Business Travel Tips

For most periods in the last decade I’ve travelled internationally a couple (or more) times a week for business, often at times of the day that are ‘my hours’. There’s a tradeoff to be made in terms of planning to get to the airport/train station with less time to spare (and therefore increasing leisure time) at the expense of a higher probability of arriving too late if there is a delay on the way.

Let’s say that planning the transit to arrive 90 minutes before departure has a 99% success rate, and that reducing this to 60 minutes corresponds to a 95% chance of getting on the flight. I ran some numbers, and at a cost of an incremental 3hrs of waiting time for each missed departure, plus £200 fees, then at 2 trips per week you’re buying back 40 hours per year at £20 per hour. Wouldn’t you take a £800 wage cut (pre-tax) for 1 extra week of holiday per year? Of course, you need to train yourself to be not stressed at the possibility of missing your flight, and accept that you will miss a small number each year.

If you’re a frequent traveller and always make every flight, then consider that you might be getting to the airport too early.

In The Checklist Manifesto, the author discusses the use of checklists to bring about improvements in frequently performed activities. I have a list I use for packing for trips (hardly as important as a pilot’s take-off checklist!) but does mean I pack slightly quicker, don’t have to put much thought in, and don’t forget to take e.g., the iPhone charging cable because it’s plugged out of sight under the bed that weekend.

That said, if you are frequently travelling to the same client site then consider buying all of your usual toiletries, electric tooth brushes, razors, training shoes, cables, etc, twice, and keeping one set of all of these at the client site. That’s a lot less to pack and think about. More business travel tips ideas here.


Coasting along

I’m following Marginal Revolution University’s new online course on Development Economics.

Efficient transportation networks are a well-recognised  factor contributing to enhanced prosperity by facilitating trade. Africa is missing the river networks one finds across Europe, and moreover, their coastline is actually surprisingly small.

Here’s a map of Africa, (credit: Kai Krause) highlighting just how large the continent is by massaging different countries into it….

As you can see, Europe easily fits into it (along with China, India and the US too!)

However, the coastline of Europe alone is 2 to 3 times longer than that of Africa’s (it’s much ‘bendier’ and depending on how you do the fractals you get somewhere between 2x and 3x the African continent).  That’s a lot more access to transportation by boat.

Transportation by road is a lot better in Europe too. Riffing off a conversation with Simon Moore on a trip we made to Tanzania some years ago, there are different models for funding roads and officials.

In Europe we pay a known road tax (and other taxes) once a year, which cover maintenance, construction, police, etc. Whereas in places in Africa the traffic police are not paid [at a market rate] and instead extract bribes from motorists to make up the difference. This is very inefficient. From an Economist article:

The plan was to carry 1,600 crates of Guinness 500km. It should have taken 20 hours, including an overnight rest. It took four days. We were stopped at road-blocks 47 times.

At some road-blocks, the police went through our papers word by word, in the hope of finding an error. Policemen checked to see whether the truck was carrying a fire extinguisher. Similar scrutiny was lavished on tail-lights, axles, wing-mirrors and tyres, all in the name of road safety. The longest delay came in the town of Mbandjok, where the police decided that Martin did not have enough permits, and offered to sell him another for twice the usual price.

A gaggle of policemen joined the argument, which grew heated. The total number of man-hours wasted, (assuming an average of seven policemen involved, plus three people in the truck), was 35—call it one French working week. And all for a requested bribe of 8,000 CFA francs ($12).

On yer bike!

What’s the best way to market yourself to find work?

I recently received a video link from a friend of mine, Geoff Marshall:



Geoff wants to find work as a video producer and his aim is to make this video go viral in the hope that someone will see it and think ‘I like this guy, I’ll give him a job.’ To this end he’s reaching out to lots of people he knows and asking them to tweet about it, publicize it, etc.

I think the video is both good and a good idea, and that it will help Geoff in his search for work…but not quite for the reasons he hopes.

I know Geoff due to a shared interest in travelling around London using the tube, and whilst vaguely aware that he’d previously worked for the BBC, when I think of Geoff I think of tube trains [sorry mate!].

If you asked me yesterday to suggest someone who could help with a short video I would probably only have thought of Jordan Mendenhall at Sentient Cinema in Los Angeles. I’ve helped financially back one of their films, and he keeps me up-to-date with developments on it.

Jordan is on my mind, and I can recall unprompted that he works in film and what his skills are.

Now even though Geoff’s done some freelance video work on the Christian O’Connell breakfast show on Absolute Radio, this was not on my mind at all – even though I had actually recommended him to the show’s producer sometime last year! But today, he is.

Jeffrey Pfeffer talks about the importance of building efficient and effective social networks in his book, Power: Why Some People Have It – And Others Don’t:

You can’t select what you can’t remember. The effect of mere exposure on preference and choice is important and well demonstrated. Networking brings you into contact with more people and keeps you in contact with them, thereby increasing the chances that when they are searching for a candidate for some position they will remember you.

In the early 1970s sociologist Mark Granovetter conducted a classic study in Boston about how people find jobs. Some of his results were not so surprising, e.g., that the more that one used social ties as opposed to formal applications the better the job the individual found. One result was counter-intuitive though:

What was surprising was the type of social ties that mattered in the job finding process: weak ties.

Strong ties – your close friends and family – are more likely to travel in the same circles and to provide redundant information. Weak ties, by contrast, are more likely to link you to new people and organisations. To be useful though, they must be both able to link you, and willing to do so. Geoff’s video addresses all these points. It’s going to be seen by a lot of his weak ties, they will then be able to link him (they now know what he does and can recall it) and would likely be willing to do so (the video is fun and professional enough that you wouldn’t be afraid of later looking stupid if you recommend him to a friend).

Geoff could send out such a video every quarter or so to keep his place in people’s minds as someone who works in video and is available for hire. I am now one such person, and there have been 700 other views of his video at the time of writing – that’s a lot of people who might now make an introductory connection to a friend or colleague if the topic of video producing comes up.

He might also build a more focused list of people closer to the industry he’s targeting. In this database he can make notes of what would be useful to each person, e.g., ‘Daniel is interested in chroma key’ and periodically send articles and notes about that as he comes across them to Daniel. In Never Eat Alone,  Keith Ferrazzi’s book on networking, this is described this as ‘pinging’, and he has this to say,

the governing principle here is repetition; find a way to ensure that you’ll contact people regularly without putting too much strain on your schedule.

Good luck, Geoff!

Password protected

An average internet user has 25 accounts online, but uses less than 7 passwords to protect them, according to Microsoft research(pdf).

And at least one of those accounts has probably suffered a security breach at some point. According to Matt Weir, whose PhD involved researching the availability of stolen login details:

You can look online and you can generally find passwords for just about everyone at some point. I’ve found my own username and passwords on several different sites. If you think every single website you have an account on is secure and has never been hacked, you’re a much more optimistic person than I am.

Sites generally don’t store your password itself, but its hash. A hash is the output after a [known] procedure has been performed on your password. If your password is 4, and the procedure is ‘add 2’, then the hash stored with your login name is 6. When you login what is being compared is not whether your password is 4, but whether the thing you typed in the password field, with 2 added, is 6.

So if a site is hacked then normally it is the 6 that has been discovered. It might seem trivial to deduce the password (simply subtract 2) but in practice the procedure performed involves many steps and is actually very difficult to do backwards (e.g., ‘subtract as many 3s as possible and use the remainder in the next step. Putting a 7 in would give 1 out – but so would 4, 10, 13, 83467, etc… If you’re doing the steps in reverse and have a 1, where do you go next?).

Hackers therefore don’t work backwards (through the e.g., 80 steps of SHA-1), but instead try running lots of potential passwords through the procedure and seeing if what comes out is the hash. And they can do this quickly. had 6.5m password hashes stolen and posted online earlier this year:

It took independent security researcher Jeremi Gosney 6 days to convert 90% of the hashes exposed in the LinkedIn breach. He cracked a fifth of the 6.5m passwords in the first 30 seconds.

You need to avoid using anyone else’s password that’s ever been hacked – the remaining 10% of difficult hashes would be ones that have not been used before, and which are too long and unusual to mount dictionary or brute force attacks against. Dictionary attacks (where the hacker tries every word in the dictionary to see if one produces the same hash as your password) have been greatly aided by the publication of hundreds of millions of stolen and solved passwords from scores of sites over the years.

‘pa55word’ isn’t in the Oxford English dictionary but you can bet it’s in the 500m-word corpus the hacker’s trying at 15.5 billion guesses per second against the 6.5m hashes he just got because someone somewhere has had that password-hash pair stolen in the last 20 years.

Using the same password on more than one site, combined with having e-mail addresses as user names, means that once hackers have stolen login credentials from one company, they often have the means to compromise other accounts – so ideally you need to use a different password for every site.

How do you make yourself unique, difficult passwords to crack?

Memorise a minimum 15-character sequence, either several words joined together or using a mnemonic, which should be particular to you and have a fair chance of never having been used before (don’t do this with popular song titles – people have being doing that and having them compromised for a while). One such sequence might be:


which comes from ‘Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon in: 1969’ and in which I’ve capitalised the prepositions, and used a symbol and numbers too. What a good boy.

Then insert an extra letter into e.g., the 10th position depending on the website the password is for. So for Facebook you use:


Whereas for Hotmail it is:


That said, we already know how/why we should protect ourselves online, we just never get round to it due to hyperbolic discounting; Most people will never be hacked in a damaging way, but there’s a real cost now in setting up stronger passwords which will only pay dividends in some far-off hypothetical future. If you only make one password unique and stronger, make it the one for your email account (like the one for this guy where all his password resets and reminders for all his other accounts got sent to).
XKCD argues for the several words joined together route:


XKCD comic on password strength

Get rich or die tryin’ (to spend it)

My boss pulled up in his brand new BMW today and I couldn’t help but admire it.

“Nice car,” I said as he got out.

“Well,” he said, noticing my admiring looks, “Work hard, put the hours in, and I’ll have an even better one next year.”

Paraphrasing from a good article by Paul Graham:

Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job. A more direct way to put it: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that but for many people the best plan probably is to go to work for some existing company. This means doing something people want, averaged together with everyone else in that company.

However, is that averaging disadvantageous for you? In a big company you get paid a fairly predictable salary for working fairly predictable hours. You can’t go to your boss and say, I’d like to start working ten times as hard, so will you please pay me ten times as much? For one thing, the official fiction is that you are already working as hard as you can.

Economically, you can think of a startup/working independently as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four.

You could probably work twice as many hours as a corporate employee, and if you focus you can probably get three times as much done in an hour. You should get another multiple of two, at least, by eliminating the drag of the middle manager who would be your boss in a big company. Then there is one more multiple: how much smarter are you than your job description expects you to be? Suppose another multiple of three.  If a fairly good hacker is worth $80,000 a year at a big company, then a smart hacker working very hard without any corporate bullshit to slow him down should be able to do work worth about $3 million a year.

Like all back-of-the-envelope calculations, this one has a lot of wiggle room. I wouldn’t try to defend the actual numbers. But I stand by the structure of the calculation. I’m not claiming the multiplier is precisely 36, but it is certainly more than 10.

And once you have all that money, then paraphrasing from an article at on savings:

The risk of dying with too much money should be taken just as seriously as the risk of dying poor. After all, that excess money in old age represents forgone opportunities earlier in life.

Spend money on anything that shifts your focus from the mundane to things that give your life meaning. Donating to charities that are meaningful to you is a great way to do that. Traveling to visit friends and family should rank highly for the same reason. Improving the world, having fun adventures, relationships with friends and family, satisfying intellectual curiosity…

Certain kinds of adventures you may not be physically capable of at retirement age. And don’t forget the possibility that you’ll die young. Or there could be a financial collapse that sparks hyperinflation, destroying your hard-earned savings. Or there could be technological explosions that change everyone’s level of wealth.

Have a bias for enjoying things now; it’s worth some amount of risk of being poorer than you’d like to be in retirement. Consider the strategy of throughout your life, taking, say, a month of unpaid leave every time you accumulate several thousand dollars in excess savings. If you keep obsessively saving past a reasonable target then you are, in a very literal sense, wasting money, by letting it sit as excess savings instead of doing something with it that makes your life better.

Improve your life by outsourcing tasks you do not enjoy. For example, don’t do your own taxes or change your own oil or clean your own house if you don’t enjoy those things, especially if you enjoy your job more than those tasks and your effective hourly rate is not much lower than (or is higher than) the hourly cost of the outsourcing.

Also, consider getting your retirement setup in place sometime before you retire.

If you’re not paying for it…

A quote I saw somewhere recently (sorry, I don’t have the link now):

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

This is partly why I don’t read free Metro-type newspapers when I come across one. More thoughts on whether you should spend time reading/watching the news here.

Email management advice

This week I discovered that I missed reading  [and therefore responding to] a rather important email last year. It got me thinking about the best way to manage email.

Tim Harford had some thoughts on email management a few weeks back. Included in this was some research regarding whether you should spend time up front organising your email into multiple folders in order to later save time finding them back:

…have trained us to think in terms of folders, but an alternative is to find old email by searching for it – or even just scroll through a big fat unsorted inbox. Steve Whittaker, a computer scientist at IBM Research, with four colleagues, has conducted a study to figure out the effectiveness of these different approaches. It’s called “Am I wasting my time organising email?” and the conclusion is “yes, you are”.

I think some sort of folder structure is useful, but rather than manually filing everything I use filters and rules to automatically send some incoming emails to specific client folders.

I dip in and out of my email accounts using various devices, and in times when I am receiving a lot of volume I’ll often have a quick peek/scroll through the new ones without taking any action. This is not very efficient and makes the email appear read (which is what had happened in the case above, even though I hadn’t actually read it, just highlighted in the reading pane for 2+ seconds). So, things I do/have now started doing are:

  • Switched my email accounts to be IMAP rather than POP. This way, when I take action with an email (delete/reply) this propagates across my devices, and I don’t waste time thinking again later on what to do with it.
  • Deal with email in batches, and try to employ the ‘handle it once rule.’ So, no reading until I have some time to devote to emails, and then take an action after reading before moving to the next.
  • If I’m not going to deal with an email straight away, then either mark the email as unread again, or forward it to which will send the email back to me at a specified time in the future so that I can deal with it more effectively then.
  • To aid batching, I’ve turned off Microsoft Outlook notifications. This way I’m not distracted by emails arriving when I should be concentrating on a work task. You can however add an audible/visual notification for email from specific people/companies using Tools > Rules & Alerts for projects where email responses are time critical.
  • Have a folder for registrations. If I need to find back a login name, that’s a lot easier.
  • Have a folder for each month of the year for travel and expenses. This makes monthly invoicing a lot faster.
  • I use Xobni within my Outlook which makes finding files and url links from specific people easier.
  • Go through email at the end of each week, deleting anything I can, and quickly checking that nothing was missed.
  • Hit the unsubscribe button at the bottom of every newsletter received.

See this article regarding obsessively checking email by the smart professors at Cheap Talk, which uses a Poisson model of email arrival to argue that it could well be more efficient to have notifications switched on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to check too frequently for email,

…[if] you cannot resist checking any time you think that there is at least a 63% chance there is new mail waiting for you then you should turn on your new mail alert. If you are less prone to temptation then yes you should silence it. This is life-changing advice and you are welcome.

Plus, you know you’re making it as a blogger when companies ask you to check out and review their service. I recently received an email from RightInbox, a company offering an add-on to your web browser allowing you to schedule mails sent using the Gmail web interface to have a delayed delivery. Useful perhaps if you want to make the impression to your boss that you are working when you are in fact on the golf course that day, though I struggle to see a recurring function for which this could be used regularly and therefore attract subscription paying customers. Can you?

Related Post: How does the use of pronouns in an email differ between those of lower and higher status?

Stop [reading] the press

Earlier in life I spent a year backpacking around the globe, covering 27 countries, including out-of-the-way places such as Mongolia and Easter Island. I didn’t keep up with UK news stories, but surprisingly didn’t notice any real gaps during conversations with friends once back. Perhaps they were just being polite…

I began to think that consuming news media every day was inefficient. Time spent reading a newspaper, surfing a news site, or watching the 10 o’clock news could be better spent doing something else – and that’s because most of what is in the news is not relevant in any way to you. In these examples you’re just passively pulling information to you.

It’s better to have stories pushed on topics that do interest you, and to supplement that with an occasional, curated digest from something “all-encompassing”. For that I choose The Economist, even if it “is written by young people pretending to be old people.” Of course, there could be a whole separate discussion on whether your source of news has an agenda to publish certain kinds of stories that appeal to their readership or get things a little muddled, but we’ll leave that for another day.

I had an analyst visit the BBC website once a day, for a week, and compile a list of the stories appearing on the UK news page. I was curious to see whether reading any of those stories would have been important or useful to me.

Of the 222 links found, 31 were articles which had already been showing on the site on a previous day. Removing these left 191 unique articles over the course of a week. 30 were links to sports stories, such as Gerrard admits to career doubts. Of course, sport can be entertaining and enjoyable, but learning that Steven’s “groin packed in on [him]” is not going to change my life, although it might make my bar chat a bit better. That probably wouldn’t be hard though.

Also shown separately are 29 articles on crime and deaths. Specifically, by crime I mean stories covering trials and investigations into single-event, past incidents. Examples include Three held over birthday murder and Coronation St’s Betty Driver dies. Sad that it is that Betty has died, this does not change my life. Stories about crime trends / local crime could be useful (burglaries around my postcode, muggings in this street) and be something I might want to take action on, but a random selection of more “newsworthy” stories about people being killed from the background rate of 2 (ish) murders per day is not.

This leaves 132 unique articles that I could have read.

14 articles charted the development of the UK Defence Secretary’s rough ride regarding his friend, resulting in Dr Fox’s resignation. But why read 14 articles, when you can just read one final, considered article at the end of the week once the story is settled? The Economist provided one. A running theme in the news this week was the price of UK energy bills, a topic that the Economist also covered, along with protests against capitalism. I would have missed Oliver Letwin putting papers in the bin though. Oh well.

The 107 stories were classified into 5 categories:

  1. End date for analogue TV is set Glad I caught that one.
  2. UK inflation rate rises to 5.2% I could have decided to take action regarding investments, etc. This information could be found in The Economist anyway
  3. G20 meeting discusses eurozone Likewise, given I have assets denominated in euros. Typical story summarised weekly in The Economist anyway.
  4. Cheapest energy deals ‘ignored’. Apparently profit-maximising energy firms don’t always offer you their cheapest deal, so you had better investigate independently yourself. Who knew?! Covered by The Economist anyway.
  5. Lasers beams shone at two planes Given I travel a lot by plane, and this could be a precursor to a new form of terrorist attack, I might choose to change my lifestyle. I believe by this point I am scrapping the bottom of the proverbial barrel in trying to find stories that contain actionable information.

So I think I’m justified in largely ignoring news media. Instead, I use Google Reader to consolidate and read blogs on topics that interest me, such as this pilot’s journal, Ben Goldacre on dodgy science, Tim Harford on dodgy numbers, and opinion pieces from smart people like Seth Godwin, Scott Adams, and Simon Moore.

I have tried though to identify a small number of events and items that could substantially impact me, and for these have done one of two things:

  1. Found a site which deals with it. If it publishes as a blog, great, it goes into Google Reader, if not then I use to identify when the site is updated, and be notified of that automatically via a unique feed into my Google Reader account.
  2. Add a Google Alert, sent to me by email, when a news story or web page is published containing certain keywords.

The point being that relevant information is being pushed to me, in a timely manner.

So, unless you’re a day trader, stop reading the news – you won’t miss much! Use your new-found time (191 articles/week x 2 minutes/article = 6hrs/week) to set your own agenda to get into subjects that interest you.

Single-serving sites

Some sites that do one thing well, for free: – event planning for multiple participants – useful to avoid dud seats when checking in online – fast/safe way to remember to come back to an email or action later – all the possible ways of getting from a to b

Geek varieties

To the amusement of my friends, I was called a “fit geek” in an interview on BBC radio recently. Normally, I’m just a regular geek.

This idea for productivity improvement came up in one of the blogs I read a short while ago:

Go find a geek. Someone who understands gmail, Outlook, Excel and other basic tools.

Pay her to sit next to you for an hour and watch you work.

Then say, “tell me five ways I can save an hour a day.”

Whatever you need to pay for this service, it will pay for itself in a week