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29 July
Who is Sophie Nickson?

I’ve had the same main email account for about 15 years and, though it often irritates by delivering messages late or by mysteriously connecting me to a linked chat site that I never want to visit, I’ve stuck with it. But I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a while now that I’m not alone in liking it.

One of the better things about my email is that it has a separate but eminently visible area where it corrals spam emails. I’ve had other email accounts in the past where you never get to see exactly what is being filtered out on your behalf, and because these things make mistakes, you sometimes lose stuff you didn’t want to lose. Not so with this system: you can go and check.

And when I check mine, I see the usual fluff about “personal” and financial services that I’ll never want, offers to relieve me of my small earnings, “job” and college ads, and medical procedures. Some of these are personalised to me. But increasing numbers of them, in recent weeks, have been personalised to someone called Sophie Nickson. “Sophie,” they say, “you’ve just won $5,000…” or simply ”sophie nickson lottery winnings”. On occasion, they offer Sophie Nickson surgical procedures that I would have thought irrelevant to her, but mostly they’re upbeat. There are several of them every day.

I’m somewhat intrigued by Sophie Nickson. Whoever she is, she has a high old time of it: many of her emails concern gambling sites, and she’s been offered several holidays. She seems to get less of the dull financial spam than I get, but more of the innocent and not-so-innocent fun stuff. Just this morning, she’s been offered Spanish business cards for free: I never get offered Spanish business cards. I am, you may have gathered, slightly envious of her apparently carefree lifestyle.

Anyway, what’s not clear is whether I (or my email account) should feel threatened or compromised by any of this. Perhaps this kind of thing is commonplace and innocent. Perhaps not. Perhaps even now, international crime bosses, led by Sophie Nickson, are plundering my non-existent savings and diverting real riches intended for me into their own coffers. Perhaps Sophie would consider going into partnership with me, sharing some of the fun she seems to get with some of the dross spam I specialise in.

Perhaps you know Sophie Nickson. Perhaps you are her. If so, get in touch. Or just go away and leave my email address alone.

28 July
A case of arboricide

The chainsaw massacre chaps are in town today and the big Leylandii tree outside my home-office window is coming down. At present, it blocks most of the available daylight from my desk and it has stifled the growth out of several other smaller and better-looking trees adjacent to it. We’ve tried trimming it and tidying it, but it just continues to expand. We took the top off a few years back when it got taller than the house, so it doubled back and grew sideways, blocking even more light. So today, it will go. Sad, but necessary.

A long time ago, I read a fascinating book about “trees as the ultimate optimised engineering structure”. The gist of the book was that trees constantly adapt themselves to their circumstances, and that even when the circumstances change, the trees continue to develop and accommodate. You see the effect most frequently on the tops of windswept hillsides, where the trees hunker down low to survive the prevailing winds, often taking strange, crouching stances.

But there are other instances where they grow to absorb or bend around railings, for example. Balanced and optimised and, where there are lots of them, collaborative: trees are models for engineering designers, and manmade structures such as weight-optimised car chassis have been designed by following the principles that trees follow naturally.

But if trees are essentially good things, then there are exceptions, and many of the exceptions are Leylandii. This is the evergreen of the middle-English garden: a fast-growing ever-assertive dark green barrier that is always about twice as big as it should be. Where most trees optimise their shape and size to their surroundings, Leylandii take over and dominate, ousting other trees. Doubtless whoever planted our one did so with good intentions, but that was probably 35 years ago. It’s now too big and won’t be tamed.

In all walks of life, you have to confront bullies, and this one’s time is up. It has to go, and today it will. I will get a view of the garden gate and the road outside from my desk. I will be able to turn the electric light off most days. It will be better for me, my neighbours and for the other trees around it which will now not be so overawed. Just not better for that particular tree.

22 July
The excellent superficiality of the French

This is a brief post, as I’m somewhat away at present. Only somewhat, because work doesn’t ever really stop these days. But more away than not. Anyway, it’s been my lot, in the past few days, to travel rather a lot of French roads, and in almost every instance, they’ve been smooth, consistent, quiet and trouble-free. In terms of their surfaces, I mean.

I’ve done a few hundred miles of autoroute, which you have to pay for, but which seem to have blemish-free surfaces. I’ve done quite a bit of the Routes Nationales, which have occasional, but only occasional, patches of roughness, but are mostly fine. And even on the little local roads in a pretty rural bit of France, road surfaces are good.

Very much, I would say, this is in contrast to the UK. I have on my car some fairly silly wide and low profile wheels, of the kind much beloved by people who buy cars for looks rather than any of the more sensible criteria. A consequence is that they feel every surface deformity on the road and they also make quite appalling amounts of noise: on roads in the UK, that is. In France? Rien. Or at least presque rien. Smooth, silent, svelte, sophisticated: my car in France is all of these things, where in England it rattles and jolts and drowns out all attempts at listening to the radio. It’s not just the potholes in the UK. It’s the road surfaces themselves: noisy, poorly-made, rough stuff.

Why is this? Why are French roads so good and/or UK roads so poor? OK, they maybe get less weather, less frost and less damage. But actually, I’ve driven in ice and snow in France: the weather difference is marginal and France is quite a lot bigger. Someone locally here has said that most roads get resurfaced every couple of years or so, and they just pour more tarmac on to the existing surface, where we Brits dig up and patch and make do and mend. Is that the real explanation? Or is there something else going on here? It’d be nice to know, because then one could ask the UK road authorities to go and do likewise.

15 July
Where next for county cricket?

One of the good points about being a freelance, you imagine when you’re not one, is that you’ll be able to take the odd day off here and there across the English summer to go to watch the cricket. Somehow, in practice, it doesn’t quite work out like that, but yesterday, courtesy of the generosity of former colleagues, I went off to the evening Twenty20 match between Surrey and Kent at The Oval and had a really good time.

Twenty20, for those not up in the game, is the thrash-bang-wallop short version, over in about three hours and eminently suitable for a summer’s evening. The Oval was probably about two-thirds full, not much less than it had been for the international one-day match I saw there a couple of weeks back, and it was a particularly good game, with the result in doubt until the final Surrey collapse.

Much enjoyed, then. But not, various of us agreed, the same as the longer versions of cricket: Test matches or the four-day County Championship games. (Not worse, not better, just not the same). And it’s the four-day (previously three-day) county game that has been in financial trouble for as long as I can remember, with very small crowds and mainly inconvenient timings, as matches tend to start and finish midweek. Such a shame, we all said – and lest you think this is just the usual harrummphing of codgerdom, I should point out that, though “old fart” might reasonably be applied to me, my companions last night were all 20 years or more younger than me.

Anyway, the problems of county cricket – which almost certainly feed into the difficulties of the England national cricket team, where passing South Africans seem to be able to win a place more easily than the local chaps – have been with us for 60 years and seem to be getting worse, not better. Yet it strikes me there’s an obvious answer. It’s to do with asset management, a term much favoured in business these days.

It’s not just the roseate glow of reminiscence that makes me recall past summer days of county cricket at grounds such as Bath, Weston-super-Mare, Bournemouth, Guildford and Basingstoke fondly. It’s also that these places, having one or two matches a season or a “Cricket Week”, made a big thing of them locally, so they almost always got a good crowd on temporary seating and in marquees: infrastructure of minimal cost. In any case the kind of numbers that make Guildford look pretty full would make The Oval appear positively empty. Yet in most cases, these outlier grounds are now not used. O my Knypersley and my Tring long ago, long ago.

This is down to misguided “asset management”. Having invested large sums in centralised stadiums such as The Oval, county clubs believe they have to concentrate all, or most, of their games there. Even county championship games where opening up a whole vast complex for a crowd of just 400 people is plainly the economics of the asylum. Yet having got these huge assets, they’ve got to be used as much as possible for events that justify them. How?

Last night’s crowd at The Oval was, I reckon, about 50:50 split between Surrey and Kent supporters (with an awful lot of neutrals like me, of course). Would Kent supporters find it really troubling to come into The Oval for all or at least some of their Twenty20 matches? A lot of Derbyshire (for example) is probably nearer to Trent Bridge than to Chesterfield or even Derby, or not much more inconvenient.

Here’s my plan.  All the money-spinning “big” cricket events such as internationals and Twenty20 go into, say, 10 big stadiums dotted across the country that can also accommodate other big events such as baseball matches or rock concerts; county championship cricket returns regularly to Westcliff, Worksop and Kidderminster. This way costs could be better controlled, and cricket would benefit. Or that’s what I think.

5 July
Double standards in manufacturing

There’s a crunching irony that The Guardian today publishes a story about business secretary Vince Cable encouraging MPs to seek out and publicise stories of manufacturing excellence just as the UK’s last “indigenous” train builder, Bombardier, is announcing that 1,400 of its workforce in Derby will have to go because it failed to win a major UK order for new trains.

Cable is apparently supporting a “Made by Britain” initiative and will tomorrow ask MPs to find examples from their constituencies of goods manufactured in the UK. The Guardian report – you can read it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jul/05/manufacturing-made-by-britain – mentions novel and niche technologies, and custard cream biscuits, as examples.

I don’t want to knock this idea at all. The scheme is backed by Sir Alan Rudge, for many years a loud voice saying cogent things about the decline and under-valuation of manufacturing within the UK economy. I suspect that Sir Alan, though, when he worries publicly about the UK’s ability to sustain itself economically as we continually sell off assets or fail to back existing capabilities, isn’t thinking custard creams. Or even niche businesses in lucrative but inevitably small sectors.

The lost train order that is at least part of the reason for the loss of jobs in Derby is, of course, justified on cost grounds – and others perhaps: I don’t know the ins and outs enough to be able to pronounce on whether Bombardier’s bid was lacking in other respects. But in the cost argument lies a large part of the UK problem. Our measures of value in this country seem very simplistic. We don’t appear to factor in the intangible costs when we award contracts of this kind – the cost, for instance, of picking up the redundancy and social security bill for 1,400 people, the cost to a city such as Derby which is rapidly turning into a one-horse (Rolls-Royce) town, the long-term cost of not having that kind of capability in the UK any more, the loss of skills, the cost to supplier industries and support services. You don’t need cleaners for Bombardier’s offices when they’re closed.

There’s a cost in political credibility as well. People reading The Guardian over breakfast this morning might also have been listening to the radio, where one of Cable’s cabinet colleagues had the thankless task of trying to explain the Bombardier redundancies. It wasn’t convincing, and it’s hard to know how it could have been.

What is convincing, to an increasing degree, is the commitment by the government and others to a view that manufacturing is important to the UK economy: that’s good, but actually, they need now to move this argument along a bit. A “balanced” economy would have bouncy small-business niche-sector manufacturing companies and capabilities in large-scale internationally-traded manufactured items too. The UK needs mass-market and specialised goods, train building and custard creams. And we need new definitions of the value that these different-scale operations bring to the economy as a whole. Or it isn’t going to work.

> Back to June 2011