Saturday, 4 February 2023

Toys Abound

I was in a doctor's waiting room with a six-month-old relative recently. Minutes after arriving there, while waiting for the baby's mother's name to be called, it had dawned on us that we had forgotten to bring any of the baby's toys.

How would I amuse the baby without the usual gang, we wondered.  Without the dear little pink rabbit that had been ordered online and unexpectedly turned out on arrival to be no bigger than a hand. Without the ranks of Beanie babies preserved in a pristine state for 25 years by the baby's aunt. Without the strange furry creature with a long curling tail, a face like an Alison Utley hedgehog and tiny human hands that always make me think of the Queen's remark when Giles Brandreth pointed out to her that Rupert Bear has the head of a bear but the hands of a human: 

"I’m sorry you told me that. Some things are best left unknown, don’t you think?"

Oh well. We would have to manage. The baby's mother headed off to her consultation, and the baby and I looked around. There was a grey abstract painting with splashes of glued-on-gravel. There was a glass case containing herbal remedies marketed by the doctor. There was a flat screen television riveted to the wall and not turned on.

Not easy to get much excitement from that lot.

But there was the mask that I was supposed to be wearing but had taken off because it made my glasses mist over. The baby, with the delicate care of a newly learnt skill, closed thumb and index finger on one corner of the blue papery cloth of the mask itself. Then, with equal concentration, she clasped one of the mask's soft white loops between the thumb and index finger of her other hand.

She lifted the hand that held the loop. She stared in wonder. This wasn't like ribbon or cord or any thin stringy thing that she had encountered so far in life. It stretched. And, look, if you let it go, it bounced back into place. Let's try that again. And again. And again.

A quick glance at me - without words her huge eyes convey that this is amazing.

Back to testing the limits of stretch and spring.

And then a man entered. He went over to a small bowl I hadn't noticed that sat on a table underneath the television. He scooped up a handful of wrapped sweets and took a seat on the other side of the room.

The baby watched him closely as he moved about, and then she returned to her investigation  of soft elastic. Ping. Ping. Ping.

And then, such excitement - the man unwrapped a sweet, and the rattle of the foil wrapper caught the baby's attention. What was that amazing noise?

The baby stared in the man's direction, but the noise had already ended  Back once more to ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. 

Until another sweet paper rustle. The baby's head jerked up again. She looked over at what she thought must be its source. He was absolutely still now, his attention absorbed by his telephone. No further noise or movement from his direction. What on earth could it have been. 

And so it went on - a mask and some sweet papers provided twenty minutes of absorption. When the world is new, almost nothing is dull, it seems.

When the baby's mother came back and asked if there'd been any problem, I explained that it had all been fine as the baby had found some pingers.

At which the baby's mother raised an eyebrow. Pingers, I now know have a specific meaning. Pingers are most unsuitable for babies, no matter how desperate you are to entertain them. Just stick with simple things.

Thursday, 26 January 2023

I Don't Quite Get It

Going through old photographs, I found this from the Times of April 2020. It seems there was a time, not long ago at all, when even professional journalists could not tell the difference between Hungary and Ukraine.

This only intensified my confusion about what we are doing in Ukraine. 

While it is clear Putin is a thug and a monster and Ukraine has been attacked without having done anything that could be interpreted as aggressive provocation, what I don't understand is why this conflict is being treated so differently to the conflicts in other countries where in recent decades equally unfair attacks have been made - and in some cases the aggressor has been Putin, just like now. 

Somehow, the whole of the West has been whipped up into wild outrage by this particular war, as opposed to all the many cruel unfair wars in the world that we usually turn a blind eye to - in fact, simultaneous with expressing our horror at what is happening in Ukraine, we are turning the blindest of blind eyes to poor old Armenia, under regular and unjustified attack from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, in fact, at least, according to Ursula von der Leyen, is a reliable and trustworthy partner, not like brutal Russia at all (except it is). 

So why here, why now, do we suddenly find our (selective) moral compass? And most especially, why here? I mean, when Boris Johnson wrote in his usual bombastic way, "What conceivable grounds can there be for delay" in providing more assistance and weaponry for the Ukrainians to fight back against Russia, was I the only one to think, "Er, mate, the fact that you are taking on a madman with a vast nuclear arsenal who, if driven too hard, might decide to use those weapons, because he is cruel, blood thirsty and completely mad and if we leave him nothing to lose who knows what will happen."

Am I a dreadful appeaser? Or is there something to be said for noting that Hitler did not have nuclear weapons and Putin does, and therefore the situation between Russia and Ukraine might deserve a slightly more delicate strategy than simply going in hard, hard, hard?

The Ukrainians are in the right, no doubt about it, but so many others are - and have been - in similar skirmishes. Why have we all suddenly found our morality for this war but no others? And, having found our compass, are we sure the best solution to what is a horrific problem is to goad the bear?

I sound pusillanimous. I am. But I am also suspicious, simply because our response to what is happening in Ukraine strikes me as very much the exception to the rule, and I would like to know why that is.

And somehow I don't feel tremendously encouraged by the news that there has just been a purge of very senior people in the Ukrainian government who were corrupt - not because the purge isn't good news but because the news only came yesterday, suggesting to me that we have all been going round thinking this is a fight between good and bad, when actually it's a fight between not that great and terrible, in terms of the leaders. 

Would the purge have happened, I wonder, if the Ukrainian leadership hadn't been forced into it by us, its new allies? Who are we dealing with really - not the civilians but those who run things in the Ukrainian government? If Ukraine wins and the immediate aftermath is not that we are all drenched in radioactive fallout, will the corrupt individuals purged yesterday come sliding back and resume their business? Are we being encouraged into a huge and endless war because of some other agenda, or is it just that Ukrainian civilians are more attractive to us than those in the Caucasus or Armenia? Is Putin really a threat to the entire free world or is he just an elderly thuggish Russian with stupid dreams that he cannot actually sustain or even fulfil? 

Saturday, 21 January 2023

Icky Fingers

When I was five or six my brother and I were very interested in the weekly Top Ten countdown on the radio. I can still remember our bafflement and disgust as week after week for almost two months Frank Ifield yodelling a song called "I Remember You" remained stuck at No. 1. What could it mean? Who were the people who could bear to listen to this appalling noise?

My memory has it that we wanted Ferry Cross the Mersey to knock off Frank Ifield - but it turns out it came out years later. If it wasn't that, perhaps it was The House of the Rising Sun. But, no: that too came years afterwards. So it must have been the Beatles with Love Me Do that we were barracking for.  I didn't think I liked that song much, but it seems that long ago a three-foot two version of myself cared about it very, very much.

In connection with our Top Ten mania, on Saturday mornings my brother and I used to go with our friends from nextdoor, Charlie and David, to the Chelsea Record Shop, on the Kings Road, almost next to the Chelsea Town Hall. Charlie and David had more pocket money than us (and television, and free access to sweets, such astonishing riches), and they would buy singles. I did not have enough money for singles - at least not genuine ones. However, there was a product that I could afford - a record that came out every week with the top ten songs on it, but all sung by people who, despite their best efforts, did not sound quite like the real thing.

There is nothing in my life that has been a bigger waste of money than those imitation hit records. I succumbed to the temptation of buying them three times, before realising they were just completely no good. Actually, I think I realised they were no good right from the first time I bought one - but the next couple of times I was genuinely interested to try to work out what it was that made them inferior. They were so very nearly like the originals. No one sang off tune. They had the lyrics and the tempo perfect, their singers had similar voices to those of the singers they were imitating. But they mysteriously failed - entirely - every time.

I remembered those records when someone showed me some of the photographs of non-existent people that artificial intelligence is beginning to produce. Here are a couple of examples:

They look remarkably good, at first glance. But look a little more closer - just like those fake top ten records, there is something not quite right about these fake people. It's their hands. What on earth is going on with their hands?

I find it reassuring actually. As someone on Twitter said:

Someone replied with this account of robots pitted against US Marines that was also quite cheering.

On the other hand, (ho ho), if Dora Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey is accurate, perhaps AI photograph generators have simply had Strachey-related data fed into their programming:

Only time will tell: will robots gain the upper hand (ho ho ho ho) or are their barriers we cannot get over? I grew up in an age when we were led to believe that humans could solve everything, but it's been 50 years and there still seems no solution to the problem of storing energy for any length of time in batteries. Either robots and artificial intelligence, as human-made phenomena, will reach certain limits and go no further, or they will go beyond those limits, not thanks to human efforts but surpassing them. I pray that the first option will prevail,  that robots and AI will reach the limits that we are capable of and go no further and that human life will meander on in its messy, muddled, mostly five-fingered way.

Ps: coincidentally (or because AI is already infinitely better than I'd imagined) straight after writing this, two articles on the subject of AI turned up in the ever flowing stream that is Twitter. Here is one. And here is the other. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Friday, 13 January 2023

Luddites Unite

 "Them robots innit, coming over here taking our jobs", I think now, whenever I go into a supermarket and see the self-checkouts they are putting in everywhere - although when I very first saw them, when living in London, I thought their cry of "Unexpected item in the bagging area" might one day be appropriated for the title of a chick lit novel about a girl who gets pregnant by mistake. 

So far I think nobody else has thought that and acted upon it. Or, more likely, many others have, but they have recognised that it is a very stupid idea. 

In Hungary, I don't think the supermarket robots speak anyway, those that are here, that is - thus far, Hungarian self-checkout machines are relatively few and far between, I'm glad to say. 

As far as I know, they exist mainly in one of the two chains of supermarkets with yellow and blue signs - Aldi or Lidl, (I've chosen not to waste my limited mental capacity distinguishing between the two). Incidentally, in whichever of those two supermarkets it is where they haven't invested heavily in robots, all "store announcements" are made first in Hungarian and then again in the pre-recorded voice of an Australian woman, which I find appealing. Any other Australians in Hungary may be interested, if they are feeling mildly homesick.

In short, I recognise the convenience of self-checkouts (although an alternative would be employing far more people so that all checkout desks are filled) and therefore I do use them, but I rather wish I wasn't given the opportunity to make this anti-social choice. Taking away jobs is bad enough, but taking away the minor interchanges of daily life is worse. 

A way to defeat the new wave of supermarket robots did occur to me yesterday when I saw one elderly woman use a self-checkout so farcically incompetently that she needed a member of the shop's staff to scan every single one of her bits of shopping. Watching her, I realised that, if all customers had the courage and intent, we could together perform equal incompetence, so that more and more staff members would be needed to help us. Eventually managers everywhere would be forced to recognise that it would actually be a much better idea to employ people. 

I won't bet on that though, because as this small item shows, the business of replacing humans with non-humans has been with us for a very long time.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

I Support Internet Archive

I found Internet Archive during the months when we couldn't go to shops or travel. The very first books I read there were fiction set in the time of the Spanish flu. One was Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter. Another was They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell (about whom Edward Mendelson is fascinating in another book you can find on Internet Archive; I suspect he puts a similar argument here). 

I loved both of these books. Given that our "pandemic" didn't turn out to be a true pandemic of the Spanish flu variety, I wonder whether works of such poignance will be inspired by people's experience of this more recent iteration. I expect that as time goes by and the consequences of the panicked public policy we were persuaded to accept become more terrible, we may see an increasing anger emerging in people's recollection of what happened. 

Anyway, I think Internet Archive is a wonderful thing and the attacks being made upon it by publishers are misguided and selfish. So often it is impossible to find older books anywhere but in the Archive's collection. The Archive is doing a huge service, preserving so much that publishers cannot be bothered to keep available.

And it is not only books. Today I found this fascinating bit of footage in which you can see Ferenc Nagy being interviewed in the calm manner of a former era. 

For those who may not know, Ferenc Nagy was democratically elected Prime Minister of Hungary until Mátyás Rákosi's Communist Party, aided by Soviet soldiers, kidnapped his party's General Secretary & deported him to the Soviet Union and then kidnapped Nagy's own son, only returning him when Nagy agreed to resign from office. 

Once they'd achieved that, the Communist Party seized power in Hungary, despite having won only 22 per cent of the vote at free elections. 

"I do not believe coexistence is possible between ideologies. Communism is an imperialistic ideology" Nagy states in the Internet Archive footage. Sadly, Communism is also a very insidious ideology, and if you look carefully enough you will see that it is the force behind many of today's problems. Along with the thing it claims to be the cure for - human greed.

Monday, 9 January 2023

Food in Fiction - an occasional series

 I am reading Incline Our Hearts by AN Wilson. It is the first in a series, and thus far it has been pretty much a mirror of his more recent memoir, Confessions, which I enjoyed, but which I'm not completely sure I want to read again as fiction. 

Not that it is quite that simple - but very nearly.

Anyway, in the novel there is a description of a lunch that the narrator enjoys as a young man in  a house in Brittany. It does sound rather wonderful, (although I might have cut the naked mermaid bit, had I been in charge):

"Even by her own impeccable standards this was a series of dishes done to such perfection that one was half aware, even while eating it, that the memory of the meal would remain for ever. Almost all experience is instantaneously forgettable. Most of what we do remember is only fixed in our minds by chance. For another person to place something in our consciousness deliberately, so that we never forget it, that is art... The meal began with a spinach soufflé, which was like a thing of nature, a puffy light green crust sprouting from its bowl like a bush coming to leaf. And then there was raie au beurre noire, the freshest strands of succulent skate as white as snow amid the black butter and the little, dark green capers: once again, one felt that the food was for the first time in its natural habitat: a naked mermaid was suggested, sitting in seaweed. And then there were pieces of roast beef, pink and tender served with pommes dauphinoise. And then there were haricots verts from the garden, served separately when we had all finished our meat. And then there was a fresh, very oily, green salad with which to eat the Camembert. And then, to crown it all, omelettes soufflés aux liqueurs, frothing, bubbling in their great buttery pans as Therese and Barbara ran in, squealing with the excitement of this success, for sweet omelettes never looked lighter or smelt more spirituous than these."