SL11: The end is nigh…

July 31, 2010

Just like hydrogen, Werther’s Originals and David Attenborough, bad advice has been around since the dawn of time itself.  Recently, archaeologists have uncovered a cave painting in the south of Mexico, depicting a sequence of three scenes – the first showing a man pointing out a tiger-like-creature to another man, the second showing the second man sitting atop said tiger-like-creature, and the third – and very final – showing the second man’s legs protruding from the tiger-like-creature’s bloody mouth.  Experts claim that this artwork is the earliest known illustration of human careers advice (NB it is not known whether tiger-riding was a public or private-sector profession).

Today, careers advice continues in the same way it began – awfully.  Think back to secondary school when you no doubt at some point had to take a careers aptitude test (or some equivalent) – for me it was ‘Kudos’, a computer programme that asked approximately 50 million questions about whether you would like to work outdoors, upside-down or inside a blue whale’s blowhole, and then assigned you a post that best matched your responses.  In my case, a croupier i.e. someone who deals out playing cards in a casino, leaving me to marvel at the programme’s shockingly accurate surmise from my desire not to work with children and preference for a non-military vocation that I was also a dab hand at shuffling a pack of 52 and would love to wear a waistcoat 5 days a week…

Imagine the Kudos report for your typical London commuter.  Even more laughable than my personal ‘croupier’ diagnosis is the notion that a train passenger may have ever received the suggestion of ‘bomb disposal expert’, and in today’s final post (I hear the sound of your crest falling…) I shall explain why, as I regale you with five miscellaneous tales from my travels that have so far not made it into the blog but that each shed light on the average commute into London.  Five final lessons from Selfish London – let us begin this Final Countdown (queue music)…

At 5. A platform change is one of the most exciting things that can ever happen to a station worker, EVER.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the frustration of the ‘platform change’ – that moment when you realise your train isn’t in fact about to pull in to the platform upon which you are patiently waiting, as you see it veer off unannounced to a distant area of the station you didn’t even know existed.  The subsequent rush up and down flights of stairs, along corridors and through wormholes in the space-time continuum is sufficiently taxing to raise any commuter’s heart rate.  However, it’s not just the passengers who feel the adrenaline kick in – I once witnessed an Elephant & Castle station worker observe the Sevenoaks train veering off towards Platform 2 instead of its advertised 4, making his jaw drop and eyes boggle cartoon-like, and producing in him an excited scream worthy of Dave Benson-Phillips himself: “SEVENOAKS!  PLATFORM 2!!”  It was as if he’d seen a favourite celebrity, like Sian Lloyd or Lee Sharpe.

This reaction might seem a little OTT, but on closer thought what more exciting things actually happen at a train station?  The ticket machine jams?  A pigeon builds a nest?  A Metro is left on a seat?!  Very few trackside happenings can truly match the thrill of a jaw-dropping, eye-goggling, Dave Benson-Phillips-morphing platform change…

New entry at 4. If you run out of loo roll, try a spreadsheet.

In my opinion there are several must-have items for any half-decent toileting experience: warm water, handsoap, a working towel, a little privacy and a toilet are some.  However, now I must add to this list: Microsoft Excel.

It’s customary for people on the train to use their laptops and it’s also a regular occurrence to see some people leave their possessions with a friend or neighbour whilst they answer nature’s call (“Hi, it’s Nature – just wondered if you fancied going for a wee some time – it’s been a while…”).  However, it was a new one on me when I looked on as a commuter, who moments earlier had been sat next to a colleague discussing an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop, headed into the train toilet… with his laptop, and Microsoft Excel still very much running.  Why?!  Just why would you do that?!  Everyone knows spreadsheets are the least absorbent of all sheets…

Up 8, it’s this week’s 3. The radio does not exist underground.

If you regularly use the London Underground and haven’t got the time, patience or stupidity to strap up your arm in an uncomfortable position and see how people react to you for 8 weeks then here’s a smaller experiment you can try.  Get hold of an FM radio of some kind – preferably, on your phone or mp3 player rather than a 1980’s ghetto blaster; plug in your headphones (you don’t want to annoy people now), tune into any FM station – for the sake of argument, Classic FM – and head for your Tube station as normal.  Note the point on your journey when your signal disappears but keep listening.  See how long it takes for the signal to return.  To save anyone on the Waterloo-Elephant & Castle route the hassle, your radio dies two storeys below Waterloo platform-level and reappears only when the lift doors open at the above-ground E&C exit.  It’s pretty euphoric when the eerie silence is shattered by the blissful sounds of Mozart’s 5th Ventricle surging into your cochlea, let me tell you.

Down 6, at 2. Lifts break.

Whereas it’s not unusual to see a couple of emergency service vehicles in South London, it is out of the ordinary to see eight…  3 fire engines, 3 ambulances and 2 police cars were all in attendance one day when I arrived at good old E&C.  As I passed through the ticket barriers I realised why – through the glass window of the lift doors I could see half a lift; on its way down it had somehow lodged itself firmly stuck just short of the top of the shaft.  Outside it a vast swarm of firemen and Network Rail engineers were assessing how best to rectify the situation and a host of paramedics waited nearby for the call to assist… because the lift was fullvery full.  In fact, the lift was so full that faces were pressed right up against the glass (still attached, fear not).

It made me feel so sad to think of all those terrified people inside (who had apparently been stuck by this time for half an hour) crowding, crushing and claustrophobing each other in a confined space, with no freedom to move, no idea whether they would safely be hoisted up or left to plummet into the depths of the earth and certain death, oxygen levels rapidly depleting and little or no sustenance short of cannibalism – with one exception: I had no sympathy whatsoever for those people who had barged their way on board last, thoughtlessly urging others to pack themselves in tight in order to occupy a piece of floorspace well within several strangers’ comfort zones.  People should have learned by now – lifts have a finite capacity, there is not always ‘room for one more’ and sometimes if you overload them they do break, just like tacos…  But with less chilli.

And back for the 38th week in a row, it’s still number 1. Everyone is still afraid of anything that might be a bomb.

Picture the scene: you’re on the train, in an aisle seat, having had a jolly uneventful trip to work.  People are standing up in preparation to leave the train at the terminus, and you just happen to glance beneath the seat across the aisle from you, whose occupier has just leapt up to join the we’re-nowhere-near-yet-but-for-some-reason-I-just-have-to-be-at-the-front-of-the-line-several-miles-before-we-arrive departure queue.  As you do you spot a red shoulder bag, all alone, abandoned by its owner, slumped on the floor beneath the seat (the bag, not the owner).  You reason logically that the person who has just vacated this position is most likely the owner of this baggage and would doubtless feel agonised and inconvenienced by leaving their luggage on board an express service heading back to the far reaches of Exeter.  So you pipe up: “Excuse me sir/miss…  miss, sorry, yes…  I just couldn’t tell from where I was sitting…  I mean, you never know do you these days…  You may even have once been a man, I wouldn’t know, would I?  It’s not like I stalk you…  Anyway, to cut to the chase: is that your bag?”

Speaking this simple sentence had several interesting results on a crowded London train.  For one, the person to whom I was directly speaking not only said “Erm, no,” but also moved away a lot quicker towards the doors.  Similarly, various neighbours in close proximity decided that today was the day to see what would happen if they also joined that queue over at the other end of the carriage.  People were actively trying to get away from the bag – why?  The answer: everyone is still afraid of anything that might be a bomb.  Stations consider it necessary to besiege us with posters and announcements asking us to report any ‘suspicious articles’ (like a shifty ‘the’ or a particularly creepy-looking ‘a’) to a member of staff, and even though we haven’t had a major terrorist event in this country for several years now it is still a natural reaction among Londoners to assume that at any given moment a suspicious (i.e. foreign) -looking character with a Puma sports bag will leap up from his seat on the 07:40 to London Waterloo with a jubilant shout of “Commute this!” and promptly detonate a nuclear warhead to wipe out Weybridge, Surbiton and most (but not all) of Esher.

It may sound silly but we can’t help but dwell on it from time to time, because we just wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation – and that worries us.  These commuting bankers, stockbrokers and information analysts for psychological therapies would be so unsuited to ‘bomb disposal’ as a career – every misplaced bag, every stray coat, every lonely crisp packet is regarded as a potential threat to national security.  If they did take a sudden lurch in career path towards such a hazardous profession, ‘disposal’ would probably be redefined ‘moving-away-and-just-leaving-it’.

And so it was amidst this air of growing suspicion and terror that I decided it best, once the seat’s occupier had declined possession of the satchel, to stand and announce to the whole carriage, “Excuse me, but has anyone left a red bag under this seat?”  To be honest, I may as well have put on a turban, hoisted my Puma sports bag into view and yelled “Commute this!”  The reaction I produced was one of everybody present instantly sweating their body weight, opening their eyes wider than bushbaby-ly possible, snatching up their possessions and wheeling round to join the early departure queue.

We didn’t arrive at Waterloo for another five minutes after being held at a red signal.

And that’s all from me folks – the end of the Selfish London series.  We’ve seen that London commuters look out for each other very rarely indeed, although they do generally look out for those with visible impediments at least upon boarding and departing trains (although paying little care and attention in other parts of the station and virtually never going so far as to offer a seat on a crowded train).  Levels of selfishness are high at the start of the week and the end of the day and commuters look out for Number One when it is light, rainy or cold.

So what’s the main moral of this whole escapade – what pithy advice should you take away from this social experiment?  Just this…  If travelling to London, make sure it’s on a warm, dry, cloudless Friday morning – and bring a wheelchair.  Oh, and look out for each other.



SL10: Add a dash of mystery and take with a pinch of salt…

July 14, 2010

Whereas the ‘ultimate pen’ sounds like a must-have Christmas present for hardcore stationers, pig farmers or diabetics (or all three) everywhere, the ‘penultimate’ is never as well received.   In video-gaming, who would have played a game with the title ‘Not-quite-final Fantasy’?  In literature (or cinema, if you’re less cultured) who ever cared about the second-to-last of the Mohicans?  In Revelation, when Jesus declares himself to be ‘the Alpha and the Omega’, why did he pass over ‘the Psi’ with little ado?!  So it is with heartfelt thanks and admiration for your open-minded outlook that I welcome you to this, the pre-conclusion of the Selfish London series.

As promised, this entry will look at the exciting and enticing world of ‘covariants’ i.e. factors other than ‘visible disability’ that might affect Londoners’ decisions about whether or not to be selfish…  I know that’s a promise you were wholeheartedly hoping would be kept – I can psychically sense your unbridled anticipation.  But just in case you require any more incentive than purely the thrill of discovery, between each earth-moving revelation you can attempt to solve a murder mystery with everyone’s favourite Franco-Belgian detective, Russell Sprouts.  So, on we go…

Time of day / Day of week

Russell stood pensive in the billiard room of Maxwell House, unsure whether to be more appalled at the Threepenny-Thoroughbreds’ actually owning a billiard room or the lucrative sponsorship deal they had secured for the manor’s naming rights.  The world-famous detective, twiddling his extravagantly protruding ear hair and – for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom – seriously craving a coffee, contemplated the facts of the case: Mr Spot, the window cleaner, had fallen from his ladder at exactly midday on the Wednesday of National Compost Awareness Week, and landed on a stray egg poacher, which killed him instantly.  However, Mr Spot had acquired flawless balance in his previous occupation as an Admiral Nelson body double, taking the statue’s place atop the Trafalgar Square column whenever it was removed for cleaning – there was no way he could have fallen without a helping hand.  Only three others were present at the House that day: the master of the house Theodore Threepenny-Thoroughbred (renowned novelist and croupier), Ms. Quito (Dominican chef and Pokémon card enthusiast) and Colonel Oscopy (professional flautist and guide dog).  One of them had to have committed the crime – but which one…?

More from Russell Sprouts shortly, but first to answer the question: Does when you get the train affect whether or not the people around you will make concessions for you?  The answer – (Churchill, the honours please…) “Oooohhh yes!”  Ignoring whether or not I was in ‘cripple mode’, the Selfish London experiment showed that generally commuters were more selfish towards the end of the day than at the beginning – compare the morning’s rates of 25% let on and 13% let off the train with the evening’s 17% let on and 6% let off.  Why this difference, do you reckon: Is it because at the end of a long slog at the office Londoners are focussed solely on reaching the comfort of their warm and cosy home, with little thought spared for their fellow travellers?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps the real reason is something much more sinister…  Or yeah, just the tiredness thing.

Theodore stood before Sprouts’ searching stare, fidgeting awkwardly.  “I assume you are aware why I have summoned you here?” the detective asked.  “Actually, no I don’t,” replied Theodore, “I’ve been in the study all day.”  “Doing what exactly?”  “Studying.”  Of course, thought Sprouts, what else would a study be for…  Certainly not just extra storage space for the overflowing contents of the house’s other rooms…  “Where were you at the time of Mr. Spot’s death?”  Theodore’s mouth fell open: “Mr. Spot is dead?!” he exclaimed.  “W-w-when?  How?!”  This wasn’t the start Sprouts had been hoping for – really, he’d been hoping to hear a response along the lines of, ‘At the window he was cleaning, looking out at the ladder I’d just pushed over deliberately to accomplish his murder’.  “You mean to say,” Sprouts mused incredulously, “that until my mentioning it just seconds ago, you had no idea that Mr. Spot was even dead?!”  “None whatsoever,” the lad wheezed as he slumped into a chair, “I’ve been at the other end of the house all day.”  “I don’t suppose you have any witnesses to that?” inquired the sleuth.  “None,” came the reply.  Typical, thought Sprouts.  “Well, that will be all for now young Theodore,” he said aloud, motioning to the door.  Theodore rose and headed towards the door before a sudden exclamation from his interrogator.  “One more question, good sir.”  Theodore halted; Sprouts continued, “Did you take elevenses today?”  “Why yes,” replied Theodore, “my usual – poached eggs…”

I don’t about you but I am GRIPPED.  In the meantime here’s another interesting poser – at which point in the week do you reckon train users are at their most selfish: the beginning or the end?  (Yes, true to the introduction I’ve ignored the bit-before-the-end – the conformist that I am…  yes, conformist to myself)  Well, interestingly (see, I told you the poser was interesting – that word ‘interestingly’ is the proof) there really is no doubt about it – commuters were much more selfish on a Monday than on a Friday.  We’re talking 6% let on and 6% let off on a Monday, but a whopping 31% let on and 17% let off on a Friday – it’s blatantly obvious that on that curséd day at the beginning of the week, Monstrous Monday, people really do not care about anyone or anything other than just boarding, disembarking and getting to that 5-day ball-and-chain known only as ‘work’.  However, come the end of the week they are possessed by a feeling of goodwill unrivalled on any other day, one and all looking forward to a weekend of calm and serenity (or ire and genocide, each to his own).  It turns out that the public dislike of Monday mornings, stereotypically so often crowed about by the media and parodied on-screen, is a very real thing in the world of commuting…

“My Inglish ees not good,” answered 24-stone Ms. Quito, in response to the question “Would you care for a cigar?” thereby successfully illustrating her point.  More for me then, thought Sprouts as he inwardly debated the best way to approach this one; the last time he’d encountered anyone of such gross mass was during an undercover operation into corruption in sumo wrestling and, as was well known, that episode hadn’t ended well…  “Ms. Quito, where were you at midday today, please?” asked Sprouts.  “Bathroom,” came the one-word reply.  “For how long, may I ask?”  “Eet touch de water widout breaking off, so good eight eenches…”  “No, no, Ms. Quito…”  Far too much information, thought Sprouts, before continuing, “What time did you enter the bathroom and when did you re-emerge?”  “I go een at 11:55 and leave after I feenish wiping.”  It’s the sumo wrestler all over again, thought Sprouts…  “Oh!”  she added violently, “And I wash my hands fust too.”  Ms. Quito smiled to herself, content with the accurate detail of her reply.  “Any witnesses?” inquired Sprout.  “I hope not,” replied the cook, suddenly fidgety with paranoia that someone may have seen her on the potty.  Sprouts decided a change of tack was appropriate.  “Let me ask another completely non-lavatorial question Ms. Quito – did Mr. Spot seem in good spirits lately?”  Sprouts didn’t have long to wait for a reply – an almost instantaneous blast of indignation: “Is you suggest dat Misser Spot push heself?!  I never know a man who like living more.  Just last night de four us were playing silly party games – pass de pussel, lions sleep, trivval Passat, lots of games – and he very very good and got rilly into it; in lions sleep he actual sleep!  He very very happy, he laugh like man wid laugh disease.”  Sprouts made a note to check up whether ‘Laugh disease’ was a real affliction, in case it highlighted a congenital health problem privy to his departure from this life.  Sprouts made to leave, “Thank you for your time Ms. Quito – just one more thing: what have you cooked already this morning?”  The response came…  “Just one ting – poached eggs…”

The weather

My apologies for temporarily departing from the captivating unravelling storyline, but – as all good British conversations must eventually – let us consider the weather a while…  Recall from an earlier blog entry that I cited (with references and everything) how some say that when it rains people look out for each other more, yet others claim that on a rainy day it’s ‘every man for himself’.  Well, somebody has to be wrong.  So here’s what I found…  When it rained on Selfish London journeys into, around and out of the capital, commuters would let others (namely, me) on ahead of them 17% of the time, and off ahead of them 8% of the time; whereas when the weather was fine these percentages increased to let on 24% of the time and let off 12%.  Now although perhaps the latter is an insignificant percentage increase you have to admit that the former is more conclusive – when it rains, train users are less likely to let others on ahead of them: they make few allowances for others when attempting to get out of the rain themselves i.e. commuters were more selfish in the rain – every man for himself, indeed.  So that settles that inconsistency (please, if anyone ever does claim that people are nicer when rains, shout “NO THEY ARE NOT!  TAKE THAT BACK, FIEND, FOR I HAVE PROOF OF YOUR FOLLY – NOW BACK DOWN OR I SHALL RUN YOU THROUGH!”)  Oh, hang on…  I think I just heard Colonel Oscopy enter the interrogation suite…

The Colonel greeted Sprouts with a boyish wink and shook his hand firmly, “Good afternoon old bean, old Sprout, old beansprout – haha,” he punched the detective’s arm jokily, “See what I did there?!”  Sprout didn’t, and his arm ruddy hurt.  “So, am I being arrested then?” the suspect asked.  “Only if you committed the murder, Colonel,” Sprouts winced.  “Well,” replied Oscopy, “Today’s your lucky day – I did kill him, so slap me in irons and cart me off to the Clink.”  This was an unexpected development…  “Colonel Oscopy, I feel I must point out two faults in your last sentence: (a) It is never a lucky day when a man has died, and (b) The Clink is a museum these days – I don’t think they’d be interested in a prisoner who wasn’t made of wax…  Anyway, pray continue with your confession – how did you kill him exactly?”  Colonel Oscopy leaned close, “I poisoned his breakfast.”  A knock at the door interrupted his flow, a policeman’s head poked around it: “Detective Sprouts, sir.  Pathology report’s back – no unusual substances in his system.”  “Thanks Petri-Dish,” Sprouts replied, before turning back to the Colonel, “You were saying?”  His interrogatee hesitated, slightly abashed, “Erm…  I was saying… that I killed him… by shooting him in the chest.”  Another knock – Petri-Dish reappeared: “Sorry Russell, forgot to say, turns out that Spot was wearing a bulletproof vest for some reason – a bit weird but not really sure why.”  “That’s great, cheers Dishy,” Sprouts’ gaze fell once more upon Oscopy, who fidgeted his false teeth.  “Please Colonel, stop fidgeting my false teeth,” Sprouts said, “Why don’t you just come clean about the whole thing – you’re clearly trying to protect somebody and you haven’t even heard how Spot died by the sound of it – tell me what really happened.”  Sprouts’ persistence paid off: “Okay,” said the Colonel, “I did see Spot just before midday – I greeted him through the landing window as he cleaned it.”  “The window was shut?”  “Yes, and locked – the key’s been lost for generations.”  Hmmm, thought Sprouts, so Spot can’t have been pushed – he must have been pulled!  Petri-Dish materialised once more at the door: “Probably also ought to say, sir, that we’ve run a check on the Colonel here.”  He handed his superior a file, Sprouts’ eyes flicked over it.  “It says here Colonel that in your youth you were convicted of a crime – it says ‘theft from a chicken farm out of season’; can you elaborate further?”  Oscopy groaned, “I had hoped this would never catch up with me…”  He took a deep breath…  “I poached eggs.”

I could continue with more fascinating percentages, but in all honesty I really want to know how this story ends!  It could be any of them!  So, suffice to say that regarding other weather conditions, Londoners are more selfish when it’s light (as opposed to dim or dark) and more selfish when it’s cold (although that one might not be all that significant).  Anyway, summary over, come back here next week for the final instalment in this blog when I shall squeeze in all manner of hilarious anecdotes about unrelated things that happened during the experimental period that were really very funny and there won’t be any statistics in sight!  But right now I understand that Sprouts has just summoned the three suspects to the drawing room (where all detective reveals occur) and is about to announce whodunit!

“You might be wondering why I’ve summoned you all here,” announced Sprouts.  “It’s the drawing room – you must have worked it out,” heckled Theodore.  The detective looked a little disappointed: “Okay, so one of you had an inkling – anyone else?”  Colonel Oscopy raised his hand, “I suspected that as well.”  “Oh, fine fine,” bustled Sprouts, the wind now completely taken out of his sails, “Ms. Quito, did you have your suspicions?”  “No I deedn’t,” she responded, “I think maybe it will be payday.  I very dispointed now – I crest-falling.”  Her face had completely fallen – nay, plummeted – and she shed loud Afro-Caribbean tears.  Sprouts felt really, really lame.  “Right, well, let’s just get on with this now, shall we?”  He took a balloon from his pocket and fashioned it into a lifesize model of the Dalai Lama, thus regaining the respect of his audience, who broke out into light applause, thereby enabling proceedings to continue unabated.  “This is what I think…  Here I see before me three people with uncorroborated alibis – a man who claims to have been at the other end of the house, no witnesses; a woman who was on the bog, no witnesses; a man who was the wrong side of a locked window, with one witness, who now lies in the morgue with an egg poacher in his head, which is particularly unfortunate.  Where do I begin?!  It is a nest of dead ends, a haven for the wild goose, a pagoda full to the rafters with herrings of a slightly reddish hue…

“And so I consider the facts – the egg poacher.  How did it get there?  A poacher of eggs cannot walk – present company excepted, Colonel – so somebody must have put it there…  But who?”  He cast his eyes around the room – the two men stood silent, Ms. Quito ventured forth: “Bob Geldof?”  There was an awkward silence.  “Yes, Ms. Quito, you are right – Bob Geldof put it there,” announced Sprouts with more than a little hint of irony.  Ms. Quito, clearly believing the case to be closed began to head towards the door with a look of satisfaction, but she was blocked by Petri-Dish, the sergeant, holding a sign which read: ‘He’s being sarcastic.’  He would have spoken but his religion forbade him from speaking in the presence of a woman.  “I now announce my findings,” reconvened the sleuth once the cook was reseated.  “The egg poacher… is actually… completely unimportant.  It was just there, through nobody’s fault.  So let’s all forget about it yeah?  It really wasn’t important – just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Now, the real murder weapon… The real murder weapon…”  Sprouts paused for effect… “was a wink – wasn’t it, Colonel Oscopy.”  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the accused spluttered (although he actually did, so technically he was lying).  “Oh, I think you do Colonel,” Sprouts continued, “You with your common greeting of an amiable wink combined with Mr. Spot’s reported fondness for party games were a recipe for murder – wink murder.  You knew that just by winking at him through the glass, his competitive nature would get the better of him and he could not fail to pretend to collapse and die…  Only he was at the top of a very tall ladder, and so he actually did collapse and die, landing in the process, quite by fluke, upon the egg poacher, which killed him.  You had planned this moment – the fall, the patio, the death – the egg poacher was merely a blessed stroke of luck, the icing on the cake you were content to leave un-iced and merely lightly dusted with flour.  Mr. Spot’s killer was you, Colonel Oscopy!”

The room was impressed, and so were the people in it.  Colonel Oscopy hollered, “Alright, Sprouts…  Alright,  yes it was me – you seem to have this all worked out.  When I was twenty-six years old Mr. Spot swopped me Andy Hinchcliffe of Everton for my Mark Hayter QPR shiney without me realising that I had already completed the whole of Everton in my Premier League sticker album.  I swore then and there that when I finally had the chance, I would strike him down.  And that I have done.  Now slap me in irons and cart me off to the Clink.”  Sprouts sighed exasperated, “Further to my earlier corrections I must also point out – although I originally let it pass – that the phrase is ‘clap me in irons’, not ‘slap’.  Rest assured this will be taken down and used against you in a court of law – you’ll get the double the sentence now, giving you plenty of time to learn how to construct a proper one.”

With that parting remark Sergeant Petri-Dish led Colonel Oscopy away to the awaiting prison van, while Theodore and Ms. Quito praised their hero’s grasp of criminology and fine manly musk, before inquiring as to his fee.  “Please,” said the detective, “I’m just happy to have solved the crime and gained your love and affection.”  Then he did a little smile to himself, took a deep breath and said the words he’d been waiting to say all his life…  “It’s just nice to know,” said he, “that at least somebody likes Russell Sprouts!”


SL9: The results are in, the gloves are off and the Pope is dead (ONE OF THESE IS NOT TRUE)

June 10, 2010

On reflection, there have been some pretty bad decisions made during the course of human history: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Pudding Lane baker leaving the oven on while he just nipped out to the outhouse and Pharaoh not-letting-his-people-go spring immediately to mind.  However, one poor personal decision of mine now joins the ranks of these (EXAGGERATION ALERT) – last week’s column was far too technical.  It started off as a nice piece about a coin engaging in a casual spot of flipping and ended up attempting to explain the entire structure of the human genome (don’t remember this?  Perhaps you ought to read it again…  Sober this time…)

So, as I reveal to you the main findings of the Selfish London experiment in this very post (Huzzah!  I hear you cry…) I will make sure to keep things simple.  Instead of conducting any sophisticated statistical analysis I will quote nothing more technical than a percentage (GASP).  PLUS… dotted between each egotistic statistic I will provide fantastic irrelevant facts that I can guarantee you did not know.  WOW!  I know – X-treme!  So, please take your seats, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and prepare yourself for the RIDE OF YOUR LIFE!

FACT 1: Dogs lick your face because they think it is an ice lolly – they’re trying to get to the wooden stick inside.

Cast your mind back to the fifth instalment of Selfish London (insert nostalgic harp music)…  Within that post I outlined 4 yes/no questions to answer on every leg of my day’s journeys, in order to gauge the reactions of London’s commuters to the presence of a fellow passenger with an obvious impediment – a slung-up broken arm.  The first on this list was…

SELFISH LONDON RESULT 1: Did anyone make it easier for me to board the train?

The simplest of polite actions – holding back to allow someone to go on ahead of you or leaving space to provide extra room: so easy to do and, to be honest, something that should come naturally in a polite society.  So, how did London do?  Well, (excluding journeys where I was the only person boarding at my door) without a sling, when dressed in my usual garb, another passenger made way for me on 10% of occasions – 1 in every 10 train journeys.  This low percentage might not come as a surprise – I am, after all, a tall 20-something white male: not exactly the little old lady, pregnant woman or small child who you would instinctively consider to need extra care and/or assistance to climb aboard.  With a sling, this percentage increased to 29% – almost 3 in every 10 journeys.  Although this is still not massive it is without doubt considerably larger – occasionally, Londoners did make it easier for me to board.  Half a point to London.  (APPLAUSE)

FACT 2: Legally, cress can only be ingested as part of an egg-and-cress sandwich; otherwise, it is classified as a Grade A substance and carries a minimum penalty of 8 years in prison if found in a person’s possession.

SELFISH LONDON RESULT 2: Did anyone make it easier for me to leave the train?

If my fellow rail passengers take a little extra care around me when boarding a train, surely the same level of attention and care would be given upon alighting?  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But consider this – without a sling, when appearing able-bodied, somebody would be polite enough not to push in front of me or cut me up when making my way to the doors on only 4% of occasions – once in every twenty-five journeys…  How did this change when wearing a sling?  18% – almost one in every five.  True, this is an improvement – Londoners do generally pay increased attention to those in need when leaving a train – but this is also (a) pretty pathetic really, if 4 in every 5 journeys still result in being ignored or obstructed, and (b) a much lower percentage than that for boarding trains.  Why is this latter point the case?  Perhaps it is something to do with the adrenaline rush that comes with knowing that your destination has been reached and inhibits the functioning of the ‘polite member of human society’ gland in the brain, rendering all others invisible.  Or maybe people don’t think it matters too much if you’re rude to someone when exiting a train – after all, you may not see them ever again (especially amidst the thronging crowds of London) and it’s not like you’re about to embark on a train journey in a confined space with them, which may well be the awkward thought to slay such rudeness when boarding.  Either way, despite this result proving technically to be a success for London (since Londoners have proved – in this capacity – to show extra care to the disabled), what cannot be concealed is a pretty appalling lack of courtesy.

FACT 3: Mr Blobby’s real name is Gandhi.  Noel Edmonds forced him to change it because he thought it “might confuse people”.

Before moving on, allow me to take a moment to venture one reason why the percentages have so far been incredibly low (what do you mean ‘no’?!): in a word – earphones.  So many travellers, for some reason, feel the need to have permanent inner-ear-contact with plastic, foam or rubber and to fill not just their minds but those of everyone around them with the tinny sounds of hip-hop, thrash metal or Celine ‘she-who-must-not-be-named’ Dion by playing their music at a volume level sufficient to wake the deaf.  As has been scientifically proven (by scientists, with goggles), when you’re listening to loud music your brain simply does not permit you to think of other people (source: a lie); plugged-in people seem to completely forget the existence of other members of the human race.  Now, you might well deny this; you might well think “Oh, but I’m not like that – I still look out for others when my iPiddle’s on,” but I’m sorry: you’re deceiving yourself.  As a test I recently spent a couple of weeks with my earphones in to see if I, personally considering myself to possess a good level of awareness, noticed any detrimental effect (I don’t just go around doing silly experiments on trains, honest…  I read Dickens, and… water hanging baskets…) and I’m not even kidding – at one point, I walked into a blind woman.  Seriously, a blind woman – biggest gutter ball of my life (I felt so awful).  I now no longer listen to my mp3 player when on the move – as a human being, I’m just far too dangerous to those around me who I don’t necessarily love but do at least recognise to be fellow living creatures worthy of respect.  Please: earphones = no… just no.

FACT 4: Japanese tourists have for some reason been flocking to the site of the British town of Bath for over 4000 years.  The town was built in 1703 to try and add meaning to this bizarre pilgrimage and give them something to take photos of whilst there.

SELFISH LONDON RESULT 3: At any point in the journey, did anybody… knock me?

As well as assessing the common courtesy extended when moving between platform and train carriage, you may recall that I also made note of whether or not, during the course of a journey, I was sufficiently jostled, shoved or violently attacked to impede or check my progress through stations and carriage aisles.  And here’s an interesting result for you.  Slingless, I was ‘knocked’ on 17% of journeys; slung, this percentage increased to 22%!  When I was visibly handicapped I was bumped more often than when I was clearly able-bodied!  What does this mean?!  Can we infer that commuters deliberately go out of their way, like a hurt-seeking missile, to hunt down and take out anyone who has a physical disability?  Are the walking wounded treated by businessmen and bankers as inferior beings, fit only for persecution and abuse?  Are we seeing a social atrocity on a par with N*zi war crimes against the handicapped?!

As demonstrated, you can see how easy it is to spin this outcome way out of proportion (oh, and don’t write in to claim I’m trivialising Hitler’s evils – if you read that paragraph carefully I haven’t actually mentioned him or his party anywhere, so really you have no basis to take offence: it’s just your own sick imagination).  To be fair to Londoners, in an experiment on this modest scale a percentage change of 5% is most probably a result of little more than chance, a fluke fluctuation – this small change can hardly be considered as of any major significance.  In essence the most that can be concluded is probably that when it comes to meetings in corridors and passageways, concourses and station foyers – those instances where you might not be travelling at a slow enough pace to take full notice of others in need around you – no real differentiation is made between the able-bodied and the not-so-able-bodied.  So, on this point, London’s crowds do not pay extra care to those who need it.  FAIL.

FACT 5: The apostle Paul lives on the moon; his favourite food is Klangers.

SELFISH LONDON RESULT 4: Did anyone offer me their seat?

Now, here’s a statistic to make you vomit in disbelief…  Without a sling – no surprises really, as I’m not the stereotypical seat-needer – I was never offered a seat when I had to stand.  Now, I can accept that – I am usually able to stand and would not wish an arthritic nonagenarian to feel she had to cede her perch to me, just because I have red hair.  However, guess how many times I was offered a seat when standing bandaged, with one arm completely incapacitated, unable to do anything for the duration of my 25-minute journey from Waterloo to home because my one free hand was required for balance and therefore unable to make use of a book, phone or cup-and-ball…  Have a guess, and I hope you’ll be as appalled as I am when you find out that the answer is:


Just once.

And that was only after I struggled to move aside for the conductor on his ticket-round and somebody unburied their nose from their novel to see my predicament… when the train was just two minutes from my destination.  Oh, and there is one final very poignant fact to add into the mix: the train on which this occurred was number 212… the very last train of the 8-week experiment.

That speaks volumes.  For eight weeks a man with an obviously broken arm was left to stand on crowded trains, day after day, without being offered a seat – and this isn’t in some backward broken society: this is London, this is Britain.  Words fail me when I realise how angry that makes me, when I realise how much I despise the fact that a vast number of people in a country that prides itself on its reputation of having good manners, first-rate etiquette and afternoon tea at the vicarage just don’t care.  As far as I’m concerned, this failure trumps all of the ‘successes’ that have gone before it – London IS selfish.  OFFICIAL.

But let’s not leave today on a downer – because although there are a vast number of selfish Londoners around, there are people out there who are aware of this, and who can make sure that they don’t behave like jerks to people who are just trying to achieve the same things as them: getting to work, going to the shops, or heading home.  There are people out there who will pay attention to the needs of their fellow passengers, Good Samaritans who will notice when others need a simple gesture of thought and kindness, people – I hope – like you.  I do not wish to claim credit for ‘setting you on the right path’ or any high nonsense like that, but I do sincerely hope that reading this blog will at least have opened your eyes to the ‘invisibles’ on our trains, the people we find so easy to ignore – a.k.a. everyone else.  It’s very easy to shy away from a good turn – please don’t!

Next week this blog returns for the Penultimate Post (it’s what they play at war memorial services just before the more famous bugle piece).  I examine whether the weather affects platform courtesy and what effect different days of the week have on Selfish London…

FACT 6: Frank Furter was a real person; he didn’t even like sausages.  His name was given to a meat product by his arch-nemesis, Chip O’Lata, purely to spite him.

SL8: What has a head and a tail but no body…? No, not the ghost of a junior employee being stalked (although I can see your line of thinking there…)

May 23, 2010

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder; however, they also say that all roads lead to Rome – and I’m pretty confident the A3 doesn’t.  Yes, after a two month break, je suis retournée (that’s French).  I hope that since my disappearance off your weekly-read radar your unbridled joy for the sweet thrill of tales of discrimination, ignorance and – ultimately – whirlwind romance, remains as ever unabated.  In the words of the platform public address system, I am sorry for the delay to this service.

So, we’ve got lots of catching up to do.  You go first…  Mmhmm…  Yeah?…  Okay…  Oh, that’s cool…  Haha, right…  Aha…  Did you hit him?…  Oh, it was supposed to be making that noise…  No way, Action Man is so much better…  I agree – the new coalition government should be immortalised in their own range of childrens’ pyjamas.

Okay, my turn.  According to plan I was finally discharged from all hospital services on 6 April 2010, with my bones healing and a wonderful scar to facilitate many a recount of the fateful day I challenged a hook-handed cleric to a game of ‘it’.  The cherry on top of this Bakewell tart of good news is that I have regained pretty much full movement in my arm, a whole 9 months ahead of predictions; as you may be able to guess, this makes me more than a little bit happy.

Right, catch-up over; I earlier promised that 6 April would mark the end of the experimental phase of the Selfish London investigation: that thereafter I would return to my usual routine of utilising the train system without bandage or sling, and reveal to you the results of my foray into the inner workings of the egocentric cerebellum of the typical London commuter.  As a man of my word I have shed the ‘ailing arm’ accessories (although I’m wearing a plaster on one finger, to relieve the withdrawal symptoms) and it is high time I divulged my findings.  So, over the next few weeks expect to read the various outcomes of this cutting edge scientific research – tonight, we begin.  In the timeless words of Listen With Mother: are you sitting comfortably?

During Selfish London’s 8-week course I journeyed into, around or out of London 72 times, using 212 different trains.  As intended, whether or not I donned the experimental sling on each train was determined by a coin toss prior to each leg of the journey – heads, I was free to enjoy my journey in comfort; tails, I subjected myself to all manner of inconveniences by completely deactivating my right arm using said sling.  Now, to stumble headlong into triumphant revelation of the human conclusions of this “study”, without first exploring the wonders of a presented-on-a-plate illustration of randomness, would be a real shame – so here goes…

Picture this example – you toss a fair coin 8 times…  I realise this might not be the most taxing use of your imagination – perhaps I should concoct an analogy using a one-eyed stainless steel ninja from the future playing backgammon with the rainbow-clad pygmy lord of a twelfth century manor…  On second thoughts, let’s stick with the coin.  You toss a fair coin 8 times, producing a random sequence.  Of the following three sequences of heads and tails, which are you more likely to see?
1)       TTTTHHHH
2)       HHTTHHTT
3)       HTTHHTHT

Before reading on, do actually have a think about this…

Interestingly, most people when confronted with the above conundrum will select the third option; but the fact is, each of these sequences is just as likely to arise as the others (since the chance of obtaining either a tail or a head from a fair coin is one in two, so the chance of obtaining any one of these head/tail arrangements is ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ = 1/256.  Maths rules.)  The reason that people often make the wrong judgment here is because they have a pre-defined idea of what a ‘random’ sequence should look like – and very often this idea is based on a misunderstanding of the true meaning of ‘random’…

It can be clearly seen that the coin tosses in the first two sequences follow identifiable patterns (purely by chance), whereas in option 3 they appear to be more slapdash – this conforms to many people’s (incorrect) definition of ‘random’ i.e. a mish-mash or lack of order.  Statistically speaking, something chosen ‘at random’ is an item selected blindly out of a group of items where each item has an equal chance of being picked – a roll of a die is random, a lottery draw is random, pouring two packets of rice (one white, one wholemeal) down a toilet, pressing the flush and attempting to grab a single grain blindfolded using a pair of tweezers is random.  So if you roll three sixes in a row, or the midweek Lotto draw produces the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, or you repeatedly pluck out white grains of rice from your U-bend – even though that’s a pattern it has still been produced randomly.

Think for a second, how often have you heard someone say, “Oh, that is so random”, simply to express that one thing (often an occurrence or an odd-shaped crisp) is a bit unusual, or ‘slightly different from another thing’?!  (a) It isn’t random, and (b) they are an idiot.  This is perhaps best illustrated thus: (Step 1) If you have a Facebook account, log in and view the most recent photo albums updated by your friends; (Step 2) Make a note of all your friends who have created albums entitled “Random”, “Random things I have made/done/excreted”, or similar; (Step 3) Notice the fact that many of these photos are just taken on different occasions and lazily conglomerated in this album, rather than being snapshots truly selected by chance out of a vast pool of images; (Step 4) Remove this person from your Friends list.

This frankly awful misperception of randomness results in the flawed judgment that option 3 above must be the ‘most random’ sequence (or that 1 and 2 are not random at all).  Something is either random or it isn’t – there is no gradation of randomness – plus there is no connection between something being random and its likelihood of occurring: probability is a completely separate issue to randomness.  All three of these sequences are random and all three are equally likely – there is no question of one being ‘more or less random’ than another.

Interestingly, all three of these sequences appeared somewhere along the Selfish London experiment’s chain of 72 coin flips.  Other noteworthy runs to rear their ugly heads included the alternating HTHTHTHT and the rather one-sided THHHHHHH.  Flipping the particular sequence of 7 heads in a row has a probability of 1/128 (½ to the power of 7).  To understand what this means, imagine you toss a coin (again, I know this is a real strain on the powers of your mind – maybe take a few minutes’ kip to recharge your batteries…) – only, on this occasion, you see whether it’s a head or a tail and flip again and again until the other side shows up, counting the number of times you managed to get the same side up in a row.  Now if you were to repeat this 128 times you would expect to see a 7-long sequence of heads (or tails) just once.

Now, the 72 Selfish London coin flips yield 37 such “one-side in a row” sequences.  37 is quite clearly a smaller number than 128 (I hope I don’t need to explain why this is…) so is it weird that we have seen a 7-strong run appear in these 37 sequences, considering they have a very small chance (1/128) of occurring?  Well, it is possible to calculate how many times we should expect to see each sequence crop up (i.e. their expected frequencies) by multiplying the probability of their occurrence by the total number of sequences.  For example, we would expect to see ½ x 37 = 18.5 = 19 (rounded) single occurrences of a head or tail (i.e. ‘one in a row’).  Repeating this process for other length sequences suggests that of these 37 sequences, we should see – on average – 19 singles, 9 doubles, 5 trebles, 2 quadruples and 2 sequences of length 5 or longer.  In actual fact, Selfish London realised 17, 12, 4, 3 and 1 (the run of 7) respectively – each pretty darn close to their predicted frequencies – so all is well in the land of coin-flipping.

Admittedly this little coin-flip analysis tells us nothing about commuters being selfish; however, I figured that as this was the first time since my introduction to probability in Mr Stokes’ Year 7 Maths class (11 years ago) that I had had ‘valid’ reason to flip an unholy amount of ten pence pieces, I might as well embrace the opportunity (and no, that isn’t sad – if you think about it, I only flipped a coin about twice a day: not significantly more than anyone else might in the course of their normal day-to-day life…  What d’you mean, ‘Yeah, but they don’t shout about it’?!)  Perhaps the one key result to notice is that the 72 coin flips yielded 33 tails and 39 heads – 46% and 54% of the total flips, respectively.  Since this is pretty much 50-50 this is a good indication that the coin was fair, and bodes well for this experiment to produce some good balanced results.  We’ll begin to look at these next week…

HOMEWORK: 500 words on how the hole through the middle of a Japanese 5-yen piece affects its aerodynamic properties, focussing on whether this makes it a suitable coin for use in traditional ‘coin flip’ dispute resolution.  Extra marks will be given for seamlessly integrating the phrase ‘Baloo would never do that’.

SL7: This is a story about a little red car (by Stephen, aged 22)

March 26, 2010

I have discovered a new manly car-related pursuit.  Being a rational human being, it doesn’t involve compulsively polishing my car over and over again even when it doesn’t need it, customising it with a body kit so low to the ground that it will incur damage from merely carrying a passenger, or installing a speaker system whose volume capabilities prompt noise complaints from the local airport.  In fact (rather unusually for a vehicular pastime) it is neither a complete waste of time and money nor wholly anti-social and loutish – indeed it actually has a useful purpose.  The name of this practice?  Well, I believe that amongst motor industry professionals this activity is known as…

…‘necessary maintenance’.  An odd concept, I know, in this age of neon-lit undercarriages, designer hubcaps and ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ branded seat covers.  It goes a little something like this: when my car needs something doing to it in order for it to run smoothly, I see that it gets done.  If the windscreen washer fluid level is low, I top it up; if a bird defecates on the windscreen I wipe it off; if the car needs an MOT, I ring up the garage and book one – it really is that simple.  Today I am revelling in purchasing and fitting a new pair of windscreen wipers to replace the old worn-out ones – I have the Xcitement Factor (I’ll try not to brag too much…)

I mention this because this week my car (or ‘Little Red’, as it’s known – one day I plan to take it to America and invite somebody to travel atop the bonnet: ‘riding hood’ if you like…) fought its way through the annual rigours of the dreaded MOT.  After taking it back in for the inevitable subsequent repairs yesterday (Thursday, for those of you who like to imagine this more fully… the 25th of March… it was a cold crisp morning… 7:45am… very few other cars were on the road… I was wearing a tweed all-in-one bodysuit… and a scuba mask… I carved your name into a tree and sang a whimsical air about how much I love your choice of footwear…) I re-obtained it at the end of the day and brought it safely home.

Then this morning it wouldn’t start. 

After calling out the AA it emerged that Little Red was suffering from an electronic fault in the instrument panel that meant the immobiliser kicked in after ignition, causing the engine to cut out.  With the AA man’s caring hand (he hit the dashboard hard… then he hit the road.  Tonight I suspect he’ll hit the bottle – and if it’s Stella then he’ll be hitting something else too…) the car re-acquired a level of operation called ‘starting intermittently’.  He advised me to contact the garage with regard to rectifying this problem, so I phoned them up.  STEVE’S SPECIAL BONUS QUIZ!

Yes, that’s right!  You’ve just unlocked Steve’s special bonus quiz!  By answering the following question correctly I can guarantee that you will win one of the following fabulous prizes: (a) a PlayStation 3, (b) an all-expenses-paid around-the-world trip, (c) the knowledge that you were correct, or (d) £500,000!  Ready?  Here it comes… 

Q: Steve phones his garage on the AA man’s recommendation – what does he say?

(i) What do I need to do to fix my car?
(ii) My car started fine yesterday before I gave it to you for the MOT so clearly it’s faulty today as a result of your “handiwork”.

Seriously, choose your answer then read on…

If you chose (i) then read this paragraph (it’s a manual special bonus quiz):
Congratulations!  That’s exactly what he said!   You must be a psychic or something.

If you chose (ii) then read this paragraph:
You idiot – prepare to bear the brunt of Steve’s statistical wrath… 

‘Causality’ is the name given to the relationship between two events, where it is assumed that one results as a direct consequence of the other.  As a trivial example, if you have a shower then you get wet – ‘having a shower’ causes ‘getting wet’ (written logically as: have shower –> get wet).  However, causality can be easily misunderstood…

For instance, it would not be true to say the converse: get wet –> had shower i.e. ‘if you get wet then you must have had a shower’.  It would be erroneous to assume that ‘getting wet’ causes ‘having a shower’ – there are plenty of ways you could get wet without showering: walking outside in the rain, going for a swim and being sneezed on by a giant are just three plausible alternatives.  So in this instance one event causes the other, but not vice versa.

In addition to this simple abuse of the causal pathway (in other words, the chain of events) there is another issue known as ‘confounding’.  This is where an event, C, is so strongly correlated with two events, A and B, that it is easy to mistakenly conclude that A causes B (or vice versa) when in fact this is not the case.  The classic example involves ice cream and murder (a winning combination).   Follow this logic…  FACT: When ice cream sales are at their highest, so is the national murder rate.  CONCLUSION: Therefore, ice cream causes murders.  Now although it is quite plausible that somewhere around the world an argument over the Mr Whippy man’s last Cornetto might well end in bloodshed, this is generally a very flawed link to make.  Event A (peak ice cream sales) and event B (peak murder rate) are both in fact connected to another event – C, higher temperatures.  Summer-time is when most ice creams are sold and also when most murders are committed (some experts have suggested this is due to tempers fraying more easily in the heat – expert criminologists, I mean.  Not expert murderers…); so higher temperatures affect both ice cream sales and the crime rate, rather than one of these affecting the other.  Higher temperatures confound the relationship between ice cream and murder.

A final third abuse is ‘jumping to conclusions’.  This is where a logical leap is made between two events which really are entirely unconnected.  So if I had said to myself this morning, “Hmmm, the car worked fine yesterday before I took it to the garage, then it was repaired, and now it doesn’t work – clearly the fact that it doesn’t work must be the garage’s fault” that would be a massive jumping-to-a-conclusion.  The fault in the car could be caused by any number of things, not necessarily the mechanic’s handiwork – upon closer inspection it may turn out that a fitting has come loose due to the high speeds involved in recent frequent motorway driving, in which case it is pure coincidence that the fault manifested itself the day after the MOT. 

Without evidence to prove that there is a causal link between these events all that we have is assumption – the claim cannot be substantiated.  In recent weeks I have heard people on railway platforms make claims as conflicting as “Commuters look out for each other more when the weather’s bad” and “If it’s raining it’s every man for himself”.  Since these clearly cannot both be right (and are probably opinions formed from single memorable observations – see SL6 for discussion) we need to ask the question “What effect does the rain have on train users’ generosity?”  Hopefully, since I have been recording the weather conditions on each of my journeys during the Selfish London experiment I will be able to find an answer from my own data, helping me to ascertain whether the rain has a real causal effect on increased (or decreased) selfishness…

In the meantime, here’s the latest medal table… 

TRAIN 171: (SLING, PM) The perfect example that being selfish is very often of no advantage and just makes you look like a jerk…  Getting off the train at Elephant & Castle a teenage male chav (white, navy blue Adidas tracksuit, dark cap, JD Sports carrier bag – pretty much your stereotypical chav) pushed his way past people on the train and squeezed his way through the crowd at the station, knocking several people aside as he did.  How much further ahead of the rest of us did this get him?  Well, 5 minutes later I found myself sitting opposite him on the Tube.

TRAIN 154: (SLING, AM) When heading down a narrow stairway tunnel from a Waterloo platform I spotted a man who fully intended to go against the crowd and make his way up from Underground level.  However, he spotted me coming down the steps, slinged-up, on the same side he was attempting to scale, and then (instead of forcing his way up past me, which is the common approach to take) he backed up, pretty much reversing back around the corner he’d just come around and went out of his way to allow me through unimpeded.  The only thing that saddens me about this story is that when I tried to say thank you I realised that I hadn’t actually spoken to anyone yet that day – all that my unused voice managed was a throaty gurgle… 

NO TRAIN: (NO SLING, PM) So, after the MOT I went to collect the car.  Upon arrival I was informed that although they had not lost a customer’s key for 28 years (yes, you can guess what’s coming)… they had lost my key.  However, although careless they didn’t want to leave me carless and so asked if I wouldn’t mind popping home for the spare key, offering me a courtesy car to achieve this.  I accepted and was led to my temporary vehicle…  Bearing in mind that I normally drive a little red Vauxhall Corsa and have only been driving for 6 months, you can probably well imagine my surprise when I found myself cruising round the streets just 5 minutes later in a 7-seater people carrier.  Adrenaline.

SL6: You may well be once, twice and three times a lady… but can that really be considered consistent?!

March 12, 2010

Many things in life exist solely to bewilder – take, for instance, toasters with a setting to scorch the bread far beyond phoenix-worthy ashes, veggie burgers in the shape of meat products and the extra buttons on your TV remote that don’t actually appear to do anything at all.  However, the most bewildering of bewilderances (that’s a word – stop lying spellchecker…) is surely the blue-and-white striped monstrosity that is Wigan Athletic.

This season “The Latics” (as they and pretty much most other clubs ending in ‘Athletic’ are oh-so-originally known) have been widely noted for their inconsistency on the football pitch; as one commentator put it, you “don’t know which Wigan will turn up”.  Take Monday night for example, when Wigan put on a determined display to earn a hard-fought 1-0 victory over five-time European champions Liverpool.  If you had only watched one Wigan game this season and this was it you may well have felt justified to assume that here was a club with the potential to be one of the top four teams in the Premier League (Wigan, not the scousers – as if that’s going to happen any time soon…).  However, if your one match had happened to be that which came to pass on Sunday 22 November 2009 (in which Wigan rolled out as 9-1 losers against Tottenham Hotspur), there is no way at all that you’d have thought this, even for a moment – probably instead putting them down as favourites for relegation.

Now I understand that to many of you these footballing terms may seem alien and as unintelligible as a child’s pre-school drawings (“Oh… it’s a lovely… pig” – “That’s granny”) but I hope at least that the moral is clear – you cannot base a judgment on a single observation.  A person witnessing only Wigan’s win over Liverpool and another observing just their drubbing at the hands of Spurs would form very different conclusions about the quality of – what is essentially – the same team (7 out of the 11 players were unchanged, for those of you who care).

At this point you may well be thinking that you wouldn’t make the same mistake (alternatively you may be thinking about cheese, or garden gnomes, or whether using a disabled toilet when able-bodied should be made a criminal offence).  However, I suspect that most of you will find the following scenario strangely familiar: consider dining at a restaurant for the first time.  If your meal is well-cooked and delivered on time by friendly, efficient staff, you are likely to think highly enough of the establishment to consider returning for another meal at a later date or recommend it to a friend.  But if the food is undercooked, or the waiter is rude, or you have to wait seemingly forever to receive your order, then you are much less likely to think so highly of the eatery and will probably be loath to dine there again.  Yet this judgment is made after you have only eaten there once.

The correct way to make a judgment on the quality of a restaurant is to visit it on multiple occasions – if the experience is positive more often than not you could then reasonably conclude that it is a good restaurant, whereas frequent negative experiences will back up the decision that it is poor quality.  Similarly with a football team – the correct way to judge a team’s quality is to watch them several times over the course of a season.  After all, your one experience could just happen to be the exception to the rule…

Here’s a similar example from my real life (as opposed to my fake life where I’m a Spanish conquistador called Cesar Zanahoria and fight evil side-by-side with my army of ferocious honey badgers)…  At work yesterday a colleague twice came into the office looking for me (an hour apart), and both times happened to find me eating at my desk; this led her to conclude: “You’re still eating!”  (A thrilling story, I know)  But between my two snacks I had been hard at work, so an incorrect deduction had been made because of a lack of information

So how many times must you visit a restaurant or watch a football team to be fairly confident of its quality?  More than two clearly (as we learn from the majorly informative and hilarious colleague/eating scenario), but would three do?  Or four?  How about ten?  Is it even actually possible to specify a precise number of readings that would be deemed sufficient?! 

The simple answer to this question is “it’s complicated” (IRONY).  Statistically speaking, the ideal number of observations to allow any firm conclusions to be drawn is “a large number” – seriously, it’s that vague – the more, the better (although rather arbitrarily most statisticians will be happy with at least 50 – that’s a lot of eating out).  This was a consideration that had to be made when planning the Selfish London experiment.  Eight weeks’ worth of train journeys (about 240 legs), I reasoned, should be a decent compromise between obtaining a sufficient amount of information to draw reliable conclusions and actually getting on with life (if ever tempted to wear a sling for any length of time when you don’t medically require it, just don’t do it – it’s obstructing, distracting and pretty uncomfortable).

Here’s a pair of stories from opposite ends of the selfishness scale that show just how important it is to avoid judging London commuters’ attitudes from just one experience…

TRAIN 99 (SLING, AM) It’s another lift story…  Personally, I think this one qualifies as the frontrunner for worst group behaviour…  Picture the scene: I have just got off the Tube train and made my way to the station’s lifts where I queue towards the front and at the edge of a funnel-shaped crowd.  The lift arrives and everybody queuing pours into the lift (the ‘line’ was funnel-shaped, after all…).  I am unable to muscle my way into the queue due to my broken arm but nobody – not one person – slows down to allow me in.  When I do finally get into pole position there is just room for one final person in the lift, directly ahead of me… and a man rushes past me to fill it at my expense.  To make matters worse I am the only person in the queue to be left standing outside the lift as the doors close – a forlorn sight for those elevator occupants who dare to look back at me…

TRAIN 115 (NO SLING, PM) As the final train of the day pulled into my home station a man (blonde, 40s, glasses, business attire) let me out ahead of him, even though I was ‘unslung’.  Not only that but throughout the carriage I could see commuters letting off (easy now) and being let off – almost everybody was putting others before themselves…  A real heartwarmer to end the day on – admittedly not on the same scale as watching a newborn kitten open its eyes for the first time but still sufficiently touching to provide inner warmth at the sight of team spirit…

TRAIN 97 (SLING, PM) It took almost a hundred train journeys but finally a fellow commuter started up a conversation with me about my clearly incapacitated arm!  It may only have been standard small talk (“ Must be awkward with that…  How much longer do you have to wear it?  …Good luck with the recovery…”) but the effort of the Weybridge-bound woman to embrace a social situation and engage with a fellow human being was very much appreciated nonetheless…

SL5: If you can dodge a wrench… er, good for you.

March 5, 2010

This is a story.  Whether it is true or not only the most expert of experts can tell…

Every day for six years ‘Bill’ walked his dog up to his local park, across the fields and then back home; being naturally efficient Bill preferred to take the shortest possible route, and so each day this is exactly what he did.  So often did he make this particular journey that he could probably complete it blindfolded… and so could his dog: both knew it off by heart.  However, one Monday Bill arrived at the park to discover that the circus had come to town… and not only that but it had come to his local park in particular… and not only that but it had plonked itself right in the middle of the path across the playing fields that Bill and his canine companion daily traversed.  In order to continue on his usual strolling course Bill would have to brave the conurbation of coconut shies, hoop-la stands and tin can alleys; pass safely through the bumper cars, mini-big wheel (aka ‘small wheel’) and carousels; and take on the vast throngs of children toting candy floss, oversized plush toys and pockets full of mysterious ‘tokens’.  This would, critically, add extra time to Bill’s excursion and probably also be very noisy, so after much thought and consideration Bill decided that the best course of action would be to make a slight adjustment to the trail he had taken for six years in order to skirt the area and avoid the amusements entirely…

The next day (Tuesday) Bill embarked on his dog-walk again, and – upon noticing that the carnival was still in town – once more opted for his slight diversion.  As the week went on he did this again on Wednesday, and on Thursday, and then on Friday.  However, when he arrived at the park on Saturday he was shocked to see two police officers and a very angry-looking clown obstructing his detour up ahead.  As Bill approached, the clown shouted “That’s him!” and pointed with fervour in Bill’s direction.  One of the officers proceeded towards Bill and handed him a piece of paper.  “What’s this?” asked Bill.  “That sir,” said the policeman, “is an Antisocial Behaviour Order.”  This surprised Bill somewhat and so he asked, “Whatever is it for?!”  The reply came…

“For persistent fair-dodging.”

Now, besides being an exceptionally good joke this quaint tale could also be interpreted as a short yet damning commentary on the modern British justice system.  So often in the news we hear of burglars successfully suing the owners of houses they have broken into for an injury sustained ‘on the job’, and (in stark contrast) of people who shed a lot of hair all at once being fined for ‘littering’ (trust me, I’ve seen that bulletin simply hundreds of times…) that you could be forgiven for thinking that the legal system is protecting the wrong people…  But this is all by-the-by – I don’t want to get bogged down in a serious exposition on Crime and Punishment (the Dostoevsky book or otherwise); I just want to use the fantastic funfair pun to seamlessly segue in to a rail-related rant…

Fare-dodging is treated very seriously in London – so much so that as of last month the penalty fare for being caught without a valid ticket on an Underground, Overground or DLR service has increased to a whopping £50.  Now this action would only have been taken if it was a big problem – I’m sure that if anyone’s been keeping statistics on this the numbers would surprise us all (the Lib Dems actually ran a story on their webpage back in 2004 with the headline ‘More than one Tube fare dodged EVERY SECOND since Livingstone took office’… which is rubbish, because the Tube’s closed for half the night.  Idiots.)  This activity is now treated as such a severe social crime that persistent offenders can also expect to receive an ASBO.  This leads me to ask the question… 

…Please can ASBOs – being anti-social behaviour orders – be given out to all the people who engage in other selfish activities on the London transport system?  (Pretty please?!)

During my recounts of the goings-on during my first few weeks back at work after a serious arm injury (have I mentioned that enough yet?!) I have given examples of the various thoughtless, negligent, obnoxious and downright rude practices that I have seen (or even been on the receiving end of) first-hand – all of which carry no sanctions whatsoever.  And this list has by no means been exhaustive – there are so many different types of self-centred acts or behaviours that could make it onto the Selfish London List of Shame each week that choosing which felonies to include and which to omit is very often the most difficult editorial decision to make.  This is a conundrum that has also affected the more rigorous ‘scientific’ side to this escapade…

Since I am also collecting data from my daily commute to help statistically analyze which external factors contribute most to London’s selfishness levels the question has arisen: what to measure?  How do you measure selfishness?   How can you measure selfishness?  Obviously there is no universal scale to measure selfishness (unlike temperature, which has at least 3 – greedy) and there does not exist a magical piece of apparatus that I can switch on at the wall in order to accurately gauge it (unlike blood pressure…  That’s right – it’s magical.  Like fairy dust and stuff…  Mention it to your doctor next time you see him…  Unless you’re being assessed for sectioning under the Mental Health Act – in that case it probably wouldn’t go in your favour…)  In the end I have settled for answering four simple questions on each leg of my commute:

  1. Did anyone make it easier for me to board the train?
  2. If I had to stand for the journey, did anyone offer me their seat?
  3. Did anyone make it easier for me to leave the train?
  4. At any point in the journey, did anybody – for whatever reason – make sufficient body contact with me to knock me?

These questions do not address all antisocial issues (like playing over-loud music, littering or swearing in front of impressionable young children) but do tackle those most pertinent to someone with an injury, thereby being most relevant to this experiment.  I have strict definitions within my head concerning when one leg of my journey becomes the next and many other trivial things like that – I shan’t bore you with them now, though: maybe I’ll just write a page called ‘Boring technical details – read if you have absolutely nothing better to do; seriously, go out to B&Q, buy a large sack of gravel and count how many stones it contains before you even consider perusing this’.

Instead, whilst the data gathering continues and my ASBOs-for-everybody petition wends its way to the head office of Network Rail I shall leave you with the new weekly Selfish London Gold Medal of Shame…  (This way you’re not forced to read the same list of annoying-things-people-always-do-on-trains each week – let’s be honest, there’s a limited number of unique ones at this stage – and I get to go to bed earlier.  Win win.)

This week’s winner (narrowly beating the Glee-webgeek-lookalike who repeatedly bashed into my bad arm whilst trying to squeeze himself into an already-packed lift, causing the “Please do not obstruct the doors” announcement to work overtime and thereby delaying everybody else within the lift by sufficient time to miss one Tube connection), is…

TRAIN 74 (SLING, AM) After nobody gave me any leeway whilst boarding this packed commuter service into London I ended up standing in a wheelchair space opposite four occupied ‘disabled seats’… each occupied by someone clearly non-disabled (or ‘able’ as I believe it is commonly known).  None of them offered me a seat, despite some of them making eye contact on several occasions.  If I can work out if it’s possible to host video footage on this site I’ll upload the evidence I captured using my mobile…  But in case it’s not, the offenders were as follows:

  1. White male, 20s, short dark hair, unshaven; stripey scarf, dark suit, 1 hem loose on trouser leg, no tie; iPod, sleeping (or eyes closed at least…)
  2. Black male, 30s, closely shaven head; black coat, black sweater, white shirt with red stripes, no tie; laptop case, reading Metro.
  3. White male, 40s, dark hair greying at temples, glasses; grey suit, dappled grey sweater, metallic watch; reading Metro.
  4. White female, 40-ish; red coat, black skirt, tights and boots, black polo neck jumper; hat and bag on lap, Dell laptop case, just staring into space.

If you recognise any of these people from their descriptions, please do not call Crimewatch – this “isn’t their department” (apparently).

TRAIN 65 (NO SLING, PM) A rare occasion indeed – I depressed the illuminated toggle to activate the door opening mechanism and thereby gain access to the train carriage (the posh way of saying ‘I pushed the button’) and gestured to allow another guy (white male, 20s, short dark hair, slightly unshaven, glasses; dark blue hooded top with light blue lining) to board ahead of me, only to hear back the wonderful phrase “No, no – after you.”  I wasn’t even wearing the sling!

TRAIN 64 (SLING, DAYTIME) Whilst travelling back to work from a meeting in Bromley a white woman in her 50s adopted a novel approach to speed her on to the train – by using a violin case to push me on ahead of her!  The thing is, I’m not even sure she was aware she was doing it, as she was looking down and concentrating on avoiding the huge gap between the train and the platform edge…  Still, I do believe that by my earlier definition that technically counts as a ‘knock’…

SL4: Our survey said… ICGH-EERH (Yes, that’s how you spell it)

February 25, 2010

ROLE PLAY: You are an annoying idiot at a party.  In the course of your socialising with other guests you meet a statistician.  Inevitably by way of making small talk you will ask one of two questions (if not both):

  1. “Did you know that [arbitrary percentage] of all statistics are made up on the spot?  A-hoo-hoo-hoo.”
  2. “Didn’t someone once say there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’?”

The correct answer to both of these questions is to give a polite laugh, lasting just long enough to give the impression of sounding appreciative of such a blazing display of wit and originality, but not so loud as to appear sincere.  However, if during the course of one night the question is asked more than 4 times it is equally correct for the statistician to give a polite upper cut to the jaw (it turns out that 4 is the critical value – a number of repetitive responses above and beyond this is deemed statistically significant…  STATS JOKE).

Statistics is a field through which most conversational ramblers do not dare to roam (and if they do they get caught out by the bull).  Whereas most people would be happy to blag their way through a conversation about the natural world (“I hear that the rainforest is a pretty wet place”), British history (“Charles II – isn’t he the one that came after Charles I?”) or the game on TV last night (“That referee… *TUT*”), statistics is often a topic far outside their comfort zone.  Pretty much the majority of science-based university courses will have a compulsory statistics module which is badly-taught and difficult to understand; each degree ceremony produces a generation of graduates with a deep-seated fear and misunderstanding of the subject.

Perhaps one of the easiest statistical concepts to understand is that of a survey – a questionnaire which is put to a particular group of people (e.g. students, hospital patients, nuns) to ask a series of relevant questions (“Are you happy with the quality of the bus service up to campus?”; “How long have you had to wait for treatment?”; “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”) in most cases to see whether a particular action needs to be taken (making buses more frequent; reducing NHS waiting list times; shipping Maria away from the abbey to find work as a nursery governess for 7 unruly children, teach them the virtues of good manners through song, fall in love with their military father, perform at a major festival and flee from the Third Reich).  The main point of most surveys is to help make life better for the people who are asked to complete them (the opinion poll is an exception – finding out what proportion of British people believe in ghosts or angels or taramosalata isn’t actually going to change anything).  Even the UK Census (which some people traditionally see as a ‘Big Brother’ let’s-know-everything-about-you Government initiative) is designed purposefully to help provide the British authorities with a clearer picture of the population they serve, thereby allowing them to update services, policies and procedures to be more relevant and helpful to the general public… all through simply better understanding the nation’s demographic.

Now it doesn’t take much time to fill out a survey and it generally doesn’t cost the filler-outer any money to post it back (pre-paid envelopes – genius) or complete it online; nor does it take much brainpower to answer questions that generally ask ‘How old/male/white are you?’ and ‘Would you like it if this happened?’…

…So it’s a bit weird that a lot of people seem to be genuinely scared even of surveys, the most simple of statistical notions.

Being asked to fill out a short questionnaire means that (a) somebody actually does care about the issue in question, and (b) for just 5 minutes of your time you can help somebody make your life and the lives of those around you a little bit better, more comfortable and more convenient.  So why are people so averse to filling them out?

On 10 February whilst waiting on the platform of a minor London train station I met a woman handing out passenger satisfaction questionnaires on behalf of Network Rail.  I had watched her making her away along the platform asking people if they would care to fill out a short survey on the quality of train travel in London.  I was amazed that most people told her ‘no’, especially since many of them were quite probably the kind of train user who moans repeatedly about the cleanliness, overcrowding and unreliability of their usual route to and from work – this was their moment to have their say and actually make changes, yet they were turning away from it!  From speaking to her I learned that when targeting a small station she is given 55 questionnaires at a time and manages to hand them all out in 3 hours (in central London she distributes 75 in the same time, but that’s by the by).  This information (which to some would seem a pointless use of a memory space better employed by storing knowledge of family birthdays, computer passwords and where-the-Dickens-you-left-the-keys) has a fascinating implication – right here, in these seemingly inane numbers, is yet another way to measure selfishness levels in London…

Say for example that on average it takes 30 seconds to locate and ask someone on a station platform, give the instructions for return once complete and hand them the piece of paper (in fact, this may well be a very generous estimate); then this gives us a total of 120 encounters in an hour, 360 in three.  If only 55 of 360 people say ‘yes’ then that is a rejection rate of more than 5 in 6.  85% of rail users asked to complete a survey for their own benefit turn down the opportunity.  Even then, a large number of the 15% that consent to fill out the form will not actually do so, meaning that the percentage of people asked who actually go on to complete one is very small indeed!  Why?!

In a few cases there may well be legitimate reasons (language barriers, infrequent railway usage, coma) but sadly it seems to appear (given how little effort is required) that the predominant explanations are yet again purely apathy and selfishness.  These people consider even just 5 minutes of their time too precious to give up for someone else – yet you can then observe them doing absolutely nothing but listening to their generic mp3 player, staring into space or reading a free last-night’s-newspaper for the next 10 minutes while they wait for their train.  A lot of people truly just cannot be bothered – it’s as simple as that.

Speaking of which, here’s this week’s Selfish London list of shame…

TRAIN 35: (SLING, PM) Looking for a way to thoroughly irritate your neighbours on a train journey that lasts only two minutes?  There’s an app for that.  Black 20-year old girl talking/shouting/swearing incredibly loudly on her iPhone (she knows lots of guys her own age who have their own plumbing businesses, apparently) was completely oblivious to all around her as a result and barged past me – sling and all – when we arrived at the next station, even though I was also disembarking.

TRAIN 36: (SLING, PM) As people filtered in from either side of the open door in order to board the train I found myself at the front at the same time as a woman and her two kids.  I motioned them on ahead of me, they thanked me and boarded; THEN a tall shaven-headed bespectacled white man in his late 30s thought he’d take advantage of the situation and pushed his way past me immediately after them – even though there were absolutely no spaces left (which could be clearly seen from outside).  For all his efforts to climb on before me, we ended up standing next to each other in the vestibule.  He avoided eye contact.

TRAIN 59: (NO SLING, PM) If you travel on public transport regularly you will no doubt daily see somebody taking up an extra seat with their handbag or a rucksack; but on this particular Bakerloo line service I witnessed a record-breaker – four seats occupied at once, and not a piece of luggage in sight.  A large black guy in his 30s, with short hair and glasses and wearing a red shirt/beige jacket/blue jeans/red-and-white bowling shoes combo was sitting on one seat in a block of four (two pairs facing each other) on the Tube.  His right arm occupied a second seat, his feet the remaining two; this on a rush hour service when very few other seats remained occupied = very selfish.

TRAIN 45 (NO SLING, AM) One nagging worry I’ve had during this experiment is that people may well recognise me from one day to the next and consequently treat my sporadic sling-wearing with suspicion.  However, there are so many people in London (and my daily journey start times have been so erratic during the reduced-hours phasing-back-in-to-work period) that I have felt pretty confident this wouldn’t be too much of an issue.  Close call today though – this journey saw my first knowing ‘repeat meet’.  Having let a man on ahead of me when slingless on Train 9 I encountered him again… although thankfully again minus the sling.  What’s more, this gentleman lived up to the adage that ‘one good turn deserves another’ and motioned for me to board the train before him – the first time during this experiment that I had been on the receiving end of such a gesture when dressed without a sling.  Polite people do exist!

TRAIN 54 (SLING, PM) Whilst the final train of the day was still on the approach to my hometown a gentleman who was queuing in the aisle (50-ish, blonde hair receding, long blue coat, tie and briefcase) noticed me in the seat just beyond him and could see that I was making the indicative movements associated with being about to leave the train (things away, gloves and coat on, rucksack on lap with handle clasped – you know the drill).  So he backed up a little bit to make space for me to join the departing throng.  Not only that but he also let a lady out in front of him.  A simple gesture, much appreciated.

TRAIN 36 (SLING, PM) Recall the mother and two kids I mentioned earlier – they also ended up next to me in the vestibule on this journey.  The boys were aged about 7 (let’s call him ‘Jay’) and 5 (similarly, ‘Dee’).  Jay had a box of fruit salad which he was supposed to be sharing with his brother; however, as any older brother would do in his situation he was pretty much hogging the box in order to steal all the pineapple.  Dee took this in good spirits and seized the opportunity to comically quote in a my-mum-taught-me-this-phrase way, “He’s being selfish!  He’s being thoughtless!”  The group laughed together (lovely to watch) and Jay got up off the rucksack he had been sitting on in order to locate a bin.  Meanwhile Dee took full advantage of the warm makeshift pillow now suddenly exposed right next to him, lay down upon it and tried to fall asleep.  Jay returned, spotted the new occupant of his ‘seat’ and echoed, “He’s being selfish!  He’s being thoughtless!”  Very cute… but to be honest if his little brother had had that tiny bit of extra energy that comes with eating sweet tropical fruit rather than just the bland melon left at the end Jay wouldn’t have found himself facing this sudden seating-deprivation problem at all – only himself to blame…

SL3: For never was there a tale of more “Woah!”

February 19, 2010

William Shakespeare – a name known the world over.  A man so revered for his playwriting and poetry that the laws of physics dictate that no English-speaking child of school-going age can possibly escape from the gravitational pull of his life’s work – at some point during secondary school the two will invariably meet.  So widespread is The Bard’s fame that even the most reclusive of hermits would be hard-pushed not to be able to name at least one Shakespearian creation…

…So it was with great surprise this morning that I learned that included among Shakespeare’s most famed works are Transformers III and Batman II.

Take a wild guess at where this wonderful illustration of misinformation could possibly have originated: a backstreet of cyberspace littered with the debris of poor spelling, grammar and punctuation; an editable interface which has fast become the hi-tech playground for the trouble-making mischief-doers of the internet generation; a website synonymous with distrust, disbelief and disambiguation.  That’s right – Wikipedia.

The primary research source for any student project, Wikipedia is a shining example of a reference tool perfectly designed for a society full of honest, well-informed individuals…  Unfortunately, we don’t have one of those (but we could put an order in for you – come back Monday); instead what we do have is a whole load of teenage boys who think the best way to spend their GCSE IT lessons is to deface the public-maintained encyclopaedia by flooding it with falsehoods, slander and outright lies, like ‘Mr Blobby IS ACTUALLY CALLED MARSHALL.’  (Everyone knows his name is Graham…)  Without due care it is possible to come away from Wikipedia believing you have achieved enlightenment when in actual fact you have rather become the victim of a childish prank – and it may well be a very long time before somebody at a party points out to your embarrassment that Buzz Lightyear was not the 23rd President of the USA or that Scotland does have electricity.

Ideally you should always seek to obtain your information from a trustworthy source, like the Queen.  However, if the Queen is out (at the cinema or clubbing or something) then the easy-accessibility of Wikipedia does admittedly make it an attractive alternative, and in all honesty its degree of accuracy probably would suffice whatever your purposes (unless you’re a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist mapping the human genome to the greatest degree of precision ever attempted; or a NASA engineer calculating the dimensions of the next shuttle to be launched on a slingshot mission to Mars; or a Noel’s House Party fan trying to find out true facts about your favourite pink-and-yellow TV character…).

In the case of Selfish London the ideal situation would be for me to enlist the help of fifty or so volunteers, pair them up by matching their main physical characteristics and capabilities, dress one of each pair so as to give them the appearance of having a special need (like a broken limb, or pregnancy, or a Portsmouth football shirt), send them off around London at the same time using similar trains and get them to keep tabs on how they are treated during their journeys, recording extra quantitative information to describe the circumstances of each trip (like whether the train was on time, the number of carriages etc.).  Then the results could be compared and analysed to work out many wonderful things, including (a) whether London train commuters are selfish, (b) what disabilities Londoners react most or least favourably to, and (c) what external factors (e.g. weather, how busy the train is) influence Londoners’ decisions to help those in need around them.   Unfortunately I do not have access to a pool of willing volunteers, I lack the funds to pay for their train fares and I’ve got a real backlog of projects at work due to being off with this broken arm that I haven’t really got the time to spare…

…So I have devised a simpler experiment.  As previously stated in the first entry in this blog I am using myself as the single test subject.  I travel on at least six trains during the course of each day and so I am conducting my experiment over the next two months by wearing a very obvious sling on some train journeys but not others, and comparing the treatment I receive from my fellow commuters in each case.  Originally I intended to simply wear the sling for a month, then compare my experiences with the next month of not wearing it (a crude ‘control group’ – just like in school Biology experiments); however, to make the experiment more reliable (by removing a possible ‘temporal effect’ – a bias resulting from comparing two different months that may experience different weather, light levels and temperatures) I am instead using a method of randomisation.  Before each commute I flip a fair unbiased coin – tails I wear the sling, heads I don’t – thereby improving the comparability of the ‘experimental’ and ‘control’ journeys.

 To gauge London’s selfishness I am jotting down noteworthy anecdotes of my experience and also doing one other thing that appals my wife…  I am keeping a dataset.  I have a beautiful spreadsheet in which to record journey times, weather conditions, the approximate percentage of seats available, whether a journey leg is considered as experimental (sling) or control (no sling) and many other exciting and non-sad things.  And it is this that should hopefully aid me to draw statistical conclusions on how much truth there is in the Selfish London hypothesis.  Once I have sufficient data, expect to see the analyses begin…

Obviously I need a deadline for this experiment, long enough to collect enough data observations to make it worthwhile but short enough that I remain sane and in favour with my other half.  For this reason I shall be carrying out the fieldwork until TUESDAY 6 APRIL – a date that coincides with my final Fracture Clinic appointment – providing an 8-week window in which I hope to glean information on 240 London train and Tube journeys.

So until the data is in I shall woo you, dear reader (or listener, if you’ve purchased the audio-book version of this blog) with epic tales of extreme generosity and miserliness. So without much further ado I present to you the cream of the crop from the first 7 days of the Selfish London social experiment…

PS Transformers III as yet does not exist and Batman II is technically called ‘Batman Returns’. Oh, and they were actually written by Christopher Marlowe…

TRAIN 11: (SLING, PM) After a long wait on a crowded platform for the Tube home not only did nobody in the resulting door throng pay much attention to my need not to be thronged, but the girl who chose to sit next to me (20s, white, reading book) sat so close, completely oblivious to me, that the lurching movement of the carriage caused her to bash me in the arm repeatedly until I reached my destination.

TRAIN 13: (SLING, AM) Having been ignored yet again in a queue I found myself standing in a fully-occupied 4-seater vestibule area for the whole 25-minute journey, without any form of hand rail for support – I had absolutely no way to steady myself on the fast service.  Not one of the occupants (3 men, 1 woman) offered me a seat despite me repeatedly loudly fumbling and stumbling in my attempts to read a book using my only available hand.  Weirdly, one of the men offered his seat to a woman in her 50s; after she declined he looked me straight in the eye… and then averted his gaze back to the Nemi cartoon in the Metro.  Oh, and when it was time to get off, two of them pushed out in front of me.  “Advantage: Selfish London.”

TRAIN 20: (NO SLING, AM) Not really relevant to my personal treatment, more just a common sign of thoughtlessness and disrespect that bugs me intensely – four men (foreign, 20s) run for the lift to exit the Tube station, arrive just as the doors are very nearly completely shut, thrust an arm through the remaining gap to trigger the re-open mechanism and delay the lift’s other occupants.  Just plain selfish – and it happens all the time.

TRAIN 24: (SLING, PM) The worst offender so far – I approach a scrolling information board on the station platform; it happens to be next to a passenger bench.  One seated man (stocky, 50s, balding brown hair, toad face, long black coat – a caricature commuter) shoots me the most evil of evils as if to say “If you think I’m going to give up this [platform] seat for you then you are very much mistaken.”  In case you think I simply read too much into this, as I stood waiting on the platform edge with another guy to my left and the train rolled in, who should pop up and force his way between us to the front of the queue than Toad of Toad Hall himself.  Then when the carriage door finally ended up to my right, he pushes his way past me and two women to get to the door first.  Then once he realises there are no seats remaining he stands in the doorway instead of moving down the aisle, and blocks everybody attempting to board.  What a nice man.  (This incident nearly made me forget about the 8 seated passengers I then stood between in the aisle with no seat offers even when I put on a real sympathy act by melodramatically faffing with tickets and railcards when the conductor came round.)

TRAIN 15: (SLING, AM) After enduring an ice-delayed 75-minute wait at a minor London station, as the waiting room of grumpy and cold passengers filed back out onto the platform I was left holding the door open awkwardly with my foot, rendering me unable to leave.  Nobody thought to relieve me off this duty, until one man (tall, black, 30s) spotted me from the other side of the crowd and made his way around the back of the group purely to hold the door open so that I could join the rest outside.

TRAIN 26: (SLING, AM) As I made my way slowly through a massive crush on the way down to the Tube (more sizeable than normal thanks to only 1 of the station’s 3 entrances being available for use) many people forced their way past me, until one chap (long grey hair, late 40s, blue waterproof jacket) spotted me as he was about to push past also, and instead apologised at the sight of my sling, stepped backwards to allow me through and held back a few other commuters to give me room to manoeuvre.

TRAIN 34: (SLING, PM) Two chavs boarded, one with crutches.  During a journey during which they verbally abused several other passengers (including me – unsurprisingly enough, for my hair colour) they produced a wonderful quote between them to succinctly demonstrate their complete lack of knowledge of current affairs:
  Chav 1: (on spotting photograph of captured Taleban leader in free newspaper) “Look, they found Bin Laden!”
  Chav 2: “You idiot – they found Saddam Hussein…”

SL2: I went outside – I was some time… But I’m back now.

February 12, 2010

It is a well-known urban myth that NASA and the Russian space programme (now known as Roscosmos – clearly a name created by a three-year-old rhyming out loud to break the tedium of a long bread run) once went head-to-head to develop a writing implement that could be used in space; the Americans spent millions and millions of dollars to develop a ballpoint pen that would work under zero-gravity conditions, the Russians just used a pencil.  However, a lesser-known urban myth (that I am starting right here and now) is that before planning their first missions to the moon NASA invested millions and millions of dollars on acorns, planted oak trees atop the world’s highest mountains, and then – having waited 50 years for them to grow to a decent height – climbed each of them in an attempt to touch the moon by hand, just to make sure that their very expensive shuttle projects were actually going to be necessary.

Consider this – would this be a sensible idea?  I’ll give you a minute to think while I make a cup of tea…  Into the kitchen…  Cuh, kettle’s empty – refill it to the minimum mark – why waste precious energy?  And on to boil…  Get a mug from the cupboard (but of a misnomer that – don’t think I technically own any cups)…  A green one – they’re bigger…  Add a teabag from the pot, a teaspoonful of sugar, and wait…  Kettle’s bubbling…  It’s bubbling.  It’s bubbling.  It’s bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, bubbling and it’s done…  Pour out the water (into the mug).  Replace the kettle on its podium (I have a posh kettle)…  Stir the mixture with a teaspoon, make sure the sugar is dissolved…  Add milk – semi-skimmed, not too much – and return carton to fridge…  A final series of stirs, squeeze out the teabag, remove and dispose of in a bin…  Remove teaspoon also – have learned the hard way…  Admire beautiful cup of tea… and tip it down the sink because I don’t drink tea.

So admittedly that was a pointless exercise on my behalf but I hope it at least gave you time to ponder my question to you.  Here’s what I think: the acorn idea is absolutely 100% sensible.  Think about it like this: scientists’ calculations of the distance between Earth and its largest natural satellite were based on elementary physics and Pythagoras’ Theorem, assuming that the atmosphere around our planet does not have a distorting effect on our judgment of distance, as water does when you try and gauge a river’s depth from its bank.  At the time, nobody had ever conducted scientific tests to determine the composition of the layers of atmosphere separating our world from the vast realms of outer space, so they couldn’t really be sure that this wasn’t an issue.  So what if it turned out that the atmosphere really did warp the distance’s true length – without the means to tell surely it would be rational to take a much cheaper action to make sure once and for all that the moon wasn’t actually within touching distance, thereby providing justification for the big billion-dollar spending needed for lunar launches?  After all, you wouldn’t want to waste all that time and energy (as well as the cash) attempting to do something that was completely needless.  So really the acorns are a good idea… in a way.  (No, the harsh climate and oxygen-depleted wilderness of Everest would not support the growth of plant-life – stop thinking so much).

I guess my main point here is that before embarking on any research or development it is a good idea to at least carry out some kind of exploratory investigation, enabling you to verify whether or not a potentially time-consuming project is worthwhile – after all, if it is evident from a quick peep through the curtains that it is not raining there is no point in going outside to measure the rainfall (deep, huh?).  So this is exactly what I have done before embarking any further on the Selfish London quest…

For 3 days I have worn a sling on my train journeys (six per day, 18 in total) in order to double-check that different passengers do indeed react differently to my handicapped appearance.  After all, if either all passengers bent over backwards to accommodate me or they all completely ignored me, I could reasonably form a conclusion that all commuters uniformly do or uniformly do not recognise the needs of less able passengers; such a result would mean that I could save myself the bother of wearing a needless sling for several weeks.  However, a mix of reactions would be evidence of an element of randomness – differences between members of the same commuting population – demonstrating that this foray could well prove fruitful.  Thankfully (for the sake of science at least – that’s right, science: not just my own fleeting fancy and curious disposition but the field of international scientific study also – Einstein and everything) I have been met with a wide range of attitudes.  Here are some of the key events:


TRAIN 1: The very first train I boarded (hence the name) with sling donned – and it wasn’t a great start for human kindness.  After two commuters next to whom I had been standing on the platform actually pushed past me to board the crowded train I entered the carriage to find a total of zero vacant seats and several expressionless faces gawping at me without the offer of one.  Instead I was relegated to standing in the vestibule, opposite the toilet, in a narrow corridor… under a low shelf.  Since I stand 6’2” tall you can well imagine that this wasn’t the most comfortable place for anyone of my height, even if fully fit and with two working arms.  Amazingly, nobody seated nearby or even those shorter standing passengers in close proximity offered to swap for the sake of an injured compatriot in an awkward position…  I spent almost half an hour in this position until arriving at a London terminus.  Oh and during the disembarking process a fifty-something woman practically barged me aside to exit.  Society had truly fallen at the first hurdle.

TRAIN 3: To the white 20-year-old mop-haired male in the grey suit, clearly on your way to a job interview yet eating pizza at a ridiculously early time of day – you, my friend, are a jerk.  When someone makes eye contact with you twice on the platform and you also spot them looking your sling up and down you would think they could perhaps retain this information two minutes later when the train arrives and take a little more care around you.  I pushed the button to open the doors and Mr Mophead strode over from his platform seat, brushing right past two of us about to board in order to get on first – it was just plain rude.  (To the tall 30-something mixed-race chap in the business suit who invited me to board before him: thank you… and you agree with me right, that guy was a jerk, huh?)

TRAIN 6: After boarding a train full to the rafters (a little known fact that they are indeed built just like houses – some even have cellars…) I positioned myself in the aisle to gain maximum exposure – surely someone would offer their seat to a man with a broken arm?  Nope.  Not even the 30-something male in the business suit next to me who looked right into my eyes for an uncomfortably long time (I think he was a hypnotist… either that or an ophthalmologist, but definitely one or the other).  So as the conductor came around to check my ticket I made a scene…  As I fumbled incapably with my railcard wallet I was met with sympathy by the conductor who asked if she could pass, exclaiming loudly “I don’t want to knock you, sir” – all eyes were now on me, just in time to witness me backing clumsily into the vestibule where I trod on a woman’s foot.  Her consequent yelp, sharp step backwards, and the ensuing domino-like chain reaction that almost toppled several other adjacent passengers ensured that anyone who might not have noticed me before certainly had now.  A whole carriage of people could see that I was finding it difficult to stand.  Still, nobody offered their seat.  I stood unsteady for the whole 25-minute journey (and also apologised to the woman – she was understanding but would probably bruise badly).

TUBE 8: Ah, the wonders of the London Underground stations that are still deprived of the technological wonder that is the escalator.  Waiting at the front of the lift queue at Elephant & Castle I stood side on to the rest of the crowd to give people a clear view of my bandaging.  To no avail.  Despite having a good couple of minutes to look around themselves and notice their fellow passengers whilst awaiting the next ride to the surface, as soon as the lift doors opened the crowd surged forward thoughtlessly in a crush.   Not even the people closest to me paid my injury any real attention.

But it’s not all bad; not every rail user I encountered acted selfishly – in fact some even went out of their way to help me.  Spare a thought for the following Good Samaritans worthy of acclaim:


TRAIN 7: As well as Train 3’s noble do-gooder, the first train of the following day saw an Asian gent in his 30s notice my affliction before the train even pulled up, allowing him to step aside when it arrived and bid me on before himself.  A simple act, yes, but one that I thoroughly appreciated.

TRAIN 12: A moment not directly pertaining to my own treatment but certainly one that warmed my heart to witness: a mother and four-year-old child board the train to find only single seats scattered about.  While considering how she can seat them both and still keep an eye on her son a 40-something man occupying a seat next to an empty one notices their predicament and offers to move to another part of the carriage so that the two can sit together – you rarely actually see this happen.  Then when the mother asks somebody what time the train arrives at Station X another person overhears her query and gives her not just the time but a brochure of the train’s running times which she says she can keep.  This is the kind of occurrence that gives you hope that there are decent people out there on the trains…

TRAIN 18: Finally, my favourite selfless act of the exploratory period.  Whilst waiting in a crowd on a busy Clapham Junction platform a 65-year-old lady at the very front spots me a little to one side.  As the train doors open she flings up her arms to halt other commuters and invites me to board before all of them.  I consider it truly extraordinary that a woman of retirement age who would so often be the subject of people’s generosity deemed me to need it more than herself.

So, having concluded that the Selfish London experiment is most definitely worth continuing, indeed it shall mes amis (that’s French)!  As a knight in pursuit of a many-headed damsel-abducting beast, or a samurai warrior seeking to vanquish a powerful enemy of the Emperor, or maybe just a sweaty obese man attempting to find the TV remote among many hairy rolls of stomach flab, I shall step up my attempts to achieve my goal and find out just how selfish London really is.  There will be excitement (CHEER)…  There will be danger (GASP)…  There will be unusual stories about Bristol Rovers fans who have hooks for hands and sing loudly about shrews (AS IF – like anyone supports Rovers…).  Next week, it all kicks off properly…