Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Footnote to a footnote

On Sunday I wrote a slightly more serious blog post than normal (sorry, normal service will be resumed shortly) about the World Youth Day in Madrid and I had a footnote about the supposed controversy regarding the cost of the event. Apart from stating time and again that the cost was being covered entirely by the participants and private donations, the organisers pointed out that the vast numbers of visitors to the city would generate a good deal of revenue during a month that is normally a quiet time in the Spanish capital. Now, after the event, the Madrid Chamber of Commerce have given their estimation of what the event brought to the city and they, if anyone, are the ones who are going to be most concerned about costs to the local population. Unfortunately, this page is in Spanish but from the Google translated version of the page I see that they put the figure at around €160 million, far in excess of the €50 million cost. On the basis of this I would say that the case is now closed.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

World Youth Day

This time last week, before the start of the World Youth Day, I was anticipating the lack of interest by the media in the UK about the event. As the week progressed I became more annoyed at the reporting, focussing on a handful of protesters while ignoring the hundreds of thousands of young people who were gathering to see the Pope. Now I am positively peeved that the best that most mainstream news companies can manage is a short article that highlights the protests (of course) and mentions a peripheral occurrence of little importance. For example, the BBC's latest video clip of the event sees the weather as the most newsworthy item and then goes on to interview one of the protesters.

I would say that what is more newsworthy is the fact that over 1.5 million (some estimates are as high as 2 million) young people from all around the world and from many walks of life have gathered in a great show of friendship and fellowship to listen eagerly to the words of an 84-year-old man who is continually labelled as out-of-touch by the world's press. I know some people who went from the UK who may be in that picture near one of the Union Flags and I know they have been looking forward to this experience for some time. Andrew Brown of the Guardian, at least, blogged about the incongruity of the coverage of the event.

I did managed to catch the prayer vigil, not on any mainstream media but from one of a few Catholic news websites who were streaming the event. During this, a number of young people spoke to the Pope, telling him of their experiences and asking him for his advice. Amongst them was a lady from Kenya who spoke about Strathmore University's Community Outreach Programme that seeks to help suffering people in other parts of Africa, such as North Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The BBC would do well to find Ms Warau and interview her, thus bringing attention to a very positive effort to get relief to the victims of the recent drought. Sadly, and ironically, the inclement weather meant that the Pope had to cut short his speech in response but it it possible to read the whole thing online. Here he speaks of taking the example of Christ:

He who took upon himself our afflictions, is well acquainted with the mystery of human suffering and manifests his loving presence in those who suffer. They in their turn, united to the passion of Christ, share closely in his work of redemption. Furthermore, our disinterested attention towards the sick and the forgotten will always be a humble and warm testimony of God’s compassionate regard.
Earlier in the day he expanded on this idea when he addressed people at the Foundation of St Joseph’s Institute who, inspired by Christ, had dedicated their life to the care of the disabled.

Something else that struck me was the sudden changes in the crowd from the wild jubilation of a party atmosphere, to the attention during the prayer vigil and finally to deep reverence at the benediction at the end. We are continually told that most Catholics only give lip-service to the teachings of the Church but the 1.5 million young people in Cuatro Vientos last night say differently. I experienced the same last year in Hyde Park; it was a festival during the afternoon but as soon as the Pope arrived the atmosphere changed throughout the whole crowd and then for the benediction you could hear a pin drop.

I was at Mass myself this morning at the same time that the Pope was celebrating it in Madrid so I could not see it live. As is traditional, the Pope ends by officially announcing the location of the next World Youth Day, which will be in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.

On costs

The protests were, we were told time and again, just about the cost of the event and not directed at the Pope or ordinary Catholics. From an article from the BBC:
"I don't have anything against the Pope coming here," explained Pinar Alegre, who was herself baptised as a baby but is not a practising Catholic. "But I'm upset we are spending money we don't have, on a Catholic event when this is not a Catholic country."
Apart from pointing out yet again that the cost of the visit is being covered mainly by the participants, with the remainder coming from private donations, I expect the protesters to be out in similar force for other events that will be held at tax-payers expense. I will not be holding my breath.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Careful what you wish for

Earlier today I was idly looking at the Google+ application on my Android phone and wondering about the 'Nearby' stream. For those who don't know, Google+ is Google's new social media platform that is going to change our lives forever and on the Android app (and possible the app for other platforms as well) it is possible to view public posts made by people nearby, for some value of 'nearby'. I was curious about how much this was used so I posted:
On the G+ Android app I can see 'nearby' posts. Does anyone use this? If you are reading this in the 'nearby' list please add a comment.
I added my location and waited, not really expecting much of a response.
Six hours later and I have nearly 50 comments, mostly from people I've never met. Of course, some of these comments are by the same people but I still got replies from 17 different people, only one of whom I know. So what did I learn from this?

  • Yes, people do actually read the 'nearest' stream. It seems that people like being nosey and seeing what their neighbours are up to, especially if they do not have many active friends on the network yet.
  • If you ask to be spammed you will be spammed. At times I was getting an alert on my phone every few minutes to tell me a comment had been added.
  • Google's idea of 'nearby' is quite broad to say the least. At first I was getting people from Stockport and Marple but then someone popped up out to the West in Partington and then there were a couple from up North as far as Bolton and Haslingden. I hadn't actually asked for locations but a several people volunteered this information.
  • Adding a comment to a post puts it back to the top of the list. I had specifically asked people to add comments and when they did this highlighted the post for even more people to see. I think it is dying down a bit now with the last comment added nearly an hour ago but who knows what will happen overnight.
  • One person commented, "I love that I'm getting different views on here. My Facebook is a bit of a bubble of people that think a lot like me, on here there's all sorts. Yet the conversations remain largely civil, so far at least! <3" I am not claiming that this thread or, more widely, Google+ is an embryonic intellectual debating society but I agree that it is nice to see that a group of complete strangers from various walks of life can still have a civil chit-chat about nothing in particular on the Internet.

What goes around ...

I have been clearing out some really old stuff this morning and I stumbled upon a couple of amusing things that I thought I had lost a long time ago. They are letters from when I was living in London last millennium.

On Saturday 12 June 1999 I travelled up to Manchester for the weekend to be fitted for clothes ahead of my brother's wedding later that year and we were supposed to catch the train together from London Euston. London Underground, however, had other ideas. I had to get from Bayswater Underground Station to Euston Square, six stops that should take about 15 to 20 minutes and, although I cannot remember the exact details, I will have allowed myself much more than that. I knew that there were engineering works starting on that day on the Circle Line but that was around the Kensington corner and I had naively believed the advertisements that explained that the rest of the service would run as normal. After all, I would be catching the first train of the day and for such extensive and well anticipated works surely preparations would have been made to ensure that it all starts off well at least. Oh, how wrong I was.

I do not recall that the train was late in arriving but then it came to a halt at Edgware Road, just two stops along. There we waited. And waited. And listened to no announcements explaining what was going on. And waited a bit more. And got off the train to talk to station staff who were nowhere to be found. Now, trains waiting at stations for a few minutes for no apparent reason is par for the course on the Underground but this delay had gone beyond even the worst hold up at rush hour and I was well aware that the ample time I had allowed for my journey was slipping away as I sat less than 3 miles from where my train to Manchester stood ready to depart. Eventually I concluded that I would have to find other means so I left the station to set off on foot while attempting to hail a taxi, not as easy as I had anticipated on a Saturday morning. I had got to Baker Street before I found one and I was now hoping that Virgin Trains were operating normally and about half an hour behind schedule. Sadly this was not the case.

This rather long-winded exposition is to provide background to two letters I found, as mentioned at the start. The first is simple a courtesy reply to a letter of complaint I had written on 21st June and instructed me that according to their Customer Charter I should receive a full response within 21 days. I don't know exactly what the Charter says but it was dated 5th July which by my calculation means that they have added an extra 2 weeks onto their required response time. I no longer have my original letter but in it I explained what had happened, that it was due to the engineering works that they had foreseen and planned in such a way that a normal service could operate, and detailed the extra expense I had incurred; one taxi fare and the surcharge on my advanced rail ticket to allow me to use it on a different train.

21 days from 5th July is 26th July. I received the following dated 30th, a full 39 days after my original letter:

Thank you for your letter of 21 June, about your disrupted journey by Underground on 12 June. I apologise for the delay in replying, which is due to a backlog of correspondence. 
I am sorry for any inconvenience you were caused by the delay to the Circle Line service. Trains were subject to delay following a signal failure at High Street Kensington. Under the terms of our Customer Charter, our liability is limited to a refund of the single fare for any delay over 15 minutes caused by a failure on our part. Claims will generally only be considered if submited on the appropriate forms availabile from Underground stations, within 14 days of any delay being claimed for. In this instance, I enclose a voucher for £1.00 as refund in respect of your Carnet ticket. You can exchange this voucher for cash at any Underground station ticket office on production of a satisfactory proof of identity. However, we cannot be held responsible for consequential loss resulting from the delay and in this respect we do not refund taxi costs. 
I am sorry my reply cannot be more favourable. 
Yours sincerely &c. 

So there you have it. Supposed signal failures had meant that I was out of pocket to the tune of a taxi fair and an extra rail fare but London Underground had generously given me a voucher for £1, which I still have because I never got round to cashing it in. I say 'supposed signal failures' because I do not believe that for an instant. The engineering works started on that day and the Circle Line was then in complete chaos up until the point that they decided to completely shut it down. I am sure that the 'backlog of correspondence' was due to huge numbers of complaints similar to mine and the matter had even been raised in parliament.

The other letter I found was also from when I was trying to escape London back up to the North but on a more permanent basis. I had applied for a job at Daresbury Laboratory and received the following, postmarked 10th February 1999:

Dear Mr Haig 
Thank you for your interest in our recent advertisement for Software Engineers in our Electronics and Controls Group. 
I am sorry to tell you, however, that action to fill these vacancies has been put on hold for the time being. We anticipate that the positions could now be filled rather later in the year than we had initially intended. I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused, and will contact you when action to fill the positions is resumed. 
Yours sincerely &c. 

I'm still waiting. In the meantime I'll continue working on software that may well end up on their machines.