Random thoughts

Important linguistic discovery
I've succeded in decoding a key phrase of our times: "I'm like".  This is very widespread, and seems most often used to describe a past encounter: 

  "So I'm like, get out of here!"  
  "And I'm like - no way!"

And then there "She's like", "He's like", etc: 

  "So he's like: leave me alone!"

Since "I'm like" is used when giving a blow-by-blow description of a conversation, the obvious conclusion is that it is simply means "I said".  But when you question the speaker, you soon find that they didn't actually say, or hear, what they appear to be claiming:

  "So I'm like - no way!"

  "Did you actually say 'no way'?"

  "Well, no, not exactly..."

  "So what did you say?"

  (defensive) "I'm not going to tell my boss 'no way', am I?"

And it turns out that they didn't really say anything much - they just thought it. So my big finding, for which I confidently expect to receive a linguistics Nobel prize, is that "I'm like" actually means "I wish I'd said", "I felt this way but didn't express it".  It is a post-event rationalisation, a type of fiction to add a bit of drama to the retelling.  (And why not.)

Anyway so when I discovered this, I'm like: "That's brilliant, I should get an award for this or something, right?"

The monkey trap
In the far East there's a simple method used to trap wild monkeys on a beach.  A hole is drilled in an empty coconut shell, just big enough for a monkey to slide its paw into.  The coconut shell is connected to a metal chain, which is anchored by a peg to the ground.  And the coconut is then partly filled with rice.

The monkey comes along the beach, sees the coconut, and puts its hand into the shell to take the rice.  At this point the trappers approach.  The frightened monkey pulls away, but is held by the chain.  The hole in the coconut is too small to accommodate his paw clutching a fistful of rice.  He can only pull free if he lets go of the rice.  But he doesn't, and so is caught and killed.

It's an ingenious trap, but rather a cruel trick, and one's first reaction is to feel sorry for the helpless monkey.  And then to wonder: why can't it realise that a handful of rice is not worth capture?  It's a simple choice: Let go of some rice and you live; keep hold of it and something terrible will happen.  

Musing on this, and putting ourselves in the same situation, we are certain that it would take us only a second or two to decide what's important, drop the rice and make good our escape.  We feel rather superior to the poor monkey, who lacked the reasoning power to save himself.

Yes, faced with a rapidly approaching and almost certain doom (or at best, something very nasty), humans would have the sense to let go of the short-term benefit, in favour of survival.  Sure we would.  That explains the popularity of massive, fuel-guzzling cars during a well-signposted oil crisis.  That's why we keep producing and consuming more and more.  And it's why we are so desperate to find more fossil fuel deposits, even though using the stuff is harming our planet, probably irreparably.  

Something nasty is clearly approaching, but it's hard to let go of the rice.

Solving the Greek debt problem
Don't give any more money to the Greek goverment.  Instead, use the bailout cash to pay for every German, French and UK taxpayer to take a free holiday in Greece this year.  Result: a booming Greek economy, and millions of satisfed tourists.  Happiness all round!

The Grudge voting system
The Alternative Vote and Proportional Representation are not the only contenders to replace Britain's first-past-the-post voting system.  My "Grudge Vote" is possibly the best option of all.  The aim is to reduce voter apathy by making everyone's vote count.

Here's how it works.  The candidate with the most votes wins, as in the current system.  But their power in Parliament is directly related to how much of the vote they receive on election night.  Take an MP who wins their seat with 65% of the vote.  In the current system they have 1 vote in Parliament.  Under my system they would only have 0.65 of a vote.  And an MP who won with just 35% of the vote - which is not unusual - would in Parliament get only 0.35 of a vote. 

The power of the elected MPs in Parliament would therefore directly reflect the amount of support they command in their constituencies.

The beauty of the system is that nobody's vote is wasted.  If you are a Labour voter living in a solid Conservative constituency, it is now worth going out to vote Labour.  Even if your candidate doesn't win, your vote helps to reduce the Tory MP's power.  And vice-versa if you are a Conservative voter living in a Labour area.  It's also worth voting for a minority party; ok, they won't get in, but now you can help to reduce the clout of the winner.

Hence the title, the Grudge Voting system.  There is a deep appeal in voting to enfeeble one's opponents.  It has to work!

Afghanistan solution
It's a waste of time sending soldiers to Afghanistan. Let's face it, their ones are unbeatable. To overcome the fundamentalists it's necessary instead to flood the country with free consumer goods: washing machines, toaster ovens, dishwashers and other labour-saving devices for the women, and plasma TV screens, sports channels, electric guitars, and computer games for the men.

Two months later, airlift in masses of free fashion items such as blue jeans, baseball caps, t-shirts, high heels, leather jackets, etc. The Third Wave, if needed, would consist of vast shipments of free cola, pizza and ice cream.

No armies, no weapons - just tons of Western consumer stuff. The Taliban would be unable to withstand this massive cultural onslaught. The people of Afghanistan would naturally snap up the free goodies, and the insidious change would begin, with strict fundamentalist principles fatally weakened by a new ease and frivolity. Best of all, this policy would make the West seem incredibly generous, while being a lot cheaper than sustaining a real war.

Japan Travelogue
Having spent two weeks in Japan I can speak with great authority about the place, even if I didn't manage to visit everything (and particularly regret missing the steamed fishpaste museum in Hakone).

First surprise is that people are friendly, open, affable, even kind. There is lots of smiling and laughing in public. And all the bowing makes you feel like a minor celeb or royal every time you enter a shop.

Fabulously high-tech toilets, with heated seats, gears and buttons, and waterspout innovations not to be described here. But no toilet brushes. How did they miss that when conducting the years of research that must have gone into these machines? Memo to visitors: bring your own.

It's a hugely convenient place. Signs in English, maps everywhere, lots of taxis (often with uniformed drivers and lacy seat covers), snack shops, public toilets, and vending machines.

There really should be a sign at the airport saying 'Full', or 'Complet'. Japan is built-up in a way that's hard even for Western city-dwellers to imagine. The geography of the country is mostly mountainous, with the small amount of flat land inbetween crammed full of buildings. For those of us accustomed to enjoying looking at the countryside out of a train window, it's quite a shock to see this sort of view for 300 miles at a stretch:

The arrangement of the buildings seems chaotic, typically something like: factory - shrine - apartment block - shed - minimart - restaurant - factory. No planning laws here.

It's unsurprising that Japan is so intensely urban, having twice the UK's population in a country with half the landmass (and most of that mountains). Apparently the Japanese are worried about their declining birthrate but this should at least give them some breathing space, unless they were intending to build cities on the mountains next. (If the world was better arranged there would be a UN fund to pay the pensions of declining populations, as a reward for reducing the demand on the earth's resources.)

Despite being so full, Japanese cities are amazingly quiet. After a while you work out why: nobody is using their car horn. Try to imagine London or New York without the cacophany of angry horns day and night. It's almost eerie. And none of our yobbish shouts and drunken screaming on the streets, either.

Indeed it's clear that Japanese people have mastered the art of living together civilly in a tight space. For example, pedestrians use city pavements in the same way as cars share the road, with a two-way flow obeying the rule 'keep left'. (It's easy to be a rebel in Japan; walk on the right.) But as if to test social cohesion to its limit, cyclists are allowed on the pavements, even in downtown Tokyo, even at rush hour. And they ride quite fast. But somehow it works. Try to imagine the bloodshed if this was introduced in the UK.

You're not allowed to use a mobile phone on any train. This alone justifies a visit.

The streets are extremely tidy but there are very few litter bins; and everything you buy has 3 layers of plastic wrapping. Where do they put it?

Most people seem to speak a few words of English, and if menus and public signs are translated at all, it's into English. There is a mildly malicious enjoyment to be had from hearing French tourists in the Far East struggling to speak English (and not even trying to use French). It's even better to help them out by translating. Tee hee.

Arising from the popularity of the English language in Japan, the discerning tourist can get much pleasure from the strange linguistic manglings to be seen on shop signs, adverts, and T-shirts. These slogans were spotted on T-shirts in Kyoto:

The Charm to Me 
Why don't you have a great smile when your heart goes down 
Drift and Jumping 
I love posh boy 
Special you grant 
Many classic moments deep into your lifestyle.

And some shop signs:



What a great country!

The London Eurostar experience
After all the laudatory write-ups in the press, it comes as a real disappointment to use the new St. Pancras link to the continent. Here is what the journalists on freebies forgot to tell us:

1. The famous champagne bar is outside the Eurostar terminal. So you check your bags and go through security and passport control, and they won't let you go out again to the bar. There is a (small) bar inside the terminal, but the only way to visit the famous champagne bar is to turn up extra-early, lugging your luggage along, have a drink, and then check in. Which lunatic thought of that?

2. The old Eurostar train from Waterloo took a pleasantly scenic route through the smiling Kent countryside. The new route goes mainly through long tunnels and hellish, polluted, post-industrial wastelands.

3. We heard a lot about the marvellous span of the St Pancras roof, but most of the station is covered by a low roof with strip lighting:

So was it worth the years of work, billions of pounds and the shaving of 20 minutes off the journey time?  Sorry, but not really. The loot would have been better spent on a high speed link to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, York, Durham, Glasgow...

Harry the heron and his pals
A walk through Regents Park, London is an increasingly bizarre experience, due to the animals. I mainly blame the tourists, although there are enough nutty locals with huge bags of bread, who only encourage the bad behaviour of these creatures:

Squirrels, who brazenly approach you and panhandle for food. I'm sure this didn't happen five years ago. For some reason tourists think the little beasts are cute, and even pose for photos with them. Don't they have squirrels at home?

The geese, who stand on the path looking tough.

The herons are frankly scary. These birds are supposed to be solitary and wary of humans but in the Park they hang about in groups of 6 or 7, right by the main path. There is something unsettling in the way they shift from on foot to the other, never taking their eye off you.  The animal equivalent of hoodies. (A hoody of herons?)

How to solve the pub problem

In loving memory, The Duke of Wellington:

It was an eccentric place, full of curious objects relating to the Iron Duke. It was scruffy and cosy. At one time the local fly fishing club had a corner devoted to their activities, with a rod, landing net, and photos displayed. There was memorobilia all over the place and a fine collection of historic beer bottles dating back to the 60s. In short, it was one of the nicest local pubs in central London. 

But then the landlord went, and the Duke was sold, to be completely gutted, turned into some wine bar/restaurant, no doubt with loud music and expensive lager. It's so sad and infuriating to see a piece of historic London bite the dust like this.

I therefore call upon an eccentric millionaire to step forward and help us create The Pub Restoration Society, devoted to buying nasty modern pubs and turning them back to what they were in their prime, but slowly, by stealth. Week 1, the music stops ('sorry lads, can't get the CD to work'). Next week, the spotlights are removed. Then, the dartboard reappears. The TV goes. Bench seats come back in one corner, then another. And so on, until everything is just as it should be.

Until then, we still have a few good ones, such as the traditional Golden Eagle, on Marylebone Lane in London W1:

Receipts mystery
At the exact same moment that everyone else has woken up to environmental problems, the retailers began forcing receipts upon us for every trivial purchase. You can't buy a cup of tea now without being given a (very large) receipt, which you then throw away. This only started quite recently, didn't it? Multiply it up by millions of people, every day, and we are probably onto our third landfill site devoted just to receipts for tea, coffee, and pies.

Are these food outlets misguidedly trying to help us to reclaim the cost (admittedly high) of cups of tea etc. from our employers, or spouses? If so, they should turn it around and ask 'Do you want a receipt with that?', to which 99% of us will say no.

Or is something else going on? One clue is that some retailers are fierce about making sure we get a receipt. Spotted at a pie shop:

The threat is plain: "If the dimwit serving you makes a momentary error and fails to give you a receipt, you get free food - and we'll take it out of their wages."

What seems to be going on here is that retailers are conscripting consumers in the fight against 'shrinkage', eg. where the worker sells you a pie but fails to ring up the sale on the till, pocketing the money for themselves.  Spoilsports as well as planet despoilers.

Holiday fun
When walking around a city in the Summer months, try to deliberately position yourself to appear in tourists' holiday photos. It's easy. A good way to ease yourself into this new activity is to walk slowly past one of those 'living statues', which are natural photo magnets. Award yourself extra points for pulling a face.

In theory there could be a prize for the person who appears most often in other people's photographs. The enjoyment comes from imagining a situation where the tourist gets home and is showing their snaps around, and someone says: "Hold on a minute, I'm sure I've seen that person in my photos, too..."

Holiday fun, 2
Always carry bread with you on holiday.  Then when you visit a castle, stately home, or indeed anywhere with a pond, moat, or lake, you are ready for the sport of carp-baiting.

For example next time you're in Paris and don't fancy queuing half the day for a museum or gallery, try an alternative entertainment. Buy a baguette and head for one of the parks containing a pond or two. The Tuilleries is particularly good for this:

These Paris ponds don't look too exciting, but they contain carp, and some big ones, too. Tear a few pieces of bread off your baguette and chuck them into the pond. You may have to wait a while, putting up with the curious stares of Parisians and tourists, before you see any action. But watch your bait, checking for swirls. Trust me, the carp are in there. Look out for any slightly darker shapes under the water, and chuck your bread pellets at them.

A sunny day seems to work best for carp-baiting. It's a well-spent hour. And some of the inhabitants are big.