31 July 2010

Travelling rough on New Zealand railways

Countries where the railway came late seemed to lag well behind in provision for passengers. A journalist travelling on New Zealand's first major railway in 1864 reported how he and fellow passengers were 'politely requested by the guard to leave the carriage and help to push the carriage and engine to the summit of the bank ... and on returning to our seats, the guard promptly collected 2s 6d from us as our fares!'

The accommodation on the trains was a throwback to the Europe of thirty years before: 'The standard carriages of the 1870s were tiny four and six wheel boxes with rigid axles, longitudinal (lengthways) bench seats and gloomy colza-oil lamps. Heating, toilets and passageways between carriages were non-existent'. There were only two classes but despite paying 50 percent extra, first-class passengers were in the same carriages separated only by a partition and benefited only 'from horsehair cushions, coir floor mats, brass spittoons and the "quality" of one's travelling companions'.

An English visitor described it as barely up to second class back home but far slower since the trains averaged 20 mph.

- Christian Wolmar, Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World, London, 2009

27 July 2010


While fearsome rock chick Courtney Love has never struck me as the kind of woman you could embarrass easily, it seems that band mates have succeeded in locating her weak spot.

Among the hell-raiser singer's more unlikely romantic conquests in recent years was one Steve Coogan, the man behind that national treasure of fictional broadcasting Alan Partridge. Despite the said liaison occurring some five years ago, Kurt Cobain's widow complains that she still isn't being allowed to forget it.

"I'm in a band with three Brits and it never, ever ends," sighs the star, who reveals that she still has to endure Partridge catchphrases on a regular basis while on the road. "It's 'Back of the net!' or 'Cashback!' or whatever," she says. "It's torture. I walked into the studio recently and they'd put up this giant poster of Alan Partridge on the wall. I was like 'You take that down, right now!'"

- Independent, 27 July 2010

20 July 2010

Gluttony as innoculation

'Several of the [railway] lines across what is now the Republic of South Africa were built by George Pauling, who, together with his brother Harry, and later his cousin Harold, formed the most successful railway contracting company in Africa. Pauling was one of the great characters of African railway development, a fat man who professed that the only way to resist the local disease was through vast consumption of food and, especially, alcohol. Famously, on one two-day trip along the Beira Railway with its manager Alfred Lawley and chief engineer, A.M. Moore, the three consumed 300 bottles of German beer. Breakfast for three, a few days later, consisted of 1000 oysters washed down with a modest eight bottles of champagne'

- Christian Wolmar, Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World, London, 2009.

19 July 2010

Static electricity?

Iraqis often ask why the bombers are able to pass unsuspected through so many checkpoints. Over the past year, it has become clear that there is an appallingly simple reason for this that explains much about the weakness of the Iraqi state machine. The extraordinary truth is that keeping bombers out of Baghdad is, to say the least, undermined because the main bomb-detecting device used by troops and police to find explosives is a proven fake. The government paid large sums for the detector, called a "sonar" by Iraqis, though it comes without a power source – and supposedly receives this from the man holding it, who is supposed to shuffle his feet to generate static electricity.

Useless though it is, the "sonar", a black plastic grip with a silver-coloured wand like a television aerial sticking out the front, is the main method by which suspect vehicles in Baghdad are checked by soldiers and police. If arms or explosives are present, the wand is meant to incline towards them, operating in the same way as a water diviner's rod.

What is striking about the bomb detector, officially known as the ADE-651, is that it has been repeatedly exposed as useless by government experts, newspapers and television. It was originally produced in Britain, on a disused milk farm in Somerset, but the managing director of the company behind it was arrested in the UK on suspicion of fraud and its export has now been banned. The only electronic component in the device is a small disk, worth a few pennies, similar to that attached to clothes in high-street shops to stop people walking away with them without paying.

- Independent, 19 July 2010

14 July 2010

Zombie queen a part of history

A digital poster for the London Dungeon featuring the sudden transformation of Queen Mary into a zombie-like character has been banned by the advertising watchdog for scaring children.

The ad, developed by the agency Farm, ran on digital screens throughout London Underground stations.

Over the period of a few seconds an image of a serene Queen Mary – dubbed "Bloody Mary" for her persecution of Protestants – sitting on a chair, morphs into a zombie-like character with sunken eyes, pale skin, a wide-open mouth and a scarred face.

The Advertising Standards Authority received four complaints that the ad was likely to frighten and distress children and was "inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium" such as digital escalator panels [...]

Merlin Entertainments, which runs the London Dungeon, said that in order to "avoid causing fear and distress" it had followed London Underground's guidelines in "avoiding flames and excessive, dripping or running blood".

The company said that it had planned to run the ad again on the London Underground during the summer school holidays and Halloween.

It was meant to show the "dark side of [Queen Mary's] personality and portray her as a villain", Merlin added. The company said that the ad was "obviously historical and in no way irresponsible or gratuitous".

- Guardian, 14 July 2010

[The ad was 'historical': so does that mean Queen Mary was 'obviously' a zombie? I saw this ad and remember thinking that if it gave me the willies, what would little kids make of it?]

12 July 2010

But inherent contradictions are on the rise

House values up in static market

Quotable Value statistics released today show Nelson property values are 5.1 per cent up while Tasman is 6.1 per cent above the same time last year, but that increase has dropped from 6.3 and 7.5 per cent respectively during the last month. The average sale price in Nelson was $376,290 in Nelson and $390,563 in Tasman during June.

QV Nelson valuer Geoff Butterworth said people weren't buying or selling unless they needed to.

"Listings are low, as is demand, and prices are relatively static"

- Nelson Mail, 12 July 2010

09 July 2010

How to be an IT professional

From an interview with three IT professionals:

Does the advice "turn it on and off" really work?

Bob: With surprising regularity. From an outsider's point of view, that is everything that we do.

Harry: It solves 80% of problems. You've got to know when to switch it on and off. Switch it off, wait 10 seconds, then switch it on, that's the trick.

Shaheen: It does, but IT people dress it up. They'll say, "Have you given it a service reboot?" There's quite a few euphemisms they've developed because it's often effective. Like a "power recycling", "refresh" and things like that.

- Guardian, 9 July 2010

08 July 2010

Pesky M

James Bond is having a spot of bother with M, who keeps ringing him up to discuss Shakespeare. Jolly inconvenient, what?

05 July 2010

A little proof-reading never hurts

'Monday 5 until Friday 23 July, inclusive, southbound trains to Aldgate do not serve Baker Street. Off-peak southbound trains from Amersham terminate at Wembley Park.

Amended by MM as per request from Phil Dunwell. JP seelcted to display message when results are returned'.

- TFL Metropolitan Line travel advisory, 5 July 2010

How to impress the ladies

'At ten o'clock this morning a robbery was committed on the [Wimbledon] Common by a single highwayman on a coach and four. It seems the robber ordered the coachman to stop and then immediately drove the muzzle of his pistol through the coach window to the edification of four squabbling females and one miserable male. However, the gentleman would not give up his money and attempted to seize the highwayman through the window - by which daring feat he cut his wrist most dreadfully and was nearly brought out of it [the coach] entirely by the robber who in turn seized him. If the ladies had not held their valorous knight by the coat with all their strength, he would have been ignominiously dragged through the window.

I shall certainly order my servants to carry loaded pistols with them when I go my pleasant airings now for the future'

- Countess Spencer writing to her husband, October 1784, quoted in Richard Milward, Wimbledon Two Hundred Years Ago, 1996.