How much does your breakfast cost? My views on the PAC report on government IT spend

That’s quite a simple question, right? But can you answer it? And would it be valid to compare your answer with that of someone else to make judgments on the value for money you’re getting? Let’s look a little deeper.

During term-time, I eat breakfast with my daughter. Let’s assume I’m focused purely on my own breakfast, not hers. I might have some toast or cereal—the former with marmalade or spread and Marmite; the latter with milk (Cravendale, semi-skimmed). I drink instant coffee (heathen), with milk and enough sugar to fill the end of a teaspoon. I can probably come up with an average cost of the Ocado-bought items. Should I include a contribution towards the delivery fee?

More often than not, the cup from which I drink is the one furnished with the word “Legend”. It sets me off on the right footing, I feel. But it was a gift (from Huddle). Should I factor in its cost, some rate of depreciation? And similarly for the Pottery Barn plate/bowl?

If we’re looking at the total cost of ownership, we should really factor in a contribution towards the subsequent running of the dishwasher. Maybe lighting and heating too?

Outside of term-time, I generally pick up a coffee, ideally from Costa. Possibly even a cheeky croissant. I eat these aboard a train, the journey on which I have paid for, but I’m not sure whether any of this cost should be allocated to the breakfast cost.

All in all, I’m probably paying less than £1 for my home-based breakfast, and anywhere from £2.50 to £4.00 for my train-based equivalent. It might average out at £2.50 across the year.

Now let’s compare that to my consultant friend. Her life is depressing. Every year she averages 150 nights in a hotel, her employer (and ultimately her client) picking up the hotel’s £19.95 cost of breakfast, for which she has a choice of full English or continental. Usually, apart from the coffee she doesn’t bother eating breakfast, instead putting most of the continental in her bag to eat at lunchtime instead. It’s unlikely she’ll get a chance to leave the office.

This is what government is trying to do by establishing the price that each Whitehall department spends on its end-user IT equipment. Each one has a different contract with a different supplier. Each contract has a different cost structure. And each department’s requirements are different—sometimes subtly, other times vastly. The majority of the DWP’s PCs will be used to deal with enquiries and payments, likely relatively thin clients; I expect that the majority of those sitting within the Office of National Statistics are more hardcore, needing to crunch oodles of data. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s huge geographical spread will add further complexity to the provision of desktop equipment.

There may be an itemised cost of desktops in the outsourced IT contract. In some, this figure will include networks, a standard software stack, hardware, IMACs, helpdesk, remote access, remote support. In others, it will include every imaginable subset of these.

Departments use this complexity to confound the Cabinet Office in its requests for information. I have witnessed this firsthand. But the complexity of the information makes it very difficult to compare costs on a like-for-like basis. This is an art-form that departments have perfected through years of practice.

According to the BBC’s article on the report issued by the public administration committee, departments sometimes pay up to £3,500 for a single desktop. What this figure includes, who knows? Undoubtedly there are some howlers out there—some costs that need to be called out and reigned in. Big time. But comparing desktop costs both within government and with those that you or I would pay on Amazon is bananas.

So, how much does your breakfast cost?

Moroccan deaths outnumbered Norwegian deaths: what makes a news story?

On Friday, 76 people died in two related attacks in Norway: a mass shooting on Utøya Island and a car bomb in the capital Oslo.

Today, 78 people died when a military aircraft crashed into a mountain in southern Morocco.

Today, four days after the Norwegian tragedy, its news occupies the number two slot on the BBC News site. Twelve hours after the Moroccan plane crash, it occupies tenth spot, almost ready to be assigned to the archives, when it hits 13.

News is a funny old game. While there are political ramifications that have resulted from the Norway tragedy, the human fallout from the two events, the grief and devastation caused, will be similar.

But below are the key differences that, in my opinion, make one more newsworthy to British news outlets than the other:

Interestingly, at its most human the article about the Moroccan plane crash talks of an “accident”. Yet the stories surrounding the Norwegian events as “tragedies”.

The relative prominence given to the two news stories reminded me of my post of three years ago: What is news? In many respects, it’s a combination of personal risk and personal interest—all news becoming less relevant with time—although the measure is much more complex than that.

I wonder whether the BBC use a set of metrics to gauge the relative ratings of their news stories.

Could a tree grow upside down?

Imagine a piece of land three metres square. Imagine it’s suspended 50 metres above Earth. And imagine its soil is kept together by a cradle underneath.

Imagine a set of solar panels positioned on the ground, angled to point sunlight to the underside of the suspended earth. And imagine irrigation systems are in place to keep that land well watered from above—excess water falling from the platform back to Earth.

Now plant an oak sapling in the underside of the suspended platform, such that it is unhampered by the cradle.

How high would the sapling grow? Indeed, would it grow?

So long as it didn’t rely on the traditional direction of gravity in relation to itself for water to pass down its trunk and branches, my view is that it would grow. Being upside down, the water would instead travel from the root to its branches. Whether it would suffer from a surfeit of liquid at the end of its tiny branches, who knows?

But if it could grow upside down, would it grow more rapidly given that it would be growing with, rather than against, gravity?

And would this offer a solution, admittedly a far-fetched solution, to allow richer crops to grow in shorter time windows?

Language: if in doubt, blame the Americans

Yesterday, the BBC published an article titled “Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples“. It included 50 “Americanisms” sent in by the ill-educated British public—together with 1,295 comments—before it closed the forum. Some highlights from the 50:

Most of the people that commented, I expect, are British sticklers ill-at-ease with change, writing letters on a regular basis to the Telegraph and Points of View. (Apparently, it’s still on air! Who knew?) But many are ill-educated buffoons of the opinion that any phrase that grates must be down to the Yanks. In actual fact, a good number of the top 50 entries constitute either language changes through business use, or Olde English words that have fallen out of British English usage, but that still form part of the American lexicon.

So people: get over yourselves. Stop blaming the Americans for the beautiful enhancement of our shared language. British and American English should live together in harmony, each celebrating its quirks, but not disparaging the other for infiltrating its own with a phrase that has become common parlance. Oh, and here’s my post on developing a single written version of English.

End of.

The delights of padded paper

A delightful excerpt from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. I’m aching in agreement.

“Look at that,” he said. “How the ink bleeds.” He loved the way it looked, to write on a thick pillow of the pad, the way the thicker width of paper underneath was softer and allowed for a more cushiony interface between pen and surface, which meant more time the two would be in contact for any given point, allowing the fibre of the paper to pull, through capillary action, more ink from the pen, more ink, which meant more evenness of ink, a thicker, more even line, a line with character, with solidity. The pad, all those ninety-nine sheets underneath him, the hundred, the even number, ten to the second power, the exponent, the clean block of planes, the space–time, really, represented by that pad, all of the possible drawings, graphs, curves, relationships, all of the answers, questions, mysteries, all of the problems solvable in that space, in those sheets, in those squares.

My first 100-comment post

Today marked a milestone for Tangential Ramblings. One of my posts notched up an incredible 100 comments.

To put that into perspective, the entire blog has recorded 2,349 comments across its 1,703 posts, an average of 1.38 comments per post. If I blogged to generate comment, I would have given up the best part of seven years ago.

Putting aside the 100-comment post for a moment, the next most comment-heavy post has seen 17 comments, and only six posts have hit double-figures.

The post that has stood out as an outlier is titled iTunes cannot read the contents of your iPhone [solved]. Its title is an iPhone error message that I encountered some 12 months ago, one that I researched and eventually solved. There wasn’t a single solution out there that I could use, so I wrote one.

And in so doing, I’ve helped 100 people who’ve suffered the same issue who were happy to comment. And, I expect, ten times that number who haven’t commented.

That’s reward in itself.

For those that are interested, below are the top seven posts by number of comments:

The phone-hacking saga and the rancid role played by social media

The phone hacking story, complete with its seemingly endless facets and nuances, has been and continues to be riveting. It contains lots of the elements that newspapers would, figuratively, pay good money for: celebrities, politics, illegal behaviour, scandal.

And perhaps most interestingly, we’ve seen newspapers thrown by the fact that they themselves are now the story. And in this position, they’ve been testing the water, likely unsure whether tomorrow’s headlines will feature their own title. Luckily, they’ve had the benefit of time to test that water, the story having taken top billing for the last three weeks—save half a day last week when an illegal distillery in Lincolnshire took BBC News’ number one slot.

And social media has been in its element, driving the news and likely influencing the billing that the story has received as it has evolved and morphed.

But social media has also been rancid. In many cases, it has behaved no better than the now defunct News of the World. Whilst its users haven’t hacked the phones of missing schoolgirls or passed service personnel, they have celebrated appalling developments in the story, throwing petrol on to an already volatile and rapidly growing fire.

While there is no justifying what appears to have happened at the News of the World, there is also no justifying some of the acidic and Neanderthal comments that have been levelled, largely at the as yet innocent Rebekah Brooks.

I am not defending her. I am attacking those that have prematurely attacked her. In a democratic society that prides itself on a fair and proper justice system, I find it shameful to read such comments. Comments such as those written would have drawn six-figure out-of-court settlements had they been printed in the News of the World.

Twitter has been instrumental in driving the story forward. Tom Watson , Graham Linehan and Charlie Brooker for example have been fabulous to follow throughout the furore. But Twitter in particular has also been evil, rancid, frenzied, libellous and downright subhuman in its reaction to those stories—and indeed the humans at the centre of the story.

The News of the World: my take on why it should stay

I have purposely not read any blog posts about the demise of the News of the World. I’ve read the news (haven’t we all?), but I refrained from reading blog posts so as to give myself the opportunity to write this post with as near to an objective mindset as might be possible in this crazy, media-saturated world.

Unlike Steve Coogan, I am sad that the News of the World is closing. Whilst I have never bought the paper in its 167-year history, and whilst I don’t agree with its ethos, it forms part of British society. Further, I expect when the investigations conclude, many years from now, it will find that the majority of its c. 200 employees are innocent of any wrongdoing.

In my view, the Murdochs have decided to axe the paper for entirely business reasons. The negative coverage of its alleged phone hacking over the last few weeks has had a huge adverse impact on its brand. And rather than attempt to recover from such a beating, I expect they have decided that their money is better placed in bolstering the Sun and, over time, turning it into a seven-day newspaper.

And while I don’t know whether the News of the World constitutes a separate legal entity from other publications within the News International fold, I do worry that its closure might result in subsequent investigations being hampered by its perceived right not to preserve information that should rightly constitute evidence.

I have never been interested in the content of stories that form the basis of the paper—certainly those advertised. Yet I know that other people are interested in that sort of content, and that’s fine.

My issue, and the issue that has been focused upon in the latest media storm, is with the method with which its journalists have obtained the information to fuel those stories. While allegedly easy, the newspaper has crossed the line of decency and those guilty employees and associates should be held to account for these actions. And its management, whether indicted or not, should be held to account in a similar way.

Processes should have been in place to ensure that the paper’s management understood the manner in which information (the lifeblood of the paper) was garnered. And checks should have been in place to prove the veracity of the methods being reported. Even if journalists barefacedly lied about the source of their information, checks should have proven that the sources they reported were bogus way before the crimes of the levels we’re hearing were committed.

But I expect that the investigation will find that a small minority of the paper’s workforce—past and present—was guilty. And the innocent incumbent workforce look likely to pay the price in the form of redundancy. In a poor job market within which a floundering newspaper industry sits, this has profound implications for those people. But these people have not been considered in the harsh business decision reported by James Murdoch.

I hope that the investigation finds corruption at the top of the pile. And that the heads of Rebekah Brooks and her senior colleagues roll as a result. Only time will tell whether this will happen.

Happy Birthday, Tangential Ramblings

This little blog is seven years old today. 2,556 days. 1,700 posts. 2,332 comments.

Hope you’re still reading. And hope you’re finding the odd bit enjoyable.

Google’s administrative nightmare

The Google Apps administrative experience has become a proverbial dog’s breakfast. And by dog’s breakfast, I mean a fucking mess.

Packages and products have been bolted together under a single login, and the administrative interfaces have been bolted together in a similar fashion. Separately, they probably made some sense. Together, they most certainly don’t.

Below is a list of the dashboards and administrative homepages that I’m aware of, how each is accessed and a brief description of what I *think* you can do from each:

I kind of get it. I think the Manage this domain feature comes with me being, as it were, the master of my domain. I own osirra.com, so I am responsible for its master settings: what you can and can’t do in it, how Mail should be configured for each and every one of my three users (one of whom is four years old), how names and dates should be displayed, what logo to display (it took me an age to find that the other day), yada-yada.

Mail settings, along with its sibling settings pages, operates a level below this, allowing users within the domain to tinker with the lower-level features of that product: filters, look and feel, labels, forwarding and the like.

And account settings are specific to the user account, allowing you to change your password and access the products.

But the hierarchy is far from clear. And the navigational tools to drive you to the various admin. pages don’t do a good job in informing you what to expect, or whether you should be going there in the first place.

It took several weeks for me to uninstall Rapportive, a Google add-on furnishing me with additional information about people with whom I interact. I simply couldn’t remember where I’d added the feature, and couldn’t for the life in me remember where to deactivate it. I eventually managed to find it, but don’t ask me where—that information is long gone.

Maybe the cumbersome user experience is exacerbated by my very flat (and narrow) organisational structure. I am account owner, product user and domain administrator in my little world. But I can’t help but thinking that it would be similarly bad in a larger organisation.

Google needs to sort this out. I can’t go on like this.

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