Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bedtime story

Once upon a time, in the far-off land of Dunkrugerstan, lived a very wise, rich man. His title was Grand Frommaj, and he ruled over the happy and content Dunkrugertani people with wisdom, kindness, and generosity. 

Unfortunately, the Grand Frommaj had a problem, which was this. Hardly anyone from other realms had even heard of Dunkrugerstan, and even some who had would struggle to find it on a map of the world. The Grand Frommaj summoned his Council of Ministers, who agreed that the best way to improve the status of Dunkrugerstan would be to host major international sporting tournaments. Knights and acrobats, gladiators and horsemen would travel from far and wide, and their entourages would follow. Dunkrugerstan would soon become famous throughout the world.

And so it came to pass. New arenas and hippodromes were constructed, and many people came. It quickly became apparent to the Grand Frommaj that he would need more inns, more and better markets, and larger and grander arenas. Streets would have to be widened and straightened because of the ever-increasing throngs of visitors from foreign lands.

The Council of Ministers quickly realised that they needed expertise that was not readily available within the Dunkrugerstani people. They sent messengers abroad, inviting wise men to come and be Trusted Advisors to the Grand Frommaj. Many answered the call, and they brought their families. And so successful was this venture that even more Trusted Advisors had to be invited to come and help the Dunkrugerstanis to build more inns, houses, markets, and streets for all these trusted Advisors.

It was regrettable that the Grand Frommaj, although wise and kind and generous, often disagreed with his Trusted Advisors. He would fly into a rage when a Trusted Advisor produced unpalatable advice, and the Grand Frommaj would order that this Advisor be banished. The Council of Ministers also had differences of opinion with each other, and although they always agreed with the decrees of the Grand Frommaj, the Ministers often worked against one another.

The Minister of Paper Clips would veto edicts issued by the Minister of Rubber Stamps, for example. And the Minister for Streets was often in opposition to the Minister for Houses.

And thus were created conditions where Trusted Advisors were constantly given different instructions, and told that the work they had done was no longer acceptable. Sometimes, a Trusted Advisor was told to produce the exact opposite of what the Grand Frommaj wished, resulting in one of those famous rages and the Advisor’s immediate exile.

Of course, with the constant changes, inns and streets, houses and arenas were delayed. Some were never built at all. So when the knights arrived for the most famous Grand Tournament in the whole world, nothing was finished. Arenas lay incomplete, and there were insufficient inns for all the visitors who had come to witness the Grand Tournament spectacle.

The Grand Frommaj was aghast. What would everyone think? So much wisdom; so much wealth, and yet nothing had been completed. The Grand Frommaj raged. He called his Council of Ministers and demanded to know how this could have happened. The Ministers spoke to one another, and concluded that the Trusted Advisors were entirely to blame, and they should all be exiled.

And so it was. Dunkrugerstan soon lay an empty wilderness, with half-constructed inns and markets, and deserted arenas.

And the Trusted Advisors? They all travelled away, and were never seen again.


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

My object all sublime

It’s a brilliant idea: rich people who break the law should be fined more than poor people.

It stands to reason that a Dh200 fine for jaywalking is grossly over-punitive for some Dubai labourer for whom Dh200 represents his monthly food budget, whereas for a degree-educated experienced western manager the same sum is mere pocket change.

So the solution to this patent unfairness is obvious, isn’t it? The court finds out what the offender’s monthly income is and fines him a percentage of that. Some Emirati teenager was fined half a million dirhams earlier this week for doing doughnuts on the public highway and bringing the UAE into disrepute by posting the video in Instagram (and subsequently in 7DAYS and The National). Half a million? Jeez!!

Such as system would have been ideal a year ago while the Goat was resting between jobs. As a house elf and kitty whisperer, his personal income was zero. He could, under some system of means-tested fines, have driven Beloved Wife’s car in the manner of a total hooligan and incurred numerous fines. Haha! Any percentage of zero is zero. And exactly the same situation would occur when some foopballer’s WAG went out in her husband’s Lexus and drove with reckless abandon.

We can perhaps imagine the court: “You have been found guilty of the charges, and are fined 75% of your monthly income,” which is big fat zero, zilch, nada, sifr.

“Ah, but,” the Goat hears you protest, “Because Beloved Wife is working, she brings in the total household income, and the fine should be based on that.”

Indeed. Except that Beloved Wife did not commit the offence, and only an unreasonable Man on the proverbial Clapham Omnibus would argue that Beloved Wife, or anyone else, should have to pay the penalty for an offence committed by somebody else.

And what if the punishment that fits the crime isn’t a fine, but a custodial sentence? Can a year in the slammer seriously be served by two people doing six months each? No, I didn’t think so.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I've got your number

OFFS. It fits, but those two black pads
are supposed to support a short plate.
I may have been visited by the OCD fairy.

No, I am not OCD. Neither am I CDO. It is not a disorder to want stuff ordered and tidy. How would you find the book you wanted in the British Library if all the books were piled in one dishevelled heap labelled ‘Miscellaneous”? 

Checking you’ve turned the tap off 36 times, and then having to go home from the airport because you’re still convinced you left it running? That’s a disorder.

I don’t know why it bugs me so much, but what is wrong with the people who put number plates on vehicles in this region? Having just lashed out maybe hundreds of thousands of riyals on a new car, I’d want the plates to be on straight, and not sticking out in an unsightly manner. Clearly I’m in a minority of one; everyone else just blithely drives around with wonky and ill-fitting plates and doesn’t give a shit. 

There are two basic shapes for car registration plates: long and thin, and short and fat.

Cars come with plate-shaped spaces. Most have some kind of space or hanger, or bolt holes on the front, and pretty much all of them have a special space on the back, complete with lights. Again, long and thin, or else short and fat. 

Doesn't the shape of the bumper give you a clue?
So why do they stick a long thin plate in a space that’s clearly designed for a short fat one? I had a friend who protested that his Land Rover’s long thin plate had to be tucked under the spare wheel, and could he have a short fat plate please? No he couldn’t. He got a ticket later from the same police force that issued the plate, for failing to display it clearly. 

I protested when my Terios was provided with a short fat plate in a long thin space. The plate stuck out below the bumper and kept catching on the sand and getting bent. I was told that they’d run out of one type of blank. Unlikely. I was also told that you can’t have one of each. Lies.

And what is this pop-riveting thing? What’s wrong with using bolts in the threaded holes provided? What’s wrong with using a frame that the plate clips into? No, my new pride and joy has to have holes drilled in it to mount the plate on the piss. They can’t even get it on straight.

Maybe the pop-rivets are to prevent tampering. Clearly nobody has ever in the history of metal fasteners drilled out a pop rivet. And riveting tools are only available to the licensing authority, and not to any old Joe shopping in a hardware store.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

A flute or sinking

I had a most exciting Friday. First, I rose unexpectedly early despite the alarm clock being switched off, and headed downstairs to the health club for my weekly weigh-in on their hyper-accurate scales. Oh curses and buggeration! Up two kilogrammes. Then I grabbed some semi-skimmed milk from the Kwik-E-Mart and went back to my concrete cube in the sky to cook breakfast.

It’s futile going out on Friday morning in Doha because almost everything is shut, so I had a quick surf of the internet to see if I could find what size ball bearings I would need to upgrade the gearshift on my motorbike from the rather crappy nylon bushing provided by Mr Kawasaki in a cost-cutting exercise. Apparently I need several 8x14x4 caged ball bearings, one 8x1.25x40  bolt, plus a couple of washers, and these - or at least the bearings - should be easily obtainable from an emporium of radio-controlled models. 

It’s a mile to Doha City Centre mall, so I walked. The model shop was as shut as a miser’s wallet, even though the mall was teeming with eaters of fried junk food and purchasers of shoes, these being the products on sale in about 90% of the shops. My guess is that the model shop is shut on Fridays while the proprietor goes out and flies his R/C aircraft. There was nothing worth watching on offer at the Cineplex, so I walked back to my concrete cube.

I went back to the model shop on Saturday afternoon when by some miracle it was open, to be assured that “We sell spare parts” as per the Facebook page actually means “We do not sell spare parts.” But I digress.

I picked up my tenor recorder later on Friday afternoon and spent an hour or two practising, mostly from memory, and also playing by ear along with pre-recorded tunes and professional performances on YouTube. My eclectic repertoire ranges from J. S. Bach, through J. P. Sousa to Henry Mancini, John Williams, Barry Gray, and Iron Maiden. I think playing heavy metal on an acoustic wind instrument is more than a little subversive. Unfortunately, I can only do the melody; chords are beyond the recorder’s scope, and certainly beyond mine. As it is, I mess with the key signatures these things are written in in order to get them into something that’s playable on a recorder with my limited digital dexterity. 

But Aces High, played in 3/4 time on a tenor recorder, sounds amusingly like some ancient English folk tune. This may be coincidence. I suspect that Pirates of the Caribbean and Gladiator both sounding like Packington’s Pound is not a coincidence.

As the fingering of a recorder and an EWI are almost the same, anything in the above list I can theoretically play on my electric wind instrument. I say theoretically, because the EWI requires absolutely accurate fingering, and you can’t bend a wrong note by half uncovering a hole. It’s all or nothing. As far as I know, the concrete cube next door is currently unoccupied. Nobody has complained about the noise yet.

I am under no illusions as to my true ability to play these instruments. It only takes being in the company of proper musicians (and that includes YouTube clips of EWI and recorder players) to expose me as the fraud I almost certainly am.

So, that was my weekend. I put some bread in the sandwich toaster for tea, chatted briefly with Beloved Wife on a flaky internet connection in Amman airport, and then retired to my bed in preparation of the next six days of consecutive frustration, starting at 0700 on Saturday. 


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Little and dangerous

It’s really difficult for people to get their heads around stupidly large or absurdly tiny quantities. “I worked it out in nanoseconds” is a colloquialism that doesn’t really encompass quite how tiny a nano-anything is. For what it’s worth, there are around pi seconds in a nanocentury. So we end up using prefixes to produce sensible numbers. Seconds; not nanocenturies. You don’t go into Tiger Treats and ask for 0.0001 tonnes of liquorice unless you’re deliberately trying to be annoying; you ask for 100 grammes, or 4oz, or “a quarter” if you’re still Church of England.

This is not a metrication rant. It’s about the measurement of small but fatal risks.

Typically, for every one million scuba dives there are five fatalities. (75 deaths in 14 million dives, according to BS-AC in 1998-2009). Probability of dying: 0.000005

In nearly 4.9 million skydives over 1994 to 2013 there were 41 deaths: around 0.000009 chance of not surviving a jump.

All those leading zeroes are difficult, hence the concept of the micromort. One μmt = 1/1,000,000 chance of death. Thus:-
  • One BS-AC scuba dive 5 μmt 
  • One parachute jump 9 μmt 
  • Climbing Mount Everest 39,427 μmt
It’s relatively easy to collate micromort data for regulated activities such as diving, or parachute jumping, or flying as a fare-paying passenger. You simply add up the total number of deaths and divide by the total number of customers. For air travel, I found an ICAO safety report for 2009-2013 that says the average risk was 16.6 μmt/departure.

I found a separate figure of 22 μmt/departure elsewhere on the internet. This matches ICAO’s 2009 figures. It’s possible to calculate a risk in terms of micromorts per kilometre travelled, but as no-one has ever yet collided with the sky and most aviation incidents inevitably involve terrain, counting takeoffs is probably more meaningful. Because air travel generally involves vast distances, comparing it with other modes of transport on a risk per kilometre basis probably isn’t fair.

Ignoring airport transfers (the thrill-ride fun bus between Manila and Batangas springs to mind), if you fly to some exotic dive destination and do fewer than seven dives, the flights are more hazardous than the diving. So dive more. Three or four dives a day seems about right.

Problems with micromorts arise when attempting to assess risks associated with unregulated activities such as riding a motorbike. At last, we arrive at what I want to write about.

No amount of dressing up the figures will ever show that motorcycling is the safest way to travel. The rider is projected at speeds well in excess of what the human body was ever designed for, with almost nothing in the way of protection beyond a plastic pot on his head and some animal skins wrapped around his body and limbs. Hardly the same level of protection that is offered by being strapped inside a tonne or more of metal that is designed to crumple and absorb energy in a crash. I’m not going to attempt to show that bikes are as safe as cars; as the figures I’ve obtained from the University of Google offer extremely variable results, I’ll not discuss the subject of the private car and its relationship with the micromort.

Fortunately for me, the Google Elves have provided more coherent data with regard to motorcycles and micromorts.

US figures for 1999-2003 rate motorcycling risk at 5.37 μmt/trip. (3112 fatal injuries in 580 million person trips). Compare this with UK figures: over 2007 to 2013, the average annual number of motorcycle deaths was 460 from a fleet of some 1.1 million motorbikes. That’s 418 μmt/year.

In 2009, the NHTSA rate was 723μmt per US-registered motorbike. That’s 1.7 times the comparable UK figure. Perhaps there is something in mandatory staged licensing and compulsory helmets. More likely is that there’s insufficient data here to formulate any theories.

The US figures include a ‘per hundred million person trips’, and to offer any degree of confidence, the number of trips has to be accurate. How is this achieved? What is a ‘trip’? Is Chicago to Los Angeles one trip, or is each day of the Route 66 tour a separate trip? Commuting to and from work is two trips a day, right? There’s clearly an extremely wide variation in annual mileage too. You have daily bikers who clock hundreds of miles per week come rain or shine, and others who only take their bikes out to shine them and trailer them to Sturgis once a year. On the US-based Concours Owners Group forum, there are members who claim figures like 100,000 miles in three years, or “My 2009 Connie has 185,000 miles and has never missed a beat…” That’s 53,000km/year and 59,000km/year. And another selling a mint 2010 with only 15,000 miles, never seen rain, full service history, etc… (6,000km/year).

How can anyone possibly estimate a single risk based on trip numbers or distance travelled?

The UK figures produce their own set of difficulties. They fail to take into account trip numbers or distance travelled at all. Some owners have more than one machine, and can obviously only ride one at a time. It is theoretically possible by reductio ad absurdum, to die in a bike crash in the UK while your road-legal machine is parked in the garage and you’re at home watching the telly.

My personal motorcycle experience amounts to 385,000km over 35 years; what I regard as a moderate 11,000km/year. According to the University of Internet’s Faculty of Wikipedia, there’s a 2009 article in The Times newspaper that includes risk of mortality as “1 μmt = 6 miles on a motorbike,” or 0.1 μmt/km. That’s 1100 μmt/year with my annual mileage.

Adopting the US figure of 5.37 μmt/trip, the arithmetic throws out 205 trips per year and a typical trip of 54km. Both of these figures seem broadly in line with my own behaviour. Most of my motorcycle trips are commutes to and from the office, and regrettably few are epic tours.
  • UK figures: 460/1.1M = 418 μmt/year 
  • US figures: 205 x 5.37 = 1,100 μmt/year
I could get my personal risk figures down to the UK values if I did 4200km/year. Does the Average Motorcyclist really cover that little distance?

High mileage implies more experience and therefore lower risk, right? If you have a record of riding tens of thousands of miles without falling off or being hit by another vehicle, you’re obviously doing something right.

Conversely, you can argue that low mileage reduces your exposure to a given risk of riding an unstable machine among other vehicles being piloted by idiots who are too busy updating their Facebooks to look out of their windows... The truth is probably somewhere between the two. There's a low-risk sweet spot where the emptying bucket of Luck and the filling bucket of Experience together produce a minimum overall Risk.

As none of this blog post actually comes to any coherent conclusion, please feel free to cherry-pick the parts that best suit the case that you’re trying to argue.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

A life in the day

If the History of the Universe is compressed into one Earth year, with the Big Bang occurring very early on New Year's Day, this timescale results in dinosaurs becoming extinct on 29 December, writing being invented on 31 December at 23:59:45 and Christopher Columbus setting sail one second before midnight. A similar approach, compressing the history of Sol III into one day, has single-celled algae first appearing at about 14:08 and humans first appearing 17 seconds before midnight.

Out of curiosity, I looked at my own life, as similarly compressed into 24 hours. It says on this 'ere interweb that a British male can expect, on average, to live 79.5 years.

On that basis, I started school at 01:30 and graduated with my BSc at 06:38. There was a recession at the time, which meant that I actually got my first proper job at 06:47. This is eerily familiar; it's actually fairly typical of my actual start time at work in Real Life.

At 09:57 I left UK and became a career expatriate.

The time is currently 15:41 and I'm looking forward to going home. I'm hoping to retire at 18:06, or sooner if I can sneak off early. Again, this is astonishingly close to Real Life.

I am struck with wonder how closely a proportion of my day taken up by work resembles the proportion of my life. I also note with some satisfaction the enormousness of the evening I have to do whatever I please... until the money runs out.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Muttley, do something!

It apparently takes many months from sending a letter of enquiry to the authorities who are responsibly for our safety and security, and receiving any form of reply.

I found myself speculating on what might happen if an aerial attack were repulsed with a similar sense of urgency.

There goes the siren that warns of the air raid.
Just time to drink one more thimble of tea.
Lean back and press on the little white button,
Shout for the teaboy, “Bring chai now for me!”

We have a squadron or two of Mirages
Recently bought at colossal expense:
These will protect our small piece of the sandpit;
Nothing’s too much for our own self-defence.

Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving. Not this afternoon.
Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving…

Not at weekends, afternoons, early hours,
Nor summer months, Ramadan, happy hour...


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