Unwise Words

I have nothing but loathing for Donald Trump and his policies, and I’ve heard more than I can bear of his aggressive, petulant, American supremacist nonsense. I fear him, but if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, which after her huge victory in South Carolina now seems increasingly likely, he probably can’t win the Presidency. He’s preaching to the converted at the Primaries so the adulation he’s enjoying almost certainly isn’t representative of the electorate at large.

But I found myself in sympathy with him yesterday, even admiring of his response to the outrage that emerged when he unwittingly re-tweeted something Benito Mussolini supposedly wrote or said. (See BBC.)

‘It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.’

Of course, it’s the kind of nonsense that macho-nationalists write, but I don’t see that it’s particularly pernicious, as nonsense goes. I don’t agree with it, though not because I’m a vegetarian, rather because I wouldn’t mind living 100 years in a pleasant green field, and Perhaps also because lions have very bad breath. But to criticise Donald Trump for unwittingly re-tweeting the quotation is just plain silly. Bad people say good things, and do good things, and good people say bad things, and do bad things. Hitler was nice to animals.

So, when Trump responded, ‘Mussolini was Mussolini… What difference does it make?’ I sympathise. Other, establishment candidates, would have attempted all sorts of strenuous and embarrassed damage-limitation moves, but not Trump. He didn’t know it was something Mussolini wrote or said, and he didn’t give a damn.

Sensible dietary advice from a very bad man…

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I Googled ‘good things that bad people said’ and found many pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of, or flowed from the pens of, evil dictators:

An action committed in anger, is an action doomed to failure. (Genghis Khan)

It takes less courage to criticise the decisions of others than to stand by your own. (Attila the Hun)

Faith moves mountains, but only knowledge moves them to the right place. (Joseph Goebbels)

I call on you not to hate, because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking. (Saddam Hussein)

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot. (Lenin)

Don’t drink at all, don’t smoke, you must exercise and eat vegetables and fruit. (Robert Mugabe)

And another one from Benito Mussolini, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Inactivity is death.

 

In Support of Apple

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Rights are often in conflict and there’s no reliable calculus that determines which of them should prevail. That’s because rights aren’t about utilitarian calculation. They’re a fly in the ointment of the collective, an essential counterbalance to the crude maximisation of human happiness and the crude minimisation of human suffering, which, if you’re just subtracting one from the other, can justify appalling cruelty to an individual as long as the sum of happiness is great enough.

Rights are fundamental to any moral theory; without them there wouldn’t be anything to get started with. It’s rights that establish human inclusion in whatever utilitarian calculation might be begun, and limit the applicability of its result. Animals, too, have the right to moral consideration.

Where do rights come from? Legal rights come from the law, whether from a founding document such as a Bill of Rights or a Constitution, or in some legal systems, from preceding judgements. But legal rights depend in turn on moral rights, which the religious take from additional founding document such as the Bible or the Koran, but which atheists like me, though each of us perhaps differently, take from a concept of what is essential to human life.

Human life, and language, are built on the assumption that others are like us. Descartes’ idea of the solitary consciousness doesn’t make sense because consciousness requires articulation, and a private language isn’t possible. Language and our knowledge of each other presume on our ability to know what others see and feel, and morality on our vivid understanding of others’ misfortune. We grant rights to each other on that basis, though we don’t all agree on their weight.

The battle between Apple and the FBI is about rights and it’s not a simple one. Tim Cook, I think, is unconcerned with the rights of the San Bernardino gunman (who is, in any case, dead), and I suppose he’d have no issue with assisting the FBI to obtain data from that particular phone. The issue, as I understand it, is that Apple is being asked to provide a ‘general tool’ for the hacking of iPhones anywhere and everywhere,  which, in his view, infringes the rights of millions of ‘innocent’ iPhone users. It’s not about the particular, where a murderer’s rights have been forfeited, but about the general, and the potential infringement of global rights to privacy. In Apple’s judgement this right prevails over the right of the general population to the protection that might ensue from information hacked from the phone.

I support Apple in their resistance to the court’s ruling. And I support their efforts to make it impossible, even for their own engineers, to hack the iPhone. I presume that it would require some rather complex and bludgeoning law to make it a requirement that a device be always hackable. It would certainly give Government too much power.

Rights are these days under serious attack in the nation of the free. Trump wants to turn up the volume when it comes to torture – waterboarding being far too gentle for his taste. (If you want to know more about waterboarding and how awful it really is, read the late Christopher Hitchens on the subject. He tried it.)

Mexicans, apparently, will soon be building their own wall to prevent themselves from scurrying across the border (I love the spiteful twist of ‘making them pay for it’, rather as if you might insist that a murderer pay for his own electric chair). And all Muslims are to be denied entry to the country.

Hardly the land of the free.

The right to privacy ranks high in my list, but there is, I suppose, no way you can establish that it must outrank other rights. It’s a matter of opinion and needs defence, by repeated passionate assertion, rather than philosophical justification, though logic can help with the analysis of how one right might conflict with another. But there are many who rank the right to bear arms, for example, far higher than the general population’s right to safety. What seems obvious to them is anathema to me.

But, from my point of view, three cheers for Tim Cook. I hope he doesn’t end up in jail (and have to pay for the bars).

 

The Gasman Cometh, and Other Unintended Consequences

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A few weeks ago the boiler in my apartment in Prague began to reveal its age (and at more than twenty it probably deserved a telegram from the Queen). It struggled on gamely for a week or so, supplying just enough hot water for the radiators, but only cold to the bathroom and the kitchen sink. It was a case of bracing morning showers for a few weeks, though, to be fair to the boiler, there was, just for a while, a way of surprising it into providing a few seconds of tepid water, but you had to be nifty with the soap.

The gasman came, fiddled with the bits inside, stood on the lavatory seat (and broke it), and, after forty minutes or so, expressed satisfaction with what he’d done. It cost me about 50 EUR, but, even so, just a few minutes later, once he’d gone, we were more or less back where we were, only now the tepid water trick (twisting the tap as rapidly as possible from a standing start to maximum volume) no longer worked.

A day or two later the boiler coughed and spluttered and gave up the ghost for good. The gasman came again and prescribed a new 2,000 EUR boiler, which, two weeks later he, and a gang of workmen, then installed. Installation involved destroying the ceiling to meet new (European Union) regulations on ventilation. But, finally, the hot water flowed, even if not as copiously as before (EU regulations limiting the maximum gas consumption, and therefore the crude boiling capacity of the ordinary domestic gas boiler).

A day or two later another man came to mend the ceiling, and then another man came to paint it. The man who came to paint the ceiling damaged the marble tiles, so I think there’ll be another man in another few days, and perhaps another one after that. Never, so far, a woman. It all made me rather angry and intolerant. I know there are greater problems in the world, but today my world was small and I was its tyrant. (I fear I will never become a Saint.)

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It all puts me in mind of Flanders and Swann. They were a popular musical comedy act in the 1960s, one man singing and the other one playing the piano, both, of course, dapper in their dinner jackets. They were never funnier than in their droll classic, ‘The Gasman Cometh.’

It’s a historical curiosity and speaks volumes about the class consciousness of the times. In Flanders’ introductory remark that, ‘You’ll all be familiar with this kind of thing,’ there’s an assumption that the audience could never include an actual gasman, painter, carpenter, electrician, or glazier, or any of the other ‘working men’ they sing about.

The words are these:

‘Twas on a Monday morning the gas man came to call.
The gas tap wouldn’t turn – I wasn’t getting gas at all.
He tore out all the skirting boards to try and find the main
And I had to call a carpenter to put them back again.

‘Twas on a Tuesday morning the carpenter came round.
He hammered and he chiselled and he said:”Look what I’ve found:
your joists are full of dry rot. But I’ll put them all to rights”.
Then he nailed right through a cable and out went all the lights!

‘Twas on a Wednesday morning the electrician came.
He called me Mr. Sanderson, which isn’t quite the name.
He couldn’t reach the fuse box without standing on the bin
And his foot went through a window so I called the glazier in.

‘Twas on a Thursday morning the glazier came round
With his blow torch and his putty and his merry glazier’s song.
He put another pane in – it took no time at all
But I had to get a painter in to come and paint the wall.

‘Twas on a Friday morning the painter made a start.
With undercoats and overcoats he painted every part:
Every nook and every cranny – but I found when he was gone
He’d painted over the gas tap and I couldn’t turn it on!

On Saturday and Sunday they do no work at all;
So ’twas on a Monday morning that the gasman came to call…

‘It all makes work for the working man to do,’ they scoff, as if we’d never expect the same self-interest of lawyers, accountants or cosmetic surgeons.

Hear them sing it (The Gasman Cometh).

I loved the song as a child, and I still chortle quietly as the last line announces, with profound and resigned inevitability, that the gasman once more cometh.

Today, in our more democratic times, the gasman is at least the equal of the lawyer, the engineer, the IT consultant. Indeed, he or she may know a lot more about things that actually matter than the more patrician professional types. We are all equal now, at least in the sense that most of us who work in one profession or another provide a service to some others, the lawyer to the carpenter, the accountant to the glazier, the electrician to the gasman. We are all as likely to please or not, and we all serve and are served. It just depends on the circumstances.

And then it struck me, having descended from the tyrant’s pedestal, that what can be said about the gasman and his train of unintended colleagues and consequences, can as easily be said about the software engineer. We change a single line of code and, several interfaces down the line, a system somewhere crashes and burns. Perhaps someone should write a song about that.

 

Strength in Numbers – Growth by Acquisition

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You can grow a consulting business such as LLP Group in two ways: through organic growth, or through acquisition. The first is a slow, but usually sure, process that can ordinarily be financed from profit, as long as the pace is not too fast. It’s a sure process because expansion need proceed no faster than the market will allow, and because each of the many steps you must take will be a small step that you can take when you’re ready, and not before. But organic growth is not without risk, the risk that others might move faster than you, seize a larger market share and leave you struggling along behind. Growth by acquisition is a far riskier process, and it’s much more difficult to finance, but it’s nearly always a quicker way of gaining market share. So, each process has its merits and its risks.

LLP Group has grown steadily over 24 years, usually through self-financed organic growth, but also through three acquisitions. The first, in Romania, involved the acquisition of a small competitor providing consulting around Microsoft Dynamics NAV. We thereby gained market share and brought into the company some of the best experts in the field. I would judge it a success, though it would be difficult to measure the financial benefit over a long period. When the financial crisis came we lost some customers and employees and we eventually sold our Microsoft Dynamics ERP division.

In Hungary we made a disastrous acquisition that I regret to this day, encouraged by a managing director of great charm and persuasiveness, but little sense of risk. Again, it was a company that was expert in Microsoft Dynamics NAV. We carried out limited due diligence and failed to spot a disastrous project that led to an expensive lawsuit against the company, which we eventually lost, and which finally led to the bankruptcy of the company.

In Slovakia we made a third, small, but successful acquisition to bolster the group’s capability around Microsoft Dynamics AX. This company was sold with LLP Group’s entire Dynamics division, but the acquisition made the division more attractive to potential buyers.

The risks of acquisition are many, particularly for a services company, where value lies mainly in employees and customers, partially in intellectual property, but almost never in saleable fixed assets:

  • Are the financial statements correct?
  • Are revenue projections plausible?
  • Is the sale pipeline plausible?
  • Are contracts with current customers secure?
  • Are relationships with employees good?
  • Are the company’s strategic aims consistent with the buyer’s?
  • Are the company’s culture and ethical standards compatible with the buyer’s?

Due diligence of various kinds and close observation can help you to decide some of these questions, but risk remains.

Sometimes there’s an opportunity that you can’t put aside, so this week we’re announcing the largest acquisition in our history, the acquisition by our Microsoft Dynamics CRM consultancy, LLP CRM, of Logic point, our main competitor in the Czech Republic. Together we will be the largest specialist provider of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) consulting and software in the region, with combined revenues of towards 3 Million EUR and around 45 staff.

‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure,’ the saying goes. This has been a fast-moving relationship, with talks only beginning a month ago. But we’re a good match, each of us bringing different technical skills and different sector knowledge to the table. Together we will be able to offer our customers a wider range of skills, with greater efficiency.

We’re starting close cooperation this week, and have agreed terms for our merger (LLP CRM will acquire 80% of Logic point) subject to due diligence. We expect to tie the legal knot in about three months’ time. Preliminary careful analysis, carried out with caution and scepticism, has thrown up no obstacles, or unexpected risks that cannot be mitigated, but it is the ‘unknown unknowns’ that we must be wary of.

In the meantime, we’re in for an exciting and hectic time, as LLP Group’s numbers in the Czech Republic grow to more than 80 for the first time in the group’s history. Fingers crossed for a long and happy marriage.

 

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a book I wish I’d never read, if only because I’d love to read it again for the first time. It is one amongst many ‘first-time’ pleasures I would eagerly relive, such as the first night I spent in a hotel (I was about five years old and it was probably a three-star, but the glamour of it was overwhelming), my first glass of a really good red wine (a Nuits-Saint-Georges in a restaurant in Poole in 1975), the first time I flew in an aeroplane (to Malta in 1965 in a turbo-prop Vanguard or Viscount at an altitude of 19,000 feet) and so on. I wouldn’t, however, want to relive my first, and last, parachute jump.

Few of us will live as long as the heroine of Karel Capek’s play (and Janacek’s opera) – The Makropulos Case. Elina Makropulos possesses a chemical formula that can prolong her life indefinitely, and she’s lived a life of ever declining excitement for several hundred years. It is an instructive case. As we age, sadly, we begin to understand the potential tedium of immortality. There are fewer and fewer experiences that we can enjoy for the first time, and though the second time is almost as fun, the thousandth time isn’t. Space travel might yet be a possibility, but otherwise it’s increasingly a case of ‘seen that, done that, got the T-shirt.’ After about two hundred years, if Elina is our guide, nothing seems worthwhile anymore. (Not so, it would seem, for Doctor Who, who, even after many thousands of years, is as determined as ever to protect humankind from alien malice. But perhaps a good lesson – altruism never palls.)

As for To Kill a Mockingbird, I can even remember where I was when I finished the novel – on a bus from Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, returning to my apartment after a weekend in Vienna, probably in 1989. I came to the novel late, having been urged for two decades to read it by friends who’d read it at school, no doubt gladly, but under duress.

It is a perfect novel, a story brilliantly imagined and told through the eyes of a motherless young girl, Scout. The racism, malice and injustice she witnesses seem incomprehensible to her young mind. It’s easily readable, and politically powerful, but never priggishly didactic. It became a wonderful film, which Harper Lee admired, with Gregory Peck playing Scout’s father, the splendid Atticus Finch, everyone’s favourite father and lawyer- steadfast, handsome, principled, tolerant, sternly affectionate and loving. That marvellous moment when the black community, relegated to the courthouse gallery, stands for Atticus Finch as he leaves the courtroom having failed to obtain an acquittal for his client, who has been found guilty of raping a poor white girl, still brings tears to my eyes.

‘Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passing.’

Harper Lee should also be remembered as the childhood friend of another great American writer, Truman Capote. She played an important part later in the research of Capote’s greatest and final book, In Cold Blood. She lived quietly after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird vowing never to publish another novel. She believed both that she had said everything she had to say in the novel, and that it was a success she could never repeat.

She was right, and I have averted my eyes from Go Set a Watchman, an earlier novel she was persuaded to publish, surely against her own better judgement, last year. I understand it portrays an Atticus Finch of very different, bigoted, racist, views, and I don’t want him spoiled.

Let Harper Lee remain a glorious one-hit wonder who gave us a novel of astonishing brilliance and knew she had nothing more to say. On reflection, I believe I will enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird even if I live for a thousand years. Its central themes will never be irrelevant.

Keeping an Eye on Projects

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Whether you’re a lawyer, an IT consultant, an engineer, or working in PR, architecture, or for an advertising agency, or indeed any other kind of professional service organisation, it is your time that is probably the chief determinant of project cost, and the fees that your firm will charge to your customers. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding up all the time you’ve reported in your timesheet and multiplying it by a fee rate; sometimes your firm will have estimated how much time is needed for a project and calculated a fixed price for a well-scoped piece of work. In both cases, it’s never quite as simple as you would wish it to be. Sometimes there’s time you can’t charge, and very often a fixed-price project takes more time (and very occasionally less time) than planned.

If you’re working for a professional services company and you’re in a position of responsibility you’ll be familiar with these month-end questions:

‘How much of your Work in Progress (the time you haven’t yet billed) will you be able to bill? How much is it really worth?’

‘How is your fixed price project going? Do you expect it to take more time or less time than planned? ‘

You’re asked these questions especially sternly by your firm’s Finance Director, since he or she is responsible for calculating revenue for the month that’s closing, and revenue depends on the value of the project time that you’ve reported for the month. This is not just a matter of multiplying time by fee rate.

At year-end it’s even more important, since it’s your annual P&L that statutory and corporate auditors will analyse, and if you’re not too careful your managers will defer serious consideration of the value of Work in Progress and the progress of Fixed Price Projects until then. That can mean unpleasant surprises in the last month of the year.

At LLP Group we use systems@work’s time@work to keep an eye on what’s going on. Adjustments to Work in Progress value and the value of time in Fixed Price Projects are tracked as discounts or uplifts to the values that are calculated from timesheets. We can track how these values are discounted or uplifted when billed or written off, and we can track when this is done.

It’s never pleasant to discount work, but it’s some consolation when it’s done steadily throughout the year, rather than all in the last month. Take this report, for example:

project virtue

This, from one division of the company, shows the month in which work was executed down the left y-axis and the month in which the  value of time was increased or decreased along the top x-axis. What we see is that the value of time is written up or written down in the month in which it is recorded, or a month or two later. This is virtuous. This division doesn’t execute many fixed price projects and doesn’t hold Work in Progress for long.

lessvirtuousThe matrix, above, shows data for another division, one which executes more fixed price projects. It’s clear that decisions about the write down or write up of time are made sometimes many months after time is recorded, and as year-end approaches large values are written off. This is less virtuous.

If you’re running a professional services organisation this is the kind of tool you need if you want to avert unwelcome surprises.

When it comes to Fixed Price Projects you might also track the estimates that your project managers give you and track time recorded on the project (green), planned time (blue), and evolving estimated time (orange).

In this case, below, the project manager has seriously underestimated the number of days’ consulting that the project requires. As the project progresses he or she estimates more and more work. The result is that the achieved project rate is nearly 40% lower than the planned rate of 500. It’s probably loss making.

FPP

In the more complex case, below, the project has been ‘sold’ on the basis of ‘planned’ time, and as the project progresses the client adds additional scope and additional planned time (though not at the same fee rate). Time estimated by the project manager for the whole project gradually exceeds planned time. The Rates graph shows how the planned daily rate for the project is reduced as the scope of the project increases, and the actual achieved daily rate also declines.

FPP changing project

Whatever kind of service you’re selling, it’s essential that you keep track of the value of Work in Progress and the progress of Fixed Price Projects every month of the year.

Faceless Bureaucracy – the EU Trough and What to Do About It

If I’m honest, I couldn’t with certainty name a single Member of the European Parliament, though I’m pretty sure that UKIP’s unlovely Nigel Farage may be one of them (it’s a cruel irony that the only one I can name is amongst its most vociferous critics).

I couldn’t tell you much about the EU’s mechanisms but I know they’re inefficient, interfering, lavish and – dare I say it – from time to time, corrupt. Brussels is a trough at which politicians and civil servants of all stripes feed.

And then there’s that occasional, inexplicable, and expensive flit to Strasbourg.

faceless bureaucrat

Even so, I strongly support the idea and practice of the EU, for all its faults. I admire the (secular, not Christian) European Values of democracy, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and human rights.

I greatly admired the EU’s role in restoring the former Soviet bloc nations to their rightful places in Europe. I believe the free market is generally a good thing, but I’m less sure of the Euro, since if it’s to work really well there would need to be closer political union, and I don’t think most countries want that. I would like to see tax harmonisation. I would like to see Turkey join, because it would be good for the world and a triumph of universal secular values. And, of course, I want the UK to remain inside it.

In case you’re as ignorant as I am, there’s a useful two-minute introduction to the workings of the EU on the BBC’s News Website (you can find it somewhere near the bottom of this page). Watch it and perhaps you’ll come to understand the relationship between the Commission (the civil service and the origin of most of EU law), the European Council (made up of heads of Government), the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice.

Having watched the video, I almost understand the different roles of the President of the European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker) and the President of the European Council (Donald Tusk).

The Commission is the executive arm (but also proposes law, which is strange).

The Parliament passes law.

The Court adjudicates on law.

The Council, comprised of the EU’s 28 Prime Ministers or executive Presidents, provides political direction (but also makes some critical decisions).

It would take more than a couple of minutes, I fear, to understand how all of these work together.

The EU’s evils, such as they are, are not unique to the EU. You can find inefficiency and corruption to varying degrees in every political institution, indeed every human institution. But with determination these could be tackled. Making recognisable people accountable for mistakes might help.

The greater problem lies with the EU’s facelessness. We simply don’t know the people who are debating policy at the EU’s Parliament, and we know even less about the people who are executing it. I couldn’t tell you when the Parliament sits or anything at all about the laws it’s passed. The result is that nobody cares very much about it. And yet, they resent the result.

So, why not replace all these unknown members of the European Parliament with the domestic politicians we’re familiar with? Why not have three or four brief sessions each year (a week at most) at which our domestic Prime Ministers, Ministers, and Members of the Opposition  can represent us (in proportion to their representation in domestic Parliaments and the population of their countries). We might listen to them. There would be much less law, but I don’t think anyone would mind about that, and I’ve no doubt it would cost a lot less. It might even lead to a shrinkage of the Commission. The important thing is that we might, finally, take a little more interest in what’s happening in the European Union. We might just feel ‘connected’.

Anyone got a better idea?