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Friday, December 23, 2011

You have to try really hard to get it this wrong

One of the benefits of blogging is that every once in a while you can just have a rant. Get things off your chest. This is one of those posts so you can look away if you've already had enough bile for this Christmas.

About seven months ago when I left full time employment and began to freelance I had to let BT know that my employer was no longer going to pay for my broadband and could I please transfer it to a domestic account. At the same time I decided to investigate bundling my telephone, broadband and TV services and after talking to a delightful BT sales lady (funny how the nice, seemingly competent people always work in sales and never in service delivery...) I decided to give notice to Sky TV (I never really watched enough sport or movies to justify the price) and switched to BT vision.

At the same time I commented to the nice sales lady that the presentation of service to my house was a bit ratty (there seemed to be three telephone lines in to the property) but no live master socket. I asked if I could have an engineer visit my house and tidy up the mess and represent the service. She said that would be fine she would sort it all out and once my contract had transferred an engineer would visit. I never spoke to her again...

After hearing nothing for the best part of a month, I rang to check on the status of my order. Unsurprisingly BT had tripped over its own internal Chinese walls. BT can't talk to BT business and vice versa (it's not their fault it's OfCom trying to limit the risk of monopoly power by forcing BT to adopt the bureaucratic processes of the medieval Byzantine empire).

There was no record of my order. So I started again. Went through the whole rigmarole again and got a date for the engineers visit (the day before I was due to go on holiday). The day before the engineer's visit I rang BT to check he was still coming (notice the beginning of learned helplessness...) and guess what no record. So I rebooked and arranged for my fiancé's mother to be in to meet him/her but he never showed.

On my return from my holiday, I took up the cudgels again spent several hours on hold being passed from pillar to post before I decided that it was a pathological inability to take notes and post them on the CRM system (or just the inability to speak English) that was hampering my cause. So I looked up the contact details for BT's managing director of customer service and sent him a letter. To which I had no response. So I resent the letter in email form to the contact centre and I got a few phone calls from friendly but ineffectual people. Decided I would live with the poor service and gave up because it was just too soul destroying to actually get them to provide the service I was paying for.

I gave up because the system was just too oppressive... Anyone for Kafka?

Then a few days ago after three more months of my broadband dropping and crashing on a daily basis and a phone line which sounds like a mobile call from a fast train I decided to try again...

It was as if BT had been keeping their star player back for just this moment. I don't know from which swamp they dragged this barely sentient being but she was something special. She achieved olympic levels of incomprehension. And just kept reading her script. Even before I got to her I obeyed all the instructions on the automated phone service (check there are no electrical devices in the vicinity of the router, change the ADSL filter etc.) but she made me repeat them. She made me describe the phone socket (although I had told her it wasn't a master) she made me plug the router into a defunct socket (even though I told her it was dead).

I just kept asking her to book an engineers visit to represent the service.

So she told me she was going to perform a line check and hung up on me. Then she rang me back only to put me on hold for fifteen minutes. By this point in time I have probably spent about two days on the phone to this useless company. Still no apology by the way. I kept asking her if she would book an engineers visit she kept reading her script like some demented automaton. So I hung up.

Give her some credit, she rang me back... And I said if you can't book an engineer to audit and represent my service then I don't have anything more to say. She promised to arrange this and ring me back. Needless to say I heard nothing more from her.

So I rang again this morning and explained the whole story to another friendly and initially helpful person. She booked an engineer to visit today.I asked explicitly that she add the history to the notes for the job so that the engineer audits and represents the service of both voice and data.

The engineer showed up early, checked the line and told me that there were no notes on the job card about auditing the service and representing it. He was just there to check for a fault which he couldn't find. He was sympathetic but said it happens all the time.

So there you have it seven months of abject and pathetic failure to meet a simple request. How difficult is it to send a competent engineer to update and reinstall my voice and data service? How difficult would it have been to apologise and offer some form of compensation?

Clearly, too difficult.

Congratulations BT you have driven me into the arms of Virgin (which is no mean feat given that Virgin was once Ntl who were globally renowned for their crap customer service - I hope they've changed) whom I shall ring next week. I should stay and fight my corner, demand compensation for the days of work that I have lost, not to mention the will to live which I have also lost.

But I just haven't got the energy.

Merry bloody Christmas BT. What happened to you?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The meaning of halloween

Now there was me naively thinking that Halloween was all souls' day, the day before all saints' day, "all hallows een".  This, in turn, was a co-opted pagan festival.  In fact as the picture below clearly shows, the event has been firmly co-opted by Messrs Mars, Nestle and Cadbury.  If there were any balance in the world, tomorrow would be International Tooth Decay Day.

In all seriousness, I was slightly scared by the  swarm of children who descended on our road and picked it dry of anything edible in a manner not seen since Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt.  I am surprised there are still leaves on the trees!  

Some of the children who came to our door grabbed two huge fistfuls of sweets without any sense of restraint whilst parents lingered chatting in the street. Few bothered to say "Trick or treat" let alone, "Happy halloween!"  Most just rang the doorbell and stuck out a paw then ran off without saying thank you.  There seemed to be very little going on other than untrammelled consumption.

My daughter had a lovely time and had been excited about the day for at least the last week.  So it is possible that I am simply suffering from rose tinted spectacles when I look at my own child

If we are allowing or perhaps even inculcating this "grab it before it goes" behaviour in our children, is it any wonder that there are issues with countries overspending, directors' salaries and corporate greed?

PS I was staggered by the sheer numbers of children on our street. I live in near Wandsworth Common and I know our area is not known as "Nappy Valley" for nothing. Indeed I have been told (as yet unverified) that this is the area with one of the highest birth rates in Western Europe.  Even so there seemed to be too many children on one street.  Moreover, our house is just round the corner from a fairly wealthy street and I didn't recognise the vast majority of children who called at our door, which made me suspicious.  So when I took my daughter out with her friends (a little too late it transpired from the number of empty sweet bowls and apologetic faces) we went a little further afield and found just three or four streets away closer to the estates that there was barely a child or jack o lantern in sight.  

Who knew that there was a class war element to Halloween?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Leave school at 14... if only it were that simple

This morning I came across a BBC report of an interview withSir Chris Woodhead.  Now Chris is known for his forthright opinions but in this latest interview he seemed at first glance to have gone off the deep end.  He appears to be suggesting that it is just not worth the effort keeping certain types of kids in school beyond the age of 14.

This got my hackles up a bit and I was all prepared for a little bit of blogging righteous indignation on behalf of all those less fortunate who appear to be being written off...

But a little voice of doubt in the back of my mind suggested that rather than go off half-cocked I should at least read the interview in its original form in the Times rather than its digested second hand version on the BBC.

Interestingly the sub editors at the Time have gone for the same sensationalist headline of "leave school at 14" on the front page but when you get to the article itself you find the context:

"If a child at 14 has mastered basic literacy and numeracy, I would be very happy for that child to leave school and go into a combination of apprenticeship and further education training and a practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through into a job."

So he's not saying leave school.  He is recommending a different type of 'school' which is better suited to each child's individual needs and more oriented to obtaining the skills required for the world of work. Lots of similarities here with the well established German three-tiered approach of Gymnasium (for those destined for university), Realschule (for those more technically inclined towards a craft or trade) and Hauptschule (for the rest).

I'm not sure if Chris is alluding to the growing Studio Schools concept but he could well be and their CREATE skills framework seems solid (finally someone putting critical thinking at the heart of a curriculum) and evidence based.  In any case he starts to sound much more reasoned and balanced than the sub editors at both the BBC and The Times would have you believe...

Until he goes on to suggest that it is wrong for the government to encourage independent schools to support state schools as it is unfair on those who have paid for their education.   But then again, he is chairman of a group of private equity backed independent schools with debt amounting to twice its turnover so you can understand if not necessarily agree with his reluctance.

Further proof if it were needed that, the headline is there to make you read the story; things are rarely as simple as they first appear and we don't need to agree on everything.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Very fast cars

You may not have heard of Richard Noble and Andy Green, which is a shame because you really should have.  Richard is a former land speed record holder with Thrust2 (1983-1997) and Andy Green is the current land speed record holder with Thrust SSC (1997-present). Both projects represent the best of British innovation, technical expertise and sheer bloody-minded determination.

They are now engaged in the Bloodhound SSC project which aims to propel Andy in their new car to a speed in excess of 1,000 mph on the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa in 2013.  But this time speed is not their only aim.  Bloodhound's full mission statement is here but in short they are aiming to inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians and to reverse the decline in the study of STEM subjects in schools and universities.  

They already have 4,500 schools signed up to the project but have yet to exploit the full potential of the internet.  My involvement with the project will be to help pull together the informal and social learning aspects and to create a virtual learning community for STEM subjects under the Bloodhound banner.

Whilst I won't be the one strapped into a metal tube with a Eurofighter jet engine and Falcon rocket, I have a feeling this is going to be an exciting ride.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What I learnt on my holidays

It's been a while.

As a friend pointed out to me with a certain degree of relish only yesterday, I am not likely to have a holiday this long again until I retire and given the parlous state of the nation's finances I may never be allowed to retire...

Nonetheless, I have had the most wonderful summer!

I took my daughter and Becci across Europe for the best part of two months and came back tanned and engaged (neither of which tends to happen to middle-aged redheads too easily).

But this is supposed to be a blog about learning, so what have I learnt in my extended vacation?

If you want to learn, you must accept responsibility.  If you blame other people for setbacks, which is often all too easy, you are unlikely to change yourself for the better.  The difficult bit is accepting your part without getting stuck and dwelling on it.  Learning is hard work and the alternatives are often significantly more attractive but perhaps without the long term rewards.

Happiness is as much an attitude as an emotion.  What I mean is, it is as much about what you do as it is what is done to you.  If you simply sit around waiting for a winning emotional lottery ticket you are more likely to go without.

I also learnt never to leave a cool-box plugged into your car battery overnight if you want to catch the boat home.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Curiosity killed the cat...

...were a band in the 1980s that are among the many crimes of Simon Cowell. In fact, just checking this and looking him up on Wikepedia I notice that his crimes against music are legion as well as a few other interesting points about how he first became successful (go look it up)

...equally the proverb dates back to the time of Ben Jonson although is generally attributed to Eugene O'Neil.

I haven't blogged for a while having been doing jury service. And one thing that a random cross section of society (for that is what a jury is supposed to be) gives you is a chance to reflect on the differences between people. I have also been gently percolating on some models of personality together with a few business books I've read recently (Drive, The Laws of Simplicity, Naked, Different) which seek to identify the quintessence of success.

With a brief nod to one of the best books I read last year, "The Black Swan" acknowledging the the very nature of this reflection may just be an urge on my part to make sense of randomness, the thing that makes people stand out in my eyes is curiosity.

People who are interested become interesting.

It almost doesn't matter what you are interested in, in fact the more diverse the better in my eyes. Curious people are more often on the front foot looking for things. They may make more mistakes because they stick their noses into things that they don't understand. But on the whole they are more fun, more challenging, more diverting, just "more" really.

So, be curious. I doubt it will kill you and you might learn something on the way

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Public service announcement: who's the sucker?

Well it was nearly me. And I always thought I was safely skeptical. Earlier today I got an email from an old friend with the subject line,


What followed was a fairly plausible tale of being on holiday in the West Midlands (should have been my first clue as my friend lives in Kansas city... with apologies to the Black Country why would she holiday there?) and having been mugged. She had a flight to catch having fortunately left the passports at the hotel but the hotel wouldn't let her leave without paying the bill. There were a number of grammatical errors in the email but my friend is not a native English speaker and I made allowances for stress.

I replied immediately asking for a phone number. She said the muggers had taken the mobile phones and could I wire transfer $2,150 to a Western Union Branch. I asked for the number of the hotel.

Finally my suspicious nature woke up to the fact she was asking for dollars whilst being on holiday in the UK and the fact that the number given for the hotel demanding the money was a mobile. But not before I had checked the balance on my current account.

So I sent another email in which I said, "Forgive my cynicism but this looks like a scam. Can you tell me where and how you and I first met? Then I will ring the hotel."

True to classic con form the scammer raised the ante with this reply,

"Omg, What a million questions!!! why you asking me this as at moment ?? Is
this just because i asked you of help.. why have you decided to treat me
like this, i want you to know that we're meant to help each other. I knew
this is unusual but are the only person i could reach at this point and
i'm doing everything i can so we can work our way out of here peacefully
but there is nothing really working out, most important is that my flight
leaves in hours from now and I really need your help to sort out the hotel
bills. Kindly let me know if you're willing to help us out of this mess ok
tired of your cunning...

I'll be hanging on here to read from you soon."

Well they'll be hanging on for some time. Unfortunately the Met Police doesn't seem to have a cyber crime division any more and as I didn't actually become a victim of crime, according to the nice chap on the police switchboard, there wasn't much point pursuing it.

I thought I'd share..

Monday, January 24, 2011

Convincing but unfounded conclusion seeks hypothesis with GSOH

First up, I never said I wasn't a hypocrite. But Google Ngrams have shown me how much of a hypocrite I can be at times.

I found Ngrams from Dan Pink's marvellous blog. In short, they are a lovely and distracting tool which enable you to search a significant proportion of all the publications in English and some other languages since 1800 and produce scientific looking charts. You type in a word or a couple of words you wish to compare and NGram delivers you a graph mapping their incidence as a percentage of all the words published over time.

One of my first experiments was to compare the incidence of the words 'Training vs Learning' since1800. Looking at this graph it is almost impossible not to to speculate on the non existence of the word 'training' before the industrial revolution, its steady rise with the advent of Taylorian workflow management at the beginning of the 20th century and then its comparative decline with the advent of the knowledge economy approaching the turn of the 21st century.

But there is next to no real science supporting these sweeping assertions. The trouble is I start off with an idea I think will throw something up and then match my story to what I think I see in the data.

Let's try another one, the incidence of "faith, hope and charity" (or the three theological virtues) could be argued to clearly show the constant decline of religiosity in the English speaking world over the last two centuries barring a slight rally after each world war. Again this sounds plausible and might be readily accepted.

But I have done no real work to interrogate this claim or to test anything substantive. The ease with which anyone can now create superficially compelling data groupings to support their claims can only be a bad thing for self directed learners. It is now even easier to create passable nonsense. And it is not as if we weren't gullible enough already...

But I still really like them...

So Google Ngrams, a marvellous but dangerous toy.

Monday, January 17, 2011


January is properly underway now. Sometime in the next couple of days if it hasn't happened already there will be a rash of discussions about the most depressing day of the year. This will be today, tomorrow or the day after depending on which PR driven piece of non-research is driving it. I'm not going to bother to look for it or link to it because it is the same story every year.

As are resolutions. Every year we promise ourselves to be thinner, happier, richer, less single, healthier. Then a year goes by and we do it again.

But I am not mocking new year's resolutions. Although many of them fail to survive until February, it is not the failures that matter. It is the starts. The beginnings. Whether purposeful or accidental.

You must at least do something...

Don't wait for another big milestone, new year or another birthday to begin something. Find small milestones.

So today, which is the day after my daughter's birthday (she is six now if you're interested) I am going to start a few more things:
1. I shall be more positive - 2011 has been pretty good thus far
2. I am going to look into Sharepoint (I am hearing more and more about it and I am completely ignorant of it's capability)
3. I shall unplug myself a little more often and read a few more books (you know the things with pages)
4. I shall finish the decorating in my house by the February half term
5. I shall start Lent early (not in the religious sense but in the eating and drinking slightly less sense)

That's enough for one day. I think.