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The truck that couldn’t be unloaded

April 3, 2015 Leave a comment

I’m sure if you work in the construction industry this will be a familiar story. But it happened yesterday and I’m still slightly bemused by it.

We’re changing some of the back garden around and part of the process is installing a new path. This involved ordering 3 tons of gravel (well, technically not gravel but Cotswold stone chippings) for the path itself. When it arrived, it was loaded into large 850kg bags on pallets.

Previously we’ve had this kind of stuff delivered by a lorry with a crane, and it’s just craned over the front garden wall and onto the front garden. This time it was a curtain-sided lorry and one guy with a pallet trolley, the kind that slots into the pallet and has a handle you pump to raise the pallet off the ground. Whoever loaded the pallets, presumably with a regular forklift, had placed the edge of one pallet onto the corner of another. One couldn’t be moved because of the additional weight and the other couldn’t be moved because the pallet trolley couldn’t be slotted into it and jacked up to raise it.

Oh, and another bag was a problem because it was loaded on one edge of the pallet.  It was almost impossible to shift because whichever side you approached from, you were lifting an uneven load that just tipped the pallet trolley over. It was considerably more difficult than, say, transporting a coffin on a bicycle (which I have done: don’t ask). The fourth bag – the pallet itself had broken and the pallet trolley wouldn’t fit under it until we’d done a quick and dirty fix with hammer and nails.

Solutions could have included shovelling the gravel off the lorry into a pile outside the house (would have taken at least an hour, possibly two); splitting the bags and sweeping the mess off the side of the lorry; and probably a few others. We’d then have needed to get the gravel off the road and pavement. The driver called his firm, who weren’t very interested. Presumably they figured this would empower him by encouraging him to use his initiative. The solution, though, was just to refuse the load as undeliverable and ask them to bring it again, properly loaded, this morning.

That happened. Unbelievably (to me anyway) the load arrived back this morning in another truck – but the tailgate lift wasn’t working properly. A segment of it was out of line with the rest, and raised up enough to stop the loads being trollied onto it. Again, it was almost an hour of messing with the equipment to get the stuff off the lorry.

If anyone wants to know what’s wrong with British industry, I guess this is one clue (no doubt there are many others). Give your workers the equipment they need, preferably in functioning order and without the need to spend stupid amounts of time doing ad hoc fixes to make it work.

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Novel-writing and thought-forms

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. etc. Yes, I know I haven’t posted for a couple of months and it’s well past that time now but I’ve been distracted by writing criminology teaching materials (and entertaining friends and celebrating the holidays myself and so on – real life sometimes takes me away from blogging).

In between times I’ve also been playing with a story that involves thought-forms. Wikipedia tells me these have been part of Tibetan Buddhist belief for a very long time, where they’re called ‘tulpa’, but came to the attention of Western mystics, occultists and so on in the 1920s. There is however an interesting book (well, I thought it was interesting) from the Theosophical Society: Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-forms, published in 1901 by The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. in London. If you’re sufficiently motivated to read it, it’s available via the Gutenberg Project or indeed as a free PDF from the Theosophical Society itself, which appears to continue to be quite active.

I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of what thought-forms ‘are’, because any number of sources will give to imaginative and conflicting descriptions and explanations. I should also point out that I read an awful lot of stuff without actually believing it, and have a healthy scepticism about mystical topics. That said, thought-forms struck me as a useful plot device and I may or may not find a reasonable way to finish off the story. However, along the way, I was somewhat amused by the following description in Besant and Leadbeater, in the section of the book on ‘Three Class of Thought-forms’, of how novelists create and are affected by thought forms:

‘The novelist in the same way [i.e. the same way as painters or other artists] builds images of his character in mental matter, and by the exercise of his will moves these puppets from one position or grouping to another, so that the plot of his story is literally acted out before him. With our curiously inverted conceptions of reality it is hard for us to understand that these mental images actually exist, and are so entirely objective that they may readily be seen by the clairvoyant, and can even be rearranged by some one other than their creator. Some novelists have been dimly aware of such a process, and have testified that their characters when once created developed a will of their own, and insisted on carrying the plot of the story along lines quite different from those originally intended by the author. This has actually happened, sometimes because the thought-forms were ensouled by playful nature-spirits, or more often because some ‘dead’ novelist, watching on the astral plane the development of the plan of his fellow-author, thought that he could improve upon it, and chose this method of putting forward his suggestions.
Well, yes, I think most people who write stories do find their characters can be almost like ‘imaginary friends’ who have some sort of independent life, at least in the writer’s head. But should I be amused at the recursive nature of my story, thought-forms discussing thought-forms, or be more concerned that I could be subconsiously channelling some dead novelist?

Poetry, or something like it

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Poetry isn’t my thing, really. Flash fiction, stories and so on, yes. Poetry no. If you don’t like it as poetry just think of these two things as flash fic. Or blame Stevie Smith for inspiring the first one, if you remember her ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘. Though mine isn’t as good. Oh, and yes, they’re about real people. But you don’t know them.

 

1. Waving/drowning

He’s waving but drowning
Sinking in crashing and speedy surf.
He wants to be saved.

From the sea? From himself?
He waves like he’s giving the finger.

I swim against hard swell.
He fights as if his life depends on it.
As if it’s all he’s ever known.

On the beach exhausted, wet and cold
I watch him cough water, spit blood,
Recover strength.

Soon he’ll stand and walk
to the end of the jetty
Jump in again. And wave.

If this is a test, I’ve failed.
If he’s testing himself, it’s to destruction.
If I try to save him again
Both of us will drown.

 

2. Hydrocortisone

We all die sometime
But medication speeds the process.

She needs enough to cope with the stress
But enough is too much for her body.

The medicine helps her stay together
When tragedy unfolds around her.

And yet it makes her fall apart.
Her skin grows fragile, and bleeds.

What will happen when it’s as weak
As a dried-out leaf in autumn?

 

It’s later than you think

January 4, 2014 1 comment

Oh right. So it’s been about 4 months since I was on this blog. Time goes quickly, huh? I’ve been busy instead doing the kind of writing that earns me an income. But I thought I’d just do a roundup of a few things that have been occupying my headspace recently.

Personal goals for 2014: be irascible and swear more. Why not? I’m old, or feel old anyway, and I don’t have the time to mess around.

At New Year I caught Jools Holland’s New Year TV thing and it wound up, as I think it usually does, with the Guy Lombardo song ‘It’s Later Than You Think’. If you want the full lyrics they’re on Metrolyrics.com, and the 2013 Jools performance is on Youtube (the elderly trombonist, incidentally, is Rico Rodriguez – one of the living legends of ska, if you don’t already know that. He’s a bit shaky on the performance but dammit, the guy deserves respect). The song’s a hurry-up call to do the things you want to do before you’re no longer in a state to do them. And for all I know it’s later than I think.

Apart from that, Christmas Eve was somewhat spoiled by this:

Poisoned meat

Poisoned meat

When I first saw it in our local woods, I wondered if it was the result of some occult rite. The woods local to me do have a few people from time to time who are prone to marking out pentagrams and such, and doing late-night ceremonies. On the other hand, as best I can gather from the cans they leave they’re mainly doing them while drunk on cheap lager and (probably) trying to emulate stuff they’re seen in horror films. They’re essentially harmless (because I, erm, know other people whose take on pagan beliefs is rather more effective).

When I got close, however, my dog wouldn’t touch the meat, which seemed to be ox or cow livers and hearts. Some other dog walkers came along and their dogs wouldn’t go near it either. Dogs have a sense of smell, you see, and they probably figured it smelled funny. Someone else who came along had a sniff and reckoned it smelled of arsenic. One of us who had a carrier bag gathered the stuff up and took it away to be disposed of. I keep a good lookout now in the woods for anything that looks like this, hidden under trees. We all have some suspicions about who might have done it, and also figure they’d thought no one would find or disturb the stuff over the Christmas period. But dogs need walking every day… And if they were after foxes, which have a sense of smell similar to dogs, they’d have been unsuccessful anyway. They’d probably have killed the local owls and some woodland birds, though. And, yes, poisoning wildlife is a serious offence in the UK. If you come across any suspected incident of an attempt to poison wildlife, Natural England has a dedicated helpline and and a Wildlife Incident Unit whose inspectors will investigate. To report the suspected poisoning of wildlife or pets call: FREEPHONE 0800 321 600. The RSPCA also has a useful website with contact details.

Oh, and dog walkers – you know the thing in murder mysteries about how dog walkers are often the people who find bodies and such? That’s because our dogs need to be walked and in a big chunk of countryside, dog walkers are the people who are out there from early morning to late evening. So the chances are, anything from dead bodies to poisoned meat or flytipping, it will be a dog walker who first finds it.

There are plenty of other things locally to get irascible about, and plenty in the national and international news that also make me want to puke, preferably over those responsible for various government stupidities. But there’s also this, which made me scratch my head. Under the headline ‘Destruction of ancient woodland “highly unlikely”‘ it turns out ancient woodlands probably won’t be destroyed by changes in planning and development laws. Or at least, lost trees could be replaced by planting more elsewhere in a process known as ‘biodiversity offsetting’. Don’t get me wrong – offsetting is a decent enough policy, but in relation to ancient woodland?

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment is quoted as saying the idea of using offsetting to replace destroyed ancient woodland is ‘very hypothetical’. What does that mean, exactly? That ancient woodlands won’t be destroyed in the first place? Given local experience with the way developers seem to be able to get their way through threatening to bankrupt local councils due to the legal costs of fighting a planning appeal, I’d say ‘very hypothetical’ probably means no one is planning to build on ancient woodland for at least a couple of months.

And what part of ‘ancient’ woodland, and the biological significance of it, is not understood by government people who deal with offsetting policies? Using offsetting in this situation isn’t ‘very hypothetical’, it’s impossible.

I’ll find more to be irascible about shortly.

Big Brother, the Heads of State edition?

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve forgotten how long it’s been since I posted. I have a couple of half-done things I’ll post in due course but this isn’t one of them.

Apparently there’s a new Celebrity Big Brother in TV. You know the format, a bunch of showbiz types who’ve fallen on hard times living in forced proximity, arguing and falling out and making up again and doing collaborative tasks and then confessing stuff to Big Brother. Something like that. To be honest I don’t think I’ve seen more than two minutes of it at a time since the first UK series, and even then it only gripped me for about half an hour.

But how would it play if, instead of having the showbiz types, they could persuade eight or ten heads of state to go into the house? And give them a real task, like finding a way to solve their various debt crises or world hunger or climate change or negotiate a solution to the various Middle East conflicts? And do in in real time, with everyone watching? I’d watch.

Of course the rules would have to be changed a little. They’d have to be able to send emails and make phone calls, except we could see the mails and listen in on the phone calls. The location of the house might need to be changed for security reasons, though the idea of making them all sleep in a dorm works for me. And there might need to be a ‘no dictators’ rule, though it’s doubtful any dictators would want to be on it in case there was a coup while they were in the house.

I’m not sure if the evictions process would work the same. But they’d all want to win, wouldn’t they? So they’d probably try their hardest to understand each others’ perspectives, resolve conflicts, and solve the problem that was set. I think it would make compelling viewing. And it would be even better if they came up with good plans and then implemented them.

It would also, of course, be compelling viewing if the problem-solving exercise turned out to be a disaster…

What do you reckon? Anyone else like to see Big Brother, the Heads of State edition?

CRM – fact or fantasy?

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

You may, or may not, know that periodically I write stuff about customer service issues – and on the whole I try to write properly researched stuff rather than fiction (though I have moments where some of the materials I have to read on the topic seem to come from a world I don’t recognise). The latest round of this relates to something known by the acronym ‘customer relations management’ or CRM.

The idea of CRM is that if a company has a customer, they have a relationship with that customer that is ongoing and over the course of time may result in the customer purchasing more services or products. Lots of business gurus have been advancing this idea for a number of years now.

But I’ve been taking soundings from friends about this idea and, while the phraseology is mine rather than theirs, I wonder if customer relations management has been undermined by the postmodern economy, and dropped into a black hole.

Consider the following examples:

  • someone who used to work in a bank recalling a speech by the CEO that was supposed to motivate staff, though to do what, exactly, wasn’t entirely clear. What he said was, apparently, that the important thing was that the customer should ‘have the perception’ that they’d been served well. That phrase could mean a number of things, but the context was that customer service is about perception management, with a customer believing they’d been served well while the underlying reality might be somewhat different. After that, the bank started to get itself into a bunch of problems that, to be fair, paled into insignificance after the onset of the financial crisis of 2010.
  • the comment from someone who knows about call centres that the basic problem is driving down the cost per call. The net result is, in their understanding, that call centres have become increasingly overloaded and offer a poorer service than they did, say, 5 years ago because offering a good service costs more. I don’t know if this is universally true. But the last time I actually tried to call a call centre, earlier this week, it involved a 25-minute wait with alternating adverts and a music track that appeared to have got stuck. The very fact I was waiting because ‘all our agents are busy’ didn’t exactly lend credibility to the services being advertised between the Stockhausen-type sounds that resulted from what was probably supposed to be a pop song of some description. The guy who answered the phone was polite and efficient. But then he had to admit that while he’d proposed a solution to my problem (which I tried in real time and it worked, fortunately), he wasn’t actually sure it would work because it only works occasionally.
  • someone who works in a dual environment in an urban and a rural area, in a public service. The customer setup in the urban area is highly automated and enables people to get in and out of the place quickly. That in the rural area is highly automated which means almost everyone (it being a more elderly population etc.) needs to have a staff member on hand to make the automated systems work for them. It would be faster to decommission the systems and let staff deal with customers directly – and result in fewer frustrated customers.

I can see the value of CRM if you’re selling, say, large and complex things that cost millions or billions of pounds, because these projects take a long time and the context changes as the project goes along. If you’re building a dam or making turbines for a power station, stuff happens along the way and you need to know that you have to alter your designs because tab A on the original plans won’t fit into slot B when you come to install the thing, since tab B has been replaced by gizmo C. Or whatever.

But for most ordinary everyday purposes, the idea of customers who stay with a particular company and want a ‘relationship’ with that company doesn’t seem to fly any more. People ideally want stuff that doesn’t go wrong and doesn’t need much customer service, and if they do have to make that phone call then a good proportion of the time it will be because something’s broken and needs fixing – in other words, because they need help now and something’s frustrated them.

Meanwhile, the financial realities of the postmodern economy are such that reducing cost and increasing productivity is paramount, and if that means cutting corners on customer service which is often perceived as not being a ‘profit centre’ for the company, then so be it.

Are my friends right? Is my analysis of this credible? Have business gurus got this one wrong?

Proper Engish, proper morals?

July 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve lately been reading Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. This is a discussion of the development of the current multiple forms of English grammar, usage, styles and so forth.

On pages 108-9 there’s a discussion of Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue (1740) which in its day was ‘the most widely used spelling book on both sides of the Atlantic’. Hitchings points out that the book included sample sentences to be used as dictation/transcription material for students. The sentences included the following, and you can read them as messages from 1740:

– Pride is a very remarkable Sin.

– Personal Merit is all a Man can call his own.

– Riches are like Dung, which stink in an Heap; but being spread abroad, make the Earth Fruitful.

Allowing for the use of ‘Man’ rather than ‘person’ (it was written in 1740, remember), it strikes me the values expressed in these aphorisms remain as important now as they were then. Politicians and bankers take note!

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