Sunday, March 27, 2005

Marathon Update

After nearly 3 months of slow, hampered training because of the shin splints I had in my right leg, perhaps things are back on track now. Shin splints are a funny thing - apparently they don't exist, but the term is in such widespread use that the medical community have perhaps given up the battle. At least I didn't have a stress fracture which is what everyone initially feared. So, new shoes, new socks, new running style and lots of physio and I am back on the run, so to speak. Last week I finished the Silverstone Half Marathon (finished, note, rather than finished in a good time); On Friday I managed a 10k faster than I did in the Nike Run London event last November (54 mins versus 55m 16s) - I can't believe it's taken me that long to get my leg sorted; And today I ran another half marathon, through the streets of London with the added hazard of dodging tourists. I even bumped into Gordon Ramsay on the way round - who said he wasn't training for the marathon? My finishing time on the 17th isn't going to be anything special, that's for sure. So perhaps I will add the New York race in November to my plan and try and get in better shape over the summer.

Friday, March 25, 2005

ID’s going to cost how much?

Last weekend whilst relaxing in Paris, I flicked through the Independent newspaper to see a headline announcing that ID cards were going to cost over £5 billion. Last time I looked, I’m pretty sure that it was going to be less than £3.5 billion – and even then the cost of passports and driving licences was going to go up by something like 50% - to over £80 for passports. If the project costs are getting close to double the original estimate, does that mean my passport in 2012 will cost £200 or £300 or more? I am broadly pro ID. Not necessarily ID cards, but definitely ID. By ID I mean the ability to assign a single identifier to me as a person interacting with government. That number would link me into tax systems, benefits assessments, pension information and, even, local council service provision. Today, there would be more than one identifier for those, likely one for each and quite often more than one for several. I think it reasonable that government should be able to figure out who I am across all of these services so that they can ensure that I get what I deserve and only what I deserve and not more than that. There are folks out there, I know, who think that government being able to link services together like that will only result in them knowing ever more and more about someone and pursuing them for the slightest infraction of a law, even arbitrary laws or perhaps even non-laws. That's something that I should explore, but not in this post. One of the problems that stems from having this ID number is that, just like now, there’s nothing to stop me getting an extra one – maybe in my name, maybe in someone else’s. And that, for me, is where biometrics come in. If you can uniquely identify someone that has presented themselves to the system, then if they come back again and try and get access via a different path, you can find that out. This has more to do with stopping benefit fraud – multiple claims, claiming for dead relatives and so on – than it has prevention of terrorism. Someone's going to shoot me down about that "dead relatives" thing on the basis that we'll need to be collecting biometrics for the next 100 years to properly prevent such an occurrence, and we'd still have the "day of the jackal"problem unless we collected baby information at birth. What I don’t get – and perhaps this is where the £5 billion comes in – is how to collect, store and index 60 million (plus new residents and new births etc over time and recognising that all previously collected records must be maintained forever to ensure no-one can reuse them) biometric profiles. Let’s suppose that the process is reliable – that’s a stretch, but let’s suppose – and that every time I wave my finger/face/eye/hand over an appropriate scanner, the machine is not going to confuse me with someone else. That means scanning, in real time, through 60 million or more records and finding the one that matches me. It’s kind of a super Shazam service – that’s the clever device where you ring a number, hold your mobile phone up to a speaker in a store and 2 minutes later the machine texts you with the song, the artist and the album it’s from. Pretty neat. I guess each track in the Shazam data store is perhaps 4 minutes long (on average) and that it’s then hugely compressed using a clever algorithm. I can test it with a sample from any part of a track and it should still find the right one (assuming you’re not listening to anything too obscure or, dare I say it, classical music). But, there aren’t 60 million tracks to search and 2 minutes would be a long time to stand in a passport checking queue. A Shazam for biometrics, though, would really be something. Maybe it’s another use for Sony’s new Cell chip, debuting in a Playstation 3 near you sometime next year. That's a great place to start spending £5 billion although what the wider purpose would be I have no idea. Back to my supposition – that scanning fingers and eyes and whatever is reliable. Personal experience so far says it’s not. I used to use the INSPass travelling to the USA – a great system and it worked, kind of, if you put your hand just show and inserted the card in just a certain way. How many people used that? A few thousand at most? Twenty thousand maybe? You had to be travelling to the USA 2-3 times a month for them to let you into the system and, of course, you had to be an “alien”. The finger scanner on my HP Ipaq worked, kind of, too. You rolled your finger down the gadget and 1 time in 3, it would let you use your PDA. More hassle than it’s worth? Probably. Reports on the pilot programmes for ID cards were that the process wasn’t too reliable either. I tried to sign up for the pilot and got a long and complicated email back telling me that if I signed up to certain conditions I could indeed participate. One of the conditions I wanted was that I wanted to know more about how and where they were going to store the data. They never came back to me. But maybe perfecting accuracy of recognition is going to consume a big chunk of the £5 billion? Now, if I were the project manager for ID cards, I would be stuffing every possible cost into the project to make sure that the cost was as loaded as it could be. Government projects have an all too familiar record of going wrong, and going wrong spectacularly at that – which means they cost far more than budgeted, don’t do what they said they would and take longer than planned. So, the more cash you can get in the budget, the better your odds – in a perverse sort of way – of coming in on budget. The cynic in me says that spending money is hard and that spending a lot of money is really hard, so adding too much to the budget virtually guarantees you’ll fail as you’ll probably spend it on more people, more suppliers and more complicated technology that has a lower chance of success. But still, feathering the budget with as much as you can at this stage makes sense – who know, the project manager could be seen as a hero later for managing to deliver for half the originally forecast price, although I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t then see a reduction in our cost of passports. The other thing that I’d be doing if I were the project manager would be not talking about money and, instead, going to see everyone I could possibly think of – including the people that would doubtless be sending me abusive emails about civil liberties – and seeing what issues, objections and worries they have about the project. The NHS projects, whilst spending a little more than current estimates on ID cards, have succeeded in many areas but one place they’re losing is in engaging stakeholders across the medical community – and the battle is being fought more in the press than it is in the meeting rooms. This is something that Nicholas Timmins seems to enjoy raising in his occasional pieces in the Financial Times – the most recent on March 11th. He notes that
Some heavy lifting is needed if staff are to be convinced that the programme is to succeed.
And he doesn’t just mean NHS staff, but the doctors and others who have to be persuaded to sign up to using all of the new systems when, for the most part, they’re perfectly happy with the ones that they’ve got and are entirely unwilling to learn about any new systems. Whilst there are exceptions, most doctors don’t appear to be great embracers of technology. I think, looking from the outside, that Richard Granger has done well to get as far as he has – he has put hugely complicated deals in place in record time; implementation is progressing, although there are endless rumours of delays, penalty payments for suppliers and problems with scope between the national providers, the local integrators and, still lower down, the systems that remain in use. The battle to engage all the stakeholders in ID cards is not, sadly, one that can be definitively won. There will always be people who don’t want ID cards, for good and valid reasons – but there is, at least, a chance to build safeguards and controls into the programme that will address the key weaknesses and, mostly, make people feel engaged. ID cards aren’t something that can just emerge from within a £5 billion project – a project that appears to be a submarine of epic proportions. £5 billion could also easily turn into £10 billion by the time it’s done – notwithstanding the fact that so much work has to be done on technology to make it work. Michael Cross, writing in the Guardian on March 3rd, lamented (perhaps not for the first or last time) our tendency to fail in delivering large IT projects. He was looking ahead to the probably signing (at the time) of the MoD contract for the Defence Information Infrastructure (or DII). He notes
Only a handful of firms can take on these mega contracts and most are already over committed … EDS has spare capacity following the loss of its Inland Revenue business. Was there really a choice?
That’s kind of true – there aren’t many that could take on a project of this size – but I’d also like to think that the decision didn’t end up as a coin flip on who had spare capacity versus who didn’t. I am sure that the other behemoth suppliers (CSC and BT) were mounting a credible bid based on a desire to win. And EDS I hope stayed in it to the end and won because they made the right commitments and delivered a proposal that was believable. Mike goes on
… the UK has the highest scrap rate of government IT projects among the 7 [countries in a survey] ... In the Netherlands, the top five IT suppliers have [only] 20% of the government market, as against 80% in the UK … and that EDS was unique in having 51% of the UK government market …
QED? Perhaps not – at least not just because of suppliers – government has got to get its end together too; after all, suppliers attract the best and brightest people in specific fields such as delivery, integration and testing whereas government attracts the same in policy formulation. The gap between writing a policy and making it happen is enormous – and doing the former does nothing to increase the odds of the latter. Indeed, with the big 6 contract winners in the UK (Accenture, ACS, CSC, EDS, HP and IBM – according to the Econmist on March 5th) all being American, maybe it’s even a wonder how the curse of failure to deliver can be laid at the foot of the British at all. I note, with great interest, that staff from the US Navy worked with the MoD whilst they were negotiating with EDS to reduce the chances of the DII project failing through similar issues as affected them. Of course, projects often fail for whole new and creative reasons, so I hope someone is having a think about those too. Perhaps too, though, government is making it too hard for anyone else to get into the game, with onerous contracts (in the view of vendors), high or indeed unlimited liability requirements, get-out clauses and so on being part of the price of entry. One of the NAO’s list of 8 reasons why projects fail is that too often, a “big bang” project is attempted. ID cards seem to have the hallmarks of one of those – I don’t buy that phasing them in through passport renewals is a staged approach. The technology must work flawlessly, the readers must be widely deployed, government systems must all point to the ID number and data must be clean. And then there’s the issuance process – the gold standard approach to identity. But that’s for another day. ID cards will be a mixed deal for suppliers that choose to bid. Just being involved in the bid process will generate negative PR from the anti-campaigners. Wining will generate even more such PR – with possible consequences on other parts of their business. But delays, cost over-runs and failures will hurt far more should they occur – and certainly hurt other parts of the business and, at some point, the bottom line. If I was a vendor, I’d want to analyse those risks and cover them off through active stakeholder (and, very possibly, shareholder) engagement. As apparently Lockheed Martin concluded (noted in the Economist on March 12th) before pulling out of an NHS contract process, perhaps the tough new performance measures, the potential for angry headlines and the fines if delivery didn’t happen were too big a risk to take? For sure £5.5 billion is a lot of money to spend. It’s an awful lot more to spend in the hope that the ideas laid out in the requirements will turn out to be deliverable. It could be seen as a “man on the moon” project – one that will stimulate so much creativity and innovation that difficult problems will be solved through suppliers that harness their best ideas, with their smartest people and work together. And, just like that project, there are likely to be Apollo 1s and Apollo 13s along the way. Failure in a project like this must be built in – and very public failure at that. To try and get past such failures without a population that is bought into the dream and the vision may be just too challenging. People are going to have to want an ID card - just like I wanted an Oyster card to get around the tube and bus network because it was quicker, cheaper and simpler than using paper tickets. Getting to go to America may be enough motivation for some to give a biometric but it's hardly the only thing needed as a reason.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Mission Accomplished (Part 1 at least)

A horrible day at Silverstone yesterday. To start with, freezing cold winds that managed to work their way through every layer I had on and reach bits that they certainly shouldn't have been reaching, but no rain at least. There were people running in shorts and t-shirts - I have no idea how they managed it. It was so cold I didn't even break a sweat on the whole run, though perhaps that was because of the pace I was running. And that was with my fleece, long johns and woolly hat on. I'd expected a few leisurely laps of the track with plenty of space around me but, instead, there were nearly 10,000 people running through the paddocks and the farms (I have no idea what they were doing on a race track) and down dirt paths strewn with stones with only the beginning and end parts actually on the track. Still, it was an absolute blast with loads of people there to clap and cheer, good natured marshalls making sure no-one took a short-cut and lovely people handing out water and lucozade every so often (but sadly, no-one offering rides on Segways). My time? Not a great one. I did a couple of miles at around 9 minute pace and a bunch a bit slower. I proved that I can still keep going though and that, despite all the shin problems, I can cover the distance. I have a month to get my speed training ready ahead of the marathon. I'm still guessing that 5 hours or so is going to be the target - more than an hour slower than the last one I ran. Ugh. That's a lot of time to be running. I hope it gets a bit warmer.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Marathon Update

Zooming along in one of those sleek new Virgin trains going north this week I couldn't help but notice the proliferation of sleek laptops (all handily plugged into the new, at seat power capability), high end headphones (an awful lot of Bose noise reduction models) and ipods throughout the carriage. What are most folks doing on their laptops? They're furiously clicking away with rapid, precise movements of the mouse. Perhaps manipulating a complicated spreadsheet I thought? Maybe working their way through a slide deck they're giving to the board later in the day? Nope. Minesweeper. Tomorrow is the half marathon at Silverstone so it will be up early to dash up to the famous race track where I'm sure that Schumacher and the like do loops in a minute and a half or so. Us, the daft enough to do it 15,000 (estimated), will be doing 3 sort of laps (there's a weird jig in the middle that seems to go across the middle of the field). And if I get done inside 2 and a half hours with the way my leg has been giving me grief, I'll be delighted. All I need is for the sun to hold on, the wind to always be behind me and the dancing girls to be waiting at the end.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Death Defying Crane Walk

Staring out of the roof window whilst searching for inspiration this afternoon I was startled to see some guys walking along a crane arm - one that is at least 15 stories off the ground. Having posted a picture of a guy asleep at the wheel of a crane the other day, I felt obliged to publish one of this death defying high wire walk.
And, just to show you exactly how high up these guys were:
Oh, and no, I didn't find the inspiration I was looking for.

Sun up?

I've been stopping by at Jonathan Schwarz's blog pretty regularly. The whole pony-tailed-suit-wearing-uber-geek think is odd when you meet him, but I like his in your face style. He's no Scott McNealy (Scott is way more direct, quite a lot more personal and often quite funny - I remember him once doing a presentation where he used a projector and marker pens to draw his slides as he talked; the whole show was anti-Microsoft and at one point, he wrote "xbox" on a transparency and shouted out loud "see, they're after your children!"), but he does say stuff that makes a lot of sense and, even when it doesn't, provokes a debate at least. The other day I was talking to a soon-to-be-promoted uber-geek/friend at Sun. I told him that I was still confused about what Sun was up to. Most people I know, in the technology world anyway, equate Sun with boxes. And, once they've made that statement, the next statement is that they're going the way of Silicon Graphics. Many have been saying that or wondering it (me included) for a few years but they keep moving (aided, I am sure, by however many billion dollars in the bank - recently augmented by Microsoft who paid them $2 point something billion). The problem, I said, might be that everything else Sun does looks too much like a PR stunt - fantastic sounding pricing on software ($100/head in your organisation, independent of how many CPUs you run it on; $1 per CPU/hr on the grid etc). No-one gets that it seems. That coupled with no strong desire for anyone that I've come across to use the whole Sun stack of software (e.g. Websphere and Weblogic both seem to flatten iPlanet in comparisons) means that the economics sound great but look questionable. That's my $0.02 anyway. Anyway, back to Jonathan who, in his latest blog entry, says some stuff that resonated with me:
4. We're not getting the message out about our newest hardware. We heard this loud and clear - we need to shout from the rooftops about our newest x86 systems, app switches, storage and the upcoming Niagara systems. Got it. (Maybe you're not - but if that's what you want people to talk about, probably best not to confuse them with headline-grabbing software pricing that swallows all the column inches that folks might talk about your hardware with instead?)
But the real home run statement for me was:
5. Web services may collapse under its own weight. No one at the conference said this. Those are my words. I'm beginning to feel that all the disparate web service specs and fragmented standards activities are way out of control. Want proof? Ask one of your IT folks to define web services. Ask two others. They won't match. We asked folks around the room - it was pretty grim. It's either got to be simplified, or radically rethought. (For the last couple of years I've listened to folks in government talk up web services and only a few diss them, notably the chief wizard on Gateway, Simon, who always said that web services were going to be more pain than good for a long time. As far as I know, the Government Gateway was one of the first web services to be made available anywhere in the public sector, anywhere in the world, but that doesn't mean it was easy - and it was never clear how government would scale to 100s of web services offering 1000s of discrete operations. We could all see a scenario where, just like websites, there would be too many web services doing too little for too few people, but consuming vast amounts of money all the same. Folks seem to have moved on from web services though and now talk about Service Oriented Architectures - something I understand even less and worry about even more. We know, from history, that whenever the technology industry needs to sell us more stuff, they change the paradigm and start inventing new words that us buyers have to translate and figure out and, ultimately, spend money on. It's been a neat trick for years and it looks like it's being tried again. But maybe Jonathan is calling "uncle" on this one. There's no money to be made here until it gets simpler to design, build, implement and *especially* secure and operate them.
Good stuff.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Marathon Fund Raising Update

Just checking where I've got to with the fundraising ... and delighted to see that my initial target of £3,000 has been achieved. Thank you very much to all those who have already donated - Macmillan are right now thinking about how and where to spend your money to get the most value. Naturally enough, I'm going to raise the target now ... and head for £5,000. That would be an awesome target to reach! The question of the tutu raised again with Bernie suggesting that he will double it if I run in a suit and tie (thank god, not my birthday suit and a tie) ... are there any takers on that? I have to say that a suit and tie, whilst not particularly great sounding, is a whole lot better than a tutu.

You can't park that aircraft carrier there, chum!

Simon Moores on blogging ....
At a time when democracy and the privileges given to us as a society in Magna Carta, are being steadily whittled away by the arrival of a Presidential-style of government, Weblogging here and even in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia remind us that the Internet, for all its problems, can drive the principles of free-speech and democracy forward in a way that was impossible in the past. The Weblog is the man-in-the-street’s equivalent of an aircraft carrier and while the great majority float aimlessly in a sea comment, some can make a difference and keep big business and politics honest in a world which tends increasingly towards the opposite.
Of course, the problem with such aircraft carriers in the UK would be that they are too short. Blogs are like aircraft carriers in many respects as one person once said:

One shipbuilder said: "Steel and fresh air is cheap - it is the quality of what goes in that is the important issue."

I'm not claiming for a second that the quality of what goes on here is any better than anyone else's, but I do kind of like the idea of just floating around aimlessly for a bit.