Cambridge Blue

Tonight, not for the first time, I find myself in a serviced apartment in anticipation of starting a new position the next morning. It’s always a rather unsettling experience, mainly because everything’s new, you don’t know anybody, and you’re alone. Everything that was familiar in the last place is now gone.

At least this place is nice. The place I stayed in when I moved to Paris had a puddle in the middle of the floor which didn’t go away. Fortunately my six week stay was dissected by the two weeks I spent in Pau on French training. I don’t know what part of Cambridge I’m in because this is the first time I’ve been to this city, or anywhere near it. I was welcomed by the agent who runs the place who showed me how everything worked, and they’d even provided a welcome pack with just enough food to last until I can get to a supermarket. These places are always a touch smaller than is ideal. When you mobilise to a new country you bring as many clothes as you can carry, which doesn’t all fit in the solitary wardrobe they put in one-bed serviced apartments. And then you’ve got to figure out what to do with the suitcases once they’re unpacked. Usually they serve as modern art in the corners of the bedroom until you move out.

Eating is always a rather sad experience when you’re in a serviced apartment. It feels too much like a hotel to get the saucepans out and start cooking properly, so you eat lots of quick and easy stuff, alone and in front of the computer. In Paris I ate a lot of cheese and ham sandwiches; in Seoul it was pot noodles. I’ve just eaten a microwave meal for one and I’ve not felt like such sad, lonely bastard in a long time. I even felt that way buying the damned thing. The initial phase in a serviced apartment is something which must be got through as quickly as possible. Once it’s over, it’s hard to recall it without an effort.

So I start my job in a totally new company tomorrow, almost exactly 9 years since I arrived in Nigeria to do the same thing with my last outfit. I’m optimistic, and it should be fun. As you know, my original plan was to rent an apartment near Kings Cross but I can’t see it being feasible within my budget. So I have two other options: rent in Cambridge, which is only an hour to London on the fast train and they run late into the night. Or I rent at the extreme end of the Northern Line and drive up the M1 to work against the flow each day for about 45 minutes, which is fine in theory. The only trouble is I don’t know what those northern suburbs are like to live in. From what I’m hearing they’re a bit dull, and it takes about an hour to get into London on the tube from there anyway. What does everyone reckon?

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Printout

Nobody ever told me this, it’s something I worked out for myself, but there are two kinds of outsourcing:

1) We have no idea how to do this so we need outside help.

2) We know how to do this, and we could, but we don’t have the time right now.

If you run a capable engineering department in an oil company, you find yourself doing a lot of the latter. Back in Nigeria I ran a team of about a dozen engineers, who had the capability to do pretty much any design we’d need. But we didn’t have the capacity, so we’d outsource – what my lead piping engineer would call “hiring pencils”. Ordinarily I’d say my experience outsourcing engineering work in Nigeria was worthy of a post all by itself, but in all honesty I could turn it into a whole book. Or a broadway musical. But I digress.

I deliberately chose to keep my engineering team small and avoid the empire building so beloved of many modern managers, mainly because I could see the work came in fits and starts and I didn’t want to hire someone only to have to lay them off a couple of months later. In a country like Nigeria that is grossly irresponsible, but it happened a lot. So I ensured we had a core competency and then outsourced the leg work to someone else. This ought to be uncontroversial, because you’re not losing expertise, nor relying too heavily on outsiders to execute your core business (although oil companies do this more than they should). But it’s surprising how often even senior managers don’t quite understand when to outsource and when to keep something in house.

In my first proper engineering job I remember a bundle of documents had to be taken to a client about half an hour away by car. The project manager got a quote from a taxi firm for about a hundred quid, but the director stepped in and said this was extortionate and instead ordered one of the engineers to drive there and back in his car. It didn’t seem to occur to the dolt in charge that having an engineer drive documents about isn’t the best use of his time, for which he was paying heavily. It’s not like everyone was under-utilised at the time, either.

The most memorable example was again when I was working in an oil company, and we we’d just awarded a giant EPC contract to a major international engineering company. The contract document was like War and Peace, hundreds of pages of technical stuff and legalese. Someone in charge decided quite reasonably that he wanted a copy in his office, and ordered the department secretary to print it out. Then someone else wanted a copy, and asked her the same thing. Pretty soon the entire floor’s printers were either smoking with heat, out of toner, or the buffer so clogged up nobody else could print for days. The poor secretary had to send different parts to different printers and run around between them trying to make sure she had the right parts in the right order: the entire contract was 38 separate files, with the commercial part removed for confidentiality reasons. Everyone in the department was complaining they couldn’t print, and people’s print jobs would get swallowed up somewhere in one of the contract sections. It wouldn’t surprise me if in some future court case a lawyer opens what he thinks is the clause on Marine Warranties and finds a valve datasheet where pages 3-5 ought to be. Or a presentation telling everyone to use less paper.

Now oil companies are not known to be hotbeds of common sense, so they could perhaps be forgiven. Also, outsourcing anything – even something simple like printing – was probably not straighforward where we were at the time. What surprised me more was when I turned up to the offices of the engineering contractor in a western city and found their secretary had received identical instructions from her management, with the same side effects. Now I needed a copy of the contract myself, and on the way into the engineering offices I’d spotted a print shop on the ground floor. I put the files on a memory stick, numbered them so they were in the right order, and went downstairs. An Asian chap greeted me at the counter, and behind him was a printer the size of a car. I gave him the memory stick, nodded, and asked me how many copies. Two, I said. Then he asked if I wanted it bound, because he could do that. Sure, I said. He told me to come back the next morning, which I did. Waiting for me were two perfectly printed and bound copies of the contract. He charged me around $75 for them both, which I slapped on expenses.

I put these on the shelf in my office. One was marked to stay in my office, the other could float around a bit. When my manager flew in to visit me, he immediately spotted it. “Where did you get this?” he asked. I told him I got it printed out downstairs. He asked if I could get him a copy, so I nipped down to the print shop and ordered another. Then a week or so later his boss came out, and I got a copy for him too. Soon word got around in the project headquarters that Tim knew how to get proper copies of the contract printed out, and whenever I got visitors they came with orders to bring back one or two with them.

Occasionally, whenever I wonder exactly what it is I’m paid for, I’m reminded of this episode.

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Supermarket Sweep

One thing I’m looking forward to when going back the UK is the supermarkets. When it comes to supermarkets, the British are up there with the best of ’em, beaten only perhaps by the Americans who sell heavy weaponry just beside the eggs and milk.

British supermarkets used to be appalling, but sometime in the late 1990s Tesco really got their act together and overhauled their stores. They made them bright and welcoming instead of looking like a Soviet warehouse with a couple of tills at the front. They started offering products which went beyond what is required to make standard British stodge, meaning they introduced a foreign food section, exotic fruits and vegetables, and a range of interesting ready-made meals. Tesco soon became the number one supermarket in the UK, displacing Sainsbury’s who had to up their game to compete. I’m not sure when Waitrose became popular – Pembroke and Manchester were hardly hotbeds of upper middle class housewives with excess cash – but these days they’re about as good as you’ll find anywhere. Even Asda, which was where the chavs went, was pretty good by the time I left the UK in 2003.

When I moved to Dubai I used to shop at Spinney’s, which seemed to have some connection with one of the British supermarkets because their branded products would appear on the shelves. This was about as good as a British ASDA, except their pork products were in separate section including the bacon-flavoured crisps which some imaginative fellow had assumed contained something related to a pig. I remember using a lot of Dolmio ready-made sauces when I lived there as, sick of club sandwiches in the local bars, I gingerly started cooking for myself.

My grocery shopping experience plummeted when I moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2006. There was what called itself a supermarket next to the first apartment I rented. A quarter of the shelf space was dedicated to alcohol, mostly beer and more brands of vodka than I ever thought could possibly exist. I quickly learned you could drink about four of them safely, while really taking your chances with the rest. They sold eggs in polythene bags, a decision perhaps inspired by the British in the 1980s who for some unfathomable reason thought selling milk in bags was a good idea, leaving them on doorsteps in a nation full of cats. When I looked for meat I found a freezer full of unlabeled dark lumps, butchered with a chainsaw. The first time I went I bought a jar of Heinz spaghetti sauce and some pasta and ate that for two days before I found a better supermarket. In fairness, there were two and they weren’t bad. They were at least clean. The problem was stock. One day you’d have something and the next it would be gone never to return, so if you saw something you liked – HP sauce, for example – you’d buy a year’s supply on the spot. This is why most expat houses on Sakhalin looked as though they were preparing for a nuclear holocaust. I managed to get half-decent mince and chicken if I got there early enough but there were almost no ready-made sauces, so I had to learn to make stuff from scratch. This is probably where I first started cooking properly. Because of the stock problems, I’d often find myself in a version of Ready Steady Cook where I had to make a dinner out of some frozen scallops, an onion, and a lump of rubbery cheese because that’s all they had left. The one thing I never found was proper, fresh milk. I saw some cows on Sakhalin and they looked as though they’d been through the horrors of Auschwitz. Grass grew for about two months between the snow melting and the cold coming back. They did produce milk locally but it was disgusting, sour stuff, so I was on UHT the whole time I was there. The Russians do a good range of concentrated fruit juices though, which becomes less of a surprise when you find out tumblers of juice accompany vodka shots during heavy drinking sessions. To be fair, things improved rapidly over the four years I was there, and just before I left a decent, western-style supermarket opened up near the airport which, this being Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, wasn’t very far away.

The only big supermarket I used in Patong was Carrefour, which got bought out by Big C shortly after I started going there. There was an excellent Tesco in Phuket town but I had no car and it’s not worth risking your life in a Thai taxi in order to eat Shreddies. And the Carrefour/Big C wasn’t bad, but it did smell a bit, I think because of all the meat they had lying out on the counters. Decent orange juice was surprisingly hard to find, as was cheese. I’ve been told Asians find cheese disgusting, which is understandable. You take some milk and you leave it to go bad for a couple of months, then you eat it. And we recoil at them eating cockroaches.

Then I went to Lagos. Nigerian supermarkets are an experience in themselves. It depends which one you go to, but they generally have several things in common. One is that the baskets and trolleys haven’t been cleaned since the Biafran War. Another is the mass of people outside hassling you for money, offering to help you carry your bags the whole twelve feet to the car, or generally up to no good. You have to fight your way out the door of some Nigerian supermarkets like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon. You also have to pay in cash – nobody is daft enough to use a credit card in Nigeria – and supermarkets tend to employ people on the checkout with the attention span of a toddler in a toy shop. You hand over a fat wad of naira and stand there patiently as she giggles with her colleague and has to start the counting all over again, and again. That said, the supermarkets in Lagos had pretty much everything you’d want. Lagos is a big, commercial city and importing stuff wasn’t a problem. I remember the potatoes being bad, which is why I only ate pasta and rice, and again there was no fresh milk so I drank UHT for another three years. But you could get a litre of untaxed Wild Turkey for about $12, which more than made up for it. For meat I used to go to a Lebanese butcher who sold beef from those local, long-horned cattle with the big hump on their backs, and there was nothing wrong with it at all.

The supermarkets in Melbourne were excellent, right up to the point you came to pay and realised you need a scalpel and the assistance of someone who can swiftly remove a kidney. Australia is famous for several things: dangerous animals, thrashings at the hands of the All Blacks, and cosy duopolies in which ordinary people get utterly shafted. A mediocre bottle of wine costs around $20-25 in a supermarket (about 12-15 Euros). This is where the Australians all pile in and say no, if you sign up to a special web service and go online at the right time and buy fifteen crates of the stuff it only costs $19 per bottle and gets delivered in under a month, so f*ck off you whinging pom. In any random corner shop in France I can get a decent bottle of wine for 5-6 Euros. The difference is tax.

And finally we get to France. The French were pioneers in supermarkets back in the 1970s, and that’s where they’ve remained. True, they sell an array of cheese that could keep a mouse convention occupied for months and as I’ve said, their wine is good and cheap. The quality of meat in a French butcher is unparalleled, but even their low-end supermarket stuff is pretty good. And if you want to make something French, you’re in luck. However, the French only eat French food (and occasionally Italian). If you want something foreign other than soy sauce, you need to go to one of the giant supermarkets and even then you might come out empty-handed. But what’s worse is the overall state of the shops. Labour laws in France don’t allow shelves to be stacked at night, so they do it when the shop is open. This means that when you’re shopping you often come across an aisle blocked by a pallet and cardboard boxes strewn everywhere. Sometimes there’s even a member of staff nearby. And the places aren’t clean. Monoprix is about the best of them, but going into Auchun or Intermarche is a bit like going into an airplane toilet. You know you have no choice and you’d rather be using the nice porcelain on offer in the lobby of a Grand Hyatt, so you try your best not to touch anything or think of who else might have been there before you. And you try to avoid stepping in whatever the hell that is on the floor.

French supermarkets also have stock problems. My local Intermarche is huge, yet it regularly runs out of milk for a few days. They used to have a decent fridge full of meat, but they decided to fill it with a job-lot of cheese nobody wants to buy. As in Sakhalin, you get the impression they’re trying to shift whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on as opposed to what the customer actually wants. The service on the tills isn’t much better, and I reckon the cashiers undergo basic training in Lagos. They seem to be split between haggard old women who look as though they wished they’d married someone else and young men who, were it not for the filthy, wrinkled supermarket waistcoat, you’d assume were about to sell you a stolen car radio rather than scan your fruit juice. The young men seem don’t seem to last long, possibly because their court date arrived curtailing their liberty. The women, on the other hand, are likely to be scowling at customers until the earth is swallowed by the sun. Understaffing (another product of high labour costs) is chronic in French supermarkets, which is why long lines at the counters are common. The look of total uninterest on a supervisor’s face when, loafing at her special desk, she spots a twelve-person queue at the solitary open checkout, is so perfect it must have taken years to master. And nobody knows despair like the desperate souls behind the person in the queue who not only uses chèque déjeuner to partly pay for his items, but whips out a chequebook to pay the remaining balance. In 2019.

So yes, I’m looking forward to once again shopping in the cathedrals which are British supermarkets.

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59 Flake

Years ago when I was a young, single man beginning my career in the oil industry, I was introduced to a rather attractive woman a few years younger than me who was sort of on holiday. In the circumstances of our meeting we were the only two people in our twenties while everyone else was over fifty, so naturally we got on quite well. That evening the two of us went to a nightclub, and for some reason I brought a Canadian soldier along too. We got horrendously drunk which culminated with the girl lying unconscious on my bathroom floor while I explained to the disappointed soldier that she’s getting the spare bed and he has a choice of the sofa or the other half of my pit.

The next morning she woke up with a major hangover and went home. That afternoon she called me and said she wanted to go out again, and in the evening we did. We got on very well and, as I may have already mentioned, she was rather good looking. To cut a long story short we ended up back at mine, sans Canadian soldier. From that point on this girl gave every impression she’d fallen for me and wanted a relationship. She said I was awesome, and she’d never met someone like me before, and when she left to visit London the next day she said she needed to come back ASAP and I ought to get myself over to the US pronto. Over the next couple of weeks we exchanged emails, messages, and talked on the phone. Every indication was that she had found someone she wanted a relationship with. This put her on much the same page as me. By chance I found myself on a business trip in London while she was still there and we met up. It was brilliant. She was delighted to see me, we ran all over town, and had as much fun as two twentysomethings can have when they’re falling in love. The next day she was going back to the US, and she said she’d be back out to where I was living soon. I kissed her goodbye in her hotel lobby, sure I’d see her again.

For the first week she was back in the US, we spoke every day. And then suddenly she didn’t pick up her phone, and she started taking longer to answer messages. I knew something was wrong and then, just like that, she lost interest. We exchanged a few emails and broke up, leaving me more than a little disappointed. I wrote it off to the pitfalls of a holiday romance – which it was for her – but it wasn’t the practicalities of a long-distance relationship which had put her off.

I was connected with her on Facebook and I watched over the next couple of years as she’d move to a new town, get together with a young man who’d gush all over her, then suddenly quit and move elsewhere. There was a musician in London who went from posting artsy photos of them kissing against a wall to increasingly desperate messages about where she’s gone and what the hell just happened. She turned up for a while dressed like a Mormon in the family pictures of a new boyfriend, before they were all taken down.

I caught up with her six years after our first meeting via the same people who’d introduced us. I was heavily involved with someone else by then, so there was no question of retracing my steps. We got along fine and didn’t bring up the past, but she did talk a lot about her amazing boyfriend who, from what I remember, was a DJ with a severe drug addiction and mental problems. A few years later she passed through town again, and we arranged to meet up. By then she was with another boyfriend, and I waited for her to confirm the meeting time until it got so late I went to bed. She later apologised to say she got “caught up in a vibe” (by now she was over thirty) but I suspect her boyfriend objected to her meeting me.

Because we have mutual friends I still know what she’s up to. She seems to be doing well but she’s still single, and she’d be in her late thirties by now. What this experience taught me is that there are women out there who say they want a relationship but don’t. For whatever reason, this girl – despite being pretty, smart, fun, and from a good family – didn’t want to commit to a relationship. Which is fair enough, but she said she did. I was there when she assured me she was ready for a relationship, and using flattery and much talk of a future together she convinced my skeptical side that she was serious. And then I watched her do the same to a succession of other men. She’d put in considerable work to enter a relationship with a man, and at the moment he’s fully committed dump him citing trivial reasons and move on. It seemed like an exhausting way to live, constantly seeking attention and the thrill of a new relationship but never taking it further.

What I never forgot was how I just knew, immediately, that the relationship was going cold. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but the subtle changes in the tone of her voice, the length and vocabulary of her text messages, and the delays in responding sounded a warning. No matter what else I told myself, I knew something was wrong and the relationship would end.

I mention this now because I found myself in a similar situation recently. I happened to meet someone who was adamant she wanted a serious relationship and pulled out all the stops over the course of a month to convince me I was the one it should be with. No sooner had I agreed when I noticed an odd delay in our correspondence from her side and a reply which should have been a touch longer. I knew what was coming. Twenty-four hours later she’d called it off for unspecified reasons and refused to talk to me any more. When pushed, she resorted to insults and blocking. Now there were red flags fluttering high in the breeze from the very first moment in this particular case, and I wasn’t daft enough to go in with my eyes closed: I just decided it might be worth a shot and I didn’t have much to lose. But the most telling of these was that over the course of about two years she had been on dates (of one kind or another) with 58 different men. I was the 59th. She was pretty, clever, and not an obvious nut (at least initially), but that statistic alone speaks volumes. This is not a case of her needing to meet the right man, but addressing the issues keeping her single.

Clearly there are women out there (and probably men too) who say they want a relationship and go to considerable lengths to find a partner, but for whatever reason can’t make the commitment and bail at the first opportunity. So here’s my question. Do they realise they spend half their time lying to people, or have they convinced themselves they’re genuinely interested in meeting someone? I get the impression it’s the latter. It’s an odd world, isn’t it?

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Kicking the can’t down the road

When I was working in Nigeria I knew a French manager who was, putting it charitably, rather weak and scared of his own shadow. As is common in oil companies, especially big French ones, he’d been made a manager largely due to his age and nationality. One day he decided to give one of his Nigerian subordinates a rather useless administrative task to do. The Nigerian was also a manager, and also useless, at least when it came to his job function. Apparently he ran a few other businesses on the side and was a chief somewhere, but these involved doing more than just showing up. Have a guess where his efforts went?

Anyway, the Nigerian said he’d do this task but never bothered. There then followed a pantomime whereby every few days the Frenchman would ask the Nigerian if he’d done it, and the Nigerian would say no but he’d do it today, and then he’d not do it. This went on for over a year and it became a running joke between me and a former colleague who witnessed it. The Frenchman seemed to think there were practical reasons why the Nigerian hadn’t done this task, whereas I knew after the second or third week it would never get done. The Nigerian didn’t want to do it, and he’d worked out the Frenchman would never compel him to.

Over the years I’ve formed a phrase which I like to deploy which says if something was going to get done, it would have been done by now. There comes a point beyond which it isn’t going to get done because someone either can’t do it, or doesn’t want to do it. Yesterday one of my professors asked me what was happening with Brexit, and I said I didn’t think it was going to happen. If those in charge wanted to leave the EU everything was in place for them to do so on 29th March. Legally and politically, it was all aligned for them, but they didn’t. Why not? Because they don’t want to, so they’ve come up with one fudge after so they don’t have to. Yesterday’s agreement to extend the deadline to 31st October keeps Britain in the EU another six months, after which another fudge will be found.

A lot of Brexiteers now find themselves in the position of the Frenchman, asking someone again and again to do something they long ago decided not to. They need to accept that the phase of Brexit which began with the 2016 referendum is over. If that was the route to Britain leaving the EU, we’d be out by now. A new route will have to be found.

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Plane Wrecked

I’m surprised there aren’t more of these stories:

A Chinese woman reportedly downed a full bottle of £120 cognac at security control after she was told she was not allowed to take liquids on board her flight – which she was then prevented from boarding.

She is believed to have purchased the cognac at a US airport and was in transit through Beijing, where she was due to take a domestic flight to Wenzhou.

Staff told her she was not allowed to carry the bottle in her hand luggage because it exceeded the 100ml limit, and apparently not wanting to waste the purchase, she drank the entire contents.

One local paper described how she had started shouting at the departure gate before collapsing. “She was rolling on the ground, shouting,” a police officer told the Beijing Times

In early 2008 a friend and I had to make a business trip from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Angarsk in Siberia, which involved flying first to Khabarovsk and then Irkutsk. At the security check in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport the officers pulled three bottles of cognac from the hand luggage of a man in front of us (and it wasn’t £120 per bottle stuff, more like £1.20). He was told he couldn’t take it on board and would have to leave it behind. By the time we passed through the checkpoint he was debating whether to drink them there and then.

We had a few hours to wait at Khabarovsk, so we headed to the bar. As we were ordering the chap with the cognac walked in, utterly wrecked. He went up to the counter and spoke to the woman serving.

“Can I have a drink?”

“If I give you a drink,” the woman said. “They’ll not let you on the plane.”

The man thought about that for a few seconds and said, “Good point. Give me a beer, then.”

I don’t know if the more wild parts of Russia have changed in the past eleven years, but part of me hopes they haven’t.

(You can read more about that trip to Siberia here.)

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Airbust

Back in the early 2000s when I used to frequent the off-topic message boards on a rugby league fansite, a discussion started about the new Airbus A380, the superjumbo that would become the world’s biggest passenger plane. One of the contributors thought it would fail, and explained there were two theories as to how people would travel by air in future. One theory reckoned people would fly en masse between hubs such as London, Dubai, Singapore, and New York before transferring to shorter flights which would take them to their final destination. The other theory said people would just fly direct from one destination to another. The A380 with its 500 seats was banking on the former being correct; Airbus’ rival Boeing bet the other way, and developed the 787 Dreamliner which was much smaller, but had the same range and was more fuel efficient. The contributor on the RL forum thought Boeing was making the right call.

For a while it looked as though both theories were right. Direct flights between regional cities became more common, while Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, and other cities became hubs from which the A380 operated. Not every airport could handle an A380; the double-decker passenger boarding bridges had to be installed and the runway had to be a certain length. When I was sick on an Emirates A380 I was given a bollocking by the flight crew for boarding in the first place because “we can’t just land this thing anywhere in an emergency, you know?” But for a while, it looked as though this aircraft would be a success.

However, with fuel prices rocketing in the mid-late 2000s, the A380 became expensive to operate, especially in comparison with Boeing’s smaller alternatives. Orders slowed and yesterday I read this:

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has pulled the plug on its struggling A380 superjumbo, which entered service just 12 years ago.

Airbus said last deliveries of the world’s largest passenger aircraft, which cost about $25bn (£19.4bn) to develop, would be made in 2021.

The decision comes after Emirates, the largest A380 customer, cut its order.

The A380 faced fierce competition from smaller, more efficient aircraft and has never made a profit.

It’s a shame in a way because it’s an impressive feat of engineering, but they weren’t that nice to fly in. I flew business class in an A380 with Emirates and Etihad and while it’s fun to wander to the bar at the back and order a drink, I found the seats on the Dreamliners much nicer. It was also a lot quieter. I’ll miss the A380 a little and be glad I had the chance to fly in a few of them, but what I’m really glad I experienced is the top deck in a 747. These planes don’t carry passengers any more but when they did, getting a business class seat in the exclusive top deck was as close as most of us will come to flying in a private jet.

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51st State

Some people think the developing world is like the developed world, just poorer. It isn’t, and if you’ve traveled a little it’s hard to avoid noticing there is a competence gap as well. For example:

Nigeria’s ruling party has been accused of plagiarism after its manifesto declared it was dedicated to “keeping America safe and secure”.

The All Progressive’s Congress (APC), led by President Muhammadu Buhari, featured on its website a section dedicated to energy policy ahead of a general election slated for February.

It was allegedly headlined, “Our first priority is keeping America safe and secure”, and featured rambling copy critics said was likely lifted from other websites.

My guess is the task fell to a family member of the person responsible for getting it done properly, who either couldn’t do it or simply didn’t care. But others beg to differ:

An APC spokesperson, Lanre Issa-Onilu, claimed on Twitter the website had been “hacked” and “unauthorised content” posted on it.

“We won’t allow the desperate people to succeed in their evil plots,” he said.

I’m reminded of when I got annoyed with my maid in Lagos for reeking out my apartment by boiling fish on the landing outside. She first said it wasn’t her, and when I got doubly annoyed at being lied to, she later apologised and said “the devil made her do it”.

(Via Clarissa)

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Unforced Errors

This post sort of follows on from this one, and describes much the same problem.

A year or two into my assignment doing weight estimates, we had a big re-organisation which meant I was dealing mainly with offshore facilities and more closely involved with cost estimations (rather than purely weight estimations). One of the principle ways the cost of a facility was estimated is to take various parameters – total liquid processing capacity, oil production rate, gas processing rate, etc. – and use that to work out the topsides weight. This is what they did, and as far as I know they still do.

One day we invited an American chap to visit us from a company which specialises in the design and operation of certain installations. We wanted his feedback on previous work we’d done with him, and his advice for future projects. He was very open, and I found the meeting fascinating. He highlighted the various technical requirements unique to our company which made our installations more expensive than they ought to be, with other clients happy to accept less stringent requirements or use industry standards. He went into detail on this, and in several instances it was the case that technology had moved on and our standards hadn’t yet caught up. For example, if you want to send an intelligent pig down a line you’d have to put 5D bends in (i.e. the bend radius is 5 times the pipe diameter), but nowadays the pigs can generally handle 3D bends. Our standards still required 5D bends, which take up a lot more space in a crowded facility. That was just one example of several, which as an engineer I found very interesting.

Not so my colleagues. After the meeting I raised these points as possible areas in which we could save costs, and the response was:

“Oh, that was all bullsh*t, he was just telling us that to try to get the next contract.”

Not for the first time has an expert in a particular technical field been invited into an oil company to share knowledge and been treated like he’s the dumbest one in the building.

Anyway, one of the things the American chap said was his company had found no relationship between the liquid production rates and the facility topsides weight. There were just too many other variables which affect it, such as the degree to which you want to remove certain contaminants. He even said his company had teamed up with a university to research this relationship, but after a couple of years they’d given up. What this fellow said effectively consigned our entire estimation methodology to the dustbin, because it relied entirely on a perceived association between production rates and topsides weights. This either went straight over the heads of the assembled staff sat in front of him, or they chose to ignore it. Either way, nobody mentioned it again.

Just for fun, once I’d been taught statistical analysis techniques last semester I ran some figures to see whether the methodology we’d been applying back then was mathematically sound. It turned out there was a correlation between equipment weight and topsides weight, but it was a lot weaker than I’d expected. But more importantly, there was no association between production rates and equipment weight, or indeed between any of the parameters we used and weights. So the American was right, then.

Now had I known these techniques when I still worked there, and demonstrated to those in charge of the methodology that we shouldn’t be assuming an association between X and Y when none exists, they’d have said:

“This is the methodology we are using. Your job is to follow it without asking questions.”

In fact, a short while before the reorganisation someone suggested I get involved in cost estimations and apparently one of the managers said:

“Oh, we don’t want him, he’ll just find things wrong with our methodology.”

Major corporations, people. Next time you hear about something like this or this, you’ll know how they happen.

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Don’t mention the flaw!

Once upon a time I was posted to a department in an oil company which dealt with the early-stage designs of new installations, much of which was geared towards providing enough information for a cost estimate to be carried out. To a rough order of magnitude, the cost of a new offshore installation (either floating or fixed to the seabed) can be estimated from its weight. Keeping things simple, the weight of an offshore facility comprises Equipment Weight, Piping Weight, Structural Weight, and Others. If you have enough data, it is theoretically possible to work out the total weight of a new offshore installation by taking just the Equipment Weight and applying various ratios from similar, existing facilities. Most large engineering companies do this in order to obtain order-of-magnitude weights and cost estimates, but it is very much a finger-in-the-air approach which, at the early stages of a project, is fine.

The problem with my new department was they did the equivalent of dividing 11.3 by 3.4 and writing the answer as 3.32352941. Any GCSE science or maths teacher will tell you the answer to any calculation cannot be more accurate than the initial input data. But when we did estimates using data with an accuracy of ± 30%, we’d make comparisons of estimates that were within 10% of each other and propose weight savings of 5%. If you think it’s just journalists who are innumerate, be aware there are engineers with the same affliction working in large oil companies.

Then things got a whole lot worse. Weight ratios apply to offshore facilities because they are designed as a single unit relatively unaffected by their location (I’m talking topsides or floaters here, not the jackets or other support structures). I’m simplifying massively, but the point is that the weights of floating and other offshore facilities are not primarily driven by where they are installed. By contrast, the cost and complexity of onshore installations is enormously impacted by topography and geotechnical conditions under the soil. As you can imagine, building a facility on flat, firm ground is a bit easier than doing so on the side of a granite mountain or in a marsh. Civil engineering accounts for approximately 30-40% of the cost of constructing an onshore oil and gas installation, mainly grading the site, bringing in aggregate and compacting, and building the vast underground networks of pipes and cables needed to run the thing. This is why the first things you do when you’re thinking about building an onshore plant is the topographical and geotechnical survey; it’s sort of hard to do anything without it.

But I worked with very clever people, and they came up with a way of estimating the costs of an onshore facility regardless of where it was located. Insofar as topography went we could just assume it was flat, and soil conditions could be ignored or data from a project on another continent used instead. That soil conditions can vary dramatically across a hundred metres didn’t seem to matter. Furthermore, we could use ratios to work out the weights like we did offshore. Now I spied a problem with this. Offshore, on a global basis, there is probably a relationship between Total Equipment Weight and Total Structural Weight; all equipment on such facilities is supported by structural steel, after all. But onshore equipment is generally placed on a concrete plinth sunk into the ground, the size of which is driven by the soil conditions and equipment weight. The structural steel supports some equipment and a lot of piping and cables, but it does a very different job to that on offshore facilities. In many instances, the structural steel around a piece of onshore equipment is negligible. In short, on an onshore plant there is no ratio from other facilities which can be used to estimate structural weight using equipment weight. But here were were, applying the same methodology as if it could.

Having some experience on onshore sites, I began to use my noggin a little. In one estimate, I ascertained that a vessel had no structural steel at all: it rested on its own legs and there was no maintainable valve on top which would need an access platform. But two managers queried this: they asked how the structural steel weight could be zero. I said it was because there is no structure associated with this vessel. They said this must be wrong, and I should apply a ratio of 30% vessel weight. So I asked them what structure they thought I was missing. They couldn’t say, but they told me to add the weight in, which came to several tonnes.

A little later, they got an intern with no post-graduate engineering experience to create a formal procedure for estimating the weights of onshore facilities, convinced that from such data the costs could be derived. They then passed it around all the engineers for comments. I noticed that it did not consider many components of the underground networks, which as I said comprises a huge portion of the costs. The most glaring omission was the firewater ring main, which is big, expensive, and common to all onshore oil and gas facilities. The reason this wasn’t included was because it would be designed “later”, which I found actually meant “nobody here knows anything about firewater ring mains so it’s best to pretend they don’t exist”.

I’d only been in the department a few weeks and I naively thought I’d be being helpful by pointing out, as I have done above, why this new methodology drawn up by the intern was fatally flawed. I drafted a comprehensive email with examples and explanations and sent it to my boss and the head of department, whose brainchild this new methodology was. A few days later I was called into an office where both of them were waiting and told to close the door. Their talk with me can be summarised as follows:

“We have read your email, but the decision has been made to adopt this methodology going forward. Your job is to follow it without asking questions.”

This was probably the first time it dawned on me that in many corporate departments results are meaningless, and all that matters is people obediently follow the process. I fought it for about a year, then just got with the program and pumped out absolute garbage which got wrapped up in more garbage and presented to senior management right up to the CEO. It didn’t take me long to work out whatever rubbish we were generating was not the basis on which decisions were getting made – the company wouldn’t be in business if that were the case – and the entire process, which cost millions of dollars, was merely to keep people employed. I once remarked in the wake of the oil price crash that if the company wanted to cut costs they could get rid of our entire department and employ a child to roll dice every time senior management wanted figures. That went down about as well as my critique of the estimation methodology.

The experience left me wondering how much of this sort of thing goes on in major corporations with names you’ve heard of. Quite a bit, would be my guess.

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