Summer portrait project

As a change to the advertised service, I am doing some portraits of people who live on the mooring.

Yes, my life has altered  slightly. I am now living on a narrowboat on the Regent’s Canal in London. It is a life of bilge pumps, macerator loos, failed radiator hoses, and being able to cycle to work in twenty minutes and walk to work in 35. I hear coots bickering outside my window, watch the boys from the estate opposite throw eggs at people, and am awoken at three am by a duck landing on the roof.

Here are some of the people who live in the other boats, drawn by me in July.

Mooring portraits 3 - signed
Mooring portraits 3 – Kev
Mooring portraits 2
Mooring portraits 2 – Guillaume
Mooring portraits 1
Mooring portraits 1 – Demelza and Monty

Strictly come dancing as a reflection on society

I have just been reading Michael Young’s comment on the Labour party and meritocracy – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

It inspired a train of thought about the BBC TV knock-out show “Strictly Come Dancing” and how it is a perfect mirror of our society.

  1. You are led to believe that the winner will succeed on merit, but in fact it is the popular vote
  2. You are led to believe that it is a level playing-field, but in fact some entrants have innate advantages, such as youth, training, time to rehearse, etc
  3. The public vote is based on appeal to the public rather than any objective standard of merit. The appeal to the public is largely based on their existing fanbase, so people n soap operas have an advantage over foreign sports stars who nobody knows
  4. You are led to believe all dances are equal, but the quality of the choreography has an impact of the appeal of the dance.

It is easy to match this to the illusion of meritocracy that we are presented with in Great Britain. while there is a fantasy that we are all on a level playing-field; in fact it is highly influenced by who you know, who knows you, what your looks and previous training provide, and who your partner is.

I would merely like to suggest that all who are currently in power have benefited by enormous good fortune; whether it is winning the genetic lottery (being born into a rich family, such as George Osborne), having the acceptable looks to get a parliamentary seat, or having the luck to get born into an age where you can get a parliamentary seat (yes, Nicky Morgan, one hundred years ago you could not have voted in a UK election).

So let us remember that the person lifting the glitter ball as the winner of Strictly Come Dancing was the beneficiary of an awful lot of luck as well as hard work – after all, they had to beat a far higher number of possible candidates just to take part in the show.

 

Project planning – basement window

I have learnt a great deal about windows in the last few days. Primarily that aesthetics are very important and most PVC sash windows, while cheap, are unsatisfactory.

This is because whatever you do, the central bar looks too wide compared to a Victorian/Edwardian one.

We have a wall facing the street, in which we are planning to place a window so that our basement will have daylight. The first step was to decide on the size of the window.

This simple task required us to move several piles of wood that was due to be reclaimed and cut into pieces suitable for the wood burner but just hadn’t quite got round to it yet. We then had to get rid of a large quantity of cotoneaster and ivy that was cunningly concealing the wall.

Finally, we took our trusty set of chalks, and drew on the wall. The window had to be in line with the sash windows on the floor above. We counted bricks and measured. The lintels are in yellow and the window opening is in blue.

The windows and lintels chalked on the wall
The windows and lintels chalked on the wall

I feel I must point out that the plant that has not yet been dug up is very, very spiky.

The outside lintels are made of reconstituted stone. Did you know that you need to have two lintels if you have a cavity wall, one to support the inside wall (which can look like a lump of concrete because it will be plastered) and one to support the outside wall which may be decorative.

Here are the decorative ones. They are on the floor of the garage. In a place where they can conveniently be tripped over. I haven’t got a photograph of the concrete lump because it went from the back of the car into the wall on the same day. The stone ones had to be ordered in advance and made to measure.

Lintesls side

The lintels then had to be inserted into the wall.

Yes. First of all you cut a hole in the outside wall.  Then you cut a hole in the inside wall. Then you put the inside lintel into the hole in the inside wall. Then you fill up the gap with expanding foam. Then you put the outside lintel into the wall. This was a complex job, because the bricks had to be rearranged so that the course immediately under the lintel supported them as much as possible. PB (perfectionist builder) carefully removed, recut and replaced the bricks to ensure that this would happen. The bricks immediately under the lintel have been changed to a brick and a three-quarter brick to provide proper support.

You can see the grey ends of the inside lintel. It’s bigger, so didn’t need the fancy brickwork rearrangement to support it.

The lintel placed in the wall
The lintel placed in the wall

Here is a picture of the brick cutting.

Brick cutting: I hope he is wearing a face mask
Brick cutting: I hope he is wearing a face mask

And finally, here is a real lintel in the wall instead of a chalk one.

20151018_152819

It’s very beautiful.

Finally, just for the record. Here is a picture of the inside of the wall. I  have drawn a window with chalk on the wall. And some trees and flowers and foliage. Chalk is not very effective on masonry paint.

The drawing where the window will be
The drawing where the window will be

Before the window-to-be could be drawn on the wall, a set of cupboards had to removed from on top of the current set of cupboards. This required us to clear a space in the room in which the cupboards could be put. Which required us to move the washing machine and sink which were currently in the place where the other cupboards now are. Which required us to replumb the kitchen sink in the floor above.

So if I was to start at the other end of the project, the first requirement would be

“Find both sides of the wall in which you are going to put a window”

We haven’t ordered the window yet. That would be going a bit far.

Why soluble problems?

The excitement in life is finding the next interesting problem.

The world is full of problems, ranging from how to stay alive, to whether I want to buy that shirt, to which way up does this piece go.

As human beings, we are excited by problems. We prioritise them by emotion (equivalent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) but once the urgent physical requirements are dealt with, we then seek out problems to give our life meaning by solving them.

The type of problem we seek out depends on what satisfies our personality. Some problems last longer than others. Some problems require different skills (organising a trip to a sports game versus playing a Haydn concerto). But it is meeting with those problems that we are fully engaged with life, and the art of life is finding the next interesting problem.

Some problems have clear solutions. Some problems don’t have clear solutions but we know that solutions exist (how do I earn some money). Some problems may or may not have solutions. My interest in life is working out what approaches may help transform a problem into a soluble problem. Often this consists of working out what the problem that you are trying to solve is.

People are very tempted to deal with problems is to apply a solution that they know how to carry out, whether or not it is appropriate to that problem. The more difficult and emotion-laden the problem, the more tempting to apply a pre-existing solution rather than look at the problem itself.

The first step in solving a problem is to admit it is there in the first place.

The second step is defining it.

The third step is considering whether there is any part of the problem that has a solution.

If there is, you have achieved the great happiness of having a soluble problem.

The next step if finding out if you have the tools to solve it.

McKnight pinciples (1948) – or why it is important to think

 “As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

Bored bored bored bored

The more astute among my gentle readers will have spotted that I have not written much about the company for which I purport to work lately.

There are two reasons for this. One is that it hasn’t been very interesting. Life has carried on, with the dreaded rain of brown envelopes, asking for the normal collections for birth and marriage (though not death). There has been canoeing down the Wye for charity and people’s children running marathons for other people’s children who have (take your pick) need of a mouth-operated wheelchair, a cancer ward, or a memorial charity for drug rehabilitation.

I could discuss the difficulty of making people redundant and the effect it has on company morale, or perhaps whether the privatisation of the NHS is going to bring us in as much money as we hope. But the second reason that I haven’t written about the company is because currently I am totally and utterly bored by it. Everyone is working very hard, and their little foibles are more concealed than usual. It is intriguing to see who is browsing which websites on the run-up to Christmas: is it amazon or ebay? Hunting for a job or trying to move house?

I myself am spending more time researching the latest discussions on the benefits of U/X thinking than is required for working through the tests I have devised for the latest products.

I don’t know whether it is the time of year, the shortage of daylight hours, or just an overwhelming weariness with the futility of life and the avarice and laziness of a vast proportion of the populace.
Perhaps it will improve when the child has its wheelchair, and a few more teenage souls are reclaimed for hard-working family values.

Come cheer me. remind me that applied cognitive psychology is not merely about making it easier for people to do what you would like them to do, but can also be used to, somehow, encourage people in those seasonal pastimes of good will towards mankind.

Net promoter score (NPS) – or how do you think about customers.

First of all, I’ll start with the credits: The Net Promoter Score, or NPS® was developed by Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix in 2003. (See The One Number you Need to Grow). It assumes that all customers can be divided into three categories: Promoters, Passives, and Detractors.

It seems that the big idea was who you should concentrate your marketing on. There are your loyal recommenders, who will buy your stuff pretty much whatever, there are the people who don’t really care one way or another, and there are the people who had a bad experience with you. Given a limited budget, where should you concentrate your efforts?

You will notice some sympathy with triage. I think the human brain is naturally comfortable dividing things into three groups. Like Gaul. (For anyone who has neither read Asterix or De Bello Gallico, that is a reference to Caesar. Caesar’s title is not a reference to his summer holiday in beautiful Gaul, but to the Gaulish wars. I love faux amis, or in this case, armies.) Back to triage. This used to be the battlefield technique used to decide who to save and who to leave. The ones that you saved were the ones that you could save and who would not survive if you did nothing. How does this relate to customers?

You don’t want to spend much effort on your loyal supporters. They don’t need it. You don’t want them to resent you (see the bad publicity that accrues when people realise that new customers are getting better deals than old faithfuls) but you don’t need to woo them either.

The people who hate you hate you. There are those who bad-mouth you, which has a major effect on your business, and those who only chose you because you were the last one left in the playground. Who can you safely sacrifice and who is worth turning around?

This is where one number doesn’t cut it. Bye bye NPS. It’s a fair measure if all the bodies on your battlefield are privates, but we all know that what counts is the power that the body wields. You’re obviously better getting a loyal high-spender than a low-spender, turning round the opinion of someone who whose opinion is listened to than that of a dead end Derek. The thing is, you can never be quite sure who that is. First, you can see who in the middle section has money and is worth investing in. Secondly, you can see what the cost of attempting to fix the problems are. If it’s going to cost more to fix than you’re going to gain in sales or spend in support, then consider leaving the problem as a straightforward problem. People do it all the time. Look at the list of known bugs. Look at that well-known bug category of “won’t be fixed”. So long as it isn’t a deal breaker, you can ignore it.

Finally, be honest to yourself. Remember that everyone likes to think that they’re important. If you can convert someone, they may turn out to be your strongest supporter.

The arthritic kitchen

First exciting information. I have an MSc certificate. With a hologram.
Second less exciting information. I have early-onset arthritis. In my right hand (I’m right-handed). As I said to one of my friends, this wasn’t in my life script.

There are many good things though. I’m not saying that in a “cancer is a gift” sort of way, but in a “well, if this had to happen” sort of way.

First of all, I realised it was happening while I was designing the kitchen rather than afterwards. This meant that I chose nice big handles for my cupboards, rather than those invisible finger-tip numbers. Note well, kitchen designers: if your hands are swollen and painful, you cannot hold those dainty handles, your pinch grip is not what it used to be.

Secondly, I can still type.

Thirdly, pain-killers are brilliant.

Fourthly, I can find it funny that I’m running my hand sensuously along the cold edges of the cabinets in the supermarket because it eases the pain. Hot bodies, though probably more appealing, are less capable in the anaesthetising department.

I’ve had a functional kitchen for nearly a week now.(yes, that’s terribly terribly exciting). Big handles (remember the big handles), iroko worktops, soft-close shiny white units.

I’m already discovering lots of things I got wrong. The most crucial of these is the distance from the oven to the sink. It’s delightful, there is space in the kitchen, I can have friends in and all that jazz, but if, as I have done, you suddenly realise that you cannot carry a pot of boiling pasta to the sink to drain one-handed because it hurts too much, those extra steps are a total waste of space.

Next week, the exciting limitations of posh kitchen utensils. Send me your incredibly expensive item, and I’ll review it from an ergonomic arthritic perspective. I’ll even show you the hologram on my MSc certificate. If you don’t, I’ll just have to review what I already own, starting, perhaps, with the Samsung fridge.

And finally, assignment of blame

I was discussing the natural progression of projects with an experienced friend. Here are the real project stages:

  1. Planning (have an idea)
  2. Estimation – always wildly optimistic
  3. Design – this stage may be done while implementing
  4. Implementation – project starts to overrun
  5. Private discussion with customer introduces a few trivial changes
  6. Design is finally written down – this stage may be omitted if time pressing
  7. Changes are discovered to double the project time and budget
  8. Project starts over-running severely
  9. Features start being cut, but are replaced by new features
  10. Project now massively over-running
  11. Features cut again
  12. Project released in beta
  13. Steady set of bug fixes
  14. Blame assigned
  15. Testing carried out – this stage can be omitted if customers desperate
  16. Innocent punished

Obviously this is different from the Design – evaluate – implement – evaluate – test – evaluate cycle that I learnt during my MSc, but I fear that even that included the two vital stages: assignment of blame and punishment of the innocent.
The easiest technique for blame assignment is, of course, to blame the absent. They are safely out of the way, and it will not harm them. Second is to blame the customer and the boss. This does not damage the team. Finally, blame may be placed on whoever appears most vulnerable to it. This has no relation to responsibility

Costing projects

I’m very aware that I should put keywords in my blog. I’m also aware that I’m not attempting to monetise my blog. Anyone who reads it regularly, leave me a comment and I will be most grateful. Anyone who doesn’t read it regularly: you’re missing out.

I was comparing the fantasy of Agile management to the joys of converting a house.

Firstly, no matter how tightly you plan your project, it won’t work. The tyres get punctures, the render doesn’t go off because it’s cold, the plaster sets too quickly because it’s warm and so on and so on. One of the illusions that computers peddle is that values are fixed and unchangeable. Over years of experience one discovers that an apple this year is not the same as an apple last year: it may be smaller, sweeter, less common and so on and so forth. In the same way, programmers get ill, libraries get updated, life turns out to be a little difficult. It’s fine if you’re building on a greenfield site, but in the real world you may not be.

So we are dealing a non-representative series of events. Estimates are based on normal – that frictionless set of billiard balls or that perfectly rational economic creature… Life is imperfect, unbalanced, frustrating, and driven by chance. People on the top want to believe that it is driven by skill. They wish to confirm that it is their qualities that have given them their privilege, and others’ failures that have denied it. When talking about becoming a premier league footballer, people are willing to admit that some people are born with more talent than others. You rarely hear the fact that given a couple of X chromosomes, you’ll never make it. One sperm over another. Your chances ruled out, just like that.

Given the innate unpredictability of life, you need a reserve fund to cover the likely overruns in time and cost and temper whenever you’re planning a project. You also need a contingency plan.
This is one of the things I find most interesting. What do you do when a project has overrun? At what point are you prepared to say “pull the plug/cut the costs”?

It is my belief that life is much simpler if you have a hard deadline, chosen in advance, such that when you go over it, the project is pulled automatically. I would be curious to see how many things would get sacrificed if you knew that at fifty per cent above the original estimate, or at twenty per cent above the original time, consequences dropped in.

When I was in a partnersip, I rekember bidding for a contract. We honestly told the buyers “It’s not possible to do y in the time, but we can do x”. We didn’t get the contract. We were correct, of course, but people want to hear that they can do y in time t. Anyone who says “No” will lose out to anyone who says “yes”. You therefore need heavy penalties for misleading on contracts.

There is less temptation to gain a contract bby being over-optimistic if you know there is an automatic penalty for getting it wrong. But how may customers prefer illusions to truth?