National Public Stupidity

“Stupidity is a fact of life, but unmentionable. The new Prudery.”
Mason Cooley

Here’s an almost unbelievable story in Wired about corporate stupidity at National Public Radio in the US. It seems NPR wants webmasters to apply for permission before linking to NPR’s website. Having not applied, I shouldn’t put a hyperlink on this page, but I can still cite the address:

So, just type that into your web browser and you’ll get there anyway. What a stupid policy!

British Efficiency?

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?”
US President Gerald R. Ford, Chicago 1978

Nick Denton has written an interesting piece on The myth of American efficiency, and it has motivated me to write about a similar subject, one that I’ve been thinking about for some time and might be called The myth of British resistance to change.

I moved to the UK ten years ago, in April 1992, and I’ve been thinking about the changes I’ve seen take place here during the last decade. The changes I have in mind are those that have occurred in the frequent, ordinary activities that fill daily life, and upon reflection I’m surprised to find they all appear to be positive improvements. Of course, this is very much a personal view, and other residents of the UK may not appreciate these changes to the same extent.

Retail Banking

I moved to Britain after accepting a job with a classical music agent in London, and one of the first things I needed to do was open a bank account. I visited my local branch of Barclays Bank thinking it would only take a few minutes to apply and deposit my savings, but quickly discovered that in Britain banking was not so simple. In addition to a lengthy application form, the bank required a letter from my employer confirming my employment and six weeks in which to process my application!

I couldn’t believe this inefficiency. A few months earlier in Toronto, I had opened three accounts at the same bank within 15 minutes. I complained to my employer’s accountant about the British delay, and she kindly called the manager at the company’s bank (a different bank in a totally different part of London) who provided me with a chequing account by the end of the week (still poor service by Canadian standards).

(As an aside, I had a Kafkaesque experience a few years later when I returned to university. I negotiated a government-sponsored loan through Barclays Bank, which agreed to lend me the money on condition that I open an account. I did so immediately, and had access to the loan within two days. So whereas it took six weeks to deposit money, it only took 48 hours to borrow it!)

Ten years later, the vast majority of my banking is done electronically and the last account I opened was done so on-line without talking to a single bank employee. I now pay all my bills using the telephone or internet, only visiting a bank on the very odd occasion when someone sends me an increasingly rare cheque for deposit.

Retail Food Industry

Food retailing has been very competitive in the UK for years, but technology has really improved its customer service recently (see my previous blog on Re-engineering the Grocery Shopping). So much so, that I rarely visit any of the large grocery stores anymore (What bliss this is! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate not having to waste time shopping!).

Telephone Bills

Ten years ago it was difficult to obtain an itemised telephone bill in Britain. Not only was it a special request, but all calls costing 40p or less were lumped together anyway. You could only obtain specific information about expensive, usually long-distance, calls. Now I can view my telephone bills on-line, including all the information about every single call, and pay them automatically via direct debit. The process has become truly paperless. I can even download all the information and manipulate it to my heart’s content in my electronic spreadsheet to obtain a complete picture of how I use the telephone. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other; from not enough information to almost having too much.

Arts Marketing

When I first moved to the UK, arts organisations used to charge £5 annually for the privilege of adding you to their mailing list! Consequently, I did not subscribe to any such lists. Now, having obtained my name and address when I purchase tickets, they send me brochures and pamphlets regularly for free. It took them a while, but British arts organisations now understand the need for self-promotion and they are beginning to learn how to do it. Fund raising will be next.

In all these ways living in Britain has improved. No doubt there are others as well. I know that many people complain about the deterioration in transportation and educational standards here, but these issues rarely affect me. Perhaps the key, no matter where you live, is to be selective. Seek out those things that work well wherever you are, and avoid those activities that don’t work until they get better. Now I know why I don’t own a car!

Poster Idea…

“The vanity of men, a constant insult to women, is also the ground for the implicit feminine claim of superior sensitivity and morality.”
Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (1975)

Does My Bum Look Big In This?

The Economics of Bread

“Bread is the warmest, kindest of words. Write it always with a capital letter, like your own name.”
Russian café sign

Sometimes modern economics amazes me. Why are air fares so complicated, for example? One-way flights are often more expensive than a return journey. Why is it cheaper for me to fly to Nice than take a peak-rate train to Chippenham in Wiltshire (both 90-minute journeys)?

Yesterday, I bought a loaf of bread in my local grocery store (not one of the big national chains) that had been made in Toronto, Ontario! I didn’t realise this fact until I read the details on the packaging, after having eaten some of it. How on earth can it be cost effective to import this bread from North York (the suburb of Toronto in which it was made)? Surely there must be a closer and cheaper alternative?

Well, it turns out that the bread was made by the Manoucher Food Company, which appears to have been something of a phenomenon in the Canadian Food Industry (see this story in The Toronto Star). The loaf I tried was good, but I’m still amazed that it’s necessary, and economically worthwhile what’s more, to transport this perishable product more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Having just checked the receipt, I now see that I paid £2.19 for that loaf. Ouch! I’m not in the habit of checking prices before I buy food, but perhaps I should start? Given the important role bread has played in history (in France the price of bread is still set by the government, thanks in part to the likes of Marie Antoinette), the existence of this expensive, luxurious import is quite telling. What a rich world we now live in, although it’s interesting to note that Manoucher doesn’t export to France yet!

A Truthful Likeness?

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”
Jean-Luc Godard

More from The East End of London:

About 1850, the latest craze of the streets was photography, and Whitechapel and Commercial Road were full of shops where this as yet very imperfect art was available to the people, at a shilling or sixpence the portrait. A photographer who had practised in the Whitechapel Road told Mayhew his trade secrets. He explained with relish the many frauds that he and ‘Jim’, his partner, had invented…

When a photograph failed, or the light was too poor to take one, the customer would be sent away with a picture of somebody else; the only case of dissatisfaction at this treatment was an old woman who refused to believe that a bearded masculine face was hers — ‘it was a little too strong’.

‘The fact is,’ said the photographer, after telling many stories of his infinitely gullible public, ‘people don’t know their own faces. Half of ’em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.’

My Desert Island Discs

“Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.”

Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail (1979)

Desert Island Discs is the title of long-running radio programme on BBC Radio 4 (see Desert Island Discs). The format is simple: each week a guest is invited to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. The discussion of their choice is a device for them to review their life. They also choose a favourite book (excluding the Bible or other religious work and Shakespeare – these already await the “castaway”) and a luxury which must be inanimate and have no practical use.

Here is my first choice:

An image of the cover of Glenn Gould's recording of the The Complete Partitas/Preludes, Fuges and Fughettas by J. S. Bach
Glenn Gould’s recording of the The Complete Partitas/Preludes, Fuges and Fughettas by J. S. Bach

Glenn Gould: Partita No. 2 in C Minor BWV 826 by J. S. Bach

I first discovered the pianist Glenn Gould when I began to explore my father’s record collection. I had already been taking piano lessons for several years, but without much genuine interest on my part. My parents wanted me to study the piano, and I simply did as I was told. Eventually however, adolescent boredom, combined with natural curiosity, forced me to investigate my father’s small collection of LPs, and at about the age of 16 I heard Glenn Gould play Bach for the first time.

I remember listening through headphones in a state of stunned surprise as Gould played the Italian Concerto, followed by two of Bach’s Partitas. I couldn’t believe that this wonderfully captivating music, so familiar to me in its Baroque style, had been sitting in my father’s stereo cabinet for a decade or more without me knowing. Although my father had studied voice as a young man at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, by the time I was a teenager he had little spare time and rarely played his records.

From Gould’s performances of Bach, I moved onto his interpretations of some of Beethoven’s best known piano sonatas. Although I knew that his interpretations of Beethoven were not always well received, his rendition of the Pathetique sonata is still my favourite.

If I had to choose just one piece to represent how much I have enjoyed listening to Gould’s playing, it would be Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826. Bach wrote his six Partitas for students to use in learning to play the harpsichord. They are all comprised of six or seven dances, and as the liner notes accompanying the recording state “each [is] prededed by an extensive and elaborate introductory movement”.

Gould plays the introductory movement to Partita No. 2 with such magnificent grandeur and suspense that by the end of its 48 seconds you know that this is the beginning of a great story. It’s as if he was playing the overture to a big Baroque opera arranged and abridged for solo piano, and you cannot help wondering what’s in store and how it will turn out.

Given such a well-defined beginning it’s no surprise to discover that Gould gives the piece the necessary middle and end that feature in all effective story-telling. There is no way to know the details of the plot of course, but the end is so positively resolved that we know the participants in this sensitive tragedy (it’s in C Minor after all) have learnt from their mistakes.

Some of the credit for this stunning recording must also go to Bach of course, but if Bach was the author of the story, I have never heard anyone tell it better than the great Glenn Gould.

Housework As A Hobby

“People who know what is good for other people all the time are as big a menace in our society as the capitalists.”
May Hobbs, Born to Struggle, Postlude (1973).

More from The East End of London:

Cleanliness was so difficult to achieve in the East End home, yet so highly valued and so commonly practised, that it almost amounted to a decorative feature. “Cleanliness is my wife’s hobby, and I let her indulge it”, said a Shadwell coal-whipper to Mayhew as he showed him his spotless rooms.

A Personnel Revolution

“In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create.”
Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 1967.

I am currently reading The East End of London by Millicent Rose (1951), which is a very interesting book about the history of London’s East End. In the chapter on the construction of the docks, she writes:

With the building of the docks, the Industrial Revolution came to the East End and transformed it. When work is done upon such a scale as Mayhew describes, the employers (not individuals now but a company) and those whom they employ exist together without either acquaintance or mutual responsibility. The works of Rennie, Alexander, Telford, with all their grandeur, have an oppressive and terrible impersonality that fits the new relation of man to man. Alexander looked back to the glories of Rome, but his creation inaugurated the pitiless anarchy of the nineteenth century.

What a shame that the industrial revolution had this effect on personal relationships. It’s legacy is still a problem today. My wife recently received an incredibly impersonal e-mail from the Chief Executive of the company that has employed her for more than a decade, a man she has met many times and with whom she is on a first name basis. His generic form letter was not addressed to anyone (it just arrived in her inbox without any recipients listed), and asked her to participate in a collective exercise intended to identify the company’s values!

How about uncaring, careless and lazy, for starters? The CEO’s message probably reveals more honest information about the corporate value system than any collective exercise will unearth. It is particularly worrying when you consider that this exercise is almost certainly an initiative of the Human Resources department, which should care more about the employees and how they are treated than any other part of the company. When will they learn that everything the company does is an expression of its values? When will they realise that their values are therefore plain for all to see in everything they do?

What Do You Collect?

“Preserving tradition has become a nice hobby, like stamp collecting.”
Mason Cooley

At the Victoria and Alberta Museum this afternoon, I came across an exhibit that asked people to write notes for the museum about their own personal collections. The question was “What do you collect?” Most of the responses were from school children, and the first one was as follows:

I collect ideas. Every now and then I change them. I throw the old ones away to make room for the new ones. Some ideas never change, they look old but they can be trusted. – George, London.

Can this amazing statement really be that of a child?

Dangerous Driving

“Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.”
Lewis Mumford

Originally, I had plans to spend the Easter weekend in Cumbria seeing Hadrian’s Wall for the first time. I was thinking of driving from London to Carlisle, but now I am very glad I decided against it. Yesterday morning there was an accident on one of Britain’s motorways involving 100 cars, which resulted in a traffic jam containing 20,000 cars that didn’t move for five hours! Later in the day there was another bad accident on a motorway further west that also delayed traffic badly, and again today there appears to have been more problems heading north (see BBC News | Pile-up causes fresh delays) So this most recent crash was the third major accident of the Easter bank holiday, and it’s still only the first day.

I heard recently that Britain’s Secretary of State for Transport, Steven Byers, doesn’t posses a driver’s licence. Perhaps he’s trying to tell us something?

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