Saturday, June 09, 2007

Back in the Fold

Murrayfield rejoins the
international rugby community
I might be only half Scottish and live in London, but the SNP is really beginning to grow on me. It's not even just the fact that Alex Salmond seems vaguely human by politician standards and some of their supporters post great campaign songs on YouTube. It's early days, but they really do seem to be setting the Scottish nation free and seem in no great rush to turn the country in to the hard left hell hole'paradise' that some of their erstwhile policies suggested they might. They even seem to be more concerned with getting on with governing Scotland than making cheap shots at their southern neighbours.

Their latest act is to announce that it might once again be allowed to have a beer during rugby games at Murrayfield. Kenny MacAskill, the SNP justice secretary announced:
"There is a world of difference between people drinking a bottle of cheap cider in a park to get drunk and enjoying a pint of beer at half-time of a rugby match.

"We've listened to representations from fans, Scottish Rugby and the police.

"The fans can't understand why they can have a drink at Twickenham and at Millennium Stadium and at some rugby games and not others.

"They want to be able to enjoy a civilised drink during international matches at Murrayfield."

Quite right Mr MacAskill. Flint and Hewitt please note this is not 'Blue Skys Thinking' this is what normal people call 'Common Sense', that part of higher brain function whose absence is a prerequisite for high office in the NuLab ranks. Sadly I can only imagine the low hum of excitement that would go round the Department of Health if someone got it into their minds that there was half a chance of getting away with banning alcohol in the whole of TW1 on match days.

It's true that Murrayfield will still need permission from Edinburgh Council, but after the recent elections this should hopefully not be too much of an issue. ScotNuLab lost half its seats, losing overall control, the Nats went from 1 to 12 seats, and the Lib Dems gained 3 to 17. The Lib Dems are now the largest party, but they've done an almost complete Pontius Pilate act on the actions of the last Holyrood government, of which they were part, so this should be no obstacle. It shouldn't be forgotten though that the 'Liberal' Democrats were part of Jack 'Best Wee Numpty in the World' McConnell's government, which could have done what the Nats have now done, but instead saw fit to some introduce Nanny State legislation that would make Westminister NuLab's busybodies blushfeel green with envy.

The ban was introduced after an old firm clash in the 1980 Scottish Cup final which saw an on pitch battle between Rangers fans, their Celtic opponents and the police. It was not originally intended to cover Murrayfield, but was extended to cover all major venues after representations from the police, demonstrating once again their regrettable tendency to seek ridiculous new powers off the back of sensible attempts to tackle a real problem.

I'm not going to have a pop at kevball this time around. To be honest from the little I know on the subject most of the clubs seem to have improved immeasurably in recent years and this seems to have been accompanied a gradual slackening off of alcohol restrictions. The only time I've been to a football match I enjoyed my beer both at the Emirates Stadium and in the first pub we came to outside the dispersal zone after the match, despite what was apparently substandard Arsenal performance. Even the remaining restrictions on having alcohol within sight of the pitch seemed slightly absurd, with various shutters and blinds having to be closed at half time to allow us to consume our free beer while staying within the letter of the law.

The key thing is that while there were a few ill considered knee-jerk reactions to the problems in the English game, over time pragmatism has prevailed. Local solutions have to local problems has taken the place of sweeping catch-all national diktat. The clubs and authorities played their own part in proving they deserved such pragmatism by taking responsibility for the problems, and taking their own initiatives to deal with them. In areas like this, national legislation should constrain itself to setting basic minimum standards, while giving legal basis for further more draconian action where it is warranted on a local level, with a clear presumption that such action should only be taken where circumstance demonstrably prove it to be necessary.

Having said all that there is still a bit of pride in me every time I see the "No Alcohol Beyond This Point During Football Matches" signs at Vicarage Road when I go to watch Saracens. Also, having praised the Nats, it should be noted that there may be a little self-interest in play. According to BBC,
'Mr MacAskill was arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly before the England versus Scotland Euro 2000 play-off at Wembley stadium.

'He had intended on going to the game but spent the night in police cells. He was not charged or cautioned and later claimed his arrest was due to a misunderstanding.'
BBC News

I'll put it down to enlightened self-interest, not that it really matters anyway. Even if it wasn't a misunderstanding, it is history, and anyway, it's outcomes that count, and this can only be a good outcome for Edinburgh. I suppose that in this case, in the words of Blur "I'm a professional cynic but my heart's not in it". I've been to the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield, had a great time, and the alcohol ban, while not an especially big deal, was just plain silly. There were thousands drinking into the early hours afterwards, without any incidents I could see that wouldn't happen in any city centre on any Saturday night.

Despite now living in one of the 'World Cities' I find the 'Burgh something special. For me it was a place where as a young boy, heading up to visit grandparents, you'd emerge from the strange semi-subterranean world of Waverley station to be confronted with everything to a child’s eye that a city should be. It was often near Christmas so the imposing and garishly illuminated shop façades of Princess Street to the right tended to catch the eye first of all, as they were designed to, followed by the soaring buildings that seemed to cling improbably some kind of mountain to the left, and, best of all, a real castle dominating the skyline at its summit. Work now takes me up there from time to time and even as an adult there’s something I love about the place. Some of it is a nostalgia I suppose, but there are also great people, great bars, pubs and eating spots, all mingled together with the great historical sites and the places where the modern business of the city takes place.

Lets hope that, come the next internationals, we'll hear Auld Reekie say nae mair pish to this particular bit of Nanny State nonsense.

Update 10th June: Oh dear the SNP seem to making worrying noises on retaining DNA samples from the innocent...I'm going to have to come back to that one.

Friday, June 08, 2007

One and a Half Down

Top Secret
Some good news, but the
FOI bill isn't dead yet
There was good news on several of the blogs I read this morning. I can't remember which one came up first so it's a hat tip to a lot of the people listed on the leftok...schoolboy error....right of this blog. It concerned an article in the Oxford Mail which announced that the Internet stalker, who has concerned so many of late, has been apprehended. Hopefully the convoluted systems by which we try to deal with people with problems like this will be able to give her the help she needs while giving those affected by her actions the reassurance they deserve.

So that's one of the inaugural entries on my campaign slide show gone, and it's good, for all the right reasons, to see the back of it.

Further possible good news comes via Iain Dale's Diary who reports a Lib Dem MP who claims that Lord Trefgarne, the only member of the House of Lords who was prepared to walk into the chamber wearing a sign saying 'Kick Me', by supporting the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act has withdrawn his sponsorship of the bill.

I can't get too excited thus far, as this bill has had more than its fair share of Lazarus moments through the apparently miraculous intervention of the Speaker and the house authorities with the tacit consent of the government. That said, It's almost beer time on a Friday, so I'm going to be optimistic and hope that, if not dead, it's gasping for air as the Lords begin to strangle it.

So it's sorry, with well earned disrespect to David Maclean, it looks like whatever you wanted covering up will be out in the open one day soon. Any guesses about which backbench MP is going to get hit with the most FOI requests in the coming month?

Once again the Lords look like coming through for the rights and liberties of the people. Not one of them seems to wish to associate themselves with such an insidious bill, while the commons had plenty of self-centered s**ts ready to slither into the Aye lobby. I've got no brief for the ironically named 'house of peers', most of whom will have led lives I cannot even begin to understand; nor can I condone the fact they still carry some political authority, but that said, they do seem to have an appreciation of the responsibilities that come with political power that their brethren in the elected chamber could learn a lot from.

The campaign banner on this one must, sadly, stay for now. After all a campaign slide show with a single slide wouldn't be too exciting. I must go and find something new to get outraged about. Or perhaps not, they seem to come along of their own accord often enough.

Stuck in the Past

NuLab ministers inspect their
latest leading edge purchase
As highlighted in an earlier post [link] the usual 'the last lot were even worse/just as bad' was rolled out a lot by the NuLab front bench in yesterday's opposition day debate on the success, or otherwise, of the NHS's £20-odd billion new IT systems. It's a long time now since the last Conservative administration and, even though I was working in the non-public sector side of the same IT industry at the time, the only failures that really stick in my mind were not on the same scale and were not all even central government projects.

That said, I am, to a certain extent, prepared to accept the proposition.

I suspect that some of the systems were actually only on the drawing board stage when John Major left office and required the blend of naïvety and profligacy of a Labour administration to mature them, like the Dome, into a fully fledged disaster. This, however, does not absolve former governments from their full and fair share of the blame.

It's also quite easy to accept that as the potential of technology grows, that certain risks are inevitable. Some of these potential dangers have become reality as an extremely authoritarian government's addiction to tracking its citizens in the same way the EU tracks cattle gives rise to a cavalier attitude to personal freedoms in the use of DNA sampling and CCTV cameras, the intrusive database of all children in the land, the NHS system itself and the granddaddy of them all, the National Identity Register as well as its bastard child, the National ID card. The progress of technology is though also slightly exculpatory of the performance current government on less controversial projects, as it is inevitable that with projects like this the potential for delays and expense rise almost exponentially with their scale and scope. So yes then, the fact that the headline figures for losses and delays are much worse under the current government does not mean that the last one was any better.

So, in one sense, of it the schoolyard taunts of 'you were even worse', as unedifying as they are, have some truth to them, maybe even some underlying self-knowledge when you expand it to it's full form 'We are shit, you are even worse'. It's still a very superficial truth. They ignore the transformations that have taken place with the passage of time.

In the eighties, and early nineties major private sector IT projects also tended to go over budget and under deliver functionality long after projected delivery dates. Even then the degree of failure was lower than in the case of public sector schemes, but only just.

That was then though. Today private sector procurement and management of major IT projects has improved immeasurably. It's still far from perfect, but in the end a fair balance has been struck between the customer and the supplier in the vast majority of cases. There is still the odd white elephant now and again but these are heavily outweighed by the successes even when you look down at the scale of individual companies. Most contracts have frightening sounding penalty clauses but they rarely if ever have to be enforced on any significant scale. Good IT vendors, be it of hardware, software or services strive hard in a competitive market to give the customer what they want, and most customers recognise that this will at times come with a fairly serious price tag.

The increased scale and sophistication of the solutions has been balanced by better management techniques and technologies that actually reduce the complexity without limiting the potential of the technology. Ten years ago I could, and in some cases did, bill a client something in the order of a high five-figure sum for something that was a limited version of a blog. Now they go to one of a dozen providers, click a few buttons and get something better for free. Good companies working in the private sector do not fear this. Reinventing the technology that drives the world of blogs would be donkey work; some now go and advise, on even higher rates, on how such technology can be harnessed for business benefit, others move on to newer, more cutting edge technologies.

Tim Nice-but-Dim
A civil servant looks delighted at the
consultant's news that the £2 billion overrun
is perfectly normal for a project like his
It's when you look for the same changes happening the public sector projects that the "at least we're better than you were" claim starts to look very thin. While the government has moved very rapidly with the times in terms of the scale, and the often objectionable scope of their projects, the improvements on the delivery side are conspicuous by their absence. There are many dynamics which mean that the government will never exactly be on the leading edge of progress in this domain, but the absence of any real progress in catching up with what the private sector can do these days is pretty appalling.

There's no blame to be attached to ministers for not having top flight project management skills. It's a difficult art requiring a whole set of attributes that are often in conflict with those required for high political office, from plain speaking to basic honesty. What they must carry the can for though is failing to see that an unholy alliance of strictly non-Rolls Royce minds in high positions within the civil service, and the large dinosaurs of the IT industry are failing to deliver anything close to value for money. The last Conservative government did belatedly realise this and effectively blacklisted a few high profile suppliers from tendering for new public sector contracts. Come 1997 and with sizable donations to the NuLab fighting fund banked, scandalously these firms found themselves back in favour and are today racking up the over priced billable hours once again.

It's no surprise that most vendors and consultancies in the last ten years have spawned specialist public sector divisions. The real world is a harder place to rake in obscene profits and what they need is a soft touch. In the pampered British civil service and their spin obsessed NuLab political masters they have one. I've seen the celebrations when a government deal is closed; as soon as the ink is dry on the contract they know that they have landed a project that cannot be allowed to fail and that the only challenge will be to see just how much taxpayer's cash can be squeezed out of it.

So no, the previous government were not worse than the current one. They were equally useless in this area, but at least they knew they were and were starting to address it. Progress stopped almost the moment NuLab came to power.

There was a report a few days ago, I think on the BBC web site, which on the IT industry. I couldn't find the article again, thanks to the BBC's appalling search functionality, but the gist of if was that 70% of managers of large IT projects do not fear for their jobs when major cost or timescale overruns occur. The figure did not surprise me in the slightest when you take into account how much work now is for public sector clients.

The one thing I'm certain of is that there will be precious few managers involved in major public sector projects who are among the 30% who actually do fear for the consequences of their actions. I'm even more sure that the proportion of senior civil servants who have worried for a second about their job prospects after poor performance is much much lower.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A New Record

New computer systems to
cost around £335 per person
Even with this government it's rare that one minister can p*** you off three times, on three separate subjects in little more than a week, even if one of them remains only an unproven allegation for the time being. So as promised here I go again.

It is just coincidence and I'm sorry to be having a go at the same hapless NuLab moron yet again, but unfortunately Caroline Flint was first up at the dispatch box after PMQs yesterday. This time it was in defence of the new NHS fantastic hugely overdue, over budget computer system, especially the central patient record that soon will be accessible just about anywhere by just about anyone via the NHS 'Spine' network, and shortly afterwards once a few spotty geeks have got to work on it, or the tabloids have paid someone off, the Internet.

It was a performance full of the arrogance that we have all come to expect from Ms Flint, laden with contempt for people who have concerns over the scheme, be they on grounds of cost, functionality security, or just basic objections on privacy grounds. As usual it was a case of 'nanny knows best' and everyone else should put up, shut up, or face being sent to bed with no supper.

The one concession the nation's supernanny did make was that after a load of fatuous spiel that was clearly meant to mislead the house and the county into believing that patient data will be secure, she admitted,
"Clearly, it would be misleading of me to offer the House an absolute, cast-iron guarantee that there will never be leaks of information"
House of Commons Hansard
Debates 6 June 2007, Col 279

Indeed it would. It would also be putting her money, or rather her career, where her mouth is. She was hardly likely to do that considering the likelihood that she probably knows that the first breaches of the supposedly watertight security of the system will hit the front pages in the not too distant future. In fact they already have during the various pilots; while I'm sure those particular holes have been filled in there will doubtless be many others. NuLab means often having to say you're sorry, but not really meaning and never learning from it. Taking the honourable course is an option only to be considered after repeat offences and once every other course of action has been considered.

It wasn't great commons fare. A lot of the Conservative and Lib Dem attacks were based on the real world experience of the members making them, be it of medicine, IT or business procurement issues in general, who concentrated on detailed technical assaults on the project. It went over her head. Flint of course is a typical NuLab minister who has fuck all real world experience outside the world of the vindictive NuLab brand of politics. According to her own web site,
"Caroline is a former local government officer and prior to becoming an MP, Caroline was the senior researcher and political officer for the GMB union, and is a GMB member."

Hmm a past as a political officer for an improving but sometimes still backward looking union, and a local government officer which is usually a euphemism for an embarrassing politically correct non-job like being a Five-a-Day Coordinator that they dare not expand on, fearing ridicule. Perhaps it's her extracurricular activities that give her insights into multibillion pound systems:
"Hon President, Denaby United Football Club;
Tap dancing with the Division Belles, a troupe of Labour women MPs"

Wow, if I had £20 billion, she sounds like just the sort of person I'd want to look after it.

It's not to say direct prior experience of the subject matter in your brief is a prerequisite for ministerial office, but does come to explain why so many from the NuLab team perform so badly at the dispatch box and have to resort to sneering bluster. Only doing a tap routine during her entire speech could have brought any credit to it.

The NHS to be at the leading edge
With such limited personal experience of real life and preprepared only with a few empty statistics, she was forced into the usual litany of vacuous assertions un-reinforced by the data her department had failed to gather, assaults on previous governments' track record of failure to deliver computer systems successfully and snide comments about those raising concerns about the system.

She was hopelessly out of her depth despite the confident tone and competent way her weak defence was offered. Faced with opponents who clearly knew much more about the subject matter than she did for all the preparation that would have been done for her she comprehensively failed to land a single blow. A brief respite in the face of the technical onslaught came when the cavalry arrived in the form of some amiable buffoon of a fellow NuLab member, it may have been Kevin Barron I think, who apologised to the chair for his lateness. Conveniently enough his tardiness was due to him going to see one of these newfangled computer things in action at a local hospital and very clever it was too apparently, though it did strike me that from the way he spoke he might have been taken in by a rolling PowerPoint slide show by the devious vendor.

She did briefly rally when she was able to comment on the success of the one part of the NHS IT strategy that did appear to be delivering results. It was short lived, coming to a shuddering halt when she extended the usual accusations of scaremongering to suggest that in fact the real problem wasn't so much the many real flaws that almost everyone on the IT grapevine know to exist in the system and the governments whole approach to it, but that the Conservatives were telling everyone about them.

This last tactic in particular, as well as the mysteriously missing performance data was very reminiscent of the recent debate on Home Information Packs (HIPs), that to say the opposition time debate when the government strenuously denied there was the slightest problem in implementing the scheme, rather than the ministerial statement a week later when the eerie Ruth Kelly announced that, erm, yes there were a lot of problems (none of which were, of course, any fault of the government department implementing them).

In fact there seems to be a pretty consistent NuLab approach to weathering the blamestorming sessions on their many failures. To be honest, most of the tactics consist of using time dishonoured lines used by ministers of all political colours down the years. NuLab though has stretched the envelope in terms of how and when they are employed, which combined with the regulation sneering, supercilious tone produces a distinctly disagreeable effect.

They also have innovated in the field of ducking responsibility. The approach of extending the principle of ‘scaremongering' to actually blaming the opposition's highlighting of failures for the failures themselves is especially offensive as it goes to the heart of the oppositions legitimate role. The inability of governmental departments to provide potentially incriminating data, only for it to surface very shortly afterwards when the same information can be massaged to shift blame elsewhere can only speak to an increasing politicisation of civil service functions which is equally unacceptable.

I've got one more comment on the whole thing that deserves a separate posting as it links in to a separate story but, after that, I'm going to lay off Flint. Why should she get any more flack than any of the other useless monkeys who have climbed to the top of the NuLab tree. She might be nothing else, but unlike some of her colleagues she is a pretty face.

The Lowest of the Low

EU Flag
Power for the Sake of Power
I've got a healthy disrespect for most politicians, but have to reluctantly admit that many are driven by the best of motives and often articulate issues with which I fundamentally disagree in an intelligent, challenging way. There is however, one group to whom I have never been able to apply these caveats, British Liberal Democrat MEPs. It's an old cliché, but it must be emphasised at every available opportunity that they are not liberal, and display on many occasions a breathtaking contempt for democracy. They will tend to dress it up in voter friendly wrapping such as care for the environment but, when you see a Lib Dem heavily involved in something at the European Parliament, you can be almost certain that it will concern an increase in power of the EU over national parliaments, or over the freedom of individuals to run their lives as they see fit.

Their latest assault is being lead by MEP Chris Davies, who is the rapporteur to the parliament for a draft bill that is trying to outlaw cars in the EU with a top speed in excess of 101mph, allegedly as part of the fight against climate change.

According to the BBC Mr Davies has said,
"101mph is 25% more than the top speed limit in most EU states."

Well, yes that is probably true, but the thing is Mr Davies, for a thousand and one reasons of physics and engineering that are far beyond the capabilities of your peanut sized brain to understand, machines do not tend to operate at their optimal efficiency at the extreme ends of their performance range. It is far beyond the realms of impossibility that a car with a top speed of 101mph might well be less efficient at 80mph than one with a top speed of 121mph. It's not always the case, but certainly looking at top speed of a vehicle is unlikely to be an especially good way of predicting what its likely emissions will be.

Ferrari F430
No More Ferraris?
The truly pathetic thing is that there is actually, and I'm loathed to say it, sensible EU action in this area. Manufacturers are being obliged to meet targets for new vehicles framed in terms of the grams of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometer driven. I have my doubts about some of the science behind climate change, but tend towards the view that there is enough of a possibility that it is real that it is worth taking sensible steps to reduce emissions. Setting manufacturers targets in terms of grams per kilometers is obviously the most sensible way to go about it, though it would be better if it factored in an amount to reflect the impact of the manufacturing and maintenance processes of the vehicle over its working life.

I suspect there may several motives behind the new proposal that Mr Davies is championing, none of them good ones:

  • The eternal desire of politicians to be seen to be 'doing something, especially MEPs whose own leaders earlier this year admitted there was a lack of things to legislate on.

  • The 'if the EU does it, it must be good' attitude of the Lib Dems - lets face it they'd back the slaughter of the first-born if it was a commission proposal.

  • Good old fashioned envy of the rich who will own the fastest cars.

The most powerful motivation of all though, I suspect, is that the targets under existing proposals look likely to be met with only a little pain by the manufacturers as they were heading in the right direction anyway, and with no conscious impact on the public at large. In other words it lacked the hair shirt aspect which idiots like Mr Davies tend to believe is at the heart of all good environmental policy.

I could also properly attack the fact that his report
"...suggests that a fifth of car advertisements should be devoted to cars' fuel consumption and CO2 emissions."

...but it's so laughable I can't take it seriously enough. Mr Davies, we don't read what's printed already, and we don't listen to it when we hear it on TV. Yes we might look in to this stuff if we come to buy a car, but that's something we don't do very often, so to pollute our magazines and screens with sanctimonious garbage like you suggest is a waste of time. It will be ignored in the same way health warning on cigarette packets are, and Caroline Flint's retarded alcohol labeling scheme will be. Only someone interested in the basest kind of tokenism would ever suggest it.

No More Maseratis?
As it happens, I'm no great lover of the EU and since I live in London where a care is just a liability it won't effect me anyway. If I was being selfish I'd love to see the law pass to see this ridiculous organisation's public image take another good kicking. Damn, being a libertarian can be hard some times.

Actually, no, I could never back action like this. I'm no petrolhead, but I do think the engineering that goes into Ferarris, Maseratis, Porches and all the other performance cars that Europe is so good at manufacturing, is a thing of beauty and says much for the ingenuity, imagination and creativity that is the best side of the human mind. I'll never own one but, unlike Mr Davies, I'm not riddled with the prejudices and jealousies that lie behind much of the worst side of human nature.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Suppernanny is Back

The NHS...How long before your
medical records are on the Web?
The nightmare returns to the commons.Caroline Flint is at it again, this time busily attacking any suggestion that the new NHS computer system has been less than perfect and may benefit from a review.

More to follow when I calm down enough to analyse her arrogance.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Common Sense Prevails

Tul Bahadur Pun, VC
Tul Bahadur Pun VC
I've been a bit bogged down correcting my techical misdeeds so I haven't really been scanning my newsfeeds enough to get irate about anything this weekend but nonetheless I was glad to see this report from the BBC.

Action has been taken over the case of Tul Bahadur Pun, a story that set large parts of the Internet alight last week. My own miniscule contribution is HERE.

The government have seen it fit to grant VC hero Tul Bahadur Pun the right to residence in the UK. According to the BBC,
Immigration Minister Liam Byrne has now said his case is "exceptional" and he will be granted a visa due to a "heroic record in the service of Britain".

I could rant about whether he should ever have had his application for residence rejected in the first place or officialdom in general that gives rise to cases like this, but I won't. We'll never know if the decision would have been made without the public outcry the case arose but I'm going to be fair minded about it.

So, with due reluctance to attribute common sense to anything connected to NuLab, well done Liam Byrne, good luck and good health to Tul Bahadur Pun.

Technical Update

New Browser Support
When I set out to do this blog I decided to stick few gadgets on it to liven it up a little bit, like the Microblog, Twatometer, Dictionary and the new Campaign slide show. I really only know the insides of Internet Explorer well enough to write the code so that's all that was supported. Someone kindly let me know that the some of the stuff actually crashed Firefox, so I apologise to anyone who has run into this.

I've finally bitten the bullet and downloaded the latest versions of Firefox and Opera and managed to make everything safe, and almost everything work with these browsers. I don't have access to a Mac so I can't guarantee anything on this platform, or on Safari for example, but once adapted for Firefox there was very little needed to make it work in Opera so hopefully the blog is close enough to standards that it should work OK.

Am I a convert? Not really. Both Opera and Firefox seem perfectly good browsers, but I'm happy enough with IE. Does it seem that these browsers stick closer to standards? Yes. Is the new standards compliant code much uglier than the old elegant IE only version? Yes to that too I'm afraid.