Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Reign of terror costs mother and daughter their lives

The harrowing story of Fiona Pilkington is one that has unfortunately come to typify modern Britain for all the wrong reasons. The single mother doused her car in petrol and set light to it. The car also contained her teenage daughter, who had the mental age of four. Both occupants were killed in the ensuing fire.

At first glance, this could have been mistaken for a distressed mother who was at the end of her tether. But piece by piece, the full story has come to light. Fiona Pilkington and her family had endured over two years of intimidation and abuse from their neighbours, and she eventually snapped, killing herself and her daughter.

The abuse began when Ms Pilkington's son, who sufferers from dyslexia, fell out with one of the sons of a neighbouring family. They were then terrorised from not just the younger members of that family, but children and teenagers from other families too, and a campaign of terror was unleashed.

During the inquest that followed, the jury heard that the gang, some as young as ten, would pelt their house with eggs, flour and stones, as well as putting fireworks through the letterbox and shouting obscene insults from the street.

Ms Pilkington contacted Leicestershire police on thirty three occasions, but they did nothing to stop the abuse. They have subsequently admitted that her plight was viewed at the time as a low priority. With nothing to stop them from prolonging their campaign of terror, the thugs continued to ruin the lives of the Pilkington family.

It is behaviour like this that is now becoming more common up and down Britain. While such behaviour is still not ubiquitous, it is getting more prevalent, more violent, more cruel and more terrifying each time it occurs.

The police in this particular case sat on their hands and did nothing. They viewed it as a low priority. It has been reported that at least one of the thugs involved in the abuse was heard to shout "We can do what ever we want, and there's nothing you can do to stop us". People like that obviously have no fear of the police, and indeed are full of contempt for it.

That a mother took such action is a sad testament to the current state of Britain. It is a reflection of both the level of callousness that is becoming ever more prevalent, and the inefficacy of the police. In days gone by, such thugs would have found themselves landed in court, with the very real prospect of doing hard time. Now the only deterrent is the risible badge of honour that is known as an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order).

We need to get tough on this sort of behaviour, put a stop to all the pandering and pussy footing. It just gives these thugs a green light with absolutely no deterrent to ever stop. If we don't put real measures in place to stop this behaviour, there will unfortunately be plenty more people just like Fiona Pilkington.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It's only a theory?

The above phrase is one I have heard endlessly when discussing the theory of evolution with theists. The usual retort is "yes, but it's only a theory". Evolution is a fact. It has a staggering amount of supporting evidence, and is now well established within the scientific community.

The word theory has at least two very distinct meanings. One refers to a systematic body of knowledge that coincides with observation. This is it's more formal usage, as used within the scientific community, including the natural sciences. Other well known theories include Computational theory, Quantum theory and Chaos theory (to name just a few). These are well understood, and have considerable evidence to support them.

The other meaning of the word theory refers to a hypothesis, an idea or conjecture. This meaning of the word does not have the supporting evidence or systematic body of knowledge as the previous definition does. It is this interpretation of the word that theists jump upon when criticising Darwin's theory of natural selection. Whether through scientific ignorance, or to create deliberate confusion, theists continually attempt to dilute the usage of the word to mean the latter.

Extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Meaning 1 - A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account for a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles or causes of something known or observed.

  • Meaning 2 - A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something ; an individual view or notion.

Meaning 1 is obviously the one which would accomodate evolution. Meaning 2 is the one identified by theists. There are more meanings for the word defined, but these are the two that are of interest to this discussion.

Several American schools have received demands from parents and/or school governers to have stickers added to the front of books on Evolution stating that "Evolution is just a theory". If you are using the stricter definition of the word 'theory' i.e. Meaning 1 above, then the preceeding statement is anything but a criticism, as any scientist would wholeheartedly agree that evolution is a theory, and a very good one at that. To state that evolution is 'just' a theory shows a lack of comprehension of scientific enquiry and the scientific process, as you have not understood how the word theory is used within science.

Theists simply cherry pick their targets, as they presumably have no demands to have similar stickers placed on books relating to mathematics, physicics or computing (Chaos, Quantum and Computational theories respectively).

Evolution is a fact. Period. It is backed by a huge body of supporting evidence including carbon dating, genetics and gene theory. No scientist would contradict its message. While there may continue to be new knowledge brought to light that allows scientists to review their understanding of some of its details, none of that takes away from the fact that as an over-arching theory, it is fundamentally correct.

The theory of evoluiton is both elegant and simple. It has stood up to one hundred and fifty years of criticism from theists. It is surely one of the most important theories ever discovered, having huge implications to our understanding of ourselves, and our place within the natural world.

Impossible is nothing

I read this quote recently from the boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and liked it so much I thought I'd share it:

"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." — Muhammad Ali.

With quotes like that, it's no wonder the man is a legend!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Selecting a Content Management System

As part of the web site improvement project for East Northamptonshire Council, I have been involved in the selection process for a replacement Content Management System (CMS). A CMS allows an organisation's content authors to publish content to its web site.

The current CMS was no longer fit for purpose, and had reached the end of its useable shelf life. It lacked many of the features now found in the modern CMS, such as RSS feeds, social bookmarking (allowing you to link the content to your preferred social media site) and other Web 2.0 features such as podcasts and blogs.

When selecting a new CMS, there is no fixed criteria or blueprint of what constitutes a requirement specification, but there are common themes that should be considered. the list that follows is not intended to be comprehensive, or go into great detail, but to serve as a starting point from which you can derive your own CMS requirements specification.

  • Technical specification - This should include the preferred operating system, application server, web server, database technology, programming language (if you intend to extend or modify the CMS) and any other appropriate technical requirements. You need to consider a CMS that is compatible with the tools and technologies that are used within the organisation. The market leaders may not be fit for purpose if they use unfamiliar technologies.
  • Content creation - Specify how the content should be created. For example, what requirements are needed in the authoring environment. This could include such features as WYSIWYG authoring (a type of authoring environment where what you see during the design is how it will appear once published and stands for "what you see is what you get"), drag and drop, spell checker, separation of content from formatting, content reusability, metadata creation. The authoring environment should make it as simple as possible for a non technical person to create engaging and professional looking content, quickly and simply.
  • Content management - Specify what tools you need to manage your content. For example version control on content to see when a piece of content has changed and by whom, audit trails to see what activity has taken place within the system, automatic notification of when content should be reviewed, Draft-Submit-Approve workflow model, the ability to manage the style(s) that are applied to the content and todo lists.
  • Publishing - All styling should be applied to the content during the publishing phase, leaving the author free to create their content without having to worry about how it looks. This should be achieved through the use of style sheets and page templates. This makes it easy to separate the look and feel of a web page from its content. You may want to be able to publish to multiple sites or to a staging server.
  • Presentation - It should be possible to view the published content in any of the major browsers. You probably want to consider the amount of client side scripting the CMS requires to run. Remember, you have no control over how the client has configured their computer (except perhaps in intranet scenarios where group policies may restrict or deny such configuration), so you may want to keep technologies such as Javascript to a minimum. The HTML that is created should conform to the latest W3C HTML specification. The metadata that is created for each page by the CMS must be sufficient that it can be used with an appropriate taxonomy, and used in searching and indexing the content.
  • Taxonomies and metadata - If you are using a taxonomy (such as LGNL, IPSV if working within local government), then you will need to ensure that it is fully supported. Can content authors add additional information (metadata) to the content to allow it to be more easily found.
  • Integration - Do you need your CMS to integrate with any of your back office systems, and if so, which ones? For example, you may need you CMS to integrate with your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, or your finance system if allowing online payments.
  • Compatibility and accessibility - The web pages produced should be compatible with a variety of different media, and should comply with the latest standards of web accessibility. The web pages should be fully functioning, well-performing and compliant. For example, within the public sector, it is important that web pages meet AA accessibility standards as a minimum.
  • Reporting requirements - Allow the interrogation of data held within the CMS. Information should be available on when each item of website content has been updated, and by whom. It may be useful to provide website usage statistics and publish selective information automatically to the website. The CMS should also ideally provide a rich set of standard reports which can then be easily customised by the content author and /or IT department.
  • Administration - The administrators of the system will need to create users (content authors), and grant them access to various parts of the CMS in line with their needs. This should be as granular as possible, to allow access to the system at the lowest levels possible. This should also ideally include the ability to reset passwords, amend the site styling, configure and run any scheduled reports, including a broken links report.
  • Maintenance and support - This should include both upgrades and patches. You will need to ensure you have read the support agreement, and are happy with it. What are their hours of business, how can they be contacted, how do you raise an incident with them. Are you happy with the terms of their Service Level Agreement (SLA)? How often can you expect an upgrade, and how is this delivered?
  • Data migration - If you have an existing CMS, is the new supplier able to migrate this content into their CMS on your behalf? Are there any additional costs associated with this?

This is far from a full CMS requirements specification, but is aimed to serve as a starting point to hopefully make you consider what you need from your own CMS.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Using blogging as a learning tool

When deciding what to write my next blog about, I often take a topic that I'm not very familiar with, but want to investigate and explore in more detail. This can be anything from a technology, to a debate, to a trending topic.

In order to write an article about these sorts of subjects, I am forced to undertake the necessary research to understand the topic in sufficient detail. This is a great way of really getting to understand a topic. Sometimes I may spend several days researching a topic before I feel confident enough to write about it.

When I want to understand a new or emerging technology, I will write a blog about it. So while I may not fully understand the subject matter when I begin, by the time I have investigated it, and wrote a blog about it, my understanding will have progressed enormously.

Writing about a subject, any subject, is a great way to learn about it and understand it, and is one of the key ways by which I develop my knowledge on a huge variety of subjects. I would recommend it to anyone who is keen to extend their knowledge, and has the motivation to do so.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Agnosticism vs Atheism

There is confusion in the semantic meaning between these two terms. Sometimes they are used inter-changeably, as if they had the same meaning. They don't.

An atheist does not believe in the existence of a deity, for the reason that there is no proof for its existence. This is in line with scientific enquiry, and is the rational position to take. An agnostic is not committed either way to the belief or disbelief of a deity. An agnostic may therefore believe that a deity may or may not exist, but simply not be fully committed.

Atheists often define themselves as agnostics because of the prejudices that often surround atheism. Agnosticism is often regarded as the more reasonable position. Why people who are atheists should wish to dilute their opinions is unclear, seeing as most theists do not seem to have similar reservations about their own religious beliefs.

I have heard the argument that atheists are as closed minded as theists, that they simply take the polar opposite view in not believing in a deity. That an atheist holds firm to the position that there is no god, as a theist does to the position that there is one.

For a start, atheism does not constitute a 'belief system', in the same sense as theism does. Believing in something is not necessarily the same as a 'belief'. You can believe in many things, none of which constitutes as having a belief. I believe I will enjoy my weekend, I believe I will finish the book I am reading. I believe in these things, but none of them are beliefs. We need to be very careful how we use these words, as they do not necessarily mean the same thing. They are deliberately or accidentally used incorrectly, and this just clouds the discussion.

As I stated earlier, although an atheist may not believe in the existence of a deity, given that there is no proof for one's existence, this does not mean that an atheist discards its existence out of hand. Given sufficient evidence, most atheists would change their minds, for the simple reason that atheism is the scientifically rational position to take.

Agnosticism is compatible with both atheism and theism, they simply do not claim to have a position either way. They may be an atheist and be uncertain, or a theist and be uncertain.

There is also a double standard that often crops up. Theists often claim that being an atheist is dogmatic and closed minded. If disbelieving in the existence of a god is dogmatic, then so surely is believing in one.

It is common for someone to be both agnostic and atheist. An agnostic atheist won't claim to know for certain whether or not something claiming to be a deity exists, but equally they won't actively believe that such an entity exists in the first place.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Public sector life vs private sector life

Having worked in both the public and private sectors, I feel I can comment on their similarities and differences. Most of my professional life has been spent in the private sector, working in software houses developing applications. I've now worked in the public sector since April 2007 as a Senior Systems Developer for East Northamptonshire Council. I have already written an article describing what I do, so I will not repeat that here. I thought it would be interesting to compare the two structures, to see if they are really so different.

This article will concentrate on the areas of job security and career prospects. To describe all the differences between the two structures would probably necessitate an entire book. I will probably revisit this area in the future, but look at different areas of comparison instead.

What are public and private sector?
First of all, what exactly do we mean by private and public sector? The public sector is that part of a nation that is run by provincial or local government, and will usually include services such as defense, national security, emergency services (police, fire brigade, ambulance etc), town planning and revenue services to name a few.

The private sector are those organisations that are not run by or on the behalf of government. They are funded not by the tax payer through the form of tax, but by private investment.

So the key difference is that private sector industries are largely driven by the pursuit of maximising profits, whereas the public sector is aimed at delivering cost effective services to the community or society at large.

A useful analogy would be to use the BBC and ITV, where the BBC would be the public sector structure, and ITV the private sector structure. The BBC is paid for by the licence payer, whereby ITV is paid funded by private revenue streams.

Career prospects
One key difference between public and private sector is in the structuring of salaries. Government employment provides more security, but promotion is mostly based on seniority, whilst the private industry provides salary increases and promotion based on performance.

The government corporate culture is more structured. The organisational structure is hierarchical whereas in the contemporary private sector, a move towards teamwork and project oriented management is now becoming common.

In certain areas such as health care, many professionals prefer the private sector because of the higher salaries. The private sector is the better alternative if you are looking for quick promotion prospects, while promotion may take longer in the government. In the government sector however, you can climb right to the top of the hierarchical structure. This means that there are more career prospects for promotion should you have the qualifications combined with years of service and patience.

Job security
As stated above, public sector employees on average are more secure than those of the private sector. Sometimes by as much as fifty percent. During the current recession, the private sector has been hit harder than the public sector. As the private sector aims to maximise profits, then this is to be expected.

It is a common practice for employees to start their careers in the public sector, where entry level jobs are more readily available. Government positions are also seen - rightly or wrongly - as the safer option. And as stated already, they have greater job security. This is largely due to the fact that government is responsible for the labor acts and laws - hence they have an obligation to adhere to them.

Neither structure is better than the other, they are simply different and offer different benefits. Public sector offers greater job security and the ability to climb to the top of the ladder. Private sector offers quicker promotion and higher salaries.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Governance using social media in the work place

The debate
There is currently a great deal of debate, not to mention dispute, surrounding the use of social media within the work place. From outright banning of all social media sites, to an open policy allowing their use, or somewhere in between.

The general reason given by employers who ban social media sites is that they lead to a decrease in productivity. Employees who have access to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, will allegedly waste valuable time on such sites, rather than their day job.

Employers need to be forward thinking
Many organisations are adopting social media sites as part of their long term marketing strategies, so it does seem rather short sighted to ban their use. How are employees going to learn to use such sites effectively, and build the necessary relationships if they are banned from using them in the workplace. If you are networking through social media sites, then you really need to be using them during working hours.

To quote David Wilde, Chief Information Officer at the London Borough of Waltham Forest 'For managers it can be difficult to know what exactly their employees are doing. But the organisation needs to be outcome-based, and I don't think we should be using technology to prevent access to social networking sites. If there are staff performance issues, we should address them directly'.

The solution
The solution then is to address performance issues as they arise. There are many reasons why an employee may not be productive, and placing the blame on their use of social media sites may be to miss a more fundamental issue. Blaming social media usage for a loss of productivity is a very blunt instrument to find what may be a complex problem. Lack of training, lack of confidence, bullying and domestic problems can all have a negative impact on an employee's productivity. Compared to these, social media usage seems trivial.

Social media boosts productivity
However, contradictory to the popular conception of social media sites lowering productivity, recent research has revealed that in fact they can increase productivity. Studies have ranged from suggesting that merely surfing the Internet can boost productivity, to suggesting that the specific use of social media can boost productivity.

With appropriate staff performance policies in place, there is no reason why an employer cannot allow their employees access to social media sites. If an employer is using social media as part of their networking or marketing strategies, there is far less of an excuse to banning such sites. What is needed is an open-minded and progressive attitude to their use, rather than the blunt instrument that is banning.