Little white lies

This website wasn’t accessible earlier today, so I went to the customer help page on my host’s website.

When I typed in my problem, it came back with an automated message saying the company was aware of the problem and its “entire staff” was working on fixing it.

Really, I thought? From the CEO to the cleaner, they were all focused on getting this blog up and running. It must have worked, because here I am again.

A few months ago, I received an email from my bank telling me that they were closing my branch office and moving my account to another branch further away from where I live. Why were they doing this? “To serve you better,” the missive said.

Of course, I thought, it is entirely in my own interests that I now have to travel further — including crossing a busy highway — to get to my bank branch. If there were another reason — say, for example, that the current building was scheduled to be demolished (which seems to be happening now) — surely they would have told me.

These are just two examples of the simple lies we hear or read every day. From big corporations and governments to individuals, we are hooked on lying.

From “that looks great on you” to “no taxpayer will be worse off” or “this won’t hurt a bit” our lives are full of lies.

And the reasons vary from not being bothered to find out the truth to believing that a “white” lie doesn’t hurt anybody.

In fact, the average person lies 20 times a day, each and every day. (I just made that statistic up. It could be true, but it’s probably a lie. I’m no better than anybody else.)

The real truth is that nobody tells the truth. Not all the time. And when we don’t know when somebody else is lying, and we don’t care when we do, then we really do have a problem.

Safety first, and always


There’s no better way to make people switch off their attention than to start talking about road safety.

And yet, as long as people continue to die unnecessarily on the roads, it’s one conversation that we really must have.

I wrote this piece for The National in Abu Dhabi a few days ago, and it received a mixed response. Those who commented didn’t necessarily agree on the causes of the high number of fatalities, nor the remedy.

It is worth noting here that the United Arab Emirates has very modern roads and other infrastructure. But is also has an unacceptably high number of road fatalities — at a rate that’s four times higher than the UK, and twice that of Australia.

It is not unusual to see drivers chatting on their mobiles while they weave between lanes without indicating, at speeds much higher than the speed limit — which is, curiously and possibly uniquely, higher than the number on the roadside signs.

Occasionally, but not uncommonly, you’ll see an unrestrained child poking his or her head out of the sun roof while the car proceeds at full speed. And tailgating is so common you’d be forgiven for believing it to be mandaory.

Bad driving continues to be a problem, I argue, because too few people care enough to make the case against it.

As I say in the article, one of my primary school friends died in a car accident. So did one of my high school friends.

We cannot continue to accept this as a “normal” situation. In the UAE, where the situation is dire, some tough decisions about enforcement and education must be made. There and elsewhere, we must all strive to eliminate preventable deaths.

Whose queue



I used to work with a self-important, 60-something journalist who was of English origin but had spent many years working in colonial Africa. He prided himself on conforming to what he believed to be traditional British values — and one of those was the proper way to form, and behave in, a queue.

He told the story on more than one occasion of how a young man had stood in front of him in a bus queue, and that he had objected to this faux pas by “beating the boy with my umbrella”.

In his world, there was a proper way to do everything — and a place for everyone in the pecking order.

We’ve moved on from systems based on class and race, thank goodness, but many people still stick to the rule of etiquette that dictate that queues remain orderly. If you have to line up for something, you join the end of the queue and you wait your turn.

But not everybody feels that way. In many parts of Asia, it is a Darwinian exercise where the first to be served is the one who can make their way to head of the queue by any means, fair or foul.

It extends to the common situation in Shanghai where, despite signage telling them otherwise, passengers for the Metro will insist on pushing their way on to the train before allowing other passengers to get off. This, of course, makes no sense, it just disadvantages everybody and holds the train up.

My general attitude is that we should all take our turn. But, at the same time, we need to be sensitive to local customs, so I generally just shrug my shoulders when somebody pushes in. Getting angry doesn’t work when the other party simply doesn’t get it.

But, of course, even in societies where queuing is the cultural norm, the situation sometimes falls over. I’m thinking about waiting for a taxi during a downpour, when all bets are off.

P.S. I know the picture shows a row of bicycles. It’s the nearest thing I had.

Why I like cruises


Cruises are very polarising. Some people are obsessed with taking highly organised, low risk adventures on the high seas. Others, often those who have never taken a cruise*, would rather book in for an unnecessary and unmedicated session of dental surgery.

Like many people of my generation, my interest in cruises was first piqued by the fly-on-the-wall documentary series, Love Boat, which, from memory, was a kind of modern-day I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, except on a ship**.

In any case, I’ve taken nine cruises in the past three years, so I guess I’m among the addicts.

Apart from a very short — just hours long — sampler P and O cruise in the line of journalistic duties several decades ago, my first ocean-going journey was from Barcelona to Dubai, via the Suez Canal, on the Royal Caribbean ship Mariner of the Seas.

Since then, I’ve been on other Royal Caribbean cruises, including in the Caribbean, and on cruises operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines (including a trans Atlantic journey on the fabulous Norwegian Epic) and Costa Cruises.

While each operator has their distinctive approaches — Costa is more geared towards Italian travellers, which is reflected in the great onboard coffee and the colourful interior design and entertainment offerings — what they have in common is comfort, conviviality and (almost) hassle-free travelling.

It’s hardly original but it must be said that the biggest advantage of a cruise holiday is that you only unpack once and the destinations come to you.

While I’ve been to some fabulous places — Tallin, St Petersburg, Giza, Petra, Ephesus, Split, Dubrovnik, Montenegro,  Falmouth (Jamaica), Funchal, Valleta, Palma, Muscat, Miami and many more — I’m equally happy just enjoying the ambiance of the ship.

Boats like Mariner and the Epic (not to mention the new, larger ships I’ve yet to experience) are like small cities, populated with interesting places and people. On almost every cruise I’ve met wonderful people, several of whom I remain in contact with over social media.

Cruising is often promoted as a couples or family adventure, but I find it’s a pretty good option for a solo traveller too. It allows me to do the two things I like doing best: being on my own, and mixing with other people.

* Yes, I am aware of David Foster Wallace’s essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again. I clearly disagree.

** This is, of course, a joke. But wouldn’t such a show be awesome? Are you paying attention, Endemol?

Footnote: If you’re wondering about the picture; it was taken from a ship I was on of I ship I’ve not been on.

Old man’s musings

One of the few advantages of getting older is that, if you keep up with what’s going on in the world, you can know most of the things younger people know, plus heaps of stuff they never will.

I posted those words, or some very like them, on social media a couple of days ago and they garnered a little attention — mostly approval from people of my vintage or older.

Theory is that an older person with all his or her marbles should be seen as an asset — to the workplace, to society, to the world in general — and their services ought to be greatly in demand.

But trying telling that to the untold numbers of people over 50 — even over 40 — who feel marginalised in a world that favours youth over all other things.

The adage goes that you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but the modern reality is that people who actually know things are regarded as a nuisance.

Do I know you?

I received this email from a real estate agent in my hometown of Brisbane.

email from estate agent

While it was a nice gesture to get in touch, the reality is that we’ve never actually spoken. Yes, it’s been that long.

The message went on to say that a lot of her clients had been requesting “updated appraisals” of their properties and wanted to know whether I’d like one too. I doubt the first part – real estate agents only tout for business when things are slow, not when a lot of people are contacting them* – and the second part simply baffles me. I don’t own any property in Brisbane.

A few months ago, I received an email from a cruise company booking agent telling me how nice it was to speak to me. I replied, politely, pointing out that I hadn’t actually spoken to her, I’d booked my trip entirely online. At least she had the good grace to reply with an email beginning: “Sprung!” She went on to explain that it was a form letter she sent to all her clients.

The thing about email and social media apps are they allow you to send personal messages to people you’ve never met and know very little about.

I don’t mind this tailored spam, because it’s sometimes amusing and it’s usually easy to get rid off. I may wake up with 50 emails in my inbox, but I can delete 46 of them within a few seconds.

What really bemuses me, though, are those poorly executed phishing scams. They are full of spelling mistakes and awkward phrases, and they usually revolve around a vastly improbable scenario. As if I really am the beneficiary of the will of the widow of a Nigerian army officer.

The disturbing thing is that they must work on someone, or they simply wouldn’t exist. As PT Barnum probably never said, there’s a sucker born every minute.


* On the subject of real-estate speak, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read the phrase: “There has never been a better time to buy.”



Back to the future


Qantas Boeing 737-800
Qantas Boeing 737-800

In honour of its 95th birthday, Qantas has painted one of its 737-800 aircraft in 1960s livery. It’s strange to see those markings — complete with the winged kangaroo — on a modern jet, but it’s a clever move by the Australian carrier.

For many Australians, Qantas is a “lovemark” — a brand that we love because it reminds us of home. Like Vegemite, it may or may not be the best product in its category, but it’s ours.

Qantas has long traded on this phenomenon, which is why it’s most successful campaign based around Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home, is best remembered and often repeated.

Of course, the big challenge in commercial aviation is to keep up with the competitors. Nostalgia will only get you so far.

Hopefully, the folks running the show understand that and Qantas will continue to innovate, find its place in the pantheon of airlines and remain aloft.

I have a little list


Despite their apparent omnipresence on the interwebs, listicles are not a new thing. When I first went to work in the UK, every mid- and downmarket tabloid newspaper was running daily items such as “15 things you didn’t know about Jimmy Saville” (although they missed out the really important one).

I don’t think they were called listicles then, but they were a staple of journalism because the editors knew that the readers liked them. Oh, and they were (and are) very easy and cheap to compile (except that the researchers had to used the newspaper’s clippings library to find their facts rather than Google).

If only they’d have devised a way of making people buy more than one copy of the paper to find out the next fun fact, which is essentially what websites do know by requiring you to click through to the next page for another meaty morsel.

Anyway, it got me thinking about what kind of clickbait headings I might use if I lowered myself to the level of running regular little lists.

Here are some off the top of my head:

Ten celebrities you don’t give a damn about any more

Twenty foods that will make you even fatter

Seven sex positions that will send you straight to hospital

Thirty-five excuses for not going straight home tonight

Eighteen people you wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire

Eleven countries you never knew existed — and one that doesn’t any more

Three things you’ll have forgotten by this time tomorrow

Fourteen places you may have left your car keys

Six billion people who don’t even know you exist



The future is not free

Doctor Who from the BBC
Doctor Who from the BBC

Back in March, 2012, I wrote a few articles on my former blog about how we will consume television shows and films in the future, noting that the free-to-air television stations were living on borrowed time.

Now that was before Netflix and other streaming services  had taken a hold in Australia (which was my specific market of reference then), but there were already all sorts of offerings on cable, satellite and the internet that seemed a lot more interesting to me than what the free-to-air (FTA) networks were offering.

The day after I tackled the subject, I received a confidential message from somebody who worked in the television industry.

Noting that “fatal decay” in broadcast television had begun many years ago, my correspondent noted : “Who wouldn’t rather order from a menu?”

As I wrote then: the food analogy is a useful one, but I’d employ it differently. I’d say, who would want to choose from a limited menu when there’s a whole smorgasbord to be enjoyed? Oh, and not everybody wants to eat at the same time, and no matter how good the chef is, we don’t always want to eat at the same restaurant.

This is why, even with the greater flexibility offered by having extra digital channels, free-to-air television can’t compete with pay-TV, let alone the internet.

This is a global phenomenon. At the moment, network production resources are largely devoted to sport, news and current affairs, and reality TV. That’s a good thing for short-term ratings results but, in general, these programs have a very short “shelf life”, meaning limited returns in terms of repeat fees.

To survive, networks  must focus on being production houses first, and broadcasters second. The BBC, for example, is constantly under threat of having its budget slashed through the reduction (or ultimate elimination) of the licence fee that Britons pay to support it. Its ultimate lifeline will be its vast back catalogue of quality drama and comedy — including the likes of Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, (the original) House of Cards, Bleak House and so many more —  its ongoing role as producer of such shows as Doctor Who and Sherlock, which are popular beyond the UK, and its international news, entertainment and documentary channels.

If other broadcasters are not out there seeking fresh talent — starting with writers who can produce great scripts — and prepared to take a punt on drama and comedy, then they are signing their own death warrants.

Ultimately, even material produced by what are now the FTA networks will appear first on paid-for platforms. FTA TV will be a wasteland of repeats with little or no marketable value, or with some appeal to particular advertisers (think of a supermarket chain sponsoring a cooking channel).

There may be a few people who are prepared to wait until the content they want to see to appear on FTA, but most of us will opt to pay for what we want to see, as long as we can see it now. Right now.

Meaty questions

A meal with meat
A meal with meat

I’ve been part of an on-off conversation, in person and over social media, about the pros and cons of vegetarianism and veganism.

As usual, especially in the internet age, it’s easy to find scientific “evidence” to prove the worth of any dietary whim. The latest is that lard and butter are better for you than some vegetable oils, which may cause cancer, and that three glasses a champagne a day can stave off dementia (it’s a shame that I only drink to forget).

I can certainly understand the argument that eating meat involves animal cruelty. But that is one of the unpleasant truths that I and other carnivores choose to put to one side, or simplistically explain away (“they were bred to be eaten, and as long as they have a nice life out in the paddocks don’t suffer too much when they’re slaughtered, well, that’s OK”).

If people have made a conscious choice to eschew meat for that reason, more power to them. But, like the religious fringe-dwellers who knock on suburban doors on the weekend, they should not expect too many of us to convert to their way of thinking.

What I don’t buy, however, is the argument that vegetarian or vegan diets are actually better for us. Maybe I’m not meeting the right people, but all the vegans I’ve ever met have looked incredibly pail and frail. And, as far as I know, there is no evidence to suggest that they are healthier than the average person (although, as I said before, Google will surely turn something up that favours that proposition).

For better or worse, humans have adapted to being meat eaters. There is even some evidence that eating meat made us who we are (again, for better or worse), giving us an advantage over all other species to the point where we dominate the planet. But, once again, I got that from the internet.

What is demonstrably true, however, is that I personally am not a perfect specimen of human health and fitness. I eat too much, drink too much and exercise too little. I suspect this may even be the case if I were a vegetarian.

Anyhow, whatever you do, don’t take this post as me preaching about my lifestyle, which clearly is not superior.

But I would appreciate if somebody could answer one burning question: why do vegans create food that looks like meat? If you’re committed to a plant-matter-only diet, why sculpt process food into the shape of sausages and burgers?

See also: Is tofu food?