Another Multiverse

I can remember from quite young being aware of my world and The Other – the mysterious world that went on without me when I was at school, or the one beyond the hills that I got to visit sometimes, and the world that surrounded me:  the natural world of small things – a caterpillar in the hedge,  birds on the roof – that lived parallel to and largely unconcerned by mine.

Today,  I was sat out on the bench with a  cup of tea, calming down after trying to garden in the heat and contemplating the shades of green around me. A thread of gossamer caught the sunlight as it twisted and drifted across the lawn, rising and falling in the light breeze.

So while in my world the garden was a space for calm, at the same time in an Other world one small spider was taking the adventure of a lifetime, launching  itself into flight on its own long thread,  at the mercy of the air and winds,  exposed to the risk of being eaten by a passing bird, all in the hope of a new home and a better life.

Never assume yours is the only valid view of a situation.

 

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How did we get here?

I don’t blame those who voted to leave the EU, nor think they are stupid or deluded. I voted to stay, but I can understand, I think,  what drove people to Leave. I also think I  can guess where the Remain campaign went fundamentally wrong and why it was inevitable that it did.

The choice of In or Out is at gut level a choice between individuality and co-operation. If you believe working together is in principle the best way to approach things, that the more people involved the more likely you are to get a good result,  if you like the security of being part of something then you probably voted In.

If you think you are the person to decide any issues in your life, that your  family is primarily your responsiblity, that you are in charge of getting on in life and deserve to be rewarded for it  – then you probably voted Out. Especially if you feel your voice isn’t being heard, that you are not being rewarded and life is harder than it should be. That you play by the rules and others don’t.

This isn’t the same as introversion/extroversion  – you can be someone who is uncomfortable in crowds but still happy to co-operate. It’s even possible to have feet in both camps, as many found while trying to decide how to vote. And as I have found it is possible to be at heart  one and learn to open up to the other.

The trouble is both sides campaigned solely on an individualist platform. They either appealed to “take back control” or warned of  the dire fate that awaited you and yours if you voted to leave.   There was very little coverage of how the EU works, what it does for us, what positive reasons there might be to stay. There was little, in effect to appeal to the co-operative  – those most likely to vote In. Do you know how much EU money came into your region this year?  I rest my case.

The reason for this, I believe, is that for many years, most of our politics from all main parties has fostered individualism.  When I turned 21 in 1977 I was a part-owner of trains, buses, water, gas, parks, roads, schools, hospitals, museums, art galleries, libraries and lots of houses. I held these in common. Life was by no means ideal, but we shopped at the co-op, which was owned by its members, and belonged to trade unions, which flawed as they were tried to unite workers for their benefit.

Nearly 40 years later many of these are owned by individuals,  private for-profit companies, opaque undemocratic trusts or are leased from firms at great expense under PPI. I feel excluded. I’ve lost a sense of common endeavour. I no longer share transport but fasten my family safely ito my own private little bubble.   I must own my house if I want to be secure.  The free market solves all our problems and we are free to buy as we choose for ourselves, be it homes or education. We aspire to own things – cars, houses, stuff  – to show our individuality and power (and the economy depends on it).  And the thing we own most of all is debt.

Add to this mix the loss of industry, the deliberate savaging of jobs in the name of the economy to make the workforce more compliant, the reduction in skills and opportunities and it really isn’t surprised people feel hard done by. Then pile on the widening gap between haves and have-nots,  obscene salaries at one end, zero-hours contracts and food-banks at the other. Stir in a large dollop of disregard as successive governments assume certain areas and people don’t warrant their attention  — the young and the poor who don’t vote, the run-down areas that you have no answers for and who will turn out reliably to vote for you  or the other side anyway.   Add  massive underinvestment  in new houses, education, law and welfare, done to unsettle the power of professions and prepare more areas to be sold for profit to the maw of the free market. Finally throw in tabloid papers  repeating stories  of crime, benefits cheats and the effect of immigrants to add fear and a target to the feelings of impotent rage and there is little surprise that people assume the worst. For the downside of the Out-mindset is that it can topple over from due and responsible  regard for those close to you into tribalism, a  distrust the Other whoever they are, to be ready to  vent jealousy and most of all to believe anything adverse about those Other. This leaves people’s anger exposed to exploitation by any politician or  business-person with less than spotless moral outlook.

It was  very clever to go  for the simple tag “Take back control” and aim it at those who feel life is the opposite – the dispossessed, the elderly with failing health at the mercy of an understaffed care service. Individual is very close to Alone.  But just trying to counter the  misleading stats with facts   was never going to work. But the current generation of politicians is largely too young to remember life before it all became divide and conquer. They don’t know how to do co-operation – look at the fiasco of the London mayoral election.   All the bare facts and shock tactics they threw at the referendum merely  reinforced people’s  sense of being alone with no one to trust,  the need for self reliance in the face of an impossible situation – the need to vote Out.

I fear it won’t take long for the bitter truth to dawn that control is being taken back only by another set of would-be masters, and the man in the back street will be relegated once more to be at best out of sight, at worst cannonfodder for the  manouverings of his politicians.  Unless we can seize the chance to change. We urgently need to equalise society and to do that we need to abandon the excesses of the free-market philosphy. If we use the move out of the EU to do that we could still wrest something positive out of this. We also need to learn to genuinely value each other, all of us not just the flash few.

If not – I’m old enough to remember the 70s:  the winter of discontent, the IRA, the BNP, the fear of crowds of skinheads on the street as you walked home from school. With the rise of the far right across Europe I wonder what will happen then?

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the 1930s

“The loss of  production [in major industries] caused a fall in production elsewhere and unemployment rose from 2% to 23%.  ….. Prices rose out of control as tax revenues collapsed and the government financed its activities through the printing of money. The rise in prices hit the middle classes and those on fixed incomes very hard. Those who had saved money found their savings were worthless”  www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/weimar.htm

Germany in the 1930s or Britain in next 5 years?

Without trying to deepen my gloom  we all know where that led last time.   I’m sure Boris sees himself as a second Churchill, but this is a hell of a way to try and prove it.  And  I’m not sure that’s the role I’d cast him in.

Do you really think that a group led by Boris, Gove and Farage-the-Stockbroker give a shit about working people? If you do just consider their record so far:

Boris Johnson, a man of such self-serving Attention Deficit Disorder that he has affairs rather than concentrate on his marriage and who gives up on the people of London while still Mayor, to become an MP because it places him better to go for leadership  of the Conservatives. A man, one suspects, whose ego enters the room before he does.

Michael Gove, who brought so much to the English education system. Mainly strife, worry, and the dead hand of a curriculum that drains the life out of our children. And also makes sure they probably know little about the Wiemar republic other than Proportional Voting is a Bad Thing (if you don’t believe me google the bbc pass notes) A man who wants all schools to be like grammar schools and who speeded up the donation of our schools to private companies.

And of course Nigel – the man who tweeted his disgust when the EU voted to raise maternity pay. The man who could stand in front of a poster of Syrian refugees fleeing a war zone and use it to persuade people that there were too many EU citizens in the UK. The anti-EU man who as an MEP earned £Ks out of the EU.  Not that I suspect Nigel will get a look in once the others get going. Too much of a liability now he’s served his purpose. Ironically as an MEP he’s also just made himself unemployed. #Silverlining.

A group supported daily in his papers by  Rupert Murdoch, a man who happily changes nationality  to make more money, and  who is apparently on record  boasting he can influence Downing Street but Brussels takes no notice of him. No surprise he wants us out then.  Be afraid BBC, be very afraid.

What about the Dunkirk spirit I hear you cry – the plucky individual against the odds, in charge of our own destiny?  Firstly let’s remember Dunkirk was a defeat. We won when we went into Europe, not backed out.

I suspect we’ll hear a lot about plucky individualism over the next few  years.  Especially the plucky individual that stands alone and doesn’t expect any state benefits, health service, pension, rights at work etc. etc. etc.    How far as a plucky individual have you ever got fighting Amazon over an order problem? Or getting Google or Facebook to do anything at all? Why do we think Britain will get its voice heard let alone get  better trade deals than a market 10 times our size?  Over 100 yers ago our forebears knew better and invented co-operatives to buy groceries cheaper together than they could do alone.   Don’t forget that most  Conservatives are idealogical free-traders who support TTIP, so they’re not exactly going to fight against something similar. Expect an agreement with the US trumpeted as a triumph that gives away even more power to multi-nationals.     Standing alone against the swirling tide of international trade feels more like Canute than  Dunkirk.

And that’s before we even contemplate the plucky individual v climate change. Do remember to save the world by mopping up the floods with recycled toilet roll.

So as we face the first 10 year plan of greater austerity, as my children face even less job and home security,  as my savings and pension fund get shredded before my eyes so I can’t even help them any more, as more and more of us become ‘minimum wage people’ while a few cream off the profits, as our hospitals fill with a million elderly  expats who’ve been forced back from Spain, while the people who would be caring for them have their visas revoked, as Boris appears on tv sorrowfully explaining that sadly jam cannot now be served until the day after tomorrow but it’s all someone else’s fault  (look out for the surruptitious licking of jam from his lips as he does so)  –

I’d like to go on record that this was not my choice. Not that it  will make any difference, but when jobs vanish as a currency collapse makes us uncompetitive and as multi-nationals pull out and resite their manufacturing within the EU (which may ironically give a lot of eastern Europeans good jobs to go back to) , when inflation rises, as it will becuase the Bank of England has no weapons left but devaluation,  I’ll be the one curled up in my plucky individual cardboard box crying “IT WASN’T MY FAULT!”

 

Schools, the office and political goings-on

Mr Gove has made me realise how I was getting it all wrong for years.

Some time ago I ran a team that was mixed in terms of ethnicity and religion. Add in overseas subcontractors and we were a fairly mixed bunch. When I intercepted a congratulatory bottle of champagne to a teetotal Muslim team member and substituted something more appropriate, or when I made sure the office mince pies contained no lard or beef suet so the whole team could eat them – Muslim, Hindu and Vegetarian alike, or in the days when we had offices I made sure people knew if I was in or out so that until there was something more permanent they were welcome to use my office for prayer when vacant  – I thought I was just building an inclusive and welcoming team, just as when I made allowances for parents leaving early to get to the school play. But apparently I was fostering radicalisation and speeding the descent of civilisation into religious intolerance. Strange, because that wasn’t what it felt like. However I can only  apologise to the government for my inadvertent but disastrous radicalisation of the software industry.

Apparently I should have been spreading tolerance by interrogating the lady wearing a hijab as to whether she was being forced to wear it against her will, and rung a government helpline to report the person who strayed over the border from Turkey to Syria on holiday to see classic sites because as a Muslim he was obviously at risk of being radicalised.

Now I know they were adults and the kerfuffle in Birmingham is about children, who deserve the best we can offer them in education, but I haven’t seen anything concrete reported  yet on Birmingham schools that is so very different in tone from the sort of adaptions above. As to the failings suggested so far – if segregation by sex is bad, and isolation from other points of view harmful, when will Mr Gove be forcing our  public and faith schools to change?

I also know, as anyone does who has ever worked in a school, that there is nowhere like a staff room or (I’m guessing) a governors’ meeting for factionalism and backstabbing. It can happen in any school, anywhere,  and is often driven by genuine differences of opinion on what is “the best in education”. Governors are volunteers, and that inevitably means some of those it attracts have an axe of some sort to grind.   I suspect this is the main reason the character of the head makes so much difference to a school – not so much for their vision of education or abilities with the children as their ability to manage and drive the different groupings of adults involved towards a constructive rather than destructive outcome.

So are we really talking about some hard-line co-ordinated plot  to takeover schools and establish an Islamic republic, or are we just seeing some fervent parents and (possibly opportunistic) local politicians trying to adapt their local schools to fit what they see as best for their children, in schools where perhaps the head was not quite strong enough to rein them in if they got too carried away? Without an independent education authority in there as well, there is also an obvious structural problem with the way new heads are appointed by the governors that risks them being chosen to fit in. But is any of this  hugely different to a bloc of parents who, for instance, get on their primary school governors’ board in a county that retains grammar schools, to refocus the school on preparing their children for entrance exams at the expense of time and effort spent with less able children?

The worrying answer is I don’t know, because there’s been a lot of hot air and not too much actual fact reported so far.  I am reminded of another episode in my office career, when I volunteered to roll out anti-bullying, anti-discrimination workshops to teams. I  added an illustrative tale to the material provided –

When my sister’s children were small she lived in West Africa.  As they came to school age she had four choices –

the French-speaking state system, demonstrably run on a shoe-string

the French-speaking private school, run by Catholic nuns

the English-speaking private school, run by American Baptists

or the Arabic-speaking Islamic school, run by the local Lebanese community

Now the pictures you have in your head of those four schools are your prejudices. We all have them to some extent, about all sorts of things.  If you were my sister and chose a school based just on those pictures, without visiting the school, checking with other parents, looking at the facts – that would be discrimination.

And I just wish I could be sure that the various investigations going on in Birmingham are genuinely looking for the truth and will produce demonstrable evidence, so that we can all be sure whatever action comes out of this is not discrimination, that it is not based solely on knee-jerk prejudice displayed to us through a window-dressing of independence supplied by bodies struggling under inappropriate pressure to find the politically-expedient answer.  Ofsted’s about-turn in making outstanding schools suddenly inadequate doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Meanwhile I wish the best to  all children currently sitting  exams, but especially those in the affected secondary schools who have been dragged though a political mire that should have nothing to do with them, by adults who should know better,  at a crucial point of their school career.

Christmas Thoughts from a Broad

Well not so much broad as nearly spherical.

 Many years ago I was more traditionally religious and Christmas Eve meant the early evening crib service followed by carol singing round the district, supper in one of the choir’s houses followed by the midnight service and rolling home looking out for flying reindeer.

One of the unforeseen side-effects of an analytic career was a drift away from such things. However the dark heart of the year is a good time for reflection. I have been reading the “Christmas thoughts” in the papers etc and quite often just feel irritated. It’s very easy to either rant about what’s wrong with the world or go all gooey about the family being the centre of our lives, but I liked Giles Fraser’s piece in the Guardian recently about the true spirit of Christmas being represented by the vulnerability and renewal of a newborn child.

Then I heard a story that crystallised what it is about Christmas that we need throughout the year,   A younger relative was working in a multiplex cinema and a couple came in with an elderly relative who was obviously more than a little befuddled by life. They wanted to see one picture which she wasn’t keen on, so they bought her a ticket for another film, which inevitably started at a different time.  She went with them until their picture was about to start, then they escorted her to her screen and positioned her outside, waiting to go in for her film, before returning to their own.

Now I refuse to comment on the rights or wrongs of her relatives leaving her there – they presumably know her better than anyone and I have not had to spend my time dealing with someone  suffering from dementia. But it put the staff in a difficult position  – if she had decided to leave for instance the staff were hardly in a position to stop her.

Nor for the present will I go on about the problems lying in wait for society as more of us develop dementia of some sort.  This lady was confused but cheerful, while people with some forms of dementia can get aggressive and highly suspicious of others. As a society we have been  keener on individual rights than collective responsibility and we are not geared up to deal with masses of vulnerable but aggressive people in out midst. Given the link now being suggested between Alzheimer’s and obesity I really don’t want to think about the impact on society as we age and get larger but remain dependant on our cars for instance, or in some places determinedly reserve our right to own a gun.                  

But back to the spirit of Christmas – the staff at the cinema simply noticed the issue and without fuss or discussion they kept an eye on the lady, made sure she found a seat and increased the frequency of their patrols in that particular screen to unobtrusively check she was ok.  She saw her film, her relatives saw theirs,  and she kept her independence.  Now you could say this is just good customer service, but to me it expresses the need we all have to care and be cared for. And surely that is the heart of Christmas.

So if like me you can never be bothered, come the New Year, to make a resolution maybe 2013 should be the year we opt to keep Christmas going by doing something caring ever day.    

An Agile Modern Fairy Tale

Given it is the time of year for huddling round the fire, talking of pantomimes and fairy tales, I thought I’d share one from a few years ago. One or two folk may have therefore heard it before.

If you are a purist adherent of the Agile method, please forgive me for leaving out much of what you hold dear, as this comes from the requirements end of a project, but I hope it keeps the spirit.  If you are the long-suffering recipient of crap systems, you have my heartfelt sympathy and I hope this points out pitfalls to watch out for. This tale however, was whispered in my ear as I slept by a renegade Development Elf, or just possibly the Design Fairy herself, who exerts her copyright…….

 

“We’ve got one, we’ve got one” – the cry echoed round the office. Excitedly the product team gathered round the desk to see the tiny creature sitting calmly on the edge of the computer screen, drawing patterns in the dust with her feet. “A Design Fairy” breathed the marketing manager, “I never really believed they existed. Where did you find her?”

“Jo spotted her in the snack bar trying to hide behind the chocolate bars, and we lured her out with little pieces of Aero till we could see enough of her to formally declare we recognised her and claim our three wishes”

“User stories” corrected the Fairy, “and I’m waiting for you to tell me them. There’s nothing like a good story, that’s what I say”.

They looked at each other.

“I want the new system to Sing and Dance” yelled the marketing manager

“ And I want it Now” cried the product manager

“and cost very little” got in the Finance manager quickly, before anyone else got carried away.

 

The Fairy tapped her little wand on the SpriteTab Mk3 she pulled out of an invisible pocket in her pink gauze business suit. A few calculations later the device began to hum. A shimmer started in the middle of the floor and crept slowly up the desk until it settled into a shape in front of their eyes.

The shape shuffled uncertainly on its flippers and began to bark, slightly off key.

“A Performing Seal?” cried the Product manager. “What am I supposed to do with a bloody Performing Seal?”

“I suppose at least its memorable” hazarded the Marketing Manager, “and he’d be at home at a Launch Party.” His giggles were just a bit too close to hysteria as his assistant led him away to sit somewhere quiet for a while.

 

“Meets all the requirements!” snapped the Fairy, putting away the tablet. “Sings, Dances, Is Here Now, and Costs Very Little. Well at least unless the cost of fish escalates unexpectedly”

“But this isn’t what we wanted at all” groaned the Product Manager. “Is it Bill?” he looked across to the Finance Manager, who was on the phone and gesturing not to be disturbed. “ Trying to get a price from the zoo” he hissed.

“It won’t Work” the product manager sobbed, “You can’t use a Performing Seal to pay bills!” The Marketing manager looked up from the Seal logo he was doodling on a graphics package “We could try the novelty of an underwater bill delivery mechanism..?”

“Work?” said the Fairy. “You didn’t say it had to Work. You should have been more careful with your Acceptance Criteria”

“But we need to change it..” started the Product Manager

“Stop right there” cried the Fairy “that’s a discussion for the Scope Creep that is. If you look around the skirting boards at dusk you might see him. He always skulks around a large project. But I’m off, my job’s done” And with that she disappeared, leaving only a bright and entirely artificial smile to glow for a few minutes longer.

 

It was a few weeks later when a very surprised office junior heard a tiny yell when she tried to wipe up spilled milk at the side of the coffee machine. A rather dishevelled Fairy rearranged her tiara and tried her hardest to look dignified while damp and wrapped in kitchen towel. Being a very bright junior (who was filling in on the project for the marketing manager while he was on an extended holiday) – the girl immediately Recognised the Fairy and claimed her wishes. “You could at least pour me the coffee I was getting” said the Fairy.

“I may be the junior but I’m not here to make coffee!” snapped the girl. Tactically this could have been a mistake, for the Fairy began to look grumpier than the Queen at the Opening of Parliament.

 

Half an hour later the office assembled round the Fairy, who had at last found a reasonable use for one of those stripy deck chairs that stand on your desk and hold a mobile phone.

The Product Manager coughed and unrolled a long scroll.

“Our First Wish” he intoned “is that the new system should do All These Things” One end of the scroll slipped from his fingers and rolled out across the floor. The Fairy nodded and waved a tiny pen drive at the document. “Nice to see you’re prepared this time” she said.

“It should Cost Nothing at All” said the Finance Manager, who felt he was getting the hang of this.

“And it should Work Right First Time” said the Service Manager, who was still cross that he’d not been around on the previous occasion to inject some practicality into the proceedings.

The Fairy smiled as she took out her shiny new fPad running the latest Magic 5K operating system with ESP2 interface. “Just a minute while I work it out”.

The machine shimmered slightly this time, and the crowd stepped back nervously.

 

“OK”, said the Fairy,tucking it away. “We’ll be in touch”.

“But what about our system?” cried the Service Manager “When will it be here? I have agents to train.”

“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that just yet” smiled the Fairy “our estimated delivery date for all that lot is 1st January 2056.” And with that she slid unnoticed away, like a particularly pleasant glass of whisky that suddenly isn’t there anymore.

 

For many months the team ploughed on, trying to cover their project work while also surreptitiously turning over papers, rifling through bins and being particularly alert around food and drink, but all to no avail. The project got later and later, the overspend mounted and just when things couldn’t look bleaker, the Marketing manager felt well enough to come back to work.

 

At last on one particularly gloomy day, after the HR manager had been round for an encouraging chat to the troops, the junior had had enough and went off early to the pub next door to drown her sorrows. She found a quiet corner, slipped off her Power Shoes with Extra Pointy Heels for Greater Authority and rubbed her blistered foot.

 

“They’re supposed to be Glass you know” said a little voice nearby, with just a hint of a hiccough. “If you want to be in a Fairy Tale”. The Junior peered into the velour cushions and lifted out the Fairy. “You look a bit of a mess” she pointed out, tactless once more. But this time she followed it with the Magic Words – “Let me buy you a drink”. The fairy sighed.

“You’re a good girl you are. You have no idea how wearing it is to have everyone asking for things the moment you meet them. Want, want, want, that’s what it’s like. Me, Me,Me. The “I Claim My Rights!” they’re the worst. Pompous to the end. Though it does make for some job satisfaction when you unveil the flock of Winged Pigs they’ve just ordered. But really” (and here she started to sound just a hint wheedling) “Really what I want is for people to get what they need and like me. I worked for Father Christmas for a while you know, but there’s no place for a middle-aged Elf in the Grotto. Once your looks go, you’re out.” The junior was far too young to sympathise, but old enough to recognise someone whose drinking was about to topple them into the embrace of the evil twins Melancholy and Maudlin.

“Let’s go for coffee and cheesecake” she said brightly, and picking the Fairy up she stuffed her into a pocket.

 

Ten minutes later a mug of coffee and slice of cheesecake shared a discreet table in a nearby cafe with a saucer holding a few fragments of cake and a teaspoon of coffee. The snoring Fairy was removed from her pocket and set gently down. A slight prod brought her awake

“grmmphrrrr….and I remember when all we had to work with was a magic tape measure you know” said the fairy, sitting up “those were the days, you really could work wonders with one of those. Digital magic was all about waving your finger in the air…” Her meanderings were stopped by judicious application of cake.

“I need to know how to tell you want we want, without making a mess of it” said the Junior, “and I need to find that out without asking you something that counts as a Wish.”

The Fairy sucked the gooey jam off her fingers and loosened the buttons on her skirt waist. “If only Humans would listen, instead of asking questions. I’m an Agile Fairy..” she paused to glower at the Junior, who had developed a sudden and more tactful coughing fit at this. “I told them, right at the start, I need their User Stories. I like a good story, me. In fact right now there’s nothing would suit me better than someone telling me a good long set of stories. Except possibly someone remembering to publish information about how great the system was that they got. People forget that Recognizing Fairies should include approbation as well as claiming wishes. We need the other Fairies to know how good we are. It’s only Fairy after all”.

 

So the afternoon wore on and the Junior told the Fairy stories about what the project was trying to achieve and why it was important. The Fairy kept prompting her to make the stories specific so they didn’t overlap, and to be clear what was the purpose and benefit of each. For a while the Junior had to resist poking the Fairy in her tiny golden eyes (or at least rearranging her tiara for her) for being so picky, but after a few goes it began to make sense and the stories flowed more easily.

She covered who needed to be able to do what, and who needed to get what, and most importantly, like a chorus to each story – how they would know when they had it. And with each story a Token for a Discussion was added to the growing pile on the table . Occasionally the Fairy would take a token and ask questions, and the Junior answered her. The afternoon wore on as they went through it all several times, both stories and Cheesecake. Once the Fairy was happy she understood them all, she produced her small fPad and an even smaller printer from a briefcase she hadn’t previously had. All were in a shining colour to match the business suit that had miraculously become glittering and pressed again as they talked. “I wish I had that knack of dressing so that things match and stay in place”, said the Junior. “One wish down” muttered the Fairy, very softly.

 

The Fairy printed out a set of small cards, each holding a story and shuffled them in a pack. “Pick a card, any card” she said with a beaming smile. She got the Junior to arrange them on the table, moving them and sorting them until she was happy they were in order, with the top item giving the biggest benefit and so in to the lowest benefit at the bottom.

Then as the sun began to set, an even larger piece cheesecake materialised in front of the Junior. “Strange how Agility and Cheesecake go together” said the Junior as she tucked in. “Not really, just the 1st Law of Opposites Attracting, one of the fundamental things that holds the Universe together” said the Fairy. “If it wasn’t for the 1st law the North and South Poles would go flying off across the galaxy, and no organisation would be strong enough to hold both a Finance and Operations department”. She worked her way down the card pack, humming happily and adding an estimated size to each one, chosen disconcertingly by selecting from keys marked “Eeny”, “Meeny”, “Miny” and “Mo”. Finally she pressed a large red button marked with an alarm sign and the words “Automated Planning”.  The fpad chortled away to itself while doing calculations. The café grew warm and the humming louder…

The Junior shook herself awake to find the shop was about to shut. She was alone at the table with a pile of plates and a bill of surprisingly small proportions.  Not sure if she had been dreaming, she reached for her shoes which had managed to come off again. She smiled as the light from the window caught the glitter from two rows of small shining glass beads they had developed during the afternoon.

Next day there was a letter on her desk from a firm of systems suppliers. It described a new product range they were launching that did almost all of what her project team were looking for. And at a reasonable price. Moreover they were looking for partners to trial their first beta product now, with extra help from their consultants thrown in for free if you were prepared to have a case study written up on your use of the products. By a strange co-incidence, the first product in the range just happened to deal with the three most important areas of their project.

 

“Oh I heard about them from a friend and thought I ought to find out what they did” said the Junior modestly, smoothing the new and very well pressed suit that had appeared in her wardrobe that morning. “ServURite Solutions have a very good reputation. In fact, I Wish I could work with them more often.”

 

Roads to Glory

I drove along a road the other day I haven’t been on for a while, ever since it was bypassed. It was a bleak and foggy morning and I was rushing as I had to be somewhere and not sure of the journey-time.

Then I turned a corner and the road on front of me was lined both sides with hedges in full autumn glory.  The lemon and rich-butter colours of elm, field maple and hazel were just the right shades of yellow against the grey miserable sky to brighten the way through the fog.   I just had to slow down to appreciate it.

An annual lesson in how to go gracefully into the dark night.

EE my aching feet

As part of my “Let’s Just Do IT Better” campaign can I share an example of  what not to do when you merge two businesses?

Daughter’s mobile contract was up for renewal and as she wanted to check out the phones we went into the nearby town to the shop, rather than do it over the phone. As her current contract was T-mobile we headed for what was their shop, arriving at 3.01pm.

It had been beautifully made over as EE, with new branded image clothing  and decor. It was also as oppressively busy as a City bar on a Friday night at the height of the financial boom.  The four staff were besieged behind the counter as they attempted to deal with just 2 customers who very inconveniently were unable to give the exact data needed to process their transactions ie. the full postcode of a previous address, needed for a new contract, and  the full date they had bought a phone over a year ago, essential for a repair.

Stupid or what? Can’t we all be expected to remember exactly when we did something months ago?  I realise it may be used as a  security question, but is it really beyond the wit of the systems to

a) include a suggestion to get the postcode from the Royal Mail’s very useful postcode lookup site, rather than leave customers shuffling aimlessly while the offender (which  was exactly how she was made to feel) phones a friend in the hope they may have the missing item of data written down in a handbag somewhere?

and b)  use something easily to hand like – oh yes – the phone number or possibly the IMEI to look up the purchase date? With use of the usual personal data security questions if needed?

When nothing had moved in the queue by 3.15 inspiration struck. With the new world of EE and the old Orange shop all of 30 yards round the corner maybe we’d be better there. So we forced our way out of the crowd and into the half empty EE shop 2. This  was also newly painted and all 5 staff freshly branded, but perhaps I should have taken more note of the lady sitting in the corner on the only chair with a “Kill me Now” expression of weary despair.

But no, we caught the eye of an assistant easily, they had the phone we wanted in stock and we manoeuvred up to a till to finalise it all.   Job done. Except it wasn’t. By now it was about 3.25. We got out of the shop  just after 5pm, when the senior assistant suggested they had enough information to finish the transaction without us, otherwise we’d be there for another hour. I was stood (and I mean stood) by that till for over an hour and a half, long enough for the assistant to be changed over as the first one finished his shift and he got to go home.

During that time all 5 staff chipped in to try and get our straightforward contract renewal to work. Plus one of the staff from the first EE shop round the corner,  who was rung up and fetched over as “the expert”. It took nearly an hour for them to find my account, despite the fact they had the phone number, address (with full postcode) and name, for an  account they had been successfully billing monthly for the last two years. I admit we confused them initially by giving my daughter’s name as it’s her phone, when it’s my name on the account, but we did give them mine as well. They could find my son’s account no trouble, but that really didn’t help I.s it a co-incidence he used to have  an Orange phone?

I found out more about their systems architecture than I wanted to know, with at least three different systems that they needed for an upgrade transaction (why?) all of which seemed to be logging them out due to the length of response times and then wouldn’t let them back in again.   At one point it was suggested that the  branch was having network problems – in which case why not shut that branch until it’s fixed and move the staff in to clear the crowds round the corner?    Then data corruption  was suggested, presumably from the merge of the two company sources. I never did find out what made it work in the end, and I’m an ex-IT designer who is actually interested in such things. Worryingly I’m not sure they knew either.

My debit card was taken out of sight for the signature to be  photocopied, only for senior assistant to tell junior that he didn’t need to do that anymore.  Then we had two goes with a chip and pin at taking a transaction from it to prove the bank account works (this is a renewal don’t forget – I wasn’t changing the billing account.) Then back in  the chip and pin to credit the £1 back to me.

I realised why several of them were wearing trainers as they trekked back and forth between shops for advice and stock, or dived into the store-room at  the back to ring the customer service helpline for advice  on how to get their transactions to work. I found they appeared to have only three phones between them to call for help and they were in use virtually all the time. One assistant would have to interrupt another to cadge a phone as they needed it.

Because I wasn’t the only one they had trouble with. The wraith in the corner eventually drifted away after senior assistant had sat with her, on the phone to someone, for over twenty minutes. She was replaced by a young  man seeking technical advice on a problem to replace the incorrect advice he had previously been given. He was left on the phone to somewhere that did, eventually, seem to resolve the issue.   Another lady had the  same  “exact date you bought it ” issue as the one round the corner, but she obligingly agreed to go away and  come back another day  with the receipt.

Don’t get me wrong, the staff were relentlessly cheerful and polite  in the face of adversity but why were they having to deal with such crappy systems?   Why three systems at all?  Why insufficient phones to ring for help? Why so long to get through when they rang? Why had they not been fully trained in changed processes? Why not time your relaunch to match when your systems are fully up and running rather than when your redecoration is done?

Because for those of us standing for hours, with no chairs provided, while your staff struggle to get through simple things without loss of sanity you haven’t even left us the opportunity to watch the paint dry.

Postscript: My daughter received a voicemail next day asking us to come in again as there had been a problem with the order.  We rearranged activities and  were half way on the 15 mile drive to town when she picked up another one, canceling the first message.

The Need to Recherche les Temps Perdus

I feel an affinity to our NHS as it tries to resolve our chaotic approach to our own wellbeing. It is very easy to knock something so large and blundering but anything involving that many humans is going to be fallible. Hold it to account by all means, strive to improve it yes but remember that it goes on day after day coping with the less lovely side of life, helping us all to slow the flow of our own mortality. Beating it up for being what it is, is no more sensible than  kicking an elephant for having wrinkly skin  (or spending billions with private providers who promise smooother-skinned elephants).  There are some tasks that just need an elephant.

Some years ago my grandmother spent her last few years bedridden, because she bullied her daughter into bringing her home  before the hospital could operate on her hip. It should have been fixable, even at her age, but my grandmother was mortally afraid of hospitals. She remembered too clearly the days before the NHS. To her a hospital was the Workhouse, the place her grandfather and at least one aunt had  died. Her own father’s early death at 45 was put down by the family to the after-effect of his experience in the Workhouse as an orphan.   Nowadays we complain about inefficiencies at our shiny new hospitals but growing up poor under Queen Victoria, the only hospital available was often just a wing of the workhouse where those too ill to work were nursed by the slightly more able but untrained indigent poor. You only went there if there was no choice, and often you did die.

It was less than 90 years ago that  those poor law unions were abolished and the buildings handed to local authorities, then with the creation of the NHS in 1948 many of the buildings became hospitals. Many still are – my children were born in a former workhouse and the youngest is still a teenager. So granny’s fear was understandable – looking at the hospital building only 35 years later she still saw the old sign over the gate.   We forget at our peril what life (and death) was like for most people only a generation or two ago.

Despite this homily, it is all too easy to take our health service for granted. This week my partner was taken ill while driving, managed to stop and someone in a nearby house called 999. An ambulance duly arrived and took him to the local A&E where they ran extensive tests, x-rayed him, gave him an injection, kept him in for several hours until they were fairly sure they had at least eliminated anything really serious and he was recovering, then sent him home with a week’s tablets to take to reduce the symptoms. All for free and no questions about whether he had the right insurance.

He’s on the road to recovery now, but my initial thought as we went our way home?  “B*&! me – £5 for the car park?”.

Sometimes  I despair even of myself and I prescribe a period of reflection and a rereading of Peter Higginbotham’s excellent site The Workhouse , with special reference to the particular institutions in which several of my ancestors were born, lived or died.