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Friday Philosophy – Robots Rising & Tech Taking Over? July 7, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, future, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

Today I saw some cracking photographs of a lighthouse. How many of us have at some point wondered if it might be nice to be a lighthouse keeper? The solitude, the scenery, the stoic fortitude in the face of the storm – quite literally. (Thank you Brendan Tierney for the photo I’ve stolen from him).

No one lives here anymore

It’s an odd job lighthouse keeper, it holds a special place in Western culture and literature. A job to be held by those a little apart from society and yet with a dedication to the betterment of mankind. I suspect a lot of people in I.T. (and the wider community) find a resonance in that, as so many of us are a little bit apart and yet intelligent & care.

Well, you can’t be a lighthouse keeper anymore. At least, in the UK you can’t. Check out This web site about UK lighthouses and lighthouse keeping. That job, that vocation, was handed over to automated I.T. systems a few years ago, effectively handed to robots & technology. You might think you know where I am going with this, and initially you will be right, but bear with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 2 or 3 years about the increasing use of technology and robotics to do tasks that we humans have been doing. An obvious one is autonomous driving vehicles, where The I.T. smarts and sensors are leaping along incredibly fast. I am in a long-running “argument” with a friend about when fully autonomous vehicles will be a reality on public roads. He says under 5 years, I think it is more (I started saying more than 5 years to him in 2016, so, giving some leeway, I say not before December 2021 will we see fully autonomous vehicles driving from a town centre to another town centre, sharing lanes with human drivers – specific enough Neil?). But self-driving vehicles will be safer than humans “soon”, and cheaper than employing humans, so companies will swap to it. That will end a lot of employment.

I know others have pointed this out and it is not as if history isn’t almost a continuous tale of technology assisting or replacing human effort. Tolpuddle martyrs, dark satanic mills and all that. Industrialisation of farming has put a lot of farm labours out of work but we could not feed the current mass of humanity without it. People move on to new tasks.

But the difference now is not that we are handing jobs to a slightly better automated system where we still need some human control, we are removing the human element. And we are doing this in a lot of areas in a very short space of time. Factories are becoming far more automated, we order our goods online and huge conveyor robotic systems are being built to do the packing, with fewer people involved and lower long-term costs.

But it’s not just physical tasks that are being automated. Genetic algorithms, neural nets, deep data and machine learning is starting to replace tasks that have needed human interaction. Chatbots are getting smarter, to the point where they are used by companies as first-line support {often laughably poorly at present, but it is getting better – and Oracle do have an interest as was covered in Oracle Scene recently {sorry, that link might not work for long}. Expert systems have been developed that can judge simple court cases such as parking fines and beat humans at spotting pre-cancerous cells in tissue samples.

Oracle and the Bots

We now see expert computer systems breaking a lot of barriers and doing things that until now have been deemed uniquely human cerebral tasks. Computers won at playing chess 10+ years ago, they triumphed in “Go” last year and now they can win at versions of Poker where you are not sure of the data and have to read the play of your opponent – in effect second guess a human. Currently all these systems are very expensive, highly focused and specific to a task, built on huge data sets and using fine-tuned sets of algorithms, to do one task. We have nothing as generally capable as a 5 year old child or even a dog.

Only, we keep building systems that are better and better at specific tasks.

So why do I say this bothers me but not in the way you would expect? It’s because I keep seeing “thought leaders” present the same denial of these impacts on us in I.T. of the systems we as an industry are developing, platitudes that we are a special case and will be OK. Several times over the last couple of years I see some utter pillock in a suit from upper management telling a crowd of I.T. experts that we will be just fine as we are smart and we can stop doing the easy tasks and concentrate on the harder ones, use our brains more.

This is balls for two reasons. Firstly:

What about everyone who is below smart?

Most of us in I.T. are not only above average intelligence (probably IQs of 125 and upwards), we are surrounded by similar smart people. Our life partners are generally above normal intelligence, we work in teams who are above-average smart, we probably mostly socialise with generally intelligent people (as a raft of psychological studies show, we gravitate to those at a similar IQ to ourselves, irrespective of where we are on the scale). Even the end users we abuse tend to be above average intelligence. I suspect that most of us somehow don’t “get” that well over 60% of people are not only less intelligent than we are but they have few options if our society passes the jobs they can do to computers and robots. And they are not that likely to be philosophical about having no point to their lives and being poorer. They’re probably going to be very angry, very poor and pretty pissed off with smart-arses who say that “we are OK” – and there are a lot, lot more of them than us.

And that leads to the second reason it is balls.

The smart work will also be doable by Tech

As I’ve said already, we can already create technological systems that can beat us at specific cerebral tasks and there is going to be a small and smaller pool of work for highly-intelligent workers. Let’s face it, a lot of what we do now in I.T. is drudge and boring, there is not really that much smart work needed doing, even in this industry stacked by us smart people. And doing work that really needs you to be smart is tiring (well, I find it tiring!). And our work in I.T. tends to be logic-based and what are computers good at? We will just have a breathing space before our work is also more cheaply done by computers.

I’m annoyed as I think those of use who are involved in this revolution are being told a deluded lie that we will be OK if it pans out like I have just said. Those extra 25+ IQ points are not going to keep us special for very long.

So if computers can drive the taxis & lorries, manage the steel works and build the cars, derive the best drug treatment and give the perfect injection (yep, theoretically a robot already wins on that) what do we as humans do?

Only a few people can be “utterly human” – artists, poets and philosophers. And we do not need 7 billion of them anyway.

We could try and legislate against it, tax robots hard. But those who make a lot of money already run the “free market economy” and will continue to do so. If Robots and computer programs do tasks more cheaply, companies that uses robots will rise to the top of any monetary-based society, i.e. a capitalist society. What will change what has been in place for 100+ years? I can’t see the currently rich and powerful objecting to working methods that increase their wealth. Even if it means more and more poorer people.

Some argue for a basic living wage to keep us all alive – fed, warm and basic healthcare whilst machines do the work. That would give us that often cited nirvana of being free to do “what we want”. But if you have no job, what do you do? Again, for those of us with high IQ we can maybe come up with things to do. Maybe. I seem to be relatively happy being semi-retired, but I’ve done a lot of stuff and had my time of striving to achieve. And still do. But how about those who are IQ 100 and below? I suspect entertaining yourself is not as easy. I think anger, resentment and the feeling of being disenfranchised is just going to continue increasing. I think it’s why the UK is leaving Europe and why the US has an egotistical man-child as president. More and more normal people are unhappy with their lot and see no good future – so they vote for a change. ANY change. Even if it is crazy change.

I know, not a very happy Friday Philosophy. Will someone please tell me it will all be OK? And I mean OK for everyone, not just us “smart” people.

Friday Philosophy – Is a “Free Lunch” Only Ever a Mirage? Look Closer! December 16, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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3 comments

Nearly all of us have heard (or even used) the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and we know what it means – if something of value is provided for no up-front cost, you are paying for it in some other way. According to the Wikipedia entry for it the phrase could have originated from US bars that offered a free meal with a drink, but the meal was salty and so made you want to drink more. Now you know why some up-market bars offer free salty nibbles, it’s so they can sell you more beer and the extra profit is more than peanuts.

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

I recently saw a post in a discussion thread I was watching about business interaction which said “well, I think this is OK as there is no such thing as a free lunch”. It made me pause because I realised that there are free lunches.

Why? Because the person writing it, I know I could unexpectedly land in the airport near them (say we got diverted) at late-0’Clock, call them and say “could you please come and pick me up – and I’m hungry and I have nowhere to stay”. OK, it’s not lunch, it’s probably dinner or tea or supper. But I know I could do that and they would get me and feed me and make sure I was OK. Why? Because they are a friend. I’d get my free lunch and a free bed for the night – well, maybe a sofa with the dogs but, hey, am I picky? If things similarly went wrong the next month too, I feel I could again make the call and all I would get is some light-hearted banter about “this is becoming a habit!”.

The key difference is that business is not friendship. Business is all about making more money than you spend and if your company has shareholders, they generally want as big a dividend as possible. Making money does not match giving things away for free! Unless it is a short-term cost to prompt a larger eventual profit. Any business that does not aim to maximise profit is probably going to be less successful than a similar company in the same sector and will probably eventually fail {I know, there are rare exceptions to this}. I would argue that if your friendships are based on expectation of getting more out than you put in, you are living your life with the wrong philosophy!

You could argue that with friendship there is an expectation of reciprocation – if my friend landed at Stansted Airport and needed a bed and a meal and they let me know, they would get it. Heck, if they landed in Leeds airport (about 3 hours drive from here) they would probably still get it {if I was not too drunk to drive}. But no matter which of us had been the provider of the free lunch, I don’t think either of us would be walking around with a mental tally in our head saying something like “I need to get some payback from that guy – my next flight over there, I ain’t booking a hotel”.

I’ll give you another recent example. Another friend and I do a lot conferences, often in the same place. He is more organised than I and he has at times sorted out planes and hotels and just told me what I need to do, where to go and what I owe him. I pay him. Or I don’t and I pay for a meal or buy us beers or whatever it is we decide to do. We keep a rough tally. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest that friends don’t keep a tally? Well, we do. A rough tally. And the reason we both keep it is as we don’t want to take more than we give back – which is very different from ensuring we take back at least as much as we give. But the most interesting part of this is that last month, after I paid for a meal, I asked him what the balance was as I had lost track. He just looked at me and said “I have no idea – is it even?”. Who knows. Who cares? Part of me worries a little that I am in debt but I think he worries the same. In the end it is moot. Neither of us is counting anymore.

I’m sure we have all had the odd friend who does seem to take more than they ever give back (that Andy, never buys his round in the pub!) and if it is too extreme you might come to the conclusion that this is not a friend but a free-loader – and quietly drop them. But some people either just never think about it or might be a lot less well off than you and simply not want to admit it. And in the whole friendship scheme of things, reciprocation of favours should only ever be a part of it I think.

So in business I think the “no such thing as a free lunch” is pretty much a true state of affairs. In friendships, I’d like to think it is certainly not true. Friendship should not be like a business. If any of your friendships are, maybe they are more ‘mutual arrangements’.

“Hi, meet my mutual arrangement Dave. I’m currently up three beers on him, so he’s buying”.

So I think you can have a free lunch. They are provided by friends. I’ll be popping over to your place for one soon 🙂

Friday Philosophy – When Tech Fails to Deliver, is it Always a Problem? December 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, ethics, Friday Philosophy.
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11 comments

I nipped out to the local supermarket this lunch time to get stuff. I use one of those self-use barcode scanners to log all the goods I put in my basket (apart from the bottle of whisky I was stealing). I then go to the payment machine, scan the “finish shopping” barcode and try to pay. I can’t pay.

quickcheck-647x346-3col

I can’t pay as I bought some paracetamol (note to US readers, you know it as acetaminophen). It turns out you need to be 12 to buy paracetamol. Fair enough, but why did I have to stand there and waste 30 seconds of my life before the assistant for the area noticed and came over? She had to uses her special device to access the permissions screen, check I was 12 (the greying beard helps) and authorise it.

I asked why I had to wait. “So I can ensure you are old enough – the machine does not know.” But it does! Or at least it should. I’m using their self-scan service for which I have to be registered. They know my name, address, age, hair colour and inside leg measurement. The system knows I am old enough. Plus I have to pay with a credit/debit card (no cash option with this system). You can’t have a credit card until you are 18 in the UK so by using one of them it knows I am old enough to buy the pills – and even the bottle of whisky I was stealing. And when you use any card, it checks your details. So if I was using a debit card it could check my age at that point and stop me when it makes the check. It’s possible and should be done!

The assistant had wandered off long before I finished making this logical case. I was just an annoying customer and she’d done what I needed her to do. But it really annoyed me – it is possible for the system to check me using technology and the data at hand, and not make me wait. The problem is, they were too lazy to build this limited smarts into the system!

aberlour

There is a lesson here. And that lesson is this – I should stop being such a self-centred, argumentative and miserable old sod. Firstly, I had to wait 30 seconds (and I am probably exaggerating that). Big deal, I had hardly been inconvenienced and it was a lot quicker than going to a normal till. Secondly, the assistant can’t do anything about the software behind the system. I mean, many of us spend our lives working on computer systems and often we can’t make any changes. Thirdly, I am aware that some parents give their children their credit card & number (the idiots!) so even though it is illegal to do this, the result is there a lot of people under the age of credit who have the means to pay for dangerous things (booze, cigarettes, paracetamol, knives, DIY expanding foam, ‘Viz’ magazine…).

Just because something is possible with the data to hand, sometimes it is not really worth much effort to make it happen.

And sometimes, although it seems logical & sensible given all the parameters (they have my info, no one but me should be using that card) in the real world those rules and data associations are not reliable. There is no enforced RI on our lives, at best there is a set of intended/encouraged limits. A person checking my age is way more reliable than some algorithm in this case.

So next time I whine about waiting 30 seconds in the queue, I hope the assistant just gives me a withering look and tells me to grow up.

I also hope they do not check my basket for un-scanned booze.

(* Just for the record, everything about the whisky was untrue. It was gin).

((And being serious, such system prevent fraud by 2 methods.
The first is that 1 in X times you get re-scanned. The assistant has no idea if they scan anything you had not and this is on purpose – so there is no scene in the shop. But the comparison is made and recorded, for further action.
The second is that apparently they can spot likely cheats just by the data you give them when you sign up and your spending habits. Now that is ‘Big Data Analysis’.
))

Nice Social Media Profile Picture! Oh… Err… September 30, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

A few (months/weeks/days/hours)* ago I saw a friend request on Facebook. I looked at their profile which indicated that they were kind-of in my technical arena and the profile picture made me think “Wow – that’s an attractive person!” and I was about to click on the accept button.

And stopped.

I only friend people on Facebook who I know. By that I mean I have either met in real life and liked or have had a LOT of contact with through social media and liked. People who, if they were delayed at Stansted airport at midnight and needed a place to sleep, I’d be happy to go pick them up and bring them home to stay in my spare room.

This person did not pass this criterion. I was going to add them to one of my social media cohorts based on a superficial, image-based reaction, based on a pretty weak “they mention Oracle and DBA in the profile” and a much stronger “that’s a nice looking lady”. Whether this is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever – it struck me that if I am adding people based on looks then that is the wrong reason and is “appearanceist”. When I link to someone on LinkedIn it is supposed to be all about “are they in my area of I.T.” not how hot they are. But I do notice that attractive people, especially ladies, seem to get a lot more followers. That made me think about the whole tricky subject of whether we are allowed anymore to comment on someone’s looks, what is sexism, how some people get ahead by being attractive or even get held back by it.

I could now write a long, meandering, and probably pretty much worthless analysis of sexism in IT and how social interaction should be different to professional interaction. But I will keep my point brief. I’ll just state three thoughts and three brief paragraphs:

1) How often do we socially link to someone based on their physical image?
2) Is this wrong?
3) How often do we attempt to improve the physical appearance of our own online profile picture?

I am guilty of 3. I have Rosacea – a long-term reddening of the facial skin a bit like teenage acne. I don’t really like it so I use an older image of myself for my profile picture. I know that many people use a photo of themselves from when they were younger (sometimes a lot younger) or one taken by a professional photographer to show themselves in the best (and let us be frank, atypically flattering) light. i.e. a picture to make us look more handsome/attractive than we really are.

If we all accept that, especially on a professional level, we should all be judged on what we do & who we are as opposed to our physical appearance – why are we so careful of our own online physical appearance?

If we falsely manipulate our own online physical image have we any moral basis for criticising anyone who uses their good looks to gain exposure, acceptance or advantage? No matter how subtle or blatant it is.

So my premise is, if you manage your own image you have to accept others doing so and, to some extent at least, lose the right to object to anyone making judgements based simply on physical appearance. Can I now feel justified in only hiring women who I personally find attractive ? (I don’t find many men attractive, sorry guys).

I’m sure many of you feel that combing your hair, putting on nice cloths and perhaps using a touch of make-up is absolutely nothing like using a salon hair stylist, most of Max Factor’s product line and slightly revealing clothing to get a job. But where on that spectrum is OK, where isn’t and how are you making that judgement call?

A final thought. I did not link to the person who sent me the Facebook request as they were, in my opinion, attractive and I would be doing so for the wrong reasons. Was that morally strong or morally weak? In this case I would like to feel the former as I use Facebook only for established friends. If this was in, say, LinkedIn which I use totally on a professional level, if I did not link to that person as I felt I was doing so partially influenced on their looks… That’s a very interesting take on positive/negative discrimination. Especially if their image turned out to be old…

(*) I get so few Facebook friend requests that if I stated when I saw this one, the person I think is attractive might realise who she is and then I would be very British Reserved uncomfortable around her 🙂

Friday Philosophy – Visiting the Changi Murals by Sue’s Uncle Stan April 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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2 comments

No tech or management this week – this Friday Philosophy is about something in my home life.

First Mural,. Image from www.rafchangi.com

First Mural,. Image from http://www.rafchangi.com

This week we are in Singapore, our first ever visit. The main reason that we have come here is to look at some pictures painted by Sue’s Uncle Stan. They are also called the Changi Murals. Stanley Warren painted these murals when he was gravely ill in Changi during World War 2. He was a POW, captured with the taking of Singapore by the Japanese. Conditions were extremely poor in the POW camps, and across Singapore as a whole. During the occupation thousands died from disease and malnutrition.

Stanley had been a graphic artist before the war and he did some painting whilst he was in the camp of what he saw. He was a deeply religious man and when people knew he could draw his fellow POWs asked him to draw murals on the walls of a chapel they’d built at Bukit Batok. Not long after, he was so ill with amoebic dysentery that he was moved to the Roberts Barracks hospital in Changi, block 151. I don’t think he was expected to live. Whilst he was there, he heard a choir singing in the local chapel for the hospital and his talking to the padre after that led to a request for him to paint some murals on the walls there.

Stanley had to paint the first mural bit-by-bit, he was too unwell to work for more than a few minutes at the start. They also had to use material stolen or obtained as they could. In the first mural there are some areas of blue – that came from a few cubes of billiard cue chalk. He had so little that it ran out after the second mural. The first mural was completed just in time for Christmas and he was carried back up to the wards and could only hear the service from there, no one knowing if the latest bout of dysentery would kill him or not. But it didn’t. Over the next few months Stanley drew four more murals as his health waxed and waned. The amazing things it that, despite the condition he was in, under a brutal regime with very little hope for survival, his message was all about reconciliation. The figures in the murals are from all races and the messages of reconciliation are constant through the murals.

Stanley Warren

Stanley Warren

You can read more about Stanley and the Murals at the wikipedia link at the top of this blog, at the RAF Changi association page here or in an excellent book about them by Peter W Stubbs, ISBN 981-3065-84-2

Stanley survived his time as a POW in Singapore and with the end of the war he came home. Stanley is actually Sue’s great uncle – his older sister was Sue’s paternal grandmother. After the war he became an art teacher and had a family. As well as being Sue’s great uncle, He also worked in the same school as Sue’s father and she saw a lot of him, so she knew “Uncle Stan” very well. And, of course, she knew all about the murals.

The story of the murals does not stop with the war as, after the war (during the later part of which the murals were painted over with distemper, when it stopped being a chapel) the murals were re-discovered. They became quite well known and there was a search for the original artist. When Stanley was found they asked him to go back and restore them. He was not keen! He’d spent years trying to forget his time and what he had endured as a POW. But eventually he was persuaded and over 20 or so years made three trips back to restore them. He still did not talk about the war much but the Murals are part of the family history. Stanley died in 1992, having lived a pretty long and happy life given where he was during the 1940’s.

Sue has long wanted to see the Changi Murals and, with the lose of her mother 2 years back, this desire to link back to another part of the family has grown stronger. So we organised this trip out to Asia with the key part being to visit Singapore and the Changi Murals.

There is an excellent museum about the history of Singapore during WWII, especially the area of Changi and the locations which were used to hold POWs and enemy civilians, the Changi Museum. It includes the murals. Only, it does not. This is a new museum which was built a few years back and it has a reproduction of the original Block 151 chapel, with all the murals. The reproductions are very accurate we are told and there is a lot of information in the museum – but they are not the originals as drawn by Uncle Stan.

Mural in the museum

Mural in the museum

We only really realised this a couple of weeks before we were heading out to Thailand (our first stop) but we felt it was not a problem as almost every web site that mentioned the murals said you could organise to see the original murals. Only, you can’t really. Someone at some point said you could, and maybe then it was easier, but none of the current articles tells you how to request to see the originals. They don’t even give a clue who to ask. They just repeat this urban myth that you can organise to see the originals. The only exception to this is the Changi Museum web site that lists an email to send a request to – but the email address is no longer valid! (prb@starnet…).

We managed to contact the museum and Dr Francis Li tried to help us, but he could not find out the proper route to make the request at first and then hit the problem we later hit – not much response.

After hours and hours on the net, failing to find out who to ask, I contacted a couple of people who had something to do with the Murals. One of them was Peter Stubbs, who wrote the book on the Changi Murals that I mentioned earlier. Peter was wonderful, he got in touch with people he knew and they looked into it and after a couple of days he had found out the correct group to approach – MINDEF_Feedback_Unit@defence.gov.sg. You email them and you get an automated response that they will answer your question in 3 days. Or 7-14 days. It’s the latter. We waited the 3 days (if you have dealt with government bureaucracy you will know you can’t side step it unless you know HOW to side step it) but time was now running out and I sent follow up emails to MINDEF and Mr Li.

Mindef did not respond. But Mr Li did – to let us know he had also had no response from MINDEF and had gone as far as to ring up – and no one seemed to know about how to see the original murals.

So we were not going to get to see the originals, which was a real shame, but out first full day we did go up to the Changi Museum. It was a very good, little museum. The museum is free. We took the audio tours which cost a few dollars but to be honest all the information is also on the displays. There was a lot of information about the invasion by Japan and what happened and the reproductions of the Murals were impressive. They also had some duplicates of some of the press stories about the murals, from local papers as well as UK ones. There are a lot more press stories than the museum show, we know this as there is a collection of them somewhere in Sue’s Mum’s stuff that we have not found yet.

It was quite emotional for Sue of course, and something well worth us doing. It really brought home to us an inclination of what he and the other POWs had gone through, and yet Stanley did these murals of reconciliation and belief. Of course we don’t really know what it was like, nothing like that has happened to either of us – we just got a peep into that horror.

IMG_2377

The rules of the museum said “No photographs” – but we ignored this. These murals were the work of Sue’s Uncle Stan! (we noticed several other visitors were also ignoring the rule anyway). Most of the pictures are poor, no where as good as others you can find on the net (most from the originals) but they are important to us. I only include a couple in this blog.

If you wonder what the small picture of a man in a hat is, below the mural, it is one of only two we have by Uncle Stan. He painted this when on a school holiday in Spain with Sue’s dad also. We have no idea who the picture is of!

It is a great shame we did not get to see the original murals in the room in which her great uncle Stanley Warren painted them, as part of the chapel that was so important to people in such awful circumstances. After we got back from the museum we finally received a response from MINDEF. It was a simple refusal to consider granting us permission to see the murals as they only allow it for surviving Singapore POWs (there will be very few of them now) and direct family (whatever that limit is). I can’t help but feel that was a little inflexible of them, even a little heartless, and was applying a blind rule without consideration of the specifics of the situation.

When Sue is next going to Singapore, with me or not, I’ll see if I can make them relent and grant access to Sue to see the originals.

Irrespective, we got to see something of Uncle Stan’s murals, and that was worth all the effort.

Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked? October 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,
8 comments

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}