Sunday, October 23, 2016

Protecting What’s Yours – How Far Should You Go?

A couple of days ago I came across a news item in The Guardian for a security feature intended to protect bikes – both pedal and motor – from potential thieves. Called the SkunkLock, it initially looks like a standard carbon steel lock, but it’s filled with a chemical, which – if anyone cuts about a third of the way through the metal outer casing – is released. The manufacturers claim that although this chemical is entirely legal, it will induce vomiting in 99% of people.

The idea came from San Francisco, where bicycle thefts are legion, and is being Crowdfunded as we speak. One of the inventors, Daniel Idzkowski, came up with the idea after a friend’s expensive electric bicycle was stolen while they were at lunch, despite having two $120 mechanical locks attached to it.

Of course, there are ways around the SkunkLock. The would-be thief could simply pick the lock, or wait until the gas supply is exhausted and then go back to finish the job. But as with most security measures, they’re intended for deterrent rather than outright prevention.

This ‘Room 101’-style “Don’t do it to me – do it to her!” attitude somewhat reminds me of the story of the two guys out hiking who encounter a bear. One puts on his running shoes, to be told by his companion, “You can’t hope to outrun the bear.” The first man replies, “Who said anything about the bear? I just have to outrun you.”

The SkunkLock is currently being tested and undergoing risk assessment with the company’s legal team. Because, of course, we mustn’t cause lasting damage to someone who’s breaking the law attempting to steal from us …

In similar vein, I recall an anti car-theft device from a few years ago called the Auto Taser. It resembles a standard steering-wheel club lock, with one notable exception. Normally, these clubs are simply used by wannabe thieves for leverage to break the steering lock before they’re picked. But, if you tried to grab the Auto Taser it hit you with a high volt/low amp electric shock, very similar to the usual Taser stun guns that have become regular issue for police forces in the UK.

Of course, if you’re a civilian, I think I’m correct in saying you’re not allowed to use a Taser over here. Employing the Auto Taser meant having clear warning signs on the exterior of your vehicle, at which point it came under the same legislation that covers electric fences for cattle.

Not hurting the perpetrator seems to be a priority. As someone who’s been the victim of theft, my instinct says that when someone chooses to break the law, all bets are off, I can see where this might ultimately lead. It’s our job as writers, after all, to push any idea to its logical, sometimes extreme conclusion, just to explore the effect that might have.

The opening line of William Gaddis’ 1994 novel A FROLIC OF HIS OWN reads: ‘Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.’

What’s your feeling on this? Should criminals ‘get what’s coming to them’ in real life as well as fiction? And have you come across any similar weird and wonderful devices you’d like to share?

I leave you with an advert run by Oregon-based company, The Suburban Auto Group, for Trunk Monkey – the ultimate anti-theft device:

And a thank you to Dea Parkin and the Chorley & District Writers’ Circle for their invite to me to speak at yesterday’s Write Now Festival.

Not only was it a fascinating event, with insight into the world of publishing from Katherine Armstrong of Bonnier Zaffre and myself, children’s books from Jake Hope, and the nuts and bolts of writing from AJ Wright, but the Vintage Tea Rooms nearby does a Fabulous hot chocolate that even has candy floss on it!

This week’s Word of the Week is thanatology, meaning the scientific study of death, including not only the forensic aspects, but also the wider psychological and social effects. It comes from the Greek Thanatos, death, and the suffic –ology, again from the Greek, -logia, speaking.


  1. My question: where did they find folks willing to TEST the SkunkLock? And how much did they pay them??? Of course, the answer to the question your title poses is unanswerable, which is good for novelists. It's a gray area, with trade-offs between safety for you, danger to the perp, and danger to innocent passersby.

    On the word side of things, I happened upon this web site this week that I thought you might find interesting:

    Green's Dictionary of Slang - Five Hundred Years of the Vulgar Tongue.

    1. They certainly found people prepared to try grabbing hold of the Auto Taser -- I've seen it done. And no money changed hands!

  2. I like the Trunk Monkey idea a lot. I've seen car signs in South Africa - "Warning - snakes inside". A python lying on the back seat would be a real deterrent! Or a black mamba. The problem is how the owner gets in and drives.

    1. Reminds me of the old joke about the guy who parks his car and as he's walking away a kid says to him, "Ten quid to look after your car, mister." The guy looks at him and says, "That's OK, sonny, there's a Rottweiler in the back seat." The kid looks at him for a moment, then says, "Can he put out fires ...?"

  3. Zoe, In NYC we don't need to protect our motor vehicles. They are either on the street and car theft is not common. Stealing cars from people in the suburbs is much easier, so thieves work out of town. Many of us pay unconscionable amounts of money to keep out cars in parking garages, for the convenience, not for safety's sake. The guys in the garage hold them for a monthly ransom that would pay for a decent apartment in a small town. People chain up their bicycles, and I have no idea what they use to do that. For all I know, those things that look like cables are pythons or mambas trained to release the bikes only to their lawful owners.

    1. When you have a great subway system, like NYC, or London, you don't need a car. Don't think I'd have one if I lived in either city. (Of course, that argument doesn't work against motorcycles.) But the money I saved in parking fees I'd blow on really amazing rental cars when I did need transport!

  4. Personally, I think it's all about challenging the creativity of the crooks. For example, there was a notoriously expensive bike lock heavily marketed as unassailable that some ingenious thief found could be picked simply by using a Bic (not Bike) pen! You just got to love the on going back and forth.

    Personally, on the farm I generally employ 357 protective measures, though at times I gauge 12 as more appropriate.