Share Your World (6 April 2020)

Last week I took part in my first Share Your World post from Sparke from a Combustible Mind. While I’m still stuck at home, I’m going to try and answer some of these prompts. I don’t know what will happen afterwards, but who does?

This week, Melanie’s questions are:

If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make them?

We are afraid to make mistakes precisely because we are learning from them. The whole process of being burned in the past is what makes us cautious in the future.

How do we know that pleasure is good and pain is bad?

Pretty much by definition. Pleasure is something that pleases us, therefore our perception is that it is good. On the flip side, the body uses pain to warn us that things aren’t right.

What problem or situation did TV / movies make you think would be common, but when you grew up you found out it wasn’t?

Balance. I think that TV can just skew our perspective, unless we balance it by what we see out in the real world.

In his last few years, my grandfather viewed the world from his armchair – he didn’t get out much. My grandfather was born in the 1900s – I can judge him by my own standards and conclude that he was racist, but probably also conclude that he was no more racist than anybody else of his agegroup. But every time he saw a news story on tv of a black man being convicted of some crime, it reinforced his stereotype that all black people were criminals.

That’s what it can do – it can warp our view, unless we have a counter-balance.

Actually, I did think this, just with the coverage of COVID-19. At the start of the outbreak, when deaths were still in the ones and twos, the media spent a lot of time going into the circumstances behild each death. A lot, as in maybe 80% of any news bulletin. Now, COVID-19 is a killer, and the media was absolutely right to press home the seriousness of the outbreak. But in doing so, they did not touch upon the fact that the death rate, so far as we knew at the time, was 1%-3% of cases. In other words, people would catch the virus, but would most likely survive it.

We had no coverage at all of this survival scenario, presumably because it is far less sensational. In my opinion, the bulletins lacked balance.

The saving grace here is that a TV channel is just one source of information, and we have many sources at our disposal. So it is possible to gain an more balanced picture, but it does put some responsibility on us to establish credibility. Even the best programmes will have editors who decide what they want us to see and not to see.

If you drive, do you speed when no one is watching?   Have you ever run a red light late at night on purpose, particularly if it doesn’t seem to change very quickly?   If you don’t drive, what minor law may you have broken?

I certainly sped, when no pedestrians were about. I had my car up to 150mph on a French autoroute once. Yes, it could have killed me if something had gone wrong, but I was young and indestructable. It became a lot harder to speed in the UK once we got cameras on the roads – I had an American friend and once asked them why I never saw cameras in the USA. Well, they tried ’em, he said, but people just shot ’em! That was mid-Nineties. In any case, as I got older I became more environment-conscious and actually downsized my cars. At the moment, I haven’t driven since the stroke, and it has certainly been good for stress levels.

What positive things are you finding to do to occupy your time right now?

Well, this morning, for example, I was working on an Excel macro. It is still WIP, in fact I need to get back to it once I have finished writing this.

Twice a day I prick my finger and test my sugar, and all these numbers go into Excel – I have numbers going back to 2016. The numbers themselves can be all over the place, but when you start to look at averages and so on, you get a clearer idea. I wrote macros in the spreadsheet so that, once I enter the data, I click a button and … hey presto!

I already have a spreadsheet which can do all this, but I have been looking at how I can improve it.

Excel, by the way, is very functional, but if you only ever used it to keep some numbers on a spreadsheet, there is a lot more to it. But having said that, it is a nasty environment in which to work – I’ve done it a few times now, it hasn’t changed for twenty years, and … you can preobably think of more pleasant ways to spend your time.

A Hot Date

Written for Fandango’s One Word Challenge (FOWC), engine.

I’m gonna post today about a component I once wrote in my professional life, which was a date engine.

For part of my professional life I was a consultant to an asset management company. Asset Managers run funds, hundrends of them. The way each fund is set up might be different. Half of it might be based on a commodity, like gold or silver, and half of it might be based on a spread of stocks in such-and-such a sector. Or, you might have a fund which is based on other funds. For example a fund might be based a third on Fund A, and two-thirds on Fund B. The possibilities are endless.

We use the term pension fund, and in fact the two are very similar ideas. The plan is just to invest into a fund, and allow the fund manager to grow the fund, without having to worry about too much detail. In fact, the funds we handled were popular with many pension companies.

Unlike the raw stocks or commodities themselves, each fund would only deal periodically. They tended to be long-term, rather than used by day-traders. In the simplest case, something might deal every day, but you could also have funds which dealt:

  • every Monday,
  • every other Tuesday,
  • the first Wednesday of each month,
  • the 2nd last Thursday of each month,
  • the 15th of each month,
  • once a year, on 31st December
  • once a year, on the first Friday

…and so on. The possibilities were pretty endless. Except that in practise, only a few tens of options were used.

The place I worked, they used to calculate these dealing calendars manually, for each fund, a year at a time. Just this process, over about 1,500 funds, took somebody about six months every year. And somebody else, another six months to check.

So they wanted to build a system which would automate the process. After all, it’s simple enough to have a computer just apply a set of rules and tag one date onto the last.

So I built an engine so they could do this. You needed to tell it the last dealing date, and once it had this, it would apply the rules for the fund and calculate the next dealinng date. So you can imagine, you could run this engine again and again, on each fund, to calculate dealing calendars years in advance.

The trickiest problem was in capturing all of these rules. Capturing them flexibly enough so as to allow many different types of rules to exist, but rigidly enough so the rule could be used to calculate a dealing date.

One of the oe other problem was, what if the engine came up with a non-banking day, for example a weekend, or New Year’s Day?

Plus, the funds were based in different countries/currencies. Different currencies have different ideas about what day is and isn’t a bank holiday. So straight away, you’re having to also capture bank holidays against all the currencies (although funds tended to be only set up in the main half-dozen currencies).

It had to take all of this into account, and more besides.

We got there in the end. It this sounds quite boring to you, that’s because it was. Working with banks was quite well-paid, but it wasn’t rocket science. The reason it paid well was because people had to be meticulous*. A lot of the time you would be working on something to improve a manual process. Either to make it quicker, or less error-prone (in this case, both). Banks are quite a specialised environment, in that respect. In later years, when I was hiring people, previous banking experience was always a big factor, just because it showed that somebody was used to that environment.

* some banks are more meticulous than others!