Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 30 June 2013

Snarling at the Junction

Still very busy, so, in honour of today's Grand Prix, a reprise of a post from the archives...

For those fortunate enough never to have passed through the abomination that is Junction 10 of the M40, and all who have ever sped by and wondered about the seemingly endless queues, there is a full explanation here, which can easily be simplified - essentially everyone gets in everyone else's way. A lot.

"Slip road" - the term was devised to suggest a seamless transition onto the new-fangled motorway (where a smiling AA man will salute when he sees your radiator badge - happy motoring!). How different from the daily situation at Junction 10, where  anyone going anywhere has to negotiate a sinuous maze of roundabouts and sharply-curving bends, impeded by virtually everyone travelling in the opposite direction.

And this, let’s not forget, is one of the main access routes to Silverstone, Britain’s flagship Grand Prix circuit. While the important racegoers are flown into Kidlington and taken by helicopter to the circuit, the rank and file coming up from the South sit in increasing tailbacks on the M40 and wonder why they bothered.

Between them and the A43 are three roundabouts which, even in normal traffic, can generate queues of several hundred yards given the slightest delay. 

The first roundabout, where virtually all northbound traffic must turn right, has a camber so extreme that HGVs topple over on a regular basis - assuming, of course, that they have managed to graduate beyond the customary crawl. This spews you out towards the second, where you are stuck in a mass of jammed traffic and have to rely on clairvoyance to select the correct lane to approach the third. 

Here, in defiance of all logic or common sense, the streams of north- and southbound traffic cross at a single point. Oh, and that point is at the bottom of a slope with a slip road temptingly close at hand, so there is a very real possibility of heavy lorries ploughing straight ahead regardless of oncoming traffic.

One can only conclude that the whole arrangement was designed by a civil engineer who cycles to work (doubtless in sweaty lycra and a filthy temper) and has a serious grudge against motorists in general and motorsport fans in particular.

Friday 28 June 2013

A little light hoovering...

... by NASA

So cool that we'll even forgive them the inappropriate sound effects.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

'Dead animals, excrement, car wrecks and rubbish'

No, it's not the chorus of the worst Country&Western song ever; according to the warning signs, all of these things can all be found in the once-limpid waters of an abandoned quarry at Harpur Hill near Buxton.

It's a venue we have visited before, when the Daily Mail sent a reporter to interview some of the families flocking from far and wide to paddle in the blue water, regardless of the litter festooning its shores.

The science was admirably covered by Leg-Iron at the time, so I won't go into it here; essentially minerals from the surrounding rock have turned water collecting in the excavation a startling shade turn of blue while rendering it sufficiently alkaline to be inimical to life.

In the minds of the impressionable, this dazzling colour clearly resembled the artfully-shot illustrations of tropical seas that adorn expensive travel brochures so, in a triumph of hope over reality, they would set off to the polluted Midlands quarry for a day trip to Paradise (The extent of their optimism can be judged by the Mail's pictures here.)

Then some bright spark dubbed it 'The Blue Lagoon' and its fame began to spread on the internet; according to a BBC interviewee, visitors were coming from as far afield as Holland. Even last summer's news articles, complete with lurid descriptions of the hazards lurking there, do not appear to have acted as a deterrent.

Warning signs around the perimeter appear to have had no effect either, so, as a measure of last resort before someone became seriously ill or met with an accident, the local authority has now taken action and dyed the water black.

This is, of course, a Good Thing and will prevent human beings coming to harm - assuming they don't actually enter the water and encounter the wreckage now obscured in the murky depths - but it does illustrate admirably the point that official intervention is proving to be an increasing obstacle to Natural Selection.

Sorry, Mankind; it's all downhill from here.

Sunday 9 June 2013

"...He just feels restricted in conventional clothes"

This week, the Tavern resounded to a rousing cheer for the Stockholm train drivers who have struck a mighty blow against fashion stereotypes.
A dozen male train drivers in Sweden have circumvented a ban on shorts by wearing skirts to work in hot weather.
A few centuries ago, or a few thousand miles away, there would be nothing unusual about a man wearing a piece of draped material round his waist rather than encasing his nether limbs in individual fabric tubes; indeed, as the intrepid Swedes have found, there are distinct advantages in hot weather.

Yet, somehow, our region of the world has developed an odd system of taboos and aversions; while women are mostly free to interchange skirts and trousers at will, the male skirt is still a headline-grabber when it makes one of its occasional forays into the world of fashion and celebrity.

Of course, the Scots are well aware of the advantages and style potential of the kilt, which can also occasionally be seen on unaccustomed Southern wedding guests decked out at the bride's insistence. I once overheard a bunch of them complaining in unmistakable Estuary English in a Home Counties hotel bar; it was clear that the whole skirt/kilt business made them distinctly uncomfortable.

This prejudice, of course, is why it took no small measure of confidence for schoolboy Chris Whitehead to wear his sister's skirt to school two years ago in protest at a ban on shorts; his gesture attracted the attention of the national press and a great deal of public admiration without which the outcome might have been very different.

We have somehow acquired a set of unwritten sartorial regulations and conventions that are, when you look at them, largely arbitrary and illogical; why, for instance, should a man be required to knot a length of fabric around his neck before being allowed to enter certain premises? [Insert your own Parliamentary joke here.]

To fall short of these standards or reject them is to invite at best scorn or ridicule and at worst outright hostility. While the Ancient Romans regarded trousers on a man as the unmistakable sign of a barbarian, a group of 21st-century Swedish men going to work in skirts is enough to make international news.

So, although everyone concerned should really have taken it in their stride and not made a fuss, since it has been made into a news story, I invite you to join me in raising a glass to Swedish train drivers in skirts.


A fable for our time

While writing yesterday's post, I made the happy discovery that one of my favourite 'Clangers' episodes is now online, though not yet available to embed here.

The Clangers would doubtless be dismissed by today's yoof TV executives as hopelessly old-fashioned; they live in a nuclear family and are all the same colour - oh dear! Still, they would probably get some credit for their multicultural friendship with the Iron Chicken, though the Soup Dragon's ethnic minority stereotypical role as a provider of fast food could be problematic - and there might be trouble reconciling blue string pudding with the 'eatwell plate' much beloved of the NHS.

In any case, the sedate pace of the narrative would probably be seen as out of place in a world where Winnie the Pooh has been reduced to a speeded-up 'story app' because because 'the publisher says children will lose interest if the story does not zip along.'

All the same, I can't help feeling we'd have a better society if some of the Clangers' moral lessons were learned by the current generation of pre-school children.

It's ten minutes long so, if you have time to spare, pour yourself a drink appropriate to the time of day, put your feet up and enjoy a lesson in economics - and the dangers of 3D printing -  from some little knitted aliens.


Saturday 8 June 2013

Asteroid ennui

Another week, another asteroid!

Actually, 2013 LR6 is more of a rock, really, being a distinctly unimpressive 30 ft in diameter, but it's still an excuse for a party (video animation here).

Though it is missing us by a mere 65,000 miles (it helps to consider that the Earth is about 7,900 miles in diameter, and the Moon is an average of 238,855 miles away), it seems to have escaped the attention of the popular press because it's a midget compared to the much larger 1998 QE2.

And, as regular visitors to the Tavern know, it's been quite a year for asteroids already. As detection levels improve, the number of objects known to be hurtling round out there will increase to a point where their proximity does not even raise an eyebrow.

Of course, some of us have known for a long time that the smaller rocks were out there - as far back as the 1970s, Oliver Postgate's knitted TV aliens were called 'Clangers' after the sound made by the metal lids that protected their burrows from meteorite impacts - but after this year's glut of spectacular news stories, readers expect more.

We now take for granted that the number-crunchers can predict orbital paths to the last decimal place; if they say there's no danger of impact, then all the suspense is gone. And, if Hollywood trends are anything to go by, asteroid impact is just so last decade - it's all about zombies now.

So yet another passing rock has to be something out the ordinary to grab the attention of the man on the Clapham omnibus. The newsworthiness of asteroids, it appears, is determined by some kind of equation that incorporates size, distance and the possibility of using an artist's impression of a massive cosmic disaster.

Here in the Tavern, however, we have not lost our sense of awe at what lies beyond our planet; whether or not you share it, you are invited to raise a virtual tankard with us in salute of 2013 LR6.

Friday 7 June 2013

Panel-beating, Bicester style

Tales of random violence and anti-social behaviour are, alas, all too common, but something about this story caught my eye:
A 19-year-old man was 
assaulted during a road traffic incident in Bicester on Bank Holiday Monday, May 27.
It may be significant that it took place just round the corner from the temple of conspicuous consumption that is Bicester Village designer shopping outlet, scene of some truly epic traffic chaos on high days and holidays, with predictably frayed tempers all round.
At about 5pm, the victim was driving his peach VW Beetle on Rodney House roundabout.  
You don't see many of those about! The driver of this conspicuous vehicle was obliged to stop when a Vauxhall pulled over in front of him.
A man got out of the Zafira and punched the victim in the face, while a woman, who also got out of the car, punched the Beetle several times.
The unfortunate victim had to go to hospital for stitches; it's not recorded whether the car was also damaged in the apparently unprovoked attack. Luckily, police have a description of the assailants:
The man was white, in his early 30s, 6ft to 6ft 3ins, of muscle build [sic] with short dark hair shaved at the sides.
He was wearing a dark vest top and shorts and had tribal tattoos down both arms.
The woman was white, 30 to 32, of medium build, 5ft 5ins, with shoulder-length blonde hair with dark roots.
She was wearing a white t-shirt and was pregnant.
So police are looking for a large, shaven-headed, tattooed thug with a violent, pregnant girlfriend.

Sadly, I'm not entirely sure than narrows it down, these days.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Well, I'd never have thought of that!

Hot on the heels of my vague musing on the question of curtains left open after dark regardless of passing nosey-parkers, axe-murderers or zombies comes this, via a comment on a post by Mark Wadsworth:
"I’d even turn on the lights and leave the curtains open at night just so our neighbours could get a glimpse into our fabulous home."
From the Daily Mail (where else?); my thanks to doej105

Monday 3 June 2013

Life, the Universe and Curtains

There are many unanswered questions in the world, but sometimes it's the trivial ones that are the most annoying.

In the film I was watching last night, six fugitives had escaped from an embassy under siege and were hiding from the authorities and hostile locals. In a tense scene, they sat round discussing their perilous situation.

But I couldn't concentrate, because a small part of me was screaming at them, "Why don't you shut the curtains?"

The house was in the middle of a city and it was dark outside, yet the heavy drapes were open, leaving the full-length window screened only by net curtains; the occupants of the lit room would have been clearly visible to anyone looking in.

Film after film and in every American TV series it's the same thing. However great the need for privacy, no matter who or what might be lurking outside, no-one thinks to draw the curtains, 

Did anyone else wonder why, when the child in 'Poltergeist' is scared by the tree outside his window, it doesn't seem to occur to anyone that closing the curtains would help? Or why so many film characters leave their bedroom curtains wide open despite having been stalked or accosted on the way home?

I thought this must be a cinematic convention, leaving the way open for external shots of the house interior and its occupants, until a friend moved to the USA and discovered that the 'drapes' in her new city centre home would not close, and neither did anyone else's in the large apartment complex.

So why should this be? Does it hark back to the Puritans and a suggestion that God-fearing folk should have nothing to hide? After all, if Hollywood is anything to go by, the only people  in the USA who have the curtains closed are spies, serial killers and vampires.

Perhaps it stems from the tradition of the great outdoors. Legend has it that Daniel Boone looked out of his log cabin one day and saw the smoke from another chimney in the distance; he immediately declared his valley too crowded and moved on. Presumably wilderness heroes didn't have to worry about people looking in.

Of course, that sort of attitude is fine if your nearest neighbour is several miles away but rather less so in a ranch-style suburban duplex. And, while it's tempting to see a high-rise apartment as an invisible eyrie, it might be as well for the occupants to bear in mind the invention of the telescope.

Or could it possibly be that, given the impossibility of seeing out through the window of a lit room after dark, the Americans have simply decided that, if you can't see it, the outside world doesn't exist?