# Bus dilemma, The

Peter Jordan alerted me earlier today to a New York Times article about whether you should wait for a bus or start walking.  He suggested that it might be one for me. (Or “one 4 u”, should I say.)  Oddly, the article bears the title “Bus-wait Formula, The”.  Either it’s incomplete in some way, or some form of iTunes-esque artists algorithm has been run against it putting the The (not The The) at the end.

The overall outcome of the scientific study is that you should stay put, unless your journey distance is short, and the buses are infrequent.  No shit.

The formula is relatively straightforward to establish.  Here’s my maths.

Let’s say the expected time until the next bus is x, that your walking journey time is y, and the bus journey time is z.  (To get rid of a variable, you could measure z instead as a fixed fraction of y, if you know the comparative speed of the bus and walking.)

If you walk, you’ll take y time to get to your destination.  If you wait for the bus, you will take on average x + z.  So if the expected wait time is less than the walking time less the bus journey time, then wait; else walk.

The dilemma is largely taken away from you in London, with the digital read-outs that adorn many bus stops—although I’ve once or twice debated whether to walk a little further to the bus stop with the read-out, or head for the closer, read-out-free bus stop.

A more difficult dilemma each day is which 87 bus stop to head to having walked down the north side of Horseferry Road on to Millbank.  Should I turn left, against the bus’s direction of travel, running to the stop if I see the bus approaching?  Or should I instead turn right down Millbank, running instead to the subsequent stop should I see the bus.  This evening, I solved the dilemma.  Turning left into Millbank, the 87 was already at the bus stop.  So I turned on my heels, traversed many lanes of traffic and sprinted to the subsequent bus stop and catching the bus my a comfortable margin, aided in part by the slow progress of the bus due to traffic.  Which means there’s no benefit in heading for the earlier bus-stop.

Must’ve been a slow news day at the NYT.

# Ocado will be no Amazon

Ocado has the power to be the Amazon of online food shopping in the UK. But it won’t be.

Last night, we had a 9–10pm delivery slot. We often go for this slot because it’s free—most delivery slots now cost extra, anything up to £5.99—and we are not big Saturday night revellers. I received a call from the delivery man at 9.50pm saying that he would be late, and that he expected to be with me at 11.15pm.

He eventually rocked up at 11.50pm. I unpacked the fridge and freezer bags and hit the sack at 12.10am, saving the unpacking of the cupboard goods until this morning.

The driver was very apologetic, and I asked the reasons behind the delay, and how I could get some recompense out of Ocado.

Here’s the reason. Ocado’s new business is going through the roof. They’re recruiting more and more new customers, and they are now delivering to over 14,000 addresses per day. But their fleet of delivery vans is not increasing, not at the same rate, at least. Instead, they’re packing more and more delivery slots into a given hour, and increasing the number of delivery slots, now delivering on Sundays, for example.

Eighteen months ago, the drivers were asked to do six deliveries per hour. Now, they’re asked to do between ten and twelve per hour—a ridiculous expectation given that the driver generally spends a good ten minutes parked outside our property identifying the right boxes before knocking on our door.

Now the drivers are paid by the hour. And if they’re delayed and willing to work longer (and the customers are willing to accept the late deliveries), then they’ll make more money on the night. (A great example of remuneration strategy driving perverse behaviour.) If they’re not willing to do crazy amounts of overtime, then they have the right to call the customer confirming that they will not receive their goods, and asking them to call customer services to arrange a revised delivery slot.

I guess their hope is that their drivers are willing to work the longer hours, that customers are willing to accept the late deliveries, and that those customers won’t be too put out by the delay.

Amazon doesn’t do this to its customers. It makes a next-day delivery commitment and sticks to it. And in the rare event that it’s not met and the customer isn’t happy, it bends over backwards to make sure the customer is made happy, even telling its customers to keep any books that might have been delivered wrongly. (By contrast, when we told Ocado that £14-worth of infant milk did not arrive in the delivery the other week, they questioned my wife heavily before eventually honouring the refund.)

So Ocado: treat your customers well. Don’t squeeze us. Loyalty’s more brittle than it once was. Squeeze us, and we’ll talk with our feet, or at least our fingers, and I’ll type sainsburys.co.uk or tesco.com instead of ocado.com in the blink of an eye.

# News story subscription: good idea?

The internet promotes transience.

Everything is now on-demand.  We can access whatever we want, wherever we want (give or take), which means we flit from one thing to another, whether it’s between news stories, applications, sites.

I find this behaviour particularly troubling when it comes to news.  We read a story, or possibly a snippet of a story, show some brief empathy, and then invariably move on, our attention span defined by the time for which the news provider carries the story.

With the G20 protests, for example, there was reporting in the run-up to the event, followed by significant coverage during the event as police clashed with protesters.  There was a brief lull in reporting thereafter, until news surfaced of the man who suffered a heart-attack after being grounded by a policeman.  Several further stories of alleged abuse at the hands of police emerged over the subsequent days, after which the story seemed to come to a close.

There were no events thereafter that the BBC deemed worthy of a news article.  So the chapter is closed, for the time being at least.

I’m sure there are various investigations underway and that the IPCC is busy doing something in some offices somewhere.  But I don’t have any easy visibility into this until the next event that the news channels deem sufficiently significant.

I remember the same trend for the investigation into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.  There were brief periods of reporting interrupting long periods of silence.  The sporadic reporting pattern is also common for crimes that have an ensuing trial, with subsequent sentencing.

It would be great if I could “subscribe” somewhere to news stories in which I’m interested and see a timeline of things that have happened, and things that are due to happen, newsworthy or otherwise.  I’m thinking of some visual timeline similar to that seen in Google Finance, key points being highlighted and clickable.  Perhaps Twitter has a role to play in identifying historic times at which significant events occurred.  And in a Wikipedia-style, maybe enthusiasts could be responsible for writing, and self-policing, the future timeline.  (Another nail in the newspapers’ respective coffins.)

Does such a service exist?  Would there be a market for one?

# The hybrid, fixed price/T&M deal

In IT project delivery, there are two common commercial models.  Time and materials, or T&M, involves the client paying the supplier a day-rate for each person day they spend on the project, along with any expenses incurred along the way.  Fixed price involves the supplier quoting a fixed cost for a given scope upfront, and the client paying that fee, whether the supplier completes their obligations in lightning time or they take forever to complete the scope.  Each model comes with flaws.

In T&M, this is guaranteed income for the supplier, income that has been underwritten by the client.  So, within reason, the supplier can dawdle, making  a job that would usually take them five days last seven.  It means that the developers are fully utilised for longer, which is important to the supplier.

With the fixed price model, the supplier is encouraged to get the scope completed as fast as possible once the quote has been accepted.  This frees up the resources to be used on other accounts or other pieces of work, maximising their profit margin.  FTW.

These are very simplistic viewpoints, not allowing for morals, doing the right thing, strategic partnership and all of that bollocks, but you get the picture.

It seems that the models are flawed for almost diametrically opposite reasons.  The former promotes due diligence, attention to detail, code reviews up the ying-yang, oodles of governance etc.  The latter arguably compromises many of these necessary disciplines, getting the product ready for shipment as quickly as possible.

So, why don’t clients opt to pay the difference between the two?  The supplier still provides a fixed price quote—£100,000, for example.  If the T&M cost is lower than the quote (£80,000, say), then the client will pay £90,000.  If the T&M comes in higher (£150,000), then the client will pay £125,000.

It makes sense.  The supplier is rewarded for getting things done quickly, but this reward is less than it would have been under the fixed price model.  And if there is an over-run, the client will contribute towards the additional cost, but the supplier will still suffer as they would have done under a fixed price model, only to a lesser degree.  The model seems to remove, or at least reduce, the drivers of perverse behaviour.

It’s probably not a new concept—some form of risk/reward share between the two parties.  But it was sufficiently revolutionary—to me at least—to interrupt my intense dozing-off activity last night to allow me to tap the idea into my iPhone.

# Catching some Zs

The Z key on my mate’s laptop keyboard has stopped functioning.  He’s not sure whether to be happy that it’s not a commonly-used vowel that has failed him; or sad that a key has stopped working.  I told him to be thankful that he’s not American, given their penchant for using Zs in preference to Ss.

Instead of buying a new keyboard, retailing at around £17, he’s decided to live with the imperfection, for the time being at least.  As a workaround, he keeps a Word document open in the background containing a solitary letter Z and a corresponding z.  When needed, he copies the appropriately-cased Z into his destination of choice.  (For completeness, the key to the left of the Z is also defective, so he’s unable to type | and \.  Not being a techie, he doesn’t miss either.)

His ridiculous set-up got me thinking.  If you were really stretched, you could probably live with only nine keyboard keys: CTRL, C, V, ALT, TAB, SHIFT, ENTER, ← and →.  These would allow you to flick between applications and copy and paste characters between them, navigating left and right through a pre-copied list of characters.  And dedicated use of the mouse could get rid of all of these.

Regardless, the image of Rob flitting between applications in search of a Z tickled me.

# Cloudy, with not a cloud in the sky

I love the clouds.  Over the last five years, more and more of my stuff has ended up in them, and touch wood, I’ve loved every minute. (For the avoidance of doubt, every minute here means every minute with the exception of the many minutes of Google Apps/Mail outages we’ve had over the last few months.  Although even those were somewhat enjoyable, watching as the Twitterati speculated as to the cause of the outage and bemoaned their lack of email.)

For those not in the know, the cloud means somewhere other than my laptop.  Generally, a big building (called a data centre) in a location unbeknown (and indeed unbecared) to me full of machines (servers) on which my stuff (stuff) resides.

To allow others to understand the objects of my affection, and maybe even get a piece of the action, I thought I’d share the cloud technologies I use.  In no specific order, they are:

• Google Apps: my email, calendar and some experimental documents are all stored online by Google.  Cost: free, although I’m occasionally tempted to upgrade to the \$50 per user per year model.  I’m always discouraged though, because the per user costing model includes my admin@, info@ accounts and people whose accounts I create temporarily on my domain for a wealth of reasons.
• Google AdWords: my company’s advertising is managed by Google, and all of the advertising collateral, together with the associated tracking statistics, sits online, again hosted by Google.  Beyond the cost of advertising, there’s no specific fee for the associated hosting.
• WordPress: my blog and website reside in a cloud, albeit a little one, in Jersey (Channel Islands), hosted by my mate Rob.  Cost: free, for the moment.
• Flickr: all of my photos are stored by Yahoo! in their Flickr application.  Not the most inspiring application, but it stores the photos themselves along with useful metadata (privacy, tags, geo-tags, groupings etc.)  Cost: \$25 per year.
• Huddle: my business documents all now reside on Huddle, allowing me to share them others with full version control and supporting workflow allowing me to assign tasks to others.  I’m quite new to this one, but so far, I’ve found it quite neat.  Cost: free for my current package
• Zoho CRM: I use this to track business leads and the various communications I have had with them.  Cost: free for my current package
• FreshBooks: I use this for all of my invoicing.  A delightful little application allowing fully branded invoicing supported by an email notification engine and tracking of payments

Beyond the above, there are other trivial examples of cloud-living, such as my online banking, as well as Google Reader, Twitter and Facebook.  Thinking about it, these examples are only trivial, I think, because there was never a local computing equivalent.

All of the above means that I can use and access much of my stuff from anywhere.  I fully encourage you to do the same.  It’s a wonderful world, and you should embrace its wonderfully warm fluffiness with open arms.

# Depositing a cheque is now a joy

I deposited a cheque today, a cheque kindly given to me by my Dad as a belated birthday present.  (Note to self: think of something lovely to spend it on.)

A year ago, the process for such a task was to walk into the bank, fill out a deposit slip with my name, bank account number, sort code and branch name along with the cheque amount. By way of a receipt, I received the docket from the deposit slip, also completed by myself.

Frustratingly, with the exception of the cheque amount, all of this information was known to the bank already through my bank card.

A few months back, the process changed.  The deposit slip was reduced in size and lacked a perforation.  The only changes to the process were that I no longer had to complete the docket, and that I no longer received anything by way of receipt.

Whenever I deposited a cheque using this revised process, I walked out of the bank feeling slightly nervous.  I no longer had the cheque, and had no docket by way of proof that the cheque had been deposited.  If the money never hit my bank account, how successful would any subsequent recourse be?

More recently, the process has changed again.  Now, there is no deposit slip.  I walk into the bank, hand the cheque to the teller, put my bank card in the chip and pin machine, key in my pin and confirm the deposit amount.  In the background, the teller has checked that my name matches the cheque’s payee, and has typed in the cheque amount to inform the chip and pin machine.

I still walk out of the bank without any proof of the transaction, but I take huge amounts of comfort from the fact that I actively confirmed the amount on a chip and pin machine.  My lacking a docket is now immaterial.

I wish the transition had gone from old to new without the interim step.  But now, the process of depositing a cheque is simply joyful.

# Non-human primates

I heard today about a fierce debate that allegedly took place in advance of the publication of this information bulletin: Guide to help owners of non-human primates proposed.

During what was doubtless a truly fabulous debate, for which I so wish I was a fly on the wall, there was heated discussion as to whether the “non-human” qualifier was necessary.

I think it is, if only to add untold humour to the article.

# One bus at a time: fabulous project

While trying to find the route of the Number 24 London bus for a colleague on Friday, I stumbled upon an inspired and fabulous blog titled “London buses: one bus at a time”.

Have you ever hopped on a bus and wondered where you would finish up if you did not hop off? Well, I have been thinking about London buses since I retired from paid work. Assisted by the TfL website and encouraged by a couple of other ladies who bus, with my freedom pass in hand, I am making 2009 ‘Bus Year’. Since there are about 500 bus routes in London, it may well be ‘Bus Decade’: I’m going to travel from end to end of every bus route.

Basically, the lady in question writes a post about each bus route, complete with pictures from the bus and commentary about the journey.  And here’s the best bit: she’s doing them sequentially by bus number.

She’s averaging about a bus a week.  And having started in March with the Number 1 (Canada Water to Tottenham Court Road Station), yesterday she did the Number 29: Wood Green to Trafalgar Square.  And on 17 April she did what is arguably the best bus in London: the Number 8 (Bow to Oxford Circus).  Shit: when did the Number 8 stop going through Mayfair to Victoria?  I may have to revise my stance.

Anyway, I’m hooked!

# Is Search good enough?

My view is that in Yahoo!’s days, search was not good enough.  Content was not sufficiently wide-reaching to fuel enough appropriate results for many queries; and where it was, algorithms were not sufficiently mature to deal with them appropriately, users being forced to re-phrase their queries or venture beyond Page 1 of the results.

But now, Google is here.  And Google is good at search.  Very good.  Unless I’m doing an academic task (like trying to find out how many .gov.uk pages there are out there), a single search is enough to find what I’m looking for.  And when searching for textual content, I rarely, if ever, go beyond the page fold, let alone beyond Page 1.

So now Bing is here.  And I’ve heard it’s quite lovely.  And apparently it’s quite good at finding stuff, better, some say, than Google.

But, as Karl Pilkington might’ve said, do we need it?  Is Google sufficiently good at giving people what they need to make Bing’s plight futile?  I don’t know the answer to this question—I guess it can be proven in the stats.  What proportion of people are looking for a single thing when they search?  What proportion refine their searches?  And what proportion of people venture beyond the first three results?  If the answers are lots, not many and not many, then there’s little added value to be brought from a Google competitor in textual search.

In actual fact, Google will have cracked textual search when it can confidently perform an “I’m Feeling Lucky” search when you hit Return.  Are we there yet?

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