October 18, 2014

Bank Transfer Errors

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At least in the UK, it is often best to pay money to people via bank transfer. This is the process where the payer enters the bank account number of the payee into some system and then the money is moved directly from bank account to bank account. It is easy and costs nothing (in the UK). I used to use it all the time for paying rent and similar bills.

It is surprising to hear that errors regularly occur in this process. People type in an incorrect bank account number and so the wrong person receives the money. Obviously in some distress, the payer contacts the bank to fix the problem, but the bank doesn’t see it as their problem. Pushing or getting the media involved often gets the required results (see here, here, here and many more online stories).

I’m not surprised people type the account number incorrectly; that is always going to happen. I’m surprised that such an error results in a valid bank account. If the bank account number included a checksum, then an incorrectly transcribed number is unlikely to still be valid. Credit cards use a checksum algorithm and this is why when you type one incorrectly the response is “invalid card number” rather than the wrong account being charged. However, bank account numbers seem to rarely use this simple error-checking technology (codes by country are listed here). Why not? Perhaps when the bank account system was established many decades ago, checksums were not seem as important. Either because there was a person (the local bank manager) in the loop to double check the numbers, or because checksums were too computationally costly (especially if humans had to do the calculation themselves as computers weren’t available). Of course now people use the Internet to make transfers and the whole process is performed by computers without human interference, and the cost of using checksums is miniscule on even relatively old processors.

Banks could add checksums now, placing an optional extra character to the end of bank account numbers (several countries have done this). In the UK this would be a huge act of customer service. However, from experience I would doubt the banks interest in serving their customers. At the moment any errors cost the banks little and changing the system would be expensive. The core computer programs handling bank accounts and transfers between them are ancient COBOL programs (at least at the bank where I worked). Rules like the number of digits in a bank account are hardcoded and changing them would cascade through various systems. Testing the change would be a massive task in itself. I can’t imagine any bank voluntarily undertaking such a project – especially as most banks are determined to reduced IT costs. Too bad for bank customers.


October 4, 2014

PRS

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After leaving Beacon and finishing the MBA, I jumped on a flight to London in mid 2002. Perth was too constraining, I didn’t want to do consulting or mining software for the rest of my career. London seemed like the land of work opportunity. It would also be easier to travel around the world from a base in Europe. Both these reasons turned out to be correct, but I forgot the downsides of London – the expense, the crowds and strangely even the weather. For a good five years or so the positives outweighed the negatives, but then the balance shifted. However, upon arrival I was extremely optimistic.

Crashing in the spare rooms and sofas of old uni friends (the Perth to London road was well travelled by my age cohort), I started to learn about the local IT job market. 2002 was the middle of the dot crash slump. Stories of easy jobs with large pay rates and regular job hopping abounded, but they always ended with “of course that was before the crash.” Most of my acquaintances said that contract work was the way to go – better pay and less bureaucracy, at the expense of career progression (none of my friends planned to stay long, so that was not an issue). I aimed for the same, but in the downturn a person with no record in London couldn’t get through the door for contracting roles – I was too much of an unknown considering the large number of people looking for work. After a few months I switched to permanent roles and started getting interviews again. Lastminute was a notable interview because the interviewer was so offensive I pledged to never use their service – a promise I hold to this day, despite being right in their target market. After 4 months my funds were evaporating quickly and if I didn’t get one of the two jobs for which I was interviewing then a return to Perth would be required. RBS was my preferred option (and I even delayed the other possibility while waiting for them to decide). However, RBS decided I was “too cold” for a management position (at least they gave a reason), so I went to work at the MCPS-PRS Alliance.

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September 27, 2014

ANU-ASTRO2x Exoplanets

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The previous astronomy MOOC I completed, ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, was merely the first of a series. In total, the 4 courses in the series supposedly comprise the first year course in astronomy at the Australian National University. I just completed the second course of the series, ANU-ASTRO2x Exoplanets.

Exoplanets is a 9-week course on the science behind detecting planets beyond our solar system. The format is the same as the previous course, with about an hour per week of video lectures. There are also mini-tests and a homework assignment each week with a final exam. The exam is again based on a “mystery” universe, so prior knowledge of exoplanets (or wikipedia) won’t help – students just have to do the maths themselves. The lectures are almost a conversational back-and-forth between the presenters Paul Francis and Brian Schmidt (with pictures and notes appearing projected behind them).

As for difficulty, this course is easy. Easier than the previous ANU course. Basic algebra is all the maths ability required. No assignment took me more than 30 minutes, most took much less. I read an article suggesting that the “MOOC revolution” is failing for many reasons, one of which is that the courses are getting easier and certainly are no where near as testing as the original university courses. I can’t help but think that must be true for this course. The material is interesting, but I would find it hard to believe that first year science students at a respected university like ANU (one of the top tier universities in Australia) are gifted with such an easy course where a mark of 100% can be obtained with barely an hour of work each week.

Starting with the first exoplanet discovered, surprisingly around a pulsar, the course goes through the methods used to find exoplanets. The pulsar planet was found through reflex motion – a wiggle in a star’s movement caused by a planet’s mass. Most exoplanets have been found through transits, that is the periodic dimming of a star as a planet passes between it and us. It is also possible to find exoplanets with gravitational micro-lensing, which is when a planet passes in front of a star and focuses its light on us. This method is has the benefit of finding planets that are not orbiting stars but are instead free floating. The downside is that such planets can only be observed once (as they pass the star). Still, the number of discovered micro-lensing events suggests there are a large number of such free-floating planets in existence. Lastly it is becoming possible to directly observe exoplanets with modern adaptive optics technology applied to telescopes. The course also addresses what is known about the exoplanets discovered – calculating their mass, temperature and thus the composition of both their atmosphere and surface.

An easy and interesting discussion of the current state of detecting exoplanets. However, the field of exoplanet detection is very active and fast moving. I’m not sure how quickly this course will age.


September 20, 2014

Perth Restaurants

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When I grew up in Perth the supermarkets always had good and relatively cheap food available. However, I remember the local restaurants seemed to lack effort as far as the menu was concerned (good service was never an issue). It was as though they just relied on the high quality ingredients to carry them. Coming back to town after 13 years abroad, I think that situation has changed. We ate excellent meals everywhere we went, and the range of styles available was impressive. Perth is becoming a world city, at least as far as cuisine is concerned. It was also nice that all but two of the restaurants we visited (over a fortnight) had Al fresco sections – unfortunately the weather was a bit damp for us to take proper advantage of them. I also noted with interest that most restaurants listed the providence of their ingredients and that the vast majority of these originated inside West Australia itself – overseas elements were notable in their rarity.

While in Perth, two restaurants in stood out as being of a particularly high quality.

Lot 20 is almost hidden in a building on the edge of the cultural district near James St in Northbridge. The decor is modern gastropub. The service was very friendly without being too much. When asking about son-in-law eggs, the reply not only included the recipe, but also their cultural significance (a Thai dish made as warning to behave to a new son-in-law). After ordering the eggs, asparagus, cauliflower and a chicken dish, we got to watch them being prepared in the open kitchen which our table overlooked. All the food was excellent and perfectly cooked. The chicken deserves special mention. At first I thought it had been undercooked, but an exploratory taste showed I was completely wrong. It had been cooked in a water bath to keep it moist and tender – incredible. We also drank some excellent local beers. I used to say that beer, chocolate and TV were all clearly better in London. Now I will have say that the beer (and perhaps chocolate) are about the same – TV in Britain is still better though.

When I lived in Perth, Steve’s on the river in Nedlands was a large student pub (UWA is nearby). Since then the pub has been demolished and turned into fancy apartments. However, there is still a restaurant and wine shop at the site, still called Steve’s. Wine is a large focus of the restaurant and there is a dedicated sommelier as well as a large selection of local wines. The cuisine is vaguely French inspired. For an entree I had a chorizo soup – a spicy meaty mix, well balanced and not oily. Then the pork cassoulet with a side salad for mains. Beautifully cooked, it quickly filled my stomach, but I kept eating until finished – it was too good to leave anything behind. The wine was also very good, but I don’t remember what we ordered.


September 15, 2014

Perth

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After 11 years away I finally returned to my hometown, but only for one very busy week, followed by a slower week down south near Margret River. It was a strange fortnight being reminded what the place is like, and I was sorry to be leaving again so quickly. It was surprising how liveable the city appears and how relaxed the people seem to be. It was also nice to be in place again with so much space and clean air! Of course all that comes at the expense of it being a quiet city compared to the bustling hyperactive metropolis of London (and to a lesser extent KL).

The best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.