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29 things I learned in February 2020

1: Newcastle in County Down is nice, but I still prefer Newcastle upon Tyne.


2: Belfast International was ranked as the worst UK airport for passenger satisfaction in 2019, which feels reasonable.


3: My optician offered me “retinal screening” using optical coherence tomography, claiming that “the only downside is that it costs £25”. Cost is never the only downside to medical screening. I declined, but didn’t argue.


4: Someone has printed a map of China and put it on my desk. Hubei seems further East than the last time I looked. I’m pretty certain it’s my memory that’s faulty rather than the map.


5: Co-ordinating annual leave between Wendy and me isn’t easy.


6: After a 48hr run as Incident Director with an Incident Coordination Centre running, I can confirm with certainty: it’s exhausting. National colleagues doing longer stints with bigger ICCs under more pressure have some serious stamina.


7: The engineering challenges for high speed rail lines are more interesting to me, as a lay reader, than I would have imagined.


8: Americans report that they go to libraries almost twice as frequently as cinemas, averaging close to one library visit a month. I last visited a library two days ago and last saw a film in a cinema thirteen months ago.


9: “Amtrak recently announced that it’s getting rid of tablecloths all together because research suggested that millennials didn’t respond well to linen.” As far as I can tell, Amtrak hasn’t said anything about millennials’ response to linen, and the story about removing dining cars is four months old, so the lesson is that columnists can find straw men in the strangest places sometimes.


10: Boris Johnson’s government has started examining the feasibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Anyone mentioning the offshore engineer’s view that it “is about as feasible as building a bridge to the moon”, or Johnson’s previous Garden Bridge fiasco, or indeed his proposals for a bridge between England and France will probably just be branded a doubter, a doomster or a gloomster.


11: It has a name, and that name is covid-19. I didn’t hear the press conference, but assumed ‘covid’ rhymed with ‘Ovid’ (ɒ); others at work are pronouncing it more like ‘cove-id’ (əʊ). It’s the culture war over French vs Latin pronunciation of “difficile” all over again.


12: I’m currently reading Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and my addled mind is getting confused between things that happened in the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and things that are happening now in the covid-19 outbreak. There is a surprising amount of overlap.


13: The M96 is unique, and some people get very excited by a road which I use regularly and to which I’ve never paid a great deal of attention.


14: Infrared thermometer guns, currently much-photographed in connection with covid-19, are not always terribly accurate, especially outside of controlled clinical settings.


15: Twenty of our Prime Ministers went to the same school.


16: The number of ministers in the UK government is capped at 109, but Governments frequently find ways around that limit (mostly by appointing people without paying them). For comparion: in 1900, there were 60 ministers; in 2010, India had 68, South Africa 66, and Canada 63. I’m sure every one of our UK ministers is appointed based on merit and public service value, and not as mechanism to force people to vote with the Government line.


17: “Since the Lunar New Year holidays concluded, many pupils in Hong Kong have been required to attend lessons via video conference. But some have become a bit too comfortable with the home-learning set-up, leading schools to introduce a strict “no pyjama” policy.” It’s interesting to ponder how outbreak control measures can influence social norms. Will we all have dress codes for working from home in future? I suppose it seems likely as videoconferencing continues to become more common.


18: The Brit Awards, which haven’t really felt relevant in years, can still unexpectedly deliver immensely powerful moments.


19: I eat meat. It’s not a strong part of my personal identity in the way it seems to be for some people, and I’ll happily eat vegan dishes when the fancy takes me (hello vegatsu). Nonetheless, I eat animal products every day, and I thoroughly enjoyed being challenged by reading an excellent Michael Huemer essay from which I learned more about the libertarian counter-arguments to intensive farming of animals: “If animal suffering were even one thousandth as important as (qualitatively similar) human suffering, factory farming would still be among the most serious problems in the world today. (Imagine that 74 million humans were being tortured in factory-farm-like conditions each year. Unquestionably, this would be among the world’s greatest problems.)”


20: “Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’”


21: “Kinks and Convolutions” by James Lasdun in The LRB sold me on the book it was reviewing and also introduced me to the word “concupiscence” (Eager or vehement desire; in theological use, the coveting of ‘carnal things’, desire for the ‘things of the world’.)


22: In London, some people have now turned “entire new-build apartment blocks into de facto hotels designed for the short-term rental market”.


23: I’ve never thought before about how the basics of computer programming rely on a knowledge of English.


24: Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet has made me realise that I use emoji as either “emblematic” or “illustrative”. I like it when books make me realise something about my own behaviour that I hadn’t fully noticed myself!


25: I’d never really thought about the association between certainty of opinion (“everyone knows Tories are scum”) and decisiveness in terms of action planning (“I know exactly what I need to do here”) until I read this Diamond Geezer post. I now see that they are both facets of decision making, but I hadn’t previously spotted that thread between things that I have previously thought of as distinct attributes of character.


26: I’ve been musing for a while that use of the word “skyrocketed” to mean “increased quickly” has been increasing quickly as compared to use of the word “rocketed” for the same meaning. I initially thought this was misuse of “skyrocket” which I’ve always taken to mean “destroy” or “blow up”, a near synonym of “torpedo”: amusing because its almost the opposite of the sense in which people are intending it to be taken. But then I came to think it was used too commonly to be an error, and thought that it was perhaps an Americanism. The OED reveals that I’m right in one sense: use of “skyrocket” to mean “increase abruptly or rapidly” is marked as being of US origin, while “rocket” to mean “increase suddenly and very rapidly” appears to be of less certain origin. But I’m more wrong than I am right: “skyrocket” to mean “destroy utterly” is marked as rare and obsolete, which makes me wonder where I picked it up from in the first place.


27: Laura Spinney’s brilliant book taught me that the respiratory tract of pigs is generally vulnerable to influenza viruses which affect the gastrointestinal tract of birds and influenza viruses which affect the respiratory tract of humans. Hence, swine are often the sources of recombinant strains of influenza which can cause large outbreaks in humans.


28: This is hardly an original observation, but I was nonetheless dumbfounded at The Louvre to witness the neverending line of people spending the entirety of their allotted 30 seconds or so in front of the Mona Lisa with their back to it, the better to take a selfie. If Dadaism says changing the context of an object can transform it into art, does changing how people interact with the Mona Lisa transform it into a different artwork?


29: “A writer in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 proposed charging a ‘sin tax’ on novels (like those on alcohol and cigarettes today). Taxing them—but not ‘books of real utility’—would bring in valuable government revenue and encourage better reading habits.”

This 2,485th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The next calling point for this service will be…

I usually try to avoid ‘grumpy’ columns in magazines. As a general rule, they are not very interesting and are not nearly as funny as the author intends. Turning a ‘moan’ into interesting writing is a tricky skill to pull off.

All of that aside: In 1843 magazine, Adrian Wooldridge recently wrote about irritating announcements on public transport:

Some companies seem to revel in redundancy. In the railway world Amtrak is the champion of verbosity. Recorded announce­ments on its trains proclaim the arrival of each station with a peroration ending in a request to “please take this time to look about you and collect your bags”, as though the majority of passengers were otherwise likely to canter off the train in a spiritual ecstasy, leaving their material possessions in their wake.

This complaint touched a nerve. When I was commuting to London on a weekly basis a few years ago, there was one particular train guard whose name became lodged in my memory, so annoying were his announcements. His tone tended to convey a weary sense of superiority: it was with some mild irritation that he reminded passengers to check that their tickets were valid for this particular service, as though only a moron could be confused. He spoke extremely slowly, as though he had been told in training not to speak too fast and had overcorrected. And, most irritatingly of all, he seeemed intent on lengthening every announcement to the greatest possible extent by including superfluous words.

Peterborough would never be the ‘next stop’; it would inevitably be ‘the next station stop at which our service will be calling this morning’. Passengers should not merely content themselves with ‘reading the displayed safety instructions’; rather they should ‘be sure to fully familiarise themselves with the safety information cards displayed on the walls of the vestibules at the end of every carriage on board this service’. Customers should not simply ‘have tickets ready for inspection’; they should ‘be aware that a full ticket check will now take place in all coaches, starting from Coach B at the front of the train, and ensure that they have all tickets, travel documents and railcards to hand both at their seat and when moving around the train.’

The verbosity was almost too much to bear. So while I disagree with Adrian’s preference for not knowing the names of service workers and wearing headphones through safety demonstrations on aircraft, I find it hard not to have a little sympathy with his complaints about excessively loquacious train guards.


As an aside, on a recent train journey, the guard issued the typical reminder that passengers should “take all of their personal belongings with them”. Somebody loudly responded that this wasn’t practical, as most of their personal belongings were at home rather than on a train. I’ll laughed quite loudly, despite myself.


The image at the top is of a Virgin train at Brighton station. The full version was posted on Flickr by Matt Davis, and I’ve reproduced a cropped version here under its Creative Commons Licence.

This 2,436th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

An open letter to East Coast

Hi East Coast,

In the last year, I’ve spent almost £750 whizzing up and down the line on which your trains operate, and have rarely encountered any serious problems. And I don’t really like airing petty grievances in public. But I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m about to do, because I’m struggling to think of an alternative strategy.

In October, I have an exam. I booked £42.50 of train tickets via your (brilliant) website, and paid £1 for them to be sent to me via first class post. This isn’t something I usually do: I normally collect the tickets at the station. But given how important this particular journey is, I paid the extra £1 so that I could be confident in plenty of time that everything was in order.

A couple of days later, I received three first-class returns from York to Glasgow. That is, someone else’s tickets. The letter which comes with the tickets tells me that I should check them, but has no contact details for if the tickets are incorrect. You might want to look into that. Looking online, I found the number for your call centre, and phoned you.

You told me to return the tickets. I asked where to, and you said “I think there’s probably an address on the back of the envelope”.

I read this address back, and you said “No, that’s not right”. I was a little confused as to how I could be wrong, given that there’s only one address to read out. But clearly, I’m an idiot, and so you read me a different address to which to return the tickets.

I asked, “Is that Freepost or something?”

“No,” you said, “you’ll have to put a stamp on there”.

This seemed a bit unusual, but as a good citizen, I didn’t sell them on eBay, but rather returned them to you in the next post. I hope they find their way into their rightful owner’s hands.

I asked what would happen to my own tickets. You told me they’d been posted to me. I observed that this seemed unlikely: why would two ticket carriers be printed with my details? Surely my tickets had just been put in someone else’s envelope, like some poor sod’s were put in mine. You said that my tickets had definitely been sent directly to me, and that there was no chance that a similar error had occurred. These errors are, after all, very rare.

In fact, you told me, the tickets had been sent at the same time as the Glasgow ones. “If they haven’t arrived by Monday,” you said, “give us a ring and we’ll sort it out.”

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t ring on Monday, but waited until Tuesday, just to see if they’d turn up. They didn’t, so I called you back.

“I can’t do anything,” you told me. “You need to wait until five days after the tickets have been posted, and give me a ring back. So, ring me if they don’t turn up tomorrow. I’ll put a note on your account saying that they can be reissued if they don’t turn up tomorrow.”

They didn’t turn up. I gave you the benefit of the doubt again, and left it until this morning to call back.

“I can’t do anything,” you told me. “You need to wait until seven days before you travel, then I can fax Newcastle station and you can pick the tickets up there. If I did it now, you’d have to travel all the way to Newcastle, and that wouldn’t be very good!”

“I live in Newcastle, it’s not problem at all. I’d rather go and pick the tickets up so that I have the security of having them,” I replied.

“Sorry, no-can-do”, you replied. “It has to be seven days before. The postman might have put your tickets through the wrong door. They might turn up!”

“Unlikely,” I said. “It seems more likely that they’ve been posted to the wrong person.”

“No,” you said. “That can’t happen.”

“But it did happen to whoever was going to Glasgow, whose tickets I received!”

“Ah. Yes. Well, there’s nothing I can do until seven days before you travel. Call me back then.”

I’m sorry, East Coast, I normally think you’re great. But this is crap service.

You charged me £1 to post me my tickets. It seems that, instead, you’ve posted them to someone else. I didn’t charge you a penny to post the wrong tickets back to you.

I’ve called you thrice, each time on your advice, and each time I’ve been unable to get the promised resolution to this problem. Each time, you’ve charged me 6p a minute to try and correct your error, and a 12p connection charge.

And, most of all, you haven’t even apologised: not on the phone, and not even when we had a brief chat via twitter.

East Coast, I want to like you. You’ve always given me reasonably good service in the past. You sometimes even let me have an extra croissant on the early morning trip to London. I’ve even pleaded with your directors in a recent web event to lower your prices, as it’s hard to justify travelling with you when British Airways’s fares are cheaper.

Surely you can see that you’ve left me in a crazy situation? You’ve charged me for a service, not delivered, and charged me again to try and get the problem sorted. I could sell my flyer miles and be there quicker but no instead I still don’t have the tickets I’ve paid for, nor the peace of mind.

I really hope you can put this right. I really hope that you can work out some way around your inflexible system to post me the tickets that I’ve paid to receive. Or, if you can’t do that, then find some way around your prohibitive refund system to give me my money back, so that I can just go and book with someone else.

You can email me, any time, via the mail link on this page. You can send me a reply or a direct message on twitter – I’m @sjhoward. I won’t hide your light under a bushell: I’ll update the good readers of this site with your response.

So please, East Coast: let’s be friends.

Best wishes,

sjhoward

Update: 6th September 2012, 6pm

East Coast have been in touch, apologised, and agreed to let me pick up the tickets at Newcastle tomorrow. I’ll update this post to let you know how that goes! Thanks, East Coast, for your help so far!

Update: 7th September 2012, 7pm

I’ve successfully collected my tickets: success at last! Thanks to everyone at East Coast who helped to sort this out.

This 1,796th post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .




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