Category Archives: Uncategorized

The system isn’t the problem

From the BBC website’s article on this year’s A-level results (yes, I know – we’re always first with the news here):

Twin sisters Tania and Mahua Bhaduri from West Malling, Kent, both got five grade As. But unlike her sister, Tania has not got a university place.

Their father, Dr Bim Bhaduri, said his daughter Tania… had been rejected from universities including Oxford, Bristol and Sheffield.
But Mahua, who studied almost the same A-levels as her sister at state foundation school Tonbridge Grammar for Girls – but took geography instead of psychology, has earned a place at Imperial College, London.

Dr Bhaduri added: “The system really is a lottery, they can’t differentiate between bright and brighter and this is a problem.

No: this is a sign of the system working admirably. One of your daughters took a subject which is not especially popular or fashionable at a university where it is not a specialist subject (to be honest, I was surprised to discover Imperial even offered geography); the other applied for a subject which is highly fashionable at prestigious institutions where the course is particularly respected.

(and Sheffield, which probably rejected her for also applying to Oxford and Bristol…)

Booze and weddings

I’ve got a new piece on the Sharpener, which I appear to have annexed (if anyone, especially Sharpener contributors, fancies contributing to the Sharpener, then by all means go ahead).

It’s about the latest bizarre Youth Gone Feral moral panic, and how we really shouldn’t worry about That Sort Of Thing. Also, if anyone tries to ban me from drinking wine in Regent’s Park, I’ll set them on fire. Not that there’s been all that much wine-drinking opportunity in Regent’s Park this summer, of course.

My main alternative recreational pursuit this summer has been going to weddings. I’m becoming convinced that most of my friends have decided to get married this summer purely to spite me, since it’s the first summer since 2001 that I’ve spent single. The obvious rejoinder is that I should look for prospective partners at said weddings – the problem there is that nearly everyone I’ve encountered there seems to be either married, engaged, over 60 or under 14. And not interested. Oh well, two more to go, only one of which is going to actually have my ex attending it.

That’s your lot; I’m off to drink wine outside the Tube station until feral youths shank me or Peter Fahy arrests me, whichever happens second…

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.

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.

Happy Cyril’s Day

Today is the feast day of Saint Cyril, who baptised the Slavs and invented an amusingly incomprehensible alphabet. Nice one, Cyril.

What’s that? You say he’s not the only saint whose feast day is today? You’re right: it’s also the feast day of Cyril’s brother Methodius. I wonder why it got called the Cyrillic alphabet and not the Methodical alphabet?

So, congratulations to Cyril and Methodius. May they be remembered every February 14.

Rodent fact

Squirrels hate chilli. So if you’re planning on having a squirrel round for dinner, you might want to cancel the nut burritos. Conversely, if you’re planning on eating a squirrel, you might want to add it to a green Thai curry as a final act of indignity.

I was told this fact today by an Australian roofer, who was blocking up holes in my neighbours’ roof with wire mesh and dried chillis in the hope of ending their long-running squirrel infestation. Naturally, I make no claims for its truth.

The Games

You may or may not be aware of The Game. The Game only has one rule: if you remember you’re playing it, you lose. I just lost the game, thanks to a reminder from Matt Turner.

But Matt has a new, more insidious version of The Game, which I’ve also just lost: if you remember Melanie Phillips exists, you lose. Thus, the punishment for losing is doubled, as is the reward for not losing.