Monday, 19 October 2020

The most surprising thing I've read recently

I've read a number of remarkable things recently. Some have been remarkable for recounting colossal incompetence or revealing vapid stupidity. But these three items caused me pause to think. So which did I find the most surprising?

1. The budget for series four of Netflix's The Crown, reported to be around £100 million (yes, it was quoted in £ not $ but then it is recorded at Elstree in Hertfordshire) exceeds the Queen's annual sovereign grant of £82.2 million.

2. Berlin's new airport was due to open in 2012 when officials rang the alarm over the snagging list of over half a million faults. The airport opening has long been set for this month but as of today there are no obvious updates on Google confirming that it will. In the meantime I read that "baggage carousels rotate, indicator boards flicker and trains run into the station without a passenger in sight. It is an epic failure of public sector management".

3. The American bush cricket or long-horned grasshopper, one of the tettigoniidae family of small cicadas has a particularly loud three-pulsed song, rendered as "ka-ty-did", hence their onomatopoeic common name katydid. The "song" is of course stridulation, the act of producing sound by rubbing together body parts (stop sniggering at the back!) The katydids rub the hind angles of their front wings together, one acting as a tough ridged comb and the other as a plectrum. I never did find out What Katy Did, but remarkably you can tell the air temperature by the frequency of the katydids' chirps. For American katydids the formula is generally given as the number of chirps in 15 seconds plus 37 to give the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

So which of these did I find surprising? Well not the cost of making The Crown, especially when I'd also read that they have a huge research team and for every word spoken in the film there are pages of briefing notes. One of the team spent two weeks researching the label on a bottle of wine from which a character briefly swigs. I'm sure it's immaculately done but so far life has been too short to make space to watch The Crown, after all we have only just got on with watching Line of Duty.

 The katydids temperature related call is remarkable but I recall that the rate of a first order chemical reaction roughly doubles for each 10C increase in temperature. Indeed, I once surprised a work colleague who developed his own photographic films by correctly predicting how much quicker his photos would develop at higher temperatures in his dark room from one data point (he used a look up table). All living things are basically chemistry in action and the katydids are presumably cold blooded creatures, so everything they do will be affected by the ambient temperature. Wonderful but not so surprising then.

So it's the Germans' inability to build an airport to any sensible timescale that I found the most surprising. Someone asked me last week how it could possibly cost £100 billion to build a railway line, i.e. HS2. I answered that, besides the fact that anything and everything to do with a railway is eye-wateringly expensive, unfortunately we seem to be incapable of delivering major public (or in many cases private) projects to any kind of sensible budget drawn up in advance. I pondered that this might be because if the cost were estimated with any degree of reliability none of the projects would get ever get built, though this is a bit of a simplification. I saw plenty of estimates that were believed to be conservative turn out to be gross under-estimates when things go wrong. And the bigger the project the more scope for unknowns and the more there is to go wrong. I ended my career believing that a manager who had delivered a big project to time and cost had probably had a fair amount of luck as well as done a good job, though I didn't ever tell them that of course.

But the Germans? Crikey.

1 comment:

  1. Yep that's the cruncher - the Germans!!! You'd expect (or at the very least be unsurprised) such a huge project to fail spectacularly in the UK but it seems even the super efficient Germans have their moments too.