Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rarely does something in the news get under my skin…

… but in the past few days it has.

The story in a nutshell (here’s a link) is that CBeebies – a TV channel for young children here in the UK – has hired a physically disabled presenter.  Of course, that’s not the bit which has got under my skin – the bit which has riled me is that there is a campaign amongst parents of some children to have her removed from the shows because apparently she’s “scaring the children”.

The presenter herself has a four-year-old daughter who sees her Mum every day – and I’m sure she’s not “given nightmares” by the fact that her Mum only has one arm.

Without sounding too self-righteous, surely if children see someone who’s physically disabled on the TV, the parents are capable of telling them that “the lady only has one arm” or whatever without the need to shield them from it.  And then maybe the children will grow up to have slightly more sensible views on such things than the parents.

I don’t know why this story has riled me so much, but it really has…

Monday, February 23, 2009

Governed by the stars

I try to avoid controversial opinions when writing in here, so I hope I am on safe ground when I say that astrology in rubbish.  The stars, their relative positions in the sky, and which planets are crossing over them, do not predict the future for any one particular person.  Your star sign does not determine the minute details of your personality.  I hope that’s not controversial :-)

But – I’ve made two assertions there, and I want to explore them a little more.  Stars can help us predict the future in some regards –and maybe your star sign does affect how you turn out in life to some degree.  Bear with me, I’ve not gone mad.

Predicting where the stars are is quite hard.  The positions of the planets are slightly easier to work out, and it’s been done to a fair level of accuracy.  Now that we know the orbits of the planets, comets and the trajectories of asteroids and meteors we can start to predict the things we’ll see in the night sky for many years into the future.  Sure – it’s not as exciting as successfully predicting that someone in particular will win the lottery next Saturday – but wind the clock back a few hundred years, and someone with the power to say “on 12th January, three years hence, a great fire ball will be seen in the sky” and be correct would have held considerable influence…

The second assertion – that star sign can influence personality – needs some explanation I feel.  I’m UK-based so going to talk about the seasons as they happen in the UK – if you’re the other side of the world, then you can just switch the month names around.

Here in the UK, the school year starts in September and the general rule is that you start school when you are aged 4.  So if your birthday is in September, you’ll be very nearly 5 when you start school – but if your birthday is in July, you’ll be only-just 4 when you start.  Here in the UK, you stay in the same school year as you started in – being held back a year isn’t at all common.  So that means that if you are born in September, you will spend the whole of your education (until the age of 21) up to a year older than some of the people in the same lessons/lectures as you.  Similarly, if you’re born in July, you’re going to spend your time with people up to a year older than you. 

This is all happening during the most formative years of our lives – when our personalities are larger laid down and our aspirations and fears are cemented in our heads.  That’s not to say that the personality doesn’t continue to change after this time – but the fundamentals of our personality do get laid down during childhood (those parts which aren’t genetic, anyway).  To always be the oldest one at school will be being (on average) one of the tallest, one of the biggest, one of the first to hit puberty, one of the first for your voice to break, etc. etc.  and that is going to put you in a certain position and inform the way you feel about your position relative to those around you.  Similarly for the people at the other end of the school year.

During school years, the bulk of our social interaction happens with those we’re at school with.  It’s where most of our friends are, and where we learn and honed our social skills.  This also means that for those people born in August, their birthday will always be outside the school year and so whilst they will see friends on their birthday, it won’t be the same experience as for those people born during the school year.

Similarly, if you’re born near Christmas (or other important days in whichever country you’re brought up in) then your birthday will be coloured by the proximity to that.

But a birthday is only one day of the year.  For those babies born in summer, the first few months of life will be spent in sunlight, sleeping with light peeping around the edge of the curtains even at night, and being taken out into the fresh air regularly.  For those babies born in winter, the first few months of life will be spent hiding indoors away from the cold and only going out when necessary – even then, outside will be a cold place with few people.  The days will be short, and sleep will be in the dark for the first few months at least.

Even the year you’re born in can make a difference.  A baby born in the midst of a recession will find that, whilst being clothed and fed, they may not have as many toys, nor as many days out as a baby born during an economic boom.  A baby born in a year with a heatwave will get the effect of being born in summer – but amplified.  A baby born in a cold year will get the winter effect amplified.

I could go on – but I shalln’t. 

So the year in which you’re born, and even the month in which you’re born, will definitely have an effect on your experiences during your formative years.  And it’s undoubtedly the case that you’ll take those experiences forward with you into adult life in some form.  Maybe babies born in November will prefer sleeping in the dark when they are adults, and those born in May will prefer sleeping with the light on.  Maybe those born in winter will feel the cold less than those born in summer.  I’m sure that my simple conclusions aren’t true – but I’m sure there are traits common in summer babies and traits common in winter babies.

But let’s finish this with a bit of straight talking on Astrology.  Whilst the month your born in may statistically affect the way you view some things in life, it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, nor does it affect whether you’re going to meet a strange who’ll change your life tomorrow. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Playing with words

I find language really interesting and yesterday something struck me which also appeals to the human desire to find patterns in things (see last entry for another mention of that).

I realised a while ago that P_T was an interesting letter combination as pat, pet, pit, pot and put are all English words.  But I didn’t realise until last night that B_D also works along the same lines – and it got me thinking about how many such combinations of letters there are in English.

The two I find the most interesting are P_T and B_G because they don’t involve any unusual words at all.  Ones such as H_T and D_N involve some slightly odd (but still valid) words.

So, the outstanding questions in my mind are – how many three letter combinations are there which work? (We have eleven so far) and what is the longest combination (We have P_TTING which feels a bit like a cheat – other than that, we have L_ST and a few others which are only four letters)

If you’re the kind of person who likes to think about this kinda stuff then do let me know at dan@flusspferd.net if you find one longer than four letters which isn’t based directly on a three letter one – or if you can think of any more three letter ones.  For completeness’ sake the ones we have thought of so far are listed below

-n, –s

b-g, p-t, b-d, h-t, b-t, m-d, t-n, d-n, p-p, t-g, h-m

d-ne, m-re, l-st, p-ck

p-tting

Friday, February 20, 2009

It got me thinking…

Last night on the tube home, I overheard someone say that they have five grandchildren but that because two of them share a birthday, it’s easier for them to remember the birthdays because there are fewer dates to remember. 

Maybe it was because I had forgotten to take my book with me but this simple remark started me thinking about whether it was actually less information for him to remember, given that two of his grandchildren share a birthday. 

Let’s assume that his grandchildren have names beginning with the letters A, B, C, D and E.  It’s just easier :-)  In its simplest form, we have the following table of birthdays…

Grandchild Birthday
Amy Date 1
Belinda Date 2
Colin Date 3
Donald Date 4
Englebert Date 5

Each one of the Date items is a number between one and 366.  Of course there’s a year associated with it too, but from what I could overhear, the guy wasn’t saying that two of his grandchildren were born on the same day – simply that they share a birthday.

So, we know that two of the Date items above have the same value.  But does that actually make it easier to remember?

I’m avoiding couching this discussion in terms of variables and pointers, because this is about how people remember information rather than how computers store information.  People tend to remember facts – some facts are harder to remember than others, admittedly, but it’s not as easily quantifiable as looking at the number of bits which need storing to remember something.

So, this guy knows that two of his grandchildren share a birthday.  We’ll presume that remembering this fact doesn’t take much space at all.  But which two share the birthday?  This is something he does have to consciously remember.  Let’s presume that Englebert and Donald share a birthday.  By knowing this, you’ve not removed the need to remember something about Englebert’s birthday – but you’ve simply replaced the need to remember a specific date with the need to remember that his birthday is the same as Donald’s. So the number of facts which need remembering is actually the same in this case – but is the piece of information “Englebert shares his birthday with Donald” more or less information to remember that “Englebert was born on 15th March” (or whatever).

 

This isn’t so much a question of computation, it’s a question of psychology, I think.  Subjective evidence makes me think that remembering dates is quite a hard thing to do.  People tend to remember roughly in the year when something happens, but remembering the date tends to take a few minutes.  However, the human brain does have a natural ability to spot patterns (even where none exist, but that’s a whole different discussion) and so remembering that “D and E share a birthday” is something the brain is going to find relatively easy.

So, it looks as though the guy was right – it probably is easier to remember your five grandchildren’s birthdays if two of them share a date.

But what happens if we extend the problem.  Let’s presume that we have so many friends that pretty much every day of the year is someone’s birthday within that group.  It’s fairly easy to see how it now doesn’t really help to remember coincident birthdays as the set of birthdays from which to choose is actually almost as large as the number of days in the year.  So in the general case, this isn’t going to help us remember birthdays.

However, there are some birthdays we don’t forget.  We tend to know the birthdays of our parents, siblings and children.  So that’s going to be around half a dozen birthdays throughout the year to which we can pin other things.  “Sheila has the same birthday as my mother” is quite easy to remember, and your mother’s birthday is largely imprinted in your mind so doesn’t need consciously remembering in the same way a friend’s birthday does. 

Of course, to take another degenerate case if everyone you know has the same birthday, then it becomes a case of remembering only two facts – 1. everyone has the same birthday and 2. the date of that birthday.

Of course, the distinction between something which you need to consciously remember and something which is a mental landmark in your memory is not quite that clear cut.  Some things are easier to remember than others, and once you have more than a few friends with a particular birthday, that day will start to stick in your mind as “the day on which lots of my friends have their birthday”. 

So, the way to remember your friends birthdays is to seek out friends who share birthdays – preferably sharing those birthdays with close family members or other memorable dates such as Christmas or 29th February.

Alternatively, just buy a calendar :-)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Well that was rather dull…

I wrote a bit about my expectations for the Brit Awards earlier.  I didn’t expect Iron Maiden or Elbow to win, I must admit – but they were pleasant surprises.
The Brits is such a safe event now.  Ever since the car crash which was Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood, I think the organisers have taken the point of view that any controversy is bad controversy and so avoid putting anything into the show which may appear slightly unscripted.
The performances were also rather lack-lustre this evening, when it could’ve promised so much.  U2 looked like they didn’t want to be there (and from something The Edge said on the pre-show interview, I think they were leaving straight after their performance) and Take That were miming, for some reason.  Well at least I think they were – the first part of the song sounded live, but suddenly the vocals sounded all “studio-y” and they were obviously miming along to a backing track.  It’s a shame that groups find a need to mime at all – but to do it at an awards ceremony is frankly ridiculous.
Talking of frankly ridiculous – who decided that Girls Aloud deserve the award for best single.  Even if “The Promise” was a good song (which I would argue it’s not) then surely the writers and producers should get the credit as the five rather-mediocre vocals over the top are not why the song is considered good. 
There’s always been a history of vocalists singing songs they don’t write themselves, but those people who’ve become superstars singing songs they didn’t write (Cher, Tom Jones, Celine Dion, etc.) generally are musicians with their voice - not mere mouthpieces for factory-style songwriters.
Katy Perry was also an undeserving winner, I have to say.  She has only released one good song – and it only went to number one because she flirted with pretending to be a bit of a lesbian in it.  I’ve no problem with people playing parts in a song, and I’ve no problem with lesbianism.  But I do have a problem with Katy Perry.  Tonight, she said on the red carpet that she was going to present an award later in the evening.  Cut to an hour or so later and suddenly she’s so ill that she complains about it during her speech and then slinks off home before presenting the award she was due to present. Shocking behaviour.  Of course, she also admitted whilst on-stage that she’d been told that she had to turn up because she was going to win.  I told you, didn’t I?
On a positive note – at least Pet Shop Boys put in a suitably ridiculous performance – but what’s why we love them.  And a rather nice touch having Lady GaGa and Brandon Flowers on stage with them.
So all in all, nothing went wrong with the evening – but then again it never does anymore.  The Brits used to be considered the exciting awards show to contrast against the safety and over-rehearsed script of the Oscars and the Grammies, but in a drive to make sure the thing doesn’t over-run and to fit it into its two hour slot on the TV it’s been scripted to dire effect with terrible jokes and no ability for anyone to ad lib other than the recipients of the awards – and musicians do not generally make the best comedians.
So, the Brits are over for another year.  This time next year we’ll be promised an outrageous show again.  And once it’s all over, I’ll probably write another entry like this :-)

Busy doing nothing…

Tonight it’s the annual wonder which is the Brit Awards. Hurrah!

Actually, I shouldn’t be too sarcastic, as I actually quite like watching the Brits.  Of course, the performances are always over-hyped – what is billed as a once-in-a-lifetime performance actually turns out to be the same promotional-dance-routine for the latest single with a few extra dancers standing at the back.

The only interesting performance is usually that from the artist being given the “Outstanding Contribution” award at the end.  I say “at the end” but that’s not always the case.  A few years ago, when The Darkness were riding high, Duran Duran won the “Outstanding Contribution” award but were made to perform in the middle of the show whilst The Darkness got to perform a three-song set at the end.  For me, a small like that ruined the show and actually brought home to me that it’s not actually about who wins the prizes on the night, but it’s a just a showcase for record companies to try to shift more records.

Another case is the “Bestselling British Live Act” which was created for one year only and given to Steps a few years before that.  Now, for those of you who don’t recall, Steps was a pop act who never sung a single note “live” in their short-lived career.  Of course, I don’t know what went on behind the scenes to give them that award but I can imagine it was something involving record company politics.

Another myth about the ceremony is that winners are not known in advance.  It’s no secret that the larger, more famous acts, get told whether they’ve won or not beforehand so that they can avoid the embarrassment of missing out on a prize and not bother turning up if they’ve not won anything.

Having said all this, I’ll still watch the ceremony as I do find the whole thing quite entertaining…

Monday, February 16, 2009

You do have to wonder what the point is?

This evening, I turned up at my local sports centre to find that the badminton court had been double booked.  Both me and another guy had booked the same court for the same time, and the online booking system had let us do that.  Both of our user accounts on the system were showing that we had the booking – but the calendar view in the sports centre was showing only his booking and so he got the caught.

Whilst I can’t fault the staff at the sports centre – they didn’t know it had happened until I turned up expecting the court – and they did try to find me another court and even found someone willing to share a court if we were happy to play doubles (which I wasn’t, as I’m strictly a singles player) but it is rather frustrating.

It’s even more frustrating when you realise that exactly the same thing has happened with my booking tomorrow night – which is even more frustrating…

The problem is, of course, that there is very little I can do to check whether this problem gets resolved or not.  I can still make a booking online and see it appear in my list of bookings – but that doesn’t actually mean that I have the court when I turn up in person.  And I could call the sports centre to check that the booking worked successfully – but by the time I get through to them on the phone, the court will no longer be available (I should explain that evening courts are a scarce resource at the local sports centre)

Given that Monday and Tuesday are my badminton days this week, and that there are no courts available later in the week – one little bug in the online booking system has cost me an entire week of badminton.  Fantastic.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Testing 123 Testing

I don’t really have much to say this evening – other than it’s rather late and I really should be in bed as – for the first time in weeks – I actually have any early start tomorrow!

Anyway, I’m just trying out a new bit of Software to allow me to compose blog entries more easily here on my PC at home without having to navigate the website to do the composing – let’s hope it works!

Not really impressed with this weather in London tonight – it’s raining rather unpleasantly and some bits of snow/frost are glistening in the moonlight around the base of some of the plants in the garden.  Not nice…

Monday, February 9, 2009

Something to watch out for.

Of course, we do have Apophis to look forward to in 2029. Google it if you've not heard of it. It's more than a little scary - but the Universe is quite a scary place.

It may well be true that this thing is going to miss the Earth completely - and if it does hit, we'll be looking at devastation of cities and states rather than the loss of life on Earth - but the fact remains that this large (by Earth standards) lump of rock from space is going to come closer to Earth than the satellites used every day for broadcasting TV signals around the planet.

I really do love the Universe :-)

Is there anybody out there..?

I have recently turned my reading from the earth-bound subject of natural evolution to the rather wider topic of astrophysics. Of course, I'm still reading popular science books rather than weighty tomes on the subject but there's still something spine-tingling about the sheer size of the universe and the fact that we are so insignificant in that.

It was presumed for a long time that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, and even once the Earth going around the Sun was understood, it was still supposed that the solar system was the centre of the Universe. The book I have recently read ("Death By Black Hole" - a great title, and only a mediocre book, mostly, unfortunately) talked about the argument for this being that there are the same number of visible stars in each direction and how this argument is akin to getting lost in a dense forest and proclaiming that you must be in the middle because you see the same number of trees all around you but I think he missed a larger point - one in fact he didn't touch on at all in the book, surprisingly.

Nothing in the Universe travels faster than the speed of light. Well, let's say that if things do travel faster than the speed of light then a flip-side version of the special theory of relativity means that we can never slow them down to slower than the speed of light to interact with them, so let's ignore them. The important thing is that light doesn't travel faster than the speed of light - and neither do radio waves, microwaves or gamma rays. So, if we suppose that the universe is around 14 billion years old then things in the universe only started to send out radiation of whatever form around 14 billion years ago (probably slightly less, as for the first little while, the universe didn't have lumpy things such as stars in it) so if there is anything in the universe more than 14 billion light years away from us, then the radiation from that something won't have reached us yet so we can't see it.

Now I hear you saying that even if something travelled away from the dust cloud which would become the Earth for 14 billion years at the speed of light, it would only be 14 billion light years away, so how can anything possibly be more than 14 billion years away. That assumption would be true if the universe was made of a space-time which was like the x/y graphs we used to draw at school - but it probably isn't. So for the moment, I'm happy to accept that something can get more than 14 billion light years away from us in a particular direction without having to travel at faster than the speed of light.

But the problem with this book wasn't so much that (or that fact that the author devoted an entire chapter to explain why the USA was the best nation for "discovering scientific things" in the 20th century - yes really!) but that I found the whole thing thoroughly disheartening.

Deep down, I know that the universe is just a very large collection of swirling particles and the fact that some of those particles have been joined together in the hearts of stars to form atoms and that the Earth is just a collection of those atoms which happened to have met each other along the way and stuck together for the time being. Life on Earth is indeed a wonderful thing, and it's easy to get carried away in the romance of imagining that if evolution can do this much in a couple of hundred million years, imagine what the life of the future will look like. But if there is life evolved from Earth's current flora and fauna in a few billion years time - chances are it won't be on Earth.

There are a few things over the next few billion years which are pretty much certain to wipe out life on Earth as we know it - both those creatures who rely on the Sun's energy to survive and the extremophiles, recently discovered in all manner of places living off the energy from bubbling volcanic activity deep under the sea. In around 5 billion years time, all of the hydrogen in the Sun will have been turned into helium. Game over for that particular reaction. With the energy gone, the Sun won't have enough oomph (a technical term) to start turning that helium into heavier elements and so the core of the sun will start to shrink under gravitational pressure. In doing so, it's going to heat up (eventually to the point where the helium can start fusing together to form interesting elements - including the magical carbon!) but that heating up is going to cause the gaseous layers of the sun to expand beyond the orbit of the Earth - the Earth isn't going to boil, it's going to vaporise.

And if that wasn't enough, the galaxy andromeda is heading towards the Milky Way at quite a rate. In a few billion years, the two are going to come together. Now even though a galaxy contains a few billion stars, there's very little chance of two of those stars actually hitting each other - but there is a good chance that one of them will come close enough to the solar system to compete with the Sun in terms of pulling power - ie. gravity - to play a rather impressive game of billiards with the planets and their moons.

All of this plays out in cosmological time, which makes geological time look rather short and makes the lifespan of species and life on Earth look even shorter. It is rather disheartening to think that life of Earth is but a mere flash in the cosmic pan. A brief flicker of life in an otherwise dead Universe. Of course, I am not geocentric enough in my thinking to believe that I'm a product of the only flicker there's been.

But even more disheartening is that within the flicker of life on Earth, the time during which we've been doing things which life from flickers of life elsewhere in the Universe is even smaller - around a hundred years, maybe slightly more. So there is a sphere of around one hundred light years across with the Earth at its centre within which it's possible - with the right equipment pointed in the right direction - that intelligent life could pick up the fact that we exist.

But the time during which we've been able to listen to the skies is even smaller than the time during which we've been sending radiation out into space.

It's reasonable to assume that the same is true of other flickers of life. Whilst they may well be ahead of us in terms of their intelligence and their technology, it's likely that it also took millions of years from the first spark of life to civilisation generating radio waves and sending them out into space.

It's also reasonable to assume that life dies out on planets. I don't think life on Earth will be here forever - and not just for the long-term reasons mentioned above - nor for the more immediate concerns of global warming. So chances are, if SETI ever does pick up a non-random signal from outer space, the beings who sent it are long dead and buried - who knows, we may even pick up a distress signal from a civilisation on its last sparks as the flicker of life dies away on that planet.

Of course, when talking about life on other planets, you can't ignore a few places in this solar system where there may be life lurking. We can be sure of a few things, though. Firstly, I'm pretty convinced that - despite the imagination of sci-fi writers - life from anywhere else in the solar system (and indeed the Universe) will be carbon-based and will be largely made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. I suspect that they will have internal processes and structures which rely on susbstances similar to amino acids and the proteins they form. I'm even sure that on any planet where life has come further than single-celled organisms, natural selection will have been played out similarly to how it has been played out on Earth.

By similar - I don't mean, of course, that the same species will have evolved. But I do suggest that a similar process will have taken place. If the nearest star to the planet happens have a peak of radiation somewhere other than in the visible light range, then I would expect life to have evolved some way to navigate using microwave detectors or even radio wave detectors instead of eyes as we know them. I would also expect life on another planet to be roughly the same size as life on Earth. I don't think we'll find any beings the size of a solar system nor any beings smaller than a bacterium.

It's all fascinating, and I could blindly speculate for hours about the life that undoubtedly exists somewhere else in the Universe and the life that quite possibly used to exist elsewhere in our solar system on Mars, Venus, Titan or Europa but what is sad for me is that the wonder of the Universe happens so slowly - on such large scales of time - that we only see a very small portion of it.


It is like being taken to see the most marvellous play ever written but being told that you can only listen to one of the greatest actors of the day utter a single syllable somewhere just before the interval. If you're lucky, you'll be handed a partial copy of the script and be able to read what fireworks would've taken place had you been around a little longer. Sad indeed.

But not as sad as the thought that the whole thing is being played to a - statistically speaking - completely empty theatre.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Whilst on the subject of trains...

... and economics, for that matter.

Last week I was on a train coming back into London. Well I shouldn't say that, really, as I was only coming home from Zone 3 - but I still felt as though I was coming back into London :-)

Anyway, two things struck me on the journey. The first came to me whilst I was listening to the announcements in the carriages. The announcement told me that next stop (useful) and then that I was in "coach 1 of 4" (not so useful).

I tried for most of the journey to think of a reason why I'd want to know that I was in a particular coach, and failed to think of a valid reason. So, I can only surmise that a new announcement system was added to the train which allowed different annnouncements to play in each carriage - and so it was decided to announce the number of the coach to the passengers.

However, it's not true that just because a system is capable of doing something, you should always make that feature available to the user of the system. It's true of trains, and it's true of software. The user wants to know what the next stop is (on the train) or that there's been a problem with downloading their email (or whatever - in the software case). Most users don't particularly care about the details.

Now, there are power users who do want to know the details of course. In the case of the software, you can ask the users to make a decision up-front on how much detail they want in the case of errors - but no such option exists when announcing to the users of the train. So, in those cases, the designer of the system needs to make a decision which works for users.

Of course, nothing will work for all users - any information will always be "too much" for some and "not enough" for others - but the designer needs to make it work for as many of the important users of the system as possible.

How you define "as many" and "important" is something I'm not going to delve into today, but it is something I have some thoughts on - so I'll write myself a note to write about that another day.

There are examples outside of software and trains, of course. Think of web pages - you still see web pages which say "You are using IE v7.1" or whatever at the top. If you're anything like me, this doesn't impress you; it simply makes me think that the designer realised they could do that, and decided to put it into the design because it was there...

So, when designing software, I maintain that the same ideas apply. You need to consider your users, and present them with the level of information they want - no more, no less - and not just tell the user some information because you can.

The other thing I noticed on the train was that, even though this was a local train with not many carriages, there was a small "First Class" section. Looking into the First Class section, it was obvious that it was identical to the Standard Class section. The seats were no bigger, nor more comfortable.

So - why on earth would anyone pay to sit there?

When you pay for First Class on the train, it's easy to think that you are paying for the extra space or the extra comfort (or the free food) but those things cost the train company very little. What you are actually paying for is to sit in First Class. This isn't purely an ostentatious act, but simply a desire to sit amongst people who also pay extra money for little extra tangible benefit.

Let me explain that, as it's still not obvious I don't think. When you sit in First Class on the train (or in Business Class on a short haul flight, or pay entrance money to get into a bar when there's one without a door charge right next door) you're not paying directly for anything tangible - you are simply paying for the chance to get into the sort of place which costs more money and hence has other people in there who can also pay more money for little tangible benefit.

This isn't about sitting amongst the wealthy - but there is an element of expectation that those people who can pay to sit somewhere quiet, amongst well-behaved fellow passengers will be quiet and well-behaved - hence First Class becomes a nicer place to be.

Of course, the people in Business Class on flights are not always well-behaved - but imagine if you will that two people on a plane have a bit too much to drink and stagger up and down the aisles disturbing fellow passengers. One is in Business Class, and the other in Economy. Which do you think will be a priority for the airline crew to deal with?

Of course, you may say that the airline will concentrate on Business Class because they don't want to lose the customers who fly Business. Again, this is perfectly true - but think of why they don't want to lose those passengers. They don't want to lose the passengers who can afford to (and do) pay extra money to sit amongst the kind of passengers who pay extra money.

Of course, none of this is an argument against paying for First Class on trains, or Club on a short haul flight or paying twenty pounds to get into a club where the drinks are more expensive than in the free-to-enter place next door. But next time you do this, just think to yourself why are you doing it? Are you paying for First Class because you love the food so much, or are you just paying it because you can afford to?

Brrr!


It's cold today. And it's very snowy here in London. That photos is of my foot in our garden.

Of course, there's the usual "why does the UK grind to a halt when it snows?" waffle going on. Well, I had a think about this on the tube this morning, and I think the reason is fairly simple. And it has nothing to do with being unable to build things which work in the snow - I think it's a question of economics.

When building something, or deciding how to invest in the maintenance of that something, you have to make decisions on where to spend the money. So if you are building a train system, you have a scale of importance of the features of the system. Safety is quite high on the scale, slightly above comfort in "normal" conditions. At the other end of the scale, you have the ability of the system to cope with unlikely events.

It's undoubtedly true that that snow like this is pretty rare. As are temperatures in the high 30s. So, the question the designers of transport systems (and buildings for that matter) have to ask themselves is whether it makes economic sense to spend money on coping with these events, or whether it's better to suffer the economic consequences of a complete system shutdown when something unlikely happens.

If would, of course, be possible to build a train system which could run whatever the depth of the snow. And in countries where snow is more common, it makes economic sense to invest the money to make that happen. That's why you tend to find that train systems in countries such as Canada, parts of the US and even Russia, can cope with snow much better than UK systems. It has nothing to do with the quality of UK engineering, nor with the decision making skills of those designing the systems - it's just a simple economic decision.

I would wager that the cost to the economy of millions of man days of work lost every now and again through bad snow like this is less than the cost of making the entire UK rail network run in deep snow. So, on that basis, I'm quite happy to suffer a day every now and again when the rail network doesn't run because of the weather.

Human psychology plays a part in this too. People tend to think in the very short-term. So today is a very snowy today, so if the government announced today that they were going to invest billions of pounds in making the transport system snow-proof, most people would nod their heads approvingly. But if the government made the announcement in the height of summer, the press (I'm thinking particularly of the Daily Mail, actually) would complain how wasteful it is to spend money protecting ourselves against something which hardly ever happens.

So, my advice - if you want it - is to enjoy the day off work if you're snowed in. Look out the window, enjoy the lovely views off the snow, drink hot chocolate - and don't spend too much time worrying about the trains not working - it's not the end of the world, is it?