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