Current Affairs

Working from Home – The New Normal

To paraphrase a famous UK singer, I want to tell you a story.

While I was working for Sabre and then EDS, the corporation adopted an approach to remote working by employees where, if you lived 40 or more miles from your defined work location, and you could obtain leader approval, you were allowed to work from home for 4 days a week, only having to be in the office for meetings one day a week.

This was not a full Work From Home employment agreement. However, a small number of employees did have Work From Home agreements, and in that scenario, the corporation also provided and paid for home computing infrastructure, including internet connectivity, monitors and printers. In practice, a number of employees who lived less than 40 miles from the office location also began to mostly work from home, on a “nod and wink” basis with their leaders. After a while, at least 5 people in my group were working from home, but only 2 people in the group really qualified under the 40 mile rule.

There was a period, in the 2006-2007 time period, where, for reasons that were none too clear, the new EDS leadership decided to enforce the 40 mile rule strictly. As a result, all but 2 of the group members who had been working from home were told they had to be working from their office locations 5 days a week once more. This was not a popular edict. At least 1 person in the group, one of the business analysts, left the company for another job.

After I ceased to support a local client (American Airlines) in 2007, I moved to the America Testing organization, and went on the road for a while. I was re-classified as a Remote worker, meaning that when I was not on the road, I worked from home. Most of the time I was on the road, so working from home was a pleasant, albeit temporary, respite. (contrary to what many people believed, my life as a consultant did not comprise an endless series of stays in luxury hotels, surrounded by Captains Of Industry and voluptuous pouting women. It was a whole lot less glamorous than that).

In practical terms, I have been a Work From Home person since 2008, except when consulting assignments required me to be on the road at client locations.

By the early 2010s, a significant percentage of EDS employees were working from home full-time. Part of the reason was that EDS had closed a number of city offices because there were too few people in the city to justify the retention of a physical office. They simply gave their employees in those cities money to purchase home computing infrastructure, and those employees moved to working from home.

During the transition from EDS to HPE, we suddenly were told that we had to be working from an EDS location. As a result, I started going to the Plano HQ for 2-3 days a week when I was not on the road (which was not often). The reason for this, it was explained to me, was that the selling price of EDS when sold to HP depended to some extent on real estate occupancy, so the order had some down to pamper presentation and maximize the sale price of EDS.

After the transition to HPE, there was another relaxation of the work at home rules.

Then one day, there was a sudden change in the HPE era, with Meg Whitman now the CEO. Suddenly, an edict went out that people needed to be working from an HPE office location. Consultants such as me were exempted, but many employees were told that they had 2 options:  work from an HPE office, or be laid off.

For employees who had moved to home working because there was no longer an HPE office in their city, the choice was stark; move house or leave the company. Unsurprisingly, many employees chose to leave rather than uproot themselves and their families. Or they refused to move, and were WFR’d. The choice tended to depend on which action was the most financially compelling.

Employees living in cities with an HPE office reverted to working at that office, although some of them rapidly learned that in order to be in good standing with leadership, all they had to do was “clock in” by entering the building 4 times a week. So I soon heard of legacy EDS employees who would go to the former EDS Plano HQ, clock into the building, say hello to a few people, and then go home and work at home for the remainder of the day.

Then the rumor spread that the building measurement processes were counting not only whether you were in the building, but for how long. So, for a while, I would go to Plano 2-3 days a week and work there every day, when I was not on the road. I was on the road about 50% of the time. This was not a good use of time, since it is a 1.2 hour drive from my home to the Plano office. I used the time to catch up on conversations with colleagues to take the pulse of the Testing delivery organization. But it was up to 2.5 hours that could have been spent on better use of my time on the planet.

When the legacy HPE business was merged with CSC and we became DXC, the rules on remote working were slowly relaxed again. What I realized was that every time there was a takeover or merger, leadership would insist on employees being in an office, to keep real estate occupancy rates high and help to justify that the buildings or building leases were assets, not liabilities. I was officially assigned to a new DXC office in Dallas, but I have never been there.

More recently, of course, Covid changed everything for a lot of people.  Right now, I work from home, and I expect to work from home for the rest of calendar 2021. My wife is in the same situation, having begun to work from home in April of 2020, once it became clear that Covid was taking root in Texas. Her employer has already postponed a return to office work twice. Currently they have no timetable.

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the media about how employers will try to treat employees in the future if and when the Covid-19 pandemic recedes. There is speculation that many employers will try to force employees back to office locations. This makes no economic sense for either the employer or the employee:

  • The employer has to provide office space and amenities for the employee
  • The employee has to give up time, and money to travel to and from the office location

There may be other cost considerations for parents such as child care (I can tell from what I hear on conference calls that a lot of parents of young children are using working at home as the chance to perform their own small child care).

So, if you are an employer, and you suddenly demand that your employees take a pay cut, and give up possibly 2 hours of their day to commute? Somehow I don’t think that will ever lead to a positive aggregate result.

My prediction is that the climate for employees who either want to force home-workers back to an office, or recruit people on the basis that they will mostly or entirely work from an office, is not going to be favorable. This survey tells you a lot about employee attitudes at the present time.  An employer who gives an employee a $30k raise to work from an office (when they are incurring the cost of the office space) is, bluntly, bonkers. 

This transition period will take time. Some corporations are locked into building leases that they may not be able to get out of in the short term. But the New Normal for many employees that do not have to interact with other employees face to face, or interact with the public, is not going to be the same as the Normal that existed prior to 2020.


Dear Texas – the S word

Dear Texas,

To use the old British joke, I see that some of the peasants are revolting…a proposal for the option of secession from the Union to be put into a referendum was just shelved in Austin. 

This is merely the latest in a series of periodic outbreaks of enthusiasm for secession of the Lone Star State. Back in the early 2000s, when UseNet was still a thing, I remember becoming involved in discussions and debates with several Texas secessionists on libertarian discussion groups. They were blithely confident that the Great State of Texas would thrive when not under the yoke of the Evil Feds.

One of the myths that many of the would-be secessionists kept talking about was that Texas somehow, magically, unlike the other states, has some magical right to secede. Something something Articles of Accession something something. This is not correct, so a little history analysis is in order.

When Texas agreed to join the Union in 1845, it was partly as a defensive measure, since Texas had split from Mexico in 1836, and the protection of the United States looked like an attractive option as a way of protecting the state from further provocations and incursions. There was a lot of debate over the terms of accession, the US Congress initially voted against it, and it took quite a while for enough Texans to vote in favour. The annexation by the USA was also accompanied by the creation of a new Constitution of Texas.

This was the text of the annexation treaty. There was no provision included in the annexation treaty for Texas to leave the Union at any point. And following that contretemps a while back, where a number of states tried to leave the Union, only to be subdued by military means, Texas has been a solid member of the United States ever since. So, if you want to secede, you will not only have to convince yourselves, you will need to enter new and uncharted territory and negotiate your departure from the Union. I kept telling some of you “there is no process” back in 2000 or so, you weren’t listening then. No, you can’t do it just by sending an email to Washington DC saying “We’re leaving thanxbai”.

Now…I understand that many of your good folks in Texas are also convinced that your state has the right to split into up to 5 states. I believe that Republican folks rather like this idea, since SHAZAM! Instantly the Senate acquires 8 more Senators, most of whom would, by an amazing piece of happenstance, turn out to be Republicans…The idea is, of course, totally at odds with any idea about secession. But I digress.

The reality is that it is not quite as simple as that. This article should make that clear. For starters, Congress would have to agree to that expansion. It is also far from clear that the right is explicitly codified in any legislation. Even if such a process exists, it would be something new and unique in US governance. Me being a poor gambler, I wouldn’t bet any of the family moolah on it being a viable and legal course of action.

So, making large assumptions, like (1) Texas really does want to leave, (2) The United States is OK with the idea of this, what about those pesky details?

There are a lot of them. It’s not like an uncontested divorce where both of you split shit down the middle and go your separate ways. No sir. Texas and the Federal Government are kind of welded together, so a lot of stuff has to be, how do you say this, unwound.

First, money. The United States national debt is heading towards $24 trillion at present. The Party Of Fiscal Responsibility spent 4 years, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, cutting taxes, which has increased that number by a significant number of trillions. I never want to hear any lectures again on balancing the books from the GOP. But I digress.

Texas would have to be prepared to assume a pro rata share of the national debt. The most obvious approach is to do it based on population. If we do that math <whirrs calculator>, and we add in the state’s own debt, that means that Texas leaves home with a debt of…$2.087 trillion. A f**k of a lot of debt. However, when divided by the GDP of Texas, which is rather impressive, the Debt to GDP ratio is 113%. This is actually not bad compared to many other countries.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to use the number of citizens as a measure for how to apportion the debt. You could use land area. That would be better for Texas, because Alaska has the most land area of any state. If you use land area, the number would be $1.721 trillion. Alaska would object, of course.

You could use…ooh, how about head of cattle? But oh dear, this is not a good idea. If you do that, the share is now $2.889 trillion. Texas has the most cattle of any state at present. (At this point, I am sure that the devious secessionists would be working out how to have a massive cattle cull prior to the point at which secession metrics are measured…)

The actual debt is actually less important than the little matter of interest servicing for the debt. You will need to get a really good deal from somebody, in order to avoid the fate of some countries in the past, where interest payments kept adding to their national debt, leading to perpetual insolvency. You will need to find the best deal, so you will need to negotiate with your future lenders (which in the case of the National Debt, will be the US Federal Reserve). The United States will want a deal that is best for it as a country, so you can expect that your debt servicing will be larger in the New Independent World.

The good news is that unlike some of your neighboring states (like New Mexico and Mississippi) you are not dependent on the Federal Government for revenues and money. So you should have no trouble paying your way in the Real World. However, there is one small item that you will probably need to address. You have no State income tax, and the only countries that I am aware of that survive without a personal income tax are a small number of high-dollar tax havens with names like Monaco. So you will probably have a large pill to swallow in that area of fiscal governance. Yes, I hear phrases like “over my dead body” whenever a state income tax is mentioned, but if you (to use an old analogy) want to leave home and buy your own house and live in it you have to have enough cash flow to maintain that house. After the complete disaster this Winter, when Texas showed that it leads the world in electricity generation SNAFUs, I would respectfully suggest that some investment in public infrastructure needs to be at or top of the list of priorities for an independent Texas.

Now…military stuff. Texas has military bases all over the place. They exist in Texas because of the wide open spaces, which provide unparalleled opportunities for military units to Shoot Shit Up and Blow Shit Up without, you know, upsetting the neighbors too much. However, those bases also make major contributions to local economies. You can tell that, by the unseemly lobbying scrum that results in DC whenever, say, the US Navy tries to decide where to base a new leviathan of the sea such as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Some of the elected representatives doing the lobbying would sell family members without a second thought if they could have the new USS Dwayne D Leviathan parked in their district.

You can decide to charge the US military more rent for these bases if you like. Your call. However, the US military has plenty of other states eager to accept those bases. There are other states with their own surplus of Wide Open Space, states with names including Dakota, Idaho, Nevada and such like. So you probably shouldn’t try to drive too hard a bargain. A base the size of Fort Hood would leave a major hole in the regional economy if it closed, if you get my drift.

Land borders? Your call if you want to introduce proper land borders. I wouldn’t recommend it. Have you noticed how long those borders really are? How much do you think it would cost to secure that border? I always hear a lot of you Texans whining about “open borders”, and you’re only talking about the border with Mexico. It would be amusing to see you actually having to set up and manage your own non-open border covering Mexico, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana…a lot of miles.

You probably want to negotiate a Free Trade deal and a Freedom of Movement deal with the United States. As for diplomatic representation…your call. However, if you really want to open Texas diplomatic posts worldwide you will need to build new embassies, our own embassies are already full of spi…er, I mean diplomats. And…Texas would not enjoy the benefits of the current US United Nations membership, like the right of veto over a lot of decisions, and the permanent membership of the Security Council.

Air road and rail travel? Texas will have to pay for continued FAA coverage and inclusion in the Federal highway system at normal commercial rates. We do not recommend that you start a toll war. A blockade of borders will hurt Texas far more than the United States. No, you may not charge for the use of Texas airspace, even if you set up your own ATC operation. Airlines will simply divert around Texas, and you will suddenly find Lone Star Air (or whatever you call your shiny new flag carrier) having certain…routing difficulties elsewhere.

The USA will also require you to adhere to its anti-pollution laws. The good neighbors to the North and East do not want to have to clean up after oil refinery blow-ups. Texas is not exactly a low-pollution state. You have been pretty damn lax for decades in environmental enforcement. You’re not going to get to continue like that, even in the New World.

I would recommend that you actually, you know, formulate a detailed business plan for what happens during and after secession. I know that sort of interferes with the normal political approach of making expansive, emotionally appealing promises mostly based on total bullshit, but you will have one chance to get this right, and if you screw up, Texas will become a miserable sinkhole. Think Brexit.

Over to you, my Lone Star friends.








St. Croix and the refinery disaster

In 2012, the US Virgin Islands suffered a major negative impact to the economy of St. Croix when the island’s oil refinery closed. The refinery was owned by Hovensa, and had first begun producing oil products in 1966. It was a joint venture between Hess Petroleum and Petroleos de Venezuela. For most of its life, the refinery processed sour crude from Venezuela. it was one of the largest refineries in the world, capable of processing up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day when operating at peak capacity.

The refinery’s closure was for the same reason that several other refineries in the USA have closed in the last 10 years – its equipment was worn out and obsolete, and the purity requirements for newer fuels such as low-sulphur diesel would require additional equipment to be installed. In addition, the refinery used oil to run its equipment, whereas modern refineries use natural gas or have been converted to use natural gas, which is cheaper than crude oil as an energy source. Margins in refining are very low (1-2%) so if your costs are 3% higher than a competitor, you lose money, and because of the size of the refinery, the monthly losses were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

After closure, the site was mothballed except for the storage facility. The closure put thousands of people out of work on the island. So the US Virgin Islands government began exploring ways in which they could get the refinery to re-open. At the time that the refinery closed, it was estimated that $2bn of upgrades and rework would be required to make the refinery competitive.

In 2015, the US Virgin Islands government sued Hovensa, claiming that the closure was illegal. How they could expect to force a business entity that had made an economically obvious decision to close a loss-making plant was not exactly clear. The owners responded by filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After the usual legal manouvering, the government settled with Hovensa, and the refinery was sold for $800m to a venture capital consortium. 

Now named LImetree Bay, the new owners had to work hard and spend a lot of money to re-activate an old (and in many ways, obsolete) facility that had not been operational for 8 years. They spent $2.7bn on updates, repairs and upgrades, with a focus on creating low-sulfur maritime fuels, and Limetree Bay Refinery re-started operations in 2020.

Almost immediately there were problems. And the problems have been continuing, to the point that the EPA is considering cancelling the plant’s operating approval. Limetree Bay was an environmental problem in its previous life, and the new version of the facility seems to be no better.

The underlying challenge is a real one. Island archipelagoes lack good sources of employment for residents. Tourism only provides so many jobs. There are little to no employment sources for regular blue-collar men. The refinery generates a lot of cash into the local economy when operational, so the government had a powerful political and societal incentive to get it re-activated. However, the age of the refinery’s base equipment was always going to result in problems. Ideally they would have bulldozed the facility and started over, but that would have been cost-prohibitive. 

In the meantime, the US Virgin Islands is stuck with a leaky bucket economy job generation engine, which sooner or later will generate yet another environmental mini-disaster.



“Well I don’t know about that”

I read this and hear this excuse from time to time. It usually happens when I draw people’s attention to Bad Stuff that is going on around them, sometimes right under their nose.

The frustrating aspect of the response is that it is often the response they give when you point out to them that their opinion and/or understanding of the issues or events is, to put it mildly, deficient. Since I normally move to argument supported by facts, it probably occurs to them that I might actually (at the very least) know more than they do about the topic. (Whether I know enough or have the right knowledge is a whole different question).

The tart response that I want to use, but (to be truthful I seldom do use) is “well then it’s about time you woke up and started paying attention”.

The reason I seldom use the response is that it is, most of the time, not likely to yield a positive outcome. Nobody likes being told that they have not been paying attention. Especially if they haven’t.

So I usually count to a large number and move on. But the sentiment remains. If you want to have serious opinions that you can support and hold a discussion on, it might be a good idea to, you know, do some work in advance.


Brexit and the myth of “we knew what we were voting for”

I still keep wading through the statement “we knew what we were voting for” which is being used by all sides in the post-Brexit upheaval.

Reality Check. NOBODY who voted Leave knew what they were voting for. All the ballot paper asked was whether the UK should remain in the UK, or leave.

Anybody who claims “I knew what I was voting for” is engaging in one or more of the following:

  • Lying
  • Bullshitting
  • Imagining their own version of Brexit

The most charitable interpretation is that people voting Leave had an imagined outcome that they were certain would occur, or they thought they properly understood and agreed with one or more of the many promises made by Leave leaders, mostly to the effect of “this will be easy”.

I am prepared to bet money that almost nobody imagined the current outcome. The hardline Brexiters certainly did not, since all they did after the referendum was to rant and rave about “trading on WTO terms”, and demand that the UK tell the EU to get lost on every topic and “go it alone”. Remain supporters initially hoped that the UK decision would be ignored by Parliament, and when that did not happen, they hoped for a “soft” Brexit, which would retain key parts of the existing relationship such as freedom of movement.

Both sides were wrong, for all sorts of very good reasons. But the final outcome, shaped by 3 years of dithering, confusion and incompetence by the British governments, and distorted at every twist and turn by people many of whose understanding of the EU, global trade and reality wouldn’t fit on the back of a postage stamp, is going to irrevocably impact the economy and democracy of the UK, in a bad way, for generations.

My default response to anybody who claims in any seriousness “I knew what I was voting for” is: Bullshit. You had no real idea, except that perhaps you had something in your imagination, or something that you read or saw or heard about from supporters or leaders of Leave, and if you want me to take anything else you say seriously, you may as well admit that, so we can actually have a useful conversation. Absent that admission, you’re an unserious warbler, and this conversation is over.


UK Tabloids – deceit and dishonesty

There is an old saying from the UK, coined for the tabloid newspapers. It goes:  one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The UK tabloids prove the correctness of that saying, day in day out. They do it by a combination of one or both of the following:

  1. Making Shit Up – inventing stories in whole or in part, or exaggerating events until they bear no resemblance to what actually happened
  2. Distorting events to fit them into an overarching narrative or worldview

(1) is the go-to tactic for tittle-tattle and titillation articles, especially about celebrities, the Royal Family and other public figures. Sex, drugs, money or rock’n’roll is usually in there somewhere.

(2) is the most common tactic when reporting on politics or governance.

At the present time, the tabloid newspapers are uniformly pro-Brexit. They were cheerleaders for Brexit from day 1. It fits their long-standing “we represent the Real People” positioning.

The problem is that Brexit, so far, has little in the way of good outcomes, and plenty of bad outcomes. Many of those bad outcomes are a direct result of the British government making poor decisions, and then trying to blame other parties for the outcome of those bad decisions.

Currently, the British government is having to try to dig itself out of a very large mess over the reality that the UK is now, as far as the EU is concerned, a third country. Meaning, the UK left the club and gave up the membership benefits. The UK now has to negotiate with the EU as a third country, and also has to negotiate with other countries without any support or backing from the EU.

One country the UK is having to try to negotiate with is Norway, over fishing rights. Norway is not in the EU, and because the UK is not in the EU, it now has no trading bloc on its side. This means that the negotiation is suddenly one of equals. There is no pressure on Norway to agree to any deal that it finds to be unacceptable. In other words, the UK has no real leverage in the negotiations. It has to take what it can get, not what it thinks it is entitled to. Unfortunately, as the article itself makes clear, the UK entered the talks with the idea that the previous arrangement with Norway when it was a member of the EU was unfair to the UK, therefore any new deal has to be more in the UK’s favor. That does not really work when you are asking for access to another country’s waters.

The UK and Norway just failed to agree on a whole host of issues related to fishing rights.

The Daily Express, one of the oldest UK tabloids, chose to report these events like this:

This is a classic example of lede distortion. The lede begins “Norway shuts out UK”. That is an accusation, which is not supported by the content of the next paragraph or the rest of the article. The paragraph states that the negotiations failed. Both parties failed to agree. If the UK knew going in that a failure would result in Norway no longer issuing fishing licenses, then that was predictable, and not exactly the fault of Norway.

There is no information in paragraph 1 on whether existing fishing licenses continue either. If they continue, and Norway stops issuing new ones, then it is not a “shut out” anyway, and the lede becomes deceitful, not merely deceptive.

This example is common practice in tabloid-land, where the entire business model is based on either enticing readers with juicy (read: salacious) details about something, or riling up readers by reporting something that inflames their emotions.

In this case, it was the latter approach. The lede is designed to point the blame on Norway, via the line “Norway shuts out UK” (boo! hiss! Big Bad Norway!) . The first paragraph does not align with the lede, but that is almost certainly deliberate. “negotiations fail” is a non-judgmental line. “Norway shuts out UK” is judgmental, and blames somebody other than the UK, which is the narrative that you need to continue with if you believe that Brexit was a good and just action. The Express began 2021 with other triumphalist headlines over fishing rights such as “We’re in charge now!”, a narrative that the UK was now going to be in control of all of its fishing rights.

Clearly, having a next door country say “sorry, but you have no rights to continue to fish in our fishing waters, we do not have to grant you any unless we negotiate it, and we don’t like the deal you are offering” conflicts with the “we have control” narrative.

The logical fallacy or myth, which is operative here, is that the UK controls all of whatever the Express thinks is “our waters” and “our fish”. It’s total bullshit, not just because of the reality that the UK has left the EU, but also because of the rules of UNCLOS, which the UK is automatically obliged to follow as a member of the United Nations. Under UNCLOS, the UK is legally obligated to engage in joint stewardship of fishing waters. This, by the way, is why the UK had to do a deal on fishing with the EU. Failure to do so would have opened the UK up to censure and possible sanctions underwritten by the United Nations.

The Daily Express is simply writing bullshit ledes to paper over the reality that the UK does not have “control” over its fishing waters. The sovereignty myth is, as will become increasingly obvious, colliding with modern global reality. Reality will win. In the meantime, we can expect to see more articles like this every day where the lede either does not match the article content, or where the article content is a distortion or a collection of bullshit.





The Space Shuttle – An honest appraisal

The NASA Space Shuttle program was the successor to the Apollo series of manned space and Lunar visitation missions. NASA needed a new overarching mission, after achieving the objective set out by President John F Kennedy in 1962. They had a large organization to keep busy.

The Space Shuttle was the next generation dream. It was promised to be a fully re-usable orbiter, capable of rapid turnaround missions to Low Earth Orbit for a modest cost. The planning assumptions were all based around a very high mission rate and total number of missions.  One assumption was that the new post-Apollo program would need a total of 546 shuttle launches in 1975-85 alone. This number looks ludicrous today, but reflects the level of optimism about the capability that re-usable orbiters would provide. A high mission number was also financially convenient because R&D and maintenance costs then look a lot smaller as a percentage of mission costs.

The program in its final form was simply the most politically palatable post-Apollo program that gained the most political support for continued funding. The configuration, with the external boosters, was largely imposed by NASA senior leaders and political supporters, and was not the result of a bottom-up engineering analysis. 

As a result of the defective processes that led to its initiation, the program was plagued by delays, and massive cost inflation. The original commercial targets for the shuttle program were never met. In the final event, the cost of the program was such that each shuttle launch cost over $1bn if all of the total program costs were amortized by the number of missions. A more charitable interpretation is that the launch cost was around $245m per mission, if you accounted for all of the then-current costs of NASA and third parties.

That massive cost inflation destroyed parts of the business plan for the Shuttle program. One part of the business plan was for the Shuttle to launch commercial satellites into geostationary orbit. This was never a viable business, as the low frequency of shuttle launches, and the high cost of each mission, meant that the shuttle was not competitive with rocket-based satellite delivery organizations. Satellites were launched from the shuttle, but they were almost all US military satellites, and that business stream disappeared after the Challenger accident when the military walked away from using the Shuttle and reverted to using expendable rocket launchers.

The biggest issues with the program were the public failures of the Challenger and Columbia missions, resulting in the deaths of all of the crew members. The underlying issue with both failures was not the program itself or the technologies, but appallingly lax safety processes inside NASA and across contractors and third parties, the result of an intensely political communication environment where the main objective was for nobody to bring Bad News to the table. Upward message dilution was baked into the culture of all of the corporations and government bodies collaborating on the program. Both mission failures resulted in lengthy pauses in shuttle launches as NASA attempted to rectify the issues that contributed to the accidents.

Challenger was launched, with NASA under intense political pressure for a quick launch, on a morning where overnight temperatures had fallen below safe minimums to preserve the integrity of the booster rocket o-rings, which were not designed to function in sub-zero temperatures. Columbia was allowed to continue its mission, up to the failed re-entry, despite clear visual evidence of damage to the leading edge of one of its wings during the launch. NASA assumed “it will be OK” despite having access to the technology to examine the wing leading edge from the ground. Rescuing the crew via an emergency rescue mission with another orbiter was possible, but NASA simply blew off the detail examination and everybody crossed their fingers. We know how that turned out.

Richard Feynman, in his book “What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?”, recounts his time on the Challenger investigation commission. Feynman, being a lot smarter than the average guy, realized early on that NASA and contractors would do everything it could to steer, and where necessary, shut down detail investigation. So he persistently and consistently talked to engineers, including the teams responsible for the design of the Shuttle’s rocket engines, and engineers responsible for the creation of the booster rockets. What he found were two fundamental issues:

  1. The shuttle propulsion system was not created the way that engineers would like to create a system to assure operation and reliability. It was designed top-down to meet a “clean sheet of paper” set of objectives, and supposedly to get the Shuttle program up and running quickly, and was not assembled bottom-up from proven components. As a result, when numerous reliability issues appeared during testing, extensive bottom-up re-designs were required to address them, and some of the issues were never addressed
  2. There had been numerous design and reliability issues from the very beginning with the sealing of the booster rocket casings, and the problems had never been fully solved by Morton Thiokol

The Shuttle program ended in 2011, with a final total of 105 missions having been flown, for the loss of 2 out of 5 orbiters. The total was a fraction of the original target, achieved over a much longer time period for a massively inflated cost.

While the Shuttle program was a great source of publicity, advanced key aspects of rocket engine technology, and has created iconic images and publicity (good and bad), the facts are that the program never met any of its original goals, and it arguably diverted NASA resources and focus from activities that were probably safer and more cost-effective, such as robotic and unmanned missions within the Solar System.


Loss of accountability – the decline of ridicule

When a person or organization proposes an action or makes a claim that is ridiculous, ridicule, by definition, is a logical response.

Ridicule is a powerful took for shaming idiots into silence. However, for ridicule to actually work, two pre-conditions have to be met:

  1. There have to be people around the person or organization uttering ridiculous nonsense who are prepared to actually ridicule what was just said or proposed
  2. The person or persons being ridiculed has to be capable of being shamed or embarrassed

Those two pre-conditions are different, but not mutually exclusive. In this world, absence of accountability leads to assumptions of impunity, and that makes people more prepared (even enthusiastic) about “trying it on”, to see what boundaries or norms or laws they can break. If a person says something utterly ridiculous in public and nobody contradicts their statement or mocks them, the message they receive will be clear. Bullshitting, lying or talking nonsense has no downside.

Cults are an end-point example of what happens when leaders get to utter ridiculous ideas or claims without contradiction. In cults, the leader is regarded as a supreme savant, an infallible role model whose utterances are never to be questioned. Ridiculing your cult leader is a short cut to exile, ostracism and other socially penal consequences. In authoritarian governments captured by cult thinking, it will be life-threatening. In fact, even politely questioning a cult leader is a dangerous action. All of this is logical given that most cult leaders are malignant narcissists, whose entire concept of self is based on personal infallibility and the idea that everybody is merely there to serve them.

The cult approach to communication has become dominant in several countries over the last 5 years, as electors chose deeply authoritarian political parties and leaders to govern them. The governments in the USA (until recently) and the UK (currently) are dominated by authoritarians who regard all opposition as, by definition, illegitimate and irrelevant.

Just like unruly children, politicians of the authoritarian tendency in the USA and the UK have been working out what they can get away with in terms of making statements that in many cases are either bullshit or lies, but which appeal to their supporters. They have, at the same time, been trying to ensure that those bullshit utterances are not even questioned, let alone ridiculed. In competitive sport, the tactics used would be classified under the general euphemism of “working the refs”.

The Trump administration did this by defining most media organizations as purveyors of “fake news”, and demonizing media interlocutors as anti-American. The Johnson government in the UK is doing much the same thing, but more indirectly, by attempting to remove the independence of broadcast media, and by relying on friendly tabloid news outlets who will write nonsense stories and print them repetitively.

The media, unfortunately, has no cogent or effective response to the current tactics of intimidation, because media assumptions about politicians and how politicians operate are out of date. The assumption that major political actors are operating in good faith in a constructive way, and usually tell the truth, is so baked into media DNA that it cannot be effectively countered. Politicians get to be interviewed, utter complete nonsense, and are rarely challenged in any effective way, much less ridiculed. As a result, in the USA we get nonsense like this. Notice that there is no clear attempt by the media organization to point out the obvious either in the lede or the beginning of the article, namely that the GOP representative is flat-out lying.

This is the end result of the Both Sides approach to media coverage, which prioritizes being seen as impartial above being a fact-based communicator. If your reporting approach values perceived impartiality above the fact-based communication of information, all of your interviewees and sources have an immediate incentive to move to an assertion-based model of communication, where Sounding Good is more important than being fact and reality-based.

All of the media failures to ridicule bullshit and lies have a fundamental underlying cause. We The People are actually OK with this level of nonsense. Media organizations live or die by eyeballs and butts on seats. If a media organization found its viewing figures plummeting, and found out that viewers were ignoring it because it was allowing bullshit on-air, I suspect that the media organization would soon change its behavior. The bottom line would tell the story, and changes would be made. So, until We The People stop tolerating ridiculous nonsense, this media behavior will probably continue.

The reason why we tolerate bullshit and nonsense has a wider social aspect that must not be overlooked. Many of us are reluctant to engage in ridicule, especially in family situations. It is seen as disrespectful and dismissive by many people, and therefore is automatically bad.

This is not true. One major way in which illusions and myths become baked into thoughts and behavior is by acceptance of nonsense, coupled with repetition. Respect is not automatic, it needs to be earned. There is no logical reason to respect the views of a person when those views are clearly nonsensical. I actually believe that we have a societal duty to point out that the views are ridiculous. If we do not do so, then the nonsense will spread.

As the old saying goes, people prefer comfortable lies to uncomfortable facts, and politicians and other marketing-based communicators know this and exploit it.

The old parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes was meant to be cautionary tale of what happens when people fail to point out the obvious. That parable needs to be remembered by all of us.

The road back is a long one. We as individuals have to be much more prepared to engage in ridicule of ridiculous ideas and proposals. We also need to penalize media and individuals who engage in that behavior, or who are amplifying it. Without We The People changing our behavior, the media will not modify its behavior, and people will continue to obfuscate, bullshit and lie to us.


Saturday round-up – 22nd May 2021

  1. When a major political party has introduced 408 bills across the USA to try and add restrictions and new rules on voting, that’s a clear strategy to disrupt the process of voting based on universal suffrage.
  2. The British royal family can always be relied upon to provide tabloid amusement and a diversion. The kerfuffle over Princess Diana’s interview from 1995 and the latest Harry revelations from an interview with Oprah Winfrey are taking media bandwidth away from from the grim realities of Covid-19 and Brexit. The impact of Brexit, coupled with other recent world events, is even affecting the building sector.  It is a typical feature of the British media landscape, and thoroughly supports the person who described the UK tabloids to me as “budgie cage liner”.
  3. The latest Brexit posting from Chris Grey is his usual excellent fact-supported analysis. Also, it is close to bizarre that the NFU seems to think that reminding Boris Johnson of the promises he is supposed to have made to “look after” the UK farming sector after Brexit is going to result in them not being hung out to dry if and when a trade agreement is agreed with Australia. The goal of the current Conservative government is to ensure that the UK cannot ever re-join the EU. They intend to do this by agreeing to clauses in new trade agreements that specifically conflict with EU legislation. Agreeing to import meat from Australia, which allows (among other things) beef cattle hormone injections, will create a scenario where a trade agreement with a third country conflicts with current EU legislation. If the trade agreement has a really long term, that will successfully eliminate any real chance of the UK re-joining the Single Market and Customs Union, probably in my lifetime.
  4. A fascinating article from Jon Worth’s excellent blog about overnight sleeper train services in Europe, and how their existence is at best tenuous. The situation in the UK is also terrible, with sleeper services having effectively disappeared, with only occasional attempts at revival.
  5. We have a new candidate for Sovereign Citizen of the Year in the USA. This guy is showing some definite potential.
  6. I found an excellent new blog aggregator site. Of course, it then proceeded to link me to this grim story.
  7. But this story rivals it for bizarre grimness.
  8. The most sinister aspect of the new Texas abortion prohibition law is how it essentially abolishes the concept of standing.
    ANYBODY can sue anybody else under the law.
    We can expect to see a massive blizzard of shakedown lawsuits by unscrupulous lawyers against medical practitioners, and even the friends and family of people who try to obtain abortions, on flimsy or no grounds.
    BTW, this expansive dumping of standing may be logical, given that Republicans are often frustrated by standing when trying to file frivolous lawsuits in the political arena.
  9. There is so much to unwrap in this story of the appalling and illegal behavior of a supposed Republican congressional candidate. The idea of the GOP as the party of personal responsibility and the nuclear famly really has no credibility at the present time. None. Diddly squat. What amazes me is why interviewers do not simply burst out laughing at this guy. UPDATE – It gets worse…this guy’s son by the girl he impregnated is currently awaiting trial in California. Guess what he is charged with?
  10. The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack was merely the latest in a whole string of ransomware attacks against corporations. The DarkSide group is also selling its technology and tools to other ransomware groups, but then there are rumors that the group has had to temporarily cease operations. Although if I had successfully extorted $90m in BitCoin from somebody, I would probably be looking for a nice villa in a beach resort in the tropics…

UK railway privatization – the saga continues

The history of rail privatization in the UK is a complex one. The government of John Major originally privatized the rail system in 1996, splitting the assets into infrastructure (to be maintained by an infrastructure corporation named RailTrack) and franchises for regional services. The Labour government continued with the model and associated processes.

RailTrack effectively went bankrupt in 2001, after major issues with its stewardship were exposed following the Hatfield rail accident, and had to be bailed out by the government and re-constituted as a new company (Network Rail). The bailout was a costly process that also involved litigation against the government and the former Transport secretary.

A number of franchisees have had their contracts terminated over the years (which created its own set of problems, since the new franchisees did not inherit the old franchisee leadership and management, and key operational knowledge went missing and had to be rebuilt), and several franchises, most notably the East Coast franchise, failed. Some former franchisees are now banned from bidding, due to performance and other issues. There is compelling evidence that several franchises in recent years have met the definition of what Modern Railways termed “zombie franchises” – operators that are losing money and who will eventually default and lose their franchises.  A small-print table in the article shows that apart from the service disruption and transition issues of failing franchisees, there is a significant cost to the taxpayer in simply managing the re-bidding process for franchises.

This history of rail privatization and operations is interesting reading, not only because it shows that extensive government control and support for the UK rail system continues decades after the system was supposedly privatized, but also because it shows the extent to which the franchisees are foreign-owned. Many current UK franchises are partially or wholly owned by European companies or European government bodies.

Problems with even finding qualified companies to bid on franchises have led to a government review of the operation of the entire UK rail system. The report has just been issued, and it looks likely to lead to a much higher level of government involvement in rail operations.

The report does not mince words. The publication summary admits that the entire current franchising and operational model is now unsustainable. This was kind of obvious given the recent franchise failures, and the failure of some franchises to even attract qualified bidders.

The solution appears to be a complete reboot of the infrastructure-train operating company model, but the responsibilities of the train operators will be much narrower, with more of the basic business parameters such as fares being set by the government. This is probably a response to massive continued criticism of fare increases by the franchisees, who under the old model had freedom to set fares.

The new government-supervised infrastructure and operational parameters corporation will be named Great British Railways. You could not find a better example of desperate over-compensation in naming if you tried.

The irony of the history is that the government is now just as involved in railway operation as it was before initial privatization, the amount of government support is still considerable, and many of the operational franchisees are foreign-owned. The last aspect is the least-understood, a consequence of the Thatcher-era free market approach which did not care who ran businesses, as long as they did the job properly. Whether UK electors understand the extent to which European countries run and control aspects of the UK’s infrastructure is doubtful.


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