If not duffers, won’t drown

Better drowned than duffers 
if not duffers won’t drown

The young teenagers in Swallows and Amazons spend their entire summer camping and sailing around Lake Coniston.  When their father gives them permission by telegram, he explicitly states that he trusts their common sense and sense of self-preservation to keep them out of danger, and he puts in a  rider about the Darwinian consequences of stupidity.  

This may seem a long way from good Business Analysis, but it’s too easy to let caution drive out common sense and pragmatism when you are in the world of risk avoidance and business rules.  I’d forgotten what it was like to live in a world where I’m trusted not to be stupid.  Shetland is a delight because it is just such a world.  Let me give you three examples:

The Broch at Mousa is an archaeological site of international importance.  Brochs were large cooling-tower shaped buildings built by the Picts in the last few centuries BC.  They were only ever built in Shetland, Orkney and Northern Scotland and little is known about them because the Picts seem to have been wiped out by the Norse in the first millenium AD.  The Broch at Mousa stands 13 meters tall (about 4 storeys) and is the most complete.  

The Broch at Mousa

The Broch at Mousa

Compare it in your mind with Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza or the Taj Mahal in terms of unique cultural importance.  The building isn’t particularly fragile but it’s a dry-stone building so it is vulnerable to souvenir hunters.  

Get this: there is a cupboard containing torches to help you climb the staircase spiraling around the broch inside its double-skinned walls.  

Inside the broch at Mousa

Inside the broch at Mousa

The underlying assumption here is that they can’t stop you, so they might as well make it safer.  They assume that you’re bright enough to realise that it’s risky particularly so in the wet or the winter, and that you have enough imagination to work out the consequences of breaking a leg on an uninhabited island. If not duffers, won’t fall.

Sign on the door of the Broch at Mousa

Sign on the door of the Broch at Mousa

Second example:  we had a long chat about shipwrecks with the chap who was manning the Croft House Museum.  He had a practical interest in the subject because he’d been the last man to sound the foghorn at the light-house where we were staying.   We talked about the ferry that ran aground at Blackpool.  

The Blackpool Ferry - originally came to rest tilted at an angle but has now settled on to its side

The Blackpool Ferry - originally came to rest tilted at an angle but has now sunk on to its side

He simply could not understand why there were security guards around it.  If not duffers, won’t be crushed.  

Final example: the coolest level crossing in the world is where the road crosses the runway at Sumburgh airport.  There are lights, there is a bloke and a barrier but there’s nothing to stop you hanging a left and drag-racing.  If not duffers won’t burn up and down the runway as fast as your souped up Purgeot 206 will take you.

It would be easy to distract myself with a Daily Mail style rant about ‘elf an’ safety gorn mad, and it would be equally easy to speculate romantically that life on Shetland was so hard for so long that common sense is ingrained (the duffers presumably having been darwined out of the population) but that’s not really the point I’m making.

I am just going to note that if part of the role of the Business Analyst is to design lean systems that do just enough and no more, systems that are as simple as possible but no simpler, then Shetland is a living case study in how to do it.

Besides being a superb place for a holiday.

4 responses to “If not duffers, won’t drown

  1. Interesting.

    Health and safety is interesting isn’t it?

    Obviously it would seem a good thing that if you own something you should ensure it that doesn’t harm people. I don’t think the owner of skyscraper should be allowed to leave things that may fall off in a poor state of repair.

    But then I have a duty not to be an utter idiot. And it seems that the right to be an idiot is outweighting the right to expect people to have common sense.

    That said – if your son was killed whilst being a drunken idiot – which is a fairly normal thing for 20 year olds to do, would you think ‘oh it was his own fault, he was drunk’ or would you want to find someone to blame.

  2. I’ve left it a while to reply to your question. The truthful answer is when teenagers die doing something really stupid, you end up blaming everyone including the teenager. But I’m not a parent, merely a friend of parents.

    Instilling a sense of risk in teenagers is even harder than instilling a sense of duty in them.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  3. Part of the reason there were security guards around the Riverdance was that there was a significant quantity of desirable stuff on it. Also, it was within less than an hour’s walk from a tourist attraction with seven MILLION visitors per year (source: Wikipedia, yeah, I know) and a town centre widely recognised as the stag-and-hen-party capital of Britain, and within just a few minutes’ ambulance ride from a major hospital. It is reasonable to suspect that, were security not provided, a really very large number of numpties would go to it, get in it, get hurt, and tie up the emergency services who frankly have better things to do than patch up acquisitive chavs.

    We’re not really talking about the possibility of one or two people being injured, in this case, we’re talking about two things:

    1. An *extremely* large unsecured load which could settle at an moment and kill any crowd round it – how would the coucil look if two or three entire stag parties were wiped out?
    2. An attractive nuisance in the form of something to climb on that, if it didn’t kill a lot of people in one go, has the potential to kill or injure people on a pretty regular basis.

    Personally, I’m a harsh Darwinist. If it were legal, I’d wire my doorknob to the mains, line my pockets with curare-tipped needles and boobytrap my car to fatally gas anyone who tried to steal it or interfere with it. To my mind, anyone in the commission of a crime has no use for the law so should not expect any protection from it, AT ALL.

    However, I also live in the real world, where people get sued by burglars who trip over obstacles as they try to escape, and where my stepfather had to take out insurance in case people who trespassed on the site of the house he was renovating hurt themselves.

    For best results… don’t do dumb things.

  4. Oh, I was all for the guards.

    Turn the sound down on your computer and check this out to see why:


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