Monday, 16 November 2009

Stamps

Dear Mr W.H. Smith,

[If indeed that is your real name and not a pseudonym]

At lunchtime today I found myself bereft of postage stamps and, as I had an un-stamped missive in need of posting I decided to give the Andover branch of your stationer's store the benefit of my custom.

I'm sure that you will be glad to hear that my initial transaction proceeded tolerably well. The store was bearably tidy and free of disagreeable olfactory emanations. The queue of customers was relatively short and was dealt with efficiently by the elderly assistant. When my turn came I asked for a book of 12 first-class stamps. These I was duly given and, once I had paid, the transaction complete, I left the premises.

[Why is it called a "book" of stamps. It's not really a book is it? OK, it's folded like a book, but it only has four pages. As a book it's even smaller than "The Wit and Wisdom of Nick Griffin"!]

A couple of hours passed. You don't need to know all the details of what happened during that time. Suffice it to say that a sandwich was bought and consumed, and a tricky problem resolved at work.

Two hours after buying the stamps I remembered my purchase and resolved to post my letter - hoping that it was now not too late to catch the last post collection in my office. I pulled open the "book" of stamps...

What, what, what?! There were only NINE stamps in the book. I looked again and re-counted in disbelief. Yes. Nine. Three stamps were missing. If these things matter to you, they were the three stamps on the upper-side of the left-hand page.

For a moment I considered leaving it. But then a colleague pointed out that stamps cost 39p each. Three of them is a total of £1.27. That's a lot of money in this day and age. Maybe it's a mere trifle to the likes of you, Mr Smith, but I could buy over one-third of a pint of real English Ale with that sort of cash.

So, with a heavy step and a trembling heart I headed back towards the Andover store, hoping that the staff would not demand see my receipt (which I had previously disposed of) or that they would not believe my sorry tale of woe.

Arriving at the store, I approached the same counter. This time it was manned (sorry - "personned") by a young lady of tender years. Presenting her with the 25% empty stamp repository, I asked her to replace it with a similar item, but with a full complement of sticky squares. This she did, after gazing at it, and me, momentarily with an expression of annoyed puzzlement. It was the sort of expression you might see if you walk up to a stranger and ask them if you might shave their hat for them.

Here's the full extent of her conversation with me: "Err", "Hmmm", "Yeah".

At no time did she offer an explanation (not that I would have cared), but neither did she offer an apology to me for having to come out in the rain for the 2nd time that afternoon.

On a more serious note, I think, Mr Smith, that you should be looking very carefully at that store for what the under-classes call "a tea-leaf". You or I would know him (or her) as a common felon. Rather than paying for their own stamps, they just help themselves to the goods straight from the til. By so doing they are not only stealing from you, but they are also depriving the Royal Mail of income and adding to the burden of the upright, traditional English postie who fears for his job on a daily basis.

And that concludes my sorry tale. I don't expect it to lead to a widespread re-organisation of your retail empire, but it would be nice if you could maybe think of training your staff to be polite and apologetic to customers.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Science in Buckets

Here's a story from NASA about discovering water on the moon:

In it, there is this quote:
One researcher described this as the equivalent of "a dozen two-gallon buckets" of water.
So, that's 24 gallons then, is it? Now, to me, that's not very helpful. For a start, who imagines quantities of water in terms of two-gallon buckets? Not me. I've no idea of the capacity of any of the buckets in our household. Even if I did, the chances are that they would be measure in Imperial gallons (~4.5 litres) as that's what we use in the UK. American buckets (as used by NASA when carrying rocket fuel to the space shuttle) are measured in US gallons, which at around 3.8 litres are around 15% smaller.

I would have thought that it would have been sensible to have released these figures using an internationally recognised and agreed scale of measurements. If only there was one which the scientific community had agreed on which NASA could have used...