Category: Opinion

The actual annoying things about Cambridge

I came across an article on the local news site this week – 13 annoying things about Cambridge.

Whilst I can agree with a few of them, things like punt touts have never bothered me – I moved to Cambridge from a city that is more obnoxious for it’s slew of charity chuggers. Which are far more irritating. The punt touts have never bothered me, since a short ‘Thanks, not today’ generally results in being left alone. Not so with charity chuggers. Really, until you’ve been practically chased down a high street by a monk shouting ‘Gurangha!’ at you, I’m not sure you can claim annoyance at punt touts. Then again, the southern end of this country does have a strange attitude in talking to strangers – as in, you do it rarely, if at all. Strangers are scary, or something. The north end of the country is much more likely to want to know your business and get in your face about it. Maybe that is the source of the irritation.

Many of the other problems are down to the local council. Whilst they get many things right, they are incredibly anti-vehicle. So it’s no surprise that parking becomes an issue. Take away the majority of free parking spaces, build housing allocated with 1 1/2 parking spaces (how do you get half a parking space? Seriously…), and poor public transport options, then you’re going to end up with overpriced parking, and people parking inconsiderately due to lack of options. Supply and demand, that has been artificially created by a council that seems to think that a bike is the answer to everything, without considering that people need to do things like carry shopping around, or deliver goods to the businesses in the area. Frustrating does not begin to cover it.

The other side of the problem is that Cambridge is actually a nice place to live, regardless of the problems. It’s close enough to London (whilst still being cheaper) that it is viable for commuting. Which of course means that the price of housing is incredibly high, and getting higher. That said, money is tight. More houses get built, but it’s not enough. The knock on effect of the extra housing is that more people live here – meaning the traffic gets worse. The infrastructure of the area is only now being considered (improvements to the A14 and updating a woefully inadequate train station). Of course, these things take time – but at least these kind of improvements are actually happening now. It’s frustrating, sure, but at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel. One day, the work will be completed.

In terms of things that are actually annoying about Cambridge for the average bod though? When I compare it to where I grew up, I find myself counting my blessings. It’s a vibrant area that does not get neglected in terms of government funding, and it shows. Try visiting some of the northern cities, and you’ll find a hotbed of supermarkets and call centres and little else – because their industry was closed down and sent abroad. The lack of investment up there means that first world problems such as pretty buildings is put on the back burner while they try to keep on top of such things as keeping the bare minimal public services running with minimal funding.

A lot of the annoyances listed in the linked article are annoying, yes – but it’s not all bad. At least the money is there to build the new houses, sort out the train station, and faff around with things like parking machines and ‘customer satisfaction’ surveys. As someone who grew up in a place that didn’t get this kind of investment, I struggle to get too irritated by these things. I guess it’s hard to appreciate just how good it is here if you haven’t seen the sheer ineptitude or lack of interest in other cities in this country. That is what irritates me.

Film Review: Christmas with the Kranks

Last weekend, I ended up watching ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ with the bloke and his kidlets.

To say I found this movie pretty awful is an understatement. IMDB rates this film at 5.1 stars, which I’d say is pretty generous. Rotten Tomatoes is somewhat more accurate with a rating of 5%.

The synopsis of this film is as follows:

With their daughter away, the Kranks decide to skip Christmas altogether until she decides to come home, causing an uproar when they have to celebrate the holiday at the last minute.

Which doesn’t quite cover it. Here’s how I viewed the whole thing:

The Kranks decide that with their daughter flying the nest, they will take themselves on a cruise instead of staying at home to celebrate Christmas. Much of this is due to their impeding sense of ’empty nest syndrome’. As such, they decide that going through the effort of putting up Christmas decorations is a bit wasteful, so they decide to not bother. They also opt to forgo their previous donations to various entities, as they have also decided to save their cash.

As a result of this, they are then hounded mercilessly by their neighbours and colleagues, because the lack of Christmas decorations and donations means that they are scrooges. Because of course it is everyone else’s business what they do with their time and money. Duh.

This is all going well and good – my sympathies are firmly with the Kranks at this point, as they’re not doing anything unreasonable. However, this is where the film gets really stupid. Their daughter phones up at the last minute to state that she is coming back for Christmas with her new fiancee. Do her parents at this point tell her that they have made other plans?

You’d be right to guess nope. This news causes a mass panic to get their Christmas decorations and party all arranged in the final hour so that their daughter will not even know that they were going to do Christmas a bit different in her absence. Of course, this involves the previously arsehole neighbours chipping in to help them pull this off, with no one actually pointing out that they were complete arseholes. That is all glossed over, because Decorations! Food! Presents!

Now, Mr Krank is still eager to do the cruise. Mrs Krank is hearing none of it, because apparently they should be happy their daughter is home because Christmas. So ultimately, he ends up giving his cruise to another couple, on account of it possibly being their last Christmas together due to the wife having terminal cancer. This is bearing in mind that the man of this neighbourly duo is one of the people who was incredibly awful to the Kranks throughout the film.

I can’t decide, after watching this film, if the underlying message is that you should conform to please everyone else around you, or if it is trying to subtly point out just how overboard and consumerist Christmas is these days. Either way, it left a bad taste in my mouth. I fail to actually see anything positive in how this turned out.

The Kranks should have stuck to their original plan, without all the fanfare, and told their daughter they had made other plans when she dropped her last minute change of plans on them. Mainly because part of growing up is that you start making your own Christmas plans, and partly because it is selfish to the extreme to expect that the people in your life will revolve their own plans around yourself, as daughter Krank does.

This would have made sense, but then there probably would not have been a film. Which in this case, would have been a service to the film industry.

My final verdict? This was 1 hour 34 minutes of my life that I won’t be getting back. I wouldn’t even watch this when bored.

I’d like my news unbiased, and to stick to actual news, please.

As an incredibly nosy person, I’m a big fan of knowing what is going on in the world. As such, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading various news websites. Being UK based, my main reading material used to be that provided by the BBC.

Now, a level of bias is always to be expected here, given that the BBC is a state run corporation. However, their bias over recent months has reached new extremes. More and more, I’ve found myself reading websites from further afield just to try and get an un-jaundiced view on what is actually happening around the world.

The BBC isn’t the only news source guilty of this. I’ve taken to reading news sites from around the world with a pretty even mix of left-wing and right-wing bias, with the theory in mind that if I take on board what both say, I can look at the middle ground and figure out what is actually happening that way. I do not think this is a good thing. You’re left with the feeling that you can’t really trust what is being reported on what should be a respectable outlet of information. It’s even worse when that feeling is proven with minimal internet searching.

It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs that I’ve concluded that the most unbiased source of information is RT.com (Russia Today).

Now, I get why this is the case. With current events as they are, there is a very genuine concern about a backlash happening against certain cultures. That said, I’m not sure that misreporting events, or flat out not reporting events, is the way to prevent this happening. I’m pretty sure that those who would be involved in such a backlash gave up reading media from the likes of the BBC a long time ago *because* of their current style of reporting.

The bias isn’t the only problem I have, though. In a culture where breaking news from across the world can be an instant thing, the ‘on’ switch is glued down. If there is currently nothing happening, interviews are conducted just to gain soundbites that can be misquoted again and again out of context. If there is no one relevant to the event to interview, Random Joe off the street is pulled aside to give his views on the event.

Now, call me whatever you want – but I’m not all too interested in what Random Joe off the street has to say. All I actually want to know is very simple – what happened, why it happened, and what is happening as a result of what happened. Random Joe off the street is unlikely to know this. If I want to know what Random Joe thinks, I can just search the most popular tag on twitter, and find out that way.

While I’m having a bit of a rant about this, I may as well add – I don’t care if a dog can skateboard while performing back flips. This should not be a front page thing unless you are having a *really* slow news day. Stop it.

So, to sum up – it’s pretty much as the title of this post states. I’d like my news unbiased, and to stick to actual news, please.

Money Talks – Know your worth

This is a topic that seems to pop up fairly regularly in various media – how much you get paid.

Some companies out there publish this information, to demonstrate how fairly they are paying their staff. Others don’t, and occasionally, the employees will start discussing this amongst themselves.

Both the above approaches always lead to the inevitable – people comparing how much they earn to how much their co-workers are (possibly) earning. One thing I have seen when this plays out is that someone always seems to decide that they’re being shafted, and they let jealousy take over. Things can often go downhill from there, depending on the personality involved.

I am of the school of thought that says I do not tell my co-workers how much I earn under any circumstances. While I may tell them how much I was getting paid in a previous job, my current salary is my own business, and no one elses. When co-workers start discussing their current salary in front of me, I keep my mouth firmly shut and attempt to evade the discussion. Even when it becomes apparent that they are being vastly underpaid.

That probably seems quite unsociable or even unfeeling of me. But here’s the thing – what I earn has no bearing on what anyone else earns. Just like what they earn has no bearing on what I earn, for one simple reason – I am in charge of my own situation. I can’t say I have ever found myself staying too long in a role where I feel undervalued. I keep an eye on the market rates in the area for my chosen profession, and I have no problem with asking for a raise if I feel it warranted. If the raise is not forthcoming, I choose to take myself – and my pay negotiations – elsewhere.

At no point in this process have I ever looked at my pay in comparison to someone else’s and thought ‘That person is being paid more than me, and I don’t think they’re worth it’. Again, this comes down to an acknowledgement that people are in charge of their own situation. If someone is actually being paid more than me, my first thought is that they made a better job of negotiating their salary than I did – in which case, good for them.

In my not so recent history, I found out that some co-workers were discussing my salary with a view to envy. I found out the figure that was being bounced about, and found it amusing that it was quite a bit lower than what my salary actually was. If the figure had actually been correct, then I would have been concerned how that number became public knowledge, since my salary is between me and the entity paying it. And as mentioned before, I don’t share my salary with co-workers (much like I don’t share my plate of food).

So, here are some lessons I’ve picked up about this kind of thing over the years that I’d like to share:

  • Just because you don’t discuss your salary with co-workers, that doesn’t mean that they won’t discuss it – and probably have it wrong. The office politics around this kind of thing can get very intense, but it’s not really something you can control. Accept that, and try to not get sucked in. I’d say the rule here is to keep out of it – joining the fray will not help you to take control of this. If you’re approached or confronted by people who are unsatisfied with their own lot, point out how they can always ask for a raise.
  • Know your worth before entering any salary negotiation – be it for a new or existing job. There are so many websites where you can check out the market rate for your role and position in your area. Don’t undervalue yourself when it comes to this. Be sure to check out this information at least once a year. This will help you to figure out the ballpark figure that you want to ask for, and shouldn’t be used as a hard and fast figure that must not be deviated from.
  • Don’t be afraid to move on to a place where you will be fairly valued. As mentioned in this post, you know how much you are worth. If you really are being undervalued, no company worth their salt is going to say no to a reasonable request to be compensated fairly.
  • Bear in mind that what your co-workers earn has no bearing on your own situation, and more importantly – is none of your business. Envy and jealousy are not healthy. For anyone. One of the worst things you can do here is try to justify your pay raise based upon what a colleague is apparently earning. Leave that kind of thing out of any salary negotiation.
  • Companies are there to make money. Which means they will go for the best deal to cut their own costs. It’s a pretty rare case that you will be given a significant raise without actually asking for it. If they can get your services for cheap, they’ll more often than not keep being cheap. After all, the reward for digging an awesome big hole is a bigger shovel, and very rarely a bigger bag of money. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Simples.

The main lesson here, however, is something I’m sure I have mentioned before – you are responsible for your own situation. Don’t like your situation? Then take control and change it, or get into a new situation. If you choose to bleat about how unfair everything is without doing anything about it, then you’ll find that any sympathy you were getting will slowly disappear. And at the end of it, you’ll still be miserable.

Bad advice?

I came across an article (3 Key Steps to Building a Powerful Personal Brand)* on Inc.com the other day, which had some – what I think is – rather dubious advice. It made me actually cringe to read it. Here’s the excerpt:

Being self-aware helps a lot here. If you think you might have blind spots, do this:

Write down a list of a list of 10 adjectives that describe you.
Now go have lunch with the five people who know you best.
Ask them to make the same list about you.
Compare the lists and look for common descriptors.

And later …

For further insight, try the same exercise with colleagues and acquaintances that barely know you.

Really? Grab 5 people, and take up their most valuable resource – their time – to write or talk all about *you*?!? That’s kind of self indulgent, really. In addition, depending on the honesty of the people involved, and resulting list would very likely contain the following descriptors: Self obsessed, needy, narcissistic. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. I don’t feel the rest of the advice in the article is bad. But that part about getting people to write a list like that just sets my teeth on edge.

Has anyone actually managed to do this kind of thing seriously? Or been asked to do this kind of thing?

Maybe I’m just taking it for granted that I have people in my life who will often flat out tell me their unvarnished opinion, even if they know I probably won’t like to hear it. I don’t see the need to do the above – which possibly means I actually need to the do the above exercise because I am suffering a self awareness fail. Who knows?

* Guilty pleasure – I occasionally indulge in reading click bait articles along the lines of ’10 things you must do now!!!’. Some of these articles are common sense, whilst many are so off the wall that they make me snigger. The latter are the more entertaining for me, as I enjoy the smug feeling I get from being able to tell my computer screen (and the internet at large) that it is wrong.

Automatic Real Time Systems are Scary.

This is a long post. Bear with me.

We live in an increasingly automated world. And this makes me nervous.

Computers are stupid. They will only do what we tell them to. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that any given computer program is only as good as the person or people who wrote it.

I could focus on any system with this blog post. I’ll talk about the Google Self Driving Car project. It’s one I’ve been watching fairly closely, as I put more thought into how automated our world is becoming.

On the surface of it, the self driving car is something of a success story. The last monthly report shows that over the course of 1,268,108 miles in autonomous mode, no accidents were reported. Which is pretty awesome. It’s only getting better all the time, as the geniuses at Google get on the case.

I get nervous at the thought of giving up control to a system that was programmed by people. I know that in large part is down to my own arrogance – part of me is obviously of the mindset that I am better at driving a car than a piece of software programmed by a fellow human being.

Here’s where my non-arrogant issues with this come in to the equation. Let’s consider the human element in a real-time system. Things happen in real-time. Things that a piece of software may not know how to deal with – only because it’s bloody difficult to anticipate edge case scenarios, and tell the software it may happen – which requires the person or people doing the coding to anticipate this. The likelihood of such events – i.e. a meteor landing in the road, etc – is very small. But the probability is still there.

The reaction speed of a human is slower than that of a machine in a given situation, which could render this whole issue moot. But a human still beats out a machine when it comes to the ability to react. If I was a passenger in a car when the hypothetical meteor crashes into the road in front of me, I’d be hoping that the person driving the car was in full control. Not the computer of the car.

My next issue is the removal of personal and human responsibility in a machine that has often proven capable of killing in worst case scenarios. These scenarios are often down to human stupidity. The solution to this would be to make all cars self-drive. But this then also leads to what Google call in their report the ‘Hands off problem‘. You still have the issue whereby a human ability to react to the unexpected will be necessary in select cases. The ‘Hands off’ problem, and the google report, estimate that it takes between 5 and 8 seconds for a human to regain control. In real-time, this is an absolute age. Even a full second would be too long in many cases of an unexpected event.

Next, let’s talk the bug to code ratio. I only have some books and blog posts published a few years ago to go on here (after a brief google search). Dan Mayer published an interesting blog post back in 2012 which discussed bug to code ratios. It’s worth a read. In it, he quotes a book called Code Complete by Steve McConnell, which states the following:

Industry Average: “about 15 – 50 errors per 1000 lines of delivered code.”

That’s quite a scary number. Now, an error could be something fairly minor. It could be a spelling mistake in the user interface, for instance. It could also be something more serious. Here’s the thing – I suspect that this number may only have gotten larger, even in the face of better coding standards. As we work to improve an older system, for example, the system gets larger, more complex, and more interconnected with its component parts to satisfy an ever-growing demanding market that wants better features.

I’m sure that Google have very stringent code quality processes and guidelines, and as such their code to bug ratio is incredibly low. But I doubt that they can guarantee 100% clean code, without a single error. If any part of their code base meets the above quoted industry average, then I actually find that pretty frightening. And that is feasible, given that in any software development, you will have different people/teams working on different modules. In addition, how much can any published test metrics be trusted when it’s public knowledge that said test metrics can very easily be faked? All it takes is one person to either get it wrong or to abandon scruples to meet a deadline. I’m sure that the people working at Google are all fine and upstanding. Will every person who gets their hands on this kind of software be the same?

Here’s the even bigger issue. People can be clever arseholes, to put in bluntly. Cars relying too much on software have already been hacked. So even if we go with the assumption that everyone working on the software is an awesome and outstanding citizen, that’s not to say that everyone in the world is.

That aside, my conclusion is that automated systems can only work when we all give up all personal responsibility over to the system. Where does this stop? As an adult, I take pride in being responsible for my own welfare. The idea of handing any part of that responsibility over to a system – and therefore, to the people who are in control of that system – sends chills down my spine.

Don’t get me wrong – the technology is cool. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been following the news on it closely. But the ramifications of something like this being adopted worldwide is something that I feel probably hasn’t been thought about fully. Bug ratios, inability to anticipate the random, or malicious intervention aside, just who do you think should be in control of your car? You? Google? Or any governing body that takes over the software at some point in the distant future?