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Big and Bad

Banks the world over are scrambling to become larger, according to this interesting survey by The Economist. One reason, writes Robert Cottrell "is the pursuit of economies of scale in areas such as procurement, systems, operations, research and marketing. But the gains from that in the mass production of financial services, though not necessarily illusory, can be elusive."

A case in point: Aftenposten (no) checked out customer service at Norway's biggest bank today. DnB NOR got a decent review; the Aftenposten journalist found them a bit on the slow side, but once he got through to the right person, he found the bank's representative to be pleasant and knowledgeable. Now I've never had an issue with the customer service at this bank, where I've been a customer for more than ten years, but I do have an issue with how Gjensidige NOR has developed since it merged with DnB to become Norway's largest bank. Most notably I have a big issue with how it's now trying to squeeze all of its customers into ready made customer programs which might serve the bank's purposes very well, but is of dubious value to the customer. At a time when consumers have more banking choices than ever (so no need to put up with disagreeable banking experiences), DnB NOR is effectively forcing its customers into a program where the only way to get short term credit is via an expensive Master card you get thrown after you whether you want it or not, and you also end up with a travel insurance which is completely useless if you travel a lot via work and is unable to book your trips with that same Master card. I say 'effectively forcing' because all this and more (like better interests on loans) is yours for a 'small' monthly fee, but to stay outside the program will make banking with DnB NOR ludicrously expensive.

In this way, DnB NOR is rapidly becoming as bad as my English bank by repeating the same errors of costly customer programs, such as NatWest's 'Advantage Gold', and the same incomprehensible slowness in processing payments (and in my book DnB NOR has always compared very favourably to NatWest in the past). Now it seems the tables are turning (I haven't been madly enraged over some stupidity of NatWest's for a long time now, at least a few months, maybe helped by the fact that I closed down my Advantage Gold account and just have a current account there now). For the time being I've chosen to stay with DnB NOR in Norway because I have a very helpful personal consultant there who's known me for years and years, and I have an excellent bank history with them. Perhaps naively, I think that must be worth something – although it seems DnB NOR is moving more and more towards depersonalised systems in which everything is a numbers game and personal track record is worth next to nothing. If that proves the case I'll be better of with internet bank like the much praised Skandia bank, or better still a global bank where I won't need to have one bank for each of the countries I work in.

Note that The Economist concludes its survey with this Catch22 statement: "better banks tend to get bigger, but bigger banks are not necessarily better"

The most Dangerous author in Britain

I was enthralled to read a while back that New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Lord of the Rings triology, has started casting the first part of Phillip Pullman's fabulous trilogy "His Dark Materials". I absolutely loved those books and found it intriguing to see how much Pullman draws on Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the works of William Blake, as I was quite obsessed with those works myself in my early teens.

Peter Hitchens, the conservative British columnist, famously published an article about Pullman entitled “This Is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain”, in which he called him the writer “the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed.” The New Yorker came up with a more informative review in this excellent article: “His Dark Materials” may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists."

I also like Pullman's approach to literature: "Stories never fail us," said Pullman when he won the Carnegie Medal. '"In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. But stories are vital. There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy.

...The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do."

Cultural theory dressed up as journalism

The debate about JMK masquerading a mass media and communications course as journalistic education rages on. While in Stockholm I talked to two friends who both had attended the course and felt somewhat defrauded by the experience: they both signed up to the course to train as journalists, not to spend their hard earned pennies on books on 'cultural theory' which only provided 'training' in Marxist, postmodernist and poststructuralist conspiracy theories.

Welcome to Sweden...

we hope you have a pleasant stay, said the SMS I received from a Swedish mobile phone company the minute I walked off the plane. The only small catch was that the plane I had walked off was from Stockholm to Oslo and I had just returned to Norwegian soil after a few days of work and fun in the Swedish capital. Ah well, the Swedes have no reputation to loose among Norwegians when it comes to brainpower, but they do have a lovely capital ... here's the Orpheus Fountain in front of Stockolm's concert hall, close to the central hotel I stayed at (a four star hotel with NO coffee making facilities in the rooms; how do they expect you to wake up in the morning?):


Academic Journalism

Thought-provoking editorial in Svenska Dagbladet today about how the journalism education at the University of Stockholm, JMK, has developed further and further away from journalistic reality.

Over a period of years, JMK has been made more and more academic, and practical vocational training has gradually been replaced by academic research and ‘studying mass media from a cultural perspective’, Stefan Koskinen of the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association argues.

Succinctly, he asks: ”One is led to wonder if not JMK’s management uses the institution's excellent reputation … to attract ambitious students, who wants to become working journalists, to an education where they become something else entirely”.

This resonates strongly with my experience from the media and communications course I briefly attended at Sussex University some ten years ago (I abandoned the course after five weeks). I already had two years experience in the media when I started the course; it turned out to have very little to do with the reality of media as I knew it and was much too theoretical for my purposes (besides, those ‘academic’ discussions about page three girls; I’d been through those in my early teens while attending Norwegian high school - the academic level the course was taught at was degrading). It’s a scandal of sorts how many Scandinavian students are fooled into spending fortunes on degrees in media studies in England while thinking it will equip them to become journalists, and a much bigger scandal if Stockholm University is turning its journalism school into a mass media and communications school in everything but the name. Journalism is a craft, not an academic discipline and there’s a limit to how many souls can find gainful employment theorising about page three girls.

Life's small and big wonders

This is my third post about my friend H's car crash, but it's a story with an unbelievably happy ending: Despite a totally wrecked car, windows broken, roof torn off, she came away with only a scratch and, even more surprisingly, when the contents of the car arrived at our doorstep yesterday we were amazed to find that not only were her electronic equipment like laptop and camera unharmed, even the bottle of wine survived the crash with the mountain wall. The only thing missing is Casanova the cat, who escaped right after the accident.

Is it possible to be so lucky? It really makes you appreciate the great and small wonders of life. I learned of the car crash while I was at the airport, about to take off for Liverpool, and was travelling and working all week while trying to keep up with H's health and be supportive to her and her family. At the end of that week I felt like a wreck, but throughout it I found comfort in life's many small wonders like feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, strolling in the park, watching amazing birdlife (such as this endearing family of swans) and the company of good friends. Amazing how such small things can make such a huge difference in times of upheaval.

Isle of the dead

Sefton Park, Liverpool

I took this picture in Sefton Park, Liverpool, as the scenery reminded me eerily of Arnold Böcklin's painting "The Island of the Dead" (1880) which I've always had a special relationship to after it was pointed out to me by someone who thought it would be exactly the kind of painting I would like. It's something dark and disturbing about Böcklin's painting, but it is also beautiful and it touches something in me I haven't quite found the words to identify. Why this focus on dark sentiments? Well, I captured this scenery from Sefton Park the day after my flatmate H had told me of her car crash and close encounter with death (see my previous blog post).

"The Island of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin

A Close Encounter (and the tyranny of arbitrary health care)

A close friend just drove into a mountain wall. The car was totally wrecked while she miraculously survived with only a small cut in her arm and the shock of a near death experience.

For now, this strong independent woman, at a time when she is weaker and more dependent than she would ever have cared to be, is left in the care, or should I say at the mercy, of the ARBITRARY Norwegian public health service. An ARBITRARY health service where life and death is a matter of which doctor is on guard, which staff on duty and which hospital department you are fortunate or unfortunate enough to be assigned to.

As a trained journalist I don't make such claims lightly. I've seen enough evidence to know that this is indeed the unfortunate state of public Norwegian health care: I've heard enough hospital staff talk about it with despair, frustration and even a degree of resigned cynicism - all of them reluctant to go on the record for fear of losing their jobs. I also know that upright Norwegian health professionals regularly get into trouble for raising concern over the quality and consistency of the system they work in.

Of course, bringing in my profession begs the question, am I biased? Yes, I am VERY biased. Aged 17 I was admitted to a Norwegian hospital after a serious car accident which nearly killed me and suffered a catalogue of maltreatments and condenscending behaviour no one should have to suffer in a situation where they are dependent on professional help.

Not being person prone to suffer injustice lightly, I voiced my experiences in the local media with the result that I was inundated with calls from people who had suffered similar experiences, including a couple who claimed to have lost their kid to hospital maltreatment. In the 12 years since I have heard and seen similar stories again and again and will readily admit that I fear for any friend or relative put into Norwegian hospitals with serious ailments. 12 years on Norwegian public health care is still ruled by the tyranny of arbitrariness, or suffering from "insufficient quality assurance" as the political jargon goes.

So my friend now hospitalised after her car crash risks experiencing the same lack of manners; wards that are understaffed and overworked and health professionals making fundamental misjudgements for lack of time, proper routines or sheer negligence and incompetence as I did 12 years ago: making you feel as the imbecile, disempowered charge of a hospital for the retarded in the former Soviet Union. Or she might meet some really nice people who try to do their best despite the system they are confined to work in. The problem is that either outcome is likely.

Am I the only person who thinks this is unacceptable? Well I hope not. I'm pretty sure I'm not. Then why, 12 years on is this still the case? Isn't anything better possible? I actually know that it is. I had this amazing experience when I was forced to operate my knees at Hampstead Royal Free in London two years back. Now I'm not saying that NHS is beyond reproach, it might be just as arbitrary a system as the Norwegian one, but still: even though it was not as modern as many Norwegian hospitals, and they were clearly understaffed: all the staff introduced themselves and explained how they were going to treat me, and why, and made me feel safe, well-informed and well taken care of . Such small things, but so important when they have your life and health in their hands. After all, your life is the most valuable thing you have.