Earth Hour – A Global Stunt?

Check out this page of pictures from this years Earth Hour, where households and businesses are encouraged to turn off non-essential lights and electrical appliances. Of course as in previous years, my biggest issue with the whole thing is it gets turned into one giant publicity stunt by numerous cities and businesses around the world, quite simply because at the end of the hour, they turn all those non-essential lights back on again.

Take a look through the pictures and consider how much energy is being wasted floodlighting buildings like the Houses of Parliament, the Sydney Opera House, or the CN Tower in Toronto for the 364 days, 23 hours a year that Earth Hour isn’t taking place.

Professor Ian James, our Diocesan Environment Advisor makes the point well with regards to churches, and it can equally apply to other buildings – indeed I used this article to back my argument that we shouldn’t floodlight St James’ as part of the upcoming conservation work:

Floodlighting a large empty building consumes as much electricity as lighting several houses. That electricity is a scarce resource and generating it puts carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are causing climate change. The message could be that the church is more concerned to glorify itself than to worry about its effect on its neighbours, that Christians don’t care very much about the unnecessary pollution of our world and the frivolous consumption of scarce resources.

Apart from the carbon dioxide pollution, ‘light pollution’ has now reached such levels that few people living in Southern Britain have ever the seen the night sky properly and certainly have never seen the Milky Way. I wonder which is the greater witness to God: a neo-Gothic Victorian pile lit up like a Disneyland extravaganza, or the awesome majesty of the night sky on a truly dark night, with its millions of stars blazing bravely in the blackness of space?

Are any of those buildings any the less usable with the floodlighting turned off? You can see the inside lights on the Opera House are still on, in Westminster the street lights are still on, and with the floodlighting gone it’s pretty obvious nobody is in the Houses of Parliament. In the various cityscapes warning lights for aircraft remain on, and indeed in many of them the ambient light from the essential lights continues to provide some visibility of the buildings anyway.

Also, with the reduction in consumption, which power stations do you think are being shut off? I can tell you it isn’t the big, polluting coal stations as they are slow to react, so are generally used as baseload for the grid – instead they dial down the fast response stations that they can easily control, things like the hyrdo-electric and pumped storage stations that in the UK get used to cope with peaks and troughs in demand.

So was I cheering Earth Hour? Not particularly. True it reduces electricity consumption, but it doesn’t reduce emissions as it’s often the flexible, clean generating plant that gets shut down first. I’m also not going to be cheering when it is so obviously a publicity stunt on the part of big organisations. It’s all very well shutting off your floodlights for an hour, but if you’re really serious about not wasting energy they should be turned off, and stay off. The same is true at home, did you sit in darkness for an hour and then just turn everything back on again – or did it make you think, and only use the lights and appliances you need rather than leaving them plugged in, turned on and wasting energy?

Never Have So Few Been Cleaned By So Many

Every Apprentice task has it’s traps, and the first one of this season was no exception. Sir Alan explained it pretty early on in this weeks show when he said that all you needed to do was to get a sponge and a bucket and go and wash cars. However the trap was that the teams were presented with vans packed with toys, and given a maximum amount to spend obtaining some of the contents of the van. Power washer? Yes please! Certainly neither team opted for the simple sponge and bucket option, although the boys at least did seem to take on board the idea that they shouldn’t spend everything they were allowed, whilst the girls team spent right up to their £200 “budget�.

In terms of the best return on investment, half of the boys team seemed to have the right idea by spending an hour shining shoes at St Pancras station unfortunately they only managed an hour before the team leader took the decision to return and bail out the rest of the team struggling to clean a fleet of mini-cabs.

As with so many Apprentice tasks this one wasn’t so much won, in that the losing team lost by virtue of messing up more than the winning team. Both teams struggled with conflict as the big egos jostled for position. As it seems happens in every series, the girls team failed to pull it together in much more spectacular fashion, with, as Nick Hewer put it, the disagreements and disorganisation leading to a “spanking in the boardroom�.

Looking at the winning team, there is already a clear divide in the boys, with four lads centred around one of the biggest egos of the night, estate agent Phil. He was given one simple, clear instruction by his team leader – we don’t do insides of cars. Once the car left, Phil produced a whole load of backchat about the time that had just been wasted, and then waltzed into the mini-cab office and agreed a deal that included insides. He then ended up doing the insides and did a botched job. Note the “it’s not as easy as it looks� comment in this sequence:

Phil described himself at one point as a man of action. From an entertainment point of view it seems he is very much of the act first think later category of action men, that invariably scrape through quite a long way, as they are generally pretty expert at the blame shifting when it comes to the boardroom.

That leads us pretty neatly on to Debra who is very definitely another of the stereotypical candidates who will say anything in the boardroom to survive, ultimately forgetting that there has been a film crew around who can show they’ve been lying. On this occasion she was put in charge of one of the two car cleaning teams on the girls team, and whilst her team didn’t go in with a cloud cuckoo land price to their customers, they did mess up significantly on their deal in that they had to ask the customer how to put together their cleaning equipment and then did such a poor job that the customer didn’t give them a further £100 of work that would have won them the task. Her sub-team then moved on to a supermarket car park where she phoned her team leader and called two of her sub-team members puppets, something she later denied in the boardroom. Unfortunately since Anita who ultimately got the chop had decided to play clean, speak up on her mistakes, and not back-stab, Debra had an easy ride through to the next round. Having said that, she certainly has the general all-round cockiness that might well result in her getting into trouble later in the series, and might well reflect badly on her with the general public.

And So It Begins

In case you haven’t noticed the vast amounts of pre-publicity, tonight another batch of the self-proclaimed “cream of British business talentâ€? lines up to be Sir Alan Sugar’s new Apprentice.

As a precursor to this, we also had another round of Celebrity Apprentice which was notable for having two established business people in the form of Gerald Ratner and Michelle Mone leading the teams, and in doing so proving that, in the case of Michelle Mone even established and experienced business people struggle to keep a team together, and in the case of Gerald Ratner providing someone who didn’t agree with the assessment of the experts.

Anyway, back to the ‘real’ show, and from the clips seen so far it looks like the first task is a car cleaning business, and whether it is selling fish, washing laundry or cleaning cars, the same mistakes are demonstrated. In one preview clip we’ve seen the boys team trying to pressure wash the outside of a car whilst other team members have the doors open and are cleaning the inside, whilst on the girls side we have a classic example of way out pricing with the girls offering the owner of three vehicles the chance to have them cleaned for £300, when the same job would usually cost him £60.

Looks like we’re going to be in for an entertaining few weeks again.

Losing Your Marbles

I didn’t set out to get a Marbles Credit Card, I sort of got sold into it.

A few years back we changed around our credit cards, in particular we took the advice of the Money Saving Expert site and swapped to credit cards that provided benefits or perks. It has definitely been a good move as we get a steady although small cash back on one card, but the other, which gets us frequent flyer miles has now taken us twice to Canada and back on free miles. The only downside was that on one of the old cards in particular we had built up a pretty good credit limit. Whilst we never came anywhere near needing to use it, it was reassuring that in a crisis we knew we could use that card.

In order to keep the account ticking over, I had a monthly charge of £4.75 going through on the card every month, which with the repayments cover of 4p a month for that size of balance was a grand total of £4.79.

A couple of months ago we got a letter from the card issuer saying that they were getting out of the credit card business, and that they had sold all their accounts to another company, who were “reassuringly backed� by the Bank of Scotland – although that is perhaps somewhat less reassuring considering what a mess certain other parts of HBOS are like… Alongside this, the new owners seem to have transferred all of their customers like us onto the Marbles brand credit card that they had also brought. The transfer was all automatic, so largely I wasn’t expecting to have to make any changes.

Then yesterday the first bill arrived, for £5.54. A quick check found that I was now being charged 79p for the repayments cover about 16% of the outstanding balance rather than less than 1% – not a problem, I’d just phone up and have it taken off.

I phoned up the call centre who said that unfortunately they couldn’t take the repayments cover off, and to have it stopped I would have to contact the insurance company that provided the product. (The joke here is that the same customer advisors at Marbles can add it onto the account themselves without a problem, they just can’t remove it.) The customer service operator then provided a phone number for me to phone. Unfortunately they were closed for staff training last night, so I had to wait until this morning. However when I phoned this morning before even answering the call there was a recorded message saying that this number could not remove insurance products and that you needed to talk to the card issuer. When I eventually spoke to a real person they said that they were quite frequently getting calls from Marbles customers who had been redirected to them by Marbles.

Phoning back the Marbles call centre, they double checked, and this was the number they were being told to give out.

At this point I was starting to get fed up, so I phoned the company that were making the monthly charge, and within about two minutes swapped it over to another source, and then went back to Marbles, and I think I ended up with a trainee.

He started off okay but once I’d prompted him over the right questions to ask, he then, with my customer record in front of him showing that I’d phoned five minutes before, proceeded to ask me whether my contact details had changed since I’d last called – probably not the best question to ask when I’d spent about twenty minutes bouncing between call centres with the problem. “Not in the last five minutes they haven’tâ€? I retorted. I then asked him again whether he could terminate the charge to which, as with all the others he said no, they couldn’t do it, so I just told him to terminate the account. There was a short pause, at which point he said “But you’ve got an outstanding balance.â€? – I told him that I wasn’t proposing not to pay that, but that the one regular charge on the card had been moved, and that since they were incapable of terminating a simple charge I was terminating instead,  at which point he agreed to close the account without any further argument – in fact it was remarkably quick to terminate the account unlike the multiple phone calls to try and terminate a simple repayments charge.

One interesting little post script is that a colleague at work half jokingly suggested that maybe the front line call centre staff are told to say that they can’t remove the charge, as since the charging structure for the repayments insurance is 79p per outstanding £100 or part thereof, it is a bit of a money spinner. The introduction message on calling the Marbles number goes to great pains to highlight that other cover is available, but certainly it seems that getting rid of the cover once you’ve got it is rather difficult, and I’m not the first person to encounter problems if the agent at the insurance company is to be believed. I’m perhaps not quite as suspicious as my colleague, so maybe it’s just a mistake somewhere in the process of handing over the card accounts, and one that will be ironed out in the future. Suffice to say as an ex-Marbles customer I won’t be around to find out.

Comic Relief Treats

So the iTunes Store seems to be getting into the whole Red Nose Day support, and already have a compilation of clips from the night available. However the real treats can be found if you take a look at the Best of Comic Relief Volume 1 which contains Blackadder: The Cavalier Years, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death plus Comic Relief contributions from Ricky Gervais, Catherine Tate and the Vicar of Dibley, and the Best of Comic Relief Volume 2 which includes a special Men Behaving Badly, and an infamous Ali G interview with Posh and Becks.