Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hog wash

Cartoon nicked from 28th April’s Daily Telegraph

It looks if we’re all going perish horribly as some virulent death-plague sweeps north from Mexico into the United States then east to Asia and west across the Atlantic and through Europe. Swine influenza virus (SIV) has been around for ages, but the current Uncle Nasty, a mutation of the H1N1 strain, is actually not related to swine at all.

The swine flu pandemic is so named because the virus responsible looks similar to SIV. Not only does the infection target humans (and not goats, ha ha!), it’s unknown whether the H1N1 strain can affect pigs at all.

Here in the Lands of the Sand, we are assured that the UAE is 100% free of the disease. Huzzah! And yet today all pork products are being removed from the shelves ‘as a precaution’. Presumably all the meat will be thrown in the back of a freezer until the current health scare is over. The influenza microbes – those wee beasties that don’t exist in the UAE - can simply hibernate. Not that they’d survive the cooking process anyway. The fact that we normally cook pork before eating it seems lost on the decision-makers over at the Ministry of Undercooked Ideas. No, wait: not ‘undercooked’. It’s ‘half-baked’. Of course: therein lies the explanation.

But wait! You can’t catch swine flu from eating bacon butties! You have to be sneezed on by an infected person. Not pig. Person. It’s impossible to catch swine flu from the meat, even if the animal was infected. And as pigs can’t catch H1N1 anyway, the meat can’t ever become infected.

I’m completely wrong, of course. One of my colleagues recently assured me that anyone more astute than something growing on a piece of damp bread would recognise that swine flu is divine retribution: a plague against the godless hog-gobbling infidels. Clearly, therefore, removal of pork from sale is for our own good. It is not simply an act of petty malice.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Corner of a foreign field

Our lawyer finally confirmed that the land became ours on 23rd April. St George’s Day, which has echoes of serendipity for a ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’. (Rupert Brooke 1887-1915).

We shall however not be sticking a red and white flag in one bit for 23rd April and a Stars and Stripes in another bit for 4th July. That would be silly. Would the Gnomad care to remove his nails now?

Once the legal dust has settled, there are still a few odds and ends to finalise. Establishing once and for all the boundaries is extremely important. Do we, for example, own the hedges and the enormous carob tree situated in one corner? We’ll get the local Land Department to peg out the boundaries, then we can set about arranging a perimeter fence or wall. Beloved Wife wishes to plant small trees that will in due course grow and provide vegetation, privacy and windbreaks.

We’re also thinking about house plans. Obviously a qualified architect will eventually have to be appointed to design and supervise (on account of Muggins being abroad and unable to police the contractors at suitably small intervals), but I think it’ll be very useful already to have a pretty good handle on what Beloved Wife and her Goat actually want built. Having a domestic in the architect’s office is definitely to be avoided. To this end, I’ve started messing with Google SketchUp. This is a free, allegedly easy-to-use piece of 3D modelling software that is capable of easy rendering to give quick impressions of what the building might look like. Drawing to scale, it’s also possible to download doors, windows, furniture, stairs, Burj Dubai, or whatever else the army of SketchUp experts have put on the internet for nuppence. I was particularly chuffed to discover that it’s possible to insert the model into Google Earth to give an idea how the house might appear. The final version would have doors and windows, of course.

Moving furniture, fixtures and fittings around is a lot easier with a couple of murine clicks and drags than actually hauling the real stuff at 12-inches to a foot scale. Whizzing a tape measure around the Crumbling Villa helped to establish whether any particular area would need to be bigger or could be smaller in the Dream Home. This also explains what we were doing in Home Centre the other day with no intention to buy anything. We ended up with a new mattress purely on impulse.

The image above is only one of perhaps dozens of potential buildings. The shortlist can be worked up using more sophisticated software, and eventually an appropriately qualified professional can deal with making it all stand up and have functional electricity, water, sewerage and air conditioning. Of course, the timescale for this last bit is heavily influenced by how long it’s going to take the bank account to recover from ravages of land purchase.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mean streets

My mobile phone cheats at backgammon. Odd how it throws itself loads of double-sixes just when it needs them, and gives me a double–five exactly and only when that is the one dice-roll that is completely useless. Funny how the very moment I uncover the ‘four’ point, the machine awards itself a four.

Of course, this is all paranoia; my excuse for being demonstrably the world’s worst backgammon player. The dice rolls are generated at random, but I only remember the few that are spectacularly opportune or desperately inconvenient, dependent on whether they’re the black or the white dice.

If my opponent rolled 2D6 and, after an expected spread of results got three double-sixes, I might sit up and take notice of his lucky streak. I might brandish Harry Potter’s wand and with a “Reductio fortuitus!” cast an incantation to prevent the dice from rolling uncharacteristically high. And the spell works! The next five rolls are not double-six. QED.

The gainsayers, disbelievers and acolytes of James Randi will point out that my eldritch magicks have no effect on the behaviour of the dice. Simply put, rolling three twelves in a row has a 1:46656 chance (0.00214%). Not rolling a double-six for the next five rolls comes at a probability of 86.86%. No magic required.

And this brings me to what continues to bug me.

For some reason, a basic understanding of this ‘regression to mean’ doesn’t apply when so-called ‘safety’ cameras are installed on the roads. For example, following decades of no traffic incidents[1] at a particular location, there’s suddenly a rash of five KSIs (Killed or Seriously Injured) over, say, a five-year period. A camera is installed, and “Reductio fortuitus!” for the next five years the KSI rate reverts to zero. Clearly it’s the magic box that has achieved all this, and not basic statistics.

We are told that excessive speed is a major contributory factor in traffic incidents. How many? What proportion?

According to the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory’s report TRL323 - “A new system for recording contributory factors in road accidents.” (© TRL 1998, ISSN 0968-4107 and downloadable free of charge from the TRL's website):
  • Excessive speed is the overall contributory factor in 7.3% That's an average; actual between 2.8% and 9.2% depending on geographical area.
  • Excessive speed the ‘definite’ contributory factor in 6.0% of recorded incidents.

These figures came from UK police officers attending crashes and recording the factors involved. The period of data collection was three months in the summer of 1996.Unfortunately other TRL research showed that only 30% of excessive speed actually involved exceeding the posted limit. So 30% x 7.3% = 2.2%. What about the 97.8% of incidents that don’t involve exceeding posted limits? Cameras must surely have zero effect on these!

The trouble is, these figures aren't even approximately close to the Dubai RTA's most recent claim that “Overspeeding is responsible for about 80% of traffic accidents…” The RTA's Director of Traffic goes on to state that “…the number of casualties is continuously on the rise…” something that enormous and increasing numbers of cameras seem powerless to prevent.

Just in case the RTA website is slow loading or broken, 7DAYS picked up the same story.

What has happened? Why has the enormous increase in speed-related KSIs occurred at the same time as the rash of speed enforcement devices? Claiming that cameras cause incidents is tenuous; but the argument that the cameras have a positive effect on road safety is not borne out by the RTA's own statements.

Now, it may be argued that UK and UAE driving standards are different. It may also be pointed out that the TRL report is based on data collected over a short period (of mostly fine dry weather). But from 7.3% to 80%? Asking us to believe the uplift from around 30%, RTA's own figures from 2002 and 2005 is pushing the bounds of believability.

At this point, the Goat checks his portable tosh detector. (The Acme Veritas-O-MatTM pat. pending). The needle is waving around in the red zone like some demented instrument in a Thunderbirds episode.

Whom are we to believe? An independent research laboratory, or someone who is employed by the same organisation that earns a tidy income through the use of traffic enforcement and presumably will seek to justify its revenue stream? I know which direction I tend to lean.

It is or course completely true that anyone who never strays above the posted limit isn't going to be photographed and fined. It's also true that “No-one was ever injured in a car crash below the posted limit” is total fiction. There is a lot more to road safety than simply automating the enforcement of speed limits.

    [1] ‘accident’ is a misleading term because it implies that no-one’s at fault and ‘traffic deliberate’ doesn’t really work either. Neither are we supposed to call them ‘speed cameras’, even though speed is what they detect. But the cameras don’t positively detect safety. Perhaps ‘danger cameras’ would be a better term. ‘Enforcement’ cameras might be best, but this word has rather unfortunate connotations involving the removal of free will.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Sports cars need not apply

This has probably been done to death by Alexander on Fake Plastic Souks. As at today, eight posts. They're a good read: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight.

It even got picked up by the Khaleej Times. So I though I’d wade into the same subject matter and, as it were, kick it while it’s down.

The situation in brief for the benefit of any reader who’s unfamiliar with the political and socio-economic geography of this part of the United Arab Emirates is as follows. Dubai and Sharjah are adjacent emirates. The common border runs approximately east from the coast in a straightish line into the desert. Both emirates have developed residential areas near the coast, and Sharjah also has a dense industrial area in the immediate hinterland.

Residential rentals in Sharjah tend to be rather lower than in Dubai, which means that an awful lot of people choose, or are financially obliged, to live in Sharjah even if they work in Dubai. The lack of any meaningful inter-emirate public transport system means that each and every employee has to commute by road. Further restrictions imposed by legislators limit the scope for car pooling, which does nothing to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Which road? Al Ittihad Road is the nearest major highway connecting the two emirates. Despite its immense capacity and current schemes to upgrade it, Al Ittihad Road remains a traffic congestion hotspot during the peak hours. Perhaps a mere two lanes through one of the underpasses has something to do with this.

More roads connecting Dubai and Sharjah run parallel and further inland. The problem with these, from the point of view of a commuting Sharjah resident, is the need to negotiate the industrial area - which is generally entirely gridlocked during rush hours.

The solution identified by Alexander and others is to go yet further inland, beyond University City. A dumb-bell interchange on the Sharjah-Kalba road appears to offer an obvious link across the border. All it needs is a few metres of asphalt to complete this missing link. But no. Dubai RTA chooses to station a fleet of earthmoving machinery to block any attempt to cross the border at this location. Not even intrepid 4x4 drivers can negotiate the concrete barriers, bunds and ditches. And it’s all in the name of safety. Allegedly, it would be dangerous to drive beneath the overhead electricity cables that are strung along the border. This is tosh (what sort of tosh, Keef?) unless you’re driving a double-decker bus with a flagpole stuck on its roof.

The actual reason, in the Goat’s opinion, is to do with traffic congestion.

What would happen if, in a fantasy parallel universe, the interchange were connected to the Dubai highway network? Well firstly, Alexander would write a blog about how his snicket had been vindicated. And the container depot operator next to the interchange would be able to get all Dubai collections and deliveries conveniently in and out of his gate without having to drag down to National Paints roundabout or out to the Outer Ring Road. Gradually more and more Sharjah residents would learn about this traffic-free alternative road to work.

The additional inbound traffic would overload Dubai’s already crowded highway network, and the entire city (rather than just Satwa at 8pm) would become horribly broken. Then one day, Academic City Road would suddenly be as busy as the Emirates Road; all routes into Dubai city from Academic City Road would become congested and every junction would grind to a capacity-limited halt.

Dubai’s policy, then, is to limit the influx of ‘foreign’ cars by placing choke points at every entry. The underpass near Al Mullah Plaza is limited to two lanes in each direction. Edited on 4th April to add: As pointed by The Wizard of D, the underpass at Al Mullah Plaza is indeed three lanes in each direction. There is even an additional new Sharjah-bound underpass, whose purpose is to remove traffic from Dubai and dump it next door. However, adjacent entry points are very effectively choked by Sharjah’s industrial area, and from other directions there are no major adjacent conurbations.

The apparently obvious solution is to provide decent public transport links between the emirates. If that ever became flesh and dwelt among us, even more Dubai workers would find less expensive Sharjah rents attractive enough to warrant a move. Loss of rental income by Dubai makes provision of such public transport facilities a vanishingly remote possibility. Moreover, Sharjah rents would rise to prohibitive Dubaiesque levels and there’d be even more ‘fleeing’ expats.


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