Sunday, 12 November 2017

Brexit? Seen It All Before

In my working life I have been involved in implementing system changes in organisations, while at the same time observing those that went wrong in other organisations, and pondering why they failed.
I would say that for a major system change to be a success, three fundamentals are essential:.
1. A clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. And the achievements need to be precise. Saying we are going to have a new system that will put us way ahead of the field is too vague. ‘We are leaving the EU for a great new future’ is equally far too vague as a vision, it doesn’t say what you are trying to achieve. ‘We are going to regain our sovereignty’, much too vague, for how will you know when you have achieved it? ‘The very best for Britain’, how on earth are you going to know when you’ve achieved that? You cannot leave something without going on to something else, and there is no shared vision of what that something should be. Individuals have their views, of course, they always do, but the vision needs to be from the top, and sold from the top.
2. Implement incrementally. A big-bang change on a complex system never works very well, simply because the complexities are too enormous for a person, or a group of people, to get their head round.
3. If a prototype appears to be not working, be prepared to change it. We need a system that works, not one that we’re going to stand on our high horse over.
What happens when those fundamentals are ignored follows a common pattern, essentially a great deal of time and money gets spent to end up with something not that different from what you started with in the first place.
Tony Blair’s major computerisation project for the NHS was a typical case in point, we should not blame him, for he is not a technology expert, we can blame the dinosaurs in suits that he engaged to manage the project; at a time when the world was moving towards distributed processing, the Cloud, and machine learning, his supposed experts were trying to make everything work on a 1980’s mainframe. Many of us knew that was never going to have a future.
Any many people know that Brexit isn’t going to work, too, because similarly it is under the control and guidance of the dinosaurs in suits.
As well as the technological inevitability of failure, there is the human inevitability of managing that failure. It is absolutely typical and normal that as the woolly-brained system change gets underway, those who are in favour of it pronounce that all gainsayers are gratuitous wreckers, with no optimism and delight in the great future ahead. That always happens. And then as things do not seem to be progressing entirely smoothly, the management does exactly what Theresa May did in November 2017: they set a date at which this thing is Going To Happen. Oh that is soooo typical!
For people like me, who voted Remain – Brexit could affect me negatively personally, in fact it already is, so I would vote Remain wouldn’t I? – this is all actually not too bad. Money will be spent, there will be arguments, there will be battles, and at the end of it all, if the pattern is as it is, we shall end up with not much change. Since the new system won’t really work, and because it may be difficult to abandon it completely, repercussions will continue long after the ‘implementation date’; repercussions and great cost, until either the thing fades away or someone puts their finger in the hole in the money dyke and says ‘Stop’.
If I were a passionate Leave proponent, I would be much more worried, I would be concerned that Vote Leave was rapidly becoming Vote Lose. I would be saying let’s stop this madness now, and devise a plan that is actually going to work. But I suspect no one would listen. That’s typical too.
Of course I may be wrong, but if I am wrong, then this major system change that is Brexit will be a first, bucking all past trends and throwing all theories of how to implement change in an organisation out of the window. I don’t think so!
I’ve seen it all before.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Eurostar Missing a Trick

It’s the second time this year that, for family health reasons, I’ve had to do a late cancel on booked Eurostar tickets.
You lose your money, there’s no refund mechanism on advance tickets, annoying, but such is life.
But even more annoying is the text messages and emails you get, asking for feedback on the trip that you haven’t taken. Since the ticket hasn’t been through the scanner at check-in, it shouldn’t be too hard for the system to detect that you haven’t used it.
No mechanism for cancelling online seems to be especially missing a trick, for even with no refund, notification of cancellation would mean they can resell the seat. Seems like Eurostar would benefit greatly from a bit of expensive IT and marketing consultancy.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Dabbling in Trains

I have been distracted, gripped I should say, by a little bit of programming, the outcome of which is to be seen at Oxenholme Punctuality Check.
Getting those charts right took a bit of learning on how to do such things on a web page, I used chart.js version 2.1.6, in which I could not get stacked bar charts to work at all satisfactorily, so decided against them in the end. Not sure about chart.js, very good in some ways but a bit lacking in some of the basics I thought. The legend down the right column of the page explains the why and what fors in doing the page at all.
Having done that, what next with it? I honestly don’t know. There are several options I can think of:
1. Tell Virgin Trains about it and ask whether they have plans in place for improvement? but perhaps they have this info to hand already and so will just say, oh no, not annuver bloody train spotter with grandiose ideas about himself.
2. Do a write-up for a rail mag on how this is done. It’d be easy to adapt it for other stations, I’d want to avoid providing an online service as that could cost me a bit in database capacity. So might be a bit technical for a rail mag possibly.
3. Probably don’t want to cause trouble by letting the local paper get wind of it.
4. Do nothing at all with it and get on with other things. That’s feeling like favourite at the moment. But then again if no one tells the rail company about it, can I complain?
5. Or there may be a local rail service monitoring group – an Obergruppenführer of the Eisenbahn Geschwader – that might be interested. (I like that title, rolls off the tongue, if there isn’t one perhaps I could volunteer).
I asked for advice, from those in the business. Essentially the advice is that there’s no point in doing anything with this, as those in the business know all about it already. Railway magazines regularly comment on it, apparently, for they get statistics too, though whether compiled so easily and slickly as mine I don’t know. The problem that is identified and regularly complained about is that measurement of train punctuality is on the destination station only, the railway companies have no performance criteria to uphold on the intermediate stations, so they don’t bother too much. There’s leeway in the timetables so that the destination station can be reached, most of the time, on time.
This seems to be different from Germany, Holland, Denmark and France, where trains do arrive at the intermediate stations on time in my experience. Italy I think possibly might be similar to the UK, though equally possibly they don’t have any measured performance statistics at all there.
It’s known about, it’s known to be piss-poor and embarrassing for the image of the UK’s transport infrastructure, and no one seems to have any real idea of what to do about it. So there you are, you see, had I not done my little charts exercise I would have known nothing of this. Something good for the learning comes from whatever you do, the key thing is to do something. Now I can go onto something else equally delightfully useless.
Number 4 is definitely favourite, then, from where I’m sitting.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Very Proud. My Review’s Been Rejected by TripAdvisor

I sometimes write a review of a hotel or restaurant for TripAdvisor. This week I got one rejected for not following their guidelines. I thought it was rather a good one myself. It was for the Mercure Royal Hotel in Hull, England, and it went like this:
Hotel was fine, room comfortable, clean and quiet if a little on the small side for a hotel of that type, but the breakfast was cringing, or it was for me. You help yourself from metal chafing dishes containing sausage, bacon, baked beans, scrambled egg, mushrooms, grilled tomato and triangular hash browns – nothing wrong with that in itself but the quality was very ordinary, I recoiled at the smell. The bread was white or off-white sliced that you could run through a toaster, the coffee came from one of those thermos jugs you get when you go to a conference or meeting. Not good enough. There were a few slices of cheese turning up at the edges from low take-up and some fruit, some croissants and cinnamon swirls, which is what I ate rather than hold my nose and swallow the cooked breakfast. But we are freaks, most people in the dining room pile their plates high and tip over it the salt, HP Sauce or both, and when the waitress comes to clear their empty plate say thank you very much, I enjoyed that.
Something occurred to me in the restaurant at the Royal which is that if you are going to have staff in a restaurant, you’d be best advised to employ people who by and large look healthy, it’s good for the image. The staff at breakfast at the Royal consisted of two women who were massively overweight and limped while they waddled, plus one who had been clearly so wracked by cigarettes she was by contrast thin and bent and also limped, and one who did indeed look healthy and a good advertisement for the place and did not limp: she was Polish!
Trouble is, these Yanks don’t know nuffin about the norf-sahf divide in the UK, see. They probly think I have some sort of agenda. So I feel quite proud of having written something perceptive and contentious, what has gone over the head of the moderators.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Will Migrants Make or Break Europe?

In The Economist on 13th February 2016 there was an advertisement for applications to the Nico Colchester Journalism Fellowship. Write an article of 850 words, it said, on the topic of Will Migrants Make or Break Europe? and if the judges like what you have written you could get a three-month fellowship in the offices of The Economist and an allowance of £6,000.
There was another one last year, and I wrote a piece on the inspiration of that. I didn’t send it in as I have plenty of things to do, I don’t want to be adding on internships at The Economist, instead I put it on this blog, Europe’s Greatest Challenge. I said that challenge was migration. Amazing as it seems now, In April 2015 it was far from obvious that that would be the overriding challenge, here ten months later there can be little doubt about it.
I wonder whether I can be as prescient this time, for I'm going to try another 850 words, again for the interest, I definitely won’t be submitting it. Here is my piece.
Will Migrants Make or Break Europe?
Will migrants make or break Europe? Neither. Nothing so fundamental will change because there is not anything so fundamental that is new. Will the poor make or break Europe? The two questions are linked.
In 2011 there were riots in London, shops were smashed and looted. A young woman in Croydon was interviewed by the television reporter. “The rich people are being targeted . . . we’re just showing the rich people that we can do what we want.”
The young woman lives in a separate world, then, from the rich people. Lives in her particular bubble, with all the others who are, for the most part, just like her, different from all these rich people who “own businesses and things”.
And of course she was wrong. The people in her bubble cannot do just what they want, or not for more than perhaps one evening.
Arif is from a Bangladeshi family in West Yorkshire. He did well in school at Keighley, and went on to a diploma in business studies, then to work at a bank in Leeds. Arif is a big lad and jolly and smiley most of the time. But he began to crack up at the bank. He couldn’t stand it so he left, and after a little time getting body and soul back together he joined the family’s restaurant business. Every day he travels by car to one of the family’s restaurants, which cover a swathe of the country, from Nottingham to Windermere, these travels involve many of the family members and friends, they open the restaurant about five o’clock, wait at tables and field takeaway orders, and stay until the customers have stopped coming around about eleven, and then drive back to their homes in the West Yorkshire towns east of Skipton.
Only the men do that. The women have been to a British comprehensive school too, and learned and been encouraged to stand as an independent human being. They have heard all that, and then they leave school, get married, and have children as the custom decrees. You can see them standing at the school gates in the afternoon, and you look in their eyes and wonder, are they thinking, is this all there is? It is yet another bubble. Perfectly integrated, yet separate.
How can you be integrated and separate? The bubbles can rub along with each other just fine. They always have, the problem arises when those people who believe their bubble is the only one, who believe that theirs is the only worthwhile way of being, find themselves forced to learn that it isn’t. It can be very disconcerting.
In the old days bubbles were simpler to determine, there were rich bubbles and poor bubbles and middle-class bubbles and special-interest bubbles and sexual-preference bubbles, they all got along swimmingly because they knew their place. But if you suddenly find there are ten types of middle-class bubble, and that your own one may not be the only way, then uncertainty and resentment can cut in.
Governments have not really learned how to cope with this yet, they have to try and uphold the myth that everyone’s bubble is the only true way. Somehow.
Can it last? Yes, it has to. Bubbles will not all burst and merge. What cannot last, for it never has, is trying to isolate people in camps in the hope that they’ll somehow disappear and everything can carry on comfortably like it always did. Camps, especially those where the people in them have little hope of moving on and out, will be trouble. And every little trouble now will grow into a bigger trouble later.
Britain’s most troublesome camp, probably Europe's most troublesome, is in Calais. It cannot continue. There will be trouble, and if not from the migrant residents then from the local residents. A twelve-minute heartfelt tale of woe got a standing ovation at a meeting organised by an anti-immigration group in northern France. Simone Hericourt said she was an ordinary native of Calais, whose life is being made miserable by all the immigrants, the streets are no longer safe and neither are people in their houses. It was classic anti-immigrant stuff, with possibly a grain of truth, though clearly it cannot be as widespread as the relater is telling us.
But a lot of people believe it, and a lot of people can cause a lot of trouble. And what is the solution? Throwing ever more money at the status quo cannot be an answer, the status quo will only get worse.
That camp in Calais is an emblem of the migration crisis in Europe. Britain is going to have to let in some if not all of the people, who can then be assessed and some can be deported, but one way or another, making that camp obsolete is going to have to happen. Politicians cannot close their eyes to it forever, it is going to bite them while they sleep.
Migrants will not break Europe. They might break apart a British government though. How long off? One year? Two?
The young woman in Croydon:
That’s my 850-word piece. As with my previous one I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with it, I think it’s a bit disjointed and not punchy enough on making its points, but there it is for the moment, it was a decent challenge writing it, and when the muse arrives I might try and make it a bit zippier. And we shall have to see whether, as with my previous piece, I turn out to have been right.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Unfortunate Marketing Attempt, Cross Country Trains

“Don’t forget to allow extra time for your journey so you can find your way around the new concourse er . . . yeah, fink I might take the bus in that case, not too keen on getting lost on the concourse.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Europe’s Greatest Challenge

In The Economist on 4th April 2015 there was an advertisement for applications to the Nico Colchester Journalism Fellowship. Write an article of 850 words, it said, on the topic of What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met? and if they like what you have written you could get a fellowship in the offices of The Economist – it doesn’t say how long for – and an allowance of £6,000.
£6,000 would come in mighty useful but I don’t want the non-financial aspects of the prize so I won’t be submitting anything, but I thought it might be interesting – challenging even – to try writing the 850 words. Here is my piece.
What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met?
Europe’s greatest challenge in 2015 is the wish of so many people to make something better of their lives. On the face of it that should not be a challenge, it should be welcome, though in reality climbing the social ladder has ever been a struggle, it sounds fine in principle, but less appealing in practice to some in authority, and what makes it an especial challenge now is the very number of people with a foot on the rungs, their geographic spread, and their visibility.
Observing the poor in the East End of London in 1902, Jack London found people with not just a wish to make something better of their lives, more a desperation. But they had no idea how to even begin to set about it. And similarly in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, writers such as Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada chronicled the lives of those whose fortune looked mundane and bleak, but what could those people do about their lot? They had no idea and were at the mercy of fate.
War changed things. War needed soldiers and workers and in its aftermath needed investment in national infrastructure, and developing infrastructure means work – Germany was an exception mid-world wars, in the particularly dangerous position of being saddled with hopeless war reparations.
Rebuilding after a war has an optimism about it too, working together for a better world, many people keen to work to improve their lives.
The big difference now though is migration. In many ways migration is not so new, towns such as Middlesbrough grew from a population of 40 to 90,000 within seventy years as migrant workers came from other parts of the country to work in the burgeoning industry.
But then the people were moving to where there was work. Now, they move to where they hope there will be work, even though in reality there may be none, or none of the type that they can do. Migrants these days set about doing something about their poverty; they take a chance.
Ricky Igiewr left his family in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2008 and made his way towards Europe. He crossed the desert and travelled in an overcrowded boat over the Mediterranean, arriving on the island of Lampedusa. A lot of people died on the journey, says Ricky, but he survived. Yes, Ricky survived. God, believes Ricky, must have been on his side.
Transferred to the mainland of Italy where he joined the thousands, now hundreds of thousands, of West Africans trying to make a living on the streets, Ricky had no idea what work he might find, he just knew he must work, to make some money to send back to his wife and two daughters aged four and six in Nigeria, to pay for the children’s schooling.
And why could he not do that in Nigeria? In Nigeria, says Ricky, if you try and make something better for yourself you will tread on someone’s toes and then . . . and he makes a sign of a knife being drawn across his throat.
Ricky talks to his wife in Nigeria on the mobile phone every day. For some time – a year or two – this was a difficult conversation as he wasn’t making any money to send to her, and the school wanted money for books. He talked to the head teacher. I will send money, he told the teacher, I promise I will send money, I just cannot do that right now.
Now Ricky does send money. To obtain it he does what most of the West Africans in Italy do, he begs for it. First he buys a pile of goods – socks, hats, flyswatters – on credit at inflated prices from a supplier and then he stands outside a supermarket ostensibly selling them, but in reality helping everyone load their shopping into their car in the hope of a euro or two’s tip. And if someone does not give him a euro, he asks for it, he asks with a pitiful look if they can possibly help him out. Help my poor children. It seems all so Victorian.
And what a waste! Ricky is personable, well-presented and intelligent, but he is unskilled, and even if he did have a formal skill, he does not have permission to work in Italy, and furthermore he does not speak much Italian.
Many migrants travel further north. Ricky has seen the sleek red trains that someone has told him go through the tunnel to England. But he knows he would never be allowed to get that far, and actually the red trains get no further than Turin anyway.
Ricky is one of thousands in a similar position. Some people say they should all be sent home but that is no solution at all, no solution for an army of people on a mission.
The true challenge lies in work. No one should be begging on the streets in twenty-first century Europe. War must not be el dorado either. Work is the challenge. The true success is to labour.
That’s my 850-word piece. I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with it, I think it’s a bit lumpy or clunky in style, but there it is for the moment, it was a decent challenge writing it, and when the muse arrives I might try and make it a bit zippier.