Friday, 28 October 2011

No One Here To Take Your Call

This is a blog inspired by a conversation my friend Mark Goulding had with Sheffield City Council when he rang them. In short, he was surprised that they employed someone to answer the phone and say "Sorry, there's no one here to deal with your call" so he rang back again later and got the same blurb from a completely different person.

We're used to machines answering calls to tell us there's no one available, right? Or if someone amazingly answers the phone, they're able to take the call. Because their number is the one we called to have someone take it.

Apparently not...

It seems that Sheffield City Council has hit on a new way of baffling the public, by employing people simply to answer the phone for departments that are probably now chronically understaffed. It's logical, if you think about it. Why pay 10 trained professionals to do a job for £25000 a year when you can pay an untrained person £15000 a year to inform the public the people they need to speak to are now down at the Job Centre, saving you a quarter of a million pounds per year? Apart from the 10 people telling you there's no one there to take your call for £150000pa...

It's still a hundred grand saved though, right?

But councils don't really work like that. So here's my vision of how the council reached their decision to employ people to take calls from people looking to have people take their calls even though there are now no people to take the calls that are being taken.

Still with me? Then I shall begin.

A committee of senior managers decides a meeting is needed to decide what job losses there will be. They book a conference centre, a caterer, hotel rooms and an events director to manage the whole shebang. The cost? A trifling £60000.

The committee decides that 10 departments can be trimmed of 50% of the staff. Not including themselves, of course.

Because the departments are now understaffed, it is decided that a committee needs to be set up to determine how best to deal with the calls that come in for the departments that now can't handle the calls. Conference centre. Caterer. Hotel rooms. Events director. 60 grand. Oh, and team building exercise booked for those that end up on the committee so they can get to know each other and "build a spirited amalgamation of inspired people working to the fulfillment of a long term enabled goal." Or something.

The committee is formed, 60 grand stuff happens again, and it is decided that what is needed is a fully automated, state-of-the-art windows-based telephone and email answering system that can manage calls for staff until they are able to take the call themselves, while directing customers to other possible places they can get the answers they seek, such as leaflets in local offices, websites, and the bloke next door who used to work for the council in the 70s. Even though he was on the bins.

The committee reviews the options and discovers the best systems developed are offered by companies in Germany, Japan, the USA, and New Zealand.

Committee representatives are dispatched, first class (because you need happy, rested staff to make important decisions) to Germany, Japan, the USA and Brazil on week-long fact finding missions at beaches - sorry - businesses, to determine which system will be most suited to their requirements. With a sensibly priced team of translators, of course. This comes to the cheap and cheerful price of £250000.

The committee returns to examine the findings, bringing in a private financial advisor to assess the budget implications, a technical director to put the complicated computery stuff into layman's terms, and a marketing consultant to convince the directors of the benefits of each of the systems. All of them a snip at £195000 per year.

The decision is made: they're going for the American made system. After narrowing the options down on three further visits to each of the tendering companies for a mere £750000. The system is imported, private contractors are brought in to install the system and a team of professional software engineers are taken on to rigorously test the system. All for just short of a million quid. Bargain.

The computer voice detection system can't understand the Sheffield accent. Bogga.

A local software company modifies the system to accept local dialect, and it's all for the reasonable price of £75000.

It now doesn't understand standard English, and most importantly it doesn't understand immigrant accents. The committee consult with the Equal Opportunities Commission and determine the computer system is racist and it gets scrapped. After several upgrades at a cost of just £10000.

The committee then decides it can save further by not having a computer system at all. It decides this at a conference centre (you know the drill, the cost) and they come up with the idea to create jobs by having people answer the phone to tell people there's no one in the department that can take their call. All for just £100000.

And that, folks, is how a local council can save £100000 a year.

Easy, isn't it?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Five Things I Want To Happen

1) Get Away With Spiking MPs with LSD

We've all thought at some point what a bunch of morons the people who run the country are. Whether you follow politics voraciously or really don't care one way or the other, the nation can agree that decisions are made and actions carried out on a day to day basis that prove not only are they out of touch with Jo(e) Public, but never have any intention of being in touch, because we might give them some ghastly working class oik disease. Sometimes they say or do something funny, even if it's not intentional or as a result of provocation, but generally speaking they're dullards to a (wo)man and this, I feel, needs to change.

All I want is one day. One day to get into the bar and the kitchen and generously lace their food and drink with acid. Particularly for something like Prime Minister's Question Time. Can you imagine it? Ed Milliband with his comedy voice, accusingly pointing a finger at David Cameron, watching it trail, and hearing his own voice echoing around Parliament like he's in an underground cavern, only to realise that his own lips are made of moleskin and his hair is being spun by silkworms. Mr Cameron, in turn, blinking rapidly, trying to focus on the Leader of the Opposition as all around him his cabinet begin to slowly float towards the ceiling, singing the Only Fools And Horses theme tune in the voices of a Gospel choir. Except for Eric Pickles, who is gripping his seat, fiercely fighting off the urge to eat Nick Clegg who's become an egg, run from William Hague, who has the plague, and play the Philip Hammond organ. They will collectively wonder why there's no music coming out of the Speaker of the House.

It could be a great moment in British political history.

2) Win a ridiculous amount on the lottery and spend it on...

Things the Daily Mail would hate. I'm not talking your whopping great £5 million jackpot here. I'm talking the ridiculous 100+ million ones. £5 million I could do a lot with. But it would be things I could do for me, my family, and my friends. No one in the world needs £100 million pounds, and I can assure you as confidently as I'm sure I'd never win close to that amount (because I don't play the Lottery) that I wouldn't spend £100 million on "investments" and leisure activities. No, here's my ideas...

First I'd pay the Council Tax for a year of every household in the Amber Valley council borough that lost at least one job as a direct result of banking mistakes and government cutbacks. I'd set up a housing development project that would provide 2-3 bedroom houses with a price tag of no more than £50000 for first time buyers, on the understanding that if they want to sell before the term of the mortgage is up they have to split the profits.

I'd also have a bronze statue of Bill Hicks made, then spend a lot of money campaigning to have it positioned to look down over Los Angeles, in the vain hope that one day the bronze eye of my own personal Jesus will look down over his hoped for Arizona Bay.

I'd also set up a small business dedicated to nothing more that the promotion of "alternative" music at key points in the major music industry's marketing plans. This would basically be paying the unemployed twice what a CD/mp3 costs to buy stuff that invariably doesn't make the top 40 singles when talentless morons like Rihanna, Simon Cowell products, or pretty much any dance music being touted as "fantastic" is likely to hit the top spot. Screw Rage Against The Machine/Nirvana/Whitehouse for Xmas #1. I want The Saturdays beaten to No. 1 by That Fucking Tank for the first chart topper of the new year, Sondura hammering Calvin Harris' face to a number two as summer ascends, and Max Raptor leaving Cheryl Coorrrrle looking like someone jizzed in her cuz-ah'm-wooorth-it hair come Christmas Day.

I care about money. I'd love enough to look after my loved ones. But £100 million? No. I'd pretty much give £95 million away.

3) See a revolution sweep across Europe

Ahhhh, the Arab Spring! Wasn't that great? Not only was it interesting watching nations we're told are largely extremist Muslim fanatics bent on Sharia dominance rising up as one in the name of democracy, but it also sounded a bit like either a sex aid or a form of contraception. Sex related, either way.

It got me thinking though. There are still people in the Western World that think we live in a democracy. Mainly because they don't know what "oligarchy" or "plutocracy" mean. There you go: links provided. Democracy only exists where you can see that the outcome of an election reflects the implementation of the manifesto of the candidate(s) you voted for. What we think of as democracy is a myth. Politics is an industry, and it's the only industry that's unregulated.

I work in the water industry, and if we turned around and said "We promise clean, drinkable water for eternity" and then pumped shit into your taps, you'd come lynch every one of us. But the clever ones amongst us would resist the rope by promising that when the shit-suppliers are gone, we will provide you with the promised clean and drinkable water for eternity. And then we'll pump the same shit at you, but it will taste different, so you'll be okay with that until you get sick...

I actually heard a politician on the radio say today, that what people want is elected officials who will use their best judgement to serve their constituents, not do their constituents bidding based on their election manifesto. Well why have a sodding manifesto? You may as well just knock on people's doors and say "Vote for me and I'll prove to you I'm clever and you're a moron."

Heads on poles, my friends. Heads on poles...

4) See The Montreal Canadiens Win Stanley Cup No. 25

The Canadiens are the greatest team in (ice) hockey history, I'm told. Largely by fellow Canadiens fans. We've won 24 Stanley Cups: the most prized shelf ornament in all of world sport. If you have a massive shelf and your concept of "the world" is North America.

Yeah, we've won 24. The next best is 11. The only problem is: when we won the majority of the Cups, there were only a couple of handsful of teams vying for it. Now there are 30. And we're nowhere near being capable of winning, while the city in which the team resides expects it ever year. Largely based on an era when sport was a game not a business, when players were workers not marketable products, and the truly great and good were worthy enough to have trophies and arenas named after them. Georges Vezina. Conn Smythe. Fuck you Ovechkin. Fuck you Crosby.

Where's the Gretzky Trophy? I digress...

Please. Just one more Cup. One more coach capable of walking the talk. One more superstar capable of gelling a team around him. One more goalie that reminds you of Luke Skywalker learning to use The Force... I'm sick of seeing an octopus thrown on the ice.

5) Become Famous Posthumously

The idea of fame horrifies me. I mean the big time celeb fame. I'm sure famous people like Terry Pratchett or Fred Savage can largely walk the streets unhindered, their fame being of a specific genre or era. I've even had that "Are you Ed Henderson?" moment of fame, believe it or not. But I was in an arena of 30,000 NHL fans and the only one wearing a t-shirt around the time the website was launched on Felt pretty good though!

What worries me about fame is the "free press". Let's say, just in a dreamworld, that one of the stories/songs/poems I've written over the years becomes famous. I can just imagine some scumbag from 20 years ago resulting in the tabloid headline "MY DRUG HELL WITH HENDERSON" or "TINY DICK ED" or suchlike. Because tabloids love stuff like that. I have taken drugs. Paracetamol is awesome. Not sure I took anyone to Hell when I had a backache though. And I'm not swinging a bratwurst between my thighs, but then I'm gentleman enough not to point out the coinflippers I've known over the years...

No, I'd be content to be gone a few years and someone like something I've written enough to circulate it widely enough for one of (my kids) Luke or Amelia's children to say "Hey! That was my Grandpa! He wrote about his hopes for an end to plutocracy and the restoration of the democracy we have now! Even in America!"

And that's about it. Five things I'd love to happen that will never happen!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Occupy Nowhere

Have you ever taken a good look at your bank account and smiled at the number of digits in the balance column? Have you ever peered through your window into your open garage and wondered whether to go out in the Ferrari, the Bentley, or the Range Rover? Have you ever worried that your shares might be about to take a big hit and been forced to lay off a percentage of your workforce just to protect your own investments? Have you ever had to bribe a Fleet Street journalist just to keep a picture of you snorting cocaine off the chest of a 15-year old Albanian ladyboy just to keep your good name clean?

The chances are that no one likely to ever read this will answer yes to any of the above, apart from possibly the first question. Even then it might be because the balance columns ends with a D. It's just occurred you might be able to answer in the positive to the second question too, if you have an Xbox or a PS3, but then that's not the point.

The "Occupy" protests and camps have made big headlines in the last couple of weeks. I like the idea, and if I had the time I'd definitely involve myself in the movement. I'd love to occupy Wall Street. I'd even be content to occupy London if I didn't have a natural loathing of the place. Ideally I'd like to occupy Belper, but there really isn't anything relevant to occupy that's a global tarnish on our local community except possibly McDonalds.

The problem for me is that while I agree with the sentiments and objectives of the Occupy Movement, I can't help but feel it's just another meek stand against a common enemy that not only disregards public opinion, but is isolated from public opinion simply by being something which is simply not part of the daily workings of the public. It's all very well complaining that 1% of the population control 40%, or 60%, or even 10% of the wealth of the nation, but the fact they have that wealth acts as a barrier to any protest that is carried out in a peaceful, orderly, passive fashion.

The recent riots in England are an example of how directionless we are as a "99%". The rioters took it upon themselves to destroy their own community. They were angry at nothing. They wanted nice trainers, and apparently bottled water. They set fire to 10-year old cars and smashed up struggling local businesses. We were horrified, saddened, and stupefied. But stick some intelligent folks in a camp protesting the gulf in wealth and you have no rioting, no vandalism, and very few arrests. I can't help but feel that while this is the right way of showing yourself to be a productive but jaded member of society, the impact being made is nothing more than a short-term media profile and a footnote in a history that will be written by oligarchs.

What we need is a 21st Century Robin Hood. Silly and fantasist? Possibly so, but short of an actual revolution to topple the magnates that are (whether you believe it or not) holding the working class to ransom the idea really isn't that ridiculous. There are clever people out there with computers and a socialist agenda that I am sure could royally screw some of the 1%. Just imagine if the Anonymous group or some other collective of hackers managed to break into the accounts of someone like Microsoft, Walmart, or practically any investment bank, and siphoned off their funds into the accounts of any individual bank account holder whose account was in the red. Imagine you could get the news out there: withdraw as much cash as you can... NOW!

It could be done. But it won't ever be done. We're just not angry enough.

It is often argued that "violence solves nothing", and this was an argument during the riots. Okay, so where do you think a lot of the money this 1% we keep hearing about get their money from? Investment in the global arms industry, mining and drilling for resources on lands of displaced people by often considerable force, and media empires that thrive on sensationalist headlines relying on war, death, murder, and all the horrors of society we don't like to admit we love reading about and watching. Violence solves a lot, if you have the resources, a goal, and an audience.

It would be better if the "Occupy" movements had the objective of getting us all to occupy nothing. Stop occupying supermarkets. Stop occupying fuel retailers. Stop occupying sport stadiums. Stop occupying the internet. Stop paying bills. Stop everything we know is lining the pockets of the already fantastically, unimaginably rich. Because if we all did, as one, it would have an immediate impact on them.

It would be done. But it won't ever be done. We're just not angry enough.

I wonder when we ever will be angry enough.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Goodbye, Darkest Summer On Ice

I've been a fan of hockey since I was 13 years old. In that time I've had the pleasure of seeing some truly amazing things. Well... amazing to me, anyway. I've seen the Montreal Canadiens play at the old Forum. Specifically there, the Good Friday Massacre. I've been to two All Star games, as a guest. I've followed some amazing careers, met some amazing people, and been involved in the creation of what I still think is the best hockey game ever devised. But hey... that's just my opinion!

On the downside, there have been those moments where horrible things have happened, particularly to people I've liked. Brian Savage's broken neck. Saku Koivu's cancer. Not good things, but things these people overcame. But there are some things that cannot be overcome, and this summer passed really brought that home.

Hockey rarely makes international news, and I wasn't surprised to find I could only find details of the passing of two NHLers online. But then hockey has been a largely online environment for me for (I suddenly realise) twelve years now. Access to North American sports isn't easy in the UK, and the internet made it easy. But when you get up in the morning and NHL players are being interviewed on the national news, you know something really really bad has happened.

At 1605, local time, on the 7th of September, 2011, the plane carrying almost the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed, killing all but two people on board. I was stunned.

Throughout sport history there have been disasters involving teams. The Torino football club, the "Busby Babes", and the Four Broncos to name a few of the more noted ones. But I'd never heard of an incident where an entire club - as I knew at the time - had been killed in its entirity. I'm rarely lost for words, but that day... that day I was. To learn one player had miraculously survived with horrific injuries and another because he had been told to stay behind was no consolation. No consolation at all. Imagine being either of those people?

And that's my point. We think of teams as a unit, as a whole thing, an entity in itself. Yes, the crash and the deaths are shocking, but the individual losses go beyond that. These people had families as well as teammates. They had friends. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Their deaths were only as tragic as the two players who died earlier in the summer, and I use the word "only" in its loosest possible sense.

I tried to think how I would feel if the team that died that day were my beloved Montreal Canadiens. My beloved, underachieving, glory-days-are-long gone, superstar-less Habs. And I found myself smiling to myself after a moment of horror at the thought. Because, underachievers with no superstars, coasting on past glory though they might be, they are my team. No matter what happens, I support them. And I would grieve terribly if what happened to the Lokotiv team happened to them, just as I know their fans will still be grieving now.

But teams endure. Teams are made up of individuals bonded together by determination, spirit, and leadership. And a wage packet, if you want to be cynical. But largely all the former. The loss of the individual spreads further than the loss of the team...

The new NHL season starts tonight. I thought earlier "This marks the end of a summer to forget", and then reminded myself that, in context, it will never be a summer to forget, because the air disaster is unforgettable. But that just made me think about the two guys who died before then... and that made me think "All those guys will be remembered, because they were part of teams."

Remember your teams this coming season, hockey fans. Be thankful for them, even when they suck.

Those players we lost this summer:

Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Pavol Demitra, Josef Vašícek, Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek, Stefan Liv, Karlis Skrastinš, Ruslan Salei, Vitali Anikienko, Mikhail Balandin, Gennady Churilov, Robert Dietrich, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Sergei Ostapchuk, Maxim Shuvalov, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk and Alexander Galimov. Also, ex-players Brad McCrimmon, Alexander Karpovtsev, and Igor Korolev.

May they all rest in peace. May their memories live on through all the great and wonderful things they, their friends, their families and their fans have been a part of.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

I Have Alexander's Carcass Skinned In My Freezer. Simples!

It's been a while since I've had an invitation on Facebook to join a group dedicated to the abolition of the TV Licence fee. But last week I not only got one, but somehow got added to it automatically. On seeing I had been, I immediately left the group. Not specifically because I'd been added automatically, because I'll listen to any reasonable argument on any topic as long as it's well presented, but because of something that basically went like this:

"i fink its realy bad wot the bbc does askin us 4 all dis mony wen dey only av liek 2 or 3 epsiodes of eastendas on a week n theirs nuffin else on at all unless u liek news n borin stuff i wud rater wacth da compare da markats ads dey r well funy"

Well quite...

I'd scrolled down a few posts, and read a few comments, and come to the quick (if judgmental) conclusion that either these were posts from kids (who therefore don't pay the TV licence fee) or from people for whom intelligent and informed debate begins with and stops at The Jeremy Kyle Show. Which is fair enough as they're clearly watching it when it goes out, rather than recording it to watch when they get home from a job they'll never have.

Don't get me wrong, I can see why people look at the TV Licence fee and think "Why am I paying this?" because I've been a licence payer for over half my life. As far as I'm concerned it's all about value for money. When I got my first TV Licence of my own, age 20, I had the simple choice of BBC 1 & 2, Radio 1-4, local radio, and the World Service. At the time, the fee was £71 (yep, I looked it up). That translates as 8 services for my 71 quid. Or roughly £8.90 per service.

Look at the BBC now: BBC 1-4 for possibly the widest variety of broadcasting in the world, Radios 1-5, plus 6 digital radio options (at least), the red button broadcasts, BBC iPlayer, the BBC website, and still the World Services, and that's not including local TV and radio.

That's at least 20 services for £145.50. Or £7.28 per service. Yep...

£8.90 in 1990. £7.28 in 2011. Can you think of many other services you get nationally that have dropped in price over the years? I can't.

So by all means complain about the cost, but complain in a manner that has some value to it. Don't complain just because you think a dull and spun-out marketing strategy is more entertaining than, say, a political documentary you wouldn't have watched even if it had been interrupted every 17 minutes by a CGI meerkat or someone playing on your fear of global warming, being unfashionable, smelling like a human rather than some fruit, or pressuring you towards alcoholism. Don't pretend that you aren't paying for the commercial channels, and certianly don't pretend that you're "not affected by adverts", especially if you like those Alexander the fucking Meerkat adverts. You like them. They've done their job. When you need insurance you will think of using that service I shall not name...

Please don't think I'm tarring all anti-fee peoples with the same brush, because I'm really not. You can argue that the breadth of programming excludes your own personal choices so you're not using (for example) BBC 4, the red button, and so on. Yet you have that choice. You may think, as I do, that the iPlayer service is shockingly behind services like Channel 4 offer when it comes to what you can watch online. It's all about quality of service? Fine. The iPlayer is an example of how the BBC are getting it wrong. But it might get it right in the future...

Me personally, I love the BBC. They have some great programmes, and even I can't deny that flagship shows like Eastenders and Strictly Come Rejuvenate My Flagging Career have some entertainment value that, on the whole, is worth paying for. I'm happy to pay for it.

How about you?


I've just realised: my licence ran out last week...