One of the things about being a writer is that you collect nuggets.
Shiny things, crinkly things, machines that go bing. Fragments of emotions. Odd facts. A snatch of conversation.
Like magpies we collect these things because … because. They are fun. They shine. Sparkle. They make us think. Other people might think that they are rubbish, but we can’t help turning them over in our hands and marvelling at them.
Most of all, they might come in handy one day. You never know when a nugget will trigger a story or help to fill a plot hole. And sometimes, just sometimes, you spot strange connections between the nuggets.
Here are a few of the nuggets that have caught my eye or ear recently.
How many people live in Slough? Various Government agencies have tried to estimate the number of people living in a particular town. It’s not as easy as you might think, because it’s hard to measure the number of people living off the grid. Immigrants (illegal or otherwise), students, people passing through.
Every 10 years we have a census, but how do we estimate population in between censuses. Censuses? Should that be censi?
What could you count as a proxy for population? You could count cars – but not everyone drives. Taxes? Not everyone pays tax.
It turns out that there is one organisation that has a pretty good idea of how many people are living in an area. I would not have guessed it if someone hadn’t told me yesterday. What do you think?
The local authority?
The health service?
The power companies?
Nope. It’s the water company. How can I put this delicately? They have to deal with human waste.
And, yes, Patti – we are talking poo and wee.
And that means that they have a good idea of how much waste we are producing. Apparently we produce 500 litres of urine and 72.5 kg of “excreta” (that’s poo to you and me) every year.
The water company measures what comes down the pipe, they divide that by the average per person and they come up with a pretty accurate estimate of how many people there are.
Obvious when you think about it, I suppose.
Incidentally, Slough used to have a slogan that said “Shift happens in Slough”.
Yes, really. I think they intended it to be one of those phrases that business folk use. Words like paradigm and shift and people-focussed. Going forwards. Low hanging fruit.
But when I see “Shift happens” I can’t stop myself from thinking it’s a typo, and that it really meant to say the same as that famous American bumper sticker.
Some scam emails are deliberately written in poor English. I am sure we have all seen the scam emails. I am a Nigerian businessman who has come into a large amount of money. I just need to borrow your bank account to get access to this money …
Great news! You have won a lottery that you didn’t know you had entered …
I have this pyramid investment scheme. You cannot lose…
Some of these are utterly preposterous. They clearly look fake – full of spelling mistakes, ridiculous arguments, they are implausible to the point of comedy.
There is a theory that this might be deliberate.
The scammers know that a huge proportion of the people who read their emails will delete them straight away. Only a tiny number will respond. And of that tiny number of respondents, only a smaller proportion still will be gullible enough to send the scammers money.
Put simply, the scammers want to get to the gullible ones and avoid all the sceptics. And they do this by having a scam which is preposterous to the majority of people.
There is an interesting article about it here.
And that tickles me – the idea that something can be more effective if it is deliberately made to look bad.
Overheard in Godalming High Street. A mother is walking with two school-age girls. The mother looks harassed and under pressure. Her face is pinched and red. She has that sour look of someone pushed to the edge, then pushed again. Thin lips that seem incapable of smiling. Default = scowl.
“Will you shut up?” she said, in a voice loud enough to negate the need for mobile phones. “I don’t want to hear another of your ideas.”
There was a special accent on “ideas” as if there was a mass of baggage there. But not an ounce of warmth, not a scintilla of understanding or sympathy.
Then they were gone. We passed them in the street. I could vaguely hear the woman talking for a while, but I couldn’t make out the words.
What were the girl’s ideas? I have no clue. She might have come up with a solution to guarantee world peace or she might be lobbying for chocolate and yet another magazine full of pictures of barely pubescent boys with their acne photoshopped out. She could be unfairly oppressed or she might be a constant pesterer.
HO LAND & BARRETT
The “L” had fallen off the shop sign in Bury St. Edmunds. I pointed it out to my wife.
“That’s funny,” I said. “It looks like they are trying a new product range.”
She gave me a puzzled look.
I said. “Ho. In some cultures that is short for whore. It can also be a term of endearment. I could say that you are my ho. If we are hanging with my homies in the hood.”
Her look of puzzlement turned into a patented “old fashioned” look. And I could tell that she wasn’t overly impressed with the idea of being called a ho. And that she didn’t care for the language of the hood being applied to two middle class, middle aged white people.
She didn’t need to say anything. But if she had, it might have been a variant of “Will you shut up? I don’t want to hear another of your ideas.”
Then I started to wonder. What if the manager of that branch of Holland & Barrett knew that the sign was broken, but was deliberately keeping it that way to attract customers? What if I was the thousandth married man to giggle at that sign and then try to explain why I was laughing to a wife who has never seen Pulp Fiction?
Dr Oetker Sprinkles
Apparently. Don’t we all?
Around 500 litres per year. Which brings us back to the question of how many people live in Slough.