Pitzi

There’s a great word in Romanian, Pitzipoance, which you can pronounce (badly) in English as pitzy pwonka or just pitzi. It is usually used to describe over made-up and frivolous young women but you can use it to describe men, or anything really. There’s a good little article about it over at I’m More Romanian Than You!

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Teapot

This is my teapot, which I love. There are people who believe there is a god who lives in their teapot. I can see why they might think this, because teapots are lovely, so I respect their belief while not sharing it. Some of them think women should dress up in teabags when they go out in public. I like this too because I love fancy dress and it makes the pedestrians outside my window look less drab, although I wonder sometimes why the husbands don’t wear a teabag too.

There have been some teapot-god worshipping people who have started to say that I shouldn’t put the milk in first when I’m pouring my tea. They say that it is disrespectful to the god for the tea to go in second. They also say that I’m not allowed to put a picture of my teapot on my blog because that’s forbidden. I don’t agree with them, I think they are wrong.

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Compensation Culture

My bike all twisted and bentI was hit last year by a woman who jumped the lights in Brixton, admitted responsibility for destroying my bike and then spent the next six months trying to avoid paying for it. Luckily there was a witness and once I’d tracked her down and given the information to the police, the driver was charged and convicted of dangerous driving.

When I contacted the driver’s insurance company they refused to deal with me. They told me that they would only consider my claim for compensation once the driver had reported the accident to them. She never did that, and she soon stopped replying to my phone calls and text messages. I had no choice but to go to a solicitor and threaten to sue the insurance company. As soon as I did that they paid up.

That is why I’m very suspicious of the Insurance Industry’s moral posturing about No Win, No Fee arrangements. They are already in an outrageously advantageous position because anyone who owns a car must buy insurance from them. They share information about customers and all have the same policies and thus effectively operate a cartel. But despite this, the industry is self-regulated and complaining about an insurance company is time-consuming and complicated. For someone in the position I was in, a solicitor is the easiest and fastest solution, and it’s little wonder the insurance companies don’t like that. Their main objective is always to avoid paying, even when they should.

By the way, if you arrive at this post because you’ve had a bike accident, I’d strongly recommend the company I used www.cycle-claims.co.uk, they did a great job.

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Charity Shops

I read an article a few years ago about how most charity shops don’t make a profit, they are just there to raise awareness of the charity by providing a permanent and cheap advertising billboard on the High Street. The guy who wrote it suggested that people would be better off selling their unwanted clothes on eBay and donating the money directly to a cause they cared about.

The British Heart Foundation produced a story today, picked up rather uncritically by the BBC, about how many of the clothes donated to charities end up being sold to commercial traders. It’s not a new story, the BBC actually made a programme about a very similar issue back in 2006. The BHF doesn’t seem to have actually published the specific details of the research that the story is based on, despite the many statistics quoted in their film, and they don’t mention on their site whether or not they sell unwanted donations on to commercial traders. It will be interesting to see whether those charities they’re indirectly criticising will respond to what they’ve said.

Transparency is always a difficult issue for charities. The harsh reality of the work they do is often at odds with the cosy world that their donors like to imagine. Competition is fierce and they worry that any story that raises even the faintest anxiety in the minds of their donors will cause them to switch to some other organisation.

Many people working in the media come from a similar background to those working for charities. Journalists working in the field often rely on their charity contacts for help with stories and logistics. This personal relationship, coupled with a reluctance to criticise people who are obviously well-meaning, makes it hard for reporters to properly examine the work of charities. Most interviews I hear start off with “Oh no, really? That’s terrible, what are you doing to help?” with follow-up questions that are entirely unchallenging. When there is even the slightest suggestion that things on the ground aren’t as clear-cut as the charities would like us to imagine, such as last year’s story about some Band Aid money being diverted to buy weapons in Ethiopia, the charities fly into a fury.

This aversion to scrutiny comes partly from the fact that charities employ a whole army of professional PR and advertising people. These professionals are entirely focussed on delivering results for their employers. They may not care if the new donors they recruit have simply switched from another charity and they are not interested in whether or not the charity is actually effective in accomplishing what it says it will. They just want people to sign up, and they will always advise their clients to avoid complexity and controversy and to challenge criticism aggressively.

So we, as potential donors, have a problem. The public face of the charities we support is created by professional marketers, not by the well-meaning people we think we’re supporting. The effectiveness of those organisations is not scrutinised by the media, and government charity watchdogs are only concerned with fraud and misappropriation. So who can we trust to tell us the truth about what happens to our donations?

The article I mentioned at the start of this post was on a site called Intelligent Giving which provided exactly the sort of scrutiny that is needed. Unfortunately it closed down, I don’t know why, and has been taken over by New Philanthropy Capital who are focussed on supplying help to charities rather than to donors. You can still find some tasters of the kind of hard-hitting work they did on their mothballed blog. The other sites available in the UK, such as Philanthropy UK, are much more equivocal. If you want some up-to-date help in finding effective ways of giving you’ll have to look to the U.S.

GiveWell has several excellent resources including a Giving 101 which includes reasons to give as well as reasons not to, and an explanation of why the wrong donation can accomplish nothing at all. Charity Navigator is another interesting site. They have some great top 10’s, including this list of charities which spend more than half their budget paying professional fundraisers! It’s a real shame there isn’t an equivalent site for UK charities, I’m sure more people would give more money if they didn’t suspect that it would be wasted.

(Disclaimer: Although I work for the BBC I didn’t work on any of the stories mentioned above. These are my personal views and nothing to do with the Corporation.)

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Sad Dream

I had a sad dream last night. It was really like a film, so I wrote down the end of it, as a screenplay. I think it was mostly caused by watching Black Narcissus and the woman in it really talked like Deborah Kerr, so I’ve called her Deborah. The first part was all chases and running away, but this was how it ended.

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Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

A shadowy figure in front of a doorUp and Down

Nothing but large beautiful girls here, thought Kleinzeit as he took off his pyjamas and put on a gown that tied airily behind. So healthy, too. Each one seemed to confine her energy with difficulty inside her close fitting skin. Such rosy cheeks! The room was bleak with cold hard surfaces, heavy machinery.

‘Right,’ said the X-Ray Room Juno. ‘We’re going to do a Bach-Euclid on you. We do it two ways.’

‘You mean…’ said Kleinzeit.

‘Down your throat and up your bum,’ said the comely handmaiden of the see-through machine. ‘Drink this, all of it. Cheers.’

Kleinzeit drank, shuddered.

‘Now lie here on the table on your side and spread your cheeks.’

Kleinzeit shrank, spread his cheeks, was buggered by a syringe and pumped full of something. Role-reversal, he thought. Kinky. He felt blown-up to the bursting point.

‘Stay on your side. Deep breath. Hold it,’ said Juno. Thump. Click.

‘I’m going to crap all over this table,’ said Kleinzeit.

‘Hold it, not yet,’ said Juno. Thump. Click. ‘There’s a loo next door. Not long now.’ Thump. Click. ‘Right. You can relieve yourself now, then come right back.’

Kleinzeit exploded in the loo, came back a shadow of himself.

‘Stand up here,’ said Juno. ‘Elbows back, deep breath.’ Thump. Click. ‘Side view now.’ Thump. Click. ‘All finished. Thank you, Mr Kleinzeit.’

‘My pleasure,’ said Kleinzeit. Must it end like this, he thought. After such intimacy!

He went back to his bed all worn out, fell asleep. While he was asleep the red-bearded man from the Underground got into his head.

Nice place you’ve got here, he said inside Kleinzeit’s head.

I don’t know you, said Kleinzeit.

Don’t come the innocent with me, mate, said Redbeard. He took a sheet of yellow paper out of a carrier-bag, wrote something on it, offered it to Kleinzeit. Kleinzeit took the paper, saw that it was blank on both sides.

Remember? said Redbeard.

Remember what? said Kleinzeit, and woke up with his heart beating fast.

Posted in Extracts from great works of fiction | 1 Comment

Disaster?

yassinThe government of Israel has a policy of assassinating political leaders in Gaza. That means that the people who have ended up in charge of Hamas are the violent nutters rather that anyone who might be interested in a political solution. If the British government had shown this kind of clumsy disrespect for the rule of law in the 1980’s (and let’s face it they came close) then Gerry Adams and his colleagues wouldn’t have been around for any kind of peace process and we’d still be waging a war in Northern Ireland against the throwbacks who eventually became the Real IRA.

Gaza VictimEven so, despite being idiots Hamas can fairly reasonably claim to be a legitimate party of government in Gaza because they were kind of voted in. They are committed to armed conflict against Israel, that is the ticket they ran on and that is what people voted for. Which is fair enough. I don’t think they should be described as terrorists, they are entitled to go to war if they want to. It does mean, though, that the awful casualties that the Israelis caused in their retaliation are not a ‘disaster’. They are casualties of war. Describing it as a disaster, as though it couldn’t be avoided, is dishonest.

So I agree with the BBC’s recent decision not to show a fundraising film on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee. While I hate to have to agree with the annoying Mark Thompson I think that he’s right when he says:

…Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues – the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it – are both at the heart of the story and contentious.

DEC Donate nowPeople say that the BBC should trust the judgement of the charities who make up the DEC. Why? The people who work for charities are only human, they can be corrupt, incompetent or wrong just like anyone else. And because their credibility depends on maintaining a pristine image they don’t publicise their failings. They also have their own biases. Just because the DEC thinks that aid can be delivered safely and without being diverted by Hamas that doesn’t mean it can be. It is reasonable for the BBC to be sceptical about their claims.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should give money to the DEC, of course they should if they want to. But BBC news isn’t there to tell people how to react to what’s going on, it’s just there to report the story. Reporting the suffering of the people of Gaza is the right thing to do in a news programme. Showing a film afterwards which is specifically designed to tug on the heart strings and raise money isn’t. We all know that when there stop being developments in the story it will stop dominating the headlines and yet the suffering will go on. That is the right time to show a fund-raising film, not now.

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Congo

If you’ve ever seen the Stan’s Cafe show Of All the People In All The World, where every grain of rice stands for one person, you may have been surprised by the size of the pile representing all the people who died between 1998 and 2004 as a result of the civil war in the Congo. The pile is about the size of an up-turned wheelbarrow and is roughly as big as the mound representing all the slaves who were ever carried from Africa in British ships during the slave trade.

Ironically the largest proportion of slaves who were taken from Africa during the Atlantic slave trade were from West Central Africa, a region that includes modern Congo and Angola. They were almost all captured during wars between native kingdoms. In fact the desire to capture slaves was often the main cause of wars in Africa at that time.

I always imagined that the civil war in Congo, which is still going on, was an ethnic conflict. That is how it is usually portrayed and it’s quite a comforting view for people like me because it means I don’t have to feel any sense of responsibility for what’s going on there. Today I heard a dispatch by the BBC’s Mark Doyle, a man who has spent an awful lot of time working in Africa. His explanation is more complicated and convincing. Have a listen.

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Uncertainty

Some researchers at Edinburgh University have just published a report about how easy it is to buy prescription-only medicines online. They visited sites which they found via Google and Yahoo but they did not take the final step of actually buying the drugs because they felt that would not be ethical. So they were just counting sites which offered drugs.

At the start of this year researchers at Berkeley and San Diego were doing a study into how profitable spamming could be. They set up a fake online pharmacy which was just like the real thing, offering prescription-only drugs. They counted how many people visited the site and added drugs to their basket. The only point at which the customers discovered that it was not actually working was when they submitted their credit-card details, at which point they got an error page.

So, the Edinburgh researchers probably included the Berkeley researchers in their study, and vice versa, unless they warned each other, which seems unlikely. It’s like a collaborative version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – Whenever you try to measure something by doing anything on the web you are probably affecting someone else’s measurements at the same time.

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Debt

Basing the growth of your economy on people borrowing money, as opposed to relying on increased productivity, doesn’t seem like a very sensible idea. An Austrian ecomomist called Ludwig von Mises described the problem very nicely:

It may sometimes be expedient for a man to heat the stove with his furniture. But he should not delude himself by believing that he has discovered a wonderful new method of heating his premises.

Nevertheless this is exactly the economic model that pretty much everyone apparently believes in at the moment. It seems to be the unanimous view of both journalists and politicians that we need the banks to start lending again in order to get the economy moving. But some of the banks are in trouble because of their imprudent and greedy business practices and so now all the banks are being extra-cautious and won’t lend. So the favoured solution is for governments to give the banks yet more money in the hope that they will lend it out to people. To go back to Ludwig von Mises, this is still not a wonderful method of heating; it’s just the government buying more furniture. Nobody is prepared to say the truth, which is that lots of people are going to have to accept a prolonged lowering of their standard of living.

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