Tuesday 12 June 2007

The public service ethic.

The train broke down yesterday.

Not the train I was on, mind, but one in front. The line from Belfast to Bangor has no sidings all the way, so one train stuck on the track blocks it completely. My train left Belfast Central at 18:20, went a couple of miles, sat on the track for half an hour, then eventually turned around and took us all back to Central. Once we were there, we were told that buses had been ordered to take us to Bangor, but who could say when those buses might arrive? There was no way of telling, apparently, presumably because the buses' operators were operating in some other century.

So Vic had to drive in and give me a lift home. What should have been a half-hour journey took two-and-a-half hours.

Now, this was all quite annoying enough as it was, but it managed to get worse this morning. On arriving at work, I discovered that my colleague, who had left an hour before me, had also got stuck behind this broken-down train. I had assumed that it was the train in front of mine that had broken down, but no: a train had broken down sometime around five o'clock — on, as I mentioned, a single track with no junctions — and the eejits in charge of this bit of the network continued to send trains after it in the full knowledge that they would get stuck. By the time I left my office, this had already been going on for over an hour, yet they put me and my fellow victims on a train, with no announcements or even hints that anything might be up, sent us down the track, had our train sit stationary for half an hour, then brought us back to where we'd started — and only then thought of ordering some buses.

When Vic & I drove past Sydenham station at about eight-fifteen, the passengers who had been on the 18:00 train were all still standing there. Waiting for the promised buses, presumably.

I might add that the buses and the trains are operated by the same company, Translink. You'd think that this would enable them to coordinate their activities to some degree. Ha.

What should have happened, of course, is that I should have turned up at Central Station to be told that all trains to Bangor were cancelled and that I would instead have to use this handy bus that's waiting right here and will be leaving in a couple of minutes. It would have been slightly irritating, but, hey, these things happen. I know that trains break down, and can sympathise with their operators when it happens. That sympathy evaporates when their considered response is to deliberately and premeditatedly waste hundreds of people's time.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in public-sector-mentality land, you may be aware of the imaginatively named "Check and Send" service offered by Post Office Counters Limited. For seven pounds, they take your passport application and check that it's all correct before forwarding it to the Passport Office with your payment. This way, you can be sure that the Passport Office won't send it back to you with a note informing you that you've forgotten to put a cross in box 27d, subsection 13A, page 78 and will therefore have to cancel your four-thousand-pound holiday next week. In theory.

Despite using this service — in fact, as you will see in a moment, because we used this service — Vic received Daisy's passport application today, returned from the Passport Office. The Post Office had checked the form, and it was all correct, but had forgotten one teensy little detail: they had failed to forward to the Passport Office any record that we had actually paid for the passport.

Luckily, Vic has kept the receipt and so can send a copy of that to the Passport Office. And we shall be asking Post Office Counters Limited for the seven quid back.

Companies that were once part of nationalised industries but are now private tend to be run according to a set of principles that I call "cargo-cult capitalism". Just like the cargo cults who build things that look like runways in the belief that these will bring planes bearing bounteous wonders, the managers of these organisations have seen private companies doing things and making profit, but have no conception of the underlying structure that informs their actions. "Oo!" they say, "Private companies sometimes rebrand, so let's rebrand! It's bound to work!" They have no idea why some companies rebrand or what they hope to achieve; they just know that they do it. So British Airways, with one of the best recognised brands and logos in the world, and British Telecom, with one of the best recognised brands in the UK, simply destroy their own identities. Anyone who's worked for British Gas will recognise this mentality.

Cargo-cult capitalism has also thoroughly infected the Labour Government, thereby spreading into things that haven't even been privatised, such as the National "Health" "Service" and John Prescott's house-building schemes. "Oo!" they say, "Private companies can build things so much quicker than we can, so let's get them to build stuff for us! It's bound to work!" Their understanding of why a private firm can build something more quickly than the second subcommittee of deputy under-secretary C's pre-approval public consultation outreach strategy (phase three) is non-existent. So they ask a bunch of private firms if they'd like to do some of their usual work but with four times more red tape than usual and guaranteed interminal delays caused by the whims of jobsworth officials whose pay is not even tangentially related to their speed, then scratch their heads in bafflement when there are so few takers for what seemed like such a wonderful offer.

Post Office Counters Limited are supposedly now a private company. They have yet to get their heads around the idea.

Monday 11 June 2007

A request.


If any of you knowledgable people know of somewhere either in the Belfast area or online where I could get a reasonably priced barstool with adjustable height and properly padded upholstery (what is it with this modern trend for expensive stylish seating that no-one with nerves in their buttocks can sit on for more than five minutes without developing debilitating numbness?), I'd be very grateful if you'd let me know.

Thanks very much.

And my apologies for such a boring post.


If there's one thing worse than having a hangover, it's having a hangover without first having drunk alcohol. If I'm going to have to put up with pain like this anyway, I'd appreciate some sort of advance warning so that I could make it seem vaguely worthwhile by getting utterly trolleyed first. Tsk.

That being said, if you've got to cummute with a splitting headache, there are worse ways to do it than watching the mist rise off Belfast Lough in the sunshine. It's a beautiful day.

And Lucozade's helping.

Sunday 10 June 2007

The whole point.

As a programmer, it was nice to read this rather excellent letter from one Saragh Penfold of Falkirk on The Independent's letters page:

Sir: Your article on the sex-offenders' database computersystem (29 May) states that "the Home Office has cancelled the launch after software failed in tests". The tone of the article suggests this is a bad thing.

As a software testing professional, I am heartened to learn that the Home Office has undertaken testing, discovered problems (that is what testing is intended to do) and decided not to release a faulty system.

Government and the private sector often release systems that are found not to work properly only after they go live, which can be attributed to inadequate testing. That really is a bad thing, particularly because it can be avoided.

This should be seen as a good news story, for common sense, and in celebration of the testing community, who for some reason very rarely get into the news.


Since Ben Goldacre kicked off the debate, there's been a lot of talk about the problems with science reporting in our media and what may be done to improve journalists' understanding of basic scientific concepts. It strikes me that as long as news reporters can't get their heads around the idea that cancelling something which fails to pass a test is a Good Thing, we should abandon all hope that their reporting might ever be improved.

Thursday 7 June 2007

I agree with everyone else.

I must just briefly go on record to say not only that the new London Olympic logo would be pathetically awful if it had cost twenty quid — at four hundred grand, its badness is beyond words — but also that it appears to have driven Seb Coe utterly mad:

"This is the vision at the very heart of our brand," said London 2012 organising committee chairman Seb Coe.

He appears to have mistaken the Olympics for a new supermarket.

"It will define the venues we build and the Games we hold and act as a reminder of our promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world."

I wasn't even aware that the British Olympic Committee or anyone else had made a promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire me and to reach out, in some way, to young people around the world. Maybe I've been out of the loop. Maybe, were I younger, I'd have noticed my being reached out to. Perhaps, had I known about this promise in the first place, seeing the logo would have reminded me of it. "Oh," I might have thought upon seeing it for the first time, "that reminds me: about that promise." Sadly, I didn't, and it didn't, so I didn't. Alas.

"It's not a logo, it's a brand that will take us forward for the next five years," he told BBC Five Live.

No, Seb, it's a logo. You can call it a "brand" if you wish. You may also call it "a car", "three pairs of trousers", or "my father-in-law". It's still a bloody logo.

"It won't be to everybody's taste immediately but it's a brand that we genuinely believe can be a hard working brand which builds on pretty much everything we said in Singapore about reaching out and engaging young people, which is where our challenge is over the next five years."

Does anyone think Lord Coe could explain the process whereby this logo will do a better job of reaching out to young people than some other logo? Or precisely how it will perform hard work? He does know it's inanimate, right?

And... well, perhaps I'm being hopelessly pessimistic here, but I thought their big challenge had less to do with engaging young people — I can just see the headlines now: "London Olympics Cancelled! Lack Of Youthful Engagement To Blame." — and rather more to do with building a bloody great big stadium in London on time, something that the British have solid recent experience of failing at.

Whatever's up with Coe, Blair's caught it:

Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We want London 2012 not just to be about elite sporting success."

And, with that, he destroyed any residual interest I might have had in the Olympics. Not just about elite sporting success? What, are they going to have medals for taking part?

"When people see the new brand, we want them to be inspired to make a positive change in their life."

Got that? That's just from seeing the new logo. This logo is so great that merely looking at it is enough to inspire you to change your life for the better. That's certainly the kind of thing I'd tell the Government if I were trying to justify conning them out of four hundred grand for something which was clearly knocked together, or possibly spilled, the night before deadline.

But there seems to be some sort of competition going on, for Blair has been thoroughly beaten in the nonsense stakes by one of his own ministers:

Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell said: "This is an iconic brand that sums up what London 2012 is all about — an inclusive, welcoming and diverse Games that involves the whole country.

"It takes our values to the world beyond our shores, acting both as an invitation and an inspiration."

Hats off to Jowell: surely she deserves a medal herself for that effort. This logo actually gathers up all the values of Britain, somehow, and takes them around the entire world, not only inspiring people as it goes (Blair and Coe have both played the inspiration card; Jowell's got to trump that), but inviting them along to London too.

You know, it's easy to cynically poke fun at this logo just because it looks like someone threw up after swallowing broken glass, but let's be fair: if at any point in the next five years this logo actually performs any of the miracles so far ascribed to it, I for one will eat my words, loudly proclaim that it's worth every penny and then some, and found a new religion to worship it.

Every sci-fi author should have one.

Not that I am a sci-fi author, but I just got me one of these: the Saitek Eclipse II keyboard. And it is lovely.

I really fancied a keyboard with the so-called "scissor" action of a laptop's keyboard, and sadly the Eclipse does not have that. Far more important to me, however, was the ability to see the keyboard in total darkness. I've always loved working in the dark with devices with glowing screens, be they computers with proper monitors or hardware music sequencers with poky little fifty-character displays. However, I can't type properly, so have to have some light on in the room when I'm working with my Mac so that I can see the letters on the keys. But no more, for the Eclipse II has keys whose inscriptions light up. I'm sitting here with the lights off — I can barely see the table the Macbook's sitting on — merrily typing away on this thoroughly excellent glowing keyboard. Class.

Furthermore, it has a brightness knob and glows in three different colours: blue, red, or purple. The purple's kind of pale and is the least impressive-looking of the three options, but a few minutes of typing have revealed that it's probably the easiest on the eye when you're actually using it rather than just sitting there and admiring the pretty lights.

As for the action, it may be non-scissor, but it's still very nice indeed, and various reviews across the Web assure me that it's hard-wearing. And if I do crave that scissor action, I can, of course, always use the keyboard that's built in to the Macbook. Not much point, now I come to think of it, in buying a laptop keyboard to plug into your laptop.

Now all I need to do is build meself a proper desk to put all this gear on. DIY beckons. Joy.

Saturday 2 June 2007

My opinion of people climbs yet higher.

Vic went to the doctor's today. While she was in the waiting room, some opportunistic bastard lifted her keys. So we had to have all the locks changed. We really enjoyed the worry and the expense, so thanks, mystery bastard.