Thursday, August 30, 2012

Compare and contrast

Interesting and historic night in parliament last night, revealing which eras some of our politicians are fond of.

Twenty-First Century New Zealand:
Bill to legalise gay marriage passes first reading

Twentieth Century New Zealand:
Talking suit calls for referendum

Nineteenth Century New Zealand:
Gay marriage conscience vote a failure of democracy apparently

I'm for the bill in case anyone is wondering. I'm old enough to remember when if you were a male it was actually illegal to be a practising homosexual in NZ, and I'm only 36. The bill is still a long way from being law, and there will no doubt be hurdles, but it is long past time that some of my friends enjoyed the same basic rights as I do. Their being able to marry affects my marriage and morals (and the morals of my children by extension) not one iota. And let's face it, straight people have been fucking up the "sanctity of marriage as an institution" for as long as marriage has been around. Letting gay people join in just adds to the flavour :)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stuff of Legend

The other week it occurred to me that an Olympic medal may be one of the few things that render people close to immortal. Then I remembered that about 384,000 kilometers away there are some tangible human artifacts that effectively are immortal:
 Buzz Aldrin boot and lunar footprint, Apollo 11, image via NASA

The footprints and other artifacts that twelve men from Earth left on the Moon will remain recognisable for millenia at least if left undisturbed. The news today of the death of the first man to leave them reminded me of this.

Coincidentally I was reading my now well-worn copy of A Man On The Moon the other day, and came across a passage that resonated in a way I hadn't felt the umpteen times I've read it before:

"everything he did, even casual speech, seemed to be the result of a great deal of thought . . . Armstrong often kept people at arm's length. He rarely engaged in idle conversation, and steadfastly guarded his privacy.
"In time, the NACA pilots realised that Armstrong wasn't aloof; he was shy. Once they got past his great reserve, they found warmth. Once he became a friend, he was a good friend . . . If he could be reticent, then he could also become so involved in conversation while driving that his passengers nervously eyed the road. "

It's obviously describing Neil Armstrong, but I suddenly recognised a few of those personality traits in myself, especially shyness being mistaken for aloofness. That's about as close as I'll ever get to what he achieved (and the end of any self aggrandising comparisons), but it is nice to know there were aspects to him I could relate to. His modesty would mean he would even downplay his own significance at being the first moonwalker, claiming that the landing itself was the real achievement, and that was something that he and Buzz Aldrin (who made a nice statement today here) had done simultaneously. Even without Apollo 11, his combat flying career with the US Navy, his test flying career with NACA/NASA (including flying what is still the fastest manned aircraft ever), and his previous spaceflight on Gemini 8 (which he personally saved from disaster under difficult circumstances when a system malfunction occurred) would have been worthy of note. It makes me respect him and his withdrawal from publicity even more - he could have been the celebrity of celebrities had he chosen to.

Dr Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has written a nice piece on Armstrong's passing today, and says "we can divide all of history into two parts: before humans landed on the Moon, and after". I was born 7 years after Apollo 11; I have never known a world where we haven't walked on the moon, and I'm grateful to Armstrong and all of his peers for making it that way. I have never grown out of that childlike wonder of seeing images and accounts of people walking on another world apart from our own. There are more famous images of Armstrong, but this is my favourite, taken on the Moon just after the first moonwalk concluded, and it sums up that feeling for me.
Image via NASA
There are now eight living moonwalkers of the original twelve. Hopefully there will be more before that number drops to zero.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tongariro Cross

When Mount Tongariro decided to remind everyone it is still an active volcano two weeks ago, it was interesting to see the effect on the some of the parts of it I visited when I did the Tongariro Crossing walk at the beginning of last year. The eruption was centred around the Te Maari craters, which aren't on the crossing trail itself, but close enough to ensure it was in the firing line.

Here's how the trail near Ketetahi Hut looked in 2011, with the hut in the middle distance:
And how the place looked after being ash-bombed. The hut has holes in the roof that go all the way through the floorboards apparently
 Both pics NZ Police via Stuff

Monday, August 13, 2012

And now, Brian Page

Just wondering if I was the only one who thought Brian May was doing his best Jimmy Page impersonation at the Olympic closing ceremony. . .

Page, Beijing 2008

May, London 2012

Maybe he was just being sympathetic to Page not being involved in London at all, or maybe the organisers thought Page was dead or something (as opposed to say, Keith Moon).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Box unticked

Or how to turn an honest mistake into a complete debacle

Loving the Olympics, and more regular bloggage will resume after they are done, but I was a bit surprised this week to find as aspect of it I can actually professionally comment on. I figure its as close as I'll get to ever competing so I'm running with it anyway :)

The whole fiasco of Valerie Adams turning up to her event to find out she wasn't entered due to a paperwork botch got my interest, because a big part of my job is making sure documentation practice is up to snuff, whether it's creating docs, completing them or reviewing them. My company can't manufacture or sell our materials without it (those materials being cGMP pharmaceutical ingredients), and if I was teaching a QA course I’d use this as a relatable example of what can happen if you don’t do it right.

So how does an athlete (including a current Olympic title holder) turn up to the Olympics, a moment they have been anticipating for years, only to find they aren’t actually entered in their event?

From my outsiders perspective going by what has been related in the media, it sounds like little failures compounding each other to make a big one. A step got missed, maybe because it wasn't prominent enough, or just got forgotten about, it didn't get checked, and no-one noticed until it was almost too late to do anything about it (technically it actually was).

The whole situation apparently arising because a box wasn't ticked is interesting, because from a good documentation practice point of view, that possibility shouldn't be there, or at least minimised as much as practicable. Bad form design is a great enabler of muck-ups, and if not ticking a single box as claimed can have this kind of outcome (and I’d think “is your representative planning to compete?” would be a pretty fundamental aspect), then barring incompetence or misunderstanding from the person filling it out, it might be a bit flawed. 

I’d love to see the document in question and confirm if that hunch is correct or not (it's sad, but after years of being in the industry, form design is a pet obsession :) ). Single answer tick boxes aren’t great for these kind of things since you can’t tell if it wasn’t ticked on purpose, or just forgotten. In my line of work a big no-no is to leave spaces blank, for exactly this reason; it's ambiguous. What’s better is something that requires a definite action, like using “YES / NO” and requiring one to be circled and the other crossed out. If neither has been circled or crossed you know that section has been missed when you review it. Another way to help prevent this kind of thing would be to remove the question: assume the person IS competing, and require a declaration if they aren’t, or use a form specifically for competitors only. You can’t make documentation that requires user input completely foolproof, but there are ways to engineer out traps, and make sure the information you really need to be recorded is. It's all about minimising ambiguity and room for misinterpretation.

That said, the documentation should have been checked both when it was completed, and when it was submitted. Designing a form well is no good if people don’t fill it out properly anyway (which happens surprisingly often, even when they are specifically trained to do it right). When important things are riding on the documentation process, you get someone other than the person filling it out to check it, both at the time, and when the process is complete. I find it weird that the documentation that you know, enables your athletes to actually register in the competition doesn’t seem to have been overseen.

The management says their document practice will be reviewed, and it should be, because at this level this is something that simply should not happen. No excuses. It’s arguable if it cost Adams the gold medal, but it certainly didn’t help.

Post Script:
Ultimately it didn't cost her the medal; the winner on the day failed drug testing and was stripped of the gold

More story and reaction from Adams here :).