directed by machines. There was little understanding of how computers could be effective in education, such as in providing learners with tools for research, for modelling data and for exploring educational environments. In this, human teachers become guides and facilitators rather than instructors. The outcome that we still have just as many expensive teachers and costly school buildings as ever is perhaps what would have surprised Evans most.

A more unequivocal example of what Evans and other futurologists of the time failed to anticipate is the internet, then still more than a decade away. Evans makes no mention of hypertext and hypermedia. Multimedia crops up only in the form of a brief mention of “colour graphics”. Graphical user interfaces (windows, icons, mouse and pointers) were still little more than a research project at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. Anything beyond text-based command-line interfaces were regarded by most computer scientists as inconsequential playthings. It was also thought more likely that computers and telecommunications would combine through “the family television set” rather than personal hand-held devices. Evans did foresee basic speech interfaces, but it seems not to have occurred to him that one day computers might handle touch, gesture, emotion, 3D, virtual reality and so on. All this was hidden over the horizon.

And if you could not foresee these things, there is no way you could imagine how they would be used. Evans, with a seemingly naive view of human nature, imagined we would all be using computers to improve ourselves and make our lives easier; that our leisure time would be devoted to cultural, artistic, philosophical, scientific and creative endeavour of various kinds. I wonder what he would have made of internet pornography, fake news, selfies and cat videos. I do hope blogging would have met with his approval. 

Evans’ over-beneficent view of human nature coloured his vision of the social and political changes he thought would take place. Take the twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty. I feel certain that, had we wanted it, the efficiencies brought about by computers could already have reduced our working hours and years significantly, but we have never had it offered. It would upset too many powerful interests. Governments answer to the establishment rather than ‘the man in the street’. As a result, for those who have jobs, the trend today is the complete opposite. And for those who don’t – well, wouldn’t it be fairer to share the jobs out?

Imagine if twenty hours per week up to the age of fifty was all we had to do. What would happen? For a start there would be those who decided to take on additional work in order to fund superior accommodation, private education, health care, better holidays, a more luxurious lifestyle and a more comfortable old age. Anyone content with just one job would begin to lose out. To keep up, we would all continue to work more than necessary, and the extra wealth this generated would evaporate through increased spending, inflation, and rising house prices, and disappear into the pockets of the elite minority. Does that sound familiar? The only way to avoid the inevitable self-satisfied winners and miserable losers would be to ration the amount of work one could undertake, or the amount of wealth one was allowed to have. The necessary laws and financial penalties would be difficult and unpopular.   

And how would we use our over-abundant spare time? Without appropriate social structures in place to support it, one could easily imagine an intensification of social ills – epidemics of obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, mental health issues and the breakdown of law and order.

Where computers have brought about efficiencies, then ‘Parkinson’s law’ – the adage that work expands to fill the time available – takes up the slack. Anyone with experience of large organisations over several decades will know how work that would once have been considered inessential or unaffordable now occupies an entire additional workforce to administer functions concerned with quality, accountability and so-called ‘political correctness’. Much of this is government-imposed bureaucracy. Rather than reducing the overall workload, computers have increased it by making possible what was once impossible.

The effects of globalisation – the free movement of wealth and labour around the world – were also not fully anticipated. Some of the wealth from the computer revolution has been distributed internationally, with manufacturing and administrative tasks ‘outsourced’ to other countries.

Stephen Hawking concluded his forewarnings about super-intelligent computers as follows:
Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
Perhaps this is why we do not have regular electronic referendums, despite their technological feasibility. They would risk returning the ‘wrong’ results. You only have to look at ‘Brexit’ as an example. Our U.K. politicians won’t even allow us proportional representation. Even where communism did fall as predicted, it has not always been replaced by fairness and democracy.

It seems that most of the wealth that might have funded our “life of luxurious leisure” drifted upwards to a wealthy minority, with crumbs falling downwards and outwards across the global multitudes, while the gap between the richest and the poorest in society gradually increased. And so we work longer hours and more years than before. The professions and middle-classes hold out with a struggle, but for how long?

Christopher Evans died shortly after his book’s publication, three weeks before the first part of his six-part television series was broadcast. It is often said that if you make predictions about the future the only certainty is that you will be wrong. Evans would have known this, but I suspect he would have been fairly satisfied by the extent to which he was right.

The best evidence of this is that the book and television series now seem mundane and ordinary, with little of the ‘wow’ factor they once undoubtedly had. But they are worth reading and watching again if these things interest you.

All six episodes of The Mighty Micro are available on the Internet Archive, linked below. Some are also available on YouTube. 
          Episode 1 – The Coming of the Microprocessor
          Episode 2 – Of Machines and Money
          Episode 3 – The Political Revolution
          Episode 4 – The Introverted Society
          Episode 5 – The Intelligent Machine
          Episode 6 – All Our Tomorrows 
The last programme, introduced by the series producer Lawrence Moore after Evans had died, consists of interviews with four leading thinkers of the time: Tom Stonier, Professor of Science and Society at Bradford University; I.J.Good, the professor of computing science who coined the term ‘ultra-intelligent machine’; James Martin, a database expert; and Barrie Sherman, a trade unionist. It gives a fascinating view of the future as seen in 1979.

When I read the book again in January, 2016, I  wrote the following review
Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
Christopher Evans
The Mighty Micro (3*)

In this 1979 book and associated television series, Dr. Christopher Evans predicted how life would be just twenty-one years later, in the year 2000, because of the forthcoming computer revolution. It is interesting to compare these predictions to what actually did happen, and to what has happened since, and reflect upon reasons for the differences. He definitely overestimated the pace of change, and was in other ways perhaps more wrong than right, but these are matters for a blog post. Evans did not himself live to find out how correct he was. He died even before the series was broadcast. Unusually for a second-time read, I felt at first this was only worth two stars. It does not stand the test of time well unless you are interested in making the comparisons I mention, in which case perhaps it scores higher.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.