In History, Names, Philosophy, Poetry, Sport, Words

Here’s news. Or perhaps I should say here are news. I was researching an article about Artificial Intelligence – a subject that I’d like someone to discuss with my phone, by the way, because the concept seems to have completely passed it by. Forget machine learning, it’s no better at anticipating what I’m trying to spell than it was two years ago; in fact, I think it’s going backwards. Literally in some cases.

The other day I was keying in the word ‘tough’ (my son had forgotten his gym shoes and I was explaining that I couldn’t drop them off for him) and even after entering the first four letters the phone still hadn’t predicted what the final word was going to be. It’s just a lack of effort if you ask me.

Not only that, it’s now decided that it doesn’t want to be a phone any more. It’s like Marcus Rashford trying to take free-kicks and hit 50 yard passes when all you want him to do is run really fast into the penalty area and shoot. It’ll have a go at emails, search the Net, send Whatsapps, manage my Fantasy Football team, control my music, even sync my calendar, but try to cajole it into making a phone call and it shrugs its shoulders and sulks. Just do what you’re good at, son. Be the best phone you can be.

It claims there’s no reception at my house. That would be fine if I lived in some remote Scottish glen, or Patagonia, or the Moon, but I don’t, I live in one of the most densely populated regions of Europe. I’m never more than 10 metres away from another phone user. Yet the absurd truth is that I’d probably get better reception on the Moon than I do in my kitchen.

I’ve gone off at a tangent – which you have to do when you go to the Moon. Let me return to Earth. Ow, that’s hot! OK. Splash down. In the process of researching this article on Artificial Intelligence – I’m not using the acronym AI, by the way, because it looks like Al, as in Paul Simon’s ‘You can call me Al’, and if we go down that path I’ll have to call you Betty – I stumbled upon a reference to an American computer scientist called Edmund Berkeley, who wrote a book in 1949 called Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. (My phone featured in the sequel, Machines That Think They’re Better Than You).

In this book of his, Berkeley wrote: “Recently there have been a good deal of news about strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill…”

Whoa! Wind that back a minute: “Recently there have been a good deal of news”? Have been? I’ve never thought of news as a plural before, have you? But you don’t have to think about it for very long to see that of course news is plural, it’s just that we never talk about a singular ‘new’ these days.

Back in the 14th century they did, though. A ‘new’ was a new thing, much as smalls are small things (although some smalls are larger than others). Hands up everyone who thought news was an acronym (Never Eat Wedding Sheets or something?). Of course it isn’t, it’s the plural of new. Medieval serfs used to go around saying things like, “Have you heard the new? Wat Tyler’s revolting.” And, “No word from Agincourt yet. Still, no news are good news.”

How right they were. Back then, news were proclaimed as a valuable public service, cried out by a bloke with a loud voice, a funny hat and a bell. Today it’s a singular, worthless waste of time. Paradoxically, news started to become worthless as soon as people started trying to sell it. And the more commercial news becomes, the more worthless it is. War as entertainment. Murder as titillation. Politics as pantomime… And that’s just the BBC.

In the days before wall-to-wall news, people philosophised, read books, wrote poetry, painted beautiful paintings, sculpted beautiful sculptures, built beautiful buildings, invented the beautiful game. Now what do we have? Tweeting presidents and Celebrity Pointless (tautology surely).

In the list of ‘Things Worth Shelving, At Least For A While, Just To See If It Improves The World’, the News is right up there with Ed Sheeran, traffic police and the offside law. Before you say, “We need news to keep us informed,” try this as an exercise. Instead of watching the News or reading a newspaper, read a book or magazine, watch a documentary, prune a tree, go for a walk, take an Open University degree in astrophysics. Then tell me you’re uninformed.

When was the last time you heard anything in the News that directly affected the way you go about your life? Other than the sports results. And maybe the weather. Isn’t it all just gossip, bitching and voyeurism with a bit of economics thrown in to help us to sleep?

The upshot of this week’s news is that we’ve lost Ken Dodd and Stephen Hawking just when we needed them most. Who better to have a proper word with those naughty Russians? (Apparently their dirty, underhand spymasters are way more dirty and underhand than ours, so we can be proud of that). Vladimir Putin may fancy himself as a hard man but he’d have spilt the beans after a few seconds of Doddy’s tickling stick and a bit of string theory.

Alas one thing we’ve all learnt from the News is that politicians prefer to do their own talking. Tickled I am not. They always have to start with a big bang. And usually end up inside a black hole.

There are surely better ways to spend your time.

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