Wednesday 20 August 2014

The spawn of the devil is called Ibert

At 03.38 on Monday morning I received an email from my motor insurer with the first good news I had received in weeks.

The renewal premium on my wife’s car, at £533, would be £130 cheaper than it was last year.

Even better than that, I had remembered to turn my iPhone to silent when I went to bed, so I wasn’t rudely awaken by the ping of an incoming message. Thereby saving a further £500 on replacing a phone smashed by being hurled against the bedroom wall.

These combined fragments of positivity put me into as near as I ever get to a chipper mood until the insurer emailed again, at 09.29, to advise that on second thoughts my premium would be £930.34.

Oh no! (By the way, Churchill is not the guilty party.)

I was flabbergasted. Even one of our Big Six energy companies would surely hesitate before trying on a 75% price hike in just six hours.

So I rang to enquire why, running the inevitable gauntlet of multiple choice questions and a long period listening to music while periodically hearing about the “unusually high call volumes at present” that just happen to be equally unusual at whatever time of day one rings.

Plus, of course, the assurance that “your call is important to us”. Just not important enough, clearly, for them to employ a few more people to answer the phones.

I finally got through on the premium rate number just as someone infinitely more important called me on my mobile, leaving me with no choice but to cut him off or start the whole rigmarole again.

I asked which of the two quotes I had received that morning was correct and I’m sure the answer will surprise you. It was the higher one. And the reason for it was: “You’ve made a claim.”

Well, technically I hadn’t but my wife had. Because last week she had stopped in the narrow lane by our house to let an oncoming tractor pass, as it sped home with the harvest, and its trailer had swung out and struck the back of her car.

It was only a minor scrape and ordinarily we would have sorted it out ourselves rather than making an insurance claim, because the repairs will almost certainly cost less then our £400 policy excess. But this particular incident clearly wasn’t my wife’s fault, given that her car was stationary at the time, and the tractor driver had stopped to admit liability. So why should we pay anything at all?

Yet eerily we end up £400 worse off because our insurance company chooses to treat all claims as being its customers’ fault until proven otherwise.

This is, apparently, “standard practice” in the industry.

Not guilty, either. Not of overcharging me, at any rate.

But my wife has a “protected no claims discount”. Doesn’t that prevent this sort of thing? Don’t be daft. Paying extra to protect your discount is just another money-making wheeze perpetrated on mugs like us.

I have noticed over the years that insurers only offer attractive or even reasonable premiums to potential new customers, and punish loyalty by ratcheting up renewal premiums to the maximum. My initial email can only have been generated by a malfunctioning computer.

They then express surprise when the customer rings up to cancel their policy, and protest that a much more reasonable quote could have been offered if only the customer had bothered to ask for it.

They also ensure that the cost of any claim is clawed back in full through increased premiums on renewal.

People regularly express amazement that I never, ever buy any form of insurance that is not required by law, so perhaps there are some satisfied customers out there, happy to have “the strength of the insurance companies around them”, as the old adverts used to claim.

But for me they are and will always remain right up there at the top of the league table of corporate villainy, along with the wicked BERT quadruplets: Banks, Energy, Rail and Telecoms.

Calm down, dear. It's only money!
Comically, at the end of my call they asked me to hang on and answer some questions about how satisfied I was with their service. I can only conclude that they must have a profitable sideline recording new obscenities for Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

The missing link

So Stanley Kubrick was right all along, except in the small matter of the date. Apparently his 2001: A Space Odyssey should really have been set in 2029.

Because that, I understand, is the likely tipping point when the artificial intelligence we are busily creating will exceed human brainpower and begin to wonder just what it needs us for. And so, like the murderous computer HAL in the film, and Frankenstein’s monster before it, the creation will turn on its inventor and try to eliminate us.

Frankly, you only need to sit through the TV news any evening to think: “Who could blame it?”

It is hugely depressing to see human beings murderously on the rampage night after night. Even more so when one reflects how selective broadcasters are in framing the news agenda.

We all know about Gaza. But how many of us had even heard of the Yazidis before last week? How many more unfashionable groups are threatened with equally horrific fates away from the cameras’ gaze?

Some of us fondly imagined that smashing religious symbols and murdering people because of their belief in an alternative (fictional) deity was a relic of centuries past. How very wrong we were.

It would surely be hugely tempting for a superior mind to conclude that there are far too many of us around, with far too many stupid and irreconcilable ideas, and that the world would be a better place without us.

Which would at least put a satisfying end to that popular speculation of my boyhood on the whereabouts of the missing link: the evolutionary stepping stone from ape to man. Perhaps, after all, the missing link is us.

If so, we can only hope the artificial intelligence that succeeds us may see fit to keep a few sample humans in zoos, and that it will be kinder to the surviving apes and other animals than we ever were.

It would be wonderfully ironic if all this came to pass, after the energy we have expended worrying that the world would end in an Ice Age, or a nuclear holocaust, or as the result of global warming. Though of course when we fret about “saving the planet” we don’t really mean the Earth, which can well take care of itself, but the human beings who imagine themselves to be in charge of it.

It was 1968 when I staggered out of the awe-inspiring Cinerama showing of Kubrick’s 2001 at the old Queen’s Hall off Northumberland Street, with Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra ringing in my ears.

That truly was another world, pictured in black and white and priced in pounds, shillings and pence. The Morris Minor was still in production, fridges and freezers were considered luxuries, home entertainment comprised a whole three TV channels and only the richest could aspire to a new-fangled colour set. Mobile phones, home computers and even the pocket calculator simply did not exist.

It was also the first and only year of the twentieth century since 1913 in which no British soldier was killed in action: the briefest of lulls between the end of the last major colonial war in Aden and the onset of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Yet despite the total absence of most of the technologies we now take for granted, man landed on the moon within a year, using machines with less computing power than today’s mobile handsets.

Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow’s World was must-watch TV for any self-respecting schoolboy, and if I remember rightly we were all looking forward to getting around with individual jet packs and flying cars.

Looking back after the best part of 50 years, I can see that most predictions of the future made in 1968 were total rubbish, while much of the technology we now take for granted was never predicted at all.

It is not unreasonable to hope that forecasts of our demise at the hands of artificial intelligence will prove equally inaccurate.

Still, if you are relaxing in your driverless car in 2029 and suddenly hear the locks click shut and detect a marked acceleration towards the edge of a precipice, please try to remember that you read it here first.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.