Exciting times

Commuting days until retirement: 515

Up to now, there’s been a lot here about how I go to and from work, but not much about what happens when I’m there. I suppose I’ve been fighting a little shy of the topic – after all, it’s the reason this blog is anonymous. Well as I have said elsewhere, I do find satisfaction in the job, and I’m lucky to have a decent set of people as co-workers. Most – no, all of them – are younger than me, you won’t be surprised to hear, and I ‘m very happy with that.

fruitfliesWhat I wanted to do here was just to say something about the linguistic oddities of the work environment. I have found that in the artificial atmosphere of a big company – and this one is certainly the largest I have ever worked for – these rather grotesque business-speak distortions of everyday language thrive and breed like mutant fruit flies.

Perhaps it’s the superfluity of written communication which encourages this. As if the excess of personal emails, and copies of emails, which multiply exponentially with the size of the organisation, were not enough, there are official collections of ‘news’ that thud into your inbox two or three times daily. These of course are relentlessly upbeat in tone, even at times when the public business press (which I don’t often read) is painting a gloomier picture of the company. It’s rather like living in a totalitarian society, albeit a reasonably benevolent one. On the shop floor these emails appear to meet with the same sort of unspoken, weary indifference as official pronouncements in the streets of communist era Moscow.

But what of the language? Emails, both corporate and individual, are replete with the sort of jargon you can find in any Web dictionary of business clichés. And of course they find their way into spoken language – or is it the other way around?  This is well worked-over territory, so I’ll just look at a few of those that particularly irritate me.  Here are three that I encounter especially frequently:

  • Going forward – in the future, from now on.
  • Leverage (pronounced the American way, and used as a verb) – to make effective use of.
  • Bandwidth – the capacity or time you have available to take on additional work.

It has to be admitted, looking at the definitions, that the last two are succinct, even if they are ugly. And looking over the Web I have found some that I positively like. Here’s one I found which describes a situation I am well familiar with from my working life – only I never knew of a name for it. Imagine you have a boss who makes it his duty to find shortcomings, real or imagined, in any work that you come up with, and puts you to extra work remedying them. The way to deal with such a person is to deliberately insert a flaw which is glaringly obvious but easily put right. The boss finds it, you save time, and everyone is happy. This is giving the dog a bone.

But descend with me now into the teeth-on-edge zone, if you haven’t got there already. There’s poor, weary old thinking outside the box, so universally derided that it should have been in its grave long ago. But nevertheless, its undead carcass continues to lurch about the workplace; I still hear people use it without irony or embarrassment.  And here’s one I particularly detest: any ordinary, workaday act of communication with someone (emailing, phoning or simply meeting them) is referred to as reaching out to them. In traditional language, you might reach out to someone in distress, for example. But importing this phrase into the utilitarian world of commercialism seems like an attempt to clothe perfectly honest, but quite insignificant actions with a bogus air of wisdom and beneficence which they really don’t merit. And of course it’s used so often that it has become meaningless.

excitedBut now I come to what is for me the buttock-clenching nadir of business-speak – and this is one that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s list. My first encounter with it was when I was only just starting my job, after some years of working for myself. An email from one of the heads of the new company welcomed me, and said that, with my business knowledge, he was excited about taking me on. I wasn’t sure whether to be more surprised at the image of him jumping all over the furniture with breathless euphoria in his office, or at the idea that I had any business knowledge. (I haven’t – I can only put it down to having done my homework and tried to ask some intelligent questions in the interview.)

But I soon found that this was now the standard way of speaking of any forthcoming development in the corporate world, especially in written communication. It’s difficult to believe, seeing people soberly go about the everyday tasks of their jobs, that all this excitement is crackling in the air. But everything issued by the leaders of the company is saturated with it – it’s as if they are all competing with each other to be more excited than their fellow executives. You imagine that a board meeting must be like a pentecostal prayer gathering in the American bible belt. And of course those emails I mentioned are positively tumescent with excitement.

Well not so long ago, an employee questionnaire went round. Yes, as you’ve guessed, up came the question I dreaded. Was I excited?  A dilemma – it was supposedly anonymous, but bearing in mind that totalitarian analogy, you can’t be entirely sure.  Reader, I entered into a Faustian pact, and said I was excited. (Well, quite high on a scale of 0-10 – you know how those questionnaire things work.)  So I just hope that He Who Knows the Identity of Every Anonymous Blogger won’t hold it against me in the final reckoning.

So it’s not just the end of commuting that makes me to look forward to retirement. It’s a life of breakfast cereal, the postman, the shopping, grass, trees, earth – ordinary things and ordinary language. Now that makes me excited.

A morning of Intuitive Soul Whispering

Commuting days until retirement: 518

bigquestionsSunday – so rather than struggling to the train to notch up another commuting day, I am in my dressing gown munching toast in front of the Andrew Marr Show. And I stay on with the telly for that strange confection called The Big Questions. From what I’ve seen of this before it’s rather prone to producing Small Answers. Today was no exception, particularly in the section on the topic “Is faith compatible with reason?” (A mere third of the programme devoted to this.) The programme demonstrates that faith which TV producers have, against all reason, that if you plonk enough people with extreme and diametrically opposed opinions in front of each other, and give them each a few moments each to rant at each other, that some enlightenment will come out of it all.  (Well, I know that their agenda is to deliver ratings, rather than enlightenment. But couldn’t Sunday morning ‘god-slot’ TV be viewed more as a public service, and less as a ratings deliverer? Unfortunately I think that the brains of the people who run BBC1 are hardwired to work the other way.)

On the programme, the most difficult participant to ignore – and certainly the most irritating – was a lady called Andrea Foulkes, an accomplished TV performer, who, as she was anxious to impress on us, has had her own show on ITV. Among the accomplishments mentioned on her website is that of being an “Intuitive Soul Whisperer”. Well, we all need one of those. And what did she have to say? I will have to quote (thank goodness for iPlayer, allowing me to check I’m quoting accurately):

Quantum physics is starting to prove that the heart has a cohesive wave-form – it has a pattern, which is replicated, which creates emotion… Everyone’s thoughts and beliefs come from three strains: they come from ancestral pattterns, which we call genetic… and then you have past life patterns; and then you have compounded stuff, which you have from  being in the womb to the present day, because you have consciousness in the womb. And this creates your current reality…

“What is your external proof?” asked someone.  “External proof?” she burbled on, sweetly tolerant of those too slow to keep up with her, “External proof is clients who have experienced it, and they change their reality… all realities exist, but they exist within different dimensions. We live in a multidimensional reality, we live in a holographic universe”. (“We live in a what?”, interjected a bemused presenter.)

Well of course you don’t need to be a specialist in any of the disciplines she skipped over to be able to recognise all this as piffle of a high order. Further debate showed her telegenic, coiffeured carapace to be case-hardened against any assault by reason or logic. Which rather played into the hands of the other participant who made an impression on me – this time a positive one.

Will Storr, I learnt, is just bringing out a book: The Heretics – Adventures with the Enemies of Science, which supports the idea that we often choose our beliefs at first out of emotionally derived motives, only then seeking to justify them by selectively adopting the arguments which support them. While this can’t be universally true, it’s an issue which has always interested me. His pre-publication reviewers on Amazon are generally approving, if a little lukewarm, but I feel it’s a must-read for me. It comes out on Thursday, and I’ve preordered it on my Kindle.

That will use up a few train journeys, and I hope to report back in a future post. So – thank you, BBC, and sorry for my carping above. I did get something out of The Big Questions after all.

But apart from that…

Commuting days until retirement: 521

One train activity I missed out in the last post was just simply talking on the phone. (Sometimes now it is easy to forget that a phone is still, well, a phone.) While people do text a lot on trains, which is considerate, and much better for the readers, like me, there are still those whose intimate domestic arrangements – or, worse, work problems – are offered up to the whole carriage.

I must admit I did once get a bit of unfair entertainment from a woman opposite me, who had the task of getting someone in her office to do something urgent that she would have been doing herself, had she been there. However it was obvious that this needed a more than elementary knowledge of how to work some application on the computer, and that the person at the other end she had to instruct was fairly slow on the uptake. Just as, with infinite patience, she was on the point of getting a result with some part of the task, the train would go into a tunnel and contact would be lost. I have never seen such a study in repressed frustration. As everyone else around stared out of the window, buried themselves in their books, or did anything to appear not to be listening, she looked likely to get up and kick us all in the shins.

But there are also conversations which remind you of the fact that, while mobiles have given people many more opportunities to talk to one another, they haven’t necessarily got anything more to say. I think this is what Harold Pinter had in mind when he responded to the advent of the mobile phone by writing a short sketch. (I thought of this because we are going to a Pinter play on Friday, of which more, I hope later.)

I remember the sketch pretty well because, rather unusually, it was performed on BBC Newsnight, and one of the characters was played by Pinter himself, probably something like a year or two before he died. I have just done a bit of Googling and found to my delight that it’s on YouTube. (Well obviously, once you think of it.) So I have put it below. Although the actors are sitting in the studio and reading from scripts, you’re to imagine that they are speaking on mobile phones. The vain attempts of the two characters to find something significant to say are both funny and tragic  Enjoy it.

Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.

Turing

If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality

turing1

Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?

Engagement

So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.


The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at http://www.turing.org.uk

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.