In light of recent events concerning our honourable representatives in Westminster, I thought it prudent to apply the same transparency to my expense claims this year that we are now demanding of our MPs. So far I have claimed:

£20 for an eye sight test required after my last voting slip

£35 for a return train trip to London to ask for my vote back

£35 for another return trip to London to return some top secret documents I found left unattended on the previous trip

and finally, £800 for a 50″ Plasma screen so I can watch politicians squirm in hi-def.

Not a pretty sight.

A taxing issue of Empowerment

Here, in the UK, we have Council Tax. It’s one of those cold-shower realities that hits you when making the transition from student to professional (“What, I have to pay rent AND council tax??!!”). We also have Direct Debits where people can take money from your bank account with out you lifting a finger. This includes your local council for the aforementioned tax. But herein lies the problem. Direct debits work on a monthly basis – makes sense, right? No, it does make sense, that last question was rhetorical. Now, Council Tax is also split into monthly payments so the two go together like bitumen and roadkill, right? Wrong. (btw, I love Wiki’s symbolic picture of roadkill in that link – if you ask me, the car will come off worse).
You see, the council split the tax into *ten* monthly payments, not twelve. This would be fine if they stopped the direct debit payment after 10 months. But they don’t always remember to do this. So you have to go chasing refunds and this takes time. A lot of time.

But no more, I tell you. I took a stand. Last year, instead of allowing a Direct Debit to be set up, I opted to pay ‘manually’. More hassle, yes, but I was empowering myself and that felt pretty darn good. Now, not wanting to fall into the opposing trap of forgetting to pay, I set up calendar reminders each month. Very good. A routine. So good in fact that on the 11th month, I made another payment. The ensuing telephone call was a little uncomfortable:

me:     “Hello, I’d like to check my payments for council tax, please. My reference number is 12345DORK.”
 council tax lady:  “OK, it says here you have overpaid”
 me:     “Yes, I thought that was the case”
 council tax lady:  “You made an extra payment last week”
 me:     “Yes, that’s right”
 council tax lady:  “You only need to make 10 payments”
 me:     “Yeah, I know”
 council tax lady:  “You can set up a Direct Debit if that makes it easier”
 me:     “Yeah, I’m not sure I want to do that”
 council tax lady:  “May I ask why?”
 me:     “Umm, well, I was, sort of, umm, worried about it not stopping and overpaying…”
 council tax lady:  “but you paid an extra month anyway”
 me:     “yes, yes I did. Um, are you able to send me a cheque or refund my debit card?”
 council tax lady: “so would it not make sense to set up the direct debit?”
 me:     “perhaps, but the refund, when can I get that back?”
 council tax lady: “we pause the direct debit after ten months so you don’t pay for two months”
 me:     “yes, that would have made more sense”
 council tax lady:  “so, do you want me to set you up a direct debit”
 me:     “I’d prefer it if we could sort out the refund first”
 council tax lady:  “I can set up a direct debit over the phone if you like?”
 me:     “Maybe you could send out the forms and include the refund cheque?”
 council tax lady: “I suppose I could do that”
 me:     “That would be great…”

Lesson of the day? Empowerment may put you up there, but humility will bring you down. That, or sheer stupidity.

May the 4th be with you

Simply could not avoid the chance to wish all of you fellow Star Wars fans out there a happy Star Wars Day. Granted, this only works in English speaking countries, but I don’t believe anyone would disagree that the power of the force transcends not just language barriers, but cultural and galactic ones too. I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank all you Jedi out there for doing such a wonderful job. Keep up the good work.

Taking things apart

Molecular ModelRecently, my partner decided to embark upon a distance learning degree course at the Open University. Having opted to do Molecular Science, she received a Molecular Model Kit in the post this week, and, with the fervent, feverish enthusiasm that besets a new student on their first day, she dived into her course material and set about re-creating the universe in 3d molecular format. Now, I have to admit, I am a little jealous of her as the idea of embarking on a new learning adventure has always appealed to me and, as with any other mortal on this planet, the desire is always to learn something _totally_ different to your everyday work. In my case, as I work behind a desk as a computer programmer, I dream of doing something outside full of physical risk, so I want to retrain to be a secret agent. Obviously, this is not going to happen as I have now just blown my cover, but I digress…..back to the molecules.

So there I am on a dreary Sunday morning faced with all these complex molecular structures, sitting proudly on the table in front of me. In my defence, I have to say she forgot the first rule of ‘living with boys’. *Never* leave a boy alone with something he can take a part. Up and down the country as I write, there are hundreds, nay, thousands of 30-something year old boys sat in the living room, screwdriver in one hand, head scratching with the other and something in bits in front them. More to the point, something in pieces in front them that a) was not in pieces when ’she’ went out and b) was not broken either.

For many of these men, their journey has just begun and they are filled with the excitement and adrenalin of the self-inflicted challenge ahead. Sadly though, for many, that euphoric feeling has passed by what feels like an eternity ago and the minutes are counting down like seconds as they race to resolve the situation before ‘her’ return. We all know such a situation requires a clear mind and focused concentration but, as the hour of reckoning fast approaches, our heads become cluttered more and more with the thoughts of the fallout. We know we cannot multi-task. We have been told this many times before, but we still cannot help ourselves from trying to simultaneously fix what we broke and think up of a good way out of it when we inevitably fail. And therein, lies the tricky part. The way out. The question will be simple – “Why?”. But the answer in both its content and subsequent ramifications could not be more conversely complex. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, the question is loaded, possibly even rhetorical, but she will ask it anyway as it is not the answer she is interested in but the panic, the fear, the realisation that you have been caught she wants you to feel and the feeling must be both painful and prolonged. Secondly, deep down, we know the truthful answer to the question, but, we are intelligent enough to realise that giving this true reason will cause far more outrage than the discovered outcome already has. Consider the outcome to the following *truthful* answer:

“Well, my dear, I truly thought, as a completely unqualified electrician, I could take apart our digibox to see if we can get Channel 5, and, although we cannot get any channels now, I would hope that you could see past this unfavoured outcome and concentrate on the unselfish effort I put in to improving your quality of life.”

This is why the true reason must never be given. And so, back to my girlfriend’s molecules. I’m sure, to a qualified scientist, the 3d models in front of me would cause some level of both recognition and, possibly, a little excitement. Whatever floats you boat. To me, however, I saw nothing but a travesty. All those shiny colourful balls and bendy connecting sticks and the end result is some carbon and hydrogen compound. A travesty, I tell you. So, with the best will in the world and, more importantly, a whole hour before the expected return, I set about creating something far more universally impressive. I give you, MEGALADAXANT – emperor of the evil galactic alien ant empire….

Evil Galatic Alient Ant Emperor

Evil Galactic Alient Ant Emperor

If only you could experience that childhood excitement, sitting there, crossed legged, tongue sticking out in concentration as I build up not just a molecular beast with my own two hands but, as my mind travels far away, an entire paradoxical universe where good fights evil everyday and animals can talk to humans…ahem.

Good things may come to those who wait, but these good things also never last. Having spent 40 minutes on creating Megaladaxant (c) ™ (r) [just in case], I had 20 minutes to recreate the less violent originals. Now, having been caught in the past taking something apart and unable to put it back together, I had to ensure I felt competent enough to build molecular compound structures from scratch and the answer was an unequivocal ‘yes, I can’. Having passed this particular pre-requisite and embarked, without haste, upon my model recreation, I subsequently discovered, when I needed to begin ‘Operation Putback’, I had missed out the equally-as-important ‘did you remember to note down what the original compounds were?’. The answer to this was, dishearteningly, ‘No, I did not…and now I’m in trouble’. I thought I might recognise them if I saw them in the sciencey book, but how was I supposed to know the world was made of so many elements and compounds? This never would have happened in the good old days of earth, fire, water and wind. I was in trouble and, as all the aforementioned happy feeling drained from my system, I felt the dark cloud of dread seep through my veins. I was a broken man.

Such a situation, however, spares no time for self pity and my self defence mechanism soon kicked in. I needed a way out so what were my options:

1. Wait for her return and just explain yourself.

2. Take a best guess of the originals and build them.

3. Leave the door ajar, claim you were upstairs all this time and that someone must have sneaked in and done it.

All three involved either too much explaining or too much risk so I opted for a fourth option: Take apart Megaladaxant and make a heart shape out of the pieces, then leave it with a post-it note on the table saying “I love you x” and that way, she’ll be too smitten to be angry. It was a perfect plan – I knew what heart shape looked like and I could build it in the remaining 10 minutes. What could possibly go wrong?

So anyway, I’m on my 5th cup of coffee in the interrnet cafe and I reckon she may have calmed down a little now so I’ll head back in a little while and see if she fancies watching a film perhaps.

Maybe just another cup of coffee.

Welcome to my new blog!

blah blah blahTo save my brain from over-heating, I’ve decided to download some of my thoughts to the interweb. I have another blog, jones.bz, but that generally covers my day-to-day job in the world of software. Rather than intersperse geek talk with my attempts to interact with the non-virtual world, it made more sense to separate out the two trains of thoughts. So here, I’m going to simply blab about anything and everything. A bit of light banter. The odd “a funny thing happened to me today…”.

So……. I’m just going to sit here and wait for something funny to happen.


It’s a slow day….