View from Vitalia: Of Tapes, Teeth and Gadgets

2018 brings good and bad news, and fresh - if not always pleasant - encounters with technology

As often happens, New Year brings with it both good and bad news.

As I have just visited South Korea (and, very briefly, North Korea too by standing for  a minute or so on the wrong, northern, side of the border demarcation line while in the Demilitarized Zone – read more about it in my feature due to appear in the March 2018 issue of E&T), the sudden news of long-awaited and long-delayed bilateral negotiations between the two sides, and North Korea’s participation in the forthcoming Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang came as a welcome New Year surprise. It was almost a personal gift, for while in Korea I came to seriously like the country, its people, its technology and its food!

Let’s hope that this is just the first step on the long road to reconciliation, and, who knows, maybe even reunification of two Koreas.

I first discovered Korea as a schoolkid in the USSR, thanks to a glossy propaganda monthly Koreya Segodnya (Korea Today), published, no doubt,  in the communist North. That bulky magazine, printed in stilted Russian, was occasionally on sale in the 1960s and 1970s Soviet Union. For all its inane totalitarian contents, it was always in high demand, and we had to ‘bribe’ an old woman seller in a newspaper kiosk next to our school by letting her throw in a couple of back copies of our own compulsory, yet not-at-all popular, Pravda newspaper.

What was the attraction of  the countless pictures of the ‘Great Leader Kim Il Sung’, with captions like, “The Great Leader helps an old lady to cross the road”, “The Great leader gives on-the-spot guidance to Korean scientists and engineers,” and “The Great Leader attends the performance of the opera ‘Great Leader’s Five-Point Programme of Modernising Korean Agriculture” (big yawn)? Or of the blunt assertion that as a student ‘the Great Leader’ wrote and published 1500 (!) books in just three years?

To us, Koreya Segodnya was irresistible, however.  It was vitally important to know that there were people in the world more enslaved and more oppressed that we were and were living under the regime even more cruel and absurd than ours. Leafing through those bombastic pages, made us feel a bit more like free human beings, for after a quick browse of Korea Today, the same Pravda newspaper would read like a thriller.

Of course, I had no idea then that not all of Korea was that backward and oppressed, that alongside the long suffering North, there existed a prosperous and ever-growing capitalist South.

The bad news was the death of Peter Preston, formerly the editor of the Guardian, who was also a friend. A brilliant writer and editor, a very courageous man, who had been a polio victim in his childhood and had to put up with a resulting disability all his life, and an inveterate pipe smoker, he was the first to greet me in the old Farringdon Road Guardian offices, when I arrived there in 1988 on a short working attachment from Moscow. I was of course extremely nervous, because, firstly, I was not sure if I was up to writing – in English! – for one of the world’s best newspapers, and, secondly, was nearly paralysed with fear at the sight of the first ever personal computer on which I was supposed to type my copy prior to filing it. Puffing ceaselessly at his pipe, Peter said some reassuring words that immediately made me feel welcome and at ease.

I ended up publishing a dozen or so stories, features and book reviews in the Guardian in the course of three weeks. (Yet, in all honesty, I didn't master the PC, and had to dictate my hand-scribbled copy to some compassionate female colleagues who had kindly agreed to put it on screen for me).

A couple of years later I defected from the USSR and, while continuing writing for the Guardian, ended up working as a journalist in Australia. It was there that I was invited to join the IPI – the International Press Institute , a global network of journalists, editors and media executives of which Peter was a member too. The IPI conducted annual gatherings in different parts of the world, and I remember meeting up with Peter in Venice, Istanbul and some other places. As a senior colleague and friend, he always took genuine interest in my life and supported me in my decision to move back to the UK in 1992. I kept following his post-editor career as a columnist and writer very closely and will miss him a lot. Rest in peace, Peter.

Life nevertheless goes on. In the last days of 2017 and the first of 2018, I had a couple of rather discouraging encounters with technology starting with some old audio cassettes of the BBC’s Russian Course ‘Exercises and Dialogues’, recorded probably well over 20 years ago. Here I foresee a couple of questions. 1. What use can ancient audio tapes have in our age of online streaming and Spotify? 2. Why on earth did I need to learn Russian when it was and remains my first and only mother tongue? Or have I gone senile to the extent that all Russian words, apart from ‘da’, ‘niet’ and ‘vodka’, have been erased from my long suffering memory?

Here are the answers. 1. I use only audio cassettes in my car – a 16-year-old Fiat Punto equipped with a cassette player – a fact that justifies the true meaning of its number plate – HEX (the curse). 2. It was not I but my daughter who was trying to learn Russian using the audio cassettes I found in the boot of my car among the curly with age tapes of ABBA and James Last’s orchestra.   

As I was driving, or rather crawling, along a pre-Christmas M25 which at that time of the year comes to resemble a large and generous Christmas stocking, filled to the brim with multi-coloured cars instead of sweets and chocolates, I was getting increasingly disturbed by the sounds reaching me from both the player and from the passenger seat on my left. It was the following dialogue, first read (in Russian) by the presenters, and then duly repeated by my daughter:

  • Eto Papa?
  • Eto ne Papa. Eto vino!

 Or, in English translation:

  • Is this Daddy?
  • No, this is not Daddy. This is wine!

My first thought was that my daughter was trying to tease me hinting at the large amounts of Barossa Valley Merlot I consumed last night with dinner. But the Russian dialogue went on:

  • Is this Mummy?
  • No, this is not Mummy. This is theatre!

At least, they were a bit kinder to Mummy and not assuming she had a resemblance to an alcoholic drink…

  • Is this Grandad??
  • No, this is not Granddad, this is a post office!

At that point, I started thinking that being mistaken for a glass of wine is not necessarily the worst kind of scenario.

Before I or my daughter could find out what Grandma was going to be confused with (a car park? a plate of porridge?), I snatched the cassette out of the player and chucked it out of the window. I then reminded my puzzled daughter about the spoof phrase book, invented and ridiculed by the Serbian playwright and satirist Branislav Nusic, who suggested the following sentences for diligent foreign language learners: “Have you seen my Uncle’s knife?” and “Don’t you think, dear, that the man over there is kinder than that woman in a shawl – and that he will give us more alms than she will?”

Well, to be fair, technology had little to do with the plain stupid dialogues, quoted above, apart from playing them that is. I wish I could say the same about my recent acquisition, or rather a Christmas present from my wife, in the shape of a Google Home Mini – a grey round blob the size and then shape of a large pebble - which I first took for a decoration and placed onto the Christmas tree.

I soon discovered, however, that the blob could talk. And with a pleasant and sexy woman’s voice too! It (she) could promptly respond to questions and commands, and we spent the whole evening tormenting the poor little gadget with queries like: “How many teeth do puppies have?”, “What’s the weather like in Rio de Janeiro?” and “What kind of sound do aardvarks make?” She of course knew all the answers. Even when my daughter asked rather cheekily if the blob had a boyfriend, the reply came straight away: “I am still searching!” Ha ha ha!

In short, I started slowly but surely falling in love with my Google Mini and couldn’t wait to run downstairs (where it/she lived) in the morning to be wished a nice day by her/it.

As it often happens in real life, however, my joy was destined to be short lived.

The first shock came when I realised that she/it didn’t even recognise me. True, she could recite my whole biography and bibliography from the Wikipedia article, but when I asked her/it: “What’s my name?,” the reply was: “Christine!” which is my wife's name!

It turned out that since it was activated via my wife’s iPhone, the blob was bound to think (if only she/it  could think at all) that anyone who spoke with it/her was called Christine. She/it was obviously unable to tell a man’s voice (even a nice loud baritone like mine) from a woman’s!

Yet the real blow came yesterday, which was actually my birthday. When we returned home after an evening out in London and duly asked Google Mini what the weather was going to be like the following morning, she/it suddenly burst into reading our list of... (you won’t believe it, but I swear on my life – and on my afterlife too - it is true) local undertakers and funeral parlours! The last thing an overweight man in his sixties, still recovering after open-heart surgery, wants to hear on his birthday!!

I am not superstitious, however, and am not going to bear a grudge against it/her, for after all, it/she is not much more than a house pet who talks back. Instead, I will ask my Google Mini about the weather in Budapest next week (just did: it will be cold – from minus 5 to minus 1).

Why Budapest? Because it is where I am heading this coming Saturday for yet another encounter with technology, or rather, with engineering. Dental engineering. Yes, my lovely dental implants, beautifully engineered and installed in my mouth in the Budapest-based SmileSavers Clinic last May, need attention, read adjustment. Like many other quality products of precision engineering, they are subject to a 3-year-long warrant, so will be fixed for free. They call it ‘dental holiday’ and send you an ‘itinerary’ instead of the list of your dental appointments. Well, compared to my first SmileSavers experience precisely a year ago, when all my 13 remaining teeth had to removed first to clear space for the implants, this coming visit promises to be, if not quite a holiday, then a relatively easy ride indeed (fingers crossed). Even if I am going to end up temporarily toothless for an evening or two (to allow the hard working SmileSavers technicians to spend some time alone with my implants, i.e. to fix them properly and unhurriedly in the privacy of their workshop overnight), I should be OK in Budapest, with plenty of the world-famous ‘ruin’ pubs and bars (i.e. pubs and bars situated in some picturesquely ruined and semi-ruined buildings). A liquid supper, or a no-less-liquid dinner, would not be entirely out of order.

I will tell you about my new dental engineering adventures in a future View from Vitalia. In the meantime, you could catch up with my previous ones by listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Life of Dental Losses’, which was repeated on Radio 4 on Thursday 4 January and is still available to listen to on the BBC website.

Wish me luck!

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