Growing up with Big Brother

I saw an excellent programme on TV last night: The History of Now. It’s a series about 2000-2009, and it helped me to put my finger on things that had been vaguely lurking in my head.

One of the things it mentioned was Mosaic – the postcode-based classifcation of people so that shops and, more recently, politicans can target particular things to particular people. It divides society up into 16 or so categories, and then says what category is most common in each postcode.

It made me think of a book I’m reading for work: Competing on Analytics. It has all kinds of interesting and scary things about how companies are storing information about customers and their behaviour, and then using this behaviour to make more money. Things like store loyalty cards, online accounts, using search engines and so on.

Apparently the industry average rate for people actually using money-off coupons is about 2%. Tesco can use its vast knowledge of its customers to tailor its coupons so that they are more relevant, and so get 20-50%. (So people buy e.g. cat food in Tesco rather than anywhere else.) It issues about 7 million targetted variations of product coupons a year, and has given away Clubcard points worth about Β£1 billion pounds. (Don’t feel sorry for Tesco, the points keep you with them rather than going elsewhere.)

It’s taken a while for me to realise what makes the weird feeling in all this, and I think it’s two main things (there might be more, but these are it for now). The first is that Tesco etc. know so much about me from a distance i.e. without properly knowing me. In the past, in the days before people left such a rich digital trail in their wake, to do this sort of thing you’d need to go through the rubbish in someone’s bins, tap their phones, intercept their post etc. In short, you’d be spying on them. We (at least, people my age or older) haven’t adjusted our social expectations to move this kind of knowledge gathering into the Acceptable category.

The second thing that’s behind the weird feeling is the imbalance in the relationship. You know so much about me, but I know so little about you. In fact, I don’t even know which “you” I’m dealing with much of the time – I see the shop workers, but the marketing departments, IT operations departments and other backroom boys and girls who shepherd all this data are people I will never meet. Just as a thought experiment, I imagined what it would be like if when I hand over my clubcard in Tesco (and give them yet more data) I got a little book with details of all the Tesco staff who will touch my data – their names, addresses, a photo maybe, what they typically buy in Tesco etc. ‘Cos that’s what I’m giving them.

While this rant has built up a head of steam, I’ll grumble about a particularly unpleasant version of all this. On Facebook there are occasionally adverts that say “Aged X-Y?” where X and Y just happen to bracket my age, or even “Are you a man aged X?” where X is exactly my age. I’m fairly sure that Facebook gives its advertisers that information about me i.e. the advertisers know exactly my age and sex, so they could just as easily say “Seeing as you’re a man aged X…” Putting it as a question makes it look like they just happen to have an offer on at the moment that just happens to suit me (according to them) and so I would be foolish to let such a brilliant offer pass me by. At least Tesco are honest about their omniscience (although they don’t go out of their way to help people realise quite how much data they have). While I’m in the area, there’s an interesting blog about someone trying to get Tesco to show him what they hold about him.

Of course, in some ways, there’s a choice in all this. We choose to exchange this information in return for convenience and, possibly, lower prices. Although the choice is more and more being made for us. In order to leave no digital trail you’d have to work really quite hard – as films like Terminator 3 and The Bourne Identity (and many others) show.

What provoked a wry smile is the following passage of the Competing on Analytics book. Bear in mind it was written in 2007:

Of course, any quantitative analysis relies upon a series of assumptions. When the conditions behind the assumptions no longer apply, the analyses should no longer be employed. For example, Capital One [an example in the book of a company succeeding through analytics] and other credit card companies make analytical predictions about customers’ willingness to repay their balances under conditions of general economic prosperity. If the economy took a sharp downturn, the predictions would no longer apply, and it would be dangerous to continue using them.

Full Sunday

This is out of order, and Katy will probably have more to say, but this is before I forget and another way of putting off doing some work I didn’t do on Friday…

Katy was preaching today where we used to live. She had asked to be let off this quarter, but they especially asked for her to do an all-age Christingle service. We all went (including M), and it went well. It was a proper all-age service, rather than one just for the children – while the children were mass-producing Christingles for everyone, she did a short sermon for the adults about getting rid of clutter to make way for Jesus. (Red insulation tape is a much easier alternative to a red ribbon held on with a pin.) Unfortunately A has a bad cough (maybe even croup) and so she and Katy were awake much of last night. Despite this, Katy did a very good job.

After that we had lunch with A’s godparents, who live nearby. A very nice time, but cut short for the menfolk (including A’s godfather and son) as we all went off to the Cavendish lab for an astronomy afternoon. The main attraction was Lucy Hawking giving a talk based on her George books. Her father happened to be in the audience too, and it was nice to see how proud she was of him. At the end she had time for questions, and after a while J asked “Is there anything too big to go into a black hole?” which I thought was quite a good one. She said “I’ll refer that one to the black hole expert” (i.e. her father) and while he tapped away she carried on with other questions. Then at the end, Prof. Hawking answered: no, some black holes are very big so there’s nothing too big to fit in. It’s not every day that a member of the family gets to ask a Lucasian professor a question on their specialist subject.

After the talk there was more stuff – the CHAOS crew doing some nice demonstrations and experiments, an R2D2 and Dalek, a full-size prototype of a Mars rover due to go there in a year or two and so on. It was all much more pleasant than the scrum that often happens in March at similar events. Then back to the godparents for tea and Wii, before we headed home.

Maths without sums, violins with strings

Katy was in the shop on Friday, to cover for someone else. This was fine in the morning, but in the afternoon it clashed with an activity organised by the people who run a very nice toyshop (who we know through the local HE group). So I took the afternoon off and took the children to a local community centre where it was happening. J, JBiff and M were in an over-8s room, and the others were with me in an under-8s room. Both rooms had loads of toys, games and puzzles that helped with maths skills – J really liked Hive (the pieces are lovely, like hexagonal pebbles) and Tipover. Plus there were books to read (so A was happy) and an enclosed play area (so they could all give their brains a rest). It was very nice, and then we finally made it to a violin repair place in the village nearby.

J’s violin that we got fairly cheaply off eBay had trouble staying in tune, so Katy found an advert for a local repair place. I found the place, which was a lovely thatched cottage which looked gorgeous inside, but had a tiny workshop squeezed into a room about 12 feet by 5 feet. It had violins hanging up all over the place, a row of cellos and some double basses, and a workbench with all the bits and pieces you’d expect. The lady makes from scratch as well as repairing, and was very good with the children (she said she was one of five).

Fortunately the children were all very well behaved (and I was holding A) as standing in the middle with a bow you could damage tens of thousands of pounds worth of instrument just by turning around. One bass was from the 17th century but unfortunately run over in the 21st century and still in lots of pieces. Another had been flown from South Africa unaccompanied to be repaired! Yet she was very down to earth, explained to the children what she was doing and happy to do a quick, cheap repair to J’s violin. (The holes that the pegs go into were oval rather than round, so she filed them into shape.) She approved of K playing the cello, as she was a professional cellist from the age of 15 (and so still has one side of her back stronger than the other). Also, she’s French, and so had a quick chat to M in French. A home ed. trip in itself – for instance violin makers use rabbit glue so that it can be undone with heat. (Photos on Flickr.)

Back to the shop to meet up with Katy a bit late. The shop owners had dropped off the Stompa mattress they’d promised to us a while ago, but we had the big car full of children, and the little car was err… little. Katy did her excellent packing and managed to squeeze the mattress into the little car with it being just about safe to drive (in the dark and rain, along the A14 in rush hour – nice).

On Saturday Music School resumed, and that was its usual good self. In the afternoon J and M helped me to get some of the rolls of loft insulation up into the loft, and I spent some of Saturday and Sunday laying them out. It’s amazing stuff – a foil and plastic bag containing fibrous stuff made from recycled glass. When rolled up it’s about 3cm thick, but it expands to 20cm thick. The bags make it a doddle to handle, plus the fibrous stuff is nowhere near as itchy as the old stuff (that I suffered from in our last two houses).

Today the boys were all on Remembrance Day parade. Fortunately the weather was good – not too cold and no rain, and the boys put extra jumpers on under their uniform to keep warm. This all went well – we got to the rendezvous place on time, the march to the war memorial went OK, and the police stopped the traffic apart from during the hymns. During the 2 minutes’ silence an ambulance went by – it had lights and siren on and then when it got to the stream of stopped traffic it turned them off but kept going. Respectful and appropriate, I thought. It was better than last year, when the cars kept going nearly all the time.

L, K and M helped chop vegetables for a lunch that turned into tea, and then after lunch there was some playing while I was up in the loft. I took the children apart from J to the bottle bank and then feed the ducks on the way back, which we managed just as it was getting dark. A lovely tea (cauliflower and brocoli cheese, followed by apple and blackcurrant pie – I love autumn and I love my wife’s cooking skills) and then bed.

Those were the days my friend

I got a big letter in the post at the weekend from my college. Most of it was a yearbook of sorts, showing the matriculation (joining the college as a 1st year) photo – the big one where the whole year sat in rows in suits and gowns. We all looked so young and fresh-faced, but then it was over half my life ago. Then inside was a collection of the “what I’m doing now” for everyone. Mine was very out of date – no wife, no children, and two companies ago.

There were loooooads of people doing something in the city, generic important-but-boring-sounding law, or management consultancy and unsurprisingly quite a few academics. A handful had got married to each other. Two stood out as quite hard to beat in the Reunion Top Trumps stakes: one has been doing legal stuff for the UN in Cambodia – human rights abuses and so on. The other is presenting Newsnight. Our paths crossed at college so little (i.e. not at all) that I had not even been aware of her until I read the yearbook. I managed to imagine back from how she is to how she was and pick her out in the photo.

I dropped out from that year and restarted in the year below. I’ve lost touch with most people, but I know one is now deputy ambassador to Jordan (the country, not Peter Andre’s ex). Here’s a recent newspaper article and photo, for all you Arabic fans.

la la la laaa la-laa, la la la laaa la-laa …

Music, marquees, history and sea

I really ought to be in bed, so I’ll try to make this quick. Previous attempts at this kind of thing suggest I’ll be up for a while…

Yesterday was music school for the big 4 and a lie-in for Katy. After dropping them off I took A to pick up a huge parcel from the local DHL depot, then read to her at the music school while waiting for the others to finish. Back home, lunch, then I mowed the front lawn (before the strimmer cable ran out, and re-doing it is a simple but lengthy job, so I put the back lawn off for another day) and gunged sealant around a gutter / downpipe joint that was leaking.

I then took M to mass in an inter-denominational primary school near where I work. It was relaxed and friendly, but didn’t have a separate children’s liturgy, so I don’t know if M will prefer that or the other church he’s tried. Good homily too – the priest knew his stuff, obviously cared about his congregation and loved God too πŸ™‚ . Then I had to dash to a last supper πŸ˜‰ . A colleague of mine R who, like me, has kept his job throws occasional excellent parties, and he wanted to have the work gang together one last time before people started getting established in new jobs. Some people who had left several months previously also came back, which was great. It was in one of the marquees that R and his housemate own (for their amazing parties) and very nice indeed. I had to leave earlier than many as today was going to be busy.

Today had a slower start than we’d planned, then we headed off to near Norwich to visit the shop owned by Katy’s uncle and aunt. So M and they got to meet each other, but it was a flying visit en route for further Norfolk adventures.

We went to a stately home with a moat that had lots of historical re-enactors (who’d have thought it, eh?). It was a multi-period fair, with Romans and Anglo-saxons up to WW2. We were in time to see some falconry, and then some people playing with a big trebuchet. While we were watching it, Tadcu met up with us, and we saw the trebuchet mis-fire backwards. Fortunately it wouldn’t have hit any spectators, because some lovely WW2 vehicles were in the way, but a brave / foolish re-enactor saved the vehicles by catching the rock which was about the size of two bags of sugar. His fingers survived, and the re-enactors continued playing but we wandered off.

There were lots of other very nice things. A good but slightly scary story-teller, a lady with WW2 bits and pieces like sweetheart badges and ration books, which kept the boys interested for a long time, Tadcu bought a cloak, we bought some ginger honey, I bought a longbow and associated bits from these people (the magic words “I’m a re-enactor” got a discount, which was great.) I just need to learn how to use it properly πŸ˜‰ .

While I was spending lots of money, Katy and the children wandered into the house, which had WW2 people letting people try on their gask masks, someone talking about tea – with some blocks of pressed leaves, how expensive it used to be etc. A barber said some interesting things about his strop. “Throwing a strop” comes from literally throwing your strop at someone.

After a bit of hunting, we tracked down the NAAFI canteen and got to speak to one of the ladies running it. She’s an education officer with the Poppy Line, and so might do an evacuee day event for home educators near us (quite far away, but sounds very good).

At closing time, K and M got into Tadcu’s Morris Minor Traveller (at their request) and we all headed off to see Poppa in his new nursing home. He seems better than he was when we last saw him in hospital, which was good to see.

We didn’t stay long, and then a short drive later we were in Sheringham for sea and chips. We stayed there until it was nearly dark and then home. Tomorrow is work for me and the train to the Tower of London for everyone else.


Today the consultation process into the proposed redundancies at work formally ended. The redundancies will go ahead, so on Monday the normal programming work in the office will basically stop – all that the people being made redundant will need to do on Monday is receive the formal letters, hand in company property, collect their belongings, and leave.

The number of people who, like me, have got new jobs with the company (in the same office) has gone up a bit, but still about three quarters of the people at risk will go. There were some other people who have never been at risk (the people running the data centre, and technical support) but not many.

When the UK company I used to work for was bought by the US company I currently work for, there was an interesting interplay of influences. Both companies had a billing product, but aimed at overlapping rather than identical markets. The US had a few mega-customers, the UK had many small customers. The US had, for several reasons, a get-it-out-the-door-fix-it-later approach, and the UK (also for several reasons) had a get-it-right-first-time approach.

What happened was the US product was pensioned off, and the UK product adopted as pretty much the only show in town but needing lots of work to cope with mega-customers. The two approaches were combined – officially it was the UK approach, but it never got the whole way to adoption (for several reasons πŸ˜‰ ). The UK high-ups gradually all left or were made redundant, so the official clout of the UK was reduced, but the slight change in culture and complete change in code had already become permanent. An Indian outpost was set up, to take advantage of the large pool of talented cheap labour.

And now, the UK development group has stopped. All work previously done by the UK is supposed to be done by India (with the US continuing as before). Whether or not India is up to the job is uncertain.

Those like me who are left are supposedly doing new jobs – proper research e.g. investigating new technologies and new markets, and also consulting with customers over things that don’t fit easily with the development sausage machine view of the world. Whether or not we will actually be pulled back to help India is uncertain. We will all be huddling together in one bit of the office – this means a change of floor for me, and also a change of boss – so that half the office can keep its lights off.

Every Friday for about a couple of years there has been something called Happy Hour (cakes etc, starting at 4 p.m.) so that people can mingle, particularly aimed at building a community between our building and the local sales office across the car park. This week one of my long-standing colleagues, who worked in the sales office and was a prime mover behind Happy Hour, died suddenly after a long illness. She was a lovely woman – always smiling and enthusiastic in a nice kind of way.

Anyway, today our section went to the pub for lunch, and then back to the office for an especially extended Happy Hour. The pub was great – lovely surroundings, no sign of gallows humour or unhappiness, just friends enjoying themselves together. A colleague on maternity leave brought in her very cute baby. And there was a very nice pub cat.

Happy Hour was bittersweet. I tried not to think too often that I wouldn’t see most of the people after Monday. I wouldn’t say that I got on hugely with everyone, but there was no-one that I actively disliked, and I knew pretty much everyone and trusted the judgment of most that I knew. Many had worked together for 5 years, and quite a few for 10 or more – we were a team, who had achieved a lot. But no more. My new job does sound like it could be very good, but there’s a lot of ways I can see it not going well, so I’m not fully happy or sad or anything at the moment.

I still have a job that pays the bills, I have a home (at least, the bank has πŸ˜‰ ), a lovely wife and four children who are smashers, so in the proper way of looking at things I am richly blessed.

Snow poems

This poem is brought to you by the letters / people: K, E, SB, M and L.

Here comes snow – tic-tic-tak
Tic-tac, tinkle shhhhhhhh
More snow coming – pit-a-pat
Tit-tit-tit-tit wacapac sploutch!
Pip-pip-pip cat tiptoes softly
Miaow! Miaow miaow miaow prrr…
People hurry through the snowstorm
Shiver brrr shiver brrrr…
Deeper and deeper shhhh
Paf paf paf shploosh crunch. Help!
Let’s go and play!
Wee weeee wheee splat!
Tac pa boom pan
Ssssh tic slip slide wahoo!

By J

Snow begins to fall
Woosh woosh woosh
The snow gets stronger
Shoosh shoosh shoosh shoosh
A cat finds the snow
People in the snow crunch
Scrunch crunch scrunch crunch scrunch crunch scrunch
Children in the snow
Wahoo woosh woosh floomp!

Pumpkins and history

My turn to blog for a change, but Katy will do Friday after I’ve done Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday Katy was working and the big four all had music school. With one car that meant: take the children to music school, leave the big four and take Katy to the shop, drive back to music school with A and buy lunch on the way. Pick up the children, then drive to the shop and feed the children in a back room.

As it was Katy’s first go completely on her own at the shop I stayed around for moral support while she tackled the burglar alarm, a troublesome cash till, hoovering, counting money and I made sure she had a cup of tea at hand before I left.

When I got back to music school J was out as he’d forgotten his recorder and so didn’t want to do the last session. (They all do a communal sing, then music games to do music theory, then the last session is using instruments in groups.) K and L are in the same group for the last session and used random percussion, M got to play piano but J sat it out. I think M finds the singing hard due to language problems, so we’re seeing if he can drop that one and I’ll do English with him.

Katy survived her first solo bit at the shop, nearly managed to sell two slings to a dad-to-be before his partner talked him out of them πŸ™ , and then after lunch we headed off to the Pumpkin Fair in the sticks that we’d been to before. (All in the name of broadening M’s cultural horizons, of course.)

There were lots of pumpkins, a display of training puppies to be hearing dogs for the deaf, the scouts were doing a throw-wooden-balls-at-crockery stall again which M liked, various stalls selling things, a fire engine and nice fire fighters who talked about their equipment and gave out stickers etc. to the children. The fair’s publicity said that they were moving with the times and so had some Sealed Knot people. (Only a few hundred years off the pace – maybe they’ll be up to Regency next year.)

The Sealed Knotters were good – a nice encampment to wander around, M, K and I got put in the stocks, and then they did a display of soldiery. This was pikemen (I resisted the urge to join in πŸ™‚ ), drummers showing the various tunes they did to signal different things, musketeers and a cannon. The MC was good and explained everything (flash in the pan, plain as a pikestaff, the muskets not being rifled etc.) and apart from the loud bangs everyone enjoyed it. The cannon was a weird double-barrelled type I’d not seen before: it had two separate barrels next to each other on the same carriage which were loaded and fired separately. Also, they were made of a normal metal barrel wrapped in leather for extra strength (the leather goes on wet, then shrinks as it dries). I got chatting to the Sealed Knotters afterwards and they said they also have a 6 barrelled cannon, where you fire them by lighting a small trough of gunpowder (like an old-fashioned camera flash) which goes to each of the barrels’ touch holes. We then bought loads of pumpkins and went home.

Today we were a bit late getting organised, so couldn’t take advantage of the lift offered by a friend for M to go to the Catholic church. So we drove there ourselves and I went in with him and K while Katy got lunch sorted. Our favourite shoe shop (where each of the children’s first shoes, and about half of the children’s shoes in total, have come from) was having an extra day for its closing down sale, so bargains were snapped up. This made us a bit later than planned to go to Kentwell for the Michaelmas mini recreation. We managed to all get in free despite me not being able to find my participant’s passport, and wandered around for 3 hours or so.

It was very nice to see friends – I hope M didn’t get too bored with us chatting – and the weather was glorious. First stop was the Military Pavilion, then the woodsmen, where M got to have a go at sawing a log with a bow saw. The potters were next, where the potter’s creation went a bit wobbly. He cut it in half from top to bottom with a cheese wire thing to show how he’d got the thickness wrong. One of the kilns was firing, with a lovely big fire underneath. Next stop was the foundry, where unfortunately they had no furnace as it had cracked and so they were rebuilding it. I explained as best I could to M about how they made moulds in sand boxes, or by carving blocks of plaster or soapstone.

The pigsty still had a giant old pig, who looked like it had got stuck in the doorway and then fallen asleep. Next door to it were some very nice looking black piglets. On to the Cott (more chatting) where A was re-united with some of her favourite people in the whole world (who had grown since the summer), the wool shed, the dyers and the house made of horse poo. (Explaining to M how the wattle and daub walls were made was interesting!) There was a pole lathe being operating by a spooner that J’s friendly with (who is a very nice man and usually has a group of boy participants around him making things with his help). K wanted me to make him a pole lathe, and lovely though I think they are I doubt that will happen any time soon!

A quick stop at the stables and forge, a look at the monster carp in the moat, the Great Kitchens (where preparations were nearly finished for the harvest feast), the scrivener next door who wrote everyone’s name nicely and then out into the courtyard for some festivities.

One of the gentry girls had been crowned Queen of the Harvest and arrived in a decorated cart. She was received by the senior gentry with many a Huzzah! One of the washerwomen (a lovely woman who turns into “a scrubber” – her own words – in Tudor times) was also crowned Queen of the Harvest, and they both sat on thrones most regally. The alchemists had been lurking with bowls and lit matches (the Tudor kind – a length of rope soaked in saltpetre, that smoulders for a long time when lit), and they turned into slightly anti-climactic fireworks. (Obviously lulling the gentry into a false sense of security for next time πŸ˜‰ .) There was a random race where four blokes had to run off and fetch a goose that had supposedly been stolen, the monk / priest (who used to be J and K’s school master) blessed and prayed and then all the participants had a feast.

This was followed by follow-the-leader style dancing around the courtyard, and everyone apart from J and me joined in (including A, under her own steam). I sneaked off with J and M a bit early so we could catch some of the other bits before they closed. This was the cedar lawn with tree carved into the Tower of Babel, butter being made in the dairy, the bakehouse where they were just clearing up, the still room where J and M helped with grinding the herbs into medicines and the camera obscura which worked very well due to the bright sunshine.

The alchemists were sort of open, and had some cow and sheep skulls. I learned that cows take up grass by wrapping their tongues around it and pulling rather than biting as they have no front teeth. Sheep have hard bony pads at the front so they can cut the grass shorter (so you can graze cows then sheep on the same field, but not the other way around). Trying to explain what an alchemist is to M was a bit of a challenge, but I think he managed to not misinterpret all the skulls as occult paraphenalia πŸ™‚ . Back to the front gate just before closing time via the stocks, the dove cote, the Military Pavilion and the market, then home.

I fell asleep (fortunately Katy was driving), so she told me afterwards about the reaction to a nice sunset.
L: Look, a shepherd’s pie sky!
K: (correcting L) No, it’s an angel pie sky!
K: (correcting himself) No, it’s a shepherd’s delight sky!

Photos on Flickr in due course.