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Friday, March 21, 2003
Beware of the dog

We've been sourcing quotes for car insurance in the last week, and time and time again, the stumbling block is our postcode. It all goes swimmingly until we proffer that magic combination of seven letters and numbers. All of a sudden, premiums shoot up and we are advised that it'll be cheaper if the car isn't insured for overnight damage or theft. We're no criminologists, but it strikes us that the cover of darkness offers more opportunity for 'damage and theft' than daylight.

How did the postcode get to rule our lives? The beleagured Royal Mail (which lost £1.2bn last year) has an interesting heritage site with a potted postcode history (pdf). From this, we glean that mail delivery has always had a dominant hold on the form of address, with streets renamed to counter the problem of many identical addresses, especially in major cities. London's original 10 districts - EC and WC (for East and West Central), plus NW, N, NE, E, S, SE, SW and W - were implemented in 1857-8 (things is split between SE and NW) and were gradually updated, with the addition of sub-districts (a number after the letters) in 1917. The current system dates from the mid-60s, and accompanied the introduction of mechanical sorting. Each postcode identifies approximately 15 addresses. Today's OCR-based mail readers identify the postcode and print a series of phosphorescent dots on an envelope for identification. 95% of UK mail is identified in this way, with the remainder being sorted by increasingly accurate Integrated Mail Processors. More on postal mechanisation.

Less evocative, but arguably more efficient, is the American five-digit system. We found a clipped obituary for Robert Aurand Moon last week, the inventor of the ZIP code system. To us, ZIP has always sounded, well, zippy and efficient, so it was a surprise to find it stood for Zoning Improvement Plan. Moon was a Philadelphia postal inspector with a penchant for side projects, and his stricly numerical system - designed from the outset for mechanical sorting - broke the entire US into 10 zones. Each additional digit identified regional sorting offices, sub-divisions, etc., until finally it got down to city blocks. The system is now even more accurate, with each postal area classified under 62 criteria (we'll try and find a list of these). Moon's ZIP codes went live on July 1, 1963, and suddenly junk mail found itself guided with unerring precision towards its target. See the ZIP FAQ and learn more about the promotional character of Mr Zip: I, II, III. More soon, perhaps, on how the post/zip code is no longer considered the ultimate demographic tool.

Elsewhere. Daniela Rossel’s Ricas Y Famosas (more) offers a set of utterly unself-conscious portraits of Mexico’s smart set. Elevated so far above the barrio and the traditional image of the middle classe, these people appear to have willingly descended (ascended?) into parody (the book also turns up on Pop-log).

Lost and frowned give us the confusing world of the Neasden Control Centre, including this remarkable sketchbook and other book art - it's like modern day Merz. In a vaguely similar vein, Beowolf, is an ever-changing font. Instructo-art (Flash, also via frowned) is all about ‘combining the art of learning with the art of art’. We liked this too - the contents of the 2003 Oscar goody bags. Unrelated. Charles and Ray Eames archive.