Saturday, March 29, 2008

Things I'd Put in Room 101

Room 101 was a BBC TV series named after George Orwell's torture chamber in the book 1984. In it a guest would explain to a regular presenter why s/he wanted to consign half a dozen pet hates into oblivion. Since the series has now ended I no longer have any hope of explaining to the British Public my pet hates, so I thought I'd do it here instead.

One and Two Pence Pieces ("Coppers")

When the UK switched to decimal currency from pounds, shillings and pence (12 old pennies to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound) the smallest of the new coins was the half penny piece, which was finally withdrawn in 1984 as inflation had made it unnecessary (the UK saw inflation pass 20% during the 1970s). Since then inflation has been lower, but its still there. The copper-coloured 1p and 2p coins have lost about half their value since 1984. Today their only use is as change for something costing £1.99. Since many things cost a penny under a round amount to prevent staff theft and make prices look lower, my wallet fills up with these big, unwieldy, almost worthless bits of metal. Eventually you accumulate enough of them to give £2.09 to a shop assistant and get 10p change instead of 1p. You often get a grateful smile as well: shops keep running out of these coins for the same reason we keep accumulating them.

My wife is a teacher. She tells me that secondary school children use these coins as missiles. You can't ban children from carrying them, they are big enough to hurt if thrown hard, and only cost a penny or two each.

The time has come to abolish these coins. To be sure shops would sell stuff for £1.95 instead of £1.99, but this is an improvement in two ways: the 5p coin is smaller even than the 1p, and a half dozen 5p pieces can actually buy a bag of crisps.

I imagine that having the smallest unit of cash bigger than the smallest unit of accounting is going to cause some headaches: how do you close an account containing £561.34? But there must be ways around this. When I visited Italy in about 1988 the smallest coin was 10 lira, then worth about 0.5p. So they obviously coped with this question.

Having to Listen to the Guy in the Next Toilet Cubicle

Its not him I hate, its the experience of having to listen to all the little noises. I imagine he feels the same about me. In fact I'm sure that the vast majority of you are cringing as you read this, because you know exactly what I'm talking about and hate it just as much. So, if this is such an unpopular experience, why are toilets still being built with no audio privacy?

I suspect that current toilet architecture dates back to the days when masturbation and homosexuality were seen as terrible evils. You couldn't deny people privacy at home, but you could at least make sure they weren't doing anything unnatural in the public loo. Today we are a bit more enlightened, and the justifications for denying us a bit of privacy no longer make any sense. But somehow the architectural profession hasn't caught up. I suspect that amongst architects everyone knows how to build a public or workplace toilet, and everyone assumes there must be some good reason why its that way, even if they don't know what it is themselves. Or is there some British Standard specifying the minimum gap between floor and cubicle partition?

When I worked for Marconi I visited their swank HQ in London a few times. Their toilets had separate soundproofed cubicles. What luxury! Presumably the architects who designed the building back in the 1920s thought that the superior specimens of manhood who would inhabit it would be safe from unnatural vices, and only the lower classes needed to be monitored.

Blue Indicator LEDs

The invention of the blue LED was a technological triumph. It paved the way for higher densities of optical storage and also made efficient LED lighting a feasible proposition. So I don't want to get rid of the blue LED altogether. What I do want to get rid of is the use of blue LEDs as indicator lights in computer equipment because they are so much brighter than the older red and green ones. Red and green LEDs light up enough to show you that they are on, but blue ones are positively dazzling. Having one of these in your field of view is annoying; you have to avoid looking at it because the after image will make it difficult to look at anything else for several seconds. I bought a couple of USB disk drive enclosures a while ago, and not only had the designers included perspex sides with blue LEDs in them, but they had also slaved these LEDs to disk activity so that they flashed and flickered. They shipped these horrible things with leads that had even more flickering blue LEDs. Aaarghh!

The plague of blue LEDs seems to have abated somewhat, but its not gone. My new laptop has almost all green indicator lights, except the Bluetooth indicator is blue. It doesn't flicker with activity, but I've still stuck some masking tape over it. This looks ugly, but it does diffuse the blue enough to be tolerable.

Cellphones that play music through a tiny speaker

Why someone thought this was a good idea I don't know. Its probably not down to one person, more a combination of marketing-driven design and engineering compromise leading to something totally horrible, like deciding your house needs repainting before you sell it, but the only paint you can find is sickly pink. Yes, you've repainted the room as per the requirements from Marketing, but you'd have done better not to bother.

In the case of the cell phone, I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Marketing: We want our phone to be the next ghetto blaster.

Engineering: Ye canna break the laws of physics Jim. Phones are too small to reproduce low frequencies at high volume. Thats why nobody has done it.

Marketing: OK, so its not going to be the greatest sound reproduction. But you're a great engineering team. We have faith that you can rise to this challenge. Besides, we've already paid for the advertising, so its too late for you to back out.

Engineering: Well, I suppose if you shifted all the frequencies up an octave or two you could at least hear the music, but its going to sound...

Marketing: Great. Just great. "Make it so!" .

So last weekend one of my son's friends came over with his new cell phone playing what sounded like Bohemian Rhapsody sung by Pinky and Perky, except that it wasn't meant as a joke. It was probably the most nauseating musical experience of my life.

Distorted Muzak

Another musical one. I don't mind muzak most of the time: shopping is boring, and sometimes they play something I like. But every so often I find myself in a shop that gets its muzak from some kind of satellite radio muzak channel (I gather chain stores often do this because the supplier takes care of copyright licensing). But the signal is weak or the antenna has drifted or something, and the sound is heavily distorted. Muzak is supposed to put you in a relaxed mood in order to make parting with money less stressful, and good muzak does this. Badly distorted muzak just makes me want to get out as fast as possible. But its no good trying to complain. "Its company policy to have music" says the spotty youth at the customer service desk.

Candles on Restaurant Tables

This is another visual distraction, worse even than blue LEDs. Candles are brighter, and they flicker more. Restaurant owners don't even have the excuse that candles are the latest cool technology; they are thousands of years old. So why is it still considered a good idea to put one in between two people who want to look at each other?

Because it draws my eye, I feel compelled to fiddle with it. I wave my fingers through the flame and toy with the softening wax around the edge. Then I remind myself that this behaviour probably drives other people up the wall and put my hands away, for a couple of minutes until I find myself doing it again.

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