Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Aye, eye

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About three items down on my current “to do” list is “write blog post about Cornwall”. A couple of weeks ago, I made the long trip down the Mighty (M)5 to surprise my sister on the occasion of her 70th birthday. This was a complete success; her husband, who was in on the plan, played a blinder in getting her out to their favourite eating place in Bude (a tapas bar called The Barn, highly recommended), where I made the necessary entrance.

I was a bit surprised to find that I hadn’t been down to Bude for nearly fifteen years, and I was equally surprised to see what had changed – trees had grown up, new buildings had appeared, and the cost of everything had increased massively. It was the end of June and the vistor numbers were already ramping up as people got away on holiday before the mad rush when the schools break up. I spent an extra day there and we had a pleasant time walking around the beach at Bude and some of the spectacular cliff-top paths along the North Cornish coast.

Of course, on the actual day of my sister’s birthday, I had to keep a low profile, and so I took myself to a railway, as might be expected. A few miles inland from Bude is the Launceston Steam Railway, a short narrow-gauge line built on the formation of the former ‘Withered Arm’, the London & South Western Railway’s network of lines west of Exeter, in what was regarded by the Great Western Railway as exclusively their territory. These railways were victims of the Beeching Era; most of them served thinly-populated areas and were the preserve of various vintage engines towards the end of their service lives.

The line out of Launceston is usually operated by a couple of the diminuitive ‘quarry tank’ engines, built in large numbers by Hunslet of Leeds for the North Wales slate industry; but my journey was made all the more worthwhile by the line’s summer visitor – an engine from India!

The hill stations of the Raj were served by a variety of narrow gauge railways, as many of you may have seen in the 2010 BBC tv series. The most famous of these ran up into the foothills of the Himalayas to Darjeeling, and for many years wase operated by some small but deceptively powerful four-coupled saddle tanks, known as Class B. About fifteen years ago, one (no.778) was brought back to the UK by a private owner who ran it on his own (extensive) garden railway. A forthcoming house move has meant that the railway has had to be dismantled pending its relocation, and in the meantime the Launceston railway was able to secure the services of this engine for the summer season.

 

 

I had intended waxing lyrical for the rest of this post about the glories of narrow gauge railways and the byways of Victorian railway industry politics; but I think that may have to wait for another occasion. I have a rather more important story to relate.

Last Monday, I was driving home along the motorway when I became aware of a flashing light. It wasn’t on the car dashboard; and it didn’t seem to be outside the car. It looked like a reflection in my spectacle lens; and given that I’ve not long had new glasses, I thought it might be something about the new glasses that I hadn’t gotten used to yet. It was a bit like driving past street lights – except that there are no street lights along that section of the M69, and in any case it was broad daylight.

I got home and went to look in the bathroom mirror. I took off my glasses and looked in the mirror – and the flashes continued. This was not good. There was no pain, and my sight didn’t otherwise seem impaired. I went back to my usual routine, and not long afterwards, the flashes stopped. Only then did I become aware of a new, large and somewhat intrusive floater in my right eye. I’ve got a number of floaters and some of them are old friends – but they don’t normally intrude on my visual field and I’ve had most of the larger ones for a number of years. This was something different.

The next day I phoned my GP and was given an appointment for Thurday morning. I went and my GP listened to my account and administered some simple tests. She made reassuring noises – doesn’t seem to have gotten any worse, probably something fairly minor, but better safe than sorry; but then she said that she’d get me an appointment with an opthamologist as soon as possible, and “if it gets worse in the meantime, go straight to the hospital accident & emergency”. (Less reassuring.)

Friday afternoon saw me go to Birstall, a northern suburb of Leicester, to see the optician. In my area, NHS clinical front-line optical services are contracted out to practising opthamologists, so I wasn’t seeing my regular (private) specialist who carries out my annual checks. But this opthamologist was able to carry out the necessary visual investigation of the retina and a visual field test to make sure I wasn’t losing any peripheral vision, as well as confirming that my intra-ocular pressures were OK. He diagnosed a small tear in the retina, which needed fixing as soon as possible. He was unable to directly image it, though, as the tear was so peripheral as to be just outside the range of view he was able to get with his camera. He then rang the Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI), who said that they couldn’t see me that day – by now, this was 3:30 in the afternoon – but that I should take myself to the Eye Casualty Unit as early as possible the next morning.

You may have noticed a definite sense of urgency in all this. The reason is that a small tear isn’t in itself so problematical; but if the fluid inside the eyeball gets into the tear, it can spread beneath the retina and cause a full detachment. So the objective is to stop the deterioration from getting any worse. A simple, non-invasive procedure lasting a few minutes can prevent complete loss of vision in one eye.

Well, I say the procedure lasts a few minutes: but getting to that point takes a bit longer. I arrived at the hospital at about 8:25 in the morning, just before their official opening time. I joined a queue of perhaps twenty people, and quickly more joined it. The LRI operates a “walk-in” eye casualty unit, though they point out that “walk-in” doesn’t mean “drop-in”; trivial cases will be sent elsewhere, and patients presenting will be subject to triage, so the most urgent cases get treated first. All in all, I was at the unit for some six hours, working through the stages of triage, confirmation of diagnosis by a specialist, and finally laser repair.

Laser repair! For someone brought up in the 1960s, this does rather conjure up visions of fiendish weapons wielded by super-villains (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond – I expect you to die!”), or the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, wherein to undertake complex brain surgery on a defecting scientist, five people (including Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance) and a mini-submarine are miniaturised and injected into the scientist’s bloodstream, so they can navigate their way to the brain where a brilliant surgeon will conduct delicate surgery with a laser rifle. The reality is rather more prosaic: the equipment the specialist uses is adapted from the standard opthalmascope, and all that happens is that they have to hold a focusing lens against your eye so they can target the tear site accurately to spot-weld the loose retina back into the eyeball. Your eyeball is anaesthetised with drops, so if you have any sort of concerns about touching your eyeball, by the time you get to this stage the discomfort will be minimal. The procedure itself is pretty much painless, and directly after finishing I was discharged immediately.

Much to my surprise, a bit of Googling revealed the fact that this application of lasers goes back to the earliest days of the device in the early 1960s. Before then, medical opinion was divided between invasive surgeries or trying to achieve heat cauterisation of tears through elaborate arc light sources and focused arrays of mirrors and lenses. Either way, treatment was not available so widely or so easily; what I experienced yesterday as a walk-in patient just would not have been available to me fifty years ago.

Whilst in the queue, I struck up a conversation with another patient who was actually employed as a local health worker elsewhere in the NHS. (By that time, we’d both been in the queue for about 90 minutes and were waiting for triage.) He said that the NHS was “buckling under the strain” and that it was a matter of resources; though he admitted that providing new resources only increases demand, a moment’s thought will suggest that it is the case with anything that fills a need – as with new roads, new housing developments, new shopping centres or new transport links, so it is with new health facilities or new medical procedures. If you build it, they will come. Retinal tears are more common than I imagined; short-sighted people are quite prone to them because the distortion of the eyball that causes short sight makes retinal tears more likely. The ease with which they can now be repaired means that there is pressure on the NHS to provide that service; whereas if it was a complex procedure with a low probability of success, only delivered by one or two specialists at certain hospitals, then referrals would be hard to come by, a waiting list would exist, some patients would elect not to take their chances with the surgery and others would go blind before they got to the top of the list. The more procedures that can be offered to the more people, then the more demand will grow. That can only be a fact of life.

How governments decide to deliver those services is always going to be problematical. A change to an insurance-based system, such as is suggested by some British politicians, is unlikely to meet with approval. Most of the stories I hear coming from the USA from Americans about healthcare involve disputes over the extent of insurance cover; and the way the insurance business works, the maximum premiums would be sought from people in the demographic sectors with the most need and the least ability to pay – the elderly and those with multiple conditions. Most people have had disputes with insurance companies over claims for household or motor cover in the past; the prospect of that being extended into the realm of healthcare would be unacceptable to most people. The British feel about the NHS the same as (some) Americans feel about their guns – “this far and no further”. I said I was queueing for some considerable time yesterday; but the overall attitude of the patients was good, making light of a minor setback because we were all going to be seen in due course, and the treatment we would receive would have been considered science fiction in our parents’ or grandparents’ day.

Anyway, to close with, here are two pictures of the North Cornish coast, taken at Widemouth Bay, south of Bude.

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Written by robertday154

July 7, 2019 at 9:57 pm

“I’ve seen better-dressed wounds!”

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A little while ago, I heard (for the second time) a segment of the BBC Radio 4 show Women’s Hour which talked about dress codes at work. It made me think about my own  experience.

I am a bit out of the ordinary for both my company and indeed the whole sector. I go to work in a suit. Up until my last job, about seven years ago, I would also have worn a tie. Why is this?

Well, for one thing, my parents were that much older than those of my contemporaries when I was born, in 1957. So I grew up in a family where the expectation was that men would go to work in formal work attire, and casual clothes were something that really didn’t exist, not in my parents’ world of the 1930s and 40s when they grew up. (The fact that my father had been an Army drill sergeant might also have had something to do with it.)

Then I went to work in a very traditionalist organisation, the British Civil Service. For the first ten years, I was public-facing and so collar and tie was required. I then moved to the water regulator, Ofwat, and for the first five years I was effectively in the Director General’s outer office. We could have FTSE100 company chairman passing through, Ministers of the British or overseas governments, or any other sort of VIP. And as I was located in the press office, there was an outside chance that I might – if everyone else had been out of the office or otherwise engaged – have had to do broadcast media interviews. (I was a long way down the pecking order, so my appearance on tv would have been a sign that something really, really had gone south in a Big Way, but it was nonetheless a possibility. )

For the next fifteen years, although I was not so directly exposed, my work was nonetheless quite important to the organisation and so there was always the possiblity that VIPs might be brought round to be shown the leading edge troops, shovelling data into the digital furnaces down in Ofwat’s engine room. And I also had to liase and sometimes visit or recieve senior people from the water or civil engineering industries. So collar and tie remained the order of the day.

(Meanwhile, in my former employer, the social security department, there had been a change after one chap whose job was 100% behind the scenes was disciplined for not observing the dress code. This escalated into a full-blown Employment Tribunal on sex discrimination grounds, as women in the same job were not required to observe any particular dress code. Before this was settled – in the worker’s favour – there was the spectacle of dozens of junior civil servants suddenly discovering a previously-unknown Scots heritage and turning up to the office in kilts, as ethnic dress was exempt from departmental dress codes. Yes, it all got rather silly.)

After I left Ofwat, I was freelancing and so, from time to time, had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; on a couple of occasions, turning up to a consultancy job in a silver Mercedes and showing up in the corporate conference room suited and booted got me not only listened to respectfully but also paid on time!

As I said earlier, I lost the tie in my previous job, as there was a CEO there who wore a suit but an open-necked shirt. He was quite innovative in other ways; that company ran a call centre for taking facilities calls from shops and offices up and down the country, and finding plumbers or electricians or maintainance engineers local to the caller to go out and address these jobs. The CEO took a rather egalitarian attitude to his work, and once a month would block out one morning so he could go and sit on the call centre, not just to be seen at the workface, but actually to put on a headset and take calls. This certainly endeared him to me; sadly, a lot of the Board and the company’s owners weren’t so enlightened and in due course, he went, not long before I did.

When I took up that job, I had to move to get an easier commute; and some of my belongings had to go into storage. I took on a storage unit on a farm not far from my former home, and when I went to see the unit and shake hands on the agreement, I noticed that the farmer and his son-in-law were calling me “sir”. I’d gone straight there from the office; so I said “Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight and drop this “Sir” business. I’m in my working clothes, you’re in yours, end of. OK?” And it was.

I now work in IT, where wearing a suit in a back-office role is distinctly eccentric. (We recently had a client user consultation group meeting, where our dress code was ‘smart casual’. “Do I have to dress down, then?” was my question.) Fortunately, a number of my colleagues, like me, have memories of the tv science fiction show Stargate: Atlantis, which oddly enough has a bearing on this. The premise of the show is that the US Air Force has come into possession of an ancient alien transport device, a ‘Stargate’, which enables easy travel to other planets, and even galaxies. In due course, the lost city of Atlantis is discovered in a distant galaxy and an expedition of soldiers, scientists and archaeologists is sent to explore it; and that expedition is led by a civilian. Towards the end of the show’s run, the civilian administrator of the expedition is replaced by a Washington lawyer, Mr. Wolseley, played by the under-rated Robert Picardo. And although whilst on duty, Wolseley wears the same uniform coveralls as other civilian staff on the expedition, when he goes off-duty, he relaxes by putting on a suit and tie.

The reason for this is, he explains, that he had his best moments as a Washington lawyer in the courtroom. That is who he is, and so that is how he feels most comfortable. And so he reflects his personality and his personal history in his clothing of choice. I identify with that character very closely! And so I wear a suit to work, because that’s how I know I’m at work, and to me it says that I take my work seriously. I’m not saying that my more casually-attired colleagues don’t take their work seriously – they do – but this is how I show it. It’s who I am.

Written by robertday154

June 1, 2019 at 6:06 pm

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The Triumph of Time

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With the exception of a short post in November, I see that it’s eight months since I last posted to this blog. The reasons are numerous, but simple; I’ve been busy. And that busy-ness hasn’t really been much to write home about.

My work, for example. It’s kept me busy. That’s not to say that I’ve been working all the hours God sends; neither does it mean that my work is exceptionally onerous. But it is quite intense. I work as an IT software tester; and testing nowadays isn’t about following scripts or just “pressing all the buttons”. Rather, it’s about understanding users and what they want out of a piece of software; then trying to replicate users’ behaviour to see if the application will break when people try to do to it what people generally do with computer software. If the application survives that, then we try to stretch the envelope, as test pilots say. We apply extremes of working conditions, to see how the system responds. We try the application using different Web browsers, or different devices, and we look for special conditions of use that might break it. We look at how fast it performs, how many records it can handle, and whether it is proof against malicious activity. We think up new ways to try to bend the system, and see whether its responses are appropriate. If it fails, how badly does it fail? And if it works, how well does it work?

A lot of this involves talking to the developers who wrote the application, and sometimes to the end users as well. And I’m not a tech person – my programming skills are many years out of date, though I often surprise myself with how much I do understand. But the point of all this is that I find myself often quite tired when I get home, and relaxing can often turn into something a bit deeper. My commute – 30 miles each way, from just outside Leicester to the south side of Coventry, adjacent to Warwick University, doesn’t help. With clear roads, it can take about 45 minutes. Usually, it’s closer to an hour, and can be anything up to an hour-and-a-half each way if traffic gets bad or if there are accidents.

Ah yes – my car. The good news is that I’ve found a local garage who used to be a Saab dealership, so they know how to deal with them. I put the car through its MoT (mandatory annual safety check) last week and came out with a bill of less than £50, which is exceptional; only three minor bulbs needed replacing. But I have advisories for things that may well need attention by this time next year, and these are more significant, such as brake discs and suspension components. And so far this year, I’ve had a new exhaust on the car and had to replace the petrol pump.  (Interestingly, though, I find that my 17-year-old Saab with nearly 130,000 miles on the clock is nonetheless considered Euro 4 emissions standard-compliant by Transport for London and so would be exempt from the new London Ultra Low Emissions Zone charge, should I be mad enough to want to drive into central London.)

London makes me want to mention this year’s Easter science fiction convention, held in a hotel just outside Heathrow. We left the decision to go too late to get a room in the convention hotel, but we secured a place in the Ibis Styles almost next door for about a third of the price. The convention was not particularly astonishing, though I had some interesting conversations with old friends and in particular got an insider’s perspective on the current state of the space industry, especially the relationship between the Russians and Chinese that suggests why the Americans suddenly want to get back to the Moon inside five years…

My other interests have also kept me busy and away from this blog; the Austrian Railway Group and Sutton Coldfield Model Makers took up time, whilst I have continued posting book and model reviews to my other blogs (Deep Waters Reading for book reviews [mainly] and In Shallower Waters for my scale modelling activities).

And then there’s politics. I’ve strenuously kept clear of commenting on Brexit, and I’m going to continuing so not doing. I can’t see my adding anything useful to the debate, I won’t change anyone’s minds, and the only comment I’ll offer is one from a comedian – I can’t remember which one – who commented “To think we wasted the perfectly good word omnishambles on a Budget that put 5p on a Cornish pasty.”

I will just say one thing: a lot of people with strong views on Brexit are making a lot of noise about how out of touch our politicians are, or how the media isn’t giving them a fair crack of the whip. My reaction is “Hello! Welcome to my world!” These are exactly the sort of complaints that the trade union movement were making thirty or forty years ago, and no-one ever listened.

None of the things that I’ve touched on above spurred me on enough into sitting down at the keyboard to write a blog post. I have a number of blog ideas – perhaps four titles are sitting on a post-it note on my desk right now – but some of them require quite a bit more work, especially in the way of photographs.

I also don’t seem to have had many photographic excursions so far this year. But I did have one trip out that ticked one destination off my list. Back in February, I did a bit of chauffeuring to take a friend up to Leeds; and I was going to be at a loose end for the day. So I determined to go somewhere I hadn’t been for forty-seven years – yes! Forty-Seven Years! I refer to the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.

 

In 1972, we had a trip to the Yorkshire Dales in the October half-term. We had fairly crisp, cold Autumn days. This year, the trip was in February, but there resemblence ended. February 2019 was unseasonably mild, so much so that some early flowers had come out. In 1972, we drove to Haworth and made a circular tour from there, as well as visiting the engine shed. In 2019, I drove to Ingrow. On my previous trip, Ingrow had looked semi-derelict and certainly unloved; now it is a fully restored Victorian urban station, with a grand-looking cobbled yard, and ancillary buildings occupied by the Bahamas Locomotive Society and the Vintage Carriages Trust.

I’d had an early start and so had missed breakfast – a cardinal sin in my book. On enquiring at the ticket office, I was told that there was no longer any refreshment facilities at Keighley, but the volunteer recommended a café in the main station building. My 10:30 departure for Keighley, the next train in, arrived promptly behind a Black Five – I recollected the railway advertising itself back in the 1970s with a slightly satirical cartoon of a rather superior enthusiast saying “Of course, we have two Black Fives at Keighley…” Keighley station itself – at least on the Worth Valley side – has an excellent atmosphere of the sort of railway station I remember for the 1960s. The breakfast was extremely good as well.

The time I took for breakfast meant that I missed the next train back up the valley, and instead had to take a diesel service; although the K&WVR advertise “steam trains every day”, in the off season they – quite reasonably – only steam one engine, though I have to admit I hadn’t been expecting anything so grand as a Black Five. Working out the time I had to be back in Leeds by, I worked out that I could either traverse the line in total, or I could miss out the section from Haworth to Oxenhope and have a look at Haworth yard and the railway bookshop. But in truth, now that access to the locomotive yard is closed off, for health & safety and security reasons (like most other heritage railways), I didn’t get much out of this exercise. The yard at Haworth is quite big, and I reasoned that I wouldn’t even have time to walk to the overbridge that gives a view of the yard if I wanted to visit the bookshop.

 

However, I made up for this by the visits I made – in a bit of a whirlwind – back at Ingrow. The Bahamas group were set up in the goods shed, and had created a rather fine museum there, with a couple of their industrial engines that I had seen at their previous home, the late lamented Dinting railway centre. Bahamas itself was out on main-line railtour duty, but the LNWR Coal Tank was present and being worked on. And the Vintage Carriages Trust shed and museum was possibly the highlight of the day, with some excellent examples of restoration on display and a bookshop superior to the railway’s own.

I found this visit fascinating for the changes I saw over nearly a fifty-year gap. Having easy access to the Great Central line between Leicester and Loughborough, I’m not starved of steam interest; but that line’s run of 25 miles rather spoils me, and I was struck very much by how short the trip on the Worth Valley was on a heritage line of only 5½ miles! I suppose if I hadn’t seen the GC in nearly fifty years – as that scheme has been running for a similar length of time – I’d be astonished about that, too.

It’s really quite remarkable that, more than fifty years after the end of main-line steam on British Railways, there are so many heritage lines in the UK. Based here in Leicester, a quick count suggests that I have ten heritage lines within 90 minutes’ drive, with at least two more within two hours’ drive, plus the Tyseley locomotive works looking to run regular steam services between Birmingham and Stratford on Avon as a timetabled heritage service in between Chiltern Trains services, and the Great Central well on course to join up with their northern section from Loughborough to the outskirts of Nottingham.

All this does make me sometimes wonder quite how viable a lot of these railways are. They operate with volunteer labour, and indeed running a steam railway is such an expensive business that their business model would most likely not be viable without the help of volunteers. And yet the demographic of those volunteers suggests that some of these lines may well have to make hard decisions in the next five to ten years as those volunteers are not replaced by younger people in the numbers required to maintain services. One heritage railway – the West Somerset – has already had a close brush with bankruptcy, in part because of their need to employ some staff (although other factors had an influence there). Even the demographic providing the volunteers may find itself more taxed for free time in the coming decade, as the pension age is pushed up from 65 to 66 (the cohort I’m in) and on towards 68 in a few more years’ time. It’s also quite noticeable that many heritage lines don’t offer concessions for older passengers – or if they do, those concessions are token only. It may be that we are seeing the Golden Age of preserved steam; I was 11 when steam ended on British Railways, and although we travelled a lot by train when I was young and my father worked on the railways, we didn’t live so close that I could go and watch trains regularly, so my memories of main-line steam are fairly few and a little vague. Those who are younger than I will need a lot of enthusiasm if heritage railways are to survive as viable businesses into the next fifty years.

 

Written by robertday154

May 18, 2019 at 11:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Life lessons

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The talk about moving retirement ages here in the UK has concentrated on combatting the “work till you drop” fear that, given the attitude of too many employers, is fairly widespread here. This article from the Harvard Business Review gives a different perspective from (admittedly) the top end of corporate America.

https://hbr.org/cover-story/2018/11/when-no-one-retires

(One major difference between the UK and the USA is that age discrimination is unlawful in the UK, though actually proving it is a different matter. I know I’ve experienced it in my last two bouts of unemployment.)

I relate to some of the positive stuff in the article; I work with a predominantly millennial team myself. I find it really very exciting; I’ve learnt more about testing in the past two years than I ever did in the previous twenty! At the same time, I’m passing on my experience about the daft things users do, the sort of problems that systems have and the way businesses in the outside world operate; most of these experiences may be years old, but human reactions to systems are often timeless.

At the same time, I have to suggest that my employers may be in the minority in their positive attitudes. Also, I am looking at my future finances and thinking that I may well have to carry on doing some sort of work after retirement because the small pension I already have from the Civil Service is not going to cut it. After all, it’s all very well having a final salary pension, but that rather relies on your final salary being in any way adequate. In the rank-and-file Civil Service, it was anything but.

Written by robertday154

November 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm

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The Dignity of Labour

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(Note: this post is not about any current issues affecting the UK Labour Party. Now read on.)

Yesterday, as is my wont, I walked down the road from the office to get a sandwich for lunch. I work on a modern business park, adjacent to Warwick University (which isn’t in Warwick, but on the Warwick side of Coventry. Seeing as there wasn’t a Coventry University when Warwick was set up, it does make you imagine some sort of marketing input to the naming process. But I digress). The business park was built some ten to fifteen years ago, with units in a variety of sizes to suit different tenants. Obviously, from time to time units come empty, awaiting new tenants; and one quite large office unit, No.1 The Oaks, came empty earlier this year.

Given the number of IT companies and other enterprises active in the digital economy, I fairly reasonably imagined that some other company would take the building on in due course. So I was surprised, when I walked down the road yesterday, to hear a crash from the Oaks site, and to see a rampaging excavator demolishing the building. Today, I’m working from home. I expect the site will have been levelled by the time I go in to the office tomorrrow. According to the Internet, the site is being cleared to make way for student accommodation. Obviously, this pays more than commercial properties these days. Interestingly, the picture I grabbed from the business park’s website is named “bottom_barclays”. Barclays Bank has a large office complex on the business park, but they have consolidated a number of their staff to another site in Northampton this year and made others redundant. As the building is well away from the main Barclays site, I can quite imagine how it might get the nickname “bottom office” (though “lower office” might have been a bit more genteel).

bottom_barclays

The Oaks (picture from http://www.westwoodbusinesspark.co.uk)

Now, that’s hardly a great piece of architecture. But I’ve touched on these sort of issues before, in my post The Sacred Workplace. People designed that building; people built it; and people worked in it. It probably wasn’t really there long enough to have gathered any sort of workplace community about itself; people in future are unlikely to be starting websites looking for former colleagues who worked at No.1 The Oaks. But it filled the working lives of a diverse group of people for a number of years, and that deserves some sort of recognition, otherwise we begin to get a sort of social amnesia about our pasts.

I was mulling these things over when I had an e-mail this lunchtime about an online petition. I normally don’t do these things, because there are so many of them and you can easily end up with campaign fatigue if you’re not careful. But this one struck home a little bit with me. Not too far from where I live, there used to be a place called Snibston Discovery Park. It included a numbher of exhibits about Leicestershire’s industrial past, and was based around the old Snibston Colliery. The UK coal industry has disappeared; yet it was the basis for our industrial development and played a massive part in our social and economic history. But after the 2008 economic crisis, Snibston Discovery Park became one of the early victims of austerity, as the local county council closed it down in some degree of haste, using the excuse of poor visitor numbers in recent years.

But mining communities have a great sense of identity, even when there’s no more mining going on: and so this petition has appeared:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-snibston-colliery?

Leicestershire seems very fond of rubbishing projects that might promote growth and inward income streams, whether they be attractions or improvements to transport or amenities. Things that cater to the educational needs of people, to their intellectual or artistic development, are left to the voluntary sector or only done where the accountants say they can turn in a clear balance sheet profit on that one location, rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the community. Their attitude often seems to be “We’re fed up of telling people there’s no demand for this sort of thing.” Attracting visitors to an attraction or a service is a matter of promoting it properly; and as austerity has dragged on, more and more people are finding a need to explore their own localities rather than going miles afield for their leisure. This trend is going to continue for some time to come, or so all the pointers suggest.

Celebrating our industrial heritage is an important part of maintaining the dignity of labour – something that modern capitalism seems determined to ignore, preferring us to be nothing more than simply units of consumption or production with no role other than the economic. But our lives are in no small part shaped by our work experiences; when you have self-respect because of your job, you are a better person because of it. Instead, many people attach no importance to their jobs and so have to find validation elsewhere. Sometimes, that’s not positive validation. The bottom strata of the so-called “gig economy” has provided many examples of this in recent years.

The fightback for dignity in work has to take place on a number of different fronts.

This is one of them.

Written by robertday154

September 18, 2018 at 4:28 pm

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The Computer says “You’re fired”.

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(Cross-posted from my IT testing blog, Probe probare.)

There’s been some little kerfuffle online over this story from the wonderful world of corporate HR systems:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44561838

And here’s the guy’s story in his own words:

https://idiallo.com/blog/when-a-machine-fired-me

Although it’s an example from the USA, it has relevance here in the UK even though employment law is rather different on this side of the water. (This post is written specifically from a UK perspective.) The problem was perhaps not so much the procedure itself (though I shall return to that later); it was the fact that various people tried to unwind that procedure but the system wouldn’t permit it. And there was no good reason for the original supervisor not to renew the contract (though it does suggest an area where the company’s HR policies were not aligned with business needs).

The OP makes the point that what eventually happened was that he was dismissed and then eventually re-hired after the termination process was completed. Nonetheless, that really shouldn’t have happened under those circumstances; it left the OP out of pocket and also involved him in reputational damage. The system design was based on 1) an assumption that any decision to terminate is automatically correct and unchallengeable, and 2) in any termination process, there are a series of steps to be taken that have to be taken without any option for challenge at the operational level – i.e. the security team were under a three-line whip from the system to escort the OP off the premises, even though they had had conversations with other managers and knew that there was an issue with the process that the management team were trying to reverse.

This, of course, is a real-life illustration of the Milgram experiment, where any instruction from an authority figure is complied with, no matter how unreasonable. It’s funny how often that seems to be borne out in experience.

Someone commented to me that perhaps there was an underlying issue with the OP’s attitude and the possibility of their posting rude blogs online. Personally, I think Ibrahim Diallo’s blog was completely fair and justified, and at no point does he name the company where this occurred (though some who commented accurately identified them based on their own experience). Interestingly, the risk of disparaging blogs doesn’t seem to have been considered in system design as there was no provision made to generate a non-disclosure agreement on contractor exit!

The use of the words “fired” and “job” reflect common usage rather than strict legal definitions, though it also has some bearing on the long-running debate on the status of workers in the gig economy going all the way back (for us in the UK) to the Inland Revenue’s original implementation of IR35. The thing is that there is little indication that the process would be any different for a contracted employee. The omission of a renewal action by a disgruntled supervisor would never be an admissible reason for dismissal – it certainly wouldn’t come under the heading of “some other substantial reason” for dismissal which is the catch-all reason in UK employment law which is automatically assumed to be fair. And if such a system caused such a “cascade dismissal” of a contracted employee, it might render the company liable for action, not only in an Employment Tribunal, but also in a civil court for consequential loss for putting in place a system which actually circumvented accepted procedures (although the ACAS code of practice on discipline leading to dismissal isn’t statutory, I doubt a court would take a favourable view of a system that ignored established custom and practice in such a well-established legal area).

From a system testing point of view, this entire incident illustrates areas where testers should have had greater involvement at the design stage, in challenging issues such as “is it possible to back out of the process once it has been initiated?” or “Does this actually comply with employment law?” (and hence the underlying question, “What’s the worst that can happen to us – the company – if this goes badly wrong?”). There certainly seems to have been a distinct lack of risk analysis when this system was being defined and designed; and any concerns raised by testers that may have been raised seem to have been ignored. And that’s a valid challenge to make, irrespective of variations of legal practice in different jurisdictions.

Written by robertday154

June 27, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Loud and clear

with 4 comments

I’ve worn spectacles since the age of six; so regular visits to the opticians have been part of my life for many years. Over time, this has become a more and more expensive business as my optical prescription has become more and more extreme. Discount opticians – Specsavers, Vision Express and similar – can’t help me because they make their money out of the 80% of cases who present with fairly straightforward prescriptions. Just to be difficult, I’m in the 20%. To be fair, I did try a discount optician when they first appeared on the High Street. It turned out that my prescription required lenses that they had to order in specially, so their price and order turnaround promises didn’t apply. This is what you get for being different.

Of course, I could have spectacles through the National Health Service – but the range of frames is limited  and there would be no option over the type of lens I could have. I really need two different prescriptions, so I have varifocals – two lens types in one optic. I’ve never asked, but I suspect that varifocals aren’t available on the NHS, meaning that I’d have to have two pairs of spectacles and keep swapping them over for different situations. Also, given the extreme nature of my prescription, my lenses are pretty thick – so I have top-end “thin” branded lenses, which I also doubt are available through the NHS. Even with the hi-tech thin lenses, mine resemble the bottom of a beer bottle in thickness, so again I dread to think what the NHS equivalents are like.

Last year, the opthamologist said that I needed a new pair of spectacles because of a change in ‘prism’ – the way that my eyes work together to  deliver stereoscopic vision (or in my case, not). The technology of opthamology is improving all the time, and there have been new tests introduced for prism in the past couple of years which give a far more accurate evaluation of the patient’s needs. However, I have one “lazy” eye – it works fine, but contributes very little to my overall vision field. So my stereoscopic vision is pretty poor – one reason why I was never much good at ball games when I was in school – and the tests for prism are actually measuring something which I hardly find myself experiencing in everyday life. So I had a new pair of spectacles last year that I found made almost no difference to my everyday vision. I was not impressed.

And then, as if I don’t give my opticians enough trade, the last time I went in, I was offered a free hearing check. Now, I’ve fallen foul of this before. It’s administered in the normal shop, and if there’s a lot of external noise, or other customers in the shop, the result is going to be pretty poor. Added to that, I have tinnitus, so the quieter tones in the hearing test require me to concentrate very hard to pick them out from amongst the continuous “noise” that the tinnitus gives me. This concentration can easily be broken if there are distractions such as other customers and conversations. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist at the beginning of the year as well as having my annual vision test.

The vision test, I’m pleased to say, resulted in no significant change in my prescription, though I was told that I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye (though that won’t become a problem, all being well, for a good five to ten years). The audiometry was something else. I first had a full audiometric examination two years ago, when I was told that I have the beginnings of age-related hearing loss at the upper end of the hearing register. This came as no surprise to me. In my varied past, I spent five years working for the Social Security Industrial Injuries Unit in Birmingham. The area I covered included parts of the Werst Midlands where there had been a lot of engineering works, and so a lot of industrial deafness cases. Part of my job involved commissioning consultant audiometrists’ reports, having those reports interpreted by the department’s Regional Medical Officers, and sometimes dealing with appeals against the decisions on those industrial deafness claims, including writing the Secretary of State’s submission to the appeal tribunal. So I know a reasonable amount about audiograms, and I could broadly interpret the results as easily as the audiometrist. I had no cause to doubt the diagnosis.

Last year, the initial in-shop screening told me nothing I didn’t already know, but was administered on a good day when I was able to give good responses to the test. But this year, it was not a good day. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist again; and this time, the verdict was a lot of hearing loss at the 4 kHz level, almost to the stage of being defined, she said, as “profound”. The audiogram correspondingly showed a dramatic plunge of the trace to bear this out. Almost immediately, she was saying “We really strongly recommend that you consider being fitted for a hearing aid – or even two, so we can balance out the effect properly.”

The hearing aids on offer start at £450 each, these being the type that fits behind the ear. Once you start looking at types that fit partially or fully in the ear canal, the prices go up accordingly until you are looking at £1250 or more per ear. Other suppliers can also supply hearing aids at a range of costs – I have even heard the figure of £3000 per device mentioned!

It was the audiometrist’s eagerness to set me down the road to more and more expenditure that made me hesitate. Even £450 isn’t money that I can put together at the drop of a hat; and I found her enthusiasm rather off-putting, especially as the loss is in the sort of range where I would only really be missing top-end harmonics. I hadn’t noticed that I was missing conversations, altthough I do find the television often difficult to hear (mainly because the speakers on flat screens are on the back of the set and face the wall), and I have missed the odd conversation in the office (mainly because I sit with my back to everyone else and the test manager does tend to sometimes speak from behind his desk screens without standing up). But I consider that I still have hearing that is perfectly good for everyday purposes. So I thought I’d get a second, less biased opinion, and so I went to see my doctor, who in turn referred me to the local hospital hearing centre.

I went a couple of weeks ago. It was quite illuminating. I was shown into a proper consulting room which was properly soundproofed and away from the main circulating areas of the hospital. The audiometrist explained the test, and I let her, though I did have to warn her to expect some false positives becasue of the masking effect of tinnitus. She then proceeded to administer not only the normal audiometric tests, but also did something I’d not had done before, tests using a bone conduction headset – sound waves transmitted through the skeleton, especially the skull, play a surprising part in our hearing sense. The software the hospital had access to was able to integrate all the results including the bone conduction. They confirmed the diagnosis, as I expected them  to. But the audiogram I was shown was drawn up with a far shallower vertical axis, so the amount of loss at the top end didn’t look so dramatic. Also, the NHS audiometrist’s interpretation of how far up the graph the boundaries between “moderate” and “profound” hearing loss occur was rather different to the private one.

She then proceeded to offer me a behind-the-ear aid for each ear. Completely free of charge. And looking pretty well identical to the £450 base model that my opticians wanted me to shell out for.

My sister, who is older than I am, has also had hearing aids prescribed, though she doesn’t wear them all the time. She made the excellent point that if I bought a private hearing aid, I would have to buy all my batteries; whereas with the NHS aid, the batteries are also supplied free of charge. And if I used the aid full-time, the batteries would last about a week.

I’ve decided that I don’t want to have hearing aids just yet. I shall take advice from other friends I know who have them, and I shall take up any offer of further hearing screening tests to keep an eye on my ears. And if I do have an NHS aid fitted, I can always upgrade in future years if I find I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. (Ha!) In any case; I’ve paid tax into the system all my working life. Why should I go out and pay for something I’ve paid in for already?

They say that getting old is a full-time job, given the number of appointments and arrangements that have to be made for health reasons. Thinking of last year’s brush with prostate problems, I thought then that I was in the best place to have these problems assessed without having to worry about the bill – especially as if the results of all those invasive tests I had had not been so favourable, I would have been fast-tracked for treatment – again, no questions asked, no form-filling, no waiting for an insurance decision on whether the claim was allowable. My experience of the insurance industry over the past few years makes me relectant to have them involved in anything as important as my healthcare and treatment. This experience over my hearing, where I was able to directly compare public and private provision, has not changed my opinion.

Written by robertday154

June 14, 2018 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized