Welcome To The Future: Columns from the Whitstable Times
Columns from the Whitstable Times
A Toilet Too Far
These days we seem to be under the quaint illusion that the progress of civilisation is the same as technological innovation.
Every day there are hundreds of new products on the market; from mobile phones that take your picture, to palm-top computers the size of cigarette packets; from cars without pistons, to video streaming; from vacuum cleaners without dust bags, to "Blue Tooth" technology that allows you to use your computer in any location. All of this is seen as "progressive", as if the accumulation of more and more gadgets was really the measure of human worth.
Well I disagree. Sure, some of these things might be useful. But there is a downside too. Sometimes, in fact, there is such a thing as an innovation too far.
Take the toilets on the new South East Regional trains for instance. You know the ones: oval-shaped with a sliding door and lots of buttons. There's button for opening the door, and a button for closing the door; a button for locking the door, and a button for flushing the toilet; a button for washing your hands and a button for drying your hands. I'm only surprised that there isn't a button for unzipping your trousers too.
All of this is a case of innovation to the point of absurdity. You press the button for opening the door and have to wait an age for it to - finally - open. Likewise when you close it. And the symbol for closing the door is hardly any different to the one for opening it. One of them has arrows pointing outwards (<>), while the other has arrows pointing inwards (><). Now you tell me which one is for opening, and which one is for closing? Every time I go to the toilet on the train I have to go through the same process of mental arithmetic, trying to work out which one of these arcane mathematical symbols refers to what result precisely.
The worst is the one for locking the door. Well the symbol is clear enough: a flashing red key. The trouble is, if you fail to notice it, if you fail to press it, if you assume that the button for closing the door will also lock it, and then someone on the outside presses the button for opening the door, then the door will swish open gracefully, leaving you fully exposed to the strategically placed seat opposite. You suspect that whoever it was who designed these carriages had precisely this in mind and is even now sniggering at its accumulated effect on the notoriously inhibited population of these isles.
So what's wrong with catches or bolts, that's what I'd like to know? Square doors in square toilets with a simple sliding catch to keep the door locked. Well I know it's old fashioned and that I might appear to be a fuddy-duddy for recommending it, but the fact is, it works. Slide the catch into the housing and the door will stay locked. Slide it back again, and it will open. Simple. No wiring system to go wrong. No flashing lights. No electronics. No buttons. And no potential for embarrassing accidents either.
As for the rest: well yes, we've got computers and e-mail these days, but how many acres of spam do we have to go through before we finally find a message we are actually interested in reading? Yes we have cars without pistons, but we're still supporting corrupt third-world dictators to get our petrol. And yes, we might have mobile phones with pictures, but most of us have forgotten how to communicate anything of value in any case.
You may have seen the advert. There’s a car full of people driving through a misty landscape to a muffled soundtrack. Then the car emerges above the clouds into clear mountain air. The roof goes back, the sun comes out, a woman shakes her hair, everyone smiles, the treble goes up on the soundtrack, and a weird-looking cipher appears on the top of the screen, which then rotates ninety degrees so that we can read it.
“FEEL” it says boldly, followed by the company slogan. “Volvo. For Life.”
It’s a clever advert. It creates a string of powerful associations, to do with mountains, fresh air, clarity and sunlight. It makes feeling better a matter of owning a car. Even so, I wonder how many people have gone out and spent nearly £30,000 on a new Volvo because of it.
You’d have to be pretty dumb to buy a brand new car because you liked the advert.
Which makes you wonder why Volvo bothered to make the advert in the first place. Who knows how much it cost? Several million at least. Add to that the other billions spent by rival car manufacturers advertising their wares and you are left with a puzzle.
In the entire history of TV advertising, how many cars do you think have been sold directly on the back of TV adverts? Logic would suggest: not that many.
People who spend money on new cars will most likely concentrate on technical matters, such as mileage, acceleration, the number of seats and what they can afford. After that they may think about styling and colour. Such is the conventional wisdom. It is only after this that the unconscious effects of the associative connections in the advert may play a residual part.
So why advertise cars on TV at all?
The people who make these adverts are not stupid. The car manufacturers who pay for them are not laying out significant amounts of cash as an act of charity. They know precisely what they are doing.
Chances are, if you ask anyone if they are influenced by advertising, they will say that they are not.
What is actually happening, I suspect, is much, much more subtle than this. In a fiercely competitive market, it is precisely those unconscious associations that have the final say. You don’t go out and buy a brand new car on the back of a TV advert, but deep-down the associations stay with you. Freedom. Sunlight. Mountain air. Cars.
Researchers have worked out that we absorb up to ten thousand advertising images in any one day.
It’s like a form of hypnosis. Constant reinforcement of the underlying message.
The cumulative effects are not to do with the specific products, but with the culture as a whole. The imperative is to “buy, buy, buy.”
Buy, buy, buy, ten thousand times. Buy, even though we know we are killing the planet.
It’s no wonder our world is in such a mess.
Now what was the name of that car again?
Our wheelie bin has gone missing. We put it out for collection on Sunday night, and by Monday morning it was gone.
The puzzle is: why would anybody want to steal a wheelie bin? I mean, what would you do with it? What possible purpose can a wheelie bin serve, except, maybe, as a wheelie bin?
You can’t cook in it. You can’t brew beer in it. You can’t make a duvet out of it. You can’t wear it like a hat.
We thought some kids had nicked it for a laugh, had pushed it down the road a bit in a fit of high-spirits, in which case you would have expected to find it somewhere not too far away, on its side perhaps, with all the rubbish tipped out. Annoying, yes, but at least explicable: at least still within the realms of reason.
We’ve looked for it everywhere: in back alleys, in gardens, at the roadside, on pavements, on streets here, there and everywhere. We’ve been moving in concentric circles, further and further from our house, searching for our wheelie bin. But no. It‘s gone. It has simply disappeared.
How far can they have taken it? Did whoever stole it have a getaway car? Maybe it’s being held hostage. Maybe we can expect an extortion letter later. “Give us your money or the wheelie bin gets it.”
Was it abducted by aliens? Have the little grey men got it? Did they suck it up using their anti-matter transporter-beam? Are they even now conducting strange alien experiments upon it, subjecting it to some weird autopsy in the sterile surroundings of a laboratory on a flying saucer circling the Earth, probing it with their probes, prodding it with their prods, implanting it with their implants, in a vain attempt to discover the meaning of life?
Maybe they mistook it for a human being. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. Maybe they think that the Earth is ruled by wheelie bins. Let’s face it, most wheelie bins are more intelligent than most human beings in any case, and you are certain to learn a lot more about life on this planet from a wheelie bin. You only have to look at its contents.
The thing is - what is really peculiar - is that of all the wheelie bins in all the world, from a plethora of wheelie bins lounging around by the roadside waiting to be collected, they only chose ours.
What is it about our wheelie bin then? Is our rubbish more valuable or something? Is there something about our potato peelings that are somehow more appealing than other people’s potato peelings?
Or maybe I’m the victim of a celebrity wheelie bin collector. CJ Stone’s wheelie bin. That’s got to be worth something some day.
All of which is strange, but nowhere near as strange as what happened next. We rang the council to report our wheelie bin missing - good citizens that we are - hoping to get a new bin to replace the old one in time for the next collection in a fortnight’s time, and guess what?
They won’t replace it. We have to buy a new wheelie bin. We can’t leave our rubbish out in black sacks as we used to, so now it’s going to cost £39 to have our rubbish taken away.
Did someone mention extortion?
Of Printer Cartridges and Water Heaters
Let’s face it, some things are really annoying. Take the ink cartridge in my printer, for instance. The printer cost nothing. My son gave it to me. But an ink cartridge replacement costs £24. Now that wouldn’t be so bad if I actually needed to replace the cartridge, but I don’t. It’s run out of ink, that’s all, so all I need to replace is the ink.
Unfortunately, Hewlett-Packard, the wonderful makers of my wonderful printer, seem not to have allowed for this eventuality. There is no facility for refilling the cartridge. Consequently, when the printer runs out of ink, it’s a brand new cartridge you need. You throw the old cartridge away, including the printed circuits, the precious metals, the intricate wiring, the casing, the ink-sack etc: the whole damn lot of it, into the bin.
This is done on purpose, of course. Hewlett-Packard (along with all the other makers of all the other printers) didn’t just forget to put in a little re-plugable hole: they left it out on purpose, so you would always have to buy a new cartridge. They sell you their printers really cheap, and then make excessive profits from the refills.
I learnt all this from my local computer shop. Dave, the owner said, “it’s their money,” trying to explain the economic rationale behind this blatant example of price-fixing. “No it’s not,” I said, “it’s my money and they’re taking it away from me.”
He then pointed out a job-lot of Dell printers he’d just bought for £10 each, which he will sell for £15. In other words, in this case you don’t just throw away the cartridge when you run out of ink, you throw away the printer.
Talk about a throwaway society! And you wonder where all the world’s resources are disappearing to, and why our planet is groaning under the weight of the increasing volumes of waste.
That local computer shop is closing down, by the way, which will be another sad loss for our town. Dave says the shop is uneconomic, which is one more example, surely, of the insanity of our current economic system, that the owner of a small shop providing a valuable service cannot make a living, but Dell can make huge profits, despite selling throwaway printers at £10 a go.
How do they do it, you ask? That’s easy. The printers are made in China. I think you should find out for yourself what working conditions and wages are like in that country before you buy one of these.
Here’s another example. I have one of those electric water heaters in my kitchen, a Heatrae Sadia Slimline. Unfortunately, the plastic fitting for turning the water on and off has worn out. It’s a minor but indispensable part.. So I looked around for a replacement. I finally found one, at the cost of £7.50.
£7.50 for a three ounce bit of moulded plastic! That’s only £2.50 less than Dell are charging for a high-tech, complex piece of computer machinery. But – oh well – what can you do? They put an order in with the makers. It took about two weeks for it to arrive.
It was only when I went to pick it up that I found out how much of a scam it really was. They handed me a bill for £15.
“You told me it was £7.50,” I spluttered, outraged.
“Yes, £7.50 for the replacement tap, and £7.50 delivery charge.”
I nearly exploded. “What!!!? £7.50 delivery charge? They could have put it in the post for less, and it would still have got here sooner.”
I mean, what do these people think they’re up to? I told them to stuff their bit of plastic, and I’ve been using a spanner ever since. It may not look so nice, but it works, and it’s free.
Speak Your Weight
I am now officially a fat person. I have it from no less an authority than the weighing machine in the swimming baths. You stand on the platform where a pair of foot-imprints are marked out (to show exactly where to stand), in front of an electric eye to take your height, and it works it all out for you, making a little peeping noise on the way, before feeding you a scrap of paper (looking like a cross between a till receipt and a bus ticket) with all the information on it. Weight: 12st 4lb. Height: 5’8.5”. BMI: 25.7.
What’s a BMI when it’s around? Apparently it means Body Mass Index, and is calculated by dividing your height by your weight (or some such other complex mathematical formula). A BMI of 20 to 25 would be ideal, it suggests. Anything over means you’re overweight.
That’s what my bit of paper states, in bold, incontrovertible type. “Overweight” it says, just like that: not sparing my feelings on the matter. You would have thought they could have found a way of making the machine a little more diplomatic wouldn’t you? That it could have skirted around the subject a little, made a joke or two, asked me to take a seat, offered me a cup of tea perhaps, before inflicting this wholly unwarranted and unwelcome piece of information upon me.
That’s the trouble with machines: they have no feelings.
It says that the ideal weight for my height would be between 9st 7lb and 11st 13lb.
Now why would I want to know that? Since when did I ask a weighing machine to have opinions? It would be enough to learn the bare minimum, to find out that I was over 12st (never having reached anything like that figure before) without all the useless comparisons with other people’s weights. So someone under 11st 13lb is perfectly proportioned, optimally heavy, and a joy to behold. Well good on them. It doesn’t help me to work out my problem, though, does it?
You may wonder what I was doing down there in the first place. Haven’t I got anything better to do than hanging round with weighing machines in swimming baths asking a lot of pointless questions? And the truth is, of course, that I didn’t need the weighing machine to tell me that things are starting to go seriously awry with my body of late, having looked down one day to discover a heavy-duty barrage balloon where my stomach used to be.
So that was what I was doing at the swimming baths. I was in the fitness studio, trying to lose weight. The altercation with the weighing machine was an optional extra. Next time I’ll ask it to keep its opinions to itself.
I’ve just bought myself a DVD player. This is because video rental stores no longer rent videos. They rent DVDs instead.
This is all very confusing for a man of my age. I still consider videos state-of-the-art and haven‘t quite got over the demise of Betamax yet.
Also, I still don’t know what half of the buttons on my video were for. Now I have an entirely new set of buttons to contend with. Will it never end?
I bought the DVD player from Tesco. It was a snip at £22.47. How do they do this? How do they manage to sell these fundamentally frivolous items at such extravagantly low prices?
In the past electronic equipment was relatively expensive. Our family’s first TV, for instance - a black and white Bush, bought in 1955 - cost £60.
At the time my Dad was a leading hand in the Royal Navy, earning the princely sum of £6 a week. In other words, that TV set cost ten times my Dad’s wages.
I won’t tell you how much I earn. Suffice it to say that the cost of the DVD player was a fraction of my wages: less than I might spend on a night out, or on a takeaway meal for two.
In the old days you had to save up for your high tech gear. These days you pay for it out of your spare change.
Meanwhile, the DVDs themselves, which cost virtually nothing to make, sell at outrageously high prices. In case you didn’t know this: a DVD is a piece of imprinted plastic which takes as much time to produce as it will take me to place a full-stop at the end of this sentence. By the time you‘ve read this there will be another 50,000 DVDs on the market..
My only complaint about the DVD player, however, is that it didn’t come with a warning.
There was no scart lead provided. I had to go and buy one. So it should have come with two warnings then. Firstly that there was no scart lead in the box. Secondly, that I would be made to go out and ask for something which I’d never heard of before.
I mean: what’s a ‘Scart‘ when it‘s at home? Is it related to the Snark or is it more like a Jabberwock? Wasn‘t sure whether to hunt it, talk to it or kiss it on the lips and call it baby.
So the warning should have read something like this:
“Warning: scart lead not included. Please note, use of the term ‘scart’ is strictly controlled. Anyone over the age of forty using the word ‘scart’ in public will be made to feel woefully inadequate.”
What are its origins? Is it an acronym or just a new word invented by nerds to differentiate themselves from the rest of us?
I went into one shop and asked if they had a scart lead. “It depends how long you want it,” said the man behind the counter.
“Preferably for the rest of my life,” I said.
Oh well. At least I got to make a joke.