Thursday, 2 November 2017

Forced to buy the ebook of 'The Black Swan'

Unhappy with my long-standing financial advisers (low return, very high fees) I have been thrust into the role of chief investment officer of my own self-managed super fund. Fellow independent investors advised joining the Australian Investors Association (AIA), a great choice as it turned out. Felicity Cooper of Cooper Wealth Management was an excellent speaker at a local AIA event. She praised the books by Nassim Taleb and in particular The Black Swan about highly improbable events.

Used to only buying Kindle ebooks well below $10 I baulked at the price of $14.99. I was kindly 'lent' an audiobook version, but it's a genre with which I still struggle to appreciate. The Black Swan has a vast amount of facts, names, places and events that I would like to follow up. It is so hard to stop listening, type in the often-misremembered search terms, and make notes, then return to the audiobook.

Next I resorted to putting a hold on the printed book from my local library - the first time I had used this service in maybe 5 years. For a start the hardback book is heavier than I remember and it was difficult to find space on the tables next to my favourite reading locations (mostly easy chair and bed). As I have commented before, I soon found myself tapping the right margin of the book to turn to the next page! It was when I subconsciously found I was double tapping a word to find its definition I thought 'enough is enough'. By then I had already lamented the inability to highlight notable passages for later follow-up. As well I had become irritated by the destructive behaviour of previous readers turning over the corner of pages to act as bookmarks, an anti-social trait I had forgotten.

So I have admitted defeat and purchased the Kindle ebook. I am back into my reading wonderland being able to flit about the book, search for terms online, mark highlights, make notes, and generally feel I am getting value for money.

The take-away: it's hard not be a skinflint in your retirement.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Rainbow Umpires - Crowdsourcing Improved AFL Umpires


Rainbow Umpires app
This AFL season to date some kind friends and neighbours have allowed my wife and I the use of season tickets for two of our local AFL sides. There have been 8 games so far and in 6 of them runs of 2 or 3 exceedingly poor umpiring decisions during the first 2 quarters have ruined the games for spectators. Our local sides are weak and would undoubtedly lost the games overall. But the bad decisions of the umpires handed the momentum unfairly to the opposing side killing the chance of a much closer game, and leaving the spectators short-changed.

Forty years ago I was an international squash referee and know what a difficult job it is as an official to follow the rules and maintain balance between the competing sides. But the AFL manages a huge sport that apart from the players needs the spectators to feel the rules are applied fairly in every game. After all it is the fans that make the AFL possible.

No doubt the AFL puts a great deal of effort into training umpires and arranging their professional development. Players have their tribunal to determine disciplinary action where needed, and the operation of the tribunal is transparent and public. With umpires able to have such potential devastating effect on the outcome of a game, where is their tribunal and how does that operate? It is a nonsense to suggest umpires are above criticism and any disciplinary action be hidden behind closed doors. There needs to be a mechanism whereby AFL spectators can provide feedback on umpire performance.

I am suggesting the spectator crowds be allowed to vote on the performance of umpires in real-time during the game. We need an easy way to identify the different umpires and I suggest they wear brightly coloured shirts in primary rainbow colours. It is easy to put an app like Rainbow Umpires on the mobile phones of spectators and allow them within 10 seconds of any decision to vote their support using simple up and down buttons. This data can easily be gathered in the cloud and a rating for each umpire displayed in real time. Spectators at the ground and live TV viewers could participate. With many tens of thousands of live TV fans voting there will be no home-team advantage.

It is my experience that AFL fans on the whole are particularly fair-minded and accept adverse umpire decisions against their own side. Only on rare occasions do they become enraged at really bad decisions since poor decisions tend to balance out over the course of the game. However with close up TV coverage and also displayed to all via huge displays at the ground it is no longer the case that umpires have a better view of the play.

With the large amount of crowd reaction data available to them the AFL can publish league tables of umpires performance. Those with substandard performance can be 'reported' to a transparent umpiring 'tribunal' with disciplinary action involving retraining and further professional development. High performances could put umpires in line for an end-of-season 'Brownlow' medal equivalent. Note that the voting system potentially allows all umpires to achieve high scores.

Come on AFL it is time to use available technology to introduce a truly professional umpiring group honed by exposure to crowd feedback and a transparent tribunal. Bring the AFL fans more directly into the game.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Switched from Evernote to OneNote, happy so far

Evernote since 2008

I have been an Evernote user since 2008 and a paying premium member for almost as long. Recent sharp price rises have forced me to adopt OneNote. These are my experiences so far.

Prior to 2008 I was a really early adopter of OneNote and my short profile even appeared on the OneNote site as a supporter. However Evernote soon became my main note taking app especially as it became universal, although it came grudgingly to Windows and Android, my main platforms.

The Price Rise

As an Australian when our AUD dollar was near parity with the USD dollar paying around $40/annum for Evernote Premium was good value. The price edged up slowly but the AUD gradually dropped to 70 cents. Now Evernote Premium will soon be AUD90/annum and Evernote Plus AUD50. Bear in mind Office 365 Home costs only AUD119/annum. Evernote has priced itself out of the Australian market.

Switching out of Evernote is no small step as other users know. The powerful note taking and sharing features integrate throughout typical daily IT tasks such as messaging, email, social media, cloud apps and information processing generally. Fortunately for us Microsoft always targeted OneNote for these same scenarios but took time to match the ease of use and general availability of Evernote. As well OneNote is free.

The Switch to OneNote

I have several years of curated notes organised in Evernote. It amounted to about 80 notebooks  and about 750 notes, each note varying from a few hundred characters to some megabytes holding documents and images. The obvious first step was to download and install the free Microsoft Evernote to OneNote Importer. The download page also gives Microsoft's view of why free OneNote is better.

Choosing literally all my Evernote notebooks to import the process appeared to go smoothly and took about 15 minutes or so. Each Evernote notebook became an equivalently named .one file in the Documents folder on my OneDrive. Not every note was imported and a short report showed that 4 notes could not be imported:
No obvious reasons for this failure were apparent as the 4 note seemed very similar to the hundreds of others that did come across successfully.

Next the Notes Re-org

Of course the Evernote notebook/notes structure is never optimal, as one is always meaning to reorganise the notes more sensibly. Here now in OneNote was the chance to start afresh. It is important to note first up that the note structures differ between Evernote and OneNote.
Evernote uses a very simple three-level structure:
  • Each notebook holds a list of notes
  • Notebooks can be gathered in notebook stacks
  • More structure is possible by tagging each note; all notes with the same tags can be listed easily
It should be noted that Evernote notebook stacks are ignored when imported into OneNote.

OneNote has a four-level structure with nesting allowed in some levels to allow complex hierarchies:
  • Each notebook document holds sections optionally collected into section groups
  • Each section group hold next level section groups and sections, and so on
  • Each section holds a list of pages (notes)
  • Optionally each page can have subpages
An additional much-heralded feature of each page (note) is that it is a 2-dimensional canvas with note box components placed anywhere vertically and horizontally.

With the increased structuring possibilities I opted to have a small number, around half a dozen, OneNote notebooks (documents). Then I allocated notes in my 80 Evernote notebooks across section groups and sections in these smaller number of OneNote notebooks. The procedure is simple:
  • Open each .one document imported from Evernote; all the notes are listed as pages in one section
  • Decide into which section/section group in which OneNote notebook to put the list of Evernote notes
My first problems appeared at this point.

The Annoyances

Many imported .one documents opened quickly in desktop OneNote from my OneDrive. It seemed sensible to simply move the section containing the Evernote notes to the new OneNote notebooks. For notes containing mainly text this worked well. However for Evernote notebooks where the notes contained many images this was hugely problematic. Examples are my list of business cards and photos of bits of gear along with pictures of serial numbers and so forth. 

Firstly the .one documents opened very slowly indeed, and moving the section to its new home was even slower. Even when the move seemed to have worked several error messages warning of Misplaced Sections appeared and these sections appeared at the end of the Notebooks list with ominous red question marks attached. There appears to be synchronisation conflict between OneNote itself and the background OneDrive upload/downloads.

Business card
at full screen
The worst annoyance of all is with images imported from Evernote notes. Within OneNote the images show at full resolution instead of being resized for display at a sensible page width. For example all my business cards contain the card image at around 4,000 pixels wide. With no feature to help I challenge anyone to find an easy way to manually resize the images without inconvenient scrolling left and up while dragging the corner of the image to resize it. With more than 100 such notes like this the process of tidying up images was the pits. To make matters even worse still when the resized images are accessed via OneNote Online on the web they revert to full size! We can but hope the Evernote Importer app developers fix this in the fully released version. This might be a deal breaker for some people.

After many frustrations I discovered the only reliable method was to make copies of all imported sections to newly-created OneNote notebooks. If I had previously moved a section into a OneNote notebook then even copying further sections still caused problems. These problems extended into the Android OneNote app. I had spent a couple of hours moving/copying sections into a new OneNote notebook only to have it flagged with errors in Android.

My advice is clear. Always copy sections from notebooks imported from Evernote into new OneNote notebooks.

The Upside

After 2 or 3 days of trials I had my new collection of OneNote notebooks organised to my satisfaction. Next began the trials of how OneNote would perform in the daily processes of gathering, organising and searching of information.

Of course the Evernote Clipper on Windows has developed over the years into a very powerful information gathering mechanism both within the major browsers and the desktop app. The OneNote clipper equivalents are available but lag in some features. This has not been a problem for me to date. Because of its superior speed Microsoft Edge has become my favourite browser except for when I need extensions like the Evernote and OneNote clippers when I have to switch to Chrome or IE. This is about 5% of my browser use.

On Android the playing field is more level with Evernote and OneNote being very similar in capability. Both Evernote and OneNote are beautifully integrated into the powerful OS-wide sharing mechanism that Android has enjoyed for some years. There is no Android Evernote clipper as such but here OneNote has stolen a march by introducing the OneNote Badge that appears on all screens of all apps plus desktop to allow instant copy-and-paste/screen capture from the app to OneNote - a huge benefit over Evernote.

Even before I switched to OneNote the Microsoft Office Lens app on Android is one of my all time favourites. After intelligent processing the image capture for whiteboards, business cards, images, and documents Office lens can save the image to many locations including OneNote and OneDrive in image and PDF formats. I only wish Office Lens could generate multi-page PDF documents to become a genuine scanner replacement.

The Outcome

The switch was a journey of ups and downs but I have been using OneNote alone for coming up to one month. My note taking productivity is back to where it was with Evernote. I am liking the improved note editing with desktop OneNote and find the note search results much better organised and informative. OneNote tags are still somewhat confusing and more difficult to manage but do have colour coding and informative image icons. The one Evernote feature I still miss is the list of favourite notes - Shopping List for example. Also secure access via pin code or password to confidential notes in OneNote does not seem to be cross-platform as yet.

I score my switching process at 85% and look forward to growing into OneNote for the ever more important note taking tasks.



Sunday, 10 July 2016

Wrote my first computer program 50 years ago this week

From europeforum.freeforums.net/thread/754/remember-when?q=tape
Now that July 2016 is here it is time to celebrate my half century as a computer programmer. Back in 1966 I was a 19-year old second year undergraduate at Birmingham University studying applied maths. In order to be close to my soon to be wife I took a summer vacation job in the maths department of Lucas Industries, then a major supply of automotive components for the British car making industry. The office was located in Shirley, Birmingham in England.

At the time Lucas had purchased an Elliott 803 computer housed in a specialised raised-floor computer room which occupied more than half of the space of the maths office itself. As the lowliest 'office boy' I was given the task of running a routine series of tests of the Elliott 803 every morning between 9 and 10 to ensure the computer was working as it should. This introduction to computers changed my life and eventual career in just a few short weeks. As the tester I became very familiar with the quirky computer and its peripherals and was soon punching programs written in Algol 60 on 5-hole paper tape.

The Elliott Algol compiler was written by a very famous British computer scientist Sir Tony Hoare. Code for the compiler was held in the last blocks of the amazing mass storage device being a magnetic tape system based on oxidised 35 mm film stock made by Kodak.This tape reader/writer which was the only equivalent to today's hard disk drives. To load the Algol compiler required winding the tape forward to near its end, loading the compiler, then winding back to the beginning again to use the first storage blocks to store the compiled machine code. You can imagine this process took many minutes, perhaps only to reveal a syntax error in your program! Patience was definitely needed to be a programmer in those days, and the skill of editing paper tape programs - imagine the process of changing, inserting, and deleting characters as you copy from the old tape to the new version. The tiny discs of paper from punching tape made great confetti.

I had the honour to meet Sir Tony on a couple of occasions at Queens Belfast where he was Professor of Computer Science and briefly at the University of Oxford Programming Research Group (PRG)where I was one of the first intake of 5 postgraduate students in 1967. The PRG was founded by Christopher Strachey in 1965 and his lectures to these 5 students on programming in the CPL language, designed by himself at Cambridge University and others from the University of London, became the cornerstone of my computer science career. I left the PRG to pursue by PhD at the University of Southampton in 1968 so missed working with Sir Tony when he became the PRG head in 1977.

In another coincidence 50 years ago in September 1966 Birmingham University introduced their very first programming course teaching the FORTRAN language. The students used 80-column punched card machines to write FORTRAN and the cards were processed on an English Electric KDF9 computer. Output was printed on huge line printers that rocked the computer room as they worked. Of course with a couple of hundred users sharing the same computer we were lucky to achieve one run of our program every 24 hours. Software engineers of today would be totally shocked but it meant every programmer needed to learn how to spend hours each day desk checking the program code in order to maximise throughput. Programmers today have their code checked as they type - a huge convenience. Despite these very substantial advances the number of programming errors never seems to decrease!

The Elliott 803 I used 50 years ago had the equivalent of 40 kilobytes of main memory. The smartphone in your hand today holds one hundred thousand times more memory. An Elliott 803 would cost the equivalent of 600,000 pounds today, the cost of 1,000 smartphones. Quick arithmetic shows the cost of computer memory has reduced by a factor of 100 million in 50 years. Amazing. Just imagine what the next 50 years will bring.

Despite the paltry power of the Elliott 803 in today's terms the computer greatly increased the calculating power of the Lucas Industries maths team in 1966 leading to improved products particularly in battery design. It is sad to see that Lucas was part of the demise of the British car industry only a decade later. I owe my whole satisfying career in computer science to Lucas and will be forever in their debt. My wife and I married in 1967 and will celebrate our own half century next year.

July 2016
Gold Coast, Australia

Monday, 1 June 2015

An embarrassing surfeit of forward

I celebrate 50 years of computer use this year. In all that time of dealing with computer character sets I and my fellow computer users have been using the word 'slash' for the '/' character, technically a solidus, and a very ancient character from ancient Rome. We can blame Microsoft for widening the use of the backslash character '\' in the 1980s for DOS file paths although backslash itself dates from the 1960s.

For a couple of decades happy computer users in the main used slash and backslash as the common names for the two characters. Then in the late 1990s, as web page addresses that use slashes became popular, TV announcers took it upon themselves to start using the term 'forward slash' for '/' much to my extreme annoyance. I would dearly love to know who in the TV industry perpetrated this calumny that sadly persists to this day showing no sign of lessening.

How many millions nay billions of surplus uses of 'forward' have been forced on TV viewers in the last two decades? Let us all agree to ban 'forward slashes' and drop the 'forward'.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Liquid foods

At Barcamp Gold Coast this morning I attended a talk about liquid food typified by the well-known solvent. When your nutrition is in balance there is a perceptible increase in your physical feeling of wellbeing which leads to a more contented life.

The speaker Mike Ando freely admitted though that the number one benefit of liquid foods is the saving of time. Giving the example of two liquid meals a day this can amount to almost a month of full-time work each year.

This was definitely food for thought!

I later tried a liquid food prepared by the speaker with a chocolate flavour. The base taste of liquid fibre was improved by the chocolate. I found the very small cup remarkably filling, although I had just consumed a large cookie. I will definitely be checking out the recipes for liquid foods at http://diy.soylent.me/

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Breaking the Apple/Telstra Nexus

Like many of my friends and colleagues over the last 7 years I used iPhones 3, 4 and 5 on Telstra 24-month plans with varying upfront payments. iPhones 3 and 4 suffered from the barely tolerable intermittent home button problem and iPhone 5 from the increasingly intolerable battery fail problem.

During my iPhone 5 ownership it became clear that Android and Android phones can match and sometimes exceed the iPhone performance. As well my average of 50 minutes of calls and 20 SMS messages per month meant I was significantly overpaying in my $55-70/month Telstra plans, and had to live with a meagre 1 GB of monthly data - very restricting. When Telstra's hugely expensive iPhone 6 plans were announced it was time to search for much better value for money. I was also determined never to be manacled to a 24-month contract again which meant the upfront purchase of an unlocked phone.

I researched iPhone 6 Plus equivalents (from among Samsung, Google, HTC, Sony, Motorola) and eventually settled on a 16 GB LG G3 which has equal or superior hardware specifications. The screen resolution, SD card and camera are the standouts for me. Since I keep the vast majority of my content in the cloud I always choose the phone with the lowest memory (and lowest price). With iPhones 3 and 4 this worked well but the Apple faux pas with the memory-hungry iOS 8 upgrade meant I had to delete some stuff from the iPhone 5 - really annoying.

The outright purchase price of my LG G3 was $499 as opposed to $969 for the iPhone 6 Plus (Kogan prices). Then it needed a shop around for pay-as-you-go bring your own phone plans which can be cancelled in any month. All major carriers and MVNOs offer prepaid plans. I looked at Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Amaysim (used for my mobile hotspots), Aldimobile and others. My phone usage is data heavy and voice/SMS light. I effectively use it as a handheld device for accessing Internet services like email, web, news, social media, Skype and a big range of other services. Most prepaid plans emphasize voice/SMS with pitiable data allowances.

I eventually settled on the 4G Spintel service (uses Optus) shown on the left where you can choose the mix of voice, text and data to suit your needs.  Compare the $86/month Telstra iPhone 6 Plus plan which, had I followed the herd, I might be using now. It allows $550 voice, unlimited text and 1 GB data - unsuitable for my needs. The relative costs over 24 months are:

After 9 months I will be ahead in expenditure with the option to switch to a new phone and/or a new carrier. The phone came with Android 4.4 but was updated over the air just after Christmas to Android 5.0 Lollipop which was welcome.

I am 3 months along this trajectory, very much enjoying the phone and thinking of lowering my monthly cost as I predicted I am using only about 15% of my voice minutes and about 10% of my SMS. Typically using the phone's hotspot from other devices in the last days of the month I have been consuming just over 90% of my data. I would like more data but after 2.5 GB Spintel charges $15/GB or part thereof. I prefer to wait until later in the year when my second choice carrier Amaysim will have 4G and their $44/month includes 5 GB data with unlimited voice and SMS.

Yes, there are downsides. Five weeks of my trial have been in Tasmania where Optus signal very occasionally is absent (that can also happen with Telstra although rarely). The G3 has no fingerprint reader but I find the knock code feature a great substitute.

I am extremely happy and my initial nervousness with adopting Spintel has been completely dispelled. Therefore I thoroughly recommend my LG G3/Spintel combination.