Sous les pavés, la plage

The payphone has bluescreened…

Payphone, London King's Cross

… the departure board has 404ed…

Departure board at Edgware Road Tube Station

… the giant TV screen is somebody’s Windows desktop…

Big screen, Millennium Square, Leeds

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Since posting my three broken technology pictures, I’ve been suffering the blogger’s equivalent of what the French call “l’esprit de l’escalier,” and for which German has the deeply satisfying word “Treppenwitz”.

If I’d paused just a little longer before hitting the publish button, I’d have added a discussion of the optimistic message contained in every one of those man-behind-the-curtain snapshots.

I’d have waxed lyrical on how in every case the authorities’ intentions to constrain processing power to a single task – the kiosk, the departure board, the TV screen – were subverted by its very malfunctioning, revealing the endless possibilities implicit in this most malleable and interconnected technology.

If only I’d waited a while, I’d have told the story of how my seven-year-old son, on seeing an unattended till terminal in Ikea, grabs the mouse and tries to log on to Adventure Quest.

I’d have invoked the situationist May 68 slogansous les pavés, la plage” – “beneath the paving stones, the beach” – which speaks of the unconstrained liberty that lurks just below the locked-down surface of our civilisation.

And I’d have ended in an overblown flourish and a bold font: beneath the pixels, the silicon!

Probably just as well I didn’t.


Everything I Know I Learned From Old Ladybird books

We recently inherited a stack of Ladybird books and have wasted many happy hours inside the uncomplicated mind of the 1960s educationalist. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Computers do not have brains and they cannot really think for themselves
  2. A stockbroker in the City is probably more interested in financial news, and has time to read long articles about it. A train driver may be more interested in sport, and prefer short, lively articles
  3. Anglo-Saxons built castles out of wood. So did Africans
  4. The videophone is really a combined telephone and television which enables the person speaking to actually see the person he or she is speaking to
  5. All new babies look very much alike. Nurses make sure that the babies do not get mixed
  6. It may one day be possible to have plenty of fresh water and grow an abundance of food in the deserts by using the heat from nuclear reactors
  7. England has never had a better ruler than Agricola
  8. Some musical shows, particularly ‘pop’ shows are mimed. The artistes do not actually make any sound at all
  9. Some newspapers employ a women’s editor
  10. As with most hobbies, there is a vast amount of equipment it is possible to use in stamp collecting

If this fount of knowledge were on every child’s bookshelf we’d have no need of Wikipedia :)


Flickr - Gary Jones - Uploaded on November 14, 2005

On holiday in Cornwall this summer we visited Polperro, a Cornish fishing village so archetypal that it featured in Ptolemy Dean’s BBC programme The Perfect Village. As the programme synopsis says:

On the surface, Polperro looks as if it hasn’t changed for centuries, but in fact it exemplifies a delicate balance between the tourist village of today and the fishing village of yesteryear. It could, without careful management, slide into being a fishing village cum heritage theme park – a victim of its own success and adaptability.

As we wandered down streets where every fisherman’s home was now a holiday let, I felt there was a lesson for social web and mobile services at risk of being overwhelmed by their own success as destinations. So I stuck the name “Polperro” in the title of a blog post and left it there to see how it got on. Until now.

When I first arrived on Twitter it felt small enough to be that fishing village – a fairly homogenous group of the people so that even the river of recent public updates felt like an intimate conversation between friends. How a service like Twitter copes with the inevitable influx of visitors if successful is a matter of debate.

So here’s my thought on the matter prompted by the whole Polperro experience: the ability of the service to absorb newcomers varies massively depending on what the service is for, and what attracts visitors to it.

From Blackpool to Ibiza to Myspace, there are some destinations that positively revel in the crowds (and conversely feel somewhat forlorn without a critical mass of people).

On the other hand there are others – Venice? Alton Towers? Flickr? – where the mass of people is an inconvenience, but the content so compelling that we’re willing to put up with the crush.

And then, the most fragile of all, the places whose main or only selling point is unspoiltness – places we go to witness or take part in something special, but just by being there we destroy whatever that quality was. The perfect village? The perfect bar? Twitter?

Update 05/02/2009: Cait says it’s Not like it was in the old days.

The first Great Western

From Simon Thurley’s fascinating Buildings That Shaped Britain we learn that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had only once travelled on a train when he designed the gloriously non-standard Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol.

Now that, for good or ill, is the difference between innovation and design.

Broken sign

Whoops there goes another piece of the old Holbeck :(

There must be an anagram in there, though. Collect enough old signs and you’d have a giant cast iron version of magnetic poetry…


National Railway Museum. Mainly popular with men in their 50s and boys under four.