Category Archives: Waffle and randomness

Waffle and randomness

Excel formula for calculating a price, based on a known cost and margin percentage

A couple of years ago, I blogged about the difference between margin and markup. Since then, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve wanted to know the formula to take two cells in Excel, one with a cost and the other with a margin percentage, and then calculate the price. I’m sure I’ve blogged that too, but I can’t find it now – so here it is (after I worked it out again this afternoon)…

Using the example above, the formula to calculate the price in cell C2, based on cost in A2 and margin in B2 is =A2/(1-B2).

Waffle and randomness

Please be honest…

It’s appraisal season where I work and I spent a significant amount of this morning writing feedback on various colleagues’ performance.  One that did amuse me though, was the annotation on one colleague’s form:

“Please be honest. Feedback is a gift, like a woolly jumper from your auntie at Christmas. You might not like it but you take it with good grace and remember that it was sent with the best possible intentions.”

Nice one. Many people take constructive feedback as a negative (and it can be hard to give). At least this approach encourages others to provide honest opinions.

Technology Waffle and randomness

A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!
Waffle and randomness

Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

Waffle and randomness

The sleeper train to no-where!

There’s something about travelling long distances by train that seems much more civilised and pleasurable than flying. Certainly, for me, the glamour that may once have been associated with taking a jet plane is no longer present – at least not in economy class – and there was nothing pleasant about arriving at a very busy “London Luton” Airport at 6:30 on a Monday morning to catch a flight to Inverness.

Of course, navigating our increasingly arcane airline security: disposing of liquids; removing items of clothing; and being asked to take a sizable chunk of my possessions out of my hand luggage before it can be x-ray scanned gave me something to do for an hour. That was followed by lots of waiting around at the terminal as I arrived far too early, because of the unpredicatability of rush-hour traffic in South East England.

But this trip was special – my return journey would be by train – and I’d booked onto the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper as far as Crewe (from where I would make an early-morning exit and hop on a train to Manchester). One of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK (there’s also a Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), I’ve often seen the Caledonian Sleeper come through Milton Keynes as I’ve waited for my train to London and thought “what a great way to travel overnight”. This was my opportunity – and at £112.40 for train and a bed for the night, it was no more expensive than a no-frills flight and a budget hotel.

The day was going so well – right up to the point that my taxi driver to the station said that he’d always been delayed when he’d used the ‘Sleeper. Did he jinx me? Somehow I doubt it but I should have realised that the high winds that had made my flight a little bumpy would also be causing chaos with overhead power lines on the railways and I arrived at Inverness station to see that the 20:44 to London was cancelled. Cancelled? But that’s where I was to be sleeping!

I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be taking the sleeper train, or worried about a bed for the night but ScotRail’s station staff seemed to know the drill. Clearly the cancelled sleeper is something that they have seen many times before and it becomes a “stationary” hotel for the night when it can’t run south. Most Caledonian Sleeper passengers are heading for London and the advice given to those of us who had arrived early enough was to jump on a train to Edinburgh, then grab a bed on the Edinburgh sleeper (plenty of space at this time of year), before boarding the 5.40 “Flying Scotsman” to London, which only arrives in Kings Cross a couple of hours after the Sleeper should have got to Euston. My journey was a little more complex though: I could stay in Inverness and travel south the next day, hoping that the issues caused by adverse weather conditions on the West Coast route would have eased; or travel to Edinburgh, then see if there was a bed for me on the Sleeper carriages waiting there (although ScotRail staff were confident there would be) and take an East Coast and Trans-Pennine route via York to Manchester. I elected for the Edinburgh option (on reflection, I should have stayed in Inverness, got a longer night’s sleep and taken in the Scottish scenery the morning afterwards – although I would have been travelling for most of the day instead) and so I spent my evening on a three-and-a-half-hour stopping service to Edinburgh… Upon arrival, I was directed to the Caledonian Sleeper Lounge, which was a scruffy affair, piled high with cardboard boxes, but staffed by a friendly ScotRail employee who directed me to drinks and snacks until our train/hotel was ready and it was only a few minutes later when I was able to go to the platform.

Sure enough, there was plenty of room on the train and a steward showed me to a berth, explaining “it’s number 1 and over the wheels but that won’t be a problem as we’re not going anywhere tonight!”. I was tired and had it not been for the need to charge my mobile devices (and the lack of power sockets in the sleeping berths – a side effect of using 1980s-built railway carriages I guess) I might have turned in for the night but instead I headed for the Lounge car where I found a warm welcome.

Whilst complementary tea/coffee and sandwiches were on offer, I waited for a locomotive to be connected to the train to provide the power needed for staff to cook meals. A short while later I tucked into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, washed down with Deuchars. After all, if I’m in Edinburgh, I might as well enjoy some Scottish food and drink! It was good too – not the railway travellers’ fare that I’m used to on Virgin Trains – although it maybe something that first class travellers are more used to!

Red lights for the Caledonian Sleeper train

By then, I’d been up for almost 19 hours and decided that it was time for bed, making my way back to my berth. The standard berths are bunk beds and there’s not a lot of space around them but I found the flip up cover to access the sink and the spare bed was somewhere to store my luggage! There are options for single berths in first class – or there’s a reclining seat option for those who don’t need a bed. The rooms are not en-suite but there are toilets in the end of each carriage. For those travelling in larger groups, there are connecting doors to the next compartment and the warm, comfortable bedding, together a variety of lighting options (including a night light) meant that I was soon in the land of nod, albeit without the sound of railway wheels running over joints in the track. Maybe that would have helped to relax me but I did have a pretty restless night – although I was surprised that I didn’t hear noise from other trains in the station there didn’t seem to be a way to turn off the noisy air conditioning unit (only a temperature control).

At 5:00, I heard a knock on the door, whereby a steward handed over a cup of tea and told me which platform the London train would be leaving from. Even though I wasn’t taking that service, my time on the sleeper had to end – staff were clocking off and it was locked up by 5:30. Maybe this wasn’t quite the Caledonian Sleeper experience I’d hoped for – but I had got some rest at least and was looking forward to taking in some east coast scenery as I made my journey south.

It was certainly an eventful trip but, far from putting me off the journey, it’s something I’d try again. ScotRail’s staff were all very friendly and there’s an atmosphere on board that makes taking the sleeper feel like something different and special. The Caledonian Sleeper is looking a little tired now, but there’s a £100M investment programme coming as part of a new 15-year franchise and it may be worth making a return visit.  Unfortunately, I can’t convince Mrs Wilson to join me, so it may just have to be the next time I have a business trip to Scotland!

Waffle and randomness

How not to change the tyres on your bike

Hopefully, in two weeks’ time, I’ll be soaking up the delights of Paris having cycled there from London – and I’m in full prep mode at the moment, buying up all sorts of things that I might need. I’ve also bought some things I definitely need – like some new tyres for my road bike.  They didn’t arrive in time for the bike’s service (mental note: when buying from Ribble Cycles, free postage doesn’t just mean first class instead of next day, it means it might take a couple of days to pick too) so, when my son’s football match was cancelled due to the downpour yesterday morning, I took the opportunity to change my tyres.

Because it was tipping it down outside and the garage is too full of “stuff” (and has pretty poor lighting), I decided to work in the kitchen.  Yes, I was that bloke with his bike in bits in the kitchen, and Mrs W. seemed to understand why.

Having changed the front tyre – rule 40 applies –  (and taken the opportunity to test inflating tyres with a CO2 canister…), I remembered that tyres are normally directional. Oops. I hadn’t popped the back one off yet, so I was examining what was left of the tread pattern to try and work it out, holding it up to the daylight from the kitchen skylight when… it slipped out my hand and my rear cassette made some nasty gouges in the edge of our rather expensive Silestone counter. Arghh.

After determining the correct tyre direction I found that, by luck, the front one was on the right way (50/50 odds) so I proceeded to change the back tyre.  I popped it back onto the bike – following rule 41 – inflated it with my track pump and, whilst watching the gauge more than tyre I didn’t see the bulge where the tyre had popped off the rim at one point. After pumping it up to 110PSI, I bent down to investigate and – BOOM! – the inner tube exploded right next to my ear. Not good.

So, spare inner tube fitted, careful inspection and this time everything seems OK.  I guess we’ll find out when I take it for a ride tomorrow.  Should have been a simple job – but was made far harder through my incompetence – and I spent the next couple of hours phoning around to try and find out if anyone can repair scratches/chips in Silestone counters…

There’s nothing in the Velominati Rules about being an idiot is there?

Waffle and randomness

The importance of good communications for project success

Once or twice a month, I travel to Manchester for work.  I usually get around by tram (Metrolink) when I’m there – there’s a stop close to our office and its convenient for travel to/from my hotel and the railway station.

Manchester’s tram system is being upgraded at the moment and, last week, I was amused by posters asking passengers to “bear with us whilst we make Victoria posh”:

As much as my southern sensibilities (actually, I’m from the East Midlands) cringe at the idea of “making something posh”, in fairness to Metrolink, they do have a great series of communications around their project (and whoever is responsible clearly has a sense of humour). One of my favourites is reproduced below:

“Dear [customers]
It can be fast.
It can be slow.
You can measure it in feet, inches, weeks, months and years.
And, occasionally, in leaps and bounds.
It’s going to take a little time.
And a lot of hard work.
But, rest assured, it is moving forwards.
Creating something better for us all.
So thank you for your patience.
And while our network is undergoing this transformation, we’ll keep you up-to-date with information.”

I like that poem, and I started to think about other applications for its use… something to consider for my next IT transformation project, perhaps – because good communications are vital to project success (and so many updates that I see are just dull walls of words).

Technology Waffle and randomness

Fixing the Apple iOS SSL bug on a jailbroken iPhone, without upgrading

My iPhone (4S) is jailbroken.  I won’t go into the details of how I did it as it changes with every release but I currently run iOS 7.0.4 and I used the Evasi0n method. Unfortunately, Apple has a pretty shocking bug in that version of iOS which means SSL transactions are not secure.

I didn’t want to go to the hassle of upgrading the OS, then jailbreaking again and, luckily, there is a workaround for fixing the iOS SSL issue on jailbroken iPhones without updating to iOS 7.0.6 (or 6.1.6) – although by the time I get this post written, 7.1 may well have hit the streets…

  1. Launch Cydia
  2. Switch to the Manage page, then select Sources
  3. Add Ryan Petrich’s repo (URL is http://rpetri.ch/repo)
  4. Go back to Manage and select Sources
  5. Search for SSLPatch and install as usual
  6. Restart SpringBoard when prompted

To test the patch (before and after), use the Goto Fail Apple SSL bug test site.

Technology Waffle and randomness

Some thoughts on wearable tech…

Almost a year ago, I wrote a great blog post about the rise of wearable technology. I know it was great, possibly my best ever, and it was inspired by some thoughts on the journey to work, hurriedly scribbled on a piece of paper when I got to the office, waiting to be fleshed out with research and published. Except you won’t find it anywhere, because I accidentally put the scrap of paper into the confidential waste bin…

Wearable hype

Fast forward to January 2014 and it seems that wearable tech is at the peak of the hype curve. I haven’t actually checked the analyst reports – it’s just an observation based on the tech news that’s reached me of late, particularly since CES.

So, whether it’s personal health and fitness, location tracking, lifeblogging, information on the move – or something else we haven’t thought of yet – wearable seems to be the first buzzword of 2014. But the key to making it successful is an ecosystem for devices to work together. My data is only useful when combined with other data – islands of Fitbit, Nike fuel band, Google Glass (bad example – we’ll come back to that in a moment) and other data sources are really just of personal interest/vanity (a bit like me publishing my exercise activities on Facebook) until they are combined to actually mean something. Whilst Cisco’s vision of a connected world sounds a little too Orwellian for me, there is definitely something there – could wearable tech, combined other machine to machine (M2M) communications (e.g. home automation) provide enough benefits to make us all sign up?

That’s where we come to Google. The current incarnation of Google Glass may be a bit clunky, but it will improve. Google’s acquisition of Nest is surely intended to provide a foothold in home M2M communications. Most people seem increasingly accepting of the ad agency’s services*, being prepared to exchange our personal data for “free” services that are of value. Google is about data. Vast amounts of it – and we’re generating more and more!

The personal communications hub

So what’s at the centre of all of this tech – surely something is needed to act as a broker, to combine data feeds and act as a personal communications hub in an ever-connected world? Ah yes, communications hub – that will be our smartphones then. Forget about where we will put the wearable clothing. As the technology develops the sensors become less obtrusive and less noticable.

 

The smartphone, meanwhile, remains as the voice, video, and data device that we carry about our person at all times. Increasingly powerful, with better battery life and containing a plethora of sensors, it can interact with others about our person and provide the conduit for our personal data streams – to and from the ‘net. Google is well placed with its online services, Android operating system, and recent steps into the wearable tech and M2M marketplaces (indeed, I’d argue that wearables are just one part of a much wider M2M market but it will be difficult to separate them soon). The question is, in this “post-PC” world, what are Apple and Microsoft doing to follow? An Apple iWatch has been rumoured for years – and I’m sure it will offer a vastly improved experience compared with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear but for now it’s just vapourware (or is that vapourwear?). Microsoft had the idea of building connected screens for its devices a few years ago but they just didn’t take off. Google’s Glass is the closest anyone has come to something that might just be acceptable in the marketplace but I firmly beleive that the watch/glasses/whatever-the-wearable-interface-is is simply that – an interface – something to use instead of pulling our smartphones out of our pocket.

One thing’s for sure, as wearables and M2M comms become more and more established, we’ll start to see some amazing uses for technology – as long as the privacy concerns can be overcome. It’s a bit too soon to say who will dominate, but short of a new entrant taking the market by storm, or an industry-wide federation of companies creating an ecosystem for smart devices, my money is on Google.

Random thoughts

This is certainly not my best ever blog post – perhaps it’s little more than a jumbled collection of thoughts – but at least I got something on the web this time (unlike the thoughts I had on virtual currencies in 2011, that never got further than an item on the “to do” list).  Talking of random thoughts, that reminds me… somewhere I have a t-shirt with built in light-up graphic equaliser – is that an example of mid-2000s wearable tech?

* I believe that most of the Google’s revenues still come from search, but clearly not in the UK or else there would be corporation taxes to pay.

Waffle and randomness

Good old fashioned incandescent light bulbs

The main light bulb blew in our living room earlier this week. Nothing unusual there – it happens. Except have you tried to buy a dimmable, bayonet fitted, pearl finish, low energy, 100W equivalent bulb? If anyone has found one, I’d be interested to know more because, for the life of me, I can’t find a modern replacement.

Luckily, our local independent hardware store (no relation) still stock “old skool” lightbulbs, so we’ve stocked up.  I like to be more energy efficient where it makes sense but the major retailers who have stopped stocking these bulbs have done so because they were lobbied by government the bulbs are inefficient – except all that heat they give off is not going to waste… it just means the central heating doesn’t need to work so hard, surely?

Of course, I’d like to save money, just like the next man, but have you tried to navigate the maze of light bulbs in the average DIY store recently?

Unfortunately, it looks as though the dimmer switch has failed too as the new bulbs won’t fully illuminate in the living room (but are fine elsewhere)… that’ll be a job for me this weekend then…

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