Monday, 23 May 2016

Happy 10th Birthday to Deborah Underwood

I'm not very good at birthdays, but I want to say this.

Happy 10th Birthday, Deborah!  

I was browsing Deborah Underwood's bibliography the other day and noticed that Pirate Mom came out on May 23, 2006. Which is ten years ago. Ten years ago today!

Pirate Mom is the story of a pirate-loving kid, Marco, whose mom is hypnotised into believing she is a pirate, but the hypnotist is rushed to hospital before he can deprogram her. Obviously life becomes tough for Marco.

Why am I so interested in Deborah's books? Because I'm her brother-in-law. You read that right. I'm the brother-in-law of the extraordinary Deborah Underwood, writer of many children's fiction books, for example The Quiet Book, Here Comes The Easter Cat, Bad Bye, Good Bye, Interstellar Cinderella, and (just out the other day) Good Night, Baddies. I didn't know when I married Deborah's sister what an extraordinary writer my sister-in-law was. That's mainly because neither did she. And not because she is modest (though she is) but because she didn't know she was a children's writer.

To celebrate Deborah's 10 years of being an extraordinary children's fiction writer, I want to do two things. I want to say a few words about her life as a children's book writer. Then I want to pick out her best children's book and what makes it and her so awesome.

Part 1: A Twenty Year Journey

I know what you are thinking: umm, you said it was 10 years, pal, that 20 years in the subheading is a typo!

Ha. Ha. Ha. The sheer number of rungs on the ladder to becoming a successful children's author is simply astonishing. 

While it's 10 years since Pirate Mom, it's been a 20 year journey. The germ of becoming a children's fiction writer came to her when she read The Mousehole Cat (in the place of Mousehole itself in Cornwall: it's pronounced "mouzzal") and found herself crying over it. From that germ to being a published children's fiction book writer took about 10 years.

I keep adding the word "fiction" because she published children's nonfiction first. She's published 28 nonfiction books for children. (Yes you read that right again, it's twenty-eight.) The very first was Northern Lights, published in 2004. I saw the Northern Lights for real a few months ago for the first time in my life, and I couldn't resist telling the people standing next to me that my sister-in-law had written a book about it! If I have counted right, she's published 19 fiction books for children. That's an impressive total.  As a lover of counting, I can't help noticing that - with some more books in the pipeline, Deborah should pass fifty published children's books sometime in 2017. That's an awful lot of brilliant text for children to come out of reading The Mousehole Cat.
My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books...         — C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

That C.S. Lewis quote means a lot to our family, because exactly this happened with Deborah playing C.S. Lewis and my daughter playing Lucy. Remembering that the germ for children's writing happened in August 1996, and by 2002 a draft of Granny Gomez & Jigsaw was being read to my three year old and winning an honorable mention in a Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition. I mean 6 years is a long time, but hey, you have to learn your craft. Well, yep, but the book was actually published eight years later in 2010.  C.S. Lewis had it right.

Another one which took almost as long was A Balloon For Isabel. Deborah started that one in 2004 and it also came out in 2010. Along the way the central character changed her name. She started out as Emily but then an unrelated book came out called Emily's Balloon. Emily had to go and she was replaced by Isabel. The name change was suggested by my other daughter, who was zero when the book was first written and about seven when it was published.

Both these books are charming and highly recommended, by the way. Granny is the story of a lonely granny, who adopts a pig and sorts out their living arrangements. Isabel is about a porcupine who is desperate to graduate with a balloon instead of a boring old bookmark, and comes up with a solution to the age old porcupine-balloon-popping dilemma.  They're both lovely but probably not Deborah's best book. So what is her best book? Let me move on to part 2, where I will tell you.

Part 2: Deborah's Best Children's Book

Ok. I was lying. I can't possibly pick out her best children's book. There are so many extraordinary ones. Can we call it a tie? I don't know. But each of the following demonstrates Deborah's extraordinariness in a different way. 

The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book is about quiet. But based on a deep insight, that there is not just one type of quiet but many. The quiet when you are waiting for a concert to begin is not the same as the quiet when you are the last one to picked up from school, or when you are with your best friend and you don't need to talk. 

What this book showed, as do many of her others, that Deborah knows the rules but knows how to break them. Being "too quiet" was and is a standard phrase used to reject children's books. Indeed, the rule-breaking of The Quiet Book meant that it was rejected by several editors before Deborah managed to sell it on her own, but the good news is that it found the right home in the end. The editor who did pick it up paired Deborah's quiet text with amazing pictures. 

Part of the success of The Quiet Book are the wonderful illustrations by Renata Liwska. If you're not in the children's book business, you might not realise that the writing and illustration of books are usually completely separate (unless the author and illustrator are the same person.)  The writer just submits text, with no illustrations and as few hints as possible about the illustrations. Typically the writer doesn't even choose the illustrator, that would be the editor at the publisher. In this case, for example, everyone fell in love with Renata's adorable animal illustrations, which Deborah had never imagined. The book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.

Two sequels followed, The Loud Book and The Christmas Quiet Book. Both excellent and successful of course. Though don't get carried away with what success means in children's publishing. As one of her friends said, he thought that becoming a NYT bestselling author meant you had an ATM printing money in your apartment. Not so. Deborah's success - a very real and tangible reward for 20 years of hard work, tenacity, and brilliance - has been so high that she has not had to move out of her single bedroom apartment in San Francisco. (Though it's only supported her in this dazzling lifestyle because the apartment is rent controlled). If you've ever read about J K Rowling's wealth, I mean it's wonderful, but not common.  

So without doubt The Quiet Book must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ... 

Here Comes The Easter Cat 

In Here Comes the Easter Cat, the author is speaking to a Cat around Easter time who is upset at the attention the Easter Bunny is getting, and decides to take over. Cat has an attitude which the author has to try to work around, but in the end it works out.

You know I said that writers don't submit illustrations? And that Deborah knows when to break the rules? Yep, Deborah drew draft illustrations for the Easter Cat. It just happened that she was talking to Cat and Cat started answering back by holding up signs. They were such an integral part of the story that she had to include them - instead of just including extra text like "cat holds up sign with picture of ..."  The illustrator Claudia Rueda used those as a starting point, though of course making the illustrations her own.

Also, by the way, the book was far longer than picture books are expected to be. Another rule she knew how to break. And it worked because it works and kids love the book. Like Quiet, Cat has led to a series, with Santa Cat, Tooth Fairy Cat, and Valentine's Cat, with more to come. The interaction in all of these between the Cat and the author/narrator is beautiful.

So without doubt Easter Cat must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ...

Interstellar Cinderella

Not too surprisingly, Interstellar Cinderella is a sci-fi version of Cinderella. An empowering one for young girls since the hero is a space mechanic. (Totally unrelated of course to her sister and my wife who is a techy hero, though not in space.)

But as per usual, Deborah knows how to break the rules.

First of all, the ending is not what you might expect (but I hope that is not too much of a spoiler.)

And second, Interstellar Cinderella is in rhyme. What? You think that isn't breaking the rules? You might be thinking "Dr Seuss wrote in rhyme, So don't kids books all the time?" Well no. Actually children's books often don't rhyme and if they do it makes them harder to sell. And it's not just me saying this, it's widely known in the industry, as for example in this article: "Why do editors say not to write in rhyme?" By the way, one reason not to rhyme is the difficulty it causes translations. But Cinderella has already been translated into Korean. (I don't know if that version rhymes.)

But somehow, and I doubt even Deborah knows why, it works for Cinderella. 

So without doubt Interstellar Cinderella must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ...

Bad Bye, Good Bye

Bad Bye, Good Bye is about the pain of leaving when your family pack you in the car to move across the country. And the fact that maybe things will be ok in the end.

The book has 80 words in it (I don't mean 80 different words, I mean 80 words.) Of those 79 are single syllable words and the eightieth is the barely polysyllabic "stuffed".  The 80 words come in 10 sets of 8 words, each set a rhyming couplet of two pairs of 4 words. And the 4 words themselves are in two pairs of two words each. There are no verbs. Just to put it in context, this paragraph itself is longer than 80 words.

Ok this is starting to sound confusing, but honestly it isn't. The 80 words in that complicated structure tell a beautifully simple story with a beginning, middle, and a happy ending.

The illustrations by Jonathan Bean are also masterful, gradually lightening as the story progresses. The story starts out in the dark and ends in the light. Even the cover mirrors the progression. How this didn't win the Caldecott medal for children's book illustration is beyond me (I'm sure the winner was really good that year, but it can't have been better.)

So without doubt Bad Bye, Good Bye must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ... 

Good Night, Baddies

The first 10 years of Deborah's publishing as fiction author have neatly finished with the release last week of Good Night, Baddies

What do fairy tale villains do at night? I mean they have a hard day persecuting Princesses and people called Jack, and what are they going to do to rest? Why, they will meet up and share stories of the day while getting ready for bed in their shared pad. Then get a good night's rest, and then get on with it the next day.

By the way, Baddies also rhymes, but you're fed up of me talking about Deborah breaking the rules by now. In fact the text makes a lovely song, and you can hear Deborah's beautiful singing voice in the trailer she made (yes apparently "Book trailers" are a thing now.") And you can even have her sing the whole book to you as a lullaby if you want!

But I do want to add one reason I have a particular soft spot for Baddies. Deborah said that one of the inspirations for it was hearing me talk to my daughters about "baddies", since we live in Britain and that's a less common phrase in the US.

So without doubt Good Night, Baddies must be Deborah's best book.  Unless it's ...

Ok I have no idea which is Deborah's best book. 

And I haven't even mentioned some of Deborah's classics. Like Part-time Princess, about a little girl who has adventures at night such as putting out fires caused by a dragon who she then invites to tea.

Or an entire six book series, the Sugar Plum Ballerinas about a ballet class in Harlem, co-authored with Whoopi Goldberg (yes, that Whoopi Goldberg.) When they auditioned for a co-author and Deborah was picked, she was shocked that they had signed her for the entire six book series.  I told her it was natural because either the first book would flop in which case there would be no series, or it would be a success and why would they want anyone else for the later books? Of course it was a success.

The Secret Part 3: Secret Deborah Underwood Books.

There are Deborah Underwood books that I have read almost nobody else has. How lucky does this make me? Very. There must be others but the ones that spring to mind are Sarah Visits The Teletubbies, The Purple Hat, Ojo's Birthday Treasure Hunt, Penguin Aloha, Baby Again, and perhaps the most special of all, Pizza Rat.  

If I was to tell you more about these books, it would spoil the surprise when the scholarly edition of Deborah's previously unpublished works come out.  (I haven't heard this has been planned, yet, but it must surely be in the works.)

Our copies of these books are for sale by the way, if you make me a good enough offer. Sadly, you can't afford a good enough offer! 

A somewhat-insane career change

I can imagine you are thinking, how can I emulate Deborah Underwood's success (what with the rent controlled apartment and everything)? 

From outside I can comment with no confidence at all that here are three key tips. 
  1. It's a ridiculously long road. The number of steps is incredible, so you need stickability and dedication, and the desire to do it even though it's almost certainly an objectively bad idea.
  2. Don't try to copy Deborah's or anybody else's style, you need to have your own.
  3. You need all the support you can get. 
On the last point, here is something Deborah wrote to family and friends 10 years ago today, when Pirate Mom came out.
"I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your support during this five-year (!) process. I feel incredibly fortunate that all the people in my life have championed this somewhat-insane career change. Without your encouragement, I certainly would have thrown in the towel long ago. So thank you!"
It's been a pleasure to be a spectator and borderline participant on the journey.  Thanks Deborah.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

When we used to be told half the population was asexual

Nowadays one comes across articles in mainstream media about asexuality, such as this one at the BBC: What's it like to date someone who's asexual?

The asexuality flag.
I didn't know there was one
 until a few weeks ago. 
The general tone of this article and others like it is to express bemusement at the idea of asexuality. I.e. how could anyone not have sexual feelings?

I've got used to these kind of articles: they are quite common.

Then it struck me. When I was young (umm about 40 years ago), it was common knowledge that just under half the population was asexual. 

I mean women. Women were asexual. Women never wanted sex and never had sexual arousal.

Except for a small percentage who were nymphomaniacs. Women were either asexual or nymphomaniacs.

So now we are told that it is seriously weird that somebody could not have sexual feelings. When I was young it was seriously weird to think that a woman could have sexual feelings.

This is pure anecdata. I don't have evidence to back it up, but as somebody who grow up in the 1970s I think this is what pop culture was back then.  I'm not even saying that it was what adults believed then, but it is what pop culture pretended to believe.

There isn't an enormous point to this.

Except one.

Remember that our view of human sexuality is so strongly driven by what popular culture says it is, that a reasonable assumption is the following.

Just assume you know nothing about somebody else's sexuality unless you ask them and they are happy to tell you.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

The Society For Not Letting Politicians Who Call Referendums Decide Their Rules

News Release: 13:40 GMT, 20 Feb 2016, Cupar, Scotland
I have two important announcements to make.
First, I am pleased to announce the formation of TSFNLPWCRDTR.
As is obvious from the acronym, this is The Society For Not Letting Politicians Who Call Referendums Decide Their Rules.
The reason for this is that in the last bloody referendum (for independence in Scotland) we had a interminably long campaign because the politicians who called it decided it was their best chance of winning, and they rigged the demographics of the referendum to disenfranchise people with a deep interest in the result.
In the upcoming bloody referendum (for exit from the EU) we have a very short campaign because the politicians who called it decided it was their best chance of winning, and they rigged the demographics of the referendum to disenfranchise people with a deep interest in the result.

Last time many people who would have been citizens on day one of a new Scotland were not able to vote.

This time most non-British EU citizens settled in the UK are not allowed to vote in a referendum which critically affects their future.

Either of these positions are tenable, but its totally ridiculous that if these critical things about how the referendum is run are decided by the people trying to get a particular result. You don't have to be a huge fan of the US Constitution to appreciate that at least how the constitution is changed doesn't depend on whether or not the President wants it changed.

This leads to my second announcement. As it's first act, TSFNLPWCRDTR has decided that in future, politicians can decide to call referendums, but TSFNLPWCRDTR will decide when they are held, and what the electorate is, and other important stuff at its discretion.
We are strong believers in democracy, and have therefore decided that this issue will be decided by referendum.

The referendum will be on Thursday 25 Feb 2016.

The electorate will consist only of me.

I'm predicting it will pass.

Please feel free to show your support at #TSFNLPWCRDTR

p.s. if you misplaced apostrophes in "its totally ridiculous" and "it's first act" then you are the kind of picky person who would be a perfect member of our society. Please join. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Thanks Lisa, and Sorry

In my previous post ranting about BT, I said what I'd like the nice people from BT to say to me.

Eventually I got a very nice woman from BT, Lisa, who was able to handle my case properly. She couldn't fix the underlying issue or restore my overall faith in BT, but she was able to say more or less all the things I wanted BT to say, and provide good customer service. Indeed at one point Lisa said to me that I shouldn't have had to go through such an "ordeal", and that was her word, not mine.

So I want to say Thanks Lisa.

Also Sorry, because I promised to give her positive feedback through their commenting system, but it took me a month to get round to it and the link had expired.  So I didn't get the chance to tell BT that Lisa had handled the case very well.

So Thanks Lisa, and Sorry.

Actually there's another reason for saying Sorry, I'm worried that I might be making BT Care's job harder because I want to say this to anyone having problems with BT. Get in touch with BTCare because you have to wait a few days, but then you get somebody who actually handles the case instead of doing whatever it is everybody else in BT "Customer Service" does.

To BT as a whole, I would say this: make all of your customer service like BT Care. People who provide customer service and handle the cases. Whatever it is you are doing at the minute .... does. not. work.

Incidentally, for those following my adventures, it looks like we really can get internet TV at our address now, but I can't face doing that through BT, and the only other company who does it is ... TalkTalk. So I don't think so.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

What I want the nice man from BT to tell me after they mis-sold me TV three times

19 September 2015

The first time BT mis-sold me TV was when they brought fibre-to-the-cabinet to my address.


We signed up immediately for the best possible BT broadband service, and added whichever TV package happened to be appropriate. They sent out a tv box and we waited for the broadband to work. 

The broadband worked. The tv didn't. I mean the freeview bit worked but none of the channels that come through the internet did. 

Obviously lots of calls to helplines.

On one of those a very nice and helpful lady upsold me onto a different package, explaining that would fix the problem. I mean, odd but ok, I would get nice tv.

I didn't. 

So that was the second time I was mis-sold TV by BT. 

Eventually after a lot of calls, it turned out that no, they were unable to supply internet TV at all at our address. It turns out that there is a thing called "fibre multicast" which our cabinet did not support.  (As an aside, yes this means that if you have the better broadband at our address you can't get BT TV, while if you have ADSL broadband you can.) 

I had paid a £35 installation fee which was pointless, but I never complained about that because they had given me what has been serving as a fairly nice freeview box, so fair enough. 

So yeah, my first week or so as a BT broadband customer involved being mis-sold tv twice. 

They told me they would call back in a couple of months when it was available. 

Well they never called back, but it turns out that is the only good thing they ever did, because for the next year and more I occasionally checked their website and (to be fair) they never offered to sell me a tv package as it was not available at my address. I also checked a publicly available broadband checker, and the date for fibre multicast kept being pushed back. It seemed like it was due to come every two months, until about a week before the end of the month when it would go back a couple of months. 

I happened to check it on July 31, 2015, and amazingly, it was available!

So I logged onto the website and sure enough they were prepared to sell me BT TV. This meant I could watch the Ashes without having to use Sky TV.  For some reason they were only prepared to sell me the ultra-hd package, which I didn't need, and this came with a £44 engineer charge, which was unnecessary because I had already laid the ethernet cable to my tv.  But ok, and the ultra-hd box comes with a nice large hard drive.

So the great day came at the start of August and the engineer came round. He was delighted not to have to do anything except plug in the box. First of all he installed the wrong box, a non ultra-hd one, and then he installed the correct one. The TV didn't work, but he said that was because he installed the wrong box first, and it would work soon. 

It didn't. 

So I booked a second engineer visit for the Monday.  He walked in the door and within about a minute said: nope, you are not getting tv and you are not going to get it until at least September 30. The fibre multicast at my cabinet is not getting installed until at least then. Or indeed for any other cabinet in the postcodes KY14, KY15 or KY16.

I rang up BT to complain while he was here and put the engineer on to talk to them. They accepted finally that indeed I had been sold tv that wouldn't work. Since it was going to start working on September 30 (maybe) I agreed to hang on until then on the basis I wouldn't pay for tv services until then.  I got a note of the complaint reference number.  I unplugged the new box and put it away so that it would be clean if I ever needed to return it - if the tv service never started for example.

And yes, that was the third time I was mis-sold BT TV. For some reason, they had falsely believed that they would be able to supply me with broadband TV, but they were not able to.  

For some weird reason I thought that I wouldn't get charged until the end of September - because they had told me that. 

Until I checked the bill today and discovered I'd been charged the £44 and lots of money for the TV services that I'd never received.  And that I never had any possibility of receiving, because our cabinet can't supply it, and there has never been a single day since it was installed that it was able to supply this address with TV over fibre-to-the-cabinet. Oh, and unsurprisingly the date has moved again from September 30 to October 30. 

So I rang up to complain again. Well actually first I tried the online chat thing, but it turns out that he wasn't able to help with billing so they got billing to ring me up. Which meant of course starting with the explanation again. 

Both the chat guy and the woman on the phone told me that the fault had been resolved. I.e. they thought I was getting TV. Even though this - as I might have made clear - is impossible. So after raising a complaint it had been logged as resolved, and they started charging me for a service which (have I mentioned this?) they are not able to supply.

The woman I talked to took a very long time to understand that we can't get tv. She kept telling me she would put me onto another package. Eventually she went off to talk to some techie people, and when she came back she accepted that we couldn't get BT TV at this address.  

At that point she finally agreed that it would be reasonable to cancel my tv, I could return the box, and she would refund all the tv charges after installation. But I would still have to pay £44 for the installation where the guy came and installed the wrong box, then the right box, then told me it would work soon when it never did. When I said that was unacceptable, she said I had to pay it because I had had 14 days to cancel it after ordering on the net. I suppose I could have cancelled it, but I had been told I was going to start getting the service on September 30, and (I'm good with a calendar) the end of September is more than 14 days after the start of August. (If they had not promised this then obviously I would have cancelled it way back then.) She said that she couldn't authorise the refund of the £44, but could flag it up to the manager, which means being called back on Monday because he doesn't work weekends. So now I'm waiting to be called back. 

So for clarity this is my complaint towards BT TV.
  1. I've been mis-sold BT TV three times. Three times I have agreed to take on the service in exchange for money, and three times BT has failed to supply it. 
  2. BT has claimed the fault as resolved even though it wasn't - as another part of BT was able to confirm.
  3. I've been explicitly told that I would not pay TV fees until the end of September, then been charged those fees. 
  4. BT has claimed I should pay an installation fee for a service that (I may have mentioned this) had zero chance of ever working. 
  5. In the process of mis-selling me TV three times and failing to resolve the issue, I've spent much time on engineer visits which did me no good, and lots of time on the phone and chat line, trying to resolve the issue.
But actually what really galls me is not so much the catalogue of incompetence and mistakes, but the fact that there is no history there. Somehow it seems to me that when a company sells you a product three separate times that they can't supply, the company should kind of have it recorded that they are treating this customer very badly, and if something goes wrong please be very nice to the customer. Instead of which, this morning I had a BT TV rep trying to tell me I needed a different TV package, which would have been the fourth time I'd been mis-sold if I hadn't firmly told her I can't get TV - and when she checked she confirmed this. 

And that's why I've written this blog post. And also so the manager can read it on Monday instead of me explaining everything yet again. 

So, Dear Manager, Hi!  

What would I like you to say to me? Something like this:
  1. Obviously BT will  refund the £44 that we should never have charged because our systems incorrectly thought we could supply a service that we couldn't.
  2. BT will take back the commitment we make new TV customers make to at least another year calls+broadband because that was undertaken as a result of mis-selling.
  3. As a no-fault ex-gratia gesture of apology we will do this nice thing for you, because when we say we are sorry for mis-selling and then charging you after promising not to, we actually mean it.
Update: 21 Sep 2015

Following was originally a comment by me but now I've started updating the post so it makes more sense to go here.

Ok for those of you following this adventure, the manager rang up in the advertised slot. I mentioned this blog post but I got the impression he didn't read it. He did quickly agree to refund the engineer visit. He said he couldn't cancel the termination condition of the contract but said he would add a note on the account that if we cancel early we shouldn't be charged a termination fee.

So that - more or less - deals with the key points 1 & 2.

I did emphasise that while it was good that the immediate issues were dealt with, I'm still extremely unhappy with the way I have been treated with lots of inconvenience and mis-selling. He promised me a letter of apology, and I guess I will have to wait to see what it says before I can judge whether point 3 is satisfied or not.

I can certainly imagine accepting the apology - it's hard to imagine what BT can do to make me want to stay with them instead of waiting the minimum possible time before looking for a broadband supplier with customer service.

Update: 22 Sep 2015

So yesterday I talked to the manager, and you can see my reaction immediately afterwards above.

A few minutes later I got two emails about refunds. One was for £44 for the engineer visit. The other one was for £8.48. Which was a weird amount as we'd paid just over £52 in TV fees. I thought maybe the rest was coming.

Well 24 hours later nothing had happened. So I rang up again. A perfectly polite person I talked to said that the other refund (of about £44) was not there yet. When I asked if it had been issued he couldn't tell me. Obviously this is not his fault, but BT was literally unable to tell me whether or not the refund promised to me yesterday had been acted on.  He seemed to think I was being unreasonable in wanting him to be able to confirm or deny that the refund promised yesterday was in chain or not (obviously I can see it might take a while to process, I just wanted to know if it was in process.)

This agent verbally guaranteed that the full amount would be refunded on my next bill. He also said he would contact the manager who promised the refund to find out if the rest had been issued, and then email me the answer.

But it does seem to me that if a refund has been promised it should show up in their system (even if not actually credited to my bill yet).  If that is not the case it's a horrific systems failure.

Let's remember the summary: I have been mis-sold tv three times. The last time I was promised I would not be charged for a few months. I was charged. Then (yesterday) I was promised a refund. Today BT cannot even tell me whether or not that promise has been fulfilled.

The agent also asked what he thought BT could do to make me happy. All I could say was to let me get out of their clutches as soon as possible. Which (I didn't say this) means waiving any future commitment (we did commit to a year in about May), and also it would be nice to get an actual refund instead of a credit to our account.

Actually I can think of something BT could do. Remember that I am only a BT broadband customer because I expected to get TV. My daughters would still like BT TV. Since you can't deliver it via FTTC, why not lay another phone line to my house and give us BT TV via ADSL, obviously at no cost to me except ongoing TV charges?

Please please please, somebody from BT read this either tell me I've been badly let down, or if not let us conclude that the way I've been treated is par for BT customer service. Comments are open.

Update 23 September

It's 24 hours on and no information about my refund. It might exist, it might not. I never got an email from the representative I talked to yesterday - the one who thought it was unreasonable for me to try to find out if a refund had been actioned or not.

I did get one email from BT about the TV service though. It offered me an upgrade for my existing service for three months for a cheap price. Brilliant! I mean I know it's a generic email, but it is quite amusing. Amusing, though still incompetent, since it was targeted at me as a customer, so they should have known I can't get it.

I did decide to dig out the three confirmations of the three times I've been mis-sold BT TV... so for your enjoyment here they are (click for larger versions).


The first two are from June 2014, the third from July 2015.

Although my current upset dates from the last occasion, in many ways I find the first one the most interesting. I was never charged the £7.50 per month, I assume because somewhere in BT's system they figured out I couldn't get TV. But I was never notified of this and given the chance to change. And indeed before any human at BT told me I couldn't get TV, the middle order was enacted.

So yeah, I've finally realised I became a BT broadband customer after a bait-and-switch. I took it on the basis we could get TV, and not only has it never been available but BT never told me about the switch. Well actually, that's not true, since eventually in June 2014 a technical support person told me I couldn't get TV, and they admitted the second order (not the first) was mis-selling. But BT took an order (the first one) and never informed me they couldn't fulfil the order until after everything was installed, and I was committed by inertia to their broadband product.

So it's not just BT TV I was mis-sold three times, I was mis-sold BT Broadband as well.

Update 23 September 2015 (2)

Just had a call from a member of the @BTCare team.  I tweeted this blog post and eventually they asked me to contact them and eventually they got back to me.

It was a pleasure to talk to somebody from BT who had actually read this blog post. Of course she said that obviously the refund should have been actioned immediately on Saturday without me having to go through managers and figure it out.

We had quite a long discussion about exactly what the refund should be. It turns out, for example that a line of -£30 for rental adjustment on my last bill was actually an earlier attempt to make good the lack of supply of TV - but then I was never told in person or email about this. I'd seen the line in the bill but had no idea what it was. So in fact I had been partially refunded but not yet completely. The BTCare person is going to email me exactly what they think they have charged and refunded so we can compare notes to make sure we agree what the refund situation is.

Actually the exact details of the refund are not critical to me - I'm sure we can resolve that between us. What is probably most important to me is that she said she has taken ownership of this and I will have her contact details. This is what is most frustrating about dealing with BT customer services. It's not that you don't always get the answer you want (inevitable), or even that quite often the answers are completely wrong (unfortunate but we are all human). What is most frustrating is the fact that you are always starting from a blank slate, and can never talk to somebody who you have previously talked to.

I did take the chance to emphasise that actually the refund issue should never have even come up, and while I'm sure it can be resolved, I'd also like at least some gesture about the fact that I'm a broadband customer on the basis of mis-selling, even though I don't expect them to be able to supply TV.

So I'm feeling a lot happier, and mainly because, as I just said, I feel like I have a contact who knows the situation and what things I am and am not worried about, rather than just hitting whichever sequence of buttons gets me off the phone.

Update 3 November 2015

Wrote a new blog post with a brief update and to say Thanks to Lisa from BT Care, and Sorry.

Friday, 26 June 2015

We need to make it all about her, not all about him

I want to discuss what I think is the fundamental problem about the Tim Hunt sexist remarks situation.  

I should mention straight away that I'm now going to stop using his name, for a reason I'll come to. But also, I should perhaps mention that you may or may not know who he is, so I want to give some kind of summary of what he said, what happened to him, and what the reactions to his comments and his situation has been.  This is more or less off the cuff, so may be inaccurate and I might get some details wrong. He went to an event on raising women's profile in science in Korea (and kudos to him for getting off his backside to do that.) He made some ill-judged remarks about how the problem with women in labs is that they fall in love with men and men fall in love with them. The next day he appeared on the Today programme and gave a classic non-apology apology, where he didn't actually say he was wrong, merely that he shouldn't have said it in public. That's when his situation went viral and caused a twitter storm. He resigned from an honorary position at UCL (an unpaid position with no duties) and from a couple of committees he sat on to award funding (these may have been paid or unpaid, I don't know) although there were several other positions he didn't resign from. A few days later a backlash against the consequences of his actions began. He gave a lengthy interview to the Guardian putting his point of view. He said that he had been "hung out to dry" and that he was "finished". His wife said that he had been pressured into resigning from UCL. Many of his friends including some senior women - and indeed many people who don't know him - leapt to his defence as being a good guy who was only joking. Later, The Times discussed his situation with eight Nobel laureates and led their responses on its front page.  Later still, The Times reported that a leaked document transcribing his original remarks showed he was only joking. This led Richard Dawkins to demand an apology to him and his reinstatement. And yes, believe it or not this is just a summary! 

Why did I decide to stop using his name?  Let me show you, by quoting the para in full:
"I should mention straight away that I'm now going to stop using his name, for a reason I'll come to. But also, I should perhaps mention that you may or may not know who he is, so I want to give some kind of summary of what he said, what happened to him, and what the reactions to his comments and his situation has been. This is more or less off the cuff, so may be inaccurate and I might get some details wrong. He went to an event on raising women's profile in science in Korea (and kudos to him for getting off his backside to do that.) He made some ill-judged remarks about how the problem with women in labs is that they fall in love with men and men fall in love with them. The next day he appeared on the Today programme and gave a classic non-apology apology, where he didn't actually say he was wrong, merely that he shouldn't have said it in public. That's when his situation went viral and caused a twitter storm. He resigned from an honorary post at UCL (an unpaid position with no duties) and from a couple of important committees he (these may have been paid or unpaid, I don't know) although there were several other positions he didn't resign from. A few days later a backlash against the consequences of his actions began. He gave a lengthy interview to the Guardian putting his point of view. He said that he had been "hung out to dry" and that he was "finished". His wife said that he had been pressured into resigning from UCL. Many of his friends including some senior women - and indeed many people who don't know him - leapt to his defence as being a good guy who was only joking. Later, The Times discussed his situation with eight Nobel laureates and led their responses on its front page.  Later still, The Times reported that a leaked document transcribing his original remarks showed he was only joking. This led Richard Dawkins to demand an apology to him and his reinstatement. And yes, believe it or not this is just a summary!"
This debate has become all about him, i.e. a man. It should be all about her, a woman, well actually about them, lots of women, but English doesn't have a gender-specific plural pronoun.

Let me say some things. I don't happen to think that Tim Hunt has been badly treated, but that is not my point at all. Lots of people do think he's been badly treated, and they are quite right to stand up for him if so. 

I want Tim Hunt to be treated right. Just like I want women in science and tech to be treated right. And women in science and tech are treated badly over and over and over again and in far worse ways than what happened to Tim Hunt. And it's happening right now, not a historical problem. 

 A random example, from Julie Libarkin:
"The senior emeritus faculty who…this is a hard one to put delicately…Came up behind me at an on-campus retirement party, dropped his knees, and pushed himself up against me several times. Trust me – I had NO idea how to react, and recovering from that violation took me about 6 months. 
"That’s my reality of sexism in science. I can’t possibly be alone.."  
And that's just the last one of 9 examples that Julie bravely posted about in her post "My experiences with sexism in science". 

No, she's not alone, but most women are not brave or foolhardy enough to talk about it in public. For example, take Dorothy Donald (an alias, which is relevant as you will see) writing on Depressed Academics
"I never ever post what I have written because I do not have the energy to be a woman writing about sexism on the internet right now... I berate myself for my cowardice while despairing at the fact that their courage is still required in 2015. We are still here. Is it hopeless?"
You know what women like Julie and Dorothy have been hearing recently? They've been hearing two things. His mistreatment matters, and hers doesn't. And if she complains about his behaviour, many people will leap to his defence while knowing almost nothing about the details of the situation, meaning that he turns into the victim. Good luck encouraging a culture of condemning sexist behaviour when that's the result.  

Am I saying you shouldn't stand up for Tim Hunt or anyone else you firmly believe is being mistreated? Absolutely not, you should do so. Which is what I am doing right now.

I believe that women in science are being mistreated right now and we should do what can to fix it. But we need to make it all about her, not all about him.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

In which I feel unexpectedly elated about voting

It's a glorious day today and I just voted in the general election.

I feel unexpectedly elated.

The last time we had a vote - the Scottish referendum - that ended up with me taking two months off work with anxiety.  This time there are no parties I can wholeheartedly support.  I've avoided almost all the coverage because I don't want to get sucked in.  But the little I've seen indicates that very many people will vote for the Conservatives and the SNP, two parties who have led their governments for five years or more and led their countries in awful directions (very different directions for the UK and Scotland but both awful).  

I was always going to vote though, so I went out a few minutes ago.   It's a glorious sunny day here, and I chatted to a neighbour who said she often sees me running and I obviously enjoy it. I walked across the park to the polling booth a few yards the other side of it. 

When I got there I waited a little in a short queue, and then went to a booth, thought for a moment, put down an X, and put my paper in the ballot box (actually couldn't find the slot for a second but did and put it in.) 

I walked home feeling unexpectedly elated.

I'm reading a book called "She-Wolves" about the female rulers of England before Elizabeth. I'm reading now about the Empress Matilda, who had a civil war with King Stephen in the 12th Century.  They wandered around the country besieging castles and trying to take over from other one.  Every once in a while they made the political mistake of not executing the other one. 

20 odd years ago I saw footage of Desmond Tutu voting in the first free South African elections. After he voted, he celebrated by pumping his arms above his head. Not for his party but because he had been allowed to vote.  That came after the white South Africans had voted in a referendum to allow everybody to vote.  I can't find a picture of the celebration, but there is him voting. 

After the election it looks like there will be messy coalition building or minority government forming. There will be backroom deals and frontroom deals and lies told with a straight face to camera.  But none of the leaders will be taking their opponents prisoner, putting them in irons, and deciding whether or not to murder them.  And if Cameron is ousted, he will leave Downing Street because of millions of Xs on bits of paper, not because his castle has been starved into submission. The amazing glory of democracy is leaders willingly giving up power peacefully. 

I was unexpectedly elated, but it shouldn't have been unexpected. I love democracy.