G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average: what does that mean?

I read a slightly odd article today. It was in that popular rag Computer World UK.

It contained two sentences that while not in themselves contradictory, were certainly juxtaposed.

First, the story’s headline:

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average.

And later, this:

Some organisations have saved 50 percent on previous costs for IT services, according to [Tony] Singleton.

I don’t have the data. But these two sentences are far from tautological. Nor is either as mind-blowing as it might at first read.

Let’s take them separately and in order.

If G-Cloud supported 10 deals, the first five reducing costs from £1,000 to £100; and the other five reducing costs from £100m to £90m, then G-Cloud has achieved 50% savings on average. Five deals came in with a 90% saving; the other five came in with a 10% saving. ((5 * 10%) + (5 * 90%)) / 10 = 50%.

In this example, the total saving is 10.0008%. But the headline is grander.

And now to the second. Some organisations have saved over 50%. This is basically saying that two or more organisations have done better than halving their costs. Two organisation may have each cut costs from £1,000 to £400, with every other organisation’s spend dwarfing these two organisations’ spend, all bringing in trivial relative savings.

None of the other statistics in the article gave further clarity on the savings achieved. But a bogus spelling of the word “received” certainly made me question its journalistic credibility, perhaps unfairly.

It’d be good to get hold of the data set used to inform the assertions.

David Cameron’s letter re. the Employment Allowance: my views

On Saturday, the last day of the 2013–14 tax year, I received a letter. It was from David Cameron, our prime minister, and it introduced me to the Employment Allowance, which as a small business owner could save me up to £2,000 per year. (It won’t. But that’s by the by.)

Here is a full transcript of that letter.

I was annoyed. Deeply annoyed. And this was for a couple of reasons.

First, the letterhead was that of 10 Downing Street. Now HMRC contacts me quite regularly to tell me about entitlements, my obligations, changes to my tax status, how much I owe, how much I am owed (rarely), their losses of my data etc. But never before to my recollection has any such communication come from the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government.

My view is that this is an official change to tax legislation that has a potential impact on me as a small business owner (owner of a small business, not a business owner of diminutive stature). As such, it should come from HMRC, the people who are responsible for the administration and coordination of my tax affairs. It should not come from the prime minister’s office.

Next, the letter was signed by David Cameron. (Or at least a scanned version of his signature appeared at the base of the letter.) My view is that this should come from a civil servant, not from a politician. This is not a political matter. When HMRC allegedly lost some CDs containing my data, along with that of all other child benefit claimants, I received a letter from Dave Hartnett, then permanent secretary of HMRC, not the minister of the day.

Third, the marketing spiel.

Britain has been through some very tough years. We endured one of the biggest bank bailouts in the world and the deepest recession in generations. For businesses and charities like yours, on the frontline of the economy, we know it has been especially difficult.

We came into Government with a long term economic plan to rescue the economy.

Thanks to your hard work, we are now seeing the results. A private-sector recovery with the economy growing, jobs being created, and confidence reaching new highs. Businesses are saying to us they want to invest, grow, and take on new people. The Employment Allowance is about helping you to do that.

This is the main bit that made me put pen to paper. This is a letter being paid for by me, the taxpayer. And it is being sent by Mr. Cameron, who holds two primary positions: prime minister of the United Kingdom; and leader of the Conservative Party. If the letter had been sent from him in his position as prime minister of the UK, then that is fine and dandy. But the three paragraphs above strike me as having been written more by the leader of the Conservative Party.

They are marketing through-and-through. They are intended to make me feel fantastic about the good work that the current government is doing. They are intended to make me vote Conservative at the next election.

I resent the fact that Cameron is using taxpayers’ money to make a political statement. It’s so blatant and goes entirely against the ethos of government.

(As an aside, David, my view is that front line should be two words; long-term as an adjective should be hyphenated, and private sector should not be hyphenated, even when used as an adjective within a sentence that’s not a sentence. (A colon would have been a much more welcome introduction to that little clause now, wouldn’t it?))

Driving range shot tracking: this, my friends, is the future

Today, I witnessed the future. Not only that, I *experienced* the future.

I took my daughter to play crazy golf at World of Golf’s Dinosaur Golf in New Malden. Our first visit to that venue. Thoroughly recommended. (I had a good round, scuppered by a woeful effort on the 16th, comparable only to Rory McIlroy’s efforts on the 10th in his final round at Augusta in 2011. I digress.)

After an intense 18 holes, we bought 100 balls to crack off on the driving range.

A big banner told me that my shots would be tracked and measured at no extra cost. This had me rather excited. Data meets golf. What’s not to like?

This is how it works.

You choose your bay. We chose bays 45 and 46 on the top deck. (If there are two decks, you have to choose the top one, right? It’s the law.) Then you log into the Wi-Fi with your smart phone, hit a website and tell it which bay you’re in. And you put your phone on a stand in front of your tee.

Then you start cracking off your balls. (Not a euphemism.)

Cameras track your shots. Don’t ask me how. It’s voodoo I believe. Your screen shows you the arc of your shot. (The right side of my screen was becoming well-worn and overheated.) And it tells you the take-off angle and speed, as well as the distance the ball carried and its maximum height. Utterly mesmerising.

And it seemed pretty damned accurate.

I didn’t figure out a way of you telling it which club you were using. I’m sure there’s a way, but I was too busy being blown away by the concept to worry about that.

Apart from the odd 5I shots, I stuck to my lovely new driver and my equally delightful new 3W. It was only the second outing for the 3W, yet it proved rather fabulous, equalling the driver for distance and being more reliable in direction. (This was probably more down to my poor handling of the driver than my prowess with the 3W.)

Here’s a link to my stats. Only 25 shots were recorded. (My daughter took half of the balls, and the technology had me sufficiently baffled for many of my own. For the record, she strikes the ball consistently and well, and while she lacks distance, her aim is probably better than mine.)

I’m happy carrying over 200 yards on a few occasions, some of those with the 3W. But I need to work on my direction consistency.

Utterly blown away by the technology. It really is rather special. And I will most certainly be going back.

Gwynne and Marsh: Questions of Grammar

I attended a debate last night. Titled Questions of Grammar, it featured David Marsh, Production Editor for the Guardian, and Nevile Gwynne, author and pompous buffoon.

The premise was a discussion on the merits of grammatical education, although it was confused slightly between this topic and a wider one about the evolution or otherwise of language.

Gwynne was stuck in the Dark Ages, arguing for the rigorous education of every nuance of grammar.

His view was that while words have changed, grammar has not changed significantly since the 16th century. And that every child should learn its intricacies so that they know when to stray and when not to. (Shit, did I just start a sentence with a conjunction?) Someone not educated in grammar is, after all, incapable of thinking, so he believes.

His argument against the use of “hopefully” when qualifying an entire sentence, while grammatically watertight, was utter bunkum.

Marsh was more pragmatic, accepting, nay embracing, grammatical evolution. He delighted over split infinitives and quoted some grammatical ugliness from Wodehouse that simply sang *because* of its grammatical ugliness. (I wish I could source the quote.)

At one point, through the powerful use of utter fiction, Gwynne cited a causal link between declining grammatical education and the suicide rate in the UK. Shoot me now!

The high point of the evening was when a girl from the audience, aged around eight, stood up (after being invited to do so by our chair, Matthew Reisz) to confidently refute Gwynne’s suggestion that schools stopped teaching grammar in the 1960s. (Ah bollocks. Split infinitive.) Her Islington school was, she informed us, rigorously educating its students in the specifics of grammatical structure.

The low point of the evening was when Gwynne retorted almost angrily, asking whether the girl knew what a conjunction was.

I myself asked a question of the protagonists:

Is American English a different language altogether, or are they simply illiterate?

My question was intentionally loaded, prompted in part by a very eloquent lady, who sounded vaguely American, having previously asked a question. Gwynne berated the intentional bastardization of the language by the Americans, while Marsh cited their use of some traditional constructs, such as “gotten”, that have fallen out of favour/favor over here.

(As an aside, my view is that the Americans have some beautiful constructs – the use of write as a transitive verb (“write someone”); the omission of a preposition in “schedule a meeting Monday”. Any assertion that American English constitutes a different language because of subtle grammatical differences is preposterous.)

To me, Gwynne came across as inaccessible and unapproachable. His formal stance made one not want to listen to him, thus defeating his own argument about the important constituent parts of communication. Marsh came across as fun (to the extent that grammarians can be fun) and accessible.

I could see myself sharing a Nando’s with Mr. Marsh; but hopefully I’ll never encounter Mr. Gwynne ever again.

#KPgrammar

The role of Ofsted in schools

Ever since I can remember, education in the UK has been measured through the use of exam results, at GCSE and A-level. Until the last year or so, some statistic about how many students received a certain number of A*–C (A–C grades before the A* was introduced) has been steadily increasing, giving the general public a warm and fuzzy feeling about how well the Secretary of State for Education is doing in his or her role.

During the same period, school qualifications have become more and more meaningless and valueless.

As I’ve said previously, this needs to change. The proportion of students achieving each grade in a given subject should be fixed year on year. Students should be evaluated against their peers. This is the only way in which grades can become meaningful again. If I received the CVs of two people, one of whom attained five As, three Bs and two Cs; and one of whom had ten As, I am unable to meaningfully compare them unless I know which year in which they took their exams. And even if I was armed with that information, I wouldn’t have sufficient information to be able to discern which candidate had performed better.

Children’s inherent intelligence is not fundamentally changing over the course of time. Certainly not to an extent that can be detected between one August and the next.

(The same is arguably true of employees, by the way. If your organisation is sufficiently large, you should be able to group a fixed proportion of people into each of a number of performance brackets. But that’s an aside.)

So if exam results were to be standardised, Ofsted becomes more important. The quality of education being offered by a school should be measured in two ways: its overall approach; and its outputs (exam results). (Arguably, a school that only accepts really bright students will demonstrate very good exam results, so perhaps a third measure, about its outputs compared to its inputs (11+ results?) might also be useful.)

The quantitative measure(s) involving exam results can easily be collated and presented based on hard data. But Ofsted’s softer role is ever more important in ensuring that this is backed up with empirical evidence about how a school operates on a day-to-day basis.

Eight years of BBC News reporting on rail fare increases

2006–07: Train fare rises draw criticism

Above-inflation price rises for rail tickets have come under attack from rail groups and opposition politicians. Many areas’ regulated fares, which include season tickets, have risen by 4.3% – about 1% above inflation – but some unregulated fares are up by 7.3%. The Tories said the “galling” rises showed ministers had failed to sort out the railways. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said fares needed simplifying.

2007–08: Passengers face train fare rises

Passengers are to be hit by above-inflation rate fare increases. Season tickets and saver and standard day returns will rise by 4.8% on average, says the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc). Others, such as cheap day returns and long-distance open and advance fares will go up by 5.4%.

2008–09: Latest train fare rises attacked

Above-inflation rail fare increases of more than 6% are “completely out of kilter with the real economy”, passenger groups have said. Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus said hikes were “difficult to explain” as wages were not rising by the same rate. Train firms say more money will allow greater investment in services.

2009–10: Rise in rail ticket prices criticised by watchdog

Rail watchdog Passenger Focus has criticised the new year rise in fares, which have gone up by an average 1.1%. Season tickets and standard day tickets might see a “very small reduction” in cost, but some of unregulated ticket hikes were “quite stinging”, it said. Another campaign group said fares should be cut to the European average. The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said the majority of passengers would see “a fall, no rise or an increase below inflation”.

2010–11: Rail season tickets for some commuters ‘pass £5,000′

The cost of some annual season tickets will exceed £5,000 for the first time when prices go up on Sunday, the Campaign for Better Transport has said. Season ticket prices across the UK will rise by an average of 5.8%, while London bus and Tube fares go up 6.8%. CBT said some Kent commuters would have to bear rises of nearly 13% and warned of people being priced off the trains.

2011–12: Commuter pain as rail fare rises take effect

Rail commuters preparing to return to work after the Christmas break face fare rises of up to 11% from Monday, watchdog Passenger Focus has said. Chief executive Anthony Smith said they should not have to keep paying for a “fractured, inefficient industry”. The annual rise will see the average price of regulated fares, such as season tickets, increase by 6%. The Association of Train Operating Companies said money raised through fares helped pay for better services.

2012–13: Rail commuters hit by 4.2% average fare rise

Rail fares for season ticket holders have increased by an average of 4.2% as the annual price hike, announced in August, comes into effect. Overall, ticket prices have gone up by 3.9% in England, Wales and Scotland, but rises vary between train operators. The TUC has claimed average train fares have risen nearly three times faster than average incomes since 2008. Transport minister Norman Baker said the government had intervened to ensure fare rises were capped at about 4%.

2013–14: Rail fare rise of 2.8% comes into effect

An average 2.8% increase in rail fares comes into effect on Thursday, pushing the cost of some commuter travel to more than £5,000 a year. The increase is the smallest rise in four years, according to the pan-industry Rail Delivery Group. Chancellor George Osborne said in last month’s Autumn Statement he would keep fares in line with July’s Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate of 3.1%. But campaigners say that fares are rising three times faster than incomes.

2013: When I found my creative mojo

The year 2013 has been an interesting one for me.

Work has been hectic yet rewarding. Proofreading has started to take off in a much bigger sense. And I have developed a new passion in the form of my mapping. (I know I keep wanging on about it, but it’s important to me for a few reasons, so please forgive me.)

First, to me it’s amazing to think that at the beginning of 2013, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Yet now, I am able to create pieces that I consider to be beautiful. And indeed, that others consider beautiful. The creative bone was always there. But my inability to draw in the traditional sense (my brother got those genes) prevented me from finding it.

In April, I had no demonstrated ability on the artistic front, nor did I have a desire. On 17 May, the desire suddenly came, as did the impetus to do something about it. I have no idea where it came from, but it was sudden, immediate. I realised that my life involved little in the way of creativity (in the traditional sense of the word), so I decided to do something about it.

So I drew some maps. I started on A4. I liked what I did, and moved up to A3, refining my approach. What I previously liked on A4 began to look amateurish. Such is the way with things, I guess. When you do them, you think they’re the mutts’. When you get better, you look back on your previous work with a more critical eye.

And I’ve now graduated to A1. Maps of epic proportions that look rather good, if I may be so bold.

I’ve given some maps away: one to my dad, three to some good friends and one to the lovely lady whose work inspired me to get into all this.

I’ve created an online shop. And I’ve sold some. Not that many so far, but enough to make me proud of the pieces I’m producing. The thought that someone wants to hang what I’ve created on their wall, and pay for the privilege of doing so, gives me a rather fabulous feeling.

And I’ve also been asked to do a commission: a work specific to someone’s interests.

It won’t pay the mortgage, nor would I want it to. But the thought that people are willing to part with their money to pay for things that I have created is special beyond belief.

Here’s to more of the same in 2014.

And here’s a link to the shop, for those that are interested.

Kindle or tablet? Silly question

I’ve been involved in a few debates recently over why people need a Kindle when they have an iPad or other Kindle-enabled tablet.

It’s a ridiculous argument, in my view. For two reasons.

First, battery life.

My Kindle stays charged for weeks. Literally. I’ll probably charge mine every three weeks or so, more to top it up than necessarily because it’s running low on juice. This is of massive appeal. I can pop it in my bag, just as I would a book, and forget about it until such time that I choose to read it. If I had to take it out of my bag each night to charge it, something would be lost. Something very important.

Second, and more importantly, experience.

When I read my Kindle, I’m reading a book. It’s the size of a book, and the utterly delightful E Ink technology makes it feel like a book. A beautiful, imperfect book, even with slight “printing” flaws owing to the technology.

When reading on a tablet, I’m reading a magazine. Even when the screen’s brightness is set low, the experience is completely different to that of the Kindle. It’s backlit, and that fundamentally changes the reading experience. My eyes are working, not dancing. I’m no doctor, but I expect that their state while reading a Kindle is very different to that when they’re reading a tablet.

And that’s why for now, there’s absolutely a place for the Kindle in your bag, even if you’ve got a tablet.

(Note: I don’t own a tablet. But I’ve borrowed them, from the likes of my daughter.)

Reuleaux polygons and tetrahedra

My friend Rob sent me this video today. I just watched it. And I loved it. Here’s the background.

Certain 2D shapes are such that their height is the same regardless of their orientation on the plane. The obvious example is the circle, meaning that your bicycle runs smoothly down the road.

But there are an infinite number of other shapes that share this quality. For the UK contingent amongst you, the 50p and 20p pieces are examples.

You see, they’re not quite heptagons. They’re actually Reuleaux heptagons. That means that where they might have straight edges, the edges are instead slightly curved. And the point on the coin that is opposite that curved side lies at the centre of the circle of which the curve is an arc.

To prove it, take a ledge (e.g. the bottom lip of a laptop screen, or the point at which a radiator guard meets the wall). Place two 50p pieces upright on the ledge. And grab a ruler. Place the ruler across the top of the two coins and drag the coins left or right. You’ll find that the ruler remains the same distance from the ledge at all times.

Simply delightful. And yet more so when you discover that there are Reuleaux triangles!

Now you couldn’t make a bicycle using these shapes, as the centre moves around as the coin rolls. So while the highest point of the wheel would remain a fixed distance from the ground, the point of the axle would wobble go up and down relative to the ground, and so the ride would be a little bumpy.

Now, it gets better. As well as there being an infinite number of Reuleaux planes, there are also an infinite number of Reuleaux solids, which share similar properties. So you can balance a board on a bunch of them, roll it around, and the board will remain a fixed distance from the floor.

You can buy a bag of them here. *reaches for credit card*

(Oh. I also love the guy’s enthusiasm for the subject.)

The black hole of online car tax renewal

So. My car tax is due to expire on 30 November.

The trouble is, my insurance is due to expire on 26 November.

I am able to renew my car tax any time after 5 November, and received a letter to this effect from the DVLA on 5 November. So I went online to renew the following day.

The site said that I couldn’t renew online, as the motor insurance database did not have proof of my having insurance beyond the point of the car tax renewing. Apparently, I’m unable to renew my car tax within the last three weeks of my insurance policy. Coincidentally, that means I’m unable to renew my car tax after 5 November.

So I went through the process of renewing my insurance, with Privilege, and they have now confirmed that on 26 November, my insurance will renew with them for another year.

The trouble is, they are unable to inform the DVLA of my new insurance policy until my existing policy is at the point of expiry.

So I will instead need to go into a Post Office to renew my car tax; or else I need to try to do it in the four-day window between 26 and 30 November. And here’s the rub: the proximity of the two expiry dates means that this will be an annual “feature” of my relationship with the DVLA, unless I choose to pay an £11 premium to only renew my car tax for six months.

Utter madness.

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