Browsed by
Category: Rant

When democracy goes awry

When democracy goes awry

Well, well, well.

I never really used to take too much notice of politics.  In the late 90s and early 2000s it was very easy to let it all wash over you, as the various parties seemed to do their utmost to blend into each other.  All our politicians were a bit sleazy, you wouldn’t trust any of them further than you could comfortably throw them, and one was invariably as bad as the next.

But then our very own live action Iggle Piggle thought it would be a great idea to put to bed, once and for all, the silly idea of the UK leaving the EU.  Because no-one in their right mind would possibly vote to leave, right?  ‘Cos that would be madness, and unsettling, and probably quite bad for the economy and the very make up of our culturally rich and diverse country, right? Right?

Oh.

I stayed up to watch that result.  I don’t think I’ve had a more subdued, depressed day at work as I had on the 24th of June, 2016.  After not very much sleep at all, I woke up feeling decidedly out of place.  52% of my fellow countrymen had voted in a way that felt so completely at odds with the way I felt, and, more importantly, at odds with how I was sure the rest of the country felt. Sure, that is, until that overnight TV-watching marathon as I sat, astounded, as result after ridiculous result came in.  The “drip, drip, drip” of a country sleepwalking into a massive mistake.

So now we wait.  5 and a half months on, and the pound is worth 20% less than it was, Mac’s are a couple of hundred quid more expensive, and Toblerones are a distinctly silly shape. Oh and Marmite went missing for a day or two, but came back, albeit slightly costlier.

But nothing’s really changed, has it?  Those of us that voted remain watch with dread as we wait to see exactly what a Brexited UK will actually mean.  When will Article 50 be triggered, and what will it really mean? I don’t know, but more worryingly, it seems like the government doesn’t have a clue either.

So, as I get to the end of this post, I’m quickly starting to realise that I don’t really have a point.  I think I’m just going to go and stare at my favourite tree, and hope things start to make sense soon.

img_4816

So whose fault is it, then?

So whose fault is it, then?

tl;dr – it’s your fault.  Yes, yours.  Read on for my reasoning…

On Monday, Southeastern trains from London into Kent were delayed due to a number of problems.  Points and signals were failing in the heat, a train broke down, and then travellers on the train behind the broken down train decided they’d rather force the doors open and walk down the track than spend another minute in the non-airconditioned carriages on the hottest day of the year.

Amusingly, these customers were then used as the reason for delays on other trains, although by that time they’d stopped being customers and started to be “trespassers”, as in “Trains delayed due to trespassers on the tracks”.  Turn that round into “Trains are delayed due to customers on the tracks”, and it paints a different picture, doesn’t it?

As if on cue, Passenger Focus released the results of their Spring 2011 National Passenger Survey today, and if you’re so inclined, you can download the full results from this page.

During the delay, I sat, staring at a more-or-less featureless length of railway embankment, and thought about whose fault this mess really is.  It’s certainly not the passengers’ fault.  Yes, they probably made things a little bit worse by forcing those doors and wandering down the tracks, but they definitely wouldn’t have done that if the train had been running properly in the first place.  They probably wouldn’t have done it had the air-conditioning been working properly.  They possibly wouldn’t have done it had the train staff been able to give them any clue as to when they might conceivably start moving again.

As a passenger, sat on a train that’s not moving, that last point is probably the most important.  You are totally in the dark about what is (or rather, isn’t) going on.  Thanks to the likes of Twitter and the #southeastern hashtag, you can generally start to get an idea of what’s afoot, but that’s only ever from other travellers’ points of view, there’s never anything official.  And even the decent staff that do try to get and disseminate information are usually just as clueless as their passengers.  The driver passes info from the mystical ‘control room’ to the ticket inspector On-Board Manager, and he passes it on to the customers.  But then contradictory news comes in, and the OBM passes that on too.  And then a passenger gets cross with the OBM (you said “X” 5 minutes ago, and now you’re saying “Y”), so eventually the OBM gives up and decides it’s better for all concerned if he just keeps the bad news to himself.

So it’s not his fault either.  He can’t influence the situation, and he’s blind to the actual problem so he can’t really offer any useful information.  He certainly doesn’t get paid enough to put up with irate customers shouting at him when he can do precisely nothing about the problem.

So, what about the rest of the company?  I think there is some responsibility here. Someone, somewhere must know what the problem is.  He probably has a BEng. or MEng. after his name.  Unfortunately, he’s probably far too busy trying to fettle the flux-capacitors, or reverse the oojamaflip, or whatever it is they do to fix their big train set (make sure all the track is pushed together properly?), but they must have someone stood just behind them asking those most annoying of questions “Why’s it broken?” and “When’s it going to be fixed?”.  They’re the answers the customers want – the real, un-spun answers from the actual bloke who’s fixing the problem, not some fluffy version that’s gone through several call centres before it’s deemed suitable for public dissemination.  We don’t get that.

But we’d still have problems.  There would still be delays; broken down trains, damaged track, vandalism, bridge strikes, trespassers (real ones), suicides.  These things happen.  The problem is that Southeastern (or rather its parent company, Govia) is a profit-making company.  If it can get away with dealing with these problems in a manner which is just-about-good-enough, then it will do.  It has a monopoly on the trains that run in its area, so it’s not like I could have abandoned my train on Monday night and jumped onto a competitor’s train instead.  The only option is to abandon the railway altogether and look for alternative means, which means a bus (which don’t run the same routes as the trains, for obvious reasons), or a taxi (which will go anywhere you like, just leave your kidney as a down-payment).

So, Southeastern know that they are my options – suffer the train, use another mode of transport, drive myself, or don’t travel.  All the time they can make their service just barely better than the alternatives, they win.  They don’t need to get their satisfaction ratings up, because they know that if you live in Kent and want to work in London, you’ll be catching the train, because there is no alternative.

You can’t blame Southeastern either then.  They’re in the business to make money, not to make their customers’ lives easier or more comfortable.  They do the minimum they can get away with to ensure that they keep their franchise, and so that not too many people think “stuff this, I’m getting a cab / bus / new job / new house”.  All the time people want or need to work in London without actually living in London (and let’s be honest, no-one actually wants to live in London), they’re going to make their money.  That means there is no contingency.  There’s no ‘spare’ capacity on the network just for when it all goes wrong. There’s little to no redundancy.  When something, anything goes wrong, the whole thing’s basically broken.

So.  Whose fault is it then?  Well, it’s ours, obviously.  Well, not mine, because I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1992, but that election saw the Tories take 41.9% of the public vote and win a 51.6% majority in the House of Commons, with the highest voter turnout since 1974.  It let them push on with the plan to privatise British Rail, something that even dear old Maggie Thatcher called a “privatisation too far”.  A plan that created 25 operating companies, all with the sole mission to make money.

Private companies exist to make money.  That’s it.  They don’t have to be green, or please their customers, or paint their trains nice colours, they just have to make money.  Generally, in the real world at least, you have to keep your customers happy because otherwise they won’t be your customers for very long.  But train companies don’t have to worry about that because unless you fancy moving, driving, sitting on a bus, or getting a new job, you’re stuck with it.

So there you go.  It’s not their fault, it’s yours.

Let’s just keep on eye on the Tories this time round, shall we, and hopefully our kids won’t be blaming us for their lives being ruined… any more than they will anyway, of course.

In the interest of full disclosure… I’ve been lining Southeastern’s pockets for three years, and can honestly say that when things are going their way it’s just fine.  It’s BLOODY expensive, of course, and you’re effectively paying to waste 3 hours of your life every day, but most of the time the train gets to where it’s supposed to be going on time, and, on my journey at least, there’s always somewhere to sit.  When it goes wrong it’s diabolical, with all the lack of info I described above.  You get the feeling that every time anything goes wrong it’s the very first time that there’s ever been a problem on the railways.  If it wasn’t stopping me getting home to my family, it would be funny.  But it usually is, so it’s not.

My time of commuting is coming to an end, though, as I’m starting a new (well, old, or new-old) job in August.  Now just watch the price of petrol go (even further) through the roof…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

You may have missed it, but there was a bit of a nip in the air last week – Garry has already mentioned the effect it has on the, shall we say, “intellectually challenged” amongst us.  I was amused by the BBC’s footage of people insisting on walking down the icy bit of the steps outside Waterloo Station – for pity’s sake, use your eyes!

As it was the first time my commute to London had been affected by cold weather I was mildly surprised by the train company’s attitude: “It’s snowing, we’re not running any trains.  kthxbye!”.  Not a hint of “We’d like to apologise for any inconvenience this will cause” or anything similar, just a stark “no trains today” announcement.  Now, I can usually work from home if need be, but I’m guessing I’m still in the minority there.  Approximately 143,000 people commute into London on Southeasern Railways trains every day (it says here), and every one of those people was inconvenienced in one way or another on Monday and Tuesday.

Obviously, those of us who pay in advance for our train tickets don’t get any recompense for paying for something that didn’t actually exist – there’s some customer charter somewhere that says that because I pay *cough* pounds a month for my ticket I have fewer rights than someone who only travels occasionally.  I’ve never quite understood that…

I don’t think they could or should have done anything different, it’s just the way they act as if we should think ourselves lucky if they actually provide the service we pay through the nose for. Just one little sentence with the word ‘apologise’ or ‘sorry’ in it would have gone a long way for this particular commuter.

Snow Train to Nowhere! - Winchester
With thanks to neilalderney123 at Flickr for the photo – I was far too warm and cosy at home to venture out with the camera!

The Phone People

The Phone People

I always think that if you’re going to make a major change to your life, you might as well make two at the same time. Last year, Mary and I got married in March, and moved into our new house in July. This year, we had our baby in June, and I decided that would be the best time in the world to start a new job which meant quadrupling my journey time. Genius. It does have its upsides – I’m a developer who’s allowed to develop nowadays, and the 90 minutes of uninterrupted train time do have their uses if you’re the kind of person who can sleep on a train, and your nighttimes are being punctuated by nocturnal dummy hunts.

The downsides are plenty though, and I’m not even counting the obvious ones about being away from home, missing the family, etc etc. Let’s start with the biggest problem every commuter encounters: other commuters. I think there’s enough raw material here for a few posts, so for this one I’m just going to concentrate on one small subsection of my fellow commuters: the Phone People.

The Phone People are those people who spend every spare penny of their wage on a top rate mobile phone contract, and feel obliged to use every one of their 4,5001 ‘free’ minutes every month. They’re the ones who board the train with the phone pinned to their ear, and are still there, spouting nothing into it 90 minutes later when I get off. They speak about nothing, to everybody in their phonebook. There’s a girl who gets on my train in the evenings who starts planning what she’s going to wear at the weekend on Tuesday. And when she’s finished telling friend 1 that it’s going to be the sparkly gold top with the big wide belt, we have to listen as she tells friend 2 that it’s going to be the sparkly gold top with the big wide belt. And then friend 3. And then friends 4, 5 and 6. And then her (obviously) long-suffering boyfriend. She probably continues, but by this point in the journey I, along with most of the rest of the carriage, have given up trying to sleep or read and have donned headphones in an attempt to block out her inanity. I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes on to inform the emergency services of her intended wardrobe for the weekend so that they can stock up on the right kind of replacement heels…

I’ve digressed slightly and got a little bit personal. If you recognise yourself from that description, then please, for the love of everything that is good and right, shut up when you’re on the train… Thanks.

Back to the point, the Phone People are just pure irritation. I think the train companies should introduce something like ‘Annoyance Free’ carriages, where carrying a non-silent phone would be grounds for some serious tutting, and speaking into it would get you turfed out at the next station. I really do think that on a 12-carriage train, they’d need about 11 ‘Annoyance Free’ carriages.

Obviously, for this to work, you need someone to judge what is annoying and what isn’t. I’d gladly give up some of my train time to make the world a better, quieter place…

No Mobile Phones

1 4,500 minutes. Strangely enough, 4,500 minutes is about the amount of time I spend travelling home from London in one month. I reckon most Phone People must have contracts that mean that they have to spend at least that long on the phone. I mean, they must also use the phone when I’m not within earshot, right?

I want my 4 hours back!

I want my 4 hours back!

Did you see the Grand Prix yesterday? You did? What, all of it? You didn’t slip into a coma after 20 minutes? Well, congratulations…

What’s happened to F1 then? The last 2 races really have been dull as ditchwater. Cars only overtake in the pits because it seems that every track is “notoriously difficult to overtake on”, yet other series don’t seem to have the same problem. Drivers are encouraged to turn their cars down because to actually try to race might jeopardise their car’s performance at the next meeting. Everyone seems to have forgotten that the main point of racing is to race, to duel, to be better than the other guy. Now it’s all about not risking the points you have for the chance of a few more. It’s about hoping your pit crew, strategy, or reliability is better than the other guy’s.

It’s not about racing. It’s about boring the proverbials off of spectators.

So what can they do? Garry and I were having a bit of a discussion (or moan, rant, call it what you will) yesterday, and came up with a few (semi serious) ideas:

  • One point for a win. Zero points for losing. That’s it, none of this “saving the engine and taking 2 points” rubbish, you win or you don’t. You score or you don’t.
  • Bring back slick tyres. F1 cars can’t overtake because they rely so much on downforce, and the aerodynamics go all wafty when you’re in the car in front’s dirty air. They rely so much on downforce because they have to use those silly grooved tyres. Scrap the grooves, reintroduce slicks, outlaw most of the downforce devices. You’d get closer racing and real overtaking.
  • Let the teams do whatever they want between races. If they want to rebuild the engine between weekends, so be it. It just means they’ll be too busy doing that to spend time on R&D. Penalising a team for dropping an engine is just silly.
  • Grid = reverse of last race’s result. Let’s see just how good those drivers are. If you win race 1, you start race 2 at the back. Cue lots of overtaking, lots of swerving (“who left that Stupid Aguri Honda there!?”), and all round merriment. I can see the drawbacks of this, but it’d be a laugh.
  • Ban electronic driver aids. An actual serious suggestion. Things like ABS, Traction Control, and Electronic Stability Programs reduce the amount of skill required to get the car round the track, and remove some of the opportunity for driver error (replacing it with the opportunity for malfunctions, of course). Let the cars wheelspin and lock their brakes – it looks better (we like smoke), and you never know, the guy in 2nd place might just get up to 1st when the leader out brakes himself.

I’m sure there are more, but that’s about all I can remember for now.

I realise that F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport, and that a lot of the rules we’re moaning about are there to help ensure that there is a series to watch and moan about, and that the series has more than just 3 teams, but things are getting silly. I didn’t see a single overtaking manoeuvre yesterday, and that’s absurd.

Oh yes, and as for those 4 hours… If a certain Mr B. Ecclestone would like to offer some recompense for the time spent enduring the “spectacle” of the last 2 Formula One Grand Prix, then I think a suitable rate would be something like £100 an hour. Many thanks…

Leave my stuff alone!

Leave my stuff alone!

<rant topic=”microsoft”>

At work we’ve been asked to install Office XP Service Pack 3 for the ‘added security features’ and so on. Fair enough, security’s quite important and all that… Having done so, however, the only differences I’ve noticed is that IE and Outlook have been re-added to my Quick Launch toolbar (I’d replaced IE with Firefox a while ago… Outlook was already there so I ended up with two Outlook icons…), and images that used to open quite happily in Firefox now launch Microsoft’s crappy Photo Editor. Grrr. Since when was Photo Editor anything to do with Office? Or maybe it’s ‘more secure’?

</rant>

Anyhoo… back to work… Now that my CVS module is un-broken I can get some work done 🙂 (Note to self: don’t use Eclipse to move java packages around in a CVS module… everything gets a tad confused)

Threats? I laugh in the face of threats…

Threats? I laugh in the face of threats…

…and then I write snotty letters back…

A while back, I wrote about getting a letter about not paying my gym fees, and that I thought I’d be getting a threatening letter soon. Well, it arrived today. Here’s what it says:

Dear MR HANEY,

We have previously written to you, stating that your membership payments at {gym name} have fallen into arrears. Our records show that your installment(s) due on:-
Mar 2004
are outstanding. The amount due is:-
£27.5

If you have forwarded the amount owing during the last few days, please disregard this letter. If not, we would like to remind you that you have signed a 12 month Membership Agreement to pay a years subscription to {gym name}, whether you use the clubs facilities or not.

Please send a Cheque or Postal Order to clear your arrears to {collection company} and ensure that all future payments reach us at the correct time.

Should you not contact us in writing with 7 days of the date of this letter then we will commence legal action, which may result in court proceedings.

Yours sincerely

{illegible squiggle}
Credit Control

Nice, isn’t it? (All grammar errors are as they appear in the letter, btw)

I have paid – I’ve checked. I wonder how many other people get these letters during their membership, and I wonder how many are panicked into sending an extra payment at the threat of being dragged through the courts. I also wonder how easy it would be to get that undue payment back.

For what it’s worth, my 12 months membership finishes this month, so I’ll be cancelling and will it make clear as to why. I think I’ll also contact Watchdog and Trading Standards – whether this is a mistake or an underhand business practise, they really should stop doing it.

Anyhoo – it’s Friday – bring on the beer 🙂

What is it with these people?

What is it with these people?

A while back, the company that collects fees for the gym that I’m a member of sent me a letter saying I hadn’t paid my fees that month. A week later they sent me another saying that I still hadn’t paid, and not-so-subtly threatened me with legal action unless I coughed up. I had paid, in full, when required, and it turned out to be an oversight on their part. I got another one of their letters today, and once again I have paid, in full, as required. I am going to wait for their threatening letter and then reply with “great vengeance and furious anger”. Oh and then I shall be sending copies of their letters to the gym as the reason I am cancelling.

Suggestions for what the letter should say via the comments link below, please, in true Young Ones style 🙂

Rant, rant, and thrice rant

Rant, rant, and thrice rant

With a title like that I can just feel your mice sliding up to the back button, but it’s ok – I’ll keep it short.

First – taxi drivers. Now, a good friend of mine used to be a taxi driver, so I know all about the trials and tribulations of their job (maybe a topic for a blog entry, Mike?). However… I have issues with those individuals who drive for a living, yet surely go to bed every night thanking the lord above that they didn’t crash today. On Saturday night, we encountered two such individuals. One who didn’t know how big his huge taxi was, and another who was in such a rush to get back into Canterbury that he broke the speed limit by some considerable margin all the way home. And took the racing line round every corner. And overtook anything doing less than 10mph over the limit. Now if he’d have taken his time he would have got a bit of a tip, as I know he won’t get another fare until he’s back in Canterbury. He drove like a loon, so he didn’t get a tip. And yes I did see his face as the hand stayed out for the tip as I simply pocketed the change and got out of the car. Muppet.

ch.gifOn the subject of ‘outstretched hand, waiting for money’, how about ucomics.com, or ‘money grabbing lowlifes‘ as I like to call them. There used to be a time when you could browse through the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comicstrip at your leisure, and you still can… for a price. You have to pay a yearly subscription for anything more than the past two weeks strips now. Gits. I think this move coincides with their successful efforts to close down a site which would let you search for your favourite C&H strip. Even bigger gits.

And I did have a third. I’m sure I did. But it has escaped my ‘fragile little mind’. It’ll return for another entry, no doubt.

Liars, or fools?

Liars, or fools?

When someone is staring you in the face and telling you something that is blatantly untrue, how do you figure out whether they’re lying to you on purpose, or merely not able to grasp the reality behind what they’re saying? How do you decide whether they’re liars or fools?

This article of lies from the Kent And Medway Safety Camera Partnership caught my eye recently. In it they make the remarkable claim that since the partnership’s inception, they have saved 37 people from death or serious injury. That’s a lot of people. I found myself wondering “how did they work that out, then?”, and sure enough, they’re more than willing to explain:

“Figures relate to the Partnership’s first 15 months of operation from July 2002 to September 2003 inclusive. In the 3 years prior to July 2002 there were 189 KSI’s (killed or seriously injured) at all fixed and mobile sites, which equates to 79 in a fifteen-month period. In the last 15 months that the Partnership has been operating there have been 42 people killed or seriously injured which means 37 lives have been saved.”

So… how many flaws can you spot in their reasoning? I can see 3, but I’m willing to listen to any comments about any I’ve missed.

Firstly, 2 samples?! By taking just two samples, the number of KSIs in the 3 years leading up to July 2002, and the number of KSIs in the 15 months prior to July 2002, they have reached this conclusion? I wonder if the person behind that logic uses it in everyday life… I’d hate to see their bank balance…

Secondly… 3 years… 189 KSIs in total, therefore 79 KSIs every 15 months, right? Not necessarily. That’s not what the figures say, no matter how much you’d like to believe it. How do we know there wasn’t a trend in those three years anyway? What if those 189 were made up of 90-odd in the first year, 60-odd in the second, and 30-odd in the third. If the trend continued (we assume all trends continue forever, no matter how small our range of samples… see above), then in year 4 there should have been NO KSIs AT ALL. Doesn’t that mean the cameras have KILLED OR SERIOUSLY INJURED 39 42 PEOPLE? Well, no. Not really. The figures don’t say there was a trend like that. But the point is they don’t say there wasn’t one either.

Thirdly, ‘regression to the mean’. Basically a geeky statistical term which means ‘things getting back to normal’. The problem with the logic here, is that the cameras are necessarily placed at sites which have had more accidents than average (something like 4 KSIs in 3 years I believe). So that’s a high point in the site’s history. In the year’s following, the accident rate goes back down to the site’s average rate. The important thing to see here is that the reduction would have happened whether the camera was installed or not. The statistics used to justify the installation of the cameras in the first place are dodgy at best, but to use the fact that the rates decrease after installation as proof that they work is ridiculous, or just plain lies.

Various people are getting bored of me ranting about this, I know. I’m sorry, but for some reason it really gets my goat. I’m not thrilled at being lied to by a public body. I don’t like the way that they make wild claims in big simple sounding press releases that, to be fair, most of the population will swallow without a second thought. Oh and don’t get me started on why they’re suddenly called safety cameras… they’re SPEED cameras, dammit…

Update: Yes, I can make mistakes too… their stats don’t say that the cameras have killed 42 people, not 39 as I originally said.