A tale in a teacup.

I was sitting with a customer at the Admiral Storage Facility, preparing to partake of a cup of tea, when my visitor noted that I was stirring the beverage and asked why.

I looked at him curiously. “Why,” I asked, “are you asking me why?”

“Well,” he replied, “you are forever publishing those little stories on your blog about oddball events, and I thought you might be conducting one of your experiments to see if the tea cools down when you stir it.”

“I would imagine it does,” I replied, and was dismayed when I noticed the esteemed gent looking at me curiously.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

I clearly looked puzzled because he went on, “Are you sure that stirring your tea makes it cooler rather than makes it hotter?”

“Why would it make the tea hotter?” I asked becoming both suspicious and perplexed.

“Because you are putting energy into the tea by stirring it,” he said. “The faster the speed the hotter the obect.”

I thought on this for a moment before countering with, “But surely in moving the tea around I am exposing more of the liquid to the cooler air above the surface and that will take the temperature down.”

“However,” my visitor countered, “the faster an object moves the hotter it gets.”

We sat and looked at the cup of tea for a long while, each recognising an impasse when it leaped up and hit us in the face.

“Why don’t you take the spoon in and out of the tea?” my visitor asked at last. “The tea must be hotter than the spoon, so the heat moves from the tea to the spoon.  You take the spoon out and it cools down, so you can then put the spoon back in and repeat the trick.”

“Without stirring?” I asked.

“You can stir it if you like,” he said.

I looked at him curiously.  “But if I stir the tea, am I not putting energy into the tea, which then should become hotter?”

“I think you’d have to stir it so far to achieve that,” my customer said, “that as a result of the stirring the liquid will go over the top of the sides of the cup.”

“That would cool it,” I said.

“And make a mess,” he replied. “You’d be better off pouring it into the saucer and letting it cool before slurping it up and annoying everyone near you but giving much delight to small boys who have undoubtedly been told off for doing that at home.”

“Is there anything else I can do?” I wondered.

“Just leave it to cool down,” he replied.

“Then why do we have spoons?” I asked.

“To stir in the sugar,” he said.

“Not to cool down the tea?” I queried

“No.”

I looked at him again for a long moment before venturing to change the subject. “What do you do for a living?” I asked.

“I am a scientist,” he replied. “A physicist.”

“And what are you studying?”

“My colleagues and I are in a team that is about to see a black hole for the first time.”

I nodded, trying to give the impression that I was seriously impressed

“And what will you do if you can’t see it?” I asked, “on account of it being black.”

After that there seemed to be little left to say, and he took his leave.  I watched him carefully as he departed in case there was any shaking of the head going on as if to suggest I was not of sound mind.  But no, he was nodding.

I felt rather pleased about that and made a cup of tea by way of celebration.

Why I am forced to admit that it is just possible that at least one urban myth is true

It is noticeable that in the last few years most politicians have ceased bothering to argue with points of view they don’t like.  In the past their technique was to blather in a way that meant that by the time the speaker got to the end of their sentence the listener had not only got no idea what the start of the sentence was about, but had probably also lost the will to live.

But now it seems, in the spirit of enhanced humanity, politicians are moving away from this destructive model of boring their listeners into submission, and instead simply dismiss anything they don’t like as fake news.

Of course this can have unfortunate consequences, as when whole communities refuse to pay their tax bills on the grounds that the demands were simply “fake news” from a source they didn’t recognise.  But by and large it seems to work.

And indeed this propensity for fake news now seems to have gone further with websites that proclaim that Australia doesn’t exist, and that the kangeroo is such a ludicrously impossible animal that it has to be a hoax.

More worrying (at least for those of us in Europe) is that this trend is extending outwards (presumably via a flat earth), and it is now being announced that Finland doesn’t exist either.  And although it is not clear what the rationale behind the disappearance of Australia is, with Finland it appears to be the notion that the country was invented in order to create additional fishing quotas for Swedish fishermen.

(Although there is also a view that it was also to aid the export of sushi to Japan from Russia.  However I lost the will to live halfway through that part of the tale so I may have missed something en route.)

Brazilians have a story like this as well, although with a twist.  They don’t deny the remote state of Acre exists, but do insist that it is populated by dinosaurs.  And (rather perversely I feel) Starbucks cafes.

Of course such tales are not new.  In Germany they have for years had the story that the city of Bielefeld does not exist, but has been created for nefarious reasons by the state authorities – reasons that will not become clear any time soon.

To prove their point the theorists ask three questions:

  1. Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
  2. Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
  3. Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

Anybody claiming to answer yes to any of these questions is considered to be in on the conspiracy.  Personally I am awaiting an English version of the theory in relation to Rutland.

But such theories can go either way of course.  In the above cases places don’t exist, but equally non-existent places or things can crop up.  For example I am sure that any time soon President Trump will declare that the wall along the Mexican border has been built, and anyone posting a picture showing it hasn’t will be said to have been posting a picture of somewhere that was not on the border.

However there is another way around this – and it has been with us for a long time.  It came about with Tennessee Williams’ play El Camino Real in which he invented a dead end town surrounded by desert with only occasional ways of reaching the outside world – ways that often vanish.

Camino Real has a storyline that is generally described by theatre goers as illogical and impossible, and focuses on the point that there is no plot, because ultimately all these people and all their situations are irrelevant to anything else (which in itself is ironic because the play closed on Broadway after just 60 shows).  The NY Times called it “a strange and disturbing drama.”  Surreal pop and rock songs such as “Hotel California” and “Desolation Row” make reference to it.

Now there are people who apparently spend a lot of their lives driving around the desert trying to find Camino Real – another irony since in the story it is the people who are there who want to leave but can’t.

Of course creating or dismissing actual places involves playing with reality on a huge scale.  But for modern day fake newsers there is another approach.  TC Energy Design has created a new form of glass vases that use the structural physic of geometry to restructure any water put in the vase in order to reshape the liquid and enhance the taste.  Also the newly shaped water does you good.

This is necessary because “sending water through straight pipes and sharp right angle bends robs water of its natural life force.”

Since cryptosporidium is one of the natural life forces within water I’m all for robbing water of its natural life force, so I don’t think I will be buying this new case.  And I shall continue to visit friends in Australia from time to time.  I am also happy to believe Acre exists but does not contain any living dinosaurs.

But… there is always a but. Having tried to negotiate my way around a part of London via the South Circular Road recently I am willing to consider that Camino Real is a real place after all.  It is just north of Surrey.

Storage on the other hand is never a problem. You place things in Admiral’s facility, leave them there, return and find they are still there.  Reality rules.  It’s rather re-assuring.

When the need to take precautions becomes more important than the work itself. 

One of our regular long-term clients at Admiral pops in every other Tuesday, regular as clockwork (or at least as regular as a clock that takes in fortnights as well as seconds, minutes and hours), and adds more material to his collection.

He is not one of my customers who stops for a chat, and he always has a preoccupied look on his face as he comes in, unlocks his container, deposits something from his briefcase, and then walks out again.

But just recently he seemed a little lighter in his step, and there was a fraction of a smile on his face, so I took the opportunity and made so bold as to ask him what it was that he used the service for.

He gave me a long and penetrating look for a few seconds – the sort of look that is generally only delivered by those who spend an awful lot of time on their own – before finally replying.

“Imagine,” he said, “that you worked full time, five days a week, sometimes maybe even six or seven days a week, but didn’t get paid.”

“Why would I not be paid?” I asked, but he put his hand up, rather imperiously I thought, and clearly wanted to go on.

“Then after six or nine months, you might start getting paid for the work that you had done in that period, five, six, or seven days a week.  Not all the money you were owed, but a little bit of it.  And not even very regularly, but once every six months.”

“But why would I put up with such a situation?” I asked, not unreasonably I thought.

“Because the work was the only work you could do, and was the work that you loved,” he replied.

“And what is that work?” I asked.

“I am a writer.  I sit at home, alone, writing, day after day.  At the end of writing my book I hand it over to the publisher who might, if he is feeling generous, give me a small advance.  Thereafter every six months he gives me a little more, depending on how the sales have gone.”

“And if I may ask,” I asked, “do you get paid much at that stage?”

“If the book sells for £10 in the shops, I get 75p,” he said, looking doleful.

It seems an awfully small amount of money, and I suggested this, and a slight flicker of a smile passed over his face.

“Now imagine,” he continued, “that you could do all this work but then suddenly, just as you were about to finish it, it all vanished.  The work had gone, you had not been paid, and now you would never be paid because it simply wasn’t there anymore.”

“That would indeed be terrible,” I agreed, “to have worked and then lost all that work without ever being paid. But does this happen?”

“To me, no,” he replied. “But there are apocryphal tales of writers who do work for years on projects and then leave the only typescript on the train, or whose computer is wiped clean by a virus, or who carry the laptop through a magnetic field…”

“But these things never happen to you?” I asked.

“No, but that is because I take precautions.”  He looked at me with what I took to be a meaningful look, and then on feeling he had received the nearest approximation to such a look as I could deliver, he continued.

“Every day I make a backup of the latest addition to my work and I email it to my sister who lives in New Zealand, so that if the UK is swallowed by a volcanic eruption, there is still a chance of survival for the work.  Every other day, I make a copy of my work thus far and email to myself on my backup computer which I keep at my cottage on the Dorset coast.  And every two weeks I print out everything I have so far, and bring it here and add it to the folder in your excellent storage facility.”

“And have you ever had the need to access any of these backups?” I asked.

“Once, before the days of us all having computers I hand-delivered a copy of my work to the publisher, only to find that some three months later they asked me to send over another copy as they had lost the original.”

“And did you have another copy?”

“Yes, fortunately, but only one, and I spent the next three days photocopying that second copy in the public library.  Cost me a fortune and made my arms ache.”

“I had no idea that being a writer could be so troublesome,” I said, and he nodded solemnly, and took his leave back to his computer where I imagine even now he is adding another 1000 words to his latest volume.

Indeed it was only after he left that I realised I had not asked him what sort of books he writes.  I shall try to remember to do that next time around, and if I do, I shall report further.

A customer ventures close to the North Korean border and learns not to shake hands

One of my regular customers came into Admiral’s self-storage facility in Birmingham this week and as usual after adding a few documents to his collection came and sat down with me for a quick catch up on the news.

Now in the past I would have always offered him a cup of coffee, but since one of my other customers who deals in medical matters advised me of the issues that I might be storing up for myself through my consumption of the liquid, I have started to offer not only coffee but also English tea and green tea.

The green tea was the most recent addition, recommended by a friend, and I must say I find it quite tasty – although I have not given up the coffee altogether.  However my customer was not impressed.

“You haven’t been to Korea for the Winter Olympics have you?” he asked suspiciously.  I told him that sadly I hadn’t although it looked on TV like it might have been fun – if cold.  But then I asked, why did he particularly mention Korea?

“Only because they have quite an enthusiasm for green tea,” he answered.  “My company advised on some building work for the Olympics and so I had to go there are few times.”

“What’s it like?” I asked.

“What, green tea?” he asked.

“No, Korea,” I said.

“Very modern, rains a lot, everyone bows,” he told me.

“Bows when?” I persisted.

“All the time.  It’s their way of signing off a conversation, and their way of saying thank you.  In fact the only time they don’t bow is when dressed up in traditional costume as dragons and ancient gods.”

“Do they do that often?” I asked.

“Every hour on the hour in the airport.  It’s actually very good and makes a change from listening to piped muzak while you wait.

“So do they bow in the airport?”

“Yep – you hand over your ticket and you get a bow, you are shown your seat on the plane and you get a bow, you get given your meal on the plane and you get a bow.  I was even asked how I wanted my steak done, I said ‘medium,’ and then got a bow.”

“What on the plane?” I asked.

“All the time on the plane,” he said.  “They take your ticket and you get a bow, and you get proper food.”

“Must play havoc with their backs,” I observed.  “I don’t suppose you went to the North did you?”

“I don’t think there is a tourist trade to the Workers’ Paradise,” I was told, “although the capital of the south, where you land, is only about 30 miles from the border.  But we didn’t get to see much of the country – you never do on these business trips.  Straight in, lots of bows, have a meal, discuss the deal, bow and then back on the Korean Airlines flight.   Mind you the duty free is incredibly cheap.”

“Anything good in duty free?”

“All the usual but a lot cheaper than you get it at Heathrow.”

“I suppose I could do my Christmas shopping,” I mused.

“Bit of a long way for that,” he said.  “Twelve and a half hour flight through nine time zones.  One of those journeys in which you get home before you leave and still feel exhausted.  Interesting place – just based on exporting things so they make a big profit.

“What on earth do they export?” I asked.

“Integrated circuits and cars,” he said.  “You have heard of Samsung!?” and I realised that of course that was it.  Hyundi cars and Samsung electronics.

“So not worth it just for the day trip,” I said, and my customer agreed it was probably not.  “But you could go and learn a bit more about making a cup of green tea.”

I agreed that when I next had a spare afternoon I might pop over and take a lesson or two.  But I’d have to practise my bowing first.

How can it be that seemingly otherwise intelligent people can make such silly decisions?

One of the things that has concerned me increasingly in recent years is that our society seems to be ever more inclined to follow rules, even if those rules become quite meaningless when considered in a particular context.

Take, for example, this situation that happened near Derby.

Some roadworks were being undertaken, and as a result it had been found necessary to turn off the street lighting that has normally illuminated the roadway at night.

Now that event is fairly self-evident.  If the street lighting isn’t on, and it gets dark, then by and large you notice the lighting is not there.  So there really isn’t much need for a sign to be placed on the road side that says the street lighting is not on.

But if one has to have a sign that says the street lighting is not working, then by and large it is probably going to be necessary to have that sign announcing the failure of the lighting system, illuminated – because there is no street lighting to allow drivers to see the sign.

So to have, as the A52 has, a situation in which there is no street lighting, but there is an un-illuminated sign saying that the street lighting is not working, strikes me as rather ludicrous on at least two counts.

However this moves from the ludicrous to the interesting when one asks how two such utterly silly decisions could be made.  In short, why did no one responsible for street signs notice that this whole procedure was completely bonkers?

I suspect that no one did notice because there are over-arching rules that say, for example, when something that is normally operational by the roadside is not operational there needs to be a sign that says so.  Which is fine if the non-operational issue is, for example, traffic lights.  A sign saying that one needs to take extra caution because the traffic lights at a cross roads are out of commission is not just helpful but quite often utterly essential if drivers are used to charging by with the assumption of right of way.

But I fear that this lack of asking “why?” is both deeply ingrained and spreading.  To give another example, to get to my friend’s house one leaves a main road at a roundabout and follows the route into the village where he lives.  If one continues along the road it eventually reconnects with the main road at another roundabout a couple of miles further south.

However for the present, the second connection with the main road is closed because of a major building project.  There is just the one way in and out of the village, instead of two.

The logical approach one might think at the first roundabout would be a notice that says, “local traffic only” or “road closed in 2 miles” or something like that.

But it seems no one has yet created a sign that says “road closed in 2 miles” so instead at the roundabout we simply are told “road closed” which looks completely ludicrous because the road beyond the sign is palpably not closed, and there is a constant flow of traffic past the sign as people ignore the notice in order to get to their homes.

There is no reference to which road is closed which leaves a lot of people confused, and as a result there have been a couple of minor accidents as people have stopped, or suddenly changed direction wondering where to go.

We might call both situations ones in which there is no joined up thinking – or indeed again a failure to ask “why?”

Wondering if such thoughts just occurred to me, or whether others had noticed, I mentioned these musings to a friend of mine who supports one of the big football clubs, and who goes to games on the train. The trains on the line he uses can have four carriages, six carriages, eight carriages, or even ten carriages at different times of day.

Although there is not too much pressure on the train service before matches since supporters tend to spread their arrival time out, some arriving early, some just before kick off, etc, there is a huge pressure on the service at the end of the game when everyone leaves at once.  And yet after every single match the trains arrive with just four carriages and get dangerously over-filled.  One asks again, why?

Following these three examples, I wonder if there ought not to be classes in schools in “joined up thinking” – or to put it another way, asking the question “why?” (Or, if one prefers, the application of fairly basic logic.)

I guess the reason in part comes from the fact that asking “why?” is absolutely discouraged in many schools, where it can be seen as a sign of pupils or students “being difficult”.

Indeed perhaps if our civilisation does eventually decline, those who are left to record its demise might call us, “the people who couldn’t ask ‘why’?”

I always enjoy meeting with my customers and chatting about their views, except when I don’t.

Over the years I have met a number of people who bring me information that catches me out.

Not in a bad way, but rather in a way that I appreciate because I do quite like being caught out as it makes me ponder and think.

For example, I do have a particular liking for what these days are known as inconvenient facts, such as the one that one of my more eccentric clients came up with which suggested that taking the drug ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding.

Now I have to admit that I didn’t believe a word of that until my client directed me to the work produced by the pharmacologist David Nutt, and yes it has been reported in various learned journals which like to use statistics in the proper way (that is to say, taking the number of people doing x, seeing how many of them get injured in various ways, and then comparing all the data with the number of people doing y).

But now apparently you can’t read it in any government journals because the head of the team that did the research was sacked and his findings removed from the official record.

I was both horrified that the information could be covered up, and fascinated by my own reaction to the finding.

I guess such a statistical finding is very uncomfortable, perhaps because horse riding is considered “good” and “healthy” and maybe above all “done by the right sort of people” while taking ecstasy is considered the opposite in every regard.  And I didn’t include the relationship between horse riding and gambling in that.

But apparently it is so.  If you go in for horse riding you are as likely to get more injuries of a more serious nature than in you take ecstasy.  Which I must stress is absolutely not a suggestion that taking ecstasy is safe, but rather than it might be worth easing up on the horse riding.

So it seems these days there is a movement to be economical with the statistics.  Just as there is a spot of being economical with the freedom of speech as well.

I suspect most people in the UK do actually value free speech – up to a point.  The problem is where that point is reached.  Personally I don’t value the freedom of speech within the audience in the theatre while I am trying to focus on the production.  And I find myself very confused about whether or not I want to defend the right of racists to speak about their beliefs.  Probably not, when I think about it.

But freedom of speech can be misused.  Take, for example, the issue of water.

We are gradually seeing in this country the arrival of the notion of “raw” water – something that has become quite popular of late in certain parts of the United States.

Raw water is apparently real, original, honest to goodness water.  Water that people who write things on Twitter with the hashtag nofilter go in for.  Water that doesn’t have any fluoride in it… except the natural fluoride that occurs in groundwater … and which actually occurs at much higher levels than is allowable in the water that comes out of our taps.  Levels that could be quite dangerous.

And because it is not treated it also has a nice juicy variety of waterborne bacteria within the H20, the drinking of which can lead to… well, it’s a nasty disease but you might be eating your lunch while reading this so I don’t want to mention it.

The more I look at it, the more complicated (not to say lopsided) the whole world seems to be.

How can one tell if news is fake or not?

My customer helps me decide

I have been noticing just how often the phrase “fake news” is being used these days, (the answer is “all the time”) and that started me pondering when fake news itself first came about.

When I mentioned this to one of my customers who has a collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings stored with Admiral he told me “fake news” it is much older than one might think.  And although he didn’t have any actual print examples to prove it (something he excused by the tiny detail that printing hadn’t been invented at the time) he told me that the pharaoh Rameses the Great is said to have created a story about the Battle of Kadesh over 3000 years ago in which he set himself up as the great victor of the battle.

“So how do we know that was fake?” I asked, and was told that the treaty that brought the war to an end and which is recorded on papyrus shows the battle as being a stalemate.

Now of course it could be the treaty itself that is fake news, but normally treaties are written by the victors for the vanquished to sign, and the victors never underplay the size of their victory, so that seems a little unlikely.

The early days of the Roman Empire knew a bit about fake news also, and we can tell this, it seems, since much of the information that popular history has carried forward about Mark Antony comes from the writings of the Emperor Augustus, who as Emperor had a pretty free hand when it came to writing up the records of events.

Augustus had his team of fake news writers create what he claimed was Mark Antony’s will which said that he (Mark Antony) wished to be entombed with the pharaohs – which caused public outrage.  It does seem to be true, however, that Mark Antony eventually killed himself after hearing the fake news that Cleopatra had killed herself.

I put it to my customer that this meant that fake news really was just rumour by another name, although he begged to differ slightly.  “Rumour,” he said, “can happen by chance, and those who propagate it at first do so genuinely believing it to be true.  Fake news is deliberately created and known to be false by the person inventing it.”

Either way fake news can be awful in its consequences.  In 1475 in Trento in Italy a story did the rounds that the local Jewish community had murdered a Christian child, using his blood for a religious ritual.  In the resultant popular uprising all the Jews in the city were rounded up and 15 were burned to death.

“And,” I was told, ”we should not forget that some things that are said to be fake news are actually true.  Galileo suffered somewhat in that regard.”

What I didn’t know however was that so keen was the government of the Netherlands to maintain its publishing industry as a highly respected and truthful enterprise that the publication of fake news was specifically banned.

But no matter how anyone tries to stop it, fake news keeps breaking forth.  Apparently Benjamin Franklin created a series of fake news stories concerning how native Americans were working with King George III by attacking brave American settlers and scalping them.  The aim was simply to secure absolute support for American independence.

On listening to such tales I began to develop a little theory of my own.  It is, of course, only a theory and should not be taken too seriously at this point, but it might come in handy one day.  It goes like this.

The more unreasonable, bad, illogical or just plain daft the proposition, the more illogical and unlikely is the fake news that is created to support it.

in 1730, for example, the Governor of Virginia reported that a slave rebellion had occurred but was effectively put down – and that black slaves had been seen who had spontaneously turned from black to white.  There was no rebellion… I leave you to decide on the likelihood of the second proposition.

So it continues.  Last year the Daily Express reported that a mission to Mars had spotted children’s toys in the red dust.  Of course the toys were untrue – but then so was the mission. There was no mission.

However, sometimes the consequences can be awful. The late 19th century Spanish American War (I was informed) was created when an American ship’s faulty boiler exploded in Havana Harbour.  There was no attack on the ship, but one was announced, and the war started.

In the first World War most English papers contained the news that those who had died on the battlefields were being rendered down to make soap (in one story) or nitro-glycerine (in another).  This was being done by the enemy, of course, not by our side.  It was ever thus.

Moving on to modern times my customer then reminded me of the story to the effect that in 2016 Buzzfeed identified 140 fake news websites in Macedonia that were flooding Facebook with fake news, running stories like  “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”.

They were completely false and yet people believed them.  And thus began the modern – and internet-friendly – life of the phrase “fake news”.

How to sit

I see many people in my office, as I guess many of us who are in business are apt to do, and of late I have taken to observing how they sit when they come in to share a tea or coffee, or when they wish to pay a bill or indeed sign up for one of our various services.

In fact although I have never seen it done, I feel sure that with adequate resources one could prepare a detailed projection of a visitor’s personality just from the way that person sits on a chair.

There are, for example, people who come in and sit on the extreme edge of a chair.  These are people who appear to be geared up for instant flight, perhaps fearing that I am about to attack them with a blunt instrument or that the roof of my office is about to fall in.  I can assure you that neither has ever happened, but for these good folk this is seemingly always an option to be born in mind.

Then there are people who wallow in the chair, leaning back as if this were their office and not mine, as if perhaps they were settling in for a long natter about the state of the economies of North Africa and the funding difficulties being experienced by the NASA team who are trying to build a space ship that will land on one of the moons of Saturn.

Occasionally however, and I do mean just occasionally, I meet people who sit on a chair with what I think I may best call unstudied self-confidence.

These are the people I warm to. They have summed up the place and settled into it in a wholly appropriate manner, feeling it is ok to sit and natter for a moment or two, but giving the impression that they fully recognise that this is my territory and not theirs, and that I’m the one calling the shots over what is to be discussed and indeed when the meeting is over.

I don’t mean by any of this that my office has a strict etiquette to be used when entertaining customers. They are after all the customers, and if they wish to swing back on the chair or perch on the edge ready for flight, that is a matter for them.  Thus I certainly don’t go around telling people how to sit.  Rather I mean to say that I am simply observing and putting together a few thoughts.

And these thoughts do have a purpose, for they allow me to make a fair guess as to whether my visitor is likely to run off as soon as the coffee is consumed or will settle back with a look that says, “a second cup would be nice, any time when you are ready to make one.”

In these circumstances I tend to let the customer speak, if the customer so wishes of course (for I learned long ago never to push a customer, but rather to let the customer take his or her own course).

But if it should turn out we are sitting there, with my customer either perched on the very front of the chair nervously eyeing the door, or alternatively leaning back and taking in the ceiling wondering perhaps if it once upon a time it contained a fresco which if only it could be uncovered would be worth a few quid, but with not a word being said, I fill the gap by asking, “Where do you come from originally.”

Now that might seem a bit pushy, and I should stress I only use this ploy in extremis as it were, but it does help to get things a-moving.  The customer might answer “London” or “Great Wassington in the Glen” or “Ethiopia” or anything else, and in almost all cases it allows me to ask a question or two.

Quite what turn that conversation might take depends, of course, on the answer.  If it is London one can always ask which part, because Londoners are generally very fond of their district within the metropolis and will tell you of its past glories and how the decline only started once they moved out.

If the answer is Great Wassington or some other hamlet one has never heard of, one can say, “That sounds beautiful – idyllic even – what’s it like?” and they will chatter on a bit without one having to say anything.

As for any foreign land, one can ask if they were born there, and if so, “what’s it like these days,” because in my experience all foreign places have a “past” and a situation “these days” which is quite different.

And there we are.  Without the need to think any further and without any need to construct more than a couple of basic sentences I have the conversation sown up.  The visitor does the talking, and inevitably therefore feels it was a jolly good conversation, while I’ve had a nice sit down.

When the visitor pauses for breath I can say, “Well I must push on with the work…” and the visitor invariably apologises for taking up so much of my time.  Thus feeling guilty he or she will continue to use my storage services, knowing in a way that they can’t quite put into words that I am a jolly good egg.

And thus the wheels of business are once more oiled.

The disturbing trilogy: should one keep reading and risk being disturbed further – or just stop?

Over Christmas a friend of mine finished reading a series of books that he had started back in the summer of last year. It is known as the “Southern Reach trilogy”.

I knew he was reading the series of books because he had mentioned them to me several times and had kept me abreast of his own interaction with the books.

And he revealed to me, as we had one of those get togethers that seems to occur part way between the Yuletide guests going home and the final knees-up on New Years Eve, that the delay in completion of his reading was nothing to do with the size of the volumes, nor his speed of taking in English prose, but rather the feelings of discomfort he had on concluding the first volume.

Indeed such was his uncertainty about what he had just read that having completed his perusal of volume 1 he set it aside quite unsure if he actually wanted to continue.

Now I must admit that by this time I had something of a vested interest in the piece, for he had kept me abreast of developments as he read the book, and I must say that I for one was disappointed that he didn’t want to go on. I wanted to hear how it turned out.

The problem was that although he also wanted to know what happened next, he found the whole thing very unsettling. However with a little prodding from me he did indeed decide to buy part two but with the resolution firmly in place that if it troubled him as much as the first volume, he would stop and give both volumes either to the local charity shop, or to me. If the latter was his decision I was to give him a quick resume when I had read the books through.

But, as luck would have it, my pal found volume two utterly gripping, devouring it in two days and moving straight onto the third and final volume (you will recall that I mentioned above that it was a trilogy), reading it at the first opportunity.

However this time it turned out that the volume combined both the attributes of volumes one and two. It was, he told me, unputdownable and thoroughly disturbing.

There was not too much my friend would say while he was reading volume three, but when he had finished I saw that something was seriously wrong. Indeed when I put the point to him, he admitted that he was getting strange looks, and his customers and friends at work were giving him quizzical glances.

Of course I offered sympathy, understanding and, upon neither of those helping the situation, an admonishment along the lines of the need to “pull yourself together quickly”. “You can’t be ridden asunder by a novel,” I told him.

There then followed a prolonged debate on the exact meaning of being ridden asunder and whether it could be used in relation to a paperback trilogy, but eventually we settled down into some pondering as to what it was within the three books that had both entrapped and disturbed him so much.

The “Southern Reach” story I should explain, centres on a part of the USA within which suddenly becomes unreachable from the rest of the country, save through a single tunnel. Most of those people who do go through and subsequently come back, come back seriously ill, either mentally, physically or both.

Ultimately it appears that the cause of the problem is that some sort of alien life form has landed in the area, but – and this is what makes the whole thing so disturbing – it is not a life form that looks or behaves in any sort of way we can recognise or understand.

I can’t tell you what happens in case you want to read the book, but the point is that this is an alien or set of aliens as far from the creatures of Star Trek or Star Wars that you could imagine – and then some. We cannot understand what they are, what they want, or why they want it. As such we have no way of knowing anything about them or their motives or desires. They don’t share our behaviour, our morality, our anything. There is no connection.

Finding out about the book and seeing how the series affected my friend was fascinating – as were the comments made by readers on the on-line store from which he bought the books. The story was found to be either “rubbish” or “extraordinary but disturbing”.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks; how some people can be deeply moved by a set of books while others just dismiss them in a few lines as nonsense. How something could be so different from anything we know that there is no point of understanding possible.

I mean we can understand an ant eater and a tree because they are life forms that operate according to our vision of what life does. But what about when we move beyond that?

And then I wondered: supposing an alien came and saw the Admiral storage service. Would they be able to understand what is going on?

In the end I thought quite possibly not, which is perhaps a bit sad.

But at least it means there’s no point in advertising in the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way, so that saves a bit of money I guess.

The strange stories of the driverless car and the ship that was piloted by rats

Admiral has a special interest in things that go missing – and things appearing again.  Not missing from our storage facility, I hasten to add, but missing from the range of property owned by our customers.  Not that our clients are more forgetful than anyone else, it is just that they know they have something, but can’t find it, and then wonder if they stored it at Admiral at some stage.

Normally they didn’t, but of course they are always fully entitled to come and have a look.

As a result I often get talking to our customers about things that go missing, things have have been found, and occasionally things that were never there in the first place.

And indeed, it was while discussing this with one of my customers that he pointed out to me that for several years we have been told that drivers were soon to go missing from cars.

Now there’s nothing new in this, but in fact the story of the driverless car is rather interesting because it is just about the only story I have ever come across which focuses over and over on something that is about to go missing but which actually never does.

The whole thing started with a clarion call in Extreme Tech – a website that claims it is the Web’s top destination for news and analysis of emerging science and technology trends, bringing us the latest on software, hardware, and gadgets.  So it ought to know about what is about to happen, and in 2012 it told us that Ford would have driverless cars in showrooms by 2017 – this year in fact.  I went out a-looking just to check, but nope, I couldn’t find any.

This prediction looked a little foolhardy when in the same year Time told us that it was going to be 2019 not 2017.  So maybe we just have to wait.

Although it appears that in 2013 CNN jumped in on the act and told us that Nissan would have driverless cars for sales by 2020.  Of course we ain’t got there yet so I can’t validate that one.

The next report came from the car and tech comparison website Recombu in 2013 which proudly announced that everyone had got it utterly wrong and that it was not a case of 2017, but of 2014.  And it would not be Ford or Nissan but Volvo that would launch driverless cars that year.  I might have missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen any.

TechRadar (“the source for tech buying advice”) then came along in 2014 and told us that Audi promised the driverless car in 2016.  But it seems we were let down again.

Of course, what we obviously needed was not a load of “aren’t we clever” hi tech whizz kids making predictions, but a group of people who are really, really in the know about such things, and have a long history of accurate future predictions.

So step forward The Sun (always good on astrology) which in 2016 gave us the prediction that all Tesla cars would be self-driving by 2018.  They might still have got it right.

Maybe, but I have got a little sceptical on this future prediction lark and had confined the issue to my dustbin when I was suddenly reminded of the tale of MV Lyubov Orlova, reported in the esteemed magazine New Scientist (although reported I must add with a lot of tongue in cheek).  This ship was seemingly on automatic pilot heading for a ship breaker’s yard, and without any crew on board when it vanisheed in 2013.

Since then various news outlets in the UK (or should I say “newspapers that tend to make things up because real live journalists are just too expensive these days”) reported it had been spotted occasionally, only to disappear again.  One of the tales is that the ship has now been overrun by cannibalistic rats.

So, any sighting of such a vessel is something that one might need to be rather wary of, especially since the rats in charge of the ship now not only eat each other but appear to have learned navigation skills to such a degree that they have navigated the north-west passage.

Now as you may recall from geography lessons at school, the North West Passage takes ships just south of Greenland and then around the islands to dot the northern coast of Canada, just missing the arctic ice, and finally down the western coast of Canada and into the warmer climes of the Pacific waters off the western United States and south to California.

This requires some pretty good navigational skills even for humans, I am sure you will agree, but for rats it is something else.  But no less a service than the Science Channel in the United States clearly identified the ship as the missing liner, and were waiting for expeditions to go out and make contact with the obviously rapidly evolving rats.

And yes indeed when people looked there was a ship there.  Although unfortunately it was, New Scientist tells us, the SS Monte Carlo which was one of a number of boats that ran casinos and sold alcohol during Prohibition in the US.  This ship has been resting on the sea bed since 1937, and so it looks like the US West Coast guard will no longer be facing some difficult questions as to how it failed to notice the rat ship making its way along the coastline from Alaska, south.  Geneticists too will not be questioned on how rats could evolve into pilots while eating each other, which must be a relief.

So where do all these stories come from?

The most likely explanation is that tourism out to see the partially submerged wreck of the old casino ship has been in decline for a few years, so renaming the casino ship a cannibal intelligent rat ship seemed like a good idea to someone.

A bit like thinking up the date of the first driverless car.  Unless, of course, those rats have got the hang of how to shoot up the M1 without being noticed.