Monday, 12 March 2012

Ring a Ring o' Roses

For my sins I'm a trainer of supposedly already qualified electricians. Next time you have any electrical work done, ask your sparky about ring final circuits. For starters he'll probably call them 'ring mains' to which you can react in alarm and say, "Surely you don't mean the 11,000 Volt supply to the local substations?" (That will unsettle him straight away.) Next, he won't be able to put into the correct order the words "ring", "final" and "circuit", transposing the first two, principally  because it's a phrase he really doesn't understand.

And do you want more to worry about? Okay, here goes: he won't be able to justify why he prefers a ring to the much simpler radial configuration. He will never have read - nor will he truly understand - the single regulation that allows their use provided certain conventions are observed. And finally, even if he is one of the small percentage who know how to test the circuit, he won't be able to explain what is fundamentally wrong with the procedure. (For the record it's only the UK and some former dependencies that install ring circuits as standard in domestic properties.)

It's not for nothing that a popular joke amongst electricians is, "Red to red, black to black... blue to bits!"

"What?" you will exclaim in horror "That level of incompetence is a potential killer!" You will, no doubt, go on to opine that, "If I was that bad at my job I'd be fired!" What the f...? Why's he writing about this now? Where's the political stuff, the pejorative condemnation of the human race? Well, calm down, it's coming right up.

You see, I'm not singling out electricians, it's the same for plumbers, builders, bus drivers, accountants, opticians, tax officials, doctors, lawyers, software engineers, hardware engineers, designers of every persuasion. It's true of law-makers, politicians, economists, churchmen, policemen, pilots, warriors and even, yes even the government. Especially the government... every government that has ever existed. My theme today is the general, all-pervading incompetence of most people and one of the biggest problems is that the incompetent are usually blissfully unaware of their ineptitude. In every branch of human endeavour the vast majority operate at well below 'average'.

The article linked to (above) attributes to Bertrand Russell the quote that, “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

And yet we sort of get away with it; we muddle through. One of the good things, I suppose, is that we cover for each other and sweep a lot of fucked-up stuff under the carpet, but is that good enough? In the tough times we currently face it strikes me that if we could just raise our game a little we'll be through the worst so much more quickly. Because it turns out the cure for unconscious incompetence is to face up to it and take steps to improve our own abilities.

Take the NHS for instance; instead of bitching about whose fault it is maybe everybody involved, from politicos down, should just take a minute to look in the mirror.

I started out talking about electricians and rings: some sources (almost certainly incorrect - incompetent historians, perhaps?) associate the children's rhyme Ring-a-Ring o' Roses with the Great Plague, the Black Death. Well, if we don't get with the programme and educate our way out of incompetence we might just all fall down.

This cartoon is for John. (B6 7BU)
(Read the caption again... properly this time! )


  1. Mostly, you get promoted to the upper level of your incompetence. So, actually being unable to do the job you were employed to do, lacking the requisite skills or perhaps having total incomprehension of the basic principals of your chosen trade/ career must surely result in rapid promotion.
    One should therefore be reasonably confident of becoming: Incontinent / Incompetent / Management Material / a Celebrity / MP / Banker / or Dictator of a small Nation reasonably rapidly after leaving State education without even having to put any thought or effort into achieving such at all !

  2. Indeed Ken. The Peter Principle.