Does your head in

A little over two years ago I sat in the most depressing meeting of my life.

I was in the meeting because it was about the future of my son’s school and I was, at the time, the vice-chair of the board of governors. Let me be candid, I was massively unqualified for this position. I’d signed up as a governor because the school was failing – staff turnover was sky-high, pupil numbers were dropping, parents were complaining, the school – once a happy and friendly place – seemed to be under a hovering cloud of doom, and I wanted to know why.

Some things I learned very quickly:

  1. If you’ve never worked in education then there’s a tonne of stuff involved in running a school that you know absolutely nothing about.
  2. Failing schools haemorrhage governors, because when OFSTED finally rock up to the front door and see that the place is dead it’s you that they’re going to ask for an explanation.
  3. Every other factor aside, if you join the governing body of a school that’s already failing then you won’t understand what’s going on or why it’s going wrong. The people who do understand – the long-term governors and the senior-leadership team – will be the ones who caused the problems, and they’ll be leaving or trying to keep you in the dark.

I was proposed as chair in my first governors meeting, because nobody else wanted to do it. I managed to refuse, thank god, and held off for 6 months before accepting the vice-chair position.

Hence, a year after first becoming a governor, I was in the meeting I mentioned. Sat next to me was the new headteacher, not yet in post, that I’d recruited for the school. She was about to become the 5th head, acting-head or interim head that I’d worked with in my year as a governor.

We were meeting with someone very senior from the local authority, to try to get the school back on track. He listened to our problems; pupil numbers were falling, which meant the school’s budget was also falling. The budget had previously been catastrophically mismanaged, departing staff hadn’t been replaced, while tens of thousands of pounds sloshed around in funds earmarked for pointless projects. The staff who remained were at the lowest point possible, previous under-performance had been overlooked because they were friendly with the last full-time head, long-term sickness was through the roof. Good teaching had not been demanded, taught or rewarded, meaning that bad teaching dominated the school, although the data had been, without any subtlety, massaged to hide the worst of it. Parents were in open revolt against the school, the PTA had collapsed, if OFSTED had inspected us that day we’d have been in special measures.

We told all of this to the local authority, and they said there was nothing they could do. They suggested we might be best off closing the school.

They said this as I sat next to the woman I knew had handed in her notice from her current job and who had agreed, eyes wide open, to come and take on our school.

I don’t know how she didn’t break down and cry. I damn near did.

The meeting finished. Life rolled on. The local authority did nothing. Nothing. Our new head teacher assumed her post and worked tirelessly for two years to turn the school around.

No, “turn the school around” is too small a phrase. If she’d had to rebuild it herself, brick by brick, it would have been less work than she’s put in.

She’s energised the staff, brought the teaching standard up to outstanding, implemented visionary plans on a shoestring budget, calmed parents, made hard decisions when they needed to be made, ensured that the data are exemplary in their accuracy and has recognised and rectified the deficiencies, from years of poor teaching, that they showed.

And she’s made the school a happy place again. It rings with optimism. You can’t walk through it when the children are there and not find yourself smiling or laughing at something that’s going on. You can’t read through the children’s books, or look at the school photos on their Twitter account, and not feel the love and attention that every child gets.

She didn’t break down and cry in that meeting, the most depressing I’ve ever sat in. She shed a few tears when, about 4 months into her tenure, OFSTED did visit, and rated the school as ‘Requires Improvements’…and then admitted that if their visit had been just a couple of months later, had given her just a few more weeks, then the school would have been ‘good’.

I was sitting next to her then as well, and I fully understand her frustration at being so close, and yet undone by OFSTED’s arbitrary schedule.

Then she got back on with doing her job.

How do you reward someone like that? What price do you put on someone who can shape the view of learning and education for hundreds of children? Someone who can make educaton something that they want, not something to be endured. Children who’ve benefited from her hard work will go on to a hundred different careers, each and every one of them facilitated by somebody too strong to be broken by a meeting that would have broken me like a dry twig.

The vast majority of her children will grow up to be tax-payers in this country and if they’re lucky, if they’re very, very lucky, their taxes will be paying for somebody as good as her.

She won’t get a pay rise this year.

Budgets are tight. Some people really resent that their tax is spent on teachers…but if the children of those people came to our school they’d still be loved, and taught brilliantly, and would benefit from every advantage that our head could possibly give them, and would, hopefully, turn out to be the kind of people who understand the difference between price and value.

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Three uncomfortable meetings with the president

Foreword (an apology)

I most often blog short comedy pieces or political musings (which, intentionally or otherwise, often end up being comical). Although I often think of stories I rarely bother to write them down. This short story is, then, a bit of a departure from my usual, but it was stuck in my head and the only way to get rid of it was to write it down.

Any feedback is gratefully appreciated (even if it is of the “Please don’t write any more stories” variety).

3 meetings diagram

Meeting 1.

Doctor Montgomery stopped speaking and stood watching the president. She glanced over to her team, who, as instructed, were also keeping quiet. They were undoubtedly the best team her budget would run to, and she was incredibly proud of the work she’d done with them, but getting them ready to speak in the oval office was beyond her skills.

It took the president a clear 30 seconds to notice that she’d gone silent and look up from his phone. He avoided meeting her eyes, held up his stumpy just-a-minute finger and returned to whatever he’d been typing. Eventually he put his phone down and slid it across his desk, and then sat forward in his chair, so that he could see its screen with just a flick of his eyes.

“It’s been really great listening to you,” he mumbled, insincerely, “Really, really, great, and I’ll think about what you said, I really will, but now I’ve got a meeting with Dr Monnygonny.”

“I’m Dr Monnygonny,” snapped Dr Montgomery, who hadn’t previously appreciated the president’s talent for helping people find the end of their tether.

“You are?”

“Yes! No! I’m Doctor Montgomery. Dr Selina Montgomery. Your meeting is with me, and has been for the last ten minutes!”

“That’s great. It’s really great that more women are becoming doctors. Even if they’re not hot, like the lady doctors on TV.”

Selina found herself lost for words, for the first time she could recall.

“Anyway. I feel fine. Really healthy. I’m probably the healthiest guy ever to sit in this office, so maybe you should run along and I’ll see what this Dr Montygonty guy has to say.”

“Sir, I am a doctor of physics. There is no doctor Monnygonny, or Montygonty, or Monnymonny or Montgomery…these are all MADE UP DOCTORS!”

She realised she was yelling and took a moment to compose herself while the president’s eyes darted back to his phone.

“Sir, I’m Doctor Selina Montgomery. I’m a doctor of physics and head of the LL project. As I was saying…”, she gestured back to her slide presentation.

“You’re the head of what, now?” asked the president.

“LL, Mr President. As I’ve explained, Limitless Logistics is the code-name for the top secret project that was started by Transport Facilitation Archive, which was, itself, set up to build on the work of the Pandimensional Research Agency, which was set up by then Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1962…”

“Nixon? That crooked liar. Is he involved in this?” interrupted the president.

“No, sir, he’s been dead more than 20 years. Limitless Logistics was set up by your predecessor who…”

“Yeah, well he made a lot of bad decisions, that guy. He just didn’t know how to make a good deal.”

Dr Montgomery ignored the implied insult and carried on, “…who felt that our work, though highly speculative, would be revolutionary.”

She used her remote control to skip backwards through the last 20 slides of her show.

“Our break-through came in 2010, when we first managed to make practical machines working on the theoretical principles developed by the TFA.”

Her slide-show flashed to what might have been the first hit in a stock image archive search for “scientists 1960s”

“Who are they?” asked the president.

“They’re the founding members of the TFA, sir. From left to right we have professor…”

“Who are the TFA?”

“Well, they are, sir. We have professor John…”

“No. No. I mean WHO are the TFA? Should I know what that stands for?”

“They’re the Transport Facilitation…”

Dr Montgomery stopped and changed her brain down several gears, ready for an uphill struggle.

“Let me give you the 2-minute version, Mr President.”

She walked around his desk and stood beside him, crouching slightly, feeling somewhat like a primary school teacher. She took his notepad from the desk and a pen from her pocket.

“Imagine this sheet of paper is our whole universe, and we’re here.”

She marked a dot halfway across the page, a finger’s width down from the top, and labelled it “Us”

“And imagine we want to go somewhere else.”

She put another dot in line, a similar distance up from the bottom of the page and wrote “Target” next to it.

“If we want to go from where we are to where we want to be, then we have to travel all of this distance.”

She drew a line the height of the page, connecting the two dots.

“Now, that might be a very long way, and it might take us a long time to travel there. But imagine we could do this…”

She loosely folded up the bottom of the page, so that the dot from the bottom of the page was overlaid on the one from the top.

“Now the two places are in the same place, and we can step between them, without travelling any distance at all.”

She let the paper unfold, and looked at the president, searching his face for any signs of understanding. He stared at the page for twenty seconds.

“So, the guy before me funded you to spend 10 years doing orgasmmi?”

“Origami, sir, but essentially, yes.”

“Well, thanks for coming in, Dr Mon…,” he mumbled the rest of the word, “This is going to be the easiest budget cut I ever made. Wait until I tell FOX that the democrats were spending tax dollars teaching people to fold paper. Tax and spend. It doesn’t even look like a swan.”

“WE’RE FOLDING THE GODDAMN UNIVERSE, YOU MORON!” yelled Dr Montgomery. She took a few deep breaths. “The piece of paper” she indicated to the notepad, still in front of the president, “Was a 2-dimensional universe, and we made a short-cut by folding it in 3-dimensional space. But we live in a 4-dimensional universe and can make a short-cut by folding it through the 5th dimension. That’s what the LL project has been working on for a decade.”

Again the president’s face showed no obvious signs that any of this had been meaningful to him.

“Please, sir, just watch this video.”

She quickly flicked through her remaining slides, until she reached one that included the familiar triangle of a ‘Play’ symbol.

The video that started playing showed a split screen. Each side showed a room, although it was possibly two views of the same room, as they looked identical. The walls were grubby white and featureless, other than a black and yellow ‘target’ symbol painted into the centre of each of them. The same symbol could also be seen in the middle of the floor. In the centre of the room on the left sat what looked like a large toy truck, with the bodywork removed and some random electronics added in its place.

After a couple of seconds, a hole opened in the wall opposite the camera in both rooms, showing identical rooms beyond. Another second later the toy truck, obviously remote-controlled, began to move forwards. As it approached the hole in the wall of the left-hand room it could be seen approaching through the hole in the right-hand room. It took maybe ten seconds to complete the journey to the centre-marking in the floor of the right-hand room, where it stopped. A heartbeat later the hole it had come through vanished. The video stopped.

Doctor Montgomery looked at the president, expectantly.

“You made a hole in wall…,” began the president, but she cut him off.

“The room on the left is in our test facility in Los Alamos, the one on the right in a similar facility, just outside Bismarck, North Dakota. In the time you saw, that truck – which has a top speed of 15mph –  travelled more than 1,000 miles, sir.”

There was a very long pause. Her team, who she had almost forgotten about, shifted uncomfortably.

“Can I watch the video again?” asked the president, at length. Selina clicked a button on the remote and the short film played again.

“I’m sure I don’t need to list the applications of this, sir,” she began, trying to gauge if she was going to need to do exactly that.

“I will give you a million dollars for the patent to this,” offered the president, looking her straight in the eyes for the first time.

“Mr President, this is a top-secret project, paid for by the United States government. I can’t sell you the patent.”

“Five million.”

“Sir, you don’t understand. The United States government owns this. It’s not mine to sell.”

“But you know how to make it work, and you have notes and what-not.”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“Ten million dollars. I’ll write you a check right now. I’ll even use my good-check book.”

“Sir, please…” began Doctor Montgomery, settling in for a lengthy discussion. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her team relax. Their work was done for the day.

Meeting 2

“I’m not kidding, this is going to make me a hundred billion dollars!” said the president, as the video concluded.

Silence filled the room, as the assembled staff turned to Steve, their chief, to see how this was going to play out.

“Maybe two hundred billion,” added the president.

Steve stepped up. “Are you sure you’ve considered all of the implications of this, sir?”

“Implications?” asked the president, “You mean opportunities? Vacations – bang! Business travel – bang! Maybe space travel – bang! I could be the first president on the moon. Or on Mars. People are going to love me if I do that.”

“What about the auto industry, sir?” asked Steve, quietly.

“That’s the terrific thing, Steve. No more need for autos. Clean air. Those libtards who prattle on about environments are going to have to admit that I’ve done more for the air – making it clean I mean – than any other president. Man, that’s going to burn them.”

“Yes, sir, they’ll certainly be singing your praises, but the 2 million US citizens with auto industry jobs might not be so happy.”

“There’ll be new jobs for them, Steve. Those jobs were probably going to go to Mexico anyway. Now they can be space miners. Out digging for platonium in the astrid belt. That’s a cooler job than bolting together cars, right? Let the lazy Mexicans build cars if they want to, nobody’s going to be buying them!”

“They might not want to be space-miners, sir. They might want to keep on doing the jobs that, you know, they’re trained for.”

“They could be colonising Mars. Look at NASA’s budget. We could give that to the space-miners if they go and colonise Mars? That would be terrific. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

“I’m not sure that Ford’s senior management are…”

“And every time someone teleports to Mars another few bucks teleport into my pocket, Steve. Every journey in the world makes me some money!”

“Have you considered the effect on the oil industry of gas sales dropping to zero?”

The president seemed to give this some consideration.

“Those guys will be fine. They’ve got plenty stashed away.”

“Mr President! This isn’t just about the people who own the oil companies! What about everybody else?”

All eyes turned to the speaker, Tom, who was the most junior person in the room in both rank and age, but who now seemed to have found his stride.

“The whole world economy could collapse! Even if oil collapsing doesn’t do that then how do you run an economy when anybody anywhere in the world can teleport straight into any bank vault they like? And what about them military implications, General Flattenham?”

Flattenham, the head of the joint chiefs, who had been quietly doodling a bombing run in his blotter snapped his head up.

“Ah. Yes. Well, obviously lots of great applications for espionage and…and…so forth,” he offered.

“Espionage?” croaked Tom, “North Korea could teleport a nuke straight into the Pentagon! China could march a million men straight into the heart of DC! Five guys in a cave in Pakistan could send a dirty bomb straight from there to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, like this!”

He snapped his fingers.

“Obviously we’d need time to analyse these options,” stalled the general.

“Are you saying I should invade Pakistan?” asked the President, “Get them before they get us? Those marines are terrific. They could find those five guys.”

“We can have options for you on that scenario within the hour, sir,” chipped in Flattenham, keen to help out.

“Actually, sir, this technology could present insurmountable issues for the service as well,” chimed in Colon Flick, head of the president’s security detail, who was invariably referred to as ‘Con Flicted’

“Issues?” queried the president.

“Yes, sir, issues.”

“What sort of issues?” asked the president, impatiently.

“Insurmountable ones, sir.”

Steve headed off the impasse. “I think the president is asking about the nature of these issue, Con.”

“Ah, yessir. We cannot rule out the possibility that an assailant would use the trans-dimensional travel device to immediately deliver themselves into the vicinity of the prime protectorate, within any security perimeter operated by the service, and deliver an undesirable outcome.”

“Could you, perhaps, be a little more concise?” sighed Steve, who had long since learned that the president rarely heard more than the first ten words in a sentence.

“Somebody could teleport next to the president and shoot him, sir.”

A long pause settled on the room.

“Maybe I should speak to the great guys at the NRA,” suggested the president, “Ask them what we can work out.”

“ARE YOU ALL CRAZY?” yelled Tom, “THIS DOESN’T EVEN NEED TO BE ABOUT GUNS OR BOMBS!”

Everyone standing in the room took a step backwards, even the president shuffled his chair back. Tom noticed and calmed himself a little.

“A suicide bomber – and, lord knows, we’re not short of them – in any major city in the world could open a portal to the heart of the sun. Or to the vacuum of space. Or to a black hole. And, boom, one city less.”

“But there’ll be good guys with a portal to the sun too, right?”

“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO’S GOT THE PORTAL TO THE SUN, YOU MORO…,” Tom stopped himself short, as everyone in the room looked at him, open mouthed. Everyone except the president, who had asked the question and then picked up his phone.

“It does seem,” said Flattenham, “that the military advantages of this technology would be best served by only us having access to it.”

Steve nodded in agreement, “We can’t put this genie back in the bottle, but if we can keep it absolutely secret then it could give us an enormous tactical advantage.”

“The espionage possibilities alone. Wow!” added Con.

“While the Russians, the Chinese and the French don’t know we’ve got this we can run rings around them,” enthused Flattenham, warming to the subject.

The president’s phone began binging, so quickly that the notification noises overlapped and cancelled each other out. Steve removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Mr President, you haven’t by any chance just tweeted about the subject of this meeting, have you?”

“The American people have a right to know how rich I’m going to be, Steve,” replied the president, not looking up from scrolling through his notifications.

Steve shot a glance at the president then, as if musing to himself, pondered, “I wonder how this is going to affect property prices.”

The president looked up from his phone.

“I mean,” continued Steve, “Who’s going to rent an apartment in New York, if they can instantly commute to Manhattan from Bumwad, Idaho?”

The president slid his phone out of his own reach and leaned forward in his chair.

“I bet it’s going to have a big impact on the hotel trade as well,” Tom chimed in, “Why stay overnight anywhere, when you can be anywhere in the world a second after you leave home?”

Steve gave a slight nod of his head, to signal to Tom his approval at how fast he’d picked up the stratagem, while also making a mental note that Tom was clearly bright enough to raise questions about how he’d got a place in this administration. None of the possible answers suggested that he wasn’t someone to keep a close and careful eye on. Meanwhile the blood draining was from the president’s face.

“I guess there’s no much point building that border wall, either,” added Tom, “In fact, borders of all kind become pretty much obsolete. It really does become a small world.”

“Hang on, kid,” said the president, angrily, rising to his feet, “The great people of America didn’t vote for me to remove all borders. They want their wall. It’s going to be a terrific wall, and it will work.”

“But if we need to tell them how rich you’re going to be, sir,” teased Steve sadistically.

“Maybe I won’t tweet for a while,” conceded the president. Then, pressing his intercom button, “Get me clean-up-Kelly!”

“I’m not even sure you can buy the rights to technology developed by the military budget,” mused the general, before the others sushed him into silence.

Meeting 3

When Steve entered the oval office the president was asleep. He hadn’t simply leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, he’d gone for a full, face-first, slump on his desk, using one of his arms as a pillow. He was snoring at quite some volume.

The junior treasury agent, who was seated opposite the president, turned and gave Steve a panicked look. Steve nodded and jerked his head towards the door. The agent leapt up and headed in that direction.

“Come back in an hour, we’ll fit in your briefing then,” whispered Steve as the agent passed him.

Steve positioned himself in front of the president’s desk.

“Mr President, Israel has launched a nuclear attack on Lichtenstein,” he announced.

The snoring stopped for a few seconds, to be replaced by mouth-smacking, and then resumed.

“Mr President, Panama has invaded Texas and is holding the vice-president hostage”

“Muh, wha? Co’ ba’ la-er”

“Mr President, CNN is reporting that there were only 5,000 people at your inauguration.”

“WHAT!” yelled the president, on his feet and already pointing the remote at the TV.

“Welcome back, sir,” said Steve, who was constantly delighted that his high-profile job had not, as he’d feared, stopped him torturing dumb creatures, but instead actively presented many daily opportunities for him to do so. He moved over the TV and turned it off.

“I have good news and bad news, sir. The good news is that the matters we discussed in Tuesday’s meeting are resolved.”

“Tuesday? Was that the meeting where we ordered pizza?”

“No, sir, that was this morning’s prayer breakfast.”

The president thought about this momentarily and then laughed.

“Ha, that’s right. Those Muslim guys sure didn’t appreciate the sausage pizza, did they? I really showed them.”

“You certainly did, sir,” conceded Steve, and then added, “Although, technically, they were Buddhists.”

“Muslim, Buddhist, what’s the difference?” asked the president, waving his hand dismissively, “They don’t share our proper Christian values, and that makes them savages. What was Tuesday’s meeting?”

“The one where we discussed the technology you were stealing from the government, to make yourself the richest man on the planet, while causing hardship to millions, Mr President.”

“Can you narrow it down at all?”

“The meeting about the teleporter technology sir. That meeting.”

“We’ve sorted the issues? That’s great. I was just worrying about those issues when you came in. This is terrific news, the best news. America is going to be really great. I’m going to rule the world.”

“Yes, sir,” said Steve, suppressing a smile, “That’s the bad news.”

The president looked at him, still rubbing his hands together.

“It turns out,” continued Steve, “That there is no Doctor Selina Montgomery, or a Limitless Logistics project, or anything else she claimed. She appears to have been an impostor who gained access to the White House fraudulently.”

“WHAT?” yelled the president, “This is supposed to be most secure place in the country! Which idiot let this happen?”

“Well, we’re still investigating, sir, and while I’m confident that we will pinpoint the culprit, or culprits, who failed to properly check her story, but I think we’re going to have to admit that some of the recent hiring decisions you’ve made personally have been people who are sub-optimal for their roles.”

“You’re trying to pin this on me, Steve? I’m one of the world’s greatest businessmen. I never make a bad decision. Name me one thing wrong with any of my hiring decision!”

“Well, sir, does the phrase ‘Hire that blonde with the great rack’ ring any bells?”

“Who am I supposed to have said that about?”

“Well your diary secretary, for a start.”

“She’s right outside the door!” protested the president, “You can’t expect me to look at somebody ugly all day!”

“Also, several members of the security staff, two members of cabinet, the head of the NSA…”

“Hey! She was really keen on the second amendment! These are all good hires. People at the top of their game.”

The door suddenly opened and Titzi, the diary secretary, ran in. She looked at the two men in surprise and then did a quick scan of the room.

“Sorry, Mister Prescient, I forgot this wasn’t the bathroom.”

She turned and ran out, leaving the door open behind her. The president groaned and turned to look out of the window, into the garden.

“She’s getting better, sir. At least we don’t have to have the chaise lounge cleaned this time.”

The president let out a long and mournful sigh.

“So, there’s not going to be any teleportation, then?” he asked.

“No, sir, I’m afraid not.”

“OK. You can go now Steve.”

Steve waited just long enough to watch the president sink his head into his hands and then headed out, through the outer-office. He had just reached the far door of that room when he heard yelled from the oval.

“WAIT! SHE MUST BE REAL! SHE CASHED MY CHECK!”

— The End —

Playing the wrong-game

There have been some complaints that Labour’s Brexit policy is unclear. This is, of course, nonsense – Labour have a perfectly transparent Brexit policy and, like so many Brexit plans, it’s a ‘have your cake an eat it’ plan.

Labour’s plan is beautifully simply; they want the Tories to go right ahead and make a pigs-ear of Brexit then, in the aftermath, blame them for the economic and structural chaos that it brings. There will be claims that Labour’s ‘Job’s first’ Brexit would have been brilliant for the country. There’s no need, of course, for there ever to be a fully-developed plan for the Job’s First Brexit. It’s only role is to be a political what-you-could-have-won, the road untaken option that was better, in every way, than what you actually got.

The current Labour leadership hopes to inherit a broken country, outwith the EU, crying out for radical reform, so that they can play at being 1945 Attlee.

The only real issue with this plan is that it is horribly cynical and Labour know it will cause hardship, especially for the low-waged. This is why the ‘eating it’ part of their plan involves convincing the majority of their voters that it’s not their plan at all.

This is the function of the ‘long-game’ myth; continue to march towards a hard-leave, all the while telling the majority of Labour voters that there’s a secret strategy to swerve aside at the last minute.

Hence articles like this terrible dross, claiming that this is all some brilliantly planned chess strategy. It’s not chess, of course, it’s Chicken, and it’s Chicken where the opponent you claim will swerve aside first is the brick wall of leaving the EU in 10 months.

labour list headline
Fixed that for you

There isn’t time for a long-game, especially when it’s as ill-defined as “Wait for the polls to change and then strike”.

Labour remainers should be disgusted that they are being lied to this way and being told, bluntly, that their votes are less important to the party than those of former UKIP voters, which they hope to woo back.

Leavers should be disgusted that Labour either wants to leave, but can’t make a case for it, or wants to remain, but is scared to say so, and is banking on the economic punishment of those who supported Leave to change their minds.

And everybody who considers voting Labour should be disgusted that a party that says it wants to lead the country through radical reforms is so lacking in the ability to lead that it’s happy to meekly follow the polls.

Unheld

Every school day I do the run for my 8-year-old son. It’s an arrangement that suits us well, as we both like our rituals. The order in which things are done is invariable; wake-up, cereal, getting dressed, shoes and coat, collecting bags, out to car, drive to school, he unloads onto me any bags he can as he gets out of the car, I hold out my hand to him…

It’s a ritual that will change soon. In less than 2 weeks he will be 9. In September he’ll make the step up to middle-school. We’re approaching the age where even being seen with your dad is a source of eternal embarrassment, holding his hand in public would be unthinkable.

…so, for the present, I find joy in the mornings where he takes my hand (more often than not, still). It’s symbolic; there are no roads to cross, the one we walk alongside isn’t busy. One of these mornings, one soon, I will hold his small hand in mine for the last time. It’s an insignificant thing, and the tragic Alfie Evans case reminds me how lucky I am, but it’s still going to be an ending.

Another ending is coming sooner. As I type this I have a 17-year-old daughter, but by the time you read it she will no longer be 17. May 1st is her 18th birthday, she (and around 1,800 others) will be joining the adult world.

How I wish that we who’ve been adults for a while had furnished her with a better world to step into. It’s not just the rush, here and in the US, towards political extremes, or her inheriting the consequences of a vote that she couldn’t take part in, it’s also about the terrifying view of the world that social media gives us. Where we can see, daily, that so many men are not just a bit sexist, or disrespectful of women, but actually straight-up hate them.

My daughter is intelligent, diligent, funny and brimming with the common sense that, sadly, skips the male side of my family. I know she will make the best of the new world of adult responsibility she now finds herself in…but…even so, it’s hard not to want those years back where getting her to school, picking her up at the end of the day, patching the occasional grazed knee was all it took to know she was safe. Just a few more years of that, perhaps. Just to see how things turn out.

Time has caught up with me. The clock points to midnight. It’s a new day. My child is no longer a child.

With no little worry and reluctance I let go of her hand.

Give me a name

Give me a name!

Over the past three years I’ve been given many; “Tory”, “centrist dad”, “traitor”…and other, less repeatable, ones.

Because I won’t support Corbyn.

Call me what you like…

I’m a husband to an NHS midwife. I see, every week, the stress she is put under by short-staffing, lack of beds and matters such as under-resourced agencies trying to keep the babies of paedophiles and violent offenders safe.

I’m a school governor for a first school. I spend hours of my life balancing budgets and allocating ever-scarcer resources. I know how precious those young lives are, and how many of their parents are finding it harder to make ends meet.

I’m a father to a 17-year-old daughter, who’s heading off to university in September. I would dearly love to her to be able to come out of the experience without a life-time of debt in front of her.

I’m a boss to a team who are predominately young graduates. I see how hard it is for them to get on the property ladder, to even forge a decent career path.

I want all of those things, and more, to change, but the price for that can’t be putting someone who has a 35-year history of associating with the worst elements of the left – the enemies of democracy, the apologists for tyranny, the terrorists, the Antisemites, the homophobes, the bullies and the misogynists – into power.

Call me what you like, I won’t vote for him.

But we want the same things. Lots of other people want them. Other politicians want them. Politicians who don’t have this hideous baggage attached to their name. I don’t need somebody perfect – because politicians are human, and humans make mistakes – but I can’t support somebody who makes the same mistakes over and over again, and then hides from the consequences and the accusations.

Give me a name I can vote for. Give me a name I can be proud to support. Give me a name that I can put my cross next to, knowing that they will genuinely try to make things better for everybody.

Give me a name!

Find the piano

I often think about pianos. Not because I’m musically gifted (I’m absolutely not), or even because I’m a big music fan (ditto), but because part of my job is running political polling.

piano graph

My grandma voted Labour all of her life. She died shortly after Tony Blair won his first term, but I’ve no doubt she voted for him, just as she’d have voted for Kinnock and Foot before him. She’d have voted for him in all three elections that he won, and then voted for Brown, Miliband and Corbyn. She always voted Labour, because of a piano.

In the 1930s her father lost his job, and his family had to throw themselves onto the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee (PAC) to get his dole. Such payments were heavily means tested, and the recipients had to sell assets before they were entitled to state payments. For her family one of these assets was their beloved family piano, and it was the Tory government that took the blame for this casual cruelty, levied against a family down on their luck.

My grandma wasn’t a political woman. I doubt she’d have appreciated any difference between the ideologies of, say, Blair and Foot, they were simply the people who stood against the people who’d taken her family’s piano. For more than 60 years she was a single-issue voter, and it was an issue that was never captured in any ballot or opinion poll. It was never headline news. No questions were asked in The House.

Her six decades of absolute party loyalty were unrelated to her views on the economy, defence, immigration or health – all the things that the polls I work on ask about. When I work on them I think about that and wonder if we should have a question that just says, “Tell us about your piano”. Because, make no mistake, pianos still go missing.

Not literal pianos, perhaps, but whenever a political party betrays people on a personal level the ivories tinkle. Someone, somewhere, builds a resentment that will forever separate them from that party.

The official Guinness world record for piano smashing (the criteria being that all of the pieces must be able to pass through an opening the size of a letterbox) is 1 minute and 34 seconds, but with austerity, and Brexit, and the truly, deeply, terrible people leading both major parties, I suspect that those pianos are being churned out faster than anybody could smash them. There’s a sea of them out there, all playing slightly discordant notes, waiting for a conductor to find them.

If you can find the pianos then you can rule this country.

Meanwhile, I look at the data flowing into yet another political poll.

Faceberk

For years I worked as a business analyst. Broadly speaking, the role of a business analyst is to talk to people who want some kind of IT system, ask them the right questions, and then explain everything to the people who are going to actually do all of the technical stuff.

When an IT system doesn’t work it’s not simply because the people writing the code behind it didn’t do a very good job, often it’s because the people who wanted the system in the first place didn’t do a very good job of explaining what they wanted it to do, or the business analyst didn’t asked the rights questions or listen to the answers properly.

Normally it’s for all of these reasons. This will become important later.

Anyway, my experience as a business analyst means that when people propose IT solutions to problems I start instinctively thinking of questions that I want to ask them. It also means that I’ve found it hard to stop thinking about Paul Mason’s article yesterday (21/3/18) wherein he argues that, “there is nothing to stop Facebook being broken up into six pieces in each national market it operates in

fonz statue
Paul Mason, pictured yesterday

There is, I suppose, nothing to stop it, but it runs up against the most fundamental question that business analysts must answer…what are you trying to achieve?

As of the end of 2017 Facebook reported 2.2 billion active users. It genuinely is a frightening amount of data for one company to hold.

Some of that count will, of course, be taken up by corporate accounts, and other non-personal data, but it’s still an appreciable fraction of the world’s population to have using your platform. Which is, of course, why people use it. It encompasses your parents (who still don’t quite understand they’re not just writing private messages to you), your slightly racist school friends, the people you work with, your drinking buddies, the people who share your interest in buttons of the late Jacobean era, celebrities, overseas friends you’d otherwise lose touch with…everybody, and they’re all tangled together with hundreds of billions of connections and interactions.

Split Facebook into 2, or 6, or 10 and you break existing connections. People scramble to reconnect. From the 2, or the 6 or the 10, emerges a new default platform, and it slowly regathers those 2.2 billion accounts, while its rival platforms wither.

What then have you achieved? A few years of fierce competition to be the platform of choice for the disconnected users, certainly. Many of them will end up signed up to more than one of the rival platforms, spreading their data around more (did you ever go back and clean up your MySpace or Friends Reunited accounts?). We, the people who are supposed to be protected by this measure, get a couple of years of forgetting friends’ birthdays, not seeing their holiday snaps and having to reforge connections that we were, in all likelihood, completely happy with in the first place.

Whatever you’re trying to achieve, this does not achieve it.

Mason does go on to suggest that the database at the heart of Facebook could be nationalised and individuals could give consent to individual companies to access it, in exchange for “innovative” uses of their data, or ad-free platforms.

Again, we could, but here the business analyst turns to the developers and asks, “How the hell do we do this, then?”

That’s because people tend to think of databases like big spreadsheets; you have columns, with titles like “Forename”, “Surname” and “Date of birth” and then a row of data for each person using their platform. So prevalent is this view that you can probably guarantee that, in any given company, part of their operations will be throttled by somebody who’s designed a database to work exactly like this.

Big databases are far more complex and, without getting into technicalities, are optimised depending on what you want to do with them. You can’t take a database that’s geared towards reminding 2.2 billion people when their mum’s birthday is and just make it do something “innovative”, or at least not without it running in geological time – for you and everybody else who’s trying to use it. Neither can you just make it a free-for-all on who can write data to it and what they can write. It’s not like an Excel spreadsheet. Everything is interconnected and relational, and its structure determines how your user platform works (or suddenly stops working, if one of the rival companies makes a change that nobody else is expecting).

Nor can the government legislate that companies must make their data easily transferable. The forthcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) do mandate this, but only in as far as saying that data controllers must be able to export the data they hold on an individual into a common electronic format (like a spreadsheet), to send to another party. This is great if you want to move banks or mobile phone company, which require comparatively little data to operate, and rubbish if you want to have real-time connections between 10 competing social networks, each of which is trying to work out if you know somebody, somewhere in the world, who’s got a birthday in the current 24-hour window.

Maybe it’s still doable, with a really, really clever design and centralisation of core data, connected to distributed supplementary data. Except that GOVERNMENTS ARE REALLY, REALLY BAD AT LARGE DATA PROJECTS.

No, really, they’re terrible, and they’re almost always terrible because they always fight against putting a fence around and everything and saying, “That’s what we want”. They always push to do just a little bit more, to not rule things out for the future, to accommodate the unaccommodating.

A brief example; many years ago I worked on a project for a government agency. Our stated objective was to deliver a quick win, a system that could handle the 80% of the agency’s work that was simple and straightforward, even if it meant that the remaining 20% had to be done with pen and paper.

During a meeting for that project, on the subject of linking children’s data to their parents, a very senior manager in the agency asks me, “What happens if a woman has two children with the same date of birth, but different fathers?”

Thanks to that question I now know that:

a. This is possible (it’s called ‘superfecundation’)

b. There isn’t an agency in the world where this applies to 80% (or even 20%) of their cases…not by a factor of a million or so.

c. While the government was solving problems like this another Facebook would arise and we’d be back here again.

New, tougher, regulations on data protection come into force this year, but at their heart they rely on us taking personal responsibility for what consent we give to others to collect and process our data. It’s a boring fix, consisting or carefully reading terms and conditions, and thinking about which boxes we choose to tick, but you should trust it above those who promise a magical technological solution to everything, because the question that should prompt is, “What kind of idiot thinks that would work?”