NHS food ‘OK, considering’

From the Observer:

Of 377 National Health Service and private hospitals surveyed in England, 173 – 46 per cent – were found to have poor cleanliness in their kitchens, or canteens or cafes used by staff, patients and visitors. Nine of the 377 were private hospitals, of which six were found to have at least one area of concern.

So, 46% of NHS hospitals had food cleanliness problems, while 67% of private hospitals had the same problems? That’s +1 for the NHS, I reckon (not quite sure why Wat thinks otherwise.)

More importantly, the whole story is massively overblown. Only eight of the 377 hospitals inspected were found by health inspectors to have sufficiently serious problems to go onto a six-month inspection schedule – i.e. had real problems that might get them closed down if not addressed, rather than ticking the wrong boxes to meet vaguely nannyish rules. That’s a hell of a lot better than you’d get if you inspected 377 randomly selected food establishments…

Possibly I think about bad 80s pop too much

From a piece on feminist attitudes to pornography:

Also, we always tend to worry about blue-collar dudes knocking one off over Zoo in factory toilets. What about the way people like Sade might be taught in lecture theatres, for instance?

To my shame, my first thoughts on reading this paragraph were: 1) how the hell is 1980s soul singer Sade pornographic? 2) why the hell is 1980s soul singer Sade being taught in lecture theatres?

A recommendation to people writing about the notorious French pervert in future: say ‘de Sade’, or horrible Smooth Operator-ish connotations may arise in your readers minds. After all, would you call France’s leading fascist ‘Pen’, or the Netherlands’ maddest painter ‘Gogh’?

How journalism works (part n of n^x)

Do you remember the Terrible Story of Lawless British Youth from last year, of the Evil Callous Teens who squished bowling alley technician Ferdinand Dela Cruz to death by chucking a ball at the machine he was working on, triggering the mechanism?

Some months later following an inquest, it turns out that the poor bloke actually forgot to unplug the machine before climbing inside, and that the mechanism was triggered by his weight.

I say “following an inquest”; what really I mean is “following ten seconds’ thought, or one phone call if ten seconds’ thought is beyond you”. Having worked on projects in bowling alleys (it’s a glamorous life in retail and leisure consulting – oh yeah!), it’s obvious that the “kids lob ball at worker” story was rubbish.

For a start, there are moveable bars across the lane at all bowling alleys that sweep up balls, protect the machinery from errant balls – and protect workers from errant balls. If you ever see an out-of-commission bowling machine, it’ll have the bar across it.

Another point is that the machines at bowling alleys, as Mr Dela Cruz tragically found out, are weight-sensitive. And people weigh more than bowling balls. So unplugging them before any maintenance is carried out is pretty essential.

Finally, let’s assume it were possible to adjust some of the machinery while it was switched on without treading (or even risking treading on) the weight-sensitive parts. Considering the publicly accessible nature of bowling alleys, the risk of some accidental/illicit ball-throwing is so obvious that the procedure would be banned under health and safety rules anyway.

I know this – and so does anyone else with the slightest idea of the way bowling alleys work. Which means that the Sunday Mirror, the Manchester Evening News, the Evening Standard and Sky News all failed to phone anyone with the slightest idea of how bowling alleys worked before filing the story.

Good work, fine gentlemen of the press.

Me me meme

As part of a mildly annoying meme, Larry Teabag has asked me to list eight facts about myself:

1) I once failed to eat a kilo of corned beef for a bet, coming in with a time of 65 seconds;

2) I’m the sixth person in my immediate family to be called ‘John Oliver Band’, and the third surviving person. But I was first to the domain name and the gmail account (and hence also occasional letters from bemused Older Persons);

3) I’ve been interviewed by Radio 4 as an expert on Wimpy Bars and quoted in the Economist as an expert on Islamist cola;

4) The worst job I ever had was door-to-door salesman for a semi-fraudulent sticky paint company;

5) I accidentally ran into Richard E Grant when leaving a library, but was too surprised to come up with an amusing quote;

6) I’m the only person I know to have heckled a professional comedian by email (Richard Herring, since you ask);

7) I know three people who are listed on IMDB: Paul, who writes comedy; Kieron, who writes bad comedy; and Sophie, who played a dead body;

8) Just because I’m interested in transport policy, doesn’t make me a trainspotter (and I’ll beat you up with my thermos flask and throttle you with my anorak if you disagree).

Tagged: Matty Teabag, Dan, Matt T, Jamie, Harry H, Johnny B, Not Saussure (long may he return), Backword Dave, whoever else I’ve forgotten.

Speaking of Internet memes: best lolcat ever.

Tubular rant

Everyone rants all the time about the Tube being rubbish. It’s practically a qualification for living in London, with instant deportation as a punishment for those who fail to join in. Which is fine: there are problems with the Tube, and it’s not as good as the public transport systems in East Asia (although I’d actually rate it at least as good as any public transport network I’ve visited in Europe or the US).

The thing which really annoys me, though, is when people blame Ken Livingstone, Tim O’Toole, Metronet or Tubelines for the system failures.

Between 1945 and 2000, with the exception of the absolutely-necessary-to-avoid-gridlock Victoria Line, the half-arsed-compromise Jubilee Line, and the Thatcher’s-Docklands-project-must-succeed Jubilee extension, there was no investment in the Underground system. None.

Central government skimped on the money for essential maintenance, and didn’t make any money available for capital projects such as major line or signalling upgrades. London was a declining city and the train was a declining transport mode – cars and suburbs were the way forward.

So anyone who blames the people in charge of the Tube for its state today is simply wrong. Ken, the current government, LUL’s current management and the infracos are the first people since the days of the London Passenger Transport Board in the 1930s to embark on a serious programme of upgrades to the underground. This isn’t necessarily because they’re all wonderful people, just that people have suddenly noticed that London is growing again and the private car is not a viable means of transport within London.

Yes, it gets frustrating when there are signal failures because 30, 50 or 80 year old kit doesn’t work very well. It’s also frustrating when there are signal failures or lift failures or train failures because brand new kit hasn’t bedded in yet [*]. But there’s a generally
understood curve over time in reliability of major capital assets – it doesn’t work very well when brand new, works quite well for some time after that, and then doesn’t work very well again because it’s too old. And at the moment, most of the kit on the Tube is either brand new, being replaced, or very old and knackered…

Hopefully, Ken’s Tory rival at the next Mayoral election will also be aware of the glaring reality that continued investment in London’s transport system is absolutely vital – although given their previous choices of a perjurer and a road-builder, I’ve got to admit I’m sceptical. But either way, anyone who refuses to vote Ken because they think he isn’t doing a good job on London’s transport is an idiot (of course, if they refuse to vote Ken because they don’t agree with his politics in other areas, then that’s a different story).

[*] or because a new high-speed train control system makes the trains accelerate so fast that the motors fall off, as with Automatic Train Operation on the Central line.

Indians and drugs

It’s not especially surprising to see a BBC article that looks at the start of a potential major positive in a country’s economic position, and then gets the consequences utterly wrong (this isn’t particularly having a go at the BBC for being leftie – the Times, Telegraph and Daily Wail are equally economically illiterate at times). This particular piece is on the introduction of supermarkets into India, and especially the associated Risks and Catastrophes.

Now, while gibbering loons and farmers everywhere bemoan and bewail the presence of supermarkets in the west, it’s clear that they’ve massively improved the quality and availability of food. Even if you’re very poor indeed in the UK, you can afford to eat well as long as you live within reach of a supermarket, even quite a crap one.

In the UK prior to supermarkets, people paid a great deal to buy food from local grocers, a few of whom are nostalgically remembered as good, while most were somewhere between mediocre and downright crooked. The supermarkets were a boon primarily to the poor, and shopping at farmers’ markets today is a badge of upper-middle-class pretension. The local shops have either turned into bastions of poshness or closed down, and good riddance.

I think this is the kind of narrative that charity worker Indu Singh is thinking of in India: “We have already seen that in places where these supermarkets are coming up, local vendors are losing 40% of their business. What we are seeing is a big divide being created, between the super elite and the poor.

But the Indian supermarkets are the opposite of UK supermarkets: they are more expensive than the street markets for basic produce. So the only people who go there are people who are rich enough for the price differential not to matter. And India is still a very poor country, so there aren’t very many people rich enough for the price differential not to matter – even people who are solidly in the middle and upper-middle ends of India’s income distribution are still poor by global standards

Overall, supermarkets in India serve the top 5% income bracket – certainly not the top 40%. So if a street vendor is genuinely losing 40% of his custom to the supermarkets, either that’s because he’s selling the local equivalent of porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, or because his patch is right outside the poshest part of the community. But there is absolutely no way this is being replicated across the community – the impact on regular vendors, especially the poorest ones who sell the cheapest products, will be negligible in the medium term.

The longer term consequences are harder to predict. To roll out its supermarket chain, Reliance has also had to build its own food supply and logistics network, since India doesn’t have one of these to start with. In other words, it collects produce from rural farmers, sorts, grades and packs it, and trucks it via distribution centres to its urban stores.

This is a long way from complete (the plan is to roll out over 1,000 stores, and it currently has 40), but could entirely transform the way India’s agriculture sector works – or, more accurately, the way in which it fails to transport produce to market in a timely fashion, leading to massive wasteage and ultimately driving poverty and starvation. At this point, undercutting the market stalls might be possible, which would be massively beneficial to India’s urban poor. Alternatively, the whole system could fail, and one of India’s richest families would become slightly less so. Either way, it’s very exciting and could do with some better reporting…

In other bloggish news, I’ve got a new article up at the Sharpener on why, even though homeopathy is nonsense, the reason for this is not because we have no idea how it could possibly work – indeed, we have no idea how a huge number of demonstrably effective drugs could possibly work.