Fuel Prices

The posts which make up this blog are not linked in any obvious way, although I guess some themes may develop.  So there is quite a jump from the previous note about commentators’ sayings to a view of petrol on sale down the road. [Ok, so that other post was a while ago – sorry. This one was written early on, but I put it in another blog by mistake.]

ImageThe odd thing for me here is the fact that (uniquely in terms of retail in the UK) petrol is always sold  with a decimal point of a penny.  For heaven’s sake, we did away with the half-penny way back, early eighties at latest, yet now we have this theoretical precision.  (By the way, don’t imagine that against decimals – on the contrary, I’m a huge fan.)  It’s just that this obsession with pricing things as £999, or £9.99, or 99p seems pretty daft, especially when it introduces a whole new unit that you can’t even pay.

Oh, and I also realise that occasionally you come across places like Asda where they sell petrol at something like 126.7 pence, which is at least getting away from the “.9” syndrome, but still seems really arbitrary.  It does at least make you look harder – like that car showroom I saw the other day where the cars had prices like £9,981 or £11,482 –  values that look real, instead of the formulaic £11,499, etc.

Anyway, what is odd here, apart from the use of a non-existent unit of currency, is the idea that there is any real saving attached.  Let’s say that our local garage (picture) sold petrol at 131 pence.  Someone who put 40 litres in their car would pay 4 pence more, on a bill that is already £52.36.  Would they really worry about the 4p? (Think of a ten-thousandth of the bill, and rejoice in saving 7 of those!).

Petrol prices are always a source of irritation or outrage, depending on how combustible a person you are.  Sure, they can seem high. But to satisfy curiosity, I did some sums to work out what proportion of salary a fill-up would have cost me when I started work back in 1972, as opposed to now (using an equivalent post on the salary scale for the modern version).  And the answer was that whereas my monthly salary back then would have bought about 40 fill-ups, my modern equivalent would get about 38.  It’s within any sensible margin of error, isn’t it, to say that things haven’t changed very much.  Though the price in my own town, with just one service-station holding an obvious monopoly for miles around, is coincidentally at least 3p per litre more than it is in most outlets 20 miles away. Strange, isn’t it?



Logic, Grammar and Sports Reports

Exploring my new laptop the other night, I looked up the sports app to find out more details of my team’s performance on Sunday.  It looked like this:

ImageNow, depending on where you are in the world you will find the headline either totally natural or very strange.

“Swansea wins…”  Yes, ok, it’s a singular noun and therefore a singular verb, but for anyone in the UK it will jar.  Here we say “Swansea [or whoever] win”.  And it is odd to see the phrase “Swansea doubled its lead”, as opposed to “their”.  The idea is that we are talking about the team, as represented by eleven players – in other words, people).  The same oddity is seen in this report with “Sunderland, which only [recently] secured its place in the top flight…”: despite the accurate idiom of the final phrase, the “which” here is particularly odd, as it removes the idea of people altogether – British people would be bound to say “who”.  One could imagine a sentence like “Sunderland, which has the most beautiful beaches in Europe” (ok, a slight exaggeration), but that clearly refers to the city and geographical entity that is Sunderland.

Obviously (from the use of the phrase “soccer match”) this is an American site.  That is not a criticism – I know that in Australia too they take this extremely grammatical approach to sports reports.  So the Australian press will report that “England collapses”, which to us here looks more like a political headline from wartime than a cricket headline. Saying this reminds me that the final straw in making me give up umpiring squash was a new rule, instigated by Australia, that the opposite of “No let” was no longer to be “Let” or “Let ball” but “Yes let”.

This grammatical logic also appears in other languages like French, where there is a strict need to make words agree in terms of number – so they would say “La France a gagné”, using the singular.  It would be impossible to use the plural form of the verb, parallel to the UK English method. In my blog on the French language I stress how important this is in French (or Italian, etc). In other words, I’m very much aware that the British way of expressing this is actually very much in a minority – even though I think it is the natural and sensible way to do things. To quote a headline I read two minutes ago: “Italy take a chance on Cassani, but France say ‘non’ to Nasri”. And I guess this shows why we do it this way: if it were a politician being elected it might be “Italy takes a chance…”, but here there is a kind of code that the (strictly) ungrammatical form indicates that we are not dealing with the country, but with a small group of sportsmen who represent the country.

Anyway, I was glad of the Bing update, and shall no doubt continue to use the site.  But here’s the odd thing: there is such a massive strangeness about the grammar that it really gets in the way of the content. That is, you are immediately aware that it’s being produced far away, in language that is a little strange, that you feel an emotional distance from the report, too.  And if there’s one thing you need in sports reports, it’s emotional closeness!

Zeroing in on Postcodes

On a recent visit my brother-in-law complained to me that he had had terrible  problems with an insurance company which refused to acknowledge his existence.  At first I shared his puzzlement – especially as he was sitting in front of me – but as he recounted the conversation I suddenly realised the problem.

He had been trying to access his records online, but was consistently denied access, being told that he could not possibly live where he did. When he finally rang up to resolve the issue he repeated the postcode and was immediately able to access his records via an agent. And it was at this point that it was pointed out to him what you too may by now have realised :when trying to access his account he was using an “O” instead of a zero (0).  And computer say no!

This set me thinking how odd it is that the admirable postcode system used in this country includes the zero anyway.  For anyone not familiar with our system I should explain that we (broadly) use a six or seven-digit code, with the first half made up of two letters to denote a town or city plus one or two digits to indicate districts in that area: so someone in the centre of Newcastle would be NE1, whereas out in the country here, 20 miles out, we are NE46.  Then after that the system is rather more arbitrary, but almost always has three characters, a numeral plus two letters, which allows sorting offices, advertisers and satnavs to drill down and identify particular streets or indeed parts of streets.  It’s great.

But since there are so many permutations for that second section of the code, why use the potentially ambiguous zero?  (The reason it’s ambiguous is because for some strange reason British people don’t say”zero”, but o as in “oh” when it comes to phone numbers, and then postcodes.)  However, I believe most districts use only a few numbers anyway, and rely on the letters to indicate location. My brother-in-law’s case can’t be unique.  On the one hand it’s quite alarming that there are still people out there who don’t know how their postcode is made up, but equally it wouldn’t have taken much to avoid the confusion.  It’s too late to change things now – it creates havoc with bank accounts, passport applications, proof of identity, etc – so maybe a little investment in an advertising programme would help.  Along the lines of: “When is an ‘o’ not an ‘o’?”…




A Hot Topic

It seems to me quite strange the way that we have held on all these years to the Fahrenheit scale for temperature.  Sure, anyone over the age of about 50 who was brought up in the UK had to learn the system, but then again such people had to deal with pounds, shillings and pence when they were small, and they’ve long since learned to do without that.

Is it the fact that North America has retained Fahrenheit which makes it still so resistant to all attempts to kill it off?  Our Met Office has been using dual indicators (degrees F and what they always call Celsius) since the 1970s.  the original plan was to use both for a while, with the Celsius number as a back-up, then invert the two so that Celsius became the main figure, and then finally to forget Fahrenheit.  But it’s still there…

Now let’s admit that if you have never used the Celsius/Centigrade system it is comfortable and natural to rely on Fahrenheit.  But really, is there any contest from a logical point of view?  Let’s suppose that we had no scale at all right now for measuring heat, and someone came along and said: “Ok, guys, I have this great system. It starts at 32 degrees – that’s when water freezes, right?  And  I reckon there are 180 steps towards boiling, and so water will boil at 212 degrees.  It’s simple!”  And everyone would carry on with whatever they were doing at the time…

Until, that is, another thoughtful person came along and said: “Tell you what, why not start from a base figure of zero – no warmth, and water freezes – and give a value of 100 to boiling.  Then we just make 100 divisions.”  I reckon that if we put aside prejudices and imagine that “blank page of A4” scenario, the latter system would win.  It would have saved many weeks of tuition time for school pupils, for a start!

The trouble is, there is still a lot of prejudice there.  Comments on the BBC weather website include all sorts of rants from people protesting about the use of Celsius, and somehow blaming it on the EU (if you don’t like or understand something, always blame it on the EU).  If it had anything to do with Europe, why have Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (for example) adopted it so naturally, along with the rest of the metric system?  Of course, there is a delicious irony in the fact that Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit himself was born in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and spend most of his life in the Dutch Republic.  With that background his scale wouldn’t have stood a chance in the UK today!

Estating the Obvious

In this country house sales are usually conducted by people (firms/companies) called estate agents.  (I know that in Scotland the work tends to be done by lawyers, but for the purposes of the general argument of this post we needn’t worry about the distinction.)

Estates agents are not liked.  Only yesterday I read an article in which the good people of various towns were protesting about the number of estate agencies springing up to deal with our housing bubble – spreading like herpes, one person commented.  Isn’t that a great way for a business to be thought of?

Anyway, leaving aside such reputational issues, the point that has always struck me as odd, especially having bought and sold in the last couple of years, is the way that it has generally been accepted that estate agents charge a fee that is a simple percentage of the cost of the house.  Around here the going rate has been 1% for a good while, although when we bought our current house the sellers paid just 0.5%: the agents boasted (not unreasonably) that 1% was rather a lot, and that they could generate more business with a lower fee.

Yes, but they still automatically assumed that the way to work out a fee was to use a percentage charge.  Why?  It seems to me that if you are selling a grand house in a desirable setting, then as the purchase price is driven up by eager clients the estate agent is getting extra money for doing very little.  Indeed, the true test of excellence might be getting rid of a lousy house in a poor area of town – much harder work, probably.

Estate Agent's Window

Typical London Rates

In London last week I was amazed to see that the going rate in the agents I noticed was 2%. Wow!  One firm justified its fees, in an advertising article, by explaining how they had obtained an extra (yes, extra!) half a million quid after the sellers had said they were happy with the earlier £3.2 million.  Now, given that we are dealing in telephone numbers anyway, and that my house is worth less than half a million, let alone the extra bit, I still found myself perplexed by this.  Ok, so they no doubt showed some skill in getting the extra money, but was that really worth £10,000 extra?  In an over-heated market? In London?  Where house prices in some districts increased (figures from the same magazine) by almost 20% last year in relation to 2012?  Come off it!

And yet we accept this method of charging.  Is it because (in a very British way) we don’t want to talk actual money?  When I last sold, I was told that (as a special offer) the firm would reduce its fee from 1% to 0.8%.  Ok, I said, well how about 0.75%?  Oh no, couldn’t do that!  But nobody ever got round to talking in terms of pounds and pence.

So it was heartening to see, in that article which appeared yesterday (quite coincidentally just as I was thinking about writing this note) that there is now at least one firm which is starting to do business on the basis of a set fee – something like £400, if I remember, but certainly a small fraction of the amount charged by big firms on percentage rates.  I hope their chances of success are more than 50%…



Apparently last weekend’s win for Wales over Scotland (rugby union, should I add?) was a record victory.  I didn’t see in the press why it was a record, but would presume that it referred to Wales-Scotland matches, and certainly that it meant the winning margin.

Whenever I see references to such records in rugby (union) I find myself wondering what the all-time records would be if the scoring system had remained unchanged.  There can be few sports where the system for scores has changed so much so fast.  Fifty years ago or so it was three points for a try, which of course made it the same as a penalty.  Reasonably enough this was felt to be a poor incentive to score tries, and in due course the value went up to four.  I don’t think that lasted very long, and maybe should check it out, but after a while (maybe round about 20 years?) the value was increased again, to five.

Now, it is clear that any big win involving (say) seven tries against one would result in a margin of 12 points more now than fifty years ago.  So a “record win” could be merely the result of adding value to the try.  If it became a six-point score next season there would be yet more scope for some new records.

I don’t suppose this will have many people lying awake at night worrying, but it might be interesting to see what the best winning margins might be if values were standardised for comparison.  I suppose it’s even possible to say that some recent narrow victories would in the past would have been defeats in the past simply because the modern winners’ number of points would have been less.  Which in turn raises the spectre that Lions Tours or Six Nations might have had different outcomes…  Oh no. let’s forget the whole thing!

What a coincidence!

How strange that is!  Within an hour of publishing my last post, about the blurring of footballers’ appearances as substitutes, I came across an article in the paper about Arsène Wenger’s 998 games in charge of Arsenal, and a bar chart which showed the players with the most appearances.

The chart made clear, in colour, how many starts and how many appearances as sub each of the players in question had made.  So you could see that the second- and third-top players (Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp) made 377 and 376 appearances respectively, but that Henry made 337 starts as opposed to 298 for Bergkamp.

That’s not to make a value judgment on the guys, and it still isn’t the same as the “fte” count I mentioned, but it is a meaningful figure all the same.  Oh, and who would you say is the top player of the lot under Wenger?  Answer in the next post.



There are a couple of issues around personal records for footballers which I often think could be tidied up with some easy calculations.  One of them is seen in the question of appearances, and the other can be “spotted” in the case of penalties scored.

For appearances, it seems that modern players are constantly breaking records for club or country.  In the case of internationals (and this is true for rugby and cricket as well) it is clearly easier to play games these days compared to the number of matches years ago, because of all the extra friendlies and competitions with long qualifying rounds.   Now we can hardly complain about this. or turn the clock back, but when people talk about all-time records it would useful maybe to add in a percentage figure for the proportion of eligible matches played.  In cricket this obviously involves aggregates of runs and wickets: I wonder how Fred Trueman’s records (first to 300 Test wickets, if I recall) would compare with those modern bowlers who have overtaken him.  This sort of thing should be easily worked out in cricket, one of the most stats-obsessed sports.

In football the “number of appearances” issue is further clouded by the possibility of substitutions in the modern era.  Quite apart from the way that many players come on for half an hour (some of them deliberately deployed as impact subs), how many times have we seen tactical substitutions with two or three minutes left, or even deep into stoppage time. The guy hardly has time to take up position before the final whistle goes.  Yet it’s an “appearance”.

When I worked in departments keeping check of staff we used to talk in terms of “full-time equivalent”  (fte) posts.  Someone who worked for three days of five was working 60% of time, or 0.6 fte.  So you could work out how well staffed departments were even if they had a number of part-time staff, and compare them across the board.

If football appearances were worked out in the same way, it might give a better indication of how record-breaking players like Ryan Giggs (for whom I have a great admiration!) compare to former players.  Just a thought…

In the same spirit (but much less informally) it might be interesting to work out goal-scorers’ success without the added boost of penalties.  I haven’t got the figures to prove it, but once upon a time (when I were a lad!) penalties were hammered in by beefy defenders.  At some fairly recent point strikers have taken over the duties (the wonderful Bill Edgar wrote an article on this in the Times last year).  So people like Rooney or Shearer have scored scores from the spot, and again become record-breakers.

Now, it is clearly easier to score a penalty than from open play.  I’m not saying it’s easy; or that “me missus could do it”: simply that if you look at the stats (and the fact that we are all surprised at a miss) it is far easier to score from 12 yards with only the goalie there.  So I wonder what the records would look like if we gave (say) 0.5 fte goal for a penalty.  The trouble is, of course, that that in itself is an arbitrary way of counting things – though perhaps something more sophisticated could be worked out.  Again, it’s just a thought, not designed to revolutionise the record books but just to add another layer of meaning to the very bald statistics we so often get.






If it hadn’t been for…

My other blogs are quite specific in nature, for example teaching French or reflecting on the nature of golf.  This new one is a bit more general – ok, a lot more general – and just aims to record some thoughts about odd things that you notice in life.

This isn’t supposed to suggest that I think I’m witty or wise.  I’m just a very ordinary person.  It’s true that a relative told me that I was very self-indulgent (her words, not mine) for doing my French blog, although I have to say I think that was pretty silly.  On this one she might have more of a point!  But I do hope these observations strike a chord with others – and if I fail to see an obvious point, I’m sure someone will let me know.

I mean, there are a couple of sports expressions which commentators and players often use, which are totally nonsense. For example, in football (soccer):”the final pass kept going astray”.  Of course, it did – that’s why it was the final pass.  If the ball had reached the intended target there would have been a chance for another pass (which may or may not have turned out to be the final one).  But the commentators always speak as if that one would have clinched it.

And then there’s the other reflection along the lines of “If he hadn’t missed those two chances the score would have been 3-1, not 1-1.” ; or “If the winger had scored that [rugby] try the result would have been a draw, not a narrow defeat”.

Well, this is make-believe.  Take the last type of example.  The winger failed to score, and maybe as a result there was a scrum near the corner flag with a lot of general excitement and all the players lined up in a certain way.  But if he had scored, all the players – all 30 (or 26) of them – would have been in different positions, many of them taking a breather while one kicker set up a conversion attempt.  And when the game eventually re-started it would have been from the half-way line.  So from that point on nothing in terms of players’ positions on the field would be the same, not to mention their  mindsets.  

The same applies of course to the football example.  The outcomes, depending on whether a shot hit the post or went into the net, are entirely different, and nothing else would have been the same for the rest of the match.  In fact, any subsequent goals might well not have happened, because everything would have been different. 

But it wouldn’t give the managers much to complain about, would it?