Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Waste makers or incompetents?

Discarded white goods
Well over 40 years ago Vance Packard’s book ‘The Wastemakers’ went on the best seller lists in the US and UK. This was unusual for a book that was about the economics of industry.

In it he pointed out that any industry that made a product that lasted for ever would soon go out of business. The market would become ‘saturated’ – in other words anyone who had one would not need another one - and there would be no more demand. 

So Packard’s notion of “built-in obsolescence” was born.

It struck a chord – people had begun to recognise that the products they were buying had shoddiness built in. Things didn’t last and it was cheaper to buy another one than try to get it repaired.

Gee Whizz growth chart
Gee whizz growth chart
In the 21st Century we have become used to the idea that the economy depends on ‘growth’ – we have to keep on consuming more and more otherwise the economy dips into recession. Waste and its removal is now big business.  

But has shoddiness come from another direction as well as this deliberate sabotage? Is the design of products just not good enough?  

I have recent experience of two products that were ready for our scrapheap well before their allotted time.

The printer

Standard printer
The printer was a good and reasonably efficient printer of documents. The make is well known and promoted by high street retailers. We liked its reliability and speed. When the printer ground to a halt after 2 years of heavy use we thought that was reasonable and we wanted to get an exact replacement. The exact model was no longer in existence – however an “upgraded” model at a similar price was available.

Although this new printer - it was claimed - would do everything and anything all we wanted was for it to print documents quickly and efficiently.
It soon became clear that the new printer was useless. Its new system required front loading of paper and after taking the paper through a Uturn to exit - also at the front – frequently jammed. Why had the back loaded paper (using gravity) been abandoned? It had seemed to work well.

Was this incompetent design or deliberate obsolescence?

The washing machine
The washing machine washed clothes – no surprises there – but a few months after the initial one year warranty the paddles attached to the drum fell off one by one. The plastic paddles had been attached to metal teeth inside the drum and rendered the machine useless. The paddles were intended to ensure that the clothes circulated within the drum. These three Toblerone shaped pieces of plastic with fragile tabs were vital for the machine’s function.
I called the manufacturer to find to my amazement that another set of paddles would cost £50 plus postage and packing. When I questioned the cost I was told this was the way it is. If I wanted the machine to function I needed to have them. They were duly despatched and the expensive package arrived – I could wash clothes again.
Eighteen months and three sets of paddles later I ask myself the same question.  

Is this a design malfunction or a cynical attempt to extract money from me a captive consumer?

Planned obsolescence or simply poor design?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

What lies beneath?

London’s “lost” rivers

Chelsea’s football ground should be called Counter’s Creek not Stamford Bridge – the creek which starts at Kensal Green and flows underground through Olympia and Earls Court ends at Sands End where it flows out into the Thames. Someone got confused when it was named and thought the Thames tributary was Stamford Brook. Counters Creek is one of the many “lost” waterways of London.

Route of river Westbourne 1790
Look out for names to give clues as to what lies beneath.
  • Spring Grove
  • Well Walk
  • Brook Green
  • Kilburn
  • Westbourne Park
  • Knightsbridge 
Some of the major underground rivers are the Tyburn, the Fleet, the Westbourne and the Effra. 

There was a time when London’s rivers were not lost but the source of fish and provided transport and energy.

The Domesday Book in 1086 records more than 6,000 mills and freshwater fisheries on the capital's rivers, streams and brooks.
By medieval times many had become dumping grounds for rubbish and sewage, causing blocked channels to flood and had generally become "an eye-sore and a nose-sore".

Nicholas Barton author of the
Lost Rivers of London describes how the biggest of London’s rivers - the Fleet - was partly covered over during the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire in 1666, and finally after the Great Stink of 1858, when London was choked by the smell of the Thames.

Holborn Viaduct

Although this is now is a road bridge linking Holborn with Newgate Street in the City of London, passing over Farringdon Street it also crosses a 'lost' river.

Holborn Viaduct
It was built between 1863 and 1869 and replaced a much older structure; Holborn Bridge,
which crossed the River Fleet already culverted to the Thames a century earlier.
This shows a royal procession under Holborn Viaduct in 1869 and along the road covering the river Fleet.

An unsung hero

Sir Joseph Bazalgette
Sir Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works to set up a new underground sewage system which as well as reducing the stink had the unexpected effect of saving many lives of people who might have died from cholera contracted from London’s drinking water. Bazalgette’s system incorporated several rivers during the 19th century, including the Tyburn.

The Octagon pumping station
The water and sewerage system included several pumping stations such as the decorative Octagon at  Crossness near Erith Marshes.

The building may look familiar to video game players who reached the final mission of the video game The Getaway: Black Monday. This was the building used for the video.

Mind the pipe

Although most of these rivers have gone underground and are part of the water drainage and sewerage systems of London – some are channelled through pipes and can be seen above ground.

Here the river Westbourne flows through a conduit at Sloan Square tube station.

Not just shopping but fishing
Even though the rivers have been lost to sight they have not been forgotten. Today enthusiasts of London’s underground rivers include The Tyburn Angling Society whose architect envisages a return to rivers overground and a series of pools and canals suitable for anglers.
See this proposal for developing South Molton Street. Tongue in cheek or a new Venice?
My idea for this blog came from one of the excellent London Walks – Subterranean London. If you have a couple of hours to spare you can learn a lot on one of their guided walks. Just turn up and pay the fee. No booking required.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The joy of meandering

Getting lost can be a pleasure. We walked one Saturday along the Regents Canal towards Kings Cross but decided by chance to wander towards Camley Street Natural Park. We took a wrong turn and instead found ourselves in St Pancras Gardens – serendipity indeed.

The park is a quiet haven dreaming between the heaving throng of St Pancras International – next stop Paris - and densely packed Somers Town. Underneath flows the Fleet River on its journey from Hampstead Heath to Blackfriars.
When Mary Wollstonecraft met Percy Bysshe Shelley in St Pancras gardens the river would have gurgled past them before their eyes. It is now covered over and flows underneath the ground in darkness.

At the centre of the garden is a memorial obelisk donated by the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1879.
 It is a sundial and represents a memorial to those people who had been buried near the old St Pancras church and whose graves had been moved to make way for the Midland Railway. The track is only yards away and at this point it fans out into multiple lines entering the platforms under the domes of the station.

Angela Burdett-Coutts was the richest heiress in Victorian Britain who, after inheriting a fortune and the family bank at the age of 23, devoted her life to a great number of good causes.  She is perhaps best known now for founding the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). She was sometimes known as the "Queen of the Poor."  In 1871, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to have been made a peer in recognition of her achievements.

There is a quality of silence in the St Pancras gardens.  It is remarkable because of its location in the middle of restlessness and hubbub.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Who is Richard Parker?

Richard Parker is a Bengal tiger. He is a character in the story “Life of Pi”. He is a beautiful and dangerous tiger who is shipwrecked with Pi and they are adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.
Is Richard a bundle of fur, nerves and instinct? Or is he a sentient being that makes a deal with another to survive?  
The story explores belief and faith. It avoids agnosticism which the writer describes as “dry yeastless factuality”.
As a boy in his home town of Pondicherry - French speaking India - Pi manages to follow at least three religions Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. When he asks to be baptised as a Christian he also asks his father for a Muslim prayer rug. His brother is embarrassed. His mother suggests he spend his time instead reading Robinson Crusoe.

Throughout the tale many questions are posed.

Some are answered – some not.
Do animals look for safety in confinement?
Does Richard Parker have a French accent or Canadian?
How did Richard Parker and Pi get their names?
Did the tiger and Pi finally survive together?
Does Pi find God in the fear and freedom of the ocean?

Pi’s uncle Mamaji quotes from the Holy Qur’an “In all this there are messages indeed for those that use their reason.”
Believe in the story you choose.

The making of the film
Ang Lee’s glorious film of the Life of Pi is based on the book by Yann Martell.
While enjoying the film I was concerned in case any animals had been distressed. I found out that only a small group of animals were kept to help in the study of their movements and they were not exposed to the fears or stresses of the story.
The drama is created thanks to the meticulous work of the huge army of technicians employed to recreate the actions and movements of wild animals.  
For a fascinating account of the making of the film see Ian Failes’ article The Life of Pi – a tiger’s tale  in FX Guide