Monday, 13 December 2010

There's no getting away from it

Of course everyone's known about Space Junk for ages. There's probably even a band named after it. But what I only learned today was that there's now so much of it that satellites can't be just left to their own devices up there with nothing but Kepler's Laws for guidance. Typically each of the hundreds of useful vehicles has to take avoidance action on average a dozen times a year, with its makers knowing that anything larger than a flake of paint can knock it out. It's getting a bit like a hairy dash round the M60 on the edge of rush-hour with the added excitement of knowing that every other vehicle on the road is being steered by a blind, trigger-happy robot.

And that is why there are now disposal plans, designated "graveyard orbits" and even talk of "Active Debris Removal", with the development of some out-of-this-world recycling technology. Houston, meet Mr Straight.

Meanwhile, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence goes on. Which begs the question, is there anybody else out there looking, and if so might they find us? If they do, will their reaction be a bit like that of a twentysomething lass, who's met this really fun-to-be-with bloke, but is rather put off him when she first sees the state of his flat?

Friday, 10 December 2010

Moral Hazard

So I'm on my way through the short-cut to the shops, and there, sitting in splendour in the middle of the path, is a pile of muck (in the time it took me to go and get the camera, someone had obviously kicked it in exasperation).

It strikes me that this is a metaphor for our times.

The path of life is strewn with dogma.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

"Our garage is full of junk"

I can't remember the last time I saw a garage that actualy had a car parked in it. We have a garage, and I'm pretty sure the car has never been parked there: I can also be reasonably certain that the people who sold us the house (and whose idea it had been to get the garage built in the first place) had never parked a car in it either.

This evening events sent me tiptoeing through the snow to get something from the garage. It was the banner made by our local Residents Against the Incinerator group (every town should have one). Because of the low temperatures (it got down to a record-breaking -12 degrees the night before last) and the snow, I hadn't been in the garage for a while. Isn't it funny how you kind of look at things afresh?

There are seven bikes in there, though there are only four of us. But they all get used: when people are staying with us, we can all go for a bike-ride together. All the gardening kit is hibernating there (we haven't got a shed), as is the camping stove and the barbecue. There are four boxes of dry wood for the stove, other wood-related kit, a sledgehammer, and even two sledges (the people across the road from us have gone one better and have two canoes on their garage roof). There's a roll of loft insulation, although we haven't got a loft. There are two massive candles. And if you get bored, there's a coconut shy. And probably some coconuts too, but they're very likely to be past their sell-by, so you'll have to slum it with four massive jars of jam instead.

What would happen if we didn't have the space for all this, or if, heaven help us, we were suddenly gripped by the urge to have a clear-out? Well, somebody else from our Party would have to look after the coconut shy for a start. The rest of it isn't exactly standard fare for your local charity shop. If we were patient we could try and give it away on Freecycle, but whoever heard of someone in the throes of a clear-out suddenly becoming patient?

Anyway it's all a bit academic. Each bit of stuff has its day: the barbecue in summer, the sledges in winter, the gardening kit in spring and autumn. If we were to get rid of any, we'd only have to waste a lot of time and money buying anew the following year.

And where would all the old stuff go? Probably on that incinerator, that nobody wants.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Space below zero

Here we see an ordinary, mundane, run-o'-the-mill British field, as seen all over the country, and as overlooked by all of us (except, perhaps, the good folk who earn their living from it)...transformed, at no cost to the taxpayer, into an exciting, free, and healthy place of family entertainment.

We even saw the field's owners, out with their family doing exactly the same: they didn't seem to mind at all that someone was borrowing the field next to their house without so much as a "By your leave".

Monday, 8 November 2010

Lightbulb Moment

It struck me as being rather silly that, having splurged all our savings on the shiny new space-age roof, we were still stuck with 19th-century lighting in the kitchen. Yes I know, Halogen Downlighters are the weapon of choice for illuminating all those freshly-made-over homes in programmes like Changing Designs, Home DIY and Grand SOS, and they do look like miniature UFOs, but they are essentially little heating elements that happen to give off a bit of light as an aside, and use a technology that hasn't moved on a lot since that nice Mr Swan and his idea of a glowing filament in a vacuum.

The original bulbs in our kitchen had used 50 watts each, meaning each gave out about the same amount of heat as a person. There were 14 of them. Some people think it's ridiculously wasteful to burn nearly three quarters of a kilowatt just to light one room, while others think it's ridiculously nerdy to care. Hmm, guilty as charged.

So, shortly after we moved in, I replaced them all with 20 watt bulbs which were very nearly as bright. A green-minded friend pointed out that by doing this I had met a national target being talked about at the time, to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions by 60% (the target has since become a more ambitious 80%, but I've yet to notice any practical difference). It also looked as if that this was as low as I could go without either taking the kitchen ceiling to bits to get at (and change) the transformers for those lights, or putting up with a very dim kitchen.

For the next three years there the new bulbs all sat, cheerfully putting 280 watts of heat into the space between the kitchen ceiling and the floor of the bedroom above. Until the arrival of the space-age roof, and the realisation that I really had had enough. I think it was hallowe'en that finally did it. Why had I never thought, until then, of gently pulling the entire fixture out of the ceiling and finding out what was lurking beyond, up there in the ceiling space? Come to that, why are there so many little dark spaces in a typical house, full of various busy connections which are so crucial to the smooth running of everyday life, and yet which remain so utterly unknown? There are cities in other continents with whose layout I am more familiar than the layout of the connections in our own house.

I turned off the mains, climbed on a chair and carefully pulled the chrome ring from the ceiling. It turned out that the only thing holding it in place was a pair of sprung "wings". And the only thing holding the connecting wire in place was, the chrome ring itself. Nothing else was fixed to anything, meaning that the entire connection (including that cursed transformer) could be eased out through the hole.

That was the difficult bit!

The easy bit is, buying fourteen cool versions of "GU10" bulbs and their connectors, getting out wirestrippers and a screwdriver, and getting on with it.
The amusing sequel includes being asked by various people, how did you do that?, and the possibility of a whole new volume of light-bulb jokes...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Winning the Game

D'oh the Game!!

The Game, Fille explained, has only one rule: you must never think about it. Once you think about it, you have lost. Then, wherever you are, and whoever you're with, you have to tell someone "I've just lost the Game".

But, I asked, then surely everyone who hears you will also have lost? Or what if you're alone and can't tell anyone? And, worst of all, can't people just cheat, by keeping quiet about having thought about the Game?

Apparently none of this is important. And the Game is played only by honest players. It's going round Fille's school like wildfire: so much so that a mention of the Black Hand Gang (alleged murderers of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, who turned up in a History lesson) caused some classmate who had misheard the name to exclaim "D'oh the Game!". The next History lesson included a presentation, and one further unfortunate classmate, on being asked to put up the next slide, was greeted with a screen completely blank except for the words THE GAME written in large friendly transpired that the History teacher, when still a student, had also played the Game.

I came up with the idea that anyone who (as was common at my old school) was a victim of being called a Swat, should get their own back by sitting in the front row of the class wearing an otherwise-ordinary school shirt decorated with the words "the Game" on the back. Badges with very small letters spelling out "You've just lost the Game" are also doing the rounds.

It all reminds me of that Oriental tale involving a cheeky magician who said he had an extremely powerful spell which he was willing to deploy on behalf of some rich patron, but which, he warned, would only work if the supplicant would not allow any thoughts of monkeys to cross his mind during the long incantation. I have tried this and can report, after exhaustive research, that it is impossible.

But the more you think about it, the worse it gets. There are many other things which work well until you start to think too hard about them. Any long-practiced and long-ago-mastered physical skill, for a start, falls into this group, because thinking about it brings it out from the back of the mind, which is more in touch with muscles and long-perfected skills, to the front, which is where new things are learned.

It seems that the only way of stopping this happening is to somehow perfect the ability to think, literaly, of Nothing, and defend that thought of Nothing from all possible comers.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Not-so-good vibrations

The noise didn't wake me up: I just woke up, at about 3 a.m., and heard it. It was one of those noises that are felt as well as just heard: a very low-pitched hum. I couldn't make out where it was coming from so, researcher by nature, I got up to investigate.

After walking all round the house I drew a complete blank: there was no obvious direction, and no obvious source. Just the same level of hum no matter where I stood, except it was slightly louder near the windows.

But when I stepped outside, it was gone.

Thinking it might be something electrical but invisible (there's quite a lot of that in our house, all installed by the previous owners and roundly cursed by me), I hit the mains. Still there. And next door was uninhabited at the time, so it couldn't have been anything there either.

I had to admit defeat.

Until I saw an article about a car in the USA which used noise cancellation technology to make the low frequency of its idling engine bearable for the driver. It turns out that this frequency (a few hundred rpm) is not too far away from the resonant frequency of crucial parts of the human body. Like the main artery, or even our brainwaves. Which probably explains why the sound of idling cars is so irritating.

But cars are not usually idling in traffic-jams at three in the morning: they are far more likely to be on some or other mission of mercy on our city's ring road, their engines turning over at some 2000 rpm: just at the point where "vibrations" become "sound".

Those of us who can remember offhand the speed of sound in air can work out the size of a "lump" of air that will resonate with these car engines. Resonance is a strange thing: it takes very little wave power to get something resonating, if it happens to be the right size and shape, and the results can be dramatic. Outdoor air will not resonate, but will quietly carry the energy to the air inside something of the right size, that will oblige.

Something, it turns out in this case, of four and a half metres across. About the size of a typical living-room.

As if that's not enough, windows will also resonate at similar frequencies.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Space-age roof

Sometimes, when I'm walking along streets blessed with an absence of traffic, I look up at the roofs. Sometimes these are pretty and atmospheric, with gothic turrets, or art deco friezes, or perhaps they are thatched or gently undulating along the ridge where weight has been borne for hundreds of years. And sometimes, they are just ordinary. Our roof is, or at least was, definitely the latter.

And that is why we had no difficulty deciding to put its large, and previously idle, area to some use: making electricity. We invested in a project to install nine of these futuristic works of art:

On the big day, the British weather obliged with its finest, wettest, rain!

But the gentlemen who came to do the work were no sissies, and carried on regardless

In just one day, everything on the roof was finished!

Arty close-up:

Another atmospheric shot, with reflections of clouds (for people who like that sort of thing):

There's something pleasingly geometrical about that pattern (getting a bit carried away now):

It also co-ordinates perfectly with the d├ęcor in the room inside the roof:

It's an interesting coincidence that a set-up like this provides roughly the same amount of energy that a person would spend on physical work (for the curious, the daily average of 4 kWh is the same amount of energy as 3,440 food calories).

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Someone Else's Backyard

You can't deny that it's beautiful countryside. Nearly all countryside is beautiful, if that's where you happen to live. And you can't deny that it's unique. The UK includes four climate zones, and any number of geological zones, making for a huge number of possible combinations of the two, each resulting in a different landscape. All of which, in their own way, are unique.

So what of it? Well, a large overseas conglomerate wants to build wind turbines on it. And of course the locals are up in arms. Which, from where I look at the problem, is a terrible shame.

I look at the problem from the point of view of a physicist: we all use electricity, we're no longer "an island of coal...", our gas supplies are fading fast and we don't have any Uranium to call our own. But given that we have plenty of wind, and that we don't have to pay for it, worry about it getting used up, or risk it falling into the hands of terrorists, it seems only logical that we should use it. And if this means adding odd-looking new bits of infrastructure to a landscape already alive with ingenuity from times past (everything from an iron-age settlement, through a motorway, to a nuclear power station and a generous sprinkling of communications masts) then so be it.

This means that when I happen to see wind turbines, in whatever kind of setting, my first thoughts are...Good, someone's addressing our energy problem. Note the use of "our". If they're on wild hills, the wild space is still there, only with the addition of "our" now-visible wild wind blowing over it. The view beyond is still ours to see.

What's missing from my point of view is of course the question of whose wind turbines they are.

It's a sad fact of life that the usual way of doing things involves the large conglomerate paying large sums of money to the people who own the particular field on which they want to build, and nothing to anybody else. Which is immediately divisive. If the field's owners live miles away, and the nearest house happens to be lived in by someone unconnected with the deal, things start to get unfair. As far as I know, the bog-standard wind energy contract doesn't allow for near-neighbours to get a share of the loot. There isn't even a mechanism for the deal to endow the little town with cheap electricity, lower business rates or some kind of part-ownership of the new features in their landscape. However there is a mechanism for the government to pay the large conglomerate, to encourage it to do the right thing.

It gets worse.

Before applying for planning permission, the company had to show off its proposals in the town hall. They conveniently "forgot" to put up most of the photomontages they had prepared, and which now appear on the website of the obligatory protest group (which of course has some friendly-sounding accronym like "Save Our Fells Today"). The website is slick and professional-looking, and so it should be considering the help that Country Guardian can offer in these matters. Like every other piece of anti-wind-farm literature I've ever seen, it portrays the proposal as an "invasion", and the efforts to thwart it as a "battle".

The town council (until recently the parish council), like parish councils all over the country, are all, shall we say, of a certain age, and the conglomerate has the misfortune to be based in Germany. To top it all, while I was staying there a neighbour dropped by to ask, on behalf of his friend in the town council, if we'd like to fly a flag (many of the houses have poles for christmas trees) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The town council have to consider the wind farm plans and make a recommendation to the nearest city council. The latter happens to be in a different goes on. There was, in short, a general feeling of being "got-at" which was bringing out the worst in people.

In a completely separate incident, there was a water shortage in 1976 following a particularly dry summer. The water board put out publicity asking people to use water sparingly, and people obliged. In 1995 England (but not Scotland) was again short of water. The newly-privatised water companies, whose newly-very-rich bosses had been front page news, put out similar publicity, and people just ignored it and thought, what a cheek. The sensation of being ripped off by large conglomerates overpowered the natural drive to "do our bit".

And so I wonder, would all this have turned out differently if the electricity grid were still a public service, making the new arrivals, in some way, "ours"?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Seeing further

Even as I write, our local paper says, streams of energetic particles are hurtling towards the Earth, where they will get caught up in our not-quite-as-energetic magnetic field lines and redirected to the poles. I've always wanted to see the Aurora. It's one of those things, like a total eclipse or the great wall of China, that you feel you should see even just once in a lifetime. The local paper goes on to say that this time I won't have to travel far: this Aurora will be so energetic that those of us as far south as 54 degrees will get a good view, as long as the sky is clear.

It forgets to say exactly what the sky needs to be clear of.

Step out into the street and try to catch the aurora. Or indeed anything else in the night sky. Chances are that, unless you live in the middle of a field, all you will get to see is street lighting. It is so intense near our house that we could turn off all our own lights and still walk around and carry on most of our everyday business using just the spare light that spills in from the street. So, of course, could our friendly neighbourhood burglar. But I digress.

It's a tough call to ask for more darkness. Darkness sounds so, uncivilised. It gets used as a metaphor for ignorance, malice, or exile.

But now that there's so little of it left, people are beginning to notice that we're missing out on something. With darkness, our sleep is deeper. Wildlife can go about its business undisturbed.

And, ironically, in the end it allows us to see a lot further.

Monday, 26 July 2010

And a box of Space, please

When we first moved in to the new Chateau Lunchista, it came complete with a small cuboid of green space, which we clutter up and the city council replenish every fortnight. Here it is:

It carried out its humble task to the best of its abilities, never letting us down. It didn't fall to bits, throw tantrums or grind to a halt announcing that it wouldn't carry on without "upgrades". It didn't even fiddle its expenses. All the fortnight's recyclable junk from Chateau Lunchista fitted within its confines (as long as we worked on it a bit). The city council delightedly announced at the end of last year that 43% of all our waste had managed to avoid ending up in a hole int he ground.

Then one hot summer afternoon last week, it became evident that someone at the city council had decided that their good citizens were in need of new space, and lots of it. The space, together with instructions on how to use it, was being delivered from the back of a van, all down our street. Here's our share:

Notice the sleek, black, shiny finish: light just falls into them. Press the black circle on the black flaps at the sides and the lid opens in a self-satisfied manner, revealing the even blacker space within. It is in fact so immaculately black that one feels slightly guilty for soiling it with such mundane detritus as squashed tuna tins, plastic bottles and dog-eared newspapers.

We suspect that Mr Straight, the colourful character whose firm provides most of the UK with its recycling boxes, has somehow developed an upgrade which, like the Tardis, encloses a space capable of extending into the fourth dimension, so that it can accommodate an infinite amount of rubbish. However, given that our new boxes are beginning to fill up in the usual way, we are guessing that the 4th dimension option has been disabled for now, perhaps pending some kind of licence application, or tests verifying that people will still be able to lift them. In the meantime a sort of rubbish version of Parkinson's Law will ensure that, with three boxes instead of just the one (yes the green box, complete with a new sort of fishnet covering to stop things blowing away, will still be out there strutting its stuff), people will put more rubbish out for recycling than the present 43%.

But that's nothing. Lunchista has heard industry rumours that Mr Straight has a team of cosmologists working on the ultimate piece of recycling infrastructure: a box containing its own mini-Black Hole, which will instantly compress any rubbish to a single point of infinite density.

It might be a tad difficult to pick up, mind you.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Brand Name Crisis Looms

Insiders in the advertising industry are becoming concerned over what they claim is the very real possibility that, due to the increasing popularity of re-branding, mergers, splits and the shortening lifetime of companies, together with the sheer number of new products launched every year, the industry faces the bleak prospect of running out of new brand names.

An advertising executive, who didn't want to be named, said:
'It's our industry’s dirty secret, the Wolf At The Door, the Mad Woman In The Attic. Nobody wants to talk about it because its effects on civilisation as we know it will be catastrophic.

'If you think about it, the English language only has a finite amount of meaningful words, and we have been exploiting them as brand names for at least 80 years. All the words which convey something meaningful, along with most of the place-names, have been used up. You can already see the signs, with companies who wish to re-brand having to resort to 3-letter acronyms or meaningless quasi-Latin-sounding names. The same is true for all other languages, in fact most have fewer words than English.

'The signs that something is amiss are already there to see. You don't think any sensible CEO would choose to call their company Centrica, Avensis or Consignia do you? Or lumber them with some forgettable 3-letter acronym like, ooh I can't remember any but you know what I mean.’

Advertising agencies and management consultants are now hiring top lexicographers in an attempt to predict how long the industry can continue mining the English language. Predictions range from 5 years to just over a decade.

But one sceptic announced 'This is all bunk. Sure, we'll run out of meaningful words but so what? There are 17,576 three-letter acronyms out there, and if all else fails we'll simply do what Mercedes do now, and use numbers. OK so they don't have any character, but neither do today’s brand-names or products, and it doesn't seem to affect sales’

Friday, 16 July 2010


Thirty years ago a thin young lass stepped into one of those red phone-boxes of the type you don't see any more except in museums and, possibly, next to the odd outdoor pool in places like Texas. She dialled a number, and asked the lady who answered, one question. The lady carefully read out three letters of the alphabet and, after a brief further chat, the call was over.

The lass stepped out into the morning sun and danced down the street singing her head off. I wonder if anyone in Lamorna, where we were on holiday at the time, remembers my 18th birthday? It was a coming-of-age that had everything: a sense of achievement (those letters being my A-level results), a memorable moment, and a step through to a new life.

Except, of course, that students aren't real adults, any more than is the newly-confirmed 16 year old, or the 14 year old Bat Mitvah, or indeed anyone who emerges from any of the long-established, but now no longer all-inclusive, coming-of-age markers in life. You grew up faster in the Iron Age: shorter life expectancy meant you couldn't hang about. So, all the best and most meaningful coming-of-age rites are completely out-of-phase with modern life. And we haven't bothered to come up with anything nearly as good.

This has always struck me as rather remiss of us. At no point in present-day life are we handed, unambiguously and in full view of all the people we care about, the responsibilities of an adult life, with the underlying message "You're one of us now. You know your stuff, and we trust you".

Sometimes, you step out into a wide new space and there are absolutely no landmarks. At what point can you be said to be grown-up?

Monday, 12 July 2010

Thief in the night

Some burglaries are more bizarre than others. There was one particular thief, for example, who specialised in taking the hinges from people's garden shed doors. Not so that the doors could be opened and the booty taken from within, but for their own sake. Presumably, then, a collection of hinges adorn some mantelpiece somewhere, where the retired criminal can stand before the fire and reminisce to guests about a past career in the realms of the newly un-hinged.

The burglary at our house was only slightly more rational. The only things taken from within the house were a very old mobile phone (soon deactivated) and a nest of cake-tins (which only made it as far as the garden). And this after every cupboard, including the ones for whisky and the family silver (such as it is) had been opened. The car, which was on its last legs anyway, was fired up using my keys, but even that only got as far as the nearest field, where it was later found burned and abandonned.

And of course, like every victim of crime, we asked ourselves, "why us?". So I stepped into our burglar's shoes. They were (said the Polis who looked at the prints on the floor) size 8 Ellesse trainers. And of course they were a perfect fit.

So here I am, walking into the neck of our cul-de-sac late one October evening: it's that time of year when, all of a sudden, the evenings revert to getting dark at their natural time. The sudden change sends out a signal, and that signal is, right you honest Brits, you've had your ration of fun for this year, time to stay indoors now. Along with that comes a second signal, only audible to some: right you Burglars, it's playtime! The only setback is that burglars, like the rest of us, are visual animals and don't like it to be absolutely dark. Thankfully this street comes with a full complement of street lighting. Some houses even have extra lights which helpfully come on so that our burglar can see where the lock, or any other weak points, are. And indeed no research has ever shown that artificial light, by itself, helps reduce burglary.

Our house is set back from the street so that our burglar has to pass behind a high hedge and walk across the front drive, directly below our bedroom windows, before reaching the high back gate. Through the gate and out of sight of the street, the rest is plain sailing.

We set about changing the landscape so that it was more sociable and less burglar-friendly.

We are not allowed to shoot out the street-lights, but our neighbours got the council to blank out the part of the light that shone directly into four bedroom windows.

I bought loppers and took down the front hedge. All of a sudden our front garden became more sociable and less like a dingy Victorian parlour. We hired a firm who took up the concrete drive and replaced it with gravel. Not only did this look far more classy, it is also impossible to sneak across. Then we had a lock put on the back gate, so that any breaking or picking had to be done at the front, in full view of the entire street. And we don't keep the car keys downstairs anymore (although we do have door keys at hand in case of fire).

But I think the most convincing reason why we were never burgled again, even though re-burglaries are depressingly common, was beyond even the most sophisticated parts of "Designing Out Crime". There exists a community of burglars. They frequent the same pubs, clubs and gyms. They recognise each other by things like parking on disabled spaces without the inconvenience of actually being disabled. They talk to each other: sport, motors, bling (they like the same bling as everybody else), recent jobs. There was this most peculiar place I did recently. Well-off-looking semi, nice part of town. We got in and, I'm not joking, there was nothing worth having! It was all old stuff.

Well, yes. There's bling, and there's class.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Planet Football

We follow England's fortunes in the World Cup. And, when England inevitably get knocked out, chances are that those of us who are football-daft pick some other team to cheer on: perhaps we know someone from that country, perhaps they're the plucky underdogs, their style of play appeals, or their fans are particularly entertaining. Any excuse. And of course now we can carry on watching and cheering.

I got into playing football quite by accident. Like any sport, it's far more interesting to watch once you can bring in your own experience. It gives an extra dimension to the match: "What's he thinking?" "what would I do?" "wow, that particular move is very difficult!" People's skill can be seen for what it is.

Now I am going to stick my neck out and say, that skill comes from love, and from space.

The love comes from within the person: they start playing whatever sport it is, and if they like the sensation, they carry on, so that practice comes naturally. But the space, in the form of spare land and intervals of spare time, has to be found. And that is why, unlike some of the people in our street, I never tell off the kids who play football there. Not even when, in one day, their ball knocked nearly all the newly-set apples off our tree (my excuse? It's a young tree, and should be concentrating on growing stronger, not on producing fruit).

I'd never thought about the sheer expanse of area in that small street, until I saw someone do something with it other than drive down it. Last year, during Wimbledon, a different bunch of kids were out there playing tennis.

But back to the footie crowd: doubtless as time goes by the keenest of them will be looking for a playing-field rather than a street on which to practice. And indeed, someone has crunched the numbers and found that people who live within walking distance of parks or playing-fields are, in the average, fitter and healthier than those who don't. Some Scottish researchers have even claimed that men are "less likely to die".

Which brings me back to my own footballing experience. One of the untold stories was the sheer difficulty of getting our feet on a pitch. We'd ring and book, or even turn up having booked, only to find the slot had been bagged by one of the local schools, who must have had to load up an entire class and drive them across the city for the privilege. Presumably this was only done because the school lacked playing fields of their own, the land having long since been sold off and "developed". Nearby potential England team material, having nowhere to practice of an evening, would have stayed at home and let their skills lapse. Perhaps the supermarkets that now occupy these spaces hand out those little vouchers that schools can collect and redeem for sports equipment.

Some people blame the lack of space for sport on England's high population density. Meanwhile, ever since they beat Slovakia last month, I've been cheering on our equally dense neighbours the Netherlands.

Thanks to a mystery Football Forum for the image I nicked for this post.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Ancient appreciation of space

Shape clay into a vessel,
it is the space within that gives it value.

Place doors and windows in a house,
it is the opening that brings light within.

Set spokes within a wheel,
it is the emptiness of the hub that makes them useful

Lao Tzu

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Loitering with intent

Readers of The Year-long Lunch Break may remember an elderly gentleman I used to say hello to every morning, very early, on my way to work. Taking a cushion with him, he would quietly let himself out of the old people's home in which he was incarcerated, and sit on a wall on the street corner to watch the world go by.

Here is the wall in question:

The busy junction it overlooks has recently undergone its second massive reworking in the last three years. I happened upon the team of workmen who were installing the strange pebbled surface next to the wall, and asked them what it was for.

"It's to prevent loitering", replied the workman, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. And as if, might I add, the prospect of having people pause at street corners and use the space to have a chat was somehow abhorrent. After all, while chatting they could always smile and wave at the CCTV that overlooks the junction, and on days when the technology wasn't working they would be useful as potential eyewitnesses to the many traffic accidents that (still) occur there. But non-moving people, especially those too old for the playground but too young for the pub, seem to be unwanted in urban design.

Now supposing town planners and architects took this anti-loitering idea to its logical conclusion. What we would find, as we walked through our towns and cities, would be a succession of spaces each trying to discourage a pause in our journey by being more repulsive than the others. But that couldn't possibly happen in real life, could it?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Street games

I can’t claim to have helped organise the Conference. I can only claim that I offered to put the spare bedroom, and indeed the pleasant space that is our living-room floor, on a register of places to stay for delegates whose budget was unable to stretch to our country’s extortionate hotel room rates. I got assigned an Architect from Germany, who was due to turn up on the Sunday evening.

In the event, he was unable to attend. Which was probably just as well given that Germany were not exactly flavour of the month around here last Sunday night. I suppose it could have been worse: he could have been from Uruguay.

All that I could have been said to provide, therefore, was peace of mind for those whose job it was to organise accommodation. Spare capacity can be useful like that. It also entitled me to turn up for a day to listen to other people’s academic research findings. Everybody has their vice.

Leaving aside for now the main subject of the conference, one of the more lively sub-plots was the way people notice, and use, space. An "outdoor workshop" on this topic was being held that afternoon, so I signed up.

We were all led to the city's main pedestrianised shopping street, and asked to stand in a circle and call out our names. After this I was expecting a quiet spot of something like psycho-geography, but things didn't go quite that smoothly.

We paired up and did that party game where one person pretends to be the other's reflection in a mirror. Then we got into groups and did sequences of poses. Some of the delegates had their cameras and took pictures, so at least this made us look like normal, if slightly amusing, tourists. Finally two lines of about 15 of us each played follow-my-leader all around the street. At this point we really did get some funny looks: someone called out "What are you doing?" and I felt honour bound to give them an explanation. "Street games!"

I suspected some people might have been looking for a collecting-tin to drop coins into. Two onlookers even joined in.

I could tell from the variety of accents I heard during the first exercise that none of the others taking part would ever have to be seen in this street again. But that's not so for me. This street is the venue for our family shopping: every time we need clothes or other mundane stuff, there we go. I had always found it rather boring.

But once something "a bit different", whether surreal, bizarre or exciting, has happened to you in a particular place, have you ever noticed, that place is never quite the same again? I had never noticed until that day, for example, that the fairy-lights in the trees there remain in place all year.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Car adverts

We've all seen them. The sleek shape of the new model glides effortlessly along the open road through spectacular scenery...mountains, deserts, coast. It's just you the driver, and the elements of Nature. One of which is, of course, the empty road. The scene bypasses all your everyday thoughts and goes straight to the back shelf of your brain, like a dream. There it sits, ready to soothe you during stressful or boring moments of your day, such as when you are stuck in a traffic jam. You might develop a passing fancy to buy the car. But that's not what's for sale here.

The advert's early pioneers shot their footage in the Scottish Highlands and islands. Then, to guarantee an empty road, they had to start filming at 4 in the morning in midsummer. Then they moved on to the deserts of the USA and Africa. Finally, in one notorious case, they flew a car to the Marshall Islands, just to the West of the International Date Line, to enable their latest piece of 100-year-old technology to catch the first sunlight of the new Millennium.

These adverts are selling Space. Which is getting more and more difficult to find. Nowadays they have to resort to computer graphics.