Are we all racists?

Alf GarnettCOMEDY-TRAILS-TELEVISION PROGRAMME..

Racism. A strong word indeed. These days, an often misused word I feel.
Now before I start this article, I want to make it quite clear and simple. I do not condone racism of any kind in any form. Racism.

At work we were discussing comedy TV of old. Some of you will be familiar with Goodness Gracious Me (Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nina Wadia, pictured on the right above) and Till Death Us Do Part (TDUDP) featuring a character played by Warren Mitchell, Alf Garnett pictured above on the left)
The description of the program Goodness Gracious Me as given on IMDB is “A British sketch comedy that explores the integration of Indian and British cultures through a series of satires,musicals and skits.” Bear in mind, this is acted out by British Indians.
For Till Death Us Do Part the description is given on IMDB as “A working-class Cockney bigot with a biased and experienced opinion of everything shares them bluntly and almost carelessly.

Are these programs racist? Well, we (An English man, a Ugandan/Scots man and an Irish man) didn’t think so. What we agreed upon was that they looked at their own cultures and those of their opposites (characters) and laughed and joked about them together.

Till Death Us Do Part probably courts the most controversy because of the language used by the main character. The language used by Alf Garnet could be (and most likely is) interpreted as racism, but no more than some comedians today who use similar language. Yes, it was borderline or cutting edge as they used to call it. But, it was comedy. It’s sole purpose was comedy. Nothing malicious. No racist intent. Again, yes Alf Garnett used coarse language when referring to people of other nationalities and those words would not be tolerated today, nor should they be. They where words of the time. I sound like I’m making excuses for racism and that’s really not how I want to come across. Incidentally, this series had eight seasons and was very popular. This series was last shown in 1975.

Goodness Gracious Me had no swearing in it and takes a look at life from a different perspective. It was an easy-going program that just made you laugh. This series was most recently shown in 2015.

If you think that either of the programs mentioned above are racist, then just bear with me a moment. Do you think Fawlty Towers is racist? Fawlty Towers (John Cleese, Andrew Sachs, Prunella Scales) ran for two seasons. Andrew Sachs played the part of a waiter who happened to come from Spain and was called Manuel whose grasp of the English language was not great and he was ridiculed for it. See anything that may be considered slightly racist yet? There was also an infamous episode called The Germans which would also be considered risqué – and extremely racist in parts. Yet most consider Fawlty Towers to be a great classic comedy. I certainly do. I have all the episodes. And mostly it was great comedy. However, if you watch this episode you may change your mind.

The definition of racism is given as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  or “hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.” The programs above where not made with this intention, rather they were made with comedy in mind and an exploration of differences. Have we become more sensitive to this issue, or are we getting to the point were if we think something isn’t agreeable with us we assume it must be racism or some other -ism? Are you offended because you think it is the politically correct right thing to say or think, or are you offended because you genuinely believe that a wrong has been done and as per the definition above, you believe that prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism has been directed at someone of a different race based on the belief that their race is superior?

Personally, I don’t think the latter is the case. I think there is an over use of the word racism and if we continue in this fashion we shall de-value the word and its correct use. This would be detrimental to all of us because the word then has no value or meaning.

I’m not trying to imply that racism does not take place and is not a thing. It does and it is. There is no place for racism in society today, to be clear. But we must be careful that we understand what exactly racism is before we start using the word because we don’t agree with what someone has said as an individual.
Do we take these views because we think we have a better comprehension of what racism is after the years of passed by? Or do we take these views because we think it makes us look more educated? Do we take these views because we are afraid we will offend someone if we do not?

Lastly I will give an example so you can better understand what I am trying to say not so eloquently!
Imagine an Asian friend goes on holiday and comes back to work. They have a sun tan. You pass comment saying how they have caught the sun. A person nearby overhears what you say, but does not hear the full conversation. They then report this to a manager.
At first impression, to the casual bystander, this may appear to be racism. In actuality, it is a genuine conversation and a genuine misunderstanding. There is no racism and there never was. But had the person who reported the matter stayed and listened this may have become fairly obvious. Thus, we all become fearful of what we may say in case it is misconstrued and we are ridiculed for it.
Had you said the same to someone with fair skin, nobody would have batted an eyelid. No one would care. But because the person on the receiving end is not fair-skinned, everyone within earshot who does not hear or listen to the full conversation assumes it must be racism because we are now overly sensitive and make that assumption based on what we think we know.

Maybe people who think like I do are the problem. I don’t know. I’d like to think that I’m fairly open and broad-minded. I’d certainly not class myself as any -ism. Perhaps I’m wrong. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Depression: My story

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All of us have our ups and downs. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t function normally. Indeed, those that don’t, don’t. This can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body, but it can be caused by mental factors too. What follows is my personal story of depression and how it affected me.

Some time ago my step-sister passed away. I regarded her as my sister [rather than step-sister] as we had known each other since we were 7 and over the years, more so the later years, had grown quite close. At the time I took her death on the chin. No real mourning, nothing. Perhaps that is the word to describe exactly how I felt at the time. Nothing. I was numb. With pain? Perhaps. Disbelief? Definitely. My sister was only 35 at the time. My parents had to bury their child, which is never nice. Cancer was the cause. (Hence why I get immense job satisfaction doing what I do – see article Pharmaceuticals overpriced? especially the conclusion on that article and the bottom of this article if you want to skip the boring parts).

Time passed, years in fact, and I still hadn’t really mourned the passing of my sister. Then it caught up with me. I didn’t care about life choices any longer. I didn’t care about consequence. I couldn’t see the point of doing anything. I asked my employer if I could take some time off the phones, as I worked in Customer Services at the time. I wasn’t really able to verbalize the reason why. They where unsympathetic at that point and told me I had to be on the phones or go sick. I went on sick that day. That’s when it all started.

I went to my doctor and did my best to explain how I felt, but not the reason why. My doctor was very understanding and prescribed me something for the chemical imbalance. I wasn’t convinced they would help, but tried them anyway.
In the meantime my employer started to take me seriously as my time was mounting up. They organised for me to visit their doctor. I went. Very posh it was too. It was like stepping into someones front room. It was in a more well-to-do area. The doctor was again very nice and asked me lots of questions.

After my visit, I was referred to a counsellor. I went. We didn’t really speak much. I asked her “Why would I speak to you, a stranger, if I don’t even feel I can talk about it to my own family?”
She had no answer. “I’m just another patient to you. I leave, the next one comes in. You don’t care about me.”
I went several times. It was the same each time. I didn’t feel like I wanted to tell her anything. What was the point? She wouldn’t understand. She might say she does, but she has no clue.

I was referred to an NHS psychiatrist. I went. I told her the same stuff. Her verdict – I’m normal. Yay!! It’s true.

I decided my son and I needed a holiday. Therapy. I think I even mentioned this to my NHS psychiatrist when I went. So I booked a trip to Kuala Lumpur. Two weeks. We saw the MotoGP. It was hot. One of the best holidays ever at that point. Whilst I was there, my mobile rang. It was work. They knew I was abroad by the ringtone. They wanted a meeting. I told them I was abroad and I would happily come in once I returned. A date was arranged.

I got back from my holiday and attended the meeting. They said they were happy for me to come back and do administrative work so I wasn’t on the phones. It took them almost six months to work this out. I was furious. I told them at this point, I no longer required that. I would be returning to my job in full in a few weeks time, once my doctor’s certificate had finished.
Long story short – I returned, had a Return to Work interview and all went well, so I thought. Then a week or so later, they sacked me for the amount of time I’d had off sick. (Sarcasm) A very sympathetic approach to someone who had just been off for depression. I should have taken them to tribunal, but I really couldn’t be bothered. Like most things at that time. So, unemployment. That long surreal cycle home jobless. Feeling relieved that it ended. Feeling free but penniless. A strange feeling indeed.

My brother couldn’t understand why I was like I was. “I couldn’t give a shit!” was my response for most things he asked or said. He was all “I don’t see what your problem is. She was my sister too.” Which whilst correct, they didn’t have the strongest relationship. He no help whatsoever. In fact, he was so unsympathetic it was worse than getting the sack from my job. Me and my brother never really did see eye-to-eye but this really pissed me off at the time. It made it worse because I was struggling financially – just to add to my woes at the time – and found out subsequently that he was in a position to help me out, but chose not too. For his own reasons. And of course, he’s family. If you can’t rely on family, who can you rely on?

Twelve long months or so later and I get a job. I applied for so many, it was almost beginning to get me down again. My depression subsided. I don’t know if the tablets helped or not. I don’t know if it was just a case of mind over matter. Time heals everything? I have no clue. But I felt much better.

My job? Helping to fight cancer. What better therapy than to fight back. This is my motivation for getting up in the morning and being the person I am. What more could I want? I have something that few attain. And for that I feel grateful. And in my mind, even if I do something different in the same company, I’ll still be winning.

Without all these difficult circumstances I would not be in the privileged position I find myself. I have fought back. I am at peace with myself.

That said, there are still some unanswered questions in my mind. Not the usual ones. The death of someone I can accept.
I still don’t understand why she didn’t tell me. She knew months before, but never told me. The first I knew was when I had to go hospital because to see her because she was in a bad way.
I don’t understand why my brother took the stance he did with me. I mean, to be fair, he paid for her funeral and wake. He was able to and did. He never once asked anyone else for money. I never offered. I’m not really in a position to be able to.
I really have no clue why my then employer did what they did. They could have handled it so much better.
And still to this day, I have no clue why it took years for me to mourn my sister. It wasn’t denial. It wasn’t the way I imagined it. It just kind of happened that way.
I’m still not 100% fully recovered and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t think you do recover 100% from things like that. I don’t hold any religious beliefs (Do you need religion?). But I do have hope.

I leave the name of my employer out of this story. Those that I have worked with will know who this is and you will now know the circumstances relating to my absence from work and my sacking. I hope you see that not everything you hear is true, depending on what you heard.


If you are depressed and/or need someone to talk to, call The Samaritans on 116 123 in the UK or visit http://www.samaritans.org/

In the United States of America call the Samaritans USA on 1 (800) 273-TALK or visit http://www.samaritansusa.org/contact.php

Pharmaceuticals overpriced?

I work in pharmaceuticals. Usually the only times pharmaceuticals appear in the news are A when someone says they are overpriced, or the price has been increased dramatically by someone or B when a new miracle future cure has been found for something (which can take years to come to market as will partly be explained below) and C [which is] people die in a country  when a drug or, for example baby milk, is contaminated either on purpose or accidentally by persons unknown for unknown reasons at the time. And D which is regarding animal testing and the conditions under which those animals live. (For clarity, my company has no animals on site and does not use animals on site).

What you think you know about pharmaceuticals may be somewhat different to reality. I can only talk about my own personal experiences, but to help you understand a little better here goes my explanation of things as I see them and have read.

I must emphasize, this is only the basic structure of the processes a medicine must go through. It is an example only. There can be other things a pharmaceutical company must do or comply with that I may have missed. I can only tell you about my experience from the ‘shop floor’ so-to-speak.

In its basic format this is how it works in the real world. A drug or pharmaceutical company researches a particular product for a particular illness/disease/complaint. This product involves long nights, lots of money to finance the research (funded by shareholders/owners/sponsors/profits or other means), permission to trial, clinical trials (which may prove the product to work or not work), submission to required authorities for a license based on trials, license and then (if license granted) retail. That is very basic and there could be other things that need to be done which I may have missed.

Research (R&D)

My company invested millions of pounds to research the product I work on (see footnote). At this point there is no guarantee that any money spent here will be got back. My company invested in re-fabrication of a building, equipment, staff and of course lots of time. This went on for over 2 years for the product I work with. All new medicines are required by law to be tested for safety, quality and effectiveness.  People tend to forget that pharmaceutical companies are businesses and not charities and even at this point could have invested millions or billions on the product research already. This is a very simplified R&D explanation.

Clinical Trials

All medicines must be trialled. This is to ensure the products actually work on live patients and there are no fatal side effects. It also helps the company collate side effects for usage later on (those Patient Information Leaflets (PILs) you get in all medications).

Stages of research

Four stages of clinical trials are used to investigate a new medicine:

  • phase 1 – the medicine is tested in small numbers of healthy volunteers (up to 100 people) to find out how it works in the body and whether side effects increase at higher doses
  • phase 2 – the medicine is tested in moderate numbers of people (several hundred) with a particular condition or disease to see how effective it is and identify common short-term side effects
  • phase 3 – information about the medicine is gathered from a larger number of people (often several thousand) to see how well it works and how safe it is
  • phase 4 – this happens after a licence has been granted, and involves studies to monitor the medicine on an ongoing basis to see if there are any unexpected side effects, or if it causes problems in certain categories of people

License (or Marketing Authorisation)

By law, before a medicine can be prescribed by a doctor it must be given a product licence (or ‘marketing authorisation’) by a regulator. If the product is to be marketed in the UK, then the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) grant a license for that product if it complies with their requirements. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) can grant licenses for products in the EU.

The licence for a medicine includes information such as:

  • what health condition it should be used to treat
  • is it more effective (if others exist)
  • what dose should be used
  • what form it takes – such as a tablet or liquid
  • who can use the medicine – for example, only people above a certain age
  • how long treatment with that medicine should last
  • warnings about known safety issues – such as side effects and interactions with other medicines
  • how the medicine should be stored
  • when the medicine expires

This information is usually included in the summary of product characteristics. This is a leaflet that comes with the medicine to inform healthcare professionals about how it should be used.

As well as a summary of product characteristics, medicines should come with a patient information leaflet (PIL). This leaflet provides patients with certain facts about the medicine.

Also worth bearing in mind at this stage is that there have already been multiple forms to be completed and multiple fees to be paid.

The Final Product

Finally you have a product you can market and make people better with. But now you have to recover some of that money you have invested.
In the UK medicines are paid for by the NHS if they are approved. Otherwise, medicines must be paid for by individuals privately or insurers. If medicines are NHS approved, they become a burden on the taxpayer eventually.
In the US / Australia and some other countries medicines are paid for either privately or through insurers.
In other countries there can be government-funded schemes whereby governments either pay in full or subsidise the cost of the medicine. The other part of the cost is paid privately or again through insurers.

It should also be pointed out that the premises (and or company) where these products are manufactured is subject to inspections on a regular basis by any and all authorities involved in licensing the product in countries where it is sold. In the UK this is the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency) and in the USA this is the FDA (Food & Drug Administration)

Conclusion

All of this costs real money. Real money, real staff, real time. At the starting point there is no guarantee that there will be payback. And indeed, for some researched medicines there is no payback. The product may not be cost-effective to manufacture, may not be effective enough or may just be too difficult to make. So when a pharmaceutical business has a product that make sit to market, it has to do everything within its power to make some profit from that product so it can start he whole process again with a new product.

This is why some medicines are expensive. It’s not down to the cost of the ingredients necessarily, but the need to continue on and needing money to be able to do so.

The other upside, for me personally, is that I get to help fight disease and cancers which makes me humbled and thankful that I can be a part of fighting back. There is no job satisfaction like saving lives. Just ask a paramedic, a surgeon, a fireman or a doctor and the many other people who do such each and every day. Thankyou all.


Footnote: The product I work on is called Xaluprine in the UK and goes by other names in Australia and the US. It is for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) in adolescents, adults and children. I work with a small team and we are the only people who make this product for the world.

If you wish to know more about Xaluprine go to Nova Laboratories website.
If you wish to know more about the processes involved in licensing a medical product go to https://www.gov.uk/topic/medicines-medical-devices-blood/clinical-trials-investigations

Product packaging, additives, recycling and food waste

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Food waste

In most magazines and news articles I have read we are told the consumer is at fault for food waste. Articles like this one on The Ecologist web site tell us that we don’t do enough. We the consumers are at fault for throwing thousands of pounds worth of food into our dustbins. Yet each time I see a poorly designed container I wonder how I am supposed to reduce my food waste.

You know the type of containers I mean. Those that have weird lips near the top, where it is nigh on impossible to get an implement to reach the food contained inside as illustrated below. Or the food inside is so thick, that it doesn’t run out of the container, so you are left with waste. Or you are resigned to ‘watering’ the product down to get it out fo the container.

caramelised-onion-chutney

Unless manufacturers take some responsibility first for designing packaging that allows the consumer to empty the contents without waste or further faffing around then consumers cannot be solely responsible.

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How a product is packaged affects the consumer, but it also affects the manufacturer. After all, it is in their interests that there is wastage as this means we have to buy some new product. The manufacturer makes profit from product we can’t use. So, it is in their interests if we cannot access all of the product. A bit like lightbulbs that never break. If they could manufacture them, they wouldn’t because it wouldn’t be profitable enough.

Excess packaging

Those familiar with Amazon may know about FFP or Frustration Free Packaging. This is where the manufacturers packaging may already be removed and the item is packaged in a simple bag or some such. You know, like batteries that come in blister packs that can be an absolute nightmare to get in to. Almost like the manufacturer doesn’t wasnt you to use them! Other items packaged in such a way can be food. Did anyone ever figure out how you are supposed to open a Tetra Pak without spillage or scissors or a knife? Even the owner couldn’t once on a TV programme. Everyone knows how they are supposed to open, but they never want to seem to.

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Tetra Pak packaging

In my younger years we used to have milk, and orange juice, in bottles. These were brilliant. Easy to open with a foil top, recyclable (which we’ll get on to further down), easy to recycle for the dairy (washed, good to go). There used to be thousands of them in use in the UK in the 1960’s when I was born. (They were used much earlier. See the Wiki article here). But then plastic became a thing. You know, the same plastic we are now being told that is polluting our oceans. Go figure.
Oh, I almost forgot. In my city we used to have a few door-to-door soda companies, in the 70’s. You’d order your drinks, they’d drop them off. They would also pick up the empty bottles and you would get a credit for them. 7p each at the time, which was quite a lot. This promoted the collection of the bottles rather than people throwing them away in the dustbin. Recycling as it should be! With big industries though, these companies all died out. A shame. Maybe we would still be recycling them.

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An old milk bottle. They also contained fresh orange juice from some dairy’s.

Then some bright spark though up bottle banks. You take your empty wine, beer and anything-else bottles and place them in a skip with a hole. Some segregate different colour glass into brown, green and clear, others don’t. These are taken away and recycled, at great cost to the council and nothing back for the consumer, other than a hangover maybe.

Over packaged?

I use Amazon only as an example. For those that buy things from them, have you ever seen this kind of thing delivered to your door (upon opening)? I have. I also get this kind of thing from other companies too. Surely they must have something smaller and more appropriate to pack the purchase in?

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OTT packaging. Surely a padded envelope would have sufficed?

Or bananas in plastic bags at your local supermarket? Tomatoes in plastic trays? Apples in plastic trays and plastic bags, together! Why? Is it to protect the fruit or vegetable, to make it easier to transport or possible for the supermarket to mark the price up as you are paying for the packaging? It is all just so unnecessary. And don’t even get me started on those packs that claim to be resealable but actually are not.

Recycling

Milk bottle, soda bottles. Foil tops. Paper bags. All replaced by plastics. And the consequence? Plastic pollution in our oceans. But yet, we had this problem sorted in years gone by. It’s just that as advancement and profitability rule the world, we forgot we also need to take care of our planet. It’s the only one we have, yet we seem to have this lemming-like need to cause as much damage to it as possible. Plastic bags are another cause of pollution in our oceans and cities. Why can’t we use paper bags? It seems that instead of going forwards we go backwards. When I was younger we recycled and things where made of recyclable materials. These days mostly everything is made from plastic in one form or another. How much of the food you purchase in the supermarket is packaged in plastic? Markets of old didn’t have this problem. You turned up with your woven shopping bag, asked the person for 1lb of tomatoes and they’d go into a paper bag, which would then go into your woven shopping bag or trolley. You’d then catch the bus home, because few people could afford cars!

Additives

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. One of the most annoying aspects of food purchased from supermarkets is the additives they use and the reasons why.
Lets start with bacon. I like bacon. Most of you like bacon I expect. What I don’t like about my bacon is that when I cook it, there is this white horrible crap that comes out of it. This, I’m told is the nitrites. Some chemical used to preserve the bacon. Oddly though, it is also in smoked and cured bacon from the supermarket. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t smoking or curing bacon preserve it? Nitrites increase shelf life, reduce bacteria and create the pink hue that gives bacon a fresh appearance. So it means they can have it sitting on the shelf longer and it’ll still look fresh. Great. It doesn’t really do anything for the consumer that a proper cure or smoke wouldn’t accomplish. Not to mention the water they fill it with. They add water so they can make more money, because bacon is sold by weight and by adding water they add weight. This is why your dinner plate sized bacon rasher ends up looking like a postage stamp after it’s cooked. All the added water has evaporated during the cooking process.

Anyone tried to buy a soda or dilute that contains sugar these days? Because everything these days has to be marginally more healthy than the way it used to be made, most sodas these days contain artificial sweeteners. Now, the industry would have you believe that this is because sweetener is better for you and your children’s teeth. The real answer is that sweetener is considerably more sweet than sugar and also a lot less expensive, see the table below. Which means that it is in the interests of the profitability of the company to use sweetener. Sweeteners may also have long-term health implications, but for the time being we use them anyway.

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Excerpt from http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/sweetener-prices.html

Me, I’m an adult. I prefer sugar. I’m aware of the health risks. I make my own health choices, good or bad. Can I get a soda with sugar in it? It’s tough, but there are some drinks out there that still have good ol’ sugar in ’em. 7up, Coke, Pepsi and Tango to name a few. Mostly your major brands.  Most supermarket own brand soda contains no sugar or very little.

Do you need religion?

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So now I talk about one of the subjects that I hold dear. Religion. Funnily, I don’t actually practice or partake of any religion. But the subject is dear to me because of three things.

Knock, knock

Firstly, I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness (here in after refered to as JW). Some people know of JW’s. They’re the people who knock on your door at the most inconvenient of times. They have magazines called Watchtower and Awake! They are normally law-abiding citizens who cause no harm to anyone other than some inconvenience. Most people also know JW’s because they refuse blood transfusions. This normally gets them media attention.

My upbringing was not attending Religious Knowledge or RK lessons as they were known when I was at school. I didn’t partake in any religious aspect of school assembly. I was picked on at school because of the religion my parents chose for me. Everyone knew I was different. I was like the lone orange in a fruitbowl full of apples. Even worse as a child was that I went with my parents knocking on people’s doors. Wondering if it was going to be one of your classmates that answered. That was scary. And embarrassing. But it all just passed me by.

Now a full-grown adult (mostly!), I make my own choices in life. I choose no religion. Some of the reasons I choose no religion are because it seems to cause wars. I’m fairly indifferent to religion, in as much as I respect each individuals choice of religion. I’m open-minded to religions and what their beliefs are and also the ethics that go along with some.
What this does for me personally is open up a whole new world where I can try to understand why certain people, ethnicities and religions do certain things.

For example, did you know that Hindus have hundreds of gods? Did you know that the “Devils Advocate” is a real position within the Catholic Church? Did you know that Muslims call God by his name, which they believe to be Allah? Did you know that JW’s also call God by a personal name, which they believe to be Jehovah (or its other incantations, Yahweh, Jah or Yah (which is also used in Rastafarianism))? Did you know that Yahweh is the primary Hebrew name of God in the Bible, which is considered to holy to say so therefore they do not verbalize his name?  Having an open mind to religion opens up all sorts of realizations.

And then it hits you. Regardless of what they call him, which mountain Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad stood on or how they pray or where they go to pray, they are all praying to the same person! Much like our newspapers, they each have their own version and they all read it and believe what it tells them they must do (Bibles, Quran, Scriptures, Torah, Shruti etc). Their faith is such that they do not question it. For Muslims it is a way of life. For JW’s they must preach it. For Jews, it is belief. Each have their own definition of what it takes to reach The World to Come (Olam ha’Ba), Everlasting Life, be rewarded after death or whatever the final goal may be. Perhaps this is the literal carrot dangling?

Enlightenment

Secondly, I read something somewhere that made me ponder longer than normal. Did humans invent God (whatever form that may take to the different religions) just so they had hope? Do humans need hope? Without hope would we be human? Is religion some sort of comfort blanket for humans? Do we really need religion?

By that stage, I had already chosen no anyway. My personal thoughts on religion are that it is one of the main, if not the main source of conflict on this planet. Religion and politics – two things which I’d rather not get involved in. A world without religion may take away the hope that many people rely on. But it may also take the conflicts away which many politicians rely on. Without conflict they have no headline grabbing policies. Anyway, I digress.

Question time

Thirdly, if there is a god I have a few questions for him/her/it (referred to as he for now)

  • Is there more than one of you?
  • How did he come to be? My JW upbringing taught me that everything we see is created.
  • Who created God? Why?
  • Does it matter which church, prayer hall, synagogue, or temple I go to?
  • If I pray, is it important what I call you and where I am at the time?
  • Would you answer my prayer or would something happening just be coincidence?
  • If you really do exist, isn’t it more important whats in my heart? What my real intentions are/were?
  • Was Jesus really your son and did he really die for our sins?
  • If he did, why did you set us up to fail? We, as humans are imperfect, so why do/did you expect us to try to attain perfection?
  • Most importantly, does it matter what religion I am or believe in?

So, do I need religion? Personally for me, nope. Do you? That’s your choice. We are each individuals that make choices as we journey through life. Those choices define us. Religion is one of those defining choices. My choices define me and made me the person I am today. I’m happy with who I am and what I have become.

Whatever your choices and religion, thanks for reading. Have a nice day!

Virgin Media, the communications company that doesn’t.

Well, trials and tribulations this is. Virgin Media (henceforth referred to as VM) a law unto themselves.

On Friday 24th February, like most of you, I came home from another days work and yay it’s the weekend. Except I had no internet when I got home. So I called Customer Services after bitching and whining on Facebook and Twitter.

Whats the Virgin Media phone number of the account holder or the account number? I don’t know, I’m not the customer, it’s my son. Frantically pressing buttons on my phone to try to bypass this first obstacle. Ah, success. The queue could be up to 10 minutes. Ok, I’ll bide my time, no problem. Some minutes later an international ringing sound.

Like most Customer Services these days, VM has its call handling centre in India. Apart from some language issues they mostly try to be helpful, are very polite and very courteous. This can grate on already annoyed customers. Everything my agent wanted to try seemed to take 2 minutes. I have no clue why. Maybe they put him in the corner out of the way in the Call Centre. He came back the second time and said there was a fault in the area. I said on the service status pages on the VM website there was, but it is now supposed to have been resolved. I checked again and lo and behold it had been updated showing a fault.

And that brings me to my next subject which I’ll quickly cover. If you provide customers with a ‘fix estimate’, but it can change numerous times and be for as long as you like, what is the point in supplying it? I understand what an estimate means, but it actually means nothing because they will change it as it suits them. So it has no value to the customer.

Anyway, to continue. So the suggestion was that it would be fixed by 3.50am Saturday morning. (So precise!)

I awoke the following morning and still no internet. Ya know, the service my son is paying for. I call again. It’s early so no queues. Straight through. Still India. This guy again, seems to be wanting to help me. He checks his system and says there is still fault in the area. But then my router clears and briefly allows me to access the internet. He says well you have internet now I can see that. I say, there isn’t anything showing on the VM service status page. He gives me a fault number F004812384 and telephone number I can call to get more details and an estimated fix time. The fist time he gave me the number he gave me 1800. I said I’m UK-based not US. He then gave me the correct number and the call ended. Almost immediately my internet goes again. D’oh!! I call the number and I have no way I can use the reference number as it is an automated system. Great! Saturday without internet access. Nice. I check the service pages periodically and although there are faults showing for my area there is nothing for broadband. I decide to just wait it out. Perhaps they have engineers trying to resolve it.

Eventually in the evening of Saturday I decide to call again. Yet again I get a really courteous and polite agent. He says it looks like there may be a fault outside the cabinet as it shows the connection is fine up to the cabinet (I guess he’s talking about those green cabinets you see on street corners which BT and VM seem to have exclusive rights to!) but beyond that it shows as disconnnected. He will arrange an engineer for Tuesday and credit on the account. I’m not happy with Tuesday, but that’s all he can do. No more internet.

So now it’s Sunday in the early hours. I still have no internet. I decided to give them a call. I’ve found the house telephone number in my contacts on my mobile phone. Armed with my new information I type it in. It tells me an engineer has been booked. Great! I then get the details and it says an engineer is booked for Friday 3rd March. Whaaaaat!!! For real? I go through to an agent. I explain that I am far from happy. A paid service, which isn’t a service at present aims to be resolved by Friday next? He runs some diagnostic stuff. He’s very apologetic. I rant and explain that VM determines the level of compensation the customer gets for no service (pro rata monthly payment) which is wrong. He said VM are the only company that do this. I said that does not take into account the inconvenience, the fact that I’ve had to make four calls and also that we have to wait until Friday for any resolution, possibly [and had to use my mobile hotspot as my internet provider which may prevent me from using it later on in the month or incurring additional costs]. He said they don’t have the resources in the area and more people would need to have a fault before it was escalated. I said that VM’s resources or lack thereof is not my problem (why is he telling me this?), my son is a paying customer and the issue needs resolving before Friday 3rd March. I explained that what he’s basically said to me (in fewer but much more polite words) is that if one customer calls with a fault, VM engineers sit around waiting for more calls. If two customers call the engineers scratch their heads and think about doing something, but if 250 customers call, they get off their arses and actually do something. He said that’s not the case. I said that even if one customer calls, VM should ensure that it is attended and resolved. It’s a paying customer after all. I suggested we would be better with another service provider who can actually provide a service. He says he can’t escalate it any more (not empowered enough apparently and its not his department to deal with complaints) so he will put me through to customer retention.

“I’m sorry, we are closed. You can call….” ERMAGHERD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I honestly don’t know if VM are aware, but this is my typical customer service experience from them and I’m sure many of their customers. It’s rare there is a problem with their systems, but when there is, they are the most incompetent at providing resolution in a timely manner. And a week?? And then to put me through to a department that’s closed. I mean, thats basic customer service. I’ve worked in customer services for 11 years prior to my existing job. If that was the kind of service I provided to my customers I would never have survived that long or indeed the business wouldn’t. Yet at VM it seems to be a daily occurrence. And we in the UK accept it.

So to conclude.

  • VM has no actual clue what Customer Service is, or at least doesn’t seem to based on evidence above and below
  • If you actually want some half decent Customer Service you may have to threaten to leave. But you may get put through to a closed department.
  • Being without service for a week as a paying customer is not a priority for VM. They’ll refund you pro-rata anyway, so who cares right? It’s not like it’s 200 customers or anything.
  • Transferring you to closed departments (not being business aware or empowered or thinking out of the box) is not a problem.
  • Twitter and Facebook feeds are all well and good, but are the agents on there actually empowered enough to do anything? Most of the time I see them asking the same questions, referring people to VM’s websites almost as if the responses are scripted.
  • Unaware of company SLA’s and service targets

All of this when a customer is probably already at their wit’s end because something hasn’t gone right or as expected.

I also asked the last agent about VM’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) to customers. He seemed to have no clue what I was asking. Surely isn’t this one of the things as a Customer Service Agent you should know? I can’t find it on the website. Or in a TOS anywhere. In fact I couldn’t even find a TOS on the website. Probably buried somewhere. With their customer service. What service level does VM agree to provide to its customers? Anyone?

Oh and two last little nuggets for VM trainers to think about training their CS staff with.

Empathy – putting yourself in the customers shoes. How would you feel?
Empowerment – being able (access, no limits) to do what needs to be done for the customer (with no barriers), without passing it to someone else to deal with. And actually dealing with it!

Another call. And finally, my heartfelt thanks to Rebecca (Scottish accent and Scottish accents in background, so I’m guessing Scottish call centre) who finally provided some decent customer service. She was empathetic. She checked everything. She determined the problem may be the router and she also brought forward an engineer visit for Wednesday 1st March. She has applied some credit to the account for the loss of service and she was empowered enough to put a small goodwill gesture on the account due to all the difficulties I have had this weekend. My hat is off to you Rebecca.

I still have no internet, but things are looking up for VM. 1 in 5 is better than some call centres. I hope you have better luck when you need to call them and get someone like Rebecca first time.

Regional Accents UK

map
Map showing a small regional area in the UK ©Google

You know it always strikes me how many different accents we have in the UK for such a, on the grand scale of things, small area.

In the US accents vary by state, which can be hundreds, if not a thousand miles apart. In the UK, distances are shrunk. An accent can differ by 25 miles. Yes, as little as 25 miles. I live in Leicester. 25 miles to the north is Nottingham. 15 miles to the west of Nottingham is Derby. 33 miles west of Leicester is a fairly large city called Birmingham. There is a clear distinction between these accents, with the exception of Derby and Nottingham. There is some distinction, but not what I would call a clear distinction.

I don’t know if there is any where else in the world where there could be a change of accent in such a short distance. This blog http://dialectblog.com/british-accents/ gives some samples and a longer explanation of what I am doing a terrible job of explaining and goes into far more details than I am prepared to here.

Trying to explain the differences in accent, from the south up to the north, to a foreigner is also fairly challenging. Sure, I could mimic a Bristolian accent. I could also try a Scottish accent. But that wouldn’t explain how the difference manifests itself. I even tried to explain that although Newcastle and Scotland are fairly close, the accents vary quite remarkably. Does the accent get deeper? More broader? And let’s not even get started on Welsh and Irish accents. I mean, to most of us, they are fairly easy to distinguish. But to someone not from this country?

I’ve met some people in my life who have some fairly different accents. I guess what I mean by different is not what you expect when you look at them. (Yes, stereotyping is a bad thing, but human nature means we do it regardless. It’s part of a safety mechanism). I’ve met two Asians who have Scottish accents. Not the slightest tinge of Indian. The first time I heard it, it was a shock. The second time I nearly fell off my chair. My ‘American friend’, as I call him (a guy I have known since birth) is British by birth and spent most of his time living in the US. Then he came back to the UK where he has now settled with a wife and has lost his American accent almost completely in 20 years. I say almost because last time I spoke to him, there are certain words that still had the American accent. Just a tinge. Then there are some Africans (by birth) that have French accents, and a cleaner (I probably mean a  more educated) British accent than I do. It does throw your brain out of kilter sometimes.

You can also watch this YouTube video for a demonstration here.

Just something to ponder tomorrow when you are at work perhaps!