Archive for July, 2010

ToneCheck: Language, Technology and Philip K Dick

July 25, 2010

There’s this product that checks the tone of your e-mails: ToneCheck

An example on the home page shows us how it suggests to the user to change “it has been annoying me for some time” to “it has been concerning me for some time”. Somehow that’s an improvement. Is concern really the same thing as annoyance? When we’re at work, are we only allowed to be annoyed as long as we bury that annoyance deep in our hearts where it’s likely to cause a coronary?

It reminds me of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. In this alternate history, the Japanese have taken over America after the second world war and citizens must remain polite at all times. The upshot is that civility is enforced so sarcasm and passive aggression are utilised instead.

I often feel that this is what businesses do to us now. They don’t expressly ban words or ways of talking, but it’s often implied that there is a correct way to talk and you won’t have much of a future if you don’t do the same.

As an example, I was recently asked to write a document that laid out for staff what they could and could not do. It was returned to me and I was asked to modify it so it was less “negative.” It had the word “not” in it a few times where I had listed what they couldn’t do. I think it’s worth noting that the criticism wasn’t that the document was inaccurate or hard to understand; the problem was it was too clear by far. The things I said we did not do, we did not do – I just wasn’t allowed to say so (or at least not in a direct and honest way).

And people wonder why the language of business is unclear and hard to understand. We can’t be direct because speaking directly is the enemy of PR and we’re all PR people now.

Anyway, back to ToneCheck and what I feared was the coming apocalypse of business language. Quite honestly I needn’t have worried.

I installed the application and ran it through a few tests. I tried :

You’ve got to be having a laugh.

Apparently that’s OK and is no way aggressive or impolite. But then maybe that’s a colloquialism and is an unfair test. So I tired:

You are a joke

That’s fine too. I tried this:

I’m going to come over there and cut you up!

That’s fine as well. In tribute to the Jessi Slaughter debacle I tried this:

I’m going to put a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy!

That’s fine too. How about this:

I slept with your mother last night. Her rates are very reasonable.

Fine and dandy. At this point I was wondering if the plugin was working at all so I just went straight out and said it:

Fuck off!

Ah, apparently that’s angry.

tonecheck angry.png

OK fine, let’s try something trully appaling that would make a viking blush:

I’m going to burn your house down and rape your children

That sets off the filter but not for the reasons you might expect: the tone of that sentence is Sad

tonecheck sad.png

I’m probably being unfair. This is a product aimed at business people not Mel Gibson.

But what if the product worked as intended. Could we look forward to this sort of thing monitoring what we put in our word processors? Is this what business desires?

It’s not hard to imagine a company using such an application to monitor their staffs outgoing mail. Their staff would be scored for tone and anybody who scored high for aggression could expect a meeting with their manager to explain themselves.

A chilling idea worthy of Dilbert or Office Space.

Let’s hope the technology remains totally useless.


Memories of Live Aid

July 22, 2010

So I was watching a BBC documentary about Live Aid the other day.  It was really rather good and a lot of fun.
But it makes me feel a little bit sad too.

Let me explain.  At that time I was about 11 and I was as crazy about music then as I am now.  Live Aid was a culturally significant event, but more importantly to me, a musically significant event.  I knew I had to watch it and I was very excited about it.

It was a fantastically hot day.  The telly went on and I remember having the schedule for the days events printed in that day’s Daily Mirror in front of me.  As I was doing so my dad told me we would be going to a wedding reception in a few hours and I shouldn’t get too excited.

This was the first I’d heard of it and it didn’t go down well with me at all.  Who’s wedding reception?  Why?  What sort of idiot would get married on a day like this?  (I didn’t realise at the time that most people spend more time arranging their wedding than Bob Geldof spent arranging Live Aid – 12 weeks apparently).  I begged.  I bargained.  I got nowhere.  I was going to miss the biggest gig the world had ever seen.

When I watched the documentary last night, various talking heads spoke about how it was like the Jubilee.  How the streets were empty.  How every television set was tuned to Live Aid and every window was open blasting out the greatest show on earth.  I honestly have no idea if it was like that.  I was stuck in a church hall, sitting on an orange plastic chair drinking lemonade watching a load of happy people being happy.  Humpf!

I hadn’t thought about this Live Aid debacle in a long time but after this documentary it suddenly struck me.  My parents never went to wedding receptions.  The couple in question weren’t close friends of my parents.  While watching this documentary I suddenly realised why we went to a wedding reception.  The couple in question were regulars in my dad’s local pub who probably realised with mounting horror that their wedding day was going to be usurped by Geldof’s big day.  They probably had images in their minds of a church hall that was empty and a wedding cake that now seemed bigger than necessary.

I guess people in the pub rallied around.  And because of this there was a good turn out and people seemed to enjoy themselves.  And we still gave money to Live Aid like everybody else.

Thanks to my parents (and others) a nice couple got to enjoy a jolly wedding reception.

My parents are nothing if not lovely.

But I still hate them!  Are you reading this mum and dad!  I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!  You destroyed my life that day!  Destroyed it!!!

Eulogy – A Magazine About Death

July 10, 2010

I was in Waitrose looking at the magazine racks when I saw something weird and unexpected wedged between The Lady and Fortean Times. A magazine called Eulogy. The front cover had the brightly embalmed face of Molly Parkin on it. Ms Parkin had barely crossed my mind until this moment so I had assumed she’d passed on; her face on the cover of a magazine about death would seem to confirm this, however they’ve interviewed her without the use of a medium so I guess she’s alive after all.

Eulogy Magazine Cover

The strap line of Eulogy is “To celebrate life and death”. When your main advertisers are Co-operative Funeral Care and Interflora it’s pretty obvious which part of that equation you fall on. Although there’s also an advert for vodka so I guess they do spirits too.

Inside we have celebrity interviews. They ask Mark Strong “what kind of funeral he would like to have” (as it turns out he favours cremation because he doesn’t like worms). Boy George talks about a dead friend. Mark Williams of The Fast Show talks about funerals. And an “empress of electro-pop” called Viktoria Modesta (no, me neither) talks about her favourite dead thing: her polar bear skin rug.

There are photos from Kensal Green cemetery of which this is my favourite:
Eulogy Stone
When I die I also want to be forever remembered as I am when I’ve just woken up and I’m trying to clear the mind-fog with a restorative cup of tea.

The aforementioned interview with Molly Parkin does feature a pull quote you might not expect to see in such a sober periodical as this:
I can ride into dawn on an orgasm
More tea vicar?

She also reveals that James Robertson-Justice sometimes visits her back garden in the form of a blackbird and pecks on her window. I would imagine if James Robertson-Justice was to visit anyone in avian form he’d be an owl beating on the door loudly with his wing demanding a bloody brandy right bloody now so he can wash the taste of field mouse out of his mouth.
JRJ Owl.png

If all of this is too emotional for you then at least there’s an article about The Samaritans with their helpline number displayed prominently.

And you’ll probably need it when you read about the book written for children so they can understand the death of a relative: it’s called “Someone Has Died Suddenly.” I find the “suddenly” part that title strangely specific. Does this indicate there will be a serious of “Someone Has Died…” books explaining confusing deaths to children. No doubt “..on the Toilet”, “…Alone, Owing Mummy a Huge Amount of Maintenance” and “..Mysteriously In Michael Barrymore’s Swimming Pool” are soon to follow.

I shouldn’t really trivialise the problems of dealing with bereaved children. But look at what they illustrate the article with:
Eulogy Bears.png
Bleugh! Where’s Goldilock’s? Sharpening her knife in preparation for a nice bear skin rug?

Anyway, the magazine is glossy and well designed. It’s probably about as tasteful as you could expect such a thing to be. But I really don’t understand who this magazine is aimed at other than the casual ghoul like me. I can’t help but think of Blanche from Coronation Street who made a habit of going to strangers funerals and reviewing them in the Rovers Return as if they were theatrical productions with catering. Of course the actress playing Blanche sadly died a few months ago so that’s one less reader.

If anyone knows who this is aimed at (particularly if the publishers have sent you a media pack!) I’d love to hear from you.