Mining rescue budget could have saved 2,857 lives

Peter Singer estimates that the cost of saving a life in the developing world is between $250 and $3,500.

The estimated cost of the Chilean mining rescue was $10–20m.  Or $303–606k per life saved.

Assuming the high-end cost in the developing world and the conservative cost of the mining rescue, the mining rescue budget could have saved 2,857 lives in the developing world—86 times as many as were saved yesterday in Chile.  Using different assumptions, the number of lives saved could be as high as 80,000.

In some respects, deciding to abandon the 33 miners would have seem to be a crass decision.  But likewise, diverting the money that would have been used on the rescue operation to Africa to save 2,857 lives sounds on paper like the right thing to do.

It’s an interesting theoretical debate.  Imagine if the Chilean president had abandoned the miners and announced that he was instead going to save 2,857 people in the developing world.  Imagine.

The Green Efficiency Report: my take

There has been a lot of criticism on Twitter already of the Efficiency Review that Sir Philip Green issued today in response to the Prime Minister’s request.  Below is my take.

It is not until page four of the 33 page report that the first piece of insight hits you.  And it hits you like a locomotive:

Multiple contracts have been signed with some major suppliers by different departments at different prices.

You may need to sit down now and re-read to understand the enormity of this statement.  Sir Philip appears to have encountered more than one contract that has been signed with more than one major supplier by more than one department.  And to cap it all, there was more than one price tag across these contracts.

Just to bring you back down to earth, the same could be said for my household, if only you replace “departments” with people.  Yes, my wife and I have both signed agreements, nay contracts, with major suppliers—Orange, British Gas, Virgin Media to name but a few—and paid different prices for the services received.

He goes on to tell us that “there hasn’t been a mandate for centralised procurement”.  While technically true—there has been no mandate per se—I see this point as dismissive of the role that the OGC has taken in ensuring that due diligence is followed.  Nor does it acknowledge the role of the COI in its buying of media, a function that has been drastically downsized under the coalition government.

And apparently “there are inconsistent commercial skills across departments”.  Hark, if only the Nobel prizes had been awarded two weeks later.

To be fair, the chart on page six is useful.  It gives an indication of where government might be best able to find the sizeable savings promised.  This chart is probably instrumental in informing the relentless charge that seems to be underway on quashing benefits.

Page eight documents energy as a case in point of where centralised buying has allegedly driven down costs.  He’s been clever with the numbers here, but assuming a linear reduction over the four years, the £500m cumulative saving peaks at £200m in year four which, with a baseline of £2.5bn (£2.8bn current spend plus the £500m saved, multiplied by the 75% affected) equates to an 8% saving.  Good, but not astronomical.  It would be interesting to understand how market economics would have driven this figure in the absence of a centralised initiative—is government energy consumption going down anyway?  Issy?

Some printing examples are given on page ten, but without further information about the examples given, it’s hard to understand whether the comparisons are valid.

Page 11 is woeful.  There is indeed a centralised mandate to provide accurate and timely data.  Ask any government department right now how it’s spending its time, and it will tell you that it’s responding in detail and in a timely fashion to a plethora of requests for information (lowercase) emanating from HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.  In asking for travel data, Sir Philip fails to articulate the reason for the range of responses.  My bet is that it was because the assumptions were not clearly understood (or articulated).  The definition of “consultancy” has resulted in similar debate in areas in which I’ve worked.

I am heartened, yet ever so slightly skeptical, when told that the maximum one-night price paid for the 400,000 nights’ accommodation was £117.  And I was similarly skeptical at a minimum of £77, particularly when the Civil Service Club offers Sunday night accommodation from £48 per night.  Assuming a daily subsistence of £30, Sir Philip’s assumptions suggest a nightly travel allowance of around £123, which seems excessive to me given the standard class mandate and the fact that the vast majority of the travel will be train travel.  A Monday–Thursday visit to the big smoke would allow £369 in travel, for example.  Also, no analysis seems to have been done here of the suitability of video conferencing as a substitute for the travel.

I struggle to comprehend or believe *any* of the numbers on page 13.  Are you sincerely telling me, Sir Philip, that no one in government paid less than £86 for a printer cartridge?  Really?  And that the £73 box of paper was of the same nature as the £8 box?

Page 14 made me cry.  I won’t dwell.  But again: are we comparing apples with apples here?  £2,000 vs. £353?  I very much doubt it.

The woeful comparisons continue until we reach a wholly unsubstantiated conclusion on page 17:

This means that there are 71,000 central Government buyers who in the main have a monthly spending limit of up to £1,000, which is not monitored.

No it doesn’t.  It means that their spend does not go through a procurement system..  It does *not* mean that it’s not monitored.  Page 18 continues with the inaccurate conclusion theme.

Towards the end, he makes some fair points about the major IT outsourcing contracts and estates management, but by this point, the audience has stopped listening given the idiocy and oversimplification of many of the prior points.  And Sir Philip’s supposition that public sector thinking can be the same as private sector thinking is absolute bunkum.  If that’s the case, then I’ll ignore OJEU tomorrow and go buy me some cheap stuff.  And incur the associated penalty and wrath of the private sector at a later date.

In summary, woeful and ill-informed with little in the way of useful recommendations.  The theme seems to be to centralise buying.  It would have been nice if he’d used the COI as a model of how this has worked, although I don’t know (I genuinely don’t) whether this is a case study that would promote his argument.  I would have liked to see more about how the market would have reacted to such centralised buying—don’t assume that if you can secure 100 widgets/hotel rooms at a very favourable rate, you can do that for 400,000.  And I’d have liked an appreciation of the commercial and contractual landscape in which he’s working, which he doesn’t seem to have grasped.

Otherwise, top drawer.

Losing my sense

It seems I’ve lost my sense of smell.

Since entering my 30s seven years ago, I’ve been aware that it hasn’t been as keen as it was previously.  And over the last few months, it’s deteriorated further.  This evening, I suddenly figured that I couldn’t smell the lamb roasting away in the oven.  So I opened the oven: nothing.  So I stuck my face unashamedly into a coffee jar: nada.  My mum lost hers when she was older than I am now.  And for some time after that it used to resurface for a few moments, during which time she’d dash around the house hunting coffee, chocolate, flowers, candles to breathe in.

If it were another sense that had gone, I’d probably be eligible for an orange badge for my car (if I had one) and I’d be able to park slap bang in front of stores.  But it’s not.  So I’ll have to take my daughter shopping with me and take advantage of the parent bays instead.

Skype conference calling issue

The other day I posted on my preference for phone-based tools—those that allow me to make phone calls and conference calls internationally at a reasonable rate.

Since then, I’ve had problems using Powwownow over Skype for conference calls from phones.  The passcode that Powwownow demands is not recognised by Skype.  I’m not sure whether the issue is specific to phone-based access (as opposed to access from a PC), or whether it’s dependent on Skype’s busyness at the time of calling.  Powwownow are pointing the finger at Skype.  But this bug is a severe kick in the nuts for cost-effective conference calling.

FreshBooks: thanks for dinner

Last night, Mike McDerment, FreshBooks CEO, bought me dinner.

About a week ago, I received an email saying that he’d be in town and would like to treat some of his “awesome London customers” to a free dinner.  I couldn’t make the previous one, but made an effort to make myself available for this one.  And it was great.

Around 20 customers turned up at the Distillers near Smithfield Market.  It was great to meet a bunch of people in similar proverbial boats to myself, and great to meet Mike himself—a down-to-earth Torontonian dedicated to providing great customer service.

He has built his business of 50 people around an online invoicing application that does what it needs to do.  Their strapline: we wanted something better so we built it.  FreshBooks allows you to create estimates and invoices in a consistent manner, issue them to clients and for these to be accessible online, either securely or otherwise.  All of the invoice chasing happens in the background without you having to worry about it.  It’s worth the relatively small price I pay for the convenience and comfort—and I recommend it wherever I go.

The dinner was a lovely touch.  It likely generated more business through word-of-mouth than it cost to put on. But speaking with Mike, he wasn’t driven by money at all.  He’s driven by providing a great service.  And that he does.  (John Coates, a member of his team (not to be termed an employee, I was politely corrected) gave me fabulous service over the phone when I was struggling to find some functionality a little over a year ago when I registered.)

Dinner was good, the company was great, and while dinner was free, I’d have happily paid for such an entertaining evening.  It was refreshing to say the least to hear such a deep passion for customer service, and a no nonsense approach to doing business.  Thanks, Mike.

My services of choice for international teleconferencing

In my work, I have a need to call America, Ireland and mainland Europe a lot, both from my home and while “mobile”. I also need to arrange conference calls with people from all of the above. Two services make this experience seamless and fabulous. There are a few gripes—which I’ll highlight—but all in all the experience is positive.


Skype allows me to undertake VOIP calls from my mobile, a desk phone or my PC. Which is pretty damned useful.

While at home, I use the desktop application and use my laptop as the medium. The on-board speakers and microphone make this less like a traditional phone conversation, more like the experience of a speaker phone. The user interface is an absolute travesty, but once you’re on the call, all is good.

While out and about, I use my Skype To Go number as a route to my international target audience. There are very occasional issues with call quality, but in the main it does its job, and with speed-dial numbers, things are even easier. I dial a London number and then use the speed-dial facility or dial in full the international number, and we’re done. I used to use the Skype wireless app. from my iPhone, but generally, if I’m in wireless range (a prerequisite), I’ll have my laptop handy and choose to use that instead.

While at a desk phone from which I shouldn’t/can’t call internationally, I again use my Skype To Go number. If it’s an unregistered number (or one behind a gateway), I have to complete two further steps of authentication. If I’m dialing a non-speed-dial American number, this means typing 42 characters to get through, but that’s fine by me. (I’ve always been good at remembering numbers—my brother’s phone number in Germany 19 years ago was 010 49 221 2093 531, for example.)

Calls to American toll-free numbers are free, standard US numbers are 1.6p per minute, same for Luxembourg and Ireland.

The only thing I wish is that the desktop user interface was overhauled or that I could download a separate a third-party app. as my gateway into the Skype service.

I have my account set up to automatically top up every time it dips below £2 so I don’t have to worry about running out. Although mid-call the other day, it warned me of a failed payment (by debit card had expired), and I was able to register the new card and top up my balance during the call before it became an issue.


Powwownow adds teleconferencing to the mix. I have registered for their Enhanced Access service, which is as free as their Open Access feature but importantly adds international dial options to the standard 0844 dial-in. The model is that every participant helps pay for the service being provided.

I used to use the Open Access package, but used to cringe at the thought of the 20p per minute cost when forced to dial the 0844 number from my mobile. Even using Skype, it was 8.1p per minute.

With the Enhanced Access service, somewhat counter-intuitively I call a regular American number to access the UK service. And doing so over Skype gives me the 1.6p per minute rate.

Conference calling with AT&T does not seem to allow Skype access—the participant code is not picked up properly. This is not an issue for Powwownow.

The combination of the two services gives me complete freedom for calling and conference calling wherever I am. I’m told that Google Voice and Video Chat might be a good replacement for Skype. And this integration with my Google Apps Contacts would certainly be welcome. But for the time being, I’m happy.