Monday, 16 July 2012

Sports day

In the biggest-ever crackdown on copyright infringement in UK history, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) have trained and deployed a crack squadron of undercover operatives.

Disguised as ordinary slightly-overweight people in tracksuits, these experts in copyright law will travel the country enforcing special new legislation banning (among others) the words "gold", "silver" and "bronze", "summer", "sponsors" and "London" from anything written "for commercial purposes". Given that nobody, except us here at Space and a few enthusiasts at Wikipedia whose existance has never been conclusively proven, writes anything for the sheer joy of it anymore, this includes everything written since about 1985.

"It's all about the sport", explained a spokesman on behalf of Locog. "We don't want anyone using the Olympics for something as grubby as, you know, making money. Oh, except our sponsors, of course."

He went on "Ooops! I said Olympics" and before being able to explain further was dragged off to get stoned.

Further enquiries have revealed that the new law in question covers not only the words themselves, but also the objects and actions they describe. A Mr Dwayne Charver of Peckham was the first UK individual to feel the full force of the new legislation when he was hustled off to his local police station for sporting a gold chain. Silver Service waiters have also been rounded up, along with silver surfers and bronze turkeys. The recession is being artificially prolonged because of the risk of prosecution incurred by silver linings.

A large-scale enforcement operation is underway to place the entire city of London under arrest, and the sponsoring of anything except the Olympics is now illegal unless the action of funding is described using some other verb (such as "trouser" or "slug").

The most ambitious enforcement operation of all, however, remains shrouded in secrecy and is believed to involve the impounding of the entire UK season of Summer.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


Dozens of us had been signed up, all in secret, and all with the hope of a better future. Though it was high summer, there's always a time of day in Britain, isn't there, when it's cold. It was at that very time that we were waiting to catch the coach from the west country to London. We'd been advised to wear old clothes, because things might get rough: not everybody there would have the same idea of "security" that we had. But to make sure they got the message, we'd be wearing a uniform by the time it all kicked off.

But this was nothing to do with the recent sorry tale of the Jubilee, the Olympics and cheating on the pay and conditions of people looking for a job. This was 1993, there were 600 of us converging from all over the country, and we were in London for a protest with a difference. Picking up on the idea that the proposed nuclear reporcessing plant at Sellafield would result in a statistical average of 600 extra deaths in the UK (together with the interesting security issue of shipping temptingly dangerous chunks of nuclear material from all over the world), Greenpeace had mustered 600 ordinary supporters to dress up as dead people, complete with black body-bags and white "skull" masks, and drop dead inconveniently all over Whitehall, blocking the road.

Our particular coachload were dropped off at a church hall to put on the more inconspicuous half of our kit and receive-and-understand instructions (when to lie down, how to be dragged, what to say if we were asked anything, whom to call in the unlikely event of arrest...), after which we set off on foot to Whitehall, trying to look like slightly baggily-dressed tourists. It was probably our crowd that accidentally started the fashion for "grunge" that took off in the 1990s.

Then the signal came and we all pulled up our kit, put on our masks and dropped dead. I didn't see it, but apparently there was chaos (well, a genteel, British sort of chaos) as traffic ground to a halt in the roads around us, tourists (real ones this time) gawped, and such Police as there were on duty nearby were taken completely by surprise ("Blimey there's Andreds of 'em!!").

MPs came out to address us. It took hours before anyone was cleared to start moving us. I was dragged, very professionally ("This one don't weigh much"), to the edge of the road. Once the rate of being dragged off exceeded the rate at which we could go back and lie down, we decided our point had been made and repaired to a pre-arranged venue to catch the early evening news. Which, of course, had our show as top item.

And why, in spite of the fact that the Sellafield plant eventually got built (but never worked, thus hopefully never giving rise to our 600 real-world counterparts), am I reminded of these events of nearly 20 years ago?

Just contrasts, really. We believed in what we were doing. We didn't mess up the logistics. And, though unsuccessful at the time, we were eventually proved right, in our case by the laws of Physics. What will it take to prove that cheating on the pay and conditions of your security staff is a bad idea?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Our basements are full of junk

The King of Bhutan would like to abolish adverts. No, seriously.

Think of any Vintage advert. Like this one which they've preserved for posterity here in Viking City. Isn't it pleasingly straightforward? While possibly not being 100% truthful, it does at least have the redeeming feature that any out-and-out porkies remain at the front of your mind where they can easily be dealt with, rather than being quietly slipped down into the subconscious, from where they are almost impossible to remove.

Like a lot of other things in life, adverts have simply become too "efficient" for their own good. What started out early last century as a business of simply informing people about your business, has now morphed, with the help of thousands of millions of pounds, some disciples of Freud, and a conniving nod from every government on earth, into an industry that does for people's mental landscapes what the coal and oil industries (among others) are busy doing for our physical ones.

Don't believe me? That bottle of fizzy sugary liquid should put you in mind of the resulting unwanted flab or trip to the dentists. Instead it probably invokes images of slim, tanned people (with perfect teeth) on tropical beaches or having a fun night out on the town. The sports kit with the same logo as that worn by the indifferent local likelies in the pub, rather than reminding you of them, in "advertising fact" turns you into an elite athlete. I could go on.

It gets worse...adverts have also been busy telling us that our own efforts are futile: don't struggle to find the words for that thank-you letter, just buy Auntie our chocolates instead. Don't bother making your own jam, buy ours instead. I wonder what decades of this pep-talk has done to people's confidence.

But...supposing I have bought something and am genuinely delighted with it, and think the world would be a better place if more people would do the same? I might put up comments on, for example, a public internet forum, about our new PV roof. Is that an advert? The people who installed it are, after all, a purely commercial enterprise. Going a step further, ethical or mutual firms need to be able to tell people why the world might be a better place if we would put our custom their way. They put their information up on (for example) my Facebook page and I "share" it: not just information about the goods this time, but the name of the provider too: would the King of Bhutan's finest come round here and drag me off to the slammer?

And there's more: how would anyone know what was on at the local theatre or music venue if there were no flyers? Would a web-page count as an advert? Even displays in shop-windows are designed to entice buyers in: they, too, are therefore adverts...

In the time it has taken me to write this page, the post (with its usual complement of adverts) has arrived, and an ice-cream van has played its amplified chimes in our street (with the weather a balmy ten degrees, I might add).

The Advertising Standards Authority (remember them?) exists to make sure adverts are "Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful". Given that "Honest" and "Truthful" are synonyms, perhaps we should change the last to "Don't raid the subconscious"? 

Because I'm willing to bet that there are genuine health benefits from not having a subconscious that's cluttered with the festering by-products of adverts.

Friday, 20 April 2012


One of the pages that regularly greets me when I get on to the Internet is Science Daily. Sometimes I read the top few stories, which are generally based on press-releases from research institutions of various types (Universities, Institutes, Government departments) about their latest findings having been published somewhere in the academic press. The topics covered range from the physical via the other wonders of nature all the way through to the psychological and social. And in this last, in particular, you occasionally encounter the phrase "A longitudinal study". At which point I always find myself wondering, how did they get funding?

Now there are many reasons why someone may wonder how a research project got paid for. If the findings are really banal ("Being beside the sea is good for you"), it's "Why on earth did somebody shell out to get a re-statement of the bleedin' obvious?". If the findings exonerate something that common knowledge holds to be harmful ("Sugar 'Not main cause of tooth decay' _ study") we suspect a sponsor in the relevant industry.

And finally, in the case of a longitudinal study, I wonder, "Who is the enlightened, and long-lived, sponsor, that these lucky researchers have found?". Because the thing about longitudinal studies is that the results emerge years, sometimes generations, after the funding starts going in. Someone, somewhere, has to take the long view. In fact, has to be able to take the long view. It has to avoid being the victim of funding cuts, re-organisations, failure to replace staff, changes in "fashion" in research fact everything ranging from simple neglect to the effects of warfare. I like to find them: these days, they're something of an endangered species.

One way round all this is for your research institution to find longitudinal information from someone else: someone whose paid job it has been to collect it, for some perfectly prosaic reason unconnected with research. A happy hunting-ground for this is the field of Meteorology. A colleague in one of my previous research jobs was once lent 50 years-worth of minute-by-minute rainfall-rate readings from Spain (bear in mind that for some of those years, the country was embroiled in civil war).

Well I can't match that, but we do have, elsewhere in Famille Lunchista, twenty years of handwritten notes in meteorological diaries. I've decided to take it on as a bit of a Project, and see if it reveals any earthshattering insights about the climate in the Lake District.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Blue-sky research

The better part of my working life has been spent in the wonderful world of academic research. Over those years I noticed something of a trend: the results of all our investigations seemed to be becoming ever more predictable. It got to the point where, if a project set out to look for something, it was expected to find it, and precisely that. To build something, and it was expected to build just that, and not be diverted by anything else equally fascinating that might be stumbled upon along the way. We applied for our grants, and in doing so we were expected to specify, with more and more precision as the years went by, exactly what the project being paid for was going to "deliver". We had to become more and more "efficient", and this process was leaving ever less room for us to do anything else.

We were, in other words, becoming more and more like an industry. Of course, industry is very useful, but it's not research, and there are already plenty of other people doing it. If you've got customers who want useful widgets (mobile phones, for example), and shareholders who want you to turn a profit, you can't afford to have your development team sitting looking out of the window all day thinking abstract but fascinating thoughts. But looking out of the window has its uses.

We were investigating the effect of the weather on radio waves. I was building a "model" based on past research coupled with what we ourselves were seeing on a long-distance radio link over the sea. The "model" had several parts, and one of these dealt with atmospheric turbulence.

It turns out that anyone who was anyone in the early days of research in atmospheric turbulence, was Russian. Meet Alexander Obukhov, Andrei Kolmogorov, and "V.I." (you only ever saw the initials) Tatarski, for example. I used to wonder what gave Russia the edge in these matters. Then one day when I was sitting number-crunching in the lab, it started to snow. Of course, I looked out of the window. All of a sudden the eddies and waves described by the very equations I was dealing with, could be seen, as the snowflakes traced them out. Suddenly it become easier to understand how the grand sweeps of the larger eddies were being diverted, by instability, into ever-smaller ones, until the gyrations reached the size of a large snowflake, at which point they just dissipate into heat.

In those pre-Gorbachev years it was a truth universally acknowledged that it always snows in Russia. And so, I used to wonder, when it came to understanding the dynamics of the atmosphere, was that part of what gave the Russians their edge? And if that sounds far-fetched, consider that (on the opposite side of the Cold War) the inspiration behind one of the pioneering researchers in the field of Chaos Theory, was noticing the shapes of clouds while looking out of the window.

And who exactly was it who needed to know what all this weather would do to their radio waves? Why, the Telecommunications industry. Including, of course, the people who brought us mobile phones.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Serendipity wine

Like many of the best things in life, it started at a party. Famille Lunchista went along together, because our hosts were former workmates whom everybody, especially Fille and Fils, remembered fondly, and whom we hadn't seen for years.

But when we got there, it transpired we hardly knew anyone else, and there was nobody with whom Fille and Fils could natter about the sort of things you like to natter about when the answer to that universal question "So, what do you do" is very obviously that you're still at school.

So while they went home to write what turned out to be an excellent satirical song about people at parties talking about their professions (and the relative pose-power thereof), I had a chat with my former boss who, it transpired, had lots of spare apples from his garden.

He brought them round to our place the next day, and I started to make purée out of them on the Monday. After using up all the spare space in the freezer, I still had about two dozen apples left, and they weren't eaters so they weren't going anywhere unless I did something with them. On the Tuesday, with my hand now definitely on the mend, I was back on shift at the Erudite Space. A crate of books about food had arrived, and I was detailed to spruce up the relevant shelves. I put out big, decorative books full of healthy recipes that people might find compatible with their new-year resolutions, or budget recipes that might appeal to hungry students. Sandwiched among all these glossy colourful tomes I found a modest little paperback about wine-making, complete with atmospheric thumbnail sketches of all the kit you might need, and whose instructions started from the point of an absolute beginner. To cap it all, the very first recipe in the book was for Apple Wine. Sold, to the woman with the bandaged hand.

Now some people out there have parents, and some of these parents were around in the 1970s when there was a bit of a fashion for home-made wine and beer. I remember my parents wrestling with technology like demijohns, Campden tablets and packets of yeast. Having had the vague notion of wanting to try the same, I had last year acquired two demi-johns and a food-grade bucket. The final push came from realising that wine, not having been cooked at any point, would contain more vitamins than jam. To this day I count a glass of Red as one of my 5-a-day.

But I needed more kit.

There were rumours of a winemakers' supply shop somewhere in the east end of the city. I set out on foot: it took me an hour, but what a place! It was a proper, you know, shop: in other words, an Aladdin's cave of everything you could possibly need for the enterprise, and a chap selling it who really knew his stuff. I came away with rather more than I had intended to buy: as well as Campden tablets, a clean bottle-brush, airlock and yeast, I bought a (reduced price) "kit" for making Rosé wine, and a proper metal corker (not wanting to risk another hand injury from hammering corks into glass bottles!).

Even as I write this, the first "Must" in its clean bucket is giving an interesting aroma to the living-room where Fille practices on her keyboard. She has taken to playing slightly decadent Blues-type music in there, can't think why.

The first dozen bottles of Chateau Lunchista may, with a bit of luck, be ready for drinking for the end of the year. If "the economy" carries on as it has been doing, we might just need them.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Dark Star

Community Orchard Management Committee meetings take place in our Committee Chair's house, a few streets away from ours. I usually cycle but, not wanting to risk my hand, I decided to walk this time. It's surprising how much longer this takes, and what gets noticed as a result, that would otherwise be missed. Like this odd piece of street furniture.

From the ground up to about my shoulder height, it was obviously a lamp-post. From there on skywards, it was empty space. Someone had come along with an angle-grinder, sawn it through at shoulder height, and removed it. They had then thoughtfully covered the hole at the top of the severed column with green-and-yellow striped plastic tape, of the sort that would say to an electrician "Earth".

Standing in the circle of darkness granted me, for once I could look up and see a few stars. But the whole thing begged far too many questions for me to concentrate on finding Cassiopia or a stray planet.

Who would carry off half a lamp-post, and why?

Our City Council are trying to save money. To this end, they are planning to replace the city's lamp-posts with more energy-efficient ones. Our local Councillor has even put "I like lamp-posts" on his facebook page. But according to numerous "Disgusted, Viking City"-type letters in the local paper, what has been happening "on the ground" is that lamp-posts have been disappearing randomly, clumsily and unaccountably from various streets throughout the city, and the only new lamp-post to have been seen anywhere has been put up right next to its predecessor, leaving the latter still in place, and both (allegedly) shining merrily away side-by-side through the night. To cap it all, the two are identical: there's no sign that the newer one is working any more efficiently, or cheaply, than the original. And it's every bit as ugly to boot.

But we might be seeing more than simply an everyday tale of mismanagement.

The price of scrap metal is soaring, and one consequence of the resulting crimewave is that the present right to sell scrap anonymously may not be in place for much longer. Metal marauders will be going on one last frantic binge, and what better cover than as Council workmen removing lamp-posts that everybody knows are due for replacement?

But what if someone even more devious is using the metal-marauders as cover?

What if Astronomers, fed up of the tyranny of ubiquitous light pollution, are having to resort to crime just to get a look-in, hiding behind respectable reputations and using all-night observations as alibi?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Tea Break

We thought we'd have some biscuits with our tea...

We left one extra,
just like the quantity surveyor at JiaYuGuan gate...

He was client-focused!

Time for something a bit more esoteric:

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Fighting the Cuts

Some Wensleydale-and-honey sandwiches are more dangerous than others. Putting together this particular individual had necessitated opening a half-used jar of honey whose lid just...wouldn't...budge. But it didn't slip in my hands either, so rather than just grabbing a tea-towel I went straight for the Nuclear Option: one of those things that look like giant nut-crackers and hold the lid while you twist the jar. But instead of opening, the jar just imploded, taking what looked like a chunk of my hand with it.

Fast-fowarding through three hours spent at A&E, I am now two weeks into the stage of the self-made repair job. A body sends, or makes on the spot, items whose job it is to bridge gaps and prevent invasions or further damage. So, new skin and muscle cells start to assemble, white blood cells gather to fend off infection, and any potentially disruptive movement is minimised by a rapid message to HQ telling me that moving my hand hurts! My only conscious job in all this, in other words, is to leave the site well alone, free of outside interference, and let a body get on with it.

Sadly, this is rather inconvenient for my ambitions of digging the Plot.

Suppose, though, that instead of remaining un-dug for a couple of weeks, the Plot and its neighbours were simply abandonned altogether. How would they look if a visitor were to come back in ten, twenty, a hundred years' time?

Of course the bindweed would have a riot this summer, and doubtless the same the year after, aided and abetted by the brambles. But then, assuming nobody tries to graze animals on them, the Plots would start to do something new. You wouldn't see the self-seeded birch, horse-chestnut and hazel trees at first, they'd be shielded by the undergrowth, which by a happy coincidence is just how they like it. Left to grow undisturbed, long strands of fungi would thread through the soil, somehow coming to an arrangement whereby goods are swapped with any plants they encounter. Going by what has happened in other bits of abandonned land nearby, I'd guess the birches would start to show above the brambles in about ten years, followed by trees with heavier shade, which would put paid to the bindweed's ambitions. Ever seen bindweed growing in a forest?

Meanwhile some more shade-tolerant characters would colonise the ground: perhaps descendents of that sorrel I planted. Snowdrops and other early-flowering plants might get a hold. In twenty years' time, the Plots might be a good place to hunt for blackberries, hazelnuts and mushrooms. And of course, for squirrels.

Birch trees tend to expire after fifty years or so of hard work bringing minerals up from the subsoil and leaving them lying about on the ground for everything else to enjoy. So would anybody. Eventually, then, the Plots would become home to slow-growing trees of the type found in Britain's oldest forests, but perhaps interspersed with a few fruit and nut trees left over or descended from today's individuals. The Plots, then, would be the Ancient Forests of 2112.

And all we would have had to do to achieve this would be to leave the site well alone, free of outside interference, and let the earth get on with it.

Sadly, this would be rather inconvenient for our ambitions...