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!"