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June 25, 2012

Insufficiently Boring
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:26 PM * 81 comments

Was it only a month ago that The Economist did a “Capitalism! Whisky! Sexy!” post about the coming revolution in ‘fusty old retail banking’? How time flies.

[Banks] will cut costs by closing many of their branches. Banks will also tap into new sources of revenue by mining their enormous troves of customer data. A bank that knows what you have just bought or where you have booked a holiday will be able to offer real-time discounts on related products (much as Google targets advertising at people based on their searches). The retail revolution will also offer the best banks the opportunity to gain new economies of scale through their IT platforms.

That was published on May 19, 2012.

A software update at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group on on June 19, 2012—precisely a month later—seems to have led to corruption in the payments feed. The overnight batch on Wednesday, June 20, failed to update a large number of customer accounts with incoming payments. Millions of accounts were affected at RBS and its subsidaries, National Westminster Bank and UlsterBank. Millions of people woke up on Thursday morning without access to their money. It’s been a nightmare.

As a result, some customers were blocked from taking money out of cash machines, while others had internet supermarket food deliveries stopped after payments were rejected.[…]Some people could not use debit cards at tills, including hotel check-out desks, airports and petrol stations.

The bank is still unwinding the problems, and there are still people without access to their money. For weekly-paid employees, people on benefits, and pensioners, the lack of payments is a real hardship. Not everyone has a cushion to tide them over. Some of the very poor, who frequently have coin-operated meters, expected to spent the weekend without electricity.

British techie site The Register has a few guesses about what went wrong in the update. Former RBSG staff have written in to suggest that it was a bug in the bank’s CA-7 system, which schedules the jobs for the overnight batch. They blame the recent outsourcing effort that has moved the support of the bank’s systems to India, a move that was undertaken to cut costs. There might have been plans to gain new economies of scale through the IT platform as well. I wouldn’t bet against it.

I suspect that The Reg’s diagnosis is fair—not because the work was sent to India per se, but because turning over your systems support staff in a wave of redundancies is not the best way to manage the transfer of knowledge. Not everyone who worked the batch at RBSG even knew what it is they knew; how, then, could they explain it to people who didn’t know there was knowledge to acquire? Outsourcing the work from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and sacking the staff would have exposed them to the same risks.

Meanwhile, the only way for customers to get cash has been to go into those much-abused, unsexy bank branches and talk to staff members. The bank extended branch opening hours, even opening on Sunday, to try to meet the demand. It’s going to take some time to get everyone back to where they should have been, and even longer to compensate people for late fees, overdraft charges, and other ancillary costs. I suspect the branch network is going to be busy for some time to come.

It’s the worst IT disaster in British banking history. That Economist article doesn’t come across in quite the same way in the light of it.


More personally: I Y2K tested one of the batch feeder systems at RBS from 1997 - 1998, and managed acceptance testing in payments processing systems from 1999 - 2001. I was one of the people who watched over the first batch of the millennium instead of going to a party. I was part of the project that moved the National Westminster batch onto the RBS software without a single failure. I haven’t worked for the bank for five years, and I am surprised at how personally affronted I am that they let that batch fail. But I shouldn’t be. Protectiveness of the batch was the defining characteristic of our community. We were proud of how well that complex structure of disparate components hummed along.

It was a thing of beauty, of art and craft, and they dropped it all over the floor. Sheesh.

Comments on Insufficiently Boring:
#1 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 02:59 PM:

In the words of the Calypso Monarch of the Universe:

It sad, and getting more bad;
I say doux-doux: capitalism gorn mad!

I've been following this story on the Beeb over the weekend. I feel for the customers of the banks in question, especially for those of RBS who have been shafted more than once.

#2 ::: FaultyMemory ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:00 PM:

When you outsource your operations, and you outsource your ethics and reputation with them.

#3 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:09 PM:

Outsource your memory and watch the shit hit the fan.

#4 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:19 PM:

Good customer service is costly. Especially in a service industry. So this is a case where the RBSG got what it paid for. My sympathies are firmly on the side of their clients.

Any business manager who expects to make large amounts of money in an industry where the "machines of industry" are human beings who in turn provide personal services to other human beings, needs to have a reality check. It's like a bean counter shouting "we'll have more beans to count if we get rid of half of our beans!" Where 1 person = 1 bean. In my experience, every good worker bean brings in 2-10 customer beans worth of profit depending on the type of service being provided.

Unfortunately, "experienced skill sets" and "good work ethics" are not something you can place on a shelf and inventory.

#5 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:31 PM:

...and if you could, they'd be liquidated as inventory that wasn't moving.

#6 ::: Matthew Ernest ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 04:40 PM:

I expect mattress sales will be booming.

#7 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:09 PM:

I happened to pick up that issue of the Economist in the library while waiting for my better half to find some books. I concluded that their whole section on retail banking was nothing more than an unpaid advertising section when I realized they had spent half a page talking about the awesome things that were being done in Spanish banks without making even a passing mention that those same banks were, at that very moment at the center of a crisis that was threatening to bring down the economy of the entire continent.

Nothing to see here, just another example of the awesomeness of unfettered capitalism at work.

#8 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:14 PM:

I happened to pick up that issue of the Economist in the library while waiting for my better half to find some books. I concluded that their whole section on retail banking was nothing more than an unpaid advertising section when I realized they had spent half a page talking about the awesome things that were being done in Spanish banks without making even a passing mention that those same banks were, at that very moment at the center of a crisis that was threatening to bring down the economy of the entire continent.

Nothing to see here, just another example of the awesomeness of unfettered capitalism at work.

#9 ::: Chris W. apologizes for the double post ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:16 PM:

The posting page had hung for several minutes, and a quick refresh of the front page didn't show my comment.

#10 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 06:33 PM:

I recently listened to a podcast (from the Guardian?) from late last year that was part of a series on the Economic situation in Europe. Normally, discussion of economics goes right over my head - and when it doesn't, it sounds just WRONG - but this podcast was about Poland and promised to have a few panelists who sounded interesting. It was the last in the series and was supposedly the "happy ending", because Poland was, they claimed, the one country in the EU that had not experienced a recession. A panelist chuckled and stated, in a way that sounded like he was minimizing that particular achievement, that it was only because Poland's banks were so unsophisticated. And I thought, well hell! How about we return to the kind of unsophisticated banking that didn't lend money it didn't have to people who couldn't pay it back?

Having worked for a humongoid bank for a time, within reading the first few paragraphs of this post I was certain this was related to Outsourcing - particularly Offshoring. How depressing that this is so predictable and yet still so common. But if the decision-makers suffer no financial consequences to their actions, how is it ever going to get any better?

#11 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 06:57 PM:

nerdycellist, #10: But if the decision-makers suffer no financial consequences to their actions, how is it ever going to get any better?

That is indeed the root of the problem. At the uppermost levels of Big Business, risk and reward have been completely uncoupled. Make a stupid decision that loses millions for your company? Get a promotion and a raise, or (if you're already the CEO) a million-dollar bonus. Make a stupider one that runs the company into the ground? Get a government bail-out, and stick another couple of millions into your pocket. Make one that actually destroys the company? No problem, you can move straight into well-paid slots on the BoDs of several other companies run by your buddies, or simply get offered another high-level position in the company itself.

They've rigged the game so that no matter what happens, they can never lose. Of course nothing changes.

#12 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 07:26 PM:

@2: you outsource your ethics and reputation with them.

That's not just been a problem for the banking industry. Apparently, several pharmaceutical companies have discovered (too late) that the random companies they've been outsourcing to (mostly in China) don't have as many ethical qualms about selling their (top-secret, pre-patent) compounds to other people.

It's not about other countries having different ethical standards than we do (though their laws and norms may very well differ in ways that may be relevant). I think the general message is that, when you outsource something to a company and place you don't know very well, you shouldn't be particularly surprised when those people turn out not to have the same priorities as you do.

#13 ::: Alex G ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 07:48 PM:

This made me think of a story on b3ta a few years ago, about an IT disaster in a banking system: it prevented $12bn of trades going through for several hours, resulting in crisis calls from the European Central Bank and hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. I now have a new appreciation for what the engineers did to sort that out, and how much was resting on them being ready and having the skills to fix it.

#14 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 08:14 PM:

Lee #11: My own feeling is that the wankers need to relearn some basic lessons.

#15 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 08:41 PM:

Lee @ 11... Make a stupid decision that loses millions for your company? Get a promotion

I'm still hoping against all hope that my boss will be decapitated.

#16 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 10:03 PM:

Canadian banks appear to be going the other way, extending branch hours, building more branches, opening Saturday and even Sunday as a regular thing.

#17 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 11:48 PM:

When you outsource your shit, it hits fans.

#18 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 12:54 AM:

The truly amazing thing is that in one company I used to work for, where they offshored large parts of a global IT system to the low bidder, spent years rebuilding the entire system from that disaster and declared they'd never outsource anything again, a new CIO decided to offshore everything again to the same low bidder, and are now digging out from that again. In other words, they keep making exactly the same mistake over and over.

#19 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 02:14 AM:

#10 ::: nerdycellist

As far as I know, banks always lend money they don't have in the sense of lending some multiple of the amount of money which is being saved with them.

However, the current mess is a result of lending without concern for whether the money could conceivably be paid back, followed by a panic in which they were unwilling to lend to borrowers would be extremely likely to pay back.

#11 ::: Lee :

Taleb (the black swan guy) has a whole rant about people who are in a position to take risks where all the costs land on other people. I don't remember all the people on his little list, but it includes pundits who don't lose anything by being wrong as well as high-status financiers.

The black swan has nothing to do with the movie-- one of Taleb's big theories is that rare unpredictable events with large consequences are more common than most people allow for in their calculations.

#20 ::: S M Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 04:38 AM:

The thing in this post that stood out to me the most wasn't the bank problems it was:

"Some of the very poor, who frequently have coin-operated meters, expected to spent the weekend without electricity."

It blew my mind that people have coin operated electricity. I guess it makes people much more conscious of their power usage but still seems unreal to me.

#21 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 04:59 AM:

The black swan has nothing to do with the movie...

A ballet about two investment bankers, one who hedges against the unexpected and the other who is sure that his models already cover all contingencies*. Best or worst fanfic crossover idea ever?

* The plot twist would be a spolier - it comes out of nowhere

#22 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 05:54 AM:

"RBS computer problems kept man in prison" at the BBC.

His bail payment didn't clear because of the bank's problems, so he spent the weekend in jail.

#23 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 05:57 AM:

S M Taylor @ #20:

One of the unfortunate consequences of utilities being private companies. Letting someone have gas/electricity on a tab ("paying a bill", "paying arrears", whatever you want to call it) means that htey want to do a credit check. When you are of low means (or deemed a credit risk for other reasons), they can say "sorry, pay up front" and that means a token-operated (or pre-pay card - operated) meter.

Saying that, my understanding is that gas meters in Stockholm were token-operated for quite a while after municipal gas was introduced, only going to a billing structure a lot later (although I believe cooking gas wasn't metered, based on vague stories I heard in my youth).

#24 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 06:29 AM:

LMM: It's not about other countries having different ethical standards than we do (though their laws and norms may very well differ ...)

More that you've outsourced to somewhere whose enforcement is not based on the same root authority as the laws protecting your own company.

Consider a US bank outsourcing to anywhere in the US, and probably much of the EU: If the sourcee screws you over, you can prosecute them in your own legal system, where there's massive penalties for interfering with bank business, and they will be enforced, because the banks have long since suborned the governments.

When the same banks outsource to India or Asia, they're suddenly dealing with someplace where they no longer own the government, and they're just another plaintiff. ("Hey, it's not one of our banks...") Similarly, drug and technology companies suddenly find that the patent system in their target country isn't set up to defend their Big Company profits first and foremost.

#25 ::: John Dallman ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 06:33 AM:

The Guardian reports this morning that the cause was problems with CA-7. I'm wondering how hard the othe rUK banks will try to persuade disgruntled RBS customers to switch to them. My suspicion is "not very."

#26 ::: Vicky ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 06:59 AM:

As a software engineer who frequently deals with legacy systems I can absolutely understand why you say it was a "complex structure of disparate components" and a "thing of beauty, of art and of craft". I know that satisfaction of getting seemingly incompatible things working together.

But the thing is, it's now 12 years after Y2K and the NatWest / RBS merger. To my mind that makes it absolutely unforgivable that they are STILL relying on it rather than having developed a properly robust purpose-built solution.

#27 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:28 AM:

I find myself echoing Henry Troup's observation in #16. The pattern here (suburban MD/DC) is an enormous multiplication of branches; a high proportion of new grocery stores, for instance, contain bank branches, and they are often open on Sundays. One of Chevy Chase's selling points was its sheer omnipresence, and while they cut the contract with Giant/Ahold (or vice versa) they (as Capital One) still have a branch every few miles.

I seem to recall that RBS already had a record of stupidity. Weren't they heavily involved in one of the recent banking crises?

For that matter, isn't the phrase "one of the recent banking crises" a bit too telling about the state of the industry?

#28 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:29 AM:

As a moose retained by a dinosaur herder I will simply say "Second System Effect" and leave it at that; although the temptation to add Vetinari's motto (Si non confectus, non reficiat) is impossible to resist.

#29 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:35 AM:

Vicky @26:
But the thing is, it's now 12 years after Y2K and the NatWest / RBS merger. To my mind that makes it absolutely unforgivable that they are STILL relying on it rather than having developed a properly robust purpose-built solution.

You misunderstand me. The RBS batch, pre-merger, was a robust combination of purpose-built components that worked together. (Also known as a modular design, with different components having been upgraded and replaced at different times over the years.) That was the thing of beauty, of art and craft.

The NatWest merger was not a merger of systems. What we did on one single night was to start processing the NatWest transactions on the RBS software. The NatWest software was never hooked up to the RBS systems (with minor, perpheral exceptions).

The batch was "a properly robust, purpose-built solution."

#30 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 08:06 AM:

C Wingate @27:
I seem to recall that RBS already had a record of stupidity. Weren't they heavily involved in one of the recent banking crises?

RBSG managed to dig itself a hole and jump into it before the mainstream banking disasters started.

After the spectacularly successful purchase and integration of NatWest (which was 4 times the size of RBS), the shareholders wanted even more shiny.

So when the Dutch bank ABN Amro was on the market, two consortia got into a thoroughly stupid bidding war. One was led by Barclay's, whose board must be congratulated for their superb luck and little else; the other was led by RBSG. For reasons that I will avoid speculating about lest British libel law come into play, the chairman of RBS (Sir* Fred Goodwin) allowed his group to bid far more than was prudent. They then failed to reduce their bid when ABN Amro tried to torpedo the deal by selling one of its more desirable components. So they paid far, far too much for what they got.

At the same time, a US division acquired as part of NatWest had discovered shiny, shiny CDOs and the delights of the subprime market.

With these matters, and a few others, RBSG found itself on the wrong side of the capital adequacy regulations, particularly after the write-downs required by law caused it to post the largest loss in British corporate history in 2008. The subsequent bailout was large enough that the bank was effectively re-nationalized. Fred the Shred was let go, though his substantial pension settlement remains a blot on the admittedly grubby record of justice in British banking.

I still find it ironic—we were so very careful about risk on the technical side, but we never managed to find a way to corral or control the severe and chronic peril that emanated from the boardroom.

I left the company when I moved to the Netherlands in the middle of 2007, and watched most of this debacle from the sidelines, thumping my head gently against my desk from time to time.

-----
* His knighthood was awarded in 2004 for services to banking, and rescinded in 2012 for disservices to banking, finance, business and the whole damn economy.

#31 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 08:39 AM:

Abi @ 29... We don't need no stinkin' testing?

#32 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 08:51 AM:

Serge @31:
We don't need no stinkin' testing?

I'm confused. Where do you get that?

#33 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 08:58 AM:

Abi @ 32... You'd written "...The NatWest software was never hooked up to the RBS systems..." so I assumed a lack of testing. My apologies for the misunderstanding.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 09:17 AM:

Serge @33:

No, I mean the NatWest code was never hooked up to the RBS systems, not before, not during, and not after the merger. As in, we threw it all away. The disjunctions between the two code bases were too great; we'd have spent years untangling things* to no material benefit.

So what we did was to run the NatWest batch as normal until D-day, while we did an enormous amount of analysis, planning, and high-volume testing of the RBS systems.

Then on one particular day, we loaded newly-created NatWest accounts on the RBS systems, added their transformed account histories, and ran the RBS nightly batch as usual. It was five times the size of the previous night's batch, since it contained all of the accounts that had previously run on the NatWest systems.

I recall that we ran the NatWest batch in a test environment that night as well, and reconciled the results. We didn't lose a penny.

It was beautiful. We really were that good. And the batch was that good.

-----
* I know this because we were still untangling one last bit of the 1985 merger between RBS and William's & Glyn's systems when I joined RBS in 1997.

#35 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 09:46 AM:

Abi @ 34... Got it. Again, my apologies. At least your merger involved many people who knew what they were doing. My employer's involved lots of contractors who didn't know the system, and one person who knew it. Amazingly enough, the transition worked, but painless it wasn't.

#36 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 09:51 AM:

Similarly, drug and technology companies suddenly find that the patent system in their target country isn't set up to defend their Big Company profits first and foremost.

I do feel that's a bit harsh. (In full disclosure, as a chemist, I am way more comfortable with most pharmaceutical companies than most people are.) Patented drugs are one thing -- you can argue about the cost-benefit analysis all you want. But the cases I've seen recently appear to be in the early stages of drug development -- pre-patent, when the compound hasn't even been sufficiently tested -- and the formula is sold to rivals. There's no real moral benefit to anyone there.

#37 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 10:25 AM:

Bruce:

I think there is a set of patterns[1] that recur of mismatched incentives for management/shareholders/employees, and their resulting problems. Any part of the company whose importance is hard to measure day to day, but whose cost is easy to measure, is susceptible to bad outsourcing decisions--the customer service department never directly brings in a dime of revenue, so it's hard to know what its value to the company is, but it costs $X million/year in salaries and operating costs and benefits, and those costs are immediate and easy to see. An outsourcing decision that saves $Y million/year and loses business to the tune of $2Y/year from crappy customer service will look about the same as an outsourcing decision that saves $Y million per year and doesn't lose any business. On the other hand, the company bidding for the customer service business can accept a lot less money for crappy customer service that loses business than for good customer service that keeps it.

Another common pattern everywhere: different parts of the company have different levels of prestige. A common description of risk taking at big financial companies involves this fact--the risk management people have far lower status in the company than the traders and sales guys who bring in big bucks, but may also expose the company to scary tail risk. A variation of this seems to have happened wrt financial regulation, too--the folks being regulated were much higher status than the folks doing the regulating.

My own favorite story of company dysfunction involves a new VP of sales who, in order to consolidate his power, purged the company of the salesman/consultant with a decade-long trusted relationship with our biggest client, leading us to lose the client. If you thought of the company as an individual, this was a crazy thing to do. But for the new VP of sales, it was short-term rational.

[1] In the "software patterns" sense.

#38 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 10:48 AM:

abi at 30: I didn't know knighthoods could be rescinded. Is there a ceremony for it, or do they just call you and say, Sorry, dude, we're taking it back...?

#39 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:02 AM:

Lizzy -

I get the feeling Her Majesty smacks you in the face with the sword and gives you a gentle kick in the backside. At least that's how I'd like to imagine it.

Just got to overhear a conversation from one of our awesome on-site IT guys. His manager has absolutely no experience in IT (worked in the Admin department long enough that they wanted to find a "management" position for her), knows probably less about computers than I do, and has decided not to renew the contract of the IT guy's right hand man, who knows the system up and down and is an intrepid problem solver. Instead, Manager will be hiring two cheaper guys (although they will cost more than the one she's letting go) who are less experienced and have little in the way of certification. Somehow the manager assures him it is a matter of budget, but the IT guy will now have to spend time training and cleaning up after two newbies, thereby doubling his work. It's obvious the the Manager's job performance is not measured by any useful metrics - such as how long does it take to get employees on the system, how long does it take to fix errors - and is instead calculated based entirely on an easily "fudged" (I'd say falsified) balance sheet.

#40 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:04 AM:

Lizzy L @38

The Queen, as fount of honour, has that power which she exercises through the Honours Forfeiture Committee. Such decisions are then published in the London Gazette.

I always assumed the message went something like "We're taking back your knighthood, so please send back the medal/ribbon etc. If you have a problem with that, remember that sword Her Majesty knighted you with? Yeah, well, that was a hint."

#41 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:05 AM:

nerdycellist @ 39... Sayyyyyy... Do you ande I work for the same people?

#42 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:06 AM:

Lizzy @38

"The forfeiture committee - whose members include the cabinet secretary, the top civil servant at the Home Office, the top lawyer at the Treasury and the top official in the Scottish government - made the decision to recommend he lose the honour.

The Queen has the sole authority to rescind a knighthood, after taking advice from the government."

Essentially, while people at that level in the Civil Service know what the politicians think, they have enough status to ignore the politicians should they wish.

The Queen tends to follow government advice.

#43 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:10 AM:

Yesterday, my boss refered to something called TROG. It was hard for me not to snicker when he explained it stands for Technology Refresh Organic Growth. Some of my FaceBook visitors and I then came up with our own MBA-created awesomeness. My favorite was Fragano's Technology Upgrade Realignment Design.

#44 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:12 AM:

Lizzy @38:

There is apparently an Honours Forfeiture Commmittee, which can rescind honours when the recipient "has brought the honours system into disrepute".

Usually this is after a criminal conviction leading to a term of imprisonment over three months long, or when the person has been struck off of a professional register for "action or inaction which was directly relevant to the granting of the honours." But they can also do it if someone has managed the whole disrepute thing without going to jail or being struck off (Goodwin was never on a professional register in the first place.) There's a list of people who have lost honours here. You'll note that Goodwin is in sparse company, but alongside both Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt in the listings.

The Shred's de-knighting was highly controversial: the Institute of Directors felt that it would lead to "anti-business hysteria", and many other prominent figures felt that it was a political move. It's true that it did happen at the same time as a good deal of controversy over his successor's fairly handsome pay packet for basically keeping on keeping on whilst still effectively in the employ of the Britsh taxpayer. But that doesn't change how welcome and well-deserved the decision was.

The only good argument I heard for leaving him with the knighthood was to more justly show how much the British Honours system is already in disrepute. And that's a fair point, but many people were still just fine with him losing the title. There's enough evidence of the rottenness of the British establishment without his presence among its titled members.

Why, yes, I have a lot of trouble remaining charitable about Fred Goodwin. Why do you ask?

#45 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:18 AM:

S M Taylor @ #20 and Ingvar #23

When I encountered it visiting a rental house in the UK I was very surprised at the concept of inserting a token to keep the electricity flowing. I assumed it was a legacy from olden times. Is this still being done for new rental housing?

I've never heard of such a system here in the US (this be obvious bait to get corrections from y'all).

The electric and natural gas utility companies I'm familiar with here are private companies that operate under government regulation. If you don't pay your bill the electricity can be shut off (with some exceptions due to medical equipment needing electricity).

#46 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:38 AM:

I was kind-of lucky. The payment I was expecting on Thursday turned up as usual, although it goes to my savings account, and I was then unable to transfer it to my current account. I had to take a trip to my branch (*not* my local branch -- they closed that one last month, so the whole process cost me hours of my time) to withdraw cash. I've had regular payments refused from the current account that I still can't get any money into, but so far nothing catastrophic has gone wrong.

JanetK @45 -- Most newer rental houses are using a more advanced system where there is a "key" (a piece of plastic with an embedded RFID tag) that identifies an account, and you can get cash loaded onto the account at local shops. But coin-operated and token-operated systems are still common.

#47 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:42 AM:

Serge @ 41 -

If your company were in the lower end of the state, I'd be looking for you in the building. Everything you have described about your working environment sounds distressingly familiar. I'm but a lowly Union peon (classified as "unskilled". HA!) and when my brilliant immediate supervisor is out, I get the most asinine calls from the Big Boss, asking me questions that a temp on the job for two days would know the answer to. Immediate Supervisor had to absorb the job of a colleague out on medical leave for 6 months. He not only did it more efficiently, he made vast improvements to the system while still doing his own job. Big Boss got promoted to Director without having the slightest clue what we do down here - Immediate Supervisor is still only a Subject Matter Expert, despite there being a big, empty space for a Manager available. I guess he knows too much to be promotable.

#48 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:43 AM:

RE: Coin/Key system for power

It's not just low income householders or those with poor credit records - some landlords prefer to have the key system, presumably because it's easier for them in some way. The rented London flat I stay in has such a system and is a modern conversion (admittedly of a Victorian terrace, but since the boiler etc. are modern they could presumably have had their choice of system when they did the work).

#49 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:44 AM:

And the irony of all this -- my branch is closed. When my transfer didn't work it was somebody in an Indian call centre who told me I'd have to go to my branch. This is from a bank which, when I opened my account (not too long ago, either), was advertising itself on the basis that "there is another way" than branch closures and offshore call centres.

#50 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:50 AM:

nerdycellist @ 47... Immediate Supervisor is still only a Subject Matter Expert

When I was referred to as a Smee, I was told it stood for Subject Matter Expert. I of course, being a graduate from Sarek's Diplomacy School, asked if that meant I now work for Captain Hook.

#51 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 12:20 PM:

Serge @ 50:

The opening scene of the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life is, IMHO, a very accurate depiction of modern corporate capitalism.

#52 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 12:38 PM:

Riffing on "Insufficiently Boring": I've been thinking for a while that part of what's wrong with the world is that doing conscientious work reliably gets too little respect compared to being wildly ambitious.

I'm not saying that being ambitious to do something useful on a grand scale is bad, just that being solidly conscientious isn't taken nearly as seriously as it should be.

#53 ::: giltay ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 12:41 PM:

"We were proud of how well that complex structure of disparate components hummed along."

I feel the same about the systems at my workplace. I may grouch about having to do impedance matching between a system made for libraries and a system made for broadcasters, but when it works* it's sublime.

*It will work, eventually.

Henry Troup @16: Because Canadian banks are forced to be boring by boring legislation, I suppose that makes them have to compete on things like customer service. (Although the regulations have been around for a while, and the improved customer service thing is, as a life-long TD user I can attest, fairly recent.)

#54 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 12:45 PM:

Jules @46 Most newer rental houses are using a more advanced system where there is a "key" (a piece of plastic with an embedded RFID tag) that identifies an account, and you can get cash loaded onto the account at local shops. But coin-operated and token-operated systems are still common.

Thanks for the info. I hope it's easy to tell from the meter when one is about to run out of electricity.

Not being used to such a system I can envison myself off somewhere enjoying a two week vacation and suddenly in a panic worrying that my electricity had expired and all the meat and other frozen stuff in my refrigerator was rotting away.

#55 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 01:15 PM:

Abi, congratulations on that seriously badass bit of systems merging. Not one penny astray!

#56 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 02:17 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 51...

"Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live."
- Quintus Arrius in "Ben-Hur"

#57 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 02:34 PM:

Janet K #54 - the meter will likely have a screen on it which says how much money or electricity is left. I used a card operated (cards were £5 from certain shops) one that had a screen. That was in Sheffield 10 years ago.

#58 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 02:41 PM:

I'm sorry, abi, I meant to post a congratulation for that system work some time back, but have been running around with my hair on fire (figuratively, thank Chaos) this morning.

I've been responsible for a large back-end batch system, so I know just how hard it is to keep things going as your upstream and downstream systems change, and organizational changes and growth cause 5 or 10x changes in system load. Good on you.

#59 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 02:47 PM:

Diatryma, Bruce:

Thank you, but I was only a very small part of a very big, very capable team. (It was like a reunion for us, since so many of us had worked together on Y2K a couple of years before.)

#60 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 04:20 PM:

Regarding coin-op utility meters, I remember watching an old Charlie Chaplin short set in a low-income household in NYC, where they'd rigged the gas meter (similar to this one) so they'd drop a coin in, it would turn on the gas, and come right back out the bottom. My father, born in the 20s, said that such coin-operated gas meters (minus the coin-recycling feature) were fairly common in urban apartments when he was a kid.

#61 ::: Chris Suslowicz ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 05:03 PM:

Abi wrote: I was one of the people who watched over the first batch of the millennium instead of going to a party.

Did you get a T-shirt?

Chris.
On the subject of CA-7, there are various ways to get yourself into a deep hole, the easiest being a COLD or FORM start (either via start command or hidden in the parameter deck), either of which will clear the schedule and provide you with hours of "fun" with the various report jobs to ascertain where you where in the batch run when you pulled the trigger. The all-time worst has got to be an accidental MOVQ restart that reloads the queues from a backup taken at some random time in the past - probably a maintenance slot several years ago! Lets just say: "I don't want to think about it", and change the subject quickly.

#62 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:02 PM:

"It’s going to take some time to get everyone back to where they should have been, and even longer to compensate people for late fees, overdraft charges, and other ancillary costs."

Am I the only one cynical enough to believe that a lot of those fees, charges and costs will end up being the customer's problem rather than the bank's, at least until the lawsuits, and that the bank will spend more on the lawyers defending their decision than it would have to actually upfront pay those fees, charges and costs? Possibly make more from the use of those funds during the time of negotiation of settlement than they end up paying out, even?

It's cheaper, you know; we have the lawyers on retainer, so it doesn't cost anything.

IT snark: yeah, Legal's another group (like comptrollers) that is pure cost centre; but unlike IT and those other outsource-heavy departments, never seem to be outsourced, because the people in charge actually *know* what they do and what not having them around would do to the revenues of the company.

#63 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:14 PM:

The robot in the Wallace & Grommit film "A Grand Day Out" is based on a coin-operated gas stove. Most Americans think it's some sort of weird vending machine.

The modern equivalent is using a smart card that can be reloaded -- my local utility has such a service for electric power.

Another problem with outsourcing is the desire to make the individual jobs as narrow as possible. So you don't have a team responsible for the financial batching system. You have someone that does CA-7, someone that does DB2, someone that does MVS, someone that does file transmissions, and none of them understand how their part fits in the overall process.

#64 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:37 PM:

I was born in Scotland, and lived there until 1969. My grandmother had a coin-operated electric meter until at least 1972. My uncle, who lived with her, had an old electric clock with a 50-50 chance of starting out running backwards on power interruptions. An interesting combination.

Spare coins of the proper denomination were always kept by the meter for emergencies. I recall florins/10p pieces.

I recall being left in the dark in the bathroom once when the meter ran down. Not a lot of fun in a house you don't know really intimately.

When my parents rented rooms to students, the supplementary gas heaters were coin-operated, as this was a simple way to avoid arguments about heaters left on when the students were out. I believe those ran on shillings/5p pieces.

glitay @ 53 - Canadian banks (at least the big six) are actually quite scary big enough to damage the country if allowed to become un-boring. I think we got by 2008 mostly on luck.

#65 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 12:33 AM:

Re clocks running backwards.

Many water meters measure movement through them, regardless of direction. Not normally a problem, but you get interesting results when you have a meter connected to each end of a hotel's water system.
BTW, it is practical to run a billing system for thousands of water meters using spreadsheets, a word processor, and a sprocket-feed dot-matrix printer. This was the transitional system between the hand-written cards and typed invoices of the six precursor local bodies, and the water billing module of the shiny new IT system.

#66 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 06:06 AM:

Recently the 9 electric meters in the hallway cupboard of our condo building were replaced by the electric company with "smartmeters". The company is in the process of installing 280,000 of these new meters, which talk directly to the mothership. I could log in to my account on the Web and find out how much electricity I used yesterday. Not that I particularly want to do that.

Before this technological advance each meter in the city (and many were still indoors) had to be checked each month by a meter reader, so that the customer could be billed for the amount of electricity used. I imagine the electric company would have preferred a coin/token/smartcard system if that ever had been an option here.

When the conversion to smartmeters is complete meter readers going from house to house each month will quietly fade away.

A fairly clear case of technology eliminating jobs.

#67 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 09:11 AM:

Mycroft W @ 62 - Problem with IT and outsourcing is that it falls neatly under two different fallacies in the mind of management.

Fallacy 1: If I can understand it, it can't be difficult.

Fallacy 2: If it doesn't interest me, it can't be important.

In the case of fallacy 1, "understand it" means "I can use email" or "I can tell the PC on my desk from a banana best out of five". In the case of fallacy 2, IT only becomes interesting when the email doesn't work.

Also, it's worth noting there's an outsourcing hierarchy in IT as well. The first group to be outsourced will always be the helpdesk - because they're always coming up with these lists of problems, and never creating any solutions to them. (Never mind that the helpdesk people are the ones you're calling with that wonderful cri de coeur "my email doesn't work!"[1] and who will walk you through the process of figuring out what the hells has gone wrong here so that you can access your daily helping of spam).

The best solution to the whole "the helpdesk doesn't do anything useful" conundrum I came across was from the manager of the second helpdesk I worked at (for a large government agency). He created a special sub-team of the helpdesk, labelled "Executive Support" - specialist support for anyone who was executive rank and above, so they could get service quickly rather than having to wait in the queue with all the ordinary staff. Every time he was told he needed to trim the budget, the first cab off the sacrificial rank was the Executive Support team... and somehow those budget cuts mysteriously didn't need to be made any more. Unfortunately, the execs wised up after a few years of this, and funded the Exec Support team separately.

[1] This is the generic helpdesk call. It can mean anything from "I've forgotten how to switch my computer on" right the way up to "the computer is on fire, I'm choking from the fumes, but I still can't get my email". The other generic one is "I can't print" - and my partner can actually testify to a case where this was due to the actual printer being on fire at the time.

#68 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 09:14 AM:

abi@44, there is a more impressive list of stripped honours here, though this includes people who've been stripped of things like Earldoms.

I couldn't help but notice one name from this list, because it's a name I'd never before seen outside of SF: Odo, Earl of Kent, half-brother of William the Bastard. He manages to be a sort of inverse of both SF Odos: hugely corrupt, described as having vast wealth 'gained by extortion and robbery' he is surely a propertarian and had little apparent respect for the rule of law, and though he did organize a revolution, it failed completely and was only trying to replace William with his son in any case.

#69 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 09:47 AM:

More from The Register here.

#70 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 09:51 AM:

Megpie71@67: Every time he was told he needed to trim the budget, the first cab off the sacrificial rank was the Executive Support team

"Operation Hairshirt".

#71 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 09:57 AM:

Nix @ 68... When DS9 premiered, I was curious about why an alien shapeshifter would be named after a Japanese island. Then again, they also had an alien (played by Cyd Charisse's niece) sporting a Russian name. I wonder if they had an alien named Bob.

#72 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 12:24 PM:

It irks me that Pres. Obama regards offshore and outsourcing as differentiations which are dismissable. Putting call centers, IT departments, software development... just about everything except sales and marketing and maybe management (note the companies which moved their headquarters to Dubai, Singapore, etc.) is offshoring--and Mitt Romney collected lots of money for offshoring of existing and new positions.

Rajan in Bangalore and Smeta in Mumbai saying they are Reecharrd in Dallis and Samantha in Atlanta, might be employees of a call center operations company, or of the company which they are doing the customer service work for. And Krisha who actually is in Dallas, and Sue who's in Atlanta, may be working for the company the customer is calling up, or for a commercial call center under contract to the company the customer is calling.

It DOES make differences, significant ones... Motorola actually has plants which are Motorola plants, with Motorola employees, in China, as opposed to Apple's use of e.g. Foxconn. "In-sourced" offshoring at least means that the company is directly responsible to the workers regarding conditions and management and labor have direct stakes in one another. Onshore outsourcing, the IT department might be run by IBM or HP or some other large IT services company, but the IT workers generally speak the same language and have the same culture and aren;t being managed with a half-day time offset and a halfway-around-the-world airplane flight time and distance different to arrange in-person meetings....

Also, knowing that someone might come visting...

#73 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 12:41 PM:

They named an alien Bob on Stargate: Atlantis, but then they had to shoot him because of the mindmelding and so forth.

As you do.

#74 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 08:27 AM:

It looks as though RBS managed to get the worst of both worlds.

Latest from The Register here

Briefly, "informed sources" are saying that about half the UK-based batch-scheduling team were fired, and replaced by workers in India. There workers are employed by RBS. It is claimed that, for the last couple of years, the quality of their work has been erratic, and complaints to management have been ignored.

But RBS can still say the work is managed in Edinburgh.

It's the classic combination of losing corporate knowledge and bad communications of technical issues, with extra helpings of cover-up and blind faith.

#75 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 12:03 PM:

I add my congratulations to abi on the successful batch conversion.

I am frequently amused/horrified how durable IT systems are. My first job as a an actuary was in 2002, and the system I worked on first had been written in APL in the late 70's. The most up-to-date manual for the language that we had (which I was given quite early) was only 2 years younger than I.

It was an amazing system--fast, and very very efficient in its use of memory.

#76 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 06:51 AM:

On the prepayment for utilities front:

Everywhere I've rented has been on the meter-and-bills system. One time I wished that wasn't the case: a chap turned up to cut off the electricity because the previous tenant hadn't paid their bills.
(Luckily I could prove I was a different person, had told the company when I moved in, had paid my bills on time, etc- but that's why I will never use that utility company again. How *dare* they forget to call off the bailiffs when a new person moved in!) So anyway, a pay-in-advance system would have avoided all that excitement.

#77 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 02:33 PM:

APL! Thrifty with *machine* memory, not human, eh? The Wikipedia example of Conway's Game of Life in one line is... something.

#78 ::: Autarch ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2012, 10:52 PM:

Congratulations to Abi for her excellent work on Y2K. It must be quite disheartening to see the systems you worked on reduced to their current state.

Back in the 1970s, I remember our house had a gasmeter fed by coins. The gas heater flames would slowly shrink until after a while they were mostly white and the meter needed refilling. Now it's an electronic meter outsite the front door and I pay via direct debit.

APL has a reputation for being quite terse, all right - I've toyed with J, also designed by Ken Iverson and the one thing I *think* I recognise in that code is a "fold" - at least it would be a "/" in J.

#79 ::: Autarch ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2012, 11:46 PM:

Re J and Conway's Game of Life - here's a link to an implementation to compare to the APL one:
http://rosettacode.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Game_of_Life#J

#80 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2012, 03:52 AM:

There's an extra twist in the UK utility prepayment system - the rate per unit is higher than on a standard billing system. Since the prepayment system is typically used by low-income families that have poor credit ratings, it's yet another example of how things are more expensive if you're poor.

The major advantage for the energy companies is that UK law restricts their ability to disconnect supply for non-payment if there are children in a household. Using meters allows them to get around this, since the customers effectively disconnect themselves when they run out of cash.

#81 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2012, 06:24 PM:

The major advantage for the energy companies is that UK law restricts their ability to disconnect supply for non-payment if there are children in a household. Using meters allows them to get around this, since the customers effectively disconnect themselves when they run out of cash.

Yeah -- having spent a half-decade in Wisconsin, that's what I wondered about. Cutting off one's gas isn't quite a death sentence in the middle of the winter, but it comes pretty close.

Although, honestly, I once had to buy a roll of quarters off a bartender so I could do laundry the next day. Even if I had plenty of cash in the bank, needing to use physical money could be problematic.

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