Category Archives: General

Documentary evidence

Today I was applying, on behalf of my department at the University of Cambridge, for an educational discount on some software.

The form on the website asked various questions, and included an obligatory upload section: “Please provide documentation supporting your institution’s accreditation status”.

So I sent them this:

It is, apparently — for I must confess I didn’t read it carefully — “a charter in the form of letters patent of inspeximus and confirmation by Edward I to the Chancellor and Masters of the University of Cambridge confirming the privileges of the University granted by Henry III, and an agreement between the Scholars and Burgesses for the punishment of disturbers of the peace by a representative group from both sides”. It dates from 6 Feb 1291, and it’s worth looking at it on the University Library’s web site, where you can zoom right in and see the lovely illustration in the top-left corner.

Anyway, the company granted us the academic discount. Probably wise. You wouldn’t want to upset Edward I. Remember what he did to the Scots.

Why do you have a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your website?

Question 1. Which of the following are indicated by having a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your company’s ‘support’ pages?

  • (a) A lack of the discipline needed to write proper documentation.

  • (b) Insufficient staff to provide proper support.

  • (c) Inadequate engineers to provide a reliable product.

  • (d) A poor user-interface experience in your product.

  • (e) All of the above.


The best thing about creating a website in blog format, I’ve always thought, is that you don’t need to maintain it to nearly the same degree as you would most other sites. Why? Because everything has a date, and that date is paramount; it is clearly marked. This makes it obvious to the reader that a post was written in a particular context, and, while the content may still be useful some years later, you can’t blame the author for not being able to predict the future if it’s no longer accurate or relevant now! As an author, therefore, you don’t need to be constantly re-reading, deleting, updating, clarifying, as you would with most other forms of documentation.

The appeal of the so-called ‘Knowledge Base’ — a searchable database of support articles on a company website — is that it also promises an alternative solution to this challenge of maintaining structured documentation, but instead of using old Father Time to winnow out inaccurate material, it uses a search engine to help you ignore it.

If you force your customers to type things into the Knowledge Base search box before you let them get anywhere near the page with your phone numbers or email addresses, there’s even a chance they may find out the answer to their question and not bother you! Bliss!

What’s the problem?

Search engines are wonderful things, of course, and this isn’t a bad idea in theory, but if your experience is anything like mine, these knowledge bases are chiefly a source of frustration for customers.

Why is this?

  1. Users don’t know what to search for. They may not know the phrases you use internally to categorise certain issues. A human support person would know that when you said you had an issue with your mouse, you might be referring to a problem labelled ‘trackpad’ or ‘cursor’ in the docs.

  2. The articles aren’t well-indexed. Do you, for example, make sure that the error message the user actually sees appears in plain text in the articles, so the search engine has a chance of finding it? Do your articles have extensive tagging with relevant keywords which may not be in the text? If the error is slightly different because they used a different filename, will it still be found?

  3. The search engines aren’t good enough. We’ve been spoiled by Google. Does your search engine understand synonyms? Does it rank pages well? Does it show a good summary so your users don’t have to read all 26 articles returned by their query?

  4. The content is outdated. If the user actually succeeds in finding a relevant article, is it clear that it only refers to version 4.2 of the product running on Android, and not version 5.0 running on iOS, because the latter didn’t exist at the time it was written? Will they know that the solution it proposes can’t possibly work for them? Because this advice is buried in a database, it may be harder for your support staff to know this is a problem.

How to fix it!

I have four pieces of advice for anyone who has, or is considering implementing, a Knowledge Base on their website:

  1. Make sure the full text of your knowledge base is searchable by Google. They will do a better job than you do.

  2. Allocate more, not less, in the way of resources, if you want your documentation in this form. Knowledge Bases are not like blogs. You can’t dump things in there and forget them. Articles need to be reviewed, re-written, re-indexed, re-keyworded and regularly purged if the contents are to remain useful. You need to do this in addition to writing the actually text itself. Customers will not thank you for anything which suggests you believe that their time is much less important than yours. If they have to search through dozens of articles to try and find an answer, it probably indicates you aren’t doing your job. There may be good reasons for using this format for your documentation. Cheapness isn’t one of them.

  3. If you insist on putting your users through this and they still contact you, you should provide better support once they do. For heaven’s sake, don’t just connect them to somebody in a remote location who only has access to the same information! Don’t offer a chat link to somebody who is ‘Very sorry to hear about your problem’ but knows less about it than they do. Connect them to the engineers who produced the flawed product, or the writers who produced the inadequate documentation.

  4. This is the key one: The bigger your Knowledge Base, the worse job you are doing. In most situations, an entry in your Knowledge Base indicates a failure in communication elsewhere. Insufficient documentation, unhelpful errors, unreliable products. Your users won’t generally be consulting a Knowledge Base if everything is going well for them. Treat it as an issue-ticketing system, and reward those whose work means that articles can be removed from it. And make sure you have the processes in place that this actually happens!

In the beginning…

My family are a constant source of useful information. My nephew James tells me he’s just discovered that it’s ‘World Design Day’. (He’s a designer and nobody had mentioned it to him before now. Shocking, eh?)

Anyway, this is another nice episode in what is rapidly becoming a theme on Status-Q. We started with The International Year of Planet Earth, then moved on to the discovery of Earth Day, but World Design Day surely has to be the most ambitious. I mean, where do you start?

Well, I guess you might begin with ‘Let there be light…’?

The Liar Tweets Tonight

This is just brilliant…

The Biggest Event You’ve Never Heard Of?

In a slightly-related follow-up to my recent repost from the archives…

Yesterday, apparently, was ‘Earth Day’. I missed this fact — you may have done so too — but, unlike my brother, I had actually heard of it before, so I knew it wasn’t a marketing ploy by vendors of topsoil and compost. But I thought it was some one-off hippy jamboree back in the 90s.

However, it turns out to be a regular and international thing, which has been going on about as long as we have! He only found out about it because it was included in his Apple Calendar. He went and Googled it, and sent me a link.

Gosh, the ways we find out about things these days, eh? Other people put them in your calendar, and you have to go and look them up to find out what they are. Whatever next?

Anyway happy (belated) Earth Day, everybody! You’ll know for next year…

Spare a thought for the politicians

I am constantly bemused by the number of naïve people who want to blame politicians for all the evils of the world, and especially those medical evils that are besetting us at the moment. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this is happening in many, if not most, countries — which should immediately give any critical thinkers pause for thought — but let’s focus for the moment on the UK.

The NHS is, as the Guardian so nicely put it recently, “the UK’s unofficial religion”, so to question any aspect of its operation is blasphemy. If the health service were given free rein, clearly everything would be fine and sunny, so, as Epicurus would have wondered, “whence cometh evil?” Other religions usually deal with this problem by inventing the idea of devils, who exist to take the blame for the difficult problems raised by the belief system. Also to blame are heretics, who consort with them, don’t pay sufficient tithes to the gods, and should therefore be burned at the stake. In the modern world, we group these problematic actors together and call them politicians. (Oh, not the ones you voted for, of course. They are the priests.)

Anyway, since we don’t just have a two-party system, and not everybody votes, the majority of the population will probably disapprove of whichever party is currently in power. That party is therefore always an easy scapegoat for significant frustration. And the minister in charge of the particular challenge du jour is probably Beelzebub himself in human form. Certainly, any media outlet suggesting that is going to get higher advertising revenues than one that suggests the opposite, so it’s a meme that propagates by simple Darwinian processes.

But is that really fair?

Now, just to set the scene, let me emphasise that I’m no particular fan of our current government, and I didn’t vote for them. And yes, with hindsight, there are some things that they could have been done better. It’s easy to say that now. We must never forget that they are fallible humans, after all, with fallible advisors, and voted for by fallible people.

But if, like me, you didn’t vote for them, then try assuming, as a thought experiment, that the people you did vote for came to power in the election just a few weeks ago, and had this dumped on them. They would, I hope, if they were smart, have taken broadly the same decisions. Yes, they would. They would have had the same health service, the same civil servants, the same scientific advice from the same scientific advisors and, hopefully, would have followed it roughly as the current government have done. So they would have had the same outcomes.

There might have been variations — the advice they’re given by the experts isn’t unanimous, after all — which might have moved the infection curve forward or back by a week or two. But it probably wouldn’t have been a significant change (unless your politicians chose to ignore the scientific advice completely like a certain transatlantic President I could mention!)

This graph from the FT is a good way to see that most comparable countries to the UK are following a pretty similar trajectory; the UK peak is higher than most, but our numbers are dominated by London’s population size & density, and its transport infrastructure; neither of which are replicated in many otherwise comparable places. If you restrict your view to urban centres, Paris followed a pretty similar curve to London. France, however, has half the population density of the UK overall, and that’s probably a significant factor in limiting the spread on a national scale. And so on.

Anyway, let’s assume that your favourite party is in power and hasn’t done a significantly worse or better job, because they don’t have that many parameters to tweak. Where they might have made different decisions, these would have had other costs of their own: damage to the economy, significantly higher future taxes, closure of businesses leading to higher unemployment, etc. The best choice wasn’t necessarily obvious back then; managing this is almost always about having to choose the lesser of two evils. And now they’re being blamed by the media and everyone on Twitter for the shortage of PPE, tests, and ventilators.

I assume that those who are complaining have never actually set up a vast manufacturing and supply chain combined with an instant nationwide distribution network. You have? OK, well done. But let’s imagine, instead, that you’re a young guy — we’ll call you Matt — and you have no particular expertise in this area but have been put in charge of everything and suddenly had the world’s most difficult supply-chain problem for some time dropped in your lap. You have to try and sort out in days and weeks what would normally take those who do have lots of experience weeks and months.

Assuming you’re up to this superhuman task, let’s compound it with a few problems:

  • You work for a large, bureaucratic, inefficient and slow-moving organisation. You’re trying to organise this on behalf of and with the help of another large, bureaucratic, inefficient and slow-moving organisation.

  • Many of your key decision-makers are not in the office. Some of them are sick. Some are in intensive care. Including your boss.

  • Many of your lower-level staff are also off sick or have child-care issues to deal with because all the schools are closed. It’s a bit like trying to organise this during a Bank Holiday.

  • This is true of every single organisation you’re dealing with. And there are hundreds.

  • There’s a global shortage of materials needed to make your products. Many of those suppliers are just not operating at the moment. Sometimes their governments wouldn’t even let them sell it to you if they could.

  • There’s a global demand for the product itself. Everybody else is trying to buy it, as well as you. Not just everybody nearby. Everybody in the world.

  • You don’t actually work for or have any real authority in most of the companies concerned.

  • All of this is costing you way, way more than it normally would.

  • If you do manage to manufacture this product, then all the delivery drivers who might eventually distribute it for you are busy delivering other things.

  • Sorry, did I say this product? You’re actually trying to do this many times over, for a whole range of different products.

  • And every day, journalists are badgering you with questions about why you haven’t finished it yet – don’t you know people are dying out there?

Now, given all that, I don’t know about you, but I’m not 100% certain that, even if I were Secretary of State for Health, I’d actually be able to sort this out in the next couple of weeks so we can all go back to work.

Would you? OK, make sure you stand for parliament next time around, so we can elect you before the next crisis hits, and it can then be your name in the papers. Personally, I fancy that role even less than I fancy being a health worker with insufficient PPE!

Sports commentary still going on…

Andrew Cotter, the well-known UK sports commentator, posted this rather nice video on his Twitter feed, not having much else to comment on at present.

Towards self-sufficiency

We get nice deliveries of vegetables from a local supplier.

One day, we got a couple of butternut squashes.

Rose fished a few of the seeds out of the bin and planted them.

Soon, we won’t need to get vegetable deliveries any more…

The two most useful web pages for understanding the world today?

There are an awful lot of people just complaining about things at present. They’re either complaining about other people going to beaches and parks, or they’re complaining about their politicians, who should have known better/done more/spent more/predicted the future/not been elected, etc.

This is happening, as far as I can see, on all kinds of media in many countries, so it’s a general commentary on human nature and not specific to any particular government or population. Once you’ve read a couple of articles by your favourite complainer, I’d suggest it’s probably best to go and do something more productive rather than reading any more of it!

Here, however, are two excellent sources that might help you understand what’s really going on in the world, without too much complaining.

Clapping to a different beat?

There have been a couple of evenings recently when UK residents have been encouraged to go outside and clap and cheer for all our wonderful health workers who are doing such a great job. This is, in many ways, a good idea, and I would have joined in, had I known about them in advance! (We’re a little bit isolated out here and so didn’t hear about them until the following morning.) It’s all rather cringe-worthy, but a significant proportion of my family work for the NHS, and a large number of friends, and they’re working very hard in difficult circumstances. Some of them have come down with coronavirus themselves. So, yes, I probably would have overcome my natural reserve and clapped, at least if anybody other than passing rabbits would have heard me!

I was interested, though, today, to come across this thread on Twitter where a large number of people, mostly who work for the NHS or in healthcare, were expressing their discomfort with the idea, for a variety of reasons.

They had various motives, but the key one seems to be that politicians who have voted against increasing NHS funding have no right to praise those who are now having to be heroes as a result, and certainly not to lead the public in praising them in this low-cost way.

Others say that anyone who voted for those politicians should also not be outside clapping.

My view is that anyone who is not willing to pay a substantially increased personal tax burden should also have pause for thought. I’m guessing that, to have the service we’d all like, we should be thinking of paying about £1000 per year more per family member. (And yes, people who choose to have children would, and of course should, pay more.) However, the country as a whole has been given the opportunity to make rather more modest contributions than that on more than one occasion, explicitly earmarked for such things as health and education, and has turned it down.

I base that £1000 figure, by the way, on the fact that Rose and I have to pay rather more than that for a basic level of private health insurance, on top of what we currently pay for the NHS. We are fortunate to be able to do that, but it’s not because we’re particularly wealthy. We’re clearly a very long way from being poor, but we work for a university and are still, most years, basic-rate taxpayers, not high-rate. So this is a significant chunk of our income, and it’s a luxury but also a kind of voluntary taxation: yes, we get much better service, but in exchange we don’t have some other luxuries, and it doesn’t free us from paying for the NHS: we do that too. But we’ve placed much less burden on it, over the years, than we would have done otherwise.

If, by paying that amount to the NHS, I could be confident of all of us getting the improved level of service, I’d be happy to do so! Instead, at present, we pay so that thing are a lot nicer for us, and a little bit nicer for others.

The problem is that under-resourcing, though clearly a significant challenge, is certainly not the whole story.

On all three of the last three times I’ve had to go to NHS hospitals because friends or family have been there, I have been struck by the many wonderful, cheery, helpful workers… but also by the quite extraordinary levels of administrative incompetence. I encounter employees who would never be able to keep a job if this were a commercial enterprise. I experience procedures which, if they were followed so poorly in a business, would quickly result in that business no longer existing. (Though to be fair, that’s often true of many public bodies.)

And this, I’m sad to say, has been my almost constant experience. On both of the last two occasions I’ve had friends or family staying overnight in hospitals, they have occupied a bed for a whole day longer than necessary. Why? Not because they were still sick, but because the doctor literally forgot to come and discharge them before going home at the end of his shift. Two different hospitals. Two different doctors. Two different patients. Same problem. Actually three doctors, because one friend was forgotten twice in a row, though I think one of them might have been the nurse’s fault. They are not just short of hospital beds for lack of funds!

And this malaise is not just in the area of patient care. I remember when, as a struggling startup company, we were trying to sell a product to our local NHS hospital. They liked it, they wanted to buy it almost immediately, the cost was trivial, but it still took them more than a year to go through their procurement procedures and write us a modest cheque. Even then — and this was explicitly explained to me — they only managed to get it to us because somebody persuaded the person responsible for the relevant account to stay for a meeting which finished after 5pm. He was annoyed, and made it clear, because he normally went home soon after tea-time, at around 4.30pm. For those of us working long hours and weekends to produce the product, we just had to laugh. I know from talking to other technology providers that our experience was certainly not unique. But that was then – what about now? Well, now, remember this story when you hear that they can’t get the supplies they need.

These are just anecdotes, of course – I have no knowledge of the bigger picture on any statistically-valid level. I speak only of what I’ve experienced. But I have certainly not exhausted my stories: those are just a couple of the more worrying examples.

So yes, I love the NHS. I’m enormously grateful for what they’re doing now. And yes, I wish it were better resourced.

But anyone who thinks that somebody else will pay for a better service for them is living in cloud-cuckoo land; we all need to be willing to stump up significant amounts of cash. How many of those people out there clapping think that the problems now being experienced are all somebody else’s fault?

Anyone who thinks that money is the only problem, or that the politicians are the only problem, is similarly deluded. In this country it is very unpopular to talk about any degree of commercialisation of the NHS, and clearly that’s not a silver bullet: one only has to look at the costs of drugs in the USA for an example of how commercialisation can get out of hand.

But so far, nobody seems to have come up with a good way of instilling the disciplines and efficiency and levels of accountability that govern the commercial world into the public sector. And until they do that, it seems to me, we will continue to have some situations where we just have to rely on some people being heroes.

The Woodpiles of Hanoi

One thing we inherited when we moved to this house was a wood-burning stove. We also inherited a couple of wood stores, which we keep stocked up with a mix of occasional deliveries of big logs, and with wood that falls off nearby trees, collected on dog walks and lugged home to be sawn up.

I don’t have a chainsaw, by the way. I’ve sometimes been tempted, but, as my friend Richard pointed out, “Accidents involving chainsaws are seldom minor.” Instead, I have what I call a ‘chainsaw for scaredy-cats’: an alligator saw. This is a splendid device, which does quite a lot of the work of a chainsaw but avoids a lot of the potential pitfalls. Definitely recommended if you’re in a similar situation.

The gripping jaws also mean you can use it for chopping much smaller sticks than would be practical with a real chainsaw, as well as the big stuff.

Anyway, my otherwise-fine woodpiles have a problem. You want the wood to dry for as long as possible before burning it.

The nature of these stores, though, if you top them up continuously like we do, is that the only accessible wood is on the top layers, which is probably the most recently-added, and hence probably the greenest or dampest (or whatever). I was contemplating this challenge the other day, and I realised that if I had a third wood store, I could stack things perfectly. How? Towers of Hanoi!

The Towers of Hanoi is that puzzle where you have a set of discs, typically threaded on one of three poles. The aim is to move them one at a time onto another pole, but you’re not allowed to put a larger disc on top of a smaller one.

It’s not actually very difficult, and once you’ve worked out the basic mechanism you can extend it to arbitrary numbers of discs while still only needing three piles. Here’s a nice animation by André Karwath:

The puzzle is a fun source of entertainment (for a short while, at least), but I’ve never thought it had any actual use (other than as an exercise in recursive programming in computing courses).

But, I suddenly realised, suppose the larger discs represented younger wood, and the smaller ones older, then it’s clear that if I had three wood stores, I’d never need to leave younger wood on top of older wood. It could always be rearranged. Cunning, eh?

The problem, of course, it that it does still take rather a lot of shuffling wood around, which seems like hard work, even for a hardened lumberjack like myself.

So I’m now thinking that perhaps I really just need a wood store designed more like a waterwheel, with the wood stacked in the middle. I’d fill it up as normal, but when I wanted wood for the fire, I’d just rotate the whole thing until the dry logs were at the top, remove some, and then turn it back… Brilliant, eh?

I would go and demonstrate how to make it for you, but just at the moment it’s too cozy here in front of the fire.

Why I really am awfully lucky…

A gate in Coton

Two and a half years ago, after a couple of decades living happily in the centre of Cambridge, we moved out to the countryside.

Here, that only meant a move of about two and a half miles, but it made a big difference; we basically did a simple exchange: swapping proximity-to-things for space. We got a much bigger detached house in exchange for a small terrace; fields and woods right outside the door; and some real luxuries like a spacious driveway and a garage: things we’d never owned in any size or shape before! The house was almost exactly the same value as the one we sold, so the only major cost involved in the move was a very hefty whack of Stamp Duty.

The current coronavirus lockdown, though, has made me realise just how fortunate a decision that move was. Having more space, both inside and outside the house, makes such a difference in this current climate.

I can’t imagine living in London at the moment. It’s not something I’ve ever particularly wanted to do, but it must be even worse now, though at least a lot quieter and less polluted than usual!

The people who must really be suffering, I imagine, are those working from home, with kids, in a small London flat. I really take my hat off to anyone in that situation who is managing to keep their sanity intact! I’m grateful once again that we decided not to have kids… though I suppose, by now, they would have grown up, moved out and would probably have little viruses of their own.

And finally, since, for many years, I’ve been working half-time from home, we’re well set up for that, so no real changes have been needed on that front. In fact, having my wonderful wife-and-chef working from home too has made most days a gastronomic delight.

All in all, then, we’re amazingly lucky in our version of the Covid-restricted life.

It’s tempting to put some of it down to good judgement. Our past decisions not to live in a big city, not to have kids, not to have high-pressure office-based jobs, to focus on dog-walking more than income-generation, and (recently) to live in the countryside, have all contributed to a good quality of life in general, and a particularly easy transition to the one we’ll be living for the next few months. If only I could claim to have foreseen the inevitability of a global pandemic, I could actually claim some credit for them!

But I do recommend at least some of them, for anyone considering big life-changing decisions in preparation for when the next virus comes along. Because it is a sobering thought, even here in Arcadia, that this almost certainly won’t be the last.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser