Sunday, December 02, 2007

3,200 Brits are lost every year during airport transfers

Ok - so I've made that one up... so what?

It is well known the penchant of Labour Government for (mostly phony) statistics - usually taken either out of context, or derived from moronically extrapolating trends over ridicoulous lenghts of time.

Take the one that has made the headlines this week about the population of England doubling in size to 110 milion, by the year 2178 (or whenever): whoever came up with that number (most likely, a Government-funded research quango) simply took the population increase over the last, say, 5 years, added some exponential growth immigration factor, fired up Excel and "dragged" the numbers until it got where it wanted it to be.

However, rather than berating the stupidity of such approach, I decided to follow this sterling example and come up with some statistics of my own - and invite everyone to contribute.

  • In London, you are never more than 2 yards away from a chav;
    (heard on Radio 4)
  • In the year 2013, the average weight of single mothers in Luton will be 15 stones;
  • There are more than 66m people with learning difficulties in Europe;
  • The average donation to Labour Party is £4,567 - excluding those from dodgy businessmen;
  • Each Public Sector worker contributes on average 2.5 tonnes Carbon emissions over the duration of her career, whilst providing a negative contribution to GDP of 0.35%;
  • In the year 2030 the number of Public Sector workers will exceed the total number of private sector workers, people on benefits and dogs in the UK.

Who knows? some of these may even turn out to be true!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Losing the plot

So it is now official: the British Government is back with the Tories.

Yes, I know the Prime Minister and his cohort declare themselves to be Labour and - to be frank - the rhetoric and tax & spend attitude is that of a true left-leaning bunch, but, let's face it, the Tories now have just to announce policies (not even pledge to implement them) that Labour scrambles to implement them without even a hint of embarassment.

It may well be that it is truly because they are marvellous and wondrous policies that appeal to the left as they do the right.

Me, being the cynic that I am (no, Mr Blair, being a cynic is not so bad and, in fact, beats being a liar anytime) I tend to believe that they do it because (a) they run around like headless chicken chasing the latest opinion poll and (b) because they are now so ideologically lost in space that they have to wait for someone else to come up with something, anything, they can copy.

What a sad state of affair...

Monday, October 08, 2007

The true mark of a bureacrat

I've always felt that Mr Brown would have been more at ease in some obscure office somewhere deep in the bowels of Public Sector-landia - and, indeed, how so much better would have been for Country and wallet!

And now he has finally revealed the true mark of the bureaucrat - that is, that innate, congenital, irrational fear of accountability: the dread of coming to terms with one's acts, assuming responsibilities for all the deeds (or, indeed, the mishaps) one has committed whilst in office.

Hence, no election - the English people has been denied the right to make its voice heard.

It occurs to me that England is that most strange of places, where an unelected official can climb to the chair of Prime Ministership without
ever having to stand to the English people's scrutiny: because, lest we forget, it is a bunch of few Scots, who, for want of better alternatives, one would assume, have chosen Mr Brown as their elected representative.

Those same Scots, lest we forget, who have kicked out Labour from their own Country's Government, whilst at the same time inflicting the tax & spend scourge upon us all.

What a joke - they must be laughing their socks off, North of the border!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Land of Incompetence

Came back the other day from the US and was immediately confronted with the usual rain and gloomy weather that one should expect from the UK in October.

That, in general, fails to "rattle my cage" and I was not terribly upset by it - all after all, if it was sun what I was after, I could have as well stayed put in Italy and enjoy long, laid back days at the beach eating pasta and sipping Chianti...

What really depresses me is that, after more ten years of failed public sector projects and ideas, a bungled (and messy) tax credit system, the display of complete incompetence during the recent banking crisis, and, lest we forget, the Iraqi catastrophe, still Labour (and, of all people, "tax-&-spend" Gordon) still enjoys a lead in the polls.

Really - what on Earth possess the British public?

Can the vast majority of Englishmen and women be so totally blind to the astonishing incompetence that permeates now all walk of the Public Sector?
Can the youths be all so busy getting drunk and getting laid that they are ready to forgive a Government that lied to the Country and allowed hundreds of thousand of lives to be lost?
Can the elderly have all gone so hopelessly senile that they have completely missed how their health is being jeopardised by the awful mess the NHS is in?

I will accept that Cameron's Conservatives can hardly lay claim to competence and infallibility (what in the name of God are the Tory right-wingers up to? giving Labour another ten years in government?) but it would be extremely difficult (I'd say impossible) to beat Labour on incompetence, failed Public Sector projects and generally wasting taxpayers' money on a grandiose scale.

Lest we forget:

  • Metronet - the poster-child of the PFI, the very creature of Mr Brown's warped economics - going bust, after sucking (and wasting) £11bn of public money, leaving London's Tube modernisation programme in total disarray;
  • the IT upgrade of the Benefits Department, that had to be abandoned after spending hundreds of £'m, and getting absolutely nothing;
  • the Dome (need I say anything?)
  • the Olympics budget - nearly quadrupled (and we are still 5 years away) with very little to show for it;
  • the complete failure to modernise the NHS, which, after £'bn of investment, still boasts the worst rate of cancer survival in Europe and the worst record in fighting infections (MRSA, anyone?);
  • the tens of £'m wasted on the ID cards project, with realistic estimates of the costs at more than 10 times the Government's estimates (and it hasn't even started yet...)
  • tax credits for working families (as if the others are sitting idle...): quite apart from the absurd complexity of the scheme (another brainchild of Mr Brown) it has resulted in hundreds of £'m lost in "overpayments that cannot realistically be recovered, ever" (even by the Inland Revenue's own admission);
  • the Home Office - a sick joke of incompetence, waste and complete lack of accountability: now multiplied by two, with the likely duplication of most office functions with the creation of the Ministry of Justice (as it's obvious to anyone, but the self-serving politicians, by multiplying the number of bureacrats one only multiplies the level of incompetence and waste);
  • and on and on and on...

But then, maybe, it is quite possible that after ten years of bureacratic incompetence people have become so used to it to consider it an acceptable norm - no longer to be outraged by officials wasting, literally, billions of pounds on ill-conceived, and worse-executed, initiatives and projects.

The Land of Incompetence, indeed.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Saving the banks

So, last week, to save Northern Rock from a devastating "run" (that would have, as panic runs go, naturally have ended with the bank running out of cash and being declared insolvent) the Chancellor -- with enthusiastic support of the FSA and the Bank of England -- stepped in and, essentially, said that taxpayers' money was at hand to guarantee all depositors' moneys.

Nothing wrong with it, surely?
These are, for the most part, ordinary people, like you and I, and deserve to be protected by the nasty consequences of global finance markets turmoils, and the greed and incompetence of the 'fat cats' bankers. Do they not?

Well, yes, in a sense, but the real question is, at what price?
The immediate consequence is that the 'run' has ended, Northern Rock has been spared more dire consequences, other banks (C&G and Alliance & Leicester were rumoured to be next) have escaped unharmed, and ordinary folks are safe in the knowledge their hard-earned money will be there when they need it.

An unqualified success for all involved, then?

A well-known concept in economics is that of 'moral hazard': that is, investors and bankers are more likely to take greater risks than would be rational (sub-prime lending, anyone?) if they know that someone with big pockets (the State) will step in and save them if things go horribly wrong (as they do, almost invariably).

In other words, we have witnessed today that some banks and institutions are "too big to fail" and that the Government, for political expediency, is well prepared to squander taxpayers' money to protect the above-mentioned 'fat cats'.

These bankers, in fact, by investing large sums in riskier assets have indeed generated excess returns in good times, and pocketed large bonuses (the last 3-4 years have seen monumental increases in City bonuses, usually paid around Christmas' time) - but, when the time came to pay for the deed -- that is when these 'riskier' assets prove to be, well, riskier, and the most foolish were exposed, big Nanny State intervened to save their necks.

it is only too easy to predict that, next time round, the bets will be bigger, the risks greater and the heights from where to fall higher - but, no matter, our Tax monies will be there to save and protect City bankers, no matter how greedy, incompetent or foolish.

Well done, Mr Brown - indeed a worthy achievement for a Labour PM.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Tides and waves in the financial market just occurred to me whilst reading the Economist about recent turmoils in the financial market: one could paraphrase Mr Buffet of Hathawy Berkley (aka "the sage of Omaha") and say: "it's when the tide goes out that one can tell the boats from the turds"

Rude, I know ;-)

Tax & Spend (& Kill)

Yet again Labour is at work to raise taxes, no doubt to plunge yet more money into hapless public sector projects.

This time round, it's Capital Gains tax (CGT) that's under scrutiny: according to the, Alistair Darling "is considering an increase from 10 to 20 per cent in the base rate of capital gains tax for investments classed as business assets, such as holdings in unlisted companies or shares owned by employees." (, 16 Aug.)

Although to the clueless (and I freely include in this category the entirety of Labour party) this would be a way to tax the "fat cats" of private equity, it will, instead, have the usual "uninted consequence" of dampening even more the ability of small start-ups to attract and retain talented people, and, ultimately, to drive away venture capital investment from the UK.

The reality of the matter (which clearly escapes our erstwhile ministers) is that the very people this tightening of tax rules should affect (the super-rich, mega-millionaires who drive multi-£bn deals) have no "UK domicile" for tax purposes (or can easily obtain that, if the tax burden becomes too much).

The ones affectes are the likes of you and I: ordinary folk, working in excess of 16 hours a day on a business idea, whose only
reward (uncertain, and at some point in the future) is in the value of stock options. We are quite unlikely to get domiciled in the Bahamas, and even less likely to afford to hire expensive lawyers and accountants to tell us how to dodge the tax bullet.

Because of the risk, uncertainty of outcome and time delay, the final reward attached to stock options must necessarily be quite high to compare favourable with today's "loss of earnings:" by using the universally accepted Discounted Cash Flow - DCF - to arrive at a Net Present Value - NPV - that one uses to compare a certain outcome today (say, a defined monthly salary and a pension at 60 years of age in the Public Sector and the certainty of not being fired, irrespective of how badly one can screw up) with an expected, but uncertain, outcome some years in the future.

The "unintended consequence" of those tax changes then will be to drive even less people into starting new businesses, driving innovation, and into making Britain an (even) less attractive place to invest into - driving up at the same time the cost of hiring talented people (the lower the value of stock options tomorrow, the higher the salary I want today).
Additionally, VCs and their ilk, when deprived of the kind of returns they expect (given the risk profile attached to their investments) will be even less likely to bother with smaller enterprise (the ones needing between £500k and £2m).

They won't care anyway - they can easily invest in China, India, US, Ireland, or wherever takes their fancy: away from tax-crazy Britain.

Why is it that our politician are so myopic they can't even see across the Irish Sea: there, a significant reduction in the level of taxation has driven the economy onwards and upwards, making Ireland one of the most attractive places in Europe (and the world) to invest and work, and the Irish people have moved from one of the poorest in Europe to being among the wealthiest and happiest (if only the weather would co-operate, we would all move there, wouldn't we?)

And, guess what? The Irish Government has never had it so good, raking in tax revenues at a record rate, and expanding the expenditure in public services at a much greater rate that even our rapacious Gordon "tax-and-spend" Brown, can only dream of.

But, oh, no - Labour still lives in this 70's zero-sum game mentality: if you have success in life it surely must be at someone else's expenses, so "they'll squeeze till you squeak."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Blair Legacy

In little over a month's time, Mr Blair will step down from being UK's Prime Minister, handing over power to Labour's "incoronated" new leader, Mr Brown.

Personally, I am unsure whether to be jubilant for seeing the former go, or appalled to see the latter take over; but that's probably an issue best left for another day.

What I'd like insted to do here would be to publicly express my personal thanks (yes, you've read it correctly: thanks) to Mr Blair, for proving, irrefutably and irrevocably, one of my most fundamental beliefs: one cannot make Public Sector service work by throwing more money at them.

It is, indeed, regrettable that this had to be achieved by wasting several hundred billion pounds - money that we, the taxpayers, could have more efficiently and enjoyably spent on goods and services that matter to us, instead of being poured down the drain chasing "targets" that only matter to policy wonks and to obscure civil servants; but, then again, it was probably inevitable that this had to be done, as, at least once in a generation, this point has to be (expensively) proved again and again, to an uneducated and forgetful voting public.

In fact, a very similar lavish waste of taxpayers' money on irrelevant and apathetic public workers and services had already been undertaken by Labour in the 70's (and elsewhere in the world: the Democrats in the US, various left-wingers across the globe and, surprisingly enough for those who don't know better, by endless centrist governments in Italy) to little or no effect on their efficiency and/or effectiveness.

Thankfully, a brief surge in this kind of waste (and the subsequent abismal display of incompentence and general useleness) was sufficient to wake up voters to reality and swing them back to more sane, market-oriented policies.

Not so this time - partly due to a particularly benign global economic environment, partly due to Mr Blair's quasi-hypnotic power of persuasion, but mostly due to the pathetic state of the Conservative party, it has taken the best part of ten years for the British public to start asking questions about the sanity of showering tens and hundreds of billions on unreformed, inefficient and largely useless public sector services.

I still remember being infuriated, at the time, by all the talk about public sector being "underfunded" - this was mostly from people who failed to realise that the use of "under-" (or "over-," for that matter) requires a standard comparison metric to be meaningful: a service, or business, is under- or over- funded only relative to its stated goals, and a generally accepted industry best practice.

But this was, rather conveniently, lost in election speeches and on the tabloid-reading electorate who lapped up New Labour's New Truth.

Well, all this is history now: we all now know (even Sun readers) that it is not for want of money that public sector is incapable of delivering half-decent services, with anything approaching a minimum level of respect for its users.
All the extra investment has been gobbled up in ill-thought (and worse implemented) titanic IT projects (most of which have either floundered in spectacular fiascos or are running several billions over budget, years behind), equally titanic (and equally over-budget and years late) construction projects and, naturally, in inflated pay rises for public sector workers.

Who have not, as any sane private sector employer would have done, been asked to work harder, longer or, simply, using a bit more common sense: they were just gifted with pay rises, without any regard for individuals' competence and merits.

And as we all in the private sector, running our businesses, well know there is nothing like this to sap the dedication and motivation of the best workers, and reinforce the worst ones' conviction that working hardes is for fools.

Friday, May 04, 2007

God bless the Scots!

It took 10 years' of pathetic display of incompetence, but even in Scotland voters gave a good kicking to Labour's tax & spend policies.

I don't know (and, not being Brit, not much care) as to whether this will eventually lead to independence for Scotland (if this is what the Scottish people ultimately want, so be it) - what it really gives me a great sense of hope that, despite Labour attempts to "drug" the proud people of Scotland with handouts, benefits and pointless welfare initiatives, they got the kicking they so richly deserve.

I now feel a lot better about those £1,500 a year of my taxes (this is true of every taxpayer in England) that are funding some Scot's welfare subsidy - go ahead, mate, enjoy it: you deserved it!

I was in Edinburgh over the Easter weekend and I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the city and the kindness and warmth of the people there - we will definitely be going back with my family, we are all really looking forward to a tour of the great Scottish castles.

And, I suppose, it also helps the fact that I'm in absolute love with the Scottish accent - my only regret is that I'll never be able to fake it ;-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"No Policies"

They just don't get it, it is such an alien concept to Labour that, when one tries to explain to them that the State cannot regulate every single aspect of people's lives, their first reaction is "yes, but you are not proposing any policy!"

Well, that was the whole point, wasn't it?

The latest example was David Cameron's assertion that thousand of ASBOs, countless police targets; an avalanche of new laws; and, generally, a legislative hyperactivity; were doing nothing to make our society more secure - in fact, by clogging the system and drowning the police and the judiciary in mountains of paperwork, they were causing more harm than good.

So he suggested removing all the bureacracy and meaningless ministerial targets, setting clear guidelines, streamlining the criminal code, and then expecting people to follow those guidelines by acting responsibly. Or else.

To me, that sounds sensible stuff - if you want someone to act responsibly, you must give that someone some responsibility; or they'll never ever learn how to.

Take ASBOs, for example (those are "Anti-Social Behaviour Orders:" essentially, restraining orders placed mostly on mis-behaving youths and banning them from being out after a certain time or being in certain areas or associating with certain people).

They are hailed by the Labour Government as a big success and one of the main means they have reduced local crime and vandalism.


However, it recently emerged that, far from being scared by them and cowed into leading a quiet and tranquil life as moody teenagers, actually many of these "looting youths" see ASBOs as a badge of honour and they actually seek to get them and then brag about it (whilst at the same time, happily breaking them all the time, because there are obviously not enough police resources to keep tabs on them all).

And similarly for police targets: excellent idea, in theory; in practice, they require such huge effort and time wasted in paperwork that, effectively, the very existence of targets causes a drop in police productivity.

And I could carry on, talking for example about the literally thousand of new laws introduced by Labour over the past 10 years: each one of them perhaps excellent and laudable, yet their collective effect causing such confusion, so as to reduce the effectiveness of the judiciary system overall.
And that not according to some opposition MPs or libertarian activist, but to some very senior judges.

I believe the time is now right to reverse this lamentable state of affairs and recognise that the State cannot regulate and oversee over all of society's activities: people don't always eat as healthily as we would want them to, they don't seem able to quit smoking, they are not always as good parents as we would wish them to be, and they not always seem to want to work as hard as we'd expect them to.

Well, maybe that's life and one should accept it.
Or maybe they would behave more responsibly, if, instead of treating them as toddlers throwing tantrums, we were to give them the opportunity to learn and accept their individual's responsibilities.

So, yes, less policies. Or no policies at all.

And that's exactly my point.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Blowing it

Apparently, the self-styled "prudent" and "knowledgeable" Chancellor of the Ex-chequer, Gordon Brown, blew £2bn (that's 2,000 million British pounds - no less!) by selling off UK gold reserves at the bottom of the gold market.

And it's not like we can blame bureacrats or grubby, greedy investment bankers: pretty much everyone (from Bank of England officials, to City traders, to consultants) tried to talk him out of his idea of selling off the family gold.

Alas, Mr Brown being a true Scotsman firm in his beliefs and values (or a stubborn, "stalinist," pig-headed and arrogant autocrat - depending on who you listen to) would not be so easily diverted from his chosen path.

That resulted in a net loss, for the taxpayer, of around £2bn - a loss, no doubt, that our taxes have been funding since.

This coming just shortly after the revelation that that one other of Mr Brown's most famed acts (the so-called "pension raid") was taken against the advice of experts and industry bodies (most notably, the CBI) would dent, one might think, Mr Brown's own assertiveness in depicting himself as a "competent" Chancellor.

He doesn't seem to think so, though.
Nor apparently, do share this view his supporters - who (rather amusingly, I must confess) keep stating that "experts were consulted," forgetting however to add, yes, they were indeed consulted and they all told Mr Brown that what he planned doing was complete nonsense.

I also find rather amusing that the ONE choice he is quite rightly praised for (giving indipendence to the Bank of England to set interest rates) is also used by Mr Brown to assert his own "competence."

In reality, what he did was to essentially say: "politicians cannot be trusted with such choices as setting interest rates and, generally, making sound economic decisions. I am thus excusing myself from this responsibility, and am asking someone who seems to have a certain grasp on the matter to do it on my behalf."

Fine, right. No quibbles with it.
What I do quibble with, though, is the fact that one then, 10 years on, goes on to say: "Hey, look at the folks at the BoE - how well they've done to steer the economy clear of recession. I asked them to do it for me, and look how good the economy is (despite all my tax & spending, by the way). Surely, that is because I am a competent fellow."

That, I was once taught at school, would be called a "non sequitur," marked with a red pen in any essay.

It would be a bit like I'd claim myself a genius of the DIY because I hired a good builder and the extension's roof, 10 years on, hasn't yet collapsed on our heads.

And that against all evidence to the contrary, proved by countless (albeit non-fatal) DIY disasters I committed because of my not listening to others' suggestions to leave it to the professionals.

Prime Minister Brown - can't wait for it: what a wonderful material for this blog he promises to be!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Throwing a tantrum

Sometimes I feel like an alien just landed from Mars, such is my utter incapability of figuring out what really the point is...

Take, for example, the recent news from the Times (as reported by the BBC) that Dr Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), is advocating scrapping exams for the 11- and 14-year-olds.

This follows, by only a couple of weeks, an announcement that 4- and 5-year-olds would be "assessed" prior to entry to pre-schools.

Now, let's get this straight. The Government is actually proposing to assess a child's abilities on the basis of some assessment criteria (no doubt, thought up by some highly experienced and knowledgeable academic) at the age of 4, but is happy to consider scrapping exam test for older children (and replacing them with 'random samples').

As I said, I really do struggle in seeing the point.

For a start, what is the point of assessing 4- and 5-year-olds? who will benefit from it? what will the use be? what are we doing with the ones that turn out to be dimwits? what about those who would score highly? shall we fast-track them to GCSE? (well, given current standards, they might actually pass them!)

As for scrapping exams, I can see why teachers are doing somersaults of joy at the sole thought: it was the only glimmer of accountability for a profession that has been remarkably left untouched by centuries passing.
The fact that now parents had a more reliable (and objective) metric to measure a teacher's perfomance (as opposed to relying simply on the darlings' comments) must have kept the entire profession on the verge of nervous breakdown.

We, the normal people, those who measure ourselves daily against competitors, the market reality and customer expectations, know all too well what it means to be accountable, to have one's performance assessed against (and, usually, by) peers and to accept the possibility of failure.
Teachers, academics, and public workers in general, live in this rose-tinted world where performance is optional, no objective assessment of one's capabilities is ever possible (or even considered acceptable) and where one's career progression is based on seniority, political acumen and connections, but never on ability or achievement.

Objective exam tests (with all their shortcomings and the disgraceful "dumbing down" sham so shamelessly exercised by Blair's officials) were a means (albeit a timid one) for parents, and other stakeholders, to assess, on a supposedly objective basis, a school's performance and a teacher's abilities - unconstrained by the individual pupil's abilities.

It was too good to be true, and it was only a matter of time for the lethargic, yet powerful and (lest we forget it) Labour-funding, teachers' establishment to fight back to try and revert to "good old days."

It may be too late, however: we, the parents, have now tasted the forbidden fruit of knowledge, and may be quite unwilling to let go of it...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Time 2 Lv ?

So it looks as if, after many disappointing starts and outright failures, we have finally found the solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

Yep, the Home Office cracked it - a stroke of genius or the result of long hours of analysis and extensive consultants' studies, we are not given to know - but it is at long last with us: the ultimate solution in forcing illegal immigrants to face up to their despicable behaviour and convince them to abandon their ways (and the Country) for good.

And it was all so obvious; we had been staring at it in the face for years, and yet nobody realised how powerful this would have been - it took the indefatigable dedication, professionality and inventiveness of the Home Office staff to figure this one out.

So, starting from an as yet unspecified (but we all hope imminent!) date the Home Office will start sending text messages to "foreign visitors" (apparently, "bloody immigrants" was deemed too strong a language) reminding them that their visa is to expire and they should make preparations to leave the UK.

I can already picture them: scores of illegal immigrants, all of them anxiously peering at their mobile phones (was it a text? is it Abdul at the pub, or the Home Office? should I open it?) and then rushing off on the first Piccadilly tube heading off to Heathrow, without even bothering packing up...

Maybe not.

A more sane person (read: someone not working for the Home Office and not desperate to find some ways to make it look like they are actually doing something) would have had a few doubts about the scheme.

For example, given that they do not even know the names of most illegal immigrants, how on earth are they supposed to know their mobile number?

And even of those whose names are known (the mind springs to the 7,000 "foreign criminals" whose files were left to rot in boxes in some Home Office basement) they are hardly likely to be on some sort of computer system so as to enable automatic sending of those messages.

I can already see scores of "temporary" Home Office employees, sitting at their desks and furiously typing the texts to thousands of foreigners....

The other pitfall being, obviously, that mobile phone companies (being just a tad more astute than the Home Office) are quite unlikely to give a contract rental to people without the necessary paperwork - hence, most of them will have pay-as-you-go contracts (critical for them to manage their prostitution ring or crack dealership or whatever else it is that foreigners get into when in UK - I personally started two businesses, both of them engaged in legal activities, I hasten to add) which make them just a trifle difficult to trace back to the real owner.

Hence, even assuming the Home Office to be vastly more efficient than we know it to be - even assuming that they can actually trace a mobile number to a "foreign visitor" overstaying her welcome - even assuming that the computer system in place, in a complete break with tradition, will work as intended - it is rather obvious that even the more anxious of the illegals, wanting to go beyond just having a laugh at the Home Office and its hapless Minister and just delete it, can simply take out the SIM card, throw it in the Thames and buy a new one at the nearest Tesco store, all for a tenner!

In the meantime, we, the taxpayers (yes, sadly, despite being a foreigner I do pay taxes and a shedload of them - in fact, a lot more since bloody Gordon decided to squeeze Middle England's pips) will be facing a bill of several £m's completely wasted in a useless scheme.

It is in days like these that I start to believe in the Original Sin - there is, in fact, no way I can have racked up enough evil deeds in my life to deserve such a desperately superficial and hopelessly incompetent bunch of dimwits to govern the Country I live in.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Delivering the goods (not)

As mentioned several times in this blog, bureacratic non-sense and obtuseness is not only to be found in EU and public sector offices, but it happily lives and festers in large (and not so large) corporates as well.

This is a well-known fact and one I am somewhat resigned to - what, however, really depresses me is when "technology progress" gets hijacked by those who just can't really tell their elbow from their, well, keyboard...

Take Amtrak, for example.

They have a fantastic web tracking facility, and if you place an order with an online retailer who uses them (and the retailer is clever enough to provide you with the parcel tracking ID) you can follow in almost real time the progress of your goods from Amtrak's website.

I used it and was quite impressed and rather pleased - how naive!

It so happens that if you are not home when they make the first deliver attempt, an automatic re-delivery attempt will be made on the following working day, and failing that one too, goods will be kept at their depot for two days only, before being returned to sender.

Now for the non-sense:

  1. there is no way to contact Amtrak and tell them: "sorry, I won't be home tomorrow, can we do the day after?";
  2. worse yet, it's not even possible to tell them "sorry, I won't be home tomorrow. Don't bother calling, save yourself time, money and, ideally, some air pollution too";
  3. finally, you can't even tell them "sorry, I won't be home tomorrow: can you please leave the parcel with my next door neighbour? He looks odd and I do disapprove of his singing habits, but all considered he's a reliable guy and unlikely to nick my parcel".

Nope. Niet. Zilch.

We are Amtrak, we deliver and we'll be at your door tomorrow, come hell or high water.

Apparently, there is a way to avoid that: to call the online retailer, explain to them that, no, you won't be home tomorrow, then have them contact Amtrak to re-arrange delivery.

Now, if anyone has ever tried to get in touch with an online retailer's Customer Service call centre and tried to explain to them even the most basic change (it once took me half an hour to convince a guy that my postcode change was not because of my whim, but RoyalMail's decision over which I had, regrettably, very little influence) you'll know why I shuddered at the thought.

To me, the infuriating part is the sheer nonsense of a system that allows no flexibility whatsoever, whilst it would be really trivial to make a minor modification to their IT systems and business processes to allow customers to pick, online, a more convenient date: this would result in greatly more satisfied customers, great cost savings to them and, lest we forget, less environmental damage from so many missed deliveries.

They already have all the systems in place (witness the tracking system) and the facilities to manage that flexibility - it is not a matter of re-designing it or implementing it from scratch.

I can only conclude that their IT folks never talk to "the suits," who, for their part, can't be bothered to talk to their call centre staff who would undoubtedly explain to them that probably 30% of delivery trips are in vain.

So much so for technology progress...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

To France, to France!

Apparently, should Ms Royal win the presidential elections, the French can look forward to a €1,500 minimum wage - and unemployment benefits of up to 90% of previous salary.

Not bad, eh?

Especially considering that, should Mr Brown tragically become Prime Minister in UK all we can expect here in Britain is more taxes and misery.

Of course, Ms Royal's Socialist policies are so completely non-sense that it won't take long for the Country to self-destroy, but, hey, so long as it lasts, I can live with a €1,500 minimum wage to stack Primtemps shelves in Cannes... that would be more than what I used to earn as a PhD Technical Director in Italy about 10 years ago!

Vive la France!

Red Tape Galore

Apparently "If stacked up, the total amount of legislation passed since the start of the EU would be nearly as tall as Nelson’s column." (source: Open Europe bulletin: 19 February 2007).

Having read that, I was somehow overwhelmed by a sudden sense of impotent rage: how could one possibly deal with such a staggering amount of regulation is honestly beyond my comprehension.

But that's beside the point - what really enrages me is the reflection that:

  1. it is virtually impossible that ALL of that legislation is about matters that are relevant and, in some meaningful sense, "useful" - in other words, I expect a large part, possibly the majority, of it all to be about irrelevant or otherwise trivial matters.

  2. all that paper was produced at great expense by incredibly well-paid obscure bureacrats who were busy just creating work for other well-fed bureacrats (thus achieving Keynes' vision of "50% of the population digging holes and the other 50% filling them");

  3. hence, the waste of money that could have otherwise been put to some productive use must be staggering and, almost certainly, still ongoing - if anything, at accelerated speed.

Not to mention, the amount of wasted effort that that red tape causes to EU businesses, estimated, by the EU commissioner Gunter Verheugen himself, at more than €600bn a year.

Is it possible that nothing, ever, can be done about this?
How long will we stand such abuse by faceless, unelected, unaccountable paper-pushers who have no interest whatsoever in giving EU businesses, men and women, half a chance to compete against the rest of the world?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Flashing it

Apparently, in the "Television Without Frontiers" directive currently undergoing negotiations there is a "requirement to flash a warning on the screen every 20 minutes whenever product placement is used in programmes."

Quite apart from the absurdity of the obligation, I can already figure your average family, slouched on the coach and having a competition, following the flashing on screen of a "Product Placement Warning," as to who will be the first to actually spot the product.

Was it that can of Coke? the box of Trojan condoms apparently left lying on the floor? the lady's underwear from M&S?
and, come to think of it, should I flash a warning here too?

I have also little doubt that our ever resourceful Eurocrats will already have defined in excruciating detail the size, colour, frequency, font, pitch, positioning, and about other 20 parameters for the warning's placement.

The most amusing bit, as all the non-bureacrats amongst you will have spotted, is that, it will achieve exactly the opposite effect than intended: rather than warn a supposedly dozed and half-witted consumer to beware the evil forces of consumerism are at work, it will, in fact, attract attention to the "placed product" and away from the dramatic tension (if any) of the movie.

Who needs plots and drama and creative tension any more?

I am just about wondering whether there will be a business opportunity in creating a clandestine market of "non-spoiled" movies here... I can already see those cinephiles, wearing dark glasses, fake beards and upturned collars approaching you on street corners offering you "a good one, mate"

Online downloads, anyone?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bums on seats

That at least seem to be the latest education policy trend from the UK Government.

I will explain, if I may.

Apparently, there is now a new regulation (yep, another one - not one day of rest for our Whitehall valiant guardians of our children's welfare) that essentially forbids parents to take children away from school for, say, a holiday, outside school half-term breaks.

Now, that would be something to applaud were it applied with some grain of common sense: after all you don't want children wandering around or, God forbid, catching flights for holidays abroad left and right (by the way, what's all this fuss about flying? are you all falling prey to Labour's misinformation propaganda machine? I would have expected my readers to be more clued up... but I digress!) leaving teachers to cope with an ever-varying classrom attendance.

However, one would also expect that the policy were applied with some degree of common sense: in other words, if the child is achieving top grades, shows no signs of falling behind and is prepared to do some extra work before and after the week's absence in order to catch up with the others, well, maybe some allowance may be made.

fter all, isn't that what we all deal with either as managers or as staff? So it would be good to somehow responsibilise the kids early on: "If you want to take a week off, well, you may, but be prepared to work harder to compensate for that."

Well, not if you are dealing with our schools' headmasters: 'no' means 'no', and there are no derogations to the rule - no matter how sensible preparations one makes, how much planning effort the child puts into it: take your kid away for a week, and that will be regarded as "unauthorised absence."

(The amusing bit here - that seems however to completely escape to our erstwhile bureacrats - is that they even have a form to let you apply for extra holidays. You can certainly fill it in and submit, they'll just refuse it. Isn't that sublime?)

What the consequences may be, I do not know. Terrible, I suppose, and unerring: probably Social Services (that bright example of efficiency, competence and, above all, never missing a day at work) will be called in, the child may be put up for adoption, most likely parents will face fines, possibly jail sentences.

I don't know - I will find out when we come back from snowboarding :-)

Blame it on the customers

From the OpenEurope newsletter:
"Commission officials have blamed the results of a recent poll, which found that most people in the eurozone want a return to their old national currencies, on people getting "mixed up." (Telegraph, 30 January)"

Don't you love the Eurocrats?
It reminds me of when a notoriously corrupt Italian politician (Bettino Craxi, for those who remember him) commented on the unfavourable outcome of a referendum, stating that "48% voted No, the others got the wrong answer."

In Italy, for example, it is a well-known, everyday occurence, that the introduction of the Euro caused a massive retail price increase - roughly, most retailers, big and small, changed their prices equating 1,000 Liras to Eur 1, ie, twice the official change (Eur 1 to 1,936 Liras).

In Germany, they gave up a strong, stable DM to get a weak, unreliable currency, sharing debt default risks with the like of the Italians and the Greeks.

The Spaniards who, very much like the Italians, used to regularly devalue their currency to keep their exports competitive on the world market, lost a nice tool.

The French, well, as per the usual (CAP anyone?) got the best deal - but still they complain, because, well, because they're French!

However, 7 years on, the so much vaunted advantages of the currency union seem to have reduced to just not having to exchange currencies when going on holiday abroad in Europe: hardly something that keeps people worrying awake at night.

The growth in inter-country trade has failed to materialise, far from becoming an economic super-power on the world stage, Europe is becoming more and more irrelevant, and Eurozone countries are less and less attractive to foreign investors (FDI is in sharp decline -see the recent UK Treasury report, here).

The costs, however, especially in bureacracy and administrative costs have been huge: little surprise that people are complaining that they haven't seen any "bang for their bucks" (more like a 'pop').

But, hey, what does the European Commision say about people complaining? that they are "mixed up"

I love this - I am almost looking forward to one of my clients complaining about being overcharged for shoddy work, delivered late and over budget: rather than groping for some lame excuse, I'll just tell him: "It's not me, mate: it's you. You are mixed up!"

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A tale of de-regulation and madness

As I mentioned elsewhere, bureaucrats do not belong to public sector only, but lurk and thrive in organisations big and small of all types.

Granted, large corporations have a much greater share of them: and, these days, you don't get much bigger than a former telecom state monopoly - so here's a tale of bureacracy madness from Italy, where the love for the 'carta bollata' (that could liberally translated into 'legalised paperwork' - not even sure there's an English equivalent: comments sought and welcome!) has joined forces with the Italian newfound disregard for customer service.

It so happens that my dad used to have a broadband (ADSL) service with the former state monopoly incumbent (Telecom Italia): if not a great service (try and get hold of a 'customer care representative' - let alone get anything sorted) it did provide what it was supposed to, a fast(ish) connection to the 'Net.

Being from a generation that went through the war, I can hardly blame him for being thrifty and, having resigned himself to my living in sunny England, he also had signed up with Tele2 to take advantage of lower international call rates.

However, being naturally suspicios of "offers too good to be true," he had steadfastly refused to take up repeated, insisting and, let's face it, mildly bullying Tele2's offers to sign up to additional plans and offers.

The Tele2 folks must have resented his stubborn attitude, so they decided, without consulting him, to upgrade his existing plan to a flat-rate offer that, on the face of it, was not so convenient to him.
However, wisely realising that it would have been more trouble to terminate it than pay the few extra monthly euros, my dad accepted this one as just the last in a string of little administrative abuses one has to endure if one lives in Italy.

That was probably his mistake, I would guess: emboldened by a seeming submissive attitude on the customer's part, the Tele2 bureacrats made the subsequent move, going straight to Telecom and claiming him as their customer and asking Telecom to transfer the line (for those of technically inclined mind, they 'unbundled' him).

This, mind you, without telling him, without gaining proper signed authorisation, without even bothering to actually connect him to their systems either.

Telecom Italia is obliged, by the Italian Communication Authority, to release a line to another competing telecom firm within a very limited timeframe (I gather it's 4-5 days) so they really can't trouble themselves with details such customer's authorisations (let alone his wishes) - they just hurl it over the wall to Tele2 and forget all about it.
Of course, both firms could put in place systems to ensure mistakes are minimised: but why bother when the Authority is clueless as to how to enforce good behaviour and customers are powerless to do anything about it.

To cut a long story short, in November he lost access to broadband (Telecom had dutifully terminated his subscription - to add insult to injury, he now owes them Eur150 for "early contract termination") and after a few weeks voice telephony was terminated too.

Tele2 in the meantime did NOT connect him to its own systems, nor bothered to return calls, faxes, letters, pigeons and drum signals - my dad would have happily travelled to their offices to sort the matter out: sadly, in true 21st Century enterprise fashion, they seem to have none: all one is left is calling their call centres ("Press 1 for existing customers, 2 for sales, 3 for billing enquiries, 4 for upgrading your services, 5 for technical support and 6 to repeat these options again" - sadly, if your number doesn't come up (they hardly have "press 11 if you are pissed off with us and want to talk to someone with a few neurons left") you are pretty much stuck.

Telecom Italia wasn't much help either: having released the line to Tele2, all they could provide as help was "we'll reconnect you as soon as Tele2 releases the line" - which, incidentally, they are not obliged to do (as they may be clueless, but are not incumbents - hence the Authority lets them off the hook).

Considering legal action in Italy is obviously out of the question: one might as well move house and take up a new telephone line in the new place - probably cheaper and certainly less exhausting.

So, two months on, here we are: no broadband, no telephone line, and no end in sight for a saga that is probably funny for those not involved, but sadly marks another victory for the bureacrats and, yet again, a defeat for common sense and decency.

The tale continues...