Friday, January 27, 2012

On the right to bear arms

We currently have an American guest in our house, which is always fun.  Amongst other things, I very much enjoyed the excuse to be a tourist in London at the weekend, and it is quite fun to mock her.

One of the things which seems to have surprised her is the fact that most of our policemen are unarmed.  At one level, this makes me proud to be British, and I am proud of the fact that arming our policemen is not deemed necessary.

Somehow the system works – we never hear of situations where hindsight would suggest that having more armed police would have been a good thing.  This is presumably partly because gun-crime rarely happens in front of the police and so whether they are armed or not is irrelevant.  But there must also be an element of being able to control a situation so that it doesn’t get out of hand.  Certainly we tend to have a strong objection to taking a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude, even when it is arguably unavoidable, such as when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead at Stockwell Tube Station.

Of course, I have so far overlooked a key factor here, which is that the general public are not allowed to carry guns.  We do not need to arm every policeman when the risk of them confronting someone with a gun is potentially comparatively small.

Thinking about this led to a conversation over a plate of haggis earlier in the week, when I asked our American friend why, if the US Constitution encompasses the right to bear arms, US citizens stop at arming themselves with guns.  Why don’t they have rocket launchers, or small nuclear devices?

The reason I was given is that the constitution is apparently more specific, permitting citizens to bear *legal* arms.  Which begs another question.  Why is it always touted as being “unconstitutional” to suggest banning guns in the US?

The way I see it, if the constitution makes a distinction between legal arms and illegal ones, it is not unconstitutional to make guns illegal.  The constitutional right of US citizens to bear legal arms would remain unaffected.  It’s just that said arms would then have to be knives, or sticks, or something.

Clearly I am neither a US citizen or a lawyer.  What have I missed?  Does anyone have any light to shed on this?





Tuesday, January 24, 2012

High Speed 2

I have been asked quite a bit recently about what I think of the plans for a new high-speed railway line between London and Birmingham, and so I thought that I would blog about it.  I appreciate that this may not be of interest to everyone, but then when is that ever the case with my contributions to the Blogosphere?

As a Transport Researcher, I should probably know more about some of the hard facts than I do, so I apologise in advance if you think that you’ve got a more educated opinion than me.  However, on the basis of what I do currently know, I am not hugely in favour of the scheme.  My reasoning can be broken down as follows:


The biggest argument for building High Speed 2 is capacity.  It is argued that the current transport links (chiefly the West Coast Mainline and the M6) are overcrowded and are not going to cope with predicted future travel demand.  This is probably very true, but is all of the predicted future demand necessary?  In an age when we need to be thinking about our energy usage and environmental impact, would it not be better to try and reduce the amount we travel?  Additionally, I fear that HS2 risks falling in to the old trap of ‘predict-and-provide’ transport planning; in the past, transport schemes have been built to cater for demand and ease congestion, and have ended up becoming congested themselves as demand soars.  In other words, if HS2 is built, will we still have a congested transport corridor in 20 years time such that we need yet another new link?

Link to Heathrow

I think that if HS2 is built it should have a proper link to Heathrow, as a stop on the mainline and not as a spur.  The eco-weenies amongst you will doubtless complain at this point, and tell me that I shouldn’t be encouraging flying like this, but I will simply say “get real.”  The lack of access and capacity at Heathrow has not, as some might proudly try and tell you, reduced demand for aviation.  Instead, let me point out that Emirates can now justify flying several of their large a380s in and out of Manchester each day.  KLM and Lufthansa also have good connections to the UK regions. 

We need to accept that, for the time being at least, people are going to want to fly long-haul to reach Africa, America, Asia and Australia.  So rather than give away the business to the foreign hubs in Dubai, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt (possibly increasing the amount of flying and CO2 emissions in the process) we should be following the example of the Germans (Frankfurt), Dutch (Amsterdam-Schipol) and the French (Paris-Charles de Gaulle) and having good high-speed rail links to Heathrow with through ticketing.  That way, the amount of flying is reduced (those travelling long-haul from the UK regions only take one flight, not two) and we keep the business in the UK.

Let me put it this way.  Suppose you live in the north-west and want to fly to South Africa.  Do you a) board an a380 and fly via Dubai, or b) pay more for a rail ticket, and struggle with your cases amongst the commuters at the Cross-Rail Interchange on your way to Heathrow?

Economic Benefit

Much of the predicted economic benefit from building HS2 is based on the fact that time = money and if you save someone time on the train they are more productive elsewhere.  I, however, am sceptical about this.  If you allow someone to get from London to Birmingham in less time, are they really going to spend that extra time at work? Or are they going to have a lie-in, at no economic benefit to anyone?  Perhaps the bus connections at each end are such that actually, the time “saved” is spent waiting in the cold for a bus.  Or perhaps some people will even move further from the office and commute for the same amount of time.

Additionally, no-one seems to have taken too much notice of the fact that time spent on the train can be productive.  Chiltern Trains have picked up on this with their new Mainline Service, with a real emphasis on an onboard environment which is conducive to working/catching up on emails etc.  I like this approach, and have long argued that “airline style seating” works on a plane because you don’t have to spend very long sitting in it, whilst on a train passengers would rather not feel like they are on a plane.  Instead, space to work, or just to stretch out, is much more beneficial.  Train designers have ignored this fact for a while though.  Richard Branson, the King of Gimmicks, may proudly point out the power-points on his trains, but what’s the point in being able to charge my laptop if I don’t have the space to use it?


Finally, I am also quite sceptical about the environmental benefits HS2 may bring…but I’ll save that for another post.




Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Easy on my soul

According to the BBC, “Work-averse students, corner-cutting journalists and people who simply enjoy wasting time online are in for a testing day.”

I’m sure that there have been times in the past when someone could have argued that I fitted all three categories, but let’s gloss over that.  I’ve not blogged in a while and you’re bored because Wikipedia is on strike, so let’s just try and make the best of a bad situation.

I should probably comment on said strike, just because it would be rude not to.  If I’ve had the pleasure of your company in this corner of the Blogosphere before, you may well think that I have an aversion to going on strike, as if saying the word to me is like waving a red rag to a bull – and it is fair to say that I’ve not had much time for some of the recent strikes.*

Perhaps surprisingly, however, I’m in favour of the stance Wikipedia is taking, despite the irony that I had intended to spend some time on it this morning brushing up on some basic concepts from a report I read yesterday.  I am, after all, very much in favour of free speech and thought it bad enough when the BBC censored a whole show just because Jeremy Clarkson had announced that those who went on strike “should be taken out and shot.”**

Anyway, let’s move on before you think that all I ever do is whinge about strikers.  I should probably pass comment on the new High Speed Rail Line (HS2) given that my research is concerned with it, but I’ll come back to that later, as it sometimes seems that if I’m not talking about strikes I’m blogging about trains.

Instead, I’m going to refer you to this BBC Article about a student who “rejected Oxford.”  After all, it was reading it which was the trigger point for opening Windows Live Writer just now, so I may as well continue to say something about it.  However, I’m going to cut corners in my journalism at this point and tell you to read the article for yourself, rather than regurgitating some choice quotes here.

My first comment is that Ms Nowell would have had much more weight to her argument if she’d been accepted to study there in the first place.  Any fool can put on a brave face and say “oh well, I didn’t want to get the place anyway” if we feel the interview has gone badly.  I also find it fairly ironic that she complains about it being “elitist” but was too narrow-minded to actually experience it for herself.

Having been an Oxford student myself, I can’t deny that I encountered a few people with an elitist attitude. But I actually enjoyed four years amongst some down-to-earth, broad-minded people and made some great friends.  On the other hand, from my experience of other universities, it would seem that not going to Oxbridge isn’t going to stop daddy from buying you a pony and paying for your crashed car.

And on that note, I’ve been work averse and wasted too much time this morning.  So I’ll love you and leave you – if you’re still missing Wikipedia I’m sure you can occupy yourself with the archived posts on the right.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of this post, I don’t have time to procrastinate any longer so I just nabbed the title of the song I was listening to.  Have a bonus point if you can name the artist.

*Does anyone actually have any time for them when they demand triple pay and the Union bosses have massive salaries anyway?

**Interestingly, they didn’t censor the union woman who in all seriousness compared Clarkson to Col. Gadaffi.