benjamin alexander smith

Introducing Inline XBRL

Last week marked a momentous change for the UK accounting industry. On April Fools Day 2011, it became mandatory for UK companies to report their statutory accounts and tax computations in a new format called Inline XBRL. This change transformed the way in which organizations report to HMRC in one fell swoop, simultaneously ending the centuries-old practice of filing on paper and unsanctimoniously booting PDF filings out of the door (except in very particular circumstances). As of now, every company in the UK must file electronically using a structured data format.

Inline XBRL, otherwise known as iXBRL, is an incredibly elegant solution to financial reporting. A derivative of XHTML, iXBRL allows users to produce human-readable documents that can be rendered in web browser while also allowing them to embed additional structured data. When processed by a compliant processor, an iXBRL document is transformed into an XBRL instance document–a format used by governments, regulators and analysts worldwide. For those of you that don’t work in the world of financial reporting, iXBRL really is a very neat option: the very same data that is read by human eyes can be transformed into an XML-based machine-readable format by any iXBRL compliant processor, allowing a single source document to be used by analysts and BI tools alike.

For the average user, iXBRL means that the documents seen on-screen are comparable to the Word documents, Excel documents or even PDF documents which they are replacing (and in many cases, the documents from which they were generated). Provided it doesn’t hinder machine-readability or require duplication of data, this familiarity can only be a good thing. The fact that iXBRL also hides away the hideous angle-bracket-and-slash-infected nature of XBRL doesn’t hurt either. XBRL may well be a great format which is ideal for consistent, comparable, and processable financial reporting, but it’s miles away from anything an accountant would actually want to use or understand.

On a global scale, iXBRL is going to be a big deal primarily because it solves the kind of problems that the US have been enduring for years. The largest corporations in America have to file their 10-K and 10-Q reports to the SEC, but they have to file two copies of their returns: one in XBRL format, and one in HTML format. One provides structured data, and the other merely allows the analysts who have been relying on readable returns for decades to continue doing their jobs. This leaves us in a horrible half-way house, with duplication of effort (and data!) plus a boring, tiresome job comparing the two documents to ensure that they are consistent. Worse, it means that everyone can ignore the XBRL filings for a few more years and work with the same HTML EDGAR filings they’re already comfortable with–reducing the impetus for companies to produce high-quality XBRL returns.

In the UK, the sharp charge to iXBRL has delivered all of the benefits of HTML and XBRL formats while cutting out the drawbacks of being forced to prepare both. I’d be willing to bet that even though the UK is the first country to make the leap to iXBRL, it won’t be the last.

Welcome to the world stage, iXBRL. You’re a welcome addition to the stable of financial reporting formats, and I bet you’ll also be one of the most durable.

Quantum Number Five

(With apologies to Lou Bega…)

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Quantum Number 5.

s, p, d, f, g
Everybody in the lab, so come on let's see; 
Drive a quantum oscillator
They say that it's classically forbidden  
But so did Weber.   

Funded like we were last week
We need more kit,
but hydrogen's cheap
I like Niels Bohr, Max Born, and Erwin Schrodinger,
(I won't touch Marie Curie
Cos she was a minger!)

Blame uncertainty, nothing's certain any more,
Position or time, we just guess what's in store, 
Nobody knows, but it's all good, let me dump it
Please send in the trumpet   

A little bit of Heisenberg in my life
A little bit of Fermi by my side
A little bit of Pauli is all I need
A little bit of Planck is what I see
A little bit of Feynmann in the sun
A little bit of Zeeman all night long
A little bit of Einstein here I am
I'm quantum theory's biggest fan.   

(Quantum number five)   

Spin up and down and tunnel all around
The ideas are profound
But keep your feet on the ground
Emit a photon left 
And a photon right
One to the front 
And one to the side
Check spectral lines once
Spectral lines twice
And if it looks like this
You didn't model it right   

A little bit of Heisenberg in my life
A little bit of Fermi by my side
A little bit of Pauli is all I need
A little bit of Planck is what I see
A little bit of Feynmann in the sun
A little bit of Zeeman all night long
A little bit of Einstein here I am
I'm quantum theory's biggest fan.   

(Proton)  
(The proton)  
(Quantum number five)  
(laugh)

A little bit of Heisenberg in my life
A little bit of Fermi by my side
A little bit of Pauli is all I need
A little bit of Planck is what I see
A little bit of Feynmann in the sun
A little bit of Zeeman all night long
A little bit of Einstein here I am
I'm quantum theory's biggest fan.   

I do all to 
Get entangled with a girl like you 
When you interact, we'll change together 
With spooky action through the ether.   

(Quantum number five)

The Diageo Claive Vidiz Scotch Whisky Collection

I was recently in Edinburgh for the 2011 Hogmonay celebrations, and while was there I got the chance to visit The Scotch Whisky Experience. As well as a lesson on whisky-making, a tasting session, and a bar with over three hundred whiskys, the experience also plays host to The Diageo Claive Vidiz Scotch Whisky Collection.

The collection is the largest Scotch whisky collection in the world, and it is absolutely stunning. Here’s a photograph I took of some of the beautiful bottles on display.

Sundial: US Telephone Number to Timezone Converter

I make a lot of international calls at work to US clients and prospects. Unfortunately, many of the calls are to different people in different cities. I’m not yet at a point where I associate particular US area codes with their timezones (nor country codes with timezones for that matter), and to be honest I’m not sure if I ever want to be that familiar with them.

My process used to be laborious: visit Bennet Yee’s Area Code Listing, by Number and look up the state to which the area code corresponds, visit Wikipedia and look up the capital city of the state, then visit the World Clock Meeting Planner and see how our timezones overlap. This got old pretty fast.

I’ve solved this problem with Sundial, a US telephone number to timezone converter. It’s a simple webservice which takes any old telephone number and, if it’s a US number, produces a timezone comparision chart to show how it corresponds to GMT. Sundial is freely available for public use, so please give it a try!

You can use Sundial in a few different ways. The simplest is to visit the Sundial converter and enter a US telephone number that you would like to lookup. Format is not important–stick it in with brackets, periods, warts and all. Alternatively, to convert Mobile: (651) 342.2323 you can just navigate directly to http://sundial.benjaminasmith.com/Mobile: (651) 342.2323 and get the answer you’re looking for.

Sundial is still under development, so I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have or fix any bugs you might come across. Let me know how you get on in the comments, or drop me an email.

New Year’s Resolution: Work Hard, Get Rewarded

As I tweeted yesterday morning, I have only one resolution for 2011: work hard, and get rewarded. Perhaps it sounds more like a mantra than a goal, but I think it has a lot of value.

Throughout our lives, we work. We work for satisfaction, for payment, for food and for shelter. Some of us work for something to do. Most of us work because we have to. Very few of us stay at home and do nothing all day; even after retirement, plenty of people continue to work in one form or another. Our lives are bound up in work. It can be joyous or crushing. It can make the rest of our lives easy, or leave us living from paycheck to paycheck.

The key to work, and to life, is to throw yourself into it and to get rewarded for doing so. Idealistic? Sure. But I believe that it’s true, too.

When I talk about rewards, I don’t just mean cash. Sure, I want to make a few extra quid as much as anyone else; in fact, one of my goals this year is to organize my finances and get started in the world of investment. But rewards come in many guises, not least of which is job satisfaction. There’s little better than coming home from a long day with the feeling of a job well done, of value, of worth, of knowing that your boss appreciates your work—and so do you. I want both kinds of reward: financial and emotional.

But how can the desire to be rewarded fit in to the category of “New Year’s Resolution”? We have some measure of control over our job satisfaction, but surely the level of financial reward is a decision for our employers alone to make? I couldn’t disagree more.

First of all, never forget that your job and your salary are not forever fixed. A hard worker is valuable to their employer, whatever category they fall into, and you should always make sure that you’re paid what you’re worth. That said, this of course requires that you are a hard worker. But beyond this, if you stay with your current job then think about finding ways to take on more responsibility. Be more involved. Be more important. Work harder, be appreciated, and when the salary review comes around you’ve got a great bargaining chip to get yourself a raise.

If your job doesn’t interest you, that’s fine: do something on the side! You can work hard at anything from a side business to a student society. You can volunteer some time for a local charity or a non-profit organisation. You can start a blog, or become an amateur photographer. There possibilities are endless, and importantly, each one has the potential for both emotional and financial reward. I’m not the first to talk about making more money from side projects and I won’t be the last.

So what’s the plan? I’ve written myself three key messages.

  1. Work hard in your day job, and get a good raise at your annual salary review. This will keep me focused, keep my job satisfaction at a high level, help me progress through the company, and will ultimately make my daily life more rewarding. To boot, any increase I can get when the salary review comes around will ultimately stand me in good stead for the future: raises have residual benefits and will boost your income for many years to come.

  2. Stop being lazy when it comes to personal finance. Last year I let my savings sit in a 0% interest account because I didn’t get around to starting a new one. I let a CreditExpert trial run on for months after I’d checked my score because I couldn’t be bothered to cancel it, wasting almost £50. No more. This year, I’m going to just get on with the small finance tasks—and I expect that doing so will make me hundreds of pounds in interest and saved fees over the course of the year.

  3. Don’t stop when you achieve your goals. Don’t stop when you fail. Persevere. I’ve got a slew of projects—some of which have been rumbling on for years, some of which are still cooking—and any number of them could be making me money on the side. They’re not. Why? Either because I succeed, stopped and let them dwindle, or because I never found a way to succeed in monetizing them and I gave up trying. Neither is a good course of action. If I pick a project with potential and work hard on it, I’ll reap the benefits.

I’m sure that these three messages could benefit plenty of people beyond my desk. And though they’re simple, they have the potential to make a real difference. It all comes down to my single New Year’s Resolution for 2011, and one I intend to keep: work hard,  get rewarded.

Work From Home During the Snow

Snowfall is a fairly regular occurrence. In the UK we are graced by snow for around 10 days per year. Fewer days of snow may affect those near the coast, or many more may affect those in the Pennines, but it is a safe bet that you will enjoy a nice coating of snow for at least a few days per year.

The reactions to snow are mixed. For some, they fear the hassle it brings: disruption to travel, to deliveries, and to daily routine. It brings wet carpets and cold ears; school closures and icy pavements; slippery surfaces and soggy trainers. For others, snow is a blessing. It brings snowballs and sledging; quality time with the kids; days free from the commute and free from the office. And for many, it means a day off. But just because it disrupts routine, why should it destroy productivity?

Snow seems to be the only form of weather which can reliably bring British business to its knees. After the recent snow, absence management organization FirstCare estimated that nearly 11 per cent of the UK workforce stayed at home—the highest figure ever recorded for December. Meanwhile, The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that this spell of absenteeism costs us over £1 billion per day. That’s over 26% of Britain’s daily GDP.

The key question for me is not why 11% of the UK workforce stays at home, but why staying at home carries such a high cost to businesses. Why does a little snow (or even a lot of snow) cost us 13% of our daily GDP?

In 2009, it was estimated that 73% of the UK GDP came from the services sector. In today’s world, services means far more than tourism and transport: it also means finance and business services, many of which are essentially virtual. What do I mean by “virtual” services? I’m referring to services which at their core do not directly relate to physical products or the movement of materials. They relate to concepts, to ideas and to important information, yet they do not require a physical backdrop. These are services like accounting, advertising, design, programming and support. To an extent, even telesales, recruitment and many real estate services fall into this category.

ONS statistics show that even in 2000, over 10 million people were employed in virtual sector jobs against a backdrop of over 25 million workers employed within the wider services sector. The virtual sector makes up approximately a third of the UK workforce, yet accounts for closer to half of UK GDP. In today’s climate (both meteorologic and economic), surely the overwhelming majority of virtual sector should be able to work from home and reduce the cost of snowfall?

There are plenty of examples of how companies can function even while staff work from home, and plenty more examples of companies failing to think ahead. I’m going to pick out two.

I’ll start with a software house in Oxford at which many of my friends are employed. When their offices are snowbound or employees are faced with a rather slippery uphill struggle to get to work, they are all provided with myriad sensible ways to work from home. For some, this is as simple as using the same laptop at home as at work. For others, it is centred on good, thorough documentation and a reliance on free, open source software. Sensible email access policies allow users to get set-up from home, and employees are provided with secure access to the company intranet through use of free, multi-platform, open source software like PuTTY. Because the company base so much of their operation on open source software, employees can freely install almost any of the other tools they need to do almost all of their work from home. It’s not ideal, but it’s pragmatic and allows for solid productivity even in the worst conditions. All they need is internet access.

Let’s take a rather less impressive case: Ebuyer, the online electronics superstore. Snow hits, and their deliveries take a hit—something which is perfectly understandable given the location of their offices in East Yorkshire. However, not only do their deliveries struggle, but so do their telephone lines. When the snow came down in early December, their telephone lines were closed for days and email enquiries received very limited responses. This was apparently because their staff could not make it to the support centre. But why did staff need to be in the centre to work?

There are many free or cheap solutions to route telephone calls that do not require a physical dedicated line hooked up to each handset, and indeed virtually every call centre already uses these. There are also plenty of good and cheap solutions for routing calls over IP. As for remote email access: this is just a given in the modern world, and all it takes is for a plan to be in place. Could staff not have been provided in advance with a spare headset and any required documentation to allow them to sign-on and work from home? Perhaps this is impossible with the systems that Ebuyer have in place, but with a little prior planning and good choice of technology it seems very unlikely that the problem could not have been avoided.

The key point is that with a little preparation and a little technology there is almost always a way to allow virtual sector employees to be work from home. There are so many solutions which are already in use for this very purpose—an increasing number of which are already in your IT infrastructure, are freely available, or can be cheaply deployed from the cloud. This is a solved problem from the technological standpoint. Connectivity is not an issue even over great distances, and bandwidth is largely free for consumers, so why not make use of it? Why are we still left to flounder when the snow settles?

This is a call to arms. Management: get prepared, talk to your system administrators in the New Year, and make this happen. It might require a little effort and a little will, but it can be done and will deliver huge savings to your business even in the medium term.

Everyone else: go outside and make the most of the snow while you can. This time next year you might find yourself not skiving and sledging, but working from home. At least you’ll get to skip the commute…

Simplicity

Picture this: you’re sat, notebook in hand, and you’ve begun to write, to draw, to create. You wisely decided to go analogue in order to get your creative process started. Now you find yourself with the fuzzy outline of an idea, some fractured content, and a frame on which to hang a real and valuable piece of work.

This happens when brainstorming for all manner of tasks, as varied as blog posting, writing a Powerpoint presentation, planning a photograph or writing a quick Android app. The common theme is that your work has some quantity, but no quality. So what’s the next step?

The key to a good piece of work—be it academic, professional, creative or otherwise—is a cohesive, accessible, comprehensible message. In a word, the key to a good piece of work is simplicity. Perhaps not in terms of subject matter, or in terms of style, but in terms of message. It is critical that your audience leaves with an understanding of the idea that you are trying to communicate.

How do we get from quantity to quality; from complexity to simplicity?

Some measure of simplicity can only be achieved through clear and concise language and a flair for design, but I believe that a great deal of complexity is caused by a single flaw: the creator didn’t have a clear message in her own mind. Before you can communicate effectively, you need to first get a firm grasp of the message on which you are focused.

How do you do that? Well, let’s say you’ve started with an analogue brain dump and you’re faced with a messy page to get you started. The first step is to look over the scrawl and see what connections you can make. Look for patterns, common themes, inter-related points. Start to join things up—numbering them, perhaps, or drawing connecting lines. Spot the patterns.

As you begin to find these links, this common ground in your work, you will find yourself beginning to realise what the connections really are. Focus on a particular few points, and try to discern how they gel together. The interesting thing is not the content you already have on the page, but the common theme running through it. Once you figure out the core message or idea beneath a group, then you can think about what additional content you might want to add to it. What else might be relevant or interesting? What might reinforce the theme or even explain it?

As you continue down this path, you may find yourself able to link up not just content, but also the various emerging themes that are forming on your page. With a little extra thought and a few extra scribblings, the themes will begin to come together to form a cohesive movement. Perhaps one follows into another; or perhaps one core theme runs through the rest of them. Either outcome is good: you now have a central focus on which every aspect of your work can reflect.

As you begin to create your product–be it blog post, slides, or otherwise–keep referring back to your core theme. Are you being true to the message? Are you being concise and clear? Are you going off on a tangent? If in doubt, split your work up into multiple parts. If you have two conflicting messages, why try to communicate them both in the same breath?

This technique has worked particularly well for me on business presentations–even intimidating ones to senior management teams. It really helps me find hard-hitting messages without getting bogged down in content-heavy slides.

I hope you find success with this method. If in doubt, keep it simple!

Do you have your own strategy for staying on topic, finding clear messages and communicating clearly? Have you used similar techniques? Do you have any feedback or suggestions on my method? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Go Analogue!

Travel can be wasted time, but it can also be a fruitful session that is hidden amidst an otherwise dreary part of the day. Some use it for work, some use it to read or to listen to music.  I like to use it to set aside the time to let my mind wander, pull out my trusty notebook, and dump my thoughts onto the page.

Let me tell you: nothing that you can use with a keyboard, mouse, touchscreen or otherwise will compare to the sheer creative force of a pen and paper.

Whenever I’m feeling creative, or whenever I would like to be feeling creative, nothing spurs me on like a crisp, blank page stretched out before me. Open a notebook, take a pen in your hand, and wait. When I see that yawning expanse of emptiness and know that I alone am expected to fill it, it flicks a switch in my mind. It somehow reaches inside me, drawing my creative energy into my fingers, through my pen and out into the world.

If it all sounds too simple, too easy—or even beautiful, somehow—then let me assure you that it is most certainly not. When that inky wave of energy hits the page, hurling itself against the white, narrow-ruled cliffs, it is nothing but flotsam and jetsam. All that lies before you is a tangle of half-formed ideas: themes that have yet to become a symphony.

But the themes are present.

Start with an idea, sketch it out, and begin to brainstorm. Don’t worry about structures or links; get the fragments onto the page in whichever way you see fit. If you find yourself grouping thoughts together, going back up the page to add new ideas, drawing lines or even scribbling things out, then go with it. Let your ideas flow, but don’t try to line them up too neatly. Elaborate on the initial thoughts when you can think of something clever, but move on to new pastures if you can’t.

Before you know it, you’ll have a burgeoning mess of ideas. Some will be good, some will not. Some will drive you from one page to the next. Some will prompt you to rush off on a tangent or push you in a direction you hadn’t considered. Others will stop dead and be left hanging in the air like an awkward silence. It doesn’t matter: another thought will soon take their place and fill the page with easygoing chatter.

Later on, the next time you sit down to work on something seriously, you will find yourself forearmed with a slew of thought-provoking prompts to help you out. You already have a way around the writers’ block, a hint for when you run out of steam, or a gentle push towards your next great piece of work.

Pen and paper have helped me to achieve a great many things over the years. Whiteboards have done the same. Without ink, I wouldn’t have thought up BritishBonus or Surely Not!, projects which ended up paying for my degree. Without a notebook, I wouldn’t have come up with the killer slogans and core messages behind the Warwick Atheists society. Without a whiteboard, I wouldn’t have passed any of my final year exams.

Getting offline and using our hands inspires something primal, something creative that has existed since we made our first tools and painted our first caves. Try it: you’ll be pleasantly surprised.