Monday, March 31, 2008

today : the blameless

Somewhere in an office in the bowels of British Airways HQ there sits a faceless, nameless man in a grey suit. He is satisfied, as he neither thinks or believes that the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal 5 is anything to do with him. The blame is someone elses, although whose he couldn't say exactly.
Around him are other offices occupied by other faceless, nameless people in grey suits. They all think and believe the same. At Terminal 5 people are missing weddings and funerals and hard earned holidays, cricking their backs trying to sleep on airport chairs. Somewhere underground there are 15,000 items of luggage with owners, but nowhere to go.

Nobody is to blame. It's nobody's fault.

Everywhere. Schools that send 40% of their pupils out without the ability to read or add up. Hospitals that wheel their patients, not to the exit, but to the morgue, because the operation was a success but the infection didn't respond to treatment. Banks that leave their mortgage holders homeless, building projects that overun by years and vacuum up taxes, innocent citizens locked up whilst the guilty walk away laughing, companies with tanking share prices and swathes of redundancies. Armies that are supposed to liberate but end up brutalising and pissing on the faces of the people.

None of this is anyone's fault. In fact it isn't even anyone's responsibility. It just happens. Like when kids kick people to death on the streets, stab each other in gang wars, steal anything they haven't got and terrorise their communities. It's not their fault because nobody has taught them responsibility. Just like the man in the grey suit, they are blameless.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

today: Easter Traditions

Yay! It's the Easter holidays. Now we can all kick back, munch chocolate, watch useless kids films like Freaky Friday on the TV and look forward to the clocks going forward again.

And we can also laugh and cringe, as the delegates at the National Union of Teachers Conference get their moment in the press.

I am sure they enjoy it, those NUT types. Every year there is a raft of headlines and news stories inspired by their Easter Conference. And it just happens at the time when all the other newsworthy stuff shuts down and has a couple of weeks off. So they have a clear run. Whichever correspondents draw the short straw and have to work the holiday weekend is dispatched to wherever the pissed-off pedagogues congregate.

What follows is a run of stories that often begins with some legitimate teacherly issues. Class sizes, Literacy, Special Needs, pay, workload, curriculum changes etc One or several of these is debated and gets an airing in the press. But as the weekend drags on the NUT conference always turns into a 1970s Union conference. Delegates bring their (left wing, as the NUT is always mentioned as the 'left wing' teachers' union) political views to bear on conference resolutions, many of them only tenuously connected with teaching.

It all starts to sound like a bitchy staffroom at the end of a particularly hard day.

This year we had The Koran being taught in schools - a pretty good idea in itself, but just not the kind of thing you trumpet loudly at the front of a conference when journalists from the Daily Mail are present. Then we had teachers accusing the Armed forces of - shock horror! - recruiting under-achieving working class boys into their ranks by visiting schools. This the NUT delegates' way of objecting to the war - finding a way, however, flimsy, that their objections can be attached to their profession.

Most of these issues are well worth debating. But NOT when the rest of the news cycle is dry and they become front page news.

The standing of teachers is already plummeting. The Tories spent 20 years undermining the professionalism, pay and status of teachers. And, despite some pay increases since 1997 the downward curve has continued. Partly this is to do with the 24 hour news culture. Not only are any negative education stories kept alive for longer, but they are then endlessly debated by people who have the knowledge of a sea-sponge and the debating skills of a roof tile. On top of that the 24 hour interactive news culture gives endless voice to the opinionated correspondents - many of whom have the opinion that teachers get paid too much, have too many holidays and have elbow patches on their frayed and battered corduroy suit jackets.

I just wish that each Easter the Sirs and Misses of the NUT delegates remember this when they stand up to get their fifteen seconds of fame.

Friday, March 28, 2008

today : for being different

I must say that i am, like many, inured to the violence and horror around us in the world. yet once in a while a story beggars my belief, this vicious murder stood out for me for two reasons. Firstly the young woman involved was trying to stop people from attacking her boyfriend and secondly, the attack was a base form of bullying. She was kicked and stamped to death for looking a bit different. Whether they were Goths or hippies or Emo's or tall or short or whatever matters not.

Her boyfriend was interviewed and said : "I just wish she had run away and left me to die".

Monday, March 24, 2008

Today : My 2008 Easter Message to the World

Rather than needlessly killing other people, perhaps think about not needlessly killing other people, because it's not very nice, okay? Also, if you are an investor, put whatever money you have into Government Bonds or Gold, as even cash under the bed might be dodgy over the next few months.

Today : Buy your snake oil and medicinal compounds here...

Yesterday I charged my first job as a consultant in my chosen field. I was wary.

Who doesn't hate consultants? They are the overegotistical, self important, I'm-cleverer-that-you, smoke and mirrors merchants who are bleeding our health and education systems dry by peddling snake-oil solutions to problems that are either mythical or actually created by consultants. They are the people who charge extortionate amounts to companies to do what the company is doing anyway. Consultants are smug. They are worse than lawyers.

I've sat in meetings and training sessions where some smarm in a too-loud tie is charging £1000 a day to address a roomfuol of grandmothers on the topic of sucking eggs, or even spouting facts and information that anyone who might read a book knows is just plain wrong.

I once spent one of those eyes half closed cheap coffee sipping mornings in a training session on teaching special needs students, and listened to an 'expert' hold forth on the topics of autism and dyspraxia. Not only did the 'consultant' wrongly describe the symtpoms of both conditions but everyone left the room wondering where the 'teaching' bit of the training came in. When it came to the Q&A session she just made up answers and spouted evasive empty nonsense.

I guess a loose definition of consultancy is that you get paid for your knowledge and experience of doing rather than actually doing something. In short, it is a licence to be a charlatan. Who is to know what you know or don't know? Not being required to demonstrate actual skill is a fantastic way to effectively get paid for nothing.

For the record, my first consultancy job depended on me having experience of doing things in the past and being able to employ my skill-set to do something in the present, so it wasn't strictly consulting in the way I've stereotyped these past few paragraphs. No meetings with powerpoint presentations and catered sandwiches were involved.

Monday, March 17, 2008

today : American I Dull

I accidentally watched American Idol yesterday. Here in the England we get all the shows from each week packaged together in one gloopy lump and broadcast on the weekend.

When I say 'accidentally' I was surfing around the channels during the dead hours of Sunday evening and whenI saw Idol I stopped and watched. So, okay, strictly I chose to watch it, I admit.

During the show I had an epiphany. I have written before about Simon Cowell's inordinate power in the pop music market and bascially my criticism of him is his narrow and rather blinkered opinion of what makes a good song. This week's Idol was trumpeted as the songs of Lennon and McCartney. One of the contestants - a pretty Fillipino-American woman, sang In My Life. And here is where I had an epiphany. Cowell dismissed it as a boring song. Another contestant - a dreadlocked Colombian American man, sang If I Fell. Cowell dismissed it as a boring song.

My conclusion: Simon Cowell has little interest in, knowledge of, or appreciation of music. In My Life especially is one of McCartney's most perfect melodies; combining pop music sensibility with the best of 20th Century American popular song. The trick is making the quite complicated seem utterly simple. The melody also perfectly matches the shifting wistful nostalgia and joy of the lyrics. In short, a work of genius. Yet I have a sneaking suspicion that Cowell is a Beatles ignoramus, and wouldn't know an American popular song if it slapped him in the face.

As I have said before, I do not envy him his success, or even really expect that he should be anything other than a moneymaking mogul. My complaint is that with such incredible marketing power at his fingertips, he is (to paraphrase what he said about the pretty Filipino- American woman) fatally safe and boring. The public has a huge capacity for consuming sophisticated, difficult and often bizarre culture, if it is offered to them. Why did the Beatles (or Prince or Stevie Wonder or Led Zep or Blur or The Arctic Monkeys or Joni Mitchell or...) strike gold in the first place? Cowell only knows the world of the superficial, forgettable and safe, and because of that does both the artists and public a huge disservice.

Friday, March 14, 2008

today : Not-quite-so-free market economics

If ever there was an action that crystallised the economics of modern Republicanism, it is the Bear Sterns affair.

On one side of their face they still trumpet free market principles, but even as they say it they pump billions of government dollars into rescuing an Investment Bank, and doing it in a sneaky way that sidesteps the law. Oh, and by the way, the plan places JP Morgan (another investment bank that exists to further wedge-up the super-rich) in pole position to take over a broken up and browbeaten Bear Sterns.

I thought that the market was King and that institutions should live and die by their performance within the market. But it seems not so. If your little family run store goes belly up then there is no help for you, but if you are an incredibly rich financial operation whose main job is to help the bloated rich get bloatier and richer, then it doesn't really matter how well or badly you are run, the Republicans've got your back.

So, hedge-fund gamblers, don't worry. Keep on gambling. The dice are loaded and you can't lose.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

today: Win at all costs.

You can't really argue with Sir Alex Ferguson's credentials as a winning football manager. He reels the trophies in with almost easy regularity. But his outburst this weekend upon losing to Portsmouth showed the world in stark relief why he is despised so much. He seems incapable of grace.

There is an alarming tendency to fete 'winners' - be it in business, politics or sport. There are those who applaud the winners who stamp on their opposition, cheat, lie and treat others badly. I would suggest that anyone can be a winner if they find their niche. But win-at-all-costs? Is it worth it? For Ferguson, this means being so one eyed about referees that he is more than happy to question their integrity. With other teams it is to viciously accuse them of cheating and never concede they may have won fairly and squarely. With journalists it is to answer any criticism with wrathful outbursts of bile and sulking.

In short, whilst reeling in those trophies, he comes across as an unpleasant, bitter man. People respect his achievements in football but are increasingly turned off by his relentless nastiness.

It is only natural to be disappointed by failure. It is okay to be ambitious and exacting. But when this comes with behaving like a cry-baby and a bully it is simply not acceptable.