Would I recommend Windows 8?
In short, no, even though it does have some useful O/S-level extensions that are improvements. The file copy visualization alone is handy, as are some of the fine tweaks to the file explorer and other applets that come as a standard part of MS O/S setups. But taken together there is not one compelling reason to recommend Windows 8, and there is one overriding reason not to recommend the O/S as an upgrade. (Having said that, it comes on new machines, and frankly there isn't much reason to avoid it either in those situations.)
The overriding reason to avoid Windows 8 is its "new" menu system (formerly called Metro). It is simply not a valid UI for a desktop machine, regardless of whether you have a touch screen available. (That is why I noted its presence above; it really isn't a compelling extra.) Besides it looking like a unicorn has vomited on the monitor (the colour schemes are awful), it is chunky and inefficient on a desktop. Ultimately, it looks like a candy-box cover, I suppose, and maybe it does work on tablets, but it simply isn't effective in a workplace machine environment. Is it a great production drain? No. But does it add anything at all? No. And yet it is the main reason to avoid the O/S for two reasons that are fundamentally unavoidable conclusions if you use the O/S for any period of time to do actual work.
The first reason is that as UI conventions go, on a laptop (or desktop) monitor the chunky and flat nature of the interface means a significant amount of scrolling. Yes, you can trim the iconography, choose small instead of large panels, and so on...but ultimately a menu is used to launch tools, and the absence of multilevel grouping is problematic. In the old Start Menu (or Orb, or whatever the damn thing was called) you could create sub-folders to hold ancillary programs, so that the main menu exposed your primary applications and you could drill down for the few occasions you needed a meatier interface. In this new model you have one left-to-right grouping pattern, or otherwise have to use the search UI to find what you want, or have to put up with an inordinate slew of visually boring iconography. Try installing MS Office 2012 on a Windows 8 box and you instantly see the problem, where every installed tool suddenly has the same level-precedence as the primary applications. And, really, the Microsoft Clip Organizer is not sensibly left on the main menu beside Word. It just doesn't make sense. But the menu system is flat, so there is no drill-down -- you either have it visible or hidden. And while for the expert user hidden is an obvious choice, inexpert users are not going to find that feature, and if they do they are not going to remember to search to find their applications once they are accidentally demoted from the main scrolling menu system. It's simply a bad design taken to ridiculous prominence, and renders a working machine clumsy. Yes, it probably does work with a web-only style box, but frankly forcing the desktop user to suffer it is an unnecessary step.
Probably the larger reason for this being somewhat a show-stopper though is about extended user experience. On a machine intended to work, the Windows Store is a poor experience in terms of depth of real utility. Sure, there are games and the like, but actual utility applications (things you do real, lasting work with) are few, and those that do exist almost always end up with the same launch experience: click the icon, and be punted to the old desktop minus the "start" button element of the UI. And that begs a question that displays the degree of almost arrogant foolishness of the UI designers who let this happen -- why give prominence to a UI convention like that new menu when the end result of clicking most icons in it is to pitch you to a familiar working desktop? It makes no sense whatsoever to layer on a shell that is functionally impaired to that degree. (The same could have been said for all experiences inside Windows, before Windows 95, but the difference is this clumsiness is not a paradigm-shift requirement.) So many better methods to engage the flat-model UI could have been chosen, while recognizing the transitional necessity of the desktop. For example, in the simplest model, reduce the start button to a flat panel button with the windows logo, which when clicked expanded the menu system. Keep the bar, folder and menu model in the left as a side-bar style, and expand the right pane region to show the flat iconography. Based the decision on where to display the icons entirely upon some new code detection scheme. That would have allowed the desktop world to coexist, reduced the transitional stuttering, and maintained the preeminence of the new menu model by giving it a visual showcase without interfering with functionality.
The problem with Windows 8 is small and large because of a fundamentally mistaken assumption about the need for change, and the nature of change. Yes, a new UI convention for menu management might be wise (ribbons are actually not a great trial once you get used to them, for example), but there is no need to break with the past when the transition is going to take time. People would accept that old programs remain in their menu model, and new ones absorb a new model. But by forcing away the menu model (Classic Shell can return it), MS created an experience where users doing real work on a machine will become aware that their required applications do not play well in that new menu; they are constantly shunted to a visually crippled desktop, and my guess is they will quickly gravitate away from new-shell friendly applications when they begin to find this experience jarring. That could have been avoided with almost no effort, but instead the path of "we know best" was chosen, only to rapidly prove otherwise when every useful application punts the user to the old desktop UI.
Would I recommend Windows 8?
No, because in itself it gives very little of immediate value to a user who is on Windows 7, or even Windows Vista. Upgrades are unnecessary.
But nor would I say flee from it, because if your new machine comes with it, with a few clicks (see Classic Shell) you can recover your old interface, and never actually have to see the "new" look again. That isn't much of a recommendation of a UI or Windows 8, of course, and that is a sad fact indeed.
That context given, the actual purpose of today's post is to consider on the flow of cash from work when you are essentially a self-employed contractor.
For the last 12 years I have worked almost exclusively on one project, and frequently have had little time to even breathe between bouts of work, because I am a team of one. One of the key problems with such a time-sink, where you get less and less done daily due to time fracturing, is that it prevents you buffering yourself against cash flow issues. When you engage in numerous projects, you can time-manage and cherry-pick, doing an occasional side-project for no other reason than the cash flow needs an injection. But when you are tied to a stone the size of the one I presently polish daily, you have such a brutal time-deficit trailing you that flexibility is lost. After a while you end up in a circular trap, where you can't stop working (this week is running tests against yet another round of web browser releases, probably to ascertain all is well, but still costing tens of hours) or the payments stop. This is fine if the payments are reliable, of course, but then if you examine that scenario you start to wonder if you really do work for yourself at all, or are just an extended version of an employee. And if the payments are late...you rapidly realize that in such a scenario you have tied the stone around your throat with razor wire, because you sacrificed the flexibility that allows survival for no more stability, but are now trapped.
I think one of the reasons many folks go the self-employment route is to be able to have that flexibility, and you can't have the best of both worlds, but I also think that far too many of us end up trapped in a no-win scenario where our primary contract, especially if it is recurring, can rapidly erode that benefit and deliver few others to replace it. I think that may, in fact, be one of the worst aspects of self-employment. To prosper you must take the best contracts you can find, but that cyclically reduces your flexibility at times, and can eventually lead to lock-in, where your primary contract sucks up all available time and then some...enhancing your risk without any real lasting certain benefits.
I'm obviously in such a place now, where after months of reasonable stability, I'm locked in a development process that seems endless, drowning in cash flow crises of old, and entering yet another period where no one around me (including me) thinks there is likely any hope of the periodicity of pay being honoured.
How many self-employed contractors would shout "cash me out!" if they faced that? Most, I would assume. But how many can afford to? Not very many, I'm sure.
I had an experience this morning that once again leads me to think about social engineering, primarily here in Ontario under the Liberal auspices, though frankly the only real difference between the left, far-left, and right on these matters is the passivity of the effort. True conservatives engineer mostly indirectly, whereas true liberals and socialists engineer actively. (As a point of disclosure, the experience is that I have been walking my 5-year old into the school the past few weeks, and I have been asked to stop that and let her go in at the outer door with the rest of the class. The actual event is a shrug to me, as the only effect it has is to move the moment of separation slightly, while increasing the direct management load on the teachers. That being part of their job, I bow to the request with good nature, aware that ultimately it will benefit my daughter, and it saves me about 5 minutes in the morning. Frankly, it can’t make my present say-to-day life much worse, as it consists of being a slave to work, family and duty. A bit more abuse is irrelevant in the larger scheme.)
Some time ago the Ontario Liberal Party created full-day kindergarten, and essentially changed the structure of how children are reared. Ostensibly this is following the effort of Norway, which in its sum total assessment thus far hasn’t had bad results. Problematically, of course, Ontario (and Canada in general) is not Norway, and consequent to that the lack of integration of this effort with others shows some cracks that Norway hasn’t had to deal with. But those are for stronger stomachs to investigate and qualify. My real stepping off point is the general consideration about how this social engineering effort is coming into play in twenty years time.
A few observations and revelations first:
I am not one of those people who believes coddling children is particularly wise, but nor do I really believe it harmful in the long-term scheme of things. It does tend to form attachments, and attachments in balance are critical to maintaining the fabric of societies. At the same time, I am less than impressed when the burden of child-rearing is arbitrarily taken by a state, any state. The problem I see in that arbitrary claim of the responsibility is that it erodes the purpose of family. Now, I am not a “family first” type, and I have no religious inclinations, nor do I have much real belief that modern families re any better (or worse) than those of old. What I do know, though, is that indoctrination at a young age, even mild and initially formless, is a people-management mechanism, not a necessity. A child left to their own accord for a decade will still learn, will still excel if they have a natural bent in some field, etc. The sole purpose of “early education” is indoctrination, to address either a structural management issue or a social one. That has to be the case, because learning has absolutely nothing to do with “schools.” Knowing many graduates of University proves it.
What concerns me about all this is that when liberal engineers act, they tend to create extensions of the nanny-state syndrome, because parochial thinking stains political liberalism so deeply. The idea that the machine knows better than the mere human beings it claims to serve has been, and remains, a strong liberal view. This concerns me because historically this kind of renormalisation of society has led to a number of problems, the worst end of the spectrum being Nazi Germany prior to World War II, where the socialisation effort was so powerful it reshaped young minds to accept prejudicial tripe without any question. Now I am not suggesting modern liberalism is anything like the socialist roots of Nazism, but what I am observing is that once a mechanism is in place, its use is not restricted to the present. This has never been the case; it will never be the case; it is not humanly possible to refuse the inclination to encompass and control. By embedding the even earlier separation of parents and children into the mechanism of social control, the stage is set for the introduction of unperceived social risk.
My field for more than the last decade has been about practical risk management, and part of what I have learned in that time is that the risks most critical, the real game-changers, are the unperceived ones. BP in the Gulf is an example, at the core of it: no one really thought a blowout preventer would fail, so no one conceived any real solution if that happened 5000 feet under the ocean. Of course, that doesn’t shift the responsibility, or excuse the pathetic paralysis that was visible inside and outside the company. Nor does it excuse the short-sighted view that led to this environmental disaster. What it does, though, is illustrates the idea of the unperceived risk, and clarifies that we are not talking about “unknown” risks, but ones that are widely known the instant your blinders are removed, and can be both seen and managed by anyone who is looking. BP was struck by its narrowness of vision, not an unknown. At best it was unexpected; at worst it was absolute negligence at play. But probably it fell into the same realm as the social risks I can see coming from an incomplete, unmanaged, sloppy plan to indoctrinate youth before they have even formed comprehensive personalities.
What strikes me in the Ontario vision of education is that the engineers of the plan are so blindly ignorant of the potential risks of extending the role of the state to effectively eliminate early parenting. Rather than list a handful that come to mind, I’ll focus on the one risk I suspect will be the most complex one to manage – and it is not the risk that future governments use this indoctrination model to foist a nationalist stance upon us.
When you take young children and place them in regimental settings you are creating conformist beings earlier than ever before. It is fine to say that “play matters” (and right now that dictum is evident in the system), but there is no way to alter the side-effect of someone who disagrees with that coming along and enforcing more regular curriculum. And that will happen, when politicians pander to the obvious side-effect of earlier parental disconnects. “How do I know how my child is doing?” will eventually be asked at earlier ages, and the only way to offset the perception of a vacuum is to fill it. Eventually, “report cards” will end up issued as young as full-day junior kindergarten. And this will further detach the actual parents, whose authority is undermined by the disconnect and further obliterated by the false expression of connection of some “official” measure. This thread left to the reader to consider, I return to the risk of regimental thinking, which while fine in mundane applications has potentially deadly consequences in the real world.
Mankind is on the cusp of climate change, and regardless of why it is so, we have three choices how to face it: hide from it, pretending it isn’t obvious until it is far too late to even engage the problem; attack it aggressively with existi9ng ideas that have, for the most part, proven untenable as aspects of a solution; or breed an imagination in successive generations that allows them to tackle these vast, complex problems more effectively than we can. And yet we are increasingly churning out mechanisms to quash the imagination…and therein lies a deadly risk. A risk that is obvious, but ignored by reason of convenience.
I won’t belabour the idea, but offer it as grist for mental mills. I will leave one question to stand: When a society acts to detach the social compact between parents and children at earlier and earlier junctures, creating a mechanical and regimental substitute, what is the likelihood that children raised in that environ will be attached enough to preceding generations to act in accordance with the broader social need rather than the selfish one?
Okay, so the very title of this post is a form of sarcasm, since the idea of customer care is so foreign to any of these large corporations as to be laughable. Nonetheless, a short remark or two to alleviate some of the awareness I have once again had several minutes of my life stolen by these vultures.
Today I got the customary email telling me that my satellite TV bill was ready. I dutifully clicked…to find it was not, in fact, ready. As this is the sixth time in six months that I have got my “it’s ready!” email only to discover it was not, I decided I would contact bell and suggest to them that the email might best be sent after the actual bill was ready. After all, the customer is in this case saving them the cost of printing a bill. So, a little effort to stop wasting the customers’ time seemed warranted.
Well, my mistake was caring. I clicked on a support link to drop them an email, to find out that…well, you can click “contact us” in seventeen places (I counted) and never once can you get an email location to send a basic customer comment. (I’m sure one was hidden somewhere, but so well hidden it was inscrutable to me, and I wasted enough of my life looking as it was.) My options were to…call. Now, being aware that a call would cost me time sitting on the phone listening to crappy music, or static, I decided they can go stuff themselves on their own time.
Really, I should probably contact the Board of Directors and make an observation about the fundamental disconnect with consumers this represents, and thus the inherent loss of business over time, but they “care” in roughly the same fashion as their customer support cares…which is not at all.
Bell Canada, yet another company run by complacent fools, which will someday succumb to the basic problems clearly represented in their customer service model.
Do a Google search on Texas City and BP and you’ll come up with links aplenty to provide the references this post is hinging itself upon. The Gulf mess, if you have to search at all, is even easier to find. There are far too many sources to even bother citing single ones here.
Basically, in BP we have a company that is fairly representative not just of the oil companies of the world, but of all corporations. Now lest anyone think this is painting the lot with one brush, read on before taking that view.
So, about BP, with timing measured from the date of this post back:
- A few years ago, a number of ongoing problems at the Texas City refinery BP owns caused a series of explosions that killed 15 people, and injured 170 or so.
- A few months ago, the company killed 11 more people by continuing the same shoddy disrespect toward risks they face daily in the industry.
- A few days ago, we learned that at the same Texas City plant they were supposed to learn from (largest fine in history, I believe), BP is still so wilfully negligent that repeated recent warnings did nothing to prevent the failure of a piece of ill-maintained equipment that released untold quantities of toxic gases.
What do these things have in common?
Well, BP for one, a company that actions suggest has probably the worst internal culture one can imagine, where greed trumps everything. The old maxim that one should judge actions rather than words, is an ideal applicant to suss out just what BP’s real problems are. Then again, tuning in for five minutes to the former CEO claiming serial ignorance of all things BP is enough to make the point.
The other thing they have in common is this: they are events that reflect the natural evolution of allowing corporations to exceed a manageable scale.
Ultimately, like many other corporations, BP is so large it is not being risk managed operationally. The people making final decisions are so far removed from the operational realities, they seem incapable of making cogent decisions. And barring any evidence to the contrary, it is fairly easy to realise all corporations beyond a certain scale suffer the same problem. The farther the autonomous decision-makers are from operations, the less they understand the critical risks.
To make the point specifically for BP:
- At Texas City, the explosion was a result of ages worth of poor risk management, caused because the people who had to OK operational management activities were too removed to grasp the inherent danger in allowing poor and no maintenance. The workers knew. Some even tried to observe the problems. But in the end, million dollar problems cannot be solved by a handful of workers who simply don’t get paid enough to sacrifice to solve the problem. Of course, the choice to work on, killed and injured many of those same workers. If even one of the people who had the authority to fix the known problems had to go into that workplace every day and sit there, risking their life, the problems would have been fixed – but folks like Tony Hayward have no actual experience, knowledge, or skills. (This opinion of the man is based solely on Hayward’s representations at the Congressional hearing where he essentially proclaimed himself ignorant of all things related to BP. Should he wish to now dispute that claim, I suspect the press would skewer him worse than they were doing prior to his foolish public mismanagement of the Gulf crisis, but I welcome his comments below. I would note, having skirted criminal charges to this point, by being incompetent, it might be unwise to claim otherwise now.)
- The explosion on that rig, as evidence is already showing, was because production outweighed risk management to a degree where several dozen indications of integrity problems were simply overruled by bean-counters. The men killed that day, though, continued to work – and taking that risk cost them their lives. No one is clean when it comes to the circumstances that poisoned vast tracks of the Gulf, slaughtering animals indiscriminately, and destroying coastal economies. But then the likely outcome of their refusing the work, would have been being out of work – and the fact they proceeded means they knew that, and further reflects the industry standards. It certainly crystallises the view of BP’s true culture, where production needs (wealth return, better know as greed) generates a complete disregard for the resources used to extract the wealth. They could deny it, but the only explanation other than intent is total incompetence, which seems possible but would call into question the need for a safety review at every one of their facilities worldwide.
- Now, the fact that the same Texas City plant was allowed to belch toxins, mere years after killing and injury workers, boggles the mind. My guess is that the people signing cheques, again, work very far away and at least downwind. When inspectors, government inspectors, are issuing tickets against a machine for months, which then fails, there is no falling back on the excuse that minimal damage was done. The actual problem has nothing to do with loss severity, but with the absolute negligence necessary to explain why even government warnings, at a site where you previously killed 15 people, didn’t motivate change. Any company that is that wilfully ignorant of cause and effect is a danger to themselves, and to the planet.
In every case, the culture is the problem, because the culture defines the actions of individual workers. BP has a large-scale corporate culture where the decision-makers are either negligent or ignorant of risks (which is, itself, negligence) of operations, but where those same people are the only ones with authority to make changes. If BP were unique (Google accidents in the industry worldwide and you know they are not; or look at the coal mining disasters worldwide), it would be impossible to allow such a company to continue to exist – the risk is too high. The problem, is that if anyone with the authority to do the right thing bothered to (seize BP’s assets and dismantle them, while charging the entire executive branch with criminal negligence causing death), it would start a domino effect. No large multinational would be safe.
Of course, there is an explanation for this: in a large company, it is too hard to actually manage operations effectively under status quo systems. That, it must be admitted, is true.
But, who can change that? The very people who rely upon it to excuse their negligence.
This final paragraph is where I make an admission that this view, written here, is solely mine. I work for a company that deals with risk management every day. I see this nonsense excuse thrown up at every turn, to avoid change, because if the systems in place worked – then the responsibility would be unavoidable. It is a disgusting side-effect of companies being too big for our greater good.