All posts by Mick_Kelly

Apples and Pears – a new free short story

I’ve written a couple of new shorts (see ‘short stories to save my sanity’ ) but haven’t got the time to edit them. However, a welcome distraction was to read Alex’s blog on being overwhelmed. Inspired by her example, I made a plan of action, a list of activities and the first one is to post a short story. So here’s an old one – ‘Apples and Pears – the story of an ageing rock star with a weak bladder and an upstairs toilet. 

You can also read it on Inkitt or Wattpad.

Brexit and the problems of complexity

I spent my life as a computer programmer. I have programmed systems for financial companies, logistics companies, food, engineering, retail, etc, etc. There is one thing I have never found in my forty-odd years of trekking from company to company across the UK and in Europe –  a simple system. 

Everything – and I mean everything – is more complicated than you think. 

Every. Single. Bloody. Thing. 

It is something no-one appreciates. I have had many a conversation that goes something like this…

Me: I can give you a detailed estimate once I’ve looked at it, but I would say it would take about ten weeks.

Client: What? Ten weeks? You’re joking! I only want (insert something simple).

Me: Yeah but (insert some obvious fact about the underlying database, system structure etc).

Client: Well. <Long pause> I s’pose so. When can you start? I’ve promised the board it will be ready by next month. 

So, off we go. Attempting to do ten or more week’s work in four or less. It won’t work and the sponsoring manager will look like an idiot (he or she is, more or less). The (buggy) change will be delivered to staff who have not been trained to use it and the car crash will take a further slab of expensive time to sort out. 

This also applies to the world outside of computer systems. Roads are complicated, railways are complicated, health systems are complicated. Whatever you do for a living, you know that the things you work with are more complicated than a layman thinks. Well, surprise surprise – when you find something for which you are the layman – it’s more complicated than you think. And you are a layman with regard to almost everything. 

Let me give you one example. I’m writing this in June 2018. Network Rail and the railway companies have just introduced a new timetable. It was chaos. The radio was full of phone-ins with people saying variants on ‘How hard can it be to design a railway timetable?’ Cue me shouting at the radio ‘Really, really hard – harder than you can possibly imagine.’ 

Don’t take my word for it. Design yourself a toy system. Say five lines, thirty stations, three intersections  – then do some timetables that allow a passenger to go from any station to any other station (that’s 30 X 29 journeys – 870 in total). Try to minimise the number of trains you need and the number of drivers. Try to stop all the trains ending up in one place. Try to get the drivers back to their home station at the end of the working day. Believe me, it’s not easy. No, don’t believe me – try it. 

Now imagine expanding that to the number of stations in the country (according to Wikipedia there are 2,564 stations in the UK – that’s over six million potential unique journeys). It’s not simple. It’s not easy and they normally take more than six months to do it. Their problems arose from the management imagining that they could to it in six weeks. How odd that it didn’t work. 

Now for some real controversy. 

Political people (by which I mean politicians, political commentators and even engaged voters) live in a fantasy world in which it is simple and easy to change almost anything. 

Very rarely, they will acknowledge that some aspect or other of the world might involve a little work, but they think that most things will change quickly and easily by the simple expedient of passing a law. 

Sadly this is very, very much not the case. And here’s where the controversy occurs – it is my belief that Brexit will never happen. 

It’s much too complicated. We have a lot of systems that have grown up in the last forty years while our membership of the EU has been in force. Coincidentally, this has happened at the same time as computers have gone from being rare and expensive machines used only by big companies to cheap, small and ubiquitous boxes used by just about every company. No-one can manage life without them and every system contains a considerable amount of complexity. 

So, for every entanglement of the UK with the EU – from E-numbers for food additives, the transport of fissile material, the regulation of drugs, health and safety, employment, import / export, vocational training, environmental regulations, banking, aviation and so on – for all of these we have a choice. Do we continue to abide by / utilise the EU agency or make our own version and change the rules?

For each of the forty or so agencies, if we stay with the EU system (and if they let us) – we won’t really have ‘left’ the EU – as the more red-faced of the brexiteers keep pointing out. 

If we make our own arrangements – that’s a new system. The new system must be designed and built, a new department must be created (or an existing one extended). New civil servants, new offices, new equipment, and a lengthy and (usually) fraught development phase for everything to ‘bed in’.

All this takes time, money and planning. Laws to pass in the commons, design documents to create, bidding for the creation of the systems, picking the winner and turning the requirements into a plan of action. 

And then we can start work on creating the systems. I can’t see a single one of these being started for two or three years after the negotiations are complete. How long will they take to write? Let us have a look at previous experience. 

CDS – the custom’s system that is designed to replace the old CHIEF system – was started in 2013. It is due to be delivered in 2019. It is not untypical of government systems. Five to six years from inception to first roll-out. And it is not uncommon for these roll-outs to be somewhat problematical. Universal Credit – designed to be fully deployed by 2017. Current estimate is 2021. 

I would not be surprised if a good number of these systems will not be ready until 2025 – 2030 or even later. The implementation of many of them may be even later still as problems are ironed out and angry users placated. 

Until they are complete, Brexit won’t be complete. During this period, costs will mount, irritation of anyone connected with the missed deadlines will increase and (possibly most important) at least two general elections will occur. There will be no shortage of people pointing out that this money being spent on all these computer programmers, management consultants, commercial property companies and so on could be better spent (NHS, education, potholes – take your choice).  

It would be a very brave person who bet a significant amount of money on Brexit being delivered in any kind of meaningful way.  My best guess is about five years before it’s abandoned. 

Many brexiters will pound the table and poke the chests of their bar-room companions to demand we leave without the computer systems in place. What they don’t realise is that the days of paper-based systems are not only gone, but they can’t be recreated. What computer systems have done is allowed us to make life, which was already complicated, more complicated than can possibly be handled by manual systems. 

It’s complicated all over the world – we cannot opt out of that complexity. We are stuck with computerised systems for all our bureaucracy. We are stuck with bureaucracy because the rest of the world demands it. We are stuck with the time the bureaucratic systems need to be created. 

No doubt you wish is were not so, but sadly your wishes (and mine) are not relevant.

Another Free Short Story

Still editing, so here’s another story. It’s not a new one, but I’ve got a dozen things on the go at them moment – including some half-finished, half-edited stories that will make their appearance soon. Meanwhile here is Wheel Life. And here is the blurb…

It’s a dog-eat-dog world on the streets of London. Only the toughest can survive – at least in the minds of the misogynistic urban-warrior cyclists. Time for a lesson in manners? 

Short stories to save my sanity!

I’m editing my latest novel. There are worse things in life. Just at the moment I can’t remember what they are. Surely looking for repeated words, spellling mistakes, grammatical faux-paux and the like is not that bad? I agree. I do, really. But to keep me sane I’m playing plenty of fiddle music and writing short stories. Here is one of them – an uplifting, life-affirming story about terminal cancer…   Silence

Review of Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Researching my latest book is proving to be a huge voyage of discovery. I need to find out about the lives of black and Irish Liverpudlians in the 1850s, so I read this book by David Olusoga. I was completely blown away. Here is my review….

 

Even if you never read this book, it’s existence does an important job for you – it tells you that there is a significant history of black people in Britain. Long before the arrival of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s, there was a appreciable black presence – in Roman Britain, in Elizabethan Britain, in Georgian Britain, in Victorian Britain, fighting for Britain in the first and second world wars. There has been, and will continue to be, a concerted attempt to write black people out of British history and this book does a necessary job in giving them back their place in our history.

I come from Liverpool – former slaving port, former cotton port, former blockade-running port for the confederate South in the American Civil War. My ancestors were Irish – probably escaping the great famine in the 1840s. The African derived community in Liverpool began with slavery in the 1750s. So in terms of Britishness, the black people of Liverpool are more British than I can hope to be.

That these sorts of qualification are needed says all we need to know about racism in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Turning to the book itself – it is a masterly and scholarly piece of work. Well researched, well told, informative, engaging and, in many ways, life changing. Seeing how attitudes to black people ebbed and flowed over the years confirms that our current racism is not something we are doomed to live with, but something that can and will, hopefully, change.

David Olusoga is a black Briton, and the opening of the book takes us back to his childhood in the North-East and the racist attacks that his family had to endure in the 1970s at the hands of the National Front. That anyone should have to endure this kind of treatment is an indictment to the politicians of that era and the people who believed and followed them.

He then takes us to the slaving fortress of Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone to show even worse horrors before beginning the history proper with the Roman legions and progressing through the centuries from when black servants and courtiers were a symbol of wealth and Africa was a fabled land of strange races and curious customs. The slave trade and the movement for it’s abolition seems to have been a high point in the regard for black people by the British, but once it was abolished, the familiar patterns of racism reappeared, this time bolstered by the pseudo scientific concepts of racial Darwinism (not supported by Darwin, by the way – and not really by any actual scientists).

The book then progresses through the first-world war when debates raged over whether black troops should be deployed in Europe, to the first recorded racial murder – in Liverpool 1919 when Charles Wooton, who had served in the Royal Navy during the war, was drowned in Queens Dock by a mob of white Liverpudlians – possibly even including my ancestors.

During the second world war, there was some encouraging signs of progress when the appalling treatment of black GIs by their white American counterparts evoked greater sympathy on the part of the British – though this was soon forgotten after the war and in the subsequent decades. Very few white people emerge with any credit from this long sad tale but enough do to encourage those us to do better in future and to take a stand for universal humanity.

My final word – this is not a sad book, not a tale of woe – and much more than just a catalogue of the lives of the black British. It is also a celebration of how much black Britons have contributed to British life and to the country. An essential read.

Running the Blockade by Thomas E Taylor – the changing nature of politics and the unchanging amorality of business.

I read this book when doing research for a forthcoming book of mine about Liverpool (England), but found it such a fascinating and thought-provoking book that I had to review it. Written in 1896, it describes the adventures of the author, Thomas E. Taylor, from 1861 – 1865, when he was running the blockade of Southern U.S. Ports in the American civil war.

To declare my hand (ideologically) I  am on the left and an erstwhile Hippie, so I am firmly of the side of the North in this conflict. The act of slaveholding is so utterly barbaric that anyone who finds any sympathy with it is no friend of mine. Having put those cards on the table, I can turn to the book.

Taylor was a junior employee in a Liverpool merchants when the civil war started. Liverpool (which had been a major slaving port in the previous century) was suffering somewhat from the blockade, as Southern cotton had been a major commodity that was flowed through the port and on to Manchester for spinning.

He took the post of ‘supercargo’ (owner’s representative on a merchant ship) on the ‘Despatch’ – an old and badly maintained ship that did not manage to run the blockade, but the experience allowed him to take the same position on the ‘Banshee’ which was the first purpose-built blockade runner – a steel-built steam / sail ship that was low on the water, able to run into shallow harbours and designed for speed. The book details the voyages he made on this and later ships, the management of the ships, the fights, the financial returns, and some musings on the politics and personalities involved. In general it’s a good read, although the condescending attitude to African peoples (both slaves and freemen) will make most people wince.

But what I found fascinating was the attitude to both race and politics, both of which are more nuanced that I would have expected.

For example – Once, when he ran into Wilmington an escaped slave stowed away on the ship for the return journey. He was discovered on the outward voyage to Nassau (in the Bahamas – a neutral port). Rather than turn the man in, he sets him free in Nassau – paying $400 for the privilege of freeing a slave – and the man got a round of applause from the ships crew. How does that sit with the politics of the day? I don’t know. I can only speculate that a sympathy for the underdog motivated them. Or maybe they had befriended the man on the voyage. The book does not say.

What you can say is that the author had some sympathy with the North, greater sympathy with the South, but his primary concern alway seemed to be money in the bank. No different from the business men of today, I guess, who look to the bottom line before bothering with the ethics of the situation. There was good money to be made supplying the South with supplies and with shipping their cotton and that was the primary concern.

I read the ebook created by the Gutenberg project, which is a free download from…

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50134

Hide a book day – a week late!

I participated in the Goodreads.com ‘hide a book day‘, in which you hide one (or more) books for unsuspecting readers to find and (hopefully) enjoy.

My one problem was that I had no stock left of my ‘Magic Dan’ book with the new cover.

When stock arrived (Friday 22nd – 4 days late) I rushed out and planted a few (see pic) on the very wonderful Merseyrail trains – on the New Brighton, West Kirkby, Hunts Cross, Ormskirk and Kirkby lines.

It was an interesting day out if you like trains! I am not sure I do. Quite a bit of planning involved in visiting five different lines in the most efficient manner – I think I was one station short of the prize, still it only took a couple of hours.

So if you are one of the lucky (?) readers, I hope you enjoy my book and if you get the chance to review it on Amazon or  Goodreads  I would be very grateful.

Politics

Well, we are in the middle of a U.K. General Election campaign and I have stopped listening to or reading the news. I’m not a very good citizen.

But everyone has a view of politics and everyone is interested (briefly) in other people’s stance, so I’ll put mine down – though I find that most people’s view of other people’s politics begins and ends with whether they have a similar stance to oneself.

I am basically an unreconstructed hippy. Which for me means that I am mostly interested in how people are treated by the state and by each other. I was on the losing side of the Brexit debate, not because I think we will be wealthier in the market (though I do) but because I think co-operation and friendship are the most important things in all international relations.

When it comes to political parties, though, this can be a problem. There is no party I agree with 100% and no party I disagree with 100%. I am glad of this ambiguity!

I am drawn to the Greens (see previous ‘unreconstructed hippy’ statement), can support most of Labour’s plans (though I’m not a fan of nationalisation), think that the Liberals always mean well, and even see the logic used by the Torries in being strict about budgetary contraints.

So how will I vote? The bottom line is ‘tactically’. As I haven’t yet seen the candidate literature in my area, I can’t pin that down yet. I will be reading manifestos (when available) and voting anti-Brexit when I have.

I don’t want to lose any British friends in this dispute – but I’d rather lose them than my French, German, Dutch and Spanish ones. And while we’re here, I might like to add that my uncle was Polish – and a very good man he was too.