Ethics, Old Software and Negative Interest Rates

From today’s FT Letters:

In a world where interest rates had, for centuries, been positive, it’s not hard to see why a programmer would put some validation into code to check for a positive number. Even now when I read about “fat finger” errors where a trader mistakenly buys or sells a number of shares with several more zeros than expected, I wonder why there isn’t more validation (or some secondary control that routes unusual transactions to a second person for checking). BombMoscow might, of course, have needed several levels of such controls, whether a parameter or hard coded.

From the Department of Useless Studies

According to Monday’s Times, the clever folks at EY have studied 20 years of company performance history. The detailed studies are available on the EY site.

Apparently a company that issues three or more profit warnings in a year has a 1 in 10 chance of going bust in a year. Or a 90% chance of not going bust – by my maths anyway.

They go on …

A company issuing those same three profit warnings has a 25% chance of losing its CEO and a 20% chance of losing its FD. Or a 75% and 80% chance of not losing them.

18% of companies who warn on profits go on to issue at least two or more warnings within a year. 88% don’t. You get the gist.

This could perhaps be summed up as

Trouble comes in threes. Except when it doesn’t. Which is more often than not.

Exit Through The App

This sign greeted me earlier

Pay with the app … but only when you’re inside your car. Long ago it was thought that a mobile phone could cause a spark at a petrol station (one would imagine a far greater chance of that with vehicles moving through the petrol station of course).

Now it seems to be to avoid people being distracted – staring at their phone as another car bears down on them perhaps.

We don’t really need this sign in petrol stations – we need it at zebra crossings, on stairs to and from tube stations, on every pavement in the land etc.

But, of course, we would all ignore it in those places too.

When petrol and diesel pumps are replaced by EV chargers … will we still worry about mobile phones causing sparks and being a source of distraction?

Saving Money, Saving Lives

The Dft recently announced initiatives aimed at reducing delays caused by accidents. They include screens to surround accident scenes, 3D lasers to map the scene and, somewhat oddly, smartphone apps to alert drivers.

Accidents on the strategic road network alone apparently cost the economy some £750m per year. Worse, there are some 1,900 road deaths per year (2011 data).

Improving the time it takes to document and clear an accident scene is plainly a good thing but I can’t help think “Door. Bolted. Horse. Shut. Stable”.

As I sit in the passenger seat in a car travelling along the M4, I marvel at the vast ineptitude, outright incompetence and sheer idiocy of drivers in other cars. Not for the first time, I think that many drivers should not be allowed on roads.

Rather than clear up accident scenes faster, we need to do something to improve driving skills.

My proposal is that we:

– Introduce a requirement to take a new driving test every 5 years, including a specific test on motorway driving. We’d start with both the oldest drivers and the most recently qualified.

– Develop driving simulators that put drivers under increasingly stressful road situations (that are difficult or impossible to replicate on the roads) and assess their performance under such conditions. Simulators would be used ahead of road tests wherever possible. I don’t see these as being much more complicated than Xbox solutions with steering wheel controllers initially

– Drivers would need to take lessons ahead of each test, including simulator time. Drivers who failed the test would be banned from driving until they passed the test

To my mind, this would have several benefits:

– Improved skills leading to reduced accidents

– Reduced loss of life on the roads

– Lower cost to the economy as a result of lost productivity from delays caused by accidents

– Increased jobs in the driving instruction sector as well as in developing accredited driving simulators

I’ll volunteer to go first. Because something needs to change.

Drinking to 2012

The champagne is open already.  This wine is described by its maker as follows 
“On the nose, the wine is intense and incisive as well as complex. Fruit notes and roast, toasted and spicy aromas succeed each other and mingle, creating a bouquet evoking a certain restraint. On the palate the sensation is one of remarkable freshness, structured, full and powerful. The finish is impressive, reminiscent of elegance, persistent vigour, with nuances of smoked wood and peppery vanilla.”
I’m not sure about all of that, but it’s certainly lovely – definitely fresh and tasting of very lightly cooked apples. 
Happy New Year to all. 

The English As Tweakers

From “The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolution: Incentives and Institutions” by Ralf R. Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, August 2010:

A Swiss visitor, César de Saussure noticed in 1727 that “English workmen are everywhere renowned, and justly. They work to perfection, and though not inventive, are capable of improving and of finishing most admirably what the French and Germans have invented” (de Saussure, [c. 1727], 1902, p. 218, letter dated May 29, 1727). Josiah Tucker, a keen contemporary observer, pointed out in 1758 that “the Number of Workmen [in Britain] and their greater Experience excite the higher Emulation, and cause them to excel the Mechanics of other Countries in these Sorts of Manufactures” (Tucker, 1758, p. 26). The French political economist Jean-Baptiste Say noted in 1803 that “the enormous wealth of Britain is less owing to her own advances in scientific acquirements, high as she ranks in that department, as to the wonderful practical skills of her adventurers [entrepreneurs] in the useful application of knowledge and the superiority of her workmen” (Say [1803], 1821, Vol. 1, pp. 32–33). 

That’s clear then … only the Brits can fix the Euro.

Da Vinci Does Data

Standing before the Virgin of the Rock (well, actually, facing one with another behind), I was quite struck by how much data Leonardo left behind. We have his finished projects (in varying states of repair), prototypes, cartoons, unfinished work and numerous clones/copies or homages by students and followers. We have enough that when we see another painting that might be Leonardo, the experts can debate for ages whether it is or isn’t, claiming various “facts” by reference to the existing body of data.

Two things flow from that for me.


Someone should write the Da Vinci guide to IT with chapters to include: practice lots first, prototype everything, freely licence your work, break projects into sensible chunks, reuse what others have done, careful with plaster, train youngsters in your work, don’t be afraid of new methodologies … And more


How much data will we leave behind, individually, for discovery 500 years from now? Much of my electronic data is already lost – on countless 5 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ discs, or on zipdrives or on machines long since destroyed at companies I’ve long since left.

But in the last few years, increasing amounts of data are stored in “free” repositories such as Facebook and Gmail. How long will they keep my data? Not so much as “on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog” but “on the Internet no one knows you’re dead”?

As data grows following an inexorable rise from petabytes through exabytes to zettabytes and whatever comes after that, what will these companies do with the data? Prune it every 20 years? Every 50? Every 100? Surely they have to at some point? Assuming they’re still around anyway.

I was toying with the idea of writing a script that would activate when I’m gone (note to self … On the Internet ….) and write a random weekly post to my blog, which is kindly hosted by google. Would they prune my data then?

Already I see the ghosts of friends who died tragically young follow me around the ‘net – “people you used to know” perhaps. As I get older and assuming I stay sane, this will doubtless become more common.

In 200 years or more, the data we all leave behind will be an interesting archaeological source for how we lived our lives, our passions and fashions, our moods, tolerances and intolerances. If it’s still there.