What are you doing on your phone?” my wife asked crossly as I boiled the kettle for my breakfast tea and poked away at my mobile. Ho hum. The old row again: Dad’s always on his phone. “I’m looking up a damn recipe for damn plum jam. And anyway, you’re reading The Week at table, you hateful hypocrite,” I bantered affectionately.
And off we went — she resolutely unimpressed; me firmly of the view that, given the plum-pocalypse under way in our allotment, jam recipes are of the utmost importance. Our fridge already contains more plum crumble, plum compote and plums in syrup than we will ever be able to eat.
But she is, I admit, onto something. Babies pioneered the principle of Google’s search algorithm centuries ago: they figure out if something’s interesting by how much attention adults pay to it. And from the moment their sticky paws were mobile, ours have been reaching for their parents’ phones.
So shock-horror news that the newest iPhone will cost £1,000 — putting the monthly instalments in the same ballpark as those for a car — seems to me quite unexceptionable. A bargain, in fact. Unless you’re a travelling salesman (a role, by the way, on its way to obsolescence thanks to the internet, as found on your mobile phone), you won’t use your car nearly as often as your phone, and it won’t be nearly as important. Research suggests we spend four or five hours a day goggling at our mobile devices. What Will Self has described as a “five-hundred quid worry bead” is rather more than that.
Think what it does! Here is your film archive. Here are the newspapers, your record collection and every radio station. Here are your photo albums, your address book, calendar and diary. Here, incidentally, is the Great Library of Alexandria. Here is your atlas, satnav and restaurant guide. Here’s your supermarket, your videocamera, your Dictaphone and your dating pool. Here is the 28-volume encyclopaedia your grandparents bought on an instalment plan after being visited by that travelling salesman. All in your pocket. You can even use the thing to make phone calls, if you’re old-fashioned enough.
No doubt all this tends to be a bit moreish, in the same sense in which Peep Show’s Super Hans used the word to describe crack cocaine; and no doubt it does remove us from the here-and-now. But as much as it distracts us from our children, it allows many of us to be in their presence in the first place. Yes, you’re checking your email — but you’re doing it at the swings rather than an office on the other side of town.
Still, the argument took its usual course. “What are you doing?” my wife asked later. “I’m Googling whether spending too much time on your phone is bad for you,” I replied, peevishly. “What does it say?” she asked — but I wasn’t listening any more.
Oh, the irony of blue Brexit passports made in Europe
There’s a cheering burst of patriotic outrage at the news that of the three companies shortlisted to produce our post-Brexit blue passports — those all-important new symbols of national independence — one is French and one German.
Sounding like a Ukip-inflected reboot of Monty Python’s spam sketch (“egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam”), Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell declares: “I want to see the new British passport manufactured in Britain in a British factory employing British people because if it is not it rather defeats the objective of upholding British identity.”
But wouldn’t this be exactly the sort of outward-looking, free-trading post-Brexit deal that shows Britain is “open for business”? And let’s remember that it’s just such complex global supply chains that gave us Brexit itself. Dan Hannan MEP, after all, was manufactured in Peru; Boris Johnson was assembled from Turkish parts; and the data-mining technologies that won the referendum were developed and, possibly, funded from the US.
Besides, the lone British company on the shortlist is called De La Rue. With a name from that, as a great man put it, I suspect they do not hail from Auchtermuchty, and nor do they wear the kilt.
George and Jonah are kindred spirits
Prince George started school last week the same day as my youngest began nursery, so I read coverage of that distinguished event with more than average interest. These first steps. These unrecoverable precious moments. And an emotional wobble — for any parent. Jonah started out clingy and tearful.
When we went to collect him he had made a new friend, and was serenading her with “I’m going to the toilet!” sung to the Fireman Sam tune. Success. I dare say George was doing the same, at the same time, on the other side of town.
* Yale University’s Beinecke MS 408 — the so-called Voynich Manuscript — is a 15th-century codex, in an unknown language, that has defeated the interpretive powers of cryptographers, linguists and manuscript scholars for more than half a millennium.
It’s been called “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”. Yet in the new TLS, a “history researcher” called Nicholas Gibbs claims to have cracked it. Numerous scholars have since piled in to disagree — but (giving him the benefit of the doubt) if he really has unlocked the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript he’s just asking for a stiffer challenge. Let’s see him go to work on the Government’s Brexit strategy.