There's a certain rakish, ahead-of-the-pack style about consulting, in public, a diary pitched exactly a year ahead of everyone else, but it's a devilish tricky business

The Weasel
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I never thought I would find myself living in a work of fiction by Umberto Eco. I lead a quiet life - it consists mainly of bringing steaming herbal tisanes and lemon-scented therapeutics to Mrs Weasel's stricken bedside - and have little time to hang out in ancient monasteries or cogitate about the significance of the Rosicrucians. But two weeks ago, everything changed.

Eco's new novel, The Island of the Day Before, features an arresting central image: a Sinbad-like character sits on a desert island watching, through a pair of binoculars, the girl of his dreams frustratingly out of reach: he cannot swim and her island is just beyond the international dateline, so technically he is looking at her the day before; there is always 24 hours between them. It's a brilliant, De Selby-ish conceit, but one which I read with a frisson of recognition. Because I too am stuck in a time-warp. I have lost my diary.

This is no trivial matter. I am tied to this little book more than I can say. My whole life, such as it is, lives and breathes through entries such as "7.30pm MW Pig and Whistle"; "NB Nick b-day Blur CD?" and the ever-popular "Ring Mother". Worse than having no organising influence about your person, however, is the creepy feeling that at least a hundred appointments, small, large and earth-shaking, have been noted in the pages, about which you can now remember nothing. (Isn't next Tuesday supposed to be "Papal Nuncio, 9pm Truckles Wine Bar"? Or am I mixing it up with "Armani launch, noon, Dorch"?). It can't go on. One will simply have to get a new diary.

One breezes into Ryman and says, "A new diary, please," wondering if they give you a discount because you're planning to use only the last four months. The sales girl coldly directs you to the diary racks. "Not those, silly," you explain, joshingly, "I mean 1995." She looks at you with sudden pity, as she might at someone requesting a dozen Catherine wheels and six bangers on December the First. "We sold aht of 95s," she says shortly, "last Febberee." Doesn't she have even emergency ones, with blank pages so you can fill in the date yourself? No way. The only thing for it, in short, is to buy a 1996 diary.

Which is where I am today, or thereabouts. There's a certain rakish, ahead-of-the-pack style about consulting, in public, a diary pitched exactly a year ahead of everyone else, but it's a devilish tricky business. You can't make 1995 appointments on specific 1996 dates, because you need to have in front of you the day of the week on which your proposed meeting/drink/film falls; but if you ignore the numbers and go just by the days of the week, you lose all track of time. "The 23rd?" you say, looking at the page for the 24th (a Friday) and silently checking the day before, "That looks good to me. Thursdays are pretty quiet... Sorry? It's a Wednesday? But how can it be?" Oh it can be very simply, by 1996 being a leap year.

So now I'm the chap with The Diary of Two Days Before. My life is turned to uproar - pencilling-in Monday dental appointments for Wednesday mornings, remembering that 8pm on Tuesday the 19th doesn't mean the 19th (because it will have been the previous Sunday) but the 21st, unless of course...

I was trying to explain my chrono-relativistic troubles to a friend to whom I was offering dinner last Monday, which, you may remember, was 25 September. "Can't make it," he said. Why not? There was a pause. "Jewish New Year," he said.

New ground in civil service self-delusion was broken this week with news of the demise of the Cones Hotline, which is about to merge into a general roads information service. But what you or I might consider a failure has already been finessed into a triumph, at least in the briefing prepared for ministers challenged upon its demise. "In terms of grabbing the attention of the public, the Cones Hotline has been a resounding success!" it cheers, noting that 83 per cent of people using trunk roads had heard of it.

What the document does not admit is that 100 per cent of people who had heard of it had done so only because of people making jokes about it, including your columnist. Still, no joke approaches the reality. Of 17,000 calls taken by the hotline during one period of monitoring, only five resulted in any action being taken.

Movie lovers are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a belated return to film-making by Bob Guccione, whose 1980 work of scholarship, Caligula, was much appreciated. It had a script by Gore Vidal and starred John Gielgud, Helen Mirren and, in the title role, Malcolm McDowell. Not good enough - the producer decided it wasn't sufficiently racy and spliced in a lot of extra footage of nameless actresses, behavingly in ways scarcely dreamt of in the mind of Tiberius. How the critics laughed.

This disappointment did not upset Guccione, whose Penthouse empire now turns over a modest $250million a year. For his return to movies, however, he is taking no chances. This time he will direct the film himself. And the subject? Once again, history provides the inspiration. Guccione is off to St Petersburg to film a biographical epic about Catherine the Great.

You can see the attraction to the florid pornographer of the Russian queen, whose salacious reputation persists to this day. "There's a lot of baloney about her. People believe that she died under a horse," he says, and you suspect that he is not talking about a show-jumping accident. "She died in bed, at 67."

As far as I know, she was also very influential in the reorganisation of Russia's provincial administration, but somehow one does not expect this to form a major focus of the narrative. And the horse incident, being baloney, will play no part in the movie? "We are making concessions to popular belief in the film," Guccione admits. He has high hopes of persuading Faye Dunaway to play the title role. I trust she will have a few words with the cast of Caligula before shooting begins.

Hot news from the future. According to Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, humans will be obsolete within 50 years if computer technology keeps improving at its current pace.

At the moment our main advantage is that we have more processing power in a more compact space. "But within ten or 15 years," Warwick told the British Association, "machines will have more power in the same space."

All well and good, you might think. At last, a video recorder that will understand when you try to program it. A microwave oven that stops before it incinerates everything. A radio that can pick up Radio 4 on FM.

Professor Warwick is not so sure. "My conclusion is that it is wrong to think that there is not a problem here," he says, judiciously. "If machines are going to be more intelligent, then what kind of treatment can we expect from them? We should probably expect to be treated the same way we treat less intelligent life."

Oo-er. I shall never be nasty to my toaster again.

I see OJ Simpson is trying to trademark his initials so that when he emerges from his ordeal (it now seems generally accepted that he is going to be found innocent) he can immediately get his merchandising activities into full swing. What's he going to sell? Gloves?

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