Saturday, 11 December 2010

My computer is a plant.

I've got a new netbook, which is very lovely and cute and won't replace my old laptop but has the advantage of not sounding like a squadron of World War II bombers - an impersonation which must take a lot of energy to achieve because the poor thing only has a battery life of about six seconds. The new one lasts eight hours. I can stay in bed to work ALL DAY. But I wouldn't be telling you about my new purchace unless there was some aspect of it to rant about, because that's what this blog is for. I don't like being badgered and coerced and damn well lied to, and especially not by a tool which I bought to make my life easier.

Firstly there's the fact that this device - specifically purchased for its fast booting and lack of distractions - came pre-installed with an aggressive marketing campaign from Norton, which screams at me every 30 mins or so that I need to BUY THIS NOW OR WE'RE ALL DOOMED THIS IS THE ONLY SOLUTION BUY IT BUY IT BUY IT YOU STUPID LITTLE PERSON YOU. This is like having cold calls pre-recorded as part of your voicemail service, or a small pink Vanish lady who lives in your washing machine and forces you to watch her remove tough stains from a kid's favourite t-shirt before you're allowed to do your own washing.

And then there's Microsoft themselves. Now, the man in the shop tried very hard to convince me that Open Office would unleash an eleventh biblical plague of compatibility issues upon my academic life, even though it was clear from his expression that he uses it too. The only issue I have ever had with Open Office is Microsoft throwing a tantrum over it. The other day, when trying to download a .doc I got this entirely inaccurate pop-up:

This is a downright lie. The thing they are telling me I need to purchase is not "necessary" to open the file. I have a way of opening it, and I know it works because that's what I wrote the file with in the first place. I only saved it as a .doc for the benefit of people who are restricted by less open-minded word processing software. If that's supposed to be a helpful box of information, it should give me an option to choose a different program to use. If it's an advert, it has no damn business being on my computer.

It also does this when I'm reckless enough to want to look at a .pdf, which strikes me as more than a little paranoid:

Again, this is a tool which I bought to be useful to me. I did not intend it to be yet another way for companies to ambush me every bloody minute of the day and waste my time attempting to part me from the money I am trying to concentrate on earning. As many people have pointed out about computers, we simply wouldn't put up with this from any other household appliance. Can you imagine having a fridge that played adverts for a certain supermarket every third time you opened the door, that delayed you from removing things from other shops until it had told you how they 'can be harmful' to you, and which sometimes spat out products altogether and told you it was 'necessary' to buy a far more expensive brand? Let's all hope and pray that Microsoft don't start selling groceries.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tuition fees: If access to education is the main issue, today's vote is irrelevant.

Something very important has got lost in the dramatic and newsworthy scuffles over higher education funding. Both sides of the debate are confirming a view of universities, degrees and graduates which should, in a truly progressive society, be challenged and overturned. I'm talking about the idea that society is divided into those who go to university, and those who don't. What is at stake in this vote is the question of how many people, from which backgrounds, will have the chance to pass through this magical land, to complete the transformation from non-graduate to graduate, and how much of that cost they should bear as individuals. The land and the transformation are taken as read.

A lot of anger has flared up on both sides at assumptions made by the other, and it is this binary presentation of graduates vs non-graduates which is clouding the issue to such an unhelpful degree. Here are a few of the stereotypes and tropes which have been crystallising for decades, and which are shaping the public and parliamentary debates:

  • Hard-working people on lower incomes should not have to pay for other people to go to university and therefore go on to earn more.
  • Those same lower-income non-graduates need other people to go to university to learn to become doctors, teachers and solicitors because one day they will need to call on that expertise.
  • People go to university to gain access to higher earnings. Once they have passed through the system, they can afford to pay for their course.
  • The awarding of degrees helpfully separates those who are intelligent and hard-working enough to pass a course from those who aren't. This is a good way to determine who is fit to do certain jobs.
  • Too many young people go to university. Many of them are studying subjects which have no benefit to society, or the courses they are on are not of a high enough standard to guarantee that they deserve the status of 'graduate'.

This is all bunkum, and does not fit with the real-life examples people encounter every day. These two discrete groups do not and should not exist. After a few years doing a job, there is little to choose between an employee who studied for three years full-time before gaining any experience, and one who learned everything they needed to on the job. Most white-collar workers will have gained their skills via a combination of academic and on-the-job learning, having been through a mixture of training courses, work-experience placements, evening courses etc. You can (I think) become a qualified accountant by leaving school after your GCSEs, working for and being trained by a firm, working your way up through the ranks, attending a part-time course at a university or college, and passing certain exams. Or you can study for three years, maybe with a 'sandwich year' to gain more first-hand business experience, then join a firm to get more experience and expertise, then pass your final exams. How does it matter if one route makes you a 'graduate' and the other doesn't?

What I've hopefully illustrated here is entirely unrevolutionary idea that there is no natural division between graduates and non-graduates. This categorisation only exists in the elitist rhetoric of both sides of the debate: the politicians who wish people to pay more for their own elite status (and, as raising tuition fees is clearly not intended to plug the hole in the country's finances, to keep that elite status out of the hands of the more disadvantaged parts of society), and the current and aspiring students who are protesting to maintain the current slightly more open and affordable access to that elite status.

What we should be doing is tearing down that division.

Why should a university education consist of the three-year degree or nothing, regardless of how much it costs? Why should it be a choice of paying to have three-years' access to lectures, tutorials, library books, online journals, careers services, student societies and study-skills workshops... or having no access to any of this? Why are these institutions, which have benefitted from public funding of various kinds for so long, only there for the benefit of the lucky few who have the time, funds, and the previous qualifications to be allowed full access? Why should people who aren't affiliated with a university, including those who graduated a month earlier, have to see public libraries cut their opening hours, evening schools cancel courses or increase fees, smaller museums and galleries close, but still not be allowed to benefit from the resources on a campus on their own doorstep?

In short, how is it justifiable to keep all of that knowledge and teaching expertise behind such high walls? Where does this leave the interested amateur, the employee looking to move to a different sector, the employer who wants their workforce to have the most up-to-date knowledge?

Here are a few ideas, which I readily admit are off the top of my head:

  • University lecturers should run short, affordable courses for anyone who wants to come along, regardless of age or previous qualifications.
  • People should be able to pay for a month's access to the university library and its online resourses over the summer break, when these facilities are underused.
  • Systems need to be put in place by which amateur research projects can be assessed by academics, published by university-run journalsand given the chance to make a contribution to knowledge.
  • All universities should provide some free-access e-learning courses, covering a mixture of core knowldege from different subject areas, study skills, and current developments.
I also have a question for all of my fellow students who have put the time and effort into protesting over the last few weeks. If this is about solidarity and fair access to education, would you be willing to put the same time and effort into sharing your notes and the knowledge you've gained with one of the unfortunate sixth form graduates who decided they could not afford to join your number? Would you put one hour a week into running an open-access course, writing a free online guide, publicising an open lecture? Are you actually willing to undermine that elitist division between graduates and non-graduates? Or is this all a knee-jerk reaction to an attack on our privilleged, well-guarded domain?

Free, fair access to education at all academic levels can be achieved whether fees are set at ten pounds or ten thousand pounds. Knowledge is free, so long as we are willing to share it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cold Calls for a Warmer Britain

We have a new front-runner in the All-Comers Cold Call Completion World Championship (ACCCWC)!

This caller successfully established that the number he had phoned corresponded to the address on his list, despite the non-residence of the elusive 'Mrs Taylor'. Where he fell down was in speaking far too quickly and unclearly to be understood by someone with limited patience who had only just got up:

Caller: That was to establish that I have the right number and the right address, but the wrong name. So what is your name please, madam?

Me: I'm afraid I'm not willing to give that information over the phone.

Caller: Don't worry madam, I'm calling on behalf of the UK government.

Me: Oh yes? [Gah! Council tax? Student loan? Office for the Prevention of Plant Cruelty? (the basil in the window is looking decidedly peaky)]

Caller: So I'm not selling anything. [Aha, so someone will be making money from this somehow...]

Me: Can I ask which part of the UK government, exactly?

Caller: I'm from the rabarber rabarber insulation rabarber.

Me: [Insulation again?] I'm sorry, could you repeat that please?

Caller: a little louder From the National Utility rabarber rabarber.

Me: Sorry, I still didn't understand the name of the...

Caller: shouting, but just as quickly THE RABARBER RABARBER RABARBER RABARBER!

Me: I don't need you to shout, just to say the part of the government slowly so I can understand it.

Caller: very annoyed The point is you don't need to worry madam, it's on behalf of the UK government and...

Me: I don't understand who it is I'm talking to so I'm ending this call.

Dialing 1471 failed to produce a number to call back. Typing 'national', 'utilities' and 'insulation' into Google turned up a few government schemes but nothing with those words in that order in its name. I suspect that this is the same list of phone numbers that the angry (by the end of the call, anyway) Northern Irish man from British Gas was using a few weeks ago. I also suspect I'll be having similar conversations all winter. While I fully support the plan to make sure everyone has the best kind of insulation, in an affordable way, cold-calling on a week-day morning isn't going to turn up many home owners with time to listen. And I'm still not giving out my details or my landlady's over the phone.

A few people who read my previous post admitted to deliberately winding cold-callers up to waste their time. This is me trying to be helpful and they still end up confused, angry and empty-handed. The point? Unless it's a scam, calling landlines out of the blue is not the best way to get what you need.