Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why oh why... (number 1 in a series of probably more than 1))

...does the BBC trail the Archers. You know, just before the seven o'clock news, every weekday, they announce something indescribably dreary such as "In a few moments the Archers. Jill is in the kitchen while Tom has a few words to say to Eddie".

I have listened to this stuff for years and normally it goes straight through one ear, several times round the cranium and vanishes without trace in a puff of unused neurons, though on the way it pushes out stuff I'd prefer to remember such as where I last put my car keys. But lately it has begun to grate. Why (oh, why) do they do it? Every person on the planet who listens to the BBC knows that they broadcast the Archers, a programme that has been around almost as long as I have. Every person knows that it comes after the news. Why do they trail it? If you are new to radio then you certainly won't start listening because of the lifeless trails. And everyone else knows all about it. So telling us something we either do not need to be told, or don't care about, surely achieves nothing.
[whatever happened to Hugo Barnaby? Ed]

Nature corner

Round about this time of year I generally write some notes about the weather , the onset of Spring and the amphibian breeding programme on my estate (frogs in the pond, to you). What a strange year we have had. A very wet winter and a bitterly cold March. Today it has snowed lightly in beautiful Ruislip, although the temperature is around 6c, and most of the country is covered in real snow and has been for several days. The snowdrops have come and gone, the crocuses are doing well and the daffs have begun showing but rather intermittently. And no sign of the frogs, of course. Galling because I busted a gut cleaning out the pond a few weeks ago.

Last year it was shirtsleeves weather and the onset of a drought (at least until the unceasing rains started).

So there you are, nature lovers. Don't forget to call in around about this time next year for a further gripping instalment.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Would you credit it?

My credit card provider (whom I will not name, although it rhymes with Warclays, and begins with a B) sent me a text the other day. It informed me that I could use the card to make contactless payments on London buses.  This irritated me quite a lot because:
a) I already knew this
b) I live in London and am old enough to have a "Freedom Pass" (or bus pass as some readers will know it) and therefore have no interest whatsoever in any other means of paying for this form of travel
c) The credit card company knows my address and date of birth and spending patterns and therefore they know that either
i) I must have a Freedom Pass or,
ii) I do not have one because I do not need one
and in any case they know that I have a car and they know when I buy petrol.

So why did they send me this text? Just a general mail-out (or text-out or whatever the phrase is)? Ah, you will say (or at least those of you with some knowledge of these matters) - you can request them to stop sending texts. Yes, I will reply, and that is what I did. Their text included the instruction for informing them that I no longer wished to receive such missives. I sent it off. And naturally yesterday I received another unwanted text from the same source informing of precisely the same thing that they had already told me about, viz, that their card works on buses.

What are we to conclude? The people who run these advertising campaigns are thick or uncaring? That they don't know how to use the data at their disposal to target their adverts intelligently? That when they tell you you can text them to stop further messages, this is a lie or that they are too incompetent to actually do anything about it?  Yes, all of these things. I find the defendants guilty on all charges. Case dismissed.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to write a short story

The Guardian weekend colour supplement has a feature called Web Windows where a whole page is divided into many small ads, in contrast to the usual full page glossies for cars, phones and supermarkets.  I love the eclectic and often jarring nature of these little boxes, priced to be within the reach of many small businesses. The challenge is to link them together in a coherent and gripping theme, following the order strictly from left to right, and from top to bottom. What follows may not win any awards but it has a narrative strength and dramatic twists that must surely fascinate.

They met soon after he decluttered his room. He was an inveterate gambler who often bet on whether gold would go up or down but he always slept well on his foam memory mattress. It was at the International Camp Suisse that they fell in love but alas, almost at once there was trouble and a family law specialist was needed.  He had to put his holiday home in Cornwall up for sale, aided by his solar powered charger that kept him in touch wherever he was. And then - she came back. He bought her some contemporary jewellery and a 1940s style dress but she had begun hearing voices in her head. They had to get away, assisted by a euro denominated cashcard and soon they were cruising in the Baltic with an Abba tribute band to make it just perfect. Too perfect. On their return he crashed the car, requiring body repairs and worse, the Children's Air Ambulance had to be called out. They split and he looked for new romance with a professional singles dating agency. He hired a 4x4 to help him pull the birds, and he had his decluttered room redesigned with the help of an architect. Even his trusty pet had a makeover. At last she returned, after her brief stay at a girls boarding school in Devon. They celebrated with a USDA steak at a specialist restaurant and at last he bought her a zebra scarf as a sign that their love would never end.

It's got something don't you think? Let's hope it is not catching.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Discomfort is...

...when you have to take a slow train to Baker Street and then change to the Circle, instead of a fast Aldgate direct from Harrow, and when the Circle comes in it is absolutely packed (and this is after 10am when you might think passenger traffic would ease off a tad) so you have to stand and the train as often as not sits at Baker for a few minutes because a Met is crossing in front it.

I am so glad that I don't have to travel down to the City as much as I did when I was young.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Luxury is...

...arriving at Farringdon station at 4:55pm, just before the big rush starts, and taking on a seat on an Uxbridge-bound train with a minimum of fuss
...blithely ignoring the crowds jamming the train as we pull out of Baker Street
...and still even more blithely ignoring the same,  yet even more jammed, crowds as we pull away from Harrow.

It's all in the timing, you know.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The utility of the commute

Interesting article in The Guardian by John Lanchester, examining the meaning of commuting and experiencing an Underground trip starting before 5:00am. His conclusion about why we commute and whether it is worth it is worth noting. You should read it for yourself but this little snippet summarises one argument - "So you commute, which is a drag, in order to have the house and holiday and lifestyle that makes you happy " and he goes on to invoke the theory of utility. Now this is something I know a bit about, because utility is a technical term used by economists and I studied this benighted subject at a world-leading institution. (U. of Cambridge if you must know) [Kilburn Tech was good enough for me, actually: Ed]  and Mr Lanchester doesn't quite get it right. He opines that the theory must be wrong because "happiness studies" show that commuting, trading off the cost and effort of the daily journey to afford a better house in the suburbs, does not make people happier. Well,  the theory of utility is a wonderful piece of circular reasoning. It is based on an unprovable axiom that people behave rationally when making consumer choices. Therefore choosing to commute must increase utility because people choose to do it and therefore they must be happier (you know, really, deep down) This is genuinely what the great economists of the past - Marshall, Pigou, Pareto, Walras and others who worked in this field - thought. By this argument the theory cannot be wrong.

Actually the theory of utility, a major plank in the theory of markets, has nothing to offer when considering commuting. We do it because there are only so many places in the centre of cities to live and therefore most of us must live away from them albeit many of us have jobs which are in the centre of the cities. How far you choose to live is perhaps up to you, trading off cheaper house prices with the increased time and cost of travelling in, but few of us have any choice about the fundamental decision to use a public transport network to get to work in the first place. Choice is at the heart of utility theory so it really should not be used in this instance. Like almost all of classical economics, it is irrelevant to the way we live today (and was just as irrelevant when it was formulated at the end of the nineteenth century). The theory is right in a particular sort of economy but nobody on this planet has ever lived in it and nobody ever will because one of the fundamental requirements is that there is no future, only a continuous present.  If you would like to know more, you know how to get in touch [Careful, this could open the floodgates: Ed]

Anyway, Lanchester's observations on how people behave on the Tube are well worth reading so I commend his article to you.