Tag Archives: Ebbw Vale

Office Banter


Office banter has been part of my working life on a number of occasions, but what I noticed what’s required for banter to work and take hold of the atmosphere in the office is that you need at least 3 and possibly 4 or more people to keep the banter going.

Meaning that the many times that I had an office to myself, or shared one with one other person was not the times that I remember much in the way of banter. The two periods that stand out was when there was four of us sharing the Process Development Team office in Ebbw Vale, and during my time with the Operational Research team office in the Abbey General Offices in Port Talbot.

Banter can take many shapes and form, but must stay light-hearted to work. So when Phil Owens announced that he was about to get married, and a few days later entered the office with the question “guess what?”, my blurted-out response “you’re pregnant” was both hilarious and not far off the truth, because the “guess what?” was obviously that his girlfriend was pregnant, and hence the decision to get married. Potentially this could come across as offensive, but if the atmosphere in the office is open and lighthearted, then it just gets laughed off.

Just like the time when I said “I’m getting old” to which the reply came “no, you ARE old”. It would be hurtful if you knew there was any malice in it, but given the right level of lightness this just becomes water off a duck’s back.

If any of the banter was ever filmed as part of a reality TV show, I’m sure that some people would find reason to find certain parts offensive. For instance, when Karl Koehler became the new CEO for Tata Steel in Europe, references to Fawlty Towers “don’t mention the war” could have been taken as offensive or racist by those who feel so inclined, but in reality most of this type of banter is more silly rather than intended to harm.

In fact, at one point John Madill poked his head around the corner and stated “I can’t believe intelligent people like you can talk such shit”, to which my reply was “it takes intelligence to make up this kind of shit”. Or the time in Ebbw Vale when we all got into giggles but making up sentences where we mixed up the use of metric and imperial units (e.g. a few millimetres short of 2 inches) – it may not sound all that funny, but once you’re on a roll, the insiders can collapse with laughter whereas an outsider would merely look bemused.

The funny thing about it is that most of the banter is fluff, here today and most of the time forgotten tomorrow. But then again, isn’t that the essence of banter ?

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Ebbw Vale’s Last Shift


My attention was drawn to an exhibition in Swansea’s Waterfront Museum with photographs from people who were part of a Ebbw Vale’s last shift in July 2002 by a page on the BBC website called The last shift at Ebbw Vale.

I must admit to my shame that hardly any of the names or faces were familiar to me. Then again, my time in Ebbw Vale was short (starting in September 1999 and ending in a June 2002), and most of my activities centred on the temper mill, or in the last year on the traffic light system.

I visited the Waterfront museum a few days ago, and found the exhibition in question. There was also an info panel containing some background information (presumably compiled by the photographer) behind the closure of Ebbw Vale, which unfortunately contained a number of substantial errors. The fourth and fifth paragraphs in particular did not match what I thought I had unearthed during my compilation of my blog entry “A Marriage Made in Heaven ?“.

This was not to last. Currency fluctuations coupled with a price collapse in the international steel market saw British Steel fall into debt and it was taken over by the Dutch conglomerate Hoogoverns in 1999 and renamed Corus.

In the year 2000, Hoogoverns claimed that its subsidiaries in Wales were losing £1million per week and that a major restructuring programme was being considered. The following year this plan was acted upon, meaning that the plant at Ebbw Vale would completely close in July 2002.

Especially one of my sources, Corus: The merger that got things wrong, provides all the information needed to highlight the inaccuracies in the quoted paragraphs above.

First of all, British Steel had not fallen into debt, but instead had been criticised by the markets that they were sitting on a pot of cash and were not investing enough. Secondly, it was not a takeover but a merger, with British Steel providing 62% of the capital and Hoogovens 38% – hence Hoogovens was clearly the smaller partner at the time of the merger. And last but not least, the decision to bring the axe to parts of the UK operation was made by Brian Moffat who had shortly before sacked the joint CEOs Fokker Van Duyn and John Bryant.

Oh, and the name Hoogovens was misspelt Hoogoverns.

It would be a pity to see a falsified story of Ebbw Vale’s closure take hold because of a public exhibition in a prominent Welsh museum. So that’s why I’ve tried to put the record straight here (I’ve also sent an emails to one of the Exhibition and Programme Officers after having discussed the matter with her).

Clementine


This is a piece of software to perform data mining (currently owned by IBM and known as SPSS Modeler) for which we’ve a number of active licences since the British Steel days. I supposed it was an early version of the type of data analysis the likes of Facebook and Google now use to analyse customer habits and preferences.

I haven’t used Clementine for a long time, mostly because my job in the last 15 years in Corus / Tata didn’t really call for it, but also because I’ve seen it used as a data extraction tool where a bespoke .NET application could of the job far easier and fully automated as well.

The one time I used it properly in an attempt to find a pattern determining the flatness of temper rolled blackplate ended in failure. I thought my sample of about a 1000 records should have been plenty – it definitely took a long time and much blood, sweat and tears to collect the data prior to automated data gathering – but when you split your data set over various reel types, two types of annealing, various gauge ranges and mechanical properties you found that many of the conclusions for a possible correlation were based on ridiculously small sample sizes, and therefore any conclusions were not worth a sack of beans.

It definitely cooled my ardour for this type of investigation, and fortunately my subsequent job content no longer called for its use. Maybe that’s all for the better, since I’m not aware that all those years of using Clementine in Operational Research have really led to any new insights – at best they merely confirmed what a knowledgeable practitioner might have suspected prior to the analysis. Our investigation into the issue of PM10s (see Pollution) was a case in point, snce it merely onfirmed the prime importance of wind direction.

There was also some misuse of Clementine in trying to do some jobs that were better performed by a bespoke .NET application. One example was the extraction of screen sales records, which meant someone had to kick off the Clementine job once a week, capture the resulting records in an Excel spreadsheet and snd this spreadsheet to the interested parties. Exactly the type of labour intensive job that I was trying to get rid off – so that’s what I did : I used the logic for collecting the relevant screen sales records to build an extraction application, populated an SQL table, and built a web page to display the results. Meaning that from that moment onwards no further manual input was required to retrieve and analyse the data.

CompuTeach


When the closure of Ebbw Vale was announced, there was a lot of support to ensure that people were assisted in finding a different job. Some of this involved support for retraining in a field other than steel, and you could get a grant in support of this type of retraining from ELWa (Education and Learning Wales).

Seeing as I already had taught myself some basic HTML and Javascript, I decided to try my hand at a Java distance learning course with CompuTeach in Dudley. The full cost of the course (£3,000) was covered by the grant, so that part of the deal was fine.

The first part of the course was to try your hand at some Pascal coding, the reasoning behind it being that if you struggled at this stage, then Java would probably not for you. This was followed by three consecutive folders on various aspects of Java, each chapter with exercises attached. You were supposed to do those and some on-line ones as well and email them to your on-line tutor.

On two occasions we also had a week long in-house session of the course, presumably trying to highlight the important bits to pass the final exam. Not sure if this course was really all that successful, since out of a group of just over ten people, only two passed, including yours truly (although admittedly I only scraped through). So there I was with a certificate of “Sun Certified Java Programmer”.

Did it land me a job in IT ? The hell it did ! First of all, when I started looking for a job in IT was just at the time when the dot com bubble burst, so all of a sudden everyone was looking for Java programmers with five years experience (i.e. from the first years Java was developed) or people who could convert C++ to Java. Also, I must in hindsight admit that my portfolio of IT knowledge was rather meagre, and did not include essentials such as databases, query tools, and more than just one programming language.

So I picked up the thread in Ebbw Vale for the last year, managed to transfer to Llanwern, and learnt real programming and web design by doing it and learning from others in the process. I was even told “don’t you come here with your Java, we’re doing VB here”. Still, I could in a limited way apply my knowledge in Java applets, and when .NET came along , well, that was just Microsoft’s version of Java, wasn’t it ?

Internet Explorer


Throughout my time at work, either browsers did not exist (Tinplate R&D and before) or we used Internet Explorer as our standard browser (Ebbw Vale and after). Which made it quite easy for a developer, since you didn’t have to complicate your code so that the style sheets and JavaScript worked for all conceivable browsers.

When I worked in Tinplate R&D we had Lotus Notes for email and “databases”, but no browser or browser-based email systems. That was still in the Windows 3.11 days, and your various apps were things like Lotus Smartsuite, Windows Explorer, Lotus Notes. I still remember from a course in Ashorne Hill that at the time people were very concerned about cyber security, and although at the time there was talk of an intranet and firewall, it took a few years before it was available on our works PCs.

Also, access to the big wide world of the Internet was restricted to the selected few who had a clear need for it and were trusted not to make a pigs ear of it. The first time browsers became more widespread was when I had moved to Ebbw Vale – the standard then was Internet Explorer 4 on Windows 95, and I’m pretty sure I had internet access, which I needed for my distance learning course with CompuTeach.

At the time I did not develop any web pages, but made use of a page built for me to extract Focus Six-generated WK1 spreadsheets to generate my first generation traffic light graphs. That all changed with my move to Llanwern, where the standard at the time was IE5 on Windows NT – funny enough people still called the browser Netscape from the days when the initial browser was Netscape before the business decided to standardise on Internet Explorer.

Shortly afterwards we upgraded to IE6, which was the one where Microsoft had decided no longer to support applets. And since applets were at the time being used on our web pages to display a variety of charts, those people who got upgraded all of a sudden were unable to see their graphs – that is, until Sun Microsystems brought out their patch for applets to work despite Microsoft’s lack of support.

The next version was IE8, and that was also the last one, since Windows XP could not support any later versions of that browser. Meaning that for the majority of users time stood still for the best part of 10 years. So much so that in the end applications like FutureMail (our new email system replacing Lotus Notes, in essence Office365) or Yammer required the use of Google Chrome instead of IE8.

Which is rather ironic, since at some point I did have FireFox and later Google Chrome on my PC and was challenged why I had non-standard software installed. I really had to prove that it helped in my job as a developer, and all of a sudden, the limitations of Windows XP forced the powers-that-be into adopting non-standard themselves.

When I left I did have one of the new laptops in order to explore how our current systems were going to behave on Windows 8.1, so I managed to get a taste of things to come, but for one reason or another Google Chrome was still there for emails. But heaven forbid if you tried to use it for other sites, because then you were committing the immortal sin of using non-standard software ! I did, and I know why. Some Microsoft-generated web pages don’t behave very sensibly or even refuse to load in browsers other than Internet Explorer.

My web pages were tested and passed with flying colours – showing that not all Microsoft-generated content (I used ASP.NET for my web development) is restricted to their own browser.