Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday 25 September 2014

Occupational hazard?

The Labour leader told the BBC he "did not deliberately" drop the passages on the deficit and immigration but his approach was to write a text in advance and use it as the basis for his speech - which meant things were added in and left out on the day. 
Well, he does have form in this area...

From December 2012:
'Labour insisted Mr Miliband ‘stands by’ the omitted section of his speech and had simply forgotten to say it. 
So what happened? Did he really forget about that bit or, looking round at his distinctly multicultural - sorry, vibrant - audience, did he decide that discretion was the better part of valour? "Look, it's great that you're all here, but it was, you know, a bit of a mistake letting you in".
Miliband admits he left out details which appeared in the published versions circulated to the faithful but believes that his 'style' works even at the expense of content:
"There are perils that come with that obviously but what people got a sense of yesterday was a plan to change our country."
That has the authentic ring of 21st-century politics; never mind the quality, feel the pitch. Either he is genuinely so disorganised that he can't follow notes or he is cynical enough to omit a potentially awkward element from a live speech while including it in the printed record.

Whichever is the real reason, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his abilities as a leader.


Meanwhile, as the Labour conference draws to a close, I always like to remember that the writer of  their final song never meant his words to be set to the solemn and ponderous German tune of 'Tannenbaum', memorably described by George Bernard Shaw as 'a funeral march for a fried eel'.

He intended 'The Red Flag' to be sung to the altogether more sprightly melody of the Jacobite song 'The White Cockade', which, I think you'll agree, would have given a far more festive air to the closing ceremonies.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Independent minds

So it's 'better together'; the people have spoken.

It had been suggested in several quarters that the wording of the ballot incorporated an element of pro-Nationalist bias - it's been shown to be much easier, said the commentators, to campaign with a positive outlook and generate forward-looking enthusiasm when you are asking people to vote "Yes!".

Personally, I'm not so sure. I have a feeling that the theories are based on the emotion-fest that is American politics, where optimistic euphoria is the essential driving force behind electoral success, and may not translate so easily to this side of the Pond.

Scots are, by and large, made of sterner stuff. This is, after all, the country where my my primary school blazer badge bore the words 'Do or Die', a motto which, with hindsight, seems a rather uncompromising mission statement for a class of mixed infants.

Scotland has a rich and diverse musical heritage but it is somehow typical that, even before the purpose-built anthem 'Flower of Scotland' made its appearance in 1967, many of the traditional songs harked back to ancient battles and days of glory - or crushing defeat and the need for vengeance.

And, while I doubt many English schoolchildren in the 1960s could have rattled off a marching song from the Napoleonic wars or, once the progressives got at education, even a verse or two of  'The British Grenadiers', their Scottish counterparts were learning 'All the Blue Bonnets are bound for the border' or Burns' oft-misquoted rallying-cry*.
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
The struggle in question is, naturally, against the English and, although it is as obsolete as the notorious reciprocal line in 'God Save the Queen', the continued popularity of the song serves to illustrate that this is a nation which admires and celebrates defiance:
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!—
Let us do or die!
It's hard to imagine a generation reared on those words succumbing to the Pollyanna Principle and gravitating unthinkingly towards consent. While Salmond & Co may have envisaged a great leap forward on a wave of sentiment, it seems that his compatriots are for the most part, creditably immune to positive bias.

*I am pedantic enough to be deeply irritated by the misuse of the opening words as if they constituted a meaningless, self-contained shout of enthusiasm, usually by the same people who insist on holding hands throughout 'Auld Lang Syne'. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

"...and two sugars while you're about it,"

There was a truly delightful moment this week, while writing a tongue-in-cheek apologetic e-mail to a colleague, when Autocorrect stepped in with 'mea maxima cuppa'.

Of course, being a machine, it has no intelligence to apply to the situation; it simply follows its programming, however inappropriate to the circumstances. Oddly enough, you could say much the same thing of the staff at my recently refurbished local branch of 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.

Having failed in my bid to take my business elsewhere during the lengthy closure (see previous post), I reluctantly found myself in a gleaming new atrium complete with rows of hole-in-the-wall machines to put your money in, take your money out, do the financial hokey-cokey and move your cash about so that, with any luck, the staff don't have to bother with you at all.

Those unwelcome customers who do venture between this robotic Scylla and Charybdis must now head deep into the windowless rear of the building to where four tellers sit in judgement behind raised desks. Although they look human, yesterday's experience has given me cause for doubt.

Having established that I wanted to pay several cheques into a savings account, the cashier asked me whether I was happy with the rate of interest.

"No, I'm not, but it doesn't matter; once the cheques have cleared, I'm thinking of moving my account to another bank."

The response to this was a blank stare for several seconds, a vague, "Oh. Alright then," and, after another pause, a brightly artificial, "And is there anything else I can help you with at all today?"

I'm sure this cashier must have passed some kind of training in customer service but, faced with a real live dissatisfied account holder, her instructions simply did not equip her to react. Instead, she clearly dismissed the problem from whatever she was using for a mind and carried on according to her programming.

During the long trek back to the door, I stopped to ask one of the suited managerial types lurking complacently on the sidelines why there had been no prior notification of the four-week closure. There was no need for it, he replied, with a barely concealed sneer, because all facilities were available through the bank's online service.

It appears that I was right when I suggested the omission was a deliberate attempt to force unwilling customers into online banking. Having seen Leg-Iron's passing mention this morning of computerised payment methods allowing us to be tracked and monitored, I am starting to think that this is why the bank is so intent on driving us into the arms of cybertechnology - it's not so much about cost-cutting as keeping us under control and, preferably, in debt.

Those who still persist in using cash, passbooks or cheques will presumably be increasingly regarded as dangerous subversives and, as such, will be reduced to a second-class service, something already happening with interest rates. There are still plenty of us around  - a recent discussion with friends suggested that this is because more than a few are haunted by what happens to female bank customers in 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

Visitors to the refurbished branch yesterday were obliged to skirt a table festooned with banners and bearing dishes of crisps and bottles of orangeade, while each of the counters at the rear was furnished with a large bowl of Haribo sweets, all presumably intended for the consumption of customers - another manifestation of how they try to infantilise us and a thought-provoking indication of the taste and maturity of the new manager.

This ostentatious welcome would have been far more convincing had there been any effort to find out why a customer was sufficiently dissatisfied to want to close an account - any one of those idle men and women in suits could easily have taken a few minutes to sit down in a side office to discuss what was wrong. An apology for the inconvenience would have been a good start.

And they might at least have offered me a cup of tea.

Sunday 14 September 2014

'Shut up and take my money!'


I just want to open a savings account. Today.

I do not want to be assigned an interview three days hence with a 'customer welcoming operative' or whatever you call that bored, over-groomed harpy in the corner drumming her talons on the pseudo-Scandinavian office furniture.

Neither do I wish to be given details of your online banking service. If that suited my needs, I would be sitting comfortably at home instead of bandying words with an intellectual eunuch amid a festival of slogan-ridden posters depicting happily grinning customers who, I can only assume, hail from some alternate universe where your bank actually provides a decent service.

Smartphone banking? My phone is not smart. It hasn't a clue. It's a mindless half-wit; in fact, the two of you seem to have a lot in common.

Is it really so difficult? I just want to park a few spare quid where I can get at it, preferably earning interest somewhere near the current inflation rate. I have no desire for 'solutions' or 'advantages' or 'plus accounts' and you aren't going to impress me with complimentary magazine subscriptions and theatre booking services either; ultimately it's still the customer who pays.

And now you know what I'm after, it's clear I'm not the sort of customer you want. It's odd, isn't it? A cheque to deposit - yes, some of us still use them - and yet you are giving me the sort of brush-off your predecessors would once have saved for an habitual defaulter asking for yet more credit.

So you stand there, a symphony in StayNew polyester with a face to match, and tell me 'there's no one available today', even though there are more staff in here than there are customers. Having established that I don't want any of your myriad complex 'financial products' and 'packaged accounts' - sales targets to meet, perchance? - you have clearly decided I am not worth bothering about and I can tell you the feeling is mutual.

In fact, here's an idea; why don't you take your Ultimate Privilege Platinum Flexi Select Classic Account package complete with fringe benefits and transfer it to a location about your person utterly devoid of solar activity?"

...is what I wish I'd said, instead of smiling politely, accepting a business card and walking away, never to return.

(This is a follow-on post to 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.)

Tuesday 9 September 2014

A bad case of asteroids

A busy week, but I couldn't let a passing space rock go untoasted even though it seems to have attracted a media frenzy - many happy returns, 2014 RC!

In the best churnalistic tradition, if one science editor picks it up then all the rest follow - never mind that other very close approaches go unmarked save by astronomical websites and the occasional obsessional blogger.

Once again, I feel rather peeved; it's like being a die-hard fan of an obscure indie band which has inexplicably gone mainstream and appeared on Saturday night television, complete with gyrating dancers and laser displays.

Perhaps this is something to do with the opportune appearance of the media-savvy Professor Brian Cox as (appropriately enough) honorary Chicken Licken to the nation, a position left vacant thanks to Lembit Opik's apparent desertion of the cause for rather more earthly attractions.

The media coverage inspired the Express, in particular, to hyperbolic flights of fanciful prognostication:
ASTEROIDS could rain down on the earth for 100 years, shocked experts have just warned.
which in turn, prompted this excellent debunking at Slate Magazine.

Meanwhile, investigators have been called in to assess a new crater in Nicaragua, which has raised the interesting question of fragmentation, bane of the Bruce-Willis-and-the-Nukes school of asteroid impact prevention.

According to JPL and NASA:
For those wondering, the event in Nicaragua (poss meteorite?) is unrelated to asteroid 2014 RC. Different timing, different directions.
which brings to mind the recent coincidence (?) of the Chelyabinsk meteor and DA14; will we one day be blindsided while all our attention is centred on another rock passing overhead?

All in all, it's a salutary reminder of our own insignificance in the face of whatever is hurtling round out there. In the words of John W Campbell (as quoted by Arthur C Clarke):
'Meteorites don't fall on the Earth. They fall on the Sun, and the Earth gets in the way.'