E-cigarettes should not be allowed on buses

No Vaping Sign, 6/2015, Starplex Cinema, by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTubeI have sometimes found the debate on e-cigarettes a little puzzling. Some experts argue that they are probably not completely safe, and therefore that they should not be allowed, or at least that they should only be allowed on prescription, or from chemists. If e-cigarettes were a completely new, stand-alone activity that had been invented, there might be such an argument. However, the debate is completely changed and distorted out of all proportion by the fact that e-cigarettes are, in the vast majority of cases, used as an alternative to a highly dangerous and addictive product: the conventional tobacco cigarette. The latter is a product that would certainly not be legal if it were invented today, but for unfortunate historical and societal reasons, we are stuck with it for the time being as governments around the world put in a huge amount of effort to persuade people not to use it. Anything that can be used as an alternative that helps people to give up smoking must be welcomed. Even if it is not entirely safe, vaping is clearly much, much less harmful than smoking. If must therefore not be seen as a stand-alone product, but rather in the context of tobacco smoking, and should be at least as easy to obtain and use. Even if a small number of people start to use e-cigarettes who did not previously smoke, I would say that’s a small price worth paying for the health benefits enjoyed by others who give up smoking, and chances are, many of that small minority of non-smokers taking it up might instead have been tempted to start smoking if e-cigarettes were not available.

I therefore cautiously welcome the general thrust of a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which argues that more use should be made of e-cigarettes as a tool to reduce the number of people smoking. However, the BBC News homepage had the slightly sensationalised headline, “Vaping on buses ‘should be considered'”. The actual article has a more sensible title and makes it clear that the MPs call for “a debate on vaping in public spaces, such as on public transport and in offices”, but I find this suggestion a cause for concern. Some news outlets have suggested a change in the law to allow vaping in indoors public spaces, but in fact it is not covered by the smoking ban as it does not constitute smoking. Vaping is generally not allowed on public transport, in workplaces or entertainment venues because the owners of those buildings and vehicles choose to prohibit it, just as they did for smoking for many years before it was banned by law.

While I am quite clear that vaping should be a widely available alternative to smoking even though there is probably a small health risk associated with it, that does not extend to allowing people using e-cigarettes to expose other members of the public to their vapour. The effects of vaping, first- or second-hand, have not been studied in any depth. There is absolutely no reason why a member of the public who chooses to live a clean life and has no wish to smoke or vape should be subjected to either while going about his or her business in public. No-one likes the idea of the “nanny state” where government tells people what to do, but it is sometimes necessary when behaviour causes a burden on the state, such as smoking on the NHS. However, where the government does need to act in a civil society is to protect its citizens from the actions of others. By all means allow people to make choices that may harm their health, within reason; but the wishes of those who do not wish to do so needs to take priority where there is a conflict of interest.

I can see no reason for allowing e-cigarettes to be used in places where smoking is currently prohibited. As long as e-cigarettes are as widely available and convenient to use as conventional cigarettes, surely that’s good enough? While it’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cigarette smoke, vapour in public places still invades others’ personal space; being enveloped in a cloud of vapour can be a strange experience. Sometimes it can have a fruity or perfumed smell, but some people choose to use products that give a smell similar to tobacco smoke, which is quite unpleasant. As I pointed out earlier, smoking would never be allowed if it was discovered today, and nor would smoking in public, yet it took governments many decades to have the courage to ban the latter to a limited extent. The last thing they should consider now is to allow another form of antisocial activity to become entrenched in public, which would then have to be similarly addressed in 10 or 20 years’ time. It would be much more sensible to retain restrictions on where e-cigarettes can be used – which are currently largely voluntary and self-policed; already part of the norms of society – rather than to allow an activity to become normalised in public, and therefore difficult to reverse in the future.

If it is really considered necessary to make vaping more convenient in terms of where it is permitted in order to persuade more smokers to switch, I have a suggestion. It’s about time the current laws on smoking in public places were reviewed. It is still unacceptable to have to breathe in others’ smoke while walking down the street, entering a building or waiting at a bus stop. Instead of increasing the number of places people are allowed to vape, why not restrict where they can smoke? Vapour is less unpleasant and less likely to trigger someone’s asthma as they walk along the street, or get into office air conditioning units as smokers congregate outside. A purely indoor ban on vaping is sufficient to protect others. On the other hand, smoking could be much more heavily restricted to remove the last remaining pockets of unpleasantness that non-smokers – including ex-smokers keen not to re-start – have to face daily. Make the office smoking point vaping-only, and tell people to leave their cigarettes at home.

New BBC Weather page with MeteoGroup forecast

In 2015, it was announced that the Met Office had lost the contract to provide the BBC’s weather for the first time since forecasts started in 1922, with the contract instead going to MeteoGroup. Towards the end of last year, it was announced that MeteoGroup were behind schedule in their work towards providing the BBC’s forecasts, so the contract with the Met Office had to be extended until March.

This week, I discovered that the BBC Weather website looked different in one of my browsers. They must be selecting people at random to try the new MeteoGroup-powered website. Not only is the data provider changing, but it seems the BBC have taken the opportunity to tinker with the layout of their weather pages.

The new BBC Weather website, with forecasts from MeteoGroup
The new BBC Weather website, with forecasts from MeteoGroup

The new page has a wider layout with an updated look and feel. As is now increasingly common in an era when people are switching to tablets, the page is shorter, to avoid the need to scroll on a landscape screen. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the lack of colours indicating the temperatures throughout the day. The BBC tried to remove these in a previous update in 2011, and ended up having to add them back after “user feedback”. In fact, the colours are present in the new layout for the daily average temperatures, but as far less prominent stripes of colour below the daily forecast (or above the currently selected one). The colours are, however, not used at all for the hourly temperatures, a reversal of the previous situation. Another change is that there is no longer an option to switch between “graph” and “table” views, with the graph view forced on everyone. I happen to prefer the view with the temperatures lining up, but this choice has been taken away. Details such as the humidity and pressure were previously only visible on the five-day forecast page in table view, so these are currently missing.

Thankfully, the BBC has retained its classic weather symbols on the new page. The wind speed indicators have switched to a circular outline rather than filled circles. There is also a new symbol and a percentage, showing the probability of rain during that hour.

The old BBC Weather page with data from the Met Office, showing the "Table" view
The old BBC Weather page with data from the Met Office, showing the “Table” view

The new layout looks OK, but they really need to bring back the colours for all the temperature values, and also the option of table mode with all the old data. But how about the quality of the new forecasts from MeteoGroup? Clearly, it’s too early to say how accurate the forecasts will be from the new provider. Having said that, on the day I took the screenshots above, MeteoGroup said the next hour’s weather would feature hail showers. The Met Office’s version predicted sunny spells. Out of the window: nice and sunny. While I realise it’s not exactly a thorough comparison, it’s possibly not the best of first impressions of the MeteoGroup forecast.

Of course, anyone who objects to the Met Office being replaced like this can always go directly to the Met Office website. This should contain exactly the same information as the old BBC forecasts. Unfortunately, it does lack the bold BBC weather symbols, instead having its own cartoon-like versions, and the differing shades of orange are no match for the familiar BBC temperature colours. It does, however, have more details about weather warnings, and includes some additional information, for example giving both the wind speed and maximum gust speed separately (the BBC usually give the former, but switch to showing gusts once they are over 40mph, which is why the wind speeds reported always jump from the 20s to 40s and never show a value in the 30s!)

The same weather forecast on the Met Office site
The same weather forecast on the Met Office site

The Met Office site also carries advertising, despite being a .gov.uk branded site. The BBC, of course, never features advertising, so we have the slightly bizarre situation of being able to view a forecast from the private MeteoGroup free of advertising, or a forecast from the UK Meteorological Office complete with adverts.

I feel some sort of Greasemonkey script or similar is in order to restore the perfect weather page. How about the new BBC page but with colours; or the Met Office page with the BBC’s symbols and colours? The numbers used for the image filenames on the Met Office site are identical to those on the old BBC site, ranging from 0 for a clear sky at night, to 31 for a rather alarming-looking whirlwind symbol, which thankfully we do not usually see in UK forecasts. Hopefully, though, no hacking will be required, and “user feedback” will ensure the best aspects of the old layout will be retained in a way that works with the new data from MeteoGroup. But anyone who tires of spurious warnings of hail showers will know where to look for a second opinion.

Airbnb: Turning homes into hotels

The original premise of Airbnb seemed like a good one. If someone had a spare room, they could let it out as a bed and breakfast room to bring in an extra bit of cash. The person staying would be a guest in their host’s home, meet them, probably chat with them in the evening, and share breakfast in the morning. However, Airbnb has turned into something quite different. It is now used by professional landlords to let out entire properties on a day-by-day basis. Unsurprisingly, a landlord can make much more money from such short-term lets than they can from a long-term tenant paying monthly.

Turning a home into a de facto hotel is quite unfair on the neighbours, who have to put up with different people arriving each day or week, and with guests’ behaviour, which may not be of the same high standard as when they are at home. Councils are starting to take action, with London banning property owners from letting them out short-term for more than 90 days per year, and there are plans to introduce a similar restriction in other cities such as Edinburgh and Liverpool.

The Rotunda, Birmingmam. By Erebus555, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceThe craze for turning homes into hotel rooms has been around longer than Airbnb, however. In 2007, the Rotunda, an iconic, cylindrical office building in Birmingham, was extensively refurbished and converted into apartments. Due to its location and being a famous building, these flats sold for a hefty premium. A significant number, however, were bought by a company trading as Staying Cool, for use as “serviced apartments”. I thought at the time that this was simply a euphemism for turning them into hotel rooms. It seemed rather unfair on people who had bought their apartments to live in, for them to discover they were sharing the building with a hotel, despite no planning permission existing for such a use. Today, some of these rooms are available for £300 or more per night.

It seems a grey area exists where “serviced apartments”, including Airbnb-style lets, are concerned. English planning law defines various use classes. Class C1 is for hotels, and class C3 for “dwellinghouses”. Most homes will only have planning permission for C3, and indeed the Rotunda was granted change of use to class C3. Why, therefore, are people allowed effectively to run hotels from their properties? The idea of planning law is that local councils can decide whether a certain site is appropriate for use as a hotel, particularly regarding nuisance caused to neighbours. It’s unlikely a few flats in a building would be given such permission unless certain facilities were provided, maybe even a separate entrance and lifts.

The solution to the problem of Airbnb could be to tighten up the planning rules. If someone wants to let out a single room, as was the original idea of Airbnb, of course that should be allowed, as long as it only involves letting out part of the property, and the host actually lives there too. If, however, it’s a case of letting out whole apartments as hotel suites, change of use to C1 should be required, and then it would be up to the authorities to decide whether such use is appropriate. Landlords should not be able to profit hugely from turning their properties into hotels at the expense of people who are looking for somewhere to live, and people who have the enjoyment of their homes ruined by holidaymakers or party-goers.

Once in a red and blue moon

A lunar eclipse in September 2015

A lunar eclipse in September 2015

At the end of this month, some people will have the opportunity to see a moon that is both a red moon and a blue moon. Of course, it will be a figurative blue moon but a literal red moon, the latter caused by a total lunar eclipse.

Neither lunar eclipses nor blue moons are actually that rare. This month’s will be the eighth total lunar eclipse since 2010 (although unfortunately not visible from most of Europe this time) and indeed there will be another one in July. As for “once a blue moon”, that is usually taken to mean not for a very long time. However, these days, a blue moon is usually defined as the second full moon in a month, and that isn’t actually so rare either. In fact, there will be another blue moon in March!

There is some uncertainty as to the exact definition of a blue moon. Some sources say it occurs where there are four full moons in a quarter of a year (in which case, “blue moon” refers to the third one). Using this definition, there have only been three blue moons since 2010, and the next isn’t due until 2019.

This month’s event also coincides with a so-called “super moon” where the moon is closer to the Earth, so appears bigger. A super blood-red blue moon.

Lunar eclipses and blue moons both necessarily occur when there is a full moon. Both occurring together is far more unusual, though. The last time there was a total lunar eclipse coinciding with a blue moon was on 31 March 1866! Perhaps the expression should be “Once in a red and blue moon”. However, for those of us unable to see this rare phenomenon this January, there’s no need to wait 150 years. There is another one due in December 2028!

Orchestrating songs, or singing orchestral tracks?

Pop Goes ClassicalClassic FM is shortly going to release a new album, Pop Goes Classical. They have already played tracks from it on the station. It features the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra playing versions of famous pop songs.

The track that they keep playing on the station is a version of the 1991 song (Everything I Do) I Do It for You. (Now, why is it always written with the first three words in brackets?) This was originally sung by Bryan Adams, and famously accompanied the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, spending a record 16 weeks at the top of the UK singles chart.

Credit for writing the song is usually given to Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen, and Robert Lange. Michael Kamen wrote the score for the movie, but I seem to remember reading that he didn’t think there should be a song to go with the film. Adams and Lange therefore took Kamen’s music and turned it into the song. Classic FM have been crediting the track as being “by” Bryan Adams. I thought this was rather inaccurate as neither his lyrics nor his singing is included. The tune was clearly by Michael Kamen. I therefore dropped a quick note to presenter Bill Turnbull, who had played the track. Earlier this week, I heard him play it for a third time, and to my surprise, this time he credited it to Michael Kamen. I’d like to think that’s because I, and perhaps others, pointed out the omission.

The fact remains that there was already an orchestral version of the song, and it pre-dates the song itself. Anyone who wants to hear Michael Kamen’s own version of it should listen to the track Maid Marian from the soundtrack album. It does seem slightly bizarre to orchestrate a song that started life as an orchestral piece, particularly when, it has to be said, the original was far superior.

This is not the first time Classic FM have released such an album. In 2008, they released Songs Without Words, a very similar CD played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. As I write, this is still available from Amazon for the princely sum of £16.04, or for 15p second-hand. This CD features that other famous movie song, My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic. As with Everything I Do, James Horner’s orchestral score for Titanic already includes many versions of the same tune, including one for Irish bagpipes. The song is credited to Horner and lyricist Will Jennings (and it was sung by another Canadian singer, Celine Dion). But the version on Songs Without Words is turned into a slightly jaunty waltz. That’s clearly from the special edition of the film where the ship doesn’t sink.

Orchestral versions of pop songs are a nice idea, but is it just a coincidence that the most popular are pieces that started out as orchestral works in the first place? Perhaps we should just listen to the originals, rather than arrangements of pop songs derived from them – the latter simply not being as good!

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