Monday, December 22, 2014

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Spruce up the Gents

To break my protracted lethargic silence, here's a re-post of a fairly old rant of mine...

Today I would like to draw your attention to a severe problem that blights nearly half of the population of the Western world. I'm referring to the socially acceptable use of urinals in public toilets/restrooms (see - I continue to speak for both sides). Specifically, the problem is with men who have yet to master the correct way of selecting a vacant urinal to use. The details of the situation may not be entirely obvious to the average female reader, so I will endeavour to explain.

The problem is one that has arisen as we, as a species, have left our natural habitats and moved into civilised environs. We've not yet evolved to adapt to this new and bizarre world that we find ourselves in, and we are still under the influence of our long held, deeply ingrained instincts. Back in the glorious days, we would find ourselves wandering around our beautiful world, perhaps spending a little time hunting or fishing, relaxing by a river, eating delicious game-meats, wild fruits, and perhaps a little time spent enjoying members of the opposite sex. Of course, sooner or later we'd experience a call of nature, and we would simply call out "Cor, I'm bursting! Just nipping into the woods for a sec..." At this juncture, we would find ourselves a nice mature tree to utilise.

Now, a tree is a very useful device, for it serves several purposes. The first is a psychological one: it's a target. We like a target. This is probably a hangover from our hunting instincts. If, for example, we could hurl a stone(/throw a spear/release an arrow/pull the trigger/press the red button labelled 'launch') in any direction and be assured of a hit, we'd quickly get bored of hunting, and take up politics instead. It's just not fundamentally satisfying to aim randomly in any old direction. Furthermore, the tree gives us a sense of place - a sense that we should be doing this here. When needing to take a leak in a social situation, one must usually be polite and move some distance from the group. Without a clear point to go to (such as a tree) one finds oneself wondering "Have I gone far enough? Can they hear me?" or "Have I gone too far? Do they think I'm uncomfortable around them? Do they think I have a condition I'm trying to hide?" or "That tussock looks pretty good - perhaps I'd have been better off over there?". The tree solves these problems. The second use for a tree is a practical one: it provides shelter. I'm sure we've all, in desperation and in a desolate, treeless, windswept place, sought relief without such aid. Even pointing, wind-sock like, downwind has its risks: the buffeting airflow arse and hips results in turbulence which can be almost as dangerous as a direct upwind effort.  The third use is a social one: the tree provides visual cover. Each man can take his own tree, well separated from the others, and no excuses about the cold Northerly wind need be offered to the womenfolk.

In the modern civilisation, urinals are our trees. In a world where, in our immediate every-day environment, there is a distinctly short supply of mature trees, and the collective judgement of current society restricts us from putting them publicly to their most deserved use, we have been given an entirely inferior substitute. Our beautiful array of trees - the cedars, the poplars, the chestnuts, the alders, the pines and the ever-popular oak (the variety could be selected based on weather conditions, mood and ego) - have been replaced with a single variety of 5 gal/flush porcelain monstrosity. This is disheartening to even the most unadventurous and habitual of us, and I suspect it is the lack of interest in the blandness of our new targets that has led, in a significant number of my sex, to a lack of will to adapt.

So, to get to my point: the type of bloke I am getting at is the kind who, when approaching a line of three empty urinals, will select the centre one. Now, there is an unwritten packing algorithm for men at urinals which must be adhered to in order to be socially acceptable. It is instilled into most of us at an early age. Be it a wise father, a worldly brother, knowledgeable friend, a kindly uncle, or perhaps direct experience or deduction - somehow we have become aware of this unwritten code. Alas, a number of men (probably through no real fault of their own) have not been so fortunate to have received this worldly wisdom, and their behaviour clearly defies its rules.

The basic premise is that one should fill the urinal array one-by-one with men, so that the space between the men is always maximised, and with each addition allowing for future maximisation, should there be a subsequent arrival of further men. Such a process helps minimise the chance of accidental peripheral observation. Now, we all know the dangers of an accidental peripheral observation event. Aside from an ability to act like a stopcock (sorry, couldn't help myself! I hope that term is actually used West of the Atlantic...), there's a chance of encountering one's nemesis, resulting in instant and irreversible ego-deflation. On the whole, it's something that we should, and should be seen to, want to avoid.

To elucidate the accepted packing algorithm, consider an array of 5 urinals. The acceptable packing order is: 1,5,3,2,4 where, of course, 2 and 4 can be interchanged, and the entire series may be reversed. Those men that I am complaining about here would enter the empty system at, say, 2 (or 4). Such a move forces the next man to select 5 (or 1), though he could select 4 (or 2). Whichever he chooses, it leaves 3 empty slots, none of which have complete visual isolation. This unnecessarily forces additional users to be at greater risk of accidental peripheral observation. I can assure these people that such a lack of courtesy to the other users of the system does not go unnoticed. 

Additionally, experience shows that there are a number of men who take the avoidance of potential accidental peripheral observation to the extreme, and will under no circumstances use a urinal if an adjecent one is currently in use. It appears that these men have such an inflated fear of peripheral obsevation that they avoid the risk at all costs. This, however, is also not socially acceptable. Whilst it is acceptable (and indeed required) to casually attempt to minimise the risk of peripheral observation by adhering to the packing algorithm, to go to great lengths (no pun intended, honest) to avoid it (by using a sit-down, or standing around waiting uneasily and reading the instructions on the hand dryer in an attempt not to look like a loitering pervert) is a wholly offensive to the other occupants of the array. Actually, I suspect the men who indulge in these practices have a 'crisis of confidence' and their behaviour could be interpreted as a cloaked compliment, but that's just not how society views it, OK?

There is also a class of man who will purposefully defy the algorithm, and go straight to the middle of a three-urinal array in a macho show, to specifically try to claim the entire array for himself. You can tell those that do this intentionally from those who merely wander to this element out of ignorance. Instead of casually wandering over and standing there, getting on with it, they approach the array with a swagger, give it a quick glance over, then head purposefully to the centre. They stand there, with feet at least 20% wider than shoulder-width apart with their elbows outstretched, often with one hand on their hip (sometimes one forearm leaning against the wall in front, with the elbow well into the neighbouring element), with the other hand doing the business. They usually lean back at the waist throughout the process, as if maximising the distance (in the horizontal plane) between their chest and their end really makes it seems longer. They'll probably glance in a deliberate manner from side to side, staking their claim on the neighbouring elements. The only way to deal with such people is to walk boldly up to the adjacent element, and use it in as close a manner to theirs as your conscience will allow.

So, in light of all this, I make a desparate call to all of these unfortunate men (and their partners, who well may be entirely oblivious to their man's social shortcomings): please, please, obey the algorithm. Common decency, and a respect for your fellow man, requires it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Eve Arrival

Spidery black fingers whip past, their forms keener than usual, crystallised against the mottled white background. The sun climbs with gargantuan effort from the horizon, as a climber negotiating a tricky overhang, tracing a shallow arc of iced fire: the most brilliant, blinding light, but imparting imperceptible warmth. A pair of geese, startled by the train, take to the air. A couple, layered in coats, gloves, scarves and hats, walk with their dogs along an icy path through the grass; a seam of silver bisecting the frozen field. The little rivers scattered across the Weald flow viscously between the matted remnants of reed beds. A heron imparts only statuary to the scene. On a day like this, even the chub and perch will be lethargic, and only the weekly meal of a pike, or the occasional bite of a grayling, will provide a whisper of hope of contact to the frigid angler.

Suddenly the fields, inhabited by flocks of Southdowns, turn a shockingly intense green, contrast which is jarring, though the hills are still white and grey. Arundel Castle stands stoically, overlooking the broad flood plain of the Arun. Soon the Weald yields to suburbia, then Portsea Island and Portsmouth - a dialogue between the proud, reserved architecture of its naval history and its post-war reconstruction. At last, the Cat carries me across the waters, and reality recedes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thank Heaven for the BBC

The Proms have come and gone, marking the end of summer. This season of concerts, like no other, captivates my imagination; many weeks of great music, performed in one of the world's most iconic venues, aimed at making such masterpieces accessible to the general public, and out of phase with the main concert season. Occurring just as I move back to the US, it was exceptionally poignant this year.

Thanks to the foresight of the BBC, the concerts were broadcast using a new high-quality streaming service Coyopa - named after a Mayan god of thunder. Coyopa streams at 320 kbps (that's the bitrate of audio files one can purchase from Amazon, and higher quality than one typically gets from iTunes). The Proms have been a testing ground for this service, which will now be withdrawn, evaluated and (one sincerely hopes) made a standard streaming option in the near future.

Tonight, I listened to the Last Night of the Proms on my KEF loudspeakers, via this digital service, my computer's soundcard, and my Cambridge Audio amp (the computer soundcard being clearly the weakest link in this chain). The quality was astoundingly good for digital streaming, something that became exceptionally apparent at the end of the Prom, when the audience were singing along to the familiar (in the truest sense of the word) tunes of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. In closing my eyes, I was seated in the upper circle of the Royal Albert Hall. (with miraculously generous leg space). The orchestra was below me; music reaching directly to my ears, and music resounding from the mushroom-patch above. All around and below me, resonating fiercely, was the audience, singing in joyful abandon. I sang. I pointed skyward; a confirmation to the heavens, in a manner that reminds me immediately and solely of a certain Italian friend of mine. For a while, the 3000 odd miles seemed tangibly shorter.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A lapse in judgement

The latest release from Scottish brewers Brewdog is a limited-edition 55% beer, End of History, in bottles mounted within dead rodents by a skilled taxidermist. I began writing with the intent of expressing my disappointment in Brewdog, for what seemed to me to be an exercise in novelty marketing, as implied by news articles on the subject. I thought that, at last, Brewdog had forsaken their values of making interesting, flavourful beers in place of tasteless numbers and shock value.

I've been following Scottish brewers Brewdog for a couple of years now, since discovering their brew The Physics, Punk IPA, Trashy Blonde, and a myriad of others. I followed with delight that, after bringing out the UK's strongest beer Tokyo* , to the criticism of the Portman Group, Brewdog released a highly hopped low alcohol beer branded Nanny State. This was followed by the release of the world's strongest beer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, made by using an icecream factory to crystalise and remove water from the beer, thus raising it to a strength well above the alcohol tollerance of any yeast. This was bested in strength by the German brewers Schorschbräu, which initiated a back and forth, with Brewdog retaliating with Sink the Bismark (41%), and the Germans beating this with a 43% brew.

Enter the End of History brew. Contrary to my initial reaction it, on looking deeper it has become clear that the idea is actually a much more sublte and directed statement. After the back-and-forth in the strength war, this beer, limited to only 12 bottles, is a tongue-in-cheek cap to the overflowing bottle. Clearly, those at Brewdog had realised the escallating strength competition had become ludicrous, so nothing short of a farcical bottling would firmly put an end to the affair. Sorry for losing faith momentarily, Brewdog!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Windy Hill

Yesterday evening, I returned to Windy Hill. Having thrown a sandwich and a bottle of Glencoe stout into a pack, I climbed the hill to watch the sunset.

Despite the name, all four elements are met in this place, in a combative equilibrium - cohesive yet opposed. The land - in black, greens and browns - meanders into shades of purple and grey as the earth erupts skyward to the north. Overhead, clouds drifting so low to be within human grasp form a broad flat base, hovering over the mountains in defiance of their rugged form. To the east, Glasgow; its monochromatic shimmer a strange oasis within the continuous spectrum of the numinous landscape. To the west, just over the hilltops, the sun's death in the perpetual presence of the unseen sea.

The grass was soft and cool beneath me. I sat, with a flask, the wind to my back, my eyes lingering over the foreboding mass of Ben Lomond and the jagged peaks of the Arrochar Alps, and vowed to return to this spot as often as I physically can. Never has a place so taken my heart.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A change in viewpoint

I exited a two-hour conversation with Sandy today, bearing numerous thoughts about which to contemplate. The only one that is fully formed is this beauty of an idea. Following a discussion on the concept of creation yielding plurality, and all the divisive spiritual trauma that entails, came the notion that the Big Bang is not an apt name at all, for it is far too exuberant an image. Instead, considering the universe started at the highest intensity, which subsequently decayed with time - a universe imbued with a sense of "Do we really have to?" - we propose a more appropriate name for that seminal moment of creation - the Big Sigh.