Wednesday, 28 March 2012

From the you-couldn't-make-it-up department

Recently the government have announced ammendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bil that prohibits scrapyards from paying cash for scrap metal.

Sadly, the price of scrap metal and the rampant thefts from BT, the railways and churches means that such a move is inevitable. The reason is simple: the price thieves get for the scrap is low, whilst the cost of replacement is very high.

So it was with frank surprise that a friend told me that gypsies can still get paid in cash.

This sounded ridiculous, so I downloaded the relevant amendment from the Government's website. Take a look at section 147, clause 2.6:

Subsection (1) does not apply if—
(a) the payment is made in the carrying on of the dealer’s business
as a scrap metal dealer as part of the business of an itinerant
collector, and ...

where Subsection 1 is the new amendment stating that payment has to be by cheque or through an electronic fund transfer. My reading of this and the other clauses is that 'itinerant collectors' are exempt from the new law, and can still be paid cash. Certainly that is the understanding of at least one scrap metal dealer.

So my question is simple: what are 'itinerant collectors', and why are they excluded from the amendment?

The first answer is obvious: tinkers and gypsies. The second is answer is, according to rumour, that such people do not traditionally have bank accounts.

It must be very hard to do business nowadays without even a rudimentary bank account.

The law should be the same for everyone. This law is just a farce.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Police recruitment standards

Tom Winsor's report into the police force was released yesterday. There are many recommendations, but one of them seems eminently sensible.

A few weeks ago I was researching the police recruitment process for a story. I was alarmed to come across their 'Numerical Reasoning Test'. Nottinghamshire Police give an example paper (and laughably states that calculators are not required):

TEST 3  Working with numbers (to be done without using a
1. How much will five tins of soup cost at 55p a tin?
   A           B          C           D        E
£2.25     £2.55    £2.60    £2.75    £2.95

2. A person saves £35 in four weeks. At this rate how much will have been
saved in one year?
   A           B          C           D        E
£200       £250    £355      £420     £455

3. What is the total cost of a journey when £1.65 is spent on bus-fares and
an Underground ticket costs £2.50?
   A           B          C           D        E
£3.15     £3.60     £3.95    £4.05    £4.15

4. What is the average number of people per car, when six cars carry
thirty people?
   A           B          C           D        E
4.5           5.0        5.5       6.0      6.5

5. If shopping items cost £12.64, how much money remains out of £20?
   A           B          C           D        E
£6.36      £6.63    £7.36    £7.46    £7.63

The candidate gets twelve minutes to get the correct multiple-choice answers. I would think that these standards need increasing - these tests are farcically simple.

At a time when nurses are expected to have degrees, is this really the minimum standard we need for police officers?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

William Jessops

It may have been noted that I am rather fond of engineering. Indeed, the heavier the engineering - whether planes, trains, bridges, tunnels etc - the better. Given this, it is strange that I went into computer software, where the engineering is as light as it is possible to get. But my love of engineering  - and especially civil engineering - has continued unabated.

In 1992 I found a copy of Samuel Smiles' 'The lives of the Engineers' in the university library. If you wish to read this excellent book, then it is available for download from the Guttenberg Project. The book, written in 1862, describes the lives of the great early Victorian engineers. I read it, rapt at the descriptions of the great men and their equally great works. Many of the names were familiar to me, but there was one sad exclusion: William Jessop was only mentioned in three places. Indeed, the great engineers of the canal age were sadly forgotten in Smiles' fascinating project.

Many of the great names of the canal-building era (spanning from the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 to about 1840) are well-known: John Smeaton for his pioneering lighthouse on Eddystone Rock, now rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe; James Brindley, responsible for the Bridgewater, the Trent and Mersey and other canals; and Thomas Telford, whose fame is such that a town was named after him.

Yet arguably the most influential canal engineer, and one who was at his best at the height of the canal mania in the 1790s, was William Jessops. Born in Devonport in 1745, at the age of 16 he started work for the famous engineer John Smeaton. Soon the pupil overshadowed his tutor, although the two remained close until Smeaton's death.

Unlike many engineers he was keen to try new technologies; he was a pioneer in ironworking and was responsible for several early cast-iron aqueducts. He was also not entirely wedded to canals and often recommended the construction of plateways (a form of early railways) where canals were impractical.

Rather than give an in-depth description of his life, it is perhaps best to list some of the works with which he was involved to a large degree:

  • Grand Junction Canal
  • Grantham Canal
  • Nottingham Canal
  • Cromford Canal
  • Caledonian Canal
  • Grand Canal of Ireland
  • The West India Docks
  • Bristol Floating Harbour
  • Surrey Iron Railway

He was also responsible for a multitude of harbour and drainage works; he was a master at the manipulation of water. Much of the design of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (routinely attributed to Telford) was performed by Jessop, who oversaw the younger man's work.

He also jointly started one of my favourite Victorian companies - Butterley Engineering, a steelwork company that sadly went into administration in 2009, over 200 years after it was founded. Butterley made the grand spans of the overall roof at St Pancras, and the company's stamps can still be seen on the ironwork. More recently they made the steelwork for the Falkirk Wheel and the Spinnaker Tower.

In addition, he was held in such high regard that he was often called to parliament to give his judgement on schemes proposed by various other engineers, and investors would call on him to inspect plans drawn up by others.

To become a great engineer you need to be a self-publicist; both Brunel and Telford were excellent at this part of their work. Jessop, however, was not - his family did not allow his personal papers to be used and no biography of him was written for decades. For this reason works that he deserves major credit for - such as the Caledonian Canal - are routinely credited to others, such as Telford.

Part of the problem is that he had his fingers in so many pies that he often had to let more junior engineers perform the actual construction. The same is true of other engineers such as Brunel, but they were better at making sure that they got the credit for the resulting works.

Wherever you go in Britain you come across his works: from the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen in Scotland to the docks that lie in the shadow of Canary Wharf. What is more, his capability to swap between water and iron, canals and railways, helped set the foundation of the railway revolution of the 1830s.

He deserves more recognition.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Double book review: 'Once more with feeling' and 'For richer, for poorer'

It feels like years since I last did a book review on this blog, and for good reason: it has been years. I have been reading just as much as ever, but few books have either impressed, interested or annoyed me enough to encourage me to write a review.

However on Valentine's Day Sencan gave me Victoria Coren's latest tome, 'For richer, for poorer'. For those who do not know her, Victoria Coren is the rather astoundingly gorgeous and hyper-intelligent presenter of the best quiz show on TV, 'Only Connect'. But this is only one of the strings in her bow for, as this book shows, she is also a rather good poker player. (*)

In it, the author describes how she first got interested in poker by watching her elder brother play, of how she started going to rather dubious clubs in order to play various games before settling on poker. She manages to break through her inherent shyness and develops friendships and even relationships with her fellow players. As a woman in a very male world of dodgy geezers she is an obvious outsider, and yet she is eventually accepted as a player. Not just that, but a good player.

The book (and the author's experience of poker) cover an interesting period - she first plays poker in clubs that seem rather dive-like, and her descriptions of them are coloured by her love of the places. But around the turn of the millennium poker starts to get televised, and then explodes on the Internet. Suddenly players are travelling to tournaments all over the world, have blogs and even sponsorship. First celebrities turn up, then bone-fide stars, all wanting to be part of the action. An underground activity heavy with threat and darkness has suddenly become popular and mainstream. In the end all her poker-playing friends are roaming the world, playing tournaments and winning - and losing - fortunes.

She is very clear that she is an addict; she started playing various gambling games but found that she had a fondness and, rarely, a skill for playing poker. Like all addicts, she seems to feel that changing from one type of addiction to another is in some ways an improvement, that she in some ways won a victory by changing from blackjack to poker.

It is an honest book - at times brutally so. It is partly an autobiography, but a biography viewed through the distorting prism of poker. It is obvious she did not enjoy her schooldays, but even these stories are related through poker anecdotes. Even the death of her father - who she obviously loves to an immense degree - is described through that same poker prism. When she needs two Jewish men to say prayers at her dad's funeral, who does she turn to except for her poker-friends?

This is not the first of Victoria Coren's books that we have read. A few years ago she wrote a book, 'Once more with feeling', where she and an old university friend Charlie Skelton attempt to do the seemingly impossible. As the subtitle says: 'How we tried to make the greatest porn film ever'. In it they set out to learn enough about the industry to create a brilliant non-exploitative porn film. Sometimes it is a funny read, at others depressing; but it is always an insightful look at a dark, hidden world. Needless to say, the biggest problem they have is making the film non-exploitative: everyone seems to exploit each other. Agents exploit artists and artists exploit other artists. Some of the pictures are rather interesting as well, especially if you want to know how porn stars remove an excess of lube...

So we have two books: one where men and women form false relationships and screw each other for money, and the other where they form false relationships and screw each other for money. Having read both books recently, it becomes clear that there are many similarities between the worlds of porn and poker.

I found 'Once more with feeling' a much better read. It is a genuine outsider's view of a dark, hidden world; witty, inventive and not a little scary. What is more, it attributes genuine souls and characters onto the actors and actresses who are usually just seen as objects. In places it is not an easy read, but that is because of the situations described rather than the authors' prose.

There are two problems with 'For richer, for poorer'. The first minor fault is that many pages are filled with descriptions of poker hands that are virtually undecipherable to a non-player. There is no guide to the terminology and the learning curve is very steep. Using various websites I tried to learn some of the terminology but even then it was fairly impenetrable. Fortunately these sections are short and I eventually ended up skipping over them.

More important was the perspective of the books. In 'Once more with feeling' the authors are examining - and trying to become a small part of (**) - the world of porn. They are looking at the industry in an unusual way and give the reader sometimes-disturbing views.

However in 'For richer, for poorer', the author is thoroughly embedded within the world she is writing about.  She can see its faults, can describe the problems, but has done well out of it; she has been successful and won over a million dollars. For every player like her there will be a multitude who are losers, and many whose lives have been ruined by a gambling addiction.

Yet she has the mind to learn to play poker well, the intellect to realise the type of gambling she is best suited to, Most importantly, she has a supportive family and good, if not spectacularly well-paying jobs. She is a gambler, but she is an in-control gambler. The risks are relatively low: she has no husband and no kids who will be thrown out onto the streets if she fails.

To stretch the analogy between these two books a little too far, 'For richer, for poorer' is like a high-class prostitute writing 'Once more with feeling'. Victoria Coren can see the damage that gambling causes, but aside from late-night trans-Atlantic calls to banks, has never really suffered from the downsides. She has never been shot in the testicles unlike one poor gambler she meets. And that is the biggest problem with the book: it is a successful insider's view and lacks the perspective of 'Once more with feeling'.

I can thoroughly recommend both of these books. Be warned, though: you need an open mind to read either of them.

(*) She also happens to be the daughter of Alan Coren, brother of Giles Coren, which perhaps explains both her writing and her rather esoteric interests.

(**) Double entendres allowed.