Monday, July 27, 2009

Lyin' Air

Some time between when I moved to NZ at the arse end of 2000 and when I came back in the summer of 2005, something went wrong with travel within the UK.

Before I left, there was good competition between the airlines, good prices, lots of flights, etc. It was also possible to pick up decent prices on train fares, too, making them another good option. Since I came back, I've been consistently appalled at some of the prices I've had to pay, especially on the trains. It's shockingly expensive, but apart from punctuality, which has generally improved, the actual journey has become much less pleasant.

Virgin Pendolino trains are the worst offenders. They seem to take their lead from airlines in terms of depriving folks of leg-room. I wouldn't be surprised if we start hearing tales of deep-vein thrombosis affecting regular long-distance rail travellers. And they are wont to induce travel sickness with their lurching around from side to side thing. And don't even talk about luggage space. Well, there's very little to talk about - it bearly exists. And for all this nastiness, they charge a king's ransom.

The previous healthy competition that existed between the budget airlines seems to have disappeared, and at the same time, the service from those airlines has become even more shit that it was before. But way out in front in terms of the barefaced, unashamed misleading information about prices and everything else, is RyanAir. Or as I call them these days, LyinAir.

They advertise flights for "£1". Except, that doesn't include the substantial taxes, which are not optional, and should therefore be reflected in the price. Nor does the advertised fare include any baggage fees. And since all checked in bags must be paid for at a rate of £20 per 15Kg, it's not exactly chicken-feed. The in-flight food is overpriced and not great.

Bizarrely, there is also a "check-in fee" that is not included in the fare. If you do on-line check-in, it's usually a little cheaper than if you do it in person at the check-in desk. Either way, you have to pay. Checking in is not an optional extra, and so any charges associated with checking in should be included in the fare. Failure to include that cost in the fare is blatantly dishonest.

Thing is, I already knew about all of that, after previous very unpleasant experiences. Today revealed another shocker. I thought I was getting a decent price for some flights to Scotland. Then at the last minute, the website slaps on a "card handling fee" of £10 per person! With one exception (Visa Electron), this fee applies. If it were a genuine card handling fee, it would be a flat payment rather than a per-person payment. It's just another blatant bit of thievery.

But now, because RyanAir and EasyJet managed, pretty much, to squeeze the other operators out of business, they can get away with just about anything. There are few, if any, alternatives. I hate having to use them, but there are times when I have no choice. But I am not a happy customer.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Innoculating truth

Yesterday I caught up with the latest developments in the absurd case against Simon Singh. If you haven't already signed the associated petition, I urge you strongly to do so, and to encourage your friends and acquaintances to do so, too.

It got me thinking. One of the problems that science faces is that it deals with often complex situations, situations that have no simple, single yes/no, black/white outcome.

In contrast, the entire collection of made-up baloney on the unscientific side of the fence is very clear-cut and simple: all human ills are caused by subluxations (chiropractic), energy imbalances (reiki and similar nonsense), toxins (a whole host of bollocks non-therapies), and so on and on; your personality is determined less by a combination of genes and social environment, and more by the random positions of a collection of stars and planets at the time of your birth; and lets not forget the absolute certainty with which people assert the existence of their gods.

Science struggles because it doesn't fit so well into such absolutist frameworks. That's why the ignorant think they have scored a great intellectual victory when they spout such tripe as "remember, the theory of evolution is just a theory". They seem incapable of understanding the power of the scientific position. Scientists don't often say "This is absolutely true". They tend to say "This is the best model that we have developed so far". Idiots take this to mean that the current scientific model is therefore worthless, ignoring the fact that many scientific theories allow incredibly accurate predictions to be made, despite only being our "best approximation to date".

When scientific news is announced in the press, the truth is often lost because the detail gets squished in a black/white framework for which it is ill-suited. Journalists aren't interested in understanding the complexity. They don't want to know the details. They just want to be able to report that a new drug has been developed that will cure cancer, AIDS, obesity, or whatever else they think will sell the paper.

I've been pondering whether there is any way that scientific information can be innoculated so that it can survive exposure to the media without having its core message corrupted. Sadly, new age bullshit and religions all seem capable of surviving such exposure. So how can science be handled so that it becomes immune to corruption by the agendas of those reporting on it?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Like many, many people, I just don't get Twitter. Nor do I want to. For the record, I am also not a fan of instant messaging, and tend to turn it off from gmail, Facebook, and other sites where it rears its ugly, unwelcome, interrupting head.

A few of my chums seem quite taken with Twitter, and there does seem to be an overlap between those who provide too much detail about their daily doings and those who use iPhones. I'm sure these things feed into each other. And some of them seem to have hooked up their twitterings to their Facebook account, meaning that I get that absurd level of detail turning up on my Facebook feed. It's really irritating, and I've resorted to hiding updates from friends who do this.

It got me thinking that the only way this technology is going to be acceptable to me is when it allows some sort of metadata that indicates how important the update is. That way, I can stay in the loop about important things that my friends are up to (e.g. if one of them is doing a show I might want to attend), but don't need to hear the trivial stuff ("going to the toilet", "in the toilet", "wiping" ...)

Of course, there's a lot more overhead involved, because I would have to specify what level of update was acceptable to me, and they would have to set the level each time they posted an update. Would it ever work? Or will we have to wait until the software is clever enough to understand whether a tweet is really significant (my gran has just died - she's gone for ever) or not (my gran has just dyed - she's gone for burnished beech-nut).

Not surprisingly, given the confusion of terms around twitter - tweets, tweetings, twittering - it is very tempting to call those who use it either twits or twats. Not that I ever would, of course.