Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Car parking: I'll just leave this speedboat here

I've got a really big wooden crate -- it's a little over 4 metres long and just under 2 metres wide -- and it won't fit in my house. I'm the only person who gets any benefit from my having this crate -- indeed, my ownership of the crate is actually bad for you. I didn't really care about the fact I had nowhere to keep the crate when I bought it; I wanted it and so I got it anyway. So now, because it won't fit in my house, I'm just going to leave it in the street. It'll block half of the road, but so what? I need somewhere to keep my crate and that's where it's going.

If you heard me say this, you would quite rightly brand me a selfish bastard who deserves to be beaten soundly with rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail until I learnt a little civic responsibility. But hold fast! What if, instead of a crate, it was a saloon car I was talking about? A car has exactly the same dimensions as my crate, but you'd think absolutely nothing of my saying "I don't have anywhere to store my car and I knew this when I bought it, but I'm just going to leave it in the street where it'll block half the road".

Parking cars is a topic which, more than most, gets people angry (certainly more than the World Bank's policies or the invasion of Iraq, as far as I can see). I've been dwelling on the subject since, about a year ago, I had an email from somebody wanting my expert endorsement for a policy of greater freedom for motorists to park where they like. This got me thinking, and I soon realized that car parking is a nice illustration of the bizarre level of freedom given to motorists. (I turned down the request, incidentally.)

Because here's the question: why should I be allowed to own a car if I have nowhere to store it? I am not permitted the same freedom to store anything else on the road. If I own a caravan, or a speedboat on a trailer, I am obliged to have off-road storage facilities for it. If I want to place a skip outside my house when doing building work I have to take great care that this hazard is brightly lit and removed as soon as possible. These are all relevant comparisons, as skips, caravans and speedboats on trailers are all are more-or-less the same size and construction as a car.

You might at this point be thinking that you pay about £100 a year to tax your vehicle, and that this sum makes cars different from all these other items. This argument is fallacious in so many respects that I think I'll devote a whole post to it soon. For now, let me put it this way: I pay masses of tax every time I buy a bottle of whisky, but I can't thereby expect the State to provide me with a shelf to store it on or a glass to drink it from.

So I'm left unable to see a rational reason why I should be allowed to own a car when I have nowhere to store it, leaving me with no option but to dump it in various bits of the civic landscape. I'd be genuinely grateful for any suggestions.

Edit: To offer one more important comparison, I used to live on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon canal. As anybody who has ever tried to buy one with know, it is impossible to own a boat on the inland waterways without either proving you have somewhere to keep it, or issuing a solemn promise that you'll keep on moving indefinitely without leaving it at the canalside. Our canals are a public transport resource just like our roads, but apparently the rules are very different...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Coco Pops: So chocolately they even turn your marketing department into imbeciles

The Co-Op, which, like me and Anna Friel*, has its origins in Rochdale, is my favoured vendor of milk, bread and other stuff when I wish to be served by school-aged people with no social skills. I was in there just now and whilst browsing the breakfast cereal offerings -- YES YES I'm about to cross the line into grumpy old man territory, but trust me: you'll do the same when you hear this, even if you're currently a woman -- my gaze happened upon a packet of Coco Pops. On the front was a reference to their latest marketing gimmick, a badge saying "COCO POPS WITH WARM MILK: IT'S SIMPLE! SEE BACK FOR INSTRUCTIONS".

My body went into spasm, as though I were electrocuted. It was all I could do not to gnaw on the shelf or punch the woman who had not thanked me a moment earlier when I moved aside for her. I was fighting the overwhelming urge to grab the packet, hold it in front of me and shout "OF COURSE IT'S SIMPLE! IT'S COCO POPS AND WARM MILK! WHY THE COCKING HELL WOULD YOU IMAGINE I MIGHT NEED INSTRUCTIONS TO MAKE IT?!". My anger only rose when my trembling hands turned the packet over to reveal that yes! indeed, there were detailed instructions on how to prepare your child a bowl of Coco Pops and warm milk. I mean, come on: it's hardly a sodding Bouillabaisse! It's Coco Pops... and warm milk - the entire recipe is right there in the title. Are we to believe that without these instructions people would be standing around in their kitchens, warm tears of humiliation trickling down their cheeks as they turn to their children and chokingly admit that after five hours of experimentation with mysterious Oriental spices and toasted giraffe dung, Mummy can't seem to crack the recipe for the legendary dish known only as "Coco Pops and Warm Milk"? I have a pretty dim view of humanity, but apparently I'm Mother Teresa compared to the people at Kelloggs, who see us as a nation of inbred simpletons which, faced with a child asking for "Coco Pops and warm milk", would go into the kitchen and return with a buttered leopard or something.

And the saddest thing is that Kellogs may well have a point. Given they know more than anyone how staggeringly unhealthy Coco Pops are, and given they know how many are fed to children each day, they probably have a better picture than most of us of just how dumb people are.

It was the least I could do to buy every packet on the shelf, better to keep them away from those less educated. That'll teach those hounds at Kelloggs a lesson.

* The phrase "me and Anna Friel" should in no way be taken to imply that Anna Friel and I constitute a couple, or that Ms Friel is even vaguely aware of my existence. Although had she found herself lonely and unexpectedly single and living in York back in her Brookside days, things might have been very different.**

** Almost certainly not true.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Apple's philosophy

I wanted better to understand existentialism, so I looked it up in Apple's dictionary/thesaurus. It seems whoever wrote the entry didn't have a fully developed grasp of the theory either. Or did they? Was their cryptic allusion to a note that clearly doesn't exist a challenge to me, reminding me that existentialism is all about us creating our own meaning in life rather than finding it from others? Were they telling me that by demanding ready answers from a piece of software rather than thinking of them for myself, I wasn't ready to have those answers? Was this a wake-up call, calling for me to re-evaluate my intellectual life?

We'll never know: In the end I used a different thesaurus. I mean, it's Friday, people, and I don't want my computer challenging me more than is strictly necessary.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Don't watch Newsnight on Monday...

...unless you want to risk seeing me talking about Shared Space road design principles. Shared Space is the intriguing idea that traffic management is best handled with as little regulation as possible -- no traffic lights, no road markings, no pavements even -- and it's something I've had my eye on for quite a while as it claims to offer considerable benefits to the more vulnerable users of our roads. Indeed, the approach promises towns in which everybody gets to where they want to go faster and with fewer accidents. It sounds great.

My position, which I hope comes across after the interview is edited, is that Shared Space is a very intriguing idea but that it urgently needs a proper evaluation to tell us whether or not it really works better than the current approach. The problem the Shared Space advocates face is the two curses of road planning. The first curse is that authorities and town planners tend to be very conservative and often won't try new things, sticking to rigid road-design guidelines which are handed down from above and which, in many cases, are essentially based on little more than guesswork.

The second curse is that new developments in road design or usage are hardly ever evaluated properly: when somebody tries something new, it's not often the effect of the innovation is properly measured. So let's have more science and less blind faith: that's my basic argument (and not just as regards road design). BBC 2, 2230 on Monday 14 January.

On a more awe-inspiring note, I entered a great email discussion this morning in which Michael Carley and I decided there really should be a product like Bovril, but pork-based and from Germany. Here's how I imagine the advertising might look...