Sunday, March 02, 2008

Worse At The Weekends

My wife and I decided to get away this weekend. A change is as good a break, someone might have said once. We thought we'd go somewhere easy to reach - just a single train ride from Bath - so we chose Weymouth.

In hindsight, I can't believe I was stupid enough to use FGW for a weekend break. The journey down on Saturday morning went smoothly enough. In fact it was almost entertaining; if sitting in a live episode of Little Britain is your cup of tea. We were surrounded by yoofs "Yeah, but, No but"-ing their way from Westbury, Frome and Yeovil all the way to Weymouth.

Interestingly, after listening to the said yoofs discuss tactics for fare evasion (going to the bogs when the collector arrives, hiding their booze and asking for child tickets etc), they all got away without buying tickets after the train manager announced that his machine was broken and would people please buy a ticket at their destination. It'll be no surprise to you that none of them did upon arrival at Weymouth.

At least half the people getting off at Weymouth had no tickets - I hope FGW don't use a lack of revenue as an excuse to shut down this line.

After a wonderfully relaxing weekend, we went to get the 14:00 train back to Bath. This is the first of only 3 trains that run on this line on a Sunday, the others at 18:00 and 20:09. However this train was cancelled. The SWT staff at the station had no idea why is was cancelled, or indeed if the 18:00 would run, only that a bus was being provided. I phoned FGW to find out why it was cancelled, since there was a train on the platform, and was informed that it was due to staff illness.

Outside, sure enough, a bus was on the forecourt to take us as far as Westbury where we'd have to pick up the no doubt already packed service from Portsmouth.

The journey didn't take too long as we only went to one of the intermediate 10 stations (Yeovil Pen Mill) on the way. I hate to think what information was available at the others, particularly the unmanned ones. I suppose most people just had to wait the four hours for the next one.

We arrived just after the 15:58 had left Westbury, and no-one will be surprised it didn't wait, then again, we could have been hours yet, had we stopped everywhere. A long wait was therefore on the cards, but thankfully the coach driver offered to take anyone who wanted, a lift back to Bath or Bristol given that he was headed back to Bristol. So we got back on the bus and arrived in Bath around 45 min late. It could have been a lot worse had the kind driver not gone above his duty.

Question is though, given that the bus was dispatched from Bristol, the staff illness mustt have been known a wouldn't have been easier and cheaper to send a train crew in a taxi? Or was the staffing shortage so bad that there was no spare crews anywhere?

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Did you know about E-day?

Today, was E-day. Actually, Energy Day, a day to save Energy.

The theory was that for just one day, everyone in the UK should all make a concerted effort to turn off our computers when we left work, turn our televisions off stand-by, you know the stuff. By just making a few thoughtful changes to our habits that did not even affect our lifestyle the project expected to highlight how much energy could be saved if we weren't so wasteful.

E-day ran from 6 pm yesterday through to 6 pm today, so that the staggering results could be shown on the late evening news. You could follow progress, being fed from the national grid live on the website to see how we were all doing.

If you don't want to see the result, look away now.

It was a monumental failure. For most of the day the day we were running at 2-3% above the predicted energy use for the day. So late this afternoon they moved the goalposts;

"The National Grid refined their assessments, based on actual weather data, during Thursday afternoon"

Apparently it was colder than they expected. But we were still used 0.1% over the expected energy usage. Not that easy to save energy after all. Or was it simply that no-one knew it was happening. I only found out thanks to a departmental e-mail at work.

Did you know? Did you take part? Would you have taken part if you had known? Or do people just not care?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hidden Charges

I went to book some train tickets for this weekend on the There are a series of hidden costs; First you have to uncheck the boxes for optional travel insurance from Columbus at the riduculous cost of £1 per journey. This cost is ridiculous because you have to be delayed by four hours before you can claim anything, and you'll be covered by your household/travel insurance for most of it anyway.

Then you move on to the payment screen. There is a £1 charge for postage. Fair enough, that's a bit steep for an envelope and stamp, but cheaper than most ebay sellers. But what if I'm prepared to collect the tickets myself? Well then you pay a £1 ticket arrangement fee. WTF! This fee wasn't applicable when they were being posted, but now I'm doing all the leg work myself there's a different charge. Effectively this £1 is a tax. But their taxes to not stop there.

Next there is a £2.50 Credit Card fee. Why is this? There is no charge for debit cards, so why credit cards? Unusually I'm not being facetious, I am genuinely interested if there is a real reason for this. But I doubt there is an argument that can stand up in the face of the fact that you will not be charged a credit card fee if you buy the tickets in person from the counter.

I am fully aware that the trainline is not the only company to do this. Another pet peeve of mine is Odeon cinemas. They charge a 50 pence "card handling fee", again a totally nonsense charge that you do not pay if you turn up in person. However this charge is made all the more nonsensical when despite it's implication that it is for handling the payment, it is charged per ticket. 4 tickets, one payment, but four card handling fees. Hmmm.

I'm sure that the costs companies more to sell tickets in person that via automated call centres, or on the internet, so it would be understandable to pay a premium for the personal service, but to pay more for the cheaper service is a nonsense.

Anyway, I decided I was not going to pay a £3.50 tax to buy my tickets on line, so I decided I would get them in person at Bath Spa station on my way home. I arrived at 7.30 and there were two windows open at the ticket office. Both were devoid of customers. However I was told that I could only buy tickets for that day. Or tomorrow. But not Saturday. Why not? Apparently the advance ticket windows are only open until 7 pm. It used to be that then one of the windows would become "All Tickets", but now there is no room for flexibility. Even when there are two people serving, and just one person to serve.

I suppose they want people to go on-line and pay the outrageous tax.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday, Not Fun

Wow - just goes to show you shouldn't tempt fate.

After telling you all on Friday that, despite being occasionally busy, things have been, generally tolerable on the trains recently, this morning things went well and truely belly up, and I experienced one of the longest delays of my 20 months or so of commuting. An hour and a half delay. Yep, a whole 250% increase on the usual journey time. Plus it could have been a lot worse had I listened to the mindless optimism of the train manager....

Things did not look promising at first, arriving at the station, departure board warns of a 16-minute delay. I can live with that. In fact, I quietly welcome 10-15 minute delays as it means I have time to go to the snack bar* for a freshly made bacon sandwich and a cup of tea from the local cafe rather than the station facilities, twice as nice, half the price and supports a local business fighting for its life as the south end of Bath is a building site for the next two years and their current walk-by trade = zero.

Anyhow, after coming back with breakfast, the usual 2-minute increments were stacked up until the delay was a full half hour, but the 06:56 pulled in just before the 07:28. The delay had been caused by a faulty power car according to the train manager. "bet we get no further than Temple Meads on this train", I said to my lab mate who for the last few months has been commuting with me.

Though, we did get out of Bristol, with a fitter on board, we broke down short of Filton. "We'll be going to Parkway for a powercar test and I'm sure we'll be on our way soon" the train manager announced optimistically after finally moving off after around 20 minutes. "We'll be on our way soon" he announced again after 10 minutes or so at Bristol Parkway. Anyway, not believing the guy (he must have been new, bless him), I phoned rail enquiries and discovered another train to Cardiff in a few minutes, telling the few people around me, we made our way over to the other platform. Eventually we were an hour and a half late. We'd have been later if I'd have listened to the train manager.

This evening though, I received an unexpected bonus, courtesy of FGW's uselessness. The 19:49 from Bristol, calling at Oldfield Park, so my 20:22 made an additional call. There were some Mardy people on my train, who had been cold at Temple Meads for a while, but for me it was a shorter walk home. You win some, you lose some.

*If you too are a Bath commuter and have ten minutes to fill, rather than spending a fortune in the station Pumpkin or Crusty Sandwich fooderies, take one-minute walk up manver's street (straight ahead - see map) and though Railway Street on the left, is a building site, defiently holding on, just around the corner is the Snack Bar . Very friendly staff and perveuyours of a most excellent bacon sarnie.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Writing Part 2

Did a bit more on the story. Don't get too hooked, don't know how much more of this I can churn out. I'm already struggling, a bit. I have a lot more respect for novelists already.

“So when did you last see Will?” Mike asked.
“Oh don’t you start, you’re as bad as the police. Don’t you think I feel bad enough already?” Jeff replied.
“I know, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get a few things straight in my head that’s all.”
“Can’t believe it. I didn’t think he needed walking home or anything. He’s twenty-three for Christ sake, not twelve.”
“Yeah, but you said he was pretty drunk.”
“No, I said I wish I could drink like him, he was really putting it away but didn’t seem to be any worse-for-ware.” Jeff paused, his eyes were moist and you could tell he was holding back tears. “And besides, I’d had enough by that time, he said he was going on to meet some of his Uni mates at a bar, so I left him trying to hail a cab outside The Dove and I walked home. That was about twelve-thirty.” Jeff stopped again, turned away from Mike and wiped away a tear.

Mike got up and went to put the kettle on in the kitchen. He left Jeff to deal with his grief, and went to deal with his own grief, his headache and the information the police had given him.

They had explained that Will’s body had been found between two blocks of flats just around the corner from their flat. The police believed he’d been mugged, tried to put up a fight and had ended up being strangled. This didn’t add up to Mike, Will had been mugged a couple of months after he’d moved in and had sensibly just handed over his wallet and phone. He couldn’t believe Will would be a have-a-go hero even after an evening full of beers.

Mike couldn’t think straight, he had a hangover from hell. He fished around in the kitchen cupboard for paracetamol, popped a couple, poured himself another pint of water and gulped it down. He made two teas and returned to the lounge, he couldn’t remember seeing Jeff so quiet.

“There’s something that doesn’t make sense though, don’t you think?” Mike asked, putting a tea down in front of Jeff and sat next to him.

“Eh, what?” Replied Jeff, jolted out of his trance.

“Well, what was Will doing down by those flats? It’s the wrong direction for being on his way back from the Dove, or from the bars or the night bus, there’s not even a kebab house down there.”

“Maybe he was dropped off by a cab down there.”

“Suppose, but why not outside the flat? Doesn’t make sense. Unbelievable.”

“Now you mention it,” said Jeff getting off the sofa, “something else doesn’t quite make sense.”

“What’s that?”

“What kind of failed mugging ends in strangulation?” Jeff was now animatedly pacing up and down. “Muggings end in stabbings and shootings, not people being strangled.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday Fun

It's been a while since I've had a moan about FGW, this is due concurrent bouts of commuter and blogging apathy. To be fair to them, there does seem to have been some improvements recently too. Which is no bad thing. But after a crappy journey home this evening I thought I'd have a little whinge.

Every Friday is the same, the 5.30 train to Portsmouth is jammed to the rafters. I normally try and avoid getting this train by going for a pint or two after work and get a later train. However this evening I was absolutely knackard and had a stinking headache so I braved the student shuttle. So called because as well as the usual daily commuters, who usually fill this service on their own, we also have dozens and dozens of weekend travellers and their assorted luggage.

Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge people using the train to get away for the weekend, it's a great idea, but it would be nice to have an extra carriage on this service. However, in recent months I have been educated by various bloggers, but in particular the excellent Insider, and I know understand that there are no more carriages, and FGW's hands are tied by a Labour Government's transport policy that barely cares about public transport in the home counties and frankly don't give a shit if it doesn't start/finish in London.

So anyway, given that there are no more carriages, and I'm sure this problem is not unique to Cardiff, I believe a little should be done to encourage the weekenders to get earlier or later trains. So why can't FGW stop selling their cheap tickets on this service. Most of this evening's suitcase brigadge has their big trainline tickets (why are these not the same size as usual tickets?) and were kicking regular season ticket holders out of reserved seats. Slightly unfair I'd say given that technically season ticket holders can't book seats. So why not remove the cheap tickets from these services as an encouragement to use earlier and later trains.

At worst, the same people will get on the train and FGW would make more money, so it's surely a solution that would appeal to the management.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Creative Writing

A couple of blogging friends of mine, Eisor and Coldbrain are the creative types. They both do creative writing. Generally, I am not a creative type. I am a scientist, I ask questions, and like finite answers to questions. The concept of being creative is generally alien to me. Anyway, having been slightly cyber-bullied, being the kind of person that likes to expand horizons, and having nothing to do on the train for the last couple of mornings, I did some writing.

I think I was thinking along the lines that this is the first chapter of some kind of magnus opus. They say everyone has a novel in them. This may well be the first Dan Brown-sized chapter of mine.

The incessant buzzing of the intercom brought Mike back to life. That’s not to say that Mike had been dead. The way he felt right now, he suspected most doctors would not have described his previous state as sleep, unconsciousness probably. Maybe even comatose.

The intercom was still buzzing.

Every buzz of the intercom made his head throb. He’d have to make it stop. He pulled his heavy body off the sofa and walked over to the grill of the intercom and pressed the button to communicate with the person doing the buzzing.

“Whoever you are, will you please stop pressing that fucking buzzer.”

The buzzing stopped. It did not really help his headache. Something else was making his head hurt, and he was pretty sure he would need to be horizontal again to make it go away.

“Finally! What the fuck have you been up to? I’ve been buzzing you for nearly an hour.” Said a familiar voice through the intercom static.

“Mate, I’ve been asleep, what do you think I’ve been doing, it’s the weekend and it’s the bloody morning.” Mike pressed the unlock button on the intercom, put the front door of his flat on the latch and returned to a horizontal position on the sofa.

Jeff came bounding in, his usual chirpy self.

“Sorry mate, thought you’d be up already.”
“Well obviously I’m not, it was a pretty heavy night list night. Have you been out there buzzing for an hour? I must have been fucking wasted last night to sleep through that.”
“Nah, I buzzed for ten minutes then went to the cafĂ© for breakfast, figured you were still busy with your lady.”
“What lady?” Mike interrupted.
“What! Jees man you must have been plastered. The lady you brought home last night. Did you go on somewhere else with her first? You didn’t seem too drunk when you left.”
“I did not bring home a woman last night, I don’t even remember leaving the Dove.”
“Well you left with this hot blonde on your arm and a grin the size of the London Eye plastered across your face.”
“Shit. Really?”
“Yeah, hey where’s Will? He was on top form last night. Fucking funny guy, and boy can that kid drink. Wish I was his age again.”
“Dunno, not seen him – in his room I assume.”

Jeff went to knock on Will’s door. Will was Mike’s flatmate. It is true that Mike was a little too old to have a flatmate, but he liked having young students rent his spare room. It brought in some extra beer money, and it made Mike feel young, having some young friends.

“He’s not there. Must have got lucky too, must be something in the water in this flat. I’m gonna get me some of that, do you want some?” Jeff said as he went into the kitchen.

“Please” replied Mike. His head was still throbbing, and he was trying to piece together the few memories of the previous night. What did the blonde look like? Why had he got in this state. He was angry with himself. It had been ages since any woman had showed any interest in him, and now he couldn’t remember any of it. “Bollocks.” He said to himself.

Mike returned with two pints of water and put one in front of Mike on the coffee table. At that moment the buzzing started again.

“It’s ok, don’t strain yourself, I’ll get it.” Said Jeff walking across the room to the intercom.

“Hello, Mike’s place” said Jeff
“Is this the residence of William Johnson?” said a voice through the static
“Yes, but he’s not here.”
“We know, this is the Police, may we come in and ask you some questions.”

Half an hour later, the police left. Mike and Jeff sat on the sofa, trying to come to terms with the news that Will had been found dead, in an alleyway just two hundred yards away.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Truth & Falsehood

I went to see a seminar at Bath University today, I left Cardiff early especially. It was given by Prof David Colquhoun, he's a walking stereotype and a bit of a personal hero of mine. He is a very well respected scientist and has particular interest in receptor pharmacology and ion channel mechanisms, which is also what I work on. But for the purposes of this blog and your sanity I promise to never delve further into my scientific specialty than that.

Anyway, not only is DC (for that is how he is known) a great scientist (he's an FRS, but I'd imagine he would prefer it if I didn't point that out), a champion of goodscience and a challenger of bad science, quackery and out-and-out bullshit. All of this he writes about on his blog; DC's improbable science, which I discovered about 6 months ago via Ben Goldacre's bad science blog/Guardian column.

Anyway, DC's talk today (Science Fact & Science Fiction - how to read the news critically) introduced the uninitiated to many of his usual pet-hates which he has been challenging for many months/years on his blog. These include the marketing of Homeopathy as medicine (despite a lack of evidence), the teaching of Homeopathy and other "alternative" medical practices (i.e. those that have been shown to be ineffective), such as Acupuncture, Nutritional Therapy, Reflexology and Herbal Medicine in British Universities dressed up as science degrees (B.Sc.) despite the complete lack of science.

That is not to say that real scientists don't also come in for some flack from David, he attacks labs who spinning their research in press-releases in order to boost exposure of their labs. For example the "Honey is better than cough medicine" headlines from last December all hailed from a study that had said "Comparison of honey with DM [cough medicine] revealed no significant differences."

These though were all things I'd previously read about in his fine blog. However he finally talked about something I'd not come across before; Brain Gym. Brain Gym is now being taught in British Schools. It encourages them to be more active (good), drink more water (still good), also that any learning challenges can be overcome by finding the right movements, to subsequently create new pathways in the brain. It claims that the repetition of certain movements "activates the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information" (Hmmmm).

Ben Goldacre has already written about the scientific-inaccuracies of Brain Gym, but I'll just point out my favourite line, quoted by Ben in his column, and by DC in his talk today.

“Processed foods,” says the Brain Gym manual, “do not contain water.” So there's not, for example, any water in soup? Apparently not.

Forget scientific inaccuracies, this is bullshit, and taxpayers money is being used to teach it in our schools.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Spring Clean

What do you think of the new style? I've had a little bit of a Spring Clean to go with my new, renewed enthusiasm for putting thoughts to HTML. I'm going for the stripped down, minimalist look.

I've also ditched the Stress Relief part of the title. It was generating quite a bit of traffic from Google (which was probably the reason for the original juvenile euphemism!), but I want to avoid being the ranty type. I might blog on some nice things. Though I'll still vent my spleen from time to time.

If you like your blogs ranty, in a semi-amusing way you should try here, Mr Angry is much better at it than I am.

P.S. Does anyone know if I'm stuck with my URL?

The Fugger's Nuts

I have no idea what day Private Eye actually goes to press. I suspect, given that the next issue is due to hit the news-stands on Friday that it will hit the rollers tomorrow or Thursday. So hopefully plenty of time for much derision of the hilarious testimony of Mohamed Al Fayed at the inquest of Princess Diana to make it to the pages of the satirical magazine.

Firstly, let's be clear, I do feel for Al Fayed, it must be terrible to lose a son, especially is such tragic and public circumstances. However his ramblings are frankly those of a total madman. I half expected Lord Justice Scott Baker to sum-up and ask for a straight-jacket for Mr Al Fayed and a team of white-coated men to be standing by.

If you missed it, and it was a shame that the Northern Rock re-nationalization was taking up a significant proportion of press-coverage, then you missed one of the classic mentalist rants of all time.

The Fugger suggested all of the following had a hand in the "murder" of Diana; Prince Charles, The CIA, MI5, MI6, Tony Blair, The French Emergency Services, The French Secret Service, Henri Paul, Lady Sarah McCorquodale (Diana's sister) and the Paparazzi amongst others.

However he reserved his most insane rambling for a man more usually associated with being on the distribution end of embarrassing gaffs; Prince Phillip. He said the prince was a racist (which is possibly true, to a certain extent), a Nazi and had the original last name Frankenstein (It was actually Battenberg). Al Fayed also continued to claim that Diana had coincidently phoned him in the hours before the accident to tell him that she was pregnant.

When asked if he could provide any evidence for any of his claims, he said that he was unable to provide any because of "a steel wall" at the security services. So basically - the total lack of evidence was proof of a cover-up! As if all those people could actually organize themselves in such a complex plan. Civil servants just aren't that good. They can't even make sure that CDs full of data reach their intended destination. Organise a most ridiculously complicated plot without a sniff of evidence reaching the public. Not a chance.

Al Fayed proved his loony status after his day of giving evidence by going outside and accusing a BBC reporter of being "part of the establishment" and "working for MI5".

My favorite statement of the day however was read out on Radio 4's PM programme. They had asked the office of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, if he would like to make a statement on the allegations made by Mr Al Fayed. The reply. No.

No doubt the Harrods owner will take Tony's silence as a sign of guilt! Taxi for Mohamed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Silicon Heaven and Body Odour

Well I made a piss-poor attempt at NaBloPoMo. If you were waiting with baited breath for my uninteresting ramblings then I can only apologise.

I’m gonna have another crack at writing more often on here. My life has settled down into something resembling normality following the hectic-ness of organising a wedding (more about that in a moment) followed by Christmas and a well-deserved break on Honeymoon in a remote cottage in Devon.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I also finally got a fully functioning internet connection at home. After months of intermittent service and intermittent complaining to Tiscali, it turned out not to be my ISP’s fault. Rather it was my own fault. After years of being kicked from the socket and knocked from it’s desk the many times, my modem had finally gone to meet it’s maker in silicon heaven (it’s where all the calculators go). So armed with a replacement I was forced to phone Tiscali and ask them to ramp up my speed again (they’d slowed it to snail’s pace in order to try and identify the problem on the line), and voilĂ ! I’m on line again.

So the wedding, I suppose I should say something about that, it is after all, a pretty unique day. I probably could have dedicated an entire blog to the stress and shenanigans involved in organising a wedding. Everything went pretty well though, the only thing we had to complain about was the incredibly bad B.O. of our driver. It really was bloody disgusting.