What kind of juice would you like today Sir?

Orange juice

Orange juice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I despise corruption. There’s something about a person entering an office which should be above reproach and abusing their post that really grates with me. In some countries though, corruption is almost a way of life. An Indian colleague told me a story about the corruption in his country. The subject material annoys me, but I liked the story.

He told me that when the police stop you in India, it is seldom for a particular traffic violation; they want a bribe. He rode home from work one evening and the police stopped him. To my colleague’s dismay, he realised how little money he carried. Getting stopped twice was not beyond the realm of possibility and he only had enough money for one bribe.

As he handed over the cash to the police officer, my colleague explained his predicament. For some reason, the officer sympathised with his cause and gave him the following piece of advice. If you get stopped again, just tell the officer you had orange juice this morning. My colleague went on his way, eager to get home.

On the way, another police officer stopped him. My colleague had no money to give this time, so he told this officer that he’d drunk orange juice this morning. To his amazement, the officer waved him on. My colleague could scarcely believe his luck, but he was thankful and thought no more about it.

A few days later, the police stopped him again. He had the money to pay the bribe this time, but he wondered if the orange juice phrase would save him having to hand it over. As the officer approached him, he repeated the pass phrase once more and yet again, the police officer waved him on his way. My colleague felt like he’d cracked the system. No more traffic bribes for him.

Week after week, whenever the police stopped him, he trotted out the same old line and he paid scarcely a rupee in traffic fines. He couldn’t believe it and it saved him a fortune. It was almost a month later when one fine day, a policeman stopped him. My colleague was in a hurry, so he shouted across to the officer that he’d had orange juice this morning. The policeman smiled and said “Oh no sir. It’s apple juice this morning.”

So if you’re ever stopped by the police in India, just tell them you had some random kind of fruit juice. You never know you’re luck!

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A sense of perspective

Eye death

Eye death (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

On paper, I was very ill. The trouble was, I right at that moment in time, I didn’t feel very ill. Locked inside the hospital with the dead and the dying, I was akin to a caged tiger pacing around. I bore quickly at the best of times. After 3 days of medical confinement, I contemplated digging a tunnel.

In the TV room, there was a guy about my age, which was unusual. Most inmates could claim at least 3 decades on the pair of us. We were already on nodding terms. As I sat down on the sofa beside him, he asked me what was up.

I told him how frustrated I was with the continued confinement. I went on about the boredom, the tedium, the mind-numbing routine of it all. I was sick of the food. The TV set only had a dozen channels and what I wanted most of all was to go home. My diatribe must have lasted 5 minutes or so.

“Yeah – it’s no fun.” he replied laconically.

I looked at him properly for the first time. “How long have you been in here?”

“3 years.”

At that instant, I realised how stupid my frustrated speech must have sounded. I realised how selfish and insensitive I had been. Altogether too locked up in my own misery, it didn’t occur to me that the other people must have stories of their own. We spoke for an hour. He told me that he spent most of his life in and out of hospital. Born with a congenital problem, he had a lifetime of hospital treatment to look forward to.

I returned to the ward and for the first time, spoke to the guy in the next bed. A fellow patient now, not just one of the dead and the dying. He told me of his wife, how they’d been happily married for 60 years. Then a short while ago, someone decided he was no longer fit to drive so they withdrew his license and with it, their independence.

It wasn’t long before someone else decided that him and his wife could no longer cope and committed them to a care home. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason, they were housed in different care homes. Together for 60 years, separated in a heartbeat, he quickly fell ill. It was a tragic story and I doubt it has a happy ending.

I will always be grateful to those people. They taught me a lesson I will never forget.

Stress!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ask anyone if they think they lead a stressful life, the chances are a large proportion will say yes. With the hectic lifestyles of today, we put ourselves under enormous strain. The stress is not in the situation, however, it’s in the person. Two different people placed in an identical situation will experience different stress levels, based on their background, training and perception of the situation.

I received a salient lesson in stress once. I don’t mean the kind of stress that makes you want to throttle someone or the stress that gives you a slight headache. I mean the stress that keeps you awake at night, every night. The sort of stress that renders you close to tears the whole time. When you start to wonder if you can ever see the light at the end of the tunnel, stress starts morphing into a slow seeping despair.

I was project manager for a large software rollout. The project was in the late stages leading up to go live. In the closing stages of the project, my boss phoned me to tell me he was to step down and that I would have to fill his shoes. He had a lot of responsibility on his plate and this represented a doubling of my workload. At the same time, a couple who were close to us went through a messy separation.

These three things don’t seem like much when I write them down now, but at the time, each one was enormously stressful. Combined, they were too much for me to take. I didn’t realise at first. Stress makes a stealthy approach, crawling through the long grass before it pounces. Before I knew it I was wrestling with it and the damned thing was winning.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I learned a lot. If you don’t want to be kept awake at night, keep a to do list. Once you write something on this list, your brain will allow you to forget it. Otherwise, your brain will keep coming back to the problem, day or night. If you are struggling, ask for help. It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how many people struggle on when all they need is a nudge in the right direction or to share out some tasks.

Talk to someone about the stress you feel. It helps. Try and get a sense of perspective about what’s on your plate. If you don’t complete your work, will someone die? Will you go bankrupt? Will you lose your family? There are remarkably few situations when distilled down to their simplest are really that critical.

There is another remedy which I hesitate to relate.

As soon as my wife realised the stress I was under, she took me straight to the local spiritualist shop where she bought me some stones. She bought me a lump of quartz to stick on my desk (to absorb all the negative energy) and some bits of tourmaline to carry in my pocket to absorb all the stress. I don’t believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but I took the stones. I’m absolutely positive it’s a coincidence, but ever since, I have felt less stressed.

I don’t believe a word of it and yet, those stones are still there.

It’s a classic

Classic car

Classic car (Photo credit: vpickering)

“What on Earth possessed you to buy this?”

As the freezing cold rain dripped off my nose, I couldn’t think of a sensible response. Somewhere deep inside me, an indignant voice screamed out that a roadside rescue man should not be so insolent, but such was my misery that I couldn’t bring it to the fore.

I simply looked on as he struggled to inject life into my crestfallen steed. It was a Jaguar, a series III. Magnificent in every detail except the fact that it wouldn’t go. I considered his question. Why indeed had I spent a load of money, which I couldn’t afford, on such a fragile artefact?

When I first saw it, I fell in love. Those smooth lines, the opulence of the interior, the effortless performance of the 5 cylinder engine. It was a 6 cylinder engine when it left the factory, but one of my cylinders had given up the ghost. Whenever the damn thing was moving I had the biggest smile on my face ever. Whenever it stopped, I looked miserable.

I can’t help it. I am an absolute sucker for a classic car. If someone bottled the scent of an old car, they would make a fortune from people like me. That heady mix of stale sun-baked leather together with the aroma of walnut dashboard is how I imagine Heaven smells. When you add the sight of the industrial strength rocker switches and the Smiths industries instruments, I challenge any man to resist.

There are three types of people in the world. There are those who are blissfully ignorant of classic cars. They might make a passing comment such as “that looks nice” as a priceless example of automotive history rolls by. These people are fortunate. The idea of buying a piece of our motoring heritage would never occur to them. Blessed are they.

The second type knows their way around an engine. As they walk past, a sensitive nose might just detect the faintest aroma of engine oil. They know their big end from their crankshaft. They are perfectly suited to buying a classic car. If anything goes wrong, they are in with a fighting chance of remedying the situation without descending into ruination. Blessed are they too.

I belong to the third type: absolutely clueless idiots who fall in love with classic cars, but would struggle to know one end of a spanner from another. They are destined for a life of misery. They will spend their days desiring complex machinery that they have no hope of maintaining. They will buy something stupid and be stranded on the side of the road. They will be miserable.

But during those few moments that their trusty steed is firing on all cylinders on a sunny day, they will be the happiest people on Earth – and that is worth all the misery. I don’t currently own a classic car, but occasionally, before I board a flight, I buy a classic car magazine and allow myself to dream.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song)

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I filled in the questionnaire, the computer considered my future. After a short pause, the printer chugged into life and rattled out line after line of career suggestions on green and white piano paper. Once the clattering came to a halt, the careers officer ripped off the two feet or so of suggested vocations. As he checked the printout to make sure it was OK, he asked me what I thought I wanted to do.

As a young child, it was obvious. I wanted to be a train driver first. Then I decided that I would have much more fun as an astronaut. No, maybe a scientist or a spy. As I went through school, I dismissed such fanciful ideas and came to terms with the fact that I had no clue what I wanted to do in the future.

I scanned down the piano paper at the list of jobs. I could not see any common thread connecting them. They looked like a random list of careers plucked from a hat. Some of the selections made sense and I noted with some amusement that most of the fanciful posts I’d whimsied about as a small boy were present and correct – with the notable exception of spy.

The careers officer said to think about which entries on the list appealed and told me there was an upcoming careers evening where I could find out more. I went home baffled. How do you decide what you would like to do from a list of things you’ve never experienced.

During careers evening, I wandered from booth to booth to see what they had to say. A GP told me all about his job. You study hard for seven years and then you get to sit behind a desk whilst sick people visit you. Hmmm – no thanks. Someone told me about a career in education, but I didn’t really want to stay at school even if I would be on the other side of the desk. The only job that floated my boat was on offer by the navy, ironically enough.

Their offering was a life on the ocean waves as an engineering artificer. During a five-year apprenticeship, you learned about maintaining all the military technology they had at their disposal and all while sailing around the world. It sounded adventurous. I often think about how different my life would be if I chose to take that apprenticeship.

So what do I want to be when I grow up?  I’ll let you know closer to the time.

A bottle of Magners Mr Bond?

An Aston Martin DB5 as seen in Goldfinger. Exp...

An Aston Martin DB5 as seen in Goldfinger. Expensive items are often part of a glamorous lifestyle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world has changed. Traditional business models which rely on advertising to keep them afloat have to evolve or die. When you could count the number of TV channels on Mickey Mouse’s left hand, it made sense for companies to pay lots of money to ply their goods over the airwaves. After all, you were guaranteed a decent share of viewers.

Nowadays, with satellite and cable TV, the audience is more fragmented. Not only that, but many households can now record their programs and watch them later, zipping past the adverts in the process. There are internet services available through which programs can be viewed on demand from most of the major channels. Companies like Netflix and Love Film carry a huge catalogue of advert free content available on demand. A growing number of people are not watching broadcast material at all.

To counter this, advertisers have turned to techniques like product placement. If you can persuade a film producer to feature your products, the viewer gets the subliminal message that he or she will be a bit more like the hero if they use a particular brand. I don’t have a problem with the technique per se, providing it’s subtly done and fits in with the overall film.

In the books, James Bond drove a Bentley. In the transition to screen, his steed of choice is an Aston Martin. I’m OK with that. I can understand that someone who likes Bentleys might also like Aston Martins. When I see him jump into a BMW, it stretches my belief. Would the quintessentially British spy really choose a Teutonic behemoth like a 7 series? When they turn Bond into a lager swilling Mondeo driver, something in my head says “hold on a minute…”

Today I learned that advertisers are experimenting with a new method of product placement. In post production, they digitally splice in the footage of the product they are trying to promote. Maybe they change an advertising hoarding in the background to reflect something suitable to the local audience or maybe they place a can of soft drink prominently on a table in the foreground. Because it is done after the fact, the film could be customised for different audiences.

I’m not sure I like this idea. It might mean that you never see the same film twice. The first time you watch the classic Ice Cold in Alex, you will see a very thirsty John Mills sink a Carlsberg. The next time you see it, he might be drinking a bottle of WKD Blue. Can we really trust the advertisers to splice in content that matches the film?

Cash or cheque?

Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I looked at my first full-time payslip in disbelief. More money in one month than it would take me all year to earn on my paper round. At that precise moment, I felt rich. What am I going to do with all that money?

It’s a shame that every payslip doesn’t come with that feeling. Unfortunately, as time goes on, we get mortgages and cars and other such commitments to mop up all that disposable income. Money felt very different to me back then.

It was more difficult to get at for starters. To make a withdrawal, you had to actually go to the branch. I can’t remember the last time I went to a bank branch. Once in the branch, you had to queue up to see a teller. Once you reached the front of the queue, you wrote out a cheque to yourself, handed it over and in return, they gave you some cash. You could only get cash during your bank’s extremely limited opening hours which meant that almost everyone went at lunchtime. That meant the queues were enormous.

Along came the ATM. Suddenly with your plastic card and a PIN number, you could get your cash when you liked. At first, you were limited to your bank’s own branches still, but it was progress. Mine had a weekly limit of £50 which was just too low to eliminate the tedious trips to the branch.

If you wanted to pay someone else some money, you would write them a cheque. For it to be worth the paper it was written on, it needed to be backed by a cheque guarantee card. I can’t remember the last cheque I wrote out but for some strange reason, my cheque book still lives in the back pocket of whichever trousers I happen to have on. Old habits die-hard.

I remember applying for my first loan. It was for the princely sum of £2,000 to buy a new car. I had to go down to the branch for an interview with the bank manager. I remember dressing up smartly and turning up early, eager to make a good impression. That was over 20 years ago and was probably one of the last times I ever saw a bank manager.

Today, I can pay for my tube ticket with a swipe of my card. I can lend money out to other people without ever leaving my armchair. From that same armchair, I can place bets or invest in the stock market. Some would say that they are one and the same thing. I can also launch a project and ask strangers to invest in it. I can find almost anything I want on the Internet and pay for it there and then. I could probably list off half a dozen different ways to pay someone some money. I bought my last house without seeing a soul (apart from the estate agent).

And yet, despite all that, our financial system seems very antiquated. I still have a pocketful of change and a wallet full of paper money. If I go to a different country, I need to change those coins and notes for different ones. I have a number of plastic cards, each with their own provider, credit limit and statements. I probably have accounts with dozens of institutions, from Amazon and eBay, through to utility companies and banks.

If I want to work out exactly where I am with everything, it’s up to me to collate all the information and do so. I can’t wait for the day when all I carry is my phone and I’m able to see everything about my finances in one place without breaking sweat. Maybe one day.

The monk with no head, from Piccotts End Lane

Misty night (pattanaik00_mul_18.6978_cone_0.5_...

Misty night (pattanaik00_mul_18.6978_cone_0.5_rod_0.767677) (Photo credit: cosmonautirussi)

I can’t stand it here,
I’m going to the bar.
Spluttered my brother,
but the bar was too far.

I know a shortcut,
I’ll show you the way.
But when I saw where he meant,
I heard myself say…

My brother, you’re mad
Completely Insane.
Have you forgotten the legend
of Piccott’s End Lane?

You mean the monk
deprived of his head?
I’m telling you brother,
I don’t feel any dread.

So off to the Old Town
we went with a cheer,
For bawdy young ladies
and lashings of beer.

But as we returned,
loaded with drink,
the darkness closed in
and we started to think…

As I bounced off the hedge
from one side to the other,
I bumped into something
I prayed was my brother.

The more sounds we heard,
the more that we worried.
We heard a dog howl,
And onward we hurried.

Now and again,
we thought we were sunk.
How would we escape
that headless old Monk?

It took a long time,
to reach the top of the path.
My brother, relieved,
gave a nervous laugh.

You see my brother,
there was nothing to fear.
Aren’t you glad we went out
for a relaxing beer?


This is kind of based on a true story. For many years, my brother and I trekked up and down Piccotts End Lane in search of nocturnal entertainment. The ghost story is real. Allegedly, a headless monk has been seen along Piccotts End Lane many times and I have to say, it could be quite spooky along that lane, especially on a moonless night when the mist closed in.

Alas, we never saw the headless monk himself, thank goodness. But that long walk chilled my bones.

There’s no excuse for a crap presentation

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fact of life that anyone who works in any kind of professional environment has a lifetime of powerpoint presentations ahead of them.

Some of them will be really good. Unfortunately, these will be in a minority. Most of them will be average and some of them will be absolutely atrocious. We forget the mediocre in a heartbeat, but the atrocious and the very best will stick in our minds.

There are many reasons for giving a powerpoint presentation. Some are given to inspire people. Some are to explain concepts or teach people. Some are to make people laugh. What they all have in common is communication. If you want people to remember your performance, you need to be either very good or very bad. The only way to get people to remember what you said is to be among the best – no pressure then.

The first thing to think about is the structure of your presentation. A lack of structure is one of the main reasons for poor presentations. If you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it, how on earth will your audience grasp your point. Remembering a poorly structured presentation is hard and difficult to prepare. You are also more likely to overrun or under run your time slot.

People like stories, so a structure that tells the audience where we are today, where we want to get to, how we’re going to get there and what it will be like at the end of a journey will naturally appeal. Another structure that works well is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them again. Then there is the old favourite that follows the PREP acronym; make your (P)oint, give them the (R)eason for the point, then show them the (E)vidence and then remake your (P)oint.

The exact structure you choose doesn’t matter so much as long as you’ve got one and it suits your subject material. As a rule of thumb, I spend most of my time thinking about the structure and what I want to say.

Then you will need some slides. I’m fairly anal about slides. I try to keep text to a minimum and I have a special hatred for bullet points. Words are for manuscripts and blog posts, pictures are for presentations. Every slide should communicate a single concept. Once you have a concept – a Google image search or a chart should be enough to get that concept across. In the later versions of powerpoint, you can even recolour your images so that they all match.

Once you have your slide deck, go through it a few times. I guarantee you’ll see some mistakes. You will also see the best place to break up your presentation with some chapter heading slides. There will also be the occasional slide that appears in the wrong place. A good few passes through remove any howlers and to make the deck flow better.

Then practise. I’m not wildly passionate about practise because if you overdo it, you will lose any spontaneity. The first thing I do is go through the deck and count how many slides are in each section. I write out each slide title and write a bubble around each section of slides with the count next door. So for example, my list might look like this;

  • Intro (4 slides)
  • Where are we now (5 slides)
  • Where do we want to be (4 slides)
  • How we’re going to get there (6 slides)
  • What will it be like (3 slides)
  • Conclusion (3 slides)

I run through that a few times until I can write the section / slide counts out from memory. I then learn the slides at the end of every section so that I’m never taken by surprise when I switch from one chapter to another. Once you can remember that much, it’s only a short leap to being able to write out your entire 25 slide deck from memory.

If you can do that, the presentation itself will be a breeze.