Tuesday, 26 May 2020

If you don't think Barnard Castle is a beautiful place to visit, you need your eyes tested

Welcome back, by the way. It's been two years and I've missed you. Three thought-ettes for you to consider and, if the mood takes you, to comment on.

Clap clap

People have been comparing NHS workers to superheroes. Even Banksy has got in on this game, drawing a child playing with a masked and caped nurse-doll, having thrown Batman and Spiderman in the bin.

But in what way are they comparable? And which superheroes?

Let's rule out Batman first. He's fabulously wealthy and has all the equipment he could possibly want or need, complete with a mask, albeit one that doesn't cover his nose or mouth. Iron Man is basically the same thing with a sense of humour - and a mask that does cover his nose and mouth. Superman is more or less indestructible and certainly wouldn't end up killed by a virus.

But the comparison to Ghostbusters is a much better fit. Ordinary people warning about a terrible threat, being ignored and undermined, building their own equipment to fight the threat, then facing the danger alone with no help from anyone else, other than a cheering crowd. (Were the crowd clapping? It's set in New York so probably more whooping and cheering than clapping.)


The twist being that the start of Ghostbusters 2 reveals that our heroes were sued by the city for not doing a better job (i.e. one involving less destruction) and had all the blame heaped on them for the considerable damage. Will that happen to health workers after the pandemic? Who can say...

Hedge

When there's a global pandemic, someone who runs a hedge fund will make a lot of money. And they appear on the news, looking just the way people expect hedge fund managers to look. And the opinion pieces imply (or state, or howl) that it's a disgrace that people are getting rich during the suffering.

But... if one fund goes up, it's only because another one went down. So who lost?

If it's another hedge fund, do you still care? I'm guessing probably not as much as you did. One hedge fund goes up by a billion, another goes down by a billion, that's just part of the game, right?

How about if it's your pension fund? (Or mine?) Bit more interesting now. And isn't the real story the one about the loser? About how that pension fund manager has managed to lose unspeakable sums. Why on earth was the pension fund on the duff side of the bet? For that matter, why were they even selling anything at a loss (or buying something at an inflated price)?

And how much management fee was collected by this hypothetical pension fund manager who has misjudged his gambling of your money (and mine?) and thereby handed part of your retirement to that smug bloke from the start of this story?

Nah - just concentrate on the guy who looks like he either just opened a bottle of champagne or is just about to.

Caps

The British government very kindly increased the benefits paid to some of the poorest in society to help them cope with the uncertainty of the global pandemic thingy.

Unfortunately, they have also instigated a 'benefit cap' - a maximum amount of money that anyone can receive. Which means some people don't, as it were, benefit from the increase because their income hits the cap. And, even worse, some of them then hypothetically go over a threshold with this money they're not receiving which means they have to start paying back a loan they got from (guess who?) the government so the increase makes them worse off.

Yes, really. The increase makes them worse off. These are some of the poorest in society.

The reporting of this state of affairs makes it sound like some terrible mistake but there appears to be no attempt to put it right. So presumably it was intentional. I mean, if it wasn't intentional, the government would fix it, right?

Maybe journalists are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the real question is why does the government want to leave some people utterly destitute. Because they could fix it if they wanted to.

I don't have an answer to this one - except to repeat that if they didn't intend it, they would fix it.

First rule of change management is to realise that no matter how much modelling and testing you've carried out, reality will throw you a curveball that you didn't see coming. So you need a quick, simple and safe way to undo the change you just made. I don't see anyone undoing this one. Therefore it's not a mistake. Therefore it's intentional.

So why are they doing it? Answers on a postcard to Barnard Castle.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

On being free and the benefits of fresh air

(For the avoidance of doubt... Nothing that follows is true. None of the characters refer to real people, e.g. 'Dad' does not represent my father, I have no 'Uncle Nigel', etc.)

Kitchen table

It had been rumbling on for ages. Uncle Nigel wouldn't stop banging on about it. So finally Dad organised a round-the-kitchen-table chat. By a show of hands, and the slenderest of majorities (six to five), we're going to go for it and get a new roof.

Of course, there were plenty of arguments against the expenditure. Dad said he quite liked the roof, that it had always done right by us and we should respect its inherent structural integrity - and maybe replace a tile or two if there was a problem.

Uncle Nigel kept saying that it was a useless roof because the rain that gets in, even though he's said for decades that he'll keep a watch on it and would definitely let us know if it ever needed fixing.

He was talking over Mum, who was trying to explain to him that this will happen sometimes because she likes to keep the window open up there - and maybe if we could just arrange a system for closing the window when it rains, we could solve the problem.

Sadly though, Mum had given the window management responsibility to some company called Idiota and they'd gone round making sure that all the other windows are securely locked shut. So we still have occasional leaks and the rest of the house is very stuffy.

No one was really paying enough attention at our kitchen-table meeting. Despite the fact that we were definitely talking about replacing the roof, it turns out that we all only voted to have the roof removed.

Of course we were also talking about getting a new roof, but we didn't actually vote for one. No need, apparently. What sort of fool would remove a perfectly good, if slightly leaky, roof without replacing it?


Demolition

Well, it's now really kicking off. Dad was so upset to lose the vote that he's gone to hide in the shed at the bottom of the garden.

So Mum has taken over and it's like she's become a new person. Instead of sticking to her guns, and saying we just need to sort out the window situation, she's told us that she has to respect our wishes to have the roof taken off. She's booked the demolition company, paid in full (non-refundable) and has made a list of a few local roofers but not bothered to call any of them.

Just a few more weeks, then apparently we'll be free of the horrific constraints of the old roof. We will get a new roof, says Mum. But if she can't find one she likes, she'll have no roof. Because better no roof than a bad roof.


Any umbrella

Cousin Liam turned up yesterday in a clapped-out old van stuffed full of parasols, garden umbrellas and awnings. It was great news that the roof was finally going, he said, as it meant we could have different rain/sun/cold protection for each room, tailored to its individual needs.

He tried to demonstrate by dragging a huge umbrella to Mum's bedroom but she told him he absolutely couldn't put it up in there as it was bad luck. He'd have to wait until the roof had gone. Step-brother George looked up from furiously scribbling in his journal to point out that it would be a bit late to test it then, especially if it was pouring with rain, but Mum put her fingers in her ears and both pretended she couldn't hear him and also said something about him not being her son and perhaps he'd like to join his father in the shed.

Speaking of Dad - no word from the shed for a long time. I saw Dad briefly last week when he stepped out and paced around grandly (head back, chest puffed out) but went back inside when no one seemed interested enough to go and talk to him. Or even lean out of the window and wave. (Actually, that was because the windows were locked shut. It's getting really stuffy in here now. The hamsters are pining.)


Clouds gathering

I was slightly nervous about the pressure washer that our neighbour has been using, in case it's strong enough to fire a wet salvo over our walls and into our rooms. But that's nothing: the people in the nearby villages are fed up with having a wash-out at their weekend farmers' markets so they're investing in cloud seeding. I think we might have picked a very bad time to be roof-less.


Everybody needs good neighbours

In all the excitement, we've forgotten something very important indeed. We live in a semi-detached house and no one's thought what will happen to the neighbours' roof when we take our roof away. It's not even really a separate roof, obviously. I can't believe no one noticed.

They're very miffed that we've booked the demolition company before even talking to them about it and they're not even slightly convinced that putting a few struts in place will work.

Mum has told them not to worry and that they will continue to enjoy all the benefits of their roof once ours has gone. Only, she hasn't told them how on earth that will work and they clearly realise that she's making it all up as she goes along.


Hopes cruelly dashed

The demolition company rang up. They asked if we're absolutely certain that we want the roof removed as they've heard we don't have a new one booked in. They're being really kind. They said that they've got plenty of work on at the moment - so they'll even give us a refund (on our non-refundable booking).

Mum was furious with them. Really!

She didn't even want to replace the roof, let alone remove it, originally. And now she's definite that it has to go, because apparently that's what we all wanted (even though nearly half of us didn't - and none of us asked to go roof-less). She started accusing the demolition people of interfering with something that was none of their business.

If she carries on like this, I don't have a good feeling that they'll leave the edges smooth when they take the roof away.

Meanwhile, Uncle Nigel has gone back to his house across the street. He hasn't been over since the kitchen-table incident and has a very nice roof on his house. But he likes to shout at us across the street to ask why it's taking so long to get that roof off the house which he loves so much that he only pops in occasionally for dinner (whether he's invited or not). He never brings a bottle.


To be continued...

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

On allegations, innocence and entertainment

The world's greatest broadcaster (see video on the right, or wherever it ends up on your screen) is partway through showing a new adaptation of a novel by Agatha Christie called, deliciously enough, 'Ordeal By Innocence'.

It was meant to be shown over Christmas (because who doesn't love murder over Christmas?) but was hastily pulled from the schedule because one member of the ensemble cast had been accused of criminal acts.

Yes, I'm being vague. I could put names here but to what end?

The point I am making is that I (and you and you and pretty much everyone else) know nothing at all about whether the allegations are true. That doesn't mean I think they're false. But it also doesn't mean I think they're true. I simply don't know. How could I know? And what has any of it to do with me? (The answer you're looking for is 'nothing'.)

The allegations are just that. They're not criminal charges. They're not criminal convictions. As far as I have read, there have not even been any arrests. Someone has accused someone else of a crime. Yes, they should be taken seriously and the allegations should be investigated by someone who knows what they're doing. (For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to police, not journalists.) Trial by media is not part of the process.

But the world's greatest broadcaster has decided to spend a few millions of pennies reshooting as much of the programme as necessary in order to excise this actor fully from the production. An actor charged with nothing, convicted of nothing -- but accused of crimes.

A career in tatters over allegations. Yes, if it is proven in court then punishment (according to the judicial system) should follow. But if he's acquitted in court? What then? Put his scenes back in and rebroadcast?

Given this cautious (of what?) approach, will we no longer have a chance to watch any of the films of a certain runaway film director? I'm sure a good few of those have been shown on television over the last forty years or so. How about people variously accused of assault, armed robbery, shoplifting, drunk driving, embezzlement? While not equating any of these offences, surely a conviction for even a minor offence is more worthy of leading to a ban than an allegation of a hideous crime which leads to no charge?

Or alternatively, we could argue that these people are actors. They stand in front of a camera and read other peoples' words in a convincing way. What on earth has their behaviour in the real world got to do with it? Fair enough if others no longer want to work with them - but removing them after the fact - what purpose does that actually serve?

Elephant

One film maker has been accused, on and off, for about twenty years. He has been thoroughly investigated by the police and never charged. Not just no criminal record - no charge at all.

And yet, some people talk and write about him as though he were guilty and had been found guilty in a court of law. Do they have such contempt for the police that they think he would have been let off a heinous crime? Isn't it more likely that the police think he didn't do anything wrong?

One actor, who worked with him many, many years after the original flare-up and investigations has recently decided to state that he certainly wouldn't work with him again. Why not? What new information has come to light? Are you really saying that you were unaware of the situation at the time and have only recently bothered to read a twenty-year-old story? Or are you privy to information that everyone else has missed? (If so, what is that information? Where did you find it?)

Smoke

Ah, but there's no smoke without fire, some might say.

Be careful with that one. It's very close to contempt of court because it implies a firm belief that anyone accused of a crime must have committed it. Which suggests utter disrespect for the legal process, the meaning of an acquittal and, it could be argued, the entire judicial system. (I wouldn't be comfortable with that approach - would you?)

Anyone can accuse anyone else of anything. You! Yes, you there! I saw you do that thing what you shouldn't have done. Yes I did.

And just like that, the accusation is out there. What do you want to happen next? Lose your job and become unemployable? Find your friends drifting away? Getting funny looks from people you pass in the street? See your face on the front of the tabloids?

Or have the facts weighed sensibly and a thoughtful judgement to be handed down?

Don't get me wrong - if you did it, you deserve the full force of the law. But if you didn't, then shame on the accuser. (What do you mean, that was me? There's no proof.)

In conclusion

I didn't much like the programme anyway. Gave it up after twenty minutes of the first episode, thereby saving two hours and forty minutes. It was probably the butler what did it.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

On frisking guests for spoons and other faux-pas

I don't frisk my guests for spoons when they leave. Do you? Does anyone? Maybe we move in rarefied circles in which such practice is unnecessary. Maybe we should check our privilege.

But that doesn't mean it's open season on my spoons: even though I don't put up a sign telling people not to steal my spoons (or to not look for cash in drawers in my bureaux; or to not pocket small paperbacks from my bookshelves that they like the look of). I also don't put up signs telling people not to end sentences with prepositions.

Apart from anything else (and this is not meant to be the best reason not to steal your friends' spoons), think of the message it sends to your children. Or the message it sends to the children in the family with fewer spoons.

"Oh, that must have been Great-Uncle Bob again! What a card he is! Always at the spoons. He jangles on the way out - but we just tolerate it. Ha ha ha. Just stir it with your finger, dear - we're out of spoons."

At a car park at a certain school, there are signs that say 'Strictly No Parking'. Sometimes they're hard to see because of cars parked in front of them. Sometimes they're hard to see when there isn't a car parked in front of them because they've been knocked over by cars and are lying in a ditch.

The reason for their presence is obvious. There are two lanes at the exit. If people park in the left-turning lane, the traffic that could easily and quickly get out by turning left into the empty part of the road is stuck behind a very long line of cars that are waiting to turn right but can't get out because turning right involves joining a slow moving congestion of vehicles.

(That slow moving congestion is caused by the inability of traffic to turn into the same car park at the entrance slightly further up the road. The reason they can't turn in is because the car park is full because traffic can't get out because... you get the idea.)

And what signal does it send to the children? "Yes, mummy doesn't have to obey these signs - they're for other people, isn't it convenient for us to park here?" "Yes, daddy's only going to be here for a few minutes so that's okay." "Don't worry about the honking, they're just annoyed that I got the space first."

We're going to get children brought up believing that they should just do what suits them and damn the consequences. We're going to get children who won't technically be ignoring the signs because they won't register them in the first place. Lock your cutlery drawer.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Holding on to the title

Holding on to the title...

Could it be about Thameslink Railway trying to retain the crown of least appreciated rail franchise in Britain? With their rickety-rackety old trains with hilariously non-closing doors - and other circus clown techniques... (This morning, they managed to turn a 19 minute journey into a 65 minute adventure.)

No.

Maybe it's about a company called Parking Nose (or something like that - I forget the exact facial feature they compare themselves to) and their dastardly approach of sending out parking charge notices just in case motorists might have overstayed. I think they're going for the Amalric award. Given that there is little cost to them in throwing out spurious charges - and much to be gained from scaring the innocent into paying up - this is a cunning business plan.

But no, not them either.

Could I be referring to something about sport? That's got titles in it. World number one, European champion. Grandmaster. No shortage of titles for people to hold on to. Am I about to launch into something about that?

No. (I almost never refer to anything about sport. I think that's an overcrowded area and there are enough people pontificating about it without the impediment of knowledge, experience or common sense. There's no need for me to add to their number.)

How about Trump? (He's not going to like that. I've put him in fourth place on my list.) He's holding on to the title of President-Elect, as well as the title of least presidential approach to Twitter. He's also going for the title of proposing an argument so tortuous that Pina Conti might have trouble with it - the suggestion that the election was definitely rigged and that he definitely won. And that there's no need to have any recount or investigation.

No. As with sport, there's no need for me to add to the word-count. But for different reasons.

How about longest personal delay between blog posts on this blog? Technically, I have just awarded myself that title. But it couldn't be that because I would have written this sooner, thereby making it easier for me to break my own record. I'd have had the record several times by now if I'd been taking that approach.

So no, it's not that.

(Incidentally, there has been a minor lag, an interruption in service if you will, due to the other stuff I've been doing. Yes, I've been taking on paid writing assignments. And while it's lovely to write for you, dear reader, it's less to my pecuniary advantage. Maybe once a few billion of you have read this and clicked on some of the adverts, I might be paid enough for a cup of tea or something. But I'm not even close yet.)

The answer, as I'm sure you're already aware is...

Actually, I'll tell you tomorrow. Feel free to place your guess in the comment box. A prize for the best attempt, where 'best' could mean closest, most entertaining, closest to libellous or featuring the best use of a neologism. Or something else.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

On proportionality and being all about bass

Somewhat late to the party, I'm writing about a song no longer in the charts, and a news article written about it last week.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34344619/all-about-that-bass-writer-says-he-got-5679-from-178m-streams

To sum up - Kevin Kadish co-wrote 'All About That Bass', which was streamed 178-million times, for which he received a songwriter royalty of $5,679.

Is that fair?

There are two questions here (in addition to the one just above this sentence).

1) How much money did the streaming services receive for sending that song out across the internet that many times?

I don't know. I think we can safely assume that most of the people listening to the song weren't paying anything so it's a question of how much advertising revenue they draw in.

For all we know, the combined revenue for streaming the song that many times was $10,000. In which case that's not such a bad split. If it was $1bn then I agree that Mr Kadish has a compelling case.

Without that figure, his complaint utterly lacks context. He might be right. Or he might want to consider not making his songs available for streaming in order to get a bigger slice of the pie from other sales. (This might lead to a Pyrrhic victory.)

2) How long did it take him to co-write this song?

More contentious.

There was even a famous court-case about this line of reasoning. In 1878, in London, the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had written that Whistler asking for 200 guineas for his painting "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" was "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face".

Make your own mind up - it's on the right:


The most famous exchange in the trial went as follows (according to Wikipedia):

Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..." [the painting measures 24 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches]
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

If it took Mr Kadish a day to write the song, and he earned $5,679 then, assuming he might work two hundred days per year, that's still an annual salary of around a million dollars. Which isn't bad.

On the other hand, if his combined life experience allowed him to write this song and it is the peak of his career then he should be compensated for all the years he has spent learning to write songs. I'm not sure how we quantify that. Maybe $6,000 to bring his expected annual salary up to $1.2m?

Should anyone be able to expect to write one song and retire, buy a house, etc?

I've written six books (about a year each, since you asked) and haven't got to that stage yet. Why not buy one? I'm not asking for anything like 200 guineas.

3) The third question which wasn't trailed and frankly has no place here (and isn't even a question)

How much was made by Swede Mason for his masterwork 'Masterchef Synesthesia'? It's another that examines aspects of bass.


Admittedly, it's only been streamed 8,782,994 times (as at 9.36am on 1 October 2015). But if Swede Mason hasn't earned more or less precisely $280.22 then someone is being horribly ripped off.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

When advertising becomes vanity

I've already written about the vanity exercise in which SSE generates so much profit from its customers that it can afford to waste money putting its name onto a sporting arena.

Has anyone, ever, in the history of advertising, seen the name of an energy supplier over the door of an arena and thought, "That's the supplier for me! I won't bother comparing prices, I'll just sign up with them now!"?

Did we all get the answer 'no' to that question?

So I think we can agree to drop that exercise into the 'vanity' box.

I'm not saying all advertising is vanity, clearly not. Sometimes a company has started to sell a new thing and they want to tell people about it. You know, by telling them about the product. Not just by putting its name in big letters over a large building.

But what on earth is going on in the new Lloyds Bank advertisement?


It's a potted history of the horse over the past 250 years with the name of a bank inserted at the end. And this celebrates the fact that Lloyds Bank has existed for 250 years and has used a black horse in its corporate material for some or all of that time. (As far as I'm aware, they've never sold horses.)

I shudder to think how much it cost to shoot that film. And will it generate any new business? Or is it vanity?

Here's what I would do

Assuming that the shareholders would rather generate more business (and retain existing business) than produce some self-congratulatory horse film, why not use my film instead? The total cost to the bank would have been the same...


I think they're much more likely to see a return on the advertising cost using my approach. And it's shorter so wouldn't annoy audiences as much.

I am available for freelance advertising consultancy - and that sample video is my portfolio. Concept available to purchase, price negotiable, form an orderly queue, sealed bids at the ready...

Friday, 22 May 2015

digging holes and filling them in

Full employment - it sounds great as a two-word aspiration.

But what if it resembles that moment at primary school where the two captains pick their teams? What do you do with the last few people who nobody wants? At school, they're grudgingly added to the teams alternately. In the real world, the private sector would say they were full.

Which leaves the state. Which could simply employ half of them to dig holes and the other half to fill them in. Is that the left-wing paradise? Or is it the right-wing paradise? Does it matter?

Maybe an economist could run the numbers. We'd have people getting exercise (yay!), learning a skill, earning an income, paying taxes, holding their heads high, etc, etc. Is this better, overall, than paying them unemployment benefit to stay out of the way?

But let's hope there's never an imbalance between diggers and fillers in taking time off sick.

More concrete

I'm not insulting hole diggers. Goodness knows it's a tiring job and there are plenty of holes that need to be dug and I'm happy that people will do it so I don't have to. But digging a hole to only have it filled in again (or filling in a hole provided someone has already dug it) stands in very nicely for a completely useless job.

Because I'm assuming that it doesn't actually make sense economically, even when considered across the whole country. Even if you don't restrict it to hole digging - maybe include going to libraries and moving books slightly to the left:


Or maybe if you include companies that sell electricity and gas to domestic users in Great Britain.

Once upon a time

A long time ago, British people used gas and electricity in their homes. The amount they used was measured on a meter and a bill would be sent occasionally to charge them for what they had used.

It was run by the public sector. (At this point, feel free to tell me that I don't remember how awful it was and how appalling and other words to describe powerless frustration.)

Whereas now we have a range of companies from whom we can buy gas and electricity.

The modern way

Bear in mind that we buy electricity and gas from retail organisations. They don't generate the stuff, excavate it, refine it, store it, pump it or maintain the infrastructure.

They measure what we use. And they take our money for it. They invent mind-bogglingly complicated charging structures in order to give us a choice of how much we end up paying and what colours are used on the bills.

Except we can't compare these tariffs because they're mind-bogglingly complicated. So instead we have a whole raft of other companies which compare tariffs for us. And they get a kick-back from whichever company we pick. And sometimes they don't tell us about all the tariffs because sometimes the kick-backs aren't big enough.

Microeconomically

...and I use that term as an amateur. Each household, through its energy bills, is paying for vast armies of hole diggers and fillers.


  • staff to invent tariffs
  • staff to handle customers joining their company
  • staff to handle customers leaving their company
  • staff to advertise their company
  • staff to regulate the competition between the companies
  • staff to run comparison websites
  • staff to cold-call potential customers to ask them if they want to switch companies
  • staff to handle complaints from people who keep being asked if they want to switch companies
  • staff to handle complaints from people who were switched to another company even though they didn't want to be
  • and so on and so on
  • and so on.
Speaking of advertising (fourth bullet point above), I recently noticed that Wembley Arena is now 'The SSE Arena, Wembley'. Because, of course, obviously, a sporting/entertainment venue in north-west London should carry the name of a Scottish power company.

How much did SSE pay to get their name above the door? And how many customers have they got? Divide one by the other to find out how much extra these lucky customers are paying so that SSE can run that little vanity project.

(Although let's also remember that SSE's advertising once showed a giant lurking ape-ghost so getting their name on an arena is certainly not a lot stranger.)

Macroeconomically

I'm looking forward to someone telling that I'm not seeing the big picture.

But surely the biggest picture is that, if the retail sector were state-run, a public servant could very effectively estimate the amount of kWh needed by the whole nation and then bulk buy on the energy markets?

Wouldn't we then all get a better price than piecemeal purchase across a bunch of smaller companies? And less wastage too, since I'm guessing all those companies over-estimate because no one wants to be known as the company that let the lights go out.


And no one would be paying the wages of so many ancillary staff, or for branding sports halls or for running pointless advertising.

Oh, and if there were any profits they would stay in Britain.

Where do the profits go now? Some of them go to the state-owned energy companies of other countries who currently run some of our energy retail sector and laugh all the way to the bank. Yes, we are subsidising French and German households because their energy sector runs ours and repatriates the profits.

Have I got this fundamentally wrong?

Because if I haven't, the amount of money siphoned out of Britain for no reason is breathtaking. I really hope it was due to incompetence because the only other explanation is corruption on a massive scale.

More ludicrous nonsense

On BBC Radio 4's You and Yours this week, the story of a man who was transferred to another energy supplier even though he didn't want to be, told the salesman that he didn't want to be and then had a tough time sorting it out because the new company (which he didn't want) kept calling him Mr Armstrong (which wasn't his name).

Not sure how long the BBC will keep this link active, but here's the five minute piece.

I challenge you

If anyone can explain how and why the current system makes sense and/or is cheaper than going back to a single, state-run provider, please get in touch. Maybe put a comment below the line.

A prize for the best response.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Targeting failure

Not getting off the ground

Sitting in an airport, waiting for a delayed flight is annoying. When that delay reaches six hours, you'll probably be finding it harder to pass the time.

But our airline pulled a masterstroke on this occasion. All five subsequent, hourly flights to the same destination departed on time.

Rather than shifting the passengers and relabelling the planes - giving each a one hour delay - they had decided to hand out the full delay to one group. Their maths had shown that one plane-load delayed by six hours was better than six plane-loads delayed by one.

Thank you, American Airlines.

Presumably they have targets, under which 16% delayed (for a long time, but who cares about that detail?) is better than 100% delayed (a little).

Targets in business can be useful, helpful and appropriate. But, in the hands of idiots, can lead to unwanted outcomes. If the targets are daft but the incentives high, managers will act against what should be their better judgement in order to score a higher mark - and secure their bonus.

(Personally, I'll avoid flying with American Airlines again. Sure, they gave me some loyalty-card points by way of an apology. The points expired unused.)

No longer an emergency

Not so long ago, accident and emergency departments at British hospitals were given a target of 'dealing with' (my words) people within four hours of their arrival.

This sounds eminently sensible, until you consider what happens once the target has been missed. When the punter reaches four hours and one minute, the target has been missed. The statistics won't look as healthy.

But now there's no hurry. That person's deadline (as it were) has been missed. It's either hit or missed and it's been missed. On the charts, graphs, executive summaries and board member's appraisals it makes no difference whatsoever if that guy is seen in the next five minutes or not for the next five years.

It may be better to forget about them for a while and clear the room of the other guys who haven't hit the magic four hours yet. With any luck, his problem will clear up of its own accord and he'll just leave. (Or maybe call for an ambulance so he can try his luck somewhere else.)

Fortunately, medical staff are not that stupid, callous and/or evil. Maybe better hope no airline executives move over to the healthcare sector.

Being smart

There is a management trope that targets should be 'SMART' which, as I'm sure you're delighted to hear, is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

It all sounds good until you notice that it's assumed that the target will be sensible and will lead to the whole enterprise improving, advancing, making more money, etc, etc.

This is so obvious that the management gurus haven't even felt the need to mention it. No, not even in passing.

That might need a rethink. Set yourself a target to have it done urgently.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

your work read like it was second draft, not polish

It's both very easy and spectacularly pointless to mock, ridicule or otherwise reject well-intentioned feedback.

Take the title of this blog post. I could attempt a weak joke by saying that I wasn't writing in Polish and they'd forgotten the capital letter. Or I could accept it's a linguistic shorthand and move on.

However, the detail this person provided showed that their bugbear was entirely to do with my style of punctuation. And specifically the fact that I punctuate like I'm English while they prefer it American-style. And that's not an error, any more than if I criticised them for spelling 'colour' wrongly.

And I pointed that out and we agreed to disagree and moved on. It was friendly and well-intentioned and I appreciate that this person clearly had enough interest in what I was writing to try to help.

But...

I admit it. I have a chip on my shoulder. The chip is something along the lines of... "people think self-published books will be full of spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, punctuation mistakes, hideous sentences, woeful paragraphs, lumpy stories, implausible characters and predictable plots - all lurking behind garish amateurish covers". Not that anyone would judge a book by its cover, of course.

That's not why I look for errors in 'conventionally' published books. But it's good to have some ammunition to show that everyone makes mistakes. And, unless you're an obsessive, the mistakes don't matter. Great books can transcend a printer's mistake but fabulous typography can't rescue a clanger.

Dave Gorman

I like Dave Gorman. (Not personally, you understand - but I like to think that's only because I haven't met him so I have no opinion about whether or not I'd like him in person.)

I like his performance-persona and I like his writing style. I like the subjects that he covers (except America Unchained, but that still gives a very high hit rate).

I'm reading 'Too Much Information' and I've found two errors. One glaring, one slightly less glaring. Page 47 - "greatest gits album". Page 51 - "three that didn't chart at all" (it's actually two).

I wonder how that happened. I can think of three scenarios.


  1. Dave typed the manuscript, made a slight slip and no one spotted or corrected it (despite the best efforts of professional publishing industry blah blah blah)
  2. Dave typed the manuscript correctly but, during the editing process or the pre-publish formatting process, someone else introduced the howlers which were then not spotted as above
  3. Dave bangs out some stream of consciousness stuff which then has to be thrashed into book-shape by a team of minions who introduced the errors (as above)
I don't think it's number 3.

(There is the fourth possibility that they are both intended as jokes. I don't think "greatest gits album" is a joke of Dave's normal high standard. And using the number three instead of two isn't normally going to be funny and certainly isn't in this case.)

Either way, nobody's perfect and it is excruciatingly difficult to get every error out of a book once it has more than a few hundred words in it.

And that's whether you write, edit, format and publish it yourself (like what I do) or use the mighty forces of the Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing - A Random House Group company.

Danny Wallace

Danny Wallace used to write with Dave Gorman. (And I like him too - as above.)

His book "Hamish and the Worldstoppers" has just been published. I haven't read it but, judging from the blurb, it includes the premise that the world can freeze, time can stop and then things can happen which most people won't be aware of, except the special character, who I'm guessing is called Hamish.

Sounds great. No, really. I wish him well - because I like him (see above). But I wrote Timestand five years ago which features a character who can freeze the world by stopping time so he can do things that most people won't be aware of.

Clearly I didn't copy him. And, equally obviously, he didn't copy me. But it's an interesting coincidence. Maybe if Danny shows that there's a market for these sorts of stories, I might get a few sales off the back of it. I'm not proud. I'll ride on coat-tails...


P.S. In keeping with the general theme of this post, there might be a prize awarded to the first person to spot a typo anywhere in this article.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

It's all vanity

Three tweets from today:


  • Other than a handful of notable exceptions, will self-published authors ever earn as much as those selling advice to self-published authors?
  • The sheer number of courses, memberships, editorial and technical services on offer - do any guarantee earning back their fees?
  • Cos if they don't, it means they operate no selection and have no faith in their clients. That's called vanity publishing.

But, just to be clear and really ram the point home... I have nothing against book publicists in principle - as long as they take their fee from sales increases.

If they want a fee up front then they are not selective. And they aren't showing confidence in their own abilities. Which, as I've already said, is vanity publishing in my book. If you'll pardon the pun.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

but you're paid to do that

Another week, another rejection from a literary agent. Nothing new there.

(You could, at this point, tut angrily to yourself and use phrases like "pearls before swine" and "just like those guys who rejected the Beatles" and so on. Feel free. But I don't think I should.)

However...

"With regards to your picture book ideas, the children’s picture book market is an incredibly competitive arena and a debut needs to have a really unique, charming voice with distinctive characters and a strong message – I’m afraid your stories aren’t quite what we are looking for at the moment to add to our list."

I didn't send any picture book ideas, words or pictures.

I sent novels for children - an extract from a 60,000 word novel (that's Timestand) and another extract from a 40,000 word novel (that's Feargal Munge).

So many manuscripts

The life of a junior employee at a literary agent must be hard. So many manuscripts to plough through, desperately trying to find the needle in the haystack, the diamond in the rough, the wheat in the chaff, the Wolf Hall in the reality television, the original phrase in the stack of clich├ęs.

Personally, I can handle rejection. If someone reads a page or two and decides it isn't for them - fair enough. (Obviously a chapter or two would be better but I know you're busy.)

I'm not going for global domination here. I'm not trying to write for absolutely everyone. But I know that my books are publishable and that there is a healthy-sized market for them. (Or, to use a more pessimistic angle, I feel that a lot of books far worse than mine are published.)

But sending out a rejection without actually reading the manuscript (or noticing that it isn't a picture book) - that's unforgivable.

I know - there are so many manuscripts - but you're being paid to work through them.

If you don't like it, you can reject it in ten minutes. Authors spend years writing books. Yes, years.

Can't you spare ten (paid) minutes as a sign of respect to the (unpaid) years spent creating the work?

Hello? Just in case this is read by the person who should be on the naughty step...

You've said you don't want to represent me - and that's fine. I respect your opinion.

But when I replied, simply, briefly and politely, to point out that my novels are not picture books - a short apology would have been an appropriate reply. Or a long apology. Or any sort of reply, frankly. (And I have checked my spam folder - it's not there either.)

P.S.

Over to you, dear reader. Should I forward this blog post to the company in question? Let me know in the comments below. Or email me.

on casual selfism (and other terms I'll make up as I go along)

It's not just that I think the word 'selfishness' is ugly and clumsy - although it undoubtedly is.

Being selfish implies a conscious choice to further one's interests (however trivial) regardless of the impact on others (however severe).

Whereas casual selfism contains extreme self-centredness (another ugly word) - not only not caring about the impact on others, not only not thinking about the impact on others but not even being aware of not thinking about it.

It's not psychopathy because a psychopath genuinely wouldn't be able to consider the feelings and needs of others, whereas a casual selfism-ist could if it occurred to him.

But it usually doesn't.

Too abstract - give an example

Casual selfism is a state of mind whereby it would be totally honest to throw hands up in horror and say, "I never thought of that," when, for example, a fit and able-bodied man is told why he shouldn't have parked in a disabled bay because it's slightly nearer to the coffee shop. (More on that later.)

More trivially

Last night I watched the first two episodes of the BBC's dramatisation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

(Yes, it started six weeks ago - but I've been saving them all for a more convenient time, which turned out to be last night.)

If it hadn't been for the need to be up at a sensible time in the morning, I could easily have watched all six hours of it in one sitting. It was my sort of television - intelligent, warm, compellingly acted, gracefully written, aesthetically fascinating. Oh, and I could hear everything the characters said.

(If I really had to think of a criticism, I would wonder why there was quite so much of what sounded to me like Spanish guitar on the soundtrack. But it was probably Tudor-style lute playing and I'm probably just showing my ignorance of the period. And I liked it anyway.)

And then...

I saw that next week's Radio Times had printed a letter from a concerned viewer who was despairing about the very two episodes that I had just watched. Oh, the pain in his writing.

"emperor's new clothes", "agonisingly slow", "particularly tedious", "characterisation thin", "all stare and stance", "a 'thinks' bubble above his head a lot of the time", "disappointing"

I don't agree. But I don't just disagree with what he wrote. I disagree with his feeling that he should write to the Radio Times and tell them that he watched a programme which wasn't for him and then didn't like it.

It's casual selfism.

He's presumably disappointed that a programme has been made which wasn't right for him. And him being a licence-fee payer and all.

(Yes, I'm ascribing thoughts to this person which may or may not be his. That's part of the reason why I'm not putting his name here.)

But what's a viewer to do?

Using today as an example, BBC1 runs from 6am - 12.30am, BBC2 from 6am - 12.50am, BBC3 from 7pm - 4am, BBC4 7pm-4am, CBeebies 6am - 7pm, CBBC 6am-7pm.

(I should also include S4C, BBC Alba, seven national radio stations, many local radio stations, BBC News, BBC Parliament and the website. And there's probably other stuff that I've forgotten.)

Add all that lot up. I reckon it's around 100 hours of television per day. How many hours of television do you want to watch from the BBC every day? One or two hours?

Okay, then you need 2% of their output to be for you. It'll be there. The other 98% won't be for you - it'll be for someone else.

How about you stop criticising the 98% that's not for you and, in return, I won't criticise the 2% that is?

Can't fathom

Returning to our disabled parking bay hog - he has points in common with the man so disappointed with Wolf Hall.

(Yes, it's a stretch, but go with it for a moment.)

This is a man who has just taken his child to school.

He has been doing this journey for several years - so he knows where the coffee shop is, and he knows where the disabled parking bay is, and he knows that the school is only about two hundred yards away.

Yet he chose to drive those two hundred yards and to use the disabled parking bay because it was right outside the coffee shop.

I can't fathom this. Personally, I wouldn't be able to take that space. If the bay could hold two hundred cars and no one else was parked there and there was no chance of getting a parking ticket - I couldn't do it.

And neither could most other people - which is lucky for this guy because it means he can park right outside his coffee shop and go in to buy a cup of coffee and, frankly, his day would be a nightmare of near-biblical proportions if he couldn't get his coffee where he wants, when he wants and without having to walk for a minute.

But I don't think any of that passes through his head. I don't think he even considers that maybe he shouldn't do it. I think (here I go, ascribing thoughts to others willy-nilly again) that he sees his shop, sees the space, thinks, "that's what I need" and goes for it.

Casual selfism - textbook example. And I bet he thinks every television programme should be to his taste too.

Friday, 13 February 2015

No one leaves comments any more

No one leaves comments any more.

There's a link, just down there at the bottom of this entry. See it? There you go.

It might say 'post comment' or it might say 'no comments'.

Or it might say '753 comments' by now.

Click it. Write a comment.

Prove that there are people out there. And that they've got keyboards and fingers.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

to paraphrase Joni Mitchell

Not so much "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" as "you don't know what you weren't given until it's too late to go back and ask what happened to that important bit".

As a lyric, it needs a little work.

Theatre

I went to the theatre recently. A big production at a major west-end London theatre. (Sorry, am I showing off?)

We booked the tickets in advance - but not enough in advance - so the choice of seats was limited.

(As an aside, isn't that a ridiculous phrase? It's similar to the commonly used 'limited availability'. What they mean is 'little availability' or 'get your skates on there's not much left'. Because, unless the show is going to run to the end of time, or the venue stretches off into the distance and beyond to the stars and thence to eternity (yes, even bigger than the Dome, or the O2 if you must) - then there will always be a limited number of seats. Thank you. Sorry. As you were.)

The friendly booking dude suggested going to a preview, well into the second week of previews, just a few days before the official opening night, minor blips possible but the show should be all tickety-boo by then. And we went for it.

Not because it was cheaper, mind you. Oh no. Because the date suited us and the seats were in a good location.

The evening arrived. We filed in, all excited as one would be when about to watch a play. We were let into the auditorium a bit later than expected, only five minutes before the show was due to start, almost as though there had been some technical problems (surely not?)

To say there were technical problems would be true. Set malfunctions, prop malfunctions, special effect malfunctions, serious looking people purposefully using power tools all over the stage during the interval.

And then, as we reached the climax, it just all sort of ended very quickly. Tension lost, resolution slammed into place, cast bowing, lead actor looking very annoyed and everyone goes home.

Some time later, I flicked through a copy of the play script and realised that a long and structurally important scene from very near the end hadn't actually happened that night.

Yes, but it's a preview. No, but that's not good enough. I think. Am I right?

Lesson learned - never buy tickets for previews.

Books

Far be it from me to refrain from jumping on bandwagons to do with books. Today is no exception.

Wonderful news that Harper Lee's first novel, 'Go Set A Watchman' will finally be published.

(For those who missed the news story, she wrote that book about sixty years ago and was advised to write a different book, set when the main character was a girl. So, fifty-five years ago, she published 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. And the manuscript for GSAW was thought lost...)

But...

Once and for all, this could have shown the pointlessness of the publishing industry. Except she appears to be using a mainstream publisher.

And so she will collect pennies from each copy sold while the publishing house and assorted retailers will rake in many multiples of what she, the mere author, only the person without whom none of this would exist, will receive.

What does she need?
  • A printer - these are not hard to find. For a hefty print-run, I think we can assume a good price could be negotiated.
  • An editor - again, she could take her pick, pay a generous flat fee for their time and move on.
  • A cover designer - see above
  • Retailers - as long as the printer was hooked into the global book distribution system, any retailer could order it, if they wanted to. But they'd want to, right? As long as they knew about it because of the...
  • eBook selling - see editor and cover designer. Get someone to format, beautify it and load it up. Pay them a flat fee for their time.
  • Marketing - are you kidding? That's already started, free of charge, in the world's media, and will continue to publication day and beyond. Even if the original seed was planted by the publishing house's PR department, I suspect it would have spread even if Harper Lee had just phoned her local paper and told them the good news.

And then she could have kept a far greater proportion of the earnings from her work. But we'll never know how that experiment might have turned out.

In this case, I (and now you, hello!) know what didn't happen here.

If I'm ever in that position, I hereby guarantee that I will try it and report back. So keep buying my books and one day I'll get there.


Did I mention I've got another book coming out within the next few weeks?