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(The Grauniad, 28 November 1954)

Sir Ben Lockspeiser, addressing the Office Appliance and Business Equipment Trades Association in London yesterday, described some of the electronic devices now being used to perform elaborate clerical tasks in some of the larger business organisations. He suggested that the wider use of such devices could reduce the much-criticised disparity between office staffs and producers, and that their social and economic consequences in the business world might be as revolutionary as those which followed the invention of the typewriter and the consequent general employment of women in offices.

As an example, Sir Ben Lockspeiser said that some airlines now dealt with bookings automatically with the help of an electronic device whose “memory” consisted of a rapidly rotating magnetic drum on which all the relevant information was recorded in code. By calling up the computer the booking clerk in any office could tell an intending passenger in a matter of seconds whether or not there was a seat available for him on any particular aeroplane.

Sir Ben emphasised that electronic brains such as these had a doubly important role to play in modern business, but a notable obstacle to their wider use had hitherto been their expense and great size. A fully automatic general purpose electronic computer might contain as many as five thousand valves and require special ventilation to dissipate the heat generated. The germanium transistor, however, which had now emerged from the laboratory as a reliable commercial product, might change all this. It performed many of the functions of the radio valve, but was very much smaller and did away with filament heating.

Speaking of the vexatious problem of whether these elaborate electronic brains could really “think”, Sir Ben said that it was necessary to distinguish between routine thought – which a machine could often perform much more quickly and more reliably than the human brain – and creative thought, which lay outside the province of the machine.

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Find the best independent bookshops across the UK as recommended by Grauniad readers, and add your favourite bookshop to the crowdsourced map

Independent bookshop numbers have fallen by more than a quarter since 2006 according to official figures released by the Booksellers’ Association, which is calling for immediate action to reverse the “stark” decline.

The trade body says that it had 1,483 independent bookseller members in June 2006, with the number falling by 26% to 1,099 by June 2011. There has also been a “marked drop-off” in the number of bookshops opening, with just 23 new stores joining the Booksellers’ Association so far this year, compared with 50 in 2010.

(The Grauniad, 3 October 1958)

Within a few months, so we are promised by the big record companies, stereophonic discs will be available in this country. The question all record-collectors will want to ask is whether we are going to be faced with yet another gramophone upheaval on the scale of the L.P. revolution.

There are those who confidently believe that, ultimately, “stereo” will take first place as a gramophone medium, but because of the cost of equipment to reproduce stereophonic sound, and the greater expense of the records, that will take time. The head of one of the big companies whom I spoke to gave it as his opinion that stereophonic discs, though an important development, would not bring the fundamental changes that long-playing records have brought.

But I am looking forward eagerly to hearing the new records. Stereophony, in my experience, is important in quite a different way from that which one might expect. The first demonstrations of stereophonic tape (which E.M.I. put on the market several years ago) tended to concentrate on the effect of having the voices of singers apparently coming from different parts of the room and, in opera, apparently moving around. That is certainly an interesting parlour trick, but in practice, for serious listening, I have found such effects rather distracting. If you can hear the singers moving around, but cannot see them, it is rather like being at an opera-house with one’s head inside a paper bag.

The really beneficial effect of stereophony for the serious listener is that even with moderately priced equipment the sound is relatively fuller, and, most important of all, the ear tends far more easily to ignore any distortions in the reproduction.

Click to embiggen (recommended)

(The Grauniad, 29 September 1971)

Citing a “profound lack of political, social and economic equality for women”, feminists across Britain announced their intention of staging an indefinite humour strike from next month.

The strike, directors of the recently formed Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM) said, will be halted when women are treated as equal to men in all areas of society.

“Until the day comes when we are treated with the same respect as men, we will refuse to find the humour in anything,” SCUM spokeswoman Rita Fairclough said. “This bold move will force British society to re-think its attitude to women, just as Gandhi’s hunger strike forced the post-imperial British government to re-think their colonial occupation of another land.”

Items that will not be accepted by the humour strikers are jokes which refer to women in the workplace, women in the home, women’s relationships with men, childbirth, child rearing, family life, and sex.

In addition, jokes about the feminists’ lack of humour itself will not be tolerated.

(Source: Grauniad)

The mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man based in Scotland.

Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Middle East activist studying for a masters at Edinburgh University, posted an update declaring that, rather than a 35-year-old feminist and lesbian called Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, he was “the sole author of all posts on this blog”.

“While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” the update read. “This experience has, sadly, only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism. However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.”

Gay Girl in Damascus blog extracts

Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, arguably the last great female star of
the Hollywood studio system, has died at the age of 79.

The Oscar-winning star died in the early hours of the morning at Cedars-Sinai medical centre in Los Angeles, from congestive heart failure, according to her spokeswoman Sally Morrison. She said Taylor’s children were at her side.

Dame Elizabeth, who had been in ill health for a number of years, was taken to the hospital with heart failure six weeks ago. A spokeswoman for the hospital said: “She passed away at 1.28 [0828 GMT].”

Taylor’s luminous screen presence, allied to a colourful private life, made her a mainstay of US popular culture for more than 50 years. She won her first best actress Oscar for playing the self-styled “slut of the world” in Butterfield 8 (1960). Her second came courtesy of an electrifying turn opposite then-husband Richard Burton in the 1966 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Born in Hampstead, north London, Taylor relocated to the US in 1939 and made her screen debut as a nine-year-old in the 1942 Universal comedy There’s One Born Every Minute. She found fame as the perky child star of Lassie Come Home and National Velvet before graduating to adult roles with the 1950 comedy Father of the Bride.

The following year she rustled up one of her most vibrant and vital performances in A Place in the Sun. George Stevens’s melodrama cast her as a spoiled debutante who bewitches Montgomery Clift’s ambitious social climber. According to the critic Andrew Sarris, the film’s young actors were “the most beautiful couple in the history of cinema. Those gigantic close-ups of them kissing were unnerving – like gorging on chocolate sundaes.”

Other notable roles were in Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Yet Taylor’s on-screen prowess was often upstaged by the ongoing soap-opera of her personal life. She was married eight times to seven husbands and sparked a scandal when she began an affair with the British actor Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra.

The couple wed in 1964 and divorced a decade later. They remarried in 1975 and then split again the following year. Throughout this period they were embraced as the hydra-headed emblem of Hollywood glamour, their lives a whirl of ritzy premieres, champagne receptions and indulgent movie collaborations. “It was probably the most chaotic time of my life,” Taylor would later recall. “It was fun and it was dark – oceans of tears – but there were some good times too.”

Throughout her life, Taylor seemed drawn to fragile souls and those in need. She reportedly saved the life of the notoriously self-destructive Montgomery Clift following a car crash in 1956. Spurred on by the 1985 death of her friend Rock Hudson, she helped found the American Federation for Aids Research and went on to raise an estimated $50m to fight the disease. More recently, she rode to the defence of Michael Jackson after the singer was arraigned on charges of child abuse.

Away from the cameras, her own life was punctuated by health problems. She survived a brain tumour, suffered from a heart condition and reportedly broke her back on five separate occasions. In later life, she was largely confined to a wheelchair as a result of osteoporosis. Yet there was something resilient about Elizabeth Taylor – a fighting spirit belied by her famous good looks. “I’ve been through it all, baby,” she once boasted. “I’m Mother Courage.”

R.I.P. Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, actor, born 27 February 1932; died 23 March 2011

New York Times obituary
Elizabeth Taylor, Guinea Pig for Modern Celebrity

Tom Service talks to Alexander Goehr about his last opera, based on King Lear, currently in rehearsal:

At 78, Alexander “Sandy” Goehr is one of the linchpins of the British musical establishment. He was professor of music at Cambridge University for nearly a quarter of a century; as a student, he was one of the Manchester School of composers, along with Harrison Birtwistle (“Harry”) and Peter Maxwell Davies (“Max”). Not that he thanks me for reminding him of his establishment credentials. “It’s all bullshit,” he says with a wry smile, somehow managing to make a cuss word sound cultured with his deep, resonant tones. “Nobody understood that I was a complete outsider at Cambridge. I haven’t even got a degree, let alone a doctorate – and I only got the job back in 1976 because the place was so clapped out they had to appoint a sort of academic doctor to sort it out.”

Promised End is at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London, on 9, 11, 14 and 16 October (box office: 020-7304 4000), then tours until 26 November.

Details: englishtouringopera.org.uk

Aerial images of landscapes and scenes around Britain. The photographs feature in a Royal Geographical Society outdoor exhibition, which will be in Bath city centre from 28 September until early 2011.

Shetland Salmon Farm

Buckinghamshire Linseed Crop

Perranporth Beach, Cornwall

(Source: Grauniad)

John Fordham looks at the key moments in jazz that defined music history.

(Source: Guardian)

A man holding his cock

From Drummer Dick’s Discharge to Shag: The Story of a Dog, there are plenty of contenders from literary history for the Guardian award for smuttiest book title.

The Wankh Award is named in honour of that classic of science-fiction, Jack Vance’s Servants of the Wankh (1969).

The best book of this type that I’ve come across is Penetrating Wagner’s Ring and I keep a well-thumbed copy in my bathroom. Indeed, I will have to replace it because so many of the pages are stuck together.

I am reminded of poor old Robert Browning’s lines in Pippa Passes:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning was under the misapprehension that “twat” was part of a nun’s habit.

I am further reminded of the occasion when my young friend Melissa walked into a bar in Manchester and ordered a double entendre. So the barman gave her one.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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