Thursday, February 28, 2019

Alternatives to 'Criminals'


Alternatives to catching criminals

Working in the community can be hard work. Doing good isn't all that easy, especially when there's very little money and hardly any support to go around. Inevitably, a lot of time is spent trying to raise funds to make things happen. In Britain that means applying to charitable trusts and all the quasi-governmental organisations like the National Lottery, and that means getting a bank account opened. Ehhh, that's when life gets difficult.

This week I turned up at my local bank with an application to open a bank account on behalf of the newest charitable venture in our area that I was supporting. I thought I had things ready. I had filled in the form and got my neighbour to sign it too. No chance, I was told. For a start, the Manager of the bank was on her lunch-break and couldn't see me until later. I offered to come back the next day. That would be fine, I was told, as long as the two of us showed up. My colleague would have to be there too, in person. It was because they didn't know us, I was told. I sympathised. After all, I could have been an international drug dealer seeking to launder my many millions of pounds of ill-gotten gains. I made an appointment for the following afternoon.

The next morning, waiting for the appointed hour, I had a brain wave. Sure, the local bank didn't know me, but both of us who signed the form also had an account at another bank, the same bank, at the main building in the city. They knew me there, I reasoned. I'd go there and get the account opened. After all, I had the form all filled in and signed. What else would I need?

Another form, I was told later. Yes, they knew me at the main branch of the bank, the woman assured me, but it was a 'new account' and they'd have to see both of us, in person, (just like the first person said). No, I couldn't open the account then and there. I'd have to go away. Frustrated, I complied and moved on to my former appointment that afternoon, fearing that I'd only be met with another hurdle. Sure enough. I hadn't filled in the 'application form', the right one. I had filled in the 'mandate form' okay, but that wasn't enough. There was a second form. I was sent away.

Well yes, the answer to all the form filling and 'showing identification' and personal appearances, is that they want to avoid money launderers. So, I want to ask you this question – all these precautions, do you honestly think that they would they really deter a real-life drug-dealing money launderer? From what I've seen of such people on the television, it wouldn't slow them up for one minute. For a start, they probably have enough fake passports to convince a lowly bank teller that they are who they say they are. Failing that, they could offer a bribe (or send their lawyer in their place). If all else fails, they might kidnap the bank manager's wife and hold her hostage until the terrified man complies with their every wish. Wouldn't they?

Yes, the problem with the real world is that the real criminals don't stick to the rules, (that's where they get the name 'criminal' from). It's only the dazed and baffled ordinary citizen who gets stuck by these procedures. I've got another example. Ever been driving down the road, keeping to the speed limit, when you get overtaken by a real flash car, driving dangerously and speeding outrageously? What makes them think they can get away with exceeding the limit and breaking the rules? Because they do. A friend who's a policeman told me that the real criminals simply ignore all parking fines, resist all summonses and never turn up in court. They guess – probably rightly – that the police department won't have the time or personnel to come and arrest them. The only people who break the law and pay the fines, he told me, are the law-abiding citizens.

And another. In Britain, it's a fact that there are a number of people who claim to be out of work, draw unemployment benefits from the state, then go off and do work in secret and get paid for that too. The newspapers get all steamed up about these 'benefit cheats' and demand action. It adds up, they storm, to a total of over fifty million pounds a year. Consequently, the government employs hundreds of investigators and sends them out to track down these 'criminals'. So far, so logical. What undercuts it is that the Internal Revenue department has calculated that the amount of tax they lose each year to people who cheat on their tax returns is over five hundred million pounds. That's ten times as much as the amount lost to people pretending not to be working when they are. Ten times. What's the government's response? They employ investigators too. It's estimated that there are about a tenth of the number of investigators in the tax department as there are in the Benefits department. Ten times the money stolen, a tenth of the effort to catch those 'criminals'.

What does that prove? That today, in our modern world, there is an alternative to catching criminals. One is to look as though you're doing something about it, as in the bank account example, when, in fact, you don't even inconvenience the real bad guys. The other is to allocate resources to the cases that are aggressively unpopular with the public, such as the 'unemployed' cheats, and do little about the cases that might have public sympathy, such as tax dodgers. That way, you stay popular. You haven't done what you said you'd do, of course, which is to address the problem. But when did anyone have the time to notice that?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Alternatives to 'News'


The media in Britain don't do complicated.

In the summer of 1999, the then British Home Secretary visited the derelict area of Langworthy in Salford, North West England. He was shocked by the appalling conditions, the boarded up houses, the residents with no hope. Local people, angry and frustrated, shouted at him to 'do something'; six months later, it was announced that thirteen million pounds of government grant was heading their way.

Did it work? Has the area improved? More than a dozen years later, I wanted to know, so. I asked local people, and their answer was clear: 'Yes and No'. Yes, they said, some of the houses had been improved, the area was tidied up, most of the boarded-up houses had gone, a new primary school had been built, and the small local park was greatly improved. No, they said, the shops looked better but had no parking; the biggest bar in the area had been planned to be renovated but instead, was being demolished; the streets that had their houses demolished were now just empty patches of grass, waiting for the economy to improve before anyone could afford to build new properties.

It was a confused picture. Unfortunately, the media can't handle that. The local newspaper is still using pictures from its archives of derelict houses to represent Langworthy, or pictures of the new empty plots as representing the whole area and talk about 'failure' and 'broken promises'. They can't discuss good and bad - at the same time. They can't do both. They can't say, as the local people are telling them, that there have been some good things coming out of all the grants put in and the works done, but there have also been some real disappointments. In particular, the Press simply fails to understand that a hefty proportion of the original, dissatisfied residents of Langworthy have simply moved on, sold their houses, maybe, but relocated anyway, setting up home in a new area, with fresh challenges and new rewards. They aren't there to comment. How do those particular people feel about what was done to their neighbourhood? We'll never know.

The media prefers simple. It wants to see some simplified 'before' and 'after' pictures, and come to a hasty conclusion. It doesn't really want to hear what ordinary people say, unless they can keep it short and keep it simple. If they try to seriously express themselves, the reporters can't cope and the camera people turn off their cameras. They want sound bites: they don't want explanations.

In 1999, we should have seen it coming. That year the BBC sent a film crew to explore the area and discuss the issues for its 'Newsnight' programme on BBC2, (a supposedly 'serious' news show). The first film that went out, in November 2000, showed some shocking footage of boarded up houses and dereliction. They showed deprivation. For instance, poor old Mrs Herring had a coal fire in her lounge, and had to struggle to carry buckets of coal up from her cellar several times a day to feed it. People who saw those images told me they cried. Salford City Council was distraught too, rushed round to her house and organised the funds to pay for a new gas-fired boiler for her, complete with a brand new radiator for each room. (This was at a time when the grants hadn't even started – but they found the money from somewhere.) Poor Mrs Herring had central heating by Christmas.

But in January of 2001, the next episode of the 'Report from Langworthy' used the same footage of a dear old lady struggling up cellar steps. And in April. And in July. It wasn't true, but it was such a good image. The TV continued to use it, even when it was out of date and, to be honest, a complete lie. Obviously, the BBC2 people had their own agenda, and their own point of view, so they simply used something that was instantly recognisable, tragic and moving. It didn't actually say anything about the plans for regeneration that were being put together, or even if they were working or not. But it sure as hell made the viewers feel bad, about the area and about the residents.

Even more telling, the TV people had taken shots of boarded up streets in October 2000 which they were still using in their broadcasts a year later. If they had checked the footage against reality, they would have seen that some of the houses featured had actually been demolished and weren't there any longer, while some of the streets were completely covered in scaffolding, as builders were starting to renovate the properties. That was obviously too complicated for the media people; far easier to keep up the 'image' of boarded-up streets, even when the true picture was starting to change and, in places, become completely different.

They say 'a picture says more than a thousand words', but a picture of a derelict street only makes sense if it's representative, if the rest of the area is desolate too. If Langworthy is anything to go by, it HAS improved – in parts – and if you took the trouble to walk around the area, you'd now see SOME improvement everywhere, and MUCH improvement in some streets. Well, that's too complex for the media; neither the TV, nor the Press, has bothered to come back and update the story. The image of dereliction was powerful and striking; so much so, that it lingers on with most of the British public. It's sad, but their view of Langworthy hasn't changed much since 1999, when the first TV programme aired. But hey, that's 'News'. A decade of rebuilding and regeneration is less dramatic and less engaging. Shouting is more interesting than talking. It's a shame that the more recent pictures won't make it to the front page, but that's because of the media we pay for in Britain today.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Alternatives to 'Hooking Up'

Of all the recent inane philosophies and dumb 'Lifestyle Choices' to come out of the United States of America in recent years, the prize for the absolutely silliest must go to the concept of 'hooking up'. The way it works is this: teenagers who deem themselves 'too busy' for a formal girlfriend or boyfriend relationship, decide that they don't actually have to forfeit the company of the other gender completely, and therefore agree to spend a short and designated amount of time with someone that they pick out of a random sample of passers-by, strangers, classmates and friends of friends.

If the other person is simple enough to agree, then the pair will adjourn to some romantic setting, such as the back seat of a car, and proceed to 'make out'. This latter idea is even more difficult to envisage, since it seems to cover all manner of physical interaction from kissing and cuddling to 'going all the way'. Occasionally, to be fair, the young people have access to accommodation, their parents or others, and 'hooking up' can take all night. If so, the transaction is seen as somehow more mature and responsible, as there may be less need to make a rush on the fumbling and more time to say, 'Thanks and see you around'.

Young people who engage in these transactions report that they think of the idea as 'adult' and 'grown up'. If, that is, they have parents who spend time with hookers, then they probably have a point. Or if their parents busy themselves with affairs outside the marriage, then too, the concept of hurried trysts in secret places must seem like second-nature. However, the adult world is good at one thing, if nothing else: hypocrisy. While it's true to say that many so-called 'grown-ups' are surprisingly immature in their liaisons and actually do a lot more of what they tell their children not to do than they should, (or is good for them), the moral stance of grown-ups is clear: short-term 'romance' without commitment is worthless.

The aim, for most people growing up in the Western world, is to strive for a long-term, monogamous relationship that will form a stable backdrop to the difficult business of raising children. If the kids don't get that, or have moved on into a new sense of re-evaluating the one night stand as some kind of serious, innovative or fashionable way of conducting themselves, then one thing is clear: this generation of adults have seriously failed their children.

The young people, reportedly, don't see that. They see advantages in this way of interacting. The benefits, as expressed by these young people, have to do with creating more time to spend on their studies, apparently. If they cut down on the amount of hours they simply 'hang out' with boyfriends and girlfriends, (all that listening to music and drinking milk shakes and frothy coffees), then they can hit the books. If they're not down the Mall or taking desultory walks alongside the Lake, they will do better in school, (they say). This is curious, because it seems to show that they have picked up yet another message from the adult world, and misinterpreted this too. Just as above, the youngsters seem to think that an affair can be as rewarding and fulfilling as actually living with someone full time, they have taken on board the concept of 'work hard' and 'study', and re-interpreted that to mean that going out with someone is more of a distraction than an important, (or even essential), part of life.

In Britain, thank goodness, it has always been said that University is just as much about meeting people and growing up as it is about research and reading. Parents have even encouraged their children to travel away to a University and not live at home, since it means the kids will learn valuable lessons in independence. When, the older people say, you don the cap and gown and collect your certificates at the end of the course, it's not just what it says on the piece of paper that counts: it's also what you young people have learned from each other and about yourselves, and a lot of that comes from finding someone to go out with. Missing out on the highs and lows of relationships over long time-scales is likely to be something that will stunt the emotional growth of kids and make them unfit to parent the next generation. It's not even a wrong turn on the road of life: the concept of 'hooking up' is a blind alley that leads nowhere but the motel of loneliness and heartache.

Youngsters involved in this practice, ever inventive, may seek to justify their behaviour, of course. They say that their illicit activities still enable them to get to know the people they spend time with, (even if the time is limited, rushed and pressured). This is nonsense, too. Just as adult gorillas have a strict social code which means that not all the young males are actually ever involved in procreation at all, the idea that hooking up is fulfilling the same function as a mixer, prom dance, or cocktail party, is to spot that polite society tends to politely ignore the bit that goes on once the lights are out or the curtains drawn, but to undervalue every other aspect of interactions between individuals that makes up social life . It is this aspect of the fantasy that is so corrosive: it dulls the emotions and clouds the differences between individuals.

It used to be the case that young people were a lot more selective about who they slept with, and with good reason: the well known saying is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a prince. It doesn't say that you gain anything by moving beyond the kissing stage. But also, as with gorillas, if you make a habit of sleeping around, you aren't actually going to meet a lot of people, or very much variety. The number involved in the practice is always going to be less than the total numbers in the class. To hazard a guess, if a young lady chooses to 'hook up' on a regular basis, she is never going to get to speak to a geek, ever. The good-looking guys will get all the women they want, of course, (as with gorillas), while the cerebral types will be left waiting.

This is the last, and most telling, point. 'Hooking up' does not benefit boys and girls equally. In fact, some analysts might see a similarity between what is happening now and the worst aspects of the 1970s, when marriage was more of an acknowledged aim, and casual relationships were common, but concealed. The losers, in those days, were women, which is why some stood to one side and invented a Women's Movement. The cynic, looking at recent developments, might simply conclude that fashion has once again turned a full circle and men have yet again emerged the victors. 'Hooking up' is, at the end of the day, a young man's dream - physical intimacy without commitment. Unfortunately, it may well turn out to be society's nightmare.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Alternatives to 'Gesture' Politics

Why 'Gesture Politics' is important

If I walk out of my house, go to the top of my street and look left down the next road, what do I see? Satellite dishes, a line of them, one attached to the front of each house. Fading off into the distance.
So what does that tell me?
That my neighbours are interested in watching TV, perhaps, and want a huge choice of channels. They like to stay in maybe, drink a few beers, follow the sports and enjoy some films. How do I know all this? I don't, but that's the impression I get, and impressions count for a lot.
It could be different. Here's my vision -
in place of the satellite dishes - the small, round black aerials that I see at the moment - there would be a line of mini-wind turbines instead.
What would that tell us?
Well, something different, obviously.
It might suggest that now, the same people are concerned more about the environment. Perhaps they have started thinking about their children's future, and have decided to play their part in making the world more sustainable. Each has taken the trouble to go out and buy a windmill and have it put up on the front of their house. Each one is generating a small amount of electricity, which helps cut their fuel bills and contributes to the power needs of the nation.
It would show that they care.
Ah, some people say. It's not real. It's just a 'gesture'.
Wind turbines don't make economic sense, they say. The amount of electricity they can generate is tiny, especially in urban areas. The contribution they can make to the power needs of the country is minute - very, very small. They aren't 'value for money'. They cost a lot, to buy and to install, and they would have to be running at peak efficiency for many years before they would ever pay for themselves.
That may be true. But it doesn't depress me.
On the contrary, my 'vision' of every household in the street making a positive decision to 'do something' about alternative power is a dream that cheers me up and makes me very happy.
People do have the power to 'make a difference', even if it is only a small thing. And a 'gesture'. A small thing.
Because, as everyone knows, actually, small things can add up to a lot.
Campaigners have calculated that if every household in Britain re-equipped each and every room in their home with low energy lightbulbs, then the nation could do without a whole power station. In these days of concern over pollution and carbon emissions, well, yes, that is something.
That would make a difference.
More, and even more prosaic, another suggestion is that if every house in the land was fitted with a decent level of loft insulation (and an amount of draught proofing on doors and windows), that would add up to a lot more. Maybe as much as two or three power stations.
That's impressive. A valuable saving on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
The only problem with it, of course, is that it's not quite as exciting as 'alternative energy'. People don't seem to get so enthusiastic about layers of insulation in their attics as they do about windmills on their roofs.
Maybe it's something about the 'impression' a wind turbine can make, fluttering up there on your roof, in plain view, as opposed to insulation under the roof – which you can't see. Or, buying a windmill is somehow more definite, more of a step forward, than buying bulky rolls of insulation.
But that's not more 'real', either.
It's all about impressions. All about 'gestures'. And that can be very important.
Way back in the 1980s, campaigners calculated that if you took the amount of money it would cost to build a brand new nuclear power station – at the time, about three thousand million pounds – and spent that on loft insulation instead, then you wouldn't need the power station!
It was a choice – power station or loft insulation.
Guess which one the government chose?
Why, the choice that led to a brand new, glossy building that the politicians could be photographed opening. There's not much of a 'photo opportunity' in household lofts!
Is this important?
Yes, because, ultimately, it's all about communication.
If people put up windmills on their roofs, then maybe it wouldn't be a great economic investment, but it would be a great 'message'. It would let politicians know that ordinary people thought that 'alternative power' was a good idea, and they were prepared to back their enthusiasm with their own money.
That would give the government permission – and some incentive - to spend some of the people's taxes on windmills too, bigger and better ones, the sort that would generate real power and make a real difference.
At the moment, the opposite is true.
Those in charge, the ones with real power, can say today, 'Look, who cares about 'alternative power'? Nobody is doing anything about it. I can't see any change in my street'. See? If everybody had a windmill as I suggested, it might just change the way people saw things.
Instead, the doom sayers tell you, 'These tiny windmills don't make any difference at all. What's the point?' The point, in my view, is to get your message across. Express your point of view.
If you don’t worry about what impression you will be giving – right now and later, and what it might lead to, - then those in power are quite right to say that they don’t understand your point of view. Why? Because you haven't communicated anything!
A good example of that, for me, happened a few years ago in our area.
Unemployment was a problem, at the time, and I was a member of a group that was helping young people start their own businesses. We provided training and assisted these youngsters to draw up Business Plans, apply for grants, find premises and start their own businesses. It seemed like a great project, with a lot of good results. We were so successful, we had grants from a lot of funders, including the National Lottery.
Then, one day, the axe fell.
The Lottery funders rang up to say they were going to visit us. That seemed fine. It didn't seem like bad news. It was. They'd made a mistake, they said. They never should have given us a grant. We were the wrong type of organisation.
Hold on, we said. We're half way through a three year grant. If you withdraw your money now, we might collapse. We might have to close the service and sack staff. Sorry, they said. Really. Our mistake.
Yes, your mistake, we agreed, but it's we who suffer. And our clients. Without our help, they might not get into business. They might stay jobless, on the dole, being a drain to society.
No good. It wasn't heard. Our pleas fell on deaf ears.
The point is, when we had a Management Committee meeting, several of the members said – Well, that's it. Let's pack up now.
Hold on, I said. Shouldn't we complain? Look at what’s happened; they've changed their minds. First they said we could have the grant. Now they say we can't. Shouldn't we protest?
No point, the pessimists said. They won't change their minds. It's all over.
OK, let's be realistic. No, the Lottery Board never did change their minds. They cancelled the grant, (but luckily didn't ask for any of their earlier grant back, so we didn't have to close). I realise that.
The point, for me, was that we'd been treated badly and we should let them know. We should communicate. It won't make any difference, the other members said. Maybe not, I agreed. But we need to let them know how we feel.
Well, we didn't. We never did.
The Lottery staff went away and must have thought we were pretty happy. We hadn't complained, so why should they worry?
The only problem – not for us – is that the next time the Lottery wanted to screw around with a not-for-profit charity group, they could, couldn't they? They knew nobody would protest. They knew they would get away with it.
Even if it would do no good, I was insisting, we should let them know what it meant to us. We should communicate. We shouldn't just jump ahead to what we thought may happen – that they would ignore us. We should be prepared to go through the motions of protest, both for our sakes (in case we ever applied for another grant) and for the sake of all those other groups that were going to be messed around, now that the funders knew it was so easy.
My vision - today, now - is for bumper stickers.
I appreciate that it's very difficult to communicate with politicians in this country. Particularly the members of the Cabinet, who get taken around in chauffered limousines, and never have to talk to ordinary people.
Imagine if there were bumper stickers on every car, saying things like 'Yes to Alternative Power', 'Windmills are great' etc. Even the guys in the big cars might see them. As they were driven down Whitehall, on their way to important meetings, (if they bothered to glance out of the darkened windows of their plush vehicles), they might notice the stickers on all the cars they passed. They might just pause, and think to themselves, 'There's a lot of support out there. Maybe I should take note of it'.
It's a thought, isn't it?
No guarantees, of course, and maybe it's only a 'gesture'. But, in my book, it's something that everyone could do. We could make our feelings known, get our message across.
And that's the best hope that things will improve.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Alternatives to books

Wow, Mike. What you say?
Is there an Alternatives to books??

Well, probably. The e-book is going to change the world - real soon, now. Way back in the 1980s, when the Personal Computer was in its infancy, we were told that the logic was inescapable: now that ordinary people could read text on a screen, they said, then the days of the printed page were numbered. There was a better way. After all, the Personal Computer – we were assured – would soon be in every office, in every home, and it would give everybody access to the biggest library in the world, in digital form. In the future, so the story went, you would walk into someone's new house and the most striking feature would be that there would be no bookshelves. There would be no need for any! All data would be stored on computers, out of sight.

That first myth is the easiest to deal with. People still have shelves, but they're not necessarily groaning under the weight of books anymore, no. But they probably contain other stuff - knick knacks, souvenirs of Blackpool - and some media, such as CDs, DVDs, videotapes (since people haven't all moved on. Ask them - they’ll tell you about the joys of Betamax), vinyl - (which went, and then came back, having a second go) - and, even, surprise, surprise, that throwback to the 1970s, the cassette tape. Well, cassettes are old-fashioned now, but many new home entertainment centres have been forced to include a means to play them, like they used to - because that’s what people want! They like cassettes. The things are small, convenient, easy to carry around in your pocket, and could be played anywhere – in the home, the office and your car. Yes, but CDs came along and they were better, we are told. Better sound quality, better – Hold on, they aren't better. As many a computer nerd knows, a round plastic disc is not more convenient than a small plastic box. The disc rolls off the desk or table, it gets scratched, it slips down the side of things and can't be retrieved. Also, it doesn't do well what people actually want. In the days of vinyl when cassettes were invented, ordinary residents found a terrific use for the cassette. You could borrow your friend's record, tape it at your house, give it back and have a workable copy. No, that's not happening now: CDs don't do that well. Even without 'borrowing' your pal's music, and using access to the internet and download sites, the problem is that some CD players refuse to play 'home made' disks, for whatever reason. So you can't slip your favourite tracks in your pocket and carry them round and play them anywhere – ah, but that's why someone invented the i-Pod, you say. Yes, that does do the trick of storing music from anywhere you are lucky enough to find it – the web, your ‘friends', something someone gave you for Christmas – but it adds a layer of technology, the computer. If you look at a friendly old cassette recorder now, the most important thing was how simple it was to operate, how few controls. Compare that to the laptop computer. Ouch, there's no comparison. Saving and storing music is now more flexible, people will tell you. Yes, but nothing like as downright simple!

Back to books. Now, in our bright new future - which has already arrived - I can load up text on my laptop, tablet or phone. As long as I have access to the web on my laptop or desktop computer, tablet or whatever, I can download just about every book that wasn't written yesterday, but there is a problem: the computer screen. A screen isn't as easy to carry round in my pocket as a book. Compare the situation on a crowded commuter train, early in the morning. People with paperback books can read them in any corner, whether squeezed against the door or hanging on to a dangling support. The person with the laptop needs a table, or even a seat, but room to move their elbows. Ah, but that's why someone invented the Smart phone, you say. You can download your text onto your little pocket machine and scan the words in any tight corner. But when you start listing the attributes of a phone with novels and ‘How To’ manuals on it, you come to a very strange conclusion. The hand-held device is portable, handy, will fit in your pocket and can be carried around. Can be accessed anywhere and shared with friends. It's small, friendly and human sized. In fact, it's exactly like a book! There are only two differences, one good, one bad. One is that you can store more than one book on it at any one time. Wow, you're saying that a device the size of a paperback book can actually store dozens of paperback books inside itself. It's almost like a fairy tale: imagine a book that had blank pages and every day you could wish for a new story and it would show you it. Then it would blank its pages until tomorrow, when a brand new, undiscovered story would appear. What could be better than that? Well, something that was actually readable. Printers have been working for years to discover fonts that are easy on the eye and readable in all lights. The phone has been forced to try and duplicate the sheer joy of black writing on a white background, a trick that can fail in poor ambient light or when the batteries are low. In fact, the problem for hand-held devices is exactly that. They can't deliver a printed page, it's just a pretty average copy of one. That's their weakness.

Still, the market progresses and every year 'the e-book' we are told is growing on us and will finally deliver all our expected and unexpected specifications. Unfortunately that means – if you go to the web again and look for e-books to read – that they are still being offered in a variety of confusing formats as Kindle, Nook and Kobo machines still vie to become the new, universal standard. Perhaps it will happen. Perhaps, even now, the hand-held device (AND format) is being developed that will become the new, acceptable alternative to the novel in pocket form. But the test is back here in reality, not in the laboratory. Just like 'the paperless office', it's a promise that hasn't delivered, a vision that hasn't become a reality. For some reason – some annoying, illogical, all too human reason – the people who actually enjoy reading are, as yet, addicted to the touch, the feel and maybe even the smell, of the printed page. They stuff books into their pockets in the morning, and read printed novels in their spare moments and lunch hours. Not yet have they become the humans who manage without paper, merely and solely pulling out of their pockets their small electronic friends in order to indulge in stories, tall tales and inventions. Why not? We can only speculate. It's frustrating for the marketing manager, but interesting for the sociologist. The e-book is here to stay, they cry, so why won't people just co-operate and start using them as the go-to first choice, all day, every day, and declare themselves free and able to manage once and for all without the technology of the 15th century?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Alternatives to gambling

Alternatives to losing at gambling

My brother-in-law has a system. He says it works on a regular basis, and it must do, because every time he comes to visit us, he goes into the local casino and comes out with some small amount of winnings. 'Small'? Yes, that's part of his system. “Most people are just too greedy,” he says. “They imagine they'll win millions and end up losing everything they have.” If you're not greedy, he says, you can count on winning small amounts regularly. That helps to pay the rent, it might even buy you a bottle of champagne, so isn't that worth having? Well, no, not for most people. They buy Lottery tickets in order to win the million pound prize. If they got a letter saying they'd won three hundred thousand, they'd probably be disappointed. That's part of the problem of gambling: it inspires a level of complete unreality. But that's the point, isn't it? The casinos in Las Vegas provide an adventure in a fantasy world. They know they shouldn't be selling 'reality'. If they did, people wouldn't part with their money so easily. In fact, they'd win more often. Like my brother-in-law.

The second part of the system kicks in when he sits down. He plays Blackjack, starting slowly and relaxed, and looking around the table to see who else is in the game. He spots the losers, the high-rollers, the emotional types, and distances himself from all of them. Because that's another way to lose. If you get influenced by the other players, you can't watch your own game. Of course, in the real world, it happens all the time. Why else did thousands of people invest in 'dot com' companies in the 'noughties’? They were copying other people. Why else have so many people in Britain invested in housing and renting out those homes, even though the market has peaked and is now slipping down? They've listened to other people, they've followed what everyone else is doing. You want to win at gambling? Look at your own hand first and consider the odds you're facing. Then, and only then, consider comparing yourself to everyone else, after you've got some idea what your chances are.

The next consideration is luck. Successful gamblers know it's all about luck, but they work with it, play along with it, coax it and cajole it. They never, ever work against it. My brother-in-law says that Blackjack is a game where the cards seem to go in runs. For a while they might be with you and then they'll turn against you. At that point you need to back off and wait for the good run to come round again. It always does, he says. So he plays with his luck, not against it. He's placing small bets and if the cards seem to be going his way, he'll slowly increase his bets, planning on building up winnings. If the hands are going against him, he'll slow down, minimise the bets and conserve his stake. Why would that work for him? Because most people do the opposite, he says. If they see they're losing, they'll panic and increase their bets enormously, trying to win back all the chips they've lost. That's crazy, he says. If the run is not going your way, you need to calm down and minimise, not maximise bets. Above all, don't panic. Just wait for your luck to turn, as it always does. If you bet high while the cards are running against you, then all you'll do is lose bigger. That's his philosophy and it seems to work.

That might be for two reasons. One is that 'runs' do exist. Try it. If you flip a coin and record the results you won't get a list that says 'head, tails, head, tails'. Sure, it's random and there's an even chance that it will come up heads or tails each time. But it won't alternate. Instead, you'll get a list that says 'heads, heads, heads, tails, tails, heads' and in the sequence you'll see runs going one way or the other. In fact, this is a complex point, and fools a lot of people. When the first computer programmers tried to build a Random Number Generator a few years ago they were disappointed at their first results. They kept getting runs. To the untutored eye, it didn't look 'random' enough! But it was. Randomness produces runs. You just have to be conservative enough to see it.

That's the main point. My brother-in-law is cautious. It's the way he plays and the way he wins. Because he's aware of the dangers of following other players; because he's only aiming to win limited amounts; because he knows the cards could turn against him and produce a losing streak; he's always reserved and waiting. He never makes snap judgements and never, ever takes absurd risks. In the end, he walks out of the casino with money in his pocket not because he's a great winner, but because most of the other players are big-time losers. They follow other players; they risk high bets; and they compound a losing streak by betting amounts they can't afford. In the end, that's why he wins. All he has to do is keep his cool and win some money, standing by while everyone else loses theirs. He watches the cards, places small bets and increases only when he's feeling safe. But that's okay. The system works and will continue to work. Because? We know that out of all the people reading this article, most have never set foot in a gambling house, so they're not rivals. Of those who do, most don't go regularly and have never thought about applying a system. Of those who have a system, most are still prone to emotional and panicky responses. That leaves, well, how many? Not many. At the end of the day my brother-in-law is a regular winner, but then, how many real competitors has he got?

Monday, December 03, 2018

Alternatives to 'Customer Service'

It's Thursday today. Just a normal day, an ordinary day. One more opportunity to work hard, get rich, and one more chance to be slammed around by people who seem never to have heard of the concept of 'customer service'.

It seemed like a simple problem, at first. The post-person arrived this morning, but they were only holding letters, no parcels. We had been expecting a parcel for weeks. My partner is taking part in a table-top sale this coming weekend, and had ordered some paperback books that she wanted to take along and re-sell as part of a health package. The books were ordered two weeks ago, with a promise that delivery would take place in '3-5 days', but when no books arrived, we had to email. We were told that the supplier didn't have them and had had to outsource the order. Still, they said, delivery wouldn't have been delayed. The books should have arrived, they said. They would look into it. Next day an email arrived from the out-sourcer. It said that 'an account had to be confirmed'. My partner tried logging on to their website and was refused. She had to phone them.

So far, so bad. Still, don't forget we've only lost a week at this point, and it doesn't seem fatal: we've got another week to go, and as we know, (or have been told), the books could arrive in '3-5 days'. So that's all right, then. It was a nuisance that the newly found supplier was telling us to register and then had established a website which didn't allow a non-customer to establish a new account, but we thought we had cleared that up on the phone. All was going ahead – or so we thought. But - a new day dawned and no books arrived.

It's Thursday. We tried emailing, but got no reply. We tried phoning the real supplier, the new one, but they said their lines were busy. We went back to the original supplier – pre outsource – and tried them. We couldn't find a phone number, anywhere. It took half an hour, but there it was at last – no, not on the 'Contact Us' page. That would be too easy. Okay, so we phoned and the man checked his computer. He said no order existed. We asked him to check again. He said the records showed that our order had been cancelled the previous week. Right, so the out-sourcer had wanted confirmation of the account and, in the meantime, cancelled the order. When he confirmed the account – with us, on the phone – he forgot to re-instate the order. He had an account but no order. He didn't query or question that. He went on with his life, we went on with ours. The difference is that we were expecting books to arrive. They didn't. If we hadn't chased it up, we would never have found out why, either.

The man on the phone was pleasant enough. He asked us if we wanted to make the order again. We asked him when the books would arrive. When he said, 'After the weekend', we declined his offer. The books were needed this weekend coming. Not after. Definitely not after. What could he have done (better)? After all, he apologised, which was nice, considering he would probably be thinking that it probably wasn't his fault. Of course, in reality, it was. He had set up a system that placed orders to outside bodies and his company had no control over the quality, honesty or memory of their ‘outsourcing’ people. They didn't cancel the order, so they probably thought it wasn't their fault. Why not? Why were they working with a sub-contractor who was so slapdash and careless? Would they follow it up, complain, seek recompense on our behalf? Not a bit of it. It's life, they implied. These things happen, mate. Life goes on. In our case, for me and my partner, life would have to be without the books we wanted.

Well, we didn't place a second order and we won't be doing it, not within the foreseeable future. If we can avoid it, we will always avoid that firm in future. A very wise man once said, 'If you make a client, you should keep them for life and they will keep you'. The alternative to that might read something like, 'If you lose a client, you never get them back'. That's certainly true for us. Why? Because there are plenty of other suppliers and, being human, we don't just want books, we want service. Superlative service.

I know what you're thinking. Look, you say, the guy isn't going to ruin his day with an apology, then rush down to the warehouse, pick out your books and stick them in an envelope, posting them off that very afternoon. Why? Does anybody do that? Because I tell you what, readers. The company that does that is the one who gets our business, now and in the future. Everyone else gets a surly customer, chasing an order they think they placed and not understanding the lack of communication, updates or delivery. There's no profit in that, no future. Or, just to make it clear - even if you aren’t the person who has to answer the phone in your company, business or trade, - here’s something you could think about: doesn't anyone – any trading company, individual, person or animal out there – wonder why people keep phoning them up and complaining? Could it be because they are actually doing something wrong?

Monday, November 26, 2018

PART 2 of 'Alternatives to Torture'

There is an alternative to torture, of course there is. It's called 'being nice to people' and giving them things.
Before you dismiss such an idea as crazy and misguided, it's worth remembering that it has been tried quite recently, and it achieved favourable results. I'm referring to the situation in Iraq, just a few short years ago. At that point, the Americans had drawn up a list of the Most Wanted, and had put a price on each one of their heads. Mr Saddam, you may recall, was top of the list and the figure was twenty five million dollars. When someone tipped off the authorities that the great man was hiding in a hole in the ground, no doubt the cash was paid over. After all, that was the aim – to find the tyrant, alive.

Ah, you say, but we know all about Rewards. They worked in the Wild West, over a hundred years ago. Outlaws like Billy the Kid had a price on his head. Eventually he was tracked down by Marshall Pat Garret, as a recent film shows. Right, so how many people were tortured then – in an effort to find out where the bad young man was hiding? Well, none. The alternative - paying for information, not squeezing it out of people in pain - was equally effective and consistently produced results. Nobody saw any need to use torture to track down gangs, gangsters and cowboys on the run in those days.

Strange, then, that in these modern and enlightened times, we seem to have forgotten the lessons of the past. When it comes to spies and terrorists, we have lost the imagination we once had. We don't wave a chequebook in their face, to those people down there in Guantanamo Bay, we wave a rubber cosh. And we don't tempt them with an electronic transfer of funds, we inflict the pain of an electric shock. Does it work? Well, there's two answers to that. From the government, the answer seems to be a consistent 'Yes'. That's the first answer. When was that then, you may well ask? When did that happen? Nobody knows, is the second answer. Well, strictly speaking, it's 'We can't tell you', but hey, that's the same thing. Sorry, but it sure is a topsy-turvy world in counter-espionage, the 'alternate universe' of spying. The torturers always manage to look sinister and mysterious and tell you that their system works, but - and they’re really sorry about this - they’re just not willing to give you any details that might justify the allegations they make. Who knows, if YOU found out what they know, then maybe they'd be forced to make you the next victim.

Anything else won't work, they say. There's no mileage in trying to bribe these fanatics, we're told. Their families are back in the home country and would be terrorised by the other terrorists still living there. Okay, so logically what it would need is for the suspect you've got in custody, plus all his relatives, to be relocated – new names, new homes. Hey, that doesn't sound impossible, and it could all be done for a few millions, far less than the disruption caused by terrorism itself.

There's also one major pay-off. Torturers will tell you that the trick is to get the person being interrogated to a point where they give up and realise they're not going to escape. At that point they tell you everything, (they say). Unfortunately, by the time you've checked on whether the info is worthwhile or not, it's too late to do anything about it, because your prisoner has given up - just like you intended - and likely died, usually. If they realise that, if they know they're going to die, then they might as well lie, mightn't they? Yes. So, one big advantage of bribing instead of paining, is that the suspect is still alive, (even if in hiding). If what they told you was wrong - or, in fact, if you've got any complaints at all - you can go and see the person and remonstrate with them. If you're irate at the bribery not working, you can go back to Plan A and get the thumbscrews out. What have you lost? If you chose the former route, (the more usual 'modern' example), there's no second chance, ever. Not very smart, is it?

So, money. There's a suggestion for the anti-terrorism units all over the world. I don't expect it to be popular, because of course, there's another item on the agenda, isn't there? Torturing 'suspected' terrorists is, first of all, a lot of fun for the person holding the whip or the electrode. They can get a big kick out of inflicting pain. Ever tried it? It's great, apparently. Second of all, it makes the whole counter-terrorism thing seem important. Hell, if your government is telling you that you have the right to skin someone alive, then you must be a pretty important person, right? And the work you're doing must be Top Priority too, eh? Yes, that's the reality of it all. Torture is self-justifying. It's so awful that it must be right, otherwise why would any sane, sensible, educated person take part in it, support it, or condone it? It's bad, right? And you're only allowed to do bad things if there's a good reason. So there must be a good reason, mustn't there?

What if there's not? What if all the torture committed since 9/11 hasn't produced that alleged long list of names, phone numbers, and leads, that makes it all worth doing and justifiable? What if the entire top-heavy, administrative enterprise isn't worth a damn? Well, let's not go there, let's not think about! Because that would mean – Oops, our government, and the governments of our allies, has been involved in inflicting inhuman treatment on people who've never even made it into a court of law – for what? To make themselves feel good, look important and justify their salaries. Not much in the way of a 'good' reason, is it? 

Want to read more? This article - and others like it - have been gathered into a collection of essays published by Mike on the internet. It's available on Amazon Kindle (although other bookstores are available). Click the link below and a new window will open. (It's Magic.) 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

OLD ARTICLE (goes into New book)

Here's an article, from several years ago.
Where is it now? (answer at end)


We live in a tough old world. As a recent film tries to tell you, it's possible that you will be snatched off the street tomorrow by people you don't know, bound and gagged and flown off to some far-distant part of the world where you can be interrogated, harshly. Oh, all right, then, we'll tell you the truth. You'll be tortured. Pain will be inflicted on you as a way of encouraging you to confess the crimes that you're assumed to be thinking about, conspiring to happen and planning, such as terrorist attacks on the Western world. This is all in the name of 'security', patriotism and anti-terrorism - all good stuff. If all goes well, you'll tell them what they need to know and lives will be saved. That is, if you are a terrorist. Things start going wrong if you aren't.

Let's imagine, purely for the sake of argument, that you aren't a terrorist, haven't been and don't plan to be. You're strung upside down and people you don't know and haven't been properly introduced to are beating the soles of your feet with iron bars. They ask you questions, and you hesitate, because you know you don't have any answers. In fact, as soon becomes clear, these people are pretty sure they already know the answers to the questions they're putting to you – they just want you to confirm their suspicions. What do you do? At first you might figure they will come to their sense, realise you aren't a threat and let you go. If they don't seem willing to do that, you might come up with another plan: you'll admit anything they put to you. That way, at least they'll stop the pain. Of course they won't let you go either, but at least you might get a day in court and then you can plead your innocence. Trouble is, you've just admitted your guilt. Not to worry, you'll tell the court your story, tell them you only made an admittance so that they'd stop doing the bad things they were doing. So they might believe you. But they won't. The record shows that people who admit their guilt – such as the Birmingham Six in Britain in the 1970s – and then retract their forced confessions on the grounds it was beaten out of them - aren't believed later.

So, torture works. At least, if you are the person aiming to find someone to admit to being guilty. Like the Birmingham Six. You, the torturer, then have people you can blame for the bombing of civilians and the state can send them to prison and announce that justice has been done. In that case, unfortunately, as it emerged later, they got the wrong men. It took many years but it was later proved that they had nothing at all to do with the crime. The judges had to let them go. But why? Why were they in jail? Because they'd admitted they had done it. Why? Why would anyone admit they were guilty unless they were? Because they were smacked around for days, deprived of sleep and threatened. This, in a civilised country like England. In any other part of the world it would be called 'inhumane and degrading treatment', in other words, torture. Not here. We don't do torture in Britain, (we say.)

But we did once. It was back in the time of Shakespeare and shortly after. Then we tortured witches, regularly. We know they were witches because they admitted they were witches. That's why they were then killed, because of all the evil things they admitted to doing, like consorting with the Devil and flying around on broomsticks. Now here's the problem. No one does that sort of thing anymore, (at least, as far as we know). Oh sure, there are some people who call themselves White Witches and claim to mix potions and cast spells – but only to do good. So here's the issue: we live in a scientific age and think that talk of witchcraft is nonsense. No one can really fly around on a broom, (except in movies). But did they ever? If they did, then why can't we do it now? If they didn't – because it's impossible, we know – why did they ever say they could? We know they said they could do those things, because we have the records. Why would people say such a thing? Well, one reason might be because they were routinely tortured. That's how our ancestors extracted the confessions. Maybe, just maybe, there never have been people who can fly or cast bad spells. But that means – well, that the people who said so were in fact lying, for some reason. Maybe - is it possible - inn order to stop the torture, perhaps.

In the modern world it's different. We know that terrorism exists, because we've seen it happen, and we know that terrorists are out there somewhere, planning it. The problem is, using torture, that we have no way of knowing – for sure – if the people who admit to it are being genuine, or lying, to save themselves pain. Ah, you say, but if only one life is saved – yes, well then, any amount of inflicted pain might seem justified. The problem with that is that we aren't being told if it's currently effective, for the sake of 'security'. Well, sorry, but that doesn't add up. If our side uncovered a terrorist cell because we had a spy in their camp, then no, we wouldn't want to reveal the source and so ruin their placement. But if we torture information out of a person? Well, then we already have them as a prisoner. It does no harm to reveal who they are and what they're alleged to have done or be doing, doesn’t it? So we should be seeing spy cells broken and terrorists arrested. Regularly. Why aren't we?

There could be one simple reason. Maybe the sad fact is that not a bit of useful information is coming from torturing detainees at this present time. The truth might possibly be that doing torture in the modern world is merely 'busy work', making it look as though we're fighting the threat of terrorism without actually doing anything useful – such as catching the real bad guys, perhaps by intelligent means. After all, if we could do that, we wouldn't need to torture anyone, anymore. Is that an alternative?

Thank you.
That article has been put in a New book, as part of a collection of essays.
The collection can be had as an e-book, if you follow this link below.
LINK: click here

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A new, exciting competition for you (with prizes)

Hi, I'm Mike Scantlebury – author of Scanti-Noir.

If you know me, you'll know I write stories about Amelia Hartliss, Secret Agent, and Mickey from Manchester.

Correction, I write LONG stories.
Novels, mostly. No short stories, or small pieces of fiction. Yet.
For there to be a Mickey or Melia short story would be ground-breaking.
Well, it's happened. I've written one.
And I'm going to give a few lucky people the chance to own this unique extract from the saga that is 'Books about Manchester and Salford'.
A tiny number of people. A select few.

Want to join that club?

Here's the deal.
I'm not selling this unprecedented story.
I'm not giving it away, either.
No, I'm offering it as a prize in a very special competition.
The good news is that everyone who enters for this award will get the prize.
The bad news is that you have to do something for it.
(You can't just buy a ticket!)

I want you to write me a Review.

Now, the good news is that a 'Review' doesn't have to be clever.
It could be short. One word., like 'Interesting'.
It could be a sentence, like 'I enjoyed it'.
It could be a paragraph.
It could be a treatise, a tome, or a volume in itself.
I don't mind.

All I ask is that you got to any of the online bookstores – one or the other -
and add a short review to one of my books.
Any book.
Then, follow one of the links below to either my Twitter or Facebook accounts,
and send me a direct message about what you've done.
Include a link to your Review.
I'll follow the link.
If there's 'a Review' there when I arrive, then you get to read the story.
That's it. That's all. Not much to it, is there?

But hey, I'm not apologising for asking.
I'm an independent writer and publisher. Reviews are my life blood. Because of the arcane rules that an online bookstore like Amazon impose on a free spirit like me, if my books don't get Reviews, they never get promoted. Amazon? Puh. They're crazy.

So, think about it.
If you feel confident about using the international interweb,
and can get yourself out to an online book-store - without getting lost -
then leave a note, and return – safely -
then you get to show off to your friends that you are the proud owner
of a Mike Scantlebury Short Story.
“A what?”
A Mike Scantlebury Short Story.
“But Mike Scantlebury doesn't write short stories!”

Well, you'll know better, won't you?

Okay, sure, this is an experiment.
If it doesn't work, I'll go back to my day job, and write a few more Mickey and Melia novels. (Expect a new one in October, and another before Christmas.)
If it does work, well, I might try it again, some time.
Ouch! I'll have to amend that 'unique' tag then, won't I?
Still, that's well into the future.
For now, there's only this offer.
I'm offering a short story.
I'm asking for a Review.

Let's see how many of you can win that coveted prize.


Mike Scantlebury on Facebook -MikeScantlebury99

Mike Scantlebury on Twitter - @MikeScantlebury

Saturday, April 05, 2014

'Dit Dit' - a song about whales

There's a new film out, called #NOAH.
It's all very exciting, about an old man with a beard, and a boat.
(No, not the man with the beard below - he has no boat. Yet.)
There's a bit of story in the new film,
something about animals.
Wow, heard that before - like in this song about whales,
and the animals being saved from the flood.