23 December, 2009

The Price of Christmas

I see that a priest in York, England has recommended that his parishioners steal the things they need this Christmas since no-one else is going to help them out. Is conspiracy to commit a mortal sin a sin too? The theology could get tricky. However, the humanity is plain and simple. The plight of the homeless in the UK - while not nearly so bas as that of the homeless in the USA - is heart-wrenching. No decent person can witness it without revolting against the system that creates and sustains it.

And that system is capitalism.

Christmas may be a good time to remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The food heaped on our plates, the mostly-unwanted gifts, the treats and indulgences, the lights and the shiny, plastic baubles, all have to be paid for.

In a capitalist society, the payment is made by the consumer - you and me - from money we get by selling our labour to the people who control the capital. They get their money by selling the product of our labour back to us in the form of meals, plastic baubles and so on. The magic of capitalism is that, by this process, capital increases. Somehow value is added by the act of production. Where does it come from?

It comes from various kinds of exploitation, but two in particular: the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of the environment. Workers are exploited by not paying them anything like the value of their product would suggest they should be paid. The excess goes to the owners of the capital. These days, when workers in the consuming countries ask to be paid more fairly, their jobs, and the exploitation, are moved overseas to places where workers are paid even less and can be more thoroughly exploited. That this leaves people with no source of income because they have lost the ability to sell their labour, might be seen as a bad thing, but for capitalism it is good, it means that labour becomes a plentiful commodity that can now be bought more cheaply. (This is also one of the reasons why capitalists like population growth.) It means that the workers who were once in danger of earning enough that they were no longer so badly exploited, but who lost their jobs, are now forced get new jobs at lower wages and be properly exploited again. To keep capital growing, exploitation of workers has to be increasingly efficient and widespread. It is called 'productivity'.

Even so, you can only take the exploitation of workers so far before the rate of increase declines. For capital to keep on growing you have to keep pumping new wealth into the system. That's where the environment comes in. Along with people's work, the environment is the source of all wealth. Fuels and materials dug from the ground, animals and plants taken or farmed in the seas and on the land, are the raw feedstock of capitalism. To keep capital growing, the people with access to these resources, must keep acquiring them in ever-larger amounts. The consumption of raw materials by our 'primary industries' is nothing less than the consumption of our planet. With increasing speed, capitalism is taking whatever is usable from the world, using it to fuel growth, and dumping the rest as polluting slag - on the land, in the seas, and in the air. What's more, like the exploitation of workers, the exploitation of the environment must also be driven to ever-greater efficiency.

It is clear to everyone who thinks about these things, that capitalism cannot survive forever - or even for very much longer - without finding more things to exploit. The 'global market' has now, pretty much included every possible worker on the planet in capitalism's web of exploitation. There is plenty of of opportunity for growth there still, but the resource - us - is finite. The environment is starting to show signs of breaking down under the strain. Global warming, peak oil, extinctions of fish stocks, and global food shortages, are all signs that we are using up what is there at an unsustainable rate.

Technology has always been capitalism's friend. The need for more efficient exploitation has always driven technological development. The people who control capital - and the people who depend on its products - are in a precarious position just now. It looks as if the environment might collapse, or run out of key materials, before technological fixes have been found for these problems. We need new places to exploit - the asteroids? other planets? - before this one runs dry. We need ways to keep the environment patched up long enough to bring these new resources online. And, we need more efficient ways to exploit labour (global recessions are good for capitalism, but they do carry the risk of revolution.)

Capitalism is great for the owners of capital, it's not bad for many of the rest of us either (as long as we temper its worst excesses with democracy,) but it isn't a free lunch. In the end, we will have to pay the price for all this wealth.

Some, like the homeless, the people on welfare, and the working poor, already pay that price for us. It is by putting a certain proportion of us in such misery that capitalism ensures the low cost of labour and hence adequate returns on investment for the owners of capital. The suffering of the starving and the homeless in our cities is helping to put the lights on our trees, the iPods in our pockets, and the piles of food on our plates this Christmas.

Is it really so bad if they snatch a can of ravioli from a supermarket shelf in their desperation?

13 December, 2009

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” (William Blake)

I don't want to get all hard-nosed and cynical about it but why do people insist that you can achieve your dreams if you just believe in yourself and work hard? I know there are some cases where this has happened, but surely there are a thousand cases for every one of those where it hasn't.

I suppose ideas like this can persist because there is no evidence. How do you run a study where one group believes in themselves and works hard and another group doesn't - keeping all other variables matched between the groups? What's more, 'true believers' in the doctrine can always say of a failed case, "Well, she obviously didn't believe in herself enough, or she didn't work hard enough." So it's one of those irrefutable doctrines. And it simply doesn't square with my experience.

Certainly self-belief and hard work can be a big help when it comes to success, but so can blind luck, physical beauty, great talent, and good connections. Beauty? Oh yes. Trust me, I'm a psychologist. I've seen the studies that show that physically attractive people have more friends, more self-confidence, and are more successful. For men, it is also a big advantage to be tall. Tall men rise higher in life. If I hadn't been so tall and handsome, I might have had even less worldly success!

It isn't even a confusion between necessary and sufficient causes. As I say, working hard might help, but it is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for success. Some of the most downtrodden people in the world also have to work the hardest. That's why they're called the 'working classes'.

Yet some people believe it to be true, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Or do they? Maybe the people who insist that, if you follow your dream, you will, one day, succeed, are deliberately ignoring the evidence because they have emotional needs that won't allow them to accept it. Maybe they say these things because they are too naive or too dumb to be aware of the many cases where they are patently false. A lot of people seem to say it (especially in self-help books and autobiographies) because they succeeded and would like to persuade themselves, and us, that it was their mighty moral fibre, the stuff that kept them believing in themselves and working hard despite all the setbacks, that led to their triumphs.

Here's a little quiz:

1. If you are born in America, work hard, and believe in yourself, are you:
a) more likely to become rich and famous than someone similar born in an African village?
b) more likely to become rich and famous if your parents are already rich and famous?
c) more likely to become rich and famous if you are young, beautiful and talented?

I think people who say that self-belief and hard work are all you need to succeed actually mean well. They're probably thinking of a case they've heard about where someone who was immensely talented and, by hard work and belief in themselves (and with some luck, and, probably a bit of help from some well-off and well-connected friends or family members) managed to achieve their dream. And then they've seriously overgeneralised it to apply to the rest of the world. They don't actually want to buoy people up on waves of false hopes just so that those people can come crashing to earth in late middle age and spend their declining years in a state of bitter regret and depression. At least, I hope not.

03 December, 2009

My Novel TimeSplash Discussed at the e-Fiction Book Club

The e-Fiction Book Club has very kindly let me guest-blog with them. Jump across to that wonderful site and see what I had to say about opting for electronic publishing for my upcoming novel TimeSplash.

While you’re there, why not browse the site? In a world where mainstream reviewers still won’t review anything but paper, e-Fiction Book Club is providing a great service to people who want to see reviews of e-books.

08 November, 2009

He who begins many things finishes but few

You know that thing women are always telling blokes about how men can only do one thing at a time while women can multi-task? Well I think I now know why. Women are taught to cook and men aren't.

In the past few years I have taken over all the cooking in my household. Unless there is something very special needed on a very special occasion, I do it all; breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all snacks in between. It's not so bad, really and beats just about every other kind of housework I can think of hands down.

The greatest challenge that I faced as someone who didn't do a lot of cooking before, is synchronising everything. Even fairly simple meals need a great deal of planning to esure that every sauce, side and vegetable is ready at the same time so they can be served together. This means their cooking times and methods need to be planned and synchronised and, before that, the preparation of each item has to be started at the appropriate time. (And, before all that, you have to make sure the meals are all planned and the shopping is all done!)

And, this is the part that really caused me trouble, you often have to look after several parts of the meal, each at a different stage of its process, all at the same time.

At first, this seems like a wild juggling act, but, with practice (I don't know how many thousands of hours of cooking time I now have under my belt - as it were) it gets easier and better co-ordinated. If any of this multi-tasking skill rubs off onto other areas of my life, I suppose I must be getting better at all kinds of things.

But if (the vast majority of) women are expected to master cookery and practice it every day of their lives and (the vast majority of) men are not, it is easy to see where a real difference in multi-tasking ability might emerge.


Picture by nataliedee.com

02 November, 2009

TimeSplash the Motion Picture

I just wanted to let everyone know that my soon-to-be-published novel, TimeSplash, now has its own website - and its own blog! It also has its own promotional video :-)

And, while I'm here, let me just share this great quote from Stephen Jay Gould:

In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Spot the ridiculous argument he's lampooning.

27 October, 2009

Sea-Walls and Dykes Are Not The Answer

The Australian government is considering measures that would force property owners close to the sea to give up their properties if threatened by coastal erosion or repeated flooding. It is estimated that about 80% of Australians live by the coast. The figure is not so high for other countries but everywhere faces the same problem: global warming is causing sea levels to rise, possibly by as much as 2 to 4 metres in the next fifty years. Coastlines are being eroded and flooded and it will get worse and worse.

Of course, property owners are incensed. There has been a recent 'sea change' rush to the coast and coastal properties have soared in value over the past decade. Owners believe the government should build coastal defences. Failing that, they believe the government should compensate them in full if it pulls them off their land.

Here's what I think. Anyone moving to the coast in the past 10 years must have been off their heads. Anyone investing in coastal properties in the last ten years has made a truckload of money but now the party is over. We've known for a very, very long time that global warming was happening and that sea-level rises were inevitable. If people want to gamble on global warming not happening then that's fine, but it's a gamble they have lost. Tough luck. Maybe next time they'll buy an ostrich farm.

Anyone who has continued to live on the coast despite the sure and certain knowledge that sea levels are going to rise, is also nuts. How many times have they moved house in the past 20 years? How many opportunities have they had to move inland? And now they want the government (i.e. you and me) to build futile sea defences, or to pay them to move elsewhere?

I don't think so.

A compassionate government should provide rehousing assistance to the feeble-minded or gamblers who end up with nothing. As a nation, Australia needs to build more low-rent housing anyway. But no-one forced anyone to buy investment properties near the beach and throw up monstrous high-rises. No-one forced well-off city-dwellers to grab up coastal properties and build million-dollar houses there, turning every seaside town into a yuppie retirement community.

And no-one can force the tax payer to bail all these gamblers and fools out now their 'investment' has turned bad. Surprise, surprise! Climate change is real. Even at the beach you can't bury your head in the sand forever.

16 October, 2009

Help Me Out, America

Calling all Americans. I need your opinion on something.

I've written a book and it's going to be published in February 2010. It's a near-future thriller set in Europe. The background to the tale is that the world is just recovering from a very serious depression brought on by us hitting peak oil. The depression, which lasted fifteen years, was worse than anything experienced yet - millions starved, resource wars were fought, governments toppled.

It's a very minor part of the story but it is mentioned that of all the countries of the world, worst hit was the USA. It's dependence on oil and its strongly consumer-driven economy meant that the effect of peak oil was worse there than anywhere. The economy collapsed. Tens of millions were unemployed and most of them were starving. Riots and civil unrest threatened to turn into civil war as an ineffectual government dickered around with fiscal stimulus. Things looked bad until a strong, right-wing government, with fundamentalist Christian roots was elected and immediately took a firm grip of the situation. (Imagine a strong George W Bush, or a Sarah Palin with brains.) Unfortunately, they use their emergency powers and a mandate from a population scared to death about what is happening, to push through some constitutional changes - abolishing the separation of church and state and ensuring that only candidates affiliated to the official church can run for office.

Over the next couple of decades, the new government does, in fact, stop the country from plunging into chaos, but at enormous cost. Opposition parties are banned, many universities - hotbeds of anti-government sentiment - are closed down under the new blasphemy and insurrection laws. The ones that remain are 're-focused' on theological teaching, with the closure of many 'blasphemous' science departments, especially the biological sciences, geology, astronomy, philosophy, and physics. Theology replaces science teaching in schools. Many, many people are arrested and executed for anti-government and anti-religious crimes and the FBI is turned into a feared and energetic prosecutor of the new laws and policies.

Ironically, although peace returns to the streets and Americans are being returned to work and the homes they had lost, the country's prosperity, without the leading edge science and technology that once powered it, has nose-dived. With GM crops and livestock classed as 'abominations', the (future version of the) Internet strictly censored, and other countries surging ahead in the recovery, America is actually receiving massive food aid shipments from Europe and Asia - a fact the Christian fundamentalists in power are suppressing through their control of all media.


Here's what I need help with. As an American, does this scenario seem so far fetched, so completely unbelievable, to you that you would have a low opinion of a book in which it occurs?

28 August, 2009

Brazillian Prostitutes Doing Something Special

This article made me smile. It's about a group of prostitutes in Rio who are running their own fashion label called Daspu. The inspiration behind it is an activist called Gabriela Leite, who says, "When my hooker girlfriends parade pretty and proud, they are speaking about themselves and become revolutionaries." Why did I smile? Because it was just so damned heartwarming that these people were taking control and fighting back, even in a small way.

Prostitutes get a pretty raw deal from society. Not only is their work degrading and unpleasant, dangerous and unrewarding, but they are then vilified for providing a service that is in high demand. The Daspu 'revolutionaries' made me stop and think about prostitution and its role in our society.

Ideally, prostitution would disappear forever. It is inherently degrading to women to sell their bodies for money. It is a service that only men with no empathy, men who can only see women as objects could buy. But there are a great many men like that. Perhaps most men are like that. So, while women possess bodies and men lack sensitivity, while we live in societies where the means of a decent living are denied some while being lavished on others, while we allow that goods can be traded for services, prostitution will continue.

Probably the best we can do in an imperfect world is to educate men to have more regard for women, educate women to value themselves more highly, and do what we can to protect women who turn to prostitution. This last, essentially, means legalising prostitution. It is complete and utter hypocrisy not to. Legalised prostitution helps protect vulnerable women from exploiters (again, usually men), it helps protect their health, it can help them move beyond prostitution into other kinds of work, it can help keep them away from drugs, and it helps keep prostitutes away from the society of criminals.

17 July, 2009

Choosing Books for Children

Someone asking for recommendations for good speculative fiction for children and teenagers got me thinking. As a culture we tend to feed young people the most awful rubbish in this genre. I don't mean books that are badly written or poorly plotted, I mean unrealistic fantasy.

People picking books for youngsters tend to avoid sex and violence, quite reasonably, but will not balk at choosing a book full of unicorns or angels, talking animals and walking trees. Does anybody ever stop to wonder which will do more harm to a young mind, the reality of sex and violence, or the unreality of fantasy and religion? Truth? Or make-believe?

How can we expect children to mature into adults who can understand and cope with the real world if we feed them bizarre fantasy worlds and strictly-censored distortions? As a society we warn parents that TV shows might contain 'themes' - usually meaning the story deals with drug abuse, incest, torture, sex, or some other set of issues that many children could use our help in understanding. Yet there are no warnings for shows that involve magic beings (vampire stories, religious broadcasts, talking dogs, psychics, etc.), vigilanteism (Batman, for instance), or state-sanctioned violence (cop shows, P.I. shows, and war stories).

I'm sure that finding suitable books for children is hard but that doesn't mean we have to feed them the strange fare that currently passes for acceptable. Forgetting the complete abandonment of reality most of these stories represent, just consider the political statements that most fairy stories (and fantasy novels) make about the legitimacy of inherited power, or the complete abnegation of personal moral responsibility implicit in any story involving 'higher powers' (as gods tend to be called in fiction these days) who dictate or enforce moral absolutes.

We can't expect a world full of morally responsible, socially skilled, and politically sophisticated adults if we give our children unrealistic, nonsense to read.

14 July, 2009

Just for fun...

I don't usually post videos here - in fact, this is the first one. Mostly that is out of consideration to people who have slow Internet connections (for example, Australians using Telstra's NextG wireless 'broadband' service.) However, this one just made me smile and I thought you might like to see it.

It was filmed in Antwerp's central railway station. It features over 200 dancers and is a promotion for a Belgian TV programme.

11 July, 2009

Australia is Endangering Global Democracy

Just thought I'd point this out in case any Rudd government ministers are reading.

Even children's groups like Save the Children oppose the Australian government's plans to censor the Internet. Since the government censorship plans are ostensibly to protect children, surely this should give them pause.

Or maybe they would rather just go ahead and put their censorship technologies in place and then come clean about the real reason they're doing this? On the other hand, maybe they wouldn't. Their whole attitude seems to be, "Stuff you, Australia, we're going to censor the Internet and nobody can stop us."

Maybe other Western countries should start agitating against this move. After all, once one Western democracy has taken complete control of the Internet and what its citizens can see there (yes, just like China) won't other Western governments want to do the same? Once there is a precedent, it will be much easier for this to happen in the USA and the UK too.

The scary thing is, no-one seems to understand the danger that government-controlled Internet filtering poses to Australian democracy. Why is there no national and international outcry against this?

04 July, 2009

Letting Marketers Loose on Language

Language evolves. New words are coined; old words change. The end result is the rich and complex lexicon we have today. Some of this growth and change is acceptable and understandable. New words are needed as new concepts arise, as new social activities develop, and as new objects are made. But some of it arises for less acceptable reasons. Sometimes the person who coins a word - and the people who then use it - are ignorant of a word that already exists with the same meaning. Sometimes new words arise from a misunderstanding of an existing word. (Consider the modern use of the word 'showstopper' which has the opposite connotation of the word in its original meaning.) Sometimes a new word arises from laziness (e.g. when people would rather use 'text' as a verb than say, 'send a text message') sometimes from a desire to draw a strained and unwarranted analogy.

In this last category, consider how the suffix '-gate' has entered the language since 'Watergate'. In Australia in the past few weeks we've had a storm-in-a-teacup political scandal the press has dubbed 'utegate' ('ute' being a local contraction of 'utility vehicle' + '-gate' meaning a political scandal). Also consider the experiments underway at MIT to record and analyse the first three years of a child's life in order to track every utterance the child makes along with every utterance it might have heard. This has been called 'the human speechome project' by (a very strained) analogy with the human genome project. It seems that '-ome' is a new suffix which means something like 'scientific endeavour that produces an extremely large and complete data set in some field'.

It is understandable that scientists would want to associate their work with the human genome project. It isn't quite so easy to see why they would coin a word quite so ugly as 'speechome'. It is interesting to look at how we got to this sorry neologism.

The word 'genome', originally meant the
'sum total of genes in a set,' and was coined (in its German form 'genom') in 1920 by German botanist Hans Winkler. It comes from gen, short for 'gene' + om from 'chromosome.' It was Aglicised to 'genome' in 1930.

Looking back, the word 'chromosome' was coined in 1888, also by a German, anatomist Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz. He constructed it from the Greek words khroma, meaning 'colour' + soma meaning 'body.' ('Colour' because chromosomes contain a substance that stains easily for microscopic viewing.)

A recent addition to this family of words is 'proteome'. This is the set of all proteins that can be expressed by an organism's genes in a particular environment, or under any circumstances (more properly the 'complete proteome'). It derives from prote(in) + (gen)ome and was coined by Marc Wilkins in 1994. Notice that the '-ome' suffix has now taken on a life of its own. It is no longer an abbreviation of 'soma' but of 'genome'. It has stared to become like '-gate', a suffix which emphasises a flattering comparison the user wishes to take advantage of, rather than one that contibutes to the interpretation of the word.

And so we come to 'speechome'. This was probably coined by marketing people at MIT within the last couple of years, simply to aggrandise the project which bears its name. Marketing people, like journalists, use language to sell things. They don't care about etymology - or indeed meaning. They have other rhetorical motives for choosing words than to educate or inform. Now that '-ome' is in the hands of marketers and journalists, expect it to move farther and farther away from the sense in which it was originally conceived.

07 June, 2009

OMG, I'm a Troll !

Yes, me. I just realised it. I jump in on people's blogs with comments that are (somewhat) off topic and (sometimes a tiny bit) rude. I even do it on blogs and to people that I like.

Maybe it's a sign of my extreme old age, or maybe just an unpleasant side to my otherwise-perfect personality. The thing is, I have a number of strongly-held opinions. (No, really.) Sometimes I read things that trigger them and, in an almost reflexive jerk of the fingers, I blurt them out.

Like the other day when a writer I admire did a post on the psychology of how to change people's minds. It was a perfectly unexceptional piece, reporting the research in a nicely balanced way. But I jumped in with a small rant on why people waste their time trying to change society when it all comes to nothing in the long run. (And then some air-head responded, saying he 'fully understood me' and making several other patronising comments which got right up my nose, to which I foolishly responded, and suddenly there was a (rather polite) flame war going on on someone else's blog!)

Then, today, I read another writer's blog and my fingers twitched into action. She had explained part of the 'world' of her new story and it involved mind transfers. These are very common in sci-fi but I have a serious problem with them (i.e. they are intrinsically impossible.) I wrote several hundred words on my obsession before I got a grip and dragged my hands off the keyboard.

That's when I knew. I am a troll. (Hvat's troll nema þat? as the Old Norse might have asked.)

Now I must strive to curb this tendency. The first thing I need to do is to ask myself, every time I comment on anything, whether I'm actually contributing to the discussion or whether I'm taking it into deeper, darker places no-one else wants to go. When the answer is the latter, then I must close the blog of the poor innocent and open this one. For this is where my obsessions properly belong. This is where people expect me to rant and rave. This is my proper place, under the bridges of the data highway, lurking here for unwary travellers.

22 May, 2009

Good on ya Joanna

I was born just ten years after World War 2 ended. I was raised in Hull in Yorkshire, a major fishing and cargo port and one of the worst-bombed cities in England. When I was a kid, my friends and I played 'Jerrys and English' in the bombed out ruins of buildings still not yet rebuilt. Every adult male I knew back then had been in the army or the navy. All my friends' fathers, and all their grandfathers too. My own paternal grandfather was bed-ridden all the time I knew him because of injuries sustained in the war.

I don't know how kids view war these days. I imagine they don't see it in the way we did. Since World War 2, wars have become shabbier and less honourable. The disgraceful invasion of Iraq makes even Vietnam seem marginally reasonable. Yet everyone I knew as a child was proud of what we did in World War 2. We had stood firm against oppression. We had saved the world from tyranny. We had been brave and strong.

And among all the many stories I heard in those days, of bravery and courage and skill, the stalwart loyalty and fierce bravery of the Gurkhas was often mentioned.

I think, like many other Brits, I was astonished to discover that Gurkhas who had served in the British Army Brigade of Gurkhas had no automatic right to settle in Britain on leaving the army. I was also shocked to discover that a sly deal at the time of Partition had left the Gurkhas with a reduced pension compared to other British Army servicemen.

For some years now, there has been a campaign to achieve better rights for Gurkha ex-servicemen. Small wins have happened from time to time but the big battle - for their right to settle in Britain - has only just been won. After a surprise 'first day motion' defeat for the Government (the first since 1978) the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced that "All Gurkha veterans who retired before 1997 with at least four years service will be allowed to settle in the UK". As Nick Clegg, a UK politician quite rightly said, it was "a victory for decency" and "the kind of thing people want this country to do."

Certainly it is what people of my generation would want, people who heard the admiration and respect in the voices of our forebears when they spoke of the brave and loyal Gurkhas.

But there is still work to be done on the Gurkha's behalf. We still need to ensure that Gurkha Brigade veterans receive full pensions in the UK. But, as 'Gurkha Justice Campaign' lawyer David Enright says, "that is for tomorrow". Today, he and other campaign leaders - including figurehead and active campaigner Joanna Lumley, whose father was an officer in a Gurkha regiment - are celebrating yesterday's tremendous victory.

07 May, 2009

Not A Twit After All

I'm not saying I'll never twitter again, but I have noticed that I havent tweeted for several weeks now. So the grand experiment is over. It seems I'm not the twittering type...

...unlike millions of others. According to research by A C Nielson from March this year, unique visitors to the Twitter site grew by 1,382 percent year-on-year, from 475,000 in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009. Plus, there were another three-quarters of a million people accessing Twitter via their mobile phones and about a million sending and receiving Twitter SMS messages. I guess you could say it has become popular. It all adds up to about 240 tweets per user for the quarter to Feb '09. That's more than 2 per user per day. (No variances were given but I suspect there is a broad spread of usage patterns.)

I averaged just over half a tweet per day i the four months since I started.

Mind you, I picked up some interesting followers, including one young lady whose picture shows her posing in a latex catsuit.

I won't be closing my account or anything but I think I should acknowledge that this is not for me. Honestly, I don't care what someone I barely know in Indiana is having for breakfast, or that their dog just threw up on the carpet. And that @reply feature, where you get to see half the conversation someone you follow is having with someone you don't (about poetry markets in Belgium, or their holiday plans) is about the most useless load of nonsense I've ever seen. You'd think it would be intriguing, wouldn't you? Well, it's not.

Maybe when I've got something to sell, I will start stalking following hundreds of people the way everyone else does. Until then, I just don't see the point.

01 May, 2009

Thinking It Through Fail

Last Wednesday, the World Health Organisation pushed its pandemic alert status for the recent swine flue outbreak up to 'five' (out of six). As far as the WHO is concerned, then, a pandemic is imminent.

The Australian government (and many others around the world) has its own pandemic plan which is keyed to the WHO alert levels. At 'five' various announcements should be made and actions taken under this plan. One of these is for Australians to stock up on food, water, household supplies, and basic medicines so that each household could last a fortnight without them.

Now this is obviously a recipe for triggering panic buying on a national scale, probably accompanied by punch-ups at checkouts and little old ladies being trampled to death in the rush to buy bags of sugar and other essentials. So the government has said that it won't be instigating this part of its (clearly stupid) plan. Presumably they will wait until the alert level hits 'six' and a pandemic is actually underway before they mention that people should have been stockpiling food so as to avoid the food riots that will then be starting up in all the major cities.

In fact, I suppose, like all governments everywhere, they are quietly hoping it won't come to that, that the pandemic won't happen, and that this is all a storm in a petri dish. Maybe they think that having your head in the sand is the best protection against viruses.

The fact remains, however, that the plan they have is rubbish. If a pandemic hits (and WHO thinks it is imminent) there will be food shortages, there will be shortages of all kinds of commodities. The government's plan for everybody to stock up against such an event is probably quite a good idea. Trouble is, they didn't think it through, did they? With typical stupidity, their thought processes only got so far and then petered out.

If you're going to announce, at alert level five, that every Australian should stock up for a fortnight, then at, oh level two or three, say, you should probably compel all the supermarkets to stock up for the big rush that's coming. That would be reasonable, wouldn't it? After all, in these days of just-in-time buying, the supermarkets and their suppliers are only keeping about three days of supplies. That's why everyone buying a fortnight's worth is such a problem. The supermarkets and even the wholesalers, would be cleaned out instantly with no chance of re-stocking.

Not only would it be impossible for people to buy a fortnight's worth of food, after the first lot had tried, there would be nothing at all for everybody else. It would be a catastrophe.

But how could the government compel the supermarkets to stock up for the level five announcement when the wholesalers don't have that much stock? How could the wholesalers stock up when many of the producers couldn't provide their produce fast enough? (They too are working on a just-in-time basis don't forget.) And then there's the question of compensation. If the government forces the suppliers to over-supply and the retailers to over-stock, what happens if the level five alert never happens?

In fact, whatever dimwit wrote that requirement into the government's pandemic plan (probably an extremely expensive consultant from one of the big consultancies) ought to be sacked. He or she is clearly an idiot.

Must stop now, I've got to get off to the shops before the breakfast cereal is all gone.

27 April, 2009

Gaaa! Spammed!

Sorry everyone but I'm going to turn comment moderation on for this blog. It's not that I want to moderate your comments. I'm happy to have them and I don't want to suppress any opinion at all, but spammers recently found two of my other blogs and the only way I seem to be able to keep the scumbags off my pages is to use moderation. (Also, Blogger's facilities for letting me delete spam comments don't work. Way to write software, Google!)

This means that, when you next comment, the software will treat you as a first-time commenter and will ask me to approve you. This will probably take some hours, I'm afraid, since it emails me and sometimes I don't check my email that often. Once that has happened once, you'll be treated with the respect you deserve and your comment will go up straight away.

Can I just remind everybody in the world that the only way to beat spammers in the long run is for nobody, ever, to reply to a spam email or click on a spam link. They only make money because there are enough idiots out there buying stuff off them and encouraging this disgusting practice.

Come the revolution, spammers will be lined up against a wall and shot (right after the politicians, business managers, and lawyers.)

25 April, 2009

Amazon and the Creeps to Whom it Panders

Amazon's recent 'glitch', which de-ranked a whole load of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgener books, along with others of an explicitly sexual nature (including Lady Chatterley's Lover!) was another dismal consequence of the way certain people think - or would prefer not to have to think. Religious and right-wing types don't like sex. Some think their magic god creatures have told them not to like sex (unless sanctioned by a man in a dress who likes abusing small children). Others just have weird hang-ups about it. Some spend their days trying to stop anybody doing sex, seeing sex, or reading about sex. It is for these sad souls that Amazon has an 'adult' field in its book description database - so that it can, if it chooses, hide these books from our view. It is for these same sad souls that the Australian govenment is about to instigate a Web censorship scheme that will give it the power to hide anything it deems 'adult' (or, in fact, just anything it doesn't like) from the entire Australian population.

These weird sex-haters, these creepy people who shudder with distaste at any expression of human sexuality, put a huge amount of effort into pressuring governments and commercial organisations into censoring what we can read. They justify much of their perverted sex-hatred by saying it is to protect children. But they cannot explain why it is necessary to keep children in ignorance of sex. How does ignorance protect anybody from anything? Their intention, they say, is to prevent the 'corruption' of young minds. But what does 'corruption' mean here? Reading a book about gays is not literally going to rot your brain. But it might strike a chord for people who are gay and let them know that other people feel the same way, that not everyone thinks it is disgusting and depraved. This is the 'corruption' the sex-haters are afraid of, that through learning about the experiences of others, people may better understand their own nature. The sex-haters are not trying to protect people - least of all children - they are trying to protect themselves from a world that disgusts and frightens them.

Well, sorry guys, but that's the real world, and it's pretty harmless and mostly benign. You are the creepy, scary misfits, and it is you we all need protection from.

18 April, 2009

Bertie and the Echidna

Echidnas are cute but, until now, I didn't know just how cute. I saw one near the house once. It must have been young and confused because it was quite small and trying hard to be invisible when Bertie (the dog) trapped it in a corner. (For those who don't live in Australia or New Guinea, an echidna is a monotreme - an egg-laying mammal - which resembles a large, variegated, long-spined hedge-hog, or smallish, short-spined porcupine.)

I suppose Autumn must be a busy time for echidnas because Bertie seems to be finding them everywhere these days and is developing a bit of an obsession with them (although not as bad as the obsession he has with the feral cat he chased up a tree a few days ago!) Today he found the specimen below in our little orchard.

To help you make sense of this picture, this is a full-grown echidna - maybe 30cm long (that's a foot in old money) - desperately trying to bury itself in the ground. The little group of spines on the right is the echidna's tail. It's head is well buried.

It was still digging when I shot this picture - and slowly disappearing. I imagine this is a fairly good defence. It certainly had the dog flummoxed as all the poor little dimwit could get to were spines. It was pretty creepy too. It looked like some kind of evil cactus, pulsating as it slowly sank into the soil, probably digesting the last dog foolish enough to put its snout too close.

And, in honour of Bertie's first birthday (which was two days ago) here's a shot of him looking into our current echidna problem.

17 April, 2009

First Puppy: The Motion Picture

I despair. President Obama's dog now has its own series of books for children.

Why do I despair?

1. Because people refer to this pooch as 'The First Puppy'. Doesn't that just make you want to throw up? It's not the dog's fault, of course. If the Obamas had bought a tortoise we'd have books about the First Damned Tortoise instead.

2. The world is full of aspiring writers, some of them writing very good books that will never be published because the world's publishing houses just don't have the capacity to publish every good book that is written. One of the reasons they don't have the capacity is because they're publishing crappy, ghost-written celebrity memoirs, celebrity cook-books, celebrity novels, and, now, stupid celebrity dog stories!

3. The 'vast majority' of the Obama family's US$2.5 million annual income comes from the sale of his own celebrity memoir! No doubt the First Tortoise's contribution will take this income up considerably - especially when the film rights are sold.

4. People are idiotic enough to buy these books. (And, no, I'm not going to give you a link. If you really want to find them, Google on "stupid dog books for the mentally disabled".)

07 April, 2009

Heloise and Abelard

Here’s a question that has been puzzling me for many years.

Was Abelard’s cooling towards Heloise due to his castration? Was it because, chemically, he was no longer the man that had loved her so passionately? From the tone of his letters, fifteen years after the event, it sounds as though he can no longer even understand what had driven him to such passion whereas poor Heloise remembers it all too well.

Are there any medieval scholars out there who could enlighten me? I assume this is a well-known speculation and therefore that there must be well-known opinions on the matter.

This post first appeared on my writing blog but no-one there seemed to know the answer. I'm hoping WND readers will be more erudite :-)

29 March, 2009

Jobs, Justice and Climate

In the UK yesterday, Trades Union Congress general secretary, Brendan Barber, said this to world leaders assembling for the G20 summit meeting next week. "The old ideas of unregulated free markets do not work, and have brought the world's economy to near-collapse, failed to fight poverty and have done far too little to move to a low-carbon economy."

The Metropolitan Police estimate that 35,000 people marched through London on the 'Put People First' demonstration, the first of many events planned for the G20 summit. Put People First's slogan is "jobs, justice and climate".

With civil unrest growing across Europe as job losses mount and the recession bites ever harder, I really hope that the G20 leaders are listening. We've had decades of unfettered greed and government-backed corporate callousness, the rich have got richer and the poor have starved. The fiction that 'economic growth' will filter down to the poorest and make everybody better off has been exposed, and the future is looking bleak for working people everywhere as the value of their pensions has halved in a single year.

We might struggle through this recession but worse ones are coming. Peak oil is nearly upon us. Climate change is now unstoppable. The population is still growing and resources are still dwindling. Economic growth has natural limits and we are reaching them. Managing global capitalism requires more skill and ability than the world's capitalists and their governments are able to provide.

This is the kind of future that leads to uprising. It is the kind of future that leads to riots and even revolution. I hope the G20 leaders, isolated as they are from real life by their power and wealth, do not underestimate the amount of anger there is among the people they have been exploiting for so long. That crowd of 35,000 in London is the tip of an iceberg of resentment and disgust. It could easily turn from a peaceful march with reasonable requests into a furious mob, burning effigies and storming the parliament.

18 March, 2009

As Others See Us

I've been heavily involved lately in the design and construction of a gazebo on the garden. This is a fabulous, palatial building, five by four metres by 2.4 m to the eaves. I did the design myself and I'm at the point where all the materials have been ordered and delivered, the site has been levelled and the post-holes dug. Now, with Wifie's help, the first few uprights have gone in and it is beginning to look a bit like a building and not just a building site.

I was going to leave all this out of my blogs since it is hardly something most people will be interested in. But, yesterday, I happenned into Wifie's office while she was writing an email to a friend. Reading over her shoulder, I realised it was about us building the gazebo. I just had to show this to you. Not only is it written in her dry, witty tone but, for me, it was one of those moments where you get the 'giftie' of how others see you.

Here is the relevant extract from her email (with her permission).

We were rather slow getting on with the patio and gazebo. The drawings went on for many iterations and it was a wonder we didn't do a prototype. Eventually, Graham started digging the base but didn't get very far because even a mattock was very hard work. I talked him into letting me phone a man with a bob cat and he levelled the site and dug the post holes. Of course, the bob cat's work is by no means accurate enough for our designer, engineer and workman. Then it took a while to order the wood until I finally suggested that we go and see what sizes they could supply which would help with the design iterations.

We started work last week and are doing a post a day except days when we have to go shopping/ Bertie training/ anything else we can think of. It's mostly been too hot to work after about 10 am hence the one-post-a-day. The post holes were within tolerance but the first post we put in, we got to one side of the hole and now have to compensate with all the others. This results in much standing around debating in quarrelsome manner. We had finished number 3 yesterday morning in 26 degree heat at 10 am. At 2 pm, the heavens opened, hail the size of broad beans came down, then more rain than we've seen in months and the patio base was a paddling pool with the post holes forming plunge pools at its edges. Bertie thought it was wonderful until his leg went down into a plunge pool. Today we bailed out the plunge pools since most of the water drained into them as we took it out. Because the soil is just decomposed granite about the texture of course sand and it sits on rock, there's not much natural drainage going on at the moment which is strange when you remember we're on almost the highest point for some distance around.

If we get the uprights right, the rest won't be so hard. We're very glad we decided to build the gazebo before laying the patio as by now we would probably have dislodged all the slabs and maybe even thrown them at each other.
And, for those who are finding it hard to visualize a three-post gazebo with built-in paddling pool, here it is.

13 March, 2009

It's All About The Guns, Stupid

Another damned mass murder, this time in Winnenden in Germany.

The boy who did it was described by Heribert Rech, interior minister of Baden-Wuerttemberg state as "completely unremarkable, there was nothing in his background to suggest this could have happened." Except the boy was a trained marksman! Except he had access to firearms! Except that he was an isolated loner who played computer games all day!

For God's sake, wake up! If you give weapons and training to disturbed children, some of them are going to go nuts and shoot people.

Here's a simple way to stop young men from shooting their classmates: don't let them anywhere near guns! It isn't hard. It isn't rocket science. If you give kids guns, they will shoot people. Incidentally, the same goes for grown-ups.

And while I'm ranting on the subject, how is it we can, as a society, spend billions setting up evesdropping services like the famous Eschelon, that listen to everybody's phone calls and read everybody's emails, trying to protect us from the extremely minor 'threat' of terrorism, but we can't use the same technology to monitor the Web for kids who openly brag that they are going to shoot their classmates? Like the German killer-nutcase did seven hours before he went on the rampage in Winnenden- and as so many others do. If we're going to lose all our privacy to the NSA and MI5 anyway, why can't they at least do something useful with their supercomputers like stopping assholes shooting children.

End of rant. Thank you for your patience.

12 March, 2009

Babies Shame Mothers Into Caring For Them

At last I understand why babies cry.

I've puzzled over this for many, many years. A baby's cry is loud, grating and nerve-wracking. My own sweet little daughter used to bawl so loudly that the woman in the house across the street could hear it. And that should have been a clue. But I was so caught up in the idea that a baby's cry was to alert the mother to its needs - even if every predator for miles also gets the message that a tasty human morsel is there for the eating.

Now, research by a UK/Puerto Rican team led by Dr Stuart Semple, has shown that rhesus macaque mothers respond differently to their crying babies depending on who is nearby. If there are other adults around to be irritated and made aggressive by the baby's wailing, the mother is more likely to tend and feed the baby than if no other adults are nearby.

How many times have you seen it - a mother in a supermarket, or on a bus, with a screeching baby and everyone around frowning and tutting and muttering about what a disgrace it is? And the poor mother, cringing under the onslaught of all that social disapproval.

It's so obvious once you're told. My daughter wasn't just crying for attention from her mother, she was crying to get on the nerves of the woman across the street, so that she would put pressure on the child's mother to do something about that damned baby! That's why crying has to be so loud. That's why it has to set your nerves jangling.

Raising a child is exhausting. There comes a time when every woman needs a break from it, just ten minutes to herself! But the child's needs never take a break, and something has to be done about keeping its mother's nose to the grindstone. The baby is already using all the maternal instincts it can exploit to keep itself cared for, so what else can it use when its mother is exhausted? Social pressures, disapproval, the threat of ostracisation, even the threat of violence (particularly from males nearby).

Who's a clever baby?

10 March, 2009

Jathia's Wager - Don't Bother

I just finished watching an open source movie - and it was awful.

Now I like open source software. I use it all the time. It's great. So it seemed worth a look to see what an open source movie was like - especially since this one is a sci-fi movie called 'Jathia's Wager'. Go and see it at the Moviepals site if you have 20 minutes to spare.

I suppose it's early days and open source movies might get better, but this one was very badly written. (The filming, directing and acting looked pretty ordinary too but what do I know from making movies?) There were tedious passages with no dialogue where almost nothing happened. There were tedious passages of pure exposition where absolutely nothing happened. Oh, and did I mention it was tedious? Don't waste your time looking for realistic dialogue or any hint of humour, either.

[WARNING: Spoiler.]

As for the plot, I have no idea what happened. It's a mystery. There was a guy running around a lot. He seemed to be one of some humans left behind when others went transhuman. Although most of the future humans were religious nuts and liked being ignorant (so no change there, then) our hero had the option to join the post-humans , which, after one of the tedious exposition segments I mentioned earlier, he took. Then he came back for his sister, who either went with him and came back again, or had a dream about it and then ran into the hills screaming. Don't ask me which, or why. As for the 'wager' in the title, maybe I missed something...

In places the film had that quirky, amateurish quality that made 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' so charming. In other places it was just amateurish. Parts were even (unintentionally) comical.

I imagine it took the people involved lots of time and effort to put this together, so it is sad that they wasted their opportunity to do something interesting and good. There must be hundreds of excellent writers out there who could have written a script a thousand times better than 'Jathia's Wager'. Maybe the up-side of this is that, having set the ball rolling, the next open-source movie project will attract better writers.

06 March, 2009

Catholics in Disgrace

Once you start believing in things that are not real, they can lead you into all kinds of bizarre ethical quagmires.

If a nine year old child had been raped by her stepfather and became pregnant, most people would see the whole affair as repugnant and awful. Most would see the stepfather as a monster and the child as the victim of a hideous crime - especially when the pregnancy, according to her doctors, threatens her life. Most people would do everything they could to help the child.

Sadly, this is not a hypothetical situation. It actually happened, recently, in Brazil. And the child was pregnant with twins.

The child was given an abortion, of course. What other sensible action could there be? What else could a compassionate and caring society do? Who in their right mind would inflict a full-term pregnancy on a nine-year-old rape victim, along with whatever psychological harm there might be for her if she survived it?


Which is why the rantings and ravings of the Catholic Church seem especially twisted and inhuman in this particular instance. They say the child should have been made to suffer the full term of the pregnancy and the possibility of her death - and the death of the twins - because of their bizarre beliefs. The Church has villified the doctors who most probably saved the child's life, and they have villified the child's mother. They have also excommunicated the whole medical team and the mother (the child too, for all I know) - for all the harm that will do anybody.

It makes me want to cry out 'What is wrong with these sick bastards?' It makes you ask how anybody could be so cruel and care so little for the welfare of this poor child.

Yet the answer is painfully obvious. Catholics believe in a magic being who tells them what to do and what to think. The scribblings of some deranged mystics, thousands of years ago, have become the laws that these people must follow. Laws so weird, vague, and self-contradictory that Catholic witch-doctors can give their 'blessings' to Hitler's armies but they can't show compassion for a child whose life has been devastated and who desperately needs help.

The Catholic Church has done more than most over the past couple of thousand years to destroy the lives and innocence of young children. Maybe it's time they sought psychological counselling instead of inflicting this sickness on more helpless children.

23 February, 2009

More hope than you can shake a stick at

(Cross-posted from my writing blog)

Remember that four-part magazine I told you about - put together by speculative fiction fans and full of stories and artwork donated by Australian writers and artists? Well, the first edition has now been published.

All the money raised by the sale of this magazine will go towards the disaster relief fund for the survivors of the recent catastrophic bush fires in South-Eastern Australia. So get out your credit cards and visit this page to make your donation and get your copy. I've seen the first edition and it is astonishingly good - packed to the rafters with the work of top-notch writers and illustrators. The quality is so high, you'd want to buy it anyway.

To get out a magazine like this in just a couple of weeks is an astonishing achievement. My hat is off to Grant Watson, Ju Landéesse and Maia Bobrowicz, who made it happen - and to all the many Australian spec fic writers and artists who contributed. For the likes of me, giving away a story doesn't cost a great deal - since I don't get paid so much for them - but for some of the big-name contributors, this represents a significant donation. Make sure this generosity isn't in vain, order your copy of Hope #1 now. In fact, why not order all four of them?

Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible

Apologies to all my regular readers!

I don't know what happened to my front page but Blogger seems to have had some kind of psychotic episode, removed all the posts and rearranged all the widgets. Everything is still here (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster) but you now have to look a little harder to find things!

I'll be sorting it out a little later in the day (got to go and measure up the garden for a DIY job we have planned) so please bear with me.

If you like, while you're waiting for normality to be resumed, you may curse Blogger. I'm sure it helps.


Later that same day...

All sorted!

Don't you just hate programs with a mind of their own? They won't actually have to do anything to take over the world. They'll just have to stop doing it right for a couple of days and we'll be back in the Stone Age.

12 February, 2009


(Cross-posted from my writing blog)

If you'd like a really great way to help the victims of the Victorian bushfires, you should order your copies of Hope. This is a four-issue spec. fic. fanzine created by enthusiasts in Western Australia, with all proceeds going to support fire victims. Issue One should be out this weekend (Valentine's Day). The other three should follow at weekly intervals.

It's being put together at incredible speed. All the material is donated by the Australian spec. fic. community. The latest update shows the state of play. Keep an eye on [info]angriest for news of how to order your copies.

Apart from a story by me :-) there will be a previously unpublished piece by Sean Williams, another 135,000 words of fiction, loads of Dr Who fan-fiction, and enough cartoons and images to fill a whole edition of their own!

This is a fantastic effort by Australian writers to help people who have lost almost everything it is possible to imagine losing. Please buy your copies of Hope, and spread the word.

11 February, 2009

A Public Announcement on Behalf of Grumpy People Everywhere

Here's an organisation that has just been begging to exist since the days of Reagan and Thatcher dehumanised society to the point where just being alive became a cruel and unusual punishment: The Grumpy Group.

The vision of The Grumpy Group is "to exploit grumpiness in any ethical way that can be creatively imagined and implemented". Specifically, they want to harness the hithertofore untapped power of grumpiness to cheer people up, to help people stand up for themselves against a world turned indifferent, and to stick it (back) to The Man.

For those who can't afford to join a class action, or who believe that whingeing on and on on your blog doesn't actually do any good, for those who'd just like to get the electric company to accept that their bill really was paid three months ago and get their power back on, The Grumpy Group may be the very thing.

By the look of the site, they don't have many members yet - maybe something to do with the fact that hard-core grumpies gave up on the Web years ago when those f**king annoying pop-up ads first started appearing - but, hey, there was a time when MySpace only had a handful of members, right? A time when there were only three videos on YouTube? A time when the United States of America was just Idaho, or Nebraska, or whatever it was, yeah?

And so on.

The point is that grumpy people deserve to be together.

Or something like that.

10 February, 2009

Death and Suffering in Australia

At the time of writing, the bush-fires that are still burning in south-eastern Australia have claimed 173 lives, with hundreds more injured and almost a thousand homes burnt down. It is Australia's largest natural disaster ever. Whole towns have been wiped out. Whole families.

Up in the north-east, there are record floods. Some towns have been cut off for weeks. Several people have died, several more are missing. Homes have been wrecked, businesses devastated, crops are standing under water, choked with mud.

I've got no point to make, no axe to grind. I just want to acknowledge this terrible moment of suffering and grief, this horror, literally all around me.

03 February, 2009

What Kind of Twit Twitters?

Well, you're about to find out. Look near the bottom of the left-hand column and you'll find my new twitter stream.

I've been resisting Twitter for quite a while now. Honestly, it just looks like a waste of bits. Yet so many people rave about it - people I would otherwise think quite highly of - that I suppose I ought to give it a go.

First impressions:

1. It's easier to do than I expected. I just leave the Twitter page open and type a quick burst of rubbish into it when it occurs to me to do so. The 140 character limit is actually a big help here. It stops me being as prolix as I'd like and therefore saves me from wasting so much time.

2. I'm just as likely to type in a random thought as to answer the question 'What are you doing?' which is supposed to be what it's all about. Maybe my random thoughts will be more interesting than the fact that I'm just off to have lunch. Twitter says its for the bits of your life in between blogs and emails. Well, maybe for me it's for the bits of my mind in between more coherent utterances.

3. Even after just half-a-dozen twitterings, the whole is looking far more interesting than the parts. Maybe a twitter stream is going to be a far more valuable and entertaining read than each individual utterance.

4. The word 'twitter' is very irritating. It's like 'twitcher'. An individual twitter entry should be called a 'twitch'. Maybe the next big thing will be like twitter but with a ten word limit. We could call that a 'tick'.

Anyhoo, I'll try it for a while and see what it comes to. Maybe I'll enjoy this mental twitching enough to keep at it for a while. If you're one of the twitterati (a twitcher,) then follow my twitchings by clicking the 'Follow me on Twitter' link at the bottom of my twitchings.

If you can bear it.

20 January, 2009

Stop Cheering For Obama

Yes, I know it's really nice that Obama's going to be president in a few hours - almost as nice as the fact that it won't be Bush - but I can't help feeling nervous.

After all, the USA is the place where a significant number of voters at the last election believed Obama was a Muslim. It's the place where people are rushing out to buy guns because they worry that Obama will tighten the law to make it harder to get them. It's the place with the largest body of people anywhere outside a Muslim country that believes the Bible is the literal word of God. It's also the country that just trashed the world economy by allowing inept capitalists to go unregulated and unchecked for so many years.

Yes, Obama seems sensible and reasonable, but he's not God and he's not Dictator of America. As the global depression deepens through 2009 and 2010, Obama will be as helpless as all the other world leaders to do much about it.

That's when the crowds that are cheering him today - out of work by then, their savings gone, and their homes repossessed - will most likely turn on him like a pack of dogs and rip out his throat.

I'd rather he was inaugurated without all this razzmatazz and with far, far fewer expectations. Then people might feel gratitude for the good things he does (and I'm sure he'll do as much good as is humanly possible) instead of feeling disappointment and hostility about the things he couldn't do.

Oh yes, and please, America, don't assassinate this one.

08 January, 2009

National Australia Bank Behaves Stupidly

I just had an interesting conversation with the National Australia Bank. The NAB is our credit card service provider and has been for many, many years. Yet, while Wifie was in town this morning attempting to pay for a ride-on mower we just had delivered (see picture), the eftpos machine in the mower shop said our card had been cancelled.

She called me and I transferred some cash (we have our other accounts with another bank) so she could pay for it and then I got on the phone to NAB to ask them WTF?

I had the usual fun with the telephone menu system. I sat through many minutes of chatty little adverts and reassurances that my call was very important and they'd get to it real soon now (by which time I was shouting into the phone that they would better demonstrate my importance to them, and they'd get to me so much sooner, if they just put more staff on at their call centre - or words to that effect.) Finally, a very young woman for whom English was clearly a second language, started asking me 'security questions'.

I asked her why she was doing this because I wasn't interested in playing. I just wanted to know why my card had been cancelled. It seemed she wanted to verify my identity so she could set up a phone banking account for me so that I would be able to talk to the credit card department. I told her I wasn't going to do all that. I just wanted to ask someone about my card. She was totally flummoxed by this, so I suggested she put me on to someone who was more senior.

So I went back to the ads and the assurances for several more minutes until a young man came on the line asking me if I was having a good day. I explained that I was not. This was the young foreign woman's supervisor, it turned out, and, although he sounded even younger than she was, he at least spoke good English. He explained again the need to establish my identity so that I could be issued a PIN for telephone banking, so that they could be sure of who I was. I explained again that I didn't want to waste my time doing that and would he just answer the damned question.

It took a while but he finally persuaded me that he was completely incapable of taking any initiative and I'd just have to follow the very stupid procedure. So I said, OK, fire away.

We started off with some easy questions - my date of birth, my middle name, etc. - then he asked for my current account balance. I pulled out the folder that holds my NAB statements (I was sitting in Wifie's office and she has such things beautifully organised) and read out the value at the bottom of the last statement. And the boy said it was wrong.

No, no, you halfwitted monkey, I explained politely. That is precisely the number you sent me. But it isn't the current balance, he complained. I checked the dates on the statement. The statement was for a period ending near the end of November. That's it! I exclaimed. The December statement won't have reached me yet. (A small side explanation ensued concerning my remote location, the unreliability of the mail - often two weeks late - and the fact that Christmas and New Year have happened between the end of the last billing period and today. In fact, it would be a miracle if I had received a statement for December.)

Sorry, he said, I had to give him the latest account balance. But I haven't had it yet, you stupid robot! I remonstrated. Nevertheless, he went on in his best 'customer service' voice, that is the only answer he could accept. So tell me my current balance, I said, and I'll tell it back to you. Sadly, for that, I'd need my telephone banking PIN and we haven't established that you are who you say you are, he explained. So, I said, allowing myself a moment of sarchasm, if I'd stolen this month's statement instead of last month's I'd be OK now. I shouldn't have said it, I know, but it worth it to hear the silence at the other end.

We seemed to be at an impasse and I was just about to ask if there was someone even younger I could speak to when my adversary found a solution. If I were to go to my nearest branch and ask them, they could tell me my account balance. Then I could call him again and we could carry on with our delightful little game. I asked him if they even had a branch where I lived. He looked it up and said they did, in a town 20 km away. I said it would take me at least an hour to drive there, talk to the branch and drive back, just so I could do something I don't even want to do, so he can tell me why the hell his stupid bank had cancelled my credit card. Tough, he replied, as politely as possible.

I was not exactly happy by this point, so I explained to the youngster that if I had to travel 40 km and queue in one of their branches to get some information they already knew just to prove that I am who I am and not someone fraudulently demanding to know why their credit card had been cancelled, I would be closing my account and moving it to another bank. Wouldn't it be so much nicer if he just told me why they had cancelled the frigging card.

For the first time, he stopped sounding so smug and robotic and spoke as if he was a real person. I imagine he was thinking about how these calls might be recorded for 'quality assurance purposes' and how his side of our conversation might seem from a third party's perspective. I mean, it's all well and good doing exactly what you were trained to do but if that ends up with you losing a customer (two if you count my wife) I suspect you haven't actually achieved what you set out to. And, given that so many banks are struggling at the moment... So, probably against all training directives, he told me that the words 'card cancelled' can appear on a shop's machine for 'hundreds' of different reasons - almost none of them meaning that card had in fact been cancelled. Line outages, software errors, and any number of temporary glitches in the system will lead to the same message - 'card cancelled'. Why?For the love of God, why? I cried. Surely that is a completely insane way to design a system? Surely only the most stupid moron who ever lived could conceive of something so utterly crass? Well, he explained, the bank never sends actual account statuses down the lines to shops, so it sends the 'card cancelled' message instead. Nice one, NAB. Way to piss off your customers!

So is my card cancelled or not? I asked. He couldn't say. And there we left it.

I called Wifie after this and asked her to drop in at the branch in town while she was there. She had a similar experience, I gather, but got the anwer that the transaction she was attempting (worth about AUD4,000) would have taken the account a few hundred bucks over the limit. So they sent the 'card cancelled' message, BUT all such messages come with a code number. Shops, it seems, are issued with books that explain what the code numbers mean and the shop assistant should have been able to explain it there and then. Clearly the shop assistant (actually the owner in this case) had not known that he was an integral part of the NAB error-reporting system, or he had somehow failed to understand the esoteric intricacies of the NAB's security procedures. Whatever it was, NAB caused me and my wife a lot of grief, wasted masses of time, and cost themselves about an hour of staff time - all for nothing.

They also lost two customers.

Now, I'm not saying you don't need security on people's credit card accounts but when that security becomes so tight that legitimate account holders can't get a simple question answered, it is a sign that something is very, very wrong. I would prefer to be with a bank that made a little less money because it was a little more open to fraud, and instead treated its customers with a bit more trust and consideration. Even if the security system was a bit more intelligent, it would have helped. After all, in this case, what was at risk? What was the bank saving me from that was worth wasting so much of my time and its time and, ultimately, losing two customers for?

And as for the practice of telling shopkeepers the customer's card has been cancelled for every damned reason under the sun, well, it just creates embarrassment, bad feeling, and a lot of wasted time. It is a really stupid thing to do.

Finally, there is the problem at the root of all this. We exceeded our AUD9,000 card limit by a few hundred bucks. Firstly, I wonder why the limit is so low. Fourteen years ago, when we left the UK, we had a GBP9,000 limit on our credit card and the bank was always clamouring to raise it. That's two-and-a-half times the current limit - and a lot of inflation under the bridge since then. What is wrong with Australian banks that makes them so stingy with their limits? As I say, I've been a customer of this particular bank for about 12 years and have never once failed to make a payment or in any way transgressed their rules. Yet this is how I'm treated when my credit limit is marginally exceeded on a single, large transaction. Well, if I don't even get one chance, if I don't get even the slightest consideration for my long-term custom, then they don't get a second chance either

Sod 'em.

The Gray Wave Jukebox

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