Monday, October 29, 2007

A meandering ...

I recently posted about this short exchange that I had with BT.

I am well beyond the end of my tether with them, after the 'Engineering Team' refused to install a new phone line into my new house 'because there is already one there'. I happened to already know that the 'phone line' already there is infact just an extension from a house next door. In essence my house has borrowed a couple of the unused wires out of their phone cable. This means that neither house has a line suitable for broadband ADSL.

I had (increasingly im-)patiently explained this to several 'customer misinformation service' representatives over the past few weeks. I explained that I didn't have time for them to activate and test the current line and then begin a new order from scratch.

In the end, they activated the line but they cancelled the broadband order because there was no line active at the precise moment earlier in the day when the line test was run. I rang them up, I was baffled yet again by the difficulties they seem to have in getting their systems to talk to each other (being a communications company and all that) and I started the broadband order again.

Sorry madam, I can't place that order - this line is a DAX line - it's not suitable for broadband.

I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, scream, swear or simply go to their offices with a weapon.

It was then explained to me that 'The Engineering Team' would need to do a 'Site survey' to establish the cost of installing a new line, which would then probably be passed on to me.

In theory BT have a flat rate of £107 for installing a new line. I did point out that I have ordered several new lines previously whilst living in London, and that the point of the flat rate is that the profit they made on doing those ten minute installations is supposed to ensure that rural communities aren't left without services, but I may as well have been explaining the exact meaning of the term 'attenuation'.

For the non-geeks, attenuation is the opposite of amplification. As the signal is transmitted through the system it becomes less strong and less clear. Whilst there is no doubt that BT's entire sales / orders / installations / service system is essentially one huge attenuator, it strikes me that this is a problem much more widely experienced in the UK.

I am working on a book at the moment about ... well, it's kind of hard to sum up here, but essentially it's a journey which takes in human biology, consciousness, anthropology, sociology, politics and the science of global warming. It seeks (rather ambitiously) to answer the question "Who are we, why have we screwed up the planet and what can we do about it?"

The book is the baby of an amazing Australian thinker who I am very very fortunate to be working with. In writing it, and making an interactive documentary, I am having to really examine my own beliefs to ensure they don't get in the way of the truth / facts / science.

In particular I am having to look again at my core reaction to the concept of Nuclear Power. It brings my hackles right up.

I have several negative responses to NP. Some of those are valid, if perhaps exaggerated or out-dated, concerns about safety. However, I have an additional and even stronger barrier which is proving to be really difficult to overcome.

I am scared that if I change my beliefs about Nuclear Power then I will not be acceptable to my peers, my friends, my family.

On a biological level, human beings are pretty useless on their own. We need others, need their love and approval as well as their tangible help and support. Our limbic system drives us to belong, to find people with whom we resonate, and shared "felt truths", such as "Nuclear Power is completely unacceptable" are the scaffolding we use to hold ourselves in place within the group.

And yet increasingly I am coming to wonder whether there is any alternative. It seems likely that in order to avoid either the catastrophic kind of climate change that will cause massive death and misery, or the escalation of tension over oil into the levels of war that will cause massive death and misery, we might have to consider how best to use Nuclear Power to generate energy that can meet the needs of every human being on the planet.

I am nervous writing this, and yet I know that were I writing in French I would be much less concerned. As a population France have accepted, and even embraced, Nuclear Power. As I began to look at the reasons why, I was drawn back to a paper I wrote when I was 19 about the challenges facing the UK as a result of a lack of scientific and engineering literacy within the population. (If you really wanted to you could order it here but it basically boils down to dumping the current education system which creates an arbitrary arts / science divide at 16 and adopting the international baccalaureate or similar).

To make informed decisions about issues such as Nuclear Power, we need a population who can comprehend and grapple with risk. To understand risk you need a sound relationship with numbers as expressed through statistics. We need an electorate who understand why it is ridiculous to sit in the crazy chair on Deal or No Deal and say 'Well, the quarter million hasn't been in box 17 for the last 54 shows, so I figure the chances it's in there have gotta be quite high'.

My dad and I regularly joke that it's quite safe for me to travel by any mode of transport because he has been in a serious train crash and an emergency landing of a plane.

So, how is NP acceptable in France when it is so feared and demonised in the UK? Obviously the French have a strong motivator, having no significant fossil fuel reserves of their own, but in addition general level of trust in and respect for scientists and engineers is much higher in France than it is in the UK. This is primarily because they have a higher rate of scientific literacy. In an age where we have lost the blind faith in authority that once underpinned our trust, they are able to maintain trust because they can ask questions and resonate with the answers in a way that we aren't able to in the UK. The vicious circle in this experience is obvious. (The circulation of the Daily Mail is a terrifying confirmation.)

The UK's level of respect for science and engineering has fallen to a level where we allow people to refer to themselves as 'Washing Machine Engineers'. A good mechanic / plumber / technician has incredibly valuable skills, and I'm not questioning the value of the work, so I lay in the bath last night wondering why it irks me so much that BT keep referring to 'The Engineering Team' when I am confident that the 'Engineer' who does my installation will probably not be an Engineer in the BEng sense at all.

It occurred to me that it is because I do have faith in Engineers. I did my (manufacturing) degree in the fairly massive 'Mech Eng' department of Birmingham University, and I would honestly say that 99% of my fellow students are people I would trust to make decisions that impact on my safety. The bread and butter of an Engineer is the process of assessing factors, discarding unimportant ones, distilling the problem to the lowest practical level, identifying risks, imagining consequences and choosing a first line solution. The area of engineering is less important than the natural alignment with the process. True Engineers don't think "Oh, yes, I should start my process ... " they are doing it constantly - they can't do anything else. (This makes us quite irritating when you really just want a cup of tea and a cuddle and not a fully spec'd pareto-analysed solution matrix).

Air travel is the current whipping boy of the global warming debate. For those of you dreaming of heading off to sunshine rather than slitting your wrists in the drizzle of a British winter let me give you a number to ease your conscience.


Specifically 1 percent. This is the carbon contribution of the air travel industry to the global carbon footprint. (Actually I have figures that say about 1.2 %, and these things are estimated, but suffice it to say that whilst power generation for homes and business make up 60%, not taking your winter break is not going to save an icecap).

In the UK at the moment we're talking a lot about recycling. Pay as you throw. Green taxes on air travel. Taxing carrier bags. I suspect that these conversations are mostly the noise in the system. We need to be having a bigger conversation about our education system, so that we introduce into the electorate a generation of citizens who are scientifically and statistically literate enough to hold our leaders to account. They need to be emotionally and socially literate too - able to rise above marketing messages, to know which buttons are being pushed, to question themselves as well as authority.

What are the chances?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fairly satisfying conversational moment

BT customer service rep: The thing is madam, I'm not an engineer ...

Me: I am.

BT customer service rep: Oh.

Politically incorrect observation

Alan Johnson has made the ridiculous statement that within 25 years obesity will be a problem on a similar scale to climate change.

Am I the only person who sees a potentially symbiotic solution in syphoning the fat off of humans and using it to produce bio-fuels?

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I am going to explode. Unless Ms Melancholy can give me some anger therapy pronto.

Today I rang BT again.

They have not actioned my order.

For the exact same reason as before.

They were very sorry. I shall tell this to my customers when they can't get hold of me, and my bank manager when I can't invoice people because I haven't finished the work because I can't get online. It's ok ... BT are very sorry.

Apparently there is a seven hour delay between the computers in their different departments. A request logged by BT person number 1 will not arrive with BT department 2 for seven hours.

As hundreds of millions of people all over the globe are currently passing information in almost real time by phone and internet, I can only conclude that BT themselves have no phones and no broadband.

Perhaps they've not been able to get it installed because they can't find their own address?

The irony is that this morning they sent me, as a new business customer, a link to a range of services they would like to sell me to help me use communications to serve my customers more efficiently and more effectively.

Maybe I should forward it on to them?



Monday, October 15, 2007

Boring Whinge Alert

I have learned through experience to avoid having any dealings with British Telecom if at all possible.

Their touch feely adverts don't fool me - they have consistently given me the worst customer service I've ever experienced, and so it was with massive reluctance that I contacted them to arrange for a new phone line and broadband to be installed at our new home.

I was so confident about their capacity to royally fuck it up fail to deliver that I rang them a few weeks ago to confirm the procedure and the lead times.

I have no choice but to go with BT - they haven't yet fully unbundled the local loop at my new exchange, so essentially they are the only provider. I added a few days to the theoretical lead times they gave me, and placed my order last week.

I was charged £107 to book the installation of the new line. And another £300 'deposit' because, for the reasons above, I haven't been a BT customer for years.

I was sent a strange email with details of my broadband installation, giving a phone number to be activated. Strange as I don't yet have a line at the property. I rang them and was told "Don't worry - it's just a holding number, they can't process the order without the number, when your line is installed it will be a different number ... nothing to worry about - everything is fine!".

I was promised a phone call within 48 hours to confirm my appointment. It never came. My 48 hours expired late on friday, by which time their offices were closed until this morning.

This morning they told me that my order hasn't been placed for a new line. They have charged me but they haven't actually booked an install. They were going to just 'switch on' broadband on a line that doesn't exist. They were wrong to reassure me about the weird phone number - they should have realised that there was a problem when I flagged it last week. They lost my credit check and can't find most of my details. The account is compromised so they need to start a completely clean order. This means we are starting again. I can expect a phone call in 48 hours to tell me when they might see fit to install the line. It will not be on friday, when I have arranged to be in Yorkshire for the purpose. I will not be in the house again until we move on the 5th November. The satellite can't be installed until after the phone line. By the time BT give me a call to book an installation the window for booking a satellite install in the first week will be gone.

The girl who broke all the good news to me was cheerful and helpful. She took it rather well when I said "You are the worst company I ever have to deal with, and I know it's not your fault, but believe me, if I had any other option I would never give you my business in a million years." She simply said "Yes, I know. Sorry!".

The reason for the screw up, apparently, was that even though I kept telling them my address was not the one they were finding, but had "Cottage" on the end, to distinguish it from other half of the barn, they put the order through for my next door neighbour's address. Finding that address already had a BT line but not broadband, 'they' decided to revise the order accordingly, and down-graded it to a broadband-only order.


The only thing that is calming me down is looking at Badger's stunning photo of cows in the mist she took on the way home last night ...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Wisdom of Freecycle

A message posted on my local freecycle board today:

I am desperately in need of a large pine chest of drawers if anyone wants to get rid of an item like this it will be going to an appreciative home.

Is it just me, or is it impossible to need something desperately and also need it in pine?

However, it made me realise that if I think I need something very specific, then I actually don't need it at all.

It is completely reasonable to urgently need a new mobile phone, for example. But to urgently need a new iPhone is something else.

Needs, I have decided, don't have brands. They can have dimensions, and specifications like gas / electric, they can require a type of fitting or connection, but they don't have colours, and needs definitely don't come in pine.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Can't give it away

Apparently the charity shops in Guildford are unable to accept donations at present.

This is clearly proof that I am not the only person who has at least one of everything.

Badger and I shall be moving on the 5th November up to Yorkshire, with exactly the contents of 2 luton vans, 1 dog bus (peugeot partner in the trade) and one mini. So, we are giving away, selling and donating a lot of Things. Today I filled the dog bus boot with 2 bin liners and six carrier bags full of stuff. And I drove it to oxfam, where they informed Dr But Why? that they don't need any Things right now thank you please.

Fortunately the recycling team at the local tip were quite happy to sort it into the back of their van. They told me that they sell books by the palate load (ok, they weren't that specific) to second hand book shops, the clothes will be donated, and the DVDs and videos and gorilla slippers will be resold and the money goes back into the running of the recycling center.

But. I found it really rather unsettling. There is something out of alignment in my world when I am no longer able to give Things to charity. I can't decide whether this means that the economy has slowed to such a rate that people aren't even buying second hand, or is so buoyant that we're all buying so much that we need to keep clearing out closets to make room for the shiny purchases.

I am amazed by the sheer quantity of Things I have. I am letting go of as much as possible ... books, sideboard, bread machine, ... and it feels good. I wrote last july about needing to lose about 2.5 metric tons ... and the cat needing to lose about half a kilo. I think she's just about got there ... fingers crossed this crash diet badger and I are on works in time!


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New nest ...


A perfect place to live, write, work, cook, eat, play guitar, walk, learn, read, sleep and love.


Monday, October 01, 2007

A different kind of falling ...

the things I thought were falling apart
they were just falling into place

This weekend I became a parent. Of sorts. I met the boy who is going to become my sort-of-stepson, and tumbled into love I haven't really experienced before.

I was anxious about our meeting. On thursday night I had bizarre dreams about giving birth in which nobody would make me a cup of tea and someone insisted I go bell ringing. In the dream I told my continuously morphing partner that we must give the child a name that would be good for a dog. I suppose this is the only experience I've had of any kind of parenting really - trying to bring up Ruby to be secure and well mannered. I have half succeeded.

The anxiety, I realise now, was not that he would not like me. I think that would be manageable, understandable - I half expected it, warned by all and sundry of the potential for resentment, confusion and anger that he might experience on being told that his mother was not only asking him to accept a new partner in her life, but that the partner was a woman. As it was, he was completely unperturbed, being a remarkably wise and sanguine example of a 12 year old boy, but regardless, I realised that the deep anxiety was that I might not like him.

But I did. I loved him, liked him, found him interesting and funny and easy to talk to. I am not just feeling ok about moving in with him as well as his mum, I am absolutely exploding with excitement about it.

All being well, in about 5 weeks time I will be moving, with Badger, up to a lovely little barn conversion in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. And then his mum, the most amazing person I have ever ever ever met, and gorgeous boy, will join us when they feel ready. And with 4 cats and 1 dog and a few chickens, we will be a perfect, if slightly unconventional family.

I can't believe how amazing my life is today, and how excited I am about my future. The relationship I have with my new love just blows me away. I feel lucky every time I think about it. And not because I am not worthy blah blah blah ... I do feel worthy - I feel like I am a lovely person too, loved equally by her, and just incredibly lucky to have found my soulmate midst the six billion people on the planet.

A year ago, quite frankly, everything sucked. I was about as low as you can go, and life seemed to have no purpose or plan. My partner and best friend of several years had left me. I hated myself and had few friends and felt incredibly deeply alone almost all the time. Today I have an amazing partner, a wonderful friendship with Badger as well as strong relationships with quite a few others, and am beginning the adventure of being part of a child's life as they become an adult. I know myself, understand myself, have a philosophy on life that feels coherent and I love my work. I have somehow* discarded the sense of being 'not enough'. As a result I feel able to try things without being paralysed by a need to do them brilliantly - including becoming a sort-of-ish parent. (eek!)

I feel absolutely sure that I could not have all of this richness in my life simply by tacking extensions on to the person I was a couple of years ago. The difference in foundations would have destabilised the structure, and cracks would have spread and turned to fissures. I needed to be bulldozed, dug out and flattened, so that I could start again from scratch.

I suspect this is an experience shared by the people who held me together, who smiled at the mess and the chaos and the destruction, and firmly reassured me that all sorts of things were possible. Some of those people were therapists, some were nurses or doctors, and quite a few were bloggers.

So. I shall be starting a new business shortly, peddling t-shirts and badges bearing the simple statement "Blogging changed my life". Any takers?


*somehow = with lots of therapy and deep conversations with very wise people, face to face and online.

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