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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

I try hard to like the new, darker James Bond, but I miss the camp insouciance of the earlier films. If you’ve grown up with the type of 007 who briefly interrupts a bout of exotic love-making to sabotage a Russian spyplane with a champagne cork, it’s hard to warm to a character who spends most of the film engaged in the kind of fighting you’d expect to see in a pub car-park in Maidstone.

But, like him or not, there is nothing un-British about the new Bond. In many ways, crude, inelegant but effective is what Brits do best: the Routemaster bus, PG Tips, the London taxi, the full English breakfast, the Aga, the Blower Bentley and the 125 High Speed Train are all fine examples of our ‘it’s not fancy but it works’ approach. In a curious way, the Boeing 747 is a much more British plane than the Concorde.


Like the 747, the High Speed Train was first intended as a stop-gap, yet is still unsurpassed 40 years on. There is a wonderfully manly Richard Hannay feeling to the way in which you still exit these trains by lowering the window, then leaning out to depress the vast external door-handle. I also love the way the doors swing shut with a series of satisfying clangs, followed by a deafening racket and cloud of fumes when the train pulls out. Rather than mincing along on special tracks like the French TGV, the HST uses what’s already there and, unlike the Eurostar, it doesn’t replicate the worst aspects of air-travel in a train journey. The whole thing is mad yet magnificent, a relic from an age when the world was designed by men who smoked pipes.

I suspect fans of the HST will mostly enjoy Slow Tech, by Andrew Price, a book which describes itself as ‘a manifesto for an over-wound world’. The author believes that an obsession with ‘efficiency at all costs’ has led to an over-engineered approach to everything from business systems to cars. He cites the Aga stove and the vintage Bentley as examples of the robust technologies he admires.

To his list of demons he could add what for me is one of the worst example of senseless complexity — the europlug. At some point in the last century some idiot, possibly at the French ministry of plumbing, decided that the system of retaining water in a bath or basin with a simple plug attached by a chain was far too simple. So he came up with a stupid system of levers and rods that raises and lowers a metal disk at the bottom of the basin, on a good day by as much as half a millimetre.

In my experience this moronic contraption works less than half the time, either failing to seal or failing to drain. The device is unhygienic, hard to repair and hopeless for anyone who shaves (or vomits). There is no single way in which this device improves on the simple plug and chain it replaces.

Yet this most un-British device is slowly taking over here in Blighty. Are we too late? Could we have a campaign, ‘Stop the Europlug’, with Tory MPs wearing little gold plugs and chains on their lapels? Something for Kenneth Clarke, perhaps?


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