Tuesday 23 October 2007

One's area of expertise.

This is just plain awful:

A radical plan to persuade people to stop smoking, take more exercise and change their diets was proposed last night by a leading Government adviser.

Ah, proposed by a government advisor, eh? I think we all know by now where that leads.

In a speech to the Royal Statistical Society last night, Professor [Julian] Le Grand said instead of requiring people to make healthy choices – by giving up smoking, taking more exercise and eating less salt – policies should be framed so the healthy option is automatic and people have to choose deliberately to depart from it.

Making the healthy option "automatic": there's a nice formulation.

Among his suggestions are a proposal for a smoking permit, which smokers would have to produce when buying cigarettes, an "exercise hour" to be provided by all large companies for their employees and a ban on salt in processed food.

Yes, that sort of automatic.

What's particularly sad about this is the sheer humdrumness of it. This is a normal state proposal these days; there'll be ten more like it next week. Typically enough, it sounds like something out of 1984 — as Jon points out, that's because, this time, it actually is out of 1984.

The interesting new twist in today's bit of creeping fascism — and I use the word advisedly — is Professor Le Grand's frankly brilliant marketing. The word he uses to describe this scheme is "libertarian". His reasoning for this makes perfect sense to anyone who doesn't have a clue what the word means. Like him, for instance.

The idea, dubbed "libertarian paternalism", reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a "nanny state," he said. "Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism."

To quote him is to ridicule him. Sadly, none of our political class realise that. They have a pronounced tendency to mistake this sort of codswallop for the wisdom of the ages.

And I particularly like the way this git is described in the tagline:

Obesity, alcohol abuse, smoking: Britain is among the most unhealthy countries in Europe. Now a pioneering NHS adviser is proposing a revolutionary cure for our ills

"Pioneering"? What's so bloody pioneering about this? Using the power of the state to control people is humanity's default option, and has been practised enthusiastically for longer than recorded history. It's the exceedingly rare individual who actually does something to increase our freedom who's a pioneer.

Anyway, enough. It's clear to us all exactly what flavour of bastard this man is, and it's clear to us all that he will get his way, because the British people, whose ancestors did more to spread the cause of freedom across the globe than anyone else's and whose ideas continue to do so, want nothing more than nice quiet bureaucratic slavery. Fine. Let them have it. It's the only way they'll learn.

But I would like to say a word or two about this proposed salt ban.

Food manufacturers would be banned from adding salt to processed foods which is a major cause of high blood pressure. This would hand control of the salt content to the consumer who could choose to "opt out" of the healthy product by adding salt at the table

Now, this really pisses me off. This is absolutely bloody typical of what's wrong with these people. It's not the statism, or the obsession with other people's health, the refusal to comprehend that people might knowingly take the less healthy option, it's not the bedrock belief that people are broken and that he needs to fix them. No, it's the fact that Professor Julian Le Grand cannot cook.

I don't mean he's not a great gourmet cook; I mean he can't cook at all. I mean the man can't even fry an onion properly. Maybe he can manage toast. And how do I know this? Because he thinks that putting salt in food during cooking and putting salt on top of food after cooking are the same thing. This is so fundamentally wrong that I guarantee that, were you to accept something as simple as scrambled eggs from this man, you'd regret it.

Firstly, all flavourings behave differently when heated. The flavours change, and mix, and infuse the food around them. You can't achieve the same effect by adding them later, cold. If you could, we would just eat everything raw. After all, what's so special about salt? If it can just be added later, raw and cold, so can everything else.

Secondly, salt isn't just a flavouring. It's used in cooking primarily for what it does to the food around it: due to its crystalline structure, it draws liquids — and therefore flavours — out of things. You sprinkle salt on frying onions if you don't want them to brown: it draws out the onion juice, meaning there's more liquid in the pan, meaning the onions can cook for longer without browning. You don't put salt on frying onions just because you want them to taste saltier. Cooking's a little more complex than that.

But the health fanatics can't get their heads around this. I hate their underlying presumption. Cooking involves some of the most advanced chemistry mankind has developed, but these guys think there's essentially no more to it than putting all your flavours in a sack and giving it a shake. They push this image of the packaged food industry as being full of mad scientists coming up with ever-more outlandish chemicals to chuck in the pot, just to see what colour the public turn when they eat it. There's no acknowledgement that any of those ingredients might go in for a reason.

And that's the problem. We have people making government policy about what can go in our food who know nothing about food. We wouldn't tolerate a chef prescribing our drugs — or I wouldn't, anyway — so why do we have doctors doing our cooking?

The salt ban's already snuck in, to some extent: the fascists have got their way with baby food. Go out and buy a jar: spaghetti bolognese or chicken risotto or any of the other things that you know should taste good. And look at the ingredients: baby food is not, as a rule, full of crap: it's good stuff, and it's well cooked. Apart from that one little thing: there's no added salt. Now taste it. That's what all your food is going to taste like in a few years: nothing. Enjoy.


Got one of my pictures put onto canvas the other day. Picked Your Image 2 Canvas simply because Google threw them up, and despite my hatred of the use of "2" to mean "to". (It's not grammar pedantry; it's the fact that they're not really pronounced quite the same, and my inner voice insists on pronouncing the "2" as "two", not "to", and it just sounds really stupid in my head.) Anyway, glad I did.

I uploaded a colour photo and selected the "sepia" option. Paid me money, and a few days later got a nice big good-looking canvas — in colour. Oops.

So I emailed them:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I received my order today. It is very nice, thank you, but there is one error with it. As you can see from the email below, I asked that it be in sepia. The canvas I received today was in full colour.

Please let me know what may be done about this.

Thanks very much for your help.

I got this response later the same morning:

Hi there

Extremely sorry about this error. I have checked with the print team and we can confirm this was done in full colour, a small oversight.

Please keep the one you have received and I will action this order to be re completed.

Sorry for any inconvenience


Plus, what with having made a mistake, they were bloody quick about it: the replacement was dispatched that afternoon.

So now I have two versions. And, you know, the canvas doesn't look bad in colour at all.

It's brilliant customer service. So many firms would have insisted on trying to get the first canvas back, even though it's of no use to them, just out of some misguided principle. Your Image 2 Canvas did exactly the right thing, ensuring that their mistake caused the absolute minimum of inconvenience to their customer. I have no idea what the profit margins are in their business; they could even have made a loss on this one. But they've guaranteed my repeat business.

It's often said that any company can be good when things go right; it's when things go wrong that you find out who the good ones are.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Customers versus the public.

My train into work on Monday missed a station.

Now, these things can happen at this time of the year. For all the popular ridicule the rail services receive for the excuse of "leaves on the line", the fact is that it is a real excuse: the leaves rot, creating slime, making rails slippery. There used to be a very simple solution: cut down all the trees anywhere near a railway line. But people like trees, so we have a problem.

That being said, the train did stop, just a little too late, which goes to show that these modern trains have all sorts of clever technology in them and can cope with these things as long as they're driven properly. Had the driver been going more slowly or had braked sooner, the train would have stopped earlier — that's basic physics, that is. And given that, looking out of the windows of the train, I could see flurries of Autumn leaves descending all around, the whole leaves-on-the-track thing shouldn't really have caught the driver off guard. But hey. None of that, really, is the point.

The point is what happened next.

Firstly, the train sat there for a couple of minutes. Some people wanted to get off at the station (Helen's Bay, if you're interested), and told the conductor so. The train had only just overshot: the last couple of doors in the last carriage were actually at the platform, so it was possible for passengers to step through those doors on to the platform perfectly safely and normally — if, that is, the doors were open. But they weren't.

The conductor went to see the driver, then came back and explained that they were phoning headquarters to ask for permission to reverse the train. Waiting for that permission to be denied took about ten minutes. Apparently, it's far too dangerous to reverse a train all of twenty metres at a station with absolutely nothing behind it as far as the end of the line. Tsk. So then, ridiculously, they had to get permission to continue driving the train forwards to the next station. This took another few minutes.

All this time, the passengers who wanted to get off at Helen's Bay and who could see Helen's Bay Station tantalisingly just the other side of the doors were asking the conductor if they could please be allowed to get off the train. Could he not just open the very last door on the train? Absolutely not, he said; that would be far far too dangerous for some reason. (Of course, on the old carriages whose continued use politicians are always claiming is such a terrible indictment of our rail system, one could simply open the door, using a handle. Thank God we've upgraded.) The only "solution" he was willing to offer was that they get off at the next station and catch the next train back in the other direction. Amazingly, no-one was very happy with this generous offer to do nothing whatsoever.

And then there was his tone of voice. I've seen it time and again on these trains: whenever there's any sort of problem, the reaction of the on-train staff is to shout angrily at the passengers. They don't see delays, cancellations, or missing stations as serious problems; for them, the real problem is that some bloody jumped-up passenger has had the temerity to complain about it. So he shouted at them, clearly hoping that they'd shut up and go away. One of the passengers suggested that the driver had been going a bit too fast, which seemed to me like a pretty uncontroversial statement under the circumstances, and that really made the conductor angry. That some passenger might impugn the abilities of his driver was simply unacceptable, so he shouted more loudly. Considering his insistence that the wheel slippage was absolutely nothing to do with the way the train was driven and could simply affect any train at this time of the year, it seems a little odd that he thought that his suggestion that passengers catch another train to get back to their station was a good one.

One thing he kept shouting was "What more can I do?" and "There's nothing else I can do." So I piped up "You could offer them taxis." He was furious, and came and shouted at me for a while about how crap taxis are. Compared to trains, I assume he meant. He sarcastically shouted "You want taxis? I'll call taxis. I'll give you the money myself to get taxis. Would that make you happy, sir? Anything else you think I should do?"

The train went very slowly for the rest of the journey, but still missed another stop. The conductor triumphantly stomped through the train, saying "Try saying he was going too fast that time." It was good that he put our minds at rest on this point, because that's definitely what we'd all been worrying about.

I rang NIR's complaints line later to tell them that I had never worked for a company where I wouldn't get sacked for talking to customers the way their conductor did. They told me that they have a policy of not providing taxis for customers (which is nice). I said that I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't complaining about the delay or their policies — if the conductor had explained the policy of not providing taxis in the same tone of voice that they just had, I wouldn't have been on the phone complaining. They apologised and said they'd report the complaint, but the woman on the line actually did say to me "We are publicly funded." As if that makes the behaviour a little less bad.

But it does highlight the problem. Customer service is sometimes bad — sometimes bloody awful — but can always be fixed — some companies, in fact, have had near-miraculous turnarounds in the quality of their service. The reason it can be fixed is that at its heart is a recognition of where the revenue comes from: the customer. The very phrase "customer service" has it built in: serve your customer so that they will give you money. And there's rarely any doubt about who your customer is: it's the guy offering you money. But then there's public service. The trouble with public service is that the public are a bit of an anonymous blob. While the customer standing in front of you, wanting to give you money, might be a member of the public, he ain't the public. If you work in public service, your job is not to serve him.

As mentioned previously, I have to move seats at least once every journey to escape the people who see me reading a book and so sit down next to me to have loud conversations. Today, I had to move to get away from that same bloody conductor, who was shouting into his mobile phone while standing next to the sign which says to use your mobile phone with consideration for other passengers. Ironically enough, he was shouting about some jobsworthy union dispute. The problem was that one of his colleagues was going to arrive home a whopping ten minutes late due to the way the train timetables worked out — he wasn't being asked to do ten minutes overtime or anything; it was just that his company-provided free journey home was going to be slightly later than ideal. The conductor was of the opinion that such a delay to his colleague's plans for the evening is totally unacceptable and that his bosses should therefore provide a taxi.

Wednesday 10 October 2007


I don't necessarily mind sales calls — I have been sold some decent stuff over the phone in my time, including my first Nokia — but I can't be bothered with time-wasting crap. If you've got a decent product at a good price, tell me about it, and stop with the childish trying to pretend you're my friend. I am not going to buy anything from you just because we had a chat about the weather.

Got this call today. From 01253 757069. On my mobile. I was at work. I started it the same way I start every sales call these days.

— Hello?

— Hi, I'm calling from a company called Reclaim 2 Gain, how are you today?

— Can I ask what it is you sell?

— Sorry?

— Can I ask what it is you sell?

[incredulously] Sell?

And she hung up.

Is that really such an impertinent question?

I have a rule of thumb, so obvious that it's never even occurred to me to spell it out before. Do not buy things from people who won't tell you what they're selling. It's just a bad idea.

Monday 8 October 2007

A message for the previous owners of my house.

Hi there.

The point of the tongue and groove in laminate flooring is that the pieces slot nicely together just as they are. This design cuts down on the amount of work required when fitting the floor — you don't need to, for instance, fill each groove with superglue before placing the tongues therein. Were you to do such a thing, I'd really pity the poor bastard who had, one day, to take the floor up. If all the pieces were glued together, the only way to get them up would be to break them, causing them to splinter and turning the thin layer of plastic laminate into jagged razor-sharp pieces, somewhat painful to carry.

So thank God you didn't do that, eh?

The meaning of words.

You know what annoys me? (If you read this blog even occasionally, you can probably give quite a long list in answer to that. But anyway.) It's the way the enemy class use the concept of cost when discussing tax cuts. It's not just those who oppose tax cuts; it's all of them. It's built into their way of thinking.

Like George Osborne, here:

Mr Osborne told the Conservative party conference in Blackpool that the £3.1bn cost of increasing the inheritance tax threshold and the £400m bill for scrapping stamp duty would be funded by imposing a £25,000-per-year charge for "non-domicile" taxpayers.

And David "Bloody" Cameron, here:

Every tax reduction we're speaking about this week, like the change in stamp duty, will be fully paid for by tax changes elsewhere.

And The Telegraph's Brenda Carlin, here:

The proposals ... would mean a tax reduction that would cost the Treasury £2.6 billion

Only last week, my next-door neighbours didn't give me a trillion pounds. Where the hell am I going to find that kind of money?

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Taking the piss.

The Royal Mail's "workers" are at it again.

Royal Mail is hugely disappointed that the Communication Workers Union has announced a fresh round of strike for the following dates:

48-hour national strike on 5 and 6 October
48-hour national strike on 8 and 9 October

If you're dead clever like me, you might notice that the 6th of October is a Saturday and the 8th is a Monday. The Royal Mail do not operate on Sundays. These two strikes are 48-hour strikes in the same way that the National Union of Miners staged a series of fifty-one 5-day strikes.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Floating points.

If you're at all interested in mathematics or computers or both, check out Joel Spolsky's brilliant explication of that new Excel bug.

By now you've probably seen a lot of the brouhaha over a bug in the newest version of Excel, 2007. Basically, multiplying 77.1*850, which should give you 65,535, was actually displaying 100,000.


Providing inst ironware intimacy to your playing.

Looking around the Web at electronic drum kits, I stumbled across this rather wonderfully written site. I think it's just one of those sites automatically cobbled together out of paid links, but the algorithm doing this particular load of cobbling has one of the most beautiful prose styles I've seen in quite some time. You can just pick pretty much any sentence, and it's a thing of greatness.

Here's what they have to say about Pintech's E-Gig, a four-piece electronic drum kit:

The outfit intentional by means of growing in bear in mind.

The Alesis DM5 is "reticent", apparently, and has

2 instinctive question cymbal pads, a give up foot pedal, tube-shaped back up wheel, and total indispensable interconnectedness cables. Complete in company with a headphone yield, the DM5 is the idealistic pleximetry go module and controller scheme that enables players of wholly accomplishment levels to practise quiet or occupy to the present in the estimation of trust.

I've got to get me some of those cables.

And Ion's "state-of-the prowess" IED01 kit?

The go character is first and allows you to hone your chops in concealment. The yield of the go module put up be directed into whatsoever supplementary stereoscopic picture larboard or PA scheme which time it's clip to acquire positive!

I hope they do a starboard model too.

Over in the saxophone department, the EM Winston 350MW Soprano Saxophone comes with what must be one of the best special offers on any musical instrument ever:

Saxophone includes mouth, swob clergy, shoulder strap, and caseful.

A mouth! An actual mouth! For playing it with! Fantastic.

And I'm fascinated by this cumbus, a banjo-like instument of which I had not previously heard:

It has 6 menstrual flux of 2 strings apiece. The Cumbus is a comparatively immature instrumentate. It was highly-developed in Istanbul in the other 1900's.

You know, the other ones.

Oh, I could go on forever. But it's late.

The difference between Microsoft and Apple.

The scrollwheel of a mouse doesn't work in Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications (or VBA to its friends). This is just odd. It works perfectly well in every Office application, but try to edit an Office macro and it's disabled. It's incredibly annoying.

Having gotten heartily sick of this, it occurred to me that there might be a fix for it, so off I went a-searching. And yes, there is, from Microsoft themselves:

Add support for the scroll wheel to the Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications 6 environment

When you use the Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) 6 integrated development environment (IDE) — also referred to as the Visual Basic Editor — to add or edit a macro or module in your Microsoft Office 2003 program, the scroll wheel on your mouse might not function. That's because VBA is based on the Microsoft Visual Basic 6 IDE, which does not include built-in support for the scroll wheel.

I love the way this is offered as if it's some sort of an explanation: This bit of our application doesn't work because it's built around another of our applications which doesn't work either. It's almost as if it isn't quite our fault. Note that this same explanation would work for every bug in every program ever. The Z key doesn't work when you're using Word, you say? Oh, that's just because Word is based on a program that doesn't support the Z key. Hope that helps.


You can use the technique discussed here to add support for the scroll wheel to VBA 6.

In short, you download a handful of files, register one of them, turn on a switch in VBA, and presto hey: it just works.

But why the hell is this necessary? It's easy to do — took me maybe four minutes — so one has to wonder why Microsoft don't do it themselves. Surely it would be easier for them to fix the damn application than it was to build a webpage telling us how to do it. After all, they have to do something similar for every other function of every application they build: the scrollwheel only works in all those other applications because there's a special scrollwheel file sitting somewhere on your hard drive, registered and switched on. Same goes for the keyboard, the screen, the DVD-drive, even the on/off switch of the PC: they all work because there's a file on your PC which makes them work. So why, in just this one case, do we, the users, need to install the Microsoft files which make the scrollwheels on our Microsoft mouses work in this Microsoft Application?

Ach, at least it didn't insist that I restart the machine.

Meanwhile, to use a PC keyboard on an Apple Mac, all you need to do is plug it in, download and pay for this rather nifty application, spend a while figuring our how to program the damn thing, and go: it just works.