Some Thoughts on the Media and The Smiler

Last summer the thing that keeps theme park owners awake at night happened at Alton Towers – a crash between two trains on your flagship rollercoaster. It was the worst incident to happen at a UK Theme Park in living memory. It was the talk of the rollercoaster community for months and months, and was rightly in the media a lot. The people who were affected were promptly dealt with by Alton Towers, who rightly held their hands up and confirmed it was operator error that caused the incident. 

For those of us who are "experienced" in rollercoaster design (in as much as I have read engineering documentation about safe operations in the past during one of my most detailed and thorough obsessions) it was obvious that one of two things had caused the incident on the Smiler – operator errors, as it bore out, or a serious operational malfunction with the control systems on the ride. Anyone who has played RollerCoaster Tycoon could have figured that out from the facts made available at the time and from reading several forums, many filled with posters far more experienced in the operation of the Smiler than I am, it is clear that something awful occurred that could have been avoided, and Alton Towers rightly took fully responsibility for the event.

The story should have ended after the results of the report were made public. However, Alton Towers re-opened the Smiler this spring and continue to operate the other rides at their park.

Since the ride’s incident, a spotlight has been shone on the park and its operations, with the media enjoying the new-found bogey-man. The inherent risk seemingly involved in riding a rollercoaster plays into the fears of the public, and that fear is something theme parks court openly – consider the fact that Alton Towers played up their ride Th13teen with contracts saying you will not sue them for being scared on the ride, and this year’s Derren Brown’s Ghost Train is supposedly an experience like no other, built by a master of manipulation of the mind. It loves fear.

It can court these because people are scared of these rides, and they do bring out the adrenaline in us, and they are typically far safer than even the trains and cars we use to get to these theme parks, so when something comes up that actually suggests that they aren’t safe at all – it’s a perfect story for the media.

This annoys me a bit when things are printed and posted that are just blatant nonsense. I am in no way suggesting that those who were hurt from the Smiler accident don’t deserve to be compensated and empathised with, but what does confuse me is the reporting of stuff that is totally routine.

The reason the Smiler incident was so catastrophic was the over-ride on the safety systems deliberately put into place to protect the riders. The override, undertaken by the operators, caused the accident. The systems to prevent that accident are fully comprehensive and cause what is known as “outages” on rides all the time. Rides will default to a safe state, and the safest place for a rider and the ride is on the lift hill or launch section.

In May of this year, Galatica (nee Air) had an outage during heavy rain. The ride stopped the train on the lift hill presumably due to a trip of the safety features of the ride. This was reported widely as “passengers were stuck in the air for thirty minutes” by the media, and I’m sure you’d panic if you were stuck on anything for thirty minutes. I struggle in traffic for thirty minutes! But the thing is there is a disingenuous thread running through the whole piece which implies folk on the ride were in danger. They weren’t at all.

One line is a blatant lie – “One eyewitness said that because of the design of the ride there was no platform underneath for passengers to exit onto”. This is not true. As it is a suspended rollercoaster, it doesn’t have the same railings at other rides do, but there is a platform for recovery of passengers from this position – in photos you can see the rails for this platform which can be used to evacuate riders from the ride.

This past week The Smiler was closed after people reported something fall from the ride. From reading forum posts, it appears it was a rubber running ring on the upstop wheels on the ride. The train was stopped, passengers evacuated, and the train removed from service. No one was hurt. The reporting was obviously quite outlandish and sensationalised because of what actually happened on the ride before, but the reality is that it was safe and fine and everyone was safe. 

The strangest thing about this past week is that whilst you can understand the media reporting that because it is news, seeing the BBC actually go and find a non-story is wildly disappointing. One of the victims of the smiler’s incident last year this week called for the ride to be closed indefinitely. It is her right to want this, and I’m sure many people who were affected by the ride in that way would also want the ride to be closed, but it is odd to have her say that it should be closed until it is sorted out – the HSE and Alton Towers wouldn’t reopen the ride if it wasn’t sorted out.

In the end, it is just the usual from the media – that stories shouldn’t get in the way of the truth (or the implied truth) that things are dangerous. It is a blow to critical thinking to see people read this and agree without stopping to think about the way in which things are reported and the reasons things are written a certain way.

And for full disclosure, I love rollercoasters, but I’ve not been on the Smiler. I have, however, been on two rollercoasters who have been stopped whilst an emergency stop has been pulled, and whilst they were unnerving, it reminded me of the way things are tested and engineered to be safe. That’s my mentality.

Forced Innovation - Apple and the 3.5mm Audio Jack

I've been harsh on Apple in the past. The whole iPhone 5 debacle was one. Last year I ranted at their "innovation" that was heralded across the entire internet. It is safe to say that, despite this post written on a Macbook, I don't really like Apple's technology anymore. I try to use Connie's iPhone and feel hampered by the lack of the things I take for granted on my Android.

It was with amusement and a smirk that Apple revealed last week that they had decided to drop the 3.5mm audio jack from the new iPhone, the iPhone 7. I ordered my iPhone 5 the moment it was announced, and then left the walled garden sharply, but if I had been waiting with baited breath on the iPhone 7 for my next major phone upgrade I'd have bailed straight away.

Let me state this obviously - getting rid of the 3.5mm jack is a very idiotic idea.

And the first reviews coming in suggest that an impressively updated and powerful smartphone has been hampered an innovation one step too far.

The port is gone and has been replaced by a single Lightning port, the same one that the iPhone 5 debuted. A reversible replacement for the old iPod connector, it was a tough one to bear - I had two docks for playing music through my phone and losing access to them was rough and tough to bear. Both of those hi-fis are in use still today, however - one connected to my phone via - yep, you guessed it - a 3.5mm audio jack, and to Connie's iPhone through the Lightning to iPod connector adapter, and the other is connected to a Google Chromecast that is connected via - yep, once again - a 3.5mm connector.

The replacement of the audio jack connector with the single lightning connector is a mistake for a raft of reasons, most of which are mildly trivial ... all bar one. The main issue is that despite the "future being wireless" as Apple so keenly pointed out, the key word is "future". We don't live in the future. We are heading there, and we can predict what it is going to be like, but we're still in the present, and in the present almost everything in my life connects via the 3.5mm adapter. 

Yes, it is hundred odd years old, and it certainly takes up loads of space in my devices, but good engineers work around that. The jack is universal and has been for decades. The headphones I have invested time and effort in discovering are designed for analogue input. They can be used with my iPad, the Macbook, my Android phone, the old iPod nano, my old MiniDisc player, the old 2004 laptop. Even the Yeti has a 3.5mm connector!

So Apple have decided that to forge progress they needed to drop it whole sale - and in the past that has worked. Getting rid of the CD-ROM drive was bold. So too was their dropping of the floppy disc. But this smacks of forced innovation.

The jack we all use daily (bar the select few who put up with the drawbacks and restricted wireless headphone work) is gone from the best selling smartphone. Replaced with a single port for everything else - how do you charge your phone and listen to audio? You can't (without a few adapters). It seems like someone has wanted it to work and it has been decided that it must work and therefore it has "worked".

Bundling an adapter is a kinda smirky thing to do; it's a strange inelegant solution for a problem they've created. Rightly, they're damned if they do or don't - not putting it in the box would be as big a deal as the Lightning switchover I was so pissed about back in 2012. The big problem is that everything else uses that jack and nothing uses the lightning jack and, even worse nothing else ever will because it's a lock down Apple standard. If they'd used USB-C I might have had a little more sympathy for them. 

When Connie moves next year to upgrade her iPhone 6S it is unlikely she will aim for the iPhone 7. Instead, maybe an iPhone SE, or an Android. Who knows. I just know that some people, like me and her, don't want the hassle of wireless headphones or multiple adapters. I've got used to the wires. I actually, despite hating them, kind of rely on them a bit. 

I guess time will tell if it was the right move. In my experience however, when I used to work for The Link, there was a time where every single phone on the market came with it's own set of headphones and connector, and we screamed for the day where a 3.5mm adapter would appear on a regular phone. Motorola and Apple no less figured that out with the Moto ROKR E1 which didn't have it, and when Nokia released the N90 and Sony went for the jugular with the Walkman range, the world had figured it out. Back then, the reasons for excluding the jack were obvious; no one used their phone to listen to music and there wasn't any space in the devices for the jack. Now, today in 2016, everyone listens to music on the smartphones almost all the time anywhere and by god have you seen the size of the phones we have today? There's loads of space!

The future is wireless but we're not there yet. Now I just need to untangle my earphones to be able to listen to my podcast.

A&E 3

Previously A&E and ER.

It was a Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays. Joni was about to have her breakfast served, I was running partially late-ish for work, and Connie was just rousing out of bed, and I hadn’t fed Frank. Frank was hungry, anxious, and when he is like this he can be a bit jumpy, and a bit unpredictable. I had left Joni’s milk in the front room, so I wandered in to grab it. Frank was nicely snoozing on the floor in front of the couch. I saw that Joni’s milk was on the far side of the couch, and I lifted my right leg over to go and get it and Frank jumped up into my leg-swing and got a facefull of my foot.

I basically volleyed my dog in the face.

The result of this was excruciating pain. I doubled over, swearing loudly, and shouted for Connie. “I’m hurt! I’ve hurt myself!” I shout, to her bemusement. Much to her credit, when saw me hobbled over on the floor basically crying in pain her reaction was to help me up, lie me down, and then take over dealing with Joni.

I popped ice onto it and was convinced it was broken. I’d not felt foot pain like it. After a quick call to NHS 111 they said it was best to head into a drop-in centre to get it checked.

We gathered together Joni and her things and headed to the Keswick hospital, and arrived to a small queue of other injured people. It is a quaint hospital with a few triage rooms and a raft of Dyson Air Multipliers (see below). They inspected the foot, X-rayed it, and then said it wasn’t broken, but instead it was a bruised bone.

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Once you tell people it is a bruised bone they’ll laugh it off – a “bruise” is the weakest of all the injuries, one that simply looks bad but isn’t really that troublesome. In reality, a bone bruise is a mere inch away from a true fracture. I’d bruised one or more of my “cuneiform” bones, which form a threesome of triangle bones on the top bridge of your foot. A bruise is the swelling a fluid released from trauma into the spaces in between, which creates the pain.

And I am in pain. I have been gifted crutches and spent my birthday (yep, my birthday) hobbling about the house. I can put weight on it quite easily, but it’s the lateral movement side-to-side and the vertical movement up and down that causes agony. I can also drive fine too, as the slight weight on my heel helps with the pain.

This lack of looking like I can’t walk means people think I can walk very easily. It doesn’t detract from the fact that I am pretty silly to have been injured this way.

The experience of A&E for the second time in a year (Joni had a tumble into a set of drawers last year) and the third member of my family to be X-rayed in three weeks (Joni had a chest X-ray a few weeks back during an overnight hospital stay, and my dad also had one recently) doesn’t help the fact that I still feel like a plonk when telling folk I hurt my foot when I stepped over the dog. 

Frank’s fine, by the way.

Note – I noticed that every single room in the hospital had a Dyson Air Multiplier, which costs around £300 a shot compared to a usual £15 fan. I asked Twitter and they replied with a simple “it’s easier to keep clean” and a Google suggests that loads of other people have asked similar questions.

Tim Hortons and the UK

Tim Hortons is a Canadian institution. It was one of the first places that I was inducted into when I went to Canada with Connie and it is the first place we go when we arrive. Their coffee is great, but you go for the coffee and you stay for the doughnuts. The doughnuts are worth a flight price on their own. If you don't like a Chocolate Dip then we don't have a future as friends. When we lived in Texas we specifically went to Tim's three times in New York City on a trip, finding out the hard way that US Tim Hortons are a bit shit.

It is interesting how places around the world have their places - the UK has Greggs which is as close to Tims as we have here. It does cheap coffee, good cakes and sandwiches, and a few other things - even the slogans are similar now. "Always fresh" is Tim's, "Always fresh" is Greggs'! It is a match made in heaven.

A photo of my last Canadian-side Tim Hortons, August 2015.

A photo of my last Canadian-side Tim Hortons, August 2015.

This week saw the new owners of Tim's announced that they are planning a rapid expansion into the UK. Arguably, they're quite late to the game - Costa and Starbucks are slowly creeping out their drive-through coffee shops, with Costa getting there first. There is a chance Tim's could work better than their last attempt. The last time they tried was through in-shop stalls in Spars all over the UK, and it was subpar frozen doughnuts and weak coffee. Kinda like those Krispy Kreme doughnut stands at service stations.

The expansion of Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme shops has probably spurred the owners on to expand into the UK, but there are a few pitfalls that they could drop into that would make their arrival a bit disappointing. 

Key to Tim's massive success in Canada is the coffee. The coffee is cheap, strong, and always ready. They don't grind the beans as you wait in line, they have pots brewed and kept warm, and are thrown away after 20 minutes on the hot plate. It makes a mockery of the glacial pace that a Costa drive through has. That has to pass across to the UK. Additionally the price must pass over. I don't mean exactly the same price, but I mean at least in the same ball park. The price should be around £1 a small, which would undercut the places they're probably going to struggle to get traction against like Starbucks, but would push them up against Greggs, their true competition.

The rest of the things they need are the range of doughnuts which I expect will pass over directly, but also the sandwiches, soups (chicken noodle better come over or they will feel the wrath of my wife) and the sizes of the coffees - small, medium, large, extra large... and the lingo too, like double double, single, black...

My favourite mug.

My favourite mug.

Basically, it has an impossible set of expectations that us Canadian-coffee lovers will require it to meet. Instead, maybe they will focus on their expansion. I fully expect £2.20 coffees and £3 doughnuts. And i'll be sad.

But I'll still go.

Statistics on My Music: 2016 Edition

For last year's post and all earlier posts, click here. 

Each year I appraise my music listening habits based on previous year's using the Last.fm Scrobbling service. For interest, I have been doing this since 2010 and for the respective years, click the links below.

In what might be the second longest running series on the blog, here is the seventh edition of my musical statistics following from 2015’s post. Since last year’s post was in July, a few months early, and this year’s post is in September, the results might be a little skewed, but that’s just part of the fun isn’t it. If you’re new to this, I used Last.fm to record every listen I do on my smartphone in an attempt to categorise all my listening and draw trends from the results. There are a few things that run back into the past, like the drop of The Smiths almost entirely from the list, and the obvious surge of listens of Boards of Canada that the year brings, but over the year things change my listening habits.

In the past twelve months my listening has been entirely on my smartphone almost exclusively. The avenues for streaming on my work PC were removed when I moved jobs in September 2016, and I have listened in the car a lot more when driving to and from work as there is no cycling this past year. What this means is that despite the moves away from listening last year, the expectation is that listening ,might have gone up. The thing is that scrobbling on my phone isn’t the most solid way of recording listens as work has patchy internet coverage and the apps are prone to not submitting scrobbles. So this year might be the least representative of my actual listening in years, sadly.

Obviously, the other thing is that I am still doing the Monday Graveyard, which doesn’t have the same effect on the listens as it used to, but might still have some bearing. Oh yeah, and I spent three months out of work. Hmmm.

What might be the biggest shift is my move to podcast listening. I have started to listen to several podcasts a week on a regular schedule and even listened to an audio book for a month or so on on-and-off listening, which might impact the results again.

Anyway, that’s enough waffle. Onto the meat of the post.

The drop-dead date for this post is the 4th September 2016. Total plays is 110382, an addition of 7505 plays.

Here’s the first big surprise of the year – my scrobbles have dramatically dropped. Hugely, in fact. This is because of a simple problem; my phone doesn’t automatically scrobble listens on Google Play Music. As I’d guess, maybe 40% of my listens are on this app, and it requires a third party app to monitor the listens and submit them. Assuming 40% of my scrobbles are missed, this takes the number up to around 10507 for the year, which is almost exactly the same amount as 2015. Anyway, we can’t rely on assumptions, we can only go by the submitted information, and as such, the details are as they have been scrobbled, which suggests that I have had a large 30% drop year-on-year in listening. If you consider I didn’t listen to music from mid-July to late September due to an interruption in my employment, this might make sense. As always, the theories are abundant.

Last year I posted some graphs about the drop in listens from the heyday of 2010-2011, and 2016’s numbers are less than half of that. There is another blog post from these numbers over the whole period covered by these posts. That’s for another time, I think.

Let’s do this – the tables.

Top Ten Artists of All Time

  1. Boards of Canada 4277 (EQUAL) +236 plays
  2. Belle and Sebastian 2028 (EQUAL) +22 plays
  3. The Twilight Sad 1826 (EQUAL) +131 plays
  4. Idlewild 1657 (EQUAL) +39 plays
  5. Wild Beasts 1554 (UP!) +223 plays
  6. The Walkmen 1556 (DOWN) +33 plays
  7. Modest Mouse 1404 (DOWN) +29 plays
  8. Mogwai 1401 (UP!) +107 plays
  9. Interpol 1364 (DOWN) +9 plays
  10. Deftones 1240 (NEW ENTRY!)

Not much changing in the over-all list for this year. Elbow sadly drop out despite their stunning 2015 album really being on my list of favourites from the year. The 236 plays added by Boards of Canada is one of the lowest numbers added by them in the time that the posts have been running, but in percentages terms is 3.1% of all plays this year. Wild Beasts comes closest to that this year, amassing a tonne of listens, probably most from their new album (one I still can’t make my mind up about).

As ever, the bulk of listens this year sits outside of the top ten. The top ten total plays is (excluding Deftones, the sole new entry this year) is about 10% of the total added this year. This is a drop on last year’s top ten, which was 11% of the total plays.  So let’s see where The Smiths sit in the over-all list – last year they had dropped to 14th place with 1042 plays. They sit now at 16th, pushed out with now zero plays since 2013. That’s a whole load of no plays. I’m almost tempted to never listen to them again to keep this run, but instead I’m tempted to never listen to them again because I find them a bit pants.

The big story though is that the rest of the top ten, excluding the ever present Boards of Canada and the resurgent Wild Beasts, there is a dearth of new plays. Taking those two out, the total addition is 4.9% of the total.

So where are all the other plays coming from?

Top Ten Artists from the Last Twelve Months

  1. Beach House 252
  2. The Dears 223
  3. Wild Beasts 222 (Top Ten)
  4. Boards of Canada 216 (Top Ten)
  5. Deftones 159 (Top Ten)
  6. De Rosa 125
  7. Loscil 113
  8. Mogwai 107 (Top Ten)
  9. Arab Strap 106
  10. Local Natives 104

So there is a surprise – Boards of Canada drop out from the top spot for the first time in a long time. Instead, in the past year, Beach House have made it to the top. This will be because they released two full albums that were my favourites last year, a trick that The Phantom Band did last year, and that certainly helps them get into the top list. Also there is The Dears, which is a Canadian band from my Uni days. The reason they dropped in is they released a new album last year that sits up there with the best they’ve ever done, and it made me reflect on their back catalogue.

There is a good showing from Scotland here too, with Mogwai, De Rosa and Arab Strap all making it. Arab Strap are an ever presence, and when I get into them it’s a full discography run through, but De Rosa are different. They released their first album since 2009 just this past January, and it’s utterly wonderful. That’ll be the bulk of their plays I’d reckon.

Loscil makes it into the list. Recently, I’ve been rinsing his back catalogue, and it marks a drop from last year’s numbers, it is still strong. However, looking back, last year’s top ten from the past year was oddly high. In fact, only the top four this year would have made it into last year’s top ten, with number 10, Taylor Swift, being 200 plays. That’s a good indication that we’ve dropped a lot on last year’s plays.

Unlike last years, which was less than a year, this is actually more than a year. What I mean is that this only goes back to the 5th September 2015, but that means there is a drop of numbers since last year’s post which was made in July 2014 to July 2015.

Interestingly, in this period I played 704 different distinct artists. That’s a new figure – so the top ten artists accounts for 1.4% of all the artists played, but accounts for 12% of the plays.

Top Ten Artists from the last six months

  1. Wild Beasts 166
  2. Local Natives 96
  3. Loscil 78
  4. Linkin Park 64
  5. The Twlight Sad 63
  6. Deftness 60
  7. Beach House 55
  8. Skye 55
  9. Frightened Rabbit 51
  10. Crystal Castles 49

With this post last year Boards of Canada made headlines worldwide by being beaten into second place. This year, the unthinkable has happened – they don’t even make into the list whatsoever. At all. Nope. Not even there.

Now don’t go panicking – this is probably down to the Google Play Music missed plays, as I own all the Boards of Canada I play, and don’t use Spotify for that listening. But it is interesting, as I don’t really remember a time when I did listen to them a lot recently.

I laughed when I saw that Linkin Park had made it – I listened to their back catalogue a lot a few months ago, but it was just for fun. They probably have had that many plays since 2005.

The Artists That Didn’t Make the Lists

As always the limitations of the “top ten” means that some artists miss out regularly that should have made it. Errors are the band that almost always end up missing out, and are in 11th place this year in the all-time list, missing by just 19 plays on the coveted top ten spot. Elbow, who worked their way into the list last year, drop out to 12th place. Tycho, one of my favourites, leaped above The Smiths in all-time plays, and is about 150 away from breaking into the top ten all time plays, and it’s likely he will – he should release a new record by this time next year.

Outside of the top ten we hit a few more artists that feel like I’ve been listening to them more than obviously I have. In the past six months Mark Pritchard appears, as does Travis, Moderat and The Avalanches, who released their first album in 16 years this year.

Wrap Up

Well, another run through completed. Seven years since I started doing this and it always is interesting and I find it quite educational. 2016’s edition isn’t much different from last year’s edition.

Thanks again to Last.fm for their wonderful scrobbling system.

The Games That Used to Drive My Parents Mad (Probably)

When I was a child there were two times a year that a simple game would understandably drive my parents bonkers. The two times a year were August the 1st and December-time. The games were played between myself and my sister who would follow my lead on them because, obviously, it was fun to play them together, and it would end up requiring a threat of punishment before they would stop. The games were very similar and born entirely of the time they were played – the first was the Number Plate Game, and the second was the Christmas Tree Game.

The Number Plate Game was simple really – every first of August when I was a kid a new number plate would come out signifying the start of brand new cars. I’d be on the lookout for the new plates the day they were released, even sometimes standing at the top of my road watching as the cars drove by. I was a bit of a spotter as a kid, and I knew a lot of the car models and makes, and could name check them from very far away. I still can, in fact, and it’s something that I’m quite confused about exactly how I can do this. It’s not like I sit down with the lists of models and memorise them, it’s just that once I see a model and I see it’s shape it is committed to memory. I am also pretty amazing at remembering number plates on cars, presumably from years of playing this very game as a kid. This technique did not translate to anything else in my life however, as I can barely remember the simplest things day-to-day, and certainly not equations for high school.

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The game was one that would start and run for a few weeks, with me keeping tabs on how many I’d seen. It was always a bit of a buzz seeing a new plate appear, partly because in the past it was only refreshed once a year in August. When they changed to twice a year, which was an attempt to alleviate the bulk of registrations for all cars in that year all happening in August, the problems of the old [Letter][three numbers][three letters] system running out of combinations was made worse. This change meant that you’d get two slots a year of the game, but it was less of a buzz. Today, these days, they still change them each year (05 and 55 for March and September 2005, 16 and 66 for March and September 2016, and, fact fans, when it hits the 2026, it’ll be 26, 76) and whilst I still keep any eye out for the new plates out of habit, they have become less of an event. I do still remember last year’s first sighting of a 15 plate though sitting on a driveway of a house in Rutherglen on the 28th of February, the night before, something I’d never seen before.

The other game was spotting Christmas trees from the road in the lead up to Christmas. I remember that we used to count them too, and it would be a sort of competition that my sister and I would run against each other, but mostly it was just the same game as the Number Plate game. This one would annoy my parents immensely, as not only did we shout out when we saw one that we hadn’t seen before, but also it got earlier and earlier the older we got, with now trees appearing in early November. The funny thing about this game was the people had to place their tree at the window for it to be seen through the blinds or the curtains, and our tree in our house wasn’t at the window. It was (and still is) located at Christmas at the right hand side of the fireplace towards the back corner of the room. I think I remember it once or twice being close to the window because Lynn and I insisted it, but I’m not the best for remembering those kinds of things.

I don’t play this game anymore, but I’m sure I’ll teach it to Joni in time.