Tag Archives: negative space

I swear they have got smaller! Damn chocflation!

20110403 Smiling electric heater dial 150x150 I swear they have got smaller!  Damn chocflation!

Have you ever remarked that something used to be bigger?

It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK and flowers and chocolates abound.  Now that that’s nearly over it’s time to get the Cadbury’s Creme Eggs out for Easter.  Commercialisation – we loves it, but that’s a topic for another article.  I swear Cadbury’s Creme Eggs aren’t as big as they used to be.  I call it chocflation.  25 years ago they were only slightly smaller than my hands and now I can hold many of them in one hand.  Of course, I have grown and my hands have got bigger.  But regardless, there is a niggling feeling that many other things aren’t as big as they used to be: buildings, coins and so on.

A relative thing

Size perception is just that: perception; it’s a relative thing and I always derive joy in asking my mother how big she sees stars.  She will pinch her index finger and thumb together to form a circle, as if to give the A-OK.  When asked how big she sees the moon she uses two hands, fingers slightly bent, palms facing one another to create a negative space about the size of an average saucer.  “Wow!  You must be able to see little men (and women) walking on its surface,” I quip.  I see stars as small pin pricks of light and the moon smaller than my mother sees stars.  She is 154 cm tall, which might have something to do with it, though even when I was a child my perception of stars and the moon was not much different than it is today.

A few years ago I revisited an old street in Zeist, The Netherland, where I lived for a couple of years.  I hadn’t been back for 16 years and everything looked so much smaller than in my mind’s eye.  What appeared to be a massive tower block at the time was what I would now describe as medium-rise.  Again, the distorted perception of size.

How big do you really see something?

But how do you measure how big or small you see something?  Moreover, how do you convey it to someone else?  You can’t stick your hand inside your brain and measure the image inside your visual cortex, like you would a physical object.

When asked how big I perceive a distant object to be, I will have my arms in a relaxed, slightly bent position and move my fingers until the gap appears the same size as the distant object.  For some reason, I’ll cock my head slightly and pull a pensive face.  The more pensive the face, the more accurate the measurement – fact! 🙂  But how far do you bend your arm?  How long is your arm?

Make a circle with your hand, hold it at arms length and you see a relatively small circle occupying only a small portion of your field of vision.  Put it right up against your face and it is so big, you can see straight through it and it has virtually disappeared from view apart from your peripheral vision.

A confused picture

Some things actually are smaller than they used to be.  Remember the old 10p and 50p coins that were phased out in 1992 and 1998 respectively?  I wish I had a picture to illustrate it but they were quite cumbersome.  Even the current 50p is quite big for what it’s worth.  I like to call it nihilchobblerism.

I recently read that Cadbury’s were going to downsize their Dairy Milk bar from 140g to 120g for “economic reasons”.  That’s another example of physical shrinkage.  In some respects this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can contribute to tackling the obesity epidemic in this country.  But that’s a topic for another article.

On the subject of obesity, how often have you noticed clothes not fitting anymore?  My mother used to tell me I had grown but the only growth I am capable of now is sideways.  Plenty of exercise and a healthy diet can combat this.  Still, I find after a few months clothes – particularly the lower quality ones – don’t fit as well as they used to.  Cotton is notorious for shrinking and trousers and tops get tighter and sleeves and legs get shorter.


In one of Nostradamus’ quatrains he said the world will get smaller and the following quatrain is often said to predict World War III:

“Pestilences extinguished, the world becomes smaller, for a long time the lands will be inhabited peacefully. People will travel safely through the sky, land and seas: then wars will start up again.”

I do like a bit of mystery, but my personal belief is that the quatrains are probably misinterpreted.  As an apothecary, he must have been a fairly practical man.  Perhaps this quatrain was nothing more than a cynical reflection on life: as you get older things will appear to get smaller and smaller.  Perhaps it was inspired by eating chocolate.  I can see him now, munching on his Cadbury’s Creme Egg whilst putting on his favourite, but ill-fitting jeans exclaiming, “Zut alors!  I swear they used to be bigger!”

The face of small

This face is a close-up of the dial on an electric heater in my flat.  It is small – to you and me.  But to an ant it is big and its mouth would be big enough to eat it.  It’s all relative.

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A thousand words unspoken

20110331 Tear here box 150x150 A thousand words unspokenWords are interesting and they have the power to convey thoughts.  They are, however, a double-edged sword and can be used for good and bad.  A lot of fun can be had with them, too.

Words:  I love them, but what are they?  Initially I found it difficult to come up with a definition.  This is because, as a man of pragmatism, I was thinking in terms of tangible concepts.  For instance, the written word teapot and the spoken equivalent are physically two very different things, neither of which resembles a teapot, but both nonetheless convey the same meaning through different senses.  I nearly grabbed my trusty Collins dictionary (Millennium Edition) in an attempt to solve the conundrum and then it struck me that the essence of a word is a name or label for an idea, a concept or object.  There you go!  It just goes to show I am no wordsmith – perhaps a wordjones at best.

Words unspoken

The beauty of language, especially the English language with its particularly rich vocabulary, is that you can communicate in nuances.  Sometimes you don’t even have to say something explicitly to convey an idea; you can read between the lines.

I am not always straightforward in my communication, particularly when it comes to expressing feelings.  This may have something to do with being a man (oops, the sexism alarm has just gone off – back in a tick), but I don’t always find it easy to express myself directly.  I wrote en email recently and found myself writing the “gaps between the lines” in places in the first draft, sort of hoping the lines themselves would be understood.  The final version was more direct but still wishy washy in areas but it was all meant in a positive way and judging by the response, taken in that way.

In a way this is like the language equivalent of shadows or negative space.  You might call it unguage – sentences that skirt around the issue so closely as to convey the intended thought without saying it explicitly.  It is also useful in the politics of Project Management where the insertion of a simple phrase like “I understand from our telephone conversation that…” can soften a statement that might otherwise read as a blatant accusation, even if it is meant as such.

Etymology and perspectives

I find etymologies interesting and these are often closely related to cultural thinking.  They say eyes are the window to the soul, but much about a country’s culture can be gleaned from the language.  Take telling the time as an example.  In Dutch (and similarly in German) 4:30 would be “half five”.  Perhaps it is because both the Dutch and Germans are very punctual, hard-working and progressive and look forwards in time.  In Britain we are very proud of our heritage and of the great figures of history with their origins in this country: Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, James Watt.  The Industrial Revolution started here and it was the birthplace of railways among many other things.  We look to our past and call it “half past four” or “half four” for short.

Language of the soul

Back to the tangible, there is nothing intrinsically special about the sounds coming from my mouth or the symbols you see on your computer screen or in print.  To a non-human both are simply background noise and it requires another human mind to make sense of them.  After all, language is in essence the transfer of thought from one brain to another and it is truly remarkable.

Remarkable though the brain is, its thoughts are capable of both good and bad and so the brains projection onto others through words has the potential for good and bad too.  Words are not only beautiful and remarkable, but powerful and potent.  The wrong words at the wrong time can cause misunderstandings, rows and even wars.  Powerful though they are, words alone, it seems, don’t convey thoughts perfectly and body language plays a key part.  It is reckoned you lose the majority of the meaning when talking over the phone, simply because of missed body language cues.  An even smaller percentage of the original meaning is left in written communication, as both the body language and tone are stripped away.  Text messages (SMS) are notorious for that.

A comedy of sorts

Words can be used to make people happy, either intentionally through nice messages and jokes, or accidentally.  Some words are simply great because of their sound alone: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Moussa Koussa, floccinaucinihilipilification…

Autocorrect features in word processors or the iPhone can produce some funny but sometimes disturbing and unsavoury results.  Do a Google search for “iPhone autocorrect” (if you’re over the age of majority), but not until you’ve finished reading and sharing this article with all your friends! 😉  I used to do a lot of report writing, because I did a lot of Project Management type work in Defence a few years ago.  This would require input from various disciplines, including Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.  As one of the client’s primary contacts I had the dubious honour of collating everybody’s text and would have to proof-read other people’s input and would come across some funny sentences.

The word luminaires isn’t recognised by Microsoft Word’s default spell checker and is automatically “corrected” to luminaries, which can make for interesting reading.

Technology can’t always be blamed though and some of the best spelling mistakes are a result of human error.  A sign on the door of a convenience store once read “Mined the step”.  Whoa!  Get the bomb squad in!  In a risk assessment I once read the phrase “avian bird flue”, presumably referring to H5N1.  However this conjured up images of a vertical pipe conveying birds – birds of the avian variety, no less… whatever they are.

But my all-time favourite came from a condition survey report an old colleague wrote for an old Victorian workhouse that had been converted into offices.  The original building was symmetrical and had two entrances side-by-side, two staircases to sleeping quarters and so on.  This was intended to segregate the different workers, male and female.  One line in the report read, “…a separate door for different sex workers…” and with the stroke of a virtual pen he had changed the historic use of the house to a brothel.

Double Entendre

The picture shows a box I found in the yoghurt aisle at Asda today.  Yes, there is such a thing as the yoghurt aisle at Asda Bedminster, I kid you not.  The box has openings in it, making it look like a face.  The text “tear here” instructs the user to rip away the front panel as indicated by the arrows.  But look at the positioning of the arrows and they look like a schematic representation of floods of tears streaming from the eyes.  It is a double entendre of sorts, where crying and ripping and tearing are combined into a single object.  One picture, a thousand words.

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What a waste

20110313 Unhappy polystyrene face 150x150 What a waste

Look at the image and there is a scary screaming face with different sized eyes looking back at you.  But no, there isn’t.  Look again and you’ll see what I mean.  Where the supposed face is there is actually nothing, nada, le Jacques merde absolutement – to coin a phrase (again).  It is a block of expanded polystyrene with holes cut out and the illusion of an image of a face is in fact negative space.

Expanded polystyrene (or Styrofoam if you’re that way inclined) is an interesting material that has its uses in packaging, protecting building foundations against clay heave and reducing fill in building up embankments and so on, but because of its low cost it is ubiquitous and due to its low density it is bulky and a nuisance to get rid of.

I am not really a gadget freak and hate buying new electrical items if my existing item is still working.  In the last decade or so there has been a troubling development of mobile phone manufacturers (and so network operators) pushing their latest models and forcing unnecessary upgrades.  The upside of this churn in the mobile phones market is that it stimulates the economy and drives progress and technological innovation.  This has got to be a good thing in that it benefits society.  Improved digital electronics has shrunk mobile phones from the big black box under my dad’s car seat in the 1980s to something you can carry around in your pocket.  This kind of progress has been mirrored across the electronics spectrum over the decades and has resulted in cheaper, higher resolution digital “this” and digital “that”, which has had a positive impact in the fields of research and medical science.

The problem with an economy driven by consumption is that it generates waste.  Waste gets a bad rap in popular parlance, but it is in itself not necessarily bad or dangerous.  It is simply a product that is deemed surplus to requirements in a particular process.  Wood chippings from a saw mill can be turned into chipboard, MDF or biofuel, for example.  The challenge is to find new uses for waste materials, to use materials that generate less waste and to simply use less material.

Recycling was drilled into me from an early age.  In the Netherlands, where I was born and lived for a good 10 years of my life, it is a part of life and the Dutch are very good at it and the Germans seem to do it even better.  In Britain we are progressively getting better at recycling and I have seen new collection boxes for separated waste being introduced over the years, including a blue box for plastic bottles, a black box for glass, cans and paper and so on.  Recycle bins have popped up all over the centre of Bristol and replaced some of the general waste bins.  I was on College Green not too long ago and spotted a new one by the Council House.  At all the festivals and events and events over the past couple of years or so (including the Bristol Harbour Festival, Brisfest, International Balloon Fiesta and so on) there have been separate bins for paper, cans, bottles and so on.  It’s all in the name of saving the environment.

Looking at the greater picture, I can’t help but wonder whether the overall impact of recycling on the environment (taking into consideration CO2 emissions) is actually worse than or the same as not recycling.  I wonder if Eric from Recresco has anything to say about this.  I’d love to hear from you again!

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