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Learning to Spell

I will never forget how to spell Wednesday. When I was six my parents decided to emigrate from the UK to New Zealand, my father being certain that a third world war was going to break out and that we would all be annihilated by nuclear bombs. We lived in a suburb (as it then was) of Auckland, called Three Kings, where I immediately started at the local school. On the first day my mother came to collect me at the appointed time but I was not at the school gates — I had been "promoted" to the next higher class, which did not leave until a little later in the afternoon. The following day my mother came at the new time, but again I was not there, having been promoted once more. When I reached the class for ten-year-olds my parents were told that I couldn't be promoted any further, even though I already knew more than my classmates. This was not because I was particularly clever, but because of the level of education of my peers — a consequence of the difference in the levels of primary school education between the two countries more than half a century ago. The one thing I can recall learning at that school was how to spell Wednesday — if I remember correctly the class took a whole morning before we all knew how to spell it, and we learned it in three groups of three letters: W-E-D, and then when we had mastered the first group we learned N-E-S, etc. After that experience, how could I ever forget it?

Incidentally, my mother soon became very homesick and within six months we were back on a boat, the Rangitiki, heading for Blighty. The five-week journeys provided far more for me in the way of learning than I gleaned from those few months at school in Three Kings. We went through the Panama Canal in each direction, I saw Pitcairn Island and learned about the mutiny on the Bounty (whose crew were the ancestors of most of today's inhabitants of the island). I also learned how hot the sun can be, when I came down with sunstroke while standing on the deck looking out over the island of Curaçao.

And I know how to spell Wednesday.

Still in Oxford

Yesterday evening, after the "companions" meeting, we were taken to dine at Exeter College, which was founded in 1314, ending the meal with the traditional glass of Port.

The chapel at Exeter College

This morning I broke my "no breakfast" rule and enjoyed a traditional English breakfast. I don't normally eat breakfast, and haven't done for most of my adult life, even though I have heard it said many times that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. To be honest I find most breakfasts somewhat uninteresting, and I usually work much better on an empty stomach than on a full one, so often I also miss lunch as well and make do with one meal a day, when I can enjoy my food to the full, thanks to a really healthy appetite. But for breakfast I usually make an exception when staying in a hotel that offers something a little special, and the Old Parsonage was certainly special in this respect.

I'm back in London now. The journey from Oxford takes less than an hour if one is able to catch a non-stop train. This evening I shall be visiting Gloria, a delightful eighty-three-year-old lady I have known for more than thirty years. Her son and one of her daughters are also friends of mine, and I enjoy my regular visits because Gloria has a sparkling sense of humour and a very positive attitude to life. The trip from my home to Acton, in west London, where Gloria lives, takes only about twenty minutes thanks to a convenient rail line. After spending an hour or so at her house, we shall go for dinner to a local Indian or Chinese restaurant, and then I'll need to get home and pack. Tomorrow Christine and I are off to Paris for a few days.

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David Levy is an internationally recognized expert on artificial intelligence. He is president of the International Computer Games Association and in 1997 led the team that won the Loebner Prize — the world championship for conversational computer software. He is also the author of Robots Unlimited and Love and Sex with Robots. Levy lives in London with his wife, Christine, and their cat.

Books mentioned in this post

David Levy is the author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships

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