Business Link: scale it back

Business Link has always troubled me.

For citizens, government has always strived to provide a single point of entry online, one allowing people to cut through the bureaucracy and (dis)organisation of government to find the information or service pertinent to them. Statementing your child; buying your road tax; understanding the stamp duty levy; understanding the healthcare process.

This is important. Government has a duty to people and to helping them through many of the circumstances they face in their lives.

Open.gov became UK online became Directgov. And there is now good traction on this front. Search for a wealth of government-related services, and indeed customer-related problems that government is best-positioned to resolve, and Google will bring back a Directgov page above all others.

I think that Business Link has tried to do the same for the business community. It has tried to help businesses through every eventuality. Yet I don’t think that government’s remit should extend this far.

In my opinion, government has four key remits with respect to supporting businesses:

That’s it.

Yes, businesses need to be able to exist, nay thrive. But being in business comes with a responsibility to seek advice and, in many instances, pay for that advice. You’re in business, among other things, to make money. So you must use some of that money to serve yourself.

A right-wing viewpoint would suggest that the same should be true for individuals. But making money is not the primary concern of individuals in their experiencing most “life events”: having a baby, schooling a child, taxing the car, claiming disability benefit. Yes, some are the result of choices made, but I think government has a remit in supporting people through these times.

In my view, Business Link should be a site of no more than 50 pages—each no more than 750 words in length. It should link off to Companies House and HMRC to facilitate the transactions referenced in the third bullet above. But in these austere times, there should be no aspiration to bring it under one roof.

Creating a date list

The other night, a friend called asking for some Excel help. I was in the car—hands-free—on the way home after a pretty lousy day. And the vision of some Excel trickery in the evening perked me up no end.

Down the side he had a bunch of sites. Across the top he had column headings for various activities that were to take place. And in the body of the table were dates—the date on which each activity would occur for each site.

It was a great way of capturing the data, but with 100 sites and 15 activities, once populated it was difficult to figure out what was due to happen on a day-by-day basis. He wanted a list of activities across all sites in chronological order. And he wanted this list to update (and re-order) with changes to the underlying data.

The remaining 20 minutes of the car journey saw me pondering. Getting a list of the 1500 activity–site combinations tagged with the date would be trivial. The INDEX function would allow me to number the rows and columns in the source data and pick the relevant value for each row. The tricky bit would be having that data auto-sort whenever anything changed in the source. So an activity front-loaded in the plan would be near the top of the list. But if someone suddenly shifted it back six months, the requirement was for it to automatically plummet down towards the bottom of the list.

I figured that I could use the RANK function to ascertain where the date sat in relation to the others. But then I faced the issue of multiple entries sharing exactly the same date—with 1,500 activities spread across six months, this was common. And then I remembered my post on breaking rank.

Breaking rank is an inelegant yet at the same time adorable method I came up with to differentiate between identical values for the purpose of sorting. If you add a random number between zero and one—RAND()—to every single date in the list, then the dates will not change, but their underlying values will. Dates are stored as numbers, 1 representing 1 January 1900, 2 representing 2 January 1900 and so on. (Today is 40,627 for what it’s worth.) So by adding a value between zero and one to a date, all you’re doing is being more precise about the time at which it is done. 40,627.5 was midday today, as an example, the 0.5 representing half a day.

But given that the dates are being displayed as dates rather than specific timestamps, the decimal extension matters not. But crucially, it makes every single date’s number unique in the list, and so the RANK function can identify the rank of each uniquely.

So in my interim working sheet, I had 1,500 rows. My dates were in column F, starting in F2. In G2 I simply created a random number: =RAND(). And after pasting the values over the random numbers, H2 became F2+G2. Now columns F and H looked identical (formatted as they were as dates), but column H had the artificial decimal precision. Finally, in column A, I ranked the dates against the range of dates: =RANK(H2,$H$2:$H$1501,1). The “1” at the end merely informs Excel to give the lowest ranking (1) to the earliest date, as opposed to the other way round. Columns C and E contained the site and the activity respectively.

In my final presentational sheet, I simply created a list of sequence numbers (in order), from 1 to 1,500. The subsequent three columns (date, site and activity) simply looked the sequence number in the Ranks column of the working sheet and brought back the appropriate value using a VLOOKUP.

Whenever dates in the master sheet are changed, the ranks in the working sheet will adjust accordingly and the final presentational sheet will reorder accordingly.

All in all, about half-an-hour’s work. (It’s taken longer to write this post.) But more importantly, as well as helping out a friend, it put some rather lovely fondant on what had previously been a pretty shit day.

Here’s an anonymised version of the finished article.

Professor Brian Cox: The Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture

Tonight, Professor Brian Cox gave the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. And it was a delight to behold.

Professor Brian Cox

Professor Brian Cox, courtesy of Paul Clarke

After a rather lacklustre introduction from a guy from Save the Rhino, the charity benefiting from the gig, Brian (if I may call him Brian) was introduced by Robin Ince, whose humour resonated with me and brought the fabulous room to life.

And up stood Brian. No notes. Just slides.

He talked eloquently and enthusiastically, about the universe, its increasing size, the minuteness of Earth in the context of the 100 billion galaxies, each containing billions of stars. And at the opposite end of the scale he talked about the make-up of that universe—protons, muons and the elusive Higgs boson. And if that wasn’t enough, his talk was interrupted by a famous video showing Richard P. Feynman explaining physics at a blackboard. (I welled up at this stage.)

It was wondrous. It resonated. Cox is phenomenally intelligent, deeply passionate and northern, a powerful combination of qualities. And I mean that about all three.

His intelligence is obvious. But it’s not superficial. He talked at great length and often went off on scientific tangents that doubtless baffled much of the room, me most definitely included. His interpretation of formulae came with context that has come from years of study.

His passion is unquestionable. He lives and breathes this stuff, and he loves living and breathing this stuff. He’s like a child in awe at the scale of the universe and that awe generates awe in his audience. He cares deeply about science and its future. And it’s infectious.

And his northernness helps immeasurably. His Mancunian accent is at odds with that of traditional academia. And while it makes for an unconventional package, it helps inordinately in making him approachable and welcoming.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and my grin on many occasions rivalled Brian’s, which is no mean feat. I took along Paul, the first tweeter to raise his hand to claim my spare ticket, and probably the person I would have chosen to take anyway. He revelled in the lecture but also snapped away equipped with his monstrous camera lens, thwarted only by the literally lacklustre lighting that barely illuminated his subject.

There were two things that fell short, however. First, Save the Rhino’s introduction claimed that their cause was the most important conservation cause that existed, but failed to really say why. And Brian’s talk was titled “The universe and why we should explore it”. But again, while covering topics of extraordinary interest, it failed to answer the exam question.

Overall, I’m thoroughly satisfied. Professor Brian Cox was extraordinary and inspirational. I hope I can share an ounce of his enthusiasm in communicating science to my daughter.

Fuel prices vs. car prices

I filled up the hire car today. It had a quarter of a tank remaining, but my obligation as a hirer is to fill it up if it dips below that level. So I did. It cost £67 for standard unleaded, at 137.9p per litre. (BTW, that’s £6.27 per gallon in old money, as my dad, and oodles of other dads, still say to this day.) That would make it around £89 for a full tank by my reckoning. Ouch.

I got to thinking about what fuel efficiency was worth when purchasing a new car.

Having done the analysis it seems that, to me, marginal fuel efficiency has a surprisingly small impact on the cost of car ownership. At 12,000 miles per year, a car running at 40 miles per gallon will guzzle 300 gallons per year at a cost of £1,880.72. At 41 mpg, the cost will be £1,834.85, an annual drop of a mere £45.87, less than a pound a week. And obviously, as the mpg increases, the marginal price differential of a single extra mpg reduces. So the difference between the fuel costs for a 50 vs. 51 mpg car falls to £29.50.

So assuming depreciation over five years and other things being equal, a new car offering 45 mpg can justify being priced £1,044 higher than one offering 40 mpg.

Now switch your attention to the gas guzzlers. A car running at 10 mpg will cost £2,507 more per year to run than one running at 15 mpg, so the more fuel-efficient 15 mpg-er can justify a price tag £12,538 higher than the 10 mpg-er. As an aside, for such cars to average 12,000 miles per year, the school to which the car is driven twice daily would need to be 15.8 miles from the home. 😉

(Environmental arguments were left to one side in the writing of this post.)

Backupify and Google Mail: a costing mindf*ck

I am confused.

I currently do not pay for email. I am on the free version of Google Apps. I use it primarily for email—in five years, I’ve used up 53% of my 7,548Mb allowance—and calendar. I have the odd Google document but haven’t delved any wider across the Google Apps business suite.

I’m reluctant to upgrade to the Premier version, however. The main reason: the charging is per user, and in addition to my own account, I have set up a couple of others—one for my daughter, one for a business associate. So instead of paying $50 per year, I’d end up paying $150 per year. I would much rather Google gave the option of upgrading on an account by account basis, as opposed to upgrading all accounts within the domain.

But with the recent stories about Gmail accounts being wiped clean and data being lost, I’ve become increasingly worried about the fact that my 4Gb plus of email is sitting in one and only one place: with Google.

So Greg Baker introduced me to Backupify. And Sean Garvin introduced me to its one-year free trial. So I’ve signed up.

It backs up my Facebook (which interests me little), Flickr (very important), LinkedIn (low importance) and Twitter (high interest, low importance) accounts, together with my Google Apps data (essential). Based on current pricing, an annual fee of $60 will kick in at the end of my one-year trial, and I’m not phased by this.

But I *am* phased by the fact that I consider my email sufficiently unimportant not to pay for, while I view its back-up as important enough to pay $60 per year for. This makes no sense in my own head, and is troubling me.

Maybe I should bite the bullet and start paying Google $150 per year—if only to restore the (relative) equilibrium in my head.

The fluorescent man outside the Treasury

HM Treasury’s head office is a very grand building on Horse Guards Road. A man stands outside it wearing a fluorescent bib throughout the business day. He blocks the left-hand door which is itself locked, and people are forced to use the right-hand door to both enter and leave the building, often causing confusion and blockages.

Yet I am uncertain as to his role.

Whenever I enter the building for a meeting, I always treat him as a greeter. My aim, purely for my own amusement, is to get past him without being challenged. Nine times in ten, I succeed. I always use the gently-inclined ramp rather than the steps outside the building. I walk with purpose, say good morning/afternoon and waltz in—figuratively—and skip my way up the stairs—less figuratively—en route to reception.

Occasionally, there is an awkward moment where the chap looks like he may be challenging me as to my purpose, but nerves seem to get the better of him and off I skip. In some respects, I regard this scenario as an even greater personal success than the uninterrupted walk, as the very possibility of challenge was averted.

And on very rare occasions, he asks as to my purpose. I say I’m there for a meeting, which more often than not is true, and breathe a sigh of relief at having secured entry into the building, albeit sporting a face of defeat.

(Note, I’ve never been refused entry. Not yet, at least.)

So for people intent on entering the building, his presence is useless. Unless other people arriving to attend meetings are treated differently to myself, of course, which I very much doubt. Which suggests that his only purpose relates to those people not intent on entering the building. Or at least those not intending to enter to attend for a meeting.

Perhaps his very presence is intended as a deterrent to those intent on entering the building for nefarious reasons. But if that’s the case, you’d have thought he’d do a better job interrogating the innocent to at least give the impression that the soon-to-be-guilty will have an obstacle to negotiate before doing their dubious deeds.

This is what keeps me awake at night.