Archive for March, 2007

An investment for my son

Friday, March 30th, 2007

I was talking with my eight year old son about my artistic abilities and he asked me if, in the past, I went to an art club like he does some evenings. I told him I won prizes at school for my artistic abilities and he marveled at the news. Then he said, “and now you have your own website and you’re a good speaker.”

“Yes,” I said, “and one day you will be a good artist. In fact you could have a website now. You could put your artworks on there for all your friends to see.”

Then it suddenly dawned on me what a great investment that would be for my son.

Your website ranking has a lot to do with its longevity – the longer it has been in existence, the higher the page ranking (at least this is my experience). So to provide for my sons future, instead of getting him a trust fund or shares, what I need to get for him is his own domain name and register the site with as many search engines as possible. Then when he comes of age (probably twelve at the speed at which they mature these days) he will already have a website with a decent page ranking and a first class opportunity to monetize his website with Google ads or whatever their latest scheme is.

What a brilliant idea I thought. So as soon as I sober up I will register his name (and variations thereof) as a domain and sleep easy in the knowledge that his future is taken care of.

Will this idea be as good in the morning?

Rent a coffin

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

I was watching an interview with an American coroner on television and behind him was the showroom for coffins. Above one of the ornate coffins was a sign which read ‘Hardwood.’

Now I thought hardwood was an ever diminishing valuable resource so why on earth would you use it for a coffin? A coffin is going to be seen for a day or two then buried or burned. What is the point of using scarce valuable materials to then destroy them? Even in our society’s legendary profligacy, it doesn’t make much sense.

I know the arguments for an ornate coffin; it demonstrates the love and reverence the relatives hold that person in, it’s a dignified end to a xxxxx life (insert relevant epitaph, although I have yet to see or hear one that was truthful, especially if they were a twat when alive), etc. There is also an old tradition of leaving artifacts inside the barrow or coffin, usually gold coins for the ferryman (but more often than not, the grave robber). But surely we now know that the person is dead and the body is destined for dust or ash; they don’t need these things and they don’t need the fancy, gold plated coffin. Even as a youth I was appalled by the waste and told everyone I knew that I wished to be buried in a couple of cardboard boxes.

So here is my idea. Rent the hardwood, ivory embellished, gold plated, rhinoceros horn-adorned, marble inlaid coffin for the ceremony, then switch to a chipboard coffin at the exit. The expensive coffin can then be reused for another burial/cremation making the whole thing cheaper and keeping the traditionalists happy. It makes sense.

Why should cost/benefit globalization be excluded from the dead?

Look after the beginning…

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

I had a speaking engagement tonight and something odd happened.

I had learnt my presentation thoroughly but it overran my alloted time by two or three minutes so I had to cut something from it. Unfortunately I was still undecided as to what to cut up until I was about to go on but then hurriedly made my choice. As I was delivering the speech I was trying to multi task in my head; there was the delivery and then there was the other train of thought that was observing my performance and trying to remember which bit was going to be cut. Mid way through the presentation I improvised slightly (always a temptation) and that slight change in word order threw me off the ‘automatic’ track and stopped the flow of words. I didn’t know what came next. The ‘conscious’ train of thought had to come into play then and try and help me remember. Fat lot of good that was. As the silence extended, the ‘conscious’ voice was trying to negotiate a tactical withdrawal, a cut and run strategy but I came somewhat to my senses and referred to the sheet that was supposed to cryptically jog my memory. Unfortunately I wasn’t cryptic enough with the long list of complex sentences scrolling in front of my eyes like an auto-cue stuck on high speed. I found it impossible to relax sufficiently to read with understanding and I might as well have been scanning a sheet of exotic hieroglyphs from Mesopotamia.

In the end I decided I was going to have to reason my way out of this impasse – what had I last said, so what could possibly come next?
This kind of worked and I came out with the right words but in the wrong order which then started to confuse me about where I was in the logic of my argument.

Eventually I got back on track and slid into my end piece with renewed confidence (mentally letting go of the nagging doubt that I had missed something important out from the speech). The expressions on the faces of the audience members didn’t give anything untoward away so I wrapped up with a flourish to their genuine appreciation.

Afterwards I was talking with some of the audience and apologized for the lapse in my concentration. They looked surprised and said they thought it was all scripted and part of the presentation – ‘assume nothing, so expect the unexpected’ kind of thing.

The irony of it! I had just been thinking to myself I needed a ‘get out’ if that sort of thing happened again and their reaction had given me one; I just pretend it was meant to happen and say something like “don’t assume I’ve learnt this”.

I then remembered a famous musician saying that if he hit a bum note while playing in front of an audience, he would hit the note again to make the audience think he had intended it all along.

The great lesson here was that if you take care of the beginning and the end (which I did), the middle will take care of itself.
Of course I had magnified the incident to several times its actual size in my imagination but it demonstrated that if you deliver your message with enough conviction and energy, one or two errors will be generously ignored.

If you don’t tell them, how will they know?

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

I wrote a post about a group of stereotypes conforming to their stereotype by leaving litter. At the end of the post I asked myself why I didn’t speak to these people and point out their inconsideration (in a polite way of course). Well today I took my own advice and spoke to a transgressor to see what sort of reaction I would get.

Let me set the scene first. The street our house is on leads onto a main road with wide pavements on both sides. I use this road to escort the kids to school and as part of my jogging route. A hundred yards down the road, a bungalow with a large garden has decided to build a house on its plot. This new house will front onto the pavement. A couple of weeks ago when walking the kids to school I noticed the surveyor had parked his SUV on the pavement. I say noticed, in truth it was in my face as it was blocking our route. To get round it we either had to walk onto muddy, uneven ground on one side or step into the road which was notorious for speeding traffic. The traffic speeds on this part of the road because it has an overtaking lane. There is no parking restriction on this bit of road so a vehicle could park on it legally and not impede traffic. In fact it would do the residents a slight favour as it would put off some of the speeding drivers but for some reason the surveyor thought it better to park on the pavement. I cursed under my breath and shepherded the kids around the vehicle as safely as I could.

I also had to regularly skip past the truck when I was jogging, my resentment growing all the time.

Then this morning I was jogging and as I came down the hill I noticed two vehicles now on the pavement. Sub-contractors had started the building work and, following the surveyors lead, had parked on the pavement as well. As I was forced around the vehicles I swore a little too loudly and a workman not twelve feet away looked round. I returned his stare with my own admonishing gaze and continued with my jog. On my return leg I use the same bit of route and again I had to skip round the vehicles. The same workman gave me the same stare and I reciprocated.

When I got home I suddenly remembered the question I had asked myself at the end of that post and I realized here was a perfect opportunity to test the theory.

I jogged back to the down to the site. I approached the same workman I had exchanged stares with and as pleasantly as I could said through the mesh of the safety fence, “Hi there, is your gaffer about?”

He looked at me stoney faced but then turned to ask another workman. After various shouts a man came from behind the bungalow and told me the gaffer wouldn’t be back for a couple of hours. At this I turned to the first workman and asked him if he could do me a favour. Could he ask whoever was parking on the pavement to try and park in the road as they were causing an obstruction and I was struggling to get my kids to school safely in the morning. Anyone with a pram, I said, had no chance of getting past. Would that be possible?

He looked back stoney faced again and it was only the slight nodding of his head which prevented his response from being labeled ‘dumb insolence’. I thanked him for his cooperation without being patronizing or sarcastic and jogged back home.

It will be interesting to see if my request had any impact. I had queered the pitch slightly for cursing under my breath within earshot of the worker. Being antagonistic doesn’t get cooperation; it sometimes gets begrudging compliance but that is not the same thing. If they move the vehicles I will make a point of thanking them. If they persist in leaving them on the pavement I will have to speak to the gaffer.

I will let you know what happens.

Woman hangs herself on television

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

There was an interesting ‘whistle-blower’ documentary on television last night about Barclays bank, an organization which made five billion pounds profit last year. It included covert filming by undercover journalists, which I adore because it represents empirical evidence and not hearsay which can be easily refuted by the injured party. The programme was supposed to highlight the corruption in the banking system aided and perpetrated by some of the bank staff themselves but it inadvertently uncovered the selling pressures applied to the staff by their managers. The staff have selling targets which they have to meet otherwise their jobs are in jeopardy. As a result we see bank staff trying to sell unaffordable products to people who neither need nor want them. In some cases the staff fraudulently foist products onto their customers with the excuse that it was a ‘mistake’ if the aggrieved customer complains.

What was also apparent was that it was the poorest who paid the most in penalties (where have we seen that principle at work before?), the richer customers had the clout to withdraw their custom if exorbitant charges were not waived (which they usually were). These admissions came from the managers themselves, caught on video. A damning piece of evidence.

After the denouement was revealed to the bank’s head office a brave (or coerced) representative agreed to be interviewed by the programme makers. She valiantly tried to defend the bank’s position by trotting out the platitudes she had learned in her media training course. The problem she had though, was that we had seen the video evidence which was irrefutable (unless it was a huge hoax by the BBC involving actors). There was simply no denying it. Her position should have been ‘Sorry, we got it wrong, we will have a massive shake up, heads will roll’ etc. She was in a no-win situation and she should have debased herself as grovelingly as she could in front of the outraged masses, instead she decided to hang herself. Not literally of course, more’s the pity, that would have been sensational television.

By generally denying the evidence she was admitting one of two things;

  • higher management had no knowledge of such practices because they were on another planet completely out of touch with the day to day activities of their own organization and should therefore be sacked for gross incompetence,
  • or

  • higher management had full knowledge of the policy, in fact they were the architects of it, and so any denial was simply a deceitful lie, confirming the unscrupulous behavior of the organization.
  • My guess is the latter is the real explanation. All my dealings with large organizations has shown me the ‘vision thing’ within the organization comes from the top and the attitude drifts down like detritus in a column of fluid.

    From this evidence, it would seem Barclays ‘vision thing’ is purely one of unbridled greed.

    Well, they are a bank, what do you expect?

    A philosopher doing his laundry

    Monday, March 19th, 2007

    February 18th 2007

    A comedy of errors today, largely the fault of my own. The children decided they wanted to go to Tropical World in Leeds so we all piled into the car and drove to Leeds.

    We had timed our arrival to perfection. A mild, sunny Sunday at any time of the year, let alone summer, will produce crowds of biblical proportions flocking to this park, allegedly the biggest in Europe.

    We found a parking spot not too far away from where we wanted to be and walked the couple of hundred yards to Tropical World leaving our coats inside the car as we knew it would be hot inside the large glasshouses.

    We were straight into the attraction and we slowly made our way along the carefully guided circuit in the stifling heat. As we emerged from the exit doors perhaps one hour after we had so promptly entered, I was shocked to see an official on the entrance doors restricting the number of people being allowed into the complex which was now, presumably, full to capacity. I said we should go to the cafe for a drink before the emerging crowds got the same idea and turned the cafe into a reconstruction of the ‘feeding of the five thousand’ story but the children of course were caught in the honey trap the attraction had cunningly set for them by having the gift shop at the end of the tour.

    Not wishing to spend interminable minutes vetoing every insane choice the kids made over their bit of expensive tat, I suggested I went back to the car to retrieve our coats and the packed lunch. My wife agreed and I asked her where we should meet.

    “We will stay here in the shop. We’ll meet you here.” she said.

    So off I went, back to the car. As I made my way out of the exterior doors I was even more surprised to see that the queue the official was holding back extended for fifty yards beyond the building. ‘Timing is critical in this game of Sunday recreation’ I reflected to myself.

    On my return, now laden with several coats and a packed lunch, I was appalled to observe the queue had grown even longer and I had to fight my way to the glass windows adjacent to the entrance doors to try and catch my wife’s attention. But I couldn’t see her in the shop. I went round the back of the circular gift shop to see if I could see her through the window from a reverse angle but there was still no sign of her. Eventually I had to make my way through the exit door, inconveniencing the people wanting to come out because I was twice my normal size carrying several thick coats and a packed lunch. Inside the gift shop I was able to ascertain they were not in fact in the shop. I was slightly annoyed at this. We had a simple instruction and she had construed to renege on it.

    It did occur to me one of the kids might have wanted the toilet and that’s where they were but I had been looking for them for maybe ten minutes so how long would they be in a toilet? I then thought, if I went to the cafe and had a coffee, by the time I came back they should be there. So I went to the cafe which was about forty yards from the gift shop in another building.

    The cafe however was experiencing its peak rush of the day and several times during my wait in the queue I considered forgetting my cup of coffee and going back the shop but on each occasion the queue would shorten by one more customer. Eventually, after a long wait, I got my coffee and took it outside to drink it in the open and to keep an eye out for my family should they wander outside looking for me. I sat down at a picnic table that had a spare seat. The other occupants of the table were an elderly man and younger woman; a couple I had noticed sitting in the deserted picnic area as we came in to the attraction so they must have been sat there for some time. As I put some demerara sugar in my coffee to take the edge of its bitterness (I always find cafe coffee too strong for me) I started to hear snippets of the man’s conversation.

    It seemed to concern some ancient religious argument about compassion. It was not your banal conversation about what happened last night in some trashy television soap; it was sounding more like a script from some Woody Allen comedy so I paid more attention to my fellow drinkers.

    He must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. He sported a full grey beard, knitted scull cap and displayed on his collar and shoulders the worst case of dandruff I had seen for a long time. She was considerably younger and had shoulder length auburn hair which hung like a curtain and shielded her face from my inquisitive gaze. I noticed their, long since emptied, paper coffee cups were now in separate piles of torn jigsaw pieces as if they had been having some tortured conversation which had manifest itself in the shredded and twisted paper pieces. The man was doing most of the talking, she asking probing questions as if she were a journalist or psychoanalyst. And his conversation was getting more and more interesting.

    He was complaining about his ex wife who had constantly complained that he thought too much and didn’t pay her enough attention. She wanted to dominate him, he said, and he was unable to convince her that serious thought was a valid and worthwhile thing to do. I was sorely tempted to foist myself upon them and join in this discussion but I resisted and I studied the man more closely. Initially I thought he was blind as his eyes seemed to gaze into the middle distance but then he focussed onto the woman’s face and I realized it was an idiosyncrasy of his. I wanted to introduce myself as a fellow thinker and tell him of my idea to form a ‘thinking club’ where interested people would meet and discuss various ideas just for the sheer pleasure of it but there was something about him that dissuaded me.

    He was an eccentric. Being an eccentric, he might have idiosyncrasies which I might not like. Then I became aware of the paradox in that thought. I might as well have thought that I wouldn’t want to have a man like this at the meetings because I wouldn’t like his ideas. But that would be against the whole point of the thinking club! What would be the point of having like minded people get together and agree upon everything? There would be very little difference between that and a right wing rally.

    No, in order to stimulate debate, people would have to proffer differing ideas, dangerous ideas; how else could you test your own beliefs and maybe modify them as a result of someone’s argument? And people who are freethinkers like this are usually eccentric. And this is why Dave Pollards utopia couldn’t work.

    Dave, an environmentalist blogger who’s blog I read regularly, keeps advocating self sufficient local economies that are self regulated and administered; no hierarchical authorities needed. The problem with this dream is that the people who would be attracted to it would be freethinkers. The problem with freethinkers is that they question everything and think independently so organizing a group of people like that would be akin to herding cats.

    I could be wrong. Maybe when the issues are life threatening, common sense prevails and people do what needs to be done, high I.Q.’s or no.

    I still intend to found this club of freethinkers so it will be interesting to discover how freethinkers organize themselves and then with such knowledge it might be possible to extrapolate the organizational structure into a larger society.

    Anyway, I finished my coffee and without saying a word to either of them returned to the shop. A furious wife awaited me.

    “Where have you been!” she screamed.

    “Where were you when I returned from the car?” I countered.

    “He needed the toilet.” she hissed, pointing to our son who looked sheepishly at me.

    She then went on to describe how she had rung my mobile ‘phone (which I had left at home), and had even asked a shop assistant to go outside and call my name (I must have been in the cafe queuing for my coffee when this happened because I didn’t hear her).

    On a park bench, feeding the kids, we continued our accusation and counter accusation, each trying to prove to the other that they had not employed common sense in attempting to locate the other. In the end I think she check-mated me. I asked her why she hadn’t ventured outside to look for me like any logical person would have and she countered triumphantly with, “we didn’t have our coats!” I couldn’t find a flaw in this riposte so humbly had to apologize.

    Thus, from serious thinking done for fun, to practical reality within five minutes. It might as well have been a scene from the sorry life of the bearded jew as he had described it to his companion at the picnic table not fifteen minutes ago as I sat and listened, sipping my coffee.

    Anyone want to join a thinking club?

    A recipe for disaster

    Friday, March 16th, 2007

    February 14th 2007

    I have long since railed against the commercialism of ‘celebration days’. I am convinced most of these days were invented by the greetings card companies to increase their profits so my wife has had to get used to not receiving a card on her birthday, christmas day or Valentines day. I always use the argument that I don’t need a commercial company to dictate to me when and how I can show affection to my wife and that even if I did buy a card or flowers it didn’t really show any affection because I was obliged by the customs of the society I live in to do so anyway. Surely it would be genuine affection if any gift came apropos of nothing.

    She doesn’t buy this argument anymore largely because I don’t unexpectedly produce gifts arbitrarily throughout the year. So this year I made an exception, but instead of simply buying her something which only requires a trip to the shops I decided to do something far more personal and meaningful – cook her a meal.

    This I did. I scoured the recipe books, chose the dishes, went into town to buy the ingredients and set about making the meal. Unfortunately I hadn’t read the method part closely enough for the sticky almond cake and was dismayed to discover that I had to leave the dough for a total of four hours before I baked it. That particular dessert will have to wait until tomorrow which is probably for the best because the home made mayonnaise I whipped up was a lot more filling (and tasty) than any shop bought one.

    It was interesting to do and one or two lessons were learnt.

    For example, the recipe for the almond cake called for three cardamon pods. I hadn’t a clue what they were, I just found them in the supermarket and bought them. The method then instructed thus; ‘Remove the seeds from the cardamon and crush. Add to the bowl with the almonds…’ So I carefully removed the seeds from the pods and crushed the pods which I then placed in the bowl. It was only common sense which made me consider the texture of the pods and decide that they lacked any appetizing qualities or aromatic scents and that maybe I had misinterpreted the instruction.

    The instruction is probably grammatically correct, but who knows grammar these days? I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and relied totally on the instructions. The list of ingredients called for cardamon pods, not seeds, presumably because you can only get hold of the pods. The instruction then should have read, ‘Remove the seeds from the cardamon and crush the seeds. Add the crushed seeds to the bowl…’ and no confusion could have arisen.

    Such a simple addition but the clarification is improved one hundred percent.

    First the carrot, then the stick

    Thursday, March 15th, 2007

    There was a news report the other day about several large organizations penalizing people for not behaving in the way that the organizations wanted them to behave. Specifically, the organizations wanted people to pay their bills using direct debit, if they didn’t use this method, they punished them with a ‘fine’ of approximately five pounds a month.

    This is the thin edge of the wedge people. Actually, it’s more like the thick end, so obviously crass is the approach.

    In the early days, these large organizations discovered they could make huge savings if they automated bill payments, so they used a carrot to encourage people to pay by direct debit; get ten pounds off your bill. Clearly, the ten pounds didn’t reflect the amount the company was saving (otherwise they wouldn’t have offered it) so when a large proportion of their customers took advantage of the carrot, the companies profits must have shot up.

    Now there is obviously a hard core of people who want to retain control of their finances and refuse to switch their preferred payment method in exchange for a paltry, withered, carrot. These people are a thorn in the side of the companies profits. If they could get everyone to pay by direct debit their profits would shift from merely greedy, to obscene. Something had to be done about these people. So they brought out the stick – ‘make the switch or we beat you to a bloody pulp (well, we’ll give you a bloody nose at this stage).’

    This sounds like extortion to me but I suppose if a legitimate company is doing it then it’s okay.

    The problem is we all know what bullies do; they escalate their bullying until someone stands up to them. I think that time has come; shame on you British Telecom for one.

    This is just another insidious step towards total control by the multinationals. The number of times I have attempted to telephone one of these companies only to be presented with menu system that ultimately asks me to key in my account number, a password, my blood type etc. you get the impression they don’t have staff anymore, just a server in a dark room. Of course the companies love this, they don’t have to do any work anymore, we do it all for them and we pay for the privilege as well!

    The domino effect on human error

    Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

    An incident occurred today which illustrated beautifully several key points about the way business organizations generally work. It involved a small shredder I have in my office.

    My wife wanted to shred a lot of documents which would have taken some time so instead of standing in my office for half an hour feeding in the paper, she decided to unplug the shredder and take it downstairs where she could watch television whilst she used it.

    During the next hour or two we had workmen in the house installing loft insulation. The loft entry point was accessed through my office. After the workmen had gone my wife came sheepishly into the office and in a tearful tone of voice started rambling on about buying me another shredder.

    Key point one; she was trying to confess something to me about something she had done that had made something go wrong. She was fearful of my response and so had difficulty in communicating the problem. Eventually I got it out of her that she assumed the shredder was jammed or something because it didn’t work anymore. I went downstairs and assessed the situation. The waste basket of the shredder was empty so I guessed she had recently emptied it. Sure enough, on closer inspection she had replaced the machine part of the shredder the wrong way round on the basket – a configuration which still allowed it to fit perfectly. I removed the machine head and replaced it the opposite way around. On testing the machine again the shredder worked.

    “How did you do that!” my wife exclaimed. I told her there was a safety lug on the basket which has to connect with a lever on the machine head. If it didn’t connect, the machine didn’t work. On further experimentation with the device I discovered that the auto function wasn’t working. This is another safety feature where the inserted paper pushes an on switch to start the blades. Once the paper has passed through, the blades stop rotating. But now the auto function had the blades rotating permanently. “What’s happened here?” I asked.

    On discovering that the machine was at least working again after a simple fix, my wife then volunteered more information which had been missing from her earlier confession.

    In an attempt to get it working again she had taken the machine head apart to look for the imagined jammed paper. As she did so, some part fell out which she couldn’t identify and which she hadn’t bothered to put back.

    Key point two; she had assumed several things here and when none of the assumptions had produced the desired result she had tried a workaround which simply made the situation worse. When I asked her why she simply hadn’t come into the office and asked me why it was no longer working, she replied, “because workmen were there.”

    Key point three; when the comfort zone is disturbed people act unpredictably and irrationally.

    I told my wife to take the machine head apart again and replace the part which had fallen out (I hadn’t done the attempted repair, so I didn’t know what I was looking for). I went back to the office.

    Ten minutes later I return to the living room and my wife is in tears with the machine head in pieces. She had been unable to reinstate the missing part. Annoyed, I have to take over the repair and try to figure out where this piece of plastic belongs. Eventually I manage to work out where it fits and after several minutes of cursing and fiddling about, I manage to reseat the mechanism and get the lid back on. I tell my wife in no uncertain terms never to jump to conclusions again and never to try and fix anything herself again.

    As I am having my lunch, she comes into the kitchen and tearfully attempts to defend herself – she was only trying to fix it, didn’t want to disturb me, thought it was a paper jam, thought it would be just like a vacuum cleaner etc. I admonished her for making assumptions (I have a keynote speech about ‘Assuming nothing’) and for missing the most obvious first course of action – asking me why it wasn’t working any more. It was my piece of equipment after all, therefore I would most likely have read the instructions and so would have that vital bit of knowledge about the safety feature.

    Key point four; as I was telling her this I realized that the machine had a design fault. The machine head fitted perfectly onto the waste basket when it was replaced incorrectly thereby giving the impression that it was as it was before. There should have been another lug on the waste basket which prevented the machine head from sitting properly if it was incorrectly replaced thereby alerting the operator that they were doing something wrong.

    Key point five (and the most crucial); my wife had been afraid of my reaction and my reaction confirmed her fears. I had simply been annoyed at her news and had to fix the shredder myself. As I was having lunch I realized this was exactly the sort of response which produced inappropriate workarounds and stifled innovation in industry. I should have been sympathetic in my response, congratulated her on her initiative and innovation in trying to fix the problem herself and thanked her in flagging up;
    i) deficiencies in the product design
    and
    ii) the need for staff training regarding the operation of various pieces of equipment and the procedure to follow in case of failure.

    Now I like to think of myself as an enlightened liberal who teaches about these things but it was still incredibly hard for me not to react in the way that I did, so how much harder must it be for unenlightened line managers or business leaders? I also remembered that I had been forewarned of this problem nearly a year ago. My wife wanted to shred a few documents and asked me how to use the device. I quickly went through the button positions and told her not to put a certain thickness of paper through. The basket was nearly full at this point. I had gone out on an errand and on my return I noticed the basket was now empty; she must have emptied it as a courtesy. Several days later I wanted to shred a document and discovered the machine wasn’t working. I started to check the obvious things – was it plugged in etc? when I remembered my wife had been the last person to use it and that she had emptied it. I then remembered that the basket had a safety mechanism.

    Sure enough, when I checked, she had replaced the basket the wrong way round for the lug to engage. So I discovered then the possibility of this happening if an operator didn’t know of the existence of this lug. She must have emptied the basket when she had finished with the device and not used it again. Had she done so, she would have been alerted to her mistake. I should have made the effort then to tell her what she had done so that future failings did not occur.

    A simple oversight on my part led to a situation where compounding assumptions and workarounds resulted in a catastrophe. Okay, this was a shredder with a happy ending, but how many stories have you heard where an airline or ferry was involved in just such a scenario and ultimately hundreds of lives were lost due to human error? It doesn’t take much.

    The most valuable lesson I got from all of this was the realization that most of industry is organized around the fear of failure. Imagine how much better and happier we would all be if industry was organized around the joy of improvement and innovation.

    We’ve been had – again!

    Monday, March 12th, 2007

    Conspiracy theories. There’s a conspiracy about them. If you believe that, then the whole picture gets even more complicated. The JFK conspiracy story is a case in point. Whole libraries have been written about it along with the making of a major Hollywood film. Let’s take the film by Oliver Stone.

    This purports to be a fact based docu-drama about the shooting. But then we learn Mr Stone has made up characters and inserted them into the story to help with the narrative. So bits of it is not based on fact; bits of it is a fairy story. Ultimately, it is not based on truth or uses any scientific method.

    Years later I watched an in-depth documentary about the JFK shooting which insisted it was based on the facts alone and used hard science to investigate the conspiracy theorists claims of a ‘magic bullet’ etc. It blew all the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s killing out of the water. On the evidence it presented, it all made logical sense and the only conclusion you were left with at the end was that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Jack Ruby also acted alone. The extensive research into Oswald’s past also confirmed his motive and modus operandi.

    The conspiracy theories resulted from the inability of the American public to comprehend how a ‘nobody’ could kill a ’somebody’. It was then compounded by the televised slaying of Oswald by the small time, grief stricken crook, Ruby.

    It was a powerful lesson for me, how we are at the mercy of the media, and how it is truth that invariably suffers because it is not sexy enough.

    And so another in-depth documentary was aired a few nights ago investigating another conspiracy. It was called ‘The great global warming swindle‘, presumably echoing the title of the Sex Pistols film ‘The great rock n roll swindle‘ in which the line “Ever been had?” is uttered. I thought it important to watch this documentary because I had bought the climate change story wholesale and I needed to know what the counter arguments were. I was not disappointed.

    After fifteen minutes of general denial my wife looked at me with an expression that suggested ‘what do you think?’ and I said, “Where’s the science?” The science arrived shortly after.

    I will not go into detail about the facts discussed but to summarize, the points were these;

  • the sun is the biggest factor influencing our climate, the more energy it puts out, the warmer the earth gets.
  • the oceans are the biggest manufacturer of carbon dioxide. As they warm up, they produce more. The CO2 graph line which echoes global temperature fluctuations graph line is actually hundreds of years behind the temperature line. CO2 values are a result of temperature change and not the other way around.
  • The CO2 content of the atmosphere is minuscule – 0.05% or something, it’s largely irrelevant.
  • All computer models of the weather system are woefully inadequate and none has ever been accurate in the long term, the system is simply too complex.
  • The massive media coverage of the ‘problem’ is a political manifestation and now too many people have too much money invested in the concept that no-one is willing to shout “But the theory is not wearing any clothes!” Or at least until this documentary.
  • The science made perfect sense from a layman’s point of view and it always disturbs me when someone flags up the fact that other important facts in the argument have been left out – usually facts that don’t fit the polemic. As I went to bed that evening I had a horrible vision of George W Bush with a smug expression saying “Told y’all so!”

    On reflection, I concluded several things;

  • If global warming is a red herring, it still has the beneficial effect of making the world look at its practices and become more prudent and responsible with the limited resources it has. We don’t need computer models to show us we are running out of landfill sites and that fish stocks are declining. Profligacy is not an option.
  • The pernicious consequences of the theory (as stated in the programme) are that developing countries will be unfairly censured in their carbon use and that they will find it harder to industrialize themselves out of poverty even though they have oil and coal.
  • The lesson for us all is that we must rid ourselves of learned helplessness and not rely on received wisdom especially if it comes from the media. It was only a few weeks ago that we had the snow storm of the century and if you had only seen the media reports you would have assumed a catastrophe had struck the UK, but a simple glance out of the window revealed all the reports were blown hugely out of proportion (the news stations want NEWS, not the mundane). The problem with a subject such as global warming is that we cannot do the science for ourselves – it is too complex, too big. We have to rely on large organizations to keep us informed and almost invariably that information will have a hidden, political agenda. We need to be constantly vigilant to this reality. We have no way of verifying the science from either camp. Another documentary could be aired next week that claims it’s people drinking too many carbonated drinks and burping too much and we would have no way of confirming or refuting the ‘facts’ contained within the programme.
  • It was a timely reminder that we still have the voodoo thinking that made us burn witches at the stake. It will be interesting to see if, in a couple of hundred years’ time, scientists will discuss this period in history as the superstitious beliefs of a deluded people who failed to look at the facts objectively.
  • I have amended my beliefs accordingly.

    Addendum: this documentary was later discredited, see here.