Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Don't Mention The Balanced Scorecard!

I have a new manager. She's a little middle-aged lady who behaves a bit mumsy and probably thinks that's a good way to approach her role. I'm not sure she's going to be able to handle the insanity that is The Bank's bureaucracy and that she's going to blame us because we can and she doesn't get what we're doing.

We had a little “team meeting” this morning. She mentioned “Balanced Scorecards” and this set me off. All my intentions of being really calm and team-player-y went out of the window.

For those lucky enough not to know what a “Balanced Scorecard” is, it's a piece of HR bureaucracy that pretends that everyone in the company has jobs where they can meet a wide range of objectives: financial, operational, customer service, team development, whatever. I have to have “Treating Customers Fairly” (or TCF) objectives – TCF is itself a piece of bureaucratic nonsense imposed on banks by the FSA, and the last thing it ensures is that you'll get a fair shake from HSBC, Barclays or anyone else. I don't deal with customers. The only people who have less customer contact than me, or less influence over customer service, are the guys in the post room. But TCF has to be on my Scorecard.

And no, the Scorecards have nothing to do with our bonuses, pay rises and appraisals. Those are set at company level and in a discussion between the department heads every six months. We are judged entirely on how well we worked and played well with others, what impression we made around the office and if we saved anyone's backside from a kicking.

Making the managers go through the Scorecard process is designed to hide that fact. Because it's a pointless exercise in form-filling, it has no credibility with anyone. Yet we all have to pretend that it does. I had one manager who treated it with the affable contempt it deserved and I produced my best fiction in return. The New Lady Manager sounds as if she's going to take it seriously. In which case, she's going to have to do a lot of pretending, and ask her team to pretend a lot as well. Which means we're all living in Denial.

Which means that for me there's some raw emotional stuff going on. The way the system works is that the managers are nice to us for the six months on a daily basis – after all, they don't want to piss us off, they're busy and they can't take the conflict generated by handling a problem as it arises. So they store up the bad stuff and dump it out every six months in our appraisals. In writing. They might even be nice in the face-to-face meeting, but on the form, out comes all the stuff they didn't have the guts to handle at the time. Sound like the kind of family where you were snarked at for not knowing what to do, but no-one ever told you? Where instead of being proper guides to how to behave and what's expected, your parents sat back and judged, treating you not like their children but like strange visitors they couldn't get rid of? That's what happens at The Bank. And Balanced Scorecards are the way that gets covered up. To go along with the process is to be forced into some kind of complicity with denial. I really don't like that. And that's where the reaction came from.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Once More on the iPhone

I realised the other day that there are two things keeping me from getting an iPhone. First is the price combined with the 18- or 24-month contracts. Second and far more important is that I didn't want to look like Sad Dad with a Young Person's Toy. iPhone usage had to pass a certain unknown but clear point where anyone could have one and not look like they were trying to look like someone who “really” used one of the things. By the time Vodafone put it on their network, that usage point will have been reached. At least in central London.

Now to the price comparison. Or rather, putting my professional hat on, the price / feature comparison. Apple are often considered “expensive” as in “you can get a laptop for £400, and a MacBook costs £800”. This is true, but irrelevant. You can't get a Dell or HP laptop with the same spec as a MacBook for £400. Try it on the Dell website and see what happens: you wind up very close to the Apple price.

The iPhone looks bloody expensive compared to a £15 pcm Nokia 6303, but it has just a few more features. Apple control the price plan so that all the operators offer the same product and it's a full-weight plan: 600 minutes, 500mb download domestic use with 100 minutes and 20mb roaming. (There is a 150 minute option, but it's there to make the 600 minute one look good – it costs all of £5 a month less.) There's a charge for the phone at the lower end of the price plans. Spreading the charge for the phone over the term of the contract, the 600 minutes x 18 month contract works out at £50 pcm, 600 x 24 at £39 pcm and the 1200 minute plans at £44 pcm for either length of contract. Ignore that £50 pcm plan: that's there to upsell you to the 24-month version, or to the 1200 minute plan. Even so... ouch! Fix “the cost” at £39 pcm over 24 months.

The comparable Vodafone plans for the comparable kit from Blackberry (Storm 2), Nokia (E72 or N97 Mini) are, including the phones, £35 for 24 months. Step down to the Blackberry Curve 8520 or take the HTC Tattoo and you're at £30 pcm. So the “iPhone Premium” is £4 a month, or £92 for the 24 month contract. That's about the price of two seats in the Stalls of a top West End show. Or look at this way: for 13p a day, you get a nice warm glow of cool every day for two years. Over having anything else.

The SIM-only 600-minute with 500 MB of Internet and webmail is £20 pcm on a 30-day contract. So the I-need-a-new-phone-that-does-e-mail-really-well-with-a-QWERTY-keyboard premium is £10 pcm, and the touchscreen-and-really-good-web-browsing premium is £15 pcm. So the choice is between an 8520 (I need Mac synching) at £30 pcm and an iPhone at £39 pcm. And if I have Berry, I still need an iPod. It's coming up replacement time for my old iPod Mini. That's about £5 a month over two years. See how the gap closes?

I wouldn't even be thinking about this, but remember The Bank has banned us from using Google Mail and the like. If I had the sort of life where I needed to deal with personal mails during the day, I would need to be spending an extra £15 - £20 a month because of it, which is a direct cost of working there. There will come a time when I will need easily managed e-mails. I'll need to send and read attachments as well. But then, I'll be looking for a new job and will easily be able to justify the cost of the mobile Internet.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Fitzrovia Connections

There are some parts of London I don't visit or pass through from one year to the next. Fitzrovia is one of these. My connection to the area is that way, way back when I was a teenager, I spent the academic year 1972-73 at the Polytechnic of Central London engineering building on Howland Street.

It's now called the University of Westminster, and I'm betting a few other things have changed, for instance, the bible for first-year electronics is no longer Electronic Devices and Circuits by Millman and Halkias. At least not the edition we used. I wasn't the happiest of bunnies while I was there, and I abandoned the course to start at Exeter University in 1973. Walking past the place Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like yesterday when I'd been there, while much of the 1980's is as far away as the Hundred Years's War. It's a quiet part of town, with lots of advertising, media, design, education and about a million small cafes and restaurants. And Fitzroy Square...

I love that Winter afternoon light. To borrow a sentiment from The Kinks, "as long as I gaze on a West End sunset / I am in paradise".  My favourite was the view over the West end from the eight floor

stacks of the Senate House library, which I used to be a Convocation Member of until I let it lapse sometime in the late 90's. When you start your life, everywhere you go is about possibilities, but lately I've been noticing that it's more about memories. Fifty-five is an odd age. They say that the brain re-arranges itself in adolescence: I wonder if that happens in whichever part of middle-age I'm in. I could be full of remorse for all the things I didn't do, but somehow, it's as if that part of my life is gone, and I'm starting a new one.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Christmas Logistics

Okay, a really short one today. It's Christmas, a time of year that always takes me by surprise because I forget that the world closes for four days in nine. The 24th is a half-day and the shops are emptying out, the 25th and 26th are closed and then the days between that and the 30th are on half-speed, with the 31st another half-day and the 1st a Bank Holiday. Only the British could decide to have a two week semi-vacation in the depth of winter - a sensible nation would do it in, oh, July. Except the sun rarely shines in July these days. I've taken the week off to use up my holidays for the year, but it doesn't feel as restful as the other weeks do, because I have all these logistics about food to cope with. Basically Wednesday is the last day we can get food before Sunday. And don't hold out too much hope that the supermarkets will have a decent stock of anything on Sunday. Monday I'm back at work but half the cafes and sandwich bars in the West End will be shut. Now I think of it, I've been doing just-in-time inventory for food way before the car industry. And Christmas plays havoc with it. Easter is just as closed, but the crowds aren't as desperate. That's what really puts me off: the sheer desperation on everyone's faces as they rush round the shops, stocking up on stuff to have a "good time". I intend watching a few choice DVD's and trying to finish Enjoy Your Symptoms.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sophie's Choice and Striking Cabin Staff

I'm reading my way through Zizek's Enjoy Your Symptoms and in one essay he discusses William Styron's Sophie's Choice. Sophie (aka Meryl Streep before she discovered her true calling as a comedienne) was in a German prison camp. A guard tells her she has to choose one of her two sons to be saved, or both will be killed. She chooses one and the other dies. This induces so much maddening guilt that well after the war she chooses a relationship with a struggling painter and the two of them commit suicide. Zizek takes the whole thing very seriously, and why not? It was a successful movie and Styron was one of the great mid-century Writer-Drunks.

It's a crock, of course. First, on the safe assumption that the sons are equally worthy of being saved, Sophie is not making a choice, she's flipping a coin. Choice needs reasons, and the story doesn't work if there are reasons for preferring one son over the other. If there are no reasons, there is no choice, there is only picking. It isn't Sophie's choice at all, and nor is it Sophie's choice. It was the guard's. He woke up that morning and decided to give Sophie this chance. He might not have.

A more appropriate reaction is not guilt, but thanks. Remember, Sophie was going to lose both sons until given this chance. A better reaction might be anger at having to lose even one son and at being in the situation where the only reason she didn't lose both was the arbitrary power of the guard. But that would be a tad political. It doesn't give us a set-up for hundreds of pages of emotional indulgence and a slow descent into a kind of madness.

No guilt, no story - no story at least that a drunk could write. So for reasons internal to the needs of his story Styron has to hide whose choice it really was. But we go along with it. We go along with it because as readers of a story we are willing to be lead where the story-teller wants us to go, but also because we accept that those in or wielding power are not to be called to account for their actions. They do what they do because they can. We do not have the right to demand explanations or to pass judgement: only those with power can do that.

When the British Airways cabin staff were lead to a twelve-day strike, the story was about them and Unite. It was not about a management who pay people a basic £13,500 a year and expect them to live near Heathrow or Gatwick. An expectation that is so unrealistic given the rents and costs of houses in those areas that it tells you just how arrogant the management of BA are. The management are not seen as contributing to the strike by paying a wage too small to cover rent and council tax, let alone food and heating. The actions of the powerful in this story are as invisible as the moral choices of the guard in Sophie's Choice. How on earth did this happen? How did the powerful get to be invisible? Because it's easier for the victim to blame themselves and treat the actions of the powerful as like the weather, than it is to blame the powerful and so be lead to the need for political action.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Boy Meets Girl

One evening long ago when I was an attractive young man, I was having a picnic in St James's Park one summer evening with a young lady who was working as an M.P.'s researcher. We had one of those unresolved, will-we-won't-we, do-we-don't-we relationships that had been going on for a few years. At some stage she mentioned YABF (Yet Another Boyfriend) and I decided that the answer was NO, we weren't going to. It was at this point that I lost interest in our story. Not in her as a person, or in that evening – we were almost-flirting almost out of habit – but in our story. Boy Meets Girl is the most interesting story we human beings know, but that interest ends the moment we know that they are going to go their separate ways home with no residual regrets, desires or fantasies. Boy Meets Girl gets its potency because it's about possibility, about what might happen, and, which is what makes it unique, how long it might happen for. Boy Meets Girl doesn't end with the wedding, or the kids or even the divorce. As long as there is some reason they might meet again, something still between them, the story remains. It only ends when they walk away from each other with nothing to suggest that they must meet each other again.

Monday, 14 December 2009

I Can't Live Without... La Torre

Pret a Manger is all very well for a fast sandwich, but there is no substitute for a good Sandwich Bar. You can have the La Torre special (beef, blue cheese, mushrooms on ciabatta toasted) or you can make it up from the ingredients you see through the counter.  They have pasta and chicken curry, beef curry, meat balls with spaghetti or baked potato or salad or however you want it. As often as not, I get a fairly routine chicken escalope with salad to take away - being on a minimum-carb diet thing.

The real treat is to drop in first thing if I had to leave the house too quickly. Egg-and-bacon toasted on brown, cappucino. The ultimate filling breakfast. Eat at the counter in the window and watch the world hurry to work, the morning swimmers from The Oasis stop for a cup of coffee.

Good food is the strating point, it's the atmosphere that makes the place special. It needs an energetic owner who recognises his regulars, the right kind of lighting and decoration, enough of the smell of cooking to be welcoming and just enough background from the radio in the morning and conversations at lunchtime. La Torre has all of them. It's at 32 Endell Street in Covent Garden and well worth a visit.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Read The Manual

Most things now, from your mobile phone through Excel and on to cooking, are way too complicated to be understood from A to Z in one lesson. There are subtleties about the use of a paintbrush or a screwdriver that only craftsmen know. Quick: why should a frying pan be heavier rather than lighter?

The more you know you can do, the more you will do. The more you know about your tools and materials, the more you can get out of them and the easier your life will be. But you have to read the books. Why? well, spreadsheet software has been with us now for over twenty-five years and some of the smartest people alive have worked on developing Excel, Calc and the others. You're going to learn everything it can do in a five-day course and a Dummies manual? I don't think so. And that's just one of the applications you're using.

A good manual can be a straightforward how-to: Haynes car manuals and O'Reilly software books are terrific examples. The Dummies books are good as well if you can live with the style. Sometimes "the manual" is a love-it-or-hate-it book that makes you think – hate McKee's Story or like it, but you will never think the same way about writing after you're read it. At the other extreme is something as gnomic as The Art of War: that is a manual, but you've got to interpret it. A J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic is a clearly written and vivid manual - of how to apply Logical Positivism - and it made him famous. Categories for the Working Mathematician is a manual, and good luck.

A genuine manual does not promise to make you rich, tell you secrets, solve all your problems or otherwise change your life. Those are fakes, designed not to inform, but to mislead you into thinking that all it takes is a good idea and some trick of character. You're quite right to ask why if it works, the authors aren't millionaires as well.

The brain is a "use it or lose it" device: learning new stuff grows new neurons. You will learn stuff to do your job more easily and the other applicants didn’t. Read the manual.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The John Lewis Redhead

Today is utter trivia. There is something about tall, slim red-heads that cuts right through all my defences and makes me want to be... well, whatever it takes to be their husband or lover. Redheads are one of Nature's secrets: think carefully, you've never seen an ugly redhead. Ever. They are rarely shatteringly glamorous or sultry as brunettes and blondes can be, but they are always attractive and sexy. Well, John Lewis' agency Adam & Eve found a fine example and put her right at the end of their “Sweet Child of Mine” Christmas ad, and she's the best thing about Christmas so far.

I wish I could find a larger picture. I take one look at her and know that this is someone to whom nothing bad has ever happened nor will it ever happen. She's a one-woman oasis of calm, serenity and understated sensuality. In my dreams. And maybe in her life.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Examined Life - The Movie

I saw Examined Life recently: it's a film of interviews with a bunch of big-name philosophers: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.

Cornel West rapped away, interesting right up to the point where he mentioned 'white supremacy' and lost me. Are people still going on about that? Haven't they realised that it's only some white men who have the power and the rest of us are as screwed as everyone else? Appiah made sense at the time but nothing stuck. Singer is... Singer. Avital Ronnell made very little sense but sounded the part – that's what translating Derrida and studying with Kristeva will do to you. Michael Hardt rowed round Central Park, as he admitted that the idea of “going to the mountains, forming an armed cell and starting a revolution” was totally outside his experience. I got the idea he wanted some kind of revolution, but not what or how. It vanished into the mists of his syntax. Judith Butler takes a walk with the painter and activist Sunaura Taylor through the graffiti walls of San Francisco and they buy a sweater at a thrift shop. They talked about what it meant for someone in a wheelchair to “take a walk” and made the usual kinds of remarks about gender and disability being social constructions. Nussbaum mentioned capabilities and how she agreed with Aristotle that the aim of a society should be to allow each of its members to develop their abilities. I couldn't help thinking that she's a very handsome woman – but then I'm shallow like that. Zizek was huge fun, wandering around a rubbish tip, suggesting amongst a hundred other things that Nature is a series of catastrophes and not a beautiful system in fragile balance threatened by your breathing too hard. At one point he picks up a scrap from a porn mag and shakes his head “oh no, you call this porn?” suggesting a robust knowledge of the real stuff. The ICA audience laughed out loud. Of all of them, he's the best value for money.

The selection is not representative of modern philosophy, it's representative of the best-sellers of modern American philosophy. All of these people - except Nussbaum - are influenced by the French superstars: Barthes, Baudrillard, Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault. They're all more Hegelian than Popperian, more inclined to using words at the edge of their meaning rather than using a plain-speaking style. None are technical philosophers: epistemologists, philosophers of science or mathematics, metaphysicians or logicians. But then perhaps those guys don't examine life, only knowledge and its relatives.

The philosophy section in Foyles is packed with the French superstars and their backing bands and influences. There are few of the British Analytical Philosophers I grew up with (though Gilbert Ryle must have had a birthday or something because there's a chunk of his stuff). These people are the current thing. But then Peter Strawson was a star once and while I don't wish to speak ill of the recently departed, his signature work Individuals was one of the more unreadable and pointless uses of the human mind until the minor String Theorists got going.

Props, however, to Astra Taylor for making the movie. She looks to be the next Brian Magee, a sensitive and informed populariser of philosophy, and we've been overdue one of those for a while. I found I "got" some of them the better for having seen them: having seen Judith Butler, her performative theory of gender makes a lot more sense (even if it still doesn't quite work at more than the hand-waving stage).

Friday, 4 December 2009

Professor Singer's Drowning Child

In the movie Examined Life the philosopher Peter Singer gets to rehash that parable of the drowning child. Here's how it goes. You're walking through a public park and you see a small girl drowning in a shallow pool. You could save the girl easily enough, but you're going to ruin your shoes. What do you do? Well, gee whiz, I bet you said you'd save the little girl. Singer then points out that there are children dying every day who could be saved for the price of a pair of shoes – so why aren't you giving? Feel a little guilty now?

He really should have worked on Madison Avenue. Because as a philosophical story, this one is awful. So you get a feel for just how manipulative the example is, here are some other ways of looking at it.

There's no need to ruin your shoes. Just kick them off. A woman in high heels would do so without even thinking about it. Doesn't take three seconds. So where's the dilemma? You have to force it: it's not genuine.

How is a child drowning in the six inches of water usually found in a public fountain? Kids are really good at getting out of places they don't want to be if they have the slightest chance, and they make enough noise protesting. So who took all the little girl's chances away? Did she fall and hit her head? What did she fall on and might you do the same, with worse consequences since you weigh more and are falling from a greater height? Maybe she's so heavy she can't move herself, and you might not be able to either. Maybe someone's holding her down, and you've got a fight on your hands. Or maybe someone dumped her there, drugged, and is watching to make sure she dies, and you still have a fight on your hands.

Aid is the same. It's not enough to toss bags of rice out of an aircraft. You have to make sure the rice isn't appropriated by warlords or sold to buy gee-gaws or hoarded by the Big Men. You have to make sure that the money you gave is matched by the country's government, or they may just buy a nice trip abroad with the money they would have spent on rice but now don't need to because you bought the rice instead. See why my suggestion that the little girl was being held down isn't so silly?

When you rescue that little girl, she's not going to die of famine, civil war, disease, ethnic cleansing or drought next year. She's going to go on to live a good life, albeit with ups, downs and the odd traffic conviction. The little girl you save today through your charitable donation has much longer odds against surviving past, oh, next year. Which is why newspapers love stories about the one girl in the village who made it to Oxford University and don't tell you about the five others who died before they reached sixteen.

I know you think Professor Singer is “just saying we should think of others and we should give more”. No. He's really not. Read his books. He says you should give ten percent of your post-tax income to charity. Not because he's about good works, but because he's about playing on your middle-class liberal guilt with specious arguments to build a reputation.

The way you know he's not about the good works is that he doesn't insist that you should make sure you don't waste your donation. He doesn't say, anywhere, that you should examine the aims and activities of the charity, its organisation, track record and expertise, and give if you think it will be successful. I say, if you don't do this, you are being irresponsible, because you may be giving money to an organisation which will achieve nothing with it, when you could be giving to one that will make your money matter.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Names for Relationships

On hearing the phrase “friends with benefits” recently, my sister snorted something about silly pretentious phrases. Why can't they say “boyfriend”, she asked. I thought the phrase was a tad silly until I discovered that there is an episode of Sex and the City actually called “The Fuck Buddy”, which is a phrase I had only heard once before used by an ex-girlfriend to describe a relationship in her life at the time. I didn't like it then and I think it's an ugly phrase, but it describes something real.

The name from an earlier time were all linked to an overwhelming assumption of marriage as the only legitimate means of (hetero-)sexual relations. An “affair” was a long-running sexual relationship between two people at least one of whom was married. If neither party was married, it might be a “casual fling” if marriage was not on either parties' mind. If at least one party was married, and the relationship was casual, she was his “bit on the side” if he was married, and vice versa if she was. A boyfriend was just that: a boy-friend. If there was sex involved, they were lovers. She was a girlfriend in either case, because a mistress was in it for the money as much as the sex. A mistress knew he wasn't going to leave his wife, just as a male lover knew she wasn't going to leave her husband. Marriage was the context and the reference point.

Well, that ain't so now. People still get married, but much later and often after they have had children. An “ex” is the divorced or separated mother of your children. If there are no children, she's not an “ex”, but a former wife or old girlfriend. Before she was an “ex”, she was a wife or a partner or in certain contexts, “the mother of my children”. Before that she was your fiancee, and before that, your girlfriend. “Significant other” is an affectation, like calling women "the distaff side".

What's new are words to describe relationships that involve sex but not the assumption that you will start along the route to marriage or children. If you're having sex and living together, you're partners. When you're having sex, going to the movies, not living together and not intending to get married or move in, that's when you need “boy / girl friend”. If you both accept that you're still looking for Mr/s Right while in the relationship, that's “friends with benefits” unless you are both grown-ups, when you can call it “an affair”. Do not talk about “girlf's” and “boyf's” unless you are as cute as Susie Bubble. And if you're having sex regularly, but only sex, and then getting back to your lives? In the old days that was called “having an arrangement” and personally I think that phrase is preferable to “fuck buddies”. The phrases “fuck buddy” and “friend with benefits” both, to me, speak to a certain shallowness, and even callowness. Which is probably what my sister was really objecting to.