Saturday, 25 January 2014

Hatred Ridicule & Contempt - on Awesomegang

Thanks to authors' and readers' site Awesomegang for today's publication of a full page ad for my debut novel Hatred Ridicule & Contempt, complete with all the links. Click here for a look. Quite a lot of other promising book ads and links on Awesomegang too.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Coming to Breweries' Websites Now: the Nanny State

Would the outlet at the Banks’ Brewery be open, I wondered, on Saturday mornings in the winter? The need to head in that direction for a small errand had made me think it would be worth finding out. And their website seemed the obvious place to start.

I found myself looking at an Enter Here page. It was illustrated by a promising slogan, “Fresh From the Country – the Black Country”, and a picture of a handpump with a rotating display of their flagship bitter and mild. But that was not all. There was a dropdown menu. And a question: “Are you of legal drinking age for the UK? Please tell us what year you were born in.” The menu asked visitors to select a year, making it implicitly clear that failure to tick one of the choices would preclude entry to the site.

Intrigued, I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, finding some consistent small print. “You must be of legal drinking age to enter and use this site.” Really? “To find out more about responsible consumption, visit Marstons PLC.” Beneath the small print was a link to the website for the charity

What sinister invitations could be lurking the other side of the barrier, I wondered, deciding to click on my year of birth and take the plunge? Well, the outlet’s opening hours were there as I had hoped, thankfully including Saturday mornings. A description of each of their beers too. A walk through the process of brewing. The history of the brewery. And an explanation of their brewery tours with the catchline “enjoy 3 half pints on us”, although the tours were seasonal. But nothing more sinister than that. Not even the chance to order a supply of beer online, let alone an invitation to the next secret lock-in at one of their tied houses (joke).

So what’s with the demand for age confirmation? Such a pointless gesture anyway. An underage schoolboy interested in researching local industrial history, or how water, barley, hops, and yeast can be transformed into beer, is hardly going to think twice before clicking on an inaccurate age option. And that’s the kind of prohibited person who might be looking at the site, not someone in search of illicit online refreshment when it’s quicker and easier to go straight to the off licence or supermarket.

Not knowing if some draconian EU based legislation might have been sneaked through on the quiet, I thought of four other favourite ales and checked out their breweries’ sites. Neither Timothy Taylor, nor Theakstons, nor Hook Norton nor Purple Moose asked their website visitors to confirm their age. The latter two were heinously (!) offering beer for sale via online shops. Both Theakstons and Purple Moose had the drinkaware website link. A brief look at the JD Wetherspoon site also sailed through without an age confirmation enquiry.

One impression stood out. Whoever decided to make visitors to the Banks’ website go through that irritating final step could only have been following that equally irritating policy doctrine, namely the need to be seen to be doing something, empty and futile gesture as it was. Will it result in one single drop of beer not finding its way down an underage drinker’s throat? Hardly. Would they have put it up because of a legal threat? Equally hardly (but watch out for the nanny state’s mission creep, now that they have seen off tobacco displays). Might they have been responding to some busybody’s nagging? Maybe, even if common sense would have dictated a reply involving long walks and short planks.

At least the visit to the outlet was worthwhile. Eight top range bottled pints for £10, from a wide variety including the Wychwood and Ringwood ranges alongside Banks, Marstons and Jennings, was an offer that beat the supermarkets hands down. Well done, Banks’ Brewery. But please, take that silly age confirmation requirement off your website.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The GP Patient Survey 2014: a recipient's view

Early in the New Year a bulky envelope found its way through the letterbox. The accompanying letter gleefully told me that I was being asked for feedback “to help improve local healthcare and other services” by answering questions about my experiences of my local GP surgery and other local NHS services.

Wondering if the answers would be truly anonymous and confidential if any recipient chose to cross-check the 10 digit reference on both the letter and the form, I turned the page. I was advised that my name had been selected randomly then and invited to apply for any necessary assistance in 13 different languages, or to request a copy of the questionnaire in Braille via a special phone number. (Yes, I know…..)

I flicked through the questionnaire to assess the task ahead of me, and saw fifty box ticking questions. The first section was about “accessing GP services”, which was fancy talk for making appointments and speaking to staff and doctors. The old cliché about whether other patients can hear what you say to the receptionist was dusted down again, closely followed by a question that appeared to presume that some people make GP appointments by fax or would prefer to do so.

Over to the “making an appointment” section. “Last time you wanted to see or speak to a GP or nurse from your GP surgery, what did you want to do?” One of the six options was “I wasn’t sure what I wanted.” Oh, come on. To order a large cod and chips, perhaps? Or a pint? Or just seek a few kind words? (Maybe this was an option for the Alzheimers’ sufferers.)

Now for the GP and nurse appointment section, all about assessing time given, listening, explaining, involvement and caring, all on a sliding scale from very good to very poor. All options fairly covered, you might think, but how interesting it might be to see the GP completing a parallel patient focused questionnaire on such issues as lateness, paying attention, courtesy (e.g. not interrupting a consultation to answer the mobile) and respect for the opinion of a trained professional who might not be giving the advice the patient wanted to hear?

The focus then switched to the patient’s personal circumstances. Questions were asked about long term medical conditions before moving to mobility, ability to wash and dress, usual activities, pain, discomfort, anxiety and depression. Curiously, none of them carried a “mind your own business” (or should that be “prefer not to say”) option. The questionnaire went on to ask if the patient had a “written care plan” before ending up at question 50 via out of hours services and a brief set of enquiries about NHS dentistry.

Now, it’s perhaps not entirely unreasonable to conclude that out of the brave souls who began to complete the document, a fair few would have given up out of boredom, frustration or annoyance before the last of the 62 questions bore a ticked box. It may be equally accurate to conclude that those who were sufficiently motivated to fill the whole thing in and return it would comprise more than a fair share of the complaining classes, leaving the silent majority to nurse their adjective of choice. So how representative would the answers be, and how sensible or otherwise in turn would it be to allocate resources in order to address perceived shortcomings evidenced only by those answers? Debatable. But it’s hardly likely to bring the questionnaire mania to an end, even if its sole practical purpose is to demonstrate that “garbage in, garbage out” is as true a principle as ever.

Wait a minute. Did I just say 62 questions when I started off with 50? Indeed I did. Well, a government questionnaire would hardly be the same without the usual collection of diversity questions about personal characteristics. The normal range was spiced up on this occasion with a few more covering such topics as how long your work journey takes, your smoking habits, and your time spent giving support for the infirm. Interesting to note that while the “male or female” question did not provide a third option, thereby inexcusably discriminating against the hermaphrodite community, the orientation question included a curious “other” alongside straight, gay, bi and prefer not to say. It would perhaps be wiser not to comment further, save perhaps to note the potential deterrent value of this closing section upon the incentive to return completed questionnaires. Or to decide whether to laugh or cry at the thought of the poor souls in the survey brainstorming session struggling with the duty to report that 26% of the respondents who were both Buddhist and heavy smokers used their written care plans to help manage their health day to day and had trust and confidence in their GP surgery nurse despite not being happy that other patients could overhear what they said to the receptionist, having made their appointment booking by fax.