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During a single journey on the Metro yesterday, messages alerted Wendy and me to six problems.

Three of these directly impacted our journey:

  • The service is suspended in both directions between Pelaw and Brockley Whins due to a vehicle striking a railway bridge on Network Rail infrastructure. Due to industrial action by Go North East, few buses are operating in the area. Customers may need to seek alternative arrangements where possible.
  • The age of our current fleet means we are facing some challenges with train availability. This is impacting on today’s service.
  • We’re aware that some of our trains are warmer than they should be at the moment and would like to apologise for any discomfort this is causing our customers. Our partners at Stadler have identified the issues are are working to resolve it.

Three did not:

  • The lift at Monument between the platforms and the ticket concourse is out of use. If you require step free access, please use St James, Central or Haymarket.
  • The lift on Platform 1 at Chichester is out of service. Customers requiring step free access are advised to travel on one stop and return via the other platform.
  • During the canopy refurbishment works at Whitley Bay station, please could customers use the full length of Platform 1 to board the trains.

It’s a lot to process.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, .

Pneumatic tubes

I’m not sure what the proper name is for the delivery points for pneumatic tube systems.

As I walked past this one yesterday, I was reminded of when I frequently used this system to send blood samples to the hospital lab. I don’t think I’ve used any similar system since I finished the Foundation Programme over a decade ago.

My colleagues and I jokingly called them ‘tube stations’, though I think the system itself had a different name for them, which was displayed on the screen as I tapped in the numeric address to which I’d like samples delivered. I believe it was ‘ports’, but I might be misremembering. I remember the biochemistry address—the option I used most often—was ‘1’, but other destinations had as many as five digits. In retrospect, it seems odd that the lengths weren’t standardised.

I also vividly remember the frustration when—like in this picture—the system was down for maintenance. Or, more commonly, there were no pods available at the bottom of the box to stuff my samples into. I’d have to decide between calling a porter or running to the lab myself. I often found the latter quicker, as the porters were always over-stretched.

This post was filed under: Photos, Post-a-day 2023.

Medicine and mandates

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

This morning, I’ve been reading two articles where it strikes me that there is a particular resonance in the themes.

The first is Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s remarkable account in The London Review of Books of the NHS infected blood scandal: ’We’ve messed up, boys’. This is the first thing I’ve read about these events that allowed me to grasp the totality of the tragedy. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, even by the exceptional standards of the LRB.

The second is Devi Sridhar’s editorial in The Guardian Weekly about the way politicians used scientists in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn’t quite such a must-read, and I don’t entirely agree with Sridhar’s views but fully support her conclusion that we ought to reexamine the power and independence of Government advisors. This discussion has been bubbling away in public health circles since the creation of Public Health England, which many saw as reducing the independence of scientific advisors.

Doctors and politicians both have essential parts to play in the management of public health crises. Crises require both technical expertise and democratic oversight. Doctors sometimes tend to dismiss the role of politicians by thinking that only technical decisions have weight. Politicians sometimes ignore expertise, preferring their own views or feelings about the right path. The balance isn’t easy to get right, and both doctors and politicians are eminently capable of getting things wrong.

There’s much to ponder in Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s piece, of which this is only a very minor part. Yet, when reading the two essays in sequence, the spectre of the problematic relationship haunts both crises.

This post was filed under: Health, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

Digital empathy

Wendy and I were recently travelling back from Madrid via Amsterdam. The first leg of the journey was delayed, which meant we missed our connection. We knew there were no later connections that day and that we would be stranded overnight.

On arrival at Schiphol, we sought assistance from the ground staff. We walked past many self-service machines, assuming they couldn’t help us, and waited in a long queue. Once we reached the front, a staff member operated one of the self-service machines for us as if we were technologically incompetent. The self-service machine could issue a meal voucher, a hotel voucher, details of where to meet a shuttle to our hotel, and rebooking us on the next available flight. Human intervention from a staff member was, as it turned out, not required.

If I were in the same situation again, I’d use a machine independently rather than queue; of course, I would. This is great for the airline, saving them significant money in staffing costs.

But is ruthless efficiency the right approach here? A personable expression of sympathy and regret would seem to go a little further in building customer loyalty. It struck me as a little inconsistent that an airline that insists on using my name when handing me an in-flight meal doesn’t want to speak to me when things have gone wrong.

I recently bought a jacket online. It didn’t fit, even though it was labelled the same size as many garments I’ve bought from the same retailer.

I returned it to a branch of the chain from which I bought it. I was directed to use a self-service return machine. This was simplicity itself, aided by the chain using a unique identifying barcode for every garment sold. By scanning the tag, the machine could look up my details and process the return with a single confirmatory tap on the touchscreen. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the system again in the future.

Yet, this approach robbed the chain of the reason for my return and the opportunity for a linked sale: the next size up. It also removes any sense of empathy and any impression that the chain is doing anything to avoid similar situations in the future.

Reducing store staffing looks good for the bottom line, but I’m not sure it’s the right approach for the long run.

Amazon has been promoting delivery of orders by drone for years, yet it remains available only in a handful of locations. This New York Times article by David Streitfeld delves into how this works for people. I was particularly struck by the header video and the revelation that the drone drops packages from a height of twelve feet.

Amazon believes that this programme demonstrates a commitment to pushing the boundaries of technology in the service of its customers. I’m unsure that Amazon understands that the video of packages being dropped from such a height undermines any impression of care or concern about individual orders.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Who’s counting?

In December 2019, the Conservative Party won the UK General Election with a minority of the vote: 43.6% of voters supported them or—if you prefer—29.3% of the electorate.

In the former Home Secretary’s second letter of resignation from that position, published yesterday, she claimed:

I have always striven to give voice to the quiet majority that supported us in 2019.

The majority—56.4% of voters—supported candidates other than Conservatives.

Perhaps political maths isn’t Braverman’s strong suit.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

All change, please

Forty-one days ago, Rishi Sunak declared in his party conference speech:

Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had thirty years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.

You either think this country needs to change or you don’t.

Yesterday, the man who led the Conservative Party for more than a third of those thirty failing years was appointed by Sunak as our Foreign Secretary.

It seems that Sunak is placing himself in the ‘don’t’ category.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , .

United in befuddlement

Just occasionally, a line in a newspaper editorial captures something so succinctly that I can’t help but smile. This line about Suella Braverman, from Clare Morrison in The Independent this weekend, is a great example:

She somehow managed to get the entirety of Northern Ireland, regardless of background, to come together and say in one voice: “What is she going on about?”

Surely we’ll have a new Home Secretary by this time next week.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

The wisdom of looking foolish

Readwise reminded me yesterday of this passage from Pandemic 2 by Slavoj Žižek:

Here is how Brenden Dilley, an Arizona chat-show host, explained why he doesn’t wear a mask: ‘Better to be dead than a dork. Yes, I mean that literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot right now.’ Dilley refuses to wear a mask since, for him, wearing one is incompatible with human dignity at its most basic level.

When I read this in 2021, I focused on the ‘mask’ aspect—and, indeed, that’s what Žižek highlighted. But rereading this quotation in isolation, I was struck by the fragility of ego necessary to think, ‘I’d rather die than look like an idiot’.

Willingness to risk appearing idiotic is essential for personal development. Admitting ignorance is the first step to gaining knowledge. Risking embarrassment is the first step to expanding horizons. Being uncomfortable is a prerequisite for growth.

But more than that, it’s the only way to get through the day. Yesterday, I took my car for its MOT. Of course, if my ego were fragile, I could have nodded and pretended to understand when the mechanic explained something well beyond my ken. I might have looked like I knew the first thing about cars, but I wouldn’t have known what was happening. But life goes much more smoothly with a quick, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t follow,’ or ‘Just to check that I’m understanding,’ or ‘So, what do I need to do now?’

I just can’t imagine thinking that I’d rather die than have other people think I’m an idiot: it’s a sentiment only an idiot could express.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Human failings

Three news stories have played on my mind recently:

All three of these stories are similar: they are presented as though the problem is with computers when it is actually with management. In all three cases, managers knew about concerns with the computer systems, yet the organisations involved did not take timely corrective action.

I don’t know the inside story behind any of these incidents, but I’m willing to bet that all involved managers saying something like ‘I’m not good with computers’—and failing to engage as a result. In some organisations, it’s a daily occurrence to hear senior leaders say things like, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure how to share my slides; is it working?’ That discomfort writ large means that they subject IT processes to less scrutiny.1

The irony is that the consequences of all three failings were in the real world, not inside a computer. In all three cases, it seems likely that a reasonable and non-technical workaround would have been to stop using the computer system until it was fixed. The real-life resolution required no knowledge of how the systems worked.

One can’t imagine the same managerial non-response to a problem if, say, the underlying issue was secretaries who weren’t bothering to type letters or an accountancy team consistently failing to produce reports.

And therein lies the issue. Even in the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is still acceptable in many organisations for senior leaders to freeze up over any problem involving computers. Nobody expects them to be IT experts, but they ought to be experts in leadership and management and not simply give up when the situation involves a computer.

The greater development of artificial intelligence means that ever more processes will be completed in an automated fashion in the coming years. This will result in progressively less oversight of day-to-day work within organisations whose senior staff seize up over this stuff. For them, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  1. Unfamiliarity with the tools required for daily work is, in itself, deeply problematic. It ought to be no more acceptable to playfully boast about one’s lack of ability to use basic computer functions than to boast about being unable to chair a meeting or manage people. It’s your job!

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

I didn’t read the rules

A few years ago, I added Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to my ‘to read’ list on Goodreads. I didn’t think anyone else noticed such things, but several people—one online and some in real life—asked me what I was playing at.

My only exposure to Peterson had been through an interview on Channel 4 News, an absurd piece of television. Cathy Newman asks a question, Peterson answers, and then Newman paraphrases, leading to an argument about the paraphrasing. Rinse and repeat. No light is shed on anything; there’s no honest discussion of any issues.

To the extent that I could follow them, Peterson’s views seemed quite different from mine. Reading challenging viewpoints is always interesting, so his book went on my list. Those who asked me about my choice knew of a broader negative reputation that had passed me by.

As it happens, I never got around to reading his book. Peterson disappeared from my view until I spotted an article by James Marriott in Monday’s Times. It turns out that Peterson still has quite a following, hosting his own show at the O2 arena to an audience of nearly 20,000. ‘It is one of the strangest nights of my life,’ says Marriott, and the article is well worth a few minutes of your time.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

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