Archive for the ‘humor’ category

Pinpoint accuracy

January 28, 2012

Observed and overheard this week inside a branch of  a well-known bank.

Customer (man in his early 40s or so) to bank employee: ‘You’ve sent me a new bank card but when I enter the number it doesn’t work.’
BE to C: ‘You mean the PIN number?’
C to BE: ‘No. The number if I want to use a cash machine.’
BE to C: ‘That’s the PIN number. Put the card in here and try it.’

The customer inserts the card and a rather histrionic pushing of keys with expansive hand and arm movement follows.

C to BE: ‘See, it doesn’t work.’
BE to C: ‘Could you enter it again.’

More histrionic key pushing.

BE to C: ‘Er, sir, you entered a completely different number this time.’
C to BE: ‘Well of course, it would be far too risky to keep using the same one.’

I had to conclude that this customer was not yet ready for a bank account, and probably should be kept away from sharp objects.


Flying by the seat of her pants

June 21, 2011

Overheard this past weekend.

Passenger entering plane: ‘Where is seat 312?’
Cabin attendant: ‘You can sit anywhere you like.’
Passenger: ‘It says seat 312.’
Attendant: ‘No, this is flight 312.’
Passenger: ‘Where is 312?’
Attendant: ‘This is it. You’re on the right plane.’
Passenger: ‘Yes, but the seat?’
Attendant: ‘Anywhere you like.’
Passenger: ‘I’ll go to find seat 312.’
Attendant: ‘Good luck!’

Many happy returns

May 26, 2011

Overheard at 7 am this morning at the ticket counter in a Scottish railway station.

‘Return ticket, please.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Well no, I’m coming back here.’
‘May I ask, where are you proposing to come back from?’
‘Oh, it’s too early to be doing this.’

Motherhood and Pi

March 23, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a young graduate about useful and useless information. For him, very strongly in the latter category was absolutely everything in mathematics beyond basic arithmetic, and he particularly resented being taught and having to remember the significance of πr2 – something he swore he would never ever have to use in what he called ‘real life’. I didn’t bother pursuing this particular line, but I suspect he would not have been able to tell me the value of π – i.e. 3.14159 (as readers of this blog will of course know).

Well, for a moment yesterday I thought that help might have arrived for him, as I read a report that a Republican US Congresswoman, Martha Roby, had introduced a Bill in Congress stipulating that from now on π will be a much more memorable and manageable value of 3 precisely. This, she was reported as suggesting, would allow American students to be more mathematically competitive in global terms.

Alas, it wasn’t true, or at least apparently not. The internet has been buzzing with this particular item, and yet it took staffers of the conservative Congresswoman (who incidentally prefers to be described as a ‘Congressman’) a few days to state, on her Facebook page and not exactly prominently, that this was all just a joke at her expense. I was hoping that it might be accurate, and that she might follow up this particular second-guessing of Euclid of Alexandria with other radical re-arrangements of mathematical theorems. Unfortunately we are destined to stay wedded to actual reality. Oh dear.

What’s so funny?

January 21, 2011

Last week I was supposed to be writing an article, but I had writer’s block, and so (unusually for me) I switched on the television and flicked through channels. No fewer than four of them were showing classic comedy shows, and for about an hour I was totally engrossed in comparing them with each other. They were, in no particular order, Fawlty Towers, Friends, Frasier and Father Ted. I concluded quickly that really great comedy has an alphabetical dimension, and so if you are planning to write a new show, make sure it begins with ‘F’.

But seriously (or not), I began to wonder what it was that made these four shows so successful. Father Ted has a formula that appeals to me, of taking totally absurd propositions and playing them out as if they were potentially realistic. Fawlty Towers is really extremely clever slapstick. Friends and Frasier are comments on life, viewed with what I would call humorous affection for the central characters.

I believe that Fawlty Towers is the funniest thing ever broadcast, but all four of these shows, in different ways, reveal and explore human nature. I hope that we will be able to enjoy new comedy classics in the years ahead.

Still paying the Bills (or not)

January 13, 2011

For those readers who were not already following this blog in the autumn of 2008 (and that’s most of you), let me, with your indulgence, first reproduce a post I wrote back then. I should warn you, it is a tragic tale with Shakespearean undertones.

It is a tale about bureaucratic chaos in a utility. It is also (I swear) a true story.

The utility in question supplies me with energy in a property I own (not in Dublin). Some time ago, I noticed that the bills I was getting could not be correct – they were based on an energy consumption which was way above what I was using. Eventually, after reading the meter myself and several phone calls to the utility, they admitted that they had been reading the wrong meter and had been charging me for someone else’s energy use. But they declared themselves unwilling to refund anything: because they had never read the correct meter, they claimed they could not actually tell how much energy we had used, and for all they knew – they said – we could actually have used more than what we were billed for. I pointed out that I was only in the property for a few days every year, whereas the family who lived in the property for whose consumption we had been charged was there full-time.

Well, when on one occasion I explained all this to the very pleasant man (called Bill) in their customer relations department, he assured me he would look after it, and I should for the moment pay no more money until it was sorted out. Reassured by Bill, I did nothing more, and in fact forgot about the whole thing until, a year later, I got a notice telling me I was about to be cut off for non-payment. I immediately rang the company and asked for Bill. I got Bill, but as it turns out, not the same Bill. We’ll call him Bill II. Bill II was very different from Bill I. He was surly, and frankly didn’t believe a word I said, and knew nothing about the promises made by Bill I. He looked at the file and declared it told him that I had been charged for the wrong property, and that I owed the company a considerable amount of money because I had been under-charged. In fact, when I dug a little deeper, it transpired he had come to the conclusion that I had to pay both the money from the wrong property (which I had paid, wrongly) and the charge for my own property. When I protested that this was nonsense, he declared that he was under no obligation to put up with such language and that I was harassing him. He then hung up.

About ten minutes later I got a phone call, and it was Bill I. As he was my friend, we chatted about this and that, his son’s (unsatisfactory) school results and what he might do career-wise, the terrible summer we were having. And then he apologised for Bill II, who had briefed him and who, he confided, was ‘highly strung’. Bill I was helpful as ever. He had no idea why it hadn’t all been resolved, but he would get on to it immediately, and in the meantime I should pay nothing. I made a mental note to send Bill I a Christmas card and a note with some career advice for his son.

However, it turned out that highly strung Bill II had not passed on the baton, for I next got a curt letter from a collection agency, who were going to get my outstanding money from me – which inexplicably had now increased by over €100. I tried to ring Bill I, but was told that there was nobody called Bill in the company’s customer relations department – did I mean William? OK, let’s have William. William (of course called Bill by his friends and customers, therefore Bill III) was someone entirely different, and refreshingly honest. ‘Our way of sending out invoices is total crap’, he offered. He would get this sorted out at once, he knew how to do it. And in just a few days I received a cheque in the post, with a ‘refund’ of a sum I couldn’t recognise at all. It was more than I had ever paid them in the first place (and therefore definitely more than I was due).

I rang and asked for Bill, and got Bill II. Something life-changing had happened to Bill II, because he was now polite and cheerful, and offered the view that I had been badly treated and deserved the refund I had got, and shouldn’t query it. When I showed signs that I would query it, traces of the old Bill II emerged, and he indicated that some customers were never satisfied. He would send me a new bill, but I should cash the refund in the meantime.

The new bill never arrived. In fact, no bill arrived, for ages, new or old. I was (modestly) using energy, and could not imagine what was actually going to happen. Then, back in DCU, I received a letter addressed to my office but not to me – it was to a Mr A. Shindig (name changed slightly to protect the innocent). Nobody here knew anyone by that name, and so the letter had been passed around a bit before anyone decided to check with me. The envelope contained a letter threatening to cut off the energy supply to my property, and Mr Shindig was told in no uncertain terms that he was a vagabond and a rogue for not paying his bills – or rather, for not paying my bills.

So I rang the company. Should I ask for one of the Bills? Yes, I did. I just asked for Bill. And Bill answered. No, no Bill I had ever come across before. It was Bill IV. Bill IV looked into my file, and told me that I owed them a lot of money, and that I was seriously delinquent in not paying up and not even contacting them. I pointed out they were writing to Mr A Shindig, and that was not a sure way of getting me. ‘You have a point’, Bill IV said graciously. Who is Mr A Shindig, I asked. ‘Good question’, Bill answered, ‘I was wondering that myself’. Bill IV has promised to look into all of this, and has advised me not to pay anything, and to ignore the threats from the collection agencies.

So that is where we are now. I spoke to Bill IV three weeks ago, and I have heard nothing since. I am expecting a knock on the door, with court documents for my trial for non-payment. If you do not hear from me again, it will not have gone well. Please call Bill for me.


That was the story in September 2008. Now let me update you. Absolutely nothing happened until the late spring of 2009, and then I got another bill, with a little note inside saying that everything was now correct. The bill claimed that I had a credit balance of quite substantial proportions. At this stage I had lost track of what my position legitimately was, and the prospect of further discussions with one of the Bills didn’t seem as attractive any more, and so I decided I had done enough, that I would accept the credit and get on with the rest of my life. Based on a rough calculation of my actual consumption, I reckoned the new credit balance would see me through for about a year. Bills kept coming during that time, and I glanced at them briefly and forgot about them.

Then, in the summer of last year, it began to dawn on me that, in every bill, the credit balance was growing rather than diminishing, as if they had calculated my consumption and added it to (rather than subtract it from) the credit balance. Shortly afterwards I happened to chat with the man who owns the meter from which I was originally (wrongly) charged. ‘Do you know’, he said, ‘my bill from — plc is routinely about twice what it should be. I almost wonder whether I’m paying for someone else’s use also.’ I said nothing, not a word, but decided I had to get back in touch with Bill. I knew what to do: ring customer relations and ask for Bill. A moment’s wait, and then a lady answered. ‘Are you Bill,’ I asked improbably. ‘No, I’m Sandra.’ – ‘I asked for Bill.’ She paused, and then just said ‘What can I do for you?’ Oh dear, the sequence of Bills has been broken.

Sandra is no Bill. She promised to look into ‘everything’ but, six months later, I hadn’t heard anything. Until this week. I’m away from home just now, but I’ve been told that a letter from the energy company is waiting for me, marked ‘urgent’. Wish me luck.

Last minute presents

December 24, 2010

Well actually, if you haven’t got your presents you may be too late. But if the exact date of delivery does not matter to you, let me follow up a suggestion I made around this time last year that you might like to consider giving your friend or loved one an eccentric book.

Here are three I would particularly recommend:

A Popular History of British Seaweeds (I love the adjective ‘popular’)
A Lust for Window Sills (come on, admit it)
How to Teach Physics to your Dog (well, I’m an academic and I have a dog: must be useful…)

Happy giving!

Right on the ball

December 24, 2010

It’s good that people keep up with the news.

Overheard in Dublin yesterday. Three people were standing on the side of the road with placards reading ‘Beep for Gaza’. Two young men were walking past this little protest, and I was behind them. After they had moved on a few yards, this exchange took place.

Young man #1: ‘I wonder what that’s all about.’
Young man #2: ‘Maybe he’s going to be the Ireland manager?’

My sad fate?

December 6, 2010

Sometimes you can learn things about yourself in emails. Here’s one I received today:

‘Pardon me for not having the pleasure of knowing your mindset before making you this offer and it is utterly confidential and genuine by virtue of its nature.

I write to solicit your assistance in a funds transfer  deal involving US$ 1M.This fund has been stashed out of the money desposited here by formerly respected international figure Ferdinand von Prondzynski, a leading academic now sadly in mental decline. He lodged the sum, which is the value  of his family property, in the Industrial and Commercial Bank which I am the manager. He has no heirs.

I  have already submitted an approved end of the year report for the year 2006 to my head office here in … and they will never know of this sum.

I have since then, placed this amount on a Non-Investment Account without a beneficiary. Upon your response, I will configure your name on our database as holder of the Non-Investment Account.

I will then guide you on how to apply to my head office for the Account Closure/ bank-to-bank remittance of the funds to your designated bank account.

If you concur with this proposal, I intend for you to retain 30% of the funds while 70% shall be for me. Kindly forward your response …’

Ah well, the mental decline bit may of course be true. I wish I did have the funds. And to be honest, I am almost flattered that I have made it to this level of fame. At any rate, this bit of spam gave me a good laugh on a freezing Monday morning.

Topical begging

November 25, 2010

Back in the early 1980s, when there was a major famine in Ethiopia and huge efforts were made globally to raise money to support the victims, an Irish journalist reported seeing a young boy begging in central Dublin, shouting ‘Help the starving in Utopia’. I was reminded of that this morning when I saw a man sitting in a doorway with a piece of paper next to a paper cup reading ‘Support my 4-year recovery plan’. I gave him some funding, though it will not have very significantly front-loaded his recovery.

There is of course a serious side to this, as we must now expect to see an increase in the number of those on the streets and homeless, and we must hope that we are able, as a society, to give some protection to those who become completely marginalised. We fail as a community if we are unwilling to address this.