Changes

old-style printing set up

Change versus progress

When I started to write this blog post about changes and progress, I felt a bit like a real life incarnation of Victor Meldrew whilst at the same time trying desperately not to fall into grumpy old man syndrome.

old-style printing set up
Old style printing presses.

There have, undoubtedly, been many changes that are progress. As just one of those positives I could have written, produced, and distributed this article by analogue means at any time since Caxton brought the printing revolution to Britain. My father taught printing and I grew up around printing presses. Those originally used individual type, the industry later introduced hot metal casting systems before later moving forwards again to more modern offset litho’ press; I now work with IT based word-processors and publishing systems and have not touched a typewriter in years.

Old style, when properly done, may have produced a slightly better impress output but it was hard, demanding, physical work; working digitally is so much easier, quicker and cost effective. There are downsides, however, as the following examples from the last couple of months show:  the latest upgrade by Apple has made my iPad, on which I started writing this piece, obsolete for software upgrades and that from Adobe significantly slows up my old tower PC. Do I care?

At present the answer is no, there is currently nothing I want to do with the i-pad I can’t still do without this latest system update but you can bet that behind the scenes Apple will have some tricks up their sleeves to render more of the systems unworkable. Like all technology companies they make their money selling new stuff, trying to persuade us the new is better. The tower will get updated in due course, I’ve had it a fair while, but it is an example of creeping obsolescence, it still works, it is other things that have passed it by.

A sad parallel observation though is the fact that after you’ve bought the latest thing you find that often it is less robustly made in order to keep the prices down and operationally isn’t either better, or a progression on what went before. This fact of life is apparently beside the point, the suppliers want us to believe that it is better. I already have two suites of software applications where, although I have the latest versions, for some tasks I am forced into loading the older version as the new iteration has had useful functionality withdrawn. Yes the new versions do new things, some of which I need (e.g. e-book publishing tools), but the suppliers ignore the fact that some of their old tools are (a) still necessary and (b) made the workflow for doing some tasks quicker and easier to achieve.

Another annoying issue is suppliers making changes for change’s sake. Again from experience working as a user side rep’ in software development teams; a minority of clients yell loudly for changes so the provider makes the changes in order to keep them sweet/sell more copies. The other 75% (the silent majority) i.e. all the clients who were happily using it because it worked for them get brassed off at changes they neither wanted nor needed! Those changes, which were unwanted by the majority, never get reversed.

Obsolescence is planned, even getting a replacement protective cover for my existing i-pad rendered more difficult by subtle changes in the design of the devices by Apple. Covers for the latest issue don’t fit the older kit; it looks the same but isn’t quite the same size! We do notice, but are powerless to stop the changes. The final piece of design stupidity to mention, the recent i-phones that are sized too big to fit into a standard size shirt pocket. What’s that all about? No matter now good the technology, too big to use!

To paraphrase a famous quote from the economist J K Galbraith, under capitalist economic models man exploits man, under other economic systems it is reversed!

New Roads & Street Works Act 1991

black insert in red road
Black reinstatement into red tarmac. One of many in this street despite it being a conservation area.

It was this Act, or rather being caught in the outcome of the ignoring of some its’ key principles, that sparked several Victor Meldrew moments recently. Back in the 1980s I was part of the Association of District Councils national development team working on this. The various strands of industry and government agencies came together and the new Act improved many things. Yes back in the day government was still about trying to improve quality not maximise the profits. Sadly recent observations whilst travelling show that with all the cut-backs in highways inspection teams and a cavalier attitude to strategic planning have led to many key aspects being ignored at both the macro and micro level. For example:-

  • Reinstatements – poorly done and with materials that are not the same as the originals. It is a reinstatement; the key is in the word. All done to cut costs, the public and compliance don’t matter if that corner cutting exercise can be got away with as there are no inspectors to enforce it. Councillors don’t bother, there are no votes on it, only hard work to get the jobs redone.
  • Signing – non-compliance with the set standards and just badly done to cut costs. An example recently was a Road Closed Ahead sign placed at the roadworks, not the 200 yards away at the entrance to the street where it would actually have been of some use to motorists! 
  • Conflicting works – the worst and most annoying aspect from Highways England (or whatever it is badged as this week!) and their motorway/trunk road schemes down to local levels. Coordination processes to avoid this were a key aspect introduced with the Act. Nowadays, it seems, the idea of having HAUJC meetings to do this coordination is totally ignored; again doing it properly in compliance with the Act to benefit the public costs money. All to often you these days long term roadworks and overnight closures are happening  with the obvious diversionary alternatives being worked on at the same time. That is true on both motorways and local roads; no one in authority seems to care any more.

There is more I can add but when you find yourself diverted from one long-running major scheme into the chaos of another the thoughts of “why did we waste our time and effort” come to mind. The biggest indictment is that I’m just glad I’ve retired from that career and am no longer part of it.

Music release formats

I note the latest trend in music is rereleasing tracks on vinyl. After being originally on vinyl, then probably on cassettes, CDs, as mp3 and now once again on vinyl as a supposed vinyl revival. Just my cynical view but is this the latest cunning plan by the technology providers to get us to buy yet another version of a music track we’ve already bought in several previous iterations and formats? If they are really lucky they will also sell some people a new record deck too. 

Change is always change, it is not always progress.

Images and text above remain copyright John New and are not released into the public domain.

The transient internet revisited

Ambulance picture

Internet attacks crash computers

Internet and computer failures spread chaos across the world beginning last Friday (12th May) as a criminal, or criminal gang, released a malware virus to hijack and hold computer systems to ransom. A much bigger problem than the one I covered last year with my article for the BACOMM course blog on the Transient Internet (8 Jan 2016) A different cause admittedly this time, but an even more catastrophic outcome as the all-digital systems and internet and network linked systems have again shown that when they fail to be sufficiently robust everything grinds to a halt.

“This seems foolhardy – [ …….. ] but ending the tried and tested back-up system for electronic trading does seem to be short-sighted in the light of these recent issues, all of which can be expected to recur.” from my earlier article – Jan 2016.

What is of concern is that, 17 months on from the problems of January 2016, society does not seem to have done anything about this predictable issue of occasional, serious and widespread, system failures. Vital systems like prescription issuing and other medical records are now 100% digital, in many highly important, and system critical internet and network linked processes there is apparently not an analogue based system or record keeping method that can kick-in and replace the digital when it fails. There may well be a generator on stand-by for when the power fails, but no back up for the internet based system, which, given that the internet was developed to provide just that resilience to communications, is a farcical scenario.

Ambulance picture
Ambulance (privatised patient transport) image from 2015. (Author’s own)

Emergency planning thoughts

I retired as an Emergency Planning Officer in 2008. The above is a worrying trend that had begun before I retired. Then it was the Blackberry phone that was the latest in hi-tech all singing, all dancing kit, the latest “sexy” must have gadget and older, more robust systems, like RAYNET were under threat of displacement. There was a perception among many of my younger colleagues that the idea of a radio operated from the back of a car or Land-Rover was unfit for purpose in the 21st Century; despite low battery life on the phones compared to running a radio rig off a full-tank of fuel.  True there are many things computerised systems and modern cell-phones can do that older provision either can’t do or does much slower but there needs to be resilience and back up. The internet is brilliant, but it is a flawed brilliance, as the last few days have shown.

Picture of an early internat capable computer
An Amstrad PC1512. This image is reproduced under Creative Commons rights. Amstrad_1512_DD.jpg: KoS derivative work: Ubcule (talk) – Amstrad_1512_DD.jpg

I am not anti-computer by any means, I use PC, lap-tops, tablets, smart phones and the internet all the time, and was heavily involved with introducing IT and the internet into office systems from the pioneering days of the desk-top PC revolution of the 1980s, with early machines like the Amstrad above,  through to retirement. I still use them nowadays in my secondary career as historian/writer. We have left the analogue world behind, probably for ever in the mainstream, but also appear to have lost some of the caution and planning that went into system design in days that aren’t that long ago in real-time but are an eternity in computer progression time. Don’t overlook the need for an analogue back-up with a simple pen and paper based option for when the fancy IT system fails.

Do they save businesses money today?

The savings from IT were huge when the simple PC systems first arrived; repetitive re-keying and redrafting of work meant the shedding of labour among an army of clerical workers, typists, drawing office staff and the like, and the PC systems themselves were not that expensive. All that has changed, we can do more, we expect more, and the systems require ever more costly experts to get the best out of them. The systems themselves  have also now become expensive too, arguably not in hardware but software. The labour costs shed by the loss from payrolls of relatively low-paid operatives has been replaced by much more expense on hiring IT specialists. Pause for thought and the catch-22 scenario; without this highly expensive kit the NHS can’t perform many of today’s medical procedures but the sheer cost of it means there is no money left over to hire, and adequately pay, the ordinary ancillary staff and the nursing and other care professionals needed on the wards.  We can diagnose the problems with this expensive kit, but can’t afford to keep the wards open to undertake the cures.

IT is not going to go away, but there is a need to think through the result of our headlong rush to adopt digital systems without a thought for how to process their tasks when they inevitably fail, sometimes catastrophically. 2016 (January), 2017 (May), 2018 – ???