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Wednesday 20 December 2023

A New Job

A year out of university, Brilliant Daughter was struggling in the gig economy, teaching kids and adults who had seen The Great Pottery Throw Down and fancied a go themselves, with an outfit that pays barely more than the minimum wage. Despite having the full skill set, from running workshops to throwing clay on the wheel and glazing and firing, she received no more than the Paint-a-Pot supervisors. It left little time and energy for her own stuff. She began to look for a salaried job.

A vacancy came up for an art, textiles and ceramics technician in a posh, girls’ school behind high walls in leafy green gardens. As well as art, ceramics and textiles departments, the school has music and dance studios, a gym, computing and science labs: everything any girl (or her mum) could dream of. Lots of smart, happy, smiley, high-achieving girls on the web site. They have a sixth form that sends loads to top universities, and I don’t need to add that the OFSTED rating is Outstanding.

A lot of thought and effort went into her application and she got an interview. She had all the skills they needed, particularly in ceramics and textiles.

The interview went well. She can talk the lid off a tea pot and the pattern off the tea towel too. Then there were some practical tasks to do.

One involved threading and using a sewing machine. Some of the other candidates didn’t have a clue. She even ended up helping one. Then they had to wedge some clay (i.e. knead it to uniform consistency without air bubbles), weigh out quantities for hand-building and wheel throwing, and centre some on a wheel. Well, that’s what she does all the time. Finally, they were asked to identify hazards in a room where there were open drawers and a glass of water next to electrical equipment. Walks and parks for any member of our obsessive-compulsive family.

Apparenty, there are now AI web sites that automatically create CVs and cover letters for you. You wonder whether some of the candidates had any idea what they had applied for.

Afterwards, they phoned her. “What? Me? Really?” she said in disbelief.

She has her own desk, control of a materials budget (the kids are provided with all they need), and training in things like driving the school minibus. The teaching and other support staff are friendly and intelligent. The kids are fun. A civilised, professional place to work.

And, with the time and energy to make her own things in the evening, weekends and holidays, she has been busy with clay, wheel and kiln in her studio. Nearly everything she made sold in the Christmas markets.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Julius Caesar

I seem to be one of the diminishing few who still prefer to watch television in the traditional manner: as and when it is broadcast, usually in weekly episodes. For the past three Mondays we have been watching the Julius Caesar series on the BBC. Even Mrs. D., who is something of a phone addict, has been riveted by it.

It tells the story of how, through ruthless political manipulations and military conquests, and by appealing to the popular vote, Julius Caesar overthrew five hundred years of democracy, seizing power to become dictator of the whole Roman Empire. What a tyrant! Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After him, democracy ended. Rome was governed by emperors and gradually fell into decline.

Caesar and those around him, such as Cato and Pompey, are played by actors. We see their actions, which are often terrible, and they spend a lot of time looking worried or thoughtful, but they speak no lines. Their contributions are described by around a dozen experts - academics, serious politicians and constitutional lawyers - who each focus on one person. The effect is gripping and powerful. I especially liked Rory Stewart’s explanations of Cato, Caesar’s adversary, who kills himself rather than compromise. I have seen historical dramas, and documentaries narrated by individuals, but nothing like this. Maybe I don’t watch enough television.

Without anything too explicit, it is impossible not to make comparisons with present times. Choose any conflict or political situation in any country you want. It is best said at the end. Democracy has to be defended constantly and vigorously. If democracy is weak, strong people come forward, and a new dictator will emerge.

Friday 8 December 2023

I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire

What do young people do when they begin to take more than just a passing interest in each other? One answer it that they walk in the countryside. Our children did so with there special friends, and I have written about how I was smitten one warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow. 

My parents were no different. This pair of photographs is from 1945. That is Rawcliffe Church in the distance. 

I was selecting images to illustrate the old family audiotapes I have mentioned several times, with a view to putting them on YouTube to minimise risk of loss. Here, yet again, is my dad singing “I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire”, this time as a video with images. It may not be particularly sophisticated, but it seems to work well.

I bet he imagined he was Bing Crosby singing with Gloria Jean in “If I Had My Way”. Let’s say he makes a recognisable attempt. I cannot imagine my mum managing Gloria Jean’s coloratura soprano, though. I looked up the original. What a delight! Astonishingly, Gloria Jean was just 14 at the time, playing the part of an orphaned child. She’s nearly as good as Bing.

Dad sang a lot of Bing Crosby songs to us; there are more on the full audiotape, such as (from the same film): “If I had my way forever there’d be, a garden of roses for you and for me”, and (from “Rhythm on the River”): “Do I want to be with you, as the years come and go? Only forever, if you care to know”. 

“Stop being soppy,” I hear my mum say, which of course encouraged him. 

Isn’t it great to be able to share our parents’ musical obsessions, even years too late. I wish I could watch the films with them now. 

Monday 4 December 2023

Andrew Lloyd Webber

A treat on BBC Television last night: ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber at the BBC’, a collection of performances over the years. It had some commentary, including from Lloyd Webber himself, but nothing shouty or intrusive, no one ‘emoting’ like an open mouthed idiot, just quiet, intelligent and sensible. The BBC at its best. It was first shown in March earlier this year but I missed it then. It is still on iPlayer.

I have long been a Lloyd Webber fan. I first became aware of him in the Joseph days of the nineteen-sixties, but it was Jesus Christ Superstar that won me over, particularly the film - the one with Ted Neely and Yvonne Elliman. I saw it three or four times. My friend Brendan, from the shared house, went to see it about ten times. He knew all the words and harmonies, and could imitate the actors’ bass/baritone/tenor voices:  “We need a more permanent solution to our problem. ...What then to do about Jesus of Nazareth? Miracle wonderman, hero of fools ...” If you know the original you can imagine the hilarious effect.

Then I bought the first recording of Evita and was absolutely entranced by it, especially the scene where Peron meets Eva for the first time:  “...Colonel Peron / Eva Duarte, I’ve heard so much about you. ... but I’m only an actress / a soldier ... But when you act, the things you do affect us all. But when you act, you take us away from the squalor of the real world. ...I’d be good for you, I’d be surprisingly good for you.”

For me, the highlight of the programme was Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball singing The Phantom of the Opera in 2001. I love Lesley Garrett. She is of my era and from Thorne in Yorkshire, my part of the country. She went to Thorne Grammar School. Goole, Thorne and the villages in between and around used to be as one. They even had the same telephone dialling code. Then some government factotum with apparently no understanding of the social geography of the area thought it would be more convenient to split them off into different administrative regions.

When Lesley Garrett speaks, much of her native Thorne accent still bubbles through. When she sings, she is spellbinding.

Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball: The Phantom of the Opera -
I don’t know why the sub-titles to this video
misleadingly implies that they are married.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Mighty Micro

New Month Old Post: first posted 4th January, 2017. 

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro

In 1978, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist, computer scientist and expert on the future of computers, confidently made four predictions for the year 2000: (i) the printed word would become virtually obsolete; (ii) computer-based education would begin to supplant schools and teachers; (iii) money, in terms of physical bits of metal and paper, would almost have vanished; (iv) substantial and dramatic advances would have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence.
His only uncertainty was about the pace of change. It might take a decade or so longer, or occur more quickly, but the changes about to take place would be so stupendous as to transform the world beyond recognition. There would be more changes 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 expanded his predictions in his book and television series The Mighty Micro. As well as the four main predictions, 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.

The social and political predictions were even more 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, 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. Having escaped my previous career in accountancy, I was 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.

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
Dr. Christopher Evans talks about educational software

It is fascinating to revisit Evans’ predictions. How many were correct, what would have surprised him, and why? Many commentators conclude he got more things wrong than right, but I am not so sure. The printed word no longer predominates; computers now pervade education, albeit with teachers in schools as guides rather than in the didactic and solitary way Evans imagined; and nearly all significant financial transactions are carried out electronically. And the less-bizarre predictions are already here.

Undoubtedly, he over-estimated the pace of change, especially the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence. Futurologists are still predicting it. Stephen Hawking 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 whether intelligence might have an upper limit. Perhaps our inability to imagine these things defines our stupidity. Where Evans was wrong, if it can be regarded as wrong, is that he was no seer. He could not escape the prevailing mindset of the nineteen-seventies, and foresee the innovative new uses of computers.

He did not foresee the internet. Multimedia crops up only in the form of a brief mention of “colour graphics”. Graphical user interfaces were still little more than a research project. He thought that electronic communications would take place through “the family television set” rather than personal hand-held devices.

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.

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. The efficiencies brought about by computers could already have reduced our work significantly, but this has never been offered. It would upset too many powerful interests. Governments answer to the establishment more than the ‘man in the street’. As a result, for those who have jobs, the trend today is the opposite. And for those who don’t, 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 would evaporate through increased spending, inflation and rising house prices, and disappear into the pockets of the elite minority, much of it overseas. 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 unpopular and difficult.

And how would we use our over-abundant spare time? 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. 

‘Parkinson’s law’ prevails: work expands to fill the time available. Anyone with experience of large organisations will know how work once considered inessential or unaffordable, now occupies an entire additional workforce who administer quality, accountability and ‘political correctness’. Rather than reducing the overall workload, computers have increased it by making possible what was once impossible.

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.”
Sadly, Christopher Evans died shortly after his book’s publication, three weeks before his 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 got it right. 

My original post in 2017 was quite a lot longer and included links to the archived television programmes, so I have left it here. The programmes are fascinating to watch if this kind of thing interests you - the future as seen in 1978.