Arcade Fire vs. Google

Oh my word.  If you haven’t seen this, watch now.  It is utterly stupendous.

http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/

Rated tradesmen servicing SW4

I struggle to find tradesmen and similar companies that I rate.  But when I do, they’re invaluable.  So I thought I’d start a blog post—one that will evolve—detailing those in the Clapham, London area that I’d recommend to others.  The post has three functions: to allow them to gain more business; to allow others to benefit from them; and to serve as a Post-it note for myself for future reference.  Those detailed below are, in my experience, top-notch and well worth seeking out.

If you live in the area and know first hand others that are decent, let me know and I’ll add them to the list, so long as I know you.  I’ll flag clearly any that I have no first hand knowledge of.

GCSE scoring: #fail

The school examination system is fundamentally broken: the way in which marks map to grades is wrong.

This year, the percentage of GCSE passes increased for the 23rd year running.  While the percentage of A*–C grades increased by two percentage points from last year—to 69.1%.  Meanwhile, the A-level pass rate increased for the 28th successive year.  (They last  decreased on the same date as compact discs were released in Germany!)  And 29.9% of those sitting the exam achieved an A* in Mathematics (Further).

In my view, the percentage of entrants in a subject achieving each grade should stay static year-on-year.  So, for example, 16% of Maths entrants should be awarded an A grade.  Period.

Only through evolution are we becoming more intelligent as a species.  And the rate at which evolution, er, evolves is sufficiently small for it not to affect exam results across a generation or so.  As such, a gradual increase in people’s success in exams merely serves to penalise the old, at the same time making it more and more difficult for prospective employers, universities and the like to differentiate between pupils.

If a paper is easier than last year’s then by maintaining proportions as proposed above, the mark necessary to achieve a certain grade is pushed higher.  I’d be happy for the percentages to change from one subject to the next—one may choose for a higher proportion of English exams to score well.  But changing them year-on-year serves no purpose whatsoever.

Seems simple to me.  So why so hard for the politicians?

paper.li: my take

paper.li is the most beautiful and practical application of Twitter data I’ve yet seen.  And somewhat ironically, it harks back to a day when newspapers were all the rage.

The application essentially aggregates and presents back information in the form of a single web page based on a Twitter ID.  Mine is here.  Sounds simple, but I’m guessing the algorithms that drive it are quite complex.  And that’s what makes the offering so compelling.  They seem to find the articles that I find most interesting, those that I would have retweeted had I seen them on my Twitter feed.

In some respects, its charm is similar to that of Facebook.  The algorithms that determine what constitutes your Facebook homepage seem similarly complex.  How long does Facebook wait until it tells you the number of your friends that have recently connected to another person, for example?  And with paper.li, what factors determine whether articles are presented to you and the order in which they appear?

It’s lovely.  And useful.  If you’re off Twitter for a while, it’s a good way to catch up without being overwhelmed.

Google Contacts annoyance

Google Contacts is allegedly getting an upgrade.  It has apparently been rolled out to the basic (sorry) GMail customers and will soon be with us Google Apps customers.  I’m never sure whether to be honoured that upgrades always seem to be road-tested by the lesser GMail brethren, or to be annoyed that they get them first.  Either way, I can bear little influence.

The upgrade will make contacts more usable, allegedly.  But as far as I’ve read, I don’t think it will solve my biggest gripe.

You see, I like order in my digital world.  I like my photos to be tagged and geolocated.  I like my invoices to be consistent.  And I like my contacts to be pure.  They are always saved as “Surname, Forename” (even my grandma, for Doherty, Pete’s sake).

Whenever I email someone new, either actively or as a response to an incoming email, they automatically appear in the All Contacts bucket, but don’t make it into the My Contacts bucket.  That’s good, because I don’t want what might be stray contacts making their way into the sanctity that is the My Contacts bucket.  But only by undertaking a comparison of the All Contacts bucket to the My Contacts bucket can I figure out what these wretched new contacts are, to make a decision as to whether to formalise them or bin them.

So on an ad hoc basis, I export My Contacts, export All Contacts, load both into Excel, do some vlookup jiggery-pokery and identify the delta.  I then go through those contacts one by one deciding whether to delete them or formalise them by transferring them to My Contacts and adding the necessary metadata (Surname, Forename etc.).

Frustrating isn’t the word, but it’ll do.

RIP @paul_clarke—the account, not the person

Wednesday was a sad day.  At 3.42pm BST, Paul Clarke decided that he’d had enough of Twitter.  After 19,999 tweets, many of which enlightened me, touched me, amused me, and occasionally humbled me, he signed off.

20,000. I think that’s probably enough. Now, what’s next? Over and out.

I take this as a move directed against me.  Only 22 hours prior, I’d texted him to tell him:

You are a genuine asset to Twitter and indeed the world.

“Ha,” I’m sure he thought, “that’ll show him!”

In seriousness, he was an enormous asset to Twitter, as I’m sure his other 2,390 followers would testify.  His tweets were inspirational, almost always positive and a true pleasure to read.  He directed us to articles that genuinely mattered, and to photos that were often sublime.  And whenever I wrote an article of a certain ilk, it was his RT that I most actively wished for—a stamp of approval, if you will.

There are about five people whose tweets I eagerly awaited, and this number has now dropped to four.  But I respect his decision.  Twitter has its benefits—without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon Paul himself—but it can also suck life out of you if you let it.  And I have been guilty of that, as my wife might vouch.  At its worst, it can be trite, transient, shallow.

If Paul thinks it’s time to move on, it’s time for him to move on.  I for one will be spending less time on Twitter as a result—a good thing, I feel.

For Twitter, status update number 21,495,421,699 marked a sad loss.

#YRS2010

I popped along to Young Rewired State 2010 late Friday afternoon.  For those oblivious to its work, it’s basically an initiative designed to get youngsters engaged with government via geekery.  Fifteen to 18-year-olds are invited to work on an initiative of their choosing, helped by a mentor, to create some sort of application that might be of use using government data.

It’s an admirable initiative.  Apathy with government in general is low right now, and anything that can boost that, particularly among youngsters, has to be a good thing.

Friday was the culmination of a week’s work, with youngsters from regions across the UK—Norwich, Manchester, Bristol, Reading to name but a few—descended upon London’s Great Portland Street to present their ideas and applications.

Rarely has so much geekery been seen in one place.  I tried to fit in to some limited degree, sporting my XKCD t-shirt, but was outdone on so many levels—the most predictable for such an event being the 127.0.0.1 t-shirt of Harry Rickards.  Laptops abounded (both Apple-branded and otherwise), dongles, smartphones even the odd iPad.  Young geeks were still polishing their applications (not a euphemism) while their peers were up on stage presenting theirs to the audience.  Above all, an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm and passion filled the room.

It was refreshing.  The news is filled with stories about “the youth of today”, and while admittedly these kids were in the main privileged (it’s not your average kid that gets to go to London to present from their own laptop), the passion was a joy to behold.

And some of the ideas were fabulous.  From Steve Cox’s neat little postcode comparison tool to Issy Long’s wondrously designed site for displaying the energy efficiency of government departments.  I hope she won’t mind me saying so, but Issy—the first girl to the stage—was nervous as hell, but it seemed that her passion for the subject matter surpassed the nerves, and the presentation was fabulous.

There were applications to find your local recycling plant based on the specific type of item you’re looking to recycle and those that suggested which GCSEs to take based on their “passability”.

I had to leave before the culmination, but the winning entry was a great idea that allowed people to find books of interest in libraries, linking in with social media to allow people to tag books and their location and for others to find those very same books.  A mechanism, perhaps, to rejuvenate the local library.

But the applications were not the winners at #YRS2010.  The kids who built them were.  Their passion—for their device, their data, their OS of choice, their language of choice, their idea, their mentor, their application—was palpable.  And to think that these kids will be the generation of tomorrow was both heartening and frightening.  Heartening, for who better to drive forward the digital economy?  Frightening, because these people will be competing with me in the jobs marketplace before too long.

Thanks must go to Emma for the orchestration, Hadley for the wondrous personal drinks service and Paul for diving around the floor looking like a tit in creating an awesome flickr set.  Until #YRS2011.

Interoperability of road markings

I admire Boris.  I think he’s done a great deal already to promote the profile of bicycles in London, doing a similar job for bikes as Ken did for buses.  The recent introduction of the Cycle Superhighways (CSs) and the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme can only be a good thing.

But the road is now a very confusing place to be.  Many years ago, bus lanes didn’t exist.  Now they do, each one operating during a different set of times, some allowing taxis and motorbikes, others not.  Many road junctions now come with two solid white lines separated by an “advanced stop zone” for cyclists.  Possibly for motorcyclists too—who knows?  (Whether it’s technically illegal for a car to stop in said zone is subject to some debate.)

We have green cycle lanes which have been around for some time and the newly introduced blue CSs.  But when the blue CS expands to encompass an entire car lane, the only such lane that allows vehicles to go straight on, heaven knows what the cars should do.

Meanwhile, single and double-yellow lines on the side of the road are now joined by double-red lines, a suggestion that double-yellow lines were not sufficiently stringent.

And big, red Cs also adorn our roads, indicating that you’re approaching/in the Congestion Charging Zone.

The road and its plethora of colours and markings make a confusing place to be.  And I’m a Londoner, supposedly well-versed in, and certainly well-travelled on, the asphalt underfoot.  What it must be like for a tourist is anyone’s guess.

Someone should really take a step back and redefine the business requirements that the road markings are trying to achieve.  And then come up with a revised stylebook to support their implementation.  For I for one am confused.

The angry policeman: the lesser-known of the two works

I was just on the receiving end of some rather nasty behaviour on the part of a policeman.  Here’s the story.

I was driving south down Albert Embankment in my Streetcar, my three-year-old daughter in the diagonally-opposite seat.  A police car came out of nowhere from behind, neither sirens nor blue lights alerting me to his presence, and cut me up big time on the inside—to such a degree as to force me to brake.  My immediate reaction was to raise my hands inside the car, in a “WTF?” kind of way.  There were no fingers, either one or two.

The police car pulled into the 24/7 bus lane to the left and slowed, and I drove past.  He then rejoined my lane and proceeded to tailgate me all the way down the rest of Albert Embankment.  I stopped when the green light turned to amber outside MI5—much to his annoyance I guess, given his blatant disregard for the law thus far.  He pulled up close behind me in the same lane, while a black guy pulled up beside me on the inside.  The guy to my left informed me through our respective open windows that the police car was following me, which suggested something more sinister than I guess it was.  We talked for a while, the guy, unprompted by me, expressing similar views with respect to the policeman’s cutting me up.

The lights turned green and away we went.  The black guy and I continued round to the left at Vauxhall under the railway bridge, but came to a standstill next to one another owing to traffic, mainly because of an unwieldy bendy-bus up ahead.  The police car was initially behind the other chap, but pulled out to his left into the Brighton-bound lanes, and stopped next to us both, despite the policeman being completely unimpeded by traffic in his newly-chosen lane—much to the silent annoyance of those beginning to queue up behind him.

In his flak-jacket, he started a conversation with the other chap, again through open windows.  I couldn’t hear the conversation, but the hand signals were sufficient to make out that the policeman was questioning what the guy had been talking about with me.  I tried to stay behind once the traffic started moving, but felt that doing so would have given him a reason to pull me to one side—there not having been one previously.  So I pulled away, leaving the innocent chap talking to the less-than-innocent policeman.

The entire incident, if that’s what you would call it, seemed to be provoked my an angry policeman who was out for a fight.  I only wish I’d captured his car’s details.  Maybe an FOI request could release some CCTV footage.

The problem with centralising the strategy

In times such as these, the source of strategy must move closer to the centre.

During times of relative prosperity and wealth, strategies can afford to be local.  One organisational unit can afford to have a different strategy to another, as long as the organisation is sufficiently large.  Such diversity allows for business needs to be met in a timely fashion, and any inefficiencies that result are mere noise compared to the benefits perceived.  (Note my avoidance of the word “realised”.)

In leaner times, the inefficiencies associated with localised strategy cannot be justified.  What was believed to be “business need” is often discovered to be “business want”, and so the promotion and proliferation of localised strategies to meet those wants is seen as wasteful.  Instead, strategy is drawn towards the centre, the local organisational units becoming more involved in implementing the strategy and managing tactical initiatives as opposed to defining and shaping the strategy.

In the private sector, the board and finance departments take control from the departments.  In government, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury take control from the Departments.

The difficulty lies not in the centralised model itself, but in the shift from one model to the other.  By devolving the strategy in the first place, the local departments (capitalised or otherwise) diverge from one another.  Oracle pops up here, SAP there.  Where Microsoft abounds in one area, open source thrives elsewhere.  Macs/PCs, Firefox/IE, Autonomy/Google, the list goes on.

So when strategy is overnight drawn towards the centre, change is necessary.  And change costs money.  And money is scarce, certainly in government—both within delivery departments and centrally.

What this means is that strategy will be slow to pervade.  Very slow.  Departments will not be able to make wholesale changes—there simply isn’t the money to do so.  Only at points where investment would have occurred anyway will departments have the opportunity to embrace the strategy.  And even then, if the shift to align to the strategy is more expensive than continuing down the previous trajectory, then the additional spend will have to be justified.  Moreover, these investment cycles will become fewer and further between, hardware being asked to run for longer and software and operating systems continuing after the warranty and support have expired.

So the move towards a common strategy will be slow.  Possibly so slow that by the time alignment is felt, strategy will again be devolved.  Only time will tell.