Goodbye to 2015!

I’m always sorry when the year comes to an end. It means there’s one fewer to go, at least, for me and you, if not for the unborn and the dead. When I was eight and calculated that I would be 42 at the end of the century (let’s not quibble about how the new century actually started in 2001), that seemed unimaginably ancient. The last century ended sixteen years ago, though it still seems like yesterday. (The painful memory of the Queen and Tony Blair linking arms and singing Auld Lang Syne in that pointless white elephant, the Millennium Dome, is still horribly raw. )

auldlang

When the next century comes I will be unimaginably ancient by anyone’s standards (142), but who knows, with good progress in geriatric medicine and cosmetics, perhaps I’ll make it.

I’m a determined optimist, so I won’t dwell on the terrible things that happened in 2015. We all know what they are. Rather, I’ll list some of the best things that happened (the order below is insignificant):

  • An accord on reducing carbon emissions was reached in Paris by nearly 150 nations. Perhaps there’s now a chance that humanity might survive the threat of global warming.

globwarming

  • Angela Merkel did the RIGHT THING and welcomed nearly a million refugees into Germany.

merkel

  • Same-sex marriage was legalised in the USA after the Supreme Court rejected the Defence of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. In Ireland, and for the first time anywhere by referendum, a majority voted in favour of gay marriage.

gay marriage

  • The best-yet photographs of Pluto were taken as a NASA’s New Horizons probe sped by.

pluto

  • England won the Ashes.

ashes

  • Extreme poverty (as defined by the United Nations) fell for the first time below 10% of the world’s population

poverty

  • The African Ebola epidemic was defeated, albeit after massive loss of life, and anti-viral remedies were rapidly developed and seemed to work.

ebola

  • Myanmar moved a step closer towards democracy.

myanmar

  • Cuba moved a step closer towards rapprochement with the USA. (I include this rather reluctantly since Cuba will soon be just like everywhere else and very like the USA. But who are we to deny the Cubans this privilege?)

cuba

  • Africa, for the first time, went a year without a new case of Polio (I took this from Bill Gates’ list).

polio

  • Russian Athletics got booted out of world competition

russia

  • Sepp Blatter was banned from involvement in football.

blatter

  • ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv.’ The vast majority of Muslims denounced violence committed in their name.

leytonstone

  • At Marks & Spencer’s Wenceslas Square flagship store in Prague the food section got bigger and better.

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  • A rocket sent a satellite into space and returned safely and vertically to earth.

rocket

  • Hillary Clinton announced her candidature for the Presidency of the United States.

hillary

These are all great examples of scientific ingenuity, political principle,  international cooperation, courage, determination against corruption and violence, progress towards equality, sporting splendour and gastronomic possibility.

Any dissent?

I shall be celebrating the New Year with Petru, Zdenek, Cedric, Remi, Tom, Revaz, Flavia, two roast chickens and an apple tart. Have a good party!

 

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Consulting is More Than Technical Knowledge

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I’m having a row with MarketUP, a consultancy in online marketing we’ve employed this year at LLP Group and systems@work to sharpen up our websites, our Google AdWords campaigns and our use of other marketing channels. In fact, I fired them yesterday.

marketing consultants

As so often, the ostensible reasons for our row are one thing, and the resentments and disappointments that fuel our row are another. From my point of view it isn’t so much about what they know or didn’t know, or did or didn’t do, as about their style as consultants.

Online marketing advice is in short supply. Everyone wants to improve the way their business is presented, and there are ever more sophisticated tools to use – websites (where fashions change with depressing rapidity), Google AdWords campaigns, LinkedIn pages and ads, blogs (such as this one) and specific campaign-oriented micro websites. These must be consistent in terms of content and style. It takes specialist knowledge that you’re not likely to have in-house, to use these tools well.

True, MarketUP did a good job of improving the graphical styles of our websites and microsites, but I was concerned at the start that most of their work had been in the area of B2C (business to consumer) where traffic is high, messages are relatively simple, and sales, in terms of units, are numerous.

In our world, of business software and consulting, messages are complex, target markets are very specific, traffic is low, and sales, in terms of units, may be fewer than twenty a year.

I’d actually had some success with Google AdWords campaigns. Over the last five years and more I’ve tracked the costs of our systems@work AdWords campaigns and the revenue derived from them. The results look like this (revenue blue, cost orange):

adwords

It’s a good story, but it doesn’t reflect much recent success. Once we’ve ‘captured’ a client, revenue rolls in for as many as ten years. In fact, over the last two years we’ve added very few new clients directly through our Google AdWords campaigns.

It was to address this issue that I turned to MarketUp. They presented themselves well and seemed to know as much as anyone in this area and their price was reasonable.

But consultants need more than knowledge. I have written extensively on this (see The Art of Consulting). Consultants need to ask good questions, they need to listen, they need to understand the underlying needs of their client, they need to take responsibility and do much more than deliver mere technical expertise. Telling what they know is just a small part of the job.

Things began to go wrong when it became clear that they didn’t really understand our products and couldn’t come up with the Ads that would speak to our potential clients. In the end I had to write these myself. I didn’t mind and I wasn’t surprised but MarketUP were curiously reluctant to admit any kind of fallibility.

And in the end the AdWords campaigns they put together were no more effective than those that came before, and over six months I’ve had not a single good lead from the site. I’d hoped that a website redesign (and I accept wholeheartedly that the new site for systems@work is immensely more attractive than before) would attract more visitors and contacts, but it didn’t.

Of course, consultants cannot guarantee success, and there is no online marketing agency in the world with the specialist knowledge to predict how online marketing can best be used for our particular products and market. But that was not my issue with MarketUP.

What has really annoyed me is their response to challenge and criticism. They kept insisting that ‘measurements’ showed that the website and campaigns were performing better, as if there could be any measurement of importance that matters to me other than obtaining good leads, of which there were none.

When criticised for their failure to put together Ads that made sense they were simply defensive.

And when, finally, there was a vast misunderstanding about a project to improve our natural listings, they made no attempt to see things from my point of view, or to understand that I only had one simple objective, to obtain more good leads through paid campaigns or natural listings.

It was their reaction to criticism that made me see red. I cannot remember a single occasion over the last year when they have admitted error.

And as far as I can recall, they provided no scoping documents, no memoranda of understanding, at any time to document their understanding of our needs.

It’s a lesson in consulting. Technical skills are essential, but there’s far more to consulting than knowing things. You must ask well, listen well, document well, understand well, and manage well, and you must respond well to criticism.

FPPs – Getting Paid and Getting Out

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I’ve listed so many risks associated with Fixed Price Projects (FPPs) that you may well have decided to avoid them entirely. That would be a mistake. If approached carefully, and with reasonableness on both sides of the contract, an FPP can be both profitable and the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship, based on trust and understanding.

As well as all the other risks inherent in and FPP there is also the risk of not getting paid for it, or not being paid on time. This is a much greater risk in FPPs than in time and materials projects.

Not what you want to be doing…..

getting paid

Payment Terms

Most fixed price projects involve payment terms based on phase completion or the delivery of components of the project. There are many risks in this:

 

  • A client may unreasonably withhold confirmation of delivery or completion of a phase, and yet allow other phases to continue
  • A client may halt or suspend the project

 

In both cases you may have difficulty in obtaining payment.

 

Include a clause such as this in your contract:

 

‘Where payment is dependent on acceptance of the completion of a phase or upon delivery of stipulated components of the project you may withhold acceptance if grounds are reasonable. In such cases it is essential that you put in writing your reasons for withholding acceptance. You also agree to provide us with immediate opportunity for clarification and remedy. If you do not do so within two weeks of delivery or completion of a phase then you agree to pay us as if you have accepted the phase or delivery. Furthermore you agree that other phases and deliverables may be suspended until payment is made. You also agree that during the period of remedy, however long, and until payment is made, later phases of the project will be delayed and deliveries suspended.’

It’s also vitally important that you build in to your contract and into your project plan an (albeit early) option to escape.

 

Getting Out

 

If you can persuade your customer to engage in a serious design phase for the project so that final estimates can be made on the basis of clarified requirements, then do so. You will save money and reduce risk, even if you pay for half the days yourself. You will probably have put forward an initial estimate, of say 100 days, and you may find that you arrive at a new estimate of 200. In this case you must make sure that both the customer and you can extricate yourselves form the contract. You must have a phrase such as this:

 

‘We have made estimates on the basis of the discussions we have with you, and assuming certain circumstances, intentions and needs. Those assumptions that might materially affect our estimates are documented. Following an initial design and estimation phase of the project we may find that some material assumptions are false, and that other circumstances are not as we understand them now, and in this case we may revise our estimate. Both you and we reserve the right to withdraw from the project at this stage, or to renegotiate the scope of the contract.’

 

Your client may try to argue that in this case he has spent money for nothing, but you should and can very reasonably argue that he will have obtained a very much more precise idea of what an implementation project involves, and what can be done in the specified time. This represents real value.

See also:

FPP – A Frightening Acronym

FPP – Estimating Fixed Price Projects

FPPs – Mitigating Some of the Risks

FPPs – More Pitfalls to Avoid

FPPs – Yet More Thoughts on What Could Go Wrong

Dog-Eat-Dog at the Court

If William Golding’s fable, Lord of the Flies, had concerned not the gradual descent into beastliness and cruelty of a group of boy choristers stranded on a coral island without adult supervision, but, instead, the antics of a group of senior citizens (imagine a Saga Cruise gone horribly wrong), I fear the result would have been the same. The thin and gracious veneer of civilisation that the elderly present would soon enough wear off and the pettiness, arrogance and animal ambition that lies at the core would gradually emerge. True, the capacity of the elderly for actual violence might be diminished by age but the intent would be there.

retired ladies

I say this after spending a calm and pleasant Christmas at my mother’s retirement home in Salisbury in the West of England. It’s a community of about 50 elderly men and women (eligibility starts at 70) where communal and individual rights are finely balanced. Each resident owns his or her own apartment (albeit leasehold) but there are communal areas (a large dining-room and sitting-room), and there’s round-the-clock supervision (though this doesn’t extend to nursing), financed by a very considerable and mandatory monthly service charge. There are pleasant gardens, and the town centre and Cathedral Close are a short shuffle away.

At a comfortable retirement home you might expect an atmosphere of serenity and calm, but you would be mistaken. As retirement and age diminish our power and influence over professional and public events, and as our world contracts, so the will to control, to assert our capabilities, even if the battleground is smaller, burns ever more fiercely. As Alan Bennett writes in one of his Talking Head monologues, ‘If you think squash is a highly competitive sport, try flower arranging.’

Politics at my mother’s community are every bit as complicated as at the Kremlin, or Conservative Party Headquarters. Committees thrive in the tedium of daily life, putsches are plotted, and no prisoners taken. Two ladies recently came to blows at Reception over a procedural issue debated at the Entertainment Committee. At the Debating Club, fiercely dominated by the Church of England clique, you can sometimes cut the atmosphere with a knife. And who will sit with whom in the communal dining-room requires seat planning skills worthy of a chess grand master.

But one issue has recently torn the community apart, and shattered the fragile peace more damagingly than usual. It’s all about windows. Residents were recently asked by the General Purposes Committee to accept, collectively, the cost of replacing all the windows in the building. Never mind that some residents, as in my mother’s case, didn’t need new windows, and didn’t want PVC instead of wood, each was asked to stump up several thousand pounds for the collective good.

Now the terms of residency don’t require this, but it was put about (I think falsely) that it must be all or none, that the Council’s planning rules require this. True, costs are lower if all agree to have the work done at once, but the question is whether the collective good usurps individual rights. Unanimity on the question was required.

My mother and two other brave residents dissented at an all-residents convocation, my mother making a speech of almost Churchillian eloquence on the matter of individual rights and the collective, and the motion was therefore rejected. A tornado of bitterness has ensued, and over Christmas my brother was ambushed by two elderly and slightly equine sisters and invited to examine their rotting window frames, an invitation he declined.

But I discovered only yesterday that the issue is one not only of balancing interests but of the conduct of democracy. At the all-residents meeting, where, as described in the minutes with impressive pettiness and spite ‘only three residents opposed the will of the majority’ the vote was taken at the end of the debate by asking only those opposed to raise their hands. Never mind that some of the residents don’t have the strength to raise their hands, or didn’t have the faintest idea of what was being discussed, this was the method that was chosen for the vote. No secret ballot, no opportunity to abstain. Those who were not against were assumed to be on the side of the collective will.

Clearly the timid could simply rely on the motion’s being rejected without having to peep over the parapet. This flavour of democratic expression resembles the way voting was conducted at the Reichstag as the Nazi Party forced the passing of power into Hitler’s hands. There were no storm troopers in the sitting-room at the Court, but it certainly wasn’t democracy.

We must now install intruder alarms and strengthen the door frames at my mother’s apartment. I don’t know what the Gestapo are plotting but I suspect they will be mounting an offensive. Retirement doesn’t mean serenity. It’s dog-eat-dog at the Court.

 

All I Want for Christmas

Downton_Abbey_season_1

All I want for Christmas this year is that Edith should marry Bertie in the final episode of Downton Abbey. She’s certainly the more likeable of the two surviving sisters – sensible, independent, brave, intelligent and she’s had more than her fair share of bad luck. The decent man she’d planned to marry a few series earlier, and whose baby she bore, got himself murdered in Germany and she was left alone to conceal her bastard daughter and publish the magazine he left her. She’s ever so much more likeable than her stuck-up bitch sister Mary, who, undeserving by comparison, won her man in the penultimate episode. I suspect he’ll turn out to be a cad, but we shall never know because this really is the final episode.

I’d also love to see a happy ending for Thomas. He’s the bitter, lonely, gay under-butler at Downton, whose destiny is only to scowl, and scheme and be unhappy. In the equations that rule period drama and generate the marvellously predictable plot lines and dialogue of Downton Abbey, homosexuality means unhappiness. Sadly the cast doesn’t, as far as I can tell, offer Thomas many candidates for companionship, but who knows, Carson may yet ditch his overly dour wife and surprise us all. But it would be churlish, surely, of Julian Fellowes not to sprinkle a little magic dust over the only gay at the Abbey, especially at Christmas. I wouldn’t want to think he’s homophobic.

The fact is that Downton Abbey is as real to me as the Gospels, which is to say they’re both a lot of lovely nonsense. Lovely nonsense is what Christmas is all about, a pause from the laws of physics, biology, and dog-eat-dog. For a day or two, reindeers fly, Santa squirms through a billion chimneys and consumes a billion mince pies, and for a moment we believe that a baby can be fashioned out of a single set of chromosomes. The nostalgia we feel for simple make-believe must, I suppose, occasionally be indulged, though I’m hard pressed to understand why we feel such joy in children’s misplaced hope. Even if we want so much to believe that anything is possible, faith in the supernatural is usually a mistake.

My own disillusion came when I was about five. I couldn’t quite see how Santa could get everything done, and at a children’s party in Newport, Shropshire, in the early 1960s I set him a trap. Safely ensconced on Santa’s lap (the laps of elderly gentlemen were safe in those innocent days) I asked Santa what he planned to bring me for Christmas. I’d sent him a letter up the chimney just a day or two earlier and it seemed reasonable that he’d remember what I’d asked for. I half suspected, of course, that he wouldn’t know and his artful ‘Well, just let me think for a moment. I get so many letters from little boys like you.’ didn’t fool me for a moment. When he admitted to being stumped, my faith in Santa, fairies, leprechauns, and talking animals, was immediately, and forever, lost. I became then the knowing, smug cynic I am today.

Just a few years later I realised there isn’t much difference between Santa, God and little Baby Jesus. Religion may promote more complex ethical ideas, I suppose, and I’m not against a ‘religious sense’. I just can’t bear the words and strictures that the unctuous derive from it. These can be absurdly complex (the sheer technical detail of Roman Catholic dogma, for example, is astonishing, indeed impressive) but it’s still the wrong answer even if to a deeper need. Santa and God, they’re on the same spectrum in my opinion.

But I’m not against Christmas. Make believe, as long as we know what it is, reminds us that the world can be a wonderful place where dreams, both the selfish and the unselfish ones, come true. But I won’t be kneeling in a drafty church for my dose of hope this year, but will watch the last episode of Downton Abbey instead in the warmth and comfort of my mother’s home, with a mince pie and a glass of wine. I can’t wait for the final Christmas Special. I hope Edith gets her man. And Thomas his.

Have a Happy Christmas, all you of great, little and no faith at all. Be good, but don’t be credulous.

 

FPPs – Yet More Thoughts on What Could Go Wrong

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Fixed Price Projects (FPPs) are difficult enough to estimate when everything lies within your control. Of course, in the real world of business system implementation there are many things you can’t control. You’re planning the work of people you don’t know, assuming preconditions of which you have scant knowledge, and you’re always at the mercy of the unexpected, such as a change in business conditions, of priorities and of sponsor.

If there’s one particularly risky area it lies in the interfaces you must build between your system (the system you know) and existing systems (which perhaps no one knows fully).

When drafting a contract or scoping document, consider these risks.

Interfaces

Interfaces can kill. Be very clear what you mean by them. Just as wars can be fought over the differences in meaning between ‘interfaced’ systems and ‘integrated’ systems, so battles can be lost and won over what you promise when you promise interfaces.

Just for the record, I use the term ‘integration’ when I mean that two systems (usually separate packaged software systems, and often supplied at different times or by different suppliers) communicate at database level, by which I mean that one system might write or read data directly from the other system’s database.

I use the term ‘interface’ to describe situations where one system exports a file or table specifically for the other system to do something with. But I’m not sure this is standard usage.

But whether we mean integrated or interfaced precision is essential. You must list the ‘interfaces’ you are promising (and here I mean program code that will read or write interface files or tables), together with the purpose of the interface, the frequency with which it will run, the data fields it will contain (or ‘data sufficient to support the standard …. function in system xxxx’) and your assumptions, which MUST include an assumption that the data are CLEAN and do not require additional validation. A clause such as this is needed:

‘We will provide the listed interfaces on the assumption that your systems will provide complete and accurate data in an interface file or table that are sufficient for the purposes [described if possible] of system XX such that no additional validation will be required to ensure compliance with system XX, and no conversion unless according to rules that are stipulated within the scope of this contract, and as and when these data are required. You accept that we need make no provision for the inaccuracy or incompleteness of these data unless otherwise stipulated in this contract.’

The last thing that you want to happen is that you find yourself unexpectedly committed to developing a whole subsystem for the provision, validation and conversion of data.

Go-Live Support

Go-live support can last forever. Its function must be clearly defined. It is not consulting by other means, or training by other means. It’s supposed to be support to deal with functions that have failed, on the assumption that the client’s staff can already manage standard situations and standard exception conditions. In reality it is often more than this, and therefore you must be all the more careful to limit your obligation. Your FPP plan must clearly limit the number of days provided, with this part explicitly agreed with the client..

You might include a clause such as this:

‘You and we understand that your staff’s ability to manage the system depends not only on the quality and duration of the training we provide, but also on the complexity of the requirements you have given us, and on the ability and conscientiousness of your staff. We have agreed that the FPP includes a fixed number, NN, days of go-live support and we agree that if more days are needed, then these fall outside the scope of the FPP and will be charged separately.’

Delays

When project tasks or phases are delayed, we often find ourselves doing additional work whilst waiting for things to happen. If this is the client’s fault then it is unreasonable that we should bear this cost. You must therefore always include a clause such as this one:

‘Our estimates are based on an agreed project plan, which depends for its success and on-time delivery on both parties to the agreement. When there are delays due to whatever cause, additional consulting time is often incurred. When the delay is due to our fault then we must provide any additional consulting time at our cost. When the delay is due to your fault then we reserve the right to charge for any additional time incurred.’

Accuracy

Accurate scoping and estimating depend on the accuracy with which a client has stated his requirements. When it comes to a contract and scoping document these requirements must be restated without any ambiguity, and with ALL material assumptions stated. A material assumption is one which will affect your estimates. A crude example:

Suppose that you have included ‘product costing’ in your scoping. No qualifications, no stated assumptions, just ‘product costing’. You have assumed one cost and a specific method (perhaps the client has even told you to make that assumption). Later you have this sad conversation:

FD:      I understand that you think you’ve delivered product costing. You have, and it’s working nicely. But I only see one part of it.

YOU:   Thanks. Glad you like it. We’re glad to have finished it.

FD:      You haven’t finished it. You’ve only finished local costing. You’ve forgotten we’re an international company. We need to calculate product cost in USD too, using a slightly different costing method.

YOU:   But you didn’t say!

FD:      Did we need to say something so obvious. We assumed you knew. And anyway, you’ve signed up for ‘product costing’ and that’s what product costing means to us. And it can’t be much trouble to add it. A system like NEW SYSTEM should be capable of multiple costing methods.

YOU:   S**T (quietly)

What your scoping document and contract should have said is ‘product costing based on the XXXXX product costing method in local currency’ or something even finer.

In any case your contract should include a clause like this:

‘Our estimates are based on the definitions, data and descriptions contained in the scoping document and on no other assumptions, whether expressed verbally to us, or by means of any other written communications. If these are incorrect then you agree that we will charge for any necessary extra time incurred as a result of such inaccuracies, subject to your agreement that such work should be carried out. If these are ambiguous then we will attempt to agree on a reasonable compromise in terms of charges for extra work arising from an interpretation at variance with ours, and will seek third-party arbitration if we cannot agree.’

See also:

FPP – A Frightening Acronym

FPP – Estimating Fixed Price Projects

FPPs – Mitigating Some of the Risks

FPPs – More Pitfalls to Avoid

 

In Praise of Immigration

I can’t understand all the fuss about immigration. Most of my best friends and family are immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. Putting aside the subtle distinctions that some immigrants and anti-immigrants make between expats, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, let’s just think of immigrants as those who settle in another country indefinitely, whatever their purpose, whether in search of opportunity or sanctuary.

immigrants

Let me itemise a few of those who populate my business, social and family life.

I am a British immigrant to the Czech Republic, where I’ve built a business in IT, software and consulting – LLP Group. I’ve been made welcome, despite my lazy failure to learn the local language. Serious cultural mismatches have been few, and the most serious have had to do with the proper making of tea.

My business partner, Barbara, is an immigrant, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. I couldn’t have built the business without her. Her husband is an immigrant from Serbia.

My friend and colleague Darina is an immigrant from Slovakia to the Czech Republic (though it’s true these were constituent parts of the same country when she made that fateful journey). I couldn’t have built the business without her, either.

My partner is an immigrant from Moldova, now a British citizen, working in Prague.

My friend Jo, who has built a PR and Marketing business in Prague (JWA) is a British immigrant, and her partner Jan, an immigrant to Britain in the late 1960s, has returned to Prague as one of the few lawyers qualified to practice in both countries.

My friends in Prague are immigrant French, Georgian, Romanian, Slovak, and so on. And I have some local friends too.

My brother is an immigrant to Switzerland where he married a Swiss French musician. He was made to yodel at his wedding, but otherwise has faced no particular indignities.

My partner’s sister Doina is a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom. She qualified as a pharmacist in the summer, sent herself on a crash course in English in Plymouth, walked into a dozen pharmacies in London and landed herself a job inside a week.

Immigrants are hard working, determined, ambitious, tolerant, appreciative. The overwhelming majority enrich the life of the countries they live in, culturally and materially. They are rarely bent on destruction or social benefits, or the slaughtering of animals in the gutter, forced marriage or female circumcision. They have fled or sought new opportunities to avoid such things.

I write this today because I met the best taxi driver in Prague yesterday. He drove me from my office to the airport. Mr Linh (his card doesn’t give his first name) is Vietnamese, and has been driving a taxi and working with tourists in Prague for four or five years. He spoke English perfectly, and (as far as I can tell!) speaks Czech well too. He underbid his rivals on Liftago (the taxi App I always use), bidding 18 CZK instead of 28 CZK per km. He was just around the corner, and with a keen sense of market opportunity he grabbed the chance for a longer than average journey.  His car was clean and he drove with care. No hints of ash or unwashed clothes.

And when he dropped me at the airport he offered me a gift from a basket of Christmas presents he’d wrapped for his customers. I had to take his word for the fact that none was explosive but after thirty years of business travel I am a good judge of taxi drivers. I have never before been given a gift by a taxi drive, assuming you can discount those cards that point you in the direction of striptease.

Mr Linh – +420 702 348 888 – the best taxi driver in Prague.

choc

I wish immigrants the world over a very Happy Christmas. And the rest of you, be glad of us!