Tuesday, March 30, 2010

B.C.S mid-Wales sub-branch 1st meeting

I attended the the 1st meeting of the British Computer Society mid-Wales sub-branch last night and very good it was too. Prof. Chris Price from the Comp Sci department gave a talk on making money from writing applications for the iPhone, etc. The welsh phrase book was one of the examples and the talk was about what he learned on the journey. Chris has yet to buy a Porsche from the proceeds, but I have always though of him as a camper van man anyway. Lots of good points which had not crossed my mind, few were software engineering based, but some very good marketing and product development points.

What did please me is that other than students who came along for the free food (fair enough), and the usual local locals, I spoke to people from Barmouth and Harlech who had made the effort to travel down to Aberystwyth. One area (of many I am sure) which the sub-Branch (which becomes a branch in a years time of it behaves) could make a useful contribution is to mentor and sponsor CITP applications. There were more B.C.S. fellows than you could shake a stick at on the signing in sheet.

Read this blog posting if you have a UK bank account

I spoke after Prof. Ross Anderson at a conference last year and can confirm he is a class act and very much top of his game which is computer security. This item on his groups blog about getting money back from a bank is well worth a read for anyone with a UK bank account (so that probably means you).

Having taken 2 sets of people to the small claims court about 15 years apart for very different reasons, I can concur with it becoming part of citizenship lessons for teenagers.

Cognitive bias of the week : the halo effect

The halo effect refers to a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.

One aspect of this trait is to assume that a competence in one area implies a competence in another area. Effective individual contributors (in my world they are called engineers or techies) are promoted to managers where they fail to deliver and spend the rest of their working life morning the loss of skills they used to have.

Here is an other example from a local Westminister candidate who suggests that being good at golf (whatever a handicap of 6 means, I don't know) and going to Chapel on a regular basis are traits which suggest a competence in making decisions on my behalf and holding ministers to account. I find it hard to take anything else seriously after reading about golf and chapel, but the writter was endeavoring to exploit (probably unconsciously) the Halo Effect. The paragraph did strike me as The Now Show material.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Following toxic mortgage assets

This story on toxic mortgage assets should be interesting to follow.

You can't help but think that a lot of people who were paid a lot of money to catch this sort of event, we asleep at the bridge.

Trident as a toy for the rich

I am not against the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent on moral grounds. Work (Cray and Sun) took me through the gates of the Bomb factory at Aldermaston a couple of time about 10 years ago. I would rather such weapons did not exist, but in the world we live it can be argued that such weapons are a tool to do a job.

The problem today is that UK PLC faces greater risks of destruction from inside. The mains ones are economic and social. No sane country is going to invade an other country which owes 35,000 pounds per head. Terrorist risks are far lower level and Trident next does not deter that threat.
Why Trident is far less relevant today is well articulated here.

So why might you want a nuclear capability? The only good reason I can come up with is the low probability, but very high impact that the earth would be hit by a large meteorite for which Trident next would be of little use to help it change course.

From reading around the subject, it appears that the missiles and warheads can continue in service, but it is the submarines which have a limited lifespan which is coming to an end.

Trident next is a luxury for a country which has a budget surplus. Until that time, as a country we need to make do with that we have or go without. A nuclear capability on tick makes no sense at all.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Green Ceredigion Westminister Candidate does not visit Cwmerfyn

A few weeks ago I put up my 10 questions I would wish to ask any prospective Westminister candidate who was daft enough to hike up to Cwmerfyn. I then emailed all the candidates of the serious parties (UKIP excluded for both this reason and the candidate was standing elsewhere and had not email address). So after 3 weeks to tally so far is

Labour : no reply
Conservative : no reply
Lib Dem : no reply
Plaid Cymru : Got an email back from Penri that he was happy to meet to discuss and I have been too busy to follow up. Fair enough, as good as a reply in my book.
Green : Full, well thought out and articulate reply with a combination of personal views and party line. Lelia clearly took a lot of time and I have to say I was very impressed indeed. Of course, I did not agree with 1 or 2 points she made, a couple more were questions around subjects I am undecided on, but I think need debate. In short I was very impressed. I asked a number of specific questions where she give a big picture answer which showed a clear insight.

Just in case you think I am a Nazi in favor of forced sterilization of the poor, let me set come context of where the question "What is your position on sterilization of parents who have had 2 or more children taken into care because they are unable to look after them?" came from. I have a friend who sponsors/mentors teenagers who are in the process of leaving care. She is the most liberal, caring person I know who works really hard with some teenagers with complex and difficult behaviours as a voluntary contribution. She takes the child's side and suggests that parents don't have a right to give children an start in life where they are abused in various ways with addict parents. Myself, I don't have a view, I don't know enough to form one, but I would really like to see an intelligent debate on this subject, taking the needs and rights of all parties involved into account. Never know, a better alternatives might drop out.

My father would have been very pleased to read the reply, he was a Green voter at the end of his days. I have asked Leila Kiersch if I can put her reply on this blog because I think it is worth a wider (OK, the 4 people who read this) audience. The reply was far better than a 2 minute visit at tea time with the candidate trying to get round as many people as possible and doing nothing more than suggesting "you remember them".

Friday, March 26, 2010

Applying Kepner Tregoe Performance System Engineering to the national debt problem

Kepner-Tregoe Performance Systems engineering goes like this at a high level

Define the situation the performer finds themselves in
  • clarify expectation
  • clarify signals to perform
  • set priorities
  • ensure adequate resources
Help the performer close gaps in skills and knowledge

Determine the response
  • Observer and pinpoint behavior
  • Track behavior and results
  • confirm data with performer
  • Intervene at coachable moments
Set appropriate Consequences

  • Provide encouraging personal consequences
  • immediately and often
  • supplement formal with informal
  • Avoid punishment if possible
  • Consequences can be positive and negative, short and long term
  • positive short term is prefered
Give feedback

  • Use performance based information
  • Describe actual behavior and its impact
  • Review desired behavior
  • confirm information with performer
  • Encourage performer to act on feedback

To me this explains the vast majority of situations where a behavior is suboptimal. This is true from dogs to politicians from the community council to the prime minister. It is true of me and you. If you want a council employee to act in the public interest to align their performance system with the public interest.

So with 1.4 trillion of national debt, I propose that as part of the performance system for both the UK Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that on leaving office they are personally responsible each for 0.0001% of the difference between absolute debt when they took office and when they left office. So in this scenario, each additional billion of debt would cost them a thousand pounds. Each billion removed from the national debt they would get a grand. We could focus the mind a little more and remove an other zero from after the decimal point, but this would be both a positive or negative consequence aligned with the national interest.

The hard bit would be to make the accounting independent so that debt was not hidden off the UK PLC balance sheet and that other offices had performance systems aligned with the common good, child poverty, crime, etc. The measurement is always going to be the hard part, but at least debt is an absolute number.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

House of Lords report : Protecting Europe against large-scale cyber-attacks

House of Lords European Union Committee Fifth Report on Protecting Europe against large-scale cyber-attacks is worth a read if you are interested in Internet Security.

Quite a funny/sad bit about locating ENISA on Crete, a move which only made sense if you were a Greek politician.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cognitive bias of the week : Information bias

To some extent my job of fixing broken/slow computers is a constant fight against cognitive bias; both mine and other peoples. The use of Rational Process from Kepner Tregoe has been a very fine tool in avoiding some of the bias associated with the diagnosis of complex IT systems and the wider environment they run in.

The usual source defines cognitive bias as
A cognitive bias is the human tendency to draw incorrect conclusions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence. Such biases are thought to be a form of "cognitive shortcut", often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. Cognitive biases are a common outcome of human thought, and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence.
So as an exercise to imprint these on my brian and to write something a little more interesting, I shall endeavor to pick out a cognitive bias which I have found myself being guilty of. I shall try to do this at least once a week.

There is quite a rich source here, but I intend to add some value by giving context and the reason why I found myself guilty of that bias and how I might avoid it.

I am probably guilty of information bias by beliveing that by learning more about a range of congative biases that I may make future decisions which are better and that I shall reduce the number of events where I fail to take make the right diagnosis first time.

So will this feature on this blog be itself an example of cognative bias?

Taking the little man to see a Cray

While Mum took the little lady to see "Joseph and his coat of many whacky colours" in Coventry, I took the small man on the rather wonderful Wrexham and Shropshire service from Cosford to London to visit the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. The Natural History Museum apart from a few large dinosaur skeletons, is not very visually impacting and does not keep the interest of a small boy that well. The Science Museum is a different matter and he enjoyed that much more. Probably need a few more years before the Natural History Museum is ripe for an other visit.

While not visually exciting for a 4 year old, one thing which did catch my eye was the Cray-1 above. Priced from $5M to $8M in 1976, running at 80mhz, peak of 250 MFLOPS. The current fastest Cray(2008) is 1.64 “petaflops,” , a petaflop being 10^15, so 10 orders of magnitude faster. A current IPhone runs at 6 MFLOPS, so 40 IPhones == a Cray 1 and a quad-core Xeon can deliver in the region of 40 GFLOPS, so 160 times that of a Cray-1. Lot of progress in 35 years!

I worked for the Cray Research part of Silicon Graphics in 1997. I still maintain that even though he died a few years before and the company had been taken over, the positive influence of Seymor Cray was still there.

I had a very interesting discussion on the return train journey with a Physics Masters student from Imperial who is working on Quantum Computing. Still don't think I could explain even the highest level overview of the topic. How many years away from building a usable system? He suggested 15 to 20.

Good riddance Arriva ?

I for one won't be sad if Arriva get taken over. The train service from Aberystwyth to the west midlands is shoddy in terms of the rolling stock and timetable. The staff are the one good bit of the service.

The proposed takeover by Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail company, has much opportunity for improvement for travelers to/from mid-Wales. D.B. are the parent company of Wrexham and Shropshire, yes, the rail service with a 98% customer satisfaction rating. This brings a number of opportunities for those of us in Mid-Wales

  1. That some adjustment of the time table will allow you to get the shed (current Arriva rolling stock) from your nearest station in mid-Wales to Shrewsbury and then the Wrexham and Shropshire service with nice coaches and service to London without having to spend 90 minutes in Shrewsbury.
  2. They introduce the 1 price ticket, no matter where you buy it or when you travel. Once price from Shrewsbury, 40 pounds.
  3. Carrying more traffic may give weight to solve Wrexham and Shropshire's only big problem which is that it is given a very slow route through Birmingham. 3 hours from Shrewsbury is slow and if the train could get a better route, then I am sure that could be cut down to near 2 hours.
  4. Run a W & S style service from Aberystwyth!
These opportunities may not get taken and no doubt some regulator or competator will try to meddle to stop an improvement in service. I look forward to see what unfolds.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Council Chief Executive goodbye's : are we looking in the wrong place?

The gentleman acting as chief executive of Anglsey council on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government (seems they have had a few problems to say the least) on the Today Program on Tuesday. He was justifying the sums that Council Chief Executives get as severance payments when they get pushed. It was quite enlightening to read between the lines and indeed you did not have to read too hard.

When asked why they were paid so much in general what I understood him to say was along the lines of

"we have to dance such a fine line to keep these
childish elected idiots from harming themselves
and their constituents that we bloody well deserve the money".

The payouts to get rid of the chief executives did seem very large (in
the region of 200k to 400k) but lets ask why they were leaving before
their time. The reason given was personal difference between the
senior elected Councilors and the Chief Executive. The personal
difference was that an other set of Councilors had appointed them. If
this is true, then they should both go as it would be unprofessional
of the Council Leader and in my view corrupt. If you can't build a working
relationship with an otherwise well performing Chief Executive, then
bye bye to both sides. If the C.E. is a lemon and can be shown to be,
then fair enough. Sacking for sustained underperformance is quite
reasonable, but seems to be a no-no in UK public services. Sacking for
difference of opinion is OK, very stange.

I come away untroubled by the large pay outs, but very troubled that
senior elected councilors are unable to build working relationships
and seek alternative opinion, a requirement to avoid them making
serious errors of judgement on the management of the resources they
oversee. The payouts are a costly symptom, not the root of the issue.

Very few council leaders will be more capable than their Chief
Executive, though they might be better at playing politics.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Procrastination course : a case for auto enrollment

I had lunch with 2 people I know well yesterday who don't work for Oracle (to say any more would give an indication of their organization) and they mentioned that they had both had a email with details of how to sign up for a procrastination course. I assume the point of the course is to avoid it, rather than promote.

It would have made more sense to auto-enrole the staff of the entire organisation and the those who don't need it and have better things to do with their time will get round to removing themselves.

Sometime just need to turn things on their head!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dog insurance : It won't work so we will make it law

If I was in a position to propose a law which required insurers to go along with the scheme in order for it to be effective, I might think about asking their Association 1st if it was practical. Their members having done this insurance thing for many years so might have some insight into
what would work and what will not work.

It seems Labour's plans/proposals to require owners to take out insurance missed that step. I quote from the BBC news page

But Nick Starling, of the Association of British Insurers, said: "While we understand the desire to reduce the number of attacks by dogs, making insurance compulsory for all dog owners is much more difficult than it looks.

"There is currently no stand-alone third-party insurance cover for the owners of dangerous dogs, and no desire by insurers to provide cover against this very high risk.

"Making it compulsory for pet owners would still not make it compulsory for insurers to offer the cover.

"While pet insurance policies will usually include third-party liability cover for dog owners, this would not cover dangerous dogs as defined under The Dangerous Dogs Act, and other specified breeds."

He added: "Even if third-party insurance was available, how would such a system be enforced, especially as many of the owners of dangerous dogs would be unlikely to take out insurance, even if it was compulsory.

"And would someone who was attacked by an uninsured dog be entitled to compensation, and if so from whom?"

The various opposition parties must be looking to the sky, thanking their god, thinking lets wait a few days for this to stir up and the owners of 7 million dogs in the UK ( Labour's vote in 2005 was only 2,000,000 more), most of which would be collateral damage of any proposed law, to start making a noise before the opposition parties make milage.

I have only been bitten once by a dog in the last 10 or so years. It was a farm sheep dog, had a bit of history and the owner being responsible had it put down within 24 hours. No doubt it would have been exempt from any proposed scheme, as would guide dogs, etc.

An owner of a (potentially) dangerous dog won't get insurance. It will just get added to the list of laws to ignore. Dogs, like people, can develop mental problems, usually through mistreatment, which can lead to attacks from previously well tempered dogs. Better to address the mistreatment, than force through a law which would not fix the underlying broken human behavior.

If changes in the law are needed, then target that law at those who break it. This insurance scheme joke would just be a transfer of wealth from individuals to corporations, nothing more than that.

I would have thought that the 257 quid I need to pay to Dyfed Powys police this year as part of the Council Tax is insurance enough.

Friday, March 5, 2010


I had not come across BRAC as an organization before. It is a long time since I took a interest in the majority world development when doing a Geography degree 20 years ago. Please don't equate "taking an interest" with how important something it. Lots of things are important, just you have to pick what you follow or we end up known nothing useful about a lot of things.

I was watching a podcast on the train last night coming back from Edinburgh. It was from The Economist which featured
Fazle Hasan Abed.

At the end of the interview he was asked why he had not gone into politics. The interviewers suggesting that he had been a very successful technocrat and his approach would greatly benefit the politics of the country.

His comment was along the lines of

Politics is about getting power. My approach is giving power back to the people. I would not make a good politician.

The BBC paid for my education

The BBC paid for my education. Much in the same way that Sun has
paid the mortgage on the house my little people live in and I hope
Oracle is going to pay for part of my pension. My father worked as a
BBC transmitter engineer for over 35 years. The last 25 or so at Blaenplwyf, about 4 miles south of Aberystwyth, servicing transmitters across
Wales and the Marches. I have some residual love for the BBC as a
result. Penri seems to be not so sure, but at least he is writing stuff, making is views available. I can't find the other candidates for Ceredigion doing the same and I have looked.

I don't have a problem with the BBC's one nation view itself, to me it is a side effect of the history of this Island, neither good nor bad, just how
it is today. The BBC is London centric, a reflection. Our transport
network, politics, finance, business and most other walks of life in
the UK are focussed on the south east. France is Paris centric, the US
is east coast city centric. Ireland is Dublin centric. Wales as a
subset is Cardiff centric. It may not be the way forward, but it is
how things are now and critics could cast a wider net than just the
BBC. We in violent agreement about the need and quality for
professional, independent reporting like John Simpson rather
depressing reporting about birth defects in Iraq yesterday which was
even handed and very professional or John Humphreys pit bull approach to shining a light on our political masters weezle words(wrong way
round, but still) both of which can only come from an institution free
from the perils of the market and funded by something like the licence fee. I cant wait (but will have to) for the next series of "Being
Human", the acting is out of this world in a very good way and the type of Drama only the BBC seems able to pull of.

We are also in violent agreement about the dangers of Murdock Corp. to the quality of media, both written and TV based.

Sky is more expensive than just the subscription, there is also a Sky
tax which I have to pay. I don't have Sky, but I still have to pay an
overhead on goods and services advertised on Sky (same applies to Google, but I use that). I am amazed and saddened that one organization can control so much of the UK media without being hauled up for competition concerns. Maybe it has some political friends, perish the thought.

I offer the perspective that the big problem with the BBC is not the
corporation itself, but its critics. The BBC has little scope to be
experiments, make mistakes and learn from them as an institution. The Ross and Brand episode was unfortunate, but what do you expect when a junior producer, employed by one of the presenter's production company, is given oversight responsibility. A small error, which resulted in
minor offense, was blown into a national scandal, possibly to fit an
wider agenda of those fanning the flames. The BBC needs to make mistakes, take risks, get things wrong so it can push the boundaries of what is
possible in broadcasting in a way that the market would not tolerate.

From an interview on the Today program this week, it was expressed
that BBC was management heavy. Is this a side effect of focusing on
pleasing the critics rather than the viewers and listeners.

What do you call a critic of critics?