30 July 2011

What does proof reading prove?

The second annual review from the UK’s Government Office for Science lets itself down with sloppy proofreading. 
What do we make of a document that tells us that “the GCSA met with senior officials from organsiations such as the World Bank, USAID and the National Academy of Sciences to disucss opportunities for UK-US collaboration and cooperation”? Yes. Those spelling mistakes really are in there, buried towards the end of The Government Office for Science Annual Review 2010-11.

At one time, the UK’s Office for Science and Technology, as it was before someone thought it trendy to turn it into the Government Office for Science – GO-Science, get it? – hired people to weed out  such sloppiness. Sometimes, there were capable writers and editors in house who cared about these things.

A disclaimer here, I was one of several people who earned a bob or two working on documents for the OST and other departments, before the coalition government decided that all consultants were evil and expensive and should never darken its doors. But this isn’t just a whinge about lost opportunities to bid for work. It is about the message that an organisation sends out by releasing poorly edited material like this.

No one expects literary masterpieces from a chief scientist or anyone else in government but you do expect some attention to detail. Isn’t that what science is about?

Mistakes like these are an invitation to look more closely at the document itself. Sadly, it begins to fail as soon as you do so. What, for example, do we make of the notion that GO-Science is there to “strengthen confidence in climate science”?

What on earth is confidence in climate change? Do they mean confidence that it is happening? Confidence that the government knows what to do about it?
Scope for improvement
Then there is the inevitable lapse into policy speak. What does they do when they “scope potential future developments in technology”?

That  one can take some unravelling. First there is the “scope” bit. My now slightly aged copy of Collins English Dictionary doesn’t like the idea that scope is a verb. Even the current on-line version agrees and has the fuddy duddy notion that scope is a noun.

Perhaps GO-Science means anticipate maybe even investigate. It could even be “think about”, or is that too colloquial for such a high minded bit of the government?

How about the next bit, “potential future developments”? What is the “future” doing in there? I can’t think of any way in which someone could study, let alone scope, potential past developments: potential developments in technology says it all.

Here’s a few more: “GO-Science participated in Exercise Watermark, a national exercise to asses the UK response to flooding.” Please, no jokes about beasts of burden please or rear ends of North Americans. Funnily enough, they get it right several times, so someone must know how to spell assess.

You can’t say that about “phenomonon” which appears just once. They shouldn’t have used the word anyway. At least, not in the sentence “Scientists, planners and emergency managers from around the globe discussed their concerns and the risks this phenomonon poses to societal and economic well-being and national security.” It would have been better to have said  “space weather”, which is what that paragraph is about. And what is “societal and economic well-being”?

We could go on about other spelling gaffes and the inconsistent use of capitals – as in government and Government – not to mention a layout that manages to separate headings from the associated text, but what the heck? They have never been good at that sort of think in any government department.
GO-Science also worries about Influenza and influenza. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser “has continued to engage with UK pandemic influenza preparedness”.  How do you engage with preparedness?

We also read that “December 2010 was the coldest recorded for some years”. Coldest what? December? Month? Temperature?

The sad bit is that one of the better, and mostly widely read, guides to clear writing started life as a government document. The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers and Revised by Sir Bruce Fraser, showed that even knights of the realm could string a few words together. At one time, HSMO published this book. But that venerable institution, which also used to help the government to make sense, joined many other fine agencies on the bonfire in the slash and burn of privatisation and “outsourcing”.

One final nit to pick, whoever turned the document into a PDF file pressed the wrong buttons and managed to use a font, Velvenda Cooler, that chucks up an error when you open the file.
Questions of meaning
A decent editor doesn’t just pick up typographical errors. They also question the meaning where it is unclear, trying to decipher the use of phrases like “engage with preparedness”, for example.
A good editor also picks up howlers of the “security needs of the 2010 Olympic Games” variety. Did I miss something? I hope so.

It may be that in the days of text messages and Twitter, the English language has become a joke. There are some of us, though, who still think that it is important to have white papers, reports and other documents that make sense to the largest number of people. You don’t achieve that with poor editing.
Sloppy presentation of the type that pervades this document, which should be the highlight of the year for GO-Science, really isn’t much help. If nothing else, it could provoke readers with grammatical sensitivities to throw the document across the room. That would be a pity. It does have one or two interesting leads. I was particularly taken by the short bit on the Royal Academy of Engineering’s plans to get at people in the civil service with a background in engineering. But that will have to wait for another day.

PS This rant has a major shortcoming. Like most blogs, it has not come under the eye of a subeditor. So there is no guarantee that it is error free. But at least it has had the benefit of being written with software that has a spell checker. I even had to tell it to ignore the "deliberate" errors lifted from the report. The ubiquity of that technology makes it all the more puzzling that documents can escape from the government with so many errors.

07 July 2011

Back into Pipex hell – and ‘support’ that doesn’t know how its system works

Over the past couple of days I have been struggling with a broadband service that has suddenly decided to deliver an internet connection that is pegged at 2Mb/s. Before this episode, it delivered speeds up to 6Mb/s, albeit varying throughout the day as the number of punters on line changes.

My experience shows just why internet companies have such a poor reputation. In my case, the service comes from one of the oldest companies around, Pipex.

I have a pretty good idea of what the problems is, of which more later. Sadly, the “support” people do not even understand the technical terms that I throw at them, even though they come straight from the website where I check the speed of my connection and are more than familiar to technical people working in other parts of the same company.

Pipex has been bought and sold even more often The Independent has changed hands. I never did sign up for its services, but ended up there when the BBC decided that it wasn’t going to run an internet service and passed all the members of the BBC Network Club over to Unipalm. That became a part of Pipex which, at the last move,  ended up in the jaws of Talk Talk, the company famous for being near the bottom of any survey of customer satisfaction.

When Pipex’s system works, it is fine. Over the years the technical quality, and speed of the service, has risen steadily. Sadly, you couldn’t accuse their support – technical and customer accounts – of improving.

It took me near on a year to get them to acknowledge that there was a problem on my telephone line. They kept on talking about modems, phones and other things on the line that they include in the scripts for trouble shooting. At one time they muttered about charging me a large fee if they got BT involved – it is a BT line in an exchange that contains no other internet company’s kit. This gives the impression that they really don’t like calling on BT even though there is a high probability that problems are on its lines.

When Pipex eventually realised that maybe there was a line issue – they sent their own engineer who found no problems but still didn’t call in BT until I shouted at them again –  it took BT’s technician about 10 minutes to detect a resistance defect on the line, 50 metres from the socket. A cover had come off of a junction box up a pole and the rain was getting in.

Did Pipex apologise? Of course not.

The latest problem is down to the “IP Profile”, also known as know as the BRAS Profile, is BT’s way of setting the speed of the connection to handle things like the noise on the line and the speed at which a modem can synchronise with the exchange.

Google is positively chatty on the issue of IP Profile. There are some good definitions out there, along with many messages from people who have encountered the same problem that has clobbered my connection.

Such is the central role of the IP Profile that it has become a standard technique in diagnosing connection issues for any line that runs over BT’s equipment. (It seems that only BT subscribes to this approach to setting connection speeds, so anyone on an exchange that is LLU, local loop unbundled, doesn’t have to worry about this factor.) For example, if I run line tests on BT’s speedtest site, it tells me that my broadband modem is connecting to the exchange at a respectable 7680 kbps.

Unfortunately, the download speed I achieve even with this high connection speed is just 1829 kbps.
Running tests on various other sites shows that over the past couple of days my connection has achieved an average speed of 1849 kbps. Earlier tests showed that during June the average speed was 4229 kbps.

IP Profile
The big difference between June and July was that IP Profile. In June it stuck at 6000 whereas it now sits at 2000.

OK, so we know what the problem is, what do we do about it? Contact Pipex support of course.

Rather than being the end of the issue – tell them about it and they can pass on the complaint – contacting Pipex support turns out to be where the problem begins. Fill in an on-line form and you get a response that first of all does not understand the issue.

This is the message that I sent them:

"The IP Profile on my line has suddenly dropped from 6000 to 2000. But the DSL connection rate has gone up to 8032 from a previous maximum of 7616."

The response was:

“I understand from your email that your broadband sped [sic] has dropped from 6000 Kbps to 2000 Kbps.”

Well, up to a point. Yes, it has, but that is only because the IP Profile has changed.

One more message determined that, as I thought, the support person did not understand the concept of IP Profile. They also washed their hands of the issue and told me to phone a support line, at my cost of course, because “they are fully trained and equipped to deal with your queries quickly and efficiently and help you to bring your query to a satisfactory conclusion because nothing would please us more than satisfying our esteemed and valuable customer”.

So, I called the number. This time I got verbal confirmation that far from being “fully trained” the support people do not understand  the term IP Profile. It wasn’t that easy to make out what the person, calling himself Amon, was saying, but he seemed to admit that no, he hadn’t come across the term before.

Amon muttered about reports of known problems at the exchange, although my tiny village exchange is too small to have appeared on their radar. He then suggested that it would get back to normal in 24 to 48 hours.

By coincidence, this is the time that a line usually takes to renegotiate a connection speed, and an IP Profile, so he may prove to be correct. But it really shouldn’t be down to time to solve Pipex’s problems.

Pipex should be able to get in there with its rubber hammer and hit the relevant bits in the exchange. The least it could do would be to pass on a request to BT make a remote connection to the exchange and reset the IP Profile.

Before Pipex could do that, though, it has to understand what the technology does and what the terms mean. It should be at least as knowledgeable as its customers and should not be ignorant of an important factor that determines the quality of the service that it provides to customers.

Now that Talk Talk owns the Pipex brand it has been talking about moving all customers over to the Talk Talk system. There might be one good outcome of such a move, although as much as anything it is more likely to prompt me to switch suppliers.

The good thing about Talk Talk is that it maintains a user forum where customers with problems talk to support people who do know what they are doing. Unfortunately, the service is not available to Talk Talk customers who subscribe through other subsidiaries, even though they now connect through the same network.

The TalkTalk staff even understand what the term IP Profile means. They discuss it openly among themselves and with customers, which makes it all the more puzzling that the people on the end of the phones have no idea what you are talking about when you raise the subject.