31 August 2007

Requiem for a nun

Today's memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales was to celebrate her life by coinciding with the anniversary of her death. Which seems aptly confused; like the original events surrounding her demise, today's service leaves us unsure how to react. The sequel was devoid of the controversy of the original funeral - clearly the only interest being generated by The Earl Spencer these days is on the £12.50 he charges the gullible to see his sister's mausoleum. Which forces us instead to consider the whole point of the occasion.

A number of young people, of course, cannot remember Princess Diana, and some of those of us who can might legitimately wonder what the fuss was about. The real answer tells us more truth about ourselves than we care to know, so there is a certain amount of self deception by the commemorative plate-collecting community who tuned in to today's service. The truth is she was a famous, photogenic member of the royal family whose wedding day left an impression longer in the nation's mind than in her husband's.

But we daren't admit that her legacy was Hello! magazine, so people cite her love of children and work for landmines charities. I also think children are, on the whole, a positive thing, and landmines less good, but I don't expect Elton John to commemorate my death by rewording a song he wrote for somebody else. More to the point, people seem happy to forget that charity work is what Princess Diana and her ilk should do. The only way we can possibly tolerate a hoary institution such as the royal family is if they do charity work - if we give them £37million of tax revenue every year, a collection of posh houses and free tickets to the cup final, I think the least we can expect is for them to touch a few lepers, metaphorically speaking. If they didn't visit the odd hospital, they would just be over privileged bags of horseshit, leeching off the public exchequer.

Curiously absent from this year's tenth anniversary pomp is mention of someone else almost as famous who also died in 1997. Someone who actually did touch lepers for real, on a daily basis, in a life of selfless denial. But, then again, Mother Theresa never dressed in Versace.

23 August 2007

The thought police...

In case you thought that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was a chilling warning of what might be, were we not to learn the lessons of history, the UK and US governments are intent on making it seem like an understated documentary of 21st century life.

In the UK, time was, if you were drunk and disorderly, you might get nicked and spend a night in the cells. This might get you a reputation, of course, so repeat offences would earn you an ASBO - preventing you from getting drunk in a certain part of town. Fair enough, if you've got previous, some might say.

But this clearly doesn't go far enough for the government, and a little-noticed part of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act came into force today, which allows the police to target those it thinks might be looking for a drink. If Plod considers you a potential trouble maker - for no other reason than the way you look or dress - you can be banned for 48-hours from your local town centre. Should you wish to challenge this, expect fingerprinting and a sample of your DNA to be added to the Police National Database, already one of the most substantial DNA databases in the world.

You don't have to be drunk to fall foul of this law, of course. Merely looking like you fancy a cheeky one is enough to get you busted. Presumably as the police get more practised at vetting pre-crime drunks, they will develop an expertise at spotting a certain nuance in the eyes of the thirsty. One day I expect to be apprehended after a hard day at work, accused of being over the think-drive limit: "But officer, I was only visualising a quick half"...

...and the face police

Meanwhile, news reaches Hofflimits of a new breed of security officer that will be patrolling US airports from next year: Behaviour Detection Officers at JFK will be keeping an eye on your "micro expressions" for tell-tale signs that you might be a terrorist (story here). Although suicide bombers try to conceal their emotions as they prepare to detonate their payload, they give themselves away by "facial flashes." Self-appointed experts - who seem to be a mixture of phrenologists and eugenicists, with about as much credibility as either - have determined that fear and disgust are the key things to look for because they can hint of deception.

So Americans can now forget the mundane, constitutionally-protected legal oddity of Probable Cause; from 2008, if they show a little too much disgust, they might also be treated to a full cavity search and trip to Guantanamo Bay. After all, what possible reason could there be for showing "fear and disgust" after you find out your flight has been delayed, your baggage lost and that the only place to eat is Taco Bell? Let's hope they don't try similar tactics at Heathrow, or else they'd be forced to arrest more or less everyone who entered the airport.

16 August 2007

stumbling along the carbon footpath

I am intrigued by how the concept of "offsetting" my "carbon footprint" has infiltrated our everyday life. Some might see this as a departure from old habits - taking responsibility for our actions. To me, though, it seems entirely in keeping with present social and economic mores - the idea that you can pay someone some money to take the problem away. The language that is used is an important part of this illusion: "neutral", "off-setting" - it's as though the pollution never happened in the first place. So I visited a site that specialises in calculating carbon footprints

According to http://www.erasemyfootprint.com/ I and my household are directly responsible for the release of 7.32 tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere. The only way to expiate these miasmic sins is to plant 11 trees - and immediately my carbon lapses are forgiven. Even better I don't actually have to get hands dirty - I can pay £110 and trust that someone will do it for me, thus completely removing the inconvenience of penance.

To me, though, this raises more questions than it answers. For instance the 11 trees that are busily sucking my carbonaceous flatulence out of the atmosphere - this only actual works while the tree is growing. Forests capture and store carbon whilst establishing; once mature, the amount of carbon taken in and released by a tree "equalises", as the site delicately puts it (or to put it another way "stops working", at least for the purposes we are discussing).

I am guessing that there must be an "optimum window" when carbon absorption is at a peak in a growing tree? After all, I can't imagine a weedy sapling doing much offsetting of anything. So, in other words, the actual offsetting of my 2007 emissions will not actually take place for another, say, 20 years, allowing for an average growing tree (erasemyfootprint.com calculates a tree lifetime as 60 years). Assuming I remember to plant another 11 trees in 2008, and the years beyond, I will always be playing catch-up, a score of years of carbon behind my present consumption - not even allowing for an increase in the size of my "footprint".

And what happens when my trees die? Do they get replaced under the scheme? After all, a dead tree promptly releases all its stored carbon back into the atmosphere - the carbon doesn't magically disappear. The 550 or so trees needed to offset my life from now on (allowing for a reasonable old age) will need to remain on permanent vigil just to keep the planet as wheezy as it would have been if I hadn't been born. That's quite a lot of acreage, before you even get to offsetting members of my immediate family. Trees are the carbon equivalent of garden sheds, places to lock away unpleasant or unwanted things for the next generation to deal with.

13 August 2007

Advertising eggsplained.

A pub near my office in London promotes a commuter breakfast, using a fondly-remembered advertising slogan that has now passed into popular culture: "Go to work on an egg with our breakfast special". It could be argued that the strapline has greater resonance than some of the more celebrated works by its famous author, Fay Weldon, who created it back in the 1950s. Seeing it still being used, years after the campaign ended, brought a smile to my lips.

By coincidence, this campaign is 50 years old. And to celebrate this milestone, the improbably-named Egg Information Service wants to re-run the original 1957 campaign that featured Tony Hancock. But such a move has been blocked by the even more obscure Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC). BACC spokesman Kristoffer Hammer said: "Dietary considerations have been at the centre of the new rules for advertising and in consideration of this we felt that these adverts did not suggest a varied diet." (full story here.) Strangely this accusation is not also levelled at the manufacturers of breakfast cereals who actively promote such monotonous behaviour in the name of well being.

Modern Britain is often accused of dumbing down; our exams are too easy, Mastermind admits questions on David Bowie, Des O'Connor gets to present Countdown. But I don't think anyone has ever accused advertisers of creating selling propositions that are too complicated. I'm surprised they didn't also canvas the AA for an opinion about whether it would be possible to travel to work aboard an egg. It makes as much sense as banning Ford commercials because they don't tell you about Volkswagens.

A recent YouGov poll showed that nearly half the population does not eat breakfast at all, which must be the ultimate unvaried diet. Such people are less alert and less productive in the morning. Given the choice between going to work on an empty stomach or a free range soft-boiled, surely the latter is preferable, if only to enable the less-sluggish commuters to be able to safely interpret any advertising campaign they might come across, without intervention from a public watchdog.

12 August 2007

Flower power

Commemorating the dead is a task for the living - a truism, but one worth repeating. As often as not the way we react to death in our midst is guided by the dread hand of maudlin journalism; the visual shorthand for grief and loss is flowers tied to railings at the scene of a private tragedy become public. It is the personal rendered impersonal by so many reproductions in hackneyed news reports. In turn, we have been conditioned to create these displays at the prompting of too many lazy TV reports on the latest senseless loss of life at a roadside, street corner, school gate or housing estate.

The acme of such tendencies was obviously the death of Princess Diana, where a veritable swamp of flowers laid by the public threatened to overwhelm Kensington Palace and cause a world shortage of cellophane. The effect of this nationalised, ostentatious grieving was almost oppressive, smothering any other reaction in a self-righteous, directionless rage; what The Guardian called "the fascism of flowers", that stymied any sensible debate by the sheer volume of bouquets.

A bathetic example of this phenomenon occured in 2005, where flowers were laid in response to the discovery of a supposed human foetus in an alley in Liverpool, which turned out to be raw chicken (story: click here). The same media outlets who had wept crocodile tears in 1997 for Diana, and watched their circulations rise, poured scorn upon this other public response, superciliously attributing it to the laughably self-pitying nature of Scousers.

Last December, in Ipswich, several prostitutes were murdered, and their bodies dumped in surrounding villages. In a slow news week, the media got excited once the body count had reached three, culminating in the BBC 10 o'clock news reporting live from East Anglia at the height of the manhunt. On the way to my parents-in-law I drive past the site where the first body was discovered - a river near a processing plant in Copdock. Although Huw Edwards and his team have since moved on to report on newer corpses, to this day, every time I drive past, fresh flowers are tied to the railings of the bridge.

This is a genuine, simple act of remembrance, not a media driven griefathon to entertain the masses before chasing the next ambulance. And incredibly moving with it. It actually raises the spirit that, as human beings, we haven't completely surrendered proper commemoration to another branch of the entertainment industry. And that flowers themselves, as symbols of remembrance, haven't been stripped of their power to stand for something meaningful.

How green is your email?

Although email has been around for many years now, and could even be described as being widespread for at least 10 years, the subject of "netiquette" - or agreed bounds of behaviour when corresponding via email - continue to change. Once upon a time it was to cover people getting to grips with the new technology - NOT USING CAPS FOR EXAMPLE - or the expanding list of acronyms used by lazy typists.

Recently I have noticed a different strand to this debate over the way we consume emails. Apparently a great many of us print them off, performing a form of communications alchemy, turning ethereal, soft copy into black and white print. Those who had visions of email creating the paperless office consider this self-defeating. Others of us who felt a paperless office was as realistic as a paperless toilet consider this to be normal when creating an audit trail of transactions with a client, retailer or online bank - often as not because we have been burned when trying to find that "smoking gun" correspondence that proved a clerical error was not our fault.

So, many emails I receive have a green disclaimer at the bottom, the 21st century equivalent of an equal opportunities statement, that reads: "save the planet - think before you print this email". If only saving the planet were that easy, it wouldn't be so easy to dismiss this as idle posturing. However, a form of Sod's Law I have noticed is, when printing off emails, one page emails are often turned into two page emails, thanks to these green rejoinders; inevitably, the second page of every other email I print is blank except for one sentence at the top that says: "save energy - don't print this email". Somewhere there must be an email guru, equivalent to Heisenberg, working out an equation that demonstrates the amount of energy wasted telling people not to waste energy is greater than the amount of energy that will be saved. Either that or there is an environmental consultancy at work right now that is measuring the carbon footprint created by printing emails. And how a tax can be levied against it.