Being a Friend in the Fray

Christmas is coming and despite the recent figures around decreased sales, the shops are in the usual throes of December mayhem. We fight our way through throngs of barging bodies, bands blaring carols, and endless charity chuggers wanting a minute of our attention. The hundreds of worthy causes present an agonising quandary as to which will benefit from our generosity. Perhaps we will think about this later; for now, we are all out with things to buy and even more to do. Once home, we flop on the sofa and browse social media, scrolling through a few pages before we find something that reminds us of what Christmas is about . Then we immerse ourselves in the soaps’ Christmas-themed storylines, although they are simply a reflection of society’s malice. The script writers don’t have to look far to find spite, not even at this time of year. After all this, it’s hard to know how to be a good person, let alone channel the spirit of goodwill and merriment. Eye4Detail has compiled a list of simple take-home messages from those who are often overlooked in the fray.


Consider the Impact of a noisy, flashy Christmas


The first of these is from Nottingham resident, Azza Booth. She suffers from epilepsy and has experienced four times as many seizures since her neighbourhood was decorated for Christmas. One of these occurred on a bus when driving past a house decorated with flashing lights. Her seizures have caused her serious injury in the past, and she is now afraid of going out at this time of year.


Whilst not creating the same strobe lighting effect, fireworks can cause distress to many residents. Sleeping children and petrified pets are examples of populations who aren’t keen on the late-night bangs. If you require further convincing, consider those who have fought for our country; they deserve a quiet Christmas, one that is free of the reminders of gunfire. There are many petitions calling for the ban of private firework displays. I would argue that lights in the house can twinkle freely and letting off the fireworks earlier in the day is far less problematic. The answer is to engage with those around you who might be affected by the extreme sights and sounds of your Christmas.


“Donate safe items to your local unit.”



The title Inside a Children’s Psychiatric Unit at Christmas doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an easy read. This blog post relates an experience that few know about with an honesty that keeps to the facts. It is well written with a sprigg of humour and ends with a simple message for readers to take away:

“Spare a thought this Christmas for those in CAMHS units and their families. If you can, donate safe items to your local unit. Chocolate and cake always go down a treat- and teddies, games or a good DVD! Just knowing that someone donated something out of kindness could make a patient’s day.”


Being a Friend


Last week I attended a course on being a friend. It was run by Dementia Friends, and aims to teach others to adopt a compassionate, understanding attitude towards people living with the condition. Most cases of Dementia are not formally diagnosed due to the stigma that still surrounds invisible illnesses, particularly those of the mind. People experience a gradual loss of memory, perception and inhibition. The course leader explained how someone might see a dark floor as a hole that could swallow them up, or patterns on furnishings as being live snakes. It can be difficult to understand a person’s reactions to seemingly normal things, such as their reluctance to enter certain places. People often regress to a former period of their life and are baffled by the complexities of such modernities as the electric kettle. The course leader told us about the case of an Indian patient, who came to the UK and learnt English in their thirties. Because they had regressed to their twenties, they could no longer speak English.


When memory fades, emotions remain. It’s common for relatives to become angry and upset that their loved one no longer recognises them. Although the Dementia sufferer may lose their memory of the incident a few minutes later, they remain troubled. It’s difficult for someone to explain their emotions if they can’t identify the source, which only adds to their distress. On the other hand, a relative who takes them out for a nice lunch will leave their loved one happy and content. They might not remember why they feel good, yet this does not trouble them. Because of this, professionals who care for people with Dementia have the person’s emotional well-being at the centre of their work. Initially, the idea that someone with Dementia should remain independent for as long as possible seems strange when it involves unearthing antiquated kettles and the like. Giving some Dementia sufferers dolls or stuffed toy animals is something that makes perfect sense when we consider how high their anxiety levels would be if they relived their time of parenthood and weren’t able to find their baby. And is it necessary to remind a person that their wife is dead when their grief will resurface long after they have forgotten the fact?


The course taught me a great deal about the importance of being compassionate to others. I have always thought that Christmas is about making memories so that we can look back and smile. Perhaps the most important part of the season is to create a warm, compassionate atmosphere of affection for those we love. When our Christmas memories fade, their emotion will remain.


Here’s wishing you a considerate, compassionate, generous and enjoyable Christmas.

Lost in Translation?

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m dozing in front of the fire, half-listening to the background murmur of the telly. It is playing my dad’s viewing of choice: a documentary on Colombia.

The programme cuts to the presenter interviewing Buenaventuran citizens, and I tune in properly.


I rarely watch tv and when I do, it’s because I’ve been drawn in by the title of a documentary. Factual, informative, and with a structure that’s easy to follow, this is the type of programme I get the most out of. However, I have always felt snubbed on behalf of their contributors who speak a foreign language. Both TV and radio broadcasts give the listener little time to digest the richness of the speaker’s language before a voiceover cuts in with an English translation. The identity of the speaker is superseded by the English reader, and the authenticity of their language and culture is lost. Imagine my delight, then, when the residents of Buenaventura began to tell their story, and there was no sound of an English translation.


Disregard the screen and the interview becomes a one-sided conversation. Reeve’s questions are poignant in their simplicity, and their answers remain a mystery.

I spent the next half hour listening to the programme in this way, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. I have always thought Spanish was a beautiful language, yet I had never appreciated how skillful it is in conveying deep emotion. I listened to Colombian people shouting and weeping, gaining a greater sense of their loss from their spoken words than I could have found in the English translation. I began to notice patterns in their speech: repeated phrases, and silences too. Their pauses provided a moving contrast to the constant stream of indistinguishable words by

saying the things that couldn’t be said.


Turn again to the screen and it is a stream of captions. The dialogue has been subtitled, and our appreciation of the language is sacrificed to this intrusion.

It was only recently that voiceovers were replaced with subtitles in video footage. People with a visual disability rightly complained about this injustice; why should they be excluded from understanding what the speaker is saying?


I want to take this idea a step further and suggest that we should all feel that same sense of exclusion. Voiceovers and subtitles should be consigned to the history of broadcasting; the future is in the voice of the speaker and their language. How else can we fully appreciate the way a person lives than through their culture? Language is integral to a society; therefore, it is essential for us to grasp how someone forms sentences and expresses their emotions. Most of all, an authentic, uninterrupted view of the speaker instils us with the desire to learn about them.


I learnt at a young age that you have to immerse yourself in a language in order to fully appreciate a country. I was eighteen when I spent a year in Germany, teaching English as a foreign language. I had good grades in German, but it wasn’t until I had found my way around the city, opened a bank account, dealt with internet and energy providers, and bought the essentials – only then could I begin to understand what it was like to live there. My German became shaped by others’ responses and the natural spoken word of the culture I was inhabiting. A year of socialising gave me insight into how direct German speakers can be, and how refreshingly genuine they are.


I wonder if we have ever fully understood the privilege of being fluent in a language that is one of the most widely spoken in the world. Teaching English certainly makes you realise what a difficult lexicon it is to get your tongue around. Countries meet our continual exploitation of their sunnier climes and interesting sights with tolerance and often friendliness. In return, we are reluctant to learn or even engage with their language. Living in another country means that your attempts to imitate the fluency and grace of native speakers are applauded yet rarely corrected. Your mispronunciation of a familiar word will invariably be ridiculed, and there will be a point when you force back the tears because you’re lost in a strange place with no idea of how to ask for help. When your English friends come to visit, you translate for them – back and forth, back and forth – until your brain hurts. Only after this can we claim to truly understand the privilege of being fluent in a language that is universally understood. Meanwhile, the native folk of our favourite holiday destinations continue to repeat slowly and patiently for us – a poor repayment for the years of study they have put into learning English.


Without verbal and written translations, we can learn a lot. Watch people speak and you will glean so much from their body language alone. Listening to them will enable you to experience their feelings through their tone, pace, and pitch of their speech. It was the American writer Tom Peters who said that “if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” Instead of half-listening to an English speaker voice the tragedies of someone far away or absently scanning the bland subtitled fragments of their story, our inquiring minds become sharpened to the unfamiliar sound of a foreign language. Depriving us all of our English language safety blanket enables us to become curious. This curiosity is the beginnings of the motivation to immerse ourselves in their world. It’s time for the voices of foreign language speakers to remain untranslated. Only then can we hear them for what they are: diverse, authentic shards of humanity.

Ruling the World one Disembodied Voice at a Time

The Future of Voice and the Implications for News is a report which was published by the Reuters Institute in November 2018. Any title that contains the words ‘future’ and ‘voice’ is enough to enthuse any journalist, and Nic Newman’s summary is well worth the read. As I logged into Wednesday’s webinar on this very topic, I reflected that, once again, I was at the disposal of a disembodied voice. Refreshingly, Newman’s engaging presentation style is far more palatable than the programmed voice of the home.


Before 2015, the idea of our houses being ruled by faceless voices seemed more Star Trek than reality. Yet, since Amazon’s release of the first hands-free speaker in 2014, the use of virtual assistants has doubled each year. No sooner had Alexa been welcomed into the bosom of the family with the parrot having got the hang of how to use it,  than other tech giants got in on the act. the Google Home, Cortana from Microsoft, Samsung’s Digsby and the Apple Homepod joined the list of smart speakers that are changing our society one task at a time.


I bought the Amazon Echo at the beginning of 2017 and, after the faff of setting it up using the Amazon Assistant app on my phone, spent a fruitless month looking through the list of skills before realising that I would never view them all because Alexa is constantly being evolved to do new things. It’s disappointing, then, that she still knows so little, and that she often has to be asked to open a skill before doing anything of use. She spent eighteen months in our living room playing the radio, a hypnosis podcast that I was too scared to finish, sound effects, and, like 84% of users, I have asked it to play my music. Then she was moved to the kitchen when I bought the Google Home, and now sets timers and reminders, plays games with me when I cook, fails to find the recipe of anything I’d want to eat, gives me garbled cooking instructions, and plays a lot of radio. During meal conversation, one of us will ask her a question to which she invariably doesn’t know the answer. I will then walk a few steps to the doorway and shout to my Google Home in the sitting room. Google provides the answer we want. In fact, the only thing I can say Alexa does that Google can’t involves an amusing skill called Ditty, which sings what you say to it. Perhaps it’s no surprise – this is Google we’re talking about, after all – although Alexa is the most popular of the smart speakers in UK homes. Newman’s findings predict that this hands-free technology will soon extend to cars and other places outside the house. I think a battery-operated smart speaker would be amazing, as the freedom to control the playback of music and podcasts with soapy hands cannot be underestimated.


Nic Newman began the webinar by demonstrating three of the smart speakers. He asked them to find different pieces of information, when I thought it would have been more effective if he had given the same command to each. Still, Reuters aren’t trying to play one off against another, and Newman was quick to point out their overarching benefits. The first of these is the view that smart speakers have enabled an older demographic to engage with the tech, even if they dofind it difficult to get their heads around! Google’s function of enabling the user to tell them where they have left important things, and Alexa’s skills for people living with dementia are examples of how the older generation have been thought about. During his research, Newman has encountered people who have never been able to use a smartphone, yet quickly get the hang of how a virtual assistant works. No mention was made of the assistants’ reliance on their associated app; not only is this required to connect the device to internet, but the speaker will regularly send information to it, which the user is expected to read. Newman unintentionally created a paradox by mentioning their appreciation for a device which does not require gazing at screens, yet companies are now experimenting by releasing smart speakers with a visual interface. Perhaps even the big Apple and know-it-all Google struggle to get their heads around what we want.


The report’s findings suggest that the smart speaker appeals to so many users because they dislike the labyrinthine nature of the great drain on time known as the worldwide web. However, the report seems to overlook the fact that disembodied voices can take you down rabitholes too. I’m referring to the confusing process of trying to get the speaker to understand what you want. This often involves asking for things in a particular way. I could say to Google “Postcode of Cadbury World”, yet I would have to ask “what is the postcode for Cadbury World?” for Alexa to give me the information. Subtle difference, but not so subtle when you’re dashing around getting ready for work, and you need to scribble something down before you leave.


Having these devices around the house creates all sorts of mix-ups. I once asked for the definition of a word, and the device told me about a band with the word as its title. Newman talked about the importance of the smart speakers being able to have a conversation with you. For me, Google comes out top again, as Alexa can’t remember the last question she answered, and Siri only has limited capacity for this. If I ask Google for a synonym (something I’m doing every five minutes of my writing this) and I then ask it to spell the alternative word it has given, I can’t get it to tell me. Following up my original question with “hey Google, spell it” results in the response “it is spelt I t.” In frustration, I once said, “ok Google, spell the word you just said to me” and it replied, “the word you just said to me is spelt t h e w o r d…” etc. It’s like talking to an obnoxious child. I have to get the synonym I want, and then ask Google for the spelling by including the word in my request. There was one strange occasion where Google remembered its previous answer for hours so that whenever I asked it something, it informed me that “Aston Villa lost in the match against Arsenal.” I’ve asked my devices to ‘ban my boyfriend from talking about football’ – no response there! The point is that this stuff is confusing, frustrating, and laborious. Companies are aware of this, so watch this space.


It hasn’t taken long for the concerns around an ever-listening disembodied presence to emerge. Privacy is a big worry, particularly in light of Alexa launching her creepy laugh on unsuspecting ears. I asked her to demonstrate it and she said “sorry, I don’t know about that.” These voices will join in your conversations at odd times – the strangest being when I was talking about taking the dog for a walk and she played the sound of a dog barking. She regularly mistakes “I’ll ask her”, or “I’ll take her” for her name; perhaps it’s my Northern accent! Google was once playing a podcast which was co-presented by Dougal. When his colleague said, “hey Dougal”, it set Google off! I cannot understand why people are panicking about what their smart speakers hear and report back when they’ve been carrying phones around with them for years that have the same capability. Your phone has a microphone and your location tracked, which is what a smart speaker would use. I once talked to my friend who works at GCHQ about this. They said that the security services don’t have time to listen to all the recordings created by these devices – there would be no server big enough, for a start – so they pick up on certain words, like a wake word that alerts them of potential danger. If my devices are listening to me every day, they would tell you that I’m obsessed with chocolate, cake, and guinea pigs. The message here is that there’s nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide.


It won’t have escaped your notice that I have referred to my Google Home as ‘it’ and Alexa as ‘she’. This didn’t escape Newman either. The findings in his report suggest that the gendering that is singularly applied to Alexa is due to her having more personality as an assistant than her competitors, therefore increasing her integration of function in the family home. Toddlers can talk to her, although shedoesn’t understand what they’re saying.

Part of this speculation arose from his data on the number of users who insert words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ into their requests. That indicates less to me about Alexa’s personality, and more about users’ initial reaction when talking to something that doesn’t exist in a human sense. Consider the names of these devices, and you will find that Alexa is the only one with a human name – until we welcome the next generation of Googles, Pods, Cortanas and Digsbys, anyway. It seems Amazon properly thought about this one and allowing the user to change the wake word was a nice touch too. With a choice between Alexa, Amazon or Echo, we can see how they went for three unique female names!


The webinar’s focus was to examine how these devices will affect the news industry and my head was full of questions by the time Newman devoted the last portion of his presentation to discussing this. A mere 1% of slaves to disembodied voices use them to listen to the news, although I wonder whether this statistic includes the larger portion of people who stream the news through playing live radio. Each device enables the listener to hear a three minute ‘flash briefing’, which they can customise in the app. I once added The Economist news to mine, only to discover that the briefing had become an hour long because it stuck their podcast on the end of the news. Newman found that people want more information and control to customise the device’s reported news to suit the reader’s tastes, preferably in a minute-long bulletin. 60 seconds of news summary – that’s a challenge for the industry.


These views have become so extreme that Newman’s report describes smart speakers as an ‘existential threat’ to broadcasters. I would be surprised if there were a time in the next decade when we would actively choose to hear information from a synthesised voice over a human who happens to know a bit about talking proper. For a start, a person doesn’t require you to repeat the same question 12 times because the internet is poor that day. If smart speakers continue to grow in popularity, I predict that society will either talk in the way the devices require them to, or they will die out because learning the art of conversation takes a lot of time and money.


I now have an Alexa and two Googles in my house, plus Siri on my phone. As a result, my Maths skills have declined and I have been known to say “Alexa, what’s 9.5…” outside of the house. There’s no denying that voice-activated machines have taken off as inventer and futurist Ray Kurzweil once predicted. He also suggested that the rate of technological development is so powerful that it grows exponentially each year. If I could put one question to Reuters, I would be interested to know if they think this will be the case for our disembodied voices.