My take on the election, and what lies ahead

Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the result of the election on Thursday. That the Tories secured power for another five years was deeply saddening. That they did so without the need to form a coalition spoke volumes, both about the country and the opposition.

There is less to distinguish between the two major parties (Labour and the Conservatives, for the avoidance of doubt) now than there was in the 1980s, and indeed the 1990s. While I feel that the current Conservative administration has drifted right, so has Labour.

That said, I feel that Labour’s principles are in the right place. And while they didn’t articulate them particularly strongly in the campaign that they so resoundingly lost, I feel that they still hold true.

To me, the important tenets of Labour’s offering are as follows:

I also think that Labour values society at large alongside the economy. Whether this is more a component of Labour’s offering or a figment of my imagination, I’m not sure.

My feeling is that the Tories agree on the proposition that hard work should pay. I get the impression that the safety net is of less importance than it is to Labour. And I worry that health in particular will become a service that is dependent on ability to pay. As for society, I think that the Tories’ view is that a healthy economy leads to a healthy society. While there is a link, I don’t subscribe to it being as directly correlated as they seem to believe.

I have been lucky in my career and life to date. I have earned well, and have not had to rely on benefits. Touch wood, my personal exposure to the NHS has been the occasional check-up by my GP. I am lucky enough to be able to afford health insurance, which I invest in, and my daughter goes to a private school.

My feeling is that the Tories are catering for people like myself, people with options. But their policies don’t cater well for those less well off, those less able to afford options.

In the last administration, the bedroom tax was a dreadful introduction, one that hit many of the poorest people in society. And the Tories’ much more aggressive approach to disability living allowance, while it didn’t affect me one jot, hit many many people very hard. I feel that despite their talk of investment in the period immediately prior to the recent election, the NHS will become more privatised over the coming years, and a platform will be set up for a tiered healthcare system. Again, those who cannot afford options will lose out.

In the end, democracy won. In total, 11,334,920 people voted for the Tories, 21% more than voted for Labour. They won 331 of the 650 seats, and they secured a mandate for power. But my worry is that as a society, we have become more insular, more self-focused. And in becoming so, our voting has changed accordingly. If we as individuals are better off under a Tory government, then that is what we vote for. To hell with the rest.

That’s not exclusively the case. (There are many that vote for the Tories because they don’t agree with the picture I’ve painted above. And there are many that vote Labour despite knowing that they may be worse off financially as a result.) But I fear that it’s a growing trend.

In redefining itself, Labour has its task cut out. It needs to convince the electorate that a benefits system has its place, that it is there to protect the most vulnerable and not to line the pockets of people without the appetite to work. It needs to redefine and embrace the important tenets of society. It needs to hammer home the importance of key services without a direct cost to the individual (beyond tax). And at the same time it needs to demonstrate its ability to embrace the economic drivers that are here to stay.

It also needs a strong figurehead who can rally the party and convince the people. I wonder who that might be.

The 2015 Budget: In household terms

When George Osborne announced the Budget today, like his predecessors, he used some big numbers, generally millions and billions. There were lots of zeros being bandied about.

I find the Budget more relevant to people if instead of using such huge numbers, all financial amounts are quoted as pounds per household. It allows us to understand, on average, how much of our tax contribution is being spent on things.

So, without further ado, here’s the Budget in layman’s terms, all financials quoted as £/household.

The government will earn the following from the sale of organisations:

A further £467.09 is expected from the sale of the Income Contingency Repayment student loans book.

To prevent individual departments paying different amounts to either build their own data centres or outsource this service, the government will create a joint venture to host departments’ non–cloud based servers, which could save up to £3.89. (It is not clear whether this is a one-off saving or an annualised amount.)

A programme to benchmark public sector performance will deliver annual savings of £11.67.

The Skills Investment Fund will see additional funding of £0.15, as will the Video Games Prototype Fund, and the government will invest £23.35 on freeing up the 700 MHz spectrum for 4G use, and £0.77 on seismic surveys to boost offshore exploration in under-explored areas of the continental shelf.

More locally, it will spend:

The government will spend £2.59 in each of the next six years funding cutting-edge scientific research, and £3.89 on exploring driverless cars. It will provide £0.05 to help vulnerable individuals cut their energy bills.

An overall investment package of £48.66 has been committed for mental health. As part of this, £0.58 will be invested in each of the next five years to give care to women suffering from mental health issues during the perinatal or antenatal period, and £0.07 annually to significantly enhance current mental health and support services to the most vulnerable veterans in the community, and the same again to expand mental health services for Armed Forces veterans.

£0.09 will be provided to improve counter-terrorism at the border.

Is that better?

Pi Day 2015

Shortly before 9:27 this morning, it will be 3/14/15 9:26:53. The significance of this moment is, at best, questionable.

Let’s break it down.

The year (AD 2015) is calculated from the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. However, more recent estimates suggest that he/He was born between 8 BC and 4 BC, as his birth is known to have preceded Herod’s death in 4 BC. So, we should have been celebrating the Millennium somewhere between 1992 and 1996, and the momentous second on which this post is based actually took place between four and eight years ago. So this puts a big question mark over the 15. The fact that we’re ignoring the century (20) is another convenient aside.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced on 24 February, 1582, making it 433 years and 18 days old. It succeeded the ten month Julian calendar, which was slightly inaccurate in its year length. There doesn’t seem to be any logic for there being twelve months (although it’s nice that they divide into quarters, thirds and halves), nor is there any real logic for the first day of the year falling on 1 January. It’s always struck me as odd that it didn’t fall on one of the equinoxes, or else a solstice, given that these dates have a natural beauty. This puts pay to the 3 and the 14.

Now to the time. It’s claimed that the Egyptians were responsible for dividing the day into two twelve-hour chunks, while the Babylonians can claim rights to the 60s used for seconds and minutes. Both are thought to be arbitrary units, chosen more for their mathematical beauty than their worldly significance. So, the 9, 26 and 53 are pretty arbitrary too.

That the UK orders its dates as DD/MM as opposed to MM/DD means that the significance of “International” Pi Day is quashed entirely in the UK, and indeed much of the non-American world. (Much better, I feel, to celebrate it on 22 July, or 22/7.)

So the US will start celebrating the event in just under five hours’ time using Eastern Daylight Time (and will repeat the celebrations at each of three hours thereafter in CDT, MDT and PDT). (Hawaii’s HST will have to wait a further three hours. The islands stopped bothering with daylight saving in 1945.) Daylight time was a concept first proposed by New Zealand’s George Vernon Hudson in 1895, making the rationale for the specific hour of celebration somewhat random.

Happy [International] Pi Day, everyone. #PiDay2015

The scope of frameworks

Frameworks for government are important. They create a forum in which companies can set out their pitch for what they can do for government. They allow the government to undertake a certain amount of vetting of those companies. And they reduce the bureaucracy associated with government’s procurement.

Necessarily, their scope is limited. The scope of the framework is clearly defined. Companies specify their competencies against that scope, and this allows the public sector to buy services within that scope via the framework. It all works rather nicely.

However, risk is introduced when that scope is stretched.

Let’s say a framework is geared around a specific subject matter, cloud computing, for example. And let’s say that in being accepted onto the framework, a company demonstrates its competence in this area.

Now let’s say that a government organisation seeks expertise in a different subject matter, the provision of school meals for example. And let’s say it looks on the framework, and decides to go with the aforementioned company to provide its school meals, predominantly because it seems to offer good value for money.

There are two issues here. First, if the company is not very good at providing school meals, where do we go? The framework offered a level of comfort and protection. The companies that are on it have shown a level of competence in cloud computing. But they have shown no such ability in cookery.

Second, what if there’s another company that’s top dog in the school meals world. They make school meals that kids rave about, with locally-sourced ingredients at a price that has to be seen to be believed.

They see the business being awarded within the cloud computing framework. And, rightly, they say “hang on a minute”. This second company had read the terms of the cloud computing framework and dismissed it outright. “We don’t do cloud computing. We’re good at cooking food for kids. How could we possibly benefit from being listed on there?”

The example above is an extreme one for illustrative purposes. (Funnily enough, this specific example was presented to me earlier today by a Cabinet Office employee. They suggested that if the above deal represented good value for money, what was the issue?)

What are your thoughts? Should frameworks be stretched beyond their initial intent and their advertised scope to enable potential savings to the taxpayer? Or should their scope be carefully policed to ensure that companies are not awarded business unfairly at the expense of others; and that government doesn’t do business with companies ill-equipped to meet their requirements?

G-Cloud: Is there a silver, padded lining?

Yesterday, G-Cloud celebrated its third birthday.

In that time, it has accounted for £431m of government expenditure. (The correct figure is allegedly £467m, but the team is yet to update its data file to correct a bug I highlighted to them, so I can’t vouch for the latter figure. They’re hoping to correct this today.)

Of the £431m, £50m (12%) has been spent on software as a service (SaaS); £31m (7%) on infrastructure as a service (IaaS); £6m (1%) on platform as a service (PaaS); and a staggering £344m (80%) on “specialist cloud services”, defined as follows:

Specialist Cloud Services (SCS) support your transition to SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. Examples of SCS include cloud strategy, data transfer between providers or day-to-day support of cloud-based services.

My take on this is that the SaaS, IaaS and PaaS are on the out-of-the-box widgets themselves; and “specialist cloud services” are the people who are needed to either implement or support cloud.

But if you were to buy a truly cloud-based service, one that plugged and played, then even though there are humans needed to support this on a day-to-day basis, my view is that their effort and cost would be wrapped up into the *aaS cost, and would be labelled such. For example, every penny of the £2,970,196 that Ninian Solutions (Huddle’s trading name) has earned through G-Cloud is labelled as SaaS. If you want Huddle, you sign a contract; you get some licences; and it’s yours to use. There are humans who support it on a day-to-day basis – hell, I’ve met lots of them. But to the customer, these people are invisible.

So I expect that the humans covered by the SCS bucket above are doing the stuff that *doesn’t* come out of the box – either migrating stuff to the new solution, or doing something cloud-related that doesn’t come out of the proverbial box. One hopes that they’re not doing stuff unrelated to cloud. That wouldn’t be good, would it?

In my rather simplistic mind, cloud has two features. First, it’s available solely over the internet. And secondly, it’s shared. If it’s not available over the internet, then it becomes infrastructure sat in a semi-dedicated data centre, which is the old world of IT, and therefore doesn’t fit the cloud definition. It’s available over a network, but that network is a pipe dedicated for use by the end client.

And if it’s an application that is designed and/or implemented specifically for your use, then it doesn’t embrace the ethos of cloud that is associated with driving down cost through reuse.

I would have hoped that by embracing the two features above, the extent to which humans was needed would be much less than the above numbers suggest to be the case.

There is clearly a need for people to implement the things that you are buying through G-Cloud. But I am surprised that 80% of the money that is being spent on G-Cloud is dedicated to this. I have no idea what an appropriate percentage would be – indeed it might be entirely appropriate for four pounds in every five to be spent on the people associated with the service. Views?

G-Cloud is a fabulous thing. It has transformed the way in which certain elements of IT are bought within government, and has brought into the fold a large number of small- to medium-sized supplier organisations. But I find certain elements troubling.

Valtech, BJSS, Methods Advisory, Equal Experts, PA Consulting and IBM UK are the biggest six suppliers based on total evidenced spend, with a total take of £88m. Of that, £87,188 has been spent on *aaS. That’s less than 0.1%. All of the remainder has been spent on the humans to think about, implement and support this stuff. I wonder whether that was the model intended when G-Cloud was introduced.

Why I’m phoning myself – for 33 hours

At the end of January, my 3Gb giffgaff goody-bag expired. I use it to access the internet from my BYOD via a dongle at one of my clients. I don’t set it to top up automatically, as often, I don’t visit said client for a few days after its expiry.

So I went to the giffgaff site to renew the expired £12 goody-bag. But when doing so, I noticed an £18 goody-bag that had unlimited internet. Wowzers! (It also came with 2,000 free minutes of calls, but that’s of little use to dongle-using Dan. Although as you’ll see, it’s relevant to the story.) I added it to my basket and bought. Happy days!

A few days into my new goody-bag’s life, I received a warning message from giffgaff saying that I was not allowed to tether on an unlimited data plan, and that my internet access had been halted until such time that the tethering stopped. (Neat that they could tell.) I was mildly irritated at that specific condition not having been actively presented to me upon buying (I’d had no idea), but accepted their judgment and tried to go about rectifying the issue.

I posted a comment on their forum asking how I might downgrade immediately to the 3Gb goody-bag. Ah, it seems I can’t. You can only buy a goody-bag if the previous goody-bag has either (a) expired; (b) run out of data; or (c) run out of minutes.

Hmmm. The unlimited goody-bag wasn’t due to expire until 28 February, so that wouldn’t do. I needed it before then. It had unlimited data, so it was unlikely that it’d run out of data. Ever. So I was left with one course of action: drain the minutes.

Harder than you might think.

I needed an old phone, one that could accept the old-style chunky giffgaff Sim card. The only one I had was an old iPhone that literally would no longer accept any charge. So my good friend Bal hand-delivered a cutting-edge Sony Ericsson W995 to my door this morning.

After giving it sufficient charge for it to function, I discovered that it was locked to the Orange network. Expletives abounded. So I took it to a shop to get it unlocked for £12. (Hope that’s OK, Bal.)

And now the phone is sat downstairs connected to its charger. At 8:09pm, it made a call to my main mobile. That call is currently two hours and four minutes old, and counting. To make sure the call doesn’t get cut off (I’ve heard that silence on both ends of a phone line result in it being cut off), I’ve positioned it in front of a speaker playing a Spotify playlist on repeat. (As I type, it’s piping Lionel Richie’s Hello into my main phone.)

My plan is to continue the call to myself overnight tonight, and ideally throughout tomorrow. Assuming no interruptions, my 2,000 minutes (33 hours and 20 minutes in old money) will expire at 5.29am on Monday morning, at which time I’ll be able to buy a 3Gb goody-bag.

Utterly ludicrous.

Freedom of speech: What do you mean?

At school we recited the mantra that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Looking back, it’s an odd and misplaced mantra. Often, it’s the words that hurt us most deeply. (Although a good beating is, I expect, also rather painful.)

Of late, particularly in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, people have been talking about the importance of freedom of speech. But what does that mean? And is it really something that people truly want?

Currently there is legislation in the UK that prevents people from the likes of slander (spoken word), libel (written word) and defamation of character. If I slag you off through untruths to the extent that it impacts upon your ability to earn or your reputation, then you can sue me and claim damages. This very legislation is a limitation on my freedom of speech. I am prevented by law from saying what the hell I like about you.

And we also have the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, part of which reads:

A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if [s]he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

Again, I’m not allowed to say, or write, what the hell I like. (Generally, when people talk about freedom of speech, they include the written word as well as the spoken word.)

My view is that there is a place in society for both of the above pieces of legislation existing. If newspapers were free to write what the hell they liked without any recourse, that would be bad, right? (Possibly a poor example.) And similarly, if someone leafleted a community alerting them to a “local paedophile” who was, in fact, nothing of the sort, then that protagonist should, in my view, be held accountable for their actions.

My view is that the wider legislation covering race and religion is also valid. (Arguably it should be widened to other groups that might be subjected to such hatred, or genericised to talk of a wider concept of “groups of people”.)

But even if you only subscribe to the former of the two pieces of legislation being necessary, you are supporting a society in which speech is limited – one in which unbounded freedom of speech is not desired. So the question becomes not whether or not you support freedom of speech; but instead, where should the line be drawn between what speech is deemed to be legal and what is not?

Saying that you desire freedom of speech, but only within the bounds of what is legal, is not acceptable; or rather, it should not be termed “freedom of speech”. Our own legislation has been built up over time according to the social makeup of our society. It has been built up in different ways in different countries, and therefore it cannot be used in defining something that is free.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. Do people want unbounded freedom of speech? Do they want people to be able to say and write what they want to about whomever they want without any fear of recourse? Because that’s not a society that I’d be comfortable with.

Nats should be applauded

On Friday afternoon, Nats, the National Air Traffic Service, suffered a computer malfunction in its Swanwick centre. The problem, which lasted for 36 minutes, meant that London’s airspace was cleared, many flights were forced to land in alternative airports, and over 100 flights from London’s airports were cancelled.

Since the malfunction, MPs have weighed in with their views. The government said the disruption was “unacceptable” and demanded a “full explanation” of what had gone wrong. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is due to be questioned by MPs on Monday about the chaos caused.

Labour has called for ministers to “get a grip” and the Labour chairwoman of the transport select committee, Louise Ellman, said it was “vital that we establish what happened”.

The organisation’s chief executive, Richard Deakin, has come under increased pressure, with journalists citing his 2014 pay package in excess of £1m. (This is irrelevant, for what it’s worth.)

Initial reports suggest that the root cause was a single line of rogue code in one of the 50+ systems managed at Swanwick.

At no stage in the proceedings over the last 36 hours have I seen any reference to how admirably Nats dealt with the situation. In summary, no one died. None of the planes ran out of fuel before being able to land. It seems that the failover process that kicks in when a glitch like this happens had safety as its core. London’s airspace was cleared – very quickly, it seems – and everyone was kept safe.

Instead, the reports have focused on the dreadful time that travellers had sitting around in Heathrow for a few hours.

Our lives involve high levels of sophistication – from crossing the road at a Pelican crossing to contactless payments to synchronisation of music across devices to control of a very busy airspace above the south of England. Sometimes, the systems that support this high level of sophistication go wrong. For a short period of time, a certain bank’s cashpoints are unable to give out cash; a set of traffic lights stops working; Apple deletes your music collection.

We need to accept that there will be an element of disruption associated with system failures. And our demand, particularly for systems that are integral to an aspect of our safety, should be that we are kept safe when they suffer problems. Nats did this with aplomb.

Yes, ask some questions and try to avoid a similar problem happening in the future. But please, get some context. No one died. Some people were inconvenienced.

The need for floaters

At work, everyone has a specific role. They’re an HR manager, a billing administrator, a project manager, a VP of engineering, a secretary. Whatever they are, they are something. Something specific that can be succinctly described in two or three words on a business card.

When they leave, we recruit a replacement against a predefined job description. We ascertain candidates’ strengths against that job description, and we go ahead and recruit.

Yes, people stray outside of their job description. But they generally only do so within the confines of their field, their department. And many organisations stifle such straying, either through culture or guidance.

But what if there were fewer people with such predefined roles. What if there were more floaters in companies. People with ill-defined roles who were there to plug gaps; to figure out what can be improved; to challenge the modus operandi. I don’t mean temporary people. I mean permanent employees. Would that yield benefit? Maybe they could be nominated for the position, take it on for a temporary period, a year, say.

Would the salaries awarded to a few people whose sole job was to challenge be outweighed by the benefits their actions brought about? How would they be managed? And how might they report?

Without those people, businesses will continue to do what they did yesterday, even if what they did yesterday isn’t optimal.

Secret Cinema: A review (contains spoilers)

When the Secret Cinema tickets for Back To The Future were released on 5 June, I jumped at the opportunity. Too much so, some might say. I bought six tickets for 7 August, not knowing who might want to come along.

I told a few friends about it, and my other five tickets were snapped up quickly by some truly lovely friends.

My anticipation built throughout June and July. There were a few articles about the event which I tried hard to avoid. And then there was the hoo-ha surrounding the cancellation of the first four screenings. Rumours abounded that this was owing to a lack of sign-off from the local council.

The first showing eventually went ahead on Thursday 31 July, and again, I tried to steer clear of people’s feedback and reviews. Further showings took place throughout that weekend, and next would be our turn, on Thursday 7 August.

We were told to arrive at Hackney Wick station at 5.45pm. For the evening, I took on the persona of Charles “Chuck” Penland. And I was accompanied by Patricia “Patsy” Lott, Bruce Wilson, Jason Cooper, Alicia Butler and Treva Guill.

Our party convened, all coming via Stratford, and we were then asked to walk past the Olympic Park. Back up towards Stratford. Well that’s all rather odd.

We climbed the hill and could see a Ferris wheel off to the right. We were made to discard/drain water bottles (safety or revenue?), and then had to hand in our mobile phones. Yikes!

We then climbed the hill further, passing Otis Peabody’s farm, complete with goats, and some of the Hill Valley residences – single storey temporary dwellings with artificial lawns out front, complete with sun loungers, mailboxes and acting occupants. One such occupant used his American accent to express confusion when I changed my socks on his front lawn, using his sun lounger to sit on. (My socks that day sported a logo on one side only, and I had donned them that morning with the logos facing one another. Upon discovering this, they simply had to be switched.) All very amicable; but the pretence was impressive and fabulous. I apologised, we shook hands and we were on our way.

We picked up some drinks and walked in, to be presented with the town square: a full-size 1955 town square. The centre was carpeted in a lush, thick artificial grass with a picket fence around the edge. And it was enclosed by a road, with zebra crossings to the shops around its perimeter. Across the full width of the square at the far end was the Department for Social Security, complete with clock tower. In the centre of its façade was a huge cream rectangle, onto which the movie would be projected. Across the back edge of the square was Lou’s Diner, where you could pick up some dinner.

And down either side of the square were shops and outlets, included Bank of America, a Texaco garage, a barber’s shop, a comic store and a record store. Down the right-hand side was Hill Valley High School. And off the rear corner of the square was Hill Valley Fair, complete with a Ferris wheel, one of those rides where you swing around on seats connected precariously to the top with chains, more food stalls (including a converted American school bus) and lots of funfair-type activities. It was 6.30pm. It was 25C. And the place was magical.

After setting out our stall (picnic blankets) on the square, which was already busy and buzzing, we went off exploring. We had a little dance to a live band at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. We rode the Ferris wheel while ’80s music piped out across the square, a picture-postcard deep amber sun dropping through the horizon off to the west (as is its wont). We even noseyed around the lockers in the school, which were rich in detail, including half-completed math(s) homework.

A postman stopped us asking whether we knew a Susan Smith, as he had a letter for her. Marty McFly himself wandered around in a red life vest looking dazed and confused.

And then we settled down on our blankets, ready for the film to start. There were some announcements from the stage in front of the clock tower from the mayor. A little live music, and some health and safety announcements from the local police. No jaywalking was the big one. He wasn’t joking. Cars would be travelling around the square’s roads during the performance, and so we weren’t allowed outside the picket fence, unless escorted across a zebra crossing.

And then all went dark.

STEVEN SPIELBERG

Presents

The cheer was enormous. As if the prelude wasn’t enough, the main event was about to start.

As you’ll be aware, the film itself is fabulous. But this was no ordinary film. The film played in its entirety. And key moments of the film were reenacted around us. Marty skated round the square while clinging to the back of a truck. The DeLorean reversed out from the huge doors beneath the clock tower, engulfed in steam. The Libyan terrorists drove in from one corner of the square in a Volkswagen Type 2 to shoot Doctor Emmett Brown. The DeLorean hit a speed significantly less than 88mph and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The timings were utterly impeccable. The illusion was magnificent.

The fight scene took place in the diner. Marty stepped over Biff’s moving car, skateboard in hand, and carried on boarding on the other side. It was all utterly brilliant.

And then, the finale. Doc Brown appeared way up high, clinging to the clock face. Our actor couldn’t see the screen. Yet his every movement mirrored that of his on-screen namesake. It was clear that he was tethered in place, yet his actions put the fear of God up the audience. And yes, he zip-wired down to the roadside to make sure the cable was connected ready for Marty’s arrival in the DeLorean.

The whole evening was utterly epic. The shops. The atmosphere. The short queues for food. The feeling of not being ripped off. The unbelievable sunset. The perfect ball of fire touching the horizon seen from up high on the Ferris wheel. The tropical temperatures. The car chases. The lockers. The cheering. The music. Oh God the music. The fabulous faux-American accents. The lack of mobile phones. The laughter. The five hours of constant, ear-to-ear grinning. The professionalism. The attention to detail. The relentless attention to detail. The synchronisation. The value for money. The actors. The square. The spectacular last scene. The friends.

I had massive expectations of Secret Cinema. Those expectations were not met. Instead, they were blown out of the water. Fabien Riggall clearly stretched his dreams way further than they’d ever been stretched before. But he pulled it off. He so pulled it off.

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