Transport Chaos

2007-07-07

I have just returned from a very pleasant week in Finland, much of it spent in a little cottage by a lake, miles from civilisation (pics at bottom). I got to experience the joys of sauna, swimming in lakes, vowel harmony, et c., et c.. I had a great time, and a much needed break.

The return journey, however, was abominable. The flight was delayed because there was an "extra" bag in the hold. A stewardess began to make an announcement about this, but was wolf-whistled by some oversexed drunkard, and had to start again once she'd regained her composure. More delay. Once we landed at Stansted, a child refused to get out of my way when asked politely. Another ten minutes lost as we then got trapped behind people who apparently can't carry off a plane the luggage they somehow managed to carry onto it. There was then an hour-long "queue", or would have been, had not a group of six utterly self-absorbed teenage girls decided to remain stationary facing the wrong direction chatting on their 'phones, meaning anyone directly behind them couldn't easily progress. More delay. I missed the Stansted Express by about an hour and a half, so waited three hours until the next one (the railway timetable has not been modified to accommodate the greater duration of passport checks said to be necessitated by the terrorist threat; today, 07/07/07, is the second anniversary of the London Tube bombing atrocity).

I fell asleep on the train and was woken by the ticket inspector. It turns I didn't have a valid ticket. I had bought a return ticket at Liverpool St, but apparently had already used it, as it had been clearly marked by a ticket inspector. So, at some point between buying the ticket at 13:34 on Saturday 30 June, four hours before I left the country, and 05:45 on Saturday 7 July, a few hours after arriving back in it, the latter being hours in which the train was not running, I, or someone possibly acting in cahoots with me, had used the ticket to return towards Liverpool St, evaded having it retained by the automatic ticket barriers, and managed to get it back to me, possibly while I was abroad. As it happened, the inspector decided that getting his employer sued by me was not a good career move and let me continue to travel. He wisely concluded that his colleague had marked the wrong ticket (my outbound ticket was, curiously, unmarked).

(the photograph linked above was taken a few seconds before I surrendered the ticket to the machines at Liverpool St)

What is grotesque about this is that railway companies in the UK get the benefit of special laws: failure to produce on demand either a valid ticket or the full fare plus a penalty at the discretion of the company or one's name and address is a criminal offence. Whether or not you've committed an offence depends on how big a penalty fare they choose to impose. If I had the power to choose whether people had committed criminal offences or not, I'd be sure to use it unfairly in my own interests. Whether tickets will be bought before or after boarding is a matter for the convenience of the seller and buyer of those tickets (yesterday I got on a train in Finland without paying, and paid a EUR 3.00 surcharge for the convenience of not missing the train and knowing I was buying the right thing). It's a flagrant misuse of the criminal sanction to allow one party to the transaction to wield it for his own commercial convenience.

This is not even the end of the matter, for there is another criminal law involved: it's also criminal to board the train without a ticket, even if you intend to pay for one plus the penalty fare. I can't find the text of this law, but I'll bet that I broke it, and that it is not defence that one's tickets have been invalidly invalidated by incompetent agents of the beneficiary of this law. Maybe such defacement of tickets by railway staff should be criminally punishable too!

Arriving home, I discovered my flat was partly flooded, slipped, and badly injured my foot. What a great day.

Pic Pic Pic Pic

Not about censorship, but about how we think

2007-07-09

Many people have pet words (or phrases) to whose misuse they take particular exception. Mine is the pair of words "not about", as in:

It's not about piracy. It's about opportunity [Source](http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/internet/04/03/napster.hearing/index.html)
It's not about cigarettes. It's about liberty [Source](http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_m_z/thomas_sutcliffe/article1090921.ece)
It's not about coming into schools criticising, it's about showing them different ways of cooking food [Source](http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1078588.ece)
it's not about conformity, it's about learning how to live in a community [Source](http://travelsearch.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,4386-1876631_2,00.html)
it was not about "bypassing councils'', but aimed at getting local people and the councils together. [Source](http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/06/npols106.xml)
The abortion row in the US is not about babies. It's about power-mad grown-ups who despise each other [Source](http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1726727,00.html)
The clause is not about individuals, but about regulating those who put advertising on the net [Source](http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmstand/f/st020516/am/20516s01.htm)
the treaty is not about enlargement but about further creating a framework to achieve full political and economic union [Source](http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo011017/debtext/11017-31.htm)

What "not about" lets you do is trick people without having to lie.

Imagine X is some proposal to do something or other, and you care about what its consequences would be. If you hear "X is not about Y; X is about Z", you may well think that Y, whatever it happens to be, is unaffected by the proposal to do X, that X doesn't concern Y. Certainly the implication is that X affects Z more than it affects Y.

Further imagine that it's possible to say that a proposal has a main topic and some side effects, that there's some reasonable basis on which the consequences of a proposal like X may be divided between two categories, "main topic" (or "effect") and "side-effects". It'd love to get out the Boolean set theory notation at this point, but this character set is too small to contain it.

The problem with the "X is not about Y" construction is that it sounds like it means something like "X does not concern Y" or "Y is not a side-effect of X", but literally it means "Y is not the main topic of X". Y may well be a a side-effect of X, in which case it would be clearly false to say "X does not concern Y", but that's textually slightly different. When Y is a side-effect of X, "X is not about Y" is true but liable to mislead anyone not considering the words carefully.

It's not true, as I asked you to imagine above, that the division of the effects of some proposal into a main topic and side-effects is always easy. It could be very subjective, and may well have been done by the person discussing the proposal to further his own interests. The "not about" construct permits a speaker who can identify two or more effects of a proposal to trick people into thinking it lacks all but the one which helps his argument, without saying anything untrue. There should be a moratorium on publishing any statement by a public figure which contains the "about / not-about" formula when used to misleading effect. The effect I desire this article to have is to derail the concentration of those who read it when in future they happen upon the "not about" formula. I hope readers will think "Ah, it's one of those tricks I read about; I'll skip to the next paragraph as I'm likely to be about to be misled".

I met someone who worked for Nectar, a loyalty card aggregator. Nectar collects information about purchases made at Sainsbury, Debenhams and so on. This permits, inter alia, price discrimination: the more Nectar knows about Debenham's customers, the better discounts may be targetted at those customers less willing and able to pay Debenham's quoted prices. When I mentioned price discimination to this fellow, he got defensive and said, "Well it's not about price discrimination.", and I'm sure it's true to say that this is not the main consequence of the use of Nectar cards. I asked what this meant, and he just repeated the assertion. I countered with "but it facilitates price discrimination", and yet again he said "Yes but it's not about price discrimination." as though whatever the other consequences of the existence of Nectar cards might have been, the very existence of any other property of the cards sufficed to outweigh this possibly disagreeable one.

Some people are so intellectually corrupt as to need no assistance from phrases such as "not about" in cleaving to the notion that only agreeable consequences exist, but they don't deserve anyone's help or connivance.

Update: The point of this article, even if it's poorly argued, is to make it harder to read the words "not about" without pausing to think. I am starting a collection of misuses of the phrase here.