Confounding compound interest

As a kid, I never understood why a seemingly arbitrary and unwritten rule stipulated that compound interest would apply daily. That is, if you were asked to calculate compound interest over the course of a year, the interest accrued would become part of the principal sum at the end of each day. I never understood why it shouldn’t apply every hour, minute or second.

Below is the effect of differing frequencies with which the principal sum is topped up, each on an initial principal sum of 10,000 and a compound interest rate of 20%. The figures show the resulting sum after one year of investment.

I guess for the sake of threepence, I needn’t have worried.

My #ukgc12

Friday marked the start of UK GovCamp 2012. Or #ukgc12 as it swiftly became known.

I say “start”, because this year’s event was a two-day affair. Friday was held in the traditional unconference manner, no pre-arranged agenda, just enthusiasm, energy and bright people discussing things close to their hearts. Saturday was marketed as a “Doing Things” day, with more focus on doing than talking.

I could only attend the former, my second such event, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Reclaiming the High Street

After the introductions and formalities, I attended a session about rejuvenating the High Street. It was fascinating. Lots of revolutionary stuff going on down in Herne Hill by all accounts, individuals and traders getting together to reclaim ownership of the area’s activities from the council.

So many people talk of their sadness at the shops that are closing on the High Street. While that is indeed sad, it’s something that has to be embraced. The world has moved on. First, out of town shopping centres drew shoppers away from the High Street. Next, the internet came along to remove some of the remaining shoppers. While High Street shopping is still going on, it’s no longer sufficient to support the numbers of businesses that were there ten, twenty years ago. And that’s just fine.

When people talk of the High Street, most people immediately think of shops. They don’t immediately think of restaurants, libraries, community centres, youth clubs, gyms, coffee shops, art galleries and the like.

The High Street needs to become the place you go to do stuff that you can’t do on the internet – most of that list, if you will, and then some. There are lots of things that can’t be done online, and the High Street needs to fill that gap, rather than trying to compete. Yes, there will always be a need for physical shops. But people shouldn’t look for Woolworths to be replaced by a similar shop.

Intranets

On next to a session about intranets and their place in the workplace. Lots of debate as to whether they should be social or functional, and about people’s appetite to help their colleagues.

What I’ve always found odd about intranets is that there tends to be one of them in an organisation. Outside the firewall, I go to the BBC for my news, Google to find things, Facebook for community, Twitter for lively debate and insight, etc. But if I want to do stuff within my workplace, there’s one place to go: http://intranet.

It’s not quite like that nowadays. Systems spring up, collaboration tools are introduced. But in the main, there’s the ethos that everything you need as an employee lives under one roof, which still strikes me as odd and likely contributes to the difficulty organisations have in engaging with their employees.

Communities

Next, to communities. The session was billed as discussing the way in which communities could be brought closer together through technology, led by the delightful and super-intelligent Ingrid Koehler. The 45-minute session was ten minutes old before I realised that we were talking about online communities (professions, like-minded individuals etc.) as opposed to neighbourhoods.

This is not because I’m stupid. (That factor is responsible for many other things, but wasn’t relevant in this instance.) It’s because many of the issues that prevent geographically grouped people (neighbourhoods) from getting together online are equally relevant to bringing together geographically disparate people with a common interest or occupation.

In each case, there is the impetus to create and manage a community; and the impetus for the community to engage. It’s a very delicate circle that is easily broken. Without content of interest, the users won’t bother. Without users, the management of the community will flounder and content will suffer.

And then I had to leave to pick up my daughter from school, returning with her a couple of hours later to introduce her to the wonder that is GovCamp. And to allow her to pick up her very own t-shirt and name badge. She loved the technology and was blown away by all the people.

As for me, I didn’t have the same connection as last year, not having worked in government for almost a year. The sense of common purpose that GovCamp brings about is powerful and addictive. I felt ever so slightly removed from proceedings. Nonetheless, it was great to meet some old faces, to discuss things with some frighteningly intelligent people, and to be welcomed into such a thriving and warm community.

The morally bankrupt insurance industry

When I was a teenager, my mum had a minor car accident. (She also had a rather major one in which she smacked her head into her windscreen, arriving in an ambulance at my friend’s house where I was playing, blood streaming down her face. But that’s a different story.)

If memory serves me, the accident occurred near the junction of Rhodesway and Allerton Road in the Thornton area of Bradford. There was a small shunt, details were exchanged and the two cars involved went merrily on their way.

In the bureaucratic process that followed, a claim was made by the third party for injuries allegedly sustained by more people than were occupying his car at the time of the accident. With no witnesses, it was my mum’s word against his, and I believe his claim was upheld.

Last year, my friend Steve was also involved in an accident. There was heavy braking on the motorway in front of his car. Steve braked in time to stop behind the car ahead of him. The car behind him followed suit. But the car behind that car couldn’t stop in time. So it shunted the car behind Steve, which in turn was pushed forward, and nudged Steve’s rear bumper.

There was some very minor paint damage, but nothing worth worrying over. Steve duly informed his insurance company, not to claim but out of a worry of getting proverbially shafted if they found out about the accident at a later date. And nothing more was said.

Actually, that last sentence isn’t quite true.

The insurance company asked whether he or his two kids that were in the back seat had been injured. He confirmed that they hadn’t, informing the lady on the phone that the impact had been at such an infinitesimally low velocity that they were barely even aware of the impact.

Not one to trust the laws of physics, she badgered Steve throughout the call about the possibility of injury to any one, nay all, of the three occupants, suggesting that the symptoms might set in a few days after the event. By the end of the call, Steve was perplexed by the seeming idiocy of the woman.

You see, the insurance world is in a downward moral spiral, and has been for the last 20 years and more. Individuals are more litigious than they ever were, partly because of the rise of the large company (more on that another time). And insurance companies like to play the game. As well as figuratively raping people for their insurance premiums, they make money at the time of a claim by selling the data of those allegedly affected by the accident to morally bankrupt companies. They in turn will do their level best to lodge a falsified claim, winning money for their client and sending the insurance premiums of the third party through the roof. Everyone’s a winner!

Steve has morals, and so didn’t let the promise of cash affect his better judgment. Thousands of others will be either less morally scrupulous or more in need of a cash injection (or both), and will take the evil lady up on her kind of gaining cash for fake injuries.

The government is trying to tighten up on the passing on of such data by insurance companies. But I expect that the behaviour has now been seeded in the market, and such legislation will pass the onus on to the consumer, who will gladly take responsibility for pursuing their own nefarious claims.

You think *you* had a bad Christmas?

Many readers will be reeling at the dreadful experience suffered by the Jones family from Wildwood, Stafford over the festive period. Their plight was brought to my attention by my friend Paul yesterday.

For those not aware of their story, readers of a faint heart and those with a nervous disposition may want to stop reading here. Certainly anyone under the age of 18 should not read beyond this point.

The Jones family’s Christmas was wrecked by the son’s discovery of an insensitive question within one of the crackers they’d bought from Wilkinson (mistakenly referred to in the article as Wilkinsons). It asked them to name the twin skyscrapers, 1,361 feet high, that are the tallest buildings in New York.

At first, I thought their devastation was caused by the inaccuracy of the fact. The answer to the question was clearly 1 & 2 World Trade Center, yet prior to their demise, 1 WTC stood at 1,368 feet in height, while 2 WTC stood at 1,362 feet.

It later became clear that they were not referring to the inaccuracy of the statistic, but instead to the fact that the towers were destroyed over ten years ago, thus making the albeit inaccurate statistic no longer true.

The image of the Ian Rush–lookalike Tim Jones, clad in pyjamas and holding a partially opened box of Christmas crackers together with the deeply offensive and inaccurate trivia note makes for a sorry picture indeed. He really should have done up an extra button.

His wife, Sheila, was quoted as saying: “I can only assume these crackers are old stock and many years old, printed before the dreadful events of September 11th. I would like an explanation from Wilko.”

Wilkinson has confirmed that an immediate investigation is underway with their suppliers. I expect that Wilkinson will publish a statement to the following effect once that investigation concludes: “These crackers are old stock and many years old, printed before the dreadful events of September 11th.”

Nowadays, we Brits are all too easily “offended”. In truth, the level of offence caused is actually minimal. But by elevating the level of suffering that we went through, we serve two purposes. First, we secure a moment’s fame, albeit at a local level, in this world where fame for the masses has become something that so many people seek. Second, we put ourselves in a position that might gain us a bit of cash by way of compensation for the untold (told) distress caused.

As for the latter reason, the same is true in other walks of life. If you’re uninjured in a car accident, many people are likely to claim injury, partly for their own financial benefit, and partly goaded on by the corrupt insurance business that surrounds the potential claim.

Meanwhile, that the Staffordshire Newsletter deemed this story newsworthy at all is a sad indictment of the state of local media.

Please spare a moment’s thought for the Jones family at this difficult time. The lyrics below were written for people like this.

But say a prayer,
pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it’s hard,
but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window,
and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them
instead of you.

Email: lighten up!

I currently work as a consultant to a large financial institution. I work independently, so have kept my own email address. This is great, as it allows me to work into the evening while many of my colleagues in the US are still in the office. (This is dreadful, as it allows me to work into the evening while many of my colleagues in the US are still in the office.)

Given this state of affairs, I am slightly segregated from my client. I am not “one of them”, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. But given what I’m doing, all in all I think it’s a good thing. Doubtless the benefits of me being able to work out of hours more than outweigh the inconveniences that the segregation brings about.

A member of the client organisation recently commented that I could never be an employee there. When I asked as to why, she said that I was way too informal in my email communication.

I disagreed.

For me, just as with face-to-face communication, there is time for formality and time for informality. And that is not purely dependent on the audience. Just as with talking to people, there are times when you’ll be formal with your friends; and less formal with your colleagues.

The key is to gear your communication style to your audience and subject matter. And to be a bit bold in pushing against formality.

I recently presented to 20-or-so people, the majority of whom I’d never met. I gave an overview of a system, and talked of it “squirting out documents at the other end”. The lady mentioned above was horrified when she saw the deck. But the audience liked the informality. I was talking about an IT system in words that a child might use, stripping away any sense of complexity, focusing purely on the business need that these people had.

If I’d said “printing” or “producing”, the level of engagement in the session might have been less. And if one or two of the audience remembered the use of the word “squirting” half an hour after the session had ended, then it served its purpose.

And I do the same in email. When asked by email today whether something was ready to go live, my response: “You betcha. :-)” Formalists will argue that this isn’t sufficiently legally binding to sign off upon a requirement, nor is it appropriate for the working environment. I say “tosh”. If any member of your staff tries to argue that the above statement isn’t a ringing endorsement for go-live suitability, then you’re probably best getting rid of them.

You see, one of the reasons few people read their emails is that in the main they’re dull. My hope is that by adding some lightheartedness to otherwise mundane emails, I might at best get someone to read something they otherwise wouldn’t; and at worst I might have brightened someone’s day a smidgeon.

But in reality, I simply hope that people enjoy reading my emails.

I bet that my client organisation hasn’t written any guidelines dictating the manner in which emails should be written. Yes, they will have guidelines about whether email should be used for personal reasons. But I expect there will be nothing about the manner in which “formal” communications are written. Yet people settle into a routine. They follow the lead of their colleagues when they join the organisation.

I hope that by adding some spice, some zest, the odd smiley and a sprinkle of cheeky words, I add a little fun and enjoyment to the workplace.

2012: avoid the haters

It’s much easier to be hateful in 140 characters than it is to be constructive. And evidence on Twitter seems to support this.

Whenever someone puts a foot wrong, people are baying for their blood. Ashton Kutcher was a recent victim of this, many of his 9 million followers reacting hatefully to his tweet slamming the firing of Joe Paterno. He clearly didn’t have the context, and withdrew the tweet moments later.

Twitter gives people a medium on which they can readily slam people they don’t know, generally those in the public eye—celebrities and politicians. It allows this to be done in an unregulated way, allows libel and defamation of character, and unless it becomes sufficiently high profile (it rarely does given the limited audience of those tweeting the abuse), doesn’t really provide a workable mechanism for the abused to answer back.

I assume that the laws around defamation of character and libel are as relevant and enforceable on Twitter as they are for other media. But the opening up of the publishing medium to millions of people makes it next to useless. Nobodies will abuse and the Twitter river will continue to flow, with that drop of acid flowing largely unnoticed into the sea of history.

Sometimes criticism is constructive, and I value that. (After all, if all you do is mouth off about Jan Moir without any reasoned argument, you’re no better than Jan herself.)

But in 2012, I’ll be making efforts to avoid those that hate for the sake of hating. Because as well as being destructive to those targeted, such negativity can only be destructive to the reader. Negativity wears off. Let 2012 be the year of inspiration.