Sunday, 24 July 2011

Workin' 9 to 5...

This week I was forced to travel through London in the middle of the day. I say forced because I had no other sensible option considering the volume of my load and the multiple destinations I had to visit both in and out of London. You see the other options of not paying congestion charge or paying for the astronomical fuel for the car still come out more expensive, far less comfortable and slower. It's another post entirely one feels but as expensive as motoring is, mainly down to the taxes levied on us apparently to encourage us to switch to other means, those other means are largely unviable.

My mood was tempered by the dulcet tones on Radio 4 and the comfort of my moving sitting room, but even with the aircon humming away I was miffed. Why? Because of course I was stuck in rush hour, only it was midday so I shall just call it rush entire day. There is no rush hour anymore. I queue to get in and out of London and indeed through it at all times of day. So do we all. There are simply too many people with too many cars. Most of them driving badly I might add but I'm sure they'd say the same of me.

What compounded the misery of the polyglot mass crawling through the arteries and veins of London like tar being pumped painfully slowly through a heart is of our own making. Around every corner, past every set of lights or roundabout that you just knew was the cause of the traffic, the road beyond you are certain as empty as the Commons once the cameras turn off at PMQs, was a set of roadworks. Entire stretches of road torn up, to continue with my theme, like open heart surgery. Only instead of having 10 people furiously working per 3 inches of open wound that one expects in an operating theatre, there were 3 people per 100 metres doing very little and certainly nothing furiously.

London is infested with incredibly slow road "works". It pains me to call them "works" so little actual work appears to go on. Boris wrote an excellent article on this very subject here. I suggest you read it so I don't have to plagiarise it all. In essence though he points out not just the irritation, but the sheer cost to UK PLC of queueing through London for roadworks. He points to the laughable situation where just about any utilities company, of which there are now bucketloads, has the right to dig up the road and take their sweet time to do so.

The only way to get them to do this more efficiently is to charge them per metre, per hour. Now people will complain, of course, that these costs will just be passed onto the consumers and that the costs will mean some companies will refuse to put in new lines/pipes/cables and that Mrs Miggins won't be able to get her high speed interweb or whatever. But that is what a free market is there for. Eventually companies will just realise this is another area to cut costs by planning works more efficiently, hiring shift road workers to toil round the clock because time is money and 9 to 5 don't cut it anymore. It will make them talk to each other and co-ordinate digging works to access the same bit of London subterrain. If some companies just keep on with their inefficient methods and pass the costs directly on, some other company will work smarter and undercut them. The knock-on for us is we get less disruption, work happens more quickly and we save a shedload of cash and efficiency lost sat in traffic jams. And I will be that tiny bit less grumpy.

Friday, 22 July 2011


This week the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks have been running the gauntlet of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Our upstanding Members of Parliament (my, how short our and their memories are?) have been busy lobbing stones through the empty frames that make up what used to be their moral glass houses. Now they have all been grilled to the same extent. The MPs didn't go easy on Rupert just because he's an octogenarian. They even didn't go easy on Rebekah because she had ginger hair. Or because she was a girl. Now it's a good thing it's our non-PC MPs carrying out this investigation because left to Greater Manchester Police it may not have gone quite the same.

Nope, it appears Greater Manchester Police may well have just roasted James, but would probably have stopped short with the old fella and the girl. You see they've just had their fingers burned by the PC Police.  A couple of weeks back it was reported that Inspector Diane Bamber, 51, had taken Greater Manchester Police to an employment tribunal and won after she failed a fitness-based selection (here).

The test comprised a 500m course, wearing full riot gear and carrying a 17lb riot shield. Known as the "shield run" this is the base level fitness standard required to join a public order unit and must be completed in under 2 mins 45 secs. And she failed it. Because she's not fit enough. So she sued them. And won. Apparently she felt "humiliated" after failing the test. The tribunal ruled that she had been discriminated against because of her sex and age.

Now here is a little test to see if you've been reading my blog - what do I think about this?

a) Now that seems perfectly sensible, why would we possibly want riot police to be physically fit? As long as they're nice people, I'm sure the rioters won't go for the fat wheezy policeman who can't keep up with the rest of the riot shield wall. I imagine weak links are positively encouraged as the key to effective shield-based combat - the Romans probably had it wrong. Now I think of it, it's unfair to rule out the elderly or the infirm, they're people too. And let's get the morbidly obese in there as well. Everyone deserves a go as a riot policeman. That's what equal opportunities means.

b) Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ.

Yes, it was a toss-up, but I went with b). If you didn't you can probably stop reading here and go play with the traffic or continue interfering with an animal. Over the years it is an understatement to say there have been incredible miscarriages of justice with totally unjustified age discrimination, sexual discrimination, racial discrimination and more. We have, though, moved on and I'd say we are much of the way there. However, we are threatened with losing the good (and ongoing) work at the expense of ridiculous rulings like this where half-wits mis-interpret the law to their hearts' content and in so doing create terribly dangerous precedents.

Now you've perhaps read my thoughts on discrimination before (here, but most particularly here). In essence I think it's all about motivation - and I'm right, obviously - not about just choosing, which is all discriminating is. For example, fireman need to be strong enough to carry unconscious fat people to safety from their burning sofas after their discarded fag butts have ignited the stacked copies of NOTW forming a shrine to investigative journalism in the corner of their 13th floor apartment. Or rescue people from middle class fires. Or the Queen from whichever palace in which she currently resides.

Now some women will have failed the fireman test - or whatever slightly more official-sounding name they have for it. And some men. They will have been the people who couldn't hack it physically. And we're all the safer for the fire service that has produced - except when they're on strike for more pay. The average 7st woman is always going to find it much harder than the average 13st man to lift a 15st body or whatever the test is. Likewise the average 62 year old is going to find it harder than the average 25 year old. Fat wheezy kids will probably fail as will those with a build akin to the chap from the Mr Muscle adverts.

They aren't, however, being unfairly discriminated against. They just failed an objective test. There is a need for an objective test because you can't do the job if you can't carry a deadweight person. The unconscious victim doesn't weigh less if the fireman is over 50, or female. He or she weighs what she weighs. Some people will be more genetically predisposed to success than others, but that's life. For some things, many things in fact, maybe even most, there has to be one level for all. Equal opportunities means everyone from every 'category' (old, young, male, female, big fish, little fish, red fish, blue fish) gets the same shot at trying for a job or whatever. It does not mean we massage the test to get an equal number of everyone from every 'category' to pass.

Now Inspector Bamber doesn't want to be a fireman, but the physical levels required to join a public order unit are correctly imposed in a direct parallel. There's no humiliation in failing an assessment designed to test even the hardiest of our youths. Likewise you probably shouldn't hang your head in shame for failing selection for the SAS or the Parachute Regiment. Or not getting past youth trials at Arsenal. Or not getting the place at the top university you were after. You see they are all objective tests - are you strong enough to be a riot policeman, a good enough footballer for the Premier League, or a clever enough boffin to study astrophysics at Harvard?

Maybe not - and in all cases it will be a mixture of latent talent and hard work which decides if you make the grade. That is the wonder of objective tests - by their very definition they are neutral, non-subjective, impervious to bias or malevolent discrimination as long as the pass requirements are justified by what they are testing for. Sometimes the effort will not be enough to overcome the genetic disadvantages you start with. That may be because you are a short girl, or a thick boy, or born with the proverbial two left feet. The test takes no account of that though - only your performance. It is not shameful to fail trying. It is shameful to hide your failure, however, behind spurious lawsuits relying on the ongoing spinelessness of the judiciary when anyone whispers "discrimination" in their general direction. Especially if you're a sodding police Inspector.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men...

So by now we have all had time to adjust to the fact that we are all still living our sad miserable lives and are not the proud owners of a £161 million lottery ticket. Hey ho. We shall all have to put off the serious nitty gritty of which yacht to buy to adorn our extremely inland driveways. The fleet of luxury cars is on hold too and stand fast the portfolio of overseas getwaways.

Yes this weekend, as with every day after a big lotto payout, we are all getting to grips with the shocking news that we aren't multimillionaires. I imagine I am not alone in rather enjoying the excitement of spending money in my head on the commute home - purchase number one clearly being a chauffeur to transport me to work.  Actually I probably wouldn't bother going to work now I think of it. I can while away the journey, tailgating to my heart's content, imagining my Shelby Cobra or vintage Aston Martin. I imagine living the lifestyle of the Heat magaziners who seem to need a 'break' or a 'getaway' every 2 to 3 weeks. What stressful work is it that they do that requires so much time to unwind? Poor oppressed people. I think about what percentage I would have to give to charity to make myself feel good and, of course, to make me look generous. I think about upgrading the pavilion on my village cricket green, and maybe hiring Mike Atherton to open the batting - he popped into 'my' pub on Saturday so he knows how to find us.

You see, it's fun. It's also planning. Because I might win. Due to the fact that clearly like almost everyone, I don't ever win, this is the fun part for me - the chase. However it appears that fortune does not favour the planners. He who has already searched out the best investment opportunities to live off the interest of say a £2.6 million win, or investigated if his £4.9 million win will stretch to a villa on Lake Como whilst maintaining sufficient monies to fund a jet-set lifestyle sans work shall not win. If he is planning on moving out of his house even, it seems the Gods do not smile upon him. Nope, the only people who win the big bucks trot out the same old nonsense:

"We shan't let it change us - we like our life here in our crap little house with our crap little cars."

It rather makes you wonder… why on earth did you buy the sodding ticket?

I just don't get it. Why would you buy tickets to win a life-changing amount of money if you want to keep your life exactly as it is? I'm not suggesting our lives are meaningless and hollow without untold millions - contrary to the general tone of my blog I'm pretty contented - but why stick your money in if you don't want to do anything with the windfall?

I'm happy with my lot, but it doesn't meant I wouldn't mind a couple more spondoolicks to throw about the place. Or 161 million of them. I'm not greedy though, I'd be content with one of those pathetic £4 million midweek draws - you know, the ones that are barely worth playing. Plus, it exercises the mind more working out what to do when you have to consider living off interest versus large capital expenditure - the sort of 'problems' £1.9 million wins give you. It's just a bit easy when you win £161 million, because you can buy everything and still have loads left over.

So there it is folks, the great travesty of the lottery system. It seems the cash is always destined to end up with either the yobbish Michael Carrolls of this world who will spend their loot in a way that would make East Coast rappers look both stylish and conservative or the Colin and Chris Weirs who seem to have no desire to do anything differently at all. either way, it ends up with people who simply haven't put in the necessary thought. I don't begrudge them the money, I simply would rather if I'm destined to live my multimillionaire's life vicariously (highly likely), couldn't they at least have a plan? I guess it's like being an armchair critic - you see, I have a feeling I'd be such a good multimillionaire, if only someone would give me the chance. Suppose I should meet them halfway by at least buying a ticket...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

It's the End of the (News of the) World As We Know It

Well I thought up this not that imaginative title on the drive home from work today and was so pleased with myself decided I had to use it, even though what I really wanted to talk about wasn't the NOTW. Nope, I actually wanted to moan about some claptrap I read in the paper yesterday. Having conjured up such a terrible play on words I thought of canning the job and applying to the NOTW themselves for a job, but then remembered they aren't hiring. Ever again.

Today saw the end of the paper's 168 year history of low-end investigative journalism. I'm not going to miss it, but lots of people will. Why? Because we are a snoopy lot who live our vicarious lives of iniquity, perversion and nefarious activities from the comfort of our judgemental breakfast table on a Sunday morning. The only thing we Brits love more than a feel-good story or the building up of a hero is some good old fashioned scandal and watching someone be torn down. Bad news sells in this country and the press know it.

You might say the NOTW broke the golden rule - they got caught. Not that they didn't try to hide it. Totally false submissions to Parliament, imprisoned employees hung out to dry as scapegoats and the mystery of a full police investigation that yielded no evidence of wrongdoing from a press room that looked as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo, to borrow a phrase. One wonders if the subsequent 6 or so full-public-judge-led-inquries (still obsessed with these I see) that are being demanded will find any link between the apparent inability of the plod to find any naughtiness at the NOTW and the fact that the same paper has illegally paid the police more for information for stories than Parliament could conjure up expenses for in a whole year.

Not only did they get caught though, more importantly they got caught meddling in lives of the little people. This is where they fatally misjudged the public. We like to see rich people fall, famous people fall. If someone finds out Max Moseley likes peculiar officially-not-Nazi-but-still-definitely-dodgy sex, NOTW readers lap it up, and those who purchase the Sun, the Mirror and any other red top. In fact, lots of the broadsheet readers probably are more interested than they'd care to admit. They don't desperately care that it came via not the most upright of methods. When they find out which footballer is cheating on his wife because of a phone tap, again they just enjoy the scandal.

However this week it emerged they fucked with "our boys" - the military - their mourning families and other families who suffered newsworthy loss. Sainsbury, O2 et al did not pull their advertising (making the NOTW economically unviable overnight) when it became obvious in 2008 that NOTW were engaging in illicit activities, notably phone hacking. Why? Because the people concerned were considered newsworthy - the means justified the end - the people's desire to hear gossip about Sienna Miller etc easily outranked any qualms they had over the illegal means by which said gossip was garnered. But this time advertisers fled like rats from a sinking ship when the NOTW got caught messing with the little people.

It is perhaps our saving grace as a nation. We are not total misanthropes. What motivated us to search for ill in those whose lives are better than ours is simple envy, not an innate desire to see all mankind suffer. It appears we draw the line on a relative scale. Breaking the law isn't cool in the eyes of the British when it hurts those whom they consider worse off than themselves.  Not a ringing endorsement, but maybe the court of public opinion finally came out with a correct judgement. Maybe people power shut down NOTW. It's a nice thought, even if it is far more likely it was just political posturing to salvage the multi-billion pound BSKYB deal...

Friday, 1 July 2011

What Goes Up Might Come Down

The price of Brent Crude is tumbling. We should be celebrating, no? I for one shall not be digging about in the garage for my spare jerry cans to fill up on cheap fuel down at my local forecourt. Why? Because the price hasn't changed.

It will have come as a surprise to nobody that finally both Ofgem and the Federation Internationale d'Automobile have both this year investigated the prices charged by fuel suppliers compared to the price of their raw product, with the latter writing to the EU to complain in June.

Ofgem recently announced that for the first time it has evidence that energy companies are hiking their prices faster when costs have risen than they lowered them when costs fell. Wow. Who knew? It does make one wonder what Ofgem do with the rest of their days.

The two most obvious industries whose profits depend on the rise and fall of crude oil are our energy providers and our fuel providers; in many cases much of a muchness. It would take an averagely computer-literate ten year old to find a graph depicting the rise and fall of say, Brent Crude and the prices on the forecourts for the last few years. I borrowed such a ten year old and he found me these: petrol (here) oil (here). Fear not, I have returned him.

Raw product (oil) accounts for only about 1/3 of our pump price. We have the Government to thank for about 65% in tax (is there an easier way to collect tax?), a percent or two to the retailer and the remainder to the refiner. Numbers vary by business model, but it's around there.

The peaks and troughs of the price graphs certainly roughly marry up in shape, but do they in size? You may remember everyone crying when petrol went through £1 a litre in late 2007. Crude oil was at about 80 dollars a barrel. It peaked in mid 2008 at just shy of 147 dollars when petrol prices were about £1.20. Then when crude oil fell to sub 40 dollars a barrel the motorist had brief respite at just below the £1 mark again, when ratios would have had it nearer 70p. Recently we've been up in the 125 dollars a barrel region and the average forecourt price has been over £1.40 or thereabouts.

Now we have an oil price approaching the 100 dollar mark, so we can safely assume the price should be tumbling with it. Now whenever there is a price rise in oil, it gets passed on essentially instantaneously, yet when there is a drop we hear excuses. I'm sure companies do hedge on prices and buy in advance, so if there is a sharp drop they will be selling petrol or energy fuelled by more expensive oil they bought before the drop. However, by that model when prices of oil rise there should be stockpiles of cheaper oil to keep prices lower. But you and I know it doesn't work that way.

Price of unleaded at the recent peak at my local BP when oil was 126 dollars? 136.9p per litre. Price last week with an oil price of 105 dollars? 136.9p per litre. But we're all British so we bend over and take it without so much as a trembling of the lower lip. You wonder what the point is of having an Ombudsman who can stare such sharp dealing in the face and ignore it day in, day out. It's enough to make you want to take the train, if it wasn't so crap and expensive too...