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Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday 2nd February, 2018. On today’s show, I’ve got some thoughts about the modern world of work – do our smartphones make us more – or less – efficient ? Then I’ve a story about a bizarre  sign I found in a local hospital. What could it mean? And finally, if you need to relax do you think you’d enjoy some ASMR?
I keep reading and hearing about productivity these days. Productivity is the measure  of how much wealth  we as individuals produce. Historically our economy has grown as we, the workers, have produced goods or services quicker, or better. Productivity used to increase every year, and this had been going on since World War II, but since 2007 productivity in the UK, and in other countries, has stagnated , although our economies as a whole  have grown. And nobody is quite sure why. More people are employed, but individually they’re not working any more efficiently than they used to. Why? What’s happened? Perhaps it’s because economists are not so sure any more about how to measure productivity in modern economies. It was easier when we made things, but today our economy is much more about services than goods. It’s not so easy to measure services. The most recent article that I read about productivity was by Tim Harford, an economist who writes for the Financial Times.
He pointed out  that productivity stopped rising more or less at the same time that the first smartphone, the iPhone, was launched  onto the market. There’s no suggestion that these two events are linked  in any causal  kind of way, but the article goes on to consider computers and the way we work today. One phenomenon of the modern computerised office is that we are all generalists now. In the old days, we had specialists who wrote out the documents – we called them secretaries or typists . And if you wanted some pictures designed for a big presentation, we had specialist designers. These days most of us type our own stuff; we spend time doing our own PowerPoint presentations; and we answer all our own correspondence – all those emails! Is all of this sort of activity the best use of our time? Our working days are also constantly interrupted by our phones or our other digital devices. And if you don’t feel like getting on with your work, there are so many possible distractions  these days. You can get out your phone and play games, follow social media, etc, etc.
The smartphone is essentially a really powerful, wirelessly networked computer in your pocket or handbag. It makes life much easier and more efficient – in theory. But perhaps it isn’t working out quite like that. I remember that when we got our first computers, we were told to look forward to a modern office without paper. Well, that didn’t really work, did it? Perhaps the smartphone is affecting  our work also in a way that experts didn’t forecast.
When I lived in Switzerland I remember seeing a sign in a lift once that made me think twice. The sign said “Do not use the lift in case of fire.” Now from the context and my knowledge of lifts and fire regulations and so on, I was able to work out what the author of this sign wanted to communicate. However, my first thought was: “Is there some electrical fault in this lift.” Recently in the UK there’ve been a number of house fires which have been caused by electrical faults in tumble driers . You hear warnings like: “Do not start one of these machines going and then go out or go to bed, in case there’s a fault and the machine catches fire .” Another example: I might say to my little grandchildren: “Let me help you carry that in case you drop it.” The literal meaning of the sign in the Swiss lift meant something like: “Do not use the lift because there’s a risk that by using it you may start a fire.” What they meant to say, of course, was: “Do not use the lift in the event of fire” or even “in the case of fire”. But even better, keep it simple and say: “If there is a fire in the building, do not use the lift.” We can all understand that, I hope.
Now I live in the UK, and you might think that all the signs in English would be clear, but you would be wrong. It’s not always so easy to write simple English sentences that are clear and unambiguous . And then, where I live, there’s the added complication of a second language. On a recent visit to the local hospital I was puzzled  to read the following hand-written sign on the wall by a stack  of plastic chairs for visitors. It said “Please keep chairs after use. Thank you.” – What do think it meant? – “Please keep chairs after use.” I know that our hospitals are very concerned about hygiene and the risk of infection. A lot of the equipment that they use is one-use only. You use something and then throw it away. But it seemed to be a bit extreme to insist that if a visitor used a chair, that the chair could not then be reused. The truth, however, was that it was an example of the Welsh language being translated directly into English. In Welsh, after you wash and dry the dishes , you don’t put them away or clear them away, you keep them. The verb to “keep” in Welsh means both to keep and to put away, so the sign in the hospital was a request for visitors to be tidy and to return the chairs to the stack at the end of their visit!
Finally today, instead of listening to podcasts perhaps you might get even more pleasure from watching somebody folding  towels  for twenty minutes. You might end up feeling “nice”, with your head “buzzing  in a way that’s hard to describe”. If you do get these pleasurable sensations it’s because of ASMR – Auto-Sensory Meridian Response. My curiosity about this was first aroused  by somebody talking about it on the radio, and I then found an article from the Independent newspaper from about five years ago, so it’s not a particularly new thing. The most famous example of an ASMR video is called Relaxing Towel Folding Tutorial. I found it on YouTube, and it features a woman called Maria, I believe, who spends about 20 minutes instructing you in a whispering voice about how to fold bathroom towels. All you see on the video is her hands gently smoothing  and folding the towels. Millions of people love watching videos like this, I read. The key features of the videos are the very soft soundtrack with a reassuring  feel and a demonstration of expertise or precision. In the 1990s an American painter made 400 videos demonstrating with few words how to paint pictures – these remain extremely popular with people who are not even painters or interested in learning to paint. There is, I think, no scientific evidence of ASMR, but there seem to be many people around the world who say it works for them. I wonder if any you listening today can tell me more.
To comment on my stories, please write via the PodClub website (podclub.ch) or on Twitter under the address @Gerrypod. Don’t forget that the PodClub app not only allows you to listen to our podcasts but also provides you with some help to extend your vocabulary. I’ll be back with my next News Digest on March 2nd. Till then, take care!