Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's a simple question...

Dear Lazyweb,

Somewhere out there, there has to be someone who knows what the "priority" attribute does in a style definition in MS Word 2007/2010:

Google is no help. Word MVPs aren't saying.

Word Help is its usual helpless self:

But someone must know. Bonus points for an answer referencing a source published by Microsoft.

Anyone? Anyone at all?

Hate to say "I told you so..."

Ah, who am I kidding? I love to say that. Who doesn't?

According to figures released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - an American outfit, natch - laws banning texting while driving may actually increase the rate of accidents.

The irony is strong in this one.

One suggestion is that offenders don't change their behaviour, but do start trying to conceal it, by holding their phone lower - thus taking their eyes further from where they're supposed to be.

Whatever. To me, it just highlights what I said at the time: this is a stupid law, enacted by people who were either dumb, or playing dumb, or just plain corrupt.

When a law whose purpose is to improve public safety turns out to be not merely ineffective, but actively counter-productive - what should we do about it?

If the answer turns out to be "repeal the law", I'll be amazed.

Monday, September 13, 2010


For those who don't know: Susan is currently expecting our first child.

(By "expecting", I mean "growing internally". A bit like a cannabis plant, but more expensive.)

It's an exciting, disturbing and costly time. There's stuff to buy, stuff to research, stuff to prepare and book and make. And Susan's appetite, always healthy, is growing positively heroic. Having spent years learning to cook smaller portions, now I find she can eat as much in one sitting as I can. The difference being that while I typically eat only a light breakfast and/or a light lunch followed by a proper dinner, she currently eats solidly for three or more meals a day. I think of myself as following the "camel" model, whereas she's closer to "cormorant".

And it seems as if there's a carefully constructed script that we're supposed to follow. No-one has given us a copy - which is fine by me - but somehow we're meant to know it.

The midwife tells us some of it. Yesterday, for instance, S had a blood test that's supposed to tell whether she may be developing diabetes - the midwife told us about that one. And the various ultrasound scan sessions. (For some reason, it's customary to refer to the image one sees on these occasions as "perfectly formed". I don't know about anyone else's experience, but what I saw on the screen would not have looked out of place on a Halloween mask.)

And we're shopping for all the hideous paraphernalia of early parenthood. Cots and bassinets and mattresses and changing tables and strollers and child seats and day-care facilities and who knows what we've forgotten? (Apart from the people trying to sell it to us, of course.)

At this point, I'm wondering through what loophole "parenthood" has slipped into the modern world as something that's still allowed to be done by amateurs. If you want to build a house, or a bridge, or a car, or open a pub, or treat a sick animal (let alone a human), or even cut down a tree in this country - there's a whole grand checklist of things you need to know and do, and even enterprising, can-do people will take time to research it. Most of us, most of the time, will just find someone who's qualified to do it for us.

But not parenting. There are plenty of books that tell you how to do it, but there's no nationally-mandated standard or test to pass. There is no compliance certificate for children.

I'm not complaining. It just seems - incongruous, that's all. After all: the arguments for building codes - that it affects public safety and hygiene, makes a material difference to people's lives, that faults may not become apparent for many years after building, may be impossible or outrageously expensive to fix later - all apply a fortiori to raising a child.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On people who are less trustworthy than politicians

It's a sad fact that journalists are lazy buggers - and if they think they can get away with not working, they will.

Witness the coverage of last week's publication, in the UK, of the Department for Transport's (whatever happened to the Department of Transport? Fed up with people asking whether they were "for" or "against" it?) latest efforts to siphon obscene amounts of public money into private investors' pockets. Oops, sorry, I should have spelled that "... periodic survey of public attitudes to traffic congestion".

There wasn't much coverage, but such as there was, was clearly based on the Department conjunction Transport's press release. The BBC's headline is "Half of UK road users support usage-based road charging". And other outlets are no better. Even the normally-cynical El Reg has swallowed this line of spin.

There is no indication that any of these journalists has read the survey itself. If they had, they might have noticed that's not what it says.

True, over half of people are against the present system, and I don't blame them, because road tax became indefensible around the time horse-drawn carts became rare. But they don't express approval of the options being pushed here. Quite the opposite: when asked "Do you think a new charging scheme is fair?" - without giving any information about what it might involve - over half of those questioned return an unequivocal and full-throated "No!". Barely one-quarter say "Yes". And this opinion has actually hardened over the past few years.

The headline figure, as far as I can tell, comes from asking whether the current system "should be changed so that the amount people pay relates more closely to how often, when and where they use the roads" - that elicits about 50% of "Ayes". But faced with the more specific suggestions that people who drive on busy roads, or at peak times, should pay more, that proportion drops to 25% or less.

If you're advocating road pricing, those answers don't add up. The public appears to be "confused". Me, I think the public understands the issue far better than the people framing the survey, and certainly better than the journalists covering it.

Fortunately, there is one group of people whose livelihood really does depend on interpreting this kind of survey correctly: politicians. Things have come to a pretty pass when I'm appealing to politicians to save us from the idleness and corruption of journalists, but that's where I find myself today. And the UK's coalition government, bless its insecure little heart, has correctly divined what its civil servants are up to here. It "has ruled out for the duration of this Parliament national road pricing on existing roads and any preparation for such schemes beyond that time".

Let's hear it for the politicians...