The Insect Society

In which The Author is glad he went out last week

The last seven days have kept becoming weirder.
I’ve introduced a number of friends to a creative little network in Aberdare. I’ve got in touch with the author of my forthcoming copy-editing project – and his wife is now following me on Twitter. I’ve helped Geoff E. to polish off an essay he’s been working on for ages. I’ve drunk an awful lot of beer, eaten quite a lot, and made plans to catch up with more people over the next few weeks.
I was even exempt from the usual cretinous drugged-up Valleys lowlife that usually comes out on a Thursday. Goddess was clearly feeling kindly disposed towards me last week.
Yesterday I logged into my emails and found one from a company named SRO. I’m on their mailing list purely because they were involved with my audition for the revived TV quiz show Fifteen to One a year or so ago (see ‘The Game’s Afoot‘).
Oddly enough, I’ve been unsubscribing from mailing lists recently, because I’m getting more junk mail online than I do through my front door. The only reason SRO got through is because I haven’t got around to doing them yet.
As things turned out, that was probably just as well.
The email was an invitation from an independent TV company, inviting people to apply to be contestants on a BBC4 quiz show called Hive Minds. It said something like ‘Do you answer the questions on Only Connect and University Challenge? Do you like crosswords and word games?’ Two out of two ain’t bad. I’d never heard of the show – in fact, I thought maybe it was something still in production – but it was probably worth thirty seconds of my time. I filled in my details and submitted them online.
Only about an hour later my phone rang. It came as a bit of a relief, really. I spent ages last week potching with the bloody thing, trying to set up a ringtone. At least now I know it works. (So does everyone else who was in Aberdare Library at the time, but it’s early days yet. I’ll probably find the volume control in another week or so.) It was a London number. For a moment I thought it might have been my contact at Orion Books. Then I wondered whether it was a previously unknown proofreading client, wanting to take advantage of my services. I answered it when I was halfway down the stairs, just to be on the safe side.
The caller turned out to be Bethan, a production assistant on Hive Minds. We chatted for a while before she asked me about a dozen general knowledge questions.
‘I’ll warn you now,’ Bethan said at the outset, ‘they are quite hard.’
‘They can’t be as weird as the questions on Round Britain Quiz,’ I replied, and Bethan laughed. That sounded ominous to begin with (see ‘A Clash of Cultures‘).
Well, I kicked the first one straight between the posts without even having to think about it. It was a question on books, after all. Not just that, but one of the most renowned and influential books of the last two centuries.
That was pretty much the story for the rest of the phone audition. I made a couple of educated guesses, and I know I definitely got one wrong, but Bethan was pretty impressed by my performance. She’d said that, even if I got the answers wrong, an educated guess was better than nothing. (I checked a couple of my hunches later on, and they were right. The job’s a good ‘un.)
Bethan asked me if I knew anyone else who might be interested in taking part. I mentioned a couple of likely suspects, and she asked me to pass her number on to them. The game involves teams of three, so if three friends want to enter together, all the better. She more or less told me on the phone that I’d be invited to the actual audition in Cardiff, and to wait for an email.
Less than an hour later that email arrived. I’ve got to go to Cardiff a fortnight today, to meet some more people involved in the show.
I downloaded a couple of editions to watch last night, and then sent some texts and emails. To judge from the underwhelming response, I’ll be in Cardiff on my own. One of the guys I thought of suffers from quite severe dyslexia, so the game wouldn’t play to his strengths anyway. The other just bottled out immediately, as I’d feared he would. That leaves one more person whom I’m hoping will bite the bullet and make the call.
There’s no guarantee I’ll qualify for the show, of course, but I needed an excuse to go to Cardiff before Xmas. Hive Minds – a show I didn’t even know existed thirty-six hours ago – has just given me that excuse.
See – that’s what can happen when you go out in Aberdare on a Thursday afternoon for just the one. Bizarre, or what?

Words Without Meaning

In which The Author calls ‘bullshit’

This morning I needed to go to the Royal Mail sorting office at Aberaman Industrial Estate. While I was at my breakfast meeting with Chris and Alwyn yesterday, the postman had tried to deliver something, and (obviously) failed. When I got home last night the familiar red card was waiting inside the front door.
My first thought was it was my next assignment from Orion Books: my second piece of work for them, but my first real copy-editing project. I was rather disappointed that I might have missed out on a whole day’s (and night’s) work. I went to bed, read for a while, and eventually drifted off.
Anyway, I went down to the sorting office early. My undeliverable item turned out to be the second volume of a trilogy, and not the typescript I was expecting. (I’ll be working on the final instalment.) I’ve emailed my contact at Orion this morning. I’ve asked him to give me a heads-up when the script’s on its way, so I can wait in the house until the postman comes.
I was on the way out of Aberaman Industrial Estate when I spotted a small cluster of advertising boards near the entrance. Among the other businesses operating on the estate there’s a chap that repairs and restores clocks; there’s a guy who fixes computers; there’s a pet food supplier; there’s a garage; there’s a very worthwhile social enterprise which recycles old furniture and household items.
And there’s a company with a three-letter name, and the tagline ‘Complete Solutions.’
I have no idea what this business does. The board gave no further information – just that it offers ‘complete solutions.’
I had to ask myself, ‘Complete solutions to what, exactly?’ Last Sunday’s unstartable crossword? Einstein’s field equations? The Middle East crisis? Our increasing demand for clean, cheap energy?
Could it be a British equivalent of the Institute for Advanced Studies. I can envision the world’s finest minds brainstorming these and a hundred other questions, in the relative seclusion and scenic location of the South Wales Valleys. After all, if it’s good enough for the Royal Opera House, it’s good enough for the likes of Prof. Stephen Hawking!
Then again, instead of a service, they could be dealing in products. Maybe it’s a chemicals manufacturer, selling test tubes full of every soluble compound known to science.
Of all these possibilities, I think the truth is probably more prosaic. The owners have read a little book on marketing, and thrown a couple of buzzwords into the mix for good effect.
I’ve seen another specimen recently, too. It’s some sort of electrical service company. Their vans are painted with a slogan that goes something like ‘Global Service Delivery’, or some such cobblers.
Global? Really? If someone in Mombasa or Pyongyang or Tierra del Fuego called them up to say their lights had gone out, would this little business from Aberaman be able to respond? You can work that out for yourselves.
I hate this sort of management guru bollocks, because it’s purely empty jargon for the sake of it. Our briefings from Waterstones head office became increasingly prone to this sort of shite before I finished working there.
I see it every day, in the newspapers and on websites. I hear it every day on the radio, in political speeches, market analyses, and Radio 4’s large number of pointless programmes about business and the meejah.
In fact, it’s almost a flashback to what I wrote about in ‘Bullshit Detector‘, back when I was a student. Hardly anybody bothers to use language with precision any more. They’re too busy padding out their vacuous verbiage with pretentious piffle, designed to convince fools (i.e. us, the reading and listening people) that what they’re saying has validity and meaning.
That’s why it was interesting to hear a piece on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. They were discussing scientific papers, and their comprehensibility (or not). But the whole point of a scientific paper is to present data in an unambiguous, precise and clearly defined way. When one scientist uses the word ‘proton’, every other scientist knows what he (or she) is talking about.
If the general public don’t understand what they’re talking about, that’s a failure of the education system, not a failure on the scientist’s part. Specialised language exists to facilitate clear communication between specialists.
When you go to the doctor and say, ‘My stomach’s been a bit troublesome lately,’ he or she doesn’t expect you to know the anatomical names of the body parts, or the complex physiology of the human digestive system. The doctor knows these things, however. He or she can communicate with others within the medical profession because of it.
But that degree of precision isn’t demanded of us, the patients. We’d be staggered if a doctor did ask to rattle off the names of enzymes and processes. We’d call ‘bullshit’ a few seconds into the consultation.
On the other hand we quite happily swallow the bullshit emanating from the Westminster Bubble, The Apprentice wannabes, advertising executives, management textbooks, self-help manuals, badly-sourced websites, unattributed quotations in newspapers, and so-called ‘lifestyle’ journalism. Personally, I think we need to start calling ‘bullshit’ a lot more often.
After all, I’ve never yet met a doctor who claimed to offer ‘complete solutions.’
Have you?