Friday, 30 April 2010

First Anniversary Thoughts

When I started this blog, it was going to be about all the things about working and life in the UK that drove me crazy or irritated me. I was going through a very uncertain period at The Bank, when I and many others thought we would be out of work by the end of June. I thought I would have significant things to say about... well, something.

Well, I don't. The older I get, the less I know and the less advice I have for anyone about anything. (Except: always use Dulux Trade paint and a roller for that professional look and one-coat cover.) Writing this has made me look around the blogosphere and that has made me realise just how little I have to say about anything. There are guys with Fields Medals writing blogs with real research mathematics in them. There are guys discussing Hollywood scripts before they are produced, and girls writing fashion blogs with larger readerships than some magazines. Check out the links: this time round I had a hard look for the best of the best in the subjects I like.

I don't have a cute style either, and that's an important part of making a popular blog. With a few exceptions (The Art of the State, Style Bubble), the best blogs are written by Americans: the British tend to be too involved with politics or too intent on documenting exactly how some aspect of life in Britain really sucks. Which was where I started and soon veered off. Americans get what's needed for a good personal blog: choose a subject you like that other people want to know about and write about it usually in an upbeat, and always in a confident, way. I'm still trying to get there.

Heck, it took me some time to find the right title - that is, one I didn't want to change a couple of weeks after I thought it was cute. The idea for this title came from the titles Rumi Neely gives her postings and from the way I feel about communicating with people. I have a lot of clutter going round in my head. About what I'm reading, the movies I watch, the news I hear, what happens to me at work, what I feel about my life. Most of it is transient, like the weather. I need to say it like the clouds need to rain, but I don't always need anyone to hear it. I'm a man, and outside work men only communicate with other people under two circumstances: 1) when shooting the breeze, 2) when they need advice or help on some practical matter.

Writing that clutter down gets it out of my head and onto the page where it can stay. Writing it in a reasonably concise, snappy style makes me think about what I'm really trying to say, which means, what I'm really trying to think. Writing stuff down is one of the most important parts of an AA recovery: put it on the page and it won't trouble you anymore. Writing down whatever is taking space in my head lets me move on. In Meetings, we share for ourselves, not to invite comment and help. If anyone listening finds what we say useful, so much the better. This is the same.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Thoughts Approaching My Next Birthday

I am approaching my fifty-sixth birthday. I think I'm in some kind of denial, except since I know what the denial is about, it isn't really. I'm just not letting myself feel the fear. One friend is on a course of chemotherapy for secondary cancer - you know what that means. He has a thirteen year-old son and with luck may see his boy get to university. Another took early retirement from the Civil Service a few years ago and has let his marbles slip a little. Every now and again I get drunken phone calls from him that are remarkably like the last drunken phone call. Another friend has a permanent struggle to earn consistently as a freelance and a fourth has a headhunting business which has gone through periods of no distributable profits. No-one I know is happy and successful, or even just happy. This is why older people don't stay in touch with each other: the news is rarely good.

I think I'm ashamed of my life, of living in a terraced house in a working-class suburb of Middlesex and working as an analyst in The Bank (the money doesn't suck, but it ain't City salaries either) in a job that's below my personal grade, so that I have to leave in the next couple of years or take a nasty pay cut. I don't have a partner, it's been a very long time since I had sex with an actual woman - the LTR that ended a couple of years ago stopped being intimate way before that. I'm not even sure I want a relationship right now, that the rewards would be worth the effort. I have to watch my weight or my blood sugar will go up again and I don't want to feel or look like that again: so I am constantly worrying about what I eat. I weigh myself and get a body fat reading two or three times a day. I've quit drinking, smoking and I shouldn't even be thinking of eating chocolate, cakes or even bread. Have I mentioned how much I like bread? If I don't eat enough, I get painful constipation: if I overdo it, I get high blood sugar. It's a narrow line I'm eating along here.

I don't feel like going on holiday. Why would I? When I get there, I'm still the same person, and when I get back it's still the same situation. Why would I go away when I can't escape and don't want to come back?

I don't have a pension worth a damn and I have a serious chance of reaching the end of my active life without ever having done anything I really wanted to do. All I would be able to say was that I never gave up the fight. For some time now I've felt like I've stopped living but haven't stopped fighting and I'm not sure what I'm fighting for or why.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Wonderful Tina Dico

Enough of profound waffling. For the last six months or since whenever I found this track, I play this at least once a week via You Tube. Ms Dico is Danish- no jokes please - has made a stack of CD's and this track is outstanding. There's a slight hint of Amoureuse, which Kiki Dee had a hit with back when I was at university, but that only makes it resonate the more.

I'm guessing of the choices she faces in the song, she chose the second - as any artist must. Give it a listen and watch a few more of her videos.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Step Eight

I've always had a problem identifying with a chunk of the alcoholic image. I have no problem with the "one is too many and a hundred are too few" bit - you should see me with a Diam Milka bar right now: it's open and it's going to get finished in this sitting. I have a problem with the rampant ego bit, where the alcoholic needs to reduce the size of their ego and seek humility. I simply never reached the point where I got physically tired of booze, I'm not even sure I had a rock-bottom. Those involve a loss of dignity and control, and a while of sordid and revolting behaviour that I never quite reached. I'm not a primary alcoholic, I wound up with a drinking problem because a lot of ACoA's do, on account of inheriting the gene.

Step Eight was for me an exercise in acquiring some self-respect. I discovered, not without a lot of psychological turmoil so intense it left me unable to see for a moment or two, that I was not a bad person, had ruined no-one's life, though at times I had been a bit of a jerk and may have pissed some people off now and again. Let's get this clear: Step Eight-sized sins are not about upsetting people, but about paying back the money you stole and apologising for the black eyes you gave them. I may have spoiled a couple of evenings, but I didn't ruin anyone's life.

If you want to make your way in this world, you are going to step on a few toes and if you want your snout in the trough, someone else won't have their's in it. I didn't always have to make way for other people or feel guilty if I didn't. (I was a very fucked-up not so young man.) There is nothing wrong with ambition and material well-being and even a little luxury: what is wrong is trampling on, using and discarding, lying to and exploiting, other people to get those things.

For many alkies Step Eight is a big shock, as they discover just who they have to be ready to make amends to. Step Nine isn't about saying "sorry", it's about making amends, and apologies are not always enough of an amend. A parent in recovery can never apologise enough to their spouse or children, but they can make amends - by staying sober and being the parent they should have been in the past. A noisy former flatmate can apologise but isn't really in a position to make amends. My Step Eight was not about amends or apologies, it was about learning to stand up and start behaving like a mensch. I'm still working on that.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Silence of the Volcano

What I do know is that from the afternoon of Wednesday 14th April to last night it has never been so quiet where I live. Heathrow produces a permanent low-level lower-frequency noise - in the right conditions you can stand in Bushy Park and hear the sudden roar of engines going into reverse thrust on landing. It is never completely quiet in west London. Until the last few days. The loudest thing was bird-song. And those old men flying their gnat-noisy model planes in the local park on Sunday morning.

What I don't know is whether the bureaucrats made the "right" call, first in stopping the flights and then in the time they chose to let flights start again. What I do know is that not one of them said the right thing at the start, which would have been: "We're talking with Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and the other major engine manufacturers about the conditions in which it would not be safe to fly at the usual daily frequencies through volcanic ash. 'Unsafe' here is defined as meaning that damage would be caused to the engines that would with reasonable probability lead to loss of thrust from which a pilot could not recover. We should remember that aircraft have lost thrust from all four engines in similar circumstances and their pilots have recovered control and flown safely afterwards. If the airlines wish to continue to fly, that is their decision, and if passengers wish to board, that is also their decision. Any aircraft which does fly though the cloud must have a thorough inspection of its engines afterwards. The usual liabilities and responsibilities remain in place, and we are advising insurance companies that this is not an act of god or natural disaster in the terms of their agreements. It is exactly what people buy insurance against."

Sadly we don't live in a world where we treat people like adults, who make their own decisions about the risks they take. So the usual "precautionary principle" crowd crawled out of their cotton-wool lined Volvos and muttered about "passengers' safety being paramount." There was even an idiot who said that any amount of ash was a potential hazard. Which would mean that no aircraft would fly ever, as some ash from every eruption will remain in the atmosphere, just as Ceaser's last breath is shared by us all and for the same reason.

Monday, 19 April 2010

How Not To Deal With A Cynical Staff: Part Three

In the previous two posts I showed you a mail from our Director that was supposed to be a response to the awful rating we gave the business in matters of morale and development, and explained what was wrong with what he said. Here's why it matters.

Well, first let's explain why I get worked up about it. Which is not quite the same thing. I am an alcoholic from an alcoholic background and guess what? Denial sets all my alarm bells ringing, twice the volume when it's an authority figure doing it. You don't have that problem so you don't even think the guy's in denial - you just think he's being evasive or going through the motions. That would be pretty much the same as denial in my book. If you're English and therefore think that denial is a desirable state of mind, you don't even think he's done anything wrong and are even now making excuse for him - except you think the excuses are reasons.

Now here's why it matters to you. You many be one of the wives, partners, friends and children of the 140,000 people who work at The Bank - because all the managers behave like that. In which case you have someone in your life who is just slightly more pissed-off, cynical, fed-up, distracted, harassed or stressed than they need to be. Which affects the quality of your life. I grant that the second-hand work-related crap you get is as nothing compared to the second-hand work-related crap teachers' partners get, but that doesn't mean your life couldn't be better if our Director didn't lie to us. (That's what denial is - lying.)

And if they don't listen to their own staff,  do you think they listen to you-the-customer?  Or do you think they treat as an idiot who doesn't get it. Do you think they listen to you when they do those surveys? Do you wonder why they provide what it suits them to provide, not what you want? And you wonder why you got mis-sold? And why they don't give a damn that you're complaining? A senior manager who is prepared to BS his staff is more than prepared to BS his customers as well.

And you wonder why non-one ever seems to know the answer to your questions? Why they always have to call their supervisor, ask a colleague or refer you to another department? That what the lack of training for us means to you. The average us simply doesn't know the answer - oh we could look it up on the Intranet, if we even knew where to start because, let me assure you, Wikipedia our Intranet is not.

What's really irritating is that it wouldn't take much to fix some of these things. It's not like it takes much to get a training and development programme going. This same organisation can spend a fortune on Sarbanes-Oxley, Basel and other bureaucratic wastes of time. Promotion is an issue in an organisation with a shallow pyramid (each manager has about eight-ten direct reports even in Head Office, whereas the Armed Forces do it in threes.) Sideways movement (aka job rotation) and pay rises are not so difficult. They shouldn't even ask us if we feel involved in decisions as a corporation isn't intended to be a democracy - they shuffle the deckchairs every year without any consultation (bad sections get the gloomy parts of the office).

What's interesting is that someone must be taking the results seriously because otherwise our Director would have said nothing. I'm guessing it's his one weak spot and the only thing that might be used to keep him back from the Next Big Move.

Friday, 16 April 2010

How Not To Deal With A Cynical Staff: Part Two

So in the last post you read the way our Director intends to address our attitude to the company. Here's what you might need to know and what we shouldn't need to tell him. No-one but you has ever read this.

Dear Director,

It's clear from your recent mail that you are concerned about a number of factors that point to the level of morale and feeling of engagement amongst the people in the Loans business. But we don't think you have addressed them. Here's why.

Of course we can read the objectives on the Intranet, but that's the problem, the Intranet is nothing but PR fluff and regulatory box-ticking. Many of us are involved in the budgeting process, so we know that the business has real financial objectives, and none of those appear on the Intranet. What else are the management hiding? That's why we say we don't understand the objectives of the business - because we know we haven't been told what the real objectives are.

As for involvement in decision-making, we're also a realistic lot, so we don't expect to be involved in any meaningful sense in any decision taken in a business that employs over 100,000 people. We know that decisions are made mostly at your level and above on the basis of reporting that comes directly from IT and Group functions. We know that the majority of the implementation resources in the company - from IT to Branch - are taken by senior-level projects, so that proposals from business units can only be marginal in extent and effect. Except pricing. Is anyone going to ask us if we want to move office from (nice West End address) to the City fringes next year? We're pretty sure the decision has already been taken and we're just waiting for the official spin.

On the matter of training, many of us have friends who work in the Investment Banks, have been through the big consultancies and have worked in other industries, and know that companies committed to training are pro-active - they do not tell their staff that it is up to them to jump endless bureaucratic hurdles and persuade a senior manager to sign off on an external course or membership of a professional association. And what sort of company spends millions on new software and then leaves it up to the staff to decide if they want to get trained on it: The Bank did when it failed to incorporate training into the roll-out of Sharepoint. One more thing we're sure you're aware of: if the "training" does not enhance our CV's, we are not going to count it as serious. Training that is of value to The Bank is likely to be of value to another employer, and we know how interviewers regard internal courses and Intranet training - because we recruit people ourselves.

Sometimes we answer as we do because you are not asking us the questions we need you to ask, so we punish you for that. Of course we have read our job specs and filled in Balanced Scorecards. And of course we know that all that is empty HR box-ticking. We know that because many of us are managers who struggle to explain, for example, to a junior analyst how they have a TCF responsibility. We know they don't, they know they don't, but the box must be ticked. We know what our jobs really are, what we don't understand is what that reality has to do with the verbiage on the forms.

Of course we understand how our performance is judged - that's why often we don't approve of the results. But you don't ask us if we approve, you ask us if we understand, and the only way we can punish you for that is to tell you we don't understand. Actually, we don't understand how you could continue to use a system so obviously open to abuse, and that each of us have had experience of being abused by. In our experience, confident managers usually rate their people fairly, while weak or insecure managers use the process to get back at their staff.

As for the feedback on our performance, most of us have experience of hearing one thing in our appraisal meeting and then reading something entirely more harsh and damning on paper. Some of us are embarrassed by the fact that our recognition for someone's performance will not be matched in their pay packet. When there is neither significant financial reward nor development opportunity as a result, praise is cheapened.

Many of us have lost count of the number of Directors who have started their tenure by telling us how much they believe in personal development and then let it drop as they struggle to keep up with the demands from Board level. The ex-MT's have their careers pro-actively managed in the early years and the difference between their experience and that of a normal hire is salutary. We know how easily a manager can lock someone in - a simple "partially met" usually does it - and how few people move around and upwards. Of course we do not think anyone has serious opportunities for personal development.


In the next post I'll explain why "hey, this is life in the modern corporation, just ignore it" won't really do as a mature and responsible response.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

How Not To Deal With A Cynical Staff: Part One

Some background. Every three months The Bank conducts a staff satisfaction survey. It asks us a number of questions that the management want to ask, not that we want to answer (e.g. "Do you understand how you are appraised", not "Do you think your manager appraises you fairly"). For the last three surveys those of us in my business have been caning the management on the following:

a) Clear understanding of goals and objectives of The Bank (we say we don't have one);
b) Very clear idea of job responsibilities' (we say we don't have the first clue);
c) Understand how performance is judged (we say we don't);
d) Manager gives regular feedback on performance (we say they don't);
e) Sufficient opportunities to receive training (we say there are none);
f) Opportunities for personal development' (ditto);
g) Enough flexibility to provide good service (we say are you kidding?).
h) Involvement in decisions (we say, you what?)

When I say "caning" I mean our part of the business has come bottom of the lit. Three times. So this is what our director sent round - the third time.

Firstly, thanks to everyone who took the time to complete the survey. I think this e-mail will demonstrate that it really does have impact and things do happen as a result!!

I have now had the opportunity to read and reflect on the scores from the very latest survey. On one level I'm delighted that we have moved up 12 points or 26% on the Q4 survey. However, the fact is that I'm still a long way from satisfied with the results and consequently it's really clear that the Exec Team and I have still got a lot of work to do! It is the most important thing to me that you all feel positive and motivated and I'm determined that we will react clearly to what the results are telling us.

Looking through the questions there are some simple things we will do to try and address concerns.
Turning to each question.....

‘Clear understanding of goals and objectives of LBG' - I would encourage everyone to take a little time on our Intranet pages to remind themselves of our plans. We want to be Britain's Best Bank as judged by being the most Recommended and we will do this by focussing on Developing Core Relationships with Customers. Our product is a key part of Core Relationships as our Franchise only acquisition strategy means we either create or retain a core relationship with every sale. I will also update on headline performance at our team huddles from now on.

‘Very clear idea of job responsibilities' - I have asked the Exec team to ensure that each person in the team is supplied with a copy of either their Role Profile if signed off or a job specification by the time we hols H1 appraisals. Anyone should feel free to shout up if they do not have the right level of clarity.

‘Understand how performance is judged' - I am re-assured that everyone now has a completed Balanced Scorecard on the system. This should be specific enough to give clarity around expectations for the year. These should be reviewed monthly in your 1-1's with your manager. Yet again, if this is not already happening please shout up.

‘Manager gives regular feedback on performance’ - There are four things that are/should be happening in this space. Firstly, your monthly 1-1 should, in part, focus on a review of what you have been delivering and should contain feedback on positive performances and opportunities to improve. Secondly, I am asking each Manager to have a quarterly discussion focussed around prospective ratings. Whilst these do not need to be submitted anywhere and I believe there is real value in a more frequent discussion. Thirdly, each of the Exec Team will ensure that all their team are involved in a discussion around how calibration actually works. This will help you understand how this operates to remove any 'mystique'. Finally, I will continue with the floor meetings to give updates on trading and financial performance as well as any topical issues.

‘Sufficient opportunities to receive training’ - In this space we now have an Induction Programme up and running and I was pleased to take part in the first session with around many new starters to the team. I am asking (name deleted) to issue details of how people can access training on line and we will look to build on the induction programme with a series of internal 'specialist sessions' that will be timetabled and available on a first come first served basis.

‘Opportunities for personal development' - This is more personal than the one above and one that needs to be on the agenda for every 1-1. In addition, everyone should take ownership for driving their own development and it is an integral part of everyone's scorecard.

‘Enough flexibility to provide good service' - I think there are two things to call out here. The first is the fantastic work that (name deleted)'s team are doing on complaint reduction which focuses cleanly on service improvement. I'll ask (name deleted) to share this work with everyone so you can all see our plans emerging and can all be assured that we have service at the heart of our plans. The second thing is that as part of the induction programme we are ensuring that everyone gets time out in branch and call centre, inc. collections, to understand our internal customer needs.

‘Involvement in decisions' - I think it's very important that you feel involved in what we are doing. The issues wall was great when we first moved to the 6th floor. We have established a working group under (name deleted) with all teams represented. In addition, we will have a drop in hour every other week where different members of the Exec are present to give updates and take questions or discuss issues. Coffee and tea will be on offer so we'll circulate the times/dates/locations shortly. We will rotate this around teams so every team has a session every couple of months or so in case there are particular issues for particular teams.

It goes without saying that we will ensure we manage these developments across all locations wherever possible.

Again....thanks for completing the survey and letting us know what we need to be doing.

In the next post I'm going to put the reply everyone wants to send but no-one will. And in the post after that I'll explain why this kind of stuff is much more serious than it looks.

Monday, 12 April 2010

It's That Pollen Time Again

Every year I suffer it, usually worse than the previous year, and every year I forget it as soon as it's passed. Suddenly in the middle of the afternoon I will fell tired and incredibly reluctant to do anything - the willpower just drains right out of me. I can't string two consecutive actions together. I blame what I've eaten. I blame what time I went to bed. I blame myself. And I should be blaming the damn pollen. Because that's what it is. It lasts about eight weeks - April through May, maybe a bit of June. I fall asleep on the train - in fact, you should see my train in the evening once it's passed through Barnes: most of the carriage is sound asleep or knocked out, eyes closed, heads back, mouths open. Oh hell. And there is nothing the doctors can give you for it. I try the normal Boots antihistamine but it has no effect.

Anyway, I've been trying out the 3.2 MP camera phone on my new Sony Ericsson C510 and here are a few results. It doesn't cope with glare too well, but it's not bad.

First, a little place that does German sausages, fried potato cubes and sauerkraut, by Smithfield market...

Next, a pretty decent example of one of the best cars ever made, the Citreon DS21...

This is a cafe set up on the corner of Howland Street and Tottenham Court Road, Cilantro...

Some of the customers settle in for quite a while. I was there for an hour or so working on my new Asus netbook. I made a remark about his customer staying some time to the manager and he said that they had people who came in at 11:00am and left at 7:00pm, "they work here" he said. Like the lady in the last shot...

Those are medical textbooks she has on the table and that's a glass of water. I never saw what she had to pay for the seat.

Friday, 9 April 2010

The SAS Course I Really Need

For the last three days I've been on the SAS Essentials course. For the girl with a First in Maths from Kings who has joined straight from university, it's been a stressful time. She's had a lot to make sense of. Mind you, the brains that got her that First mean she is making sense of it quickly.

By contrast my grey head knows a fair amount of SQL and programming and I have a ton of muscle memory and preferred tricks about this stuff. The data I use is in SQL databases or spreadsheets, not SAS datasets, and I do all my report formatting, graphs and the like in Excel so it can be read across to Powerpoint. SAS has a lot of advanced analytics that Excel doesn't, but the chance of us ever using it is small - the audience wouldn't understand it. The SAS modules we have at work are the basic stuff - nothing fancy like data mining and time series forecasting. (Forecasting? What's that? I did more forecasting when thirty years ago in British Rail than anyone does here at The Bank.)

SAS isn't really a language - it's a command-line compiler that's grown like Topsy and now has a batch file  editing interface. So it has all sorts of weird notations (putting : in front of format statements when reading data but not when writing it) conventions and behaviours. The one about using an if-then with no clause after the "then" as a loop control device is something I'm sure not to do in future. As for those sodding semi-colons...

What I need is a conversion course. Throughout the three days I've been relating the SAS stuff to what I do elsewhere. Length statements are like dimensioning variables, but not quite as you don't have to Dim numerics. There's an analogue of the SQL select statement in Keep and so on. But it's been three days and we haven't done inner joins, which is presumably on the advanced course. Ah. another £5,000 or however much in the bank for SAS. I'd like to have covered that much in one three-day course.

The IT education industry has not yet caught up with the fact that their audience is split into two: complete newbies and permanent low-level users of anything, and the rest of us who have reasonable-to-serious chops in programming and data-handling in at least one tool-set. The first group need the basics courses, the second lot need to incorporate the new stuff into their existing knowledge. The courses are different.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Feeling Guilty About Inactive Weekends

I'm not getting out of the house a lot at the weekends. I used to, but I'm not right now. A quick trip to the local Sainsbury for food is about it. There are lot's of little reasons for this: the weather has been dismal for most of the weekends this year, nothing but grey skies until too late on Sunday afternoon; there hasn't been a lot on at the movies I don't see during the week; I don't have to go shopping for Stuff now that the house is more or less as I want it (for the moment); I don't have anyone to drag me out since the LTR ended all those months ago; and of course there are all those parents pushing those huge prams around, scowling at each other and pretending not to notice that their children are shouting, crying, yelling and generally behaving in a way that suggests neglect if not outright child abuse to me. Saturday is when they go out and I'm sure I've written about that before.

It's a little deeper than that. I really don't feel the urge to dash out and Do Things. My energy levels feel low and I have to say the thought of whatever I might do does not fill me with any particular zip. I used to man the phones at the AA call centre once a month, but the local phone rep stopped calling and the trek to Cynthia Street was a little depressing first thing of a Saturday morning, so I let it drop. I'm going through a period where I don't want to get away anywhere - first, because I always wind up coming along with myself and second, because why would I want to go away when I don't want to come back? (You either get that or not, it can't be explained.) 

Yesterday I woke up after eight good hours's sleep (as opposed to this morning when I woke up absurdly early) and my first thought was "I need to find another job". I think I'm avoiding something. I tell myself that I'll discuss the grading issues with my manager at the half-yearly review (if it's good, I have some leverage; if it's average or worse, I have to go anyway and there's nothing to discuss). I think I should be doing this and that - visiting old friends, a day at the beach, except that doing them on one's own is a little weird after an LTR. It's not that I think it won't be fun, it's that I think it won't change anything, and that means there's something I need to change, and I'm not sure what.

Or it could be that I'm just more comfortable being around me, especially since I've done the house more or less to my liking. One reason I used to go out was that it was depressing staying in. Given that I'm living in a white box at the moment, I'm not sure what that says. It's not terribly intimate but I do feel relaxed in it. Perhaps that's how it's supposed to be?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Thoughts on "The Undercover Philosopher"

There are a number of books based on the recent work by psychologists and experimental philosophers which look at the way ordinary people argue and make inferences. It's not a pretty sight. Michael Philips' book is as good as any of them (I've read a few) and if you don't know about Confirmation Bias, Anchoring, the Familiarity Heuristic or just how low the standards for science journalists are, then it is well worth the read.

However, there's one thing Philips and the others miss. People don't hold silly beliefs because they can't think straight. No. They don't think straight so they can hold silly beliefs. And people hold silly beliefs because it helps them define themselves, blocks out unwelcome facts and justifies their choice of goals and ambitions. Christian. Accountant. LISP programmer. Liverpool supporter and Oakland Raiders fan. Such people believe certain things to be true and have devout hopes that other things will be. Having a personal and intellectual identity that is not based on a core set of beliefs is right up there with triple-lutzes and the ability to speak six languages as requiring years of study, practice and the right genes in the first place.

If that seems hard to believe, then think about what it's like at work. The fact-free management strategies; the products launched without the slightest testing; the endless spin from HR, IR and PR; the need to go along to get along; the group-think; the staggering hypocrisy of the "corporate values". The opposite of science, said Lewis Wolpert, isn't art, it's politics. Policies must be seen to be right until their sponsoring Minister is relieved of her post, when the outgoing Minister's fact-free policies are replaced by the incoming Minister's fact-free policies. Everyone knows it's nonsense, but since everyone's jobs depends on it, everyone has to behave as if it's all true. This is known as "denial" in the trade, and that everyone knows they are professing twaddle only makes the denial more vehement and the peer-pressure more intense.

The spin and nonsense that pours out of politicians, bureaucrats, PR firms and corporate PR is not caused by an inability to apply deductive logic. It is a way of jamming the lines of communication, so that nothing of any significance can be transmitted. While the newspapers, bloggers and pundits are discussing the latest distraction or blatant codswallop, they cannot be laying out the facts - which would be far more damaging.

As for the more technical fallacies of reasoning explained in these books, there is no way that a GP or Health Service bureaucrat is ever going to understand that if the false negative rate of a test is nine times the prevalence of the disease, the chance that a positive reading means that you actually have the disease is only ten per cent. Because if they did, they would realise that testing for low-prevalence diseases is going to be very expensive if accurate and stigmatise way more people than it would save if cheap.

And if that paragraph meant nothing to you, or you didn't understand the calculation, then read Philips' book. Carefully.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Moving to the Cloud

I have taken my first tentative steps to using the Cloud. In other words, I'm slowly transferring my computer life from a housebound computer to servers situated God knows where but that I can access from anywhere at anytime. I read about Dropbox in Rands' blog about his favourite development tools and wondered about using it for on-line backup of the few files I really need to keep. I'd set up a Gmail account a while ago and had played about with setting up iGoogle, but not really got much further than making it a fancy personal portal. Reading a review of an Android phone, it seemed that Google had advanced since I'd last looked at it. So I went back to take a look.

It took me a while of experimenting to get the hang of it, but I've made the jump. Google co-ordinates with Windows and Mac, which is useful since I have a MacBook Pro and a Windows 7 Asus netbook. As always, before you do this at home, take backups of your Address Book / Contacts / Calendar / Mail.

I set up Gmail to collect the mail from all my other accounts, and my computers' mail clients to collect mail from Gmail. Two things here: 1) Make sure you leave the original on the server when your mail client downloads; 2) set up a rule to copy the messages from your Inbox to a local folder on your machine. Otherwise when you delete or archive the original in the Gmail Inbox, you'll lose the copies on your machine next time it synchronises. Don't forget to change the account you're sending the mail from to your Gmail account. After a while people will update their contacts and you can close down the other e-mail accounts. Don't do that, however, until you have contacted all the recruitment agents you have ever talked to and updated the contact details on LinkedIn, Monster and any other site you are on.

I set up Gmail contacts - use the Google Contact Manager gadget in Gmail - with all my contacts and then synced the Mac Address Book to it. Finally I set up a Google Calendar and an account for it in iCal.  So Google is acting as the central server for my mail, contacts and calendar. Again: I use the Google account in iCal to make appointments in the future, when an appointment is done, I move it from the Google calendar to a local one. So I have a record of what I've done on the Mac, but not on Google. I did this because the Google Calendar functionality for recurring events isn't quite as smart as iCal and I nearly lost the records of one recurring event by doing so.

I set up Dropbox on the Mac and Asus. Henceforth any documents I want to work on from multiple locations have to be stored in the Dropbox directory. And you must close the file you're working on before it will update from your PC to the cloud copy at Dropbox, ready to be downloaded to your other machine. Dropbox handles conflicts sensibly, so you won't lose stuff if you work on the document on two machines but for some reason don't update the copy on one of them first.

There's more involved than you might think, but it's less complicated than it sounds. The reward is that all your computers are using the same data and sync to your cloud server. There's still more tweaks to learn, but it feels good. And because I've set up an amazing iGoogle, I can go anywhere, log on and have my life in front of me just like that.

However, the To-Do and Notes are in my Moleskin cahier notebook and that's where it's staying. As one acquaintance said when I jotted something down "Wow, that's real old-school". It's also way, way, faster than trying to type it on your iPhone or even on your computer.

Happy Easter