You know the scene.  You are sitting in a restaurant, giving your order to the otherwise pleasant waiter/waitress and, after each dish you specify, he/she says “no problem”.

I know that I am a bit grumpy, but I find this particular usage irritating.  Where did it come from?!  Is it an Americanism?  Or maybe a result of watching too many Australian soaps?

I feel like saying “It’s good that you have assessed my request and on balance you feel able to accede to it, as it apparently does not cause you a problem. The message I’m receiving is that if it did cause you a problem, you would probably be unable to grant me my request. That sort of  conditionality as regards your establishment’s service policy is not to my taste”.

What’s wrong with a simple “Certainly”, or a “Yes sir/madam”, or a repetition of the order by way of confirmation that it has been understood and registered?

I am frankly not that interested in whether, or the extent to which, my order causes a problem for the restaurant in which I am spending my hard-earned money. If what I have ordered is by some chance unavailable on the day in question, then simply advise me of this, with an appropriate apology for my disappointment. Otherwise I’m frankly not interested in your problems, or lack of same. I come to restaurants to get away from everyday problems.

To quote a fellow blogger:  “By saying it in response to your lunch order, the waiter is suggesting that, by ordering, you are annoying the waiter, and that a lesser waiter might have walked off in a huff, but that he will graciously bear the inconvenience of having you around.”

So come on, waiters and waitresses of the world: watch your language!

Airline joke

27 June, 2011

A guy is sitting in the bar in departures at Heathrow. A beautiful woman walks in and sits down at the table next to him.

He decides that because she’s got a uniform on, she’s probably an off duty flight attendant.  So he decides to have a go at picking her up by identifying the airline she flies for thereby impressing her greatly.

He leans across to her and says the Delta Airlines motto: “We love to fly and it shows”.   The woman looks at him blankly.

He sits back and thinks up another line.   He leans forward again and delivers the Air France motto: “Winning the hearts of the world”.  Again she just stares at him with a slightly puzzled look on her face.

Undeterred, he tries again, this time saying the Malaysian Airlines motto: “Going beyond expectations”.

The woman looks at him sternly and says: “What the f**k do you want?”

“Ah!” he says, sitting back with a smile on his face, “Ryanair”!!!

Sometimes one comes across a set of circumstances which are, to put it mildly, eyebrow-raising.   The awarding in 2007 of the contract to construct and operate Dublin’s new Convention Centre is an example.

Last September, the Irish Independent reported as follows:-

A PROPOSAL to build the newly opened national convention centre for half of its eventual cost was rejected by a government-appointed committee, a report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) reveals.

Spencer Dock Convention Centre Dublin (SDCCD), part of businessman Johnny Ronan’s ailing Treasury Holdings group, won the public private partnership contract to build and run the centre after bidding €390m in 2007.

However, it has now emerged that the rival Anna Livia consortium, which was backed by Bennett Construction, had three bids between €203m and €224m rejected by a government steering group.

Convention Centre Dublin, located in the Dublin docklands, was officially opened earlier this month.

The Sunday Tribune used the headline “Taxpayers’ €47m-a-year bill leaves a bad smell” when it ran a report last July (the reference to a bad smell is a pun, as the Convention Centre was also revealed to be without proper sewage facilities, despite the high spend):

Under the multi-million euro deal worked out between the government and Spencer Dock Convention Company Ltd (SDCCL), the state will pay €47m a year for the next five years and €23.9m a year for the following 20 years to the company for building and running the controversial centre.

This works out at a total outlay of €713m, making it one of the most expensive state projects, on a par with the Luas and the Port Tunnel. The first monthly instalment of just under €4m is due next month and these will continue until 2015 after which the payments will drop down to just under €2m a month until 2035. The centre will then revert to state ownership…..

Responding to criticism of such a massive spend on a conference centre in such straitened times, a spokesman for the OPW said the total payment of €713m over 25 years is equivalent to €350m at today’s prices.

The capital costs of both the winning and the losing bids were apparently much the same and the huge difference arose in the tendered cost of  operating and maintaining the centre.

Amazingly, in the tender assessment process only 25% of the available marks was originally allocated to financial factors, far too little,  and this was mysteriously reduced to 20% during the process.  The C&AG points out that “In a meeting of the Steering Group in 2004, the Department of Finance had concerns when the financial criteria weighting was lowered from 25% to 20%, and the design and construction weighting increased to 40%.”    Furthermore, within the financial criterion, only 13 of the 20 marks allocated were assigned to an assessment of the cost of the deal. Most of the remainder were awarded based on evaluating the revenue sharing mechanism proposed and the financial robustness of the deal.

The C&AG said that this weighting system was not enough to distinguish between bids with widely varying costs.

And here’s the really stupid part:  the costs of the proposed bids were assessed not relative to each other but by comparison with a level of 90% of a pre-established public sector benchmark (PSB) cost.  The Office of Public Works, which oversaw the awarding of the contract, was required to develop a PSB against which tenders from the private sector could be assessed. It estimated the cost of the project at €422m in net present value terms.

Bids costing 90%, or less, of this estimate were to be awarded full marks irrespective of how much cheaper than the 90% they were. The  C&AG notes that “This had the effect of awarding relatively high marks to proposals that were much more costly in absolute terms”.

The report includes a comparison with the financial assessment of the PPP project in relation to the Criminal Courts Complex.  This differed in two key ways from that used in the assessment of the tenders in the Convention Centre project: (a) a total of 30% of the overall marks were allocated to financial criteria as compared to 20% for the Convention Centre, with 27% of the overall marks based on the cost of the bids as compared with 13% in relation to the Convention Centre; (b) the assessment of the cost of the bids in relation to the Criminal Courts Complex  compared the cost of the bids relative to each other rather than by reference to the cost as identified in the PSB.

Not surprisingly, the C&AG said that there needs to be a change in how future bids for public-private partnerships are assessed.  His report can be found here.

This looks like a giant financial cock-up, and wicked people could postulate a more sinister interpretation.  I’m told that conspiracy theorists have been wondering what Richard Barrett (Johnny Ronan’s partner in Treasury Holdings) meant when, at the official opening of the Convention Centre,  he was caught on camera jovially remarking to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern “keep pulling for us”.   Sheer begrudgery, no doubt.

I had the dubious pleasure  of flying Ryanair again recently.  I repeat all my previous comments (here) about how they manage to make travel annoying.

This one is a particular bugbear:

The baggage weight limit.  For an item of checked baggage, 15kg is ridiculous and seems designed to annoy passengers – an allowance of 20kg should be the minimum, or at least 18kg. Ryanair’s policy leads to people maximising the 10kg limit on carry-on baggage, and adds to stress levels on boarding, with passengers chasing inadequate overhead locker space. This is one of the causes of the cattle-like queuing referred to above. And the thing is, 15kg is a totally arbitrary limit. What’s the difference in cost for the airline between carrying a 90kg man with a 15kg suitcase, and an 85kg man with a 20kg suitcase? They don’t charge for passengers by weight.

The Economist had a piece recently about Southwest Airlines:

Southwest’s main advantage is that its rivals often treat passengers like cargo. Not only do they squeeze them into seats that make dentists’ chairs seem comfortable, but they do so with an air of ill-concealed resentment. …….It is the small things that make the difference. Southwest still gives out free peanuts, an oddly emotive subject among travellers. It lets passengers switch their flights often, for no extra charge. Most importantly, perhaps, it does not charge for checked-in luggage. Bob Jordan, Southwest’s vice president for strategy, reckons that charging for bags would have given the airline an additional $300m a year. But bag fees are so irritating that Southwest decided to go without.

And to think that Southwest Airlines was supposedly the model that Ryanair originally followed!  Michael O’Leary has obviously cherry-picked the bits that suit his unusual worldview, and discarded the bits that involve being courteous to passengers (even where it costs nothing).

Quote of the Day

16 June, 2011

I credit John McIntyre, in his English language blog in the Baltimore Sun, with this one.

If I should succumb to some lingering disease instead of the hangman’s noose, and my obituary should include the words “after a long battle with,” I solemnly pledge that I will return from the dead and torment that obituary writer all the days he remains on this side of the ground.

 To which a reader has added:

Especially if it doesn’t say “after a long courageous battle with”, as if to imply you fought with cowardice.

Which leads me to Barbara Ehrenreich and her polemic against the “think positive” school of well-wishers to the cancer-striken, which you can find in this article or this book.

Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to identify a single source.  Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance.…. In my case, however, there was, I learned, an urgent medical reason to embrace cancer with a smile: a “positive attitude” is supposedly essential to recovery. During the months when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I encountered this assertion over and over – on websites, in books, from oncology nurses and fellow sufferers. Eight years later, it remains almost axiomatic, within the breast cancer culture, that survival hinges on “attitude”. One study found 60% of women who had been treated for the disease attributing their continued survival to a “positive attitude”. In articles and on websites, individuals routinely take pride in this supposedly lifesaving mental state….

….But others in the cancer care business have begun to speak out against what one has called “the tyranny of positive thinking”. When a 2004 study found no survival benefits for optimism among lung cancer patients, its lead author, Penelope Schofield, wrote: “We should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the misguided belief that this will afford survival benefits… If a patient feels generally pessimistic… it is important to acknowledge these feelings as valid and acceptable.”  Whether repressed feelings are themselves harmful, as many psychologists claim, I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking “fails” and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place.

Husbands vs wives

13 June, 2011

A friend told me a story which (I claim) illustrates the difference between men and women, at least in a middle-aged, married context.
He and his wife were passing a shop window which showed off beautiful high-end kitchens, and in which a young couple were being shown what was on offer.  His wife said to him: “Lucky them, buying a new kitchen”.
The husband claims to have replied: “But no, lucky us, we already have a kitchen which works very well and which, moreover, is fully paid for. Those poor young people are probably going deep into debt to acquire a fancy kitchen beyond their needs.”   The wife’s response was not supplied.   I think my friend tells the story to show himself in a good light: we are to be impressed with his maturity, common sense and frugality.  I fear not everybody will go along with this.

Last April, the New Statesman published an article written by Sir David Attenborough called “This Heaving Planet”.  Much of it is worth quoting, so I take the liberty of doing so below.

My tuppence worth: what a handicap has been bequeathed to us population worriers and doomsayers by Malthus and his too-early warning of disaster.  As Attenborough says, Malthus was actually right in principle, but his timing was a bit out.  And we are continually derided by the Population Polyannas who point to Malthus’ “wrong” analysis.  Yes, Malthus may have “cried wolf”.  But people forget that, in the Aesop fable, the real wolf did eventually arrive.

Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded, there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion – over twice as many – every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools, roads and airfields. Where could that come from? A little might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had had to themselves – the natural world.

But the impact of these extra billions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically claimed. The spread of industrialisation has changed the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. The earth is warming. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His surname – Malthus – leads some to suppose that he was some continental European philosopher, a German perhaps. But he was not. He was an Englishman, born in Guildford, Surrey, in the middle of the 18th century. His most important book, An ­Essay on the Principle of Population, was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed “misery and vice”. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored – or, at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution (from the 1940s to the late 1970s), which greatly increased the amount of food that can be produced in any given area of arable land. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But such advances only delay things. The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people would like to deny that this is so. They would like to believe in that oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental adviser 45 years ago, said something about this: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week. A quarter of a million a day. Ten thousand an hour..…

… our poor battered planet – the increase of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming, the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of fish stocks, the loss of rainforest, the spread of deserts, the shortage of arable land, the increase in violent weather, the growth of mega-cities, famine, migration patterns. The list goes on and on. But they all share one underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.