Wednesday, 24 November 2010

I'd have run out of breath anyway.

I used to work part-time at a slightly upmarket supermarket (we don't have Waitrose in the North West, just Waitrose adverts) and as many of our customers had an overblown sense of entitlement, myself and colleagues were often on the receiving end of a barked "I pay your wages". Here's what I never had the guts to reply:

Yes, yes you do. You are the provider of a miniscule portion of the total revenue that this company receives from its millions of customers. You would therefore appear to be in a position of authority over me, as I rely on another miniscule portion of that revenue for my livelihood. However, this subservient position is one I share with a few thousand other employees, including admin staff, supervisors and management, as well as all of our suppliers and the advertising agencies and other outside contractors this company employs. Let us also, in the hierarchy, not forget our many shareholders. At the same time, you share your position of authority with every other person and company who buys from us which, considering we shop here too, encompasses most of those same people whose wages you claim to pay.

Now, in case you've not considered this economic system in its entirity - this system which you are citing as reason to be rude to me - have a think about where else this vast workforce (and management, and shareholders) spends its money. Please don't forget to take into account the money they pay in taxes, national insurance payments, interest on loans, contributions to pension funds. Can be sure that you are in no way - past, present, or future - a recipient of any of that revenue? Because the economy is not a hierarchy of payers and paid. It is a bafflingly complex web in which there is no straight up and down, no absolute authority or servitude, and in which collectively everyone at some point pays everyone else.

But do not despair, dear customer, for there is another system in place by which we can determine how to treat another human being, despite such a bewildering set of interdependencies. It's known as common fucking courtesy, and if you want me to do as you ask and carry these two packets of organic fat-free rice cakes out to your car for you, you're going to have to show me a little thereof.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Amazingly, not one call interrupted the writing of this post.

I spend a lot of time in my flat, flanked by possibly the two most irritating phones imaginable. So far today I've had five cold calls, and that's not particularly unusual. No-one who has any actual reason to contact myself or my flatmate needs to use the landline for this so the only reason I haven't unplugged the damn things is because I am becoming fascinated by one simple question: just how stupid can it get?

A little background: there used to be two Mr. Taylors at this address. One has moved out and the other has levelled-up to Dr.Taylor. Either one of them could be person that the cold callers have on their list of victims, but I've never yet managed to find out which, let alone pass on any information (or the phone) to them. Here's why:

*bzzzzzzzrrrrr PEEP PEEP PEEEzzzzzzzzzzbrrrrrEEEEPP bzzzrrrEEEEEEzzzzzzzzzzrrrP*
Me: Hello?
Caller: Is that Mrs. Taylor?
Me: No, there is no Mrs. Taylor at this address.

...and you asking that has already told me all I need to know about this call: 1. You aren't genuinely interested in talking to the person on your list because you didn't ask if they were available. 2. You are unaware of who actually lives here and therefore you're not important enough to have been informed of these changes. 3. You're an idiot. Just because a female voice has answered, does NOT mean that I am the wife of the person on your little list.

After this it can go a number of ways. One caller today, blessed with staggering levels of both persistence and incompetence, has hung up all three times, apparently unable to deal with the non-presence of a person they'd just invented. One last week decided to play a guessing game, attempting to establish whether I am any relation to Mr.Taylor ("No, I just happen to live here." *long pause* *click*). A couple have launched straight into their sales pitch regardless, and have been interrupted with the question "As I'm not the person you're looking for, isn't this now a waste of time for both of us?". So far, only one caller has scraped together the intelligence to say, "Well, this could be of interest to you anyway".

Sometimes I take pity on them and decide to throw them a life-belt, just in case this particular numpty is the single route by which one of the Mr.Taylors, current or recently upgraded, may receive an important message. Stranger things have happened.

Me: There is a Dr.Taylor here. Would you like to leave a message for him?
Caller: Er... / Ummm / *long pause*
Me: Look, if you haven't got a message for him, there would seem to be no point to this call.
Caller: *click*

Very rarely indeed, one will get their heads around the fact that perhaps the person on their list would be worth getting hold of in preference to his fictional wife / the dogmatic cow who's answered the phone, and so they ask when would be a convenient time to phone back. At this point I go into secretary mode and my flatmate is elevated to the status of a VIP, whose time is incredibly precious (isn't everyone's?). I tell them (again) that I'm happy to take a message and that Dr.Taylor will call them back, within a time-frame convenient to him, if he deems the matter to be worthy of his attention. (Ok, I leave out the last bit). Not one caller has ever taken me up on this offer.

So what of Mr This-could-be-of-interest-to-you-anyway, so far the only one of our starters not to fall flat on his face at that initial made-up-person-is-non-existent hurdle? Well he was from British Gas, had the urgent matter of cavity wall insulation to get off his chest, and was getting almost as irritated as me at the way the conversation was going:

Me: I'm afraid you've interrupted me while I'm working. Is this important?
Caller: Well actually it's very important. It's about the type of insulation in your home, which could be affecting your heating bills.
Me: I'm not the home-owner so I have no idea what kind we have and can't do any...
Caller: So who is the home owner?
Me: There's really no earthly reason why I should give you that information.
Caller: Now look here...
Me: *click*

This might all sound like a petty rant at people who are just doing their job, and an unpleasant and thankless one at that, but companies - some of which I have to pay money to - are wasting that money on getting people to waste my time. It's not difficult; successful telephoning is something I mastered before I hit secondary school, let alone started working for more than pocket-money. There's someone you need to communicate with, you ask for that person, you leave a message if they're not there. IT'S THAT BLOODY SIMPLE.

And these are the companies who actually have the correct combination of name and number. Last year I was treated to a whole series of answerphone messages from a company representative giving very important information about a rescheduled delivery. She declined to mention her name, the name of the company, or any contact details at all, and so never found out that I was not Mrs. Wainstrop (or possibly Winscott, or Windtop... if you happen to be reading this, sorry about your new and probably now waterlogged settee). A previous flatmate of mine once received a call on her mobile about four-bedroomed properties in a county a few hundred miles away. On explaining that this was a wrong number, she was asked if she knew the couple the call was intended for. After learning that that's not how mobile numbers are assigned, the agent then asked - with admirable opportunism - if my flatmate was thinking of moving house at all.

A swing and a miss.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


My head's a mess. Here are some people who've made sense recently*:

  • Tabloid Watch and Angry Mob, both give excellent examples of shoddy and potentially dangerous health reporting in the papers.
  • Avocados on Toast ends in the following very good point about Lib Dems being used as human shields and far too many people shooting right at them:
"I know it's easy and it's rational, because of the narrative of betrayal, but it's unfortunate that it's led to those who are actually the leading party of government - who never opposed raising fees in the first place and would clearly have done this anyway with or without the Lib Dems - getting off scot free."
  • Usually fairly calm about these things on Creepy Guys, Nice Guys and The System. Any day now I'll have thought of some way to respond that doesn't involve bashing humanity's collective heads together.
Also, take a look at How to be a Retronaut. I stumbled across the site this afternoon and am going to have to set aside most of Sunday to wallow in it. Lovely stuff.

*Which isn't to say they don't make sense usually. Mess. My head. Told you it was.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Bad MOSI, No Biscuit.

This has proven a somewhat tricky post to write because part of my readership* will find the issue self-explanatory and get little from this, and other parts will think that I'm nitpicking, or theorising a conspiracy, or shaking a bee from my bonnet, or any number of other accusations which can be levelled at somebody who appears to be making a fuss about nothing. It's also tricky because someone a bajillion times more proactive and organised and all-round better than me has made the main points already.

I went to my favourite museum last Sunday, and found it full of herbalists.

Ok, so it wasn't full of them. It also contained a lot of mathsbuskers, who are utterly lovely people dedicated to communicating proper information to the general public, in a fun, useful, non-profit-except-to-society-as-a-whole kind of way. This made the presence of an exhibition by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) even more disheartening. What the exhibition represented was pretty much the opposite of science communication, and therefore had no place in the Museum of Science and Industry**.

It certainly looked sciencey, did this exhibition. It had a definite air of the scientific about it, of the primary-school-biology, let's-colour-in-a-leaf variety. There were units of science arranged within, decorated with a sprinkling of twigs and a half-dead basil plant. However, unlike the other areas of the museum, which chart the rocky progress of various fields from less to more knowledge or from experimental to efficient machines, this exhibition was an incoherent mess of information. This meant that while all of the individual facts presented may have been true, the main message for people to take home was, "Herbs Good; Herbalists Lovely", and, due to the presence of a table covered in leaflets by the entrance, "Go And Book An Appointment".

It's at this point that I wish my phone hadn't run out of battery, because photographs would have been the best way to accurately represent the content. In the absence of more reliable data, here's what I remember from the various information boards. In an order no less logical than how it appeared on the day:

  • Plants are awesome. For years and years and years people have used them for shelter, houses, food and medicines.
  • Lots of plants are endangered through the actions of bad people. Good people are trying to look after them. Good people respect plants.
  • Herbalists respect plants.
  • Lots of medicines used by doctors are made from plants. In the future, we might find medical uses for other plants, which is another reason why we shouldn't destroy ecosystems.
  • Eating plants is healthy.
  • People who aren't doctors have also used plants as remedies for thousands of years. In many parts of the world, this is the main kind of medicine. In this developed, modern part of the world, more and more people are realising the benefits of... which point I find it hard to summarise without slipping into the language of a sales pitch, because I can't view all of this as anything else.

So my main beef with the exhibition is that it was a jumble of paragraphs about plants, herbs, medicine, health, conservation and herbalists, which drew no clear distinctions, offered no temporal or causal coherence, and was overshadowed by the huge, very professional-looking sign explaining who the NIMH was, next to a lot of its individual members' advertising bumf.


Now for the non-science bit. In common with organisations of all types and sizes, the NIMH has to define its members and provide them with an identity. As with all processes of identity-creation, this also assigns an opposing identity upon those excluded from membership ('the others'). When an organisation is trying hard to persuade their audience of a distinct identity - whether it's Cornish separatists or a local bakery - a clear opposing identity emerges as the main 'other'. In this way, every statement of a characteristic implies a second label, which is slapped onto the 'other'. In the case of alternative medicine, of which 'medical herbalists' are a part, the other is always conventional medicine.

Therefore, when the NIMH's own leaflet say that their members "are trained to look beyond the obvious, to find the root cause of a problem", it is heavily implying (to the point where they might as well just come out and say it) that any doctor you consult will go for the most obvious answer, and not get to that 'root cause'. I'm sure many of you can see the next sentence looming large on the horizon. All together now: "we do not treat symptoms, we treat people".

Even the title of the leaflet offers a distinction: "Herbal Medicine: for a naturally healthy life". Because you wouldn't want to be unnaturally healthy now, would you? Similarly illuminating statements can be found on their website, including the utterly nauseating:

For many, that first visit to a medical herbalist can be a life changing experience, a chance to experience true healthcare as it should be practised. Your medical herbalist is a genuine, caring partner in health from the cradle to the third age.

Even more frustrating, considering that these leaflets were on offer within - and therefore implicitly endorsed by - a science museum, are the members' own explanations of what herbal medicine is. Compare and contrast the two following statements. Exhibit A is from "medical herbalist and registered osteopath" Catherine Wasik BSc (Hons) MNIMH, BSc (Hons) Ost.***. Exhibit B is from "consulting medical herbalist" Kirstin J Bamber BSc (Hons) MNIMH.

Herbal medicine, just like all forms of medicines, can cause unwanted side-effects, however in the hands of a qualified medical herbalist treatment plans are designed to be safe and effective.

Many pharmaceutical drugs are based on isolated chemical parts of plants. In contrast herbal medicines are extracts from part of the whole plant (e.g. the whole root, leaves etc.) and contain numerous plant constituents.
Herbalists believe that the therapeutic actions of a plant are due to a balanced relationship between all the plant's constituents. Using a plant in this way prevents the many side effects that are often associated with pharmaceutical drugs.

What I would prefer to see from two people with the same degree, belonging to the same quality-assuring association, advertising their £7-per-week multiple plant constituents in a gosh-darned science museum, is some kind of agreement as to whether herbal medicine has side-effects.

And, to avoid devaluing the letters after their names even further, a working knowledge of commas would be nice too. That's the part where I'm picking nits.

* The collective noun for automatic googlepixies.
** Except that they're representing an industry. That's kind of the point but doesn't fit with the flow of what I was saying, y'know?
*** Who doesn't appear to have a web address, although the little picture of a pestle and mortar on the front of her leaflet does.