Thursday, 28 June 2007

Going Postal

Yes, I know, "Going Postal" is the title of an extremely funny Disc World novel by the incomparable Terry Pratchett (if you haven't read it, do so without delay), and I am a little reluctant to blaspheme the great man's work by using it as the title for a rant.

But I'm going to, because, after this afternoon's hassle, I can quite see how less temperately inclined folks might harbour slightly uncivilised thoughts towards the Post Office. This tale begins several days ago, when they attempted to deliver a package to an elderly gentleman.

Sadly, the old chap was out, and a note was pushed through his door advising him that his package would be kept at the sorting office, and that he could request delivery by telephone. This he did, and was assured that his eagerly awaited parcel would arrive the next day.

Needless to say, it did not. Nor, despite further telephonic assurances, did it arrive the next day. Being the nice guy that I am, I offered to visit the sorting office and collect it for him today. Fully appreciating that postmen have occasionally been overtaken by speeding snails, I waited until midday, lest it was still in transit from yesterday's absent delivery. This, I judged, would give postie ample chance to deliver today, and leave me an hour to get up to the sorting office, which closes its doors to the public at 13:00, lest he did not.

Unsurprisingly, the parcel failed to materialise, and I set off on what I thought would be a very short trip to the sorting office. Having threaded my way through the labyrinthine industrial estate in which the office is cunningly concealed, I presented the delivery card to the guy behind the counter, only to be told, "Ahhh, no mate. That's not 'ere. It's at the Post Office. Third one on the trot, this - got a new lad on, 'es used the wrong cards. Sorry."

Well, these things happen, so I accepted his apology with good grace and toddled off to the Post Office, which is a couple of miles away from the sorting office. Have you been in a busy main post office at lunch time recently? It's packed out - a long queue winds its way to the door, populated with plodding pensioners, young mothers gossiping while their screaming kids run amok unheeded, people trying to buy their road tax or figure out exactly how much it is to send a large letter to Sheffield and, at the back of the line, me.

With relief I eventually reached the counter and handed over the delivery card to the woman behind it, only to be told, "No, luv, that's not 'ere. It's at the sorting office. See, it sez so 'ere on the card." She helpfully held the card up and pointed at the offending address as, with rapidly evaporating patience, I told her that I knew that, I'd been there, and they'd sent me here. "New lad," I said confidently, "used the wrong card. It's here."

Apparently satisfied, the lady pottered off into the back, only to return empty handed some minutes later. "It's not 'ere luv. I've bin on the phone. It's at the sorting office, like I said." It was now 12:55, and I pointed out that the sorting office closed at 13:00. "It's OK luv," the ever obliging lady behind the counter said. "'Ee said 'ee'd wait for you if you're going now." Aha! Customer service! Thanking her, I rushed out, hopped back in the car, and, feeling like a yoyo, trundled back to the sorting office.

Despite unexpected roadworks, I arrived there by 13:03, and was dismayed to see the guy who I'd spoken to earlier yomping rapidly away up the road, obviously in a hurry to get home. Gritting my teeth, I refused to give up and tried the office door. Locked, of course. But, there, in the loading bay, I spied another guy.

I could see he was busy having a quiet smoke, and while I fully appreciate that these things need to happen in any civilised society, my patience was at an end. I approached, thrust the delivery card under his cigg, and asked to speak to someone about it. "We're shut. Close at one, mate."

AGGGGHHHHH. I explained to this gentleman that I already knew that, had been here once already, had been sent to the Post Office, sent back, and that the now-vanished counter attendant had promised to wait for me. The guy sighed, tossed his smoke aside and took the card from me. "Ahhh, it's the new lad. He's using the wrong cards. Only found out today. He's on another walk - bet he's doing the same there. Sorry."

Off he went with my card, and seconds later I was clutching the errant parcel. I was so relieved to have finally caught up with it that I didn't bother to question how it came to be there at all if, as I had been told, the new lad was indeed using the wrong cards. In fairness, though, despite my irritation and needless bouncing up and down along various major roads, through industrial estates and around diversions, everyone I dealt with was polite and, insofar as was possible, helpful - except, perhaps, the escaped counter guy.

But this chaos just should not happen - a system as vast, sophisticated and damned expensive as the Post Office should not, in this day and age, be thrust into chaos by a new guy apparently using the wrong cards. Of course, trainees in all jobs make mistakes. It's expected, and the system should be able to cope with it.

Plainly it can't, and I dread to think how many more lost souls are trundling to and fro between sorting office and Post Office, frantically chasing phantom parcels. What about those who don't have their own transport, or are unable to get to the sorting office for other reasons? Ringing them obviously doesn't help, and I foresee a number of items being returned to sender purely because the intended recipient can't find out where they are.

It just isn't good enough, and, coming on the eve of a national postal strike, is a perfect demonstration of why these guys should not be allowed another penny. Organise (or privatise) the system, turn it back into the proud and efficient organisation that the Post Office once was, and folks may be willing to pay - until then, pay cuts all round sounds like a good idea to me.

Billy Seggars

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Diplomatic Immunity

A few days ago, I mentioned the rumpus caused by the use of patio heaters to sidestep the impending smoking ban, and pointed out that people will go to great lengths to get around unpopular legislation.

My congratulations, and full marks for ingenuity, have to go to Mr Bob Beech, landlord of the Wellington Arms pub in Freemantle, Southampton. Mr Beech wants to turn his pub into the official British embassy of a far-flung Caribbean island that I, for one, have never heard of. In doing so, his establishment would be exempt from the ludicrous ban to be imposed on July 1.

Of course, it's unlikely that he will be allowed to succeed in his valiant attempt, but that should not discourage other enterprising souls from finding ways to thwart this unwelcome interference in the public's freedom of choice.

Any and all legal means of sticking two fingers up to those Health Fascists who think they can impose their obsessively draconian views upon the rest of us should be enthusiastically welcomed and supported. Uncivilised expressions of displeasure aside, however, I strongly suspect that the powers that be may have seriously underestimated the strength of public opinion on this point. It will be interesting to see just how far the beleaguered smokers will go in defence of their rights - watch this space!

Billy Seggars

Last Post

So, a national postal workers' strike, planned for Friday, is now "inevitable", eh? Well, I'm glad the Guardian has made that public, or I may never have noticed.

Not too long ago, the Royal Mail was a fine British institution, run with military precision, upon which you could absolutely rely. I have fond memories of passing the local sorting office (now, sadly, abandoned) at 7:00AM each day, and being impressed - and, I admit, slightly amused - as a small army of heavily laden postmen burst forth.

Shiny red paintwork gleaming on their official bicycles, their pristine uniform trousers held in check by cycle clips (no tucking of legs in socks here!) the mounted vanguard would proceed across the car park in tight formation, before dispersing to their individual rounds at the gate. In their wake came the foot soldiers, marching on to their walks with pride and vigour.

This ritual happened at least twice a day, Monday to Friday, regular as clockwork - you could pretty much set your watch by the time the post arrived. Postie was a valued part of the local community, knowing most of their customers by name, correctly delivering even poorly addressed mail to its eager recipient. They were a welcome, friendly face who often kept a helpful eye on the elderly and infirm.

What the hell happened? These days, there is just one domestic delivery per day, and that could be at just about any time - my post arrives at seemingly random times from early morning to late afternoon, if it arrives at all. What use is that in the modern age, where more and more people are being encouraged to work from home?

As for the individuals employed to actually shove letters through doors - are these people trained, at all? Are they even trainable? What part of a damn great "DO NOT BEND" sign, printed on a stiffened cardboard envelope, do they not understand? Apparently all of it, for, despite the practical difficulty of actually bending this resistant piece of post, and then of forcing it through my fairly narrow letterbox in its deformed state, this happens to me with depressing regularity.

And then there's the issue of house numbers, road names and post codes. As I understand it, the purpose of these fairly simplistic devices is to enable postie to actually deliver mail to the correct address. Why, then, do I regularly get mail intended for destinations in which all elements of the address - recipient's name, house number, road and postcode - bear no resemblance to my own? I might be a little more forgiving if these items arrived in splendid isolation, but they are usually accompanied by a raft of correctly addressed bills. Is it beyond the wit of modern postpeople to notice this?

Uniforms. Well, I say uniforms, but, by definition, the concept of uniforms means that all posties should be dressed alike, and, one would hope, with a degree of care. The randomly various individuals who inexpertly thrust random pieces of mail in the general direction of my letterbox tend to more closely resemble the losers in an Oxfam trolley dash.

Add to this the ever-increasing cost of stamps - 34p for a first class stamp, which doesn't even guarantee next-day delivery!! - and the byzantine new system for deciding how much it actually costs to post a letter, and I'm not at all surprised that the Royal Mail is in terminal decline. Who actually needs it? All they do is deliver bills, junk mail and letters for people I've never heard of, several days after the sender could reasonably have expected them to arrive.

Most of my communication is done by email and fax, purely because the Royal Mail is so unfailingly inept - if I need to send a package, I use a courier, which is often cheaper than the postal service anyway. So postie is going on strike. Foolish people. Do they not realise that the service they provide is so dire that most people are more than happy to seek alternatives, and absence of that service is just one more reason to look elsewhere?

No, of course not. If they can't find the right address, they're unlikely to correctly recognise their own foot as they shoot themselves in it, are they? Privatise the lot em, I say - maybe then we'll get back to a service that actually works.

Billy Seggars

Monday, 25 June 2007

Net Benefit

Yesterday, the Sunday Telegraph ran a story under the headline Internet spreads terror to Britain, which did a fair job of spreading a different kind of terror all of its own.

I have no doubt that dozens of rabidly anti-western Muslim terrorists are, indeed, using the net to plan and implement their malignant schemes, as the Telegraph suggests. It would be foolish of them not to use technology in this way, and even more foolish of those whose job it is to catch them to ignore the trend.

So far, so humdrum, and I take no issue with the story being reported, even though it shouldn't come as any great surprise to anyone. I am, however, rather concerned by the way the Internet is depicted in the article. The first paragraph reads, "It is 11pm on Tuesday and Omar Bakri Mohammed's loyal band of followers hunch over computers and laptops at secret locations across Britain to listen to his defiant message to the west."

It goes on to mention a "secretive internet chat room", and adds "Bakri and his followers had their discussion on a webcast. The webcasts can run several times a week, and up to 70 people a night log in, each with an individual password."

A little later, after proudly mentioning a week-long (only a week - they didn't have to look very hard, did they?) "investigation" into the spread of Islamic militancy on the Internet, the article says, "We discovered extremists posting messages and images on a recently established, password-protected pro-Islamist site. It is on sites like this that Bakri's broadcasts are referred to openly, with advice on what time they begin and even requests not to "arrive" in the chatroom late. There are also dozens of photographs celebrating, among others, Osama bin Laden, and a tasteless message expressing "amusement" at photographs of American soldiers killed by terrorists."

And so it continues. What's wrong with that, I hear you cry. Well, in itself, noting very much - I'm sure the article is factually spot on. But, as I have found from my day job, the vast majority of people know approximately nothing about the Internet. Oh sure, many (though by no means all) of them can read a web site and send an email, but that's about the extent of their ability.

They are vaguely aware of things like MSN Messenger, but have no clue about IRC, Usenet and the raft of other services available online. Worse, thanks to articles like that in the Telegraph, they dimly perceive their own ignorance, and they are uneasy.

In the past few days, I've noticed a small flurry of articles along similar lines. Last week it was the repulsive case of Timothy Cox, who ran a global child abuse network through a UK based website. What parent - or, indeed, any reasonable person - could avoid being sickened by his actions, or pleased by headlines like, "Paedophile ring smashed by police," and quite rightly, too! But the story, and its references to the Internet, cannot have done anything to dispel the negative impressions that are gathering around the most effective communication medium ever invented.

Today, it's a story about how up to 80 schoolchildren, some as young as 11, used the Internet to plan a fight, intending to turn up wielding chains, iron bars and various other implements. Again, this in itself is nothing new - kids from rival schools / groups have always done this sort of damn stupid thing. It's the use of the Internet that makes the story newsworthy, and adds a further tweak to the clockwork of unease for those who are easily led by media innuendo.

Such smouldering unease, fanned by articles portraying the net as some shadowy, ethereal underworld filled with terrorists and every other kind of unsavoury character, can quickly erupt into the blazing inferno of fear - fear of the worst kind, fear of the unknown.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens when people are afraid. They demand, often quite vociferously, using a loudhailer and placards, that "something MUST be done!". And guess what? Something WILL be done. Politicians don't like the Internet, for obvious reasons; it's far too easy for Joe Public to set up a website or blog and say exactly what he (or, in this politically correct era, She) thinks.

Of course, only a few days ago, in his scathing attack on the media, Tony Blair dismissed the Internet as being filled with conspiracy theorists, and, to some degree, he might have a point. But it is also alive with ordinary, everyday people who are sick to the teeth with being ignored, fobbed off and dismissed when they try to raise concerns.

Take Holt School, in Wokingham, Berkshire, for example. Fed up with waiting for the local council to do something about the dilapidated, rotting buildings in which its pupils are expected to study, the school has made pictures of its disintegrating infrastructure freely available on the Internet. Conspiracy theorists? I think not.

Naturally, faced with this unprecedented upsurge in people using (rather than just having) their right to free speech, a politician's response is entirely predictable; it must be regulated, controlled and, ultimately, prevented. But how to do it? How do you go about putting paid to something that people in their droves are already using to shine an unwelcome spotlight on your schemes?

Perhaps by creating an environment in which people actively want, and even demand, regulation? By subtly suggesting, perhaps, that some things are afoot that folks should be afraid of? Like terrorism? Or child abuse? Massage enough stories like that into the media, drip-fed into the minds of genuinely concerned people who think that they don't have enough knowledge of their own to protect themselves and their children, and you will create a clamour for regulation.

The more easily led members of society will form pressure groups, they will campaign, they will set up websites, they will agitate and harass and demand until the government bows down to "public opinion" and takes away their right to do so.

Paranoia, you think? Guess again. Coming full circle, yesterday's Sunday Telegraph also ran an article under the headline "Censors want 18 ratings on internet." Again, in theory, I have no problem with keeping kids away from porn. As a practical matter, it's going to be a bit more difficult that slapping an 18 rating on a website, though. Besides, what about websites from overseas that don't have to follow our legislation? And what else, other than porn, might be considered for such regulation, either now or in the future?

As anyone with any clue about how the Internet works will know, this crackpot scheme hasn't a hope in hell of doing what it's intended to do, nor could it ever have such a hope. It is, however, another step along the slippery slope to Internet regulation. The terminally inept Mr Blair may be packing his bags and leaving Downing St., but his successor, eager to move in from next door, is far from inept, allegedly ruthless and doesn't take at all kindly to criticism. How long will it be before he tries to prevent blogs like this one from pointing out his flaws? I give it 18 months at most.

Billy Seggars.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

MTAS Madness

The bandwagon of self-pity surrounding the MTAS fiasco rumbles ever onwards, with news today that one in five junior doctors questioned in a survey has experienced suicidal thoughts in connection with the shambolic recruitment scheme.

Now don't get me wrong here, I think the whole MTAS cock-up is as appalling as the next man, and should be a resigning matter for Patricia Hewitt, at least. But the findings of this survey from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, authored, in part, by Professor Dinesh Bhugra, Dean of the College, are at least as disturbing as their alleged cause.

If these findings are to be believed, of the 600 junior docs questioned so far, one in five has considered suicide, 94% are more stressed than normal, one third say they have made more mistakes at work than normal, two fifths say they care less about patient care, a third admitted to drinking more than normal and a quarter have taken more sick leave than normal.

Let's summarise that: we have a whole bunch of pissed up, pissed off junior doctors, who are making mistakes, pulling sickies, don't care about the impact on patients and wouldn't mind topping themselves. And the majority of these apathetic whingers attribute the cause to the hassles of the recruitment process.

Well, I've got news for you, boys and girls - welcome to the real world. Life is a stressful business, doctoring even more so. Nobody forced you into your so-called caring profession, you chose it yourselves. And while I agree that those in charge of the health service, by and large, couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery (you'd know all about that, eh?), this is hardly breaking news.

Far from it, in fact. The distressing state of the health service, and the unfortunate working conditions imposed on junior doctors, has been making headlines for at least the last decade - long before any of you were even taking your A' Levels, let alone getting into medical school. Did you do any research into your prospective careers, at all? Did you wonder whether the working conditions might be a bit crap? Or were you so smitten with the idea of being a doctor that you leapt in with both feet, only to find the water was a bit deeper, and a lot murkier than you'd bargained for?

Face it, guys, doctoring is a bloody stressful job, and not just for the immediately obvious reasons. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen and let those juniors who can handle it fill the dismally meagre number of available posts.

As for those junior doctors who have produced the findings reported in the Royal College survey, I hope for your sakes that the survey was conducted anonymously, because that sort of behaviour sounds very much like the stuff referrals to the General Medical Council are made of.

The Council, as many people will know, is barely able to find its way out of a paper bag unaided, and, while being totally unable to handle concerns of a genuinely serious nature, is only too willing to make up for this incompetence by relentlessly pursuing the more easily understood complaints, regardless of their veracity. I should think drunken behaviour, failure to turn up for work and disregard for patient care would fall easily within their definitions of misconduct, and stress leading to suicidal thoughts might well interest their health assessors.

So, in the absence of any meaningful action from the Department of Health, here's my suggestion on how to alleviate the whole recruitment crisis:

Those of you who can't cut it, resign. Those who won't resign should be shipped off to the GMC and struck off for being a disgrace to the medical profession. The rest of you, with whom, believe it or not, I sympathise greatly, will then have a far better chance of finding one of those dodo-droppings-like jobs, and the public will have a fair chance of getting reasonable medical care from a junior doctor who isn't drunk, apathetic and suicidal.

Billy Seggars

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Mental Institution

Of late, the Home Office has not exactly distinguished itself as a shining beacon of governmental excellence, except, perhaps, as an example of how such a department should never, ever be run. In that respect, it's head and shoulders above the rest.

Nonetheless, it seems that Her Majesty's Government is pressing ahead with its crackpot Identity Card scheme, and, of course, the Home Office are the monkeys in charge of this particular banana plantation.

I, for one, am absolutely opposed to the concept of Identity Cards. I've heard the Government's arguments in favour of having the wretched things, and I think they're utter bunk. The scheme will be expensive to implement, more expensive to run, and completely ineffective. At least, it will be ineffective for the most commonly stated purposes of controlling immigration, crime etc. As is always the case with any legislation, only those people who have any intention of obeying the law will be inconvenienced; criminals (i.e. the people the scheme is, in part, supposed to control) will ignore it - after all, disregard for the law is what MAKES them criminals!

This being the case, it will be a very effective means of gathering shedloads of data on law abiding citizens - mostly data that no respectable government would ever want, or need, to know about non-criminals. Of course, "respectable" is not a term that could be easily applied to the Blair administration, and I very much doubt it will hold much meaning for Brown, either. Come to think about it, "non-criminal" isn't a particularly good fit, either, but I digress.

It's usually at about this point in any ID card debate that someone pops up and piously says something like, "the innocent have nothing to hide." Really? And yet, I bet these ID card enthusiasts have curtains up at their windows, AND I bet they close them at night when they turn the lights on. Why, if they have nothing to hide? The answer, of course, is privacy. As far as I can see, the highly spurious benefits of ID cards will be as nothing compared to the swingingly high price in terms of lost privacy.

Of course, this is not a new point - privacy concerns, although important, are not what worries me the most about this scheme. The trouble is that, once it is in place, there will be no going back; personal information will have been collected and recorded, and will continue to be recorded for as long as the scheme is in effect. And this data will be under the ultimate control of the Home Office, who want to expand the scheme into just about every aspect of every day life.

On the 19th June 2007, Home Office minister Liam Byrne said he wanted the ID card to become a "a great British institution", and added that there are plans afoot to "multiply the uses" of the card.

Not too long ago, the Home Office came under fire for losing track of about 1000 convicted criminals, including murderers and rapists, after they were mistakenly released. If this bungling, blundering apology for a Government department can't keep track of a few hundred convicted villains that it should - SHOULD - already have under lock and key, can they really be trusted to look after confidential information pertaining to millions of citizens? No, I don't think so, either.

Worse, if this ludicrous scheme is introduced as planned, and it is extended as Byrne and the other buffoons at the Home Office want, people will, indeed, come to rely on it. If, under those circumstances, you have an ID card saying you are a certain person, then, by God, you must BE that person, mustn't you? ID cards will not, as proclaimed, protect against identity theft - they will, once the system has been suitably compromised, make it much, much easier.

And make no mistake, the system will be compromised. No computer system is ever truly secure, no matter how hard folks try to make it bullet proof, and this system in particular will be a massively tempting target for every hacker in sight. We'll be up to our ears in dodgy people with seemingly legitimate identities in very short order, and when Joe Public figures out that the much-vaunted ID card system, that he now more or less has to rely on to do anything of any significance, is worthless, there will be chaos.

If that sounds like a far-fetched sci-fi plot, think again. We already rely, to varying degrees, on all kinds of computer systems, and barely give them a thought when they work according to plan. But when they fail, there are problems on a scale that cannot be ignored. Only yesterday, 300 United Airlines flights were either delayed or cancelled because of a two-hour computer failure. A few weeks ago, my local supermarket suffered a temporary problem with Chip and Pin - there was small-scale chaos as folks got to the checkout with baskets of goods, only to find their plastic didn't work. Within minutes the cash machine outside the store was empty, as shoppers scuttled out in search of alternative methods of payment - like good old cash!

How much greater, and more damaging, would the chaos be if it were discovered, after having built them into the fabric of society, that ID cards could not be relied upon to guarantee the identity of the bearer?

Exactly! And THAT is my biggest concern over the very concept of ID cards. Mr Byrne says he wants them to become an institution; not too long ago, "institution" was another name for a psychiatric hospital, or, to put it crudely, a loony bin. In that context, I am eager for the scheme, and those who are so eager to implement it, to be institutionalised without delay, before their ID insanity drags us into a world where privacy - and security - are a thing of the past.

Billy Seggars

Friday, 15 June 2007

Lap of the Gods

I know, the world's gone mad - it says so in dirty great letters at the top of this page. But do small minded institutions really need to prove that to us every single day?

Today's candidate for institutional insanity demonstrator is Tandridge District Council, who have, apparently raised some objections to a 100,000 sq ft advert painted in a privately owned field. The advert in question promotes a lap dancing website, and is designed to be visible only from the air - the field in question is directly under a Gatwick Airport flight path.

Featuring the silhouette of a naked lady, and the slogan "Any time, any place, anywhere" (wasn't that used to promote Martini many years ago?), the ad is painted on the ground using pitch marking dyes, and will remain weatherproof for four weeks or so. Tandridge District Council claims that the ad is in breach of planning regulations, and is offering to fine Sports Media Gaming, the company who created it, at least £2500.

In response, SMG say they are perfectly within rights to make the ad, and have no intention of removing it, particularly since it has already generated thousands of pounds worth of business for the website. I just bet it has, too!

Now, let's see. The purpose of advertising is to attract attention to a product or service, and, in fairness, it seems that SMG have identified a pretty good way of doing that. But the attention they have attracted from eagle eyed plane passengers and the odd downward gazing deity must pale into insignificance compared to the media attention the local council's stroppy attitude has brought them - for free!

Has it not occurred to the bumbling council functionaries that this kind of publicity is what advertising executives live for? It's what they're paid to achieve - how cool must it be to get paid and then have the local council do your job for you? Even if the ad is in breach of planning regulations, which seems a little odd to me, it will be gone in a matter of weeks. Surely, rather than causing a stink that draws it to the attention of the entire country, they would have been the wiser to keep their mouths shut?

Of course they would. That they didn't can mean only one of two things; either someone at the council has come to an arrangement with SMG, and this storm in a planning teacup amounts to nothing more than a publicity stunt, or the council's planning department exercises common sense in the same way that it is deployed in most local government departments throughout the land, i.e. not at all.

I leave you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions but, for the record, my money's on the second explanation.

Billy Seggars.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Smoke, Mirros and Feral Foolishness

As anyone who reads the papers will know, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks the press has become increasingly cynical, a "feral beast", in which muck-raking journalists hunt their "victims" in packs.

Cynical, eh? According to the online dictionary at, "cynical" is an adjective meaning, "bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic." Now, why on Earth would the British media have any reason whatsoever to be cynical about anything Tone has to say?

Could it have something to do with a dodgy dossier, perhaps? Cash for Honours? Cherigate? The death of David Kelly? Using 9/11 to bury bad news? From its earliest days, the Blair government has manipulated the media to an incredible degree, often leaking fake or meaningless stories to distract attention from embarrassing issues.

Did Mr Blair think the public wouldn't notice? Or didn't he care? Either way, his cynical - yes, cynical - manipulation of the media amounted to nothing less than an attempt to deceive the British public. And he wonders why the media treats him with cynicism in return!

Well, we did notice, we weren't fooled and we most definitely weren't impressed. Just because a story is published in the papers doesn't mean we automatically believe it - that's something that both Mr Blair (and his equally dubious successor) and the press need to learn.

For, despite the howls of derision coming from just about all quarters of the media, we must remember that the vast majority of the media were accomplices in their own manipulation. They were willing, even eager, to print just about anything the Blair / Campbell spin machine could dream up, no matter how banal - or deceptive.

Whether that was because they were taken in by the Blair grin, or were too lazy to look behind the facade, I don't know. But while their indignation is a little misplaced, it doesn't take away the sheer hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who blames the media for no longer being taken in by his deceit.

Indeed, so brassed off is our soon-to-be-ex Great Leader, that he's talking about regulating the media. And don't mention the Internet to him - apparently, it's where the conspiracy theorists hang out. Of course, as is often the case with politicians, he's never really liked, or even understood the Internet. Remember the fuss over Jack Straw's son, and the futility of attempts to gag the British media because the story was available on international news websites? Unlike the regular media, it's practically impossible to control, or police, the Internet; people - ordinary, everyday people - can, and do, say what they like about who they like - must be a politician's worst nightmare!

Naturally, the regular media is in a real tizzy about Tone's desire to regulate them, and quite rightly too. Until very recently, British journalists were happy to voluntarily distribute a heap of fresh, steaming spin / propaganda with every edition of the daily papers, and only bit the hand that fed them when they finally realised how dirty it was. Belated, for sure, but at least it happened. Can you see that same thing happening in a state-regulated media? Me neither.

But isn't this all a little too predictable? Tone, the biggest spinmeister ever, publicly accuses the media of being cynical and wants to regulate them. What would you expect the media reaction to be? Anger, outrage, uproar, thousands of column inches devoted to the "big story"? In fact, what you would expect to happen is exactly what did happen, just as Tone himself predicted (to the media, yet!) it would.

I smell a damn big rat, and, this being the Internet, I'm going to advance my very own conspiracy theory: Tone is as far ahead of the media as he always was. This whole event was nothing more than one final, gigantic smoke screen, of the same kind that he's used so many time before, designed to divert attention from something else.

So what's he hiding? Could be anything - if he's done his job properly, the media will have missed the true story completely, and Joe Public won't get to find out about it until it's way too late. Whatever it is, though, you can bet it won't be popular.

Billy Seggars

Monday, 11 June 2007

Puff of Hot Air

Idealism is supposed to be a wonderful thing - a vision of how the world could be a better place, if only everyone would [insert pointless and unpopular sacrifice here]. In my experience, though, Idealists tend to be single minded zealots with Views about Issues that they can't resist ramming down your throat; after all, in their opinion, it's for your own good!

In fact, there isn't much difference between an Idealist and a Tyrant - they both want to impose their views on an unwilling populace, it's just that the Tyrant is honest enough to admit it's for his own benefit while the Idealist likes to tell us we're all beneficiaries. And there seem to be so many of these tediously boring, self-righteous proponents of arrant nonsense these days!

Oh, sure, there have always been smaller or larger groups of extremists who hold strong views on Issues that most folks don't know and / or don't care about. Remember Greenham Common? Save the Wales (not heard that phrase on the news for years!)? CND (still going, but not very newswothy now)? All of these sideline causes came along, attracted a little media attention, and went on their merry way without making any major impact on everyday life beyond the odd derisive snigger.

Today, things are different. The lunatics are running the asylum, and people who would once have been fringe-dwelling cranks are now in positions of power - or, at least, of influence, which is almost the same thing. Take the anti-smoking lobby, for example. For years they've been banging on about how bad smoking is for us. Do they think smokers don't know? It's printed in damn big letters on the side of every packet of cigarettes, for God's sake! Smokers know perfectly well, thank you very much, but they choose to exercise their freedom of choice in pursuit of an activity they enjoy.

Sadly, the Health Fascists have gained so much influence that, as of July 1, 2007, it will be illegal to smoke in enclosed public places. And, just to discourage you from nipping outside for a quick ciggy, there will be an £80 fine for dropping dimps outside.

Despite this very serious infringement of a smoker's right to self determination, it's unlikely that hordes of angry smokers will be storming Whitehall in the near future. Instead, with typical British stoicism in the face of adversity, countermeasures are being devised to sidestep this ridiculous legislation.

One such effort has seen 1000s of pubs investing in patio heaters, so that smokers can enjoy their habit outside in the beer garden even in the chilliest British weather. You see, being outside the building keeps these fugitives from the Health Fascists inside the law, and beyond the reach of marauding SS-style inspectors who will be visiting pubs and clubs incognito in the near future. It's a great idea, and deserves 10 out of 10 for effort. Unfortunately, and, to my mind, hilariously, it has a flaw.

You see, Health Fascists are not the only Idealists riding roughshod over common sense right now; the environmentalist lobby has also managed to gain some degree of influence. Gone are the grubby, socially stunted, tree hugging activists of 20 years ago, and, in their place, smooth talking, besuited types preach earnestly about the threat of global warming, carbon emissions and the need to bug your wheelie bin. Give me the tree-huggers any day - at least you knew where you stood with them, and their BO made them relatively easy to identify and avoid.

Anyhow, it turns out that the patio heaters intended to sidestep the draconian new anti-smoking laws are, allegedly, really, really bad for the environment. A report from British Gas suggests that the total number of heaters expected to come into use after July 1 will, collectively produce as much pollution as a small city.

What to make of this finding? I'm not sure, yet. In my most deeply cynical moments I wonder whether this is a further assault on smokers, perhaps using peer pressure and much-hyped "social responsibility" in the (presumably temporary) absence of legislation. So far, I have dismissed this notion as being too cynical, even for me, although I'm open to persuasion on this point.

For the moment, however, I'm more inclined to view this entertaining twist as a conflict of Ideals. Single-minded obsession is a defining characteristic of the typical Idealist, leading to a sort of moral tunnel vision; for all their undoubted knowledge in their chosen sphere, they seem incapable of predicting the likely impact of their proposed new world order on other aspects of life.

In this case, the Health Fascists have failed to fully appreciate that most smokers do so because they want to, or to grasp the implications thereof. Throughout human history, any attempt to stop people from doing something they enjoy and actively want to do has met with resistance - sometimes, bloody, violent resistance. People will always find ways around any prohibition, using methods of getting their own way that the fuzzy-minded Idealists couldn't have anticipated and can't prevent.

This time out, smokers have found a loophole in the law, and an ingenious, easy, legal, way to make it workable. As a direct consequence, the Environmental Zealots have suffered collateral damage to one of their most cherished objectives. Shame.

Do you think the EZs will take this lying down? No, of course not. This is the 21st century, and everyone knows that, when something doesn't quite suit your liking, the most important thing to do is find someone to blame. Your coffee was too hot? Blame the restraunt! You tripped in the street? Blame the council! Patio heaters are causing pollution? Blame... erm, who, exactly? The smokers? Well, naturally, everyone blames them for everything. But what about the heater manufacturers? Aren't they to blame, too? And the HFs, without whom this sudden demand for dubiously emitting heaters wouldn't exist?

The entire scenario has the potential to become a fascinating, dirty (not just in terms of alleged pollution!) and highly entertaining multi-way slanging match, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next round. But, when the dust settles, so to speak, the primary protagonists will inevitably be the EZs and the HFs - two bunches of Idealists who, having gained the power to make their dreams come true, have suddenly found that life is not as simple as they thought.

Welcome to the REAL world, guys.

Billy Seggars

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Heads Examined?

Long ago, in an education system lost in the mists time, there was once a qualification called an O'Level - short for Ordinary Level.

Let's think about the word "ordinary" for a moment. According to the dictionary, it is an adjective meaning commonly encountered, or usual. Quite a fitting description for the standard qualifications once achieved by most 16 years old school leavers, don't you think?

The O'Level qualification was phased out in 1986, to be replaced by the current CGSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). I left school in 1986, and was amongst the last batch of O'Level students. After leaving school I wanted to study several subjects that had been unavailable to me in the school timetable, either due to conflicts with other, equally interesting subjects, or because they had simply not been part of the school curriculum.

So, a couple of years after leaving school, I signed on to my local night school and sat several of the new-fangled GCSEs. Imagine my surprise when, after one academic year of study (i.e. September to June) consisting of one, three hour class per subject per week, I achieved three GCSE grades that were equivalent to, or better than, the O'Level grades I had gained after five years of secondary school education.

Of course, at this point, some smart-alec is bound to say something like "Ahh, but at school you were studying 9 subjects, while you only took 3 at night school." Wrong. I only took 3 GCSEs at night school, this is true. But I also took 2 A'Levels at the same time. Either I had become significantly smarter in the years since I left school (unlikely!) or the GCSEs were a lot easier than O'Levels had ever been.

Every year, round about GCSE result time, the debate rages over whether or not standards of education are falling, and the GCSE is just a hideously dumbed down substitute for a proper qualification. Based on my experience, there can be no doubt about it; GCSEs are unquestionably much, much easier.

Despite this blatant betrayal of our young people's education, it seems that the General Teaching Council is fretting about levels of stress in kids studying for GCSEs. Apparently, exams are stressful occasions for the little mites, and the system of testing at 7, 11 and 14 years old should be abolished.

What a load of cobblers. When I was at secondary school, we did exams in every subject twice a year - once before Christmas, and once at the end of the summer term - starting in the first year. Sure, in the first year, this was a new experience and therefore a little stressful. But by the time we came to sit real, meaningful O'Level exams at the end of the fifth year, we were all fully accustomed to exam procedure.

The ritual of filing into the exam room and waiting until the allotted start time, the invigilator's traditional glance at the clock followed by the immortal words, "turn your papers over... now", silence until the paper was completed and an understanding of what to do and what you could, and could not, bring into the exam with you were all second nature to us.

And it wasn't just that we were aware of the regulations; exam technique was purely routine to us, meaning we could concentrate on actually answering the questions rather than worrying about whether we were spending too much, or too little, time on each.

Think about it; by the time we sat any exams that mattered, we had been through the whole rigmarole at least nine times before, and had sat AT LEAST 50-60 individual exams over the preceding four and a half years. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and the level of repetition we had experienced meant that, when the real exams finally arrived, the actual business of sitting an exam held no stress for us at all.

Even the business of revising for exams was something we were entirely familiar with, even if we didn't always do as much of it as we should :-) But, having done it so many times before, we knew what to revise, and how to revise. Everyone has their own favourite method of learning and retaining information; some hide away in a quiet corner and read their notes / text books, others listen to music or gather in a group.

The point is, we'd had many good opportunities to find out what worked best for us, long before we needed to know for real. I, for one, would not like to start learning how to revise in the run-up to my first real exam - now that WOULD be stressful! Over the years, the experience I gained in those practice runs stood me in good stead throughout my O'Levels, GCSEs, A'Levels, Higher National Diploma, BSc and postgraduate education.

According to their web site, the General Teaching Council's "...overall purpose is to help improve standards of teaching and the quality of learning in the public interest. We work for children, through teachers." Yet, this same body is behind a campaign to deny young people essential experience, not just in the way to prepare for GCSEs, but for all examinations throughout their life.

The quality of education coming out of our secondary schools may well be in terminal decline, but the rot has not yet fully set in at our Higher Education establishments. Any child hoping to obtain a useful degree had better know how to sit an exam, or they're going to be in for one hell of a shock!

Setting them up for such a massive culture shock in later life seems like a damn peculiar way of working for children, and I can't help wondering whether there might be something else behind this seemingly altruistic initiative. No doubt the truth will come out, eventually, but by then the upcoming generation might have become too dumbed down to recognise it.

Billy Seggars.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Chariots of Fire

Hope Hospital, in Salford, Manchester, is not a particularly bad place, as hospitals go. Certainly, I have witnessed much worse standards of medical care than are on offer in this bustling establishment and, although it has its problems (what hospital doesn't!), at least some of the patients come out alive.

I am, however, more than a little concerned that this otherwise adequate hub of local healthcare has been infiltrated by the Health and Safety Gestapo. While the medical staff remain (largely) as helpful as ever, common sense appears to have been removed from the hospital's day-to-day running with surgical precision.

For those readers who have never visited this particular hospital, a little background information is probably in order. In common with just about every hospital I have ever visited, Hope appears to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, expansion and development. I am sure there must be periods when part of it does not resemble a building site, but I have never witnessed one.

Despite this ever growing crop of new units, however, the heart of the hospital lies in a much older, and, I suspect, much more sturdily constructed building. Running from end to end of this venerable property, connecting the relatively new A+E / and Outpatients wing at one end, to the slightly newer and rather distant Elderly Care unit at the other, is the Main Corridor.

Known to those local residents old enough to understand the reference as the Burma Road, this broad, twisting, and above all LONG corridor is the throbbing, pulsating artery through which the hospital's life blood flows. At the busier times of the day this thorougfare is always teeming with people; medics, students, nurses, cleaners, porters, catering staff, inpatients, outpatients, and, I suspect, just the terminally lost run, stride, hobble and stagger their way along it in an ever shifting tide of humanity. Even in the middle of the night, the Main Corridor is far from deserted, although, in the small hours, traffic is mostly medics and the occasional frantic visitor summoned to the bedside of a deteriorating patient.

What, I hear you cry, is the point of all this corridor chatter? Well, until recently, wheelchairs were a major feature of the Burma Road. Nestling in shallow alcoves, or pushed unobtrusively against the wall, the less mobile patient or visitor was sure to find one with both great relief and very little difficulty. On many occasions I have commandeered one of these very welcome, if somewhat capricious, contraptions to help an elderly or infirm patient or visitor on their way.

Sadly, it appears that I will be doing so no more. A few weeks ago I went to collect an elderly gentleman at the end of a short stay in hospital. Knowing that he would find it difficult to walk all the way down the Main Corridor to the car park, I looked for a wheelchair and was amazed to find that there weren't any in evidence anywhere on this busy route.

Mystified, I collared a passing porter and asked him where they all were. "Ahhh, no mate. Can't keep em on the Main Corridor now. Health and Safety, see. Fire risk, they say," he said. "You go up in the lift to the next floor, you'll find some up there for sure." At the time, I was in too much of a hurry to do more than thank him and follow his advice. Sure enough, clusters of forlorn, unloved wheelchairs were dotted around, clearly neither use nor ornament. I grabbed one, went back down to the Main Corridor, and collected the old man.

It wasn't until later that the sheer stupidity of this situation began to dawn on me. Why put all those wheelchairs upstairs? Does management think that upper floors don't burn so easily? Surely not. But, if the chairs are a fire risk on the broad Main Corridor, aren't they an even bigger risk upstairs, clustered around in big groups where evacuating patients and staff might fall over them?

And then there's the sheer importance of the Main Corridor. If Hope Hospital catches fire, a fair number of fleeing individuals are going to be using that central route in their bid to remain unincinerated. Remember, this is a HOSPITAL, where they keep sick people until they stop being sick, or start being dead. Sick people do not move very quickly, particularly if they're elderly.

If you were of the elderly, sedentary persuasion, and you had the misfortune to be visiting the hospital (say as an outpatient) when it caught fire, would you want to a) hobble down the Main Corridor under your own steam and hope that was fast enough; or, b) sit in a wheelchair (even the one with the dodgy wheel) and let someone younger and stronger run like hell while pushing you to the exit? I rest my case.

On the subject of both resting and chairs, though not chairs with wheels, I notice that, at the point where the Main Corridor is joined by a smaller tributary corridor leading down to Maternity and, eventually, the car park, a small row of fold down chairs have been bolted to the wall under a sign helpfully inviting passers-by to take a rest. Whether this is a byproduct of the ongoing wheelchair absence I know not, but I was amused to note, between the invitation and the chairs, a rather more stern notice warning prospective resters that these chairs will only support people weighing up to 20 stones.

20 stones?? The damn things are hardly wider than a parcel shelf! How the hell do they think someone sufficiently voluminous to weigh 20 stones could even fit their backside on one, let alone sit down?

So, having taken away the wide, sturdy, plentiful wheelchairs that would be of most value to gravitationally challenged individuals (not to mention the kind of sick and lame people one would normally expect to find in a hospital), the powers that be have thoughtfully replaced them with a very few, distressingly static chairs that won't support their weight. Smart, aren't they?

Clearly, the Health and Safety Gestapo has gained a foothold in Hope hospital, a I fully expect to hear more of their lunacy in due course. I'll keep you informed!

Billy Seggars.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

School for Vandals

Dalkeith High School in Midlothian, a listed building, has been empty since it was abandoned in 2003. However, officials at the council responsible for the building believe they have a "duty of care" to protect potential intruders from harm. You couldn't make something so ridiculous up, and, as it happens, I didn't. The full story is here. As a result of this unbelievable concern for local criminals, lights are left on in the empty building during the hours of darkness, so that vandals will not hurt themselves.

WHY? Who in their right mind could care less about what happens to some destruction-obsessed hooligan who has entered premises illegally? Surely, some concerted efforts in the pitch darkness, bear traps and boiling oil department would be far more appropriate? Anyone breaking into someone else's property deserves all they get, to my mind, and if that includes serious injury then so be it; perhaps, if they survive, it will teach them NOT to break into someone else's property in future.

And before someone suggests that this approach would put undue strain on the NHS, let me say this: it wouldn't if I had my way, because injuries sustained through such activities would not be treatable on the NHS. I see no reason why law abiding taxpayers should have to fund treatment for work-shy villains who damage themselves in the course of their nefarious stunts. Let them seek private treatment - no doubt some bleeding-heart charity or other would fund them - or, failing that, let them suffer.

Of course, that will never happen in today's UK, where criminals are accorded every courtesy while deserving patients are left to die on hospital trolleys, and victims of crime are treated like criminals while the actual criminals are treated like victims.

Something is terribly wrong with this system. Where there is crime, there should be punishment. That punishment should be a deterrent; it should stop the perpetrator from wanting to re-offend, or, failing that, from being able to re-offend, and should convince others that committing such an offence is a really, really bad idea.

Yet I don't see any evidence that this is actually happening, or any indication that it is ever likely to happen. Common sense has been overthrown, Human Rights rule, and until that situation is reversed there is nothing to be done except leave the lights on for the villains.

Billy Seggars

Friday, 1 June 2007

Walkie talkie

Mobile Phone. Just take a moment to think about those two words. Mobile. Phone. Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last 130 years or so, you'll know that you use a telephone to talk to someone else who is (usually) not in your immediate vicinity.

Now think about the word "mobile" in the context of telephones. Surely, that must suggest a telephone that you can take around with you, and use to talk to people while you're on the move?

Of course it does. But for how much longer? In the UK, the health and safety Gestapo have already managed to make it illegal to use a mobile while driving unless you use a fancy hands free kit. Yes, I've heard the arguments in favour of this particular piece of legislation, and I think they're utter nonsense. But the law is on the statute books now, and the chances of any government repealing it in the near future are very slim indeed; can you realistically see Brown or Cameron standing up to the self-righteous health heavies? No, neither can I! That battle is lost.

But a new and infinitely more important battle is on the horizon. It seems that, not only is it (apparently) dangerous to drive while using a mobile, it's dangerous to walk while using one, too. I kid you not! According to this newspaper article, research published in New Scientist magazine suggests that folks talking on the phone are twice as likely to step out in front of a car.

Has nobody considered that this might be a perfect example of natural selection in action? Those folks smart enough to walk and talk at the same time will cross the road in safety and go on to sire a new generation of walking, talking, telco revenue streams. Those who aren't quite that smart are plainly too dumb to be allowed to breed in any case, and their demise is no great loss to the human race. This is a natural process and mankind absolutely should not meddle with such things. At least, that's what the ecowarriors keep telling us!

Naturally, governments don't think like that. If all the stupid people are mown down, who will be left to vote for them? It won't be long before the health and safety Gestapo get hold of this pointless piece of research and start pestering for a new law, and, in the interests of self preservation, Her Majesty's Government will be only too pleased to enact it for them. Surely, it is only a matter of time before the use of mobile phones in anything other than a perfectly static environment is a thing of the past.

If this sounds ridiculous, consider New York State Senator Carl Kruger, who wants to fine folks who use a mobile phone, Blackberry or MP3 player while crossing the street. Typical American nonsense, you say? Couldn't happen in Blighty, you think? Guess again. This is the age of health and safety gone mad, and unless Joe Public puts his collective foot down hard and quickly, one more freedom will have passed into history - for our own good, of course!

Not that I expect anything less than a full scale revolution to have any impact upon the Wallies in Whitehall, and revolution just isn't in the British character. So, looking to a future in which mobile phones are sure to be anything but mobile, I've had this idea:

People will still need to make phone calls when they're out and about, so I'm going to build some little sheds out of steel and plastic and fit a telephone in them (land line, of course - wouldn't want to tempt people into moving while they talk!). Then I'll paint them red and stick one on every street corner. They'll probably look a little bit like this. I tell you, these things are the future - remember where you read it first!

Billy Seggars.