I’ve twinned my toilet!

A few months ago, I stumbled across an interesting charity that helps communities without sanitation build better loos. It has an arresting premise that you can “twin your toilet” – and I liked the concept so much I filed it away for a day when I might be able to afford to take part.

That day has come, and today P hiked to the Royal Mail depot to pick up the parcel that contained our framed certificate with details of which toilet we are twinned with. The cert. includes latitude and longitude (11.03783, 105.65613) and with the magic of Google Maps we can see where in the world we are talking about.

Our toilet twin is in Cambodia, not far from the Vietnamese border. Not a part of the world I know much about, and I had to zoom out an awful lot before I finally saw a place name I had heard of before. (Bangkok!)

The toilet twinning website gives all sorts of fascinating and disturbing reasons why it’s important that toilets are improved wherever possible:

It’s out of order! 1 in 3 people across the world don’t have somewhere safe to go to the toilet. Bad sanitation is one of the world’s biggest killers: it hits women, children, old and sick people hardest. Every minute, three children under the age of five die because of dirty water and poor sanitation. And, right this minute, around half the people in the world have an illness caused by bad sanitation.

And why it’s also done in a community minded way – it’s apparently no good showing up and building a latrine without teaching the people it’s for what it does!

[The Village Education Resource Centre] realised that a band of khaki-clad aid workers pitching up in a community with a 4×4, a load of spades and materials for building loos – did not constitute a successful sanitation programme – because the community were left with a strange looking building that they didn’t know what to do with. In a straight contest between the “it-came-from-out-of-nowhere-latrine”, and the local river – the river won: on the premise of “better the devil you know”

Twin your toilet today!

The Audit Commission should not waste its money threatening bloggers

I read with some concern NCCLOL’s post that he has received a letter from solicitors acting for the District Auditor following posts he wrote about various issues concerning Nottingham City Council and the District Auditor. He states quite clearly what has happened, and you should go and read it.

The way the political system in this country works is that it is supposed to be accountable to the public. Painfully few people take enough of an interest in our many public bodies, and many of them work in completely opaque ways. When people are prepared to put the time in to discover what is going on and write about it, often in depth, it should be something that is rewarded, not something that frightens public officials.

When people holding roles in public bodies take decisions, they must expect to be held accountable for them. That includes criticism from informed commentators such as local bloggers, who can be expected to express themselves forcefully.

It cannot possibly be right that Audit Commission has paid several thousands of pounds to solicitors to send a frightener letter to a member of the public who is doing what members of the public are supposed to do: holding to account public officials.

US President trivia

Liberal England has the news that it’s been confirmed that US President John Taylor, who was in office from 1841-1845, still has living grandchildren.

It’s one of those strange and unlikely sounding facts, and it brings to mind two further pieces of trivia.

The first is that there is a photograph of Mozart’s wife, which I blogged about here. (It’s also a little bit strange and unlikely that I can have a) blogged something six years ago and b) still remember it!)

The second is a great trivia question that came up as part of my car-share to Mordor last year: which is the only US president to have worn Nazi uniform? The answer is Continue reading

Single story danger for Aspley

One of the seminars we had about school culture in the last days of last term featured this TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie called the danger of the single story.

In it she recounts her own experiences talking to people whose only impressions of Africa included starving orphans in mud huts, and the dissonance that caused with her own African life. She talks about how her own writing began in homage to her own reading, and that her childhood involved few stories written in Africa.

But as she she was talking of the danger of the single story, it was something a little closer to home that was going through my mind.

I had recently put “Aspley” into the Nottingham Post website to find a story there about a proposed and rejected 20MPH zone on a main road in what used to be my ward. If you do that you get a slew of horrible stories about bad things that have happened. Violence, theft, murder. Smoking, burglaries, tragic death of motorcyclist.

You have to do quite a lot of paging down to find even neutral stories, let alone any of the positive things that are happening in that part of the world.

And there are plenty. The Aspley SuperWarmZone. Fundraising for Motor Neurone Syndrome. The fab solar panel programme that got a photo in The Sun.

Pull the focus out just a little bit and you get Nottingham’s reputation, undeserved, for higher than average gun crime. Things you think are going away a bit until some idiot who should know better brings them all up again.

Apology replacement service

A couple of links about railways have passed my desk in recent times.

The first is an Economist blogger who hates the special language the railways have developed. In the comments, it develops into more hatred for the automated announcements that blight our stations and trains. Lateness is so normal that robots apologize for it without reference to real people. Once a train is more than thirty minutes late, the robot automatically becomes “extremely” sorry.

My own pet hates, particularly when I am unfortunate enough to use Nottingham railway station in the morning, are the ticket barriers, and the constant reminders of things people shouldn’t do on the platform: smoke, leave their luggage unattended, and, apparently, be unaware that CCTV monitors the station 24 hours a day.

Once, on a tour of council housing estates with the then CX of Nottingham City Homes, he told me that he hated the little signs on lampposts about domestic violence and burglary and smartwater. He told me they were tantamount to putting up signs that say “We hit women!” and “Lots of crime happens here!” If domestic violence and burglary are so endemic you need to start putting up signs for the violent people and the burglars then you have lost the plot in a big way.

In my travels recently, I passed an abandoned lorry trailer in a layby, on which was emblazoned, in 20 or so EU languages, “WARNING! LORRY THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA!” – attempting to tell drivers that if they nap in their cab in a layby, they might wake up to find their trailer has been nicked. How depressing that this is common enough an occurrence to need an ad to tell people about it? Why not simply have one that says “TRUCKERS – the police here are useless!” since this is clearly the subtext many people will get from the other ad.

So it is with wretched ticket barriers. They are an admission of failure. Fare evasion is so much a normal part of the travelling experience in the UK that it is apparently worth spending millions of pounds on hateful robots that sit in our stations and assume all travellers are fare dodgers until they prove they’re not. I hate them so much. If, as I do, you celebrate your timely arrival at the station before a train by buying a coffee and a danish from Amt Espresso in Nottingham Station’s distribution hall, you then find you do not have enough hands to operate the machinery: coffee in one hand; cake in the other, how are you supposed to sort out your wallet, sort through the 20 coupons you were given, locate the one the barrier will understand as a ticket, feed it into the tiny slot and get through without scalding yourself, or worse, dropping the cake? They must be a pain for those with mobility problems, cycles or more small children than hands. And far from replacing the staff, the robots need a small army of human chaperones to fix the inevitable problems when half the travelling public are unable to use the barriers. Surely that small army would be just as effective if they were there on their own unsupported by the hated robots?

The barriers are certainly a part of Paris’s Métro system and I expect you can see them in other parts of France too. Yet in my experience most of Germany’s public transport relies on more honesty from its passengers. Yes, they have ticket inspectors – rarely – but the stations are much more open, and of course there are a lot more of them – and everyone just assumes that most people will pay their way. I wonder if anyone has ever prepared an infographic on ticket barriers? Is there line across the globe like the line with details of how you pronounce A in words like “bath”? Barriers vs inspectors? Fare-evaders vs fare-payers.

My second rail link is here, as usability experts take a look at rail tickets and see if their design can be improved. No question there is substantial scope for improvement and the blog post takes us through the problems and potential solutions. It’s been at least fifteen years since I looked at the ADULTS: ONE CHILD: NIL line on the tickets and wondered what the point was: they had obviously been designed so that it was possible to have a whole family travel with one ticket, and this functionality has never been used, at least as far as I am aware.

When I shared the link on G+ an irritable friend opined it was time to ditch tickets altogether in favour of phone apps and home printing. But even if they did introduce those, they’re still not going to be able to get rid of ticket offices entirely, and if they are going to print some tickets it would help to make them more understandable. I have certainly spent many uncomfortable moments on trains listening to train staff and conductors break the bad news to passengers within earshot that their ticket is not valid on the train they are travelling on and they either have to leave at the next station or pony up a penalty fare. Any attempt at clearing up the confusions that arise from the increasingly complicated fare structures should be welcomed, as of course should any attempt at simplifying fares.

Pretty horrifying: evolution of beauty queens

Ran into this somehow, somewhere – one of those things that really shows up the differences between the UK and the US.

Whilst it occasionally comes up as a debate, for most of the time, evolution is an entirely normal part of the national curriculum that is taught in every school.

Advice for new councillors

Richard Kemp has some very useful advice for any taking on the new councillor role, regardless of party.

Particularly this:

You have three priorities address them in this order:

  1. To be a good ward representative for your constituents
  2. To be a good member of your council
  3. To be a good member of your Party

And this:

The Council Chamber is the most pointless place for anyone to spend time in. Particularly under the Cabinet system there is little power in the council chamber. Up to 120 people get together every 5 or 6 weeks to ritually abuse each other. Few real decisions are made there with the big strategic documents usually going through unopposed and with little challenge.

And this:

Most councillors of all Parties have a lot in common with each other. They have a passion for their community and are prepared to do something about it. That sets us apart from those who whinge and moan but do nothing.

(Not of course that any new councillors in Nottingham are going to be exposed all that much to councillors of other parties!)

But this:

Lastly and ABOVE ALL treat MPs with the disrespect they deserve. They are part of a talking organisation – you are part of a doing organisation. Unless they are a Minister you have more power than they do.

… I’m not sure I’d got that far. I know a handful of MPs from Labour and Lib Dems, and I would say: if MPs earn your respect by the work they do, then go right ahead and respect them. It’s right though that individual MPs are often less powerful than individual councillors.

But perhaps the thing I’d say most of all is – don’t be a party hack. There’s nothing more depressing than someone who has nothing more to say than that morning’s party lines.

Take Nicola Heaton, who defeated one of our councillors in Bridge ward. I’ve never met her and I know nothing about her. Well, scratch that, I know three things about her. Firstly, she moved into the ward she now represents a few months before polling day, which unhelpfully removed a campaign line against her. Good on her. It’s a difficult ward to represent and it will be easier to do if she lives there.

Secondly, every time I hear the name, all I can think of is Nikki Heat, a character written by a character in the US cop show Castle.

And thirdly, she’s on twitter. And her twitter feed is just awful. Last time I looked there was nothing on there but ultraloyal retweets of national Labour party figures and facts that made Nottingham look like paradise on Earth. Oh dear.

If you’re going to be a politician on Twitter, do give some indication of being a real person, not an automaton party wonk.

That bit on party hackery has real resonance for me personally as in my last year as a councillor as I found myself questioning myself an awful lot. I joined the Lib Dems partly because of their position on student finance, and yet found myself in the hot seat when it came to defending the party position at one of those useless Council meetings. I gave an angry speech and said just what I thought: the deal on tuition fees stinks, but many people will actually end up repaying less per month than under the previous Labour plans.

But on so many issues over the last year, I’ve found myself thinking – that’s not what I’d want to happen on that issue. What do I think about that? Is my party right? Can I defend what they’ve come up with even if it’s not great? Or is it a crock of shit that stinketh?

I fear that too many of Labour’s new councillors in Nottingham are simply not bright enough ever to suffer from any level of self doubt or to criticise anything the national Labour party ever does. And that’s a real shame for the people they now represent.