We are ill-equipped to vote on our membership of the EU

Each month, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee meets to discuss the level at which the official bank rate should be set. Each of the committee’s nine members has a strong history in finance, important given that the decision has such a fundamental impact on the economy of the country.

This Thursday, the populace of the UK will convene to decide whether or not Britain should remain a part of the European Union. Only a tiny percentage of those partaking have a financial background, nor will many be experts in social studies, two of the bedrocks on which this vote is being canvassed.

Clearly it’s too late for this to change. The voting cards have been printed and schools across the country have been given a day’s holiday to once again make way for plywood polling booths to be erected.

I feel that we have been handed a decision that is outside of most people’s skillsets, certainly outside of mine. Yet we have to make that decision anyway. I worry that we are being asked a deeply profound question that could have massive implications on our country. Yet as a populace we will respond to the question based on hearsay, emotion and selfish drivers. After all, if I were a member of the MPC, I may well vote based on my own savings/loans balance at the time.

Liz Hurley has been quoted in The Sun: “If it means I get my lightbulbs back, I want OUT.” With all due respect to Ms. Hurley, I don’t give a shit what she thinks about the UK’s phasing out of 60W lightbulbs, nor indeed about the part the EU might or might not have had in their demise. (As an aside, Liz, Brexit would not bring them back. They’re no longer available for scientific and climatic reasons, not ones of politics.)

But many people *will* give a shit about Ms. Hurley’s views, together with those of Sir Michael Caine, Sir Ian Botham, Katie fucking Hopkins. And many will not even be aware of the views of people who have a more informed view on the impact of each possible outcome, such as those of Mark Carney, the MPC’s Chairman.

We have been asked to make a decision on whether Britain should remain in the EU primarily because two white, male Old Etonians can’t stand each other and will do everything in their power to win a personal battle.

In making that decision on Thursday, I implore you to listen to the people who might understand better than we do the impact of each possible outcome. Ignore the leading politicians, who are too wrapped up in egos to care about what’s right for the people. And ignore the celebrities who appear in newspapers, newspapers that themselves are campaigning for their own interests.

And if you are undecided, please, please vote to remain in the EU, allowing you the possibility of deciding at some point in the future.

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.

Candy Crush Saga: Saving the Planet

I have a theory. It’s utterly ridiculous. But it’s a theory nonetheless.

Who knows the book/film Ender’s Game? If so, carry on reading. If not, I thoroughly recommend you read the book. (I’ve not yet seen the film. I’ve heard it’s a bit shit.) And come back once you’ve read the book. (The book is wonderful.) If you choose to ignore my advice, then note that there are some spoilers to follow. Read on at your own risk.

So here’s the premise of Ender’s Game. It’s all about a kid called Ender Wiggin. He is selected by Earth’s authorities and is made to spend much of his life in Battle School, pretty much playing shoot-’em-up video games.

Spoiler alert: The last video game he plays is not actually a video game. Unbeknownst to him, it is instead a real-life battle against a bunch of aliens that are invading Earth. Ender wins the battle. Earth is saved. For the win. Literally.

Now here’s the theory. King, the company that developed the Candy Crush Saga game, is actually the Ministry of Earthly Defence. And Candy Crush Saga works on the same premise as the video game in Ender’s Game.

Every month, 46 million people are presented with screens filled with pieces of candy. They play the “game” every day some people every waking hour. In the game, they have a certain number of moves, or a limited amount of time, to complete each level. They practise the game, getting better and better, faster and faster. Hell, they even send invites to people who have no interest in receiving said invites asking that they join the legion game players. (I’ll politely decline, if it’s all the same.)

King has a record of who is good, who is not so good, who’s dedicated to the cause, who’s learning quickly, and who’s not worth bothering about. They know who’s stuck on Level 33. (Apparently, Level 33 is a bitch.) And who’s made it past Level 350 (also a bitch, though a more advanced bitch).

All the while, King are fine-tuning a sister application, Candy Crush Missile. This is a program that uses people’s activity in Candy Crush Saga to control real-life missile launchers that are positioned at various points around the globe.

When aliens invade Earth, the United Nations will press a button. The button is red, naturally. And the button links the Candy Crush Saga app with the Candy Crush Missile app.

Upon pressing the button, the world’s six most proficient Candy Crush Saga players will be selected to defend Earth from alien invasion. They will have no knowledge of having been selected. The candy in the games that appear on these players’ screens will suddenly be a live feed representing the aliens’ attacks.

The swipes that Pauline Collyer makes on her iPhone while stood in the aisle by the toilet on the 0656 train from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street will directly feed Candy Crush Missile, launching alien-bound missiles and rockets from all corners of the globe. Likewise, while the kids are sleeping upstairs in Richmond, CA, Ted Rubenstein will switch on his Nexus 7, his swipes sending yet more missiles skywards. Seinfeld will be on in the background. “The sea was angry that day, my friends.”

Their actions will feed the missile launchers along with those of Hanari Akemi from Umahori, who will decide to grab a quite late bite to eat while playing Candy Crush Saga during her lunch hour in downtown Kyoto, Japan; Brad C. Johnston, who by all rights should be paying attention to his 4pm Applied Mathematics lecture at the University of Newcastle on Australia’s east coast; nine-year-old Kirsty Tenneson in Honolulu, playing on her Nexus 5 instead of sleeping (her parents are downstairs watching Orange is the New Black); and Tania Nuñez, a night owl in Valparaiso, Chile, who has taken a break from her history assignment that’s due in on Friday.

Only time will tell whether their skills will be enough to protect us. And whether the history assignment will ever be handed in.

Being a contractor

Tonight, as I arrived at the train station to start my journey home, my client emailed me to ask whether I was still around. I picked up the email on my phone.

I called him straight away. He needed something urgently.

Five minutes later at my interchange station, I got my laptop out on the platform bench and VPN-ed into work using my 3G dongle. (My 4G one arrives next week.) When my London-bound train arrived, I boarded and continued my investigations, connected all the while. Upon arrival in London, I wasn’t yet done. But I emailed my progress through.

I descended into the Underground and boarded the first Tube to arrive, not before connecting to the Wi-Fi with my phone. An email arrived from the same client asking me to call him. I alighted the train immediately, just before the doors closed and without having travelled anywhere, and used Skype to call him from the Tube platform. Neat!

I then took the Tube to my home station and popped into the pub. I had been intending to catch the end of the Italy–Costa Rica match. But needs must.

I got my laptop out and logged in again via my 3G dongle. A quick Skype call to the US helped me complete my analysis, leaving me free to go and watch my daughter recite her Brownie Promise and beam with pride.

As a contractor, I pride myself at being always on. There are rarely times when I cannot be contacted, and usually I’m able to react quickly to a request for help.

I surround myself with tools that allow me to do just that. My dongle allows me to connect my laptop pretty much anywhere. My phone alone allows me to accomplish an awful lot without delving into my bag, and allows me to stay on top of things on the go.

And PowWowNow and Skype (including Skype On The Go) give me the edge. I can call internationally without worrying overly about cost. And I can schedule a conference call without a moment’s thought.

All of this costs money, cost that is not passed onto the client directly. But in my view, it’s an essential part of being a contractor. The extra mile, if you like.

The role of Ofsted in schools

Ever since I can remember, education in the UK has been measured through the use of exam results, at GCSE and A-level. Until the last year or so, some statistic about how many students received a certain number of A*–C (A–C grades before the A* was introduced) has been steadily increasing, giving the general public a warm and fuzzy feeling about how well the Secretary of State for Education is doing in his or her role.

During the same period, school qualifications have become more and more meaningless and valueless.

As I’ve said previously, this needs to change. The proportion of students achieving each grade in a given subject should be fixed year on year. Students should be evaluated against their peers. This is the only way in which grades can become meaningful again. If I received the CVs of two people, one of whom attained five As, three Bs and two Cs; and one of whom had ten As, I am unable to meaningfully compare them unless I know which year in which they took their exams. And even if I was armed with that information, I wouldn’t have sufficient information to be able to discern which candidate had performed better.

Children’s inherent intelligence is not fundamentally changing over the course of time. Certainly not to an extent that can be detected between one August and the next.

(The same is arguably true of employees, by the way. If your organisation is sufficiently large, you should be able to group a fixed proportion of people into each of a number of performance brackets. But that’s an aside.)

So if exam results were to be standardised, Ofsted becomes more important. The quality of education being offered by a school should be measured in two ways: its overall approach; and its outputs (exam results). (Arguably, a school that only accepts really bright students will demonstrate very good exam results, so perhaps a third measure, about its outputs compared to its inputs (11+ results?) might also be useful.)

The quantitative measure(s) involving exam results can easily be collated and presented based on hard data. But Ofsted’s softer role is ever more important in ensuring that this is backed up with empirical evidence about how a school operates on a day-to-day basis.

Eight years of BBC News reporting on rail fare increases

2006–07: Train fare rises draw criticism

Above-inflation price rises for rail tickets have come under attack from rail groups and opposition politicians. Many areas’ regulated fares, which include season tickets, have risen by 4.3% – about 1% above inflation – but some unregulated fares are up by 7.3%. The Tories said the “galling” rises showed ministers had failed to sort out the railways. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said fares needed simplifying.

2007–08: Passengers face train fare rises

Passengers are to be hit by above-inflation rate fare increases. Season tickets and saver and standard day returns will rise by 4.8% on average, says the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc). Others, such as cheap day returns and long-distance open and advance fares will go up by 5.4%.

2008–09: Latest train fare rises attacked

Above-inflation rail fare increases of more than 6% are “completely out of kilter with the real economy”, passenger groups have said. Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus said hikes were “difficult to explain” as wages were not rising by the same rate. Train firms say more money will allow greater investment in services.

2009–10: Rise in rail ticket prices criticised by watchdog

Rail watchdog Passenger Focus has criticised the new year rise in fares, which have gone up by an average 1.1%. Season tickets and standard day tickets might see a “very small reduction” in cost, but some of unregulated ticket hikes were “quite stinging”, it said. Another campaign group said fares should be cut to the European average. The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said the majority of passengers would see “a fall, no rise or an increase below inflation”.

2010–11: Rail season tickets for some commuters ‘pass £5,000’

The cost of some annual season tickets will exceed £5,000 for the first time when prices go up on Sunday, the Campaign for Better Transport has said. Season ticket prices across the UK will rise by an average of 5.8%, while London bus and Tube fares go up 6.8%. CBT said some Kent commuters would have to bear rises of nearly 13% and warned of people being priced off the trains.

2011–12: Commuter pain as rail fare rises take effect

Rail commuters preparing to return to work after the Christmas break face fare rises of up to 11% from Monday, watchdog Passenger Focus has said. Chief executive Anthony Smith said they should not have to keep paying for a “fractured, inefficient industry”. The annual rise will see the average price of regulated fares, such as season tickets, increase by 6%. The Association of Train Operating Companies said money raised through fares helped pay for better services.

2012–13: Rail commuters hit by 4.2% average fare rise

Rail fares for season ticket holders have increased by an average of 4.2% as the annual price hike, announced in August, comes into effect. Overall, ticket prices have gone up by 3.9% in England, Wales and Scotland, but rises vary between train operators. The TUC has claimed average train fares have risen nearly three times faster than average incomes since 2008. Transport minister Norman Baker said the government had intervened to ensure fare rises were capped at about 4%.

2013–14: Rail fare rise of 2.8% comes into effect

An average 2.8% increase in rail fares comes into effect on Thursday, pushing the cost of some commuter travel to more than £5,000 a year. The increase is the smallest rise in four years, according to the pan-industry Rail Delivery Group. Chancellor George Osborne said in last month’s Autumn Statement he would keep fares in line with July’s Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate of 3.1%. But campaigners say that fares are rising three times faster than incomes.

One in 20 million

I am one in 20 million. I genuinely believe I am.

Out of all of the people in the world, I would argue that I’m in the top 0.2% of people when it comes to Excel prowess. That equates to being one of the top 112,000 people in the UK, assuming equal global representation. Old Trafford plus White Hart Lane. A safe bet, I reckon. It becomes even more realistic if you consider that only around 50% of the UK’s 28m workers are office workers, so the majority of the rest will not even feature.

And out of all the people in the UK, I reckon I’m in the top 0.5% of people when it comes to proofreading prowess. Just look at a YouTube comments board and you’d struggle to argue.

Finally, I reckon I’m in the top 0.5% of people when it comes to unicycling prowess. An estimated one million Americans can unicycle, or 0.32%. So 0.5% is probably quite conservative, given that Americans are probably more likely than most to unicycle, and given that I might even be better than the odd one or two.

So assuming the three skills are not correlated (there may actually be some correlation between Excel and unicycling), if you’re looking for an Excel-trained proofreading unicyclist, I’m a better choice than the next person, and the next 19,999,998 people after that.

This isn’t arrogance, by the way. It’s intended to highlight that every one of us can identify certain skills that we’re better than most at. And when we combine those skills, we’re on top of the world.

(My ability to find the butter in the fridge, my cooking prowess and my creative artistic ability probably also combine to make me one in 20 million. But at the lower end of the spectrum.)

So find those skills. Hone them. And make sure people know how good you are at them.

(Oh, and as an aside, make at least one of those skills fun, and also choose one that can make you some money. If all three fall into both categories, you’re golden. I made 10 Deutsche Marks juggling in Köln (spelt thus to avoid aftershave gibes) in 1993. Not enough to pay the mortgage. But a fun experience nonetheless.)

Accessing our information: are we asking the right question?

The rather farcical Where’s Wally/Waldo–style arm’s-length manhunt that is underway to locate Edward Snowden is, perhaps intentionally, deflecting from the important topic of snooping. But I think people are missing the important question.

The question being asked is:

Are the authorities breaking the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The question that should be being asked, in my opinion, is:

Should the authorities be allowed to operate above the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The problem is, the authorities have done little to engender our trust in the past. The police are never out of the news for their corruption and cover-ups, alleged and otherwise. The Stephen Lawrence case is the most recent example. Before that, phone hacking, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, the list goes on.

And in government, MPs are rarely out of the news for their own indiscretion: expenses scandals, selling of information, employment of relatives, cash for questions, their all too cosy relationships with the media.

And this behaviour, this reputation tarnishes the entirety of the security services. Few people nowadays trust that their information will be used in a responsible and positive way, and so there is uproar at the very idea that MI5 or GCHQ might go beyond the confines of the law in an attempt to thwart terrorist activity.

I wonder whether people’s perceptions of the security services’ use of data would be different if operational policing were better trusted, or if those that were responsible for the government of our country operated in a transparent and honest way.

My view is that if the public-facing sections of the authorities behaved in an honest manner, we would have little issue with the security services’ use of our data. Instead of asking whether they’d operated within the law, we’d be asking the extent to which they’d thwarted terrorist activity.

Perhaps this is a naive post, and that I’m ignoring the more fundamental rights we have to privacy. Perhaps. Only you can judge.

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