The Lighter Side
To celebrate the weekend, MBE digs up an interesting piece of finance trivia each Friday, looking at the lighter side of...
HEAT...what doesn't kill you makes you live longer
23rd June 2017
Anyone living in the UK might have noticed the balmy weather we’ve been having… Tropical temperatures may be paradise to some and the opposite to others, but love it or hate it, there’s an actuarial angle here. Does exposure to extreme temperatures have an effect on life expectancy?
The results of a Google search on this topic are conflicting and very US-centric. Here are some of the more interesting findings gleaned from various studies:
One study found that the immediate effects of spikes of heat and of cold lead to increases in the death rate. The main difference is that the spikes in extreme heat tend to drop off rapidly, while the death rates associated with extreme cold tend to have longer lasting effects. The number of annual deaths attributable to cold temperature was estimated at 1.3% of total deaths in the US.
To back up these findings, a study at Stanford University found that a warmer climate would reduce deaths markedly in the United States (a similar study in the UK found the same). The study considered whether temperature or increases in the amount of sunlight reduced mortality but found that warm temperatures had a more significant effect than long summer days.
On the other hand, researchers from the University of Michigan, in a study published in the journal Cell, reported that worms exposed to cold temperatures demonstrate a genetic response that triggers longer life spans. The researchers went on to speculate that the phenomenon may translate to humans since similar genetic pathways are present in human beings.
Also, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California found that reducing the core body temperature in mice extends their lifespans by up to 20 percent.
But then, another study showed that lab worms exposed to repeated heat shocks lived 10-20% longer. In response to the treatments the worms generated a surge of a protective hormone dubbed heat shock protein, and that heat shock protein also increases life span. This result is as an example of hormesis, the paradoxical adaptation that makes animals live longer when they are exposed to challenges and hardships. Starvation, various toxins in low doses, infections, heat and cold can all lead to a longer life.
So, what is the answer and, more importantly, will average temperature make it as a risk factor in the standard life insurance underwriting procedure any time soon? Something to ponder as you soak up (cower from) those summer rays.
Click a story below for more Lighter Side fun...
CURRENCY...what makes gold...golden
TRADING...hands move pretty fast
BENEFITS...a welfare state of mind
BALANCE...a nod to accountants
PRESCRIBED READING...some novel ideas
BUBBLES...sending economies up the (Mississippi) River since 1720
UNCERTAINTY...the spectrum of not knowing
OVERBOOKING...it's all fun and stats until someone gets hurt
CASH...me ousside, howbow dah
BANANA REPUBLIC...more than just a clothing brand
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES...what a bunch of Yahoos!
START-UPS...the good, the bad and the weird
DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION...5 pitfalls to avoid
CLAIMS...Stress testing goes live
TEAMWORK...Bezos gives us a pizza his mind
NICKNAMES...they're tiny, they're toonie, they're all a little loonie
HYPE...and the technology you love to hate
TRADITION...actuaries and the City
OFFICE CULTURE...let us eat cake
EQUATIONS...beauty is in the i of the beholder
AUTOMATION...to square is human
FATHER CHRISTMAS...and the gift of mathematics
LONGEVITY...women (and children) last please
FADS...slide into my office
BENEFITS...give us this day our daily beer
MUNDANITY...even poets need a pension
DB SCHEMES...when in Rome, retire like a soldier!
SECURITY...don't make your password a fail word
CROSSWORDS...angry elements of speech are puzzles? (10)
BIRTHDAYS...making probability theory a piece of cake
ALGORITHMS...sorry to burst your (filter) bubble
EULER...going around in (crop) circles
BALANCE...when IQ is not enough
COUNTING...(eenie, meenie, miney, mo)*3*5
CHEMISTRY...and the pursuit of happiness
INSURERS...the phoenix from London's ashes
DESIGN...Office space in the space age
FALLIBILITY...to err(or message) is human
TRENDS...the race against time
EXPERIMENTS...the lean mean bean machine
CHAOS...and the maths of butterflies
ASTRONOMY...and its link to actuarial science
FRACTALS...like onions, they have layers
CAUSATION...how a sweet tooth made a car company more lean
ENTREPRENEURS...coining the term, so to speak
WEATHER DERIVATIVES...how a potential gold mine entered the deep freeze
FOOTBALL...vive la France!
TIGER ECONOMIES...it's a jungle out there
RUBIK'S CUBES...the surprising bestseller
ARBITRAGE...the daddy of all insurance blunders
BUDGETING...a shock to the system
MARKOV CHAINS...a Monopoly on statistics
FOOTBALL...putting the 'odd' in odds
WORK... the origins of May Day
COMPUTERS...can't live with them...
PERCEPTION... gorillas that we miss
FORENSICS... who let the docs out?
GRAVITY... fakes and ladders
FORECASTING... a warning from The Bard
GENDER EQUALITY... and parental (leave) guidance
TIME MANAGEMENT... You say tomato, I say pomodoro
CALENDAR YEAR RATE INTERVALS... let's all meet up in the year 8000
STANDARDISATION... When more haste meant less speed
LIMITS... The science of friendship
MNEMONICS... easy as pi
THE FUTURE... when artificial intelligence gets real
Archives: Q3 to Q4 2015
Archives: Q1 to Q2 2015
16th June 2017
Wars have been waged for it, countries have been built on it and it’s been known to make grown men drool…yes, we may be talking about the allure of beautiful women, but in this context, we are talking about gold.
Humankind's attitude to gold is bizarre. Chemically, it is uninteresting - it barely reacts with any other element. Yet, of all the 118 elements in the periodic table, gold is the one we humans have always tended to choose to use as currency. Why? Why not osmium or chromium, or helium, say - or maybe seaborgium?
Well, let’s go through a process of elimination:
We can immediately eliminate the right-hand side of the table – noble gases and halogens wouldn’t be very practical to use as currency.
The two liquid elements - mercury and bromine - are poisonous - not a good quality in something you plan to use as money. Similarly, we can cross out arsenic and several others.
On the left-hand side of the table, the alkaline metals and earths are just too reactive (remember the fizzy chaos of dropping sodium or potassium into a dish of water in high school?). A similar argument applies to another whole class of elements, the radioactive ones: you don't want your cash to give you cancer. Out go thorium, uranium and plutonium, along with a whole bestiary of synthetically-created elements - rutherfordium, seaborgium, ununpentium, einsteinium - which only ever exist momentarily as part of a lab experiment, before radioactively decomposing.
Then there's the group called "rare earths", most of which are actually less rare than gold. Unfortunately, they are chemically hard to distinguish from each other, so you would never know what you had in your pocket.
This leaves us with the middle area of the periodic table, the "transition" and "post-transition" metals. We've got some very tough and durable elements - titanium and zirconium, for example, but they are very hard to smelt. The specialist equipment required wasn't available to ancient civilisations. Aluminium is also hard to extract, and it's just too flimsy for coinage. Most of the others in the group aren't stable - they corrode if exposed to water or oxidise in the air.
So, what's left?
Of the 118 elements we are now down to just eight: platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, osmium and ruthenium, along with gold and silver. These are known as the “noble” metals because they stand apart, barely reacting with the other elements. They are also all rare, another important criterion for a currency.
But all the noble metals except silver and gold are so rare that you would have to cast some very tiny coins, which you might easily lose. They are also hard to extract.
That leaves silver and gold.
Both are scarce but not impossibly rare. Both also have a relatively low melting point, and are therefore easy to turn into coins or jewellery.
Silver tarnishes - it reacts with minute amounts of sulphur in the air. That's why we place particular value on gold.
It turns out then, that the reason gold is precious is precisely that it is so chemically uninteresting. Gold's relative inertness means it doesn’t lose its looks, even after thousands of years.
So what does this process of elemental elimination tell us about what makes a good currency?
Firstly, it doesn't have to have any intrinsic value. A currency only has value because we, as a society, decide that it does. It also needs to be stable, portable and non-toxic. And it needs to be fairly rare - you might be surprised just how little gold there is in the world (it's guesstimated that all the gold in the world would form one 20 metre cube).
But gold has one other quality that makes it the stand-out contender for currency in the periodic table. Gold is... golden. All the other metals in the periodic table are silvery-coloured except for copper - but copper corrodes, turning green when exposed to moist air. That makes gold very distinctive.
And, of course, gold is beautiful, which is perhaps the most powerful driver of all.
The piece above has been adapted from this BBC article.
9th June 2017
If you are a fan of 80s teen movies (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?) you will remember the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the gang visits what looks like, based on the hand movements and bad suits, some kind of psychotic corporate rave.
What is actually being depicted is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), whose trading floor operates (to a lesser extent now than then) using the “open outcry” method of communication. It involves shouting and the use of hand signals to transfer information primarily about buy and sell orders. The part of the trading floor where this takes place is called a pit.
Since the development of the stock exchange in the 17th century in Amsterdam, open outcry was the main method used to communicate between traders. However, this started changing in the latter half of the 20th century, first through the use of telephone trading and then, starting in the 1980s, with electronic trading systems.
What we see in Ferris Bueller, specifically, is hand signaling, also known as arb or arbing (short for arbitrage). As well as at the CME, the system is also used at the American Stock Exchange (AMEX).
Traders usually flash the signals quickly across a room to make a sale or a purchase. Signals that occur with palms facing out and hands away from the body are an indication the gesturer wishes to sell. When traders face their palms in and hold their hands up, they are gesturing to buy.
Generally, numbers one to five are gestured on one hand with the fingers pointing directly upwards. To indicate six to ten, the hand is held sideways, parallel to the ground. Numbers gestured from the forehead are blocks of ten, blocks of hundreds and thousands can be indicated by repeatedly touching the forehead with a closed fist. The signals can otherwise be used to indicate months, specific trade option combinations or additional market information.
Be careful - hands move pretty fast...if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss them!
For a tutorial on hand signalling, watch this handy video.
2nd June 2017
Hard day at work? Ever feel like just taking it easy and letting the government take care of you? Some governments are willing to do so more than others…France, for instance, has introduced a law that gives workers the right to ignore email after 6 PM. And Sweden continues to experiment with a six-hour workday. Here are some more examples of countries with generous social benefits…
You can take sick leave for up to two years and still receive 70 percent of your salary. It's the most generous sick-leave policy in Europe.
Employers must give workers a minimum of 28 days paid vacation and up to 58 days.
The tiny Buddhist nation in the Himalayas officially keeps track of its citizens' happiness. Its Gross National Happiness Index seeks answers to questions like, "How much do you trust your neighbors?"; "Is lying justifiable?"; and "Do you feel like a stranger in your family?"
Iceland's parental leave is among the most generous for new fathers, giving dads 120 days off at 80 percent pay.
The Spanish have 14 public holidays—the most in the European Union.
Unemployed workers in Denmark get 90 percent of previous earnings for up to 104 weeks, the most generous unemployment benefits in the EU.
In addition to a generous parental leave policy of 158 days shared between new parents, they also enjoy shortened work hours until their child is two, and free day care.
Canada ranks among the 10 happiest nations in the world. It's in the top 10 for disposable income and the bottom 10 for employees working long hours.
19th May 2017
Yesterday the IASB issued the finalised IFRS 17 Insurance Contracts. In honour of this international accounting event, here are some fun facts about our well-balanced colleagues…
1. The developer of modern accounting was Luca Pacioli
Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli published the first book about double-entry bookkeeping in 1494. It described keeping accounts for assets, liabilities, capital, income, and expenses, much like the systems used today in balance sheets and income statements.
2. The world's first accountants originated in Ancient Mesopotamia
Accounting can be traced as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. The world's first accountants worked for the temples, keeping track of taxes paid in sheep and agricultural produce for the religious authorities of the day. In the process, many historians believe they invented the practice of writing in order to keep receipts.
3. Many accounting terms have Latin roots
For example, the word ‘debit’ means ‘she/he owes’ in Latin, while ‘credit’ means ‘she/he trusts’. The word ‘accountant’ is derived from the Latin ‘computare’, which means ‘count’.
4. Mick Jagger, Janet Jackson, Eddie Izzard and John Grisham studied accountancy
Mick Jagger didn’t get through the first year and comedian Eddie spectacularly failed all of his exams. Unable to retake the course, he took to street-performing and worked his way up to the comedian he is today.
John Grisham, author of The Firm, has a degree in accounting from Mississippi State University.
5. Oscar winning films featuring accountants
Accountants pop up in a number of Oscar-winning films, including Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in Schindler’s List, Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) in The Untouchables, and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) in The Producers.
6. The Romans were obsessed with accounting
The Roman army kept scrupulous records of cash, commodities and transactions, and they computed revenue every day.
7. The founder of pottery company Wedgwood was the first cost accountant
Though better known for his pottery and ceramics business, Josiah Wedgwood is also considered the first cost accountant.
During a slump in business in 1772, Josiah began to make a concentrated effort to establish the profit or loss realised each time a particular product was sold from his factory. He recognised the sense in recording not just the cost of materials and labour but calculations for coal, storage and transport.
8. Bubble gum was invented by an accountant
US accountant Walter Diemer worked for the Fleer Corporation in the 1920s. But his big claim to fame is that he invented bubble gum.
9. There is a patron saint of accountants
St Matthew is the patron saint of accountants, bookkeepers and tax collectors. Before becoming an Apostle, he was a tax collector in the ancient town of Capernaum.
12th May 2017
It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you’ve done a lot of reading over the years, whether it’s university course notes, Act Ed files or pop-finance works like “Rich Dad Poor Dad”. But novels and other works of fiction also have many lessons to teach about business, leadership, economics, and career development. Below are five suggestions to get you started…
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Experiencing the effects of The Dust Bowl of the 1930s (one of the most economically and environmentally significant tragedies in American history) through the eyes of one family, readers are confronted with perspectives on capitalism, leadership structures and wealth which make them question their submission to the “Monster” of corporate culture.
2. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote is a 16th-century Spanish gentleman who reads so many tales of romance and chivalry that he appoints himself a knight and embarks on a journey to save the world.
Throughout the novel, Quixote embodies the spirit of an entrepreneur, who insists he can improve society even though his ideas seem unrealistic and significant obstacles stand in the way of his success.
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Trial follows the incredible ill fortune of one Josef K., who wakes up one morning to discover that he's been arrested on unnamed charges. Throughout the novel, K. struggles futilely against a secretive and tyrannical court system, expending all his energy and resources building up his defence within the limits of an absurd bureaucracy. The Trial can be read as a critique of the unwieldy bureaucratic systems that characterise any modern government – and many modern corporations.
4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
This satirical novel by the author of "Catch-22" is written from the stream-of-consciousness perspective of businessman Bob Slocum. As the title suggests, something has happened to Slocum to undermine his sense of happiness.
It's a powerful statement on how professional success doesn't always translate to personal fulfillment.
5. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Although the author set out to mercilessly satirize everything he deemed ridiculous about society, he saves particular ire for crooked financiers — spurred on by a series of fiscal scandals in the 1870s.
So next time you feel guilty about reading a novel instead of doing actual work on the train, just think of it as part of your “personal development plan”.
Find reading lists here and here for more bookish inspiration.
5th May 2017
We are familiar with the dot-com and US housing bubbles of recent memory, but in the early 1700s (1716 – 1720) two of the largest economic bubbles in history arose and burst at more or less the same time in different parts of Europe…
The South Sea Bubble was a speculative stock bubble in Britain, which was centred on the shares of the South Sea Company, an international trading company that was granted special trading rights in the South Seas (now called South America) by the British government. South Sea Company executives spread rumors that greatly embellished upon the commercial value of the company’s trading rights, which caused its shares and the shares of similar companies to soar. Shortly after the stock speculation mania swept throughout Britain, with scientist Isaac Newton and author Thomas Swift (who wrote Gulliver’s Travels) among the investors, the South Sea Bubble popped and caused a very severe economic crisis. When Newton lost a fortune in the crash, he famously remarked, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”
The Mississippi Bubble was a speculative stock bubble in France that occurred at the same time as Britain’s South Sea Bubble. The seeds of the bubble were sown in 1715, when France was nearly insolvent from war and sought the help of Scottish economic theorist John Law. Law decided to create a national bank that would accept deposits of gold and silver currency and issue “paper” money or bank notes in return. Very soon, Law’s national bank began to issue much more paper currency than it received in gold and silver currency deposits, which created an inflationary economic “bubble boom”.
One of Law’s international trading companies, the Compagnie des Indes, became one of the prime beneficiaries of the inflationary boom as its shares skyrocketed and created many millionaires (this is how the French word millionaire came about), based on the supposedly immense bounty of resources in the Mississippi Territory, including gold and silver. For a time, it seemed as if France’s financial problems were over, until the Mississippi Bubble burst (when it turned out that France’s North American colonies along the Mississippi River were not as rich in resources as previous thought) and Law’s trading company shares and paper bank notes plunged in value and threw France into an even greater economic crisis than it had before the bubble.
Law himself was an interesting character: a financier, gambler and playboy who escaped to continental Europe to avoid imprisonment after shooting a man in a duel, he found himself on the run again after the bubble burst. He escaped France, disguised as a woman for his own safety, and spent the rest of his life as an impoverished gambler in various parts of Europe.
Although traditionally considered a bubble, if we’re going to be technical about it, the Mississippi Bubble wasn’t actually a bubble. A bubble is primarily caused by widespread mania and speculation, followed by a brutal collapse in asset values. In contrast, the Mississippi Bubble was the result of failed monetary policies that caused excessive money supply growth and inflation.
Still not something you’d want exploding in your face though.
28th April 2017
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”
- United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld
Uncertainty is a continuum that ranges from that which we are certain of at one end through to that which we are completely ignorant of at the other. This continuum may be divided into three broad categories: aleatory, epistemic and ontological uncertainty.
At one end of the spectrum of knowing, we have those things that we know and are confident we know. For example, from a safety management perspective, if there is an aleatory risk then if the system is operated for long enough all we can say is that eventually an accident will occur (based on probability). So risk acceptance in such circumstances is really about whether the accident rate is acceptable over some defined duration of exposure.
Epistemic uncertainty on the other hand represents a more general and resolvable lack of knowledge. Taking the example of a coin toss, we don’t know whether the coin is true (i.e. not biased) in the first instance, but if we start to toss the coin we immediately get a feel for its trueness. The longer we toss the coin, the better our feel for the ‘true’ of the coin and the greater the reduction in epistemic uncertainty.
Ontological uncertainty lies at the far end of our continuum and represents a state of complete ignorance. Not only do we not know, but we don’t even know what we don’t know. While the truth is out there, we cannot access it because we simply don’t know where to look in the first instance. Say you sit down to play a game of cards with some other players. You don’t know the rules of the game, but as you play you start to get a feel for them. Unknown to you, however, the dealer holds the single card, which she can play against a specific turn of hands. You think you know all the cards and have correctly inferred the rules (certainly the long run of hands that you have seen supports your ‘theory of the game’), but the dealer can still play that card. This illustrates the classic decision making quandary of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’.
All this uncertainty – a risky business indeed!
Adapted from this article by Matthew Squair
21st April 2017
In a normal free market economy, a customer will pay for a product or service and implicitly trust that the legal, ethical, and economic forces at play will ensure she gets it. But, we know that airlines operate in a slightly different reality from everyone else. In a world where people will crawl over broken glass for that slightly cheaper seat on a budget flight, it’s no wonder that overbooking is a thing and, for the most part, no one gets hurt.
In view of the recent scandal of United Airlines, overbooking on airlines has again come into an unsavoury limelight, but, infuriatingly, we can’t deny that the stats behind this practice do add up in favour of the airline…
It’s no secret why airlines overbook: there will always be a proportion of people who do not show up for a flight. If you predict that proportion accurately, you can sell those empty seats twice. If your estimate is slightly off, you still win by offering compensation to bumped passengers which is less than the revenue earned from the overbooking.
This TED-Ed video explains the maths behind overbooking, which takes a few factors into account: the number of seats on the plane, the (larger) number of tickets sold, the percentage of ticketholders that will probably show up, the likelihood of each one of those percentages, and the cost of hotels and other necessary costs if all the planning goes wrong and too many people do show up.
The most frustrating part is that the data and maths could be used to ensure that the maximum number of tickets is sold with a near zero percent chance of too many people showing up. Instead, the most profitable solutions often involve a not insignificant chance that a few passengers will be inconvenienced (or worse), because the extra ticket sales outweigh having to put someone up in a hotel now and then.
Even a simplified binomially distributed example is complicated, with the real-life maths approaching flight price modelling complexity (yikes!). So instead of trying to understand the system, we could either try to beat it (by hoping you get bumped and claiming maximum compensation), or just try our best to show up on time, check in early, and hoping that someone else is running late.
7th April 2017
Ever since Scottish inventor John Shepherd-Barron dreamed up the concept of an ATM in his bathtub in 1967 (true story!), these magical machines have been doling out the cash like loving parents at a theme park. The ATM was one of the first inventions to electronically automate an everyday task (and spare us the agony of dealing with actual people and restrictive banking hours), but now, with the ubiquitous popularity of card payments and online banking, what does the future hold for the humble ATM?
You may be thinking, “Wait, the ATM has a future?” It does. For all our contactless cards and talk of mobile payments, cash is still king, and may be for some time. Cash today is used for half of all purchases under $50 in the USA and 18-to-24-year-olds are the age group most likely to prefer cash as a form of payment.
Still, times are changing. We’re doing more and more transactions on our phones and computers, and because of costs it may actually be the bank branch whose days are numbered – and ATMs may need to use technology pick up the slack.
It’s not just evolving consumer behaviour driving these changes. Branches can account for half of a bank’s total operating costs, and when profits are down those buildings and the people who work there can become untenable. ATMs cost less, and they can already do about 60% of transactions done at the teller window.
Still, banks care about the experience; so ATMs will be called upon to do more: offer cash in a variety of denominations, allow specific withdrawal amounts and higher withdrawal limits, cash customers’ checks and enable bill paying, among other tasks. Bank of America has even begun to incorporate video tellers into some of its ATMs, for that dash of humanity.
Another game changer for the industry, once it becomes more affordable, is likely to be robotics. One company has built a hexagonal ATM-turned-bank branch that houses a whirling robotic arm, seemingly combining an ATM, bank teller services, safe-deposit box, vending machine and insurance office in one place.
In the midst of all this change, though, our desire to grab some cash on the go isn’t disappearing anytime soon, with experts reckoning that the chances of mobile replacing plastic are higher than any of the digitals replacing cash.
It looks like ATMs, robotic or otherwise, have not outlived their Eureka moment just yet.
31st March 2017
Banana republic is a political science term used originally for politically unstable countries in Latin America whose economies are largely dependent on exporting a limited-resource product, e.g. bananas. The history of the first banana republic begins with the introduction of the banana to the US in 1870, by Lorenzo Dow Baker, captain of the schooner Telegraph. He initially bought bananas in Jamaica and sold them in Boston at a 1,000 percent profit.
American writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862–1910) coined "banana republic" to describe the fictional Republic of Anchuria in the book Cabbages and Kings (1904), a collection of short stories inspired by his experiences in Honduras.
In political science, the term banana republic describes a servile dictatorship that abets or supports, for kickbacks, the exploitation of large-scale plantation agriculture, especially banana cultivation. Originally it referred to the fruit companies from the United States that came to exert extraordinary influence over the politics of countries like Honduras.
More generally, it is a derogatory term for a country that is considered to have a weak economy, a dishonest or cruel government, and public services that do not work. In economics, a banana republic is a country operated as a commercial enterprise for private profit, effected by a collusion between the State and favoured monopolies, in which the profit derived from the private exploitation of public lands is private property, while the debts incurred thereby are a public responsibility.
24th March 2017
In the Raconteur Business Transformation report, you can read all about the journey of Netflix to the entertainment giant it is today. For example, did you know that Blockbuster passed up the opportunity to buy Netflix in 2000 in what has been awarded the dubious honour of one of the biggest corporate misjudgements of all time?
Another former tech giant that has made some forehead-slapping misjudgements over the years is Yahoo…
Back in 1998, two unknown individuals, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, offered to sell their little startup to Yahoo for $1 million so they can resume their studies at Stanford. The company that Page and Brin were looking to sell was the soon-to-be patented PageRank system and represents the core of Google's existence. Yahoo turned down the offer as it wanted its users to spend more time on its own platform, contrasting PageRank, which sends a user to the most relevant web site.
Yahoo had another opportunity to acquire Google. In 2002, Yahoo's CEO at the time, Terry Semel, engaged in negotiations to acquire Google, which lasted several months. The outcome of the negotiation was Semel balking at Google's price tag of $5 billion. Today, Google and its parent company Alphabet boast a market capitalization of more than $500 billion.
Yahoo's failed attempt at acquiring Facebook added insult to injury.
As the story goes, Yahoo was nearly able to acquire the popular social network in 2006 for $1bn, but due to a faltering stock price, Yahoo lowered its offer to $850m, allowing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to walk away from the deal.
Yahoo has made plenty of bad moves in acquiring (or not acquiring) other companies, but its crowning failure was its handling of its own potential sale.
In 2008, Microsoft, eager to compete with Google, was willing to pay $44bn for Yahoo, but thanks to what many considered gross incompetence, Yahoo's board rejected the offer.
In 2016 Yahoo announced that it would sell its core business to Verizon for about $4.8 billion. Following this news, a number of commentators were quick to bring up that Yahoo was once the darling of the new millennium's tech future, with its market cap maxing out at over $125 billion. Now, the company would go for about 4% of that.
17th March 2017
The tech world was abuzz this week with news of the acquisition by Intel of Mobileye, the assisted driving software company, for $15.3 billion – the largest ever acquisition of an Israeli company. This news correlates with the current wave of self-driving car enthusiasm, but we thought we would look at some of the quirkier start-up ideas out there…
The founders of ThinkScream hit upon the billion dollar idea of creating a dustbin that would double up as a Wifi hotspot after it’s filled with rubbish. Since then, ThinkScream has come up with a quirky variety of innovative Wifi and RFID solutions for events, festivals and retail setups.
Bird Control Group
Birds can be scary at the best of times, and when they fly near planes, they’re downright dangerous. Bird Control Group is on the front lines of defending humanity from avian assault: with lasers. The company’s silent, long-range laser systems unnerve the birds and drive them in a different direction.
Too busy working to exercise? With Cubii, you don’t have to choose. This sleek under-desk elliptical lets busy office-jockies work up a sweat while rattling off emails…no more excuses!
The company’s pioneering service will blast your remains off on a rocket, where they will either land on the moon to enjoy eternal lunar slumber or be released back into the atmosphere where they’ll burn up on reentry and give your loved ones on the ground an otherworldly moment of beauty.
The startup invites you to hire a smart, handsome, chivalrous guy to wait on you (in an above-the-belt manner – they’re very insistent about this part). There’s a wide array of suggested uses for your Manservant including a Heartbreak recovery package, as arm candy for a special event, a cabana boy for a pool party, and more. You indicate how your Manservant should dress and act and even get to pick the name he answers to.
So just because you aren’t going to be the founder of the next Mobileye, do not despair! Even the craziest idea can make it big, so reach for the stars (hopefully not in ash form though).
SYMBOLISM...the rise and rise of @
10th March 2017
Called the “snail” by Italians and the “monkey tail” by the Dutch, it’s hard to remember (thanks to email addresses and Twitter handles) a time when the @ sign was just an obscure symbol on our keyboards. @ has even been inducted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which cited its modern use as an example of “elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time.”
The origin of the symbol itself is something of a mystery. One theory is that medieval monks, looking for shortcuts while copying manuscripts, converted the Latin word for “toward”—ad—to “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. Or it came from the French word for “at”—à—and scribes, striving for efficiency, swept the nib of the pen around the top and side. Or the symbol evolved from an abbreviation of “each at”—the “a” being encased by an “e.” The first documented use was in 1536, in a letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae.
The symbol later took on a historic role in commerce. Merchants have long used it to signify “at the rate of”—as in “12 widgets @ $1.” The machine age, however, was not so kind to @. The first typewriters, built in the mid-1800s, didn’t include @. Likewise, @ was not among the symbolic array of the earliest punch-card tabulating systems (first used in collecting and processing the 1890 U.S. census), which were precursors to computer programming.
The symbol’s modern obscurity ended in 1971, when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson, while developing Arpanet (a forerunner of the Internet) was facing a vexing problem: how to connect people who programmed computers with one another.
Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.
Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. Tomlinson chose @, and, using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail.
He doesn’t remember what he wrote in that first email – perhaps the first hash tag?
3rd March 2017
The following piece has been adapted from 5 digital transformation mistakes to avoid, which appeared in Raconteur’s Business Transformation Report 2017.
Digital transformation is high on the corporate agenda, but for many businesses it remains a challenge. The IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Digital Transformation 2016 Predictions report has surmised that 70 per cent of digital transformation initiatives will ultimately fail because of insufficient collaboration, integration, sourcing or project management. For many businesses, the initial hurdle is to define what digital transformation means for their organisation.
This lack of a clear definition underpins five main pitfalls of digital transformation:
1. Scope creep
Large transformation projects tend to fail because of a lack of strategic vision. This means defining at the outset what success looks like. “Be clear about the key deliverables and desired output of the transformation,” advises Gordon McIntosh of P2 Consulting. “I’ve seen firms try to do too much at once and then go through a process of restructuring the initiative half way through, wasting time and money.”
2. Latest tech
Investing in the wrong technology is a major and expensive mistake. Vibeke Fennell, Director of Operational Excellence at MBE, advises companies to look at how operational processes deliver value to the customer before selecting new systems, to ensure they are fit for purpose.
“Most successful wholesale digital transformations are multi-vendor,” observes P2 Consulting’s Mr McIntosh. Ms Fennell of Muller Beukes Edvardsen agrees, emphasising that effective integration includes processes and people. “Digital transformation affects the whole value stream, so it’s important to consider the upstream and downstream impact of changing one particular process. If you leave a gap in systems integration, people will find a manual workaround and this will compromise the outcome,” she says, adding that an important part of transformation is removing previous processes.
It is important to establish who is in charge. Digital transformation requires board-level support and effective communication. Harlex Consulting’s Mr McGrail emphasises the importance of top-down messaging driving engagement, but warns that “dislocation between the board and the rest of the organisation can undermine change because the people who are actually delivering the project don’t understand the business case”. MBE’s Ms Fennell adds: “People will either enable or disable change. On-site training support helps them adapt to new systems, but it is equally important to allow them time to see the benefits.”
IDC predicts: “By 2017, 60 per cent of digital transformation initiatives will not be able to scale because of a lack of strategic architecture” or failure to back up customer experience with internal processes. This requires consistency across all channels. “It’s important to consider the entire chain of actions within the business that will impact the customer experience,” says Publicis.Sapient’s Mr Sutton. “You can have the best digital channel in the world, but if the execution does not enhance the customer experience, you will have failed to capitalise on the opportunity.”
24th February 2017
Ever had trouble claiming for a broken mirror or stolen laptop? Don’t feel bad – insurance companies have had to deal with a lot worse! Here are some of the most expensive insurance claims of all time…
The world banking crisis 2008
The insurance claims put in by businesses that were affected by the crisis ran into a staggering $21.5 trillion. The result is that we are still seeing higher business insurance premiums today, and a refusal by some insurance companies to provide cover in the event of a global market collapse.
On a financial level the attacks of 11 September 2001 cost the US billions as it waged a ‘War On Terror’, with around $40 billion paid out as a result of claims for property damage, life insurance and interruption to business.
Icelandic ash clouds
When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 the skies across Europe and North America were suddenly empty of planes as fleets of aircraft were grounded for days due to safety concerns. The cost to the airline and hotel industry ran into around £3.4 billion of lost revenue, with many struggling to make successful claims through their insurance as the event was classified as an ‘Act of God’.
The single largest personal insurance claim
This accolade goes to the actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson (of Mr Bean fame), who, in 1997, put in a claim for $1,497,560 after he crashed his McLaren F1 sports car. The damage was so severe that it took McLaren a year to repair and rebuild the car.
Many people have pet insurance to cover their furry friends in the event of illness and injury. In 2007 this came in handy for the owners of a scientifically bred cat, who had to have renal surgery that cost approximately £13,750.
17th February 2017
Once at an Amazon offsite retreat, managers suggested that employees should increase communication with each other. To their surprise, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos stood up and announced, “No, communication is terrible!”
This is in line with his two-pizza team rule: teams shouldn’t be larger than what two pizzas can feed. When it comes to communication, this rule focuses on quality rather than quantity. Compare the interactions at a small dinner party with a larger gathering like a wedding. As group size grows, it becomes impossible to have meaningful conversations with every person, which is why people start clumping off into smaller clusters to chat.
For Bezos, small teams make it easier to communicate more effectively rather than more, to stay decentralised and moving fast, and encourage high autonomy and innovation.
The issue with larger teams isn’t quite the team size itself; it’s the number of links between people that is the problem, which may be expressed as: n(n-1)/2 (where n = number of people).
As group size increases, the links start to get unwieldy.
- If you take a basic two-pizza team size of, say, 6. That’s 15 links between everyone.
- Double that group for a team of 12. That shoots up to 66 links.
- A small business of 50 people has an incredible 1225 links to manage.
What is the magic number? Bezos’s two-pizza rule works out to at most 6 or 7 non-ravenous people. So, start thinking of splitting into subgroups when you approach double digits.
For more on the science behind the pizza rule, click here…for more pizza, click here.
10th February 2017
Currencies around the world have some interesting nicknames - the dollar is a greenback (initially only the back of the note was printed in green) and a pound coin originally weighed one troy pound of sterling silver, giving the currency the name "pound sterling". The New Zealand dollar is called the kiwi (for obvious reasons), and the new South African Rand notes, bearing the likeness of Nelson Mandela are affectionately dubbed “Randelas”.
The Canadians in particular have had some fun with their currency - they trade in loonies and toonies!
The Canadian one dollar coin, commonly called the loonie, is a gold-coloured one-dollar coin introduced in 1987. It bears images of a common loon, a well known bird in Canada.
The coin has become the symbol of the Canadian dollar: media often discuss the rate at which the loonie is trading against other currencies. The nickname loonie (huard in French) became so widely recognised that in 2006 the Royal Canadian Mint secured the rights to it. When the Canadian two-dollar coin was introduced in 1996, it was in turn nicknamed the "toonie" (a portmanteau of "two" and "loonie").
There is also the relatively recent tradition of the “lucky loonie”, which entails Canadian ice hockey team players or supporters hiding a loonie in the ice in the hope that it will bring victory to their team.
So before you make any disparaging “Looney Tunes” remarks, first look at the size of the ice hockey players who take their lucky loonies very seriously!
3rd February 2017
New technology launches always come with the obligatory hype. Remember the introduction of the iPad? We went from not knowing we needed them to not being able to live without them and now, for many people, they seem to have outlived their usefulness.
The American IT research and advisory firm, Gartner has actually branded that process as a graphical presentation and dubbed it the “hype cycle”, which represents the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies, and how they are potentially relevant to solving business problems and exploiting new opportunities.
An example of a hype cycle is found in Amara's law, coined by Roy Amara, and which states that:
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run
Each Hype Cycle drills down into the five key phases of a technology's life cycle:
Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallise and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology's broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.
Interesting…but this sounds a bit like another cycle we’ve been going through with technology for years: the Five Stages of Grief!
27th January 2017
Nothing – apart from the Queen, Big Ben and tikka masala, perhaps – is more quintessentially London-y than the quirks and foibles that survive as remnants of a history reaching back centuries. Obscure and head-scratching traditions may be observed by the unsuspecting visitor throughout England (see gurning, straw bear and cheese rolling), but nothing quite matches the pomp and ceremony of the City of London itself.
Livery Companies are emblematic of the rich and idiosyncratic nature of the City. Currently 110 in number, they comprise London's ancient and modern trade associations and guilds, with everything from card-makers to apothecaries to longbow-makers and, more recently, even actuaries, being represented.
London's livery companies (the term having originated to refer to special dress to denote status of belonging to a trade) play a significant part in City life, by providing charitable-giving and networking opportunities. Liverymen (members) retain voting rights for the senior civic offices, such as the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and City of London Corporation, its ancient municipal authority with extensive local government powers.
The “Worshipful Company of Actuaries”, as the livery company for the actuarially-inclined amongst us is known, was formed in 1979 and goes by the motto “Experience Foretells”, which, apart from the obvious link to actuarial work, reflects the unique combination of respect for the past and concerns for the future, on which the life of the City is based.
The Company is governed by the Court, which consists of the annually-elected Master (currently Sally Bridgeland, the first woman to hold the role), Senior and Junior Wardens, Past Masters and Assistants, and supported by a number of Committees.
The various events hosted throughout the year in fabulous guildhalls around the City present the uninitiated with strange rituals and customs which both bewilder and delight, such as the intriguingly-named Loving Cup ceremony – certainly one way to break the ice!
Membership is open to any Fellow or Associate of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, or similar international actuarial bodies. So why not embrace the charm of London life and give it a go? As they say, “When an actuary is tired of London, she is tired of life (assurance)”.
20th January 2017
As if we don’t have enough foes to deal with, the latest character to be vilified in the court of public opinion is none other than…the humble office cake!
Office cake culture, which has blossomed into a firmly entrenched, almost daily way of life in many companies, has come under fire for its hazardous affect on our physical health, proving, once and for all, that nothing in this world is sacred.
Ignoring the benefits of our daily (short)bread to our mental wellbeing, the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has warned that the growing trend in large offices to celebrate birthdays, holidays, exam passes and “just because” is contributing to poor oral health and the obesity epidemic.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said of the biscuits, chocolates and cakes that perk up otherwise drab workdays that: “Such food is neither a treat nor a reward.
“You may not know who in the office is secretly dieting in which case they won’t appreciate your gesture: if you do know, you’re plainly malicious.
“If you want to give them anything, give them a smile, a hug or both!”
Other suggestions to combat the villainous Viennoiserie and diabolical donuts include:
- Bringing nuts, fruit and cheese into work instead
- Limiting cake days to one day a week
- Bringing smaller sizes and lower quantities of treats
- Faking an intolerance to avoid scorn from cake-eating colleagues
- Taking a quick lap around the building to clear your head and resist the temptation
Celebratory celery stick, anyone?
13th January 2017
“Mathematical beauty” – the notion that some mathematicians may derive aesthetic pleasure from their work, and from mathematics in general – may seem like a bit of a stretch as a concept. But if “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, then it makes sense that mathematics, which is the is one of the only areas of knowledge that can objectively be described as "true" (because its theorems are derived from pure logic), should be the epitome of beauty.
And if a bevy of the world’s most desirable theorems held a beauty pageant, who would be the fairest of them all?
Euler’s identity, apparently, as decided in a poll conducted by The Mathematical Intelligencer in 1990.
Euler’s identity looks like this:
e is Euler's number, the base of natural logarithms,
i is the imaginary unit, which satisfies i squared = −1, and
π is pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter
In case it’s not obvious, the equation is considered beautiful because three of the basic arithmetic operations occur exactly once each: addition, multiplication, and exponentiation. The identity also links five fundamental mathematical constants:
The number 0, the additive identity.
The number 1, the multiplicative identity.
The number π, which is ubiquitous in the geometry of Euclidean space and analytical mathematics (π = 3.141...).
The number e, the base of natural logarithms, which occurs widely in mathematical analysis (e = 2.718...).
The number i, the imaginary unit of the complex numbers, a field of numbers that contains the roots of all polynomials (that are not constants), and whose study leads to deeper insights into many areas of algebra and calculus.
Furthermore, the equation is given in the form of an expression set equal to zero, which is common practice in several areas of mathematics.
A study of the brains of sixteen mathematicians found that the "emotional brain" (specifically, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which lights up for beautiful music, poetry, pictures, etc.) lit up more consistently for Euler's identity than for any other formula.
Stanford University mathematics professor Keith Devlin has said, "like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler's equation reaches down into the very depths of existence". It seems like beauty is more than skin deep after all!
6th January 2017
It’s 2017, the future is here and we have computers to do tasks that we are too slow, unreliable or lazy to do ourselves. Over the last few months there seems to have been an increase in concerns around automation and what it means for our future job security. But while these fears may be unfounded in some sectors and valid in others, a phenomenon known as the paradox of automation, where workers are denied the chance to practise their skills because computers do it all for them, has helped build a case against animation; advocating the use of our brains instead.
Driving on “autopilot”, for example, has made us lazy and dangerous drivers. A small group of traffic planners around the world has been pushing against the usual strategy of giving drivers the clearest possible guidance as to what they should do and where they should go: traffic lights, bus lanes, cycle lanes, left- and right-filtering traffic signals, railings to confine pedestrians, and of course signs attached to every available surface, forbidding or permitting different manoeuvres.
Laweiplein in the Dutch town of Drachten was a typically “automated” junction, and accidents were common. Frustrated by waiting in jams, drivers would sometimes try to beat the traffic lights by speeding across the junction – or they would be impatiently watching the lights, rather than watching for other road users. With a shopping centre on one side of the junction and a theatre on the other, pedestrians often got in the way.
The late Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, the most famous of the group, decided to create the “squareabout”. Instead of explicit efforts at control, he built a square with fountains, a small grassy roundabout in one corner, pinch points where cyclists and pedestrians might try to cross the flow of traffic, and very little signposting of any kind. It looks much like a pedestrianisation scheme – except that the square has as many cars crossing it as ever, approaching from all directions. Pedestrians and cyclists must cross the traffic as before, but now they have no traffic lights to protect them. Locals think it is dangerous – but that’s the idea.
It is precisely because the squareabout feels so hazardous that it is safer. Traffic glides through slowly but rarely stops moving for long. The number of cars passing through the junction has risen, yet congestion has fallen. And the squareabout is safer than the traffic-light crossroads that preceded it, with half as many accidents as before. Drivers never quite know what will happen next, and as a result they drive slowly and on high alert. And at the gentle speeds that have become the norm, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have time to make eye contact and to read one another as human beings, rather than as threats or obstacles. When showing visiting journalists the squareabout, Monderman’s would close his eyes and walk backwards into the traffic. The cars would just flow around him without so much as a hoot.
In this squareabout, drivers are never given the opportunity to glaze over and switch to the automatic driving mode that can be so familiar. The chaos of the square forces them to pay attention, work things out for themselves and look out for each other – a lesson we should remember whenever computers threaten makes us feel inferior or obsolete.
23rd December 2016
Christmas time is here again and that means that good old St Nick will have his work cut out for him. But let’s just be realistic for a minute. How many children would Father Christmas need to get to on Christmas Eve and would this be possible?
Philip Bump decided to quantify Father Christmas’ task, setting out assumptions, methodology and caveats to determine how many (Christian) children he would have to get to, racing west across the face of the globe to stay ahead of the sun.
He needed to figure out how many Christian children live in each country of the world. The region being important because it would impact the feasibility of reaching them. So, he would need the population broken down by age, religion and time zone in each country.
Thanks to the CIA, he could readily determine populations by age and religion, and, by combining the two measures, roughly approximate the number of Christians for any given age group. (For the purposes of the experiment, Bump assumed people 14-and-under receive presents from Santa). Time zones were easily obtained via Wikipedia.
The equation was therefore: compare population of young people with density of Christianity and plot it on the globe. From that, you've got total populations and the times at which Father Christmas should hit them. Ignoring the mechanics of distance between houses, it seemed that the maths should have been easy. It wasn’t. All the complexities and oddities Bump encountered are described in his article; but for those who prefer a bit of instant gratification, here’s the end result of his experiment:
At the time of calculation, there were just over 526,000,000 Christian kids under the age of 14 in the world who celebrate Christmas on 25 December. In other words, Father Christmas had to deliver presents to almost 22 million children an hour, every hour, on the night before Christmas. That's about 365,000 a minute; 6,100 a second. Doable? Well, that depends on the population distribution and his longitudinal starting point, nevermind dealing with countries with multiple time zones and different number of dark hours available in the different hemispheres...
You could read all about Bump’s experiment here…or you could stop being an actuary (just for a day), and enjoy your presents – however they were delivered.
Happy holidays from all at MBE – see you in 2017!
16th December 2016
Contrary to what insurance pricing legislation suggests, women do, in fact, live longer than men – a phenomenon that has been true for centuries and doesn’t seem to be changing. But as male and female lifestyles converge (the backbreaking male labour of the past making way for the same sedentary jobs that women have), what other factors are at play to explain the stubbornness of the gender mortality gap?
The survival advantage of women is seen in every country, in every year, for which reliable records exist. The difference in lifespan has even remained stable even throughout monumental shifts in society. In 1800 in Sweden, for example, life expectancy was 33 years for women and 31 for men; today it is 83.5 years and 79.5 years, respectively. In both cases, women live about 5% longer than men.
Factors such as smoking, drinking, and overeating may partly explain why the size of the gender gap varies so widely between countries. In Russia, for example, men are likely to die 13 years earlier than women, partly because they drink and smoke more heavily. But then female chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons also consistently outlive the males of the group – a fact that can’t be ascribed to poor lifestyle choices.
Instead, it would seem like the answer lies in our evolution; and there are many plausible theories which could help explain this biological difference, from the benefits of having two X chromosomes to the “jogging female heart” hypothesis, to the simple fact that taller people (which men generally are), with more cells in their bodies, are more likely to develop harmful mutations and suffer worse wear and tear.
But perhaps the true reason lies in testosterone – the hormone that drives most other male characteristics. A study of 19th century Korean court life shows that eunuchs lived for around 70 years – compared to an average of just 50 years among the other men in the court. Even the kings – who were the most pampered people in the palace – did not come close.
Although not all studies of other types of eunuch have shown such pronounced differences, overall it seems that people (and animals) without testicles do live longer. Sorry, guys.
Not only do women escape the risks of testosterone – they may also benefit from their own “elixir of youth” that helps heal some of the ravages of time due to the presence of the antioxidant hormone, oestrogen.
The reason for this may be a kind of evolutionary pay-off that gave both men and women the best chances of passing on their genes. During mating, women would be more likely to go for alpha males, pumped up on testosterone. But once the children are born, the men are more disposable; it matters more for the children that the mother’s body should be in good shape, rather than the father’s.
Now there’s some, um, ballsy water-cooler chat for you! Read more here.
9th December 2016
In an age where the form and function of the traditional office model is being questioned and reshaped, a number of fads, have come and gone, relegated to the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” archives.
So what are some of the trends that just didn’t make the grade?
Companies like Google, LEGO and Microsoft have all installed slides in some of their offices. Sure, they look cool and provide a fun alternative to stairs for getting to a lower floor, but they can ruin your clothes and, after some initial excitement among staff, they generally quickly resort to old-fashioned staircases.
2. Treadmill desks
When sitting was hailed as the new smoking, some office furniture manufacturers came up with the treadmill desk, a modified treadmill base attached to a counter-level work surface. To date, they haven’t really caught on.
3. Hot desking
Hot desking, the concept of not being assigned to a specific desk or computer, but rather being assigned to a different “hot desk” every day, would seem to fit right in with the “working anytime, anywhere” mentality that today’s employees seem to value. But it turns out employees like having a desk in a familiar setting and with drawer space for storage, or even a computer, to call their own.
4. Internal grass
The trend for biophilia, or mimicking nature in office design, is gathering pace. However, those attempting to reproduce the great outdoors in air-conditioned, hermetically sealed buildings should think again. Real lawns were a popular gimmick for a while, until people realised they couldn’t be kept alive, wilting into something brown and odorous. Synthetic astro turf doesn’t have the same appeal.
5. Exercise balls
When these big, fun, bouncy balls became popular in the gym, it was only a matter of time before their core-working, posture-enhancing benefits made their way into the office…as desk chairs. While they might serve a purpose in pilates, they were incongruous in the office and their bold colour palette rarely went with carefully chosen decor.
So, perhaps these (and other) fads, haven’t quite taken off…we’d still like to try the slide though.
2nd December 2016
The last few weeks have seen us travel back to Roman and medieval times to find out more about pension provision in the olde worlde. Today’s instalment explores how feudal economies looked after their old…
In land-based feudal economies, monasteries were able to offer what was in effect an index-linked annuity, called a “corrody”. This entitled beneficiaries to food (and, apparently just as important, ale) together with lodging over their remaining lifetimes in return for a lump sum at the outset. Corrodies could offer basic rations or a more generous lifestyle.
In 1313 Gunvor Olavsdatter bought the luxury version from the bishop of Stavanger in Norway. It provided not just her accommodation, but also the best-quality food and 2.7 litres of beer every day (and more at festivities). Her ‘premium’ for these benefits was the bestowal of land “to a value of 120–130 cows” upon the cathedral.
In 1316 William de Schokerwych paid £60 for a corrody granted by the priory of Worcester in England, which included stabling for a horse, and meat and fish when they were served to the monks. Although prices often fell as well as rising, the protection against inflation was particularly valuable since prices could spike up when harvests were poor, rising for example by a third in southern England in 1272 and 1291.
Wherever possible, older people continued to work until they became unfit or disabled. Artisans and merchants were generally better placed to do this than laborers. This approach has echoes in modern times as well. The obvious solution to ever rising life expectancy is to extend working lives, the more so since work is now so much less physically burdensome than in earlier times.
New annuity product idea: monthly pay cheque and daily beer…I think we have a winner!
25th November 2016
The second instalment in our examination of historical retirement provision looks at the middle ages – even Chaucer needed actuarial services!
One of the first predecessors to the gold tables that actuaries of today know and love was the Roman jurist Ulpian’s life table, constructed in the early third century CE, which estimated life expectancies from birth to over 60.
This table was not used for annuity functions, but rather to offer guidance on the fair division of tax burdens for heirs, legatees and tax collectors: the Roman tax authorities preferred to tax annual amounts rather than lump sums, which was apparently a less onerous procedure.
A thousand years in western Europe medieval societies were forging new forms of pension provision, despite the lack of formal pension schemes (there has been a widespread “pensions culture” in Britain since about 1300).
One not so ordinary pensioner was the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived between around 1343 and 1400 and was granted several pensions including a daily pitcher of wine (commuted into cash after a few years).
Medieval pensions were funded by the church, which meant that clergymen naturally benefited, especially by the later middle ages. In the diocese of Exeter, four pensions are recorded for parish priests between 1300 and 1420 but the number then increases sharply to 11 in the 1420s, 33 in the 1430s and then 16 in the 1440s. In a classic non-separation of church and state, the state could also call upon the church’s resources. Already by the 14th century the King’s clerks – the civil servants of the day – were retiring to provincial “benefices,” a term for an ecclesiastical income.
Perhaps if people of the middle ages had taken Chaucer’s observation in The Canterbury Tales that “death is the end of every worldly pain” seriously, we would have no need for these pension provisions at all!
18th November 2016
How were pensioners looked after in the olden days? Over the next few weeks on The Lighter Side we’ll look at how people retired at various points in history…
In the Roman empire, life expectancy was around 25 – but this was largely due to high infant and child mortality rate…so there were still quite a few people making it to normal retirement age (around 7% of the population in the first and second centuries were over 60).
Fast forward a thousand years, and this proportion was still more or less the same in medieval populations. So these earlier civilizations also had to work out arrangements for looking after the old. In ancient times, instead of current workers subsidising the retired (as in modern pensions arrangements), support was provided within families. Familial obligation was taken so seriously that in Athens, in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, children risked losing their citizenship if they did not support their parents.
This wasn’t the case in ancient Rome, but two millennia ago its first emperor, Augustus, pioneered the first state pension scheme financed by taxes. Retiring legionaries who had served for 25 years received a generous lump sum worth 13 times their annual salary. The scheme was financed through a new inheritance tax set at 5% of the value of an estate and a 1% auction tax. Despite the (begrudgingly acquired) tax income, this scheme came close to bankrupting the state.
Does this sound a bit like defined benefit pension schemes from the not too distant past? Well, Augustus' motivation was similar…employers offering pensions to long-serving workers in exchange for their loyalty. He also launched this scheme to ensure that soldiers were loyal to Rome and not to their commanders (who had provided for their retirement until then).
Although the insurance industry, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day, it does seem (to use another cliché) that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
11th November 2016
If your mind and soul (and bank balance) are wrapped up in the internet, then your online passwords can be seen as the keys to your heart. These days ‘password’ and ‘qwerty’ just won’t cut it to access your online accounts. Unique and strong password creation and memorisation is a bona fide art and there are all kinds of tips and tricks to help you keep track of them.
Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom was never to write down passwords — but that was when most of us only had a few to remember. Some experts have since changed their minds. Says one: 'The probability of someone breaking into your house and stealing your written-down passwords is considerably more remote than the 1-in-3 to 1-in-4 probability that your computer will fall to a criminal’s malware'.
Password cracking software generally uses a huge dictionary of possibilities, which it tries one after another, so the key precaution is not to use an actual word as your password, which is why many sites require the use of numbers and capitals.
However, this method may be counterproductive, as, for these sites, would-be hackers could immediately eliminate all the words that are all lower case, those that contain no numbers, and those that contain fewer than the minimum number of characters; effectively making their job earlier. The merit of these rules, though, is that they do force you to use a password which cannot be found simply by trawling through a standard dictionary.
Read some tips on how to create a password to remember here and remember the wise words of Clifford Stoll: “Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don't let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months.”
4th November 2016
Carrots and peas, Romeo and Juliet, actuaries and puzzles…matches made in heaven! Actuaries (well, mathematicians, but close enough) have been associated with puzzles for centuries – something about our competitive and dogged streak when it comes to problem-solving (or our cryptic nature in general) will not allow us to overlook the challenge of a juicy cryptic crossword clue…in fact, anyone who has studied history (or Keira Knightley films) will know that in the Second World War many of British military intelligence’s heroes, the mathematicians of Bletchley Park who broke the apparently unbreakable Enigma machine code, were crossword fanatics.
Cryptic crossword creation is both a science and an art. There are guidelines around creating clues, for example, a good clue should contain:
1. A precise definition
2. A fair subsidiary indication
3. Nothing else
There are also well known tools and devices crossword fanatics use to crack clues, such as common abbreviations, indicators of anagrams and use of punctuation.
Some of the more ingenious clues we’ve come across include:
•Opposed to previous duck course (9)
(Answer: ANTIPASTO – Anti = opposed, past = previous, o = duck (0 in cricket); definition = course)
•Bank deposits say, key currency (5,6)
(Answer: LEGAL TENDER – LENDER (bank) deposits i.e. contains E.G. (say) ALT (key, the one on the computer keyboard); definition: currency)
•Risk acne eruption without this? (8)
(Answer: SKINCARE – RISK ACNE is an anagram for SKINCARE, which is also the definition of the clue)
Need some more procrastination? Why not try your hand at an actuarial cryptic crossword (yes, they do exist!)?
Send in your correct answers to email@example.com and the next coffee is on us! Or, if the answers are proving elusive, email us anyway and we’ll provide some hints (don't worry, we won’t tell anyone!).
Actuarial Cryptic Crossword
(Created by Benjamin van Heerden (FASSA))
28th October 2016
The birthday paradox, also known as the birthday problem, states that in a random group of 23 people, there is about a 50 percent chance that two people have the same birthday.
This seems like a paradox to us – with only 22 other people in the room, finding for a 1 in 365 day (excluding 29 February birthdays) does not seem more likely than not to be possible. But let’s dust off our Stats 101 brains and look at some probability theory…
Remember that in the scenario, there will be 23 people, each making comparisons with the 22 other people. The total number of unique comparisons (or combinations) is thus 22 + 21 + 20 + … + 1 = 253. So each group of 23 people involves 253 comparisons, or 253 chances for matching birthdays.
When comparing probabilities, it can be easier to look at the probability that people do not share a birthday. The probability that a person does not have the same birthday as another person is 364 divided by 365 because there are 364 days that are not a person's birthday. This means that any two people have a 364/365, or 99.726027 percent, chance of not matching birthdays.
However, we are not looking at just one, but at 253 comparisons. Every one of the 253 combinations has the same odds, 99.726027 percent, of not being a match. If you multiply 99.726027 percent by itself 253 times, or calculate (364/365)253, you'll find there's a 49.952 percent chance that all 253 comparisons contain no matches. Consequently, the odds that there is a birthday match in those 253 comparisons is 1 – 49.952 percent = 50.048 percent, or just over half!
To find more about why this concept seems so unintuitive, read Understanding the Birthday Paradox.
21st October 2016
Have you ever been taken by surprise by the result of, say, a national referendum, because everyone you were exposed to on social media was planning to vote the other way? You might have been trapped in a filter bubble.
A filter bubble is a result of a personalised search (most famously, Google’s Personalised Search results and Facebook’s news stream) in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about them (such as location, past click behavior and search history). As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.
The term was coined by internet activist Eli Pariser who believes that these algorithms cause users to get less exposure to conflicting viewpoints and are isolated intellectually in their own informational bubble. Pariser related an example in which one user searched Google for "BP" and got investment news about British Petroleum while another searcher got information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
A potential downside to filtered searching is that it "closes us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information" and "creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists", warns Pariser. It is potentially harmful to both individuals and society, in his view. He says that "invisible algorithmic editing of the web" may limit our exposure to new information and narrow our outlook. According to Pariser, the detrimental effects of filter bubbles include harm to the general society in the sense that it has the possibility of "undermining civic discourse" and making people more vulnerable to "propaganda and manipulation".
A filter bubble has been described as exacerbating a phenomenon that has been called splinternet or cyberbalkanisation, which happens when the Internet becomes divided up into sub-groups of like-minded people who become insulated within their own online community and fail to get exposure.
On the other hand, some reports are sceptical about the extent to which personalised filtering is happening and whether such activity is beneficial or harmful. In fact, some studies show that consumers use the filter to expand their taste, not limit it.
With apologies to the Bard: bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, indeed!
14th October 2016
October is the month for all things creepy and there are few things creepier than crop circles…but did you know that many of them display complex mathematical characteristics?
In 2010 a crop circle based on the 'world's most beautiful maths theorem' has appeared in a rape seed field in Wiltshire.
It was suggested that the pattern had a connection to Leonhard Euler's theorem e^(i)pi+1=0 (which is thought to be one of the most beautiful theorems in mathematics), based on its binary appearance.
Researchers even said that it could have contained a hidden tune. Historically, crop circles have been associated with diatonic scales (white notes on the piano). These diatonic scale frequencies are encoded in each segment of the crop circle and can be played on the piano.
Another mathematical crop circle was the one carved out in a barley field, the Barbury Castle crop circle, which was a pictorial representation of the first ten digits of Pi. The image was an example of what is known as a fractal, or geometric pattern.
Our source for this story is a Daily Mail article…so you may want to cross reference before hauling out your UFO equipment for this one.
7th October 2016
Traditionally, the image associated with “actuary” is one of a maths genius with less than perfect social skills. But that is changing, especially as computers only become more powerful in their ability to do technical actuarial work – good communication is key to our profession (from exam stage to communicating to clients and board members, to winning new business). Luckily for us, emotionally intelligent beings are made, not born, and mastering the following “soft skills” can go a long way to ensure that we look at other people’s shoes, instead of our own, when we speak to them:
Knowing how your emotions are affecting your performance; being able to make decisions based on your feelings; knowing your strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, having a high level of self-confidence.
Managing disruptive feelings, emotions, and impulses so that you can: focus on the jobs at hand; be flexible in handling change; be open to new ideas; be ready to act on opportunities.
Being able to put your own emotional preoccupations on hold in order to be aware of other people’s feelings, needs, perspectives, and concerns. This forms the basis of a number of competencies, enables you to help others to develop, and increases your ability to read political undercurrents.
Being warm and friendly and thus able to persuade, build bonds, and collaborate.
And, when in doubt, throw in a corny actuarial joke to break awkward silences...like this one:
Question: What do actuaries do at parades? Answer: They waive their premiums.
The source of this article was a piece written for The Actuary magazine, available here.
30th September 2016
What number can you count to using your hands? Most of us would probably say ten (for our ten fingers)…and that is how the decimal system came about. But ancient Babylonians would argue that 60 was the logical counting base. And not because they had 60 fingers…
The way the ancient Babylonians counted to 60 on their hands (and thus ended up using a sexagesimal system) was as follows: count three bones of each finger on one hand using the thumb on the same hand (start at the top of your little finger and count down the bones 1... 2... 3, then move on to the next finger 4... 5... 6... and so on). Having got to 12 you count this off as one '12' on the other hand and go back to the beginning. You can do this five times, with twelve bones per time and thus count to 60 on two hands without having to write anything down.
This Babylonian numbering system is the reason behind 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. Also 12 inches in a foot, 12 months in a year, 360 degrees in a circle and any number of other imperial measurements. Babylonian advances in mathematics were probably facilitated by the fact that 60 has many divisors (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 and 60 - in fact, 60 is the smallest integer divisible by all integers from 1 to 6), Also, numbers which are multiples of 12 (such as 24, 60, and 144) are all also divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6, whereas 10 is only divisible by 2 and 5 - so it's easier to count halves, quarters and thirds in a base 12 system.
So what does 111 represent in the Babylonian system? 3661 (60^2 + 60^1 + 60^0).
Due to artefacts of their writing system surviving thousands of years, archaeologists have even found what appear to be school exercises in arithmetic and geometric problems - we can’t help but feel for the children who had to learn their times tables to the power 60!
23rd September 2016
Feeling blue at work lately? The solution to happiness may just come down two science – four chemicals which give us feelings of satisfaction in different ways:
Endorphins: “No pain”
Endorphins diminish our perception of pain and keep us going during work-outs, giving a “runner’s high”, and helping us to endure difficulties. Good for those late nights, 70+ hour weeks, and back-breaking middle seats.
Work example: 2am late night at the office, rushing to meet a deadline
Dopamine: “One More”
Dopamine motivates us to achieve incremental goals and rewards motivated behaviour. It makes us feel good when we check things off the “to do list” and is highly addictive.
Work example: Setting and achieving milestones
Serotonin: “Loyalty; allegiance”
Serotonin provides the feeling of significance, pride, status. It drives us to seek the recognition of others. Want to do it “for my mom, my boss, my husband.” It reinforces the sense of relationships with the group (allegiance). It creates a sense of organisational cohesion.
Work example: making your boss proud
Oxytocin: “Intimacy and Safety”
Oxytocin creates intimacy and trust; the feeling of safety and that someone will protect you. Moms, babies, lovers feel this when they are protected and loved.
Work example: Team dinners and one-on-ones with your manager
It has been argued that these chemicals have wired us to be driven, organised, relationally-motivated creatures. We succeed because we understand the benefits of co-operation and teamwork. Feeling better now?
16th September 2016
Computers have slowly started to encroach on activities we previously believed only the human brain could handle. IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat Grand Master Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, and in 2011 IBM’s Watson beat former human winners at the quiz game Jeopardy. But the ancient board game Go has long been one of the major goals of artificial intelligence research. It’s understood to be one of the most difficult games for computers to handle due to the sheer number of possible moves a player can make at any given point. But earlier this year, DeepMind an artificial intelligence system created by Google beat a professional Go player at the game.
Why is this a big deal? While computers “solved” games like draughts years ago (i.e. each possible outcome of the game has been recorded), chess has not yet been solved. And Go is much more complex than chess – the game possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the universe! There are over five times the number of spaces on a Go board than on a chess board—361 vs. 64. The number of possible Go moves is around 150–250 per turn (in chess, the average number of moves is 37). Because an exhaustive computer program for Go must calculate and compare every possible legal move in each player turn, its ability to calculate the best plays is sharply reduced when there are a large number of possible moves. Most computer game algorithms, such as those for chess, compute several moves in advance. Given an average of 200 available moves through most of the game, for a computer to calculate its next move by exhaustively anticipating the next four moves of each possible play (two of its own and two of its opponent's), it would have to consider more than 320 billion (3.2×1011) possible combinations. To exhaustively calculate the next eight moves, would require computing 512 quintillion (5.12×1020) possible combinations. The most powerful supercomputer in the world would require 4 hours to assess all possible combinations of the next eight moves in order to make a single play.
So how did Google’s AI system come out on top? Instead of relying on “brute force”, DeepMind used a system modelled on the human brain – building two neural networks to enable the programme to choose moves that “felt right”. Seems like the next level of Artificial Intelligence has just been given the Go-ahead!
Read more about DeepMind here.
9th September 2016
London recently commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, quickly spread, and blazed for five days, causing untold damage to the city. But, what rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Great Fire was the world’s first insurance company!
One of the laws passed in the aftermath of the great fire allowed for the incorporation of an organisation to indemnify for losses due to fire. In the year following the fire, 1667, the first actual insurance company, known as "The Insurance Office", was formed, located in a small office behind London's Royal Exchange.
To protect the buildings it was insuring, The Insurance Office formed actual fire-fighting teams. They were issued equipment and identifying badges. Their job was solely to put out fires in the buildings they insured. Other insurance companies followed, with names like the Friendly Society and the Hand-in-Hand, and they also employed their own fire departments.
These company-owned brigades were specifically employed by their respective insurance companies. When a fire occurred, all the nearby fire brigades would rush to the fire. If the building wasn’t insured by their company, they'd either leave or, more likely, stay to watch the show.
The various insurance companies realised that they needed a quick and easy way for these brigades to be able to identify the houses and buildings that their employers insured. And so they began issuing tin signs, called "firemarks," to their policyholders, which would be mounted under the eaves in the front of their houses.
The whole idea of insurer-owned fire departments wasn’t the most efficient or effect method of fire prevention. The solution, of course, was to have municipal―not private―fire departments. A deal was worked out, and all the insurance companies donated their equipment to the city. The city hired the firefighters, whose job was to fight fire, whether the building was insured or not.
That didn't eliminate the need for insurance, nor did it eliminate the need for firemarks. Given the choice of buildings to save, the firefighters would always attempt to save an insured building before an uninsured one. It was customary for insurance companies to pay for ale at the local pub for any firefighters who attempted to save their insured property and to provide bonuses for those who were successful at it.
So, what happened to The Insurance Office? It eventually went out of business. The oldest documented insurance company today dates back to 1710. Originally known as the Sun Fire Office, it is now called Royal & Sun Alliance – or RSA.
2nd September 2016
These days we take for granted the familiar open-plan office layout in which we spend the better part of our waking hours. But modern office design is the result of an evolution: what started out, in the early 20th century, as a design exercise in extracting maximum efficiency from an organisation and its staff has now become a much more cultured process – and the latest trend (to which many companies have not yet caught on) is to incorporate natural elements in office design.
So, how did we end up getting back to nature? The Human Spaces Report summarises some highlights from a century of workspace evolution…
1900s: steeled for a revolution
This was a time of offices like production lines, but it was the humble steel girder that was behind what we know as the modern open plan. The material allowed for much bigger internal spaces to be opened up.
1960s: Bürolandschaft and the dawn of office landscapes
The trend in this decade was to get away from topdown power to a more socially democratic layout, encouraging interaction and more human behaviour. Enter Bürolandschaft, a German concept translated as ‘office-landscape’. It used organic groupings of desks and plants as partitions, in an effort to move away from “scientific management”. Many of the original plans resembled cell structures under a microscope, something which wasn’t necessarily accidental.
1980s: Into the box
Whilst open plan, organic spaces had emerged by the 1960s, many organisations eventually reacted to this by looking to gain back a degree of privacy on the office floor. The cubicle was implemented across many businesses – a way to stay open but also to have some personal space. It became widespread, particularly in the US, although now is increasingly looked on as an anachronism which provides neither open space nor privacy.
2000s: Coffee shops and fun
With the new millennium came a realisation that, perhaps, nobody needs to be in the office at all. The rise of coffee shops and wireless technology were just two of the ways in which employees felt freed from their cubicles, with over 95% of UK employers offering flexible working. The reaction inside the office was to make things more fun, appeal to our non-work selves and “gamify” the environment to create work and leisure time in one space. And so the stereotypes of creative companies filled with pinball machines, beanbags and pool tables were introduced.
2010s: Biophilia and collaboration
Employers and their staff realised that there’s more to well-designed offices than a games room. The most modern workplaces are high concept, encouraging a sense of community, collective problem solving and well-being. And it’s biophilic design (the idea of incorporating nature into the built environment) that can complement all of these ideas – not just because nature has an impact on our health and performance, but it encourages a ‘whole person’ view of people at work. Increasingly, workplaces are being designed with nature in mind. From some of the most impressive vertical gardens in Singapore to the green campuses at leading companies like Google and Apple, the benefits have been embraced across the working world.
So, dust off that office pot plant, connect with nature, and consider yourself on trend.
26th August 2016
“IS Helpdesk? Hi, my computer isn’t working.”
“Is it plugged in?”
“Of course it is, I…oh. Nevermind.”
It happens to the best of us; and there is a special place reserved in the IT world’s cursing vocabulary for those of us who blame technology for our mistakes. It’s called User Error.
A user error is an error made by the human user of a complex system, usually a computer system, in interacting with it. An example of this is a user mistaking their CD-ROM tray for a cupholder, or a user looking for the "any key". However, any variety of stupidity or ignorance-induced problems can be described as user errors.
There are a number of derogatory (and humorous) phrases used as slang in technical circles which imply a lack of computer savvy, asserting that problems arising when using a device are the fault of the user. Critics of the term argue that the problems are caused instead by a device that doesn't take into account human limitations and is thus designed in a way that induces errors.
Either way, we thought it would be entertaining to share some of the more colourful ones today (who knows when they may come in handy!):
PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair
POBCAK: Problem Occurs Between Chair And Keyboard
PICNIC: Problem in Chair; Not in Computer
EBKAC: Error between keyboard and chair
ID-10T error: idiot error
Some support technicians refer to it as "Biological Interface error"
The networking administrators' version is referring to the cause of a problem as a "layer 8 issue" (where layer 8 is the user layer on top of the OSI model of computer networking)
The computing jargon refers to "wetware bugs" as the user is considered part of the system, in a hardware/software/wetware layering
"(It's a) carbon based error", indicates a user problem (as humans are a carbon-based life-form), as opposed to a silicon one
So if you are planning a PICNIC this weekend, don't be an ID-10T and forget to bring the (POB)CAKe.
19th August 2016
They say life moves pretty fast…if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. And that’s more true than ever. In 2016, everything is faster than before: computers, cars, and even people.
Usain Bolt's gold medal sprint in 2012 came in at 9.63 seconds, beating his own time to make him faster than every Olympic medallist since 1896. His best dash, at 9.58 seconds, is the World Record - making him the fastest person ever timed. All eyes were on his performance in the Rio Olympic Games, where he made history as the three-time gold medal holder.
But are Olympic runners getting faster with time, or is Usain Bolt just a superhuman determined to beat record upon record?
Looking at trends in men’s and women’s sprinting times, athletes do seem to be generally faster now.
There are a number of possible reasons for this: athletes have enjoyed a century of improvements in nutrition, fitness, equipment, footwear and track surfaces. Natural influences of how and where the athlete is born have also proven to be important. Technology has also allowed athletes to train more effectively, and helped their trainers obtain more data on their personal biology and genetics.
This has allowed them to trim fractions of seconds from their times, helping to drive averages and world records further down.
David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, has previously said:
"Consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran."
"Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride."
A trend is not a trend until it has a graph; and the one below shows the number of seconds it took the gold medal winner to run 100 metres at each year the Olympic Games have been held; i.e. the race against time:
12th August 2016
Stats 101 taught us that the normal distribution can be used to approximate the binomial distribution. You too can investigate this hypothesis with the use of a simple piece of apparatus called the Galton board (named after the English scientist Sir Francis Galton), also known as a quincunx or bean machine.
The bean machine consists of a vertical board with interleaved rows of pins. Balls are dropped from the top, and bounce either left (with some probability p) or right (with probability q = 1 – p) as they hit the pins. Eventually, they are collected into one-ball-wide bins at the bottom.
For symmetrically placed nails, balls will bounce left or right with equal probability, so p=q=1/2. If the rows are numbered from 0 to N-1, the path of each falling ball is a Bernoulli trial consisting of N steps. Each ball crosses the bottom row hitting the nth peg from the left (where 0<=n<=N-1) iff it has taken exactly n right turns, which occurs with probability
If the number of balls is sufficiently large, then, according to the weak law of large numbers, the height of ball columns accumulated in the bins will eventually approximate a bell curve.
Want to see the experiment in action but not quite ready to invest in your own bean machine? Large-scale working models of this device can be seen in the Mathematica: A World of Numbers... and Beyond exhibits permanently on view at the Boston Museum of Science or the New York Hall of Science...or just play some good old fashioned pinball for a close (for want of a better word) approximation to the experience.
5th August 2016
Every heard of the Butterfly Effect? No, not the Ashton Kutcher movie. It’s the idea that an event as seemingly insignificant as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of history.
The term was in fact coined by the American mathematician, Edward Lorenz. He was working in the field of meteorology and he realised that small changes in initial conditions in the weather could lead to vastly different outcomes a few days or weeks later. Just because the weather conditions looked the same on two days, it wouldn’t mean that the weather could be predicted a few days later. A very slight difference between the two days would lead to vastly different outcomes later on. This led to Lorenz using a metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane a few weeks later on the other side of the world.
Up to this point mathematicians and scientists had been used to discovering equations which exactly described the physical world, allowing it to be predicted exactly. For example the swing of a pendulum could be predicted so precisely that it could be used in clocks. Mathematicians expected that all systems would be the same, and that we only needed to discover the right equations in order for things like the weather to be predicted exactly.
What Lorenz showed was that in fact some systems are what we now call chaotic. This means that very small changes to the starting conditions will produce widely different results. The weather is the most famous example of a chaotic system, however chaos crops up all over the place and can be found in areas as diverse as the human body and the stock market.
29th July 2016
There’s only one degree of separation between the world’s most famous comet and actuarial science! Edmund Halley, the mathematician whose namesake was given to Halley’s Comet, developed the first mortality table based on sound demographic data in 1693. This table, along with Halley’s formula to calculate the probability of life expectancy, then formed the basis of the actuarial profession.
Halley obtained demographic data for Breslau, Poland, where detailed records of births, deaths, and the ages of death were kept (ages of deceased people were not recorded in London until the 18th century). Caspar Neumann, an important German minister in Breslau, sent some demographic records to Gottfried Leibniz, who in turn sent them to the Royal Society in London.
Halley analysed Newmann’s data and published the analysis in the Philosophical Transactions, of which he was editor.
His second contribution to actuarial science (1705) concerned compound interest. He derived formulae for approximating the annual percentage rate of interest implicit in financial transactions and annuities.
Even though actuarial science was not his main area of expertise, he did use data and assumptions to predict that a certain comet would return in 1758 (he observed that it came around every 75 years). When it turned out that he was correct, the comet was posthumously named in his honour.
So that explains why actuaries are always reaching for the stars!
22nd July 2016
A fractal is a geometric construction that is self-similar at different scales. In other words, a fractal shape will look almost, or even exactly, the same no matter what size it is viewed at. If you perform a Google Image search for fractals, you will see examples in art, nature, even in vegetables.
It remains, however, an unintuitive concept. But let us look at a famous example of a fractal: the Sierpinski Triangle.
There are various ways to construct the Sierpinski Triangle. The first step in the geometric construction, for example, involves splitting a triangle up into four other triangles and removing the middle one. Then split each sub-triangle into four more triangles and remove each of the middle ones, etc.
The area of a Sierpinski triangle is zero because the area remaining after each iteration is clearly 3/4 of the area from the previous iteration, and an infinite number of iterations results in zero!
When we look at the finished Sierpinski Triangle, we can zoom in on any of these three sub-triangles, and it will look exactly like the entire Sierpinski Triangle itself. In fact, we can zoom in to any depth we would like, and always find an exact replica of the Sierpinski Triangle.
What is the significance of fractals? They have numerous implications in mathematics and topography, as well as in computer graphics applications. But mostly they serve as a conversation starter at cocktail parties!
15th July 2016
This week’s story is a well-known tale about customer service and how logical thinking can explain the relationship of things which may seem totally unrelated.
The story goes that a complaint was received by the Pontiac Division of General Motors. The customer described how every night after dinner the family would decide what kind of ice cream to have for dessert. He would then drive in his new car to the ice cream shop to buy the chosen flavor. Every time he bought the vanilla flavor and started back home, the car wouldn’t start. If he bought any other flavor, the car started up completely fine. After many such instances, he concluded, of course, that the car was allergic to vanilla ice cream.
After several complaints to the car company, the Pontiac President decided to send an engineer to check it out. For a statistically significant number of nights, the engineer joined the man on his drive to the ice cream shop. Sure enough, when they bought vanilla ice cream the car wouldn’t start, but for any other flavor the car was fine.
Being a logical man, the engineer refused to believe that this man’s car was allergic to vanilla ice cream. He continued his visits and jotted down all sorts of data: time of day, type of fuel used, time to drive back and forth, etc.
He observed that the man took less time to buy vanilla than any other flavor. Why? Because of the layout of the shop. The proprietor had set up a separate counter near the door to serve only those customers ordering vanilla, as it was the most popular flavour. All the other flavors were served at a larger counter near the back. Also, since the store owner was understaffed, customers wanting flavors other than the vanilla flavor had to wait for longer times. Those buying vanilla were in and out in a minute or two.
So it turned out that time, not the car, was the problem! Now, the question for the engineer was why the car wouldn’t start when it took less time.
The answer he came up with was: “VAPOUR LOCK”. Due to ambient warm temperatures and humidity, a vapour lock formed in the new car’s carburetor when the engine was turned off. This vapour lock had enough time to dissipate if the man ordered any flavor other than vanilla. But if he ordered vanilla, he was in and out of the shop so fast that the vapour lock hadn’t had time to clear, and thus the car wouldn’t start. This phenomenon of vapour lock happens under a combination of new car, thin oil, tight engine fits and low torque starters. However, after sufficient use, say, 1000 miles, this problem disappears.
Now, if you have a sweet tooth, this is definitely an experiment you should try at home!
8th July 2016
Have you ever wondered where the term “entrepreneur” comes from? Neither have we, but the internet offered and we didn’t say no.
If you have ever given the question some thought, you might think the “entrepreneur” would have featured in Adam Smith’s free market masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations. But this is not the case; the term was actually coined by one of Smith’s admirers, economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Entrepreneur is a French word, usually translated as “adventurer”. Say studied Smith's book and, while agreeing on all points, found that the omission of the enterprising businessperson was a serious flaw.
Say wrote that it was entrepreneurs who sought out inefficient uses of resources and capital and moved them into more productive, higher yield areas. Entrepreneurs seek opportunities for profit and, in the process, create new markets and fresh opportunities. By constantly disrupting the balance of competition, entrepreneurs prevent monopolies from forming and create a wide diversity of products that keep consumers consuming and producers producing. In return for taking these risks, successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Henry Ford reap fortunes far beyond those of normal agents in the economy.
Say himself, as a cotton manufacturer, was an entrepreneur. When Thomas Jefferson read his work, he tried to convince the author to come and teach in his new nation. Although Say never stepped foot on US soil, his entrepreneurial outlook was largely influential in the US at the time of the industrial revolution.
And that’s all we have to Say about that.
1st July 2016
Weather derivatives are financial instruments that can be used to reduce risk associated with adverse or unexpected weather conditions. These exotic instruments have been around for the last 20 years, and allow investors to hedge against damage caused by rain, extreme temperatures or snowfall…
But by 2013, the market in exchange traded snowfall derivatives in particular had all but ground to a halt. What happened?
In theory, the market for snow-related weather derivatives should be huge. Snowstorms affect a lot of businesses, and you often hear about significant financial damage caused by blizzards. Typically, the contracts are priced based on the expected inches of snow in a particular time period in a given city. If accumulation is greater than the set amount, the seller of the derivative has to pay out. But if the snowfall is less than that figure, the contract will expire worthless.
So why the lack of interest? Partly due to the lack of snow in recent years – companies generally want to protect themselves against too much snow rather than too little (large ski resorts never took an interest, perhaps because they pre-sell season tickets).
Also, Wall Street made a killing in the winter of 2011-12, which saw a record lack of snow across the US. Since then, buyers of the contracts, who lost money on the insurance, have failed to come back.
In general, the markets for more esoteric derivatives have dried up since the financial crisis. And, given the effects of climate change, the number of people expecting record snowfalls is rapidly shrinking.
And that’s how a potential gold mine entered the deep freeze.
24th June 2016
Europe is once again gripped by football fever and Paris-based actuarial consultancy, Actuaris, has released an algorithm to determine the ranking of the teams after the preliminary rounds.
Their analysis involved the simulation of millions of possible scenarios and the (totally unbiased, of course) results placed France as the favourite to win the tournament (in 24% of scenarios), with Germany in at a close second at 22%.
Rounding up the top five are Spain, England and Belgium, followed by Italy, Portugal and Poland. Based on this data, the final will most probably be between France and Spain.
Chief executive Pierre Arnal said: “We know that the future winner and all the results of the matches have been simulated; only the probabilities of achieving these remain uncertain: it is called the glorious uncertainty of sport."
Bookmakers are predicting almost an identical outcome, although many are judging Croatia ahead of Poland.
10th June 2016
Did you know that Thailand is referred to as a Tiger Cub Economy? No, not because of the escapades of its notorious Tiger Temple…
Thailand, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are all referred to as the Tiger Cub Economies. The name was inspired by the original Tiger Economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Tigers are important in Asian symbolism and these countries underwent rapid economic growth, accompanied by an increase in the standard of living, between the late 1980s and early 1990s, before experiencing a financial crisis in 1997 and 1998.
Tiger Cub Economies follow the same export-driven model of economic development pursued by the Four Asian Tigers. Young tigers are referred to as "cubs", the implication being that the four newly industrialized countries which make up the Tiger Cub Economies are rising Tigers.
The Asian Tigers also inspired other economies later on; the Anatolian Tigers (certain Turkish cities) in the 1980s, the Gulf Tiger (Dubai) in the 1990s, the Celtic Tiger (Republic of Ireland) in 1995-2000, the Baltic tiger (Baltic states) in 2000-2007, and the Tatra Tiger (Slovakia) in 2002-2007.
For emerging economies in Africa, the term lion economy is used as an analogy. Countries considered to be "Lion Economies" are South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritius and Tunisia.
The term "wolf economy" is used to describe Mongolia's rapidly growing economy.
On the topic of tigers, here is a bonus piece of trivia: did you know that the stock symbol for the Asia Tigers Fund, Inc. is GRR?
3rd June 2016
Some products sell well when first introduced. Many more fail miserably. Very few of them sell so well that they fundamentally impact American culture. 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of ten products that did just that.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed product categories that generate attention from many groups and command significant and frequently long-lasting loyalty. They then identified individual products that had the highest sales in their category. Toys, consumer electronics, books and movies can be passing interests. However, the most successful of these are the best-selling products of all time.
Some of the characteristics that these products had in common included: being innovative in their respective categories, being franchises and reaching a wide demographic.
The Best-Selling Products of All Time are:
1. Rubik’s Cube
3. The Harry Potter series
4. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album
5. Mario Brothers franchise
7. Star Wars movie franchise
8. Toyota Corolla
9. Lipitor (a drug that lowers cholesterol)
Read more on the study here.
27th May 2016
In February 2015 the story broke of Max-Hervé George, the 25 year old who could one day own Aviva France.
Eighteen years before, Max-Hervé’s father took out life insurance policies for the whole family from L’Abeille Vie (which would later become part of Aviva) known as “Fixed Price Arbitrage Life Insurance Contracts”. The terms of these contracts allowed clients to switch funds at the previous week’s published prices any time before the next price was published, even if markets moved in the meantime. Is the stock market up this week? Just call your broker to buy it at last week’s price and pocket the difference.
This offer of hindsight investment seems ridiculous now, when information is instant and easily accessible, but thirty years ago prices for funds were published infrequently. Trading involved calling your broker, visiting them in person, or maybe sending a fax. It could take days for the trade to be processed, during which time the market could move again.
But each week the George family would switch their money into the best fund, and Max-Hervé continues to do so, with the result being, due to compound interest and the ability to add new capital to the fund at will, that the amount due Max-Hervé may very quickly outstrip the total net assets of Aviva France…merci papa!
Read more on the story here.
20th May 2016
There’s a new addition to the Internet of Things (IoT), the network of physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.
A British technology firm, Intelligent Environments, has developed the world’s first Internet of Things bank account, which enables users to log into their bank and securely connect a range of smart devices. One of these smart devices automatically detects overspending, then gives users an electric shock. Another turns their heating down to save hundreds on heating bills. With a third of millennials too scared to check their bank account, this innovation may be an answer to budgeting woes.
The IoT Pavlok integration works in four easy steps. First, consumers log into their credit card or bank account. Second, they connect their Pavlok device and set a spending limit. Third, when users near their self-imposed spending limit, their phone will display a notification. Finally, if users go over their limit, Pavlok will deliver an electric shock to their wrist.
If Pavolok seems a little too…shocking, the bank account also works with other smart devices, such as Google’s Nest Thermostat. If a user’s account balance drops below their self-imposed spending limit, the bank will automatically turn the Nest Thermostat down to a user-defined temperature. According to the Energy Saving Trust, turning your thermostat down by just three degrees will save £255 per year.
A shock to the wrist may sound a little extreme, but, as the MD of Intelligent Environments, David Webber, said: “They think it’s much better to get a little shock now, instead of a nasty one later.”
13th May 2016
Before we learned the ins and outs of microeconomics, the word “Monopoly” conjured images of fun, cute tokens and quality family time for some…and power struggles, tears and colourful bank notes, flung across the room in frustration, for others.
Whatever Monopoly means to you, you can use your statistical knowledge to turn the odds of this enduring board game in your favour. Walter Hickey of The Business Insider did the maths to come up with some key strategies that you can use to crush the dreams and aspirations of your friends and loved ones:
1. Buy properties and blocks that the Chance cards send you to (these have an above average chance of being landed on)
2. Buy up properties close to Jail – it’s the space that everyone is most likely to end their turn on
3. Do the maths to figure out the most commonly landed spaces and buy them (in the American version, it’s Illinois Ave, New York Ave and B&O Railroad)
4. Your opponents will probably move seven spaces – when planning construction, keep this in mind to crush them with crippling rent
5. Build three houses at once to accelerate your return on investment
And you thought all those years of studying Markov chains wouldn’t have any practical value!
Click here to read the full article.
6th May 2016
Even the least ardent sports fans would not have been able to escape the fact that, oddly, Leicester City has won the Premier League for 2016. On the first day of the season, Ladbrokes were offering odds of 5000/1 on Leicester to win. You don’t have to be a football expert (or even an actuary!) to appreciate the unlikelihood of what ended up happening, but, just to put it into perspective, here is a list of things that were considered more likely to happen at that time:
Simon Cowell becoming Prime Minister – 500/1
Piers Morgan becoming Arsenal manager - 2500/1
The Queen releasing the Christmas number one - 1000/1
Loch Ness monster being discovered - 500/1
Triplets for Kate and William - 1000/1
Kim Kardashian becoming US president - 2000/1
Elvis being alive – 2000/1
Andy Murray naming his first born Novak – 500/1
Hugh Hefner admitting he's a virgin – 1000/1
Alien life discovered before 2017 – 1000/1
Bookmakers are now looking at paying out a total of £25m, with the biggest winnings reported to be a whopping £100,000. The pay-outs break the record for the biggest loss in British sporting history, and equate to nearly half of what Leicester’s entire squad this season cost the club – a reasonable £54.4m compared to the hundreds of millions spent by the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. So what should we bet on next? We may be a risk averse bunch, but, as Tom Hanks discovered, high risks can win you high returns!
Whatever the origins of the upcoming day off, we hope it’s a fun, relaxing and sunny one!
29th April 2016
This coming Monday we will all be enjoying the early May bank holiday, but what are the origins of this holiday?
Official UK bank holidays – days on which banks would be closed and thus no trading could take place – began in 1871, when they were first recognised in an Act of Parliament authored by Sir John Lubbock. He was a banker who, it is said, was so keen on cricket he chose dates when village matches were played in his home county. In truth, "St Lubbock's Days", as they were briefly known, were all associated with important religious festivals and agricultural holidays.
May Day, however, only became an official bank holiday in 1971, but its roots as a holiday stretch back to pre-Christian pagan festivals, and the Gaelic Beltane. The familiar rituals of dancing around the Maypole and the crowning of the May Queen made it a popular seasonal celebration in medieval England.
May Day is associated with spring and fertility, the sowing of the seeds - rumour has it that Mayfair in London is named after a particularly debauched and raucous festival held during the 18th century.
The first of May is also celebrated internationally as International Workers' Rights day, which some think has marked it out as a political target. In 2000 serious rioting broke out during the ‘May Day riots’, where masked ‘anti-capitalist’ demonstrators ransacked a McDonald’s and destroyed a number of buildings in the City of London.
Whatever the origins of the upcoming day off, we hope it’s a fun, relaxing and sunny one!
22nd April 2016
Don’t think of a white bear.
A white bear is probably all you can think of now, due to Ironic Process Theory. Similarly, if we say: “Do not type “rm –rf“ into your operating system”, you may well be tempted to do the opposite. But don’t.
With this line of code you could wipe out the entire contents of your computer. In what turned out to be a hoax (but has been known to happen before), the owner of a website hosting provider wrote on a forum called Server Fault that he had accidentally deleted the data of his company, its clients, and all his backups, essentially destroying his company with a single command.
rm –rf is a piece of code that will delete everything it is told to. The “rm” tells the computer to remove, the “r” deletes everything within a given director, and the “f” stands for force, telling the computer to ignore the usual warnings that come with deleting files.
Reminds one of the standard mantra for computer inflexibility: "I really hate this darn machine, I wish that they would sell it. It never does what I want, but only what I tell it.”
Read the full story behind the hoax here.
15th April 2016
As that dress proved to us in 2015, we all perceive the world differently – reality itself seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes blindness has nothing to do with vision defects or deficits, but can manifest as a psychological lack of attention, known as inattentional blindness.
Numerous experiments have demonstrated that inattentional blindness has an effect on people’s perception. The most famous example is the Invisible Gorilla Test, where subjects watched a short video of two groups of people passing a basketball around. The subjects were told to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. During the video, someone walks through the scene wearing a full gorilla suit. After watching the video, the subjects are asked if they noticed anything out of the ordinary take place. In most groups, 50% of the subjects did not report seeing the gorilla. This failure to perceive this anomaly was attributed to the failure to pay attention to it while engaged in the difficult task of counting the number of passes of the ball. These results indicate that the relationship between what is in one's visual field and perception is based much more on attention than was previously thought.
The “Clown on a unicycle” experiment demonstrated how cell phones contribute to inattentional blindness in basic tasks like walking: people using their phones were much less likely to notice a brightly coloured clown riding past on a unicycle than those who weren’t – no surprise to anyone who’s ever suffered from phone-induced road rage.
Inattentional blindness also has less literal implications – sometimes we are so focused on certain tasks that we don’t see the obvious problems right in front of us. We explore how this leads companies to lock waste into their processes in this week’s instalment of our four part series: GORILLAS THAT WE MISSED and other process improvement pitfalls.
8th April 2016
With the leaking of the Panama Papers being the latest scandal to rock the financial world, there is a lot of talk about financial forensics – the practice area of accounting describing engagements that result from actual or anticipated disputes or litigation. Forensic accountants often come across some colourful (and colourfully named) practices…
Cookie Jar Accounting: this delicious-sounding practice occurs when periods of good financial results are used to create reserves that bump up profits in lean years. It is used by companies to smooth out volatility in their financial results, thus giving investors the misleading impression that they are consistently meeting earnings targets.
Voodoo Accounting: this refers to creative rather than conservative accounting practices. Voodoo accounting employs numerous accounting gimmicks to artificially boost the bottom line by inflating revenue or concealing expenses or both. The origin of the term probably lies in the fact that once the accounting gimmicks come to light, the purported profits disappear like magic.
Financial Shenanigans: these are actions designed to mask or misrepresent the true financial performance or actual financial position of a company or entity. Financial shenanigans can range from relatively minor infractions involving creative interpretation of accounting rules to outright fraud over many years.
This list of dodgy accounting practices goes on: big bath charges, merger magic, and black box accounting to name a few! As amusing as these names may be, it may be best to find another way to have fun…
1st April 2016
Did you know that a ladder resting against a frictionless wall will fall infinitely fast when pulled? We have the maths to prove it: Consider a ladder of length L leaning against a frictionless wall which is at right angles to the ground. You pull the bottom of the ladder horizontally away from the wall, at constant speed v. The claim is that this causes the top of the ladder to fall infinitely fast.
Step 1: Let x denote the horizontal distance from the bottom of the ladder to the wall, at time t.
Step 2: As shown, let y denote the height of the top of the ladder from the ground, at time t.
Step 3: Since the ladder, the ground, and the wall form a right-angled triangle, x2 + y2 = L2.
Step 4: Therefore, y = √(L2 – x2).
Step 5: Differentiating, and letting x' and y' (respectively) denote the derivatives of x and y with respect to t, we get that y' = -(xx’)/ √(L2 – x2)
Step 6: Since the bottom of the ladder is being pulled with constant speed v, we have x' = v, and therefore y' = -(xv)/ √(L2 – x2)
Step 7: As x approaches L, the numerator in this expression for y' approaches -Lv which is nonzero, while the denominator approaches zero.
Step 8: Therefore, y' approaches negative infinity as x approaches L. In other words, the top of the ladder is falling infinitely fast by the time the bottom has been pulled a distance L away from the wall.
But we know that a ladder will not fall at infinite speed so is the maths lying to us?
Happy April Fool’s Day! Click here for an explanation of the fallacy above. Also, look at the 10 July entry in our Lighter Side archive for more mathematical fallacies.
18th March 2016
In 1599 William Shakespeare famously wrote “Beware the Ides of March” in the play Julius Caesar. But the Ides of March wasn’t just a bad day for Caesar, who was assassinated in the senate on that date, which corresponds to 15 March, in the year 44 BCE.
The “ides” (midpoints, as per the Roman calendar) of March was a traditional time to settle debts, and also used to be tax day in the USA, between 1918 and 1954.
These days, March generally means bad news for markets – in the US, at least. Municipal markets have delivered losses each March since 2002, as investors typically unleash a wave of selling to cover annual tax bills due by the mid-April deadline.
Also, for a number of years, any advances in the US equity market that occurred in the first quarter have been more than reversed by deep “corrections” in market values that come in March. Whether it was the Federal Reserve’s premature termination of its first round of mortgage buying in 2009, or the onset of the re-emergence of the Greek/Euro financial crisis in 2010, or the opening acts of the US debt ceiling crisis in 2011, or the re-emergence of the Greek crisis, spread to Spain and Italy, in 2012 – the result was always the same: A dip in stocks in the spring.
So it seems that the old saying, “sell in May and go away” should be replaced by a warning from a fictional soothsayer from more than 400 years ago: “Beware the Ides of March!”
11th March 2016
In the spirit of this past Sunday being Mothers’ Day in the UK (and International Women’s Day a few days later), this week’s Lighter Side looks at some statistics around parental leave around the world.
While maternity leave has long been an accepted standard (in varying degrees) around the world (the only countries in the world that still don’t mandate paid maternity leave are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the USA), countries are increasingly introducing paternity or shared parental leave in an effort to reduce the burden on new mothers and put an end to the enforcement of traditional gender roles. By 2013, 47% of countries in an International Labour Organisation survey had legislation on paternity leave, with 89% providing some kind of paid paternity leave.
Perhaps the best country for working parents is Sweden, where parents are treated to 480 paid days off per child. Moms and dads in the Scandinavian nation can share paid parental leave and take it any time before their child reaches the age of 8.
The worst surveyed country for paternity leave? Saudi Arabia, with only 1 day of paid paternity leave.
In the UK, parents can take up to 50 weeks of shared leave - 37 weeks of which is paid - if they meet certain eligibility criteria. Fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leave and mothers must still take the initial two weeks after birth, but they can then cut their maternity leave short and exchange it for shared parental leave.
For more statistics on parental leave around the world, look at this infographic.
4th March 2016
We at MBE love Italy, pasta, pizza and pomodoro as much as we love managing our time with pomodoro technique.
In the late 1980s Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro technique after a long search to improve his own study habits. The Pomodoro technique is a time management method, named after his kitchen timer, which happened to have the shape of a tomato (pomodoro in Italian). This Technique allows you to transform time into a valuable ally by helping you to accomplish what you want to do and charting continuous improvement in the way you do it.
There are six stages in the technique:
1. Decide on the task to be done.
2. Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally n = 25)
3. Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down, but immediately get back on task.
4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1.
6. Else (i.e. after four pomodoros) take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.
So why not get yourself an official pomodoro timer (available here) and start increasing your productivity – and your colleagues’ irritation levels – today?
26th February 2016
The function of a leap year is, believe it or not, more than just an opportunity for romantic roles to be reversed every few years. It exists because a calendar year (365) days is not exactly equal to an astronomical year (roughly 365.25 days), which is why we who observe the modern Gregorian calendar need to intercalate an additional day into the calendar every four years to make up the difference – hence the occurrence of 29 February this coming Monday.
Except that, strictly speaking, this special day isn't a quadrennial event. A Gregorian leap year is observed every four years except in century years not divisible by 400. Thus, the year 1900 was not a leap year but the year 2000 was. Why all the conditional intercalation? Because an astronomical year isn't precisely 365.25 days — it's closer to 365.2425 days, or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds. The intercalated adjustments are made to ensure that the vernal equinox stays on or about 21 March every year.
Yet for all these allowances, our calendar is still inaccurate, as the astronomical year isn't precisely 365.2425 days long. A recurring margin of error is building in the leap year system that suggests it will fail — i.e., the vernal equinox will be more than a day removed from 21 March — at a particular date in the future; the year 8000.
Goes to show, the impact of rounding can be felt for millennia!
19th February 2016
One of the golden rules of process improvement is: don’t automate or standardise a broken process. Did you know that there’s an instance of this happening that has probably impacted the course of history in a big way? Here are some clues: it’s at your fingertips and it starts with Q and ends with WERTY.
That’s right, the Qwerty keyboard, which has been hardwired in the brain of every typist and computer-user for almost 150 years, won its place in history by its ability to slow typists down.
The first attempt of Qwerty keyboard inventor, Christopher Sholes, was alphabetical, but the typebars clashed due to the key arrangements. So Sholes arranged them in a way to make the machine work. Frequency and combinations of letters had to be considered to prevent key clashes.
The typewriter wars heated with the appearance of typing competitions, where typists would battle it out to achieve the highest word counts. Not surprisingly, type would clash and stick. So Sholes rejigged the letters on his machine in order to keep speeds down.
In 1873, Qwerty was adopted by Remington, famous for its arms and sewing machines as well as its typewriters, and it became adopted as the basis not only for English but the majority of European languages as well.
In the early 1930s, time and motion expert August Dvorak produced an ergonomically-designed keyboard which could have spelled the end of Qwerty. Dvorak users reported faster, more accurate typing and reduced keyboard clashes. But it was too late. Qwerty was firmly entrenched in the hearts, minds, and fingers of the typing world, even though, argues comedian Stephen Fry, that the Qwerty keyboard and its inventor could be accused of "conspiracy to pervert the course of language and to limit the speed of creativity and language input, endangering billions with repetitive strain injury."
12th February 2016
Data can tell us anything – even how many friends we should statistically have. In the 1980s, while researching why primates devote so much time and effort to grooming, anthropologist Robin Dunbar took research on the brains of primates (which held that they have large brains because they live in socially complex societies) and applied it to humans. If it was true that the larger the group, the larger the brain, what was the number of people an average person could have in their social group?
Using a ratio of neocortical volume to total brain volume and mean group size, he came up with a number: 150. Anything beyond that would be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels.
The Dunbar number is actually a series of numbers. The best known, 150, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. From there, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.” The next step down, fifty, is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members). On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face. While the group sizes are relatively stable, their composition can be fluid. Your five today may not be your five next week; people drift among layers and sometimes fall out of them altogether.
The world of social media has added a new dimension to the term “friend”. Read this New Yorker article on the implications of Facebook friendships on Dunbar’s research.
29th January 2016
Every week MBE digs up some facts to keep our minds busy over the weekend. This week’s Lighter Side features a logical fallacy that manifests in our everyday lives, namely the Gambler’s Fallacy.
It is a fallacy in which an inference is drawn on the assumption that a series of chance events will determine the outcome of a subsequent event. In layman’s terms: believing an event is “due”. In roulette it is when the ball lands on a streak of red numbers and the anticipation increases that it is due to land on a black number, even though the odds are still 50/50.
It's generally invoked when we deal with things that frighten us. People who fly a lot tend to think that, after so many flights, they're "working their way" towards a crash, even though every flight is independent of the last. People fall into the fallacy's clutches after lightning strikes and shark attacks, thinking that neither can happen in the same place twice. And, of course, if we notice we're on a lucky streak, or an unlucky one, it has to end soon or be balanced out by something good. If something — for example rainfall or temperature…or an actuarial exam pass rate – is below average for a season, people talk about it increasing soon to get the numbers up to average. We can't help thinking that, in all cases, the past explains the future.
Luckily if we identify the fallacy, we can counter it by logical thinking and realise that most events are just random.
22nd January 2016
Pi = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971...
Mapping out the digits of pi (the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter) has been a major mathematical challenge ever since the invention of the wheel first stirred a real interest in circles. The earliest recorded values of pi were Phoenician (3 1/8) and Egyptian (3 13/81). Both values are accurate within a half a percent. Pi even appears in several texts in the Bible, assigned a rough empirical value of 3.
Why should you care about knowing the precise value of pi unless you are preparing for a geometry exam (and don’t have access to a calculator)? For fun, of course! One gentleman, Hiroyuki Goto, recited no less than 42,000 digits of pi from memory in 1995. This record feat took him about nine hours to complete. If that challenge seems a little out of your range, you can still impress your friends by memorising a few mnemonics to help you remember the value to the first 30 or so decimal places.
In the following mnemonics, the number of letters in each word corresponds to a digit.
Seven decimal places:
How I wish I could calculate pi.
Fifteen decimal places:
How I wish I could calculate pi.
How I like a drink, alcoholic of course,
after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics.
Twenty one decimal places:
Now, I wish I could recollect pi.
"Eureka," cried the great inventor.
Christmas Pudding; Christmas Pie
Is the problem's very center.
Thirty decimal places:
Now I will a rhyme construct
By chosen words the young instruct.
Cunningly devised endeavor,
Con it and remember ever.
Widths of circle here you see.
Sketched out in strange obscurity.
And if you feel the need for a device for remembering thirty one decimal places of pi, try this rhyme:
Sir, I bear a rhyme excelling
In mystic force, and magic spelling
Celestial sprites elucidate
All my own striving can't relate
Or locate they who can cogitate
And so finally terminate. Finis.
The problem with this type of mnemonic is how to represent the digit zero (which occurs in pi at the thirty second place). Several people have come up with ingenious methods of overcoming this, most commonly using a ten letter word to represent zero. In other cases a certain piece of punctuation indicates a naught.
There are many stories and poems crafted in this way; Near a Raven, is poem which currently holds the record for longest pi mnemonic, at 740 digits. Cadaeic Cadenza is a short story which is longer still at 3835 decimal places, and has additional constraints.
And you thought you would be bored this weekend…
15th January 2016
At MBE we are big fans of automation, but Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, believes in it even more. He has said that computers will be cleverer than humans by 2029, with the ability to understand what we say, learn from experience, make jokes, tell stories and even flirt (read more here).
But don’t be afraid of a robotic revolution just yet – Alan Winfield wrote a response to Kurzweil’s theory, citing a number of reasons why this will not be the case:
- What exactly does as-smart-as-humans mean? Intelligence is very hard to pin down. Emotional intelligence is just as important as analytical intelligence, especially (and oddly) for decision making. So is social intelligence – the ability to intuit others’ beliefs, and to empathise.
- Human intelligence is embodied. Humans’ bodies and minds have to be co-designed – you can’t have one without the other. But we really don’t understand how to do this as none of our existing engineering paradigms fit.
- Building human-equivalent robot intelligence needs far more than just lots of computing power. It’s like saying that all you need to build a cathedral is loads of marble. You certainly do need the raw material, but without (at least) two other things – the design for a cathedral, and/or the knowhow of how to realise that design – there will be no cathedral. The same is true for human-equivalent robot intelligence.
- The hard problem of learning and the even harder problem of consciousness. The human ability to learn, then generalise that learning and apply it to completely different problems is fundamental, and remains an elusive goal for robotics and AI. In general this is called Artificial General Intelligence, which remains as controversial as it is unsolved.
So even though 2016 promises to bring a lot of exciting technological developments, it seems that robots taking over the world isn’t one we have to worry about just yet!
Read Winfield’s full article here.
Read more of The Lighter Side from our archives: Q3 – Q4 2015 Q1 – Q2 2015