Thursday, April 28, 2011

Joining the hunt for intelligent life

It’s been quite a week for high technology.

It all started on Easter Monday when Mrs D decided it would be a good idea to shoot off early to the car boot sale, leaving the rest of the family either to lie in until midday (step forward, Dixon Junior) or do the weekly shop (self and loyal daughter).

So while two of us trudged the aisles of Morrisons searching for titbits in the post-Easter wasteland, Mrs D trawled the piles of tat heaped on trestle tables up at the racecourse.

The weekly shoppers came back with the usual stuff: cereals, bread, ham, frozen peas.

The intrepid bargain hunter came back with real treasure. Not, unfortunately, the priceless but unrecognised antique that everyone else at the sale was hoping to find, but a Ladybird book.

And How it Works... The Computer - scanned pages here - is not your average Janet-and-John-Down-On-The-Farm kind of Ladybird book. It was written for the nerds of 1979, and has section headings like Binary Arithmetic, Gates and Highways and Does A Computer Make Mistakes?.

The fact that the latter section refers to something called a “parity bit” gives an idea of the intended audience. Which must have been pretty small, even in the halcyon days of free tertiary education.

The illustrations are scary too: white-coated technocrats wrangle punched tapes and cards. Cowed inputters develop repetitive strain injury as they labour beside the visual display units of mini-computers that take up more office space than a Transit van.

Fascinating stuff, and 1979’s predictions for the future are fascinating too.

“What is the latest thing today,” we read, “may be old-hat in five years time.” Five years? Tell that to someone whose iPhone 4 has suddenly been made obsolete by the iPhone 7, a week after they took out an 18-month contract with Orange.

Most of the computers in the book are painted orange, though. So perhaps the writers were more prescient than even they knew.

What they couldn’t predict, though, was the scary technological stuff that’s happening today.

If you’re on PlayStation Network, for example, then you’re doubtless a bit worried right now about your personal details getting into the hands of hackers. Those of us with online XBoxes and/or Wiis probably shouldn’t feel too smug either.

And if you’re an interstellar alien, you may find it just that bit more difficult to make contact with us brainy humans: the people who run SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, have run short of money and turned off their radio telescope array.

Hope springs eternal, though: there’s an internet rumour that Ladybird published a very short print run of that computer book in plain covers, to teach  senior civil servants at the MoD about Peripheral Units and such, without appearing to be reading kids’ stuff.

If you find one of those, you’ve got a genuine antique on your hands, which might raise enough money to get SETI going again. What goes around comes around, they say.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Grab yourself a slice of happiness

A news item on the radio on Tuesday caused a certain amount of early-morning harrumphing in the Dixon household.

It was the launch day of Action for Happiness, a movement whose aim is “bringing together people from all walks of life who want to play a part in creating a happier society for everyone”.

It’s a laudable goal, and the chorus of harrumphs from Dixon Towers may have been more the result of a Lenten lack of chocolate than any deeper-rooted cynicism.

Those who join the movement make a very simple pledge: “I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me.”

And that is a very good thing.

Of course, some people have been there before. Ken Dodd, Liverpudlian comedian and variety entertainer, inventor of the Diddymen and the tickling stick, hit the charts in 1964 with a jolly little ditty called Happiness, and he’s been singing it ever since.

That said, and to put the cynical hat back on for a second, Doddy’s next hit was called Tears, and it’s still the 19th best-selling UK single of all time, just below that  irritating Bryan Adams number about Robin Hood.

Misery sells, it would appear.

Mind you, the fact that Boney M are the only band to have two hits in the top ten says quite a lot about the tastes of the record-buying public.

Where were we? Right, happiness.

The Action for Happiness website has been up and down a bit over the first couple of days of its existence, but once you’re on it you can learn, among other things, about the Ten Keys to Happier Living.

You can find out that Doing Good Feels Good, and you can read quite a bit of philosophical stuff about The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number, and Utilitarianism (which you hoped you’d heard the last of in O-level history lessons).

You can even download a Happiness Action Pack, and posters to stick up in your workplace.

And you can learn about what they call the GREAT DREAM: Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying out; Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, Meaning.

It all sounds great, and you shouldn’t be cynical, and you want everyone to be happy, and everything should be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that Ken Dodd song is drilling a hole in your brain, but, but, but...

The pictures on the Ten Keys to Happier Living web page look strangely familiar. They’re black and white, 1950s vintage, happy smiling people. They could well have appeared on one of those comedy birthday cards with a modernised caption. You know the sort: “Mabel was just a shy retiring wallflower – until she discovered vodka”.

There’s something just a little bit creepy about all this enforced happiness, and before you know it paranoia starts to set in.

The men who know best are coming, with their smiles, and their philosophy, and their white coats.

“We want you to be happy,” they say. They look like they mean it. And they will be very hard to resist.