Monthly Archives: May 2012

The reasons for rejections

I’m writing this at the start of my 6th week of unemployment. I had a few setbacks last week, which I want to document here.

The previous week had ended well with me passing a second round interview for a company whose UK base is just about 25 minutes’ walk from my flat. The third stage was an online personality test and as such, I was given assurance that there were no right or wrong answers.

I didn’t get a chance to take this straight away, as I had an interview booked in at a “Mary-like” airline which is only a few hundred yards further, so I wanted to do all the necessary preparation in order to give myself the best opportunity to pass the interview.

I had a bit of a ‘mare on the Monday night. Having cleared out of the bathroom in order to clean it, I brought most stuff back in. But only when I was getting out of the bath did I realise that a towel wasn’t one of them. Hurrying to get one, I slipped on a tile and fell backwards. I know I banged my elbow and I thought that was it.

On Tuesday, the day of the airline interview, the temperature suddenly soared. But I still had to wear a suit and a shirt & tie for the interview. So I was sweltering in the heat and my back had started to ache too, presumably as a result of the slip the day before. As with pretty much every interview I’ve had, we started late, but not on my account. I was met by someone from HR and escorted through the building to the HR dept and then asked to wait. I waited for about 15 minutes while being subjected to the same advert on the screen nearby over and over.

This interview turned out not to go so well, as I was rejected from it the day after. The reason given was quite bizarre. In their minds, they have a setup which requires lots of people to do very little work. For example, in my last job I would spend half a day per month doing the bank reconciliations (for about 10 different accounts), whereas they employed someone to do the bank reconciliations as their full time job. We ended up talking at cross purposes, and the senior guy there was obsessed with making an artificial distinction between financial accounting and management accounting (for those of you who aren’t accountants, the difference is that financial accounting is reporting done externally for regulatory purposes and management accounting is done for internal purposes, but for 99% of the time you do exactly the same thing for both). But this guy treated them as though they were as different as football and ballet. The fact that I wouldn’t be drawn to a preference for one over the other was interpreted as meaning I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was rejected on that basis.

Straight after this interview, I had to go the library to do this online personality test. The format gave you three statements for each question, and you had to say which statement you agreed with the most and with you disagreed with the most. Examples included:

  • I like to get things done on time
  • I enjoy negotiating with people
  • I am tidy
  • I make decisions quickly
  • I do not show my emotions easily

I’ve done plenty of personality tests before and they all come out fairly similar: I’m a details man, able to spot mistakes at a very close level, but also able to see the whole picture. In terms of Myers-Briggs, I am an INTJ personality type (Introvert-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging), which puts me in the good company of Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, though also in the exceedingly bad company of Ayn Rand!

The important thing here is the introversion. The job required building working relationships with people and I demonstrated a past ability to do this in my previous jobs during the course of my 2 interviews. But according to the company, introverts can’t do this and I was rejected on the basis of the personality test.

But in all this, the back ache didn’t go away and I could not stop sweating. Even at night, after pouring cold water over my face, I was just radiating heat and I quickly concluded that it was more than just accident + weather making me feel unwell, I had a virus of some sort. It felt rather like flu, only I had no symptoms of a cold. So on the phone I sounded absolutely fine, you couldn’t tell anything from my voice. But if you looked at me, you’d have seen a constant sheen of sweat dripping from my face and I couldn’t walk far or fast. If I wanted to see something behind me, I couldn’t turn my neck, I’d have to shuffle my feet around to look. That knocked me out for most of the week. However, I still had another interview to attend on Thursday. What was I to do?

Well, I did what any self-respecting man would do. I got up off my sick-sofa (I’m not good at spending all day in bed) and dosed myself up on painkillers. I made it onto a train into London and was able to scout out the office where my interview would be. This was a slightly tricky task as there were 4 roads in the same area with the exact same name, all centring on a single point. It was on the 3rd of the 4 that I found it! Having done so well ahead of time, I found a seat at Victoria station and gave myself more painkillers and fever suppressants, watching the clock tick round. I’m still waiting to hear back from that interview, but considering how many drugs I’d taken; it could be a novel rejection!

I’ve been rejected from other jobs for being over-qualified, which is quite bizarre. There is still a culture in finance that people have to be ambitious and so while there was nothing in the job they felt I couldn’t do, I was told I was “unlikely to progress as quick as I might want” without actually asking me about my views on “career progression.” Everything seems geared against someone with a christian mindset like mine, where ambition, career progression and other associated connotations of materialism are shunned in favour of finding contentment and fulfilment in God.

So what other reasons/excuses are there for rejecting someone? Have you had any bad or otherwise memorable ones you’d like to share?

Book Review: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

Those that know me know that I have a soft spot for C.S. Lewis. As a kid, I loved the Narnia books and as an adult I have been discovering some of his apologetics. I read Mere Christianity in my late teens though I recall being unimpressed with it and finding it a little limp-wristed. The Screwtape Letters, on the other hand, is one of my favourite allegorical writings. So I turned my attention to this fairly short book of his (the edition I have is from Harper Collins and is 170 pages long with a fairly large typeface). I know a few people who think of it as one of his best.

The book does have a sort of introduction, but it thrusts the reader straight into Lewis’ argument making it more like a first chapter than an outline of what the book is about. He wrestles a little with different types of loves as he defines them. He then goes on to try and break these down in relation to the likings and loves for things which are not human, with a particular focus given to the notion of patriotism.

He goes along the lines that patriotism is generally a good thing, but can become destructive if one views one’s own country or race as being in some way superior to another. So while the English may delight in tea and crumpets for breakfast, the French can equally be proud of coffee and croissants for theirs.  I would slightly disagree with his idea that patriotism is fine as a de facto state of mind unless there are other factors which may cause us to think negatively of our country and its actions.

Personally, I regard patriotism as wholly irrational and ought only to exist in joviality when it comes to sporting events. Lewis defends his position by asking what would replace patriotism were it to be abandoned. I think this is a false logic that Lewis employs though he goes even further wrong, in my opinion, to suggest that justice is an inferior notion.

The bulk of the book, though, is concerned with the 4 particular loves which the title implies. Namely, these are Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity.

Each of these is quite tightly argued by Lewis, very much in the same style as he wrote The Problem of Pain. They are also slightly surprising. In other writings from Lewis, he had always come across as very conservative, yet this collection has smatterings of some refreshingly liberal thought, particularly when it comes to sexuality.

The essay on friendship is the longest, at around 40 pages, with each of the others around the 30 page mark. It’s not easy to summarise each one, so I won’t try. But I’d recommend them to you. They are by no means holistic, but they are immensely thought provoking; for that alone, they are well worth the price of the book.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the last chapter was a bit of a let-down. Through the first three essays, Lewis was keen to emphasise that for all the good that these loves are and do, that there is a risk of them ‘becoming gods’ in our lives, which was leading up the last chapter where all would be subjugated under charity. Yet the chapter seemed to lack coherence and the argument seemed to fall apart. I may just be too thick to understand it, but I put the book down feeling a bit disappointed, though not as much as I did with The Great Divorce.

That said, there is plenty of good, thoughtful writing here and I would recommend it. It’s just that I had extremely high expectations and it fell short of it, like a high jumper failing to get over the pole vault bar.

The infuriating stupidity of the DWP

This will be a rant, so if you’re not in the mood for reading my foul-tempered outpourings then now would be a good time to go elsewhere.

As many of you will have read over the course of the last few months, I am currently looking for work having been made redundant from my previous role near the end of April. As well as looking for work, researching roles and company, attending interviews, etc., I have been claiming job seekers’ allowance (JSA) from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). When I last claimed, as a graduate, I didn’t have a very good experience which you can read about here.

On Friday (the 18th) I had an appointment to go and sign on and talk to one of the DWP’s advisors who would try to give me advice on how to give myself the best chance of finding a job. I don’t know if the chap was new in his role or if, somehow, he found me intimidating, but he was noticeably shaking during our meeting. We went through and confirmed a few points, as well as having a brief discussion over what I was currently doing to look for work. Under the agreement I signed, I have to do 3 things per week in order to not have my claim stopped. I do a lot more than that, so even the edited highlights in my booklet had about 15 lines in the last fortnight.

However, just as we were booking in my next meeting in a fortnight’s time, the computer threw up a problem. My claim wasn’t coming up on the system. He looked at a few forms on the computer screen (which I could see at the same time) and it transpired that my claim had been stopped.

Why was this so?

Well, we’ve got to back a few weeks. When I initially made the claim I had to answer a lot of questions. One of these related to the amount of savings I had. I was asked to provide evidence of these savings. As most were in e-savings accounts, I didn’t have bank statements for them so I had to go to the bank and get them to print and stamp the relevant documentation. I can’t remember the precise date, but this information was handed to my local Job Centre Plus on either the 2nd or 3rd of May.

My claim was stopped on the 14th of May, with the reason being cited as “you have not given us the information we asked you for.” On the screen that I could view, there was a note on the 17th to say that documents were received, but this did not mean the claim would be reopened.

So why the delay?

Well, I delivered the requested documents to the Job Centre, but they are only the “shopfront” rather than the main benefits office. That is located elsewhere, about 30 miles away. So if it left on the 3rd of May, then the average speed of the documents was about 0.089 miles per hour. No reason was ever actually given for why it took so long. From the point of view of the benefit office, they would be right if they said they had not received the documentation by the 14th, but their statement that I had not given it is false. It had simply not been sent on.

To me, this level of incompetence is staggering. Yet, it could be argued, it gets worse! The fact that the system recorded that the documents were received on the 17th should make things simple. They could acknowledge their blunder and re-open the claim now that the relevant benefit office is in possession of all the desired documentation.

As if it would be that simple!

I was instructed by my advisor (remember, I am still in the local Job Centre at this time) that I ought to phone the relevant benefit office. I was directed to use one of the phones in the office, which I duly did so. They told me that I needed to ask for a “rapid reclaim” but that they couldn’t process this for me on their system. Instead, I had to phone the number for a new claim and request that they process the “rapid reclaim.” This I duly did, but the operator was confused since my records showed that I had an appointment booked for a fortnight’s time. She asked if there was anyone around I could ask, so I called a member of staff at the Job Centre over to help.

The only help I was provided with was to be told that I wasn’t allowed to use a phone in the Job Centre to ring the ‘new claim’ number and that I would have to use a different phone outside the building.

By this time, my patience was being pushed to its limit and it seemed that the next course of action was not permitted in that building, so I went home for lunch. After I’d had time to eat and calm down, I gathered all my papers together and phoned the benefits claim line. The operator was still using the set screen in front of her, so I can pass no blame on her for having to take me through the whole registration process again, which took over half an hour.

The upshot is that I have an appointment to go back to the local job centre on Monday afternoon (the 21st) where I will be very much on the war path. I’m spending this weekend making multiple copies of the timeline and gathering all the letters and other documentation I have to hand so that I can go and show them just how incompetent they are.

All this is a nasty distraction. I’ve still got job applications to follow up on and a couple of interviews to attend. The more time I spend having arguments with the DWP, the less research I get to do into future employment.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress or lack thereof.

What is an alethiophile?

While I’ve got quite a lot of blog posts that are being written, but which are far from ready for publication, I wanted to almost a re-introduction to the blog for readers who haven’t tracked this for the last year and a half. I did write a short introduction then, though of course I have learned plenty in that time and am no longer really the same person as I was then.

So what’s behind the name?

The name alethiophile is a bit of a linguistic joke. It’s derived from 2 Greek words, aletheia and philos. These mean ‘truth’ and ‘friend’ respectively. Most people will, I expect most people will be familiar with the idea of adding –phile onto the end of a word to give connotations of affiliation or of being attracted to something (as in nucleophile in chemistry). Or it may be added to the start of a word as in philosopher ‘lover of wisdom’.

So I wanted to make the general ethos being that of seeking after truth. Yet you will note that I have not included the second e from aletheia. Why is this? Because I don’t always get my facts right. I have also seen subsequent to starting this blog that the philo- ought to be a prefix rather than a suffix.

Being truthful doesn’t always entail being in possession of the correct facts. Likewise, being accurate with your facts doesn’t always mean you will be truthful. Such is the world we live in where terms such as ‘political spin’ are now commonplace.

So I would encourage you, where possible, to point out factual errors so that they may be corrected and to disagree with me if you think that what I write is untruthful. All I ask is that it be done with a reasonable level of courtesy (unless you really think I deserve it) and where feasible, any points of facts can be referenced so I can check them.

But please be patient. I’m not perfect and I don’t pretend to be.

What about the mouse?

Across various incarnations across the web, I am known by an avatar that is a small white mouse. Here, I want to say how it originated and how its meaning has evolved.

Originally, it was picked off an obscure website whose address I have now sadly lost which did lots of silly personality quizzes. Such themes would be “Which ‘Friends’ character are you?” or “What’s your superpower?”

The one which gave me the mouse was based on Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy and was called something like “What is your daemon?” For those of you unfamiliar with Pullman’s work, his trilogy is a brilliant piece of fiction and I would highly recommend it to you. It’s sometimes labelled as children’s fiction, though that’s largely because the main character is a child. Part of the premise of the books is that in this sort of parallel world that the characters inhabit, a person’s body and their soul are separate, but linked, entities. The soul lives in animal form (daemon) and always stays close to their person. As a child, these animals can change what form they take, but they reflect the person’s personality or character. As they grow older, their daemon adopts a fixed form.

So for example, anyone in a position of service (such as a butler or a soldier) will usually have a dog as their daemon. A fisherman might have his as a seagull or a porpoise. The master of the college at the start of the first book has a raven.

This online quiz reckoned mine would be a mouse, and it gave me this picture to demonstrate. I thought this was quite apposite so I’ve stuck with it. As a symbol, I think it stands out quite well, though the irony is that mice don’t stand out much; neither do I. I’m a fairly short chap and can pass by quite unnoticed. I’m not the most outgoing of people, but can turn on the charisma if I need to, such as in job interviews.

I’m usually content to sit in a corner and observe, interjecting occasionally into a conversation when all else have had their say. This can present difficulties when dealing with particularly talkative or dominant personality types. For example, I had to point out to someone in my church once that I had known them for a year before they had let me finish a sentence.

The thing is, in order to avoid stumbling over my words, I usually work out in my head the content and structure of my argument before I begin. But by the time such a construction is done, the conversation has usually moved on. This is why I think my blog probably contains a far ‘truer’ voice that represents me than what you will encounter with me in a group conversation.

More recently, I came across a lovely little anecdote in Herodotus’ Histories  (book 2, paragraph 141) where, shortly before a battle, a multitude of field mice invaded one camp eating all the quivers and bowstrings, as well as the thongs by which they managed their shields. So when the battle came the next day, one army had nothing to fight with nor anything to defend themselves with. Herodotus finishes with this:

“There stands to this day in the temple of Hephaestus, a stone statue of Sethos, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect – ‘Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods.’”

And Sipech?

This has caused some confusion in people, particularly with pronunciation. For the record, I always pronounce it “Sigh-Peck”. It is a contraction of my real name, but I thought it was unique and an easier identifier. It turns out, though, that there are a couple of other inhabitants of the cyber-world who also like to use it, which is why @sipech is not my Twitter name. I was quite miffed when I found this out, as I think a shorter username is a virtue where the character limitation is severely restricting.

So for those that don’t know, I’ll let you have a guess at what my actual name is. I think my blog, as a whole, has it in there. But you’d have to read through quite a few posts to get it.

I’ll sign off with this quote from Gandhi:

“even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

The 3rd week of unemployment

So I come to the end of a 3rd week of unemployment and still the horizon is as far away as it ever was.

The week didn’t get off to a good start. As stated earlier, the 2nd week had ended with the possibility of an interview. However, the recruitment consultant I was dealing with was very poor at his job and so had not confirmed a time. So I started the week with great uncertainty and nothing ever emerged of it.

Given that Monday was a bank holiday, this only left 4 days to do any good amount of job hunting. As great as bank holidays are for the millions who work, they pass by with something slightly less than indifference for those of us out of work.

Tuesday was a fairly good day, just not in terms of jobhunting. My sister and her family had decided had decided a while back that they were going to go on holiday. Now, I live very close to one of the busiest airports in the country and my flat has a car parking space. Being a non-driver, I’m perfectly happy for friends and family to use this space if they are flying out from this particular airport. It saves them car parking fees, and it’s a lot more secure as well. Anyway, my sister wanted to take me up on this offer and so she arrived with my brother-in-law and my eldest nephew.

We had half a day together and got to take the little boy off the park so he could play on the swings. My nephew was also quite keen on this. However, just as we were leaving the park, I received a phonecall from one of the recruitment agents I’d been dealing with to inform me that I’d been rejected from one of the interviews had the previous week.

The reason was the usual one. My experience was good enough to get myself an interview, but because my remit in my last job was dealing primarily with other finance staff and with the executive board, it wasn’t part of my job to be a commercial director and be involved in pricing or detailed discussions with sales staff. That was the role of the commercial directors to whom I sent reports and commentary, as well as answering ad hoc queries from them. So all this is interpreted as meaning that I am incapable of dealing with non-finance staff and therefore unsuited to any job that might have the slightest whiff of non-finance in it.

Wednesday and Thursday were still pretty full-on in terms of jobhunting. I had, on the bank holiday, updated my CV on Monster. The way recruitment consultants work, they only look at recently updated profiles. So by making a few small changes I instantly put myself back on the radar for consultants who I hadn’t previously spoken to. At a rough estimate, I think my phone would go about twice an hour and these would often be followed up with an email, or in a few cases preceded by one.

In order to be able to claim job seekers’ allowance (JSA) I need to keep a record of everything that I am doing in order to look for work. So for every phonecall I have, I need to keep a log of who I spoke to, what firm they are from, what we discussed, what I will do next and when I will do it. So by the time I’ve had the phonecall, read the email, replied to the email and documented the whole interaction, the phone will usually have gone again.

It really is a full time job in and of itself. I had hoped that if I wasn’t going to be in employment I would at least be able to accelerate my reading and blogging to stop me going from insane, but I don’t get much of a break for this. The one benefit is that I have been able to sleep more. Normally, I tend to go to bed sometime between 10:30pm and 11:30pm, only to get up sometime between 4:30am and 6:00am (depending on how busy I was at work). Now, though, I am able to have a lie-in until about 8am, and I’m not usually going to bed until well after 11pm. Though I do find, in order to not screw up my circadian rhythm, that I am at my best when I am awake during the sunlit hours and am either winding down or asleep during the night. Also, I don’t want to get into such an “off work” rhythm that by the time I do eventually get a job that it’ll be hard to readjust to early morning starts.

Friday was quite a reasonable day. I had an interview lined up that was actually in the town I live, which was nice. It was only a 25 minute walk up the road from my flat. Since I was sure it was an 11am interview, I was having quite a leisurely morning, having already done the research on the role and the company. At about 8:30am I double checked my email to make sure of the time. When I then saw it was 10am rather than 11am, I suddenly had to get my skates on, as I hadn’t even ironed my shirt yet.

As it turns out, I ended up leaving ridiculously early and still arrived a long time before my interview was due. So I took a little walk around the industrial state, which was round the corner from where my office was for my first graduate job. When I made it back on time for the interview, I thought there were a few guys loitering outside the front of the building, having a smoke. But as I got closer, a minivan pulled up and I realised that this was a welcoming committee for the occupants of the minivan.

It quickly dawned on me that these were very important people visiting (the board from the overseas parent company), and that everything but the red carpet was being readied for their arrival. However, they were taking their time in getting out of the van, and I still had to get through the front door too! So I had a bit of dilemma on my hands: do I wait for them to go in, which could be several minutes, or do I scoot around in front of them and head straight to the reception desk, at the risk of having my back turned on my potential future employers.

I opted for the latter. Having clearly introduced myself to the receptionist, I was then asked very slowly to repeat myself because apparently giving my name first and who I was here to see second was the wrong way round.

As is usual with my interviews, I turned up about 4-6 minutes early, to give my interviewers adequate time to come and meet me, so we could start on time. However, when one chap came down the stairs, he was dressed very casually in jeans a light top. No sign of a suit or a tie anywhere. Then, when I caught from his brief discussion with the receptionist that he was one of the people I was having the interview with, he then proceeded to meet the other person in reception who was sat behind me, and they went off to a room together.

This prompted me to double-check my email in case the interview was at 11 and not at 10, in which case I might be off to a very bad start, though early is always better than late. This other meeting didn’t last long, and I think we started ours about 10 minutes late, which is about standard for the interviews I’ve been having.

I still couldn’t work out, though, why he was in casual clothes. It turns out that Friday is a dress down day every week, so apart from the exec board who arrived at the same time as me and the receptionists, I was the only person wearing a suit! Anyway, the interview went fairly well, though I know that’s not a guarantee of anything.

So as I write this on the weekend, I am still no closer to being employed. I’m also not further away, which is a good thing.

Book Review: Histories by Herodotus

This is one of those classics that I knew I just had to read at some point. Given a fair few of the books I read are historical in nature, it seemed right to go back to the father of history, Herodotus.

Histories is not really one book, but 9. For that reason, it is a mammoth work to get through and I have been reading this now (interspersed with some others) for about 3 months. It is absolutely impossible to summarise, given the depth and breadth of Herodotus’ scope. He covers wars and battles, individuals, nations and geography. As the earliest major work of western history we have preserved, it stands as a remarkable work for one individual to have compiled, especially given that it was written in the 5th century BC.

The overarching narrative that Herodotus gives us in each book is textured and coloured in by anecdotes that give the reader insight into the minds of the key players. In places, he lays out different accounts of the same events as relayed to him by different parties and attempts to draw his own conclusion about which telling is most likely to be truthful. This, I think, sets out the methodological thinking that characterises later historians influenced by Herodotus.

Of course, I have to say that I read an English translation. For the most part, it was highly readable, though the extensive lists of names can be a little wearing and the turns of phrase occasionally look as though they came out of the same school of Greek translation that produced the old King James version of the Bible. The introduction states that the translation was done by one George Rawlinson and was first published in 1858. I am unaware (though I admit I haven’t looked very hard) for any more modern translations.

The one major flaw that this version has is a lack of maps. Throughout the book, cities, nations and rivers are named and characterised, yet their geographical location and proximity to one another is entirely hidden from view. Some great confusion may occur where names no longer match their modern equivalent. For example, in the footnotes, we are told that the area referred to as ‘Libya’ is in fact *south* of Egypt, rather than, as we would think today, to the west of Egypt. This then brings in further questions as to whether the Egypt of Herodotus is in the same situ as that which we know today.

Likewise, given the very central role of Greece in the whole narrative, there are cities referred to as being in Greece which are situated in what we now know as Turkey.

With that aside, I felt the book really fell into 2 parts. The opening half of the book gives the background to the wars described in the second half. Here, there are many anecdotes told over a few paragraphs, and where whole cultures are described in a few short lines. For me, one of the most interesting was a tale of forgiveness, deceit and revenge which ended up with a man being tricked into eating his own son. Such level of horridness is fairly commonplace in the book, so for that reason it is not for the squeamish.

The second half of the book I will admit to finding much more difficult to get through. This may be because I adopted it as my primary reading rather than having it as my ‘book on the side’ that I dipped into occasionally. But the wars and battles for the most part seemed very similar and not having a good grasp of the contemporary geography or politics hindered my ability to visualise what was going on. So I lost a little interest towards the end and it became more of an achievement to have finished all 700+ pages rather than a joy to read.

Nonetheless, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of history itself, as well as anyone wanting to find out about life around the Mediterranean in the 5th and late 6th century BC.

Bishops and Lords reform

On an almost seasonal basis, there are calls for the end of bishops in the House of Lords (HoL). At present, there are 26 Church of England (CoE) bishops who have places reserved for them in the upper house of Parliament. In total, there are786 members of the HoL (as of the 1st of April this year, according to Wikipedia), so the bishops only make up 3.3%. Opponents of the bishops posit that there should be no place for religious privilege and that therefore they should be kicked out. Such is the position of the British Humanist Association (BHA).

While I largely agree with the BHA on this issue, I think it misses the point. As I understand it, the historical reason for the bishops was that they could represent the people of their respective dioceses. So while members of the House of Commons would be elected on a regional basis, the bishops would have that same regional sense via their presence in the HoL, albeit their geographical areas spanned much larger regions than constituencies. This may once have been a reasonable basis, but it is now just one of the many aspects of the upper house which is outdated.

Since I started to become more politically aware of things in the early/mid 90s, I have heard talk of “Lord’s reform” crop up on a regular basis. While Tony Blair’s government instigated some changes, I don’t think they went anywhere near enough. The very existence of an appointed HoL flies is evidence which contradicts the claim that Parliament is a democracy. For that reason, I would welcome the proposal in the queen’s speech to reform its make-up.

My proposal to change the HoL would involve removing the places that are specially reserved for the bishops, but not to necessarily remove the bishops themselves. That is, they should not be given any place of special privilege but neither should they be discriminated against on the basis of the “religion”. But this would only be one tiny part of the reform and which I think the BHA focuses on far more keenly than an organisation which claims to value ‘reason’ ought to. As I have pointed out above, the bishops are very few in number, do not exercise their votes uniformly and the amount of influence they have is massively exaggerated by most of those who simply want to rid Parliament of them, without having a positive agenda for Parliamentary reform.

My view is that the whole HoL needs to be overhauled in the way that its members are determined. There are a few different ways this way be done and to be honest, I’ve not made up my mind on which would be better. I don’t have a complete hypothesis of how each would work, but I am confident that it would be an improvement on the modern system.

1) Wholly elected 2nd chamber. The number of members of the Lords should be fixed and then elections should take place as per elections for the House of Commons. To try to ensure independence (though by no means an absolute guarantee, that would be impossible) candidates who are or have been members of a political party would be barred from standing.

2) Mirror the jury system. Anyone who is on the electoral register may be called up for service. Each member would have to serve for a set period of time (maybe a year?). Again, anyone who had been a member of a political party would be exempted from selection.

3) Proportional representation. You may recall that I advocated the AV system in last year’s referendum on electoral reform, outlining why the first past the post system is not the best way of determining democratic will in an election with more than 2 candidates. So if we could not ban members of the Lords from having membership of or association with political parties, we could at least ensure that the proportional make-up of the Lords reflected the proportional casting of votes.

To take a hypothetical (and admittedly, slightly unrealistic) example let’s say that at the next election, where Labour were to win seats, they would them by a small majority, but the Conservatives win their seats by a large majority. On a constituency by constituency basis, Labour may win 55% of the seats in the Commons, but it’s conceivable that they might have only achieved 45% of the total votes cast. In such an instance, Labour would only be allowed 45% of the seats in the Lords.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, or even have a combination of measures. Yet either alone or together, these proposals would make the upper house more democratic than it is now. Some commentators in the wake of the queen’s speech were arguing that making the upper house democratic would put it on a par with the lower house and so undermine the authority of that latter house.

I don’t think this is a wholly bad thing. The idea of the upper house should be, in my opinion, the place where the lower house is challenged and held to account on individual bills. The act which enables the Commons to push through legislation regardless of the Lords abhors my sense of democratic fairness. Of course, the lower house is accountable in general elections, but these only occur once every 4 or 5 years, thus negating the idea that we actually live in a democracy. In truth, democracy is only a sporadic visitor to these shores, while hegemony is ordinarily resident.

What would then become of the bishops? Well, I don’t think an awful lot would change. Because when I had a flick through Hansard, what we find is that they don’t really participate much (though they are by no means unique in this). While they kicked up a fuss, and rightly so, about the government’s victimisation of the disabled in the form of the Welfare Reform Bill, even had those bishops who voted against the bill voted the other way, the result would have been the same. There were also many more secular peers who voted against the bill.

For those that may have spent some time in the Lords, taking them back to their local areas would allow them more time to do the job with they are tasked: making disciples, baptising them and teaching them about the life and work of Jesus.

The argument of needing them as a moral voice is a void one, as bishops are only representative of one denomination of one religion (however we might define that), and as I have argued before, religions do not have a monopoly on morality.

So by backing a reform of the House of Lords, my hope would be that we can make Parliament more closely resemble a democracy and free up the bishops to preach the gospel.

Of course, whether any change will actually occur is a wholly different matter…

The second week of unemployment

I do apologise that my posts are constantly out of date. The internet café I now rely on for my web usage costs £1.50 an hour and isn’t exactly up to date in terms of its hardware or software. The seats are falling to pieces and there is no software there more up to date than 2003. So when I wrote my blog posts in Microsoft office 2010, I didn’t realise I’d have to change the file type back to an earlier version.

Rather than try a Windows specific format I went back to the good old .rtf file format which has served me so well in the past. If it’s text you’re interested in, with formatting preserved, it’s the simple things that are the most reliable.

Anyway, as much as to preserve my own sanity as anything else, I wanted to write a brief account of my travels and travails as a jobhunter. I’ve written a couple of posts already, just search for anything with the ‘unemployment’ tag. Rather than give a day to day journal which may be extremely boring to you, I thought it more prudent to give a short summary.

The short story of this week is that I have had 2 interviews this week and might have another 2 next week. The first one was on Tuesday at a technology company about 15-20 miles down the road. It was tucked at the back of an industrial estate and seemed to take quite a long time to walk there, though I did arrive at the train station very early, was in my posh shoes (which aren’t the most comfortable) and was taking in my surroundings as I went. It was actually quite a hot day.

I arrived my customary 6 minutes early for the interview, though the office didn’t seem to have a receptionist. I was buzzed in by an anonymous voice at the other end of the intercom but then I just sat in reception. The clock ticked past the interview time and still no one appeared.

Eventually someone saw me and asked who I was waiting to see. It turned out that both the people who would be conducting the interview were still in a meeting. Once we did get started, the interview lasted an hour (which they were keen to stick to). I thought we got on OK, though I did stumble over a couple of questions. At the time of writing (Sat the 5th) I am waiting to hear back to find out if I’ve made it to the 2nd round.

The other interview was in London on Thursday. I made it up there in good time and had a little wander down the Thames path, as the office overlooked the river. This was a very different role to the others that I had interviewed for (this is now my 7th interview in total) as the role in a very small company replacing a retiring finance director who had been in his role for longer than I’ve been alive! So although the role wasn’t that of a director, some elements had de facto directorial elements to it, such as becoming company secretary. The main downside was that they wanted the role to start on the 1st of July. So even if I got it, I would still be unemployed for a further 2 months.

The interview was quite close to Pimlico so I headed down to the Tate Britain which is a gallery I’ve been to once before and enjoyed immensely. However, it just seemed to lack something this time and I didn’t really have fun there. Even my favourite painting, The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, had been moved so it was now well above eye-level and the reflection on the glass covering the painting meant you had to stand to one side to view it without reflection from the gallery lights.

So I curtailed my visit and went home, to get ready for our church’s monthly prayer meeting. Whilst changing and having an exceptionally early dinner, I received a text message telling me to check my emails, as someone had sent me another job spec. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I read it, as the company’s office was but a few minutes’ walk from my flat. I checked the job spec to make sure there was nothing on there that would likely hinder me from being able to do the job but, finding nothing, I was in the middle of emailing back to say ‘yes’ when the agent phoned me. We had a brief discussion covering the salient points and agreed my CV was to be put forward for the role.

Anyway, I got the train down to church and made it to the prayer meeting. It’s quite rare that I can make them, as they are always scheduled for the 1st Thursday in the month (the first week of the month is usually the busiest for accountants) and it’s at 8pm which is generally far too early for the average working professional. But as these usual hindrances were now removed, I saw no reason not to go.

Apparently, it was quite a high turnout, though I couldn’t really determine that having very few meetings to compare it to. Amongst the many to things to pray about, my unemployment inevitably came up. Everyone is now expecting a great testimony in a short space of time though I really don’t know when that’ll be. I won’t consider prayers to be answered until I have an employment contract in front of me. Also, unless I have a fully scripted speech in front of me, I’m not great at public speaking. And the size of my church (Sunday mornings have around 120 people plus or minus 20) it’s quite awkward. It would be much better if the audience were top side of 1,000 where it all becomes rather more anonymous.

So then we come to Friday. I had to go to the job centre to sign on. I had prepared my booklet which recorded everything I did to look for work. They used a temporary agreement that I used 6 years ago which said I had to do 3 things per week. My general idea is that I try to do 3 things per day, and that afternoon I certainly did.

On my way to the job centre I got a call from a consultant and he said he had some good news for me, but I had to cut it off short and call him back after my appointment. When I did, it turned out that I had been invited to interview at the place that was very close by. I made another couple of calls later that day with nothing forthcoming, but then the phone rang at about 5:20pm from a consultant in London saying I had an interview on Tuesday! The trouble was he was asking me about when would be a good time to go, suggesting 9:30am. As that would mean travelling to London at peak time, it would be a very expensive train ticket, so I suggested we put it back until at least 11am. He said he’d get back to me and confirm. As I finish writing this post on the afternoon of Monday the 7th, he still hasn’t done so. I did try to phone him back on Friday afternoon about 6:15pm but got no answer. So when he arrives back at his desk on Tuesday, he’ll find in his inbox an email from me telling him that the interview has to be rescheduled. Even if it is booked for 11am, there’s no way it is professional for a recruitment consultant to confirm an interview 2 hours before it takes place. I need to be mentally prepared and I’m not going to get myself psyched up on a purely speculative basis.

So coming into the third week, I have 2 interviews that I’m waiting to hear back on with a potential 2 further 1st round interviews in store. None of these are guarantees and I don’t really foresee this being the last week of unemployment. Even if these are successful, there are still further hurdles to jump. It’s a dark tunnel and if I think I can see a light at the end of it, it often turns out just to be an electric light shining round the corner. But there’s no telling how many corners there are to go and I won’t consider the task done until I can see the sky and the trees, with the tunnel exit fading quickly in the rear view mirror.

Book Review: The Well-Beloved by Thomas Hardy

Having put a lot of Hardy’s lesser known books on my Christmas wishlist, I received quite a few from my parents. Of these, I still have Under The Greenwood Tree and Desperate Remedies waiting to be read. However, I try not to read them back to back lest I start to get them muddled in my mind.

Yet there is little danger of The Well-Beloved being mixed up with any other novels, as it stands apart as very different from the rest of Hardy’s Wessex novels. Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, but also with scenes in London and other locations which are namedropped by Hardy in other works, the story follows the life of Jocelyn Pierston. The novel consists of three parts, where he is aged 20, 40 & 60 but in each is described as “a young man.”

When we first meet him he is search of his ideal woman, but not in a conventional manner. He has this strange idea that he pursues an ethereal spirit, named as one point as that of Aphrodite, which he refers to as the Well-Beloved. This spirit rests upon a young woman, imbuing her with an indescribable sense of beauty which Jocelyn perceives. However, the resting place of this spirit of the Well-Beloved is fleeting, and can depart its host as suddenly as it arrives, leaving the woman but a shadow of herself. Yet this is seemingly imperceptible to all but Jocelyn.

As he pursues this ideal, we see how poorly he treats women, losing interest in them and discarding them with little regard to their feelings or circumstances. The modern reader may well, as did I at first, consider this simply an elaborate critique of male fickleness in lust, though I am not convinced that this was Hardy’s intention. Indeed, of all of Hardy’s works that I have read, this seemed to have aged far less well. Though his themes of love foiled by circumstance may be considered timeless, the way in which he approached The Well-Beloved may look quite out of date now.

[Spoiler alert]

Of his various lovers, we are asked especially to take note of Avice. The reason for this is because the rest of the book continues Jocelyn’s love affair with separate generations of Avice. So when he is 40, and the first Avice has died, Jocelyn becomes obsessed with her daughter, also named Avice. Yet just as Jocelyn is on the verge of redeeming his past mistakes with the first Avice, circumstances prevent him from marrying the second Avice.

In the final part of the story, Jocelyn is now 60, the second Avice is still very much with us and we are introduced a third Avice, who it is Jocelyn’s intention to marry. However, just as things did not work out with either her mother or grandmother, so once again Jocelyn is thwarted once more.

[End spoiler]

The book could be read in a number of different ways, especially as viewed through 21st century eyes, which may well be far from what the author intended. In some ways Jocelyn is a figure of great romance, pursuing the ideal for years and years before finally realising what is truly beautiful and which he had considered a great thorn in his side for many years. Yet it is hard to not think of him as a bit of a creep, jumping from girl to girl. I was reminded of the character of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice who was able to change the object of his desire from Jane to Elizabeth in the time it took for Mrs Bennett to poke a fire.

With that said, it is still a very good read, though not one of Hardy’s finest. Whereas, in his more famous novels, he evokes a very strong sense of place (probably not better than in The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge), this is scaled back in The Well-Beloved. The little turns of phrase which usually evoke such great insight into a person’s character and circumstance are noticeable by their absence.

Definitely an intriguing read, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your introduction to Hardy.

What kind of evidence would you like?

There were two instances recently where the idea of evidence and epistemology came to the fore. I just wanted to explore my own thoughts on the matter and to find out what you think. The first came in an internet discussion which was raking over old ground of christianity v atheism. Someone had made the statement that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I couldn’t resist the bait to jump in and correct their use of this logical fallacy.

The second was when I was at the Job Centre Plus and I was asked to provide “proof” of my savings. Those that know me will be aware that I am quite pedantic, especially when it comes to the semantic difference between proof and evidence. What they were really after was strong evidence since proof is so much more an exacting standard that is almost impossible to achieve outside of the platonic world of mathematics.

Without going into too much detail of each specific case, this got me thinking about what kind of evidence one accepts and how we compare that to what is available. In the case of christianity, the extraordinary claim at the heart of my belief is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet I am constantly told that this requires extraordinary evidence.  So, I ask, what kind of evidence would you accept? The event was a one-off and so the scientific paradigm (as much as I am in favour of it) doesn’t apply since you cannot repeat any experimentation under controlled conditions. Instead, we have to adopt the mindset of the historian, where we have to deal with the evidence as it stands. We cannot create evidence; all we can do is uncover that which already exists.

In the case of the jobseekers’ allowance (JSA), most of my savings are held in e-savings accounts. The reasons for this are compound, but one of these is that they use less paper since I don’t get statements through the post. I just log on to my online bank to see what the balances are. I offered to log on and demonstrate to the staff at the job centre how much I had in each account (I’m still not certain about the precise reason, but I won’t get JSA if they don’t know how much I have in my accounts) but they wouldn’t accept the evidence that existed and which I was willing to show them.

The interesting thing is that evidence only ever points to truths which already exist. The evidence only affects (or effects, even) our knowledge of those truths, it doesn’t create truth out of the void. In other words, the ontology is independent of the epistemology. While we would all surely love to have all the evidence we want to support or falsify our views in the exact format we would like, the universe isn’t really that simple.

There are instances where evidence is destroyed or lost which may lead us to areas of great uncertainty but which do not impinge on the truth (or otherwise) of whatever matter we are investigating. For example, we know very little about the contents of the ancient library of Alexandria, or the precise location of where Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Sometimes all the evidence we have is that of the eyewitnesses to an event.

It is often easier to dismiss an idea on the basis of it lacking the kind of evidence you would prefer than it is to undertake a serious examination of the evidence that exists. There is much said and written about the historicity of the christian claims, though of those I have read lately, the best are those by Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope (shorter and written at a very accessible level) and The Resurrection of the Son of God (longer and more detailed). To give a snippet, he states in the former “I do not claim…that I have ‘proved’ the resurrection I terms of some neutral standpoint. I am offering, rather a historical challenge to other explanations, and to the worldviews within which they gain their meaning….No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering scepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed.”

When we lack definitive proof, as we do in 99% of all things, all we have to rely on is incomplete evidence. It is up to us individually to decide how we treat that evidence and what conclusions we may draw from it. My opinion is that we should maintain a healthy scepticism (here, my idea of scepticism differs a little from Wright) and that we should always consider the possibility that we might be wrong, no matter how much we might want something to be true (or untrue). This scepticism leads to an inevitable doubt about that which we hold dear to our hearts. But so long as that doubt leads to investigation and hopefully to increased knowledge, doubt is not a bad thing. If it leads to disbelief where we preclude possibilities then we are wilfully choosing to neglect our intellects; this, I do not agree with.

So those are my thoughts. What are yours?