madaxeman

June 27, 2014

We have a little problem out the back of the office…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 10:33 pm

I’ve noticed an equipment failure at work, and thought it would be serve as a nice illustration of some of the problems we regularly experience in IT.

What convoluted software based menace lies at the heart of our troubles? Well, none – this is a hardware issue actually – we can’t change the toilet roll on the toilet roll holder in the gent’s toilet. It’s not because we’re thick – we are by the very nature of the job we do creative souls who aren’t afraid to sit around and dream up both cunning and elegant solutions to the problems in our lives. It’s not for lack of trying – because it turns out most of us have encountered this issue, noted the problem, but only recently did we come together and face our collective shame.

Here’s the problem – some idiot, when they designed the toilet role holder, did so in such a manner that the centre piece that should be removable to enable it to be placed through the toilet roll tube is fastened into the assembly using hex bolts at both sides. End result, if you don’t bring a hex key with you, you’re not changing that roll.

My first thought here was to laugh at the engineer who designed it, who quite clearly had not ran his/her product through User Acceptance Testing for more than a couple of days, in which time the problem would have become self evident. It’s important, whenever you deploy any new system / feature, to keep the specification in mind, and to keep in contact with your users to make sure things pan out as they ought. If you don’t talk to your users, sure, you’ll still shift a few thousand units of your bog roll holder – but someone else will come along with new “Easy change” technology and take over your whole party. That sucks.

So I was feeling quite glad about the fact that some Buisness Analyst / Tester out there had dropped a bit of a clanger, when I started thinking a little more professionally. How had the engineer who designed the thing managed to get so absorbed (pun intended) in the problem of holding a toilet roll that they never stopped to consider how it might be changed? Had they become so set in their bunker mentality that they genuinely thought all office cleaners carry hex keys? For that matter, did they believe that the roll is always changed by cleaners – because it rarely is. How close was the engineer to the problem – did they really take the time to understand how their little contribution truly slotted into the whole “office based lavatorial services” system?

There are parallels to be drawn here between designing toilet roll holders and designing software – and as professionals we should not be above a little impartial self evaluation and criticism. Do we truly understand the customer, what they need to achieve, and how best to achieve it. We shouldn’t be afraid of saying “No” – there’s value to that and we can learn from it. Passing unit tests is not the same as passing THE test, and we need to pay a little more respect and attention to our colleagues in Quality Assurance when they tell us that although we’ve met the acceptance criteria, they just “don’t like it”. If our own people have reservations, what’s the customer going to think?

Another lesson here, pointed out by one of my colleagues actually, is that the engineer is not necessary to blame for toilet-roll-gate. Who’s to say that we haven’t ordered a product that is actually quite deliberately designed to be difficult to change? I’d imagine such toilet roll holders are common place in prisons for instance – who says we haven’t mistakenly ordered the wrong product? Slipping back to the parallel universe of software design, that’s something else we have to be careful of – Is what the customer is asking us to build really the best solution for all their problems? Can we do better? Can we engage with the customer, make improvements to the product, but still not have to make a version covered in blinking LEDs and switches just because they said they wanted it? Do they REALLY want it?

It turns out, we all have value in the process of software development. BAs, testers, developers, customers and the people who actually change their bog rolls (in other words, the users) all have an important contribution to make. Who would have guessed?

There’s something else to be considered here as well – because despite the fact that all our talented BAs, testers and developers in the office are now aware of the problem, no-one has tried to fix it. No “Easy change” roll holders have been ordered, and the people who have the power (of which we might only dream) to do that were not included in the conversation. Instead, we’ve agreed on our own little workaround procedure – we leave a few rolls on top of the cistern. How many systems out there in the field also contain such well intentioned modifications, and no longer function quite how their designers, their responsible managers, and their users actually expect? How much is that costing IT every year?

 

 

Blindsided on a Tuesday morning…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 9:52 pm

I won’t go into details at the moment, but these are stressful times for my family right now. My step mother is being held on intensive care, and at the start of matters a couple of weeks ago, things were so serious that we had to consider the possibility of losing her. Thank deity of choice that hasn’t happened – and although she is still on Intensive Care, things are hopefully on the right path. She has a long recovery ahead of her, is unlikely to be out of the hospital for literally months, but she WILL be coming out.

Life has a way of throwing experiences at us that we can learn from, that challenge how we think, and make us reassess what’s important in our lives. For a son, it’s not easy to hear your father so upset- and I suspect not easy for a father to know he witnessed it, but it showed how someone I thought so unflappable can be dealt a massive blow by an instant change in fate. I’m not knocking my Dad either – he’s coping “alright” – but if you or I think we would handle the situation any better, we’re fooling ourselves. There is no way, three weeks ago, that we could even conceive of the situation we are in now.

For the record Dad, don’t sweat it – you’re human, so am I, and you’re entitled. I’m bloody proud of the fact that you’ve held it together, especially in front of the grand kids, but also that you care so deeply for your wife. That’s a strength, not a weakness. We might not agree on everything, but never doubt for a moment that I KNOW you have her best interests at heart.

We’re just coming out of the scary phase, but the truth is that the real challenges are likely to come once my step mum returns home. There are going to be massive obstacles to overcome, and it’s not going to be a picnic, but she’s better off than a lot of people when it comes to the people around her. So here’s the deal Jill – do your bit. You pull through, so will we…

 

 

 

 

 

May 23, 2014

And the results are, erm, not in…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 4:21 pm

So – I’ve been having a look at the results for my local council ward (Bentley, Doncaster).

Results

Ok, let’s try and work out how many people turned up at the polling station, but did not actually cast a vote that was counted. We’ll call this figure x:

ElectionWorkings

So, that’s very close to the 1,333 votes held by the elected councillor, Mr. Jackson.

Am I the only person who is a little concerned that the in effect the second most popular choice – to turn up at the polling station but not to actually vote – is not even recorded? Furthermore, although I believe the overwhelming majority of these cases will be people who consciously decided that they would not support any candidate, the truth of the matter is that we have no metric to seperate such people (who hold a definite view) from others who merely spoiled their vote inadvertently.

This should not be acceptable in a modern democracy, and it is time that all of us demand a “None of the above” option on the ballet – the use of which should be counted and reported along with the figures for the candidates.

Democracy is supposed to be representative – so I ask you, how did those 1129 people feel? The truth is, we don’t know – and that’s not healthy.

 

February 2, 2014

No ifs, no buts…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 10:12 pm

If anyone is in any doubt as to the contempt Carmarthenshire County Council has for the auditor from the Welsh Audit Office, and, by extension, the people who voted them in, then you really have to look no further than the following…

At the end of the public interest reports, the auditor points out that the council are no obliged to discuss the matters being reported on within one month of the date of the reports (30th January 2014). He states this is because of section 25 of the Public Audit (Wales) 2004 Act.

The relevant but is sub section 4, which reads:

If this section applies, the body must consider the report or recommendation at a meeting held by it before the end of the period of one month starting with the day on which the auditor sends the report or recommendation to it.

Rumour has it that this meeting is currently going to be held on 7th March, rather more than a month after 30th January then, and a flagrant breech of the law that the auditor has even been so kind as to explicitly call out for them.

“Best run council in Wales”.

Says who? The mafia?

 

Sorry I’m late…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 9:48 pm

Sorry I’m late to the party – I was lucky enough to be blessed with a new daughter on 3rd January, and what with her needs and work, well, I’ve not had much time for blogging. Still, events in Carmarthenshire right now really shouldn’t be allowed to simply pass by without comment.

Basically, it’s been an interesting few days in Carmarthen, which have seen the Welsh Audit Office issue two “Public Interest Reports” into events at the council. A Public Interest Report is basically a mechanism by which, when the auditor finds something he / she considers out of place, provides a mechanism to inform the public at large.

The first report concerns arrangements that were made to pay the Chief Executive, Mark James, monies in leiu of pension contributions under the Local Government Pensions Scheme. The Executive Board of the Council have seemingly been misinformed that senior officers would have to leave the original scheme, and one has to wonder why this might be the case. Speculation is rife that this might be because the officers concerned wish to make their own, more “tax efficient” arrangements for their pensions. Whilst I would consider that to be immoral, it wouldn’t actually be illegal in and of itself. Unfortunately though, there were various “mistakes” made throughout the decision process, and it seems that the eventual decision to pay the money is actually unlawful.

Where that leaves the officers involved remains to be seen – and frankly subjustice means I perhaps shouldn’t add to speculation. It’s certainly not a happy place though, and when the dust settles and the revolution has swept the old adminstration aside, the newly reformed council might well consider how it might go about recovering this money – estimated to be more than £27,000 by the BBC – so we’re hardly dealing with pocket change…

The second report however is by far the more interesting to me, in that it concerns the council having provided the chief executive with an indemnity to cover his costs in pursuing a legal action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson, of #DaftArrest fame. This indemnity has been found unlawful in two regards.

Procedural

It seems Mr. James as present at the meeting where the decision to extend an indemity was made, and failed to declare an interest.  The council have responded claiming that the members of the Executive Board were properly briefed in a “pre-meeting” held before the official one, but this is irrelevant. Even if it did have relevance, no formal record exists as what was said, or indeed who said it. Clearly there are massive issues of transparency and public accountability raised by this – made all the worse by the fact that the Council was actually deciding to support action against a woman who has consistently brought the Council to account herself.

The public are entitled to three days notice of such discussions, but it seems that this was not done in this particular case. The Chairman apparently decided to admit the matter as an item of urgent business as it had to be addressed before the next meeting of the Executive Board. What’s interesting here is that the last information of relevance (the Council’s advice on the prospects of success for the Counter Claim) was received late on 17th January 2012, and the meeting itself called for the 23rd, to meet a deadline of the 24th for registering the counter claim. This meant that the public could should have been notified on the 18th – but this didn’t happen. Instead, the public were left unaware of what was going on.

These points in themselves are more than sufficient to render the decision to fund the libel counter claim unlawful, but it gets better…

The Law.

The law is very clear that a local authority is not able to bring an action against a member of the public, or indeed to support such an action by one of its officers. For a start, we have the “Derbyshire Agreement” – and more in Wales we have very specific law from the Welsh Assembly that forbids this – Articles 6(3) of the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) 2006 Order, Look it up…

The Council however claim that they can support the counter claim, because section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, they feel, gives them the power to do anything “which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions”.

This is of course complete Tosh – the 2006 Order clearly overrides it. Even if it didn’t, can the council really do anything conducive to any of it’s functions? The council is supposed to protect the local economy – does this mean they can raise an army, jump on coaches for a daytrip to sack Cardiff and take out the local Tescos? Clearly not.

The Council have been well and truly caught – and the repercussions of this will be ongoing for months.

As to what effect this has on the counter claim brought against Jacqui Thompson, time will tell. It’s becoming harder and harder for even the post ardent of Jacqui’s critics to deny that her case as the distinct smell of a miscarriage of justice about it now…

 

December 28, 2013

Professional Auditors, Armchair Auditors, or No Bloody Auditors – Come Clean Mr. Pickles…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 9:33 am

An Open Letter To Mr. Eric Pickles, MP :

Dear Mr. Pickles,

In light of the above, you might perhaps forgive me for presuming that you support of activities of “Armchair Auditors”, and feel that, in these troubled times, they have a serious role to play in holding political bodies to account. I further presume that you would also agree that scrutiny of those in public life is a good thing, and that the ability to scrutinise such people needs to be protected.

As someone with a demonstrable interest in such matters, I am sure you will be aware of the case of Jacqui Thompson, a prominent and indeed award winning political blogger based in Carmarthenshire, Wales. Jacqui has for some time blogged about many aspects of the conduct of her local authority, and is perhaps best known for her campaign to allow the public to film during public meetings, having been removed from a council meeting and arrested by police officers for attempting to film those who claim to represent her.

You might not however be aware of subsequent events – in that I wrote a letter on this blog (madaxeman) to the Chief Executive of the council, asking him to justify the council’s actions in that meeting. I feel that he failed to offer any substantive response to the points I raised, but in his response he did unfortunately make a number of comments concerning Jacqui and her family that she considered libelous, and the matter has unfortunately had to come before The High Court. Indeed, I myself was called as a witness at the case, which Jacqui lost owing to what I find to be a frankly inexplicable conclusion that she was conducting a campaign of harassment.

The merits of the case are a matter for separate consideration, but as a blogger who has frequently posted on issues surrounding political accountability myself, the most disturbing aspect of the case is that the Chief Executive launched a counter suit, with the benefit of an indemnity provided from the public purse. Whilst I can understand that public finances might well be justifiably employed in the defence of a council officer before the courts, I find the notion that public funds might be used to actually launch an action against a blogger, or any other member of the public for that matter, to be extremely disturbing.

It sets the scene for a David vs Goliath confrontation, and serves as a major deterrent to those of us who are prepared to dedicate our own efforts, though not our financial security, in the service of the public good. There is perhaps at this point a need to ensure clarity in the point I am making, because I am not suggesting that bloggers should have any special protection against the findings of the Court. The real deterrent here is the process and expenditure of a case in and of itself – during the conduct of the case, rather than at it’s conclusion. It is clearly unfair, and runs contrary to the principle of natural justice, that local authority officers should have the support of the public purse when bringing personal actions against members of the public. The Chief Executive is an extremely well paid man – and since I am denied access to the courts by my financial circumstances, it is particularly gauling to find my taxes being employed to support the actions of someone who is clearly able, though seemingly unwilling, to pay his own way.

If a local authority wishes to act against a member of the public, then it should do so in its own name. Of course, the Derbyshire Agreement prevents such conduct, and that prevention is employed for very good reasons. Those in public life should expect to face scrutiny and robust challenge – and indeed I feel it could be argued that they have a duty to submit to it.

Scrutiny is, in my view, the oil that lubricates the political system. With no oversight, you end up with chaos. But who will bring that scrutiny? I’m told there are plans afoot in Carmarthenshire to reduce full council meetings down to merely watching corporate presentations, leaving the decision making to the favoured few. What of scrutiny then? What of the local press, so starved of funds in this day and age that many publications are terrified to report the truth, lest they should find the local authority removing advertising from them?

Bloggers are ideally placed to bring the required scrutiny – but if you want people to assist you with armchair auditing, then you need to be prepared to stand by them, and ensure they are protected from unscrupulous bodies with relatively inexhaustible resources. It matters. Jacqui Thompson is now going to lose her home, which doesn’t strike me as a fitting reward for countless hours spent in service of the community.

I urge you to read her blog, and draw your own conclusions…

Sincerely,

Madaxeman.

 

December 8, 2013

All in it together?

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 10:57 pm

My partner works 20 hours per week as a teaching assistant, and I’m bloody proud of her. It is, despite what Michael Gove might tell you, a skilled job, and it takes a certain kind of person to do it… What kind of person do I hear you ask?
 
Well, the first thing that sets my partner apart from the rest of the population is the simple willingness to spend twenty hours each week in the company of a primary school class. Think that’s easy? Well, remember how pissed you can get with just a couple of kids in the house? Well, double it, then double that, double it again, and then again… Now you’re at 32 kids…
 
But it’s a school though, right? It’s all primary colours, smiles and learning? Well, not quite… In the couple of years we have been together, my partner has returned having been kicked (no action taken), had a penetrating wound when a child threw scissors at her (no action taken, and she still has the scars), and having been punched. She doesn’t spend all day sat on her arse either – even when she was six months pregnant they still sent her out onto the school field for half days at a time… She has a degree in Childcare and Early Years Development, has the patience and dedication of a saint, and quite frankly I couldn’t do her job.
 
Something else it takes, and this is truly scandalous, is the willingness to accept a mere £8,000 in return for her efforts. This being, in our modern society, what teaching your child and 30 or so of their friends to read and write is worth these days…
 
It’s a bit of a bum deal, isn’t it?
 
Members of Parliament in the House of Commons have just been awarded an 11% payrise, which is nice – for them. These are the people who decide how  to implement cuts to public services, like education.
 
Of all MPs, my personal loathing sits most comfortably with Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire). I’ve had a beef with her before (check previous posts) – but in the Register of Members Interests she recently declared having received over £18,000 for twelve hours work producing a newspaper column. In other words, in a morning, she earned than my partner does all year.
 
My partner doesn’t receive subsidised food, free accommodation, travel expenses or a cushy little subsidised bar at work. So, the next time an MP utters the phrase “we’re all in this together”, I’ll ask you not to judge me too harshly if I dispense a bit of a slapping…

November 10, 2013

Remembrance Sunday

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 10:25 pm

This morning, as I have for many years, I attended the Remembrance Sunday event at Doncaster Cenotaph to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the military and other services so that I might have the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms I do. On leaving the event, as I usually do, I reflected on what I perceive as a number of failings in the event. Usually, out of respect for the event and all it represents, I would keep my observations to myself, and not make a song and dance about them. Today however I am going to do the precise opposite, and speak my mind – for much the same reasons.

To me, Remembrance Sunday serves two main purposes. It allows us to pause to acknowledge the huge sacrifices made by the armed forces in the defence of our freedoms, but it also serves as a reminder of the both the horror and folly of war. In recent years though, and particularly at the Doncaster event, I’ve become increasing disillusioned with the prominence of political figures.

At Doncaster, the various military participants of the event move into position, and are then held waiting for local dignitaries who walk in from the Regents Park, before the event is allowed to continue. For my money, that’s just the wrong way around. Politicians, let’s face it, are hardly blessed with an enviable reputation right now… MPs expenses haven’t been forgotten, and there is a general perception that many of our elected representatives are more interested in their own interests than in ever championing ours.

What the event should be about, in my view, is recognising the sacrifices made in defence of our freedoms. It would hardly be inappropriate therefore for our civil leaders and local dignitaries to show the armed forces proper respect, perhaps even deferrence, turn up at the start of the service, and await the arrival of the armed forces. It is the forces, not the politicians, that the event should cherish, but anyone familiar with proceedings at Doncaster might wonder if a mistake has been made somewhere along the way…

So, what I propose is this – the local dignitaries should arrive before any other participant at the event, and should wait, as the public do now, for all the armed forces to take their positions. As our representatives, they should represent our gratitude and respect for the armed forces. The public should be left in no doubt that it is the forces, and not the politicians / assorted dignitaries, at the centre of matters.

And now to have a go at the British Red Cross…

Well, not really. I am a former member of the Red Cross, and I know that the staff who present the society at the Remembrance Sunday event do so with a spirit of solemnity, and in an act of sincere tribute to our armed forces. I know some of these people personally, so please don’t think this is an attack against the people who attend the event to represent the BRCS – it isn’t.

However, there is a problem, and it is actually an extremely serious matter. Any member of the Red Cross will tell you that the organisation holds a number of “fundamental principles” dear, and two of the most important of these are Impartiality and Neutrality. Without these, the work of the Red Cross, and particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, would simply not be possible.

The modern world is a very troubling place, and we now live in times where aid workers, who have worked on foreign shores with nothing but the very best of sincere good intentions, are being attacked and even killed because of a suspicion of complicity with agencies involved in conflict. In my view, it is therefore foolhardy in the extreme for the Red Cross to take part in a parade with the UK military forces. Attending the remembrance event is one thing, but given the power of the image in our times, having Red Cross personnel join the back of a military parade is a VERY questionable decision. In my view, it places the International Committee of the Red Cross’ staff in needless and avoidable danger. It shouldn’t happen.

October 31, 2013

An Interesting Question…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 12:41 pm

Those of us whom have taken it upon ourselves to take in interest in matters concerning the affairs of Carmarthenshire County Council following it’s treatment of respected local blogger Jacqui Thompson can hardly fail to have noticed the recent events surrounding the pension affairs of the authority’s Chief Executive, Mr. Mark James. In brief, Mr. James has chosen to receive his pension contributions not through the authority’s usual arrangements, but as a “lump sum” instead. The motivation behind what we have to assume to be his personal choice here has not been declared, but speculation is rife that Mr. James will be making “more efficient” arrangements in terms of his tax liabilities. The Welsh Audit Office have concluded that the payment concerned is unlawful, and there’s been much tooing and froing ever since…

The council claims that they received independent legal advice before entering into this arrangement, and that they’ve been told all is just ticketty boo. We’re also told that the arrangments won’t cost the council a penny extra.

This gives rise to a number of questions – let’s see if the answers emerge…

Question 1.

How much did the legal advice cost, and who paid for it?

I don’t believe there to be a pack of feral benevolent lawyers wondering around the Carmarthenshire doling out legal advice to local authorities in distress. “Free Advice” is offered for a motivation – so if we really do have an “independent” lawyer offering the benefit of his / her wisdom, we should be told who that this. Without this information, how can we possibly assess their independence?

A second possibility of course is that Mr. James paid for the advice himself – which would clearly mean we couldn’t consider it to be in any way independent.

The third possibility is that the advice came from someone on the authority’s payroll – again, doing away with any suggestion of independence. We also need to consider that their time costs money (salary) – and the costs involved should be declared.

The final possibility, and in my view the most likely, is that the council have paid for independent advice from an external source. The following questions are based on this scenario…

Question 2.

Assuming the council did pay for independent advice from an external source, we need to know how much this cost them.

Question 3.

Was it reasonable for the authority to expend the sum on the tax affairs of a very small number of employees (possibly just one!)? They are after all claiming that the financial climate means they are going to have to implement massive cuts over a range of services. How is spending money on this advice in any way in the interests of either the council itself, or the public it is supposed to serve?

These are questions with which the members of the Council need to concern themselves at the forthcoming meeting of the full Council in November. The public deserve the answers.

 

October 11, 2013

Insurance Renewal Time…

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 9:30 am

I’ve decided to publish the following open letter to my car insurance company – .

I am, in case you can’t guess, not very happy with them…

Dear Sirs,

I have recently had the unhappy experience of receiving your renewal quotation for my car insurance, in which you kindly offer to take a further £300 from me on top of my current premium of £500 for, well, reasons that were not exactly clear…

You see, as a thirty eight year old man with a family and another child on the way, I have with some regret had to surrender my Megane Coupe, and join the ranks of dull, grey, utterly uninteresting Ford Mondeo drivers. Mondeo Man is indeed upon us. Having chosen a form of transportation highly regarded by elderly close-to-death types, I had sort of expected my insurance to come down this year – or possibly stay the same.

A £300 increase however came as something of a surprise, so I telephoned your renewals department to try and make sense of your new found desperate avoidance of my custom. Having spoken to a pleasant young lady called Chloe, I discover that the alleged justification of my treatment is “I haven’t had the car very long”. Indeed, she mentioned that you would prefer me to own the vehicle for at least 12 months, at which point I would qualify for a discount. I can barely express my gratitude.

Here’s the thing though – as a high mileage driver with over 9 years of no claims (I actually have 14, but can only prove 9), I was sort of under the impression that I might be receiving a substantial discount already. You know – assuming that insurance isn’t indeed a racket, and that premiums are supposed to somehow reflect risk. If I can drive over 200,000 miles without ever having a claim against me, then maybe I just might be safe to be let out on the highways and byways on my own for a while? I think I’m an “above average” driver by quite some margin, but then so, it seems, is my premium.

Talking with the ever delightful Chloe (a genuinely helpful lady who deserves commendation), the concern is that apparently that I might not be used to the car, and therefore I presume more likely to splatter myself all over oncoming traffic at the drop of a hat (or perhaps clutch…). This is, of course, hogwash. I drive my own car, am a named driver on my uncle’s car, and a fleet driver for a company that operates all manner of different vehicles. My employer isn’t unduly concerned that I’ll write off any of their cars because a) I can drive, and b) I am not a simpering idiot. Besides, I would have thought the “three pedals, sticky thing in the middle, turny thing in front of you” configuration for car controls now has now seen broad adoption across the automotive industry. I can confirm my previous car used such a configuration if it helps – maybe that might allay your fears…

But then, why bother? You clearly don’t want my business, so I’ll do us both a favour and take it elsewhere where it might be appreciated and, if I’m really lucky, actually valued.

Have a pleasant day, and perhaps reflect on the fact that if you’ve grown fond of receiving a salary, you might want to consider improving your service.

Yours faithfully…

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