Whisky Over 30 Years – Looking Back

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Slainte, John

by Pat Phipps

These lockdown days have given me time to reflect.

The reflection takes my mind back to the 1990s, the time when I first started to drink single malts.  And I look at how far we (the consumers) and they (the distillers) have come in that thirty years.

I went back to some of my old whisky books from the 90s.  One in particular stood out: “The Single Malt Whisky Companion”, by Helen Arthur. The book goes through the distilleries, and has wonderful pictures of bottlings of the era.

I found that an updated version of the book is still available for on-line purchase.  But going back to my 90s copy, it is fascinating to see that most distilleries have changed not only label styles but frequently also bottle shapes as well – maybe to try and stay ahead of the competition and have Our Product stand out on retailers’ shelves.  There are a few that have bucked this trend, but they are a minority.

One phrase used in the 90s was to define a whisky as “Unaged”.  Today, when a distiller does not wish to declare the age of a whisky, it is known as “No Age Statement” or NAS.

Reading through the book, distillery bottlings of the time were limited in their range of offerings.   However, about 20 years ago things changed.  Today, the offerings of official bottlings can be confusing.  When these are added to the growing range available from independent bottlers, the spectrum of choice is truly delightful!

The Golden Age

The past has been called “The Golden Age of Whisky” for the consumer.  The whisky glut in the early 2000s provided some interesting marketing ploys.  Bruichladdich, for example, had a huge and varied range – of which I had my fair share!  Sadly now, this has been reduced to a core range.

Another was the Ardbeg experiment, with their Path to Peaty Maturity range of Very Young, Still Young, Almost There, and Renaissance.  This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

So, even though the world has given us a greater selection of distilleries to choose from, I still pine for the long-gone great ones I drank.  I wish some of them would come back.  Mind you, some of the replacements are superb, too.

This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

Regional “Style”

Whisky discussions sometimes turn to talk about regional “styles”.

I believe this styling was valid in the past.  However, pretty much regardless of location, a lot of distilleries these days have progressed: to gain market share, they will produce styles from sherried to bourbon to peated: for instance, in a blind tasting I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an Islay and a peated Speyside.

For example, the BenRiach distillery range has drams for almost all tastes.

I recently attended a tasting that brought into stark relief why I think “regionalisation” is not so valid today.

The tasting was titled “Islay whiskies”.

There were the usual seven blind drams.  Six were known and identified whiskies from Islay (notoriously, the home of peated whiskies), with the tasting glass number unknown.  The seventh was a mystery dram – origin and glass number both unknown.

We went through the usual nosing, tasting, commenting and scoring each one.  When the scoring was totalled, the winner was a peaty whisky – an Irish Connemara whiskey.

So much for regional styles!

The Visitor Experience

Another recent improvement for the consumer is the distillery visitor experience.  I noted that, in my 1990s book, a lot of distilleries only allowed visitors either “by appointment only” or not all.

Today’s distilleries want visitors, are glad that people are looking for more information and are interested in the tiniest detail of whisky and production.  Distilleries are building Visitor Experience centres to immerse you in their dark arts – with distillery-only bottlings on sale there to complete the experience!

Because of law changes and advances in technology, small boutique distillery numbers are increasing hugely around the world – and visitors are vital to spread these new brands.  The effort is helped immensely by the World Wide Web – a phenomenon which has also developed exponentially in twenty years.  The increased accessibility to information allows you to learn about your favourite distillery.  In some cases, they provide a “virtual” tour, even if you can’t physically get to the place!

You get to see the grounds, the still houses and, of course, the latest bottlings.

And two fantastic parts of lockdown has been the Facebook dram sessions broadcasts and the Zoom whisky tastings – all in the comfort of your own lounge.

Long Live Progress!

 

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The Price of Fish – Whisky without breaking the bank

Spoiler Alert: this article has got absolutely nothing to do with fish.

And this will probably be the last reference to fish.

However, the article has got quite a bit to do with the price of whisky or whiskey and what you can expect to pay for a palatable drop without breaking the bank.

Think back to the now long-distant memory that was the 2020 Christchurch Dramfest.   Running through the lists of drams in the Dramfest catalogue, there were 321 whiskies on display.  Remember, too, that the lists did not include the “special” bottles that were hidden from view under the tables.

There were 321 drams listed in the catalogue.  120 were priced at under NZ$100 a bottle.  That’s 37% of the offerings.

And, for those who elected to sample a dram or twelve at the event, quite a few of that 120 were very nice whiskies indeed.

From my own experiences, I include (in no particular order):

    • the Loch Lomond Single Grain 46% (NZ$57),
    • the Glen Scotia Double Cask (NZ$83),
    • four of the Wemyss offerings (Flaming Feast, Hive Batch Strength, Spice King Batch Strength, and Blooming Gorse. ABV ranging from 46 to 58%, price NZ$90 to 97), and
    • Teeling Stout Cask 46% (NZ$89)

Outside the delightful Dramfest selection, I have also recently either tasted or come into possession of these interesting items:

    • The South African Bain’s Single Grain 43% at NZ$43 a bottle,
    • Stoke IPA – tasting report in my Christmas Cheer blog. The IPA is cask-strength 59%, Pinot Noir-matured, coming from McCashin’s Brewery out of Nelson.
    • West Cork, an Irish distillery producing Irish single malts and blends ranging up to 62% ABV.  The most expensive available in NZ is a selection of quite nice 12yos (your pick of Port Cask, Rum Cask, or Sherry Cask), each for the massive output of NZ$74.99.

I decided to do some remarkably amateur on-line research to see if my theory about whiskies that don’t break the bank could stand scrutiny.

I picked the websites of two retail outlets.  Shop 1 is a predominantly whisky-oriented one, Shop 2 could be regarded as more alcoholically generalist (although it does keep some pretty good stuff to select from).

In my search parameters I selected “whisky” (all types, including those with an “e”) and sorted them by price.  I was not interested in pricing miniatures or other small bottles, so I ignored bottles that contained less than 700ml.

Shop 1 had 182 offerings that were priced at less than NZ$100, Shop 2 had 59.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that there would be some double-ups on the two lists.  My research was not of rocket scientist quality – sadly not even a Guy Fawkes day one!

It was certainly not scientific enough to remove drams that both shops offered.  But, assuming a 10% “overlap”, that is still more than 210 whiskies to get into!

A lot of the offerings came from “big” distilleries, names that are well known and talked about in reverent tones.  A lot of them are standard bottlings – 10- or 12-year olds, varietals that have been around for a while and not to be ignored.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out all your $200-$300 (or more!) sherry bombs, your esoteric orange-flavoured Amrut, your careful husbanded Batch 35 A’bunadh or your entire Glendronach collection.

As a part of running this website, there is a lot of tasting to be tasted.   I have sampled some whiskies that were good, some not so good, and some absolutely spectacular!

But the more I get involved in the world of whiskies, the more I understand that whisky selection, taste, and choice is an exceptionally personal thing.  What I have found personally is that sometimes I would just like to relax with a whisky, rather than to be challenged by it.

So, there are two stalwarts in my cupboard.  A bottle of Jamieson’s Irish Blend, and a bottle of Glen Grant’s Major’s Reserve.  On the nights when I just want to sit in front of a good TV programme with a relaxing dram, one of these two is a perfectly admirable companion for the evening.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out your sherry bombs or your entire Glendronach collection. 

I came across a quote recently in Ian Buxton’s 4th edition of his book “101 Whiskies to try before you die” [i].   In the introduction, he says “… you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find really great or interesting whiskies.”[i]

I totally agree.

As a side note, if you are thinking of chucking your Glendronach collection please let me know about an hour or so in advance and I’ll be around with a big box to help you.

Happily.

[i] “101 Whiskies to try before you die”, 4th edition, Ian Buxton. Headline Publishing Group, London, 2019

Covid-19 – No Laughing Matter

I’m not the first person to make this observation, but isn’t it weird how the whole world can turn so upside down in such a short time?

Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest and the tasting of whiskies from around the world.  Two-metre separation was impossible – in most parts of the venue, two centimetres was challenging!

Now the world has locked us into our homes for at least the next four weeks, hopefully with someone we want to be locked in with.

And I’m not even allowed to go around to my brother-in-law’s to help him drink his whisky.

“Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded       together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest”

At the start of lockdown, liquor stores were deemed “non-essential” and forced to close.  Sanity has fortunately prevailed and stores are now available again for on-line, “contactless” purchases.

The whole situation is quite typical of the fast-moving nature of this crisis.  And it is a crisis, even before the liquor stores got shut!

Things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep pace.

I type a really good, fact-perfect, totally insightful sentence.  Then somebody changes something that turns the whole thing into a mockery.  For example, I wrote eloquently about how we could only get our nerve-relaxants from the wine section at the supermarket.  I waxed lyrical about the UK supermarket shelves that stock up-market whiskies.

And what happens?  The Authorities go and allow the liquor stores to open on-line and whole paragraphs have to be consigned to the rubbish tin!

Have some consideration, guys!

One major concern on the alcohol front, though, is that re-cycling in my city has been temporarily halted.  Which means the empties won’t be collected.

Perhaps we could start building a bottle-house with them.  That would fill several gaps – a project to do (pastime), save the re-cycling (conservation), and a new garden shed (utilitarian).

But there are some parts of this New Order which have no humour at all.

The rate and speed of infection spread and the death tolls are horrendous.

The decisions and public pronouncements of some of the world’s “leaders” border on the insane – no names, just think Orange (my last political comment).

The choices of some people to consider that lockdown does not apply to them displays a breath-taking depth of self-entitlement.  And a lot of other similar words, with adjectives.

“Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate    oxymoron, has become the standard state. ”

However, against that dark background the human condition emerges and lightens the darkness with intense and poignant humour.  Witness:

  • The Youtube video of Jennifer taking her laptop into the toilet during a staff video meeting – forgetting that the camera was still rolling all the while. The looks on her colleagues’ faces was enough!
  • The fake-news item from 2050 which reads “.. and Thomas has just opened the last toilet roll that his parents purchased in 2020”.
  • People reacting classical artworks by playing dressing-ups in their homes.

The communication systems available now have made things possible that could not have happened even thirty years ago.

  • A group of whisky friends have been having email discussions. The chat is enlightening and confirms that tastes in whisky are enormously personal!
  • At 10am last Sunday (International Whisky Day) I Facebooked into a live-video Master Class being broadcast from Bunnahabbhain on Islay. The London Whisky Live had been canned so Derek Scott, Bunnahabbain Brand Director, ran their stand from his living room complete with open fire and Mac the Labrador.   And while the broadcast was going out live to the world, someone from NZ wrote in to say what kind of whisky they were having with their breakfast.  I love that!
  • There are family gatherings on Zoom or Skype, bringing people together virtually. That kind of gathering would normally only be at a wedding or funeral and, sadly, usually the latter!  My sister talked about Skype-reading a book in Dunedin to her five-year-old grandson in Vancouver.  Nice!

Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate oxymoron, has become the standard state.  And is proving every bit as effective as sitting in an office in the centre of the city.  The 10-minute quiz get-together that used to be held around the morning tea table is now a slightly voyeuristic Skype peep into your colleagues’ homes (or at least that section of it that can be seen in the background of a slightly grainy video picture).

Closing thought

And here is a closing thought for you.  I’ve just been reading about some lovely whiskies that are available as “travel retail only” in exotic airports.

Considering it likely that air travel in the new, post-COVID world will be severely curtailed (and undoubtedly unattractive, too) what will happen to those drams?  Unsold at duty-free, are they likely to start turning up for on-line ordering?

I can only hope!

The Edinburgh Whisky Academy – knowing your Quercus Alba from your elbow

I PASSED!! 

YAY, I PASSED!!!

BRILLIANT!

That’s the first exam I’ve passed for 30 years!

It’s also the first exam I’ve sat in 30 years.  To quote baseball statisticians, I’m Batting a Hundred.

One of the “things” my generation (the Boomers) was taught was not to be boastful.  Hide your light under the biblical bushel.  “Pride cometh before a fall” and congratulations should come to you from others, rather than from within.

Which is all very fine and dandy if others know that you’ve done it.  They don’t, but I do!

In the last 15 years I have spent a lot of my time on whisky – looking at it, reading about it, tasting it, writing about it and even, on occasions, drinking it.

I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I knew a little bit about whisky.  The difference between a single malt and a blend, between sherried and peated, between a Bowmore and an Auchentoshen.  I know that this whisky will taste different to that whisky, sometimes just a bit and sometimes a whole lot.

I’ve listened to learned people talk about whisky, people whose opinion I respect.

I’ve been on distillery tours and visited visitor centres: I have the souvenir caps, etched glasses, and tee-shirts to prove it.

And I did have some samples of their whiskies as well, but those seem to have mysteriously disappeared.

However, when all is said and done, I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I know a good drop when I taste one, but when I’ve finished the bottle it goes out in the recycling without too much thought as to how the genie got into it in the first place.

It may sound pretentious or big-headed but, as I mature in the world of whisky, I would like to be taken seriously.  But it was growing on me that the more I got “into” whisky, the less I really knew about it.

Thought process:

  • How did the genie get into the bottle?
  • Why can one whisky taste so utterly different from another whisky?
  • Who invented the stuff in the first place? (the ‘Why” is pretty self-evident!)

Enter the Edinburgh Whisky Academy.

The Academy has been on my radar for a couple of years as an interesting learning centre.  Their cause is helped by testimonial from the respected Charles MacLean.

The first thing I saw was a course entitled Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky.

Now there’s an interesting idea – get a diploma for doing what I’ve been doing for 15 years!

Realistically though (and sadly), flitting over to Edinburgh for a one-day whisky tasting is not in the budget (yet), regardless of how esoteric the drams may be.

So let’s see what else is available.

There’s a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky.  That sounds fun!  Two-day course, including a private distillery tour, a breakfast of bacon rolls, classes on the sensory aspects of whisky (look, nose, taste) and a formal assessment.  The course requires me to go to Edinburgh, too.  Sad Face.

An Introduction to Whisky Certificate (On-line).  Now that sounds more like me!

It is certified by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA), so it’s obviously got some cred.  And it’s an on-line course, so I can do it from the comfort of my own laptop.

The Academy’s website http://www.edinburghwhiskyacademy.com tells me that is a “fun … on-line course exploring the fundamentals of whisky”.

It goes on to say that the course covers whisky from history, business and raw materials to production and maturation.

Well, having just passed it, I can confirm that it certainly does all that.  And then some!

I have learned in-depth things about stuff I knew just a little about (worts, the mash tun, the rules around minimum ABV and age statements), enlarged on condensers and how they work (stuff that I dimly remember picking up by osmosis in college days in those brief periods between chasing girls), and got introduced to things I never knew existed (the 1784 Wash Act and the Illicit Distillation Act of 1822, Analysers and Rectifiers).

Worts and Mash Tuns and Lyne Arms are not just words anymore.  They have meaning in themselves now.  I know where they fit into the process and what effect they have on the outcome of production.

And, while it may not be feasible to go to Edinburgh for the tasting course, the things the Introduction Course has given me on the effects of cask and reflux and malt and grain and blending are already having a big impact on my nosing and tasting of whiskies.

The cost of the on-line course is 120 British quid (about NZ$200) and finishes with a self-assessment module.  There is another 80 quid if you want to sit the official SQA Certificate.

And there is also the Time investment.  I didn’t have the stopwatch going but I would estimate my time at around 15 hours (I was hand-writing copious notes as I went).

But whatever time it took I certainly do not regret one second of it!

Would I recommend the course to you?  Whole-heartedly, especially if you’re like me and know just enough to be dangerous.

Would I do it again?  No, I don’t need to.

I PASSED!

Would I go on any of the other courses?  If the opportunity presented itself, stand out of the way!!!!

PS: after I wrote this article I was looking through an old Whisky Magazine.  I came across an article on charring.

In the past, I would have turned the page over quickly, thinking “that’s too esoteric for me”.

Not now.  I stopped and read it.  And understood it!

The Joy of Packaging

The rise and fall of the Salted Cashew

There they sat.

Arrayed in their colourful red and yellow, consumer-attracting, heat -sealed plastic bag.

A hole has been punched in the geographic centre of the top so it can be hung on the little hook on the display just to the right of the bar.  Convenient.

Very “Point Of Sale”.

All mouth-wateringly salty looking.

Who can resist roasted salted cashews?

The table has a sticky quality.   Drink has seemingly not made it from glass to mouth, and the table top has missed the attention of a clean wiping rag for some time.

Possibly days.

There is a similar stickiness to the carpet – the underfoot feeling leaves the sensation that there is something amiss with the soles of my shoes.  A feeling that  reinforces the distrust of the cleaning regime.

I sat at the sticky-topped table, clutching my unopened bag of cashews in eager anticipation.  Just pull apart the heat-sealed flange at the top of the bag and cashew heaven would be mine!

I am astounded by just how far unsupervised cashews can travel when that heat-sealed top releases abruptly!   A veritable fountain of cashews!  Up in the air.  Onto the floor.  Over both shoulders, to every point of the known compass, and beyond.

In the interests of at least getting some cashews from this debacle, I deemed that the ones that landed in my lap were edible, those that finished on the sticky table met the two second rule – at a stretch.

The ones in my drink were not improved by the experience.  And neither was the drink.

Those that finished on the carpet – sadly the vast majority of the bag’s contents – were definitely no longer for consumption.  Even if I had the inclination to release them from the sticky fluffy matt that now adhered to them.

I didn’t.

The art of destructive packaging

Destructive Packaging has been defined as the modern phenomenon that actively prevents access to the product it contains.  Sadly, we encounter it daily.

Because it seems that these days the packaging is more important than the product it contains.

And if by some miracle you do achieve access, the price of admission is the destruction of the product in the process.  Or possibly the physical and mental well-being of the person attempting to gain access.

Examples of particular “hates”:

Lift and tear tabs that lift and tear the skin on your finger, leave a serious indent around your finger but leave the tin’s contents gleefully intact.

Gleeful ‘Peel here” labels that come away in your hand but don’t free up anything else useful; the lid, for instance.

Plastic wrapping on magazines that defies entry without ripping the magazine in the process.  And to stop people from using the magazine shop as a de facto reading library on wet days. The same wrapping is also emerging as a way to entomb fresh bread.

Glued down foil tops on bottles of pills.  So well glued down that it finally comes away with such suddenness and explosive power that the contents are scattered to the four winds.  The foil layer is, of course, considerately hidden under a perfectly serviceable screw cap – which in turn is secured by an untearable plastic halo arrangement.  Surprise!!!

Seals on bottles of shampoo, fiendishly hidden underneath the jovial flip-top lid.  Seals that you don’t discover until you are under the shower.  With wet slippery fingers and without your glasses. And you don’t even know the little seal is there until you have finished tearing out he last of your locks wondering why the shampoo won’t damn-well come out!

Labels and price tickets attached to clothing by nylon “arrows” that have been neatly fired through the most unforgiving part of the product and require scissors to remove.  Or the labels are sewn on so tightly that removing them risks cutting the fabric.

Plastic milk bottles where twisting the cap is intended to free it from the little ring bit – but doesn’t, and you have to resort to knife or scissors to get at the milk.

The plastic wrapping that surrounds multi packs of toilet rolls or kitchen paper towels.

A questions: why do batteries need to be in plastic inside plastic inside cardboard?

Battery packaging is quite superb.  The product is presented in beautifully windowed, cheerful cardboard.  The semi-perforated panel on the reverse side of the cardboard is intended for the purchaser to push firmly and batteries will be revealed.

Two thoughts:

1  the panel is not discernible to the naked eye, and

2  the levering action with a sharp implement is a very dangerous manoeuvre that should not be undertaken by other than the very experienced unpackager. Or the very desperate!

Once upon a long time ago, the most challenging item to open was a bottle of champagne.

Can we go back there, please!

Aging Gracefully

Did you ever wonder why they stopped printing phone books? 

I have identified two reasons. 

Firstly, even “el cheapo” cell phones have facility to load the contact details of your favourite people into them. 

Secondly, the only people who have landlines these days haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of reading the print in a phone book!

So why bother to print the book.

QED.

Somebody said that getting old is not for the faint-hearted. 

Sadly, aging isn’t a voluntary process.  Nor a reversible one – despite what the cosmetic, gymnasium, or plastic surgery industries would have us believe.

Age sneaks up like a thief in the night and resoundingly kneecaps you when you’re not watching.

Sure, you can stave aging off for a while if you’re determined.  A healthy life style, gobbling down handfuls of vitamin tablets, or heading off to the gym encased (entombed?) in lurid pick or green hi-viz lycra tight enough to display all your indiscretions. 

But if you don’t take aging too seriously it is a condition that can provide its own humour, albeit slightly black and perverse.  In fact, if you’re not into gymnasia or facelifts, humour is the thing that will do you the best.

And it’s free!

I used to worry about eyesight, but I don’t see it as a problem now.  How can I, when everything I look at today is so small and fuzzy on the edges? 

Hearing, too, is a looming issue. Conversation and television programmes today come filtered through a winter-weight woolen sock.  I did think for a while that I could overcome hearing-loss by learning to lip read – right up until the eyesight started to blur.

But aging allowed me to discover other stuff.

It started off being small stuff, like a reduction in available trouser belt holes.  Or an increase in the distance between button and button hole. 

But now the stuff is getting bigger and more important.

For a start, my feet used to be so much closer to my hands – the act of putting on socks or shoes never used to be a challenge.  Or taking the socks and shoes off, either, if it comes to that.

But it seems age has either made my legs longer or my arms shorter.  Either way, it has happened without my being consulted.

Birthdays that are a major in the aging stakes. 

When you were young, your birthday seemed to come around maybe every two or three years.

Now the next birthday has arrived almost before the smoke detector has stopped going off from the candles of the last one!

And all the numbers seem to end with a five or a zero and a requirement to re-sit your driving licence.

Gravity, though not in itself part of the aging process, is another experience with which I have issues. 

Gravity has such wide-ranging effects.  On everything. 

Once upon a time, if you dropped something, your quick reactions allowed you to catch it on its way down.  Or you just bent over, picked it up without a second thought and moved on. 

Now reaction time is such that whatever dropped is on the floor before you even realise that it has left your grasp.  Unless, of course, there is somewhere even more inconvenient it can drop that is lower than the floor – such as over a bank. 

The only things that don’t fall to the floor are the things that it would have been better if they had.  Cooked egg of any type, tomato soup, ice cream (particularly boysenberry or chocolate flavoured), coffee dribbles, jam or anything else of a liquidy form.  All will only go down as far as your shirt front.  Or a really dark place under something that you can’t reach without getting on hands and knees. 

Or, worse still, your trouser front.

And gravity not only affects things you were holding.  It also affects hair. 

I used to have hair on my head.  I still have some there, but gravity has taken a lot of it further south to my ears and shoulders.

And my back.

There used to be a clear demarcation line between neck hair and chest hair.  But now – as is the case with so many things – the line has become blurred, and where to stop shaving has become a threat to sanity.

And I really don’t want to discuss nasal hair. 

Do I stop at the line of my shirt collar?  Or do I just keep on mowing south until I reach somewhere hairless?  Which may possibly mean I finish up shaving at the end of my toes.

My wife lovingly offered to help me with that.  She was holding a pair of malevolently sharp bathroom scissors at the time, which made me just a little uneasy. 

As she brought the scissors towards my nervously twitching nostril she got the giggles, making her hand shake alarmingly. 

Health and safety (mine) made it judicious to separate her carefully from the scissors and resolve not to mention nasal hair again in her presence!

I don’t need to have a plain English contract, thank you.  I will be quite content with the big print one! 

Customer Service – or not.

“Your call is important to us.”

“The next available customer service representative will be with you shortly.”

“We are experiencing higher than normal demand at the moment. Please stay on the line to preserve your place in the queue.  Calls may be recorded for staff training purposes.”

“If you are calling about this, press 1 now.  If you are calling about that, press 2 now.  If you are calling about the other, press 148 now.  Or stay on the line to speak to an operator.  Your call is important to us.”.

Yeah, right.

We have all encountered the abomination that is the automated telephone system at some stage, together with their assorted sycophantic variants too numerous to regurgitate.

No matter the actual words that are being talked at you, the translation for all of the variants is:

“Your call is an interruption to our day of navel contemplation and we wish you hadn’t bothered to call.  However, seeing you’re here, if you know the extension of the person you wish to speak to, please dial it now.  If you don’t, we will strive to irritate you for as long as possible by reciting this incredibly long list of options you can press now to be diverted to another automated answerphone system in a parallel universe.  Then, while you watch your life, your phone battery, and your will to live all ebb away,  we will insult your intelligence, the last vestiges of your sanity and self-worth with the most outrageously cacophonous music played by a tune-deaf zebra on an out-of-tum harpsichord down the far end of a toilet roll tube. And we will add insult to injury by interspersing it every 40 seconds with advertisements for products and services that you will never have any likelihood or desire to want or need.

“And. in the unlikely event that you do interact, we will gleefully take the opportunity to direct you to a third parallel universe.”

Further translation:

Further translation:

“In the interests of maximising profits for our masters and shareholders, we fired our minimum-wage-paid customer-facing staff and replaced them with this one-off, low-cost car crash of an automated phone system.”

“Our sole living operator is in the toilet / cooking a roast meal / on leave of unspecified duration and will be with you shortly.”

Further translation:

“if you press any button that we have recommended, this whole fool system will collapse in on itself and your call will be sent into a huge astrological black hole from which it will never reappear.”

Now, I understand that paying A Person to sit around reading magazines and waiting for the phone to ring will incur on-going cost.  It makes economic sense to have someone record a whole raft of standard waffle onto a tape that can be used over and over to bamboozle customers, while the someone moves on to pastures new. 

Or, more probably, the unemployment queue.

The pre-recorded message system works well where the transaction does not benefit from consumer feedback; for example, announcing the arrival and departure details of trains at railway stations.  Although that relationship came to grief recently when a power outage stopped the trains but not the announcements – the latter kept cheerfully announcing on, while no actual train action was taking place. 

The result was a whole heap of confusion which took a bit of sorting to get back in synch.

But for the enquiring customer, the whole point of ringing up in the first place was for People Contact: you ask a question, you get an answer. 

It gives a warm fuzzy feeling to have interaction with another human.  You might consider that providing customers with warm fuzzies would be a core building block of service. 

Setting your customer’s teeth on edge with stupid information that has no relevance whatsoever to their needs must be counter-productive. 

Maybe the logic behind it is that all your competitors are doing it to. There is no better service to be got, no matter where they might go.

But I keep coming back to the thought that if my call was that important to you, wouldn’t you have someone there for me to talk to?

Footnote: A friend recently provided a solution of sorts to the horror of the automated pre-recorded message. 

If you raise your voice to just below Screaming and start to loudly recite obscenities, a Person miraculously appears on the other end of the line.  There was one there all the time – they were just hiding!

Try it.  It’s fun!

And I’d love to be there when the recording of that call gets re-played for staff training purposes!

I can giveth, but can I taketh away?

Now, here is a problem that I did not know I had.

I’ve got a whole heap of blood, but I can’t give it away.

I can’t borrow a book from the library.

KiwiSaver will accept my money happily.

But they may not give it back. 

I can’t even borrow a wheelchair in a shopping mall. 

The stumbling block in my life?  The cause of all this grief?  A convicted fraudster?  An undischarged bankrupt?

Far more mundane than that. 

I don’t have photo ID. 

Having photo ID is the modern Holy Grail.  Without photo ID, the list of things that you not able do covers pages.

It was a friend who brought the issue to our attention.  Without giving too much away, she has had a couple of name changes through marriage, owns her own home and grandchildren, has serious professional responsibilities, has held high offices in national organisations and has won national recognition for her efforts.

In short, she is no muppet.

But in her life she never had a passport, a driver’s or firearms licence – the acceptable forms of photo ID.  In order for her to be able to sign official stuff, meet her eight year old grandchild off an aeroplane or collect her pre-paid purchases from the store, she has had to get herself an 18+ card – the same card teenagers use to get themselves into the pub!

Now, I understand that, in the modern environment, protection of one’s identity can be problematic.  But here are some of the things that you cannot do without photo ID.  This is not an exhaustive list, just the more bizarre ones!

You can’t:

– close a bank account or cancel a credit card that has a nil balance,

– get a mortgage or renew a fixed one,

– become a signatory to an organisation’s bank account when you have been elected treasurer, secretary or president,

– change the name on your driver’s licence when you have changed your name through, for example, marriage,  Note: you don’t need photo ID to change your name by marriage, just the one on your driver’s licence,

– buy something on a hire purchase agreement,

– pay your rates bill over the counter at the post office,

– visit a prisoner in jail.  You don’t need photo ID to go to jail, unless of course you’ve been using someone else’s,

– to apply for a driver’s licence you must provide either your photo driver licence (the old one, which can have expired up to two years ago), or your current New Zealand passport, or your current overseas driver licence and current overseas passport, or your New Zealand birth certificate (issued on or after 1 January 1998),a student ID card or an 18+ card,

– to apply for a birth certificate in person

And here is another interesting one that I tripped over recently.  I went into my bank to change a $20 note into two $10 notes.  A very simple transaction, I thought.

Wrong! 

Without going into the conversation too deeply, to complete this meagre transaction required that I produced my bank card and photo ID!

I wish I could say I was joking but I’m not!

The entire interaction to change one bank note took five precious minutes of my life while they checked my ID on the computer, got two $10 notes from the draw, put my $20 note there and signed a piece of paper to say that they had swapped my note for two other notes.

The Ministry of Complication

I have been long convinced that there is an Official Authority somewhere whose sole task it is to ensure that the ends can never meet.  This Authority – let’s call it the Ministry of Complication – works to ensure that, if four criteria are needed to reach an official goal, it is only ever possible to meet three of them.  And in the unlikely event that one does manage to meet the fourth, it will have negated one of the other three. 

The processes for getting a firearms or a new drivers’ licence are very good examples of their work.

Our friend whose problems were the genesis of this Rant inadvertently came up with the superlative version of the Ministry of Complication’s handywork. 

To get her 18+ card, she went to the post office and got the necessary form to complete.  It required a whole lot of stuff, including a witnessed statutory declaration in front of a JP. 

When she took the form back to get her card, she was advised that she had “the old form”.  It had now been replaced with a new form. And they were very sorry but they could no longer accept the old form – so she had to start all over again. Including the statutory declaration bit.

And, to rub salt into an already gaping wound, the fees had gone up!

I hear an uncomfortable rumour that we may soon require photo ID to be born.

The Password

In the 1980s I read that the modern generation would have to know five times as much as their grandparents.   

Thinking back on my grandparents’ life, the statement made sense.  Telephone numbers to remember, learn how to use a wringer washing machine or a pop-up toaster.

And then the universe invented The Password.                                                                                        

Thou shalt not pass.

Once upon a time you only had to remember your own name, like Rumpelstiltskin.

Then whether you had put the 123 before the word Password or after it.  

Then it was the name of your pet or an old girlfriend.  And when you needed to change your password, 123 was changed to 124.

Electronic systems require passwords to be at least 10 characters long, include upper and lower case letters, some numbers, and something called a “Special Character”.  After some trial and error I found out that means one of the +, >, <, } or # keys – who knew?

Password creation is Snakes and Ladders.

Square One: think of a word that makes sense to you.  Not your name or your birthday date or your telephone number.

Square Two: try to write the word in hieroglyphics on the keyboard so it will end up looking like the word you chose but has numbers or symbols replacing letters: for example, replace ‘a’ with @ or ‘e’ with 3. 

Square Three: put in a + or a > or a ? to jazz it up a bit.

All good ­- until the computer system says that you can’t use that one.  It looks too similar to the last one you used and “violates password history”

Back to Square One.

Password Background

Security of information has three identification factors:

  • who you are (your name, your photo or, in extreme cases, your fingerprints),
  • what you know (a password or a PIN number), or
  • what you carry (a key or a swipe card).

Back in the day, any one of these three factors on its own was sufficient for most security purposes.  You had a key to open the door or you had your driver’s licence or your (very simple) password.

Then things went wrong. 

Someone who didn’t have the correct door key turned up with a piece of field artillery and blew the door off.  Or they “hacked” your password (note: using “Password” as a password is a bit obvious, even if you add 123 to it). 

And this is how we got to the hieroglyphic stage I mentioned.

Next Generation

Identification has now gone deeper into Never-Never land. 

Some sadist invented 2FA.

2FA is an acronym for Two Factor Identification. 

(A pedantic side-track: shouldn’t the acronym for Two Factor Identification be 2FI?  Obviously smarter brains than mine ……)

Anyway, the essence of 2FA is that you know your password to the system.  And after that you have to know a code.  But you don’t have to remember the code – it constantly changes and the current one has been sent to your smartphone. 

You open your phone (another password needed here). Then open up the password-protected application that has the number you need.  Then you go back to the system you were originally trying to get into and enter the code that was sent to the phone. 

Of course, this last stage presupposes that the computer hasn’t gone to sleep from boredom while you’ve been away mucking about trying to remember the passwords needed to get the code number off your phone.

If you’ve managed to get all these ducks to line up in single file, Hey Presto!  You’ll be allowed in.

Otherwise, the Snakes and Ladders analogy starts again.

And passwords are like raw meat.  They “go off” after a while.  The system advises that you have ten days to create a new password or you will be shut out of its secrets.  More snakes and ladders while you try to invent a new password that makes some kind of sense to you, doesn’t resemble any other password you’ve used in the last decade, and looks like some ancient Egyptian scholar drew it on the wall.

If you’ve managed to navigate this minefield, how do you keep track of all these passwords pin numbers and user names?  Writing them down on paper is frowned upon – someone might steal it and you will be password-less.

Technology has a solution to this most modern of dilemmas.  You can get a password recorder “app” for your smartphone.  Here you can enter all your passwords in little files that separate your password collection.  Great idea! – now you don’t have to remember that password that you created yesterday to protect your valuable account at the on-line haberdashery shop. 

You just look it up on your phone. 

Brilliant!. Love it!

Spot the drawback? 

You have to create a password to protect the password collection.

To quote Peanuts’ Charlie Brown, “AAARGGGHHHH!”

I don’t know about my grandparents’ knowledge, but I’ve calculated that I have to remember 123 more things than I did even five years ago.

And all of them are passwords.

PS. There is a life saver.  Using swear words for a password is OK, so long as they are suitable encrypted and don’t read the same as real swear words.

A Matter of Death and Life

My family have lost two cousins in the last six weeks.

In an ill-judged attempt to lighten up that opening, the innate (and probably regrettable) humourist in me goes back to the old joke about how losing one can be put down to misfortune, but losing two is starting to seem like carelessness.

Both of the cousins were ladies, one in her late 60s and the other just 65.

For various reasons, I was brought up in fairly close contact with both of them: the first because her family were physically the nearest relatives we had when we were growing up, the second because her family had a large semi-rural property and we spent many an hilarious Christmas holiday staying with them.

Both ladies were individuals with a capital I.

The first, the daughter of my parent’s cousin (someone brighter than me can work out what the official relationship is), was an outspoken lady who told it like it was.  Not in any kind of bad way – you were just left in no doubt where she stood.

The second, the daughter of my father’s sister, was also direct but with one totally unusual feature – in all the 65 years I knew her I never ever heard her say a bad word about anyone.  Ever.  At all.  No matter what the provocation, and believe me she sure had some!

And she also seemed to come with the most amazing boundless energy and tremendous enthusiasm for everything she touched.

Both ladies died extremely suddenly, with no warning of their imminent departure.

We had bumped into the first cousin as we were heading into a local mall on a wet Saturday.  We hadn’t seen her for maybe a couple of years so we took the opportunity for a sit down over a cup of morning coffee and a bite of something that I can’t remember now.

But the great pleasure of seeing her and catching up sticks in my mind.

A few weeks later, she collapsed and died.

The second died a week or so ago as the crow flies.  Some of the family had gathered together at a family event over a long weekend.  We had played garden cricket and quoits, chatted and caught up, than consumed a wine or two and some barbeque and gone our separate ways at the end of it.  As usual, she was the life and soul – chatting brightly with everyone, enthusiastically cricketing, helping with food etc.

Three days later she collapsed and died.

And both of these ladies, for their individual reasons, will be sorely missed by the wider family.

Now I don’t intend this to be a sackcloth and ashes piece about loosing relatives.  It happens, and reportedly no-one gets out alive.

But what I have become acutely aware of is the assumptions we make.

There is an accounting assumption that says that the company being accounted is a “going concern”  that will remain and continue to operate and function as it is now.

Which is fine for companies.

But people may not.

And that is especially true as we age.

You cheerily say to loved ones “see you later” or similar as you part, with the assumption that they will still be there the next time, still going strong, albeit a bit older and greyer or whatever.

But the last six weeks have brought home very clearly that the pleasure of seeing them again may not be the case.

So my recommendation to you is that when someone goes away from you, before you part take the opportunity to give them a big hug.  And let them know just what their existence means to you.