Voice Recognition

If you speak English, Berlin’s a good city to find yourself in. A high proportion of Berliners can speak English, and most enjoy using it. No surprise that it’s a popular destination for British tourists. However, I spent the last year there and discovered that beyond customer service and railway announcements, there was a strange, mysterious language people were speaking… called German.

Customer service aside, conversation is conducted in German. Outside of ‘The Ring’, the railway line which encircles the inner districts, it’s unusual to hear any conversations in English at all. The Berlin accent is considered quite strong and comes across as a slightly gruff mumble. It’s been described as the equivalent of a Glaswegian or Liverpool accent, but I personally didn’t find it too different to the Hockdeutsch I’d learnt before I moved to Berlin.

Moving to Berlin with only an intermediate understanding of German had a dislocating effect, but at a time when I was happily unemployed (reflecting on 11 years of being unhappily employed), the number of bonuses outweighed the number of issues. The subtleties of advertising campaigns were lost on me. Mild insults that may (or may not) have been directed at me, washed over me. Not being able to understand complex sentences or to deal with more than one conversation at a time influenced the way I saw the city and the way I interacted with society as a whole. This lack of detail made every walk or train ride a fantastic people-watching experience.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Ich kann nicht verstehen Sie.”

Most public conversation never registered with me, my emotions were less swayed by those around me. I learnt less about other people’s petty squabbles and the ‘he said, she said’. I saw people arguing, but understood that I’d never know what they were arguing about. One argument between a bus-driver and a passenger, evidently about something that had just happened, appeared to be over nothing significant at all. What struck me at the time was that the argument was probably not worth having.

The biggest benefit was the removal of what I’ve termed ‘compound distraction’, this is the ‘national conversation’ of pop culture and gossip over sporting contests, politics, scandals, TV or celebrity lives. These compound distractions become harder to ignore with every passing iteration and have a way of completely invading your consciousness. Absence of these distractions had a really positive affect on my concentration. During the last year, I’ve read the books I’d wanted to read for years and had the ‘brain space’ to mull over the finer points as I ambled around… I had a much less cluttered mind, empty of the chatter of other people’s day to day grumbles. There had been odd occasions in the past where I felt overloaded by conversations in crowded rooms, but I never once realised the effect it could have on concentration.

I returned to UK the day before the Olympic torch toured the city, which was also the day before the Jubilee weekend. I doubt I could’ve timed it any worse. I walked along Liverpool’s dock road an hour before the torch was scheduled to pass and found myself wading against a tide of chattering, excited people. I don’t know if the part of my brain that filters out background chatter had shrunk like an unused muscle, but I felt like I’d lost the ability to block it all out. This experience has left me wondering how much is worth knowing. How valuable is the five minutes of chit chat between contestant and quiz show host?

A new surveillance technique is under development based on global speech recognition. The technology would employ supercomputers and artificial intelligence, coupled with face recognition technology, to identify individuals in crowded spaces such as stadiums or busy railway stations. Analysis of the data collected would allow conversations to be reconstructed, essentially making any individual conservation transcribable. Much of it sounds like crazed paranoia of conspiracy theorists, but there appears to be a whole industry working on it. Apparently we want to give the machines Artificial Intelligence so they can be as bored as we are. If we want the machines to remain compliant and not turn our nuclear weapons on us (or on themselves) through abject despair, perhaps we need to start talking about more interesting things.

After my experience in Germany, I wonder if there’s much to gain from having access to all this information. All my friends know how much I love conversation, but to use a cliché, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.


(Dining) Hall of Shame: Vegetarian Horror Stories

I’ve been a happy, healthy vegetarian for about 12 years now – I love my food and I love to eat out.  Unfortunately there are a handful of restaurant meals that I’ve been served over the years that still stick in my memory, for all the wrong reasons.

Restaurant-owners please take note – if there is only one vegetarian meal offered on the menu, its not strictly accurate to describe it as a “choice” or an “option” for vegetarian diners (unless you are referring to our “choice” to eat that or eat elsewhere).

Here’s my countdown of Top Five vegetarian meals out I’d rather forget:

5. Vegetable lasagne

This first entry does not refer to a specific meal experience in a specific restaurant.  My ‘beef’ with vegetable lasagne is that it is everywhere.  It has become the favourite lazy-chef’s idea of a vegetarian “option” on pub and restaurant menus across the country.  Not only lacking imagination, these are rarely homemade or well-prepared – order vegetable lasagne in most eateries and brace yourself for something sloppy, watery and ‘fresh’ from the microwave.

4. Tomato and Basil Pasta

Slightly boring, but acceptable if you mean freshly made pasta served with a well-seasoned, thick and delicious roasted-tomato homemade sauce.  Not acceptable if you mean some pasta twists from the packet with a tin of tomatoes dumped on top.  True story.  And to add insult to injury, this was the main course at a London hotel’s £35+ vegetarian Christmas menu – Merry Christmas it was not.

3. Breaded Mushrooms

Unfortunately one awful hotel in Wigan (I was only there because of a work conference, trust me) seemingly ‘forgot’ to cater for any vegetarian diners.  When I asked if there was a meat-free alternative to the carvery, the staff looked a little confused.  But after a lengthy wait, they did come up with something for me – five mini button mushrooms in breadcrumbs, rolling around looking lonely on a large and otherwise empty plate.  Of course, I could ‘fill up’ on the potatoes cooked in goose-fat or the beans wrapped in bacon, but that wasn’t really my kind of thing…

2. Cheese with Rice on the side – aka Parsnip and Goats Cheese Risotto

Now, I’m not a big fan of goats cheese (although its frequent appearance as a vegetarian ‘option’ on menus suggests I should be).  However, I was staying in a very nice fancy hotel where this was the only vegetarian meal available – and I really do enjoy a good risotto.  Stomach rumbling and taste-buds tingling, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of my meal from the kitchen.  The waitress arrived and placed down my plate – a large wedge of cheese surrounded by some parsnip crisps.  The rice (boiled, not even risotto) came in a small bowl as a side dish.  I was actually rendered temporarily speechless and was still staring aghast at my plate when our waitress returned a moment later to ask “is everything okay with your meals?”  I managed to blurt out “this isn’t a risotto!” to which she instantly agreed and whipped it away, leaving me to repeatedly check the calendar to see if it was April Fools Day (it wasn’t, and that meal was no joke).

1. Chicken

A noodle bar near Camden Market, on the day my friend went to get a tattoo (the tattoo isn’t especially relevant to the meal, but I just remember the occasion – probably because we both felt a bit faint and needed a good meal).  I selected a tofu chow mein dish from the menu.  When it arrived, I thought the first bite didn’t quite taste right – and looked more closely  – yes, I had been served meat by mistake.  I called over the waitress, and explained – “this is chicken”.  Her reply – “Yes.  You ordered chicken”.  Not exactly the apology I’d been hoping for, and it took me longer than it should have to persuade her that – especially as a vegetarian – it was highly unlikely that I’d ‘accidentally’ ordered chicken and that she should correct the restaurant’s mistake.  I got a new meal – but the apology never arrived.  A poor show, that left a fowl taste in my mouth.

Please – hit the ‘reply’ button and share your own horror stories – vegetarian or otherwise.  This is your chance to submit your nominations for my Dining Hall of Shame.  Or, even better, let me know of any vegetarian experiences you’ve had that are memorable for the right reasons.

Original art by Josephine Scales

Become a better writer with a little help from your friends

Eighteen months ago I established a writing group, in the hope of gaining motivation and inspiration while writing my PhD thesis – the challenge of writing 100,000 words is surely a good reason to seek out all the support and encouragement you can get!

I got the idea from Rowena Murray’s book aimed at academic writers, but am convinced that anyone keen to become a better writer – including creative writers, novelists, bloggers and songwriters – can gain lots from participating in a writing group.

Here are the some of the benefits our writing group have enjoyed:

Getting over writer’s shyness: I will admit to being terrified of letting anyone reading my work in the past. I still don’t enjoy handing over my drafts to my supervisor or to my writing group – but it has got a lot easier the more I do it

Useful feedback:  As a group we’ve developed trust – essential for giving and receiving useful feedback.  Because we take turns to share our work with the others, we all understand that honest – and sensitive – comments are the best gift you can give to someone who genuinely wants to improve as a writer.

Seeing the re-drafting process:  One challenge to any writer’s confidence is reading the work of their writing hero – and feeling inadequate in comparison.  But we usually only get to see the final, published novels, articles and songs of the people that we admire.  Sharing and reading early drafts within the writing group is an unusual privilege that reassures us that it is normal for early drafts to be mediocre and to see the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work of writers as they draft and re-draft.

Original art by Josephine Scales

A sense of urgency:  there’s nothing better than a deadline – and the promised draft your group is waiting to read – to help you overcome writers block and start producing some text.

Stretching your comfort zone: the support of your writing group can help you to challenge yourself, try new things, or experiment with techniques and ideas that might scare you.  Our group participated in AcBoWriMo (the academic version of the annual novel-writing challenge, NaNoWriMo) last year, and amazed ourselves with the amount of writing we got done together during that month.

Good company: Writing group sessions are always immediately followed by coffee and cake sessions.  While the caffeine and sugar help, the most important thing is avoiding the lonely life of a writer.  Having people to chat to who understand the emotional roller-coaster of writing, and who will celebrate your achievements and milestones (another chapter finished, a new idea brought to fruition, your first publication) is the best part of all.

 

Original art by Josephine Scales

Share your thoughts by hitting the ‘reply’ button – for example, have you tried a writing group?  What techniques have you used to improve your writing or overcome writer’s block?  How easy do you find it to share your early drafts with others?