Singularity Magazine November 2010

Singularity November 2010

The November issue of Singularity is available. Get it now. It’s free.

In this issue, we have:

  • An interview with Iain Broome, fiction writer and copywriter. You’ll find out his Post-it system while writing his novel, A is for Angelica.
  • A book review of Chris Guillebeau‘s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity
    (Amazon link).
  • My visit to Hay Dairies, a goat farm in Singapore.
  • Coverage of the 30th anniversary of Gundam in Singapore.

You can also read it on Scribd. (click through to site to see embedded document if you can’t see it from your RSS feed reader)

Singularity November 2010

Feel free to share the magazine through email, blog or other means. You’re given the right to print and distribute the magazine electronically provided you don’t change any of the content or charge for it.

And have a happy Halloween.

Time of death with liver temperature

I’ve been watching CSI and some other crime shows for quite a while. Deducing the time of death of the victim is an important part of identifying the murderer. What I’ve always wondered was, why did they use the liver temperature? I can understand using the victim’s body temperature to estimate when she was killed. But why specifically the liver?

It turns out that the liver is a core organ of the human body. The liver has to be maintained within a narrow range of temperature for it to function optimally. This also means it’s more accurate for backward deduction. I wrote a short article about it in the October issue of Singularity, which you can download for free, or you can read it at Scribd.

Elance hates polymaths

Spiky tree

So a few weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at freelancing. Specifically, freelance writing through a third-party site. I wanted to try something other than programming, and I felt my writing skills were up to par. I researched on the freelancing sites available, and 2 of them stood out. One was oDesk, and the other was Elance.

Let me just say, both of them hate polymaths. Through reading their terms and conditions, I surmised the reason (which I’ll tell you later). Let’s talk about oDesk first.

I hate timesheets

There are 2 types of freelancing jobs: project-based or timesheet-based. For a project-based job, you get paid a predetermined amount of money. You finish the job, you get paid in full (there are also “half now, half when done” arrangements).

For timesheet-based jobs, you get paid by the hour. For oDesk, this seemed to be their focus. An hour’s work for an hour’s pay. In these unhealthy economic times, I can understand the need for people to feel that if they put in the hours and the work, they get paid. oDesk even has a desktop software that tracks and records your desktop screen to prove to the buyer/employer that you’re indeed working on their project.

The thing is, I hate timesheets. They imply I can’t be trusted to do and finish a job.

When I was working in a software house, where I was a small part of a programming factory, there’s nothing else I could do. “Working on inventory workflow class” was as meaningful as “I’m coding”. That filled up 8 1-hour slots in my timesheet.

When I was in the start-up or telecommunications company, the tasks were varied. Well, to be fair, I didn’t have to fill in a timesheet in the start-up. But that’s because the founder was seated right behind me.

At the telecommunications company, I took phone calls, answer user queries, fix computer/browser problems, write code, fix bugs, design interfaces, create graphics, attend meetings, and talked with directors, sales staff, marketing people, product managers, customer service officers and sometimes, even customers. My timesheet activities were all over the place. And I hated filling them, because the activities bleed from one to another, and I can’t remember how long each took. So I guessed. Which made the whole exercise kind of pointless, but the upper management wanted to know how their system analysts spent their time, so there.

Now writing words (and for that matter, writing code) is a creative endeavor. This means that given a task, you can’t say exactly how long it’s going to take. My blog articles range from 300 to 2000 words. I take anywhere from half an hour to 5 hours to finish writing them. And I don’t know how many words each article ended up with until I start writing. Sometimes, I just wanted a short 500 words article, then it blew up to 900 words. Sometimes, I allocated 2 hours (the average writing time for each article) and I ended up working on the article for 4 hours. Yes, I have more leeway since this is my blog, and I can limit myself to a certain number of words to practise concise thought and writing. I just find being a writing machine which churns out some average number of words per hour, regardless of the hour, to be unnatural.

Just to illustrate the phenomenon, I intended to just write a couple of short paragraphs on the timesheet-focussed nature of oDesk, but it’s already blown up to a few hundred words.

It’s the same with working on code. There’s a bug and you’re going to fix it. You guess how long it can take you, but it could be simple and you’re done in 15 minutes, or unexpectedly complex and takes up your entire day. As you gain experience, your guesses become more accurate, but sometimes you can never really tell how long it will take you.

You may be super lethargic this afternoon, but awesomely productive the entire next day. While you can’t guarantee every hour that you work on something to be productive, you can sort of guarantee that it’ll be done by next Monday. Following this logic, project-based jobs fit me better than timesheet-based jobs.

Pre-categorisation of service providers

So I decided to try my luck at Elance. I mean, I used it to outsource my blog design before (which turned out to be a total disaster), so I had some familiarity with the site. Now Elance has this “New provider” badge, to let service buyers know that the provider is new, that’s why there’s not much of a portfolio. Well, Elance kept my account, which means it’s more than 3 years old without me ever bidding or providing services of any kind.

Orcasquall Elance ID

Strike one against me before I did anything.

Then I looked at the kinds of freelance jobs I could do. Ok, I could probably do “Web & Programming”, “Writing & Translation” and “Admin Support”. Then I found out that I could only choose one of those categories. If I wanted to work on jobs spanning more than 1 category, I needed to pay additional monthly fees to Elance. Elance hates polymaths.

So the reason I surmised, was that Elance wanted to prevent people from bidding on jobs all over the place. This filters out non-serious providers, and increased the perceived quality of those who are in a particular category. I was a bit tired of programming, so I chose writing.

Just in case you’re interested, website programming (WordPress blog customisation in particular) and mobile app (iPhone) development are hot.

The Internet is filled with loveless words

I bid on 2 writing gigs. There’s a monthly limit to how many I can bid since I have a free account, though I can upgrade to a monthly paid subscription to increase that. Since I’m a “new” service provider with an “old” account, I took advantage of Elance’s certification tests.

Orcasquall Elance skills

I was surprised that I ranked in the top 5% in “Internet Marketing”. I don’t talk much about it here because I felt it wasn’t relevant. It’s about time I told you why I know so much about Internet marketing, which I already started here.

Oh yeah, I took the test on C#, and I scored below 60% (basically I failed). I was so sad about that until I started laughing at myself. The test had a lot of theory questions, with only a few questions with code. Interviewers, if you’re testing a candidate for a programming position, throw code at them, not theory questions.

Anyway, for one of those gigs, I was to edit and proofread some manuals on Internet marketing. I bid a fair amount (gauging from “market rate”), a low 3 digit (it starts with an even prime number), to go through more than 40,000 words in 7 days. I thought I had a chance, what with my fluency in English and knowledge in Internet marketing. Then I found the job was awarded to some provider offering an amount less than $100 (it starts with the highest single digit prime). I was a bit upset.

The other gig I bid on was to do with writing blog articles for a start-up. The job was never awarded to any provider. There’s this “trick” that you can use to determine market prices. Go post a job and ask for bidders. You’ll get to know what’s the typical asking price for the job based on the bids. It wastes the time of the service providers. So you’re either cheating the system, or you’d better have a good reason to withdraw the job. Elance discourages this by posting the history of the service buyer, such as how many jobs posted and how many jobs awarded.

Now I went through the descriptions of a lot of jobs. Basically, there’s a lot of people out there paying other people to write blog articles, newsletters, product material (to be sold), and even books (ghostwriting). There’s the “it must be original material, and I have software to check uniqueness/copyright” clause. After about 2 weeks of trawling through the job descriptions, I got discouraged by the state the Internet became.

So there are thousands of sites sprouting every minute, and many of them aren’t written by the owners. Many of those 300 to 500 word articles, designed to attract search engines and hopefully provide useful information to humans, are churned out by people whose job was to fill up some 2000 bytes of some Internet server’s disk space. You want good search engine rankings? You need content. As one Internet marketer said, “You need to own more of the Internet“.

Sure there’s the problem of ensuring the high quality of articles. Some bloggers already repeat what other bloggers are saying without adding any significant value, causing what’s known as the echo chamber. I’m not saying those paid writers create poor quality pieces of writing. I just feel there’s not a lot of love given to those words, since they’re given to and owned by the site owner.

I want to differentiate this from sales letter writing, copywriting and writing marketing material. These perform useful and needed functions for businesses. I just feel discouraged by the rampant bloating of the Internet with articles.

So for now, I’ve given up on freelance writing at Elance. The forces of specialisation grows stronger, and I have to find another avenue of work. And if you need help in editing, proofreading, writing, Internet marketing, advice on product creation, selling products online, email marketing, membership sites, just contact me and we can work something out.

Voice recording

A few days ago, a friend of mine contacted me on Facebook for help. I said, “Sure”. Then, “Uh, what do you need me to help with?” She said it’s a voice research project, and she needed people to just read for her. The criteria are:

  • Must be male
  • Must be Singaporean, Singapore Permanent Resident (PR), or Malaysian
  • Is between 17 to 40 years of age
  • Can speak English or Malay fairly fluently

A small monetary token will be given to the participant. Click here for more details. (They still need people to help as of this writing)

But since you’re 95% likely to be non-Singaporean and non-Malaysian, that’s not relevant to you, and you can continue reading to find out what happened.

Well, I agreed to help her. I believe I can speak English fluently. And I get paid. Hey, a man’s gotta eat.

So I wondered what kind of voice research she’s working on. Maybe she’s testing fluency or vocabulary (can you say “prestidigitation”?). When I arrived at the venue, I was jittery. What if there’s a word that I don’t know how to pronounce? What if I was to read a large number in words, like three million twenty five thousand eight hundred and sixty four (horror memory of a high school English teacher who forced me to do just that)? What if my pauses were at the wrong positions, my breathing disrupted, and my voice cracked in the middle of the recording session?

Well, she told me I was to read a total of 330 sentences. Some of the sentences will be grammatically incorrect. Most of them had no punctuation and capitalisation (so no clues to where to pause). As an example, we have

she still needs to use the bathroom get them to arrange meeting Monday he says

I learnt to quickly glance at the end to get hints such as “he says” or “the representative said” to know that it was a quote. So the example should look like this

“She still needs to use the bathroom. Get them to arrange the meeting on Monday.” he says.

My friend told me to just breeze through the sentences if the mistakes I make are minor. I think those minor mistakes are the “the”, “a” and other common words. Sometimes I obviously misread a word, and she’ll give me a signal to reread the sentence again (which wasn’t often). I myself, on my own judgment, reread a few sentences that I wasn’t happy with.

I still didn’t know what the research was for, so by trying to inject some coherence and pauses and inflection, I could be sabotaging her research. I know the reason for her research, but I’m not sure if she wants it known to the public at this point. So if you want to find out, you’ll have to participate and then ask her on the spot.

Each sentence took about 5 seconds to read, and I paused a little at the start and end of each sentence. I’ve done some audio recording before, so having a little white space helps in the editing. What happened was, she had me put on a headset (that microphone must be way better than mine because it captured sound crisply). She also had an iPad in front of me doing backup recording (ooh, high tech…). On the computer, she ran a program that displayed sentences. I read the sentence, she clicks on the “Next” button to display the next sentence, and we continue in this manner.

Remember, I had to read 330 sentences. Let’s say each sentence took 8 seconds in total, which would account for the repeats I had to do as well. That means the whole voice recording session was about 44 minutes long (yeah, it’s around that long). I’m not a very talkative person, so I’m not sure if my voice could hold up. Sure enough, about 60% in, I could feel a scritchy feeling in my throat. Oh no. Should I tell her to stop while I clear my throat? Should I just cough and clear my throat in between sentences? Maybe I could cover the microphone and cough politely.

I went on anyway, swallowing to try to ease the discomfort, hoping that my voice wouldn’t crack (that’d be embarrassing). I could hear myself swallowing, and hoped the microphone didn’t capture that too. I was so happy when I was at the 80% mark. The sentences started to repeat themselves (wait, they were repeated!). President Nixon was around. Stock markets weren’t good. There was grocery shopping to be done. Company profits were up by fourteen PERCENT last quarter. My voice threatened to crack on me.

328 sentences read. 329 sentences read. And then the last sentence was read and recorded. I punched both my fists into the air in silent victory (we were still recording until my friend said otherwise). I wanted to cry for joy. I needed to cough for relief.

And you know what was my main concern on all this? I kept reminding myself to add a bit more baritone to my voice so it would sound more sexy.

Wife Of A Season

My friend Grey Yuen gave me permission to publish his short story in Singularity. Here’s an excerpt:

What? My brothers? Ah, I did mention that, didn’t I? Yes, I have two. And no, you don’t ask them for help. You do your utter best never to ask them for help, not even when the sky crashes down and the oceans rise. They have just one mode of dealing with womankind, and it’s one solution for all problems. Their thinking is all done in the groin. To them, I’m the monk of the family. Our abusive father managed to pass down his libido in reverse order, somehow. I’m the oldest, you know? The bloody oldest son. What did I get?

It’s written in the form of a monologue. The setting’s a bar, and you enter and sit next to a man. This man then continues to talk to you about his personal stories. At no point does he say who he really is, but from his monologue, you should be able to guess who he is. The title of the short story should also give you a clue. Let’s just say that under normal circumstances, you do not want to meet him.

Read the rest of the short story in the October issue of Singularity (it’s free!).

Communication is key

I did an interview with Alex Hall, a web developer. The interview is featured in the October issue of Singularity. Here’s a question I asked: What is the one skill that has been invaluable to you as a web developer?

Communication. You get nowhere without communication. That goes for all aspects of web development. You first need to get a grasp of the next project you are going to be doing, and you need to make sure you understand it as fully as possible before even starting. That is communicating with the client, which can also prove to be the hardest part of a project. I heard a story the other day where a client wanted their web site ‘re-vamped’ and all they gave the designer was a 1997 template they liked and 1 line of text! You can’t do anything with that!

Read the rest of his answer, and the other interview questions in the October issue. Download it for free. Alex writes at DeVSeO and you can also follow him on Twitter @devseo.

I’ve also recently signed up for Scribd. Hopefully, that increases the reach of the magazine, which gives me more leverage, which means you get better articles to read. Ad infinitum.
Singularity October 2010

And I actually had a different magazine cover originally. Here’s what it looks like:

Singularity October 2010 alternate cover

BarCamp Singapore 6

BarCamp Singapore 6 was held on 9 and 10 October at Singapore City Hall. Or National Art Gallery. Or Supreme Court. Apparently, they’re the same place. Sort of. The dates also coincided with an event held by National Art Gallery. As a result, when I arrived at the venue, I thought to myself, “Those don’t look like BarCampers”.

Throngs of families with screaming kids and tourists who don’t speak English took shelter at a hollow underneath the stairs to the main doors. Confused and disoriented, I wandered in the hot morning sun silently pleading with Google Maps on my iPhone to load faster so I could get my bearings. My friend Christopher caught sight of me, and there started the adventure of finding the exact location of where BarCamp was held.

Volunteers were confused (they were to help direct visitors for National Art Gallery, not BarCamp), the security guard was confused, we were confused. In the end, my friend and I managed to get to the event.

We registered as speakers (more on the topics later), and milled around frantically trying to get votes. Ok, we’re just using our mental psychic powers to will anything with a pulse to put a coloured sticker on our topics. If you don’t know, BarCamp presentations run on democracy. You write your topic on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall. People vote on your topic for interesting-ness by putting small coloured circle stickers around your topic. When you get sufficient votes, you get to speak. Generally speaking, the more popular your topic, the earlier you get to speak.

I was particularly calm, given that my presentation at the last BarCamp didn’t turn out so well. Almost Zen-like, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude. It’s a self-preservation mechanism. Otherwise, I would have to deal with possible shame/anger/depression and control erratic butterflies flitting in my stomach.

There was an introduction given by Preetam, one of the organisers.

BarCamp introduction by Preetam

Then Christopher and I were joined by Aaron (aka Singularity photographer) and his friend. That friend also managed to swipe a couple of BarCamp T-shirts while jumping the queue.

And then I got picked. My topic was off the main board! I got the 2:30pm slot at room D, and Christopher got the 3pm slot at room A.

BarCamp topics
(brightened and contrasted so you can see what topics were on)

My e-zine topic

Then we went to explore. Because it’s part of the Supreme Court, the rooms assigned for presentation were… interesting.

Court seats

At the audio transcriber booth

Court podium

There were some visitors (not BarCampers) who stood in the podium and raised their right hand for their families to take photos. “I solemnly swear to tell the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.”

We stayed in the courtroom until the first speaker of that room started. It’s on “7 things I learned from having a beer (and my 90 beer caps collection)” by Fabian Lua. Employing SEO and blogging titling tips, he’s got the 1) number in title, and 2) beer. One thing I learned, don’t drink any beer with an animal on its beer bottle cap. It’s supposed to be subpar or something. Not that I’d choose to drink beer.

I went for lunch, my friends wandered around the flea market of the National Art Gallery event.

I Love Museums sign

Snack fair

Then we attended a presentation on writing a best seller in Singapore (write about horror or self-help. They sell like hotcakes in Singapore). It was 2pm and I just went to room D to attend the 2pm presentation, and wait for my turn. Then it was time. You can read about my presentation details here. Let me just say, not all rooms are created equal. Rooms C and D were discussion rooms, those that look like a classroom. Rooms A and B were court rooms. I don’t know, I feel like I could command a stronger audience attention if I was in room A or B. Anyway, Christopher left at the start of my presentation to prepare for his at room A. You can read about his presentation on “Quarter Life Crisis“.

Then we attended a presentation on Electric Tea. You have to see a video to understand what’s it about:

Electric Tea 1.0 (Peace Games) from Ion on Vimeo.

It’s about putting sound where it doesn’t belong.

And that’s a wrap. Oh wait, there’s a prize for the most popular presentation. Popularity was decided by Twitter votes. The format is “Awesome talk about #ezine by @orcasquall #barcampsg6 #breeze +1”. “Breeze” is a Standard Chartered (a bank!) online banking (and iPhone) service. The prize, an iPad, was sponsored by them. Oh well, it was a miracle I didn’t keel over and vomit right after my presentation. I didn’t have high hopes for the iPad. I did significantly better at presenting than last time though. So, public speaking isn’t that bad after all.

E-zines: eco-friendly, evolved publishing, easy creation

That was the title of my Barcamp presentation on 9 October 2010. I thought the alliteration was a nice touch. *smile* Based on the lessons I learnt from my last Barcamp presentation, I needed a title that’s easy to understand and had enough “hook” words to “bait” the wandering attention of Barcamp attendees. And I believe the alliteration helped…

In this article, I’ll just tell you what happened during my presentation. Or at least the ideal presentation I wanted to give. There is additional information here that I didn’t talk about in my presentation. I’ll show you the pictures and tell you more of the event itself tomorrow. The general direction I had was, come up with main points, don’t rehearse too much, and wing the presentation. I didn’t want to spend too much of my time with abysmal returns like the last time.

The start of the presentation

So, this time, I had about 30+ people in the room, all waiting with bated breath and almost uncontrolled excitement for my awesome presentation. That’s compared to the 1 single person who stayed for my last Barcamp presentation. It’s a 3000% improvement! Good job, me. *argh* wait, hold on, I sprained my arm from patting my own back…

Ok, I started by asking the audience how many of them were bloggers. A few hands came up. Yes, audience participation (celebrate every little victory). Then I said I suck at blogging because after 3 years of regular writing, I only had 300+ regular readers. Where someone like you (pointing vaguely into the audience) would have like 23,745 readers (pulling the number out of thin air). So I started my own online magazine, where “e-zine”, “online magazine”, “electronic magazine” are interchangeable.

E-zines are eco-friendly, because there’s no paper, plastics or dyes involved in their creation. And electronic readers are getting better. We now have iPhones, iPads and the Kindle which are capable of displaying electronic publications in a pleasing format.

Demoscene and diskmags

Then I told them there was an extreme form of an e-zine. Before I told the audience what it was, I talked about the demoscene. I asked if anyone knows about the demoscene, and there was one guy who knew. I was extremely happy, because no one around me knew anything about it, so I’ve got no one to discuss it with. My only regret was I didn’t get his name. That was stupid of me. I’m an idiot…

Anyway, the demoscene is a computer art subculture that specialises in creating demos. A demo is a visual and audio show that runs in real-time on a computer. It’s meant to show off the skills of the programmers, artists and musicians involved in creating the demo. And the last 3 sentences were practically copied off the Wikipedia site…

There are contests on the file sizes of these demos. The popular ones are 64kB, 40kB, 4kB and even 1kB. Then that demoscene guy said there’s even the 128 byte demo. I really should’ve gotten his name… Well, the demoscene started out with cracked software. The programmers, wanting to show off their skills, cracked software without disabling the function. But to show they were there, they added a small animation. The result was that the addition must necessarily be small (in size) so as not to disrupt the software. Hence the file size limitation.

So there’s this guy who started a diskmag entirely devoted to the demoscene. The diskmag’s called Hugi (1st issue in May 1996). So what’s a diskmag? It’s a portmanteau of 2 words: disk magazine. It’s called a diskmag because the original diskmags were carried around on 3.5 inch floppy disks (remember those?). No audience reaction with “floppy disks”. Ok, maybe a few smiles. Oh well, you win what you can.

A diskmag is basically an executable that runs on your computer. In the old days, some diskmags even run specifically on certain computers such as the Amiga, Commodore or ZX Spectrum. So a diskmag acts like a mini-browser, with links to articles, artwork. And there’s music playing in the background. It’s a full media experience that’s a magazine. Which I believe to be the extreme form of an e-zine.

Blitzing through history of publishing

Then I took them on a brief ride in history. In the early days, scribes and monks spent hours and even days creating a piece of written work, typically religious teachings. Then came woodblock printing, sometime around 220 CE in China. Then I gave them a tidbit about CE. Did you know that Jews generally prefer to use Common Era (CE) than Anno Domini (AD)? That’s because Anno Domini is Medieval Latin for “In the year of our Lord”. And Jews don’t regard Jesus as the Lord.

Moving on, I told them of Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, who created the metal movable type around 1439 (see question/answer at end of article). This flexibility in arranging letters meant more varieties of printed material could be created. And the written word exploded. Books, newspapers and magazines appeared.

Then Tim Berners-Lee came along, proposing a network structure in March 1989. And on Christmas day, 25 December 1990, the World Wide Web was born. I don’t know what I was expecting from the audience at that, maybe some oooh’s and aaah’s. I think I’m being too dramatic…

So email became even more popular, powerful and useful (it’s supposed to have existed as early as 1973). Websites started popping up (my first site was created in 2005). Then blogs appeared. And then social media sites. And then we arrive at our current situation, where self-publishing e-books is becoming popular. There is now a trend reversal. Where once it was a few creating for many, the rest of us now also create, produce and publish.

Creating websites used to be difficult. Until blogs came along. There’s a perceived high barrier to entry. So it is with e-books, and I suggest, with e-zines. For e-zines, there’s an almost physical-like quality, which creates a sense of possession for the owner. Hopefully, this creates better retention and loyalty.

“If you can edit a Word document, you can create a magazine”

Then I gave them some websites that can help them (and you) host an e-zine.

I forgot my presentation punchline

I’m getting to the end of my presentation, and I forgot my punchline. I was supposed to tie the diskmag thing back in…

So the Internet marketers and A-list bloggers are all saying, video is gonna be big. And I say, what happens if video content comes in a package? What if video, audio, text and images are packaged together in one discrete unit? You basically get the diskmag. And an e-zine is going to be that much closer to that future diskmag format. And I remembered this part only after the 1st Q&A question, and I quickly talked about it. Talk about presentation fumbles…

Then I did a little shameless self-promotion. I told them about Singularity, my own e-zine. I was so nervous about it that I didn’t even tell them what Singularity was about and who it’s for. Talk about more presentation fumbles…

Then I told them of 2 e-zines already available for free. The first one is fear.less, an online magazine dedicated to telling stories of how people overcome their fears. This was the original inspiration for Singularity. I believe fear.less was created by the MBA students of Seth Godin (of whom no one in the audience knows, as expected).

The second e-zine is In Treehouses, an online magazine designed to help people reach their 1000 true fans. As expected, no one knew anything about the 1000 true fans concept, nor of Kevin Kelly. Oh well…

Apparently I took about 15 minutes for my presentation.

Barcamp presentation on e-zine

I overshot the recommended 10 minutes, but apparently quite a few presenters used up the entire 30 minutes given to them (some even cutting into the next speaker’s time). I think my friend Hisham was approving of my sticking to within my scheduled slot. I think…


I only had 2 questions from the audience. The first one wasn’t really a question and was from my friend Aaron (aka Singularity photographer). Aaron said that Koreans used metal movable type earlier than Johannes Gutenberg. I checked, and he’s right. The first known use was in China around 1040 AD, then in Korea around 1230 AD.

The second question was from Dave Chua. He said there’s Flipboard, an iPad app that functions like an e-zine (at the same time showing me his iPad). Yes that’s true. Flipboard works on the curation of you and the people you trust. It pulls in data from your Twitter and Facebook feed, as well as Twitter and Facebook feed data from your friends. The curation and aggregation is done by you (and your friends). With an e-zine, that’s done by someone else, the magazine’s editor.

It depends on your tastes. I should tell you that generally, you like what your friends like, and your friends like what you like. This also generally mean that you might never be exposed to new and interesting ideas outside of that sphere of interests.

Alright, that was long. Thanks for sticking this far with me. Let me know what you think. And I’ll see you tomorrow with my story of the Barcamp event itself.

Negative numbers in business reports

Some of my articles here aren’t what you call mainstream. They’re just different. I think a lot of them weren’t that big a deal, but it turns out some people find them useful. Here’s one that I get queries about: negative numbers in percentage calculations. The general question distills to: “There are some products, and one or more has negative contribution. How do I display percentage contributions?” I’ve gotten enough queries about it that I don’t want to keep explaining it. Hence this article. Before I talk about that, here’s the back story why I wrote the original article. If you want to know the display solution, skip ahead.

A few years ago, I was working in a team, whose most important project then dealt with revenue sharing. Our company offered a service, but we don’t have content (ring tones, movies, tv shows). The content providers have content, but don’t have marketing and distribution leverage. So partnerships formed.

What happened was customers signed up with us (the company I worked for), getting the content they want. Monthly subscriptions (television shows) and one-time payments (pay per view, ring tones). We charged the customers for the content use. Then we split the profit with the content providers, in a process we termed as “settlement“.

My users (the company product manager and team) used to have only an Excel spreadsheet to help. That was when the split was simple, like 30/70 (we get 30%, content provider gets 70%). Then the number of content providers grew, and certain rules came in (like minimum payment. I’ll talk about this in a bit), and the users needed help. So they contacted us (my department was IT support for the billing departments).

“Ok, so where are the negative numbers?” you ask. “None of the values should ever be negative.”

I hear you. My experience in the billing department also taught me that just because a number is positive, doesn’t mean it’s good. My very first task in the job was look at financial reports. In particular, financial reports on debt. All the numbers were positive. But they were all debt. I’ve seen debt sum totals of 8 digits. It’s scary, and it’s also made me a little blasé about money. It’s not that I hate money or don’t care about money, just that big figures don’t shock me as much (hey I still need to eat).

Anyway, back to the content provider story. The typical situation for a negative number is adjustments. For whatever reason, we’ve paid out more to the content provider than was correct (a waiver, a price change we didn’t detect, a product was retracted before we could do something). So in the next settlement cycle, we put in the adjustment, effectively reducing the amount we pay to them to adjust for the “mistake” for the last settlement cycle.

Let’s talk about minimum payment, to show you how complicated the settlement process could be. It’s a business rule that some of the content providers want. If for a particular month, the profit for them is below a certain number, don’t bother sharing with them. Accumulate the profit, rolling it over to future months until it hits the minimum requirement, and then send them the profit.

Why would content providers not want profit as soon as possible? Usually as part of the minimum payment rule, they get the minimum payment profit share in the first month. Let me give you an example, say the minimum payment is $400 and that the sharing is 50/50. In the first settlement month, we will pay out at least $200 to them, regardless of the number of customers signing up for the service. Of course, if the profit to them is more than $200, we pay out more too. So if the content wasn’t doing well, at least the content provider had some cash (which was guaranteed by the minimum payment) coming in on the first month. There are other reasons, such as the company is too big to want profits of low digits every month (!?!?! Yes, it happens…).

There are other business rules too. Such as withholding tax. What happens if the content provider is foreign (that is, non-Singaporean)? And there’s local tax (there was a transition from 3% to 4%, to 5% and to the now current 7% tax, the GST or Goods and Services Tax in Singapore).

The whole point is that the settlement process became fairly complicated (remember it started out as an Excel spreadsheet). So, well, uh, mistakes could happened (and did). Let’s just say I helped the user with correcting the data using Excel and database update statements. These corrections weren’t “standard” enough so they couldn’t be programmed into the settlement software. I became quite good in Excel data manipulation. Let me preempt you. I’m not manipulating numbers in the sense of fraud. It’s because the adjustment input/data couldn’t be easily added as part of the standard input process. I’m hijacking the process so that all the data required is correct and is there for the settlement calculations to do its job. The first few days of the month were always exciting for me (millions of database records, close deadline, Excel files flitting between me and the user). So to correct the wrong numbers in previous cycles, adjustments were made for the current cycle.

To make things even more complicated, the content providers want a breakdown of their profit by products. For example, if SonicToons received a profit (after the settlement split) of $120, they wanted to know that HotJamming made them $60, CrystalMood $40, and ViolinClassics $20. For analysis purposes, this meant the product HotJamming was hot, so they should make more products like that.

If you add negative numbers to that mix, it gets fun mighty soon. Do you set the negative numbers as a separate item? Do you split the negative value among all the products? It’s just hard. And so, that’s the reason I wrote the percentage calculation article, because the users (and the content providers) wanted a breakdown of the various product’s profit contribution.

So somewhere in that period of working on the project, my colleague asked me to help with formulating the rules of calculation. You know, because I studied maths and all. One of his problems was assigning the last single cent being shared among the products. I told him the solution took up an entire semester’s work (it’s called operations research) in university. He was stunned. Then I gave him a simpler alternate solution. This article is already very long, so I’ll tell you that solution in a later article.

The display solution

Well, you made it. You’ve skipped over several hundred words of back story. Congratulations! Let me expand on the general question first. Your company has two products. Product A made a profit of $200, and product B has a loss of $300. So in total, your company lost $100 ($200 – $300).

According to the calculation method in my original article, the percentage contributions for each product is as follows:
Product A contributed abs(200) / ( abs(200) + abs(-300) ) * 100% = 40%
Product B contributed abs(-300) / ( abs(200) + abs(-300) ) * 100% = 60%

So product A and product B contributed 40% and 60% respectively to your company’s bottom line.

The confusion of the commenters to that article and the readers who emailed me sets in. How can product B, clearly a bad investment, be contributing more?

The confusion is due to the business terms pre-assigned to the values. I will assume that you want your company’s bottom line to be of growth. However, that doesn’t mean the term assigned to it has to be “growth”. Of course, it didn’t help that “percentage contribution” implied a positive aspect.

For example, you don’t state in the business report:
Net gain = $200

That can be a line in the report, or an Excel column. I will suggest a slight change in terms.
Net change = $200

Or even just
Net = $200

You don’t have to use the word “change”, but it should be something neutral without proposing a positive or negative direction. So “change” is better than “growth”, “gain”, or “loss”. But don’t use “net delta” either. They won’t understand it…

“Net profit” is complicated. The reader of your report should be open to the idea that a number under “net profit” can be negative. The word “profit” typically invokes a positive growth mindset. But if your report’s readers (or the accounting department dictates it to be so) are ok with it, then go ahead and use that.

So in interpreting our example, product A contributed 40% to the net change. Yes, it’s a positive growth (+$200), but it’s just not positive enough. Product B contributed 60% to the net change. Because it’s a negative (-$300), and it’s the highest contributor, it caused the net to be a loss.

A blog reader, Jasper recently emailed me on this. Here’s an extract from my reply:

In terms of rewarding growth samples and punishing loss samples, calculate the percentage contributions as above. Then separate the samples by the sign of their original numbers, then sort by percentages. Let me illustrate:

Growth samples (positive sign)
2 (20%)

Loss samples (negative sign)
-4 (40%)
-3 (30%)
-1 (10%)

This way, you can see which samples do well, and which didn’t. So even though -4 contributed the most (40%), it’s a bad sample because it’s negative.

Don’t pre-assign terms to the values in the business report. Let the values (and the sign of the values) speak for themselves.

OneCellAnchor might be easier to use than TwoCellAnchor

A reader Kevin emailed me about the use of OneCellAnchor class. This is for coding using Excel Open XML format. The relevant article is about image insertion in Excel. Here’s his comment:

I’ve been using the OneCellAnchor and find it perfect: position by row/column and size by image extent in EMU and best of all, the image will not resize when column widths are set.

If you’re having trouble with figuring out the TwoCellAnchor class properties, you might want to check out OneCellAnchor class instead. Might be easier to work with.

Thanks, Kevin, for that information.

There’s updated material and source code, together with more information on how to work with Open XML. Click here to find out more.