Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Father in Law

It has been a great week! First was young Michael and then on Saturday last, 15th July 2017, the wedding of my eldest son Alex to his beautiful Catherine.

Actually it has also been a party week as friends and relatives from all over came into Bermuda to help the celebrations which began on Wednesday last and ended only on Monday. I could not do this every week!

Looking through the lens of a parent, it is often difficult to differentiate the young man who, say, smeared dollops of vaseline into the carpet with a friend at age 2, lost one of his school shoes walking down some stairs (just one though) and so on with the handsome, articulate young man who effortlessly went through each of the events that constituted the full wedding. I know it's a parent's legacy to see things differently as we have known every step he ever took up until now -- which is why we remember him that way -- but to also know that we will most likely not be a major part of his future. That is something he will build with Cat.

That is entirely as it should be but it does leave you with a lingering sadness knowing that one of the happiest days of one's life is also the start of something else as well.

Mind you he did choose well with Cat -- or is it the other way around? Difficult to know these days of gender equality. Whatever, it turned out well. Cat is a planner and just loves spreadsheets. I hadn't realised just how much until Viv and I went with them both and Cat's parents to Japan when Cat produced a remarkable series of spreadsheets containing practical travel details as well as a daily itinerary for the near 3 weeks that we were in Japan... ahead of time. A phenomenal enterprise, but one that was dwarfed by the planning that went into the wedding.

On the day, the sun shone on the beach where it was held. The sea was calm for the boat trip to the island. And the evening was calm and starry when we made it to the island where the reception, dancing and general partying took place.

Cat and Alex won't be going off on their honeymoon until September so they got to enjoy each night of party as well. Not a bad idea actually!

Thanks and good luck to you both!

Love Dad


Great Uncle Mark

Sounds good, doesn't it? But at the same time rather daunting. However it is true for last Monday, 10th July 2017, a little boy was born in England named Michael weighing in at 7 lbs 9 oz and altogether hale and hearty as is his mum, my niece, Zophia.

And that's about it really as I could easily end my short piece at this point and not ramble on as is my wont on occasion, but it does make me wonder what young Michael's life will be in say 25 years which would make it the year 2042.  Chances are that his great uncle will no longer be around as that would make me really, really old but the world will continue and life will go on.

Many commentators have said that this next generation (and I am talking my children, not the one after that Michael has now joined) will be the first in history to have less of an economic future than their parents and it is really easy to see why people would think that. When I started work back in 1973 at the age of 19, nobody I knew had any money and very few went to university -- I think the statistic back than was 1 in 10 who did. So anything we did was upside. These days, far more go to university and most have far more than we did when we were young so expectations are greater.

Back then, I became an accountant because I wanted to not be unemployed like half of my school class were. These were hard times if you remember. That year a coup d'etat had brought down the Heath government in a rash of strikes that brought the country to a grinding halt. The UK had just joined the EU and given what has transpired within the last year in retrospect it seems surprising that these events were not blamed on the then named EEC (European Economic Community, a far cry from the European Union which has far more political overtones). In the ensuing election, there was no result (rather like this year's massive Tory party misstep) and so Parliament struggled on through 18 months of misery, strikes, runaway inflation, soaring interest rates and no money. I know this because my parents continually droned on about the "bloody Labour Party", the "bloody unions" and much else and because I last year read a book called 'The Seventies' which reminded me of this total and utter mess that the country entirely willingly wished upon itself and created. At the time I remember thinking the 3-day week was great as that meant I had 4 days off each week AND I had more money that I ever had before (which was nothing)... even though it was less by a large factor than any of my friends who at that time had work or who were on the dole even.  Being young and never having experienced anything like this before, I wasn't aware of any problems at all. I was having fun!

So I say to the pundits, mostly miserable economists who think mankind is doomed already (think of an early economist called Malthus) that when Michael turns 25 in the year 2042, he will be just fine. He will be at the start of a wonderful life which he will build and I can further foresee when he turns 60 that like his great uncle, he will wonder what his children and grand children will do when they grow up.

Don't worry, Michael. They will be fine!

Love Great Uncle Mark

Friday, June 30, 2017

The System

It has been a while since I made my last post but I have just been a bit lazy. So apologies to any readers that follow my meanderings. I'll try to do better in future, as Warren Buffet says after he's made a bit of a horlicks about something -- not that he makes many of those.  Witness just today when he exercised his Bank of America options and made $12 billion!  He deserves the afternoon off on a day like that.

But this post isn't about any of that, it is about the mindlessness of how business has become when it touches the small person, that is you and I, or in tech speak 'the user'.  Time was (and I know I sound like my parents now but then again I am grey so what do you expect?) when you wanted something like a bank loan, for example, you went into your local branch and asked to see the bank manager. You'd meet him (most likely in those days) and discuss what you needed and he'd make a decision on whether you were a fair risk or not.  Scroll forward to the times of the robo-lenders and there's no human touch involved at all. Just credit scores and a few computer chips with an embedded algorithm that give you an answer in a nano second. It is called 'efficient' and the world is striving for 'efficiency' so that we may increase our 'productivity', another quite innocent word that has taken on horrible connotations in recent times.

Now if you want a loan from a bank you cannot go into a branch and see a manager because there isn't one, a manager that is, and quite often there isn't a branch either. I went into a branch of my bank in England in a city high street and lined up dutifully for a 'customer services assistant' who it turned out could not assist me at all even though I was there in the bank. I had to call their call centre (which I did from a bank of phones from the bank branch) for this type of thing which was in another city (and could have well been in another country for all I know) and speak to another but this time disembodied 'customer service assistant'.  These days I don't bother going into banks but simply make the call to the call centre instead. Its not that it saves much time (it doesn't) rather I just skip the first bit where someone tells me in person that they cannot help and suggest that I speak to someone in the call centre.

Almost always you are met with "Good day, this is XXX customer service centre where your call is very important to us. Unfortunately there are other customers on the phone and the waiting time will be ..." or some such variation. I tried British Airways for some insane reason the day after their recent computer crash and the wait time even at night was a day and a half!  But if you're lucky the line goes click and somebody picks up.

At that point you encounter the first stage which immediately follows the pleasantries which are "How can I help you?" and then immediately jump into the remote identification process which starts off with invariably the same: "what is your date of birth?" and "what is your mother's maiden name?"

So on the one occasion recently that made me write this blog piece (it was a bank but could easily have been a phone company or almost anyone else) upon providing the details, I was met with the answer: "that's wrong". "What do you mean that's wrong?" I said back. "The system says its wrong" comes back the answer.

So there you have it, the 'System' knows everything about everything and everyone and that 'System' knows my date of birth and mother's maiden name... and I don't!  But here's the wrinkle, I have had that account since 1980 or 1981, don't remember which, and that... wait for it... predates computers and goes back to the time of branches and bank managers. At no point in between then and now have they ever asked for my mother's maiden name (they update passport details every so often) so how does it know?

We have a friend who is more nomadic than we are and she is part of the global data entry team that enters masses of data on people for a website that specialises in genealogy. She is provided with reams of paper with various bits of information and simply enters data from that paper into a 'System' and gets paid something for it.  So human interference gets involved right at the beginning.  One thing I remember from my college classes in DP (Data Processing as it was called back in the 1970's!) is garbage in, garbage out. Fat fingers is another way of putting it. Or human error. Not saying it is, not saying it isn't. Just saying.

Going back to my call centre conversation, I realise that its not that person's fault.  All they do is react to prompts provided by 'The System'. They don't know me or my details, they have common sense probably but 'The System' does not. They just respond to queries from 'The System' -- by the way I thought this is what computers should do for us, not the other way around -- and 'The System' asks them random questions for which the first two always seem to be the same. Once through them there are of course many others to choose from as well before you can actually start to do whatever it is you want to do.

In the past month or so I have had many such conversations with call centres on various matters and all of them last an hour or thereabouts. Just this week I tried to close a bank account and went through two call centre levels; the first was the low level person who didn't know a thing and at the first sign of anything complex immediately referred me to someone else who knew a bit more with the upshot being that the lady suggested that I should go into my local branch. Fortunately for this account at least I was in the same place so did just that, met a lovely lady named Ms. Bell and she resolved things in less than 5 minutes leaving me with a warm glow.

Now isn't that what customer service should be?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Spirit of Bermuda

Hello Facebook friends, this is me – Melv.  In an unguarded moment I agreed to help in a fund raising event for a Bermuda charity that potentially involves me willingly or unwillingly ending up in Hamilton harbour in March – which is practically the middle of winter now global warming is changing weather patterns even here.

Really, can you see this amiable buffer dunked into the oily, smelly and …. Very chilly waters of Hamilton harbour?  I am sure that your better natures will come out with a resounding ‘No’ and that you will contribute big time to my ultimate safety and comfort.

Actually I think that’s how it works anyway.  Pay a lot and he skips a dunking, pay a little and in he goes.  Don’t pay and I think there was talk of being sold to the galleys if they have them any more… but I know that that’s not what you really want.  Is it?

The following is the official bit, logo + some vital information on the why’s and wherefore’s and in particular the how of actually ponying up the big bucks to help me miss out on that soggy and decidedly unhappy ending. So do please read it as opposed to skipping it and moving onto the more interesting bit at the end.

The Pirates of Bermuda have named me, MARK MELVIN, as a person of value and are conspiring to take me hostage!  My ‘Wanted’ poster is all over the Island and the pirates are demanding that I walk the plank.  I need your help to raise my ransom!  On Sunday, March 5th, my fate will be determined at # One Car Park and Dock between 2:00pm - 4:00pm, so please come and show your support.


Donate towards me walking the plank (SINK) into the chilly waters of Hamilton Harbour L
Donate towards my ransom (SAVE) so I am safely escorted off Spirit of Bermuda….dry!  J

When you visit ptix.bm/pirates, you are not actually buying tickets, you are donating to SINK or SAVE (as many hostages as you like- it’s like a shopping cart).  Choose the hostage, enter the amount you wish to contribute, and click on SINK or SAVE, then hit the back button to go back to another hostage.  It’s easy, and it’s all in good spirit for a very worthwhile youth programme.  When you are done, proceed to checkout.  You will get a “ticket” as a receipt emailed to you.

PLEASE, Spread the word!
               Bermuda Sloop Foundation is the organisation that runs Spirit of Bermuda and the learning expeditions on board Spirit of Bermuda at no charge to Bermuda’s public school students, taking an entire class of middle school students out on 5-day voyages throughout the school year, where the trainees learn the value of being healthy and the power of taking responsibility for oneself.  These and other character development  opportunities are in addition to the STEM based experiential activities that connect to the middle school curriculum. 
               Their programme and the Foundation recently received the highest award from Sail Training International at the Tall Ships International Conference in Quebec, Canada:  for “Vessel Operator of the Year”, awarded to a sail training organisation, operating smaller vessels, that demonstrates excellence in ‘innovation’ and ‘best practice’ in sail training for young people.
               Through vigilant fund raising, grant applications, corporate and private charters, and special Foundation events such as PIRATES OF BERMUDA, BSF is able to offer their programmes to Bermuda’s public school youth at no charge to the students, who may not otherwise be able to benefit from such an experience.  As many as 400 Middle School youth per year benefit from this programme.
               Donations help to fund student voyage bursaries for school voyages and summer learning expeditions on Spirit.
               Your participation and contributions are greatly appreciated by all involved with Spirit of Bermuda and the Foundation!  

The official stuff was pretty dull beside my preamble, wasn’t it? What it didn’t cover is some other interesting things.

First, a did you know.  Did you know that the Bermuda Sloop takes passengers on its trips overseas?  As in paying passengers.  There’s some particularly nice sounding ones this spring (after the March ending to this promotion) in the West Indies as it’s the 400th anniversary of Antigua. Check out the website.

And the other thing is of course the America’s Cup this summer.  The sloop actually has received a bye into the play off final between Team Oracle and the winner of the Challenger Series so the final races will be between 3 vessels not the usual 2.  This is a Bermuda first for the America’s Cup (and OK I may have made it up, but it does sound fun!).

That’s it then.  I do hope you find it in yourselves to make a contribution no matter how small (although I hope its not too small) for this is a great charity and the sloop itself is a masterpiece of old engineering that showcases how we all used to get around before cars, buses, aeroplanes and space craft.  Much slower, so plenty of time to smell the roses and just kick back (if you’re a paying passenger anyway otherwise there was always the risk of a keel hauling).