Mapping on a grand scale: poetry

I had a riot yesterday.  At work.  I was truly in my element.

I was given a task to map the 300+ offices that my client had across the UK.  And from that to identify clusters.  Although they relied on the same underlying data, I treated these two tasks largely in isolation to one another.  After all, identifying clusters from a visual map is rather an inexact science.

The mapping was sublime.  I used a Google Spreadsheet to convert postcodes to latitude and longitude coordinates (using the advice I’d previously documented here), used this to generate a KML file (through some fancy Excel formulae) which I could then import into Google Maps to create a visual representation of the locations.  Awesome.

Then on to the distances.  I’d had a vision the previous evening that I wanted to create one of those triangles that you used to see in the back of road atlases, across which you could trace your finger to figure out the distance from Plymouth to Edinburgh, for example.  So I went about creating one.

I made column headings out of the locations in Excel, transposing the data to duplicate them as row headings, together with their respective latitude and longitude coordinates.  I then used trigonometry (with the earth’s radius as a constant) to find the distance between each pair of locations (as the crow flies rather than driving distance).  A lovely piece of conditional formatting (if row number is greater than column number) allowed me to hide all the lower half of the triangle—a number format of ;;; hides a cell’s contents without affecting the value of the cell.

I was lost in Excel and Google Maps for an entire morning.  The subject matter had me gripped.  The quality of the output was top drawer; and the importance of the messages therein was right up there.  I love days like that.

Free and ad-free: it’s unsustainable. Get over yourselves

I happened upon a tweet from @gazbeirne recently that read:

Has the person who decided to start putting adverts over the bottom half of youtube videos been found and shot yet?

I suspect the answer is no. And rightly so. For too long, the general public has been getting internet stuff for free, ignorant of the cost of providing the service and hell-bent not to pay anything towards it.

People are up in arms at The Times’ proposal to start charging for its content. But if that is what they must do to sustain their service, then so be it. Whether it’s the right commercial model—if there is such a concept of right or wrong in this space—remains to be seen. But you have to respect them for trying.

And the same goes for Google, despite my belief, one growing among my peers, that Google’s Do No Evil mantra is poppycock. Providing YouTube content to people is not free, irrespective of whether the content was a rights-free video shot by your mate. There is technology and people to pay for to allow that content to be served to the public.

Now if you asked the average YouTube visitor to pay for content à la Times, then they’d most certainly say no. (Actually, they’d most likely grunt judging by the state of the comments they leave on videos.) But ask them to pay for it indirectly through the medium of advertising and you have yourself an angry Gaz Beirne.

The free, ad-free world is unsustainable. Get over it. And along the way, get over yourselves.

iTunes cannot read the contents of your iPhone [solved]

I received the above message (without the [solved], funnily enough) this evening when plugging my iPhone into my laptop.  I think I may have disconnected mid-sync. last time I connected the two, so my bad.

I was worried.  So I did some research.  And I solved the problem thus:

Bob was indeed my uncle and the job was a goodun.  This was the main source of my research.  Thank you.

Peeling the apple: the issue with government cutbacks

Times are hard right now in government.  Moratoriums are kicking in and spend is being reviewed or curbed in a number of areas.

Consultancy contracts are being terminated.  Not across the board, but I’ve certainly heard of some significant ones that are going by the wayside.  Contractors’ contracts are not being renewed.  And meanwhile, as has been widely publicised outside government, all of the major commitments made between the start of the calendar year and the election have been reviewed by HM Treasury, and all projects and activities above a certain value are next up, for the jury to decide what to do with them.

This is all very well.  It will cut some non-trivial costs out of the public sector, although I’m not sure whether the detrimental impact on the wider economy has been fully considered.  Consultancies will lay people off, builders that were otherwise ready to start building a new hospital in Teesside won’t—this was one of the commitments that was reversed—and the list goes on.  These people directly affected will no longer buy TVs, build extensions, send their children to private school etc.  And those employed in such areas will suffer indirectly.  And so on.

What I feel is missing from the equation however is an understanding as to whether other things should be done in the place of initiatives that are being canned.  At the moment, the movement can be likened to peeling an apple.  Government is not doing anything differently—it will just be slightly smaller than it was before.  Suggestions for subsequent years are that budgets will be cut year-on-year for a number of years hereafter, with further layers of the apple being peeled away.

But no one seems to have thought about slicing the apple up.  taking entire chunks out, replacing sections with orange segments.  No one seems to be challenging the fundamentals of what departments are doing and how they might be changed to better offer value to the public.  Doing this would require some upfront investment—not necessarily vast but certainly non-zero.  And as such, it’s being ruled out.

For example, departments have buildings.  And they don’t share these buildings.  This status quo won’t be challenged.  So each department will likely operate in a silo to deliver its own savings.  But what if the less sensitive departments—Decc, Defra, DCMS, the Cabinet Office, DfE, for example—clubbed together and had white-label buildings.  Instead of each department having buildings operating at 80% capacity, you could shut certain buildings and increase desk utilisation, in the process promoting cross-working.  This won’t happen, because the security pass systems would need to be integrated, which would come with a non-zero cost.

I think this is a shame.  As the apple gets smaller and tighter over the next few years, there will be less and less room or appetite for innovation.  And people will not be able to stray from what they are doing to try to figure out how they might do it better.  Instead, departments will continue to do what they currently do, only not as well.

There are people around who can change the status quo here, both within and outside the civil service.  I know a bunch of them and, given the licence, they have both the vision and passion to radically change the way in which the government operates.  But they won’t be given that licence.

Instead, the apple will continue to be peeled, and what remains will start to turn brown and decay.  I hope I’m wrong.  But given what I’ve seen thus far, it’s looking more and more likely.

155.6 swimming pools of oil

I love data.  And I love it when people take abstract concepts and try to put them in terms that people can relate to.  The most recent example has been the oil spill.  It’s nigh-on impossible to visualise the quantity of oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well since 22 April.  So many have tried to give estimates that we can relate to.  All of the quotes below are from different sources, found courtesy of Alan.

[The] flow rate […] would fill more than 50 swimming pools per day.

The Coast Guard [said] earlier it was at least 1.6 million gallons [since the spill started]—equivalent to about 2½ Olympic-sized swimming pools.

BP’s estimated 5,000 barrels a day […] would be approximately 150,000 barrels (or 6,300,000 gallons). That’s barely enough to fill 286 swimming pools: sixteen feet, by thirty-two feet, by eight and a half feet deep.

Once the pipe has been cut, the oil will spew into the Gulf of Mexico unobstructed, enough to fill an average swimming pool every hour

In just one day, the oil leaked would be enough to fill up six Olympic-sized swimming pools .

The only consistency here is the unit of measurement.  (It seems that the SI unit for oil is the Olympic-size swimming pool.)  The quantities are either formed of very varied guesswork or extremely poor arithmetic.  Probably a combination of the two.

My own estimate, based on an average between a low and a high estimate of the volume, was that as of 3 June, the oil would be sufficient to fill 155 Olympic-size swimming pools, with enough left over to start filling the 156th pool.  But this meant nothing to me.  So I changed the frame of reference.

If the oil was solid and laid evenly over the entirety of Hyde Park, it would form a paste 40 metres deep, equivalent to nine London buses stacked vertically.  Sounds a lot, doesn’t it?

Yet if the oil was to fall as snow over the entirety of the UK, it would amount to 0.2 seconds of snowfall.  Nothing at all, right?

While units that we are more familiar with help us visualise things that are intangible to us, they also serve to create dramatic headlines, headlines that could equally be replaced with innocuous ones if the newspapers were driven by ambivalence.

And who’d want to swim in oil anyway?

America is partially to blame for the oil spill

The oil spill in the US is devastating.  It will leave a lasting effect on the communities that rely on the coastal and Gulf economy, and will have a long-term impact on the wildlife of the area.

But it was bound to happen.

Earth’s oil reserves have been tapped for many years.  And the more they are tapped, the harder it becomes to reach the remaining reserves.  This is the reason BP was drilling 50 miles from land, almost a mile under the surface of the sea, at a pressure 152 times greater than that experienced at the surface.

And as the remaining oil reserves become more remote, the risk associated with tapping them necessarily increases.  People risk their lives and technology and engineering are pushed.

Our appetite for oil is, thus far, unceasing.  Yes, it’s slowing down.  (Or at least it is marginally in developed nations.)  But I expect that this slowing is outstripped by the overall increase in risk associated with meeting that demand.  And under this assumption, the residual risk associated with drilling for oil is increasing.

Now the US is a significant exponent of oil use.  It has lagged behind the rest of the developed world in stemming its use and attempting to reverse the damage that its use has caused to our planet.  That is not to say that they deserve the disaster—far from it.  But as a nation, they are not blameless.  (Nor am I suggesting that BP or the other companies involved are blameless in this matter, for the record.)

So please, America, stop with the arrogance.  Stop pointing the finger.  And start working with the companies that are admitting their blame for the disaster to stem the leak and clean up in its aftermath.

Golf in honour of Her Majesty

Yesterday I played golf. Civil servants get the day off the end of May Bank Holiday as a privilege day, meaning they don’t bother turning up for work in honour of one of the Queen’s many birthdays.  I too took the day as holiday and joined two of them for a day of golf at Cray Valley near Orpington.

Now this morning, the sun is shining and conditions are perfect for a relaxing round of golf.  Yesterday, there was light rain throughout the day, clearing up the moment we stepped off the 18th green.  Bastard rain.

I’ve not played for a couple of years, but held my own pretty well.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  I held Simon’s late dad’s.  His driver.  And it served me very well indeed.  The direction was not always spot on, but the distance and connection was there 90% of the time, which is no mean feat for someone whose last round was probably two years ago.

I went out in 56, which I was marginally disappointed with, mainly because it was tainted by a septuple bogey on the first hole—four shots of which were taken within inches of one another in a bunker.  Had that been a six instead of an eleven, I’d have been ecstatic with a 51.

And I came back in 48, a remarkable feat for me, but a half-round again tainted by a hapless nine on the twelfth.  My last six holes were all fives, something I don’t think my scorecard has ever seen.

And four pars in a single round is unheard of for me.  (Simon disagrees, and never having played me before, believes I’m a ringer.  I’ll suggest he calls my dad to vouch for my overall ineptitude for the game.)

Simon will be producing a full, Excel-driven Stableford analysis forthwith.  But in the meantime, I’ll dine out on my score of 104 and my three pars.  Despite the rain, I spent a great day in very good company, and here’s hoping my next round is less than two years from now.

Now, I must speak to Simon about his dad’s will, and whether the driver was in fact left to his son’s friend, one that he’d never met.  I’m hopeful.