We’ve released a new App – systems@work – to the App Store

Share

We’ve released Version 1.3 of our iPhone App to the App Store and it’s now available for download.

After some reflection, we decided to release the App as systems@work, rather than as expense@work, forms@work or time@work. This reflects the fact that the App works with forms created in any of these three products, adapting itself, when first used, to the form types and rules set up in your database.
s@w - IMG_2172

The expense@work App will therefore shortly be withdrawn from the App Store.

Version 1.3 contains new features:

  • revised data communication with the server for faster and more reliable transfer
  • optional automatic upload of data

We are now adapting the App for the Android environment.

Blatter, Blather and Bluster

I’m the Chairman of a business software consulting group that operates in ten countries. We’re not large – around 100 staff – and we’re a relatively loose association, in that ownership differs from place to place. Policy is arrived at by consensus and operational management is devolved. But in some important respects the buck stops with me. I set the tone and style of the organisation, and, again, with the agreement of my partners, its ethics.

If I were to discover that the group were riddled with corruption and fraud I would resign.

pigs

Pigs at the trough

I am no expert in these matters, but these are some thoughts on how ethical standards must be set and maintained, whether an organisation is small or global.

Write them down

We have a management manual. Amongst other things it says:

Corruption is widespread in business, perhaps a little more so in Central and Eastern Europe than in other more mature markets. LLP Group and its agents, however, never pay bribes, neither directly nor indirectly.

This means that we never do business when we believe that decision makers are being covertly induced to express an opinion in our favour, whether that inducement comes from us directly or from any other intermediary.

Why?

  • Because it is dangerous. Corruption can damage our business.
  • Because it is illegal. Corruption can send us to jail.
  • Because it is wrong.

What is ‘covert inducement’?

Decision makers are ‘covertly induced’ when they are unable to declare an inducement to their own organisation.

Examples:

A salesman pays a ‘commission’ to the buyer’s employee which the employee cannot acknowledge within his organization.  This commission may come in the form of money, gifts, holidays, etc.

LLP pays an intermediary (for example, a consultant) who is acting as an advisor to the buyer, but the consultant is unable to declare this income (money, shares, holiday, gifts, whatever).

Failure to observe this code will result in immediate termination. No excuses.

Audit

An organisation must constantly be on the alert and should go looking for corruption.

Style

Senior managers should behave with austerity. Luxury hotels, first class travel, limousines, Michelin-starred restaurants, and other forms of prancing, have no place in business life.

Openness

An organisation must be open to inspection by its staff and by the media, and should publish information by default.

Sanctions 

Wrongdoing must be openly punished.

Responsibility

Managers must take responsibility for the lapses of their subordinates. This encourages vigilance.

FIFA would appear to fail in every respect. Corruption is rife, austerity is anathema, investigations are thwarted, secrecy shrouds its inner workings, sanctions are few, and responsibility is shunned.

And Sepp Blatter is still the President of FIFA. And all we hear from him is blather and bluster.

When the Blood Boils

‘It’s just business, nothing personal.’

How I hate to hear those words. Business is personal, at least partly because we spend a large portion of our lives conducting it. Human relationships are at the heart of it. And there’s far more to a business relationship than a contract – trust, for a start, and possibly liking and pleasure.

We’re not in business only to make money or even to do good in the world. Business is part of life, and the extended community we live in. We need to feel proud of it.

Procurement departments should take note of this when they are unleashed on suppliers.

baying dog

Procurement doesn’t have to look like this!

Yesterday’s experience is a good example of bad practice. It’s for you to judge whether mine or the potential customer’s.

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent days and days working out how to use our expense management system, expense@work, for an interesting and unusual purpose. It’s been fun. There’s nothing I enjoy more than working out some tricky logical problem and fitting the features of our software around something unlikely.

With this particular company, we got to the point where the system I’d configured looked entirely plausible (and indeed is entirely plausible). I’d swapped requirements documents, sample data, queries about the rules of the system, and had reached the point where I could demonstrate to them quite clearly that the system could do what they wanted.

So, once convinced, they were ready to unleash their procurement department to negotiate a deal. We’d already agreed, informally, an absurdly low price, which seemed all the more ridiculous as the complexity of their requirements increased, but it was still just about worthwhile.

Their procurement department then announced that their maximum daily consulting rate was about 30% of the very reasonable rate I’d suggested. Moreover, they wanted an unlimited license for far more users than I’d agreed.

I found this more than slightly infuriating, so, blood boiling, and unable to stop myself, I replied as follows:

‘You’re a cheapskate company, with an insulting approach to procurement, and I want nothing more to do with you.’

I have no regrets.

Where’s the Bottleneck?

Share

I’ve been running businesses for twenty-three years, all of them in the areas of business software development, software reselling, software implementation and support.

LLP Group

LLP CRM

systems@work

If you’re building a business, and assuming you’re ambitious and want your company to grow, you always have to ask yourself where is the bottleneck, or what is holding back growth?

bottleneck

Candidates might be:

  • Cash to invest (sometimes you need to buy assets, goods, staff and services, even acquire companies, in order to grow)
  • Market demand (sometimes there just isn’t enough demand for what you’ve got to sell)
  • The law (sometimes you can’t sell without breaking the law – such as by bribing decision makers)
  • Management time (you just don’t have the bandwidth to do everything that needs to be done, and there’s no one who can do it for you)
  • Shortages of marketing and sales staff (in the early days in Central and Eastern Europe it was hard to find people who understood these disciplines)
  • Poor communications (sometimes, literally, bandwidth limits your ability to talk to potential customers, or poor roads, rail links or air links)
  • The bureaucracy of the state (think, here, of Russia)
  • Shortages of consultants and developers

In our case, since we’re not asset-intensive businesses, cash was never a problem, and acquisition was never very attractive because the risk of losing what you’re buying (people and customers rather than assets) is too high. Management time, market demand, never limited us. Communications are good enough, and in most of Central and Eastern Europe the state doesn’t really impede business. Our insistence on legal correctness prevented us from entering the public sector, but the private sector has been large enough. Sales and marketing staff can now be found.

So what limits us?

Well, we never had problems in finding consultants and developers UNTIL NOW. The universities in our parts of the world churn out thousands of excellent programmers and consultants, multilingual and eager to travel. We would train them, and they would quickly grow in consulting stature.

BUT NOW the growth of one of our most promising divisions – LLP CRM – which implements mainly Microsoft CRM in the Czech Republic, and is one of the jewels in our company crown, can’t take advantage of all the commercial opportunities that exist, simply because we can’t find the staff.

This is an unfamiliar problem, and we don’t know what to do. Recruitment companies, word of mouth, ads on our websites, they just don’t seem to be enough.

So, if anyone can help us, let us know.

We need CRM consultants!!

In the Way of the People

‘The people are the heroes now, behemoth pulls the peasants’ plow.’

So sings the chorus at the start of John Adam’s opera Nixon in China.

The people are the heroes now…

But who are the ‘people’? Who speaks for them? Who decides what their interests are?

In practice, the more mention that’s made of the ‘people’ in a political system, the fewer the rights possessed by the individual. ‘The people’ is rarely the collective will of any group of individuals. In reality the term stands for those with political power. ‘The people’ and the ‘individual’ usually have very different interests.

Two pictures from China illustrate this. I saw the second in a news report last week, and it reminded me starkly of the first.

chinese tank

1989

Apparently the owner of the house has the legal right to receive compensation that satisfies him (see House in the way) and ,as yet, it doesn’t.

chinese house

But the pictures are only superficially similar.

The first illustrates the courage of an individual standing up to the brutal crackdown on legitimate protest. It isn’t clear what happened to the young man. Some say he was shot, some say he is alive and well. But the ‘people’ surely know.

The second merely illustrates the weakness of the Chinese legal system. We may not like it, but governments all over the world exercise powers to put the public interest first, and in most countries a compulsory purchase order would be issued to remove a house that stands in the way of a motorway, at a price independently and fairly arrived at.

Compulsory Purchase Orders

It wouldn’t be fair to see both as equally illustrative of  brutality

Music and Information – a guest blog post by my brother, Jonathan

My brother and I are both musicians, and we both recently read Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again, in which he describes how, as a moderately competent amateur pianist, he took on the challenge of learning and playing publicly Chopin’s ‘impossible’ Ballade in G Minor in a year (it took him nearly a year and a half in the end, his life, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian, very much at the mercy of other global events). One of the topics he discussed, in connection with learning a piece by heart, was the concept of how much ‘information’ music contains.

music roll

Jonathan writes:

==

We can express the question “How much information is contained within a single piece of music?” in another way: “How much information do we need to store to enable a mechanical rendition of a piece of music that would be recognisable as a true representation by the human ear?”. Such storage mediums have existed for well over a century in the form of piano rolls, and in the modern-day equivalent of digital midi files. In their simplest forms only pitch, duration and pedalling were recorded as punched holes in a roll of card. (Intensity of attack and other refinements were added later.)

In considering what a musician needs to remember in order to perform, we can presume these basic components to be adequate. The layer of information needed to build a logical program for mechanical transposition into played notes as well as the layer of human ‘interpretation’ (which amounts to refinements and distortions of the original) can be ignored.

For the sake of this investigation, we assume that the music we intend to store is written over a regular grid of equidistant pitches and over a steady grid of pulses or beats.

So how can we express in a numeric manner what is stored on our imaginary piano roll?

The foundation of music is rhythm:

For this we need two parameters:

a) the length of the rhythmic unit to which the note belongs as expressed in the number of elapsed pulses that the unit would cover.

b) the number of evenly spaced notes that the rhythmic unit contains.

Some examples, assuming the pulse to be a quaver (or eighth note):

2,3    would express a semi-quaver triplet note

2,1    would express a crotchet note

1,5    would express a quintuplet demi-semi quaver note

6,2    would express a duplet crotchet note over a three crotchet bar

But that’s not enough. We need to know when each note should start. This can be done in two ways:

a) to start immediately after a preceding note in a given musical ‘string’.

b) to start a number of pulses from a sequenced note in a relative string, as we shall see later. (For notes starting in between pulses, and avoiding the use of fractions, a rhythm-defined silence or rest is inserted.)

N.B. New strings can be started at any time and will either refer back to a sequence in another string for start positioning or to ‘zero’, the beginning of the piece.

To which we add a set of numbers describing pitch:

Pitch is most simply expressed in absolute terms. There are about one hundred possibilities on a concert piano. But we can also express pitch relative (in semi-tones) to the preceding note in a string (a melodic interval, positive or negative) and alternatively relative to a concurrent note in another string (a chordal interval, positive only). This latter method being similar to the ‘figured bass’ system of the baroque era. And for this we need each note to carry an incremental sequence within the string. The pedal and silence can be represented as special ‘notes’. Bar lines do not need to be represented, as they are only an inaudible visual aid to performers. (A piano roll does not record them.)

So now we have in the below ten variables all we need to render a whole piece of music out of a succession of linked notes:

String number

String note sequence

Pitch in absolute terms

Pitch relative to the preceding note in the string

Pitch relative to a sequenced note in another string

Relative string number

Relative sequenced note

Rhythmic unit length in pulses

Number of notes within the rhythmic unit

Number of pulses from a relative sequenced note in a string

That’s a lot of numbers to store or ‘memorise’! But we can do better than this by optimising and compressing.

For example we could add:

An indicator that says ‘repeat’ the note and a number that says how may times.

An indicator that says ‘repeat’ the rhythm and a number that says how many times.

For example, a piece of music that consisted of repeating the same note in the same rhythm one thousand times could be described by a single ‘expression’, the note itself plus the compression extension.

We could:

Set up ’cells’ encapsulating commonly used pitch and rhythm structures such as scales, chords and chord sequences, giving them labels so that they could be referenced for re-use. These cells could be joined up sequentially, concurrently or even grouped together (larger on smaller) thus giving us the possibility of efficiently expressing repeated accompaniment passage work and sections. In other words these cells could be ‘stitched’ together – at their original pitches or relatively transposed.

Thinking of a simple canon such as Frère Jacques, it’s not hard to imagine how such a piece could be represented with minimal information.

The list of possible compression options is endless. However, there’s a balance to be preserved, whereby the referential complexity should not outstrip a simpler purely sequential representation.

So, going back to the original question, how much information is contained in a piece of music?

Considering that we might need 10 variables of 3 digits for each note in uncompressed format, this translates into approximately 100 ones and zeroes for each note. So the calculation is quite simple. The amount of binary information needed is the number of notes in a piece multiplied by 100. However this will be a maximum. For pieces that contain a degree of repetition and re-use of common patterns, this can be reduced considerably. True, new ‘stitching’ variables need to be added to each note expression, but this is counterbalanced by the efficiency of once-only library storage of referenced cells.

In the end we produce hugely complex constructions that need untangling by a sophisticated program. And though it’s true that the human mind does not work in this way, this approach to musical storage does, to some degree, mirror our ability to memorise simple repetitive and ‘predictable’ music more easily than the more complex and ‘unpredictable’ kind.

Isn’t it marvellous that…..?

I am fond of my mother, on the whole. At 94 she’s as intellectually astute as ever, or very nearly, a champion of atheism, socially tolerant, and, thankfully, only slightly infirm. But I so wish she could be more of an optimist. It’s her view that the world is a lesser place than when she was young, or even middle-aged. It’s lost its innocence, it’s more cynical, its values have declined. I know that pessimism and nostalgia afflict the elderly, but I don’t see that’s she’s changed very much since I’ve known her. She’s always been a glass-half-empty lady, not a glass-half-full one.

eden

So, I had a bit of a row with her the other day. I was tired after a long day of travelling, and my tolerance was at a very low ebb. What depresses me is that  she sees everyone, whether the man or woman or child in the street, or the politician in Westminster, as selfish and grasping. Only animals are innocent and deserving of unqualified admiration. Unusually, I snapped.

‘Before I come to see you next,’ I said, ‘I’d like you to work on a list of ten sentences that begin, “Isn’t it marvellous that…..”.’

Of course, I can think of more than ten. Top of my list might be ‘modern dentistry is almost painless,’ and I’d go on to list the decline in poverty, disease, tyranny, violence, injustice, and so on. True, there are some balancing evils – pollution, global warming, obesity, and so on. I’m not against sentences beginning, ‘Isn’t it awful that…..’, but I don’t want them to dominate.

I won’t hold my breath, and I probably won’t hold her to it, but I was thinking of this yesterday when I saw this report on the BBC Website. My mother was a teacher, so I’m hoping she’ll notice this one. I find it very cheering.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32797986

Children are reading more. Reading is cool. Isn’t that marvellous?!

Lost innocence is hardly a new theme. Humanity has never lived in the Garden of Eden, hence our longing for it, but it doesn’t exist in our youthful past either.