Friday, 31 December 2010

But it means nothing..

The other day, I was on a train home. Opposite sat a woman who seemed to be simlutaneously trying to break every rule of sitting on a train. She was eating smelly food, listening to loud music and had her feet on the seats. If only she'd had an open container of alcohol, she'd have had a full house.

Something about her annoyed me - it wasn't the smell of the food, nor the music - it was the container in which she had her pile of fried chicken. Written on the edge of the lid along one of the flaps were the words "Thank you - please call again".

Such ridiculous phrases do annoy me.

Let's presume for a minute that I had bought a huge box of greasy fried chicken and was shovelling it into my mouth. I look down at the box and see the words "Thank you - please call again". Maybe I wasn't planning on going back to that particular chicken vendor, but seeing those words may just make me think "actually, that's very kind of them to say thank you. I think I shall go back there".

You see the same rubbish sometimes as you're leaving a shop. Above the door you'll see "Please call again" as if it's going to tempt you back when just having a plain space above the door would somehow dissuade me from ever visiting that shop again.

Mind you, it's not half as annoying when someone you leans in, smiles and says "cheer up!"


Saturday, 18 December 2010

What I did this week...

You know how office Christmas parties are usually dull affairs. Everyone makes polite conversation over a glass of wine and then heads off home early.

The only thing which can liven up a Christmas party is if someone - maybe someone who's had a bit more to drink than they are use to, perhaps - says or does something memorable. Welcome to my Christmas party 2010...

I've been in my "new" job since July. I haven't really discussed my private life with many of my colleagues. It's not that I hide anything from them - I just haven't gone out of my way to make them aware of my domestic arrangements. There's been a lot of use of phrases such as "my other half" and "my partner" bandied around when it comes to discussing weekend plans and holidays...

Anyway, I wasn't going to drink at yesterday's Christmas party. I was due to head out to my partner's parents place in the evening (I'm doing it again...) and so the plan was to head off at a sensible time. Then the snow came down and I became worried about the prospects of getting home again late in the evening, so decided to just stay in London last night. Of course, that meant I was free to consume beer.

Our Christmas party had comedians entertaining after lunch. They weren't great, but weren't dire either. The MC was engaging in the usual banter with the crowd, and doing the usual thing of jokingly trying to set people up. So, he was joking with a woman the other side of the room who said she wanted a man, and he came over to me and said "you're a young guy, do you have a girlfriend?"

Maybe flattered by being called young. Maybe just a bit pissed. Whichever it was, I had to make a snap decision. Do I go with this. Or do I out myself in front of all my colleagues and in the process derail the comedian from his routine. You can guess which option I went for...

I don't recall the exact phrasing, but I remember answering with "you're barking up the wrong tree there..." and then going on to explain that I do have a boyfriend, except my colleagues didn't actually know that until now...

Initially, I thought "this is cool". Then I spent several hours thinking "OMG what have I done..?"

Just wonder how I'll feel when it comes to going back into the office on Monday ;-)

Friday, 26 November 2010

Roof Gardening

Roof Gardening

How we turned out back garden from this...







... to this...










The basics

Roof gardening has challenges over and above gardening on the ground. Not only does everything have to be grown in containers, but everything needs to stand on the roof of a building – and don’t forget that the roof of the building may be the floor of your garden but it’s also the ceiling of the people below.
We are lucky enough to have some outdoor space with our flat in London, and we’ve spent the past few years turning a couple of empty, flat terraces into lush green gardens.
Our front garden is a more traditional roof garden – Mediterranean trees in pots against the wall and a screen of bamboo to shelter delicate plants from the worst of the wind. This garden was already planted to some degree when we moved in, and our work has been to add to what was already there.
The back garden was, as you can see from the photo above, literally an empty concrete terrace when we moved in, and so we attempted something more ambitious. We have tried to create a traditional English country garden on the roof of a building in London.

Speading the load

Shrubs are heavier than you’d think; trees heavier again. Soil is heavy; wet soil even heavier. So avoid the temptation to add to this with heavy containers.
Our back garden has around fifty containers in it. If each one were made of terracotta or stone, then we’d be adding considerably to the weight. We have used light-weight plastic containers and faced the front of the flower bed with a decorative wooden construction. All of the tubs are the same make and size meaning that by swapping two tubs we can move a plant without disturbance to the roots and without changing the overall look of the garden.
There are other ways to save weight too. We have replaced all of the bark – which can become soggy and heavy when wet – with rubber “fake bark”. You don’t notice the difference except that it doesn’t hold water and you can walk on it in bare feet without pain.
Generally, the strongest part of the roof will be at the edges near the building walls, but in any case all roofs are not made equal. We’re lucky that the roof on which we’re constructing is strong but if there’s any doubt in your mind at all – and there probably should be – about the weight bearing potential of the roof, then best to get a structural surveyor in to advise you.
Once the garden is planted, don’t forget that your plants and trees will grow. What started as lovely little seedling can quite quickly turn into a full-sized tree. Not only will that tree be much heavier than you planned for originally, but it’s also going to require much more water, which brings us nicely onto...

Water water everywhere

Roof gardens need water. As container gardens, you can’t rely on the rain to keep them moist and healthy. A container will be drained of water by a growing plant more quickly than you may realise. A plant in the ground can send roots further down beyond the dry summer soil, but a container plant does not have that option. There are specialist container composts on the market, but they are no substitute for regular watering.
We have automatic watering systems in the garden. It’s expensive to buy initially, and takes some time to run individual pipes to each plant, but it means that even when we’re away we know that each plant is getting enough water and getting it regularly.
Automatic watering systems also avoid soaking the roof with water which the plants don’t need. If the balance is absolutely right, then the watering system should keep the soil in the container wet enough for the plant to thrive but with only a minimal amount of water ever pouring through the container – it’s not only flooding the roof, it’s a waste of water.
Roofs are designed to be rain-proof; they are not designed to have pools of water sitting on top of them for extended periods. Don’t presume that because the roof is rain proof, you can afford to drench it daily.
When rain falls, it will water the plants, but you should let it fall onto the roof too. Avoid the temptation to cover the roof in plastic to waterproof it. The roof is designed to take rainfall and safely get that rainfall into gutters and away. Make sure that there’s a suitable air gap between the surface of the terrace and the containers – a few inches for larger containers – so that any water which does pool on the surface can evaporate naturally. If you can, try to make your garden invisible to the rain falling on the roof. The rain should fall onto the roof just as it would if your garden weren’t there.
It is possible to collect rainwater in a water butt and recycle that for watering the garden. But don’t rely on that alone. If there are several days without rain then not only will the plants have been left dry and need the water, but the water butt will not be refilled. It will be very hard work to have a verdant, lush roof garden without using some mains water to keep it so – if this offends your green principles then best to go for draught tolerant plants only and have fewer plants than let your leafy garden die a slow death. You don’t have to be a eco-destroyer to have a roof garden, though. A decent watering system will minimise the water you use and a water butt can be connected to a watering system.

Saving space

Roof gardens are small. There won’t be space to have a sea of daffodils nodding in the spring or a woodland full of bluebells in summer and cyclamen in winter. But there are a few things you can do to to save space.
Our front garden is covered in decking. Not only does this provide the air gap above the terrace floor to allow for evaporation, but also provides useful storage space. Bear in mind that the air gap needs to remain, but even so, you can sneak a few things underneath for storage. We store all our spare plant pots and lengths of wood for repairs underneath a decking area in our back garden, for instance.
But it’s not just spare plant pots that can go under decking. We wanted to cover a fence with some climbing plants, but to put some containers at the foot of the fence would have ruined the ability to stand at the edge of the garden looking at the view, so we put the containers under the decking. Using a hole saw we made a circular hole in the decking board and carefully fed the plant through so that the roots were below the decking. Then we potted the roots up and left the plant growing above the decking.
But even if you can’t create more space, you can create the illusion of more space. Plant in layers so that wherever you stand in the garden, you’re looking beyond one plant to another. But remember to plant the winter-flowering plants where you can see them from the window – don’t kid yourself that you’ll wrap up warm to go out and admire a winter-flowering jasmine in the January snows. You won’t, and for the rest of the year it will be green and dull. Plant it up near a window and you won’t have to brave the cold to see the yellow flowers bobbing in the frost.
A couple of words of warning on this technique, though. Firstly, some plants don’t like it. Russian Vines thrive in this arrangement, Clematis seems happy, but Honeysuckle did not enjoy it at all. Secondly, remember that if the container is underneath the decking, it won’t get much water even if it has been raining. You’ll need to ensure that these containers are watered even if you have to go out in the rain to do it.

Trees and flowers

Once all the engineering is done, it’s time to do the fun part – buying and planting some plants.
Roof gardens tend to be windy. You’ll be able to find a few sheltered corners to grow delicate things, but generally you’ll want plants which can take a drying wind without withering. Wisteria will die instantly a cold dry wind hits it, but grasses will generally stand up to the worst gales. You should avoid plants which have thin, dry leaves. Plants with thick, water-filled leaves are good. Olive trees will take the winds, for instance.
Think about size too. Trees are fine on a roof garden, but plant species which can be heavily pruned if necessary. We have Twisted Willow trees growing. Not only because they are tolerant of wind, but because they grow into tree-like shapes quite quickly and if they become too large, will happily be hacked to pieces and thrive on it. Word of warning on willows, though – water water water. That’s three words. A willow will grow brilliantly with enough water, but will wither within days if left to dry. A partially dried out willow can be revived with a heavy soaking, but best not to let it get to that position in the first place.
We have other trees, too. We have a hawthorn in a sheltered spot and a olive tree against a south-facing wall. We did try a Silver Birch which grew well for the first year or two, but a fault in the watering system left it without for a little too long and it never recovered. The willows came back bushy and green as soon as the water hit them again. Bamboo can suffer too. Our black bamboo took two years to fully recover from a period of draught. For some plants, too much water is never a problem.
The fact that our garden is in containers means that plants can be grown together regardless of soil type. We have a Camelia in a sheltered spot growing in amongst the Roses and Hydrangea which would be hard to achieve in a traditional garden.
Some plants insist on their tap root going straight down; these plants will never thrive in a container. But most plants – including Roses and most traditional cottage garden shrubs – will grow well as long as sufficient nutrients and water are given. Don’t underestimate the size of a plant you’ll be able to grow in a relatively small container.
Roots can escape from containers though – keep a close eye for any roots which may sneak through the bottom of a container and start making their way through the darkness under the containers. If you do find any, then simply cut them off – if the plant suffers as a result then it was the wrong plant for that location – but mostly the plant will not suffer at all.
I often post on Twitter about growing edibles in the garden. The truth is that we’ll never grow enough to be self-sufficient on a roof garden, but it is fun to be able to wander around the garden and pick a fresh raspberry from a cane or fig from a bush. Having said that, we did grow a huge quantity of runner beans this year – so it’s something we may experiment with in future.
We even have a lemon tree growing. Along with a few other more delicate plants, it gets moved into a nice protected spot over the winter and given a protective coat of fleece to see it through the worst, but during the summer months it grows well and produces a couple of lemons a year. There’s no point in having delicate plants which put on their best show in the winter months though. We have some Nandina Domestica which put on their show of just as the weather is turning cold. After two years of wrapping them in fleece for the winter, we finally did the sensible thing and moved them to somewhere warmer and sheltered so we can actually get to see the flowers and berries when they happen.
We have some miniature fruit trees, too. The diminutive size of the branches means that you’ll need to prune the crop quite heavily to avoid the tree being overloaded, but we do get enough apples and pears for one crumble a year.
Selecting plants for a roof garden is trial and error. Despite all the books on the subject, you’ll find some things which on paper should thrive will be dead within a year and sometimes something supposedly delicate will flourish despite the full force of a northern breeze. We’ve had a few failures over the years. Our original Wisteria died in the first cold gale; a replacement in a more sheltered spot has turned into a monster though. Our blueberry bushes died after two years, and the kiwi fruit has never matched its impressive first year growth again.
But amongst the failures, there have been many successes. Agapanthus love being in a container and within a few years, we have flower talks five foot high swaying in the summer breeze. Bulbs are a good option too. They can be easily squeezed in the corner of a container and a sack of mixed daffodil bulbs spread around the place can give colour to an otherwise dull time of year in the garden.
Some plants have both thrived and failed. We planted two Campanula. One has self-seeded and for two weeks a year provides an electric blue carpet over large parts of the garden. The other died within a month without so much as a single flower.
So if you have a flat roof which can take the weight and water of some containers, I’d say “go for it” – it’s amazing what you can achieve with a few bags of compost and a trip to the local garden centre.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

It's not how it used to be...

Over the years, we've been to loads of TV and radio recordings. There was a time when I was always on the BBC tickets website and going along to TV Centre after work to see a recording.

The deal is always that the tickets are free, but that more tickets are given out than there are seats - on the one hand that means there's definitely a full house but on the other hand it means that often there's people in the queue with tickets who don't get in.

Our experience in the past was always that the audience team got it about right, and as long as you arrived half an hour or so before then you'd get in. Not so anymore, so it seems.

In the past couple of weeks we've arrived in plenty of time (over half an hour before the "admission on site" time on the tickets) for two recordings and not got in to either. Of course, it's just part of the process, but it is quite annoying when it happens twice in quick succession.

I wonder why things have changed? I doubt the BBC ticket unit have changed their algorithm for how many tickets they give out so I guess that means that more people are turning up for recordings. Why suddenly should more people start turning up for recordings this year compared with last..? Well your guess is as good as mine...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A war of words

Almost every morning I walk through Paddington station on my way to work. There's a little booth where they sell smoothies made with fresh fruit which are rather nice, and a good way to start the working day.

I order my smoothie, and as it's being made, I pay. Whenever I pay, the staff ask "would you like a pastry with that?"

I don't want a pastry with my smoothie and say "no thank you".

But that got me to thinking - is there a way in which I could ask for my smoothie in such a way that I won't get asked if I want a pastry at all. Saying "I would like a mango smoothie but I don't want a pastry" is a little direct and maybe a little rude.

I've tried "I would just like a smoothie". I've tried "I would like just a smoothie". I've tried "I'd just like a smoothie today please". And I always get asked if I would like a pastry.

So - I give up - I cannot think of a way to ask for my smoothie which precludes the staff from asking if I want a pastry but which doesn't make it clear that I know they're going to ask about pastries.

Suggestions welcome...

Thursday, 19 August 2010

How to become a lesbian in 60 minutes..?

I don't watch high-brow TV. I watch TV when I feel like turning off my brain and having something just to keep my eyes busy. So last night, I stumbled across "Dawn Goes Lesbian" on Watch.

The premise of the show was the Dawn Porter - a straight woman - would see if she could understand lesbians, and see whether she was capable of becoming one herself.

So - rather than just ask herself the question "I'm a woman, do I fancy other women?" - she decided to go on a personal quest - complete with TV crew - to find out about lesbians and see if she was capable of falling for another woman.

Whilst Dawn herself seemed likeable enough, the show was beyond trash and at times went beyond patronising into the borders of offensive.

To investigate whether she was a lesbian, she moved into a house with some lesbians (did she think it was contagious and so she may catch it from one of them..?) and then went out to a lesbian bar to see what lesbians do on a night out. Apparently, lesbians like to drink, dance, chat and sometimes snog other lesbians - who'd have thought it..?

When one of the women in the club tried chatting up Dawn, she acted as though she'd been physically attacked. In her piece to camera afterwards, she seemed genuinely surprised that lesbians may want to chat up other women. If she didn't want to get chatted up by lesbians then making herself look pretty and spending the evening in a lesbian bar was probably a bad move.

At one point, she strapped down her breasts, put a lemon down her knickers and dressed like a man to see if that'd make her feel more like a lesbian. Yes, really.

And so the show went on. She took a job for a night in a lesbian club, and snogged a couple of women. But the show was starting to come to an end - her month long quest to turn herself into a lesbian was starting to look like a failure.

All of these low-budget documentaries have to end with an epiphany towards the end, and this one was no exception. In the last couple of days in the house, Dawn suddenly realised (decided?) that she was quite taken with one of the other women in the house, and they snogged and then cuddled up together. How convenient that she should find herself attracted to another woman at exactly the right point to make an interesting narrative.

The fundamental problem with this documentary was that it was trying to make something out of nothing. Our lovely Dawn was not a lesbian - spending a month living in a house with lesbians did not turn her into a lesbian and she found snogging other woman fun but didn't fall for any of the other women. Which is hardly surprising, given that she's not a lesbian.

So - you could say it was all harmless fun - and why do I care so much about a low-rent documentary. But I found the whole thing treated lesbians as strange, mysterious creatures who needed to be discovered and analysed. I don't think this was malicious on the part of the documentary makers, I think it was borne out of the desire - as I said earlier - to turn something really rather simple - "some women fancy other women" - into something more complicated. It's just a shame that nobody involved in the production of the documentary was able to stand back and say "hang on, is just just a little bit offensive"...

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Dealing with the after life

My father died recently. That was the reason for all of the train trips up and down to Chester which you may have noticed. This posting isn't about that, though, it's about what happens after life. Not the grieving process, or deciding which ornaments to keep for sentimental reasons - but the logistical process of administering an estate. It's both a simple process, and a complex one. I've never sent to many letters or written so many cheques in such a short space of time.

Out of the process of sorting out my Dad's estate, one thing has stood out for me. That is the difference in level of service - and general approach to the situation - taken by different companies. The requirements have been the same in every case. In every single case, I just want the company to stop providing whatever service they have been providing, and tell me whether the estate owes them money, or they owe money to the estate. Simple. Or so you'd think.

I think it's worth a little diversionary wander through the legalities of administering an estate before talking about specifics, as I think it'll put things in context a little later on. When someone dies, they will usually die with some assets and some debts. Debts need not be explicit debt like a mortgage or personal loan; it could be balance outstanding on the phone bill for calls made in their last month or even state benefits which are paid in advance need repaying. The responsibility for those debts lies with the estate of the deceased, and not with the executor. So even though I have been acting as executor for my Dad's estate, I am not personally liable for any of the debts against the estate. That is to say, the money to pay those bills must come from the assets of the estate and not savings. Right - that's clear as mud then - so, how did companies react to this situation.

Firstly, I'd like to talk about telecommunications companies. Another thing which has astounded me throughout this whole process is the ease with which companies will cease service on the basis of a phone call. Within a five minute phone call to O2 - admittedly made from my Dad's mobile - his service would be switched off at midnight that night and the account closed. O2's handling of the situation was both sensitive and sensible. As his phone wasn't a particularly flashy one, and he was near the end of the contract period, they didn't ask for the phone back - nor did they bother with the couple of pounds outstanding for call charges - they just efficiently and quietly closed the account. They also changed the mailing address on the account to their own address so that any marketing material wouldn't get sent to my Dad's house. An impressive service in stark contrast to that from the mighty BT.

Things started and ended well with BT, but the middle part of the story is rather a sorry tale. I called them - from my Dad's landline - to arrange for the phone and broadband to be cut off, and to give them my details as executor of the estate. So far, so good. Then I received a letter at home in London telling me that my broadband would be cut off. And asking me whether I'd like to reconsider, given the wonderful deals they were offering on broadband. It took a call to them to confirm that it was my Dad's broadband being disconnected, and even then they asked whether I'd like to continue the service... Roll forward a couple of weeks, and a letter arrived at my address in London but addressed to my Dad. Proudly telling him that he was 40 pounds in credit on his BT account, it was swiftly followed by a cheque in the post made out to him. Not a great deal of use to me. When I called BT to point out that not only was it a bit insensitive, it was also rather stupid, to send a cheque to someone recently deceased, they offered to pay the money by direct debit into his bank account instead (!). I shalln't ramble about BT for too long, but it was only thanks to a mention on Twitter and the @BTCare team that the whole thing got sorted. Not impressed with BT at all - you'd think a large company could cope with this.

Another group of companies who need dealing with are the financial companies - banks and credit cards, etc. Generally, my experience with the financial companies found them to be efficient and most seemed to have dedicated teams dealing with this exact situation. The star of the financial show has been MBNA. A simple phone call, and I got a letter telling me the outstanding balance on the card, and a polite instruction that if the assets of the estate became available, I should send them a cheque but they would give me a call in six weeks time to check on progress of the estate but that generally, I didn't need to stress about paying them; I could just send them a cheque when I had the cash from my Dad's bank. My Dad's bank were Santander/Alliance and Leicester/whatever they're called.

Santander were efficient, and things came through pretty quickly, but there is one gripe I have about their service. When their probate team sent a letter asking for some formal documents to release the money there was a phone number at the top. Ringing this number went through to the normal Alliance and Leicester customer service line. In order to get to speak to anyone on this line, you need to know a customer number. And my Dad's customer number had become invalid at the point his account was frozen during the first phone call. And doing the normal trick of playing dumb and staying silent through the automated service didn't get me through to a person anyway. Having said that, they did release funds very quickly on receipt of the formal paperwork, and so besides the niggle of not having a phone number to allow me to talk to the probate team, they certainly didn't provide bad service.

One other approach which some companies take to the probate issue is to farm out the problem. "Very" - my Dad's catalogue company - do exactly this. They provide you with the phone number for a specialist probate solicitor who arranges to close the account and collect any money due on their behalf. This approach works well as a probate solicitor obviously understands the difference between a personal debt against the executor and a debt against the estate.

It's just a shame that Wirral Borough Council don't also understand this difference. I called them just a few days after my Dad died to explain the situation, and provide my details so that they could send me through a statement of Council Tax account to be settled if necessary. What I didn't know at the time is that instead of listing me as executor of the estate, they had actually transferred the account into my name - hence making me liable for the Council Tax on my Dad's property. So a few weeks ago, a bill arrived - with a demand for payment in seven days and an explicit threat of "recovery proceedings" - addressed to me. The people I spoke to at the council didn't seem to understand that this was a problem, and repeatedly suggested that I could just pay the bill from my own account, and then they would stop asking for the money. It took half an hour of reasoning for me to get them to put the account in the name of my Dad's estate and that they'd have to wait for the assets of the estate to come through. You'd think a council would be better set up to deal with this. Anyone who was less level-headed than me - and let's face it, it's normal to lose some composure when you've just lost a parent - may have paid the bill without a thought - maybe even if they couldn't actually afford it. I must admit to being deeply disappointed in the way Wirral Borough Council handled this.

Of course, Council Tax isn't the only household bill. In these days of freely switching between utility companies, it's impossible to tell who someone's supplier may be in the absence of a bill. There was no bill, and no direct debits, and so I had to take a different approach to this particular problem. I found from Google that seven utility companies serve my Dad's area, and so I took meter readings, and wrote a letter to the customer services team at each. Just a simple letter to say "here are the meter readings - if you were a supplier, please let me know". A couple of companies wrote short letters back to say that they were not a supplier; most didn't bother. But full marks go to British Gas for their response. I had a polite, concise letter back to say that they supplied both gas and electric, and that final bills would follow which I should pay once I had access to the assets of the estate. In a word. Perfect. Well done British Gas!

At a time of bereavement, companies generally try to avoid trying to sell you things. When you call to terminate the service, they are usually understanding and don't try to persuade you otherwise. Once exception to this has been the crematorium. About three weeks after the funeral, I received a letter from the crematorium with a lovely brochure of plaques, headstones, benches and trees suggesting that I may like to remember my father by buying something. Bear in mind that this is a local authority crematorium to whom I'd already paid over five hundred pounds for the hire of a chapel for 25 minutes. I'm afraid this brochure went into the shredder without being read.

So there you have it - a whistlestop tour through what I've been up to with my evenings and weekends for the past few weeks.

If you find yourself having to administer someone's estate, there's plenty of advice I could give. I've only been through it once, but I've learned a lot. But if I had to distil my advice down to just a single piece of advice, it would be this. Dictate the pace yourself. Write a list of who you need to contact, and when they send bills, pile the bills up until you get the money from the estate. You have to pay for the funeral before probate sometimes, but don't be tempted to pay anything else - not even a tenner on a phone bill. And don't let any company bully you into writing a cheque yourself - and they will try...

A rather strange blog entry, I know - but I hope you found it interesting. Oh, and please don't feel embarrassed - as I know some people would be - to read me talking about my Dad's death. Death really isn't something to be squeamish or embarrassed about - it's coming to us all eventually - and avoiding the subject or hiding it behind euphemisms doesn't change that fact. to lose someone is, of course, upsetting and I'd give anything to have my Dad back and enjoying his life - but I'm not embarrassed or squeamish about saying that he's died so - dear reader - please don't be either of those things when you read this - it wasn't written to upset anyone.


Saturday, 5 June 2010

Things to do at the station

For various reasons - which I shalln't go into here - I've been spending a lot of time on trains recently. Anyone who's read previous posts, even though there aren't so many of them, will have gathered that I find some aspects of travel quite annoying. And there are two things which I've noticed today which have made me curious, if not irritated.

Firstly, why is everyone so keen to rush to board the train as soon as possible. These days, most seats are reserved, and the train's departure time is timetabled, so I don't see that rushing onto the train as soon as possible achieves anything at all other than annoy the people patiently queuing to show their ticket and get on the train.

Secondly - why no bins on stations? The excuse given is always security, although I fail to see why removing the bins helps. I know bombs have been planted in bins in the past, but surely if a terrorist was planning to plant a bomb at a station, they wouldn't get to the station and think "oh, there no bins, I'd better take this bomb home with me again".

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

How to survive being useless

I’m currently in the process of having some things I bought online delivered.  I say “in the process of” because the things in question have been given to the courier who are currently in the process of trying to deliver them to my house.

It always intrigued me how couriers could survive in what must be a very competitive market when they give very bad service to the people they are delivering to.  But the answer is really quite obvious.

Couriers aren’t paid by the people who receive the items, they are paid by the people sending them.  In the particular case I’m thinking about the couriers (the courier in case you care) only deliver on behalf of business with accounts.  So how does that protect them from the normal effects of being crap at what they do?

Well, let’s look at my particular case.  I bought something online.  I bought it online because it was a good price, and the delivery charge looked reasonable.  It didn’t occur to me to look at which delivery service they were using – and even if I had decided to look, I would only have been given a company name which would’ve then involved more online research to find the services offered by that delivery company.  So, as most online buyers do, I simply bought my items and paid and presumed that the company I was buying from would arrange delivery.

As is often the case with this courier things went wrong with both the delivery and the courier’s follow-up to my complaint.  Initially, I was shocked, and was ready to fire off letters and emails to the courier to vent my frustration but then I realised there’s little point, as the courier don’t actually care if I’m happy or not.

If I’m unhappy, I complain to the courier, but not being a customer of theirs I am not in a position to actually remove any business from them or seek any form of compensation.  The courier company may receive the complaints, but their contract is with the seller, and in order for the seller to complain to the courier it would take me to complain to the seller, and the seller to pass that complaint onto the courier.  This route is so round-about that only a very small amount of feedback will ever make it through.

So despite the courier being terrible at “delivering things” – which is the one and only thing they do – they are vaccinated if not entirely immune to the usual effects of providing bad service.

In order for my bad experience to have an effect on the courier’s business, the seller I use would have to receive a large number of complaints and would have to have the time to collect the information and pass it onto the courier.  The default reaction of anyone waiting for a parcel is to contact the courier direct, and I guess only a small proportion of those who do so will also contact the original vendor.

With my experience of the past few days, I’ve made a mental note not to order from any company which use this particular courier as the delivery courier.  I do so mostly for my own sanity rather than because I think it’ll make any difference.  A quick Google for this courier will show you that I’m not the only one with problems but given that it seems the courier have never been any good at delivering things and they are still around and thriving as a business it seems as though in some industries it is perfectly possible to have just one function as a company, perform that function very badly indeed and yet still survive as a successful company.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

My favourite mistakes

I collect coins and banknotes.  Yes, I am aware that makes me “a bit sad” but I like it.  One thing I find fascinating are the mistakes.  The errors.  The coins and banknotes we were never meant to get our grubby little public hands on.

Mistakes in bank note printing are quite common.  The paper flies through the machines at an incredible rate, and folds and other problems with the paper are quite common.  Notes are often miscut, meaning large blank paper flaps remain on the side, for instance. 

Below is a photo of a UK fiver showing a slightly rarer error.  Both the design from the front of the note and the design from the back of the note have been printed on the same side.  The most likely cause of this is that one sheet of banknotes fell on top of another before the ink was fully dry.

Fiver

Errors in coins are rarer.  Coins are generally pressed one at a time from blank pieces of metal of the right size.  The lack of flexible paper and post-print cutting makes mistakes rarer than with banknotes – but that doesn’t mean that don’t happen.

Let’s start with a well-known example.  In 2008, the design of UK coins changed.  As part of the change, the date on the 20p coin was moved from one side of the coin to the other.  Some coins were produced with both front and back without a date.  Of course, these coins were never meant to end up in circulation but it seems that a rather large number of them did.  It’s perfectly possible to find one of the coins in your change.  Don’t get too excited though, talk of them being worth “thousands of pounds” is rubbish – a shiny, unscratched example will probably get you around £70 at the most.

But the 20p isn’t the only time a mistake has been made at the mint.  And sometimes the errors have nothing to do with the wrong dies being used.

Coins are made from blank pieces of metal, the right size for the coin, but without the design on.  These fly into a machine which stamps the familiar design onto the coins.  But this process doesn’t always go according to plan.  The quality control at the mint is very good, and most of the time, any coins which aren’t perfect are found and destroyed before reaching circulation, but that’s not always the case.

3d

The picture above shows a 3d from 1956.  It seems that another piece of metal got in the way during the pressing process, and so there’s a circular chunk missing from one side of the coin. 

But sometimes something even rarer can happen. Look at this 2p from 1979.

2p

Do not adjust your sets.  There’s nothing wrong with the colour in that picture.  The 2p piece you’re looking at is actually silver.  It’s made of cupro-nickel rather than the usual bronze.  From the 1990s onward, 1p and 2p coins were minted in steel and then plated in copper, but back in 1979 they were made (or supposed to be made) from solid bronze.   So how did that happen?

Well the Royal Mint here in the UK doesn’t just make coins for the UK; they make coins for many countries throughout the world under contract.  The best guess here is that a blank normally used for a non-UK coin the same size as a 2p – but made from cupro-nickel accidentally found its way into the hopper of blanks destined for 2p pieces.  The resulting error didn’t get picked up by the Royal Mint, and the shiny silver 2p made it out into the wild.

So don’t think of collecting coins as simply memorising the designs of the UK pound coin for every year since 1983 or trying to get a complete set of sixpences.  Think of the more interesting items which give an insight into how money is made and why you should always check your change – you never know what you may find!

(All pictures are of items from my private collection – don’t reuse without permission – thanks! D.)

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Things you overhear…

I was waiting at Euston station for a train yesterday. The train was delayed. I would say “as is typical” but in fairness to Virgin Trains, the service from London to Chester is usually pretty reliable.

Anyway – waiting for the delayed train, I was standing with the rest of the world staring at the departure board trying to guess which of the incoming trains shown on the arrivals board would become our outgoing train so I work out which platform I should be edging towards. Having a pre-booked seat reservation didn’t stop me from thinking that getting on the train sooner rather than later would somehow speed up my journey.

Two guys were standing next to me. From the way they were interacting, I’d say they were probably workmates who both happened to be getting trains from Euston around the same time, so had travelled there together. They were talking very loudly, and so even had I wanted to, avoiding hearing their conversation would’ve been somewhat impossible.

The taller and younger of the guys was talking about his girlfriend. Apparently she had decided that she needed to lose weight, and he started by saying how he’d told her that she looked fine the way she was, and that she didn’t need to lose weight. That made me warm to him.

He did, however, follow up that modern sentiment with … “cos thin birds have small tits and I told her that I like her tits really big”.

Men, eh?

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Funny by numbers

Last night, we went along to the Channel 4 Comedy Gala.  It’s been recorded and will be on TV next Monday evening.

There were a LOT of stand-up comedians on the bill.  And I mean a LOT.  Each of them was given around five minutes and as you’d expect, some tickled my funny bone and some didn’t.

But as this isn’t a review – I shall limit myself to saying Bill Bailey and Michael McIntyre good – but that was expected.  Lee Evans not as annoying as I’d feared and actually quite funny.

More interesting was to note the same formula used by so many of the comedians on the bill.  Before we look at the formula itself, there’s a few things you need to know about the gig. 

  • It was in the O2.  That’s a very big venue. 
  • To get onto the stage, the acts had to walk up a few stairs
  • The gig was in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital

Armed with just those three facts you could reconstruct the set of many of the comedians on the bill.  So let’s do that.

First, walk up the stairs. 

If you trip on the stairs, make a joke about how that wasn’t intentional and how it all could’ve gone badly wrong.

If you aren’t the fittest person in the world, make a joke about how walking up the stairs was hard work.

Stand still for a minute and look out into the crowd.  Then utter an expletive and say how big the room is.  (Almost everyone except Lee Evans did this!). 

To get the crowd on side, ask if they’re having a good time and make a joke about how long the evening is.  (Again – almost everyone except Lee Evans)

Maybe riff a little about the fact that the O2 used to be the Millennium Dome.  It’s sponsored by a mobile phone company, so if you have some jokes about call plans or text messages, now’s your chance.

Then go into three minutes or so of your own material – maybe throwing in a few references to children or hospitals if you want to be topical.

If at any point you start to lose the crowd, either talk about how great the cause is. (Cue applause)

Or failing that, talk about how intimidated you are by the size of the room and how happy you are that you are getting through your set without dying. (Yes, one of them really did spend a proportion of their set doing just this…)

Finally, say what a great night is ahead of the audience, say thank you for coming and leave the stage.

Easy.

Of course, as the evening drags on, you can start to turn the “length of the show joke” into “don’t worry, you can go home soon”. 

If you’re feeling subversive, you could say that you’re not going to ask the crowd if they are enjoying the evening, as so many other people have asked that. 

Now, I realise I’m starting to sound miserable at this point.  Don’t get me wrong; I had a cracking evening and spent most of it laughing.  But there are two ways of looking at comedy – analogous to two ways in which you can listen to music.

I can listen to a song and get caught up in the emotion and the sound and the mood.  Or I can listen to a song and count the beats, listen for the chord changes, listen for the breaths on the vocal track and take it apart.

The first can be a moving experience.  The second can be an interesting experience.

Last night, at the gig itself, I was moved to laughter.  Right now, I’m being interesting.(*)

But is there a connection between the two ways of looking at comedy?  I think there is.  And my reason is that if I think of the acts who still stand out in my mind from last night, they are the ones who didn’t stick to the script.  Or who subverted the script.

Shappi Khorsandi gave five minutes of well-rehearsed and good material. 

Michael McIntyre was gifted with following Katie Price and Alex Reid on the bill which would provide anyone with enough material to fill five minutes, but still delivered some great and original material of his own.

Bill Bailey provided a brilliant musical opening to the second half.

And – much as it pains me to say this – Lee Evans was actually very funny.  Obviously at home in such large arenas, he knows how to connect with a large crowd.

Given it was a charity gig – and that nobody was truly awful – I think it’d be wrong of me to pick out some of my least favourite acts and at an evening with so many comedians on the bill some are bound to resonant with my sense of humour more than others.

I would recommend watching on Monday though – but if you want to see what I mean above – buy the uncut DVD coming out later in April.  It’s for a good cause after all…

Monday, 22 March 2010

Popular science need not be patronising

I’ve read a lot of “popular science” books.  Put me in a book shop and I’ll be headed straight for the section filled with books called “Shrödinger’s Something” and have a picture of a cat on the front.  (*)

Time – and a lot of reading – has lead me to believe that many authors mistake the readers of popular science books for idiots and seem to think that making the science simple involves aiming for a simple readership.  To think that way is folly – most people pick up a book on quantum theory or relativity because they want to understand it – not because they want to read tabloid-style rantings about time travel and clocks slowing down in fast planes.  I’ve got a particular book in mind here which was so dire I was screaming at the pages during the last chapter…

The problem with most popular science books – and many science documentaries on TV – is that they aren’t created by people who understand the science.  If you want an accessible depiction of a scientific concept then find a scientist who understands and let them explain it to the target audience – whatever you do, don’t find some actor from Hollyoaks and give them a script to read out.

Fortunately, Brian Cox has appeared as our saviour in the mire of dull science writing and presenting.

I’m just about to finish reading Why E=mc² and it’s a fantastic book.  And even though we’re only halfway through “Wonders of the Solar System” it’s already astounded me with both the imagery and the presentation.

Let me illustrate my point with an example.  A week ago Saturn’s rings were the focus of “Wonders Of The Solar System” and in particular the gaps which appear in the rings.  Mention was made that moons are responsible for the gaps.  And that’s where most documentaries would’ve stopped.  Not this one.

It was a joy to hear orbital resonance being explained.   There was no hand-waving here, but an actual explanation of how moons outside the ring system can create gaps inside the ring system because of resonances between their orbital period and the orbital period of the particles which make up the rings.  Proof that it is possible to present the truth of science without making it either inaccessible or patronising.

I can recommend the book for exactly the same reason.  The maths is presented and a derivation of “E=mc²” is given in the book.(**) Even if you already understand Special Relativity, the Standard Model and the idea of spacetime curvature, you will still enjoy reading this book.  Trust me. You will.  Oh and watch “Wonders of the Solar System” on Sunday Evenings – you won’t be disappointed!"

* Brian Cox’s book does have a picture of a cat on the front but Schrödinger is not mentioned in the title.

** OK, it’s a bit of an approximate derivation but if you have a maths background you have enough information in the book to make it rigorous…

Monday, 8 March 2010

Seeing the world through my eyes

Everyone sees the world differently.  A shining example of modern architecture to one person may appear as a monstrous carbuncle to others.  This is how I see the world.

I was sitting in a café having lunch on Sunday, and there were four stools lined up against the wall opposite.  They were not spaced equally.  You may ask why I was looking at the spacing of the stools and the answer is that I wasn’t looking at the spacing specifically – I was merely glancing at the stools and the asymmetrical arrangement leapt out at me.

The imperfect arrangement of the stools looked wrong.  No – it didn’t look wrong – it felt wrong.  It was wrong.

It’s not an obsession with neatness – anyone who knows me will tell you that’s something I don’t suffer from – but simply something in my brain which tells me that an asymmetrical arrangement of stools is wrong.

There are other examples.  Hanging clothes out on the line on holiday once, I noticed that I was ensuring that identical clothes pegs were used on each sock from the same pair.  This wasn’t a choice for aesthetic reasons; do have mismatched pegs on a pair of socks would just feel wrong.  Uncomfortable. Unacceptable,even.

Whenever I buy a new pair of shoes, I am faced with a dilemma.  The laces are quite often not threaded and before you wear the shoes you have to lace them up.  The lacing of shoes is not symmetrical and so the question in my mind is immediately whether the lacing of the left and right shoes should be identical – or mirror imaged.  You may laugh – in fact I can hear that you are – but to me this isn’t an idle thought.  It matters. 

I count roast potatoes for dinner.  Every guest must get the same number of potatoes on the plate.  I don’t count the peas; but I do count the spoonfuls of peas.

I’m writing this on a train, and we’re currently speeding through Burgess Hill.  On the right, I have just seen a house with an asymmetrical roof.  I couldn’t buy that house.  It would be too uncomfortable to see the mismatched roof every time I came home.

I’m a scientist by nature though I think my love of science is a symptom of my obsession with symmetry and numbering rather than the cause.  Logic and order are at the heart of scientific thinking, and I think I feel at home there.

You may ask how I can appreciate art, if symmetry and order are important.  I can – and do – appreciate art.  The composition of the painting or the piece of music may be asymmetrical, but that’s fine.  What wouldn’t be fine would be if the art gallery had hung the painting unevenly.

I know other people who think the same way as I do.  It can’t be that unusual.  But surely not everyone sees the world like this.

I don’t hold with the modern obsession with labelling every behaviour or way of thinking as a “syndrome” and trying to analyse – and indeed change – it.  I certainly have no idea to change the way I think, I quite like my ordered and counted view of the world.  But I’m curious if anyone else sees the world like this – or does everyone think this way and yet nobody talks about it?

Don’t get me wrong, but…

There’s been a lot in the press recently about one of the James Bulger killers who’s been taken back to prison for breaking the terms of his release.

Also, stirred up by the tabloids, there have been increasing calls for him to lose his anonymity and face trial for these new charges under his real name.  There have also been people who really should know better claiming that the charges against him should be made public.

I can understand the anger in this case.  I can understand how emotional it is.  But I disagree entirely with the notion that anyone not involved in the case has any right to know the nature of the new charges.   We may want to know – and indeed I’m sure everyone is curious – but that does not in itself give us the right to be told.

Everyone in this country has the right to a fair trial for every offence of which they are accused.  The fact that Jon Venables has already been found guilty of a very serious – and truly horrendous – crime previously does not remove his right to a fair trial this time around.

If he were tried by jury under his real name, there is no way he would be guaranteed a fair trial.  No matter how disturbing we find the Bulger murder not how we feel about the punishment the two killers have received, the right to a fair trial for this new charge should not be up for debate.

Emotion is a very powerful thing, and the Bulger case obviously stirs up emotions in anyone who reads about it – but perhaps the people who need to make the decisions in this case are not the ones who are emotionally involved.  James Bulger’s mother is understandably upset, and may feel that – should Jon Venables be found guilty of the new charges – her suggestions that the killers were released too early was justified. 

But right now, Jon Venables has not been found guilty of any new charges.  The priority now should be to give him a fair trial for those charges.  Any raking over the coals of the previous case in light of the new one should only be done once we know whether he actually did what he now stands accused of.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Ga Ga Ooh La La

I’ve waited a week or so before writing this, just to ensure that the sheer delight from seeing Lady GaGa at the O2 didn’t fade with time, it hasn’t.

I should declare now that I’m a Lady GaGa fan.  She’s completely nutty, but I like that in a pop star.

The show at the O2 was even better than I had expected – and my expectations were pretty high. 

There was a Rolls Royce with a piano under the bonnet, a fountain which shot flames, a grand piano which set itself on fire and of course the huge monster which she killed by shooting sparks from her breasts.  As you do. 

But, amongst all the silliness, every song was sung live, with a live band.  She spent the whole two hours in fully choreographed dance routines.   Not only can she sing, she can play the piano and she writes almost all of her songs.

I’m sick and tired of modern pop stars who seem to think a concert involves prancing around with a few dancers whilst someone back stage presses play on your latest CD and you move your lips in time to the music. 

It’s often claimed that you can’t sing and dance at the same time. Not true. Admittedly it’s hard to sing well whilst performing an energetic dance routine – but it is definitely possible.

I’m also tired of pop stars (and rock stars) who seem to think that if you lack any musical talent you can make up for it by drinking a lot and saying controversial things.   If I pay 50 quid for a concert ticket, I want to see an artist who’s sober enough to remember the words and I want to see them give the best performance they can.

And this is why I love Lady GaGa.  You can see from watching her perform that she spends many more hours in the rehearsal studio than she does in the bar, and that’s how it should be!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Private thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve written in here.  No particular reason – nothing sinister, nor anything exciting, I’m afraid.

Since I last wrote in here, I’ve bought a duvet cover, had the nicest meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant and been to Windsor Castle – what an exciting life I lead, eh?

At least spring is on the way.  Pottering around in the garden, you don’t have to look too hard to see the daffodils and crocuses starting to peek up through the winter mulch.  The snowdrops are already out in full force in some parts of the garden.

The other day, we spent a morning wandering around RHS Wisley in the cold.  “Why?” you may ask.  Well gardens at this time of year are rather dull.  So, we took a trip to Wisley to see how the RHS manage to keep the garden interesting at this time of year.

Unfortunately, the answer seems to lie in dogwood and hellebores – neither of which we have the space to add into our garden just for a splash of winter colour.

So, I guess we’re stuck with a garden that’s all brown and sticky (*) at this time of year

(* sticky = containing lots of sticks)

Monday, 11 January 2010

What should I do?

The end of a decade is usually a time for reflection. Working in the mobile industry, I’m surrounded by phones and read lots of blog postings about how mobile phones have changed, and how the iPhone brought to the public consciousness the idea of adding applications to a phone to add functionality to it. But the mobile phone itself has changed other things in our lives, which have changed the way we interact with people in more subtle ways.

For instance, almost all of the time, you see the number of the person calling you when you get a call these days. And pretty often, they’ll be in your contacts, so you’ll actually get to see who it is. I’ve become so used to the idea that you know who’s calling you before you pick up the phone, I can hardly remember the sensation of picking up the phone and saying “hello?” without knowing who is on the other end.

I have a variety of ways of saying “hello” depending on who’s calling me. There’s a “hello” for people I speak to regularly, a “hello?” for people who’ve withheld their number and a “hello!” for people I’ve not heard from in a while. It wasn’t too many years ago that “hello?” would’ve been the only one available to me.

Of course, the advent of mobiles has also given us the ability to check which of our friends are currently underground – a skill we had not even dreamed could be useful until we realised that it tells us whether someone we’re standing out in the cold waiting for is still on the tube, or is wandering lost around the vicinity.

The use of mobiles in public places has also given us the opportunity to hear the voices of strangers in a way we never used to. People used to sit silently on trains and buses, staring into space or down into a newspaper. The fact that they are gossiping away to friends may be annoying, but it does allow you hear whether they are well spoken or not, whether they have an accent and often which country they are from. Celebrities have also become more recognisable; many of the times I’ve seen a famous person around London it’s been the voice which has alerted me rather than seeing them walk past.

The advent of the internet into our lives has also brought with it the idea that having conversations with strangers is normal. We seek advice and chat from people who we’ve never seen except for a tiny picture on their Twitter page or a comedy photo of them wearing a hat which they’ve chosen for their Facebook photo. The moments of being out and about and seeing someone who you think you recognise from their Twitter photo were unknown only a few years ago, and now it happens to me a couple of times a year.

Only the other evening, I was at a BBC radio recording and saw someone who looked a bit familiar. I realised that he looked like the picture on Twitter on someone I have followed for a few months and exchanged a few messages back and forth with. What’s the etiquette in that situation? Do you go up to them and say “hello, I think I may follow you on Twitter”. Of course, the fact that following on Twitter is not always mutual means that they may not be following you, and so have no idea who you are. To go up to them and say this would be to confirm status as a “stalker type” I think.

So what do you do? Do you send them a Twitter message to say “hello, I think I saw you the other night?” – it’s still a bit weird, but at least you’re enquiring from a safe distance rather than invading their real life in a way they may not appreciate.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve done nothing. I didn’t say “hello?” to him at the recording, nor have I sent him a Twitter message to see whether it was him I saw the other night. Maybe I should – what d’you think?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Isn’t it funny that famous people die at Christmas?

2009 was notable for the fact that nobody particularly famous died over the Christmas period.  Every year, there seems to be an expectation that at least one or two famous people will die during the Christmas holidays.  That got me thinking.  I’m pretty sure that people die every day of the year, but statistically, just how many famous people would you expect to die during the Christmas holidays?

According to the figures I found online, around 1% of the world’s population die every year.  Let’s presume that figure is the same for celebrities as for the population in general.

Secondly, we need to know how many famous people are there.  There are around 30,000 entries in Who's Who. If we presume that a quarter of them are “famous” but that we can think of the same number again of people who are “famous” but aren’t in “Who’s Who” – the kind of people who are on Celebrity Big Brother, for instance, then we end up with around 15,000 famous people. Feels about right to me.

So, combining those two, we would expect around 150 famous people to die each year.  That’s around one every two and a half days.

If we presume that “The Christmas Holidays” last around a week, then we’d expect two or three famous people to die in that period every year.

And that’s what we get every year…

So, maybe those people who’ve been saying that it’s unusual that no famous people died over Christmas is “unusual” are right.  A quite bit of statistical fiddling tells me that the chance of no famous people dying in any given week is around 5% and so only around once every twenty years would we expect every famous person to survive Christmas unscathed – and that sounds pretty rare to me.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Looking forward to 2010

2009 wasn’t a great year.  I don’t seem to be the only one saying so, either.  But still it’s gone now, and although the whole concept of numbering the years is arbitrary, the reset of the annual clock to 1 does give an opportunity to draw a line and make a few changes.

So far, 2010 has been “cold with a flutter of snow” but I expect there’ll be some sunshine along the way at some point.

In the summer, our local station reopens again after nearly three years (East London Line Extension) giving us direct access to Dalston, Croydon and Crystal Palace from our local station.  Lovely.  That’ll be useful, then.

But before that, we get the second part of Doctor Who: End of Time – starring a blonde John Simm as a rather deranged Master and Timothy Dalton as a spitting Time Lord.  I actually enjoyed the first episode on Christmas Day, my only concern is that in order to undo the “Master Race” thing, there’s going to be a reset and we’ve had a few too many resets in recent years and it’d be nice to have a story with resolution rather than simply rewinding time to the beginning of the story again.

So, that’s my view of 2010 so far.  A blank slate of a year with a new Doctor in the TARDIS and a new local train service.   My only hope for the year is that many things happen more interesting that both of those…