torsdag 31 augusti 2006

Brighton Swimming Club - a lost opportunity

The area in front of the Swimming Club is popular with substance abusers.
Outside Brighton Swimming Club

Outside Brighton Swimming Club

The doorway makes a handy target, in the absence of public toilets on Brighton sea front
Brighton Swimming Club entrance door

It is now ten years since I was Secretary to the Arch Section of Brighton Swimming Club, as it then was, and if I recall correctly, the annual subscription was less than £20 plus voluntary payment for the use of electricity, so subscriptions alone have almost doubled.

Sadly, there is less than nothing to show for it. Numbers using the arch almost daily are about three times what they were in 1997 but the facilities are much as they were.

Brighton Swimming Club's Arch

When I was Secretary, and, indeed, after my resignation, I produced plans to increase the usable space, to address the problems due to cramped conditions and poor configuration, in particular to achieve male/female segregation and prevent the daily nuisance users of the premises encounter due to abuse of the area next to the doorway, which at times can be very unpleasant indeed. In doing nothing about the problem for so long, the Club is party to a serious public nuisance.

Brighton Swimming Club's Arch

My proposal is simple and obvious: to enclose the forecourt area and move the entrance to the centre, to produce male/female areas on the two sides, each roughly the same size, with showers and possibly a toilet, in the centre, and space for bicycles inside, where they would be safe from theft and vandalism. Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are club members in the building trade, nobody has, to my knowledge, progressed this or a similar scheme with costings so that effective fund-raising could take place with a definite aim. I am assured that funds are available – a Brighton councillor advised applying for them when the “Brighton City of Sport” initiative was launched in July. I have even written to the ASA asking them to offer help in preparing a bid if the club itself was unable to do so, and this is something I hoped would have been followed up. Seemingly it has not.

Instead, club members are asked to raise small amounts of money, which is then frittered away in minor improvements, whilst the main issues are not dealt with. The latest, seemingly, is a proposal to renew the flooring, when such an investment would be entirely wasted were the much-needed enlargement to take place. Moreover, although the present flooring is unsatisfactory, an inappropriate renewal could make matters worse. Given that somebody decided to install a domestic kitchen sink unit in the arch, which is disintegrating after a couple of seasons, there is evidently a lack of awareness of the harshness of the environment in the arch, which demands the use of robust and durable materials and fittings.

Brighton Swimming Club's Arch

This certainly does not give members the confidence to make donations to the club, over and above the basic subscription.

tisdag 29 augusti 2006

Rubbish Rubbish

Yet again we hear talk about councils charging for rubbish collection. Don't the policy wonks who come up with ideas like this think them through?

If people have to pay to have their rubbish taken away, some of them will just dump it. You don't need a first class degree from Oxbridge to be able to work that out.

The cost of rubbish disposal needs to be built-in to purchase prices through some tax mechanism, so people can get rid of it with no questions asked. This has the added advantage of giving a financial incentive to people not to buy rubbish in the first place.

One immediate effect would be to discourage over-packaging and promote re-use of containers, as the less they cost to get rid of, the less they would cost. So we might be able to break up our strawberry packaging and put in round the plants in our gardens, instead of having to fill up our bins with a load of plastic, whilst glass bottles would be collected up and re-used instead of being left lying around and smashed.

lördag 26 augusti 2006

Landed Gents: fortunes built on bricks and mortar.

In last Sunday’s Observer Business (20 August 2006), Jonathan Russell commented that the (property) industry... “still has a selection of property barons who have made huge fortunes from this sector”, and then goes on to list half a dozen. Of one, it says that “like a lot of entrepreneurs... his buildings were more valuable than the businesses they created”.

Wrong. It isn’t their buildings that were valuable, it was the land they were sitting on. Sites in good locations are often worth more than the buildings that are standing on them. When this happens, it is time to redevelop. That land can be under-utilised in this way is due to bad accountancy - bookeeping practice does not reflect the underlying economics. One would have thought that a Sunday broasheet's business commentator was aware of this.

A cautionary tale
I once knew someone who used to travel from Hove to Catford, where he ran a menswear shop. This was the same journey as I made to work, and we used to meet on the train sometimes and talk about this and that. There was hardly ever anyone in the shop, so he can’t have done much business. One evening, we were discussing this, and he said that business wasn't very good but they got by because they owned the shop. I asked if his accountant charged a notional market rent against the profits – apparently he did not. So my friend did not know if he was just living off the imputed rental income – the rental he would have received if he had let the shop at the market rate. I suggested that he asked his accountant to check this out – it might be that he would have been better off to close the business and let the shop.

Shortly afterwards the shop was closed and re-let, and I met my friend in Brighton. He told me he had retired – at age 35 – and was running a rock band.

onsdag 23 augusti 2006

Is it antisemitic to criticise Israel?

Of course, two wrongs don't make a right, but I have long been puzzled why Israel is criticised for doing things that when other countries do them, there is hardly a squeak of protest. Where were the demonstrations against the sixty-year Soviet occupation of the Baltic states? How many are campaigning for the rights of the Tibetans, occupied by China, or the for the persecuted non-Moslem people who live in the south of Sudan? What of East Prussia, a German province ethnically cleansed in 1945 and still held by Russia? It may not be antisemitism that puts the spotlight on Israel, but the protest certainly looks highly selective.

As for the present action, if bands of Normans operating in Northern France were lobbing rockets across the Channel while a French government did nothing about it, can you imagine the headlines in the Sun, Express and Daily Mail? There would quickly be calls for the RAF to do much the same as the Israelis have done in Lebanon. So who are we to criticise the Israelis?

Brighton and Hove Council's complaints procedure

Brighton and Hove Council has a really good complaints procedure, and after you have made your complaint, they write to you or send you an email asking what you thought of the service - I have just received one.

If the actual services were half as good as the complaints procedure, there would be little to complain about.

What happened to civic pride in Britain?

County Hall, London

County Hall, on the south bank of the Thames, was built about 100 years ago to accommodate the London County Council, which was formed in 1888 to bring order to the government of London, which had been run by a disparate collection of joint boards. Unfortunately, from the 1930s onwards, it was consistently Labour, which was not good for the democratic process and led to clashes when there was a Conservative government, as there was in the period before World War 2 and again from 1951 till 1965. The growth of London meant that much of the conurbation was outside the LCC's jurisdiction, so it was abolished and as part of a wider reorganisation of London government, the Greater London Council was established.

Eventually, this too became consistently Labour, and in the early 1980s there was endless conflict between Ken Livingstone, Leader of the GLC, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So it was abolished in 1986 and replace by joint committees from the London Boroughs.

Of course, the building was a desirable piece of real estate and was sold off, to become a hotel, with various retail outlets on the ground floor. It would have been better if they had knocked the building down, but at least this way, it is clear how far the country has fallen. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society, and now her statement has come true, so what better way to prove it than this?

lördag 19 augusti 2006

Have you got gay fingers?

An article in this week's New Scientist brought up the thing about finger length (the ratio between index finger and ring finger length).

The story goes that heterosexual men have a shorter index finger than ring finger, due to exposure to hormones in the womb.

When a group of us did the test, we found no correlation, so this one belongs in the total b******s bin. Apparently the New Scientist's article only told half the story, which is more complex.

What we did find, however, that there is a correlation to spatial aptitute - ability to rotate shapes in the mind, which links to ability to do tasks like map reading and taking mechanical objects apart and putting them together again. Also there is a negative correlation to language ability. But these are only tendencies, so should not be used as an excuse not to try something for which one might not be best equipped by nature. Besides which, in this life, the marks are for trying.

Britain's debt to Poland. Europe's debt to Poland

Poland has always been in Europe's front line. A long time ago, in 1683, Vienna was beseiged by the Turkish army, seeking to expand the Islamic sphere of influence. It was the Polish king Jan Sobieski who brought his army over the Tatras and relieved them.

In more recent times, we should remember the role of the Polish Air Force which fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, and of the Polish Resistance, which consistently sabotaged the Nazi war effort. It has been said that one result was to delay the attack on Soviet Russia for several weeks, as a result of which the German army was caught in winter weather, for which they were not prepared - and despite further advances, they never really recovered from their failure to capture Moscow. Later in the war, Polish sabotage interfered with the transport of oil into Germany from the east, a favourite ploy being to place delayed-action incendiaries under trains, which would ignite once safely inside Germany.

In 1944, there was the Warsaw uprising, when the Soviet army treacherously halted its advance and allowed the city and its people to be pounded into ruins by the Germans, not crossing the River Vistula until this was complete. This paved the way to making it easier to install their puppet politicians after the war, Poland having been betrayed by the west at the Yalta conference, which allocated the country to the Soviet sphere of influence.

Then we need to remember the role of Polish free trade unionists and the Polish Pope in helping the final overthrow of the Communist system in an almost bloodless revolution which almost no-one could have foreseen.

Sadly, the country does not seem to have got its economic policy in order - like many former Communist bloc countries, it is not going to thrive with the kind of tax policy we have in the west. Replacing taxes on labour and capital by a tax on land is going to be part of the solution, unfortunately it does not seem to be part of the economic vocabulary.

Polish Immigrants are stealing British jobs

This is the implication from comments in the press and things people are saying. As far as I can make out, they are doing jobs that no-one else wants to do, like keeping the sea front clean, which is a job that is very well done. We are very fortunate to be "invaded" by immigrants like these.

One does, however, wonder why they are having to come here. There must be something seriously wrong with the economic policies of successive Polish governments if there is an apparent shortage of work in Poland. After all, there is still a massive amount of reconstruction still to be done there and there is no shortage of land to work on - it is a big country. It is also a well situated country, not too far from the main population centres of Europe, and unlike Britain and Ireland, not cut off by a strip of water. Seventeen years after the end of communism, the place ought to be thriving. Perhaps the policies advocated in the the following web site might help things along.

torsdag 3 augusti 2006

Messing up the HST fleet

The Inter-City 125 fleet has done the railways well, but it should not be forgotten that bicycle restrictions came with these trains as they were designed to run in fixed formations - they had little van space in their original form and it is not easy to add on carriages at short notice, as used to be common practice if a large crowd turned up. And the size and spacing of the windows of the mark 3 coach mean that there are always a number of window seats which have no window, but a piece of plastic in the line of sight, and the windows themselves are too high. So I have never been a great enthusiast for HSTs. Nevertheless, compared to recent stuff like Voyagers and Pendolinos, they are wonderful.

However, First Great Western's scheme to shorten and reconfigure the interiors of its HST fleet seems inappropriate in view of the present trend of growing passenger numbers. Surely FGW should be planning for this? Trains need to be lengthened rather than shortened. We have a window of opportunity to do this at low cost with the spare mark 3 vehicles that are currently available and will otherwise go for scrap.

If the aim is to increase acceleration, then all that is necessary is to re-gear the power cars as part of the modernisation package. This will reduce top speeds, but with present-day traffic patterns with stops about 25 miles apart or less, the effect on overall journey time will be minimal and a robust timetable can still be achieved.

The need to cram in as many passengers as possible by using airline seating may not be received with as much enthusiasm as MD Alison Forster expects. Given adequate legroom, unidirectional seating is obviously acceptable to passengers going by themelves, especially on a route they use freqently - they plug in their i-Pods and laptops, and retreat into their private bubble with their personal computer and sound system.

However, in other circumstances, airline seating creates problems in trains. Firstly, unlike aircraft, trains do not have baggage holds. If seats all face the same way, the space between seat backs which could have been used for luggage is lost, which is an important consideration as Great Western trains serve many popular holiday destinations. Problems with luggage interfere with boarding and alighting and cause delays at stations.

Second, unidirectional seating is unsatisfactory for family and other groups travelling together, as they have to split up - again, an important consideration when passengers are making leisure journeys.

Third, the overall ambience of the vehicle can become cluttered and claustrophobic. Although this is not the case in stock such as SNCF's Corail fleet, which benefit from the larger continental dimensions and windows spaced to suit the seat positions, within the tight confines of British stock, the interior environment will feel as cramped as it does in other British trains with mostly airline seating, an impression that will be aggravated by the mark 3 window spacing which means that many "window" seats will actually be windowless.

Train interior - Virgin Pendolino

Train interior - Virgin Voyager

A season of problems with luggage on holiday trains could well force a rethink, with seats having to be taken out and replaced with luggage stacks.

There may, incidentally, be useful weight savings to be made by designing seating which was indended to be fixed back-to-back, or against a bulkhead; the heavy framing needed for free-standing seats would not be required as as a pair of seats fixed back to back is an inherently strong structure.

FGW should review this proposal.

Danish train

Luggage space between seat backs on a Danish IC3 DMU

Airline seating can be fine - but there is much more space inside this continental train, the windows and seats all line up, the luggage rack is of generous size and there are a lot of other places inside the vehicle where luggage can be stashed without it getting in anyone's way.

This German inter-city train has plenty of spaces for large items of luggage, which would not be possible in a British train.

Ricardo’s Law in brief