Off balance

I’m feeling a little off balance at the moment. Last Wednesday I was busy telling the ARIS and webMethods user groups that “numbers don’t speak for themselves”. I was talking about the creating business cases, but I believe the statement to be true more generally. Numbers only make sense if you can relate them to a specific context. Furthermore, the numbers used must report or measure something meaningful, otherwise there’s no point in collecting the data. (You can find my detailed explanations rants on both of theses topic here and here if you’re interested).

Anyway, this was me in action at the event. It looks a little as if I’m conducting an auction and that the chandelier is about to bring it all to a messy end.

ARIS user group meeting 1st March 2017I’d had an active week up to that point, and although I spent Thursday in the office, that day was busy too. Here’s my steps chart for the first part of the week …

Mon-Thu 27/2 - 2/3 steps… 43,611 in all. I should have been feeling great! Nicely (but not stupidly) over the 10,000 steps a day average we’re supposed to achieve, according to the NHS and others. But having wittered on about context, you should already know that I’m about to tell you what happened next.

Full week 27/2 - 5/3An average of under 1,700 steps a day for Friday to Sunday. Monday to Thursday wiped me out, so I’ve spent most of the time asleep or moping around on the sofa. I haven’t been eating (much) either.

I feel that given my opening salvo I should now provide some context to these numbers. After all, you could just assume that I’ve been really lazy for the last three days. I wish that was true!

My best case hypothesis is that I picked up a bug (or mild food poisoning) early last week. As I was rather ‘poorly’ on Thursday evening that explanation could make sense. My worst case hypothesis is that the lymphoma has started to put on a bit of a sprint. I’ve been feeling increasingly fatigued for some weeks now, with even the most sanguine of the consultants that I’ve been seeing starting to suggest that chemo might be needed ‘soon’. Having spent 2.5 years on watch and wait, I’m not sure if ‘soon’ means weeks or months or a year or more … sometimes I don’t want to know the numbers at all.

Anyway, the next few days should help me figure out which of the hypotheses is right. I’m starting to get a bit of energy back today, so I’m hopeful that the bug explanation proves to be the right context for last week’s steps chart.

The PAFEC 10th anniversary brochure – August 1986

This is what a leading UK software company looked like 30 years ago. After thinking I’d lost this brochure for good, it eventually turned up at my late parent’s house while I was sorting through the last of bookshelves this afternoon. All six pages are available for download here (pdf).

PAFEC Employees 1986The photograph is from the back page and was taken on the lawn at Strelley Hall. It shows many of the 270 employees. I can remember quite a few of the people pictured (I’m in the background towards the left hand side), and it would be good to hear from you in the comments if you’re also featured in the picture. If anyone still happens to have the key to the people in the photograph (I remember it being displayed next to the copy of the picture hung by the staircase in the hall for many years), it would be even better to hear from you!

Six reasons why I loathe LinkedIn

Let me count the ways I hate you, LinkedIn and the manner in which you encourage people to behave.

1. There’s far, far too much willy-waving going on. For some reason that completely escapes me, people write in a strange kind of LinkedIn-ese that you see nowhere else (except on CVs destined for the ‘reject’ pile).

Some examples:

“I am a multi talented individual …” – Good for you!

“I am a results oriented business leader.” – What kind of results do you get?

“I operate at the most senior levels to make things happen.”  – What things? Are they good, bad or indifferent?

“I continuously remove obstacles preventing sales in order to reach my objectives” – Sounds ominous to me.

“… strategically managing multiple hard-to-fill and urgent job requisitions.” – Pardon?

“As a sales hunter, I drive myself to reach my goals …” – So no points on your driving licence then?

2. Oh dear.

Homeopathy on LinkedIn

3. I see endless examples of ageism and sexism, in the guise of humour or “research says that …”. Here’s part of a milder example. As anyone who’s ever studied occupational psychology knows, someone’s age or gender isn’t correlated with how well people do at work.

Ageist tosh

4. I detest the corporate shill – someone who only ever posts company propaganda. LinkedIn at its best is personal – and nothing is more impersonal and lazy than simply regurgitating everything that your marketing department produces. That’s not to say that it’s never appropriate – it may well be. But if your status updates only consist of that material, then you’re not providing much of value to your network.

5. The constant entreaties by email and on LInkedIn itself to take out a free trial of their premium service. No thanks. If there was a way of permanently stopping you from asking me about this several times a month I’d probably like LinkedIn a little more.

No, I don't want to upgrade

6. The many and varied ‘intelligence tests’ that appear to be the only thing that some people post. I particularly hate these if the person concerned can’t tell the difference between “your” and “you’re”.
A LinkedIn intelligence test

 

However, I won’t be deleting my account any time soon. At its best, LinkedIn is a useful source of information and contacts. In particular, it’s been a good way on staying in touch with people who I’ve enjoyed working with in the past, as well as with my current colleagues. Within the last month, a person I worked with more than 15 years ago contacted me as he’d heard about my lymphoma. Without LinkedIn, I doubt whether that would have been possible. It’s these moments of humanity, in amongst all the willy-waving that makes me grateful that LinkedIn exists after all.

 

The figures *don’t* speak for themselves

Inspired by the fourth Post40Bloggers writing prompt to discuss the topic: “In a world full of uncertainty, write about what you know for sure”, here’s why when anyone says to you that “the figures speak for themselves” your spider senses should start tingling and a red danger light start flashing in your brain. Metaphorically speaking of course. I do know for sure that we don’t have spider senses nor do we have a red danger light in our brain. But that’s a different article.

How many times have you heard someone say that “the figures speak for themselves” as a way of attempting to close down or win an argument? It happens all of the time. Some recent examples (courtesy of the might of my favourite interweb search engines) are:

People often appeal to figures because they appear to be objective, but all three of these examples are anything but a dispassionate telling of a single, objective truth. For example, Liam Byrne was attempting to use the figures from a recorded rise in the young unemployed by 20,000 in April 2013 to justify Labour’s jobs policy. In the meantime, youth unemployment (and unemployment in general) has fallen again – but I’m prepared to bet that he hasn’t changed his political stance. I doubt that he would even if youth unemployment fell to zero. So it would seem that these figures really weren’t speaking for themselves. Instead, this is an instance of someone taking a set of figures, which are undoubtedly subject to error and uncertainty, and then speaking for them. As are, I would humbly suggest, the other two examples.

I make this point endlessly at work to colleagues and clients alike. These days, rather than cutting code or managing other people for a living, I help people to determine whether or not a particular investment in software and services “makes sense”. Now, I’m a great believer that you must always start with the numbers and create a financial model of the possible risks and returns, but simply presenting a decision maker with a statement that “If you do x, it will realise £y” is never enough.

Instead, you have to use the figures to help your decision maker justify a particular investment in light of the organisation’s own aims and subjective beliefs about its future. For example, if a commercial organisation is single-mindedly focused on growth, then even the best financial case around saving costs won’t get the attention it deserves. The public sector is similar. At the moment, if an investment doesn’t fit the ‘all IT is a commodity’ or ‘open source is the answer to everything’ memes then the overall financial case is ignored, as positioning against either of these trends simply invites ridicule, justified or not.

So I hope I’ve convinced you of one of the things that I know for sure – figures don’t, and never will, speak for themselves.

 

A simple user interface?

Here’s one final piece of PAFEC memorabilia for the time being – the DOGS 4.4 Option Selector from 1993.

Getting DOGS to do something involved selecting two items from an on screen (or on-tablet) menu. For example, to draw a single straight line, you selected the menu option LINE, followed by the menu option 2. This example was known as an ‘executing option’, as until another menu item was selected, indicating two more points in the drawing area would result in another straight line. You could also select menu options by using ‘typed input’ mode and typing its abbreviation – LIN2 in this case.

Versions of DOGS prior to the 4.1 release used two letter abbreviation codes for menu items which still worked of course, meaning that vast libraries of parametrics (the DOGS programming language used to create automated scripts based on sequences of commands) built since the first releases of the early 80s still worked. The move to three letter menu item codes became necessary as an increasing number of functions that had been added over time had ended up in some rather strange places on the menu.

Providing a printed card was an engineering solution to the graphics terminals of the day not having the space to display large amounts of text or graphics to describe the purpose of each option. The option selector therefore allowed the drawing area to be maximised.

The 4.4 option selector was double-sided, folded into thirds. It was introduced following research indicating that the earlier and larger menu cards designed to fit on a digitising tablet were seen as being too cumbersome. Customers who still wanted to use the menu card on a tablet were provided with a DOGS parametric that enabled one to be printed.

The last of the six images has an old (0602) Nottingham telephone and fax number on it, along with the PAFEC telex address. Company email addresses were probably still a year or two away for us at this point …

 

PAFEC – The DOGS 3.1 SCURS Comment Block

This comment block, from the SCURS subroutine of DOGS 3.1 should bring back memories for former colleagues. The copy I have in my possession runs to just over 14 pages and has my provisional edits (dated 24th October 1985) for DOGS on the Sun-2 workstation using a Bitpad 1 compatible tablet. Seeing the lines of code starting IF (ITYPE.EQ.111) GOTO 395 again certainly brings back memories.

The SCURS comment block from DOGS 3.1, October 1985.The aim of SCURS was simple, but because of the ever-growing number of different graphics terminals, workstations and input devices DOGS supported, it had started to become unwieldy and became almost indecipherable by the release of DOGS 3.2 in 1986. DOGS 4.1 replaced SCURS with a structured library known as PUGS (PAFEC Universal Graphics System) used by Tektronix, Westward, Sigma and other graphics terminals, with a variant called LIONS used on Sun, Apollo, HP and other 32-bit workstations.

 

PAFEC – Photographs of Strelley Hall, 1990

I have singularly failed so far to find my copy of the staff photograph from 1986, taken on the lawn at Strelley Hall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the company. I’ll keep looking, but in the meantime, these are the photographs of the hall taken in 1990 by Derek Barley, who also provided the pictures of the Stapleford office for my earlier post.

The first picture is of the stables, with one of the PAFEC vans parked outside. I spent the first 18 months or so of my working life after university in the stables and I remember it being particularly cold during the winter of 1985/86, when my rear-wheel drive Skoda Rapid 120 was one of the few cars able to make it safely along Strelley Lane one snowy morning.

The stables at Strelley Hall, circa 1990. Image copyright Derek Barley. Used with permission.A couple of nice photographs of the main entrance to the Hall …

PAFEC, Strelley Hall, circa 1990. Image copyright Derek Barley. Used with permission.PAFEC, Strelley Hall, circa 1990. Image copyright Derek Barley. Used with permission.… and one taken from the terrace on the left-hand side of the main entrance, looking towards Strelley Church.

PAFEC, Strelley Hall, circa 1990. Image copyright Derek Barley. Used with permission.Finally, one of the resident chickens!

PAFEC, Strelley Hall, circa 1990. Image copyright Derek Barley. Used with permission.

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