Did Lucy lie?

Over the course of the past year I’ve described a scenario to various people, and been surprised by the reaction of women. Just for fun (and readers interested in serious stuff are free to skip this post), I’ll lay it out here.

Background:

The narrator is in a relationship with Lucy. Ten years before, Lucy had a serious boyfriend called Pete, who she was with for about 2 or 3 years. She said there was a time when she couldn’t bear to be without him, and when they split up it was amicable but they gradually lost touch. The narrator has just looked at Lucy’s social media account.

The scene:

I should have given the account a wide berth, but the next morning I opened it. There was a photo of the toy rat, propped on its hind legs against a black ceramic skull she’d brought back from London. I’d been with her when she unwrapped it, and behind her as she took the picture. There was one comment underneath, a single word – ‘Beautiful!’ – left by Pete. ‘Thanks!’ Lucy had replied.

My throat tightened as the anger built inside me.

I looked at other photos and found more comments from Pete. I clicked on his profile, and saw comments from Lucy less than a month old. The interaction was ongoing, and in both directions. A photo from Glastonbury caught my eye, the caption alluding to how much he missed it. A sympathetic comment from Lucy lay underneath.

Lucy was outside a long time, probably on the phone with someone. By the time she came back I’d got a grip of myself, and when she sat down I buried my rage and said in a friendly tone, ‘Can I ask, is there anyone who still holds a candle for you?’

‘You mean an ex who still likes me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Michael still texts me. He wants to get back together, but there was really nothing there to begin with.’

‘All right,’ I said, nodding. This didn’t bother me. ‘Anyone else?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘How about you? Any of your exes still interested?’

‘Jane might be, I think. I get messages from her sometimes, asking how I am.’

‘Okay.’

‘So the rest of your exes – you’re no longer in touch?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Including those from university?’

‘Yes!’ she said, getting cross. ‘Why are you asking about this?’

I ignored her and asked, ‘What about Pete? Are you still speaking to him?’

‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Why do you keep asking about this?’ she demanded again.

‘Lucy,’ I said gently. ‘Please don’t get mad, I’m just asking some questions and I’m doing it nicely.’

‘Look, if I saw him at a party I might say hello, but I wouldn’t make any special effort.’

‘So let me ask you something. It’s going to seem like a strange question, but humour me, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘If you needed to contact him urgently – for whatever reason – could you do it? Could you get hold of him within twenty-four hours, for example?’

She stared at me in silence. I stared back until she answered the question.

‘Well, I might have an email for him somewhere,’ she said, trying to act casual and failing. ‘I don’t know, I’d have see if I still have it. Why?’

‘I’m just wondering. So you still have his email?’

‘It’s probably somewhere, but like I said, I’d have to look. What’s this about?’ Her temper was building, I had to wrap this up fast.

‘So if you wanted to get hold of Pete quickly, you could do it. Is that what you’re saying?’

With a face like thunder she picked up her phone, and I watched in silence as she furiously searched.

After a minute she stopped. ‘No, see!’ she said triumphantly, showing me the screen. ‘He’s not in my contacts any more, it’s gone. So no, I couldn’t get hold of him, even if I wanted to.’

‘Okay,’ I said neutrally. ‘That’s fair enough, thanks.’

***

When I’ve put this to women, their reaction has usually been to doubt that Lucy had lied, saying something to the effect of: “Maybe she didn’t think being in touch meant being friends on social media?” Men are a little less forgiving.

What say you, readers?

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Sexist Behaviour

When I was in Mykonos I was drinking with my three friends when we got talking to two Australian women, who I would place somewhere in their early thirties. One of them told us she worked in London as an insurance broker, and said she found the industry full of lecherous men. She said she would be at a works party (with plenty of alcohol) and men would start commenting on her breasts. Others would ask if they could “pet her later”. She said men frequently hit on her at or around work.

I’ll not be so crass as to physically describe the lady in question, but let’s just say we were all rather surprised by this. But we were surprised for another reason: this would never happen in the oil industry (at least, not in a western European country; it probably would in Russia and other places where sex tourists disguise themselves as engineers) and, according to my friend, nor would it happen in banking.

Even supposing HR policies covering sexual harassment didn’t exist, I’d not be making these sort of remarks. I’m not the most polite of people, what with having been encouraged to adapt to Parisian culture ‘n all, but I have enough class and manners not to make remarks about a colleague’s tits. I have quite a number of female colleagues and I can’t even imagine what they would say or do to me if I said something like that. They’re quite open to compliments which I know feminists complain about, but if you don’t know the difference between pleasant and lewd remarks by age forty then it’s probably best you keep your mouth shut.

I was thinking this over, contemplating whether the London insurance industry was the last bastion of rampant sexism in the corporate world, when something occurred to me about the same time the lady in question called me a pussy. She said this because I was considering quitting the drink early that evening; I’d been smashed the previous two nights and I had a flight the next day. I laughed because I don’t care if someone calls me a pussy, and she was only having fun. And the last person who suggested I couldn’t drink was a young chap at an Uzbek wedding whose uncle, who’d been plying me with vodka for the past four hours and was somewhat mystified as to why I was still alive, slapped him across the head for his gross inaccuracy as much as his insolence.

What I found interesting was that a woman would say that to a man she didn’t know at all. She’d also been happy to mention her breasts to four completely strange men. Now we were all having fun amid plenty of banter, but none of us had lowered the tone: that had come from her. I thought about which women I know who would come out with a remark like this, and came up short. I tried to imagine the women I work with speaking to anyone in this manner and couldn’t.

Now it could be that the London insurance industry is full of lecherous men who make lewd remarks in contravention of their companies’ code of conduct and corporate HR policies. Or it could be that when a woman acts like a “lad” and engages in alcohol-fuelled banter of an insulting or sexual nature – even in jest – it brings out the worst behaviour in the men around her. I’d hazard a guess that if any of my female colleagues had been at the same party, they’d have received no such remarks from anyone.

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Dutch Oddness

In the comments at Mr Worstall’s we’re making fun of the Dutch, particularly their reputation for stinginess which makes the Scottish look positively profligate by comparison. My input is as follows.

When I briefly lived in Thailand in 2010 I met a Dutch lady with a son of around five or six. She’d been widowed, her husband having a sudden heart attack in his mid-thirties while she was pregnant with their son. Her late husband was also Dutch and worked for a bank in a senior position, but I don’t know if stress played any role in his demise. It was a tragic story, with the only bright point being he’d been wealthy (or well-insured) enough to provide for his wife and son. She found it very hard to stay in the Netherlands afterwards, surrounded by memories, and decided to spend some time in Thailand, renting an apartment in my condo block where I met her. She was a nice woman, and doing remarkably well under the circumstances. I don’t know what became of her but if anyone deserved a spell of good fortune, it was her. Her kid was nice, too. I hope they’re doing okay, wherever they are.

Anyway, she told me her husband’s parents arranged the funeral in his home town, and she stayed with them a few days for the occasion. She said she got on with them okay, and was rather surprised a few weeks later to receive an invoice in the post: they’d charged her for parking in their driveway.

There’s nowt so queer as folk, as the saying goes, but the Dutch run them close.

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Manchester as I saw it

Tim Worstall links to a piece in The Guardian about thieving Mancunions stealing bikes. As Tim says: well, yes, it is Manchester.

As my regular readers will know, I lived in Manchester between 1996 and 2003, with the first four years being spent at the university. I have no idea what it is like now – perhaps it’s improved – but I knew what it was like then. Any student living in Fallowfield, Withington, or Victoria Park would have quickly learned what Manchester was like, firstly when they applied for home and contents insurance and got told “we don’t cover M14 and M20”, and again when somebody broke into that home and made off with those contents. Everybody I knew in Manchester got burgled at some point, and it happened to me twice.

I went further than the average student in discovering Manchester, though. In the summer of 1998 I responded to an advert looking for a part-time car driver, ideally suited to somebody semi-retired. I’d recently passed my test but had no actual driving experience, but I didn’t let that stop me. I arrived for the interview in Old Trafford, conducted by a chap with a passing resemblance to Jaap Stam (who was playing just across the road at the time) and a thick Mancunion accent. I got the job immediately, learning afterwards it was because I “could string a sentence together”. This wasn’t the high-end of the Manchester job market, although looking back, perhaps it was.

My new boss Danny ran a car hire company which would lease a car to anyone who’d had an accident and claim it back from the insurance company of the person at fault. It was basically a branch of the ambulance-chasing industry, but I didn’t care. Some loophole in the law made it all possible and Danny made his living renting out cars, and I delivered and collected them. The only problem was we were serving the absolute bottom of the market. We weren’t hiring out Range Rovers in Alderley Edge, we were supplying Puntos and Fiestas to council estates. My job wasn’t only to deliver the cars, but get the customer/whiplash “victim” to sign the lease agreement. Most of them couldn’t read, and those that could wouldn’t have been able to understand it how the arrangement worked. I know I couldn’t.

My new job was a good one by student standards. I was provided with a bus pass (saving me £15 a week), a PAYG mobile phone (an unheard-of perk in those days), and at weekends I could sometimes take a car home with me. I would normally work afternoons, Danny fitting the deliveries around my timetable. For my efforts I’d get paid £10 per delivery, and if I did 4-5 in a week that was my beer money easily earned. At some point Danny realised I had a car park outside my flat and used to store cars there occasionally, leaving my neighbours to wonder why this student owned four identical cars with sequential number plates.

The downside of the job was that it would take me to the terrible areas of Manchester and into the absolute worst housing estates, where I would find my way there with an A to Z (no Google Maps or GPS in those days) and get home via public transport. I delivered cars to Openshaw, Rochdale, Oldham, Wythenshawe, Levenshulme, Middleton, Moston, Ancoats, Ashton-Under-Lyne, Dukinfield, Eccles, and other absolute shitholes whose names I’ve forgotten. North of Manchester city centre is a total dump with two exceptions: Prestwich, which is the Jewish area and has lots of nice, big houses in immaculate condition, and Bury which is a posh suburb.

I’d deliver the cars then walk the streets and ride the buses, trains, and trams through the most God-awful areas of Manchester, often after dark, usually in the rain. I visited a garage where the proprietor was jailed a short time later for kidnapping somebody who wouldn’t pay an illegal clamping fine. I stood on doorsteps of council houses with people reeking of alcohol, trying to get them to sign the blue-and-white form before handing over the keys. I sat on disgusting sofas, trying not to breath. I walked through filthy streets with a mosque at each end, which are nowadays referred to as no-go zones. For whatever reason, nothing ever happened to me. Whatever one says about the Mancs – and they are a dodgy bunch – the vast majority are good people. I remember feeling nervous, but was never in any danger even in the worst places. But they were bad: In Ancoats, the roof of the corner shop was covered in barbed wire, and you’d get served like in a bank, with bullet-proof glass and a rotating carousel: you’d need to give a list to the bloke behind the counter and he’d fetch everything. This was to buy milk at 2pm.

In the summer of 1999 I quit working for Danny because I had to do an industrial placement as part of my Masters. Most people’s placement was organised by the university, but for some reason I went through the yellow pages and sent a letter to anyone calling themselves an engineering company asking for a job. I found one called Technical Automation based out in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. And by Lord, was Weaste the biggest shithole I’d ever seen before and have ever seen since. It was so bad the betting shop, pub, and off license were boarded up. Our workshop was protected by spiked railings, bars, steel doors, and alarms yet still it got broken into. Later in my career I met a guy whose wife worked as a nurse in Hope Hospital just down the road. He told me a bouncer of a nearby pub (one that was still open) had been rushed into hospital with gunshot wounds, the victim of a drive-by shooting. When they cut his jacket off him, a claw-hammer fell out of his sleeve. Nice pub.

I went back to work for Danny after my placement, raking in the tenners for tramping around Manchester’s sink estates. I left the UK in 2003 and travelled the world, walking the dodgy back streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yalta, and a dozen other cities where visitors are warned to be careful, but I never saw anything that was a patch on Manchester. Even in Lagos people would rob you for a reason: they want your money. The Manc scallies were decked out in £300 Hilfiger jackets and Rockport boots and didn’t need money, they just wanted to beat someone up. Never in my life, anywhere else, have I seen a bunch of teenagers wrecking a bus stop, or have I climbed aboard a bus and found somebody has sandpapered the windows and set fire to the seats. In Manchester, this was all perfectly normal. Even now, when people tell me to be careful somewhere, or ask if I was afraid in (say) Paris, I laugh and say “God no, I lived in Manchester, FFS!”

Despite all that, and the fact I never went back, I loved my time there. I am still in touch with Danny – he’s no longer in the dodgy car-hire business and has turned all respectable, so he says – and occasionally I joke about the shitholes he sent me to at 6pm on a wet Tuesday night in November, helpfully telling me there was a tram stop a mile away from the address. It was “character building”, he says.

Yes, it was.

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In Memory of Steve Gerrard, SSI

There were two or three people who had a substantial and positive influence on me when I was in my mid-to-late teens, all of whom worked at the boarding school I attended.

Participation in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory at Seaford College, situated in the South Downs near Petworth, West Sussex. On my second day there I was sent to the “corps office” to collect my uniform, which might have caused me some concern had I not been in the Dyfed Army Cadet Force for the past year and taken to it like a duck to water. The Seaford College CCF was commanded by one Major (cadet force rank) Keith Woodcock who was also a geography teacher, part-time fireman, and all-round good bloke. He had no military experience, and so the unit was assigned a School Staff Instructor (SSI). This came in the form of a stocky, tough-looking individual with a moustache, hairy hands, and a voice which, when raised, would scare the absolute shit out of you. He was Steve Gerrard, a former Warrant Officer 2 (Company Sergeant-Major) who had completed 25 years regular service in the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) following 2 years in the junior army (also as a para).

I walked into the corps office, a skinny, insecure kid who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and found the SSI, as he was known, behind the desk. He asked me where I was from and I said Wales, and from thereon he addressed me as “Taff” or “Taffy”. He took me into the stores, gave me my uniform, and for the next four years served as a sort of mentor to me. He was an extremely tough man – a veteran of the battle of Goose Green, he’d both boxed and played rugby league for the army – but he showed not the slightest aggression towards anyone. If he needed to assert his authority he only needed to raise his voice slightly, and anyone within earshot – child or adult – shit themselves and paid attention. You don’t get to be a sergeant-major in the Parachute Regiment by being unable to project authority. Occasionally I was on the receiving end of a sharp word of his, and it brought me to heel pretty fast.

His language was appalling and his eating habits worse: he would sit in the school canteen and wrap bread around whatever was on his plate and stuff it into his mouth like a sandwich. He told me he learned this in the army: you never know when you’re going to be kicked out of the canteen, and if you’ve got it in your hand nobody can take it away from you. But for all his rough exterior he genuinely cared about the welfare of the boys and girls who were placed in his care. He would obtain for them (meaning, steal from the nearest army barracks) the best kit he could lay his hands on, arrange special activities (such as firing machine guns we weren’t supposed to), and do his absolute level best to ensure everybody enjoyed themselves, learned, and were kept safe. I participated heavily in the CCF activities and went three times on the adventure training weeks in Wales and Exmoor. Steve arranged all the logistics, including doing all the catering. He was outrageously funny, mainly because none of us knew a character quite like him: he’d walk into a room of fifteen year old boys and say in his thick Derbyshire accent: “That were fooking lucky, if I’d been a minute later some humpty-backed c*nt would have taken my parking space!” None of our parents or teachers spoke like this.

Looking back, he was probably the first adult to treat me like one. I wasn’t an adult, but he spoke to me in a way that, in hindsight, was highly respectful: he would fire instructions at me, ask for help with CCF activities, teach me things, answer questions, and have conversations without the slightest hint of condescension, pomposity, or arrogance of being in a senior position. He treated everyone equally, and spoke to them in much the same way. Perhaps it was his having a short childhood himself, joining the army at 15, that made him understand that if you want young lads to behave as men you have to treat them like men. For dozens of us, it worked.

I spent a lot of time with the SSI, sitting in the corps office or in the stores, having conversations which were probably very immature on my part. I even met his mother and stayed in his childhood home when he gave me a lift up north one weekend when I was 18. I admired him immensely, as did most people who knew him. He left the army after 27 years somewhat lost – diabetes prevented him from getting a commission – and found a new purpose in teaching young boys and girls things which went way beyond his military remit.

Last week I heard from a schoolfriend, who had followed in Steve’s footsteps by joining the Parachute Regiment, that he had died. Diabetes plagued him even back then and apparently his health had been suffering. I regret I never saw or spoke to him once I’d left school: living abroad meant I rarely went home anyway, and his sharing a name with a famous contemporary footballer meant finding him online was impossible, assuming he was even there to be found. I wish I’d been able to let him know what a great help he was to me at a time when I needed it. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one.

Rest in peace, Sir. You really were one of the very best.

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Of Sub-Letting and Scams

Back when I lived in Lagos I had an English friend who was married to a Nigerian-born British lady. Because of this, they interacted a lot more with the locals than the rest of us expats. We lived in a compound on a private island in accommodation that by any standards, let alone those of Nigeria, would get called luxury (lest you think we were spoiled, one of the issues that plague developing world cities is that there are generally two types of housing: total shitholes and ludicrously expensive luxury apartments).

My friends got chatting to some Nigerian neighbours and discovered that one of their income streams was sub-letting council properties in London to other Nigerians. They’d gone to the UK, got themselves a council house or flat, rented it out to somebody else, then came back to Lagos. When my friends started getting cross at this, the response of their neighbours was along the lines of:

“Why are you mad at us? Why aren’t you mad at the idiots who put this stupid system in place that allows Nigerians to get council houses and rent them out? Frankly, we can’t believe that they let us do this!”

They had a point. One of the worst aspects of the British welfare system isn’t that so many people game it, but that it does not adequately provide for many of the deserving poor either. Yet we’re always being told it’s a funding issue, rather than an organisational one.

I was reminded of this story when I read somebody on Twitter saying that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, some poor sod is going to have to work out who was actually living there. I don’t know the mix of private and social housing in the block, but you can be sure that sub-letting of council flats was going on. Although disallowed, the practice is widespread, particularly among immigrant communities. Even identifying the dead might be difficult if the person living in a particular flat wasn’t the person whose name is one the lease. No doubt insurance claims will be affected as well, assuming they even had any.

This in turn reminded me of something else, bringing me back to Nigeria again. On the only occasion I flew from Lagos to Port Harcourt, i.e. an internal flight, I was surprised to find my boarding pass – handed to me by a Nigerian who was assigned to “look after me” – had somebody else’s name on it. Apparently middle-men buy up all the plane tickets the moment they’re issued by the airline and re-sell them at a marked-up price. That this is allowed to go on says everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it’s not just a cost issue. It occurred to me as the plane lurched and weaved its way towards Port Harcourt that if it crashed nobody would have any clue who was on it. There was no record of me being a passenger, some chap with a Yoruba name was supposed to be in my seat. People would assume he’s dead, which I’m sure would open up all sorts of opportunities for additional scams.

I’d not be at all surprised if opportunists seize on the Grenfell Tower tragedy to perpetuate various scams, either.

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Mind Boggled

Commenter Simon Jester provides possibly the most ludicrous example of government stupidity that I have seen in a long while, and the bar is set high:

I once worked (in West London) in an office where there was an underground car park, in which half the spaces were cordoned off to prevent people parking in them – the local council insisted that only half could be used, as part of their efforts to combat Climate Change.

You can bet that the people at the council who approved this ensured their own personal car parking spaces remained close to the entrance of their nicely air conditioned offices.

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Why NHS Food Is Crap

One of the things you notice if you work long enough for large companies is that the quality of any given support service suddenly becomes a lot better if the people managing it are themselves users of that service.

When I worked in Africa, the senior management had their own company-supplied vehicles and drivers to take them to and from the airport; everyone else used a shuttle bus. With no senior management ever having to see what taking the shuttle bus was like, you can imagine the state of it.

You sometimes see a similar thing with travel departments. The administrative staff who work in them are usually local employees who generally don’t have to go on business trips in far-flung cities taking flights that leave at 7am. When you come to deal with them, this becomes painfully obvious.

Last week I saw somebody on Twitter complaining about the food in the NHS, and naturally somebody leaped in underneath to claim that this was a result of the catering being outsourced to private companies. There exists a mindset among some people that private companies cannot possibly provide a better service than public bodies because of the profit factor, the veritable planet of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But in the case of the NHS the food really is terrible, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

Thanks to a decade or so traipsing around oil and gas offices, installations, and construction sites I’ve seen a lot of mass-catering and it ranges from extremely good to absolute shite. In most cases the catering has been outsourced to one of two companies: Eurest (a subsidiary of Compass, which is British) and Sodexo (which is French). I don’t know if they supply the NHS with catering services, but I’d be surprised if they don’t. What I found is that the quality of food is dependent on two things:

1. Budget

2. Whether the management or the management’s close colleagues eat it.

One the first point, the budget is the difference between reasonable food and very good food. With the oil industry swimming in money until fairly recently, the food in the canteens was generally pretty good, and offshore it could be outstanding (the food on the Safe Astoria was superb, thanks to a Singaporean chef).

But it is the second point that makes the real difference. The one place in the whole Sakhalin II construction project where the food was absolutely woeful was at the transit camp in Nogliki, halfway up Sakhalin Island. As the name suggests, it was a camp set up for people to spend a night or two in transit between Nogliki, where the train from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk terminated, and the various construction camps that lay further to the north. Aside from a few poor bastards who were based there permanently, people were only supposed to be there for one or two nights, and it showed. I spent a night there between coming off the Lun-A platform and going to inspect the Piltun lighthouse.  The beds had been bought second-hand from the folk who dismantled the barracks at Auschwitz and fitted with dark brown sheets that were supposed to be that colour. Dinner consisted of a slab of grey meat and watery gravy by an Indian who told me that’s all there was. By contrast, the grub on the actual sites was excellent. Senior managers never, ever stayed at the transit camp.

The reason why the NHS food is crap is not because private companies are providing it, but because the people who administer the catering contract do not eat it. I’d be surprised if even the NHS staff eat it; if they do, they are low-level staff who don’t have much clout with the people in charge. Or perhaps the staff are fed in separate canteens? I don’t know, but the reason it is crap is because those who eat it have no influence over those who pay for it, and those who pay for it don’t eat it. If people want the food in the NHS to improve they should insist that the middle management eat it as well. It would improve overnight at no additional cost.

Of course, this is a long-winded version of Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money, but it’s fun to spot examples of it in the wild.

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Yet More on the Wiretapping of Trump

About ten years ago, back in the days when I was flying between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Moscow (a flight of 9 hours) in economy class, I was involved in an altercation with a stewardess of either Aeroflot or Transaero, I don’t remember which. I was with my good pal and colleague Andrei and we’d just boarded and put our hand luggage in the overhead locker when the stewardess came to us and demanded we hand over the bottle of vodka we had brought on board. Andrei and I said we didn’t know what she was on about, and she told us she’s seen me in the airport putting a bottle of vodka into my backpack which I then brought on board, and this is not allowed. I protested vehemently and swore that she must have been mistaken because I did not bring a bottle of vodka on board and I most certainly didn’t have one in my backpack. She stopped short of insisting I open my backpack and let her inspect the contents, but the kerfuffle was enough to attract the attention of the senior steward. He listened to the stewardess and then turned to me, and once again I swore on all that is holy that I did not bring a bottle of vodka aboard. This seemed to satisfy him and he told the stewardess to drop it and leave us in peace. She went away absolutely fuming. Your humble blogger is not a pathological liar and he was indeed telling the absolute truth when he said he did not smuggle a bottle of vodka aboard the flight.

I did, ahem, smuggle a bottle of rum aboard, though.

I was reminded of this little incident when I read Streetwise Professor’s take on the Trump-Obama-Wiretapping accusations (I’ve linked to this before):

What Obama and his minions (and the Democrats and many in the media) say is likely to be correct, strictly speaking, but fundamentally misleading. In contrast, what Trump says is often incorrect, strictly speaking, but captures the fundamental truth.

When I said I’d not smuggled aboard a bottle of vodka I was, strictly speaking, telling the truth but my words were fundamentally misleading. The stewardesses accusations, while incorrect, captured the fundamental truth.

(Before I go any further, I might as well explain: Andrei had a mate who had a mother who worked at the airport and could get a bottle of something around the security check and hand it to him in the departure lounge. Fortunately Andrei prefers rum to vodka and so I was able to lie with a straight face. I don’t take any moral high ground here, but then I wasn’t looking for any: I was simply trying to make it through 9 hours of an internal flight across Russia in economy class. Andrei, being utterly shameless as many Russian men are, immediately called for the stewardess when we were airbourne and asked for two glasses, a bottle of Coke, and a lot of ice. Fortunately we got a different stewardess or I’d have died in my seat.)

Anyway, where was I? That’s right, the Trump wiretapping. I didn’t mention this at the time, but I found the GCHQ response to Trump’s claims to be rather revealing:

GCHQ rejected the allegations as “utterly ridiculous”. The unusual move by the agency to comment on the news came after Mr Spicer cited claims first made on Fox News earlier this week.

A GCHQ spokesman said: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense.

“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

At the time I thought “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. If they weren’t hiding something, why break with precedent to comment? And why the outraged language? A simple denial would suffice, no? Commenter “Nemo” makes this remark at Tim Worstall’s:

GCHQ’s statement was a classic public sector equivocation that looked like a denial as long as you didn’t actually read it. Reduced to its salient points it said:

‘We were never asked to wire-tap the President-elect.’

So the US Government Party only had to ask for intel acquired at GCHQ’s own volition.

And as another commenter notes on the same thread:

“Wire tap” is indeed shorthand. It does however give an out, in the sense that they can say they weren’t wiretapped – and it would be true, technically, if you don’t make the sensible conclusion that Trump is using it as short hand for generic surveillance.

I say all this in response to a comment that Polkamatic left under my own post on the subject yesterday (his comments are more than welcome, by the way, as are everybody’s):

Trump claimed unambiguously that it was Obama who was targeting him with surveillance. How is this even remotely the same thing?

To which David Moore replies:

Do you think that in making that claim Trump meant that Obama was the one in the van with his ear to the headphone?

And also:

The Streetwise Prof was bang on the money with this one. Trump was, loosely, right and the Democrats/Media have been playing a game of semantics.

Indeed. Now I don’t credit Trump with some Machiavellian genius such that he chose his words carefully to entrap his opponents. I think he knew, probably from his own supporters inside the NSA, FBI, and CIA that his communications were being monitored one way or another and just hurled out the accusation against Obama to be annoying and, perhaps, get them panicking and off-balance. Whether he intended it or not, he’s now got the FBI Director, most of the media, and a whole load of others backtracking furiously. That’s not a bad effort for a single tweet.

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What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.

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