Friday, 24 March 2017

Caring Schmering

Empathy. It’s overrated. Gets you into all sorts of trouble. And yet not having any also seems to get you into trouble. You can’t win.
Take, as exhibit one, this photo:

Woman walking, I like to call it. It was taken by a chap called Jamie Lorriman when a mentally unstable chap with a grudge decided he’d drive a car over Westminster Bridge and then stab a policeman. You know, that crime that happened on Wednesday that absolutely no newspaper or broadcaster is turning into a huge deal that can be appropriated by bigots to further their own agenda. The photo was subsequently used by a bigoted fool (whose name really isn’t worth knowing, but oddly enough turns out he’s a Trump supporter, go figure) as evidence that she didn’t care about what was going on (‘look at her, look at her, just casually walking past a dying man without any empathy at all!’) and that therefore Muslims = bad and Christians = good. The photographer came out in support of her today to say ‘well of course she cared, she was in shock, look at all these other photos I took which show her to be distraught,’ etc, bla.

Whatever. The point is why do we care (ah ha, I see what you did there) whether she cares or not? I know, empathy is what makes us human, how would we cope if no one cared about anyone else, society would collapse, Google would become sentient, our bank accounts would marry our cars and we’d all go to Hell in a handbasket, fine. But. Really?
Altruism, selflessness, the principle of having concern for others. Lauded, considered a virtue, is the basis of religions and society. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Altruism could be loyalty, the concern for special relationships, friends, family and so on and in that form it’s admittedly useful from an evolutionary standpoint because (a) it seems to ensure that parents are nice to their children, and (b) is reciprocal, in that the nicer you are the nicer people generally are to you. Which brings me to the fact that there is some debate about whether people can actually be altruistic. To be truly selfless, to truly care, there has to be nothing in it for you. There’s a cost to you, but there’s no benefit. But there is a theory called psychological egoism, which holds that humans are always – always – motivated by self-interest. The desire to experience pleasure and to avoid pain. Being nice makes us feel good, it makes it more likely that others will be nice to us.
To take the concept of altruism and turn it into a stick with which to beat people with strikes me as being the antithesis of, er, empathy. On the one hand it’s saying you’re a good person because you care, and on the other hand it’s demonstrating your complete lack of care by attacking someone else’s reactions (and in this particular case it’s decrying a lack of tolerance by being intolerant, but no one ever said bigots were logical I guess).
Just…let’s understand that you can be a good person while not necessarily giving a shit about everything. Some of us find it a bit harder to do.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

So, yes. The ongoing saga of the starship Vodafone, and its continuing mission to be as crap as possible. To boldly go where no man – where no one – has gone before, except maybe Southern Rail. They’ve been there. They’ve been there a few times. In fact they’ve been there so often they really should have a season ticket, which would cost them a small fortune and leave them feeling dissatisfied and disappointed, like coming home to find that someone’s eaten all the chocolate hobnobs and there’s only a stale digestive left.
But this isn’t about Southern Rail. This is about Vodafone, and their continuing mission to surpass every previously accepted norm of incompetence, like they’ve dug up Norris McWhirter and are trying desperately to revive him so he can create a whole new Guinness Book of Records entry for Most Pathetically Useless Company in the Western World.
Vodafone, you are truly, absolutely, mind-boggingly shit.
You already know about the ridiculous bill they’ve landed me with, as a result of La Child doing whatever the hell it is adolescent children do with their phones, but ever since complaining bitterly to Vodafone about it the company has managed to dig ever bigger holes. ‘Don’t send texts to La Child,’ I told them, ‘because she’s a child. If you can’t send texts to me, then at least send them to the number registered as the account holder.’
‘Yes, yes,’ they say, grinning like a local asked by a tourist for directions in a language they don’t understand, and of course an hour later La Child tells me she’s had the most bizarre conversation with someone from Vodafone who wanted to talk about ‘the complaint’.
Yes, after having been told that that particular number went directly through to an 11 year old child with neither the competence nor the authority to deal with the account, Vodafone called that very child to discuss why it is they’d allowed an 11 year old child to incur such horrific charges. You couldn’t make it up. So I call Vodafone again. ‘Seriously, lads, don’t call la Child. She’s a child. She’s 11. If she walked into your shop and asked you for a phone you’d tell her to run off and play with her dolls. Come on, cease with the silliness now.’
‘Yes, yes,’ they say, grinning like a… you get the picture. So I try a different tack. ‘OK, we’re getting nowhere now. So I tell you what we’re going to do. I’m cancelling my direct debit. I’ll pay you what I’d normally pay you, plus what I’d have to have paid up front you to use all that nice extra data. But I’m not paying you the balance. You want to talk about that, call me.’
And lo, the direct debit was cancelled, and today la Wife – la Wife, note, the number registered to the account holder at least but still not the number I’ve told them to call – got a text. ‘Oh,’ it said, ‘you appear not to have paid your bill this month. Would you mind awfully going to to pay it please?’
As it happens, Vodafone, yes, yes I would mind. You can take your bill and you can shove it so far up your router cable that you might, just, possibly, start to take note of how very pissed off I am. I try to contact them again, specifically to tell them that their bill does roll up nice and tight and can therefore be used for anal filling purposes, but the website is down. So instead I wander over to twitter to vent. Vodafone respond with this: ‘have you tried our online chat service?’ Er, yes, I believe I have. And calling. Over the past two weeks I’ve spent about 4 hours on the phone to you cretins, and here we still are, no further forwards. ‘Oh,’ say Vodafone, ‘how about, er, our chat service?’
Fuck me with a big stick marked “Really?”
So Vodafone. Let me spell this out for you in words you might actually understand: DO NOT CALL LA CHILD. DO NOT CALL LA WIFE. CALL ME. UNTIL THIS IS RESOLVED I NO PAY YOU NO MONEY. You have my number, and so does the ombudsman.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

And she emerges, blinking, into the sunlight

Regular readers of this admittedly irregular blog will recall that La Child is A Bit Clever™. In terms of intellectual ability she falls somewhere between that annoying friend who seems to be good at everything, and Einstein.
Did you hear the quotation marks there? “In terms of intellectual ability”.
In terms of good old fashioned gumption, La Child falls instead somewhere between Homer Simpson and a three toed sloth. Taking her out of school coincided, by some freakish twist of fate, with the onset of major league puberty, so what with her sudden appreciation of absolute freedom, the realisation that late nights and even later mornings were an actual option, and the dawning of the Age of Rage, you won’t be massively surprised to learn that not much academic stuff happened for a while.
And that was fine. Everyone* will tell you that when you take a child out of school there really has to be a period of unschooling/de-schooling/farting about (delete as appropriate) in order for the little cherubs to adjust to their new, less structured life. That period of unschooling can take a few weeks, a couple of months or, in our case, about two years, but however long it takes it’s an important step. And so we were fairly relaxed about it all. La Child still did stuff. She climbed walls, she perfected her Judo throws, she learned to do a triple Salchow**, she did all that outdoors, activity type stuff that for whatever reason she hadn’t had a chance to do very much of at school. And slowly, some more academic activities started to emerge. She’d go on tours of the National History museum and do a half day DNA sequencing course (the full day ended with you having to bring home a cloned cow, didn’t fancy that); she’d attend a course on the medicinal qualities of various herbs at the Chelsea Physic Garden; she’d spend a day dressed up as Queen Anne at Hampton Court, learning all about the Tudors, and so on.
Then, out of the blue about six months ago, she suddenly announced that she was ‘ready’ and, even more amazingly, ‘willing’ to start studying Maths, and English, and Science, and ‘other stuff’. When La Wife and I picked ourselves up off the floor, we found a little group of other home ed families who were keen to start some more structured learning, and we all clubbed together to bring in tutors.
And now, six months later, La Child is about to take her first GCSE, and by all that’s unholy she’s chosen Maths. She’s 11. Next year she intends to take her English, Biology, Physics and Art GCSEs. Year after that, who knows. ‘Other stuff’ maybe.
Two interesting things stem from all this:
1. If you happen to home ed, don’t let anyone tell you that a relaxed approach doesn’t work. Children will learn stuff when they’re ready to learn stuff. After all, we’re happy enough to adopt a ‘let them learn at their own pace’ approach before they go to school, aren’t we? What does it really matter how old they were when they first crawled, or walked, or spoke, or managed to hold it in long enough not to make an almighty squelchy mess doewn their trouser legs? By the time they’re adults no one will know or care. So why are we so very paranoid about filling them full of facts once they hit school age? “13 years old and you don’t how to factor a quadratic formula? Shit, you’re fucked my sun.” Don’t think so.
2. La Child never quite seems to lose her propensity to surprise. There are times when we forget just how advanced she is, with all that cleverness lost in a sea of attitude and angst, but every now and again she’ll do something to remind us why we went down this road in the first place. And I refer the honourable member to my statement, made some moments ago somewhere near paragraph three, to wit: La Child falls somewhere between Homer Simpson and a three toed sloth. Typical teen, hours spent on Instagram and facetime, but work is a rude word best left unspoken. And yet, here we are with a child who has had to pick herself up by the bootstraps and not only learn all that good GCSE level Maths stuff, but also (in order to catch up with her far older class mates) all of that pre-GSCE level Maths stuff that she didn’t bother learning when she first left school. She’s been sat on her bed all hours of the day and night poring through the books, and bugger me if she hasn’t done it with a smile and a determination hitherto unknown in Casa Branza.
I’m proper proud, I am.

*not literally, obvs.
**no, she didn’t.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Sorry, what?

Today I ‘ave been mostly getting a referral to an ADD clinic. No, not for La Child, although Lord knows that wouldn’t be a massive surprise, would it? No, for me. Moi. The grown up, sensible, healthy (I didn’t say ‘fit’, stop sniggering at the back there) member of the family.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

It’s not as if the referral came as a massive surprise. I didn’t walk in saying ‘Doctor, doctor, I have the sniffles,’ only for her to turn around and say ‘Right then, it’s the ADD clinic for you.’ That would be a crap joke. I was aware that by saying to the doctor ‘here is my list of symptoms, do you think it might be ADD?’ a referral might ensue. It’s more that I’m in two minds (oh, ha ha, very funny, I see what you did there) about whether I’m wasting everyone’s time.

I realise that a little background may be necessary, so sit down children, make yourselves comfortable, pass around that plate of apple quarters and let me tell you a story. Ever since always I’ve had trouble concentrating. Focus has been an issue. My mother used to say, as La Wife currently does (and as I do if anyone asks), that I get bored easily. Scarily easily. I flit from thing to thing. I get terribly interested in something, anything, for a very brief period of time and then I move on. I’ve always thought that this may have something to do with me just finding it very easy to learn stuff. I pick things up very quickly, so I need to keep moving on from thing to thing. But that’s the macro level. The very same thing happens at the micro level. As I write this blog my mind wanders to other things: what work should I be doing, how much should I be charging that client, I wish it would stop raining, where has my boss disappeared to, where the Hell is that noise coming from, how do I stop it, what happens if I hit it, I wonder if La Wife has received my text yet, ooh, ooh, what time is it, have I missed that meeting, where’s my building pass, my glasses are annoyingly dirty, what’s happening on Facebook, I wonder what the trains will be like tonight, and so on and on and on and on. Getting to the end of a sentence is murder; getting to the end of this blog will be a marathon. Getting through a day is a frustrating exercise in plate spinning. It’s a miracle I ever made it through school, let alone university, professional exams, a career, life.

But that’s precisely why it is that I wonder whether in truth I’m wasting everyone’s time. Because I did get through school, and I did get through university, and I did get through my professional exams, and my career, and life (so far). I just get bored. Doesn’t everyone?

But then again, let’s look at the symptoms: difficulty focusing, work takes longer than it should, attention to detail must do better, commitment to getting stuff finished slightly lacking; difficulty focusing on conversations, worry so much about concentrating on what someone’s saying that by the end of the sentence you realise that you haven’t heard half of it, or zone out half way through a conversation and get shouted at for not paying attention (by La Wife mainly); chronic impulsivity, do now, worry later, I’ve even bought a house impulsively (‘yeah, fine, it’ll do,’ etc), and I certainly tend to say stuff I almost immediately regret. And the tapping, good God the tapping. I can’t sit still. Drives La Wife mad. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap tap. That and the Italian bouncing leg of tedium. And the continuous fiddling with something, anything. Maybe there’s something in this.
The alternative is that I’m just a rude bugger. An impolite sort beset by a low boredom threshold. Which would just make me a horrible person, and it’s certainly not what I want to be, so by definition I can’t be, because otherwise I wouldn’t care, would I?

Except I don’t always care. Empathy levels: negligible to none. Worrying about other people requires effort, work, attention, and I don’t have much of those to spare. So perhaps I am just a rude bugger. Who knows?

Hopefully the consultant to whom I’m being referred knows. And if it is ADD? Well, then probably nothing. I seem to have managed to reach the ripe young age of [not important, nothing to see here, move along, move along] without assistance so I’ll probably continue in that manner. It would just be nice to know.

And if it isn’t ADD? Well, then I’m just a rude bugger. Tap tap tap.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Vodafone: money grabbing gits

Vodafone. They’re fuckers, aren’t they?
Right. A survey: hands up all of those of you with children. Quite a few, very good, well done: the equipment works. Now, hands up all those of you with children old enough to own a smartphone. Oh look, all the hands stay up (ha ha). Now, all those of you please with children who actually have a smartphone.
Oh look. Still quite a few of you.
Now, just for those last precious few of you, a warning: take their phones away. Right now. Walk into the bedroom, interrupt their important FaceTime, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram session in mid-flow. No explanation or excuse needed, just walk in, snatch, and walk out.
If your child walks out behind you demanding a reason, try this: "Dearest child, I love you more than I love life itself. I would walk into the deepest, hottest fires of Hell for you. I would take a bullet for you. If you were dying I would rip my own heart out and offer it up to the Gods for you. You are the light, you are the life, you are my soul and desire. Without you I am nothing. But no, you cannot spend £1,000 in data charges."
For yes, dear reader, the painful truth must be told, and that painful truth is that La Child, ‘gor bless ‘er cotton socks, has indeed racked up £1,000 of data charges with Vodafone.  
Not that we knew about it until the money disappeared from our account. Not one text was delivered to my phone. Not one call from Vodafone to say ‘this is unusual expenditure, has someone stolen your phone?’. Not one email, or letter, or communication of any kind. There were three texts to La Child’s phone, but La Child in her infinite wisdom decided they were best ignored as otherwise daddy ‘might get a bit upset.’ Not that, on eventual inspection, they revealed much. Text one said ‘you’re getting close to your limit,’ the second said ‘you’ve reached your limit,’ and the third and final text said ‘you’ve spent £26’.
So here we are, two weeks later, with La Child having used up 24GB of data and Vodafone presenting us with a £1,000 bill.
Oh, we’ve had words with Vodafone of course. First we tried the ‘she’s an 11 year old child, for goodness’ sake,’ approach, to which Vodafone pointed out that (a) how were they supposed to know the phone was being used by an 11 year old child, (b) the account holder is old enough to spend the money if they want to, and (c) it’s the parent’s job to control the phone usage of the child. All good points. So then we suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, the number registered as they main account holder should be the number to which texts saying ‘you’re about to go over your limit,’ should be sent. Ah, but, said Vodafone, the texts are automated, and the system sends them to the phone that’s doing all the usage, nothing we can do.’ Less good point, I thought.
Finally, we said ‘hang on, surely, surely there’s a cap. Didn’t the EU recently require there to be a cap on mobile data?’ Vodafone’s response? ‘Ah, yes, well, you see, only on data roaming, not on domestic data.’
What an odd position we find ourselves in. La Child was on a 6GB data allowance for some £30 a month. Increasing that to £24GB costs a further £10. Use 24GB without paying that additional £10 and it costs you £1,000.
Let that sink in for a moment. £10 if you pay up front, £1,000 if you don’t.
A 100 fold increase for not paying up front? I’m not massively familiar with consumer goods and services legislation, but that sounds like a penalty to me, and my hazy knowledge of first year law suggests that penalties are unlawful.
But to be fair that's not the point. Vodafone’s argument would be that the contract is unambiguous – we signed a contract that said, quite clearly, that any usage above the allowance would incur ridiculous costs, and so we can hardly complain now when we’re presented a bill for just that. But Vodafone are aware, also to be fair, that the bulk of those who end up racking up these kind of costs are children. We’re not the only family with a child who had an ‘oh fuck’ moment and didn’t know what to do to fix it. So surely it’s incumbent on Vodafone to do what they can to prevent it happening in the first place .
Caps are an opt out service for data roaming now, because mobile phone providers have to do it. The EU requires it (and no, you cannot shout "Brexit!" on this one, we haven't left yet). On Vodafone they’re set at £50, so without physically opting out of the service, you cannot spend more than £50 abroad. Gone are the days of being bankrupted by roaming charges. Domestically, however, you can spend £1,000 or more, because caps are an opt-in service. How is that remotely logical? Unless of course Vodafone (other mobile providers are available, and every bit as evil) are just money grabbing bastards. Surely not? A corporate behemoth which is quite happy to allow people to rack up unreasonable and unexpected costs when it would cost them nothing, relatively speaking, to prevent it? Couldn't be, could it? 
So, here’s my request. I’d like you to tell me if you’ve been hit by a bill, from Vodafone or anyone else, in relation to data allowance breaches. It could be you, it could be your children, doesn’t matter – I want to know. Because what Vodafone and other mobile phone providers currently do isn’t right, and I want to be armed with the information I need to force them at least to introduce opt-out caps on monthly data usage.
In the meantime, walk into your child’s bedroom, interrupt their important FaceTime, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram session in mid-flow, take the phone, and walk out. You’ll thank me later.