English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chlor...

English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) found in eastern Australia. Français : Litoria chloris, une grenouille arboricole de l’est australien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the story goes, if you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, the frog immediately realises the danger and jumps out. If, however, you put the frog in a pan of tepid water and apply heat to the pan until the water boils, the frog stays put and slowly cooks and dies. I’m not a chef or a reptologist and I certainly haven’t performed this experiment to check the results, but it’s a good analogy for resistance to change.

In some ways, the human psyche is hard-wired against change. The brain works on success strategies, and once it finds one that succeeds in a given situation, then that becomes the brain’s go to guy when those events arise. It’s a very successful method. We don’t need to touch a flame more than once to realise it’s going to hurt and we soon gain a healthy respect for heights after a few falls.

When it comes to our working lives, it works the same way. We work out how to speak to people to get results (although I think this particular skill peaks at the age of 4). We work out the best way to word an email, apply for a job and ask for a pay rise. It’s not usually particularly scientific. We rely on trial and error, but once we work out a winning formula, the brain locks in that strategy.

One of the worst things about the brain is that it is a creature of habit. Once it has picked up a way of behaving, it is highly reluctant to change. After all, if something’s worked loads of times before, why wouldn’t you trust it to work again?

This would all be great if nothing changed. Unfortunately, everything does.

People change. Not only do people join and leave organisations all the time, but even the people who don’t learn new skills or go through new experiences that change their outlook on life. Technology changes all the time. In a living breathing organisation, processes change. In society, expectations of what’s OK and what’s unacceptable change. Our perspective changes every time we learn more about everything around us. When you think about it, there is very little that doesn’t change, so the circumstances in which we learned our success strategies gradually are unlikely to be repeated.

It makes sense to ask yourself occasionally whether you feel like a boiling frog. Have you changed enough to cope with all that’s changed around you?

Innovation and Insight in Financial Services

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...

English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s something about New York. The place exudes a sense of purpose. Broadway is the perfect place for a show and it seemed a fitting location for the Celent Innovation & Insight event. The theme of the show was shoot for the moon and even if you fail, you’ll fall among the stars so it seemed fitting that it started with the Star Trek theme tune. Representatives from various companies shared their stories of innovation in both insurance & banking.

The keynote speaker was Richard King, the founder and CEO of Ingenie. Young car drivers pay extortionate rates for car insurance and Ingenie seeks to soften the blow through an innovative combination of telematics (a “black box”) and social media. Backed by some very famous names, the company is just over 2 years old. Gary Lineker, the former England footballer, is Richard’s next door neighbour and he joined by chance when he came round for a cup of tea. Frank Williams of Formula One fame is another backer sharing an interest in telematics technology.

20% of young drivers crash in their first year. 95% of those crashes are down to behaviour. Ingenie works by monitoring driving behaviour and looking for things like sharp braking and fast cornering. Using gamification techniques, good drivers are rewarded and bad drivers are penalised with higher premiums. Should the system detect a potential “license losing event” – the driver gets a black message followed by a call from the firm’s trained psychologists. Half the drivers cancel their policy in response. The other half pull their socks up and behave themselves. For normal insurers the end up losing money on young drivers. Ingenie’s underwriters make money and drivers get reduced premiums. Every one’s a winner.

Their data gives them an interesting insight into the rate of claims. If mum or dad are on the same policy, the chance of a claim is reduced by 13%. If mum or dad engage with monitoring the driver’s behaviour, the chance of a claim is reduced by 25%.

Good old-fashioned paper cheques seems an unlikely spawning ground for innovation. The only reason I still have a cheque book is because the window cleaner won’t accept any other kind of payment! Remote deposit capture using a camera phone has been around in the states for some time. USAA took this a step further and used a combination of video and augmented reality to push the first time success rate up from 78% to 92%. They also had a “Siri for Banking”, only there’s had been christened as Nina. The voice recognition understands roughly 200 questions such as “Tell me how much money I spent last weekend” and “Show me all transactions over $1,000 in the last 30 days”. They hope to make the software more intelligent over time so that they can answer things like “Can I afford a house in this area”.

Bankgirot, a Swedish bank, demonstrated a system that did real-time mobile payments including settlement and clearing in just 2 seconds. UBS talked about an innovative 2 factor authentication system using a combination of NFC and chip and pin.

I thought it was my lack of knowledge about trade finance and cash management that rendered those stories mundane, but as that was the only session where the audience had no questions, I was not alone. Some things are hard to make exciting.

Metlife engineered something called “The wall” which essentially brought data from all their disparate back-end systems into one place modelled on Facebook’s wall. Now in use in all their call centers, the software allows operators to quickly access all the details of their customers and the relationships between them.

A Temenos customer, Commercial Bank of Africa, won a highly commended model bank award and model bank of the year for their M-Shwari solution. Using a combination of the T24 core and M-Pesa for mobile payments with the Integration Framework pulling it all together, they brought banking products to huge unbanked population in Kenya. I collected the awards on behalf of the bank. Unfortunately, one of them could have passed for a deadly weapon which meant necessitated some rather crafty packing on the way home.



The Holy Land

English: Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Gethseman...

English: Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Church of all nations Deutsch: Jerusalem, Ölberg, Kirche aller Nationen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Catholic Priest travelled to the Vatican one year. During his visit, he couldn’t fail to notice a large phone made of solid gold.

He asked a nearby Cardinal about the phone. The Cardinal explained that it was a hotline to God. The Priest asked if he could use it.

“Of course!” said the Cardinal, “But it will cost you $10,000 per minute.”

The Priest would dearly have liked a tête-à-tête with the Almighty, but he realised to his despair that it lay beyond his means.

The following year, the Priest went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During his visit, he saw an identical phone. He asked a nearby Rabbi about the phone. The Rabbi explained that it was a hotline to God and that calls cost $1 per minute.

“1$ per minute! said the Priest. “But it costs $10,000 per minute from the Vatican.”

“Ahh” – said the Rabbi. “Here it’s a local call.”

We were luck enough to visit the Holy Land whilst on holiday to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We don’t consider ourselves religious, but that does not diminish the allure of seeing where it all happened thousands of years ago. Although it was an exhausting trip, it was an enlightening couple of days. Just about everywhere you could think of that was mentioned in the bible was on the itinerary.

We saw where it all began with the Annunciation in Nazereth and where it will all end according to Revelations at Har Megiddo (or Armageddon) which looked like a surprisingly ordinary place for the end of the world. We saw where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and where he ultimately met his demise at Calgary. Unfortunately, because we were there the day before the pope, the Last Supper room was closed, as was the Church of Gethsemane, although we were allowed a brisk wander around the garden. We stood at the top of the Mount of Olives and bobbed about in the Dead Sea.

We went for a dip in the river Jordan. Just walking down the steps required faith because it was absolutely stacked with catfish. You had to just hope that the fish would get out of the way as you stepped in. Our guide assured us that it was OK because all the fish had been baptised. Although we pushed our slips of paper into the wailing wall, we declined to join in the wailing.

It was incredibly busy. It’s sometimes hard to think of a place as being holy when you’ve been hustled and bustled by a large crowd. One lady in particular tried to make me a eunuch using her large and heavy rucksack. There was nearly a punch up between our guide and an Armenien tour guide in the Church of the Nativity. We had all queued up, whereas his group had sneaked in through the exit and jumped the queue. All of the churches were built a long time after the real events, so often, the provenance of the sites could be doubtful.

The non-biblical stuff was interesting too. We bobbed around in the Dead Sea, and we went through the enormous wall between Israel and Palestine into the Occupied territories (or the Disputed West Bank depending on your preference). It’s sad to see such a dividing line, but as our tour guide said, the terrorism has all but stopped since it’s construction. Even despite the wall, the transition between the two states is marked. Israel seemed very well-kept whereas in Palestine, the fields were littered with discarded plastic, old tyres and other detritus.

It surprised me how safe it all felt. There is not a soldier on every street corner as sometimes comes across in the press. Our guide seemed very balanced, but it would have been nice to get more of the Palestinian side of the story.

Did it make me more religious? Well no – but it gave me an appreciation of why things are so very complex in the Middle East.

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Storium – an asynchronous storytelling game

English: Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con i...

English: Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for many players to get together for a game. Real life has a nasty habit of getting in the way. Gaming online using Google hangouts, and the like help by eliminating the constraint that everyone has to be in the same geography, but they still mean that everyone has to be free at the same time.

Storium is different. It is an asynchronous story telling role playing game. Whether you are a player or the narrator, you can take turns whenever you want. All you need is an internet connection and a smidgen of time.

At the time of writing, Storium has 36 hours left of its kickstarter campaign. I am a backer, a player and a narrator but have no other affiliation with the game or its publisher.

To start a game in Storium, you can choose from one of the pre-populated stories or worlds. More are being added each day as the kickstarter campaign rumbles on. Each of these comes with a set of ready made plot elements including characters for the players to interact with, challenges for them to overcome and assets to help them along their way. These plot elements remind me of Fiasco playsets in that they suggest a framework for the story but do not dictate the plot.

After that, enter the usernames or email addresses of people you want to join your game and invites will be sent out on your behalf. You can decide whether your game is open (and can be viewed by everyone on or closed. New players can be added at any point during the game.

Players create their characters by choosing cards to define who they are and what they can do. Firstly, they select a card that defines their background – similar to a class. Then they define their biggest strength and their biggest weakness. Players can either choose from the options available or make something up. Each strength / weakness can be used 3 times. In addition to the defined strength / weakness, players also get a wild strength / weakness which can be defined when played. Lastly, the player selects a calling which is like a starter plot.

Characters, once defined, are submitted to the narrator for approval. The narrator can ask for revisions to be made or simply accept the character.

Once play is under way, the narrator uses the various plot elements to construct scenes. Using a location card, the players know where the action takes place. Character cards indicate who’s there. Asset cards show things that may be picked up. Challenge cards show difficulties that players must overcome to progress the story. Subplot cards can be picked up should characters feel motivated to solve them.

Players take turns in any order and can make more than one turn at a time. They solve puzzles by playing their strength / weakness cards and describing what they do to overcome the challenge. The outcome depends on the combination of cards played. If all cards played are strength cards, then there is a strong outcome. All weakness cards means a weak outcome. If there is a combination of the two, then the outcome is uncertain. The player who plays the last card narrates what happens for a weak / strong outcome. For an uncertain outcome, the narrator decides what happens. Even when players describe the outcome, the narrator can request revisions if necessary.

In between scenes, any players who are out of cards can refresh their hands and each player may only play 3 cards per scene which stops anyone from monopolising the story. Any player / narrator can make comments which appear in a commentary box beside the action.

The game plays very well. In some ways, it helps if your players are in different time zones because each wakes up at a different time and the story rattles along. You can only get out of a game like this what you put in, but we have had an absolute blast and it means I can play games with friends on the opposite side of the world.

It seems churlish to criticise a game like this because it does what it sets out to do very well. It would help if there were a more sophisticated way to browse ongoing games, maybe a search feature. There is no inbuilt combat or damage mechanism so it is difficult to simulate peril except through narrative. If you are into simulationist games, then you probably want to look elsewhere.

If you love storytelling games and you are having trouble finding a game, then this is an absolute gem. Not to be missed.

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The end of Guinness

Guinness Pint

Guinness Pint (Photo credit: Stephen Edgar – Netweb)

We discussed it at length and decided that we didn’t want one. We had one at our previous place which disappeared causing us to both be very upset. It was cute, but messy, especially when the woman from the letting agent came around to inspect the place.

The very next day after we made our decision, there was a knock at the door.

My family was outside bearing exactly what we decided we didn’t want, a kitten. It was the tiniest ball of fur you have ever laid eyes on, no bigger than a mouse. Jet black in colour with dainty white feet and a white bib under her chin. Her most distinctive feature was her eyebrows. They were fine, silvery white and arced out high above her head. We fell in love instantly.

“What are we going to call her?” asked my wife.

She offered a few unconvincing kittens names but I wasn’t persuaded. The name needed to fit and as she lay on her back on the floor with her white paws  up, she resembled a miniature pint of Guinness and so she was christened.

We were a bit worried at first because we already had a kitten called Tommy in the house that a friend asked us to look after whilst she was away. Tommy was twice the size of Guinness and was strong-arming her as they played. We needn’t have worried though because what Guinness lacked in size, she made up for in spirit. After they played for a short while, Guinness got the upper hand and from that point on, there was no more bullying.

Guinness was with us for a long time and it’s fair to say she had her fair share of quirks. Like she chose to use the dirt tray that lay just outside the bathroom in a particularly smelly manner when I was relaxing in the bath. She also would choose to noisily slurp out of my cup of water on the bedside table when we were trying to sleep. I used to say to my wife that I would die of some vile horrible cat disease because of the shared cup. She was incredibly good when any children came round, patiently allowing them to tug, prod and poke her with barely any protest.

But after 17 years, we returned to our home to find Guinness very sick indeed in my mother in law’s arms. She wouldn’t eat or drink. She couldn’t walk. We took her to the vets and the news wasn’t good.

Guinness is no more, which is sad. Very sad.

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English: A standard measuring tape.

English: A standard measuring tape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Your dad’s wasted his money.” came the solemn assessment from my uncle as he handed the package back to me.

His reaction puzzled me because dad was obviously very happy with his purchase. In the pack, there were a number of different tools; a hammer, a set of screwdrivers, a tape measure and various other tools. We were always struggling to find the right tool when we needed it and here we had a whole set in a purpose made carrying pouch. They were cheap too.

How could two people have such different reactions about the same item? It took a while before I understood that it was all down to quality. For a while, I thought that quality was an inherent feature of an item. Some items were of high quality, others were complete tat and everything else lay in between the two.

But quality is much more subtle than that. An item can be classed as a quality item if it conforms to the user’s requirements. So quality is not a feature of an item at all, it is much more related to the user and their requirements. Hence my uncle’s assessment differing from my dad’s.

My uncle was a tradesman. He used tools for a living, all day, every day. For him, two of his top requirements were durability and reliability. He needed his tools to last a long time and he needed them to work every single time.

Dad used tools occasionally when he was doing a bit of DIY around the house or when he had some flat packed furniture to assemble. His top requirements were value for money and comprehensiveness. If the tools let him down, it would not be the end of the world.

Understanding the requirements of the user is of vital importance in any project. If you don’t know what the user wants, how on Earth are you going to make sure you have met them? If the requirements are absent or incomplete, the temptation is to unconsciously use your own inbuilt requirements as a yardstick and they might be very different indeed.

This is hard enough in the world of the physical. When it comes to the ethereal world of computer systems, it is even more important to make sure that there is a set of comprehensive requirements describing what the user expects. After all, one man’s bug is another man’s feature.

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Southern Comfort

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth ...

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although it’s only a couple of hours away, I’ve never spent much time in Birmingham, the UK’s second city. Now, thanks to a recent acquisition by my company, I’ve spent more time in a place I never thought I’d visit, Birmingham Alabama. Not that it’s particularly easy to get to. Despite the nomenclature, I couldn’t find a single International flight heading into or out of Birmingham International Airport, not even to neighbouring countries like Mexico or Canada.

In the absence of direct flights, connecting flights are the order or the day which means a very long journey from the UK. I don’t know whether I’m especially unlucky, but when you have flight connections in the States, you only have a 50:50 chance of making it to where you intended when you intended. The scope for things to go wrong (weather, mechanical failure, long immigration queues, airline incompetence) seems immense. How native US citizens put up with it is beyond me.

I didn’t know much about the place before I got there and a quirk of fate gave us a free day during our business trip. As we were in the centre of town, we picked up a tourist map from the hotel and set off on foot. The closest destination picked out on the map was the Peanut Depot. We had no idea what to expect but thought if it’s on the map, it must be worth a visit. When we found a shop selling peanuts, we assumed there must be more to it. A quick scan around the place told us that the only other thing worth noting was a plaque on the wall proclaiming it a historic building at 115 years old. If that’s what defines a historic building, half the buildings in the UK wear similar plaques.

The next entry on the map was a tower. When we got there, we realised it was just an office block. A tall office block, but an office block all the same.

Clearly, we needed advice. Luckily, the next destination on the map was the tourist information office. Upon arrival, they greeted us enthusiastically and insisted we sign the guest book. Although there was no dust on the guest book, the previous entry predated ours by some margin. The friendly people directed us to the Civil Rights Institute. Inside the foyer of the Institute, we spied a display case containing something both sinister and ridiculous; a Ku Klux Klan outfit donated by an anonymous donor. Wandering through the exhibits was enlightening but also shocking. It’s hard to imagine mistreatment of a whole race on such a scale barely 20 years after World War 2 and only 50 years ago.

Birmingham city centre is a lonely place. We hardly saw a soul and we walked around for hours. There is a staggering dearth of people given that there are over 200,000 residents. As so few Alabamans seems to walk anywhere, it’s also surprising to find so many cobblers.

I have subsequently stayed outside of town where bizarrely, there is more going on. The scenery’s amazing. There are more bars, more restaurants, more shops and more people. The people in Birmingham are very friendly. They did try to poison me once with something called a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. A vile concoction of sweetness and ungodly textures contained between two slices of bread. I’ve forgiven them, for now, but I will be deeply suspicious of any strange-sounding fare from now on!

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Faceless World

Faceless World (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a great lover of new technology, but only when it makes people’s lives easier or more enjoyable. In a connected world, you can find just about any form of goods or services with a google search and a few clicks. That side of life is superb, especially if you are looking for something niche or esoteric. Where I hate technology is when it is used for the sake of it or to keep people at bay.

Sometimes, your enquiry has a bit more nuance than just searching for the right item in the right size and clicking the add to basket button. Sometimes you want to talk through the options with something or someone who has passed the Turing test. The last thing many companies want is for you to speak to a real life human being. Human beings are comparatively expensive, even on minimum wage or on the other side of the world in a sweatshop.

They would rather hide their phone numbers and when you look for more assistance, direct you to a glorified FAQ page with the things that people commonly ask. They are missing the point. The whole reason you want to speak to someone is because you have a question that’s not that common. If it were, whatever it was you sought would be in plain sight.

Sometimes they use a chat mechanism. Despite the message on the website saying there are umpteen agents available, you click to link to open up a session, only to be told that the site is waiting for the next available operator. If there are so many agents available, why do I have to wait? Then, eventually, a window opens and the agent introduces themselves.

“Hello, my name is Derek. How can I help you?”

I feel like typing in “Your name’s not Derek at all. Can you get a real human being to phone me on this number”.

Of course I don’t. I play the game and type in my enquiry. I then wait… and wait. Because “Derek” or whoever it is has loads of different chat windows open talking to many people at once. First you get radio silence. Then you get “Derek is typing a response”. Either Derek only has one finger or he’s a rubbish typist because it takes him ages to type his terse reply in the form of an open-ended question. I appreciate the need for businesses to keep costs down, but I can’t imagine a more detached sales channel.

Surely it’s worth lavishing a little more attention on a potential prospect?

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It’s all for Charity

Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A local charity had never received a donation from the town’s banker, so the director made a phone call.

“Our records show you make $500,000 a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the director.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”

“I … I … I had no idea.”

“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

Unlike our banking friend, most of us try to give some money to charity as and when we can. We probably do this for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s to ease our conscience or it could be to make a difference to something we feed strongly about. For some it’s about helping others or a form of giving back to the community. Whatever the reason, there are a huge number to choose from. In the UK alone, there are 180,000 registered charities, which is roughly one for every 350 people.

I find that number staggering. It’s certainly good that there’s a lot of choice of where to donate your hard-earned money. I’m sure the vast majority do a fantastic job for their chosen cause. But isn’t it rather too many? Private enterprises merge because they know that the value of the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of the two parts.  Much of the overhead of running the organisation is vastly reduced. You don’t need two lots of HR, Finance and Marketing. You also don’t need two CEOs which can only be a good thing when you consider some of the salaries for charity appointments in the broadsheets.

The granularity is great if you want your money to go somewhere very specific and that could be very important to someone who’s been helped by charity. If you’ve been rescued by the Lesser Piddling-on-the-Marsh air ambulance and that made the difference between life and death, you probably want your money to go in that particular direction. But I’m less convinced about the large generalist charities. Do we really need teabags in need, save the teabags and national society for the prevention of gross insensitivity to teabags?


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Danger danger!

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit:

There once was a monastery in perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed.

With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”

Being scared of heights, I’m not sure I would get in that basket, even if the rope was brand new and 6 inches thick. No-one in their right mind would get into that basket if there was visible wear and tear on the rope. It would be a good idea to inspect the rope regularly and replace it at the first sign of damage. For the really paranoid, you might even replace it every so often with a new rope just in case.

But when it comes to the world of software, it’s a little bit different. People are very risk averse. Even if the software they are running has a known serious defect, they sometimes perceive the risk of taking a fix to be higher than living with the status quo. So let me get this straight, in software terms, you are dangling in a basket hundreds of feet up suspended by a dangerously frayed rope. I’m offering to fit you a new rope, but you don’t want to take it in case there’s a manufacturing defect. Or maybe it might cause a problem with the basket. Why did you even report the problem if you don’t want to take a fix?

It’s not a fair analogy because software is much more complex than a simple basket suspended by a rope. There are many interdependencies. But even so, the risk of doing something always needs to be compared with the risk of doing nothing.  Yes, something might go wrong, but you are in a situation where something is absolutely definitely wrong right now and causing you lots of pain.

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