Saturday, 23 May 2015

Street Cred.

It's 20 years since I moved from the suburbs to the city so, strictly speaking, I should not be eligible to attend meetings of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society. But there's not a lot of strict speaking at the society’s meetings which - with the exception of the mildly controversial 1970s jazz-fusion session last week - are as relaxed as a Ben Webster solo.  After that session I was walking to get the last train home when I caught the eye of the only other person on the street, a man in a fluorescent jacket who was working his way towards me picking up litter.
"I'm impressed that you're working so late," I said, feeling convivial after having consumed most of a bottle of Rioja.
"Oh, I'm a volunteer," he replied. "I don't like to see cigarette ends on the pavement." His grin was slightly maniacal.
"Oh, right," I said and hurried on to the station and the safety of the city centre crowds.
I'm fond of Heaton Moor - and some of its 'characters' - but those tree-lined streets of forbidding Victorian villas were built for a lifestyle to which I no longer aspire. Nowadays I prefer the benefits of centrality - high-density, low-maintenance apartments within walking distance of a plethora of cultural, social and retail facilities - to the relative isolation of suburbia. I mean, which suburb contains half a dozen greeting-card shops within a ten-minute walk?
Now, some of you might be thinking "So what?", but greeting-cards are one of life's essentials - not as crucial as water, food and sex, of course - but they are high up on the scale of social niceties: people like to receive them at Christmas, on their birthdays, anniversaries and to mark births, marriages, deaths, new homes, new jobs and so forth (a full list of categories can be seen at any branch of Paperchase); and people like to send them to demonstrate, with varying degrees of sincerity, their friendship, affection or solidarity.  Cards are big business, supported, as it sometimes seems, mainly by our household, where Facebook greetings are generally considered to be a bit of a cheap trick.

Ironically, however, Facebook promotes the sale of physical cards by automatically populating my electronic diary with the birthdays of 'friends'. Moreover, because my diary is linked to my partner’s, it shows her friends' birthdays as well. Some weeks the diary is crammed so full of little cake symbols that a planning meeting is called for. At the last one I was tasked with sourcing ten cards for up-coming birthdays, a job which, onerous enough in itself, was rendered more so by her instructions to select them carefully so that each would be subtly appropriate for its recipient.
Still, I thought, how hard can it be, given that there are so many card shops nearby? Therein, however, lay the problem: too much choice. The number of shops and the selection of designs is so great that the task consumed far too much of my time. Would a particular friend prefer not to have her actual age rendered in big, shiny numerals on the front? Probably, but I had to go through racks of possibilities to get there. In the event the expedition was largely successful but, the next day, I realised that my brother's birthday is not in the diary but in my head and I had to dash to the shops again.

Mission accomplished, I settled into a window seat at Cafe Néro, on the busiest street in town, to watch the crowds go by. Amongst the 'regular' people, I spotted a woman wearing furry slippers and a candlewick dressing gown over floral pyjamas. Weird, I thought, but less threatening than any midnight suburban street-cleaner. Perhaps she was unwell, or disorientated. But maybe she'd just nipped out to get a last-minute greeting card.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Microbes Don't Diet

Last week we took our visiting relative, a vegetarian, to the local vegetarian restaurant, where she was delighted at being able to choose anything from the menu. Still, I thought, it's a bit restrictive, despite the chef's imaginative ways with celeriac. My own - brief - adherence to vegetarianism, back in 1972, has left me with one, overarching memory - cheese sandwiches. I recall bread refined to the point of nutritional neutrality and cheese processed into bland, rubbery, indigestible irrelevance.  Such was the staple fare of the itinerant vegetarian of the day and it was responsible, in part, for my abandonment of the diet. And none too soon, as it transpires.

Latest scientific research into human gut microbiota - the microbes that live in our gut and which are essential to our well-being - should, it seems, be taken into account when choosing from the menu. Microbes come in many different types, all of them interdependent, but each with specific dietary needs. If we restrict our diet, we restrict theirs too and deprive some of them of the energy they need to do their work, maintaining the balance of our systems. A diverse diet, therefore, is more beneficial to us than one which is restricted.

One of the great anomalies of modern-day wealthy societies is that we have plenty of food, yet much of it does no good. The ubiquity of foods such as pizza or burgers, for example, actually disadvantages the human digestive microbiota by limiting variety. Not only do we eat too much of them relative to other foods, but also they contain a high proportion of ingredients which have been processed specifically to eliminate diversity. It is this narrowing of our diets, combined with overindulgence in junk food, that may best explain the dramatic increase of obesity, allergenic reactions and auto-immune diseases.

If this is true then there are some other issues to re-think. You can't get fit through exercise alone. Last weekend the city centre was turned into an athletics ground, with pole-vaulting in Albert Square, sprinting down a temporary track laid along Deansgate and long-distance running up and down surrounding roads. The stated purpose of holding such events in the city centre is to give sport a high profile and emphasise its importance in countering the effects of sedentary lives spent eating and drinking too much. The unstated purpose is to entice customers to the surrounding businesses: the irony is that those businesses are predominantly bars, cafes and restaurants.

Not to worry, though: Fitbit comes to the rescue. Fitbit is one of those companies that make wearable fitness-monitoring devices - bracelets that look like "beam me up Scotty" watches. The sales pitch for these - once they have persuaded you it's cool to wear one - is that they will help to keep you fit and healthy. This is accomplished by automatic monitoring of heart-rate, paces walked, blood pressure etc. The idea is that you can then up your game (or slow it down) to meet your desired targets. Since, however, I already have a biological system which tells me when I am feeling either lethargic or hyperactive, I won't be buying one. Which is not to say that others won't find them useful: apparently they are capable of sending your data to subscribing retailers who will then offer to sell you all the stuff you need to keep you fit - things like running shoes, lycra shorts and energy drinks packed with sugar.

Fitbit is seeking to raise capital for expansion but I would advise potential investors to wait until it comes up with the next generation technology - a product which monitors the health of your gut microbiome. It might be a harder to sell as 'cool' but it would be more useful. Then sell your Burger King investments.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Trees For The Homeless?

Manchester's St. Peter's Square, on one side of which stand the magnificent edifices of the Central Library and Town Hall Extension, has just seen the first show of blossom on the newly planted trees which are part of its recent refurbishment. The flowers are inverted mauve trumpets, so pretty and so unusual as to elicit much admiration from those who have noticed them. Not, however, from the homeless protester I spoke to whose tent is one of the many pitched underneath them.

He and I discussed - briefly - not the causes of homelessness nor the remedies, but the council's failure to provide shelter despite its legal duty to do so. We then had an inconclusive argument about whether budget cuts imposed on the council by central government were to blame and whether the council should divert capital expenditure to meet operational shortfalls. "At the end of the day, we don't need trees: we need houses," said the protester. He had a point, of course, but not really a solution. Tomorrow is polling day and he urged me to vote the incumbents out of the council chamber. Even if I could, would it resolve the question of how best to allocate resources?

By way of contrast, I've just been to visit my relatives in rural Lincolnshire, a place where tented encampments of homeless people are not in evidence and the blossoming trees are remarked upon less than the bumper crop of asparagus that has just come into season. My brother-in-law, David, drove us just beyond the village (I know, it's so unsustainable) to a local farm entrance where asparagus bunches at £1 each were left on a table next to an honesty box. I scooped them up, a bargain if you don't factor in the cost of fetching them. The village was recently in the news when a resident - a friend of David's and a fellow Boston United fan - won £54 million on the Euromillions Lottery and bought himself a top-of-the-range Range Rover. As we passed the home of the winner's daughter, David pointed out that there were now two such Range Rovers parked outside her modest bungalow and that his friend had not even bought him a cup of tea at last Saturday's match.

In the course of this short journey we also passed within yards of the RAF base where our Eurofighter jets are stationed. They look like machines dreamt up for a Star Wars sequel and they fly as if they were in one. We watched two of them take off and, within seconds, they were on a vertical ascent. Awesome and terrifying are the only adjectives I can find to describe the spectacle. Of course, Eurofighters are expensive to buy - even the local Euromillionaire, if he were to resist buying another Range Rover, would be about £12 million short - but they are worth it, according to the Ministry of Defence. I watched the planes scream through the skies and thought about the cost of maintaining such squadrons against the cost of a few hostels for the homeless.

We drove home and, shortly afterwards, were sipping tea in the conservatory when a WWII Lancaster bomber flew directly over us at about 300 feet. I'm told it is one of only two still operational and that it is practising for a forthcoming ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Compared with the Eurofighters it looks and sounds like a lumbering relic of a bygone age, but I guess that in its day, it too was awesome and terrifying, especially if it was coming at you with a belly full of bombs. It was also expensive but, under the circumstances, the cost would have been easy to justify.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Anticipation or Prediction

I've seen the film Blade Runner three times - not because I think it's the best film ever, but because I keep falling for the hype. After the original release came the Director's Cut and then the Final Cut, each promising an enhanced experience. Unfortunately, I couldn't say whether this is so, or even tell you what is different about each version - the years that separated my viewings have made comparison impossible. One thing I can tell you, however, is that the plot is a Hollywood classic lone-cop-on-a-mission-with-obligatory-love-interest which happens to be set in the future: and it's the imagined future that intrigues me.

The film was first released in 1982 and the time it depicts is actually around now. I'm therefore tempted to assess the accuracy of its predictions, some of which have turned out to be remarkably prescient. The setting is an overcrowded Los Angeles, its public services run on a shoestring, its public spaces and buildings degraded, its atmosphere severely polluted and its airspace full of hovering craft. Society is dominated by a hugely wealthy tech company which manufactures Replicants (humanoid robots). The only part of this scenario which smacks of sci-fi is that the Replicants are able to pass themselves off as humans.

I make allowances for details such as the fact that the computer screens all show rows of green code - it would be astonishing had the writer been able to predict how they look today - nor should I assume that he was attempting to. The story's the thing: its setting in the anticipated future is an impressive extrapolation of then current trends.

Anticipation is actually something we're all capable of; it comes naturally, as when we foresee the outcome of stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. Some people even make a living from predicting outcomes - gamblers, speculators, savants and civil servants. It becomes more difficult for them to succeed as time-spans extend and circumstances get more complicated, but you have to admire their audacity in having a go. For the gambler or speculator failure can lead to ruined personal circumstances. For the professional, salaried forecaster, however, there is no such risk. The financial crash of 2008 was not foretold by the regulators looking out for it, yet their pay was not docked when they failed in their duty. Could they have predicted the outcome? It's a moot point, but one which doesn't stop them trying again. When asked recently by a journalist how they were getting on, one eminent professor wryly commented "I think we've done a good job of putting in place an early-warning system for the last crisis."

On a more mundane level, I had to predict an outcome when I placed an order for an urgent home delivery last week. Because our intercom system is (still) out of order, I requested that the delivery man should phone me when he arrived. He didn't. He opted instead to leave the package at a travel agency next door and it was only by calling his office that I was able to retrieve it. So, when I subsequently ordered a widget from Amazon, I took this into account. I established that, despite rumours to the contrary, their drones were not currently operating in our area, but that they have a service whereby delivery can be made to the local post office for collection at your convenience. I ticked the box and waited for the confirmation email.

Sure enough, their system worked. The post office lady required an awful lot of proof of ID, but she eventually agreed to release the parcel into my custody. Before handing it over, however, she pitched heavily for my home insurance business: I hadn't seen that coming.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

And Your Share Is?

Language evolves. Words take on different nuances in response to social change (e.g. "gay"); sometimes they are co-opted into use when technological developments outstrip linguistic innovation and leave us short of adequate terminology (e.g. "floppy disk"). It's a fact that no amount of pedantry or protest can prevent this process. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing to consider whether the meaning of a word has become so changed as to become contradictory. If, for example, you thought that the verb 'to share' meant to give some of what you have to someone in need, then Facebook would have to disagree: its definition is to distribute, to spread around, to make available and, ultimately, to monetise (sell) information it does not really own.

The internet has enabled a whole, so-called sharing economy, one which encompasses a variety of activities from true sharing (as of information) through collaboration (as in pooling resources) to renting (as in, for example, Airbnb or Uber). At best, using "sharing" when you really mean "renting" degrades the meaning of the word and introduces confusion, potentially disenchanting those who would otherwise be attracted to the sharing economy. At worst, it's a cover for seeking out occasions when people are already sharing and turning these back into monetary exchanges. This shift in the meaning of sharing should cause us to think about how we understand and describe our interactions with each other.

Things have always changed: it's just that the pace is intensifying. I was staring idly out of the window of a coffee bar, watching a group of about ten infants and two adults walk by. The kids were all tied together at the waist with bright yellow webbing. I've never seen that before, but then I've never sat there before. It's an 'indie' (non-plc) 'pop-up' (temporary) business run by young people who are fanatical about coffee and couldn't care less about customer service. I usually go to a Cafe Néro where the baristas sometimes recognise me and remember my order. When they do I smile and give them a tip (yes, I know it's an intended consequence). But something has changed lately: they now have a contactless card payment system, which means that fewer customers - me included - have any cash about them with which to tip. The employees are suffering a consequent drop in income - for which I'm sorry - but we customers are also missing out. Payment by contactless (what an appropriate adjective) card diminishes the transaction by denying the opportunity of an increasingly rare moment of human interaction - the accidental brushing of fingertips as coins are passed; the meeting of eyes to affirm the deal; the exchange of smiles in recognition of a satisfactory conclusion. While you're waving your contactless card at the machine the barista has lost interest and moved on to the next customer. Your chances of an ongoing relationship have been damaged and an opportunity to share some of your loose change has been eliminated. You might as well go where tips are neither earned nor deserved.

Most of the baristas I encounter are immigrants - that is to say they are not native English-speakers - and with immigration being a hot topic in the present election campaign, it wouldn't surprise me to hear that they have formed a Barista Party, or at least a lobby group pledging support for whoever will guarantee them a continuing right to work in the UK, while pressing for a ban on contactless cards.

But they should beware of promises. The last government's mantra "we are all in this together" contained within it the suggestion that we would share the pain of the economic catastrophe caused by the banks. Apparently theirs is quite a different understanding of the verb to share.