My bad! So you're saying that redacting an on-screen PDF with Tipp-Ex won't work?

I tried calling all 27 countries for some help with Acrobat but their mums said they were out


Something for the Weekend, Sir? I have never indecently exposed myself. On the contrary, I do it rather well.

Just this week, I accidentally showed my privates to a virtual room full of delegates during an online training course. Nobody complained. Mind you, it's not the kind of thing that gets asked about in the delegate feedback form, is it? I wonder how I'd fare on a rating between 1 and 5.

In my defence, all I'd been trying to do was demonstrate on my shared screen how delegates should log in to a web portal and check their personal profile in preparation for a certification exam. What I'd forgotten was that when I click on "My Profile" it begins by displaying my login credentials. And while my proctor password mercifully appeared as a row of asterisks, the in-case-you-forget-your-password security questions, along with my answers, were shown as plain text.

There they were, exposed to all and sundry: my first pet, the alley where I was conceived, my estimated birthdate and the middle name of my mother's probation officer. All my top-secret privates waggling in everyone's faces.

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Ah well, we all make cock-ups. And then we fix them. It's not as if mine was an inevitable result of the work of conspiratorial deep-state demons. My on-screen privates probably didn't arouse my delegates to exclaim: "Oho, yet another typical demonstration of the woeful laxity endemic in rigid state-sponsored capitalist fascism and a sorry reflection on the socio-economic crisis in Thatcher's Britain!"

They'd be right about Thatcher, though. Everything since 1979 is her fault.

Last week's PDF redaction fail by a lowly employee of the European Union, however, produced exactly the kind of response above. We tend to externalise such things, attributing blame for other people's cock-ups – despite being similar to the ones we make ourselves – to gigantic wheels of overfunded autocratic bureaucracy.

As a journalist – apparently one of the most disreputable trades in the world, according to the general public and dictators – I come across this all the time. Just recently I attended one of those online seminars about maintaining well-being during the pandemic lockdowns. I was moved into a breakout room with some other attendees and when one of them found out I was a journalist, she announced "I hate journalists" and spent the next five minutes scowling in silence at her screen. Or she might just have been clenching a Lego brick between her buttocks; it was difficult to tell.

No wonder I have no friends. Look, even the games room app on my phone agrees.

Screenshot showing an empty games room with the text 'No friends'

Billy no-mates, that's me

It has always been this way. After Diana Spencer died in Paris because she didn't wear a seatbelt, some people let me know that they held me, a journalist, personally responsible. Trying to tell them that I generally didn't lab-test clone Macs and A0-format scanners for computer magazines while speeding around the Périphérique in a white Fiat Uno would fall on deaf ears.

Mind you, I didn't do my cause any favours with neighbouring Diana fans by marking the two-minutes' silence during her funeral by opening all my windows, turning the volume on my hi-fi to maximum and playing "Smack My Bitch Up".

Anyway, I feel nothing but sympathy and genuine empathy for the poor sod in whose lap the simple task of redacting a vaccine contract in PDF format was dumped right at the end of a working day. Critics seem to think that the EU must operate a dedicated Thursday-night PDF redacting department comprising a staff of 2,000 medical specialists, a 100-piece philharmonic orchestra and several popes, plus Jesus fucking Christ himself to wield the blackliner.

As I think you know all too well, it doesn't work that way. Petulant out-of-hours demands by much-better-paid senior managers – such as, oh I dunno, the president of the European Commission, for example – always land on your desk, don't they? And nobody else is around to assist, guide or approve. It's all on your head.

I say the redacting task was "simple" but it's only simple when you know how to do it. When you've been ordered to do something unfamiliar while forced to work from the cupboard under your own stairs while your bored kids are bleating for their dinner and your IT remote-support minion isn't answering his mobile because he's nipped out to the off-licence before the curfew, you tend to make silly mistakes. I'm only surprised that the attempted redaction didn't take the form of Tipp-Ex applied directly onto the user's display.

Much the same can be read into this week's tale of the £50m of taxpayers' dosh wasted by the Home Office because someone didn't put a certain weblink on a certain page on gov.uk.

It's easy to imagine what happened there as we've all, well, been there. One day you notice your department is receiving hundreds of printed forms in the post with their fields filled in by hand rather than the web-based electronic version you designed for the job. You raise the matter with your line manager but get told to keep quiet because nobody wants to be the bullet-dodging messenger who escalates the call.

On a project a while back, I was drafted to help with user acceptance testing, and the testing team was urged to provide feedback on the smallest issue every morning. So the following morning, I reported that the system failed every test script, was not fit for purpose and should be ditched as soon as possible in order to stop wasting money. "Huh, try telling that to the board," was the only response from the team leader, whose reputation as a fixer would have been at stake.

I agreed to take them up on the offer, whereupon it was immediately withdrawn. I was not testing for much longer after that.

But there I go again, externalising the problem. Given a senior position with authority, would I really have ditched a multimillion-pound dev project on the say-so of some wanker I'd contracted on a mediocre day rate?

Of course I would. Contrary to what politicians claim, there are no such things as "difficult decisions". Decisions are easy. Putting up with the shit afterwards is the difficult bit. And the more seniority you enjoy and the more money you earn, the easier decisions become: when you're respected and wealthy, the consequences of your decisions are unlikely to concern you.

That said, I admit there is plenty about the world of business finance that I do not fully understand. For example, everyone seems to be up in arms about Amazon nicking, er, absorbing(?) their drivers' tips. That just sounds like standard capitalist practice to me. Surely the most astonishing thing about this story is that Amazon customers would willingly give tips to someone who ticks the "Delivered to your door" checkbox and sends you a photo of your package lying in a field next to a cow pat.

Or take the example of winning the lottery. Most people fantasise what they'd do with a multimillion jackpot: buy a house with a swimming pool, buy a private jet, buy a round of drinks in Iceland, that kind of thing.

Me, I fantasise about pouring my unearned riches into no-hoper businesses on the stock markets with the sole aim of pissing off the short-sellers. Why? Because it's funny! Ryan Cohen's always smiling, isn't he? Chew on that.

Ah, there I go, externalising again. Time to open those windows and turn up the volume. If you need me, I'll be outside respraying my Fiat Uno.

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Alistair 'PDF Meister' Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He understands from wealthy startup CEOs that it's good to fail. He wonders whether they might be internalising a little too much. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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