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My say on the Autumn Statement

So, the government are inviting the public to “have their say” on what should be included in the 2016 Autumn Statement. My submission, for what it’s worth is:

I would introduce a minimum, government-backed, interest rate for savers of base rate +3% and cap total eligible savings at the same amount the financial services guarantee is set at – i.e. £75,000 per person.

In my opinion QE has only sought to discourage spending by savers that are punitively punished by the rock-bottom interest rates. So introducing guaranteed rates for savers, will allow individuals to save for the future, secure sufficient income from savings, and as a result free up more disposable income for spending now.

If you want to have your say too, here’s the LINK to the survey.

Microsoft buys LinkedIn

So Microsoft have gone and made an all-cash, $26.2 billion offer for LinkedIn and I can certainly see the logic. After acquiring Yammer not so long ago, they’ve now neatly secured the enterprise social media market – through owning two of the largest players – and have the opportunity to develop a unique integrated internal/external offering. 

It’s also interesting that LinkedIn is going to be allowed to continue operating largely independently, and I for one think it’s a good thing… although it’s going to be challenging for LinkedIn to continue growing the network as they’ve already faced difficulties in this area. In part, those difficulties contributed to the overall decline of the share price and the recent profit warning – and that’s just allowed Microsoft to snap up a comparative bargain. 

But LinkedIn have continued to make subtle changes to their service (not all for the best – I’m thinking about Unlisted Groups here!) and continue to look at broadening their user base. The sub-apps they’ve released over recent months and years, for groups and recruiting, as well as their support for self-publishing via LinekdIn Pulse, are testament to that innovation culture they clearly have.

However, it’s likely that the 100+ million monthly active users of LinkedIn and 45+ billion unique page views per quarter, are clearly stats that Microsoft couldn’t ignore. Everyone’s busy buying user data these days it seems, and this is a highly relevant, business-specific dataset which is very closely aligned with the core Microsoft offering. 

Good luck to them I say. I think Microsoft has been much maligned over the years in the press and by the blogerati, but I actually think they’ve turned a corner with Satya Nadella at the helm. Office 365 is very good. OneDrive is improving (despite the reduction in free space offered and removal of the unlimited band). And Windows 10 is one of their best operating systems ever, in my opinion. It all just works. On multiple devices. And in an increasingly integrated and cloud-enabled way. So for that, I’m in support of this acquisition and will be keenly watching to see what comes of it.

OneNote

Having used Trello, Notability, Google Drive/Docs, Evernote, iOS notes and countless other note taking apps and software products over recent years, I’d say I’m fairly well positioned to pass judgement on OneNote.

Made available freely by Microsoft (when?) there are different versions available as apps on iOS and android devices and Windows 10. The full version is available via Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription, or via older non-subscription installations of Microsoft Office – like the Office 2013 product I have.

So, what is OneNote? At its core, it’s a note-taking app, but it’s so much more powerful than that. It’s a collaboration platform; it’s a virtual, access-anywhere collection of notebooks; it’s a powerful, easily-searchable, online filing cabinet for thoughts, documents and ideas. And best of all for me, is the seamless way it integrates across devices.

A typical use-case for me will start with me capturing some ideas on my iPhone, writing out some bullet points. Then when I’m on my commuter train, I’ll pull out my iPad, connect to OneNote and continue expanding on those ideas, sketching out concepts or diagrams with my finger or stylus. Once in work, out comes the laptop and again, connecting to OneNote, my notebook will sync and I’ll pick up where I left off, refining the content I’ve been working on throughout my journey to work. There’s no complicated method of transferring files and thinking about file formats. It just works. Without any complications. And it’s all so very user friendly!

What does it look like? Take a look at this intro video from Microsoft…

There’s a simple but intuitive structure:

  • You have notebooks, which I equate to the likes of a physical ring binder or folder.
  • Within each notebook, you have sections. These are tabbed areas within the notebook. So again, continuing the physical metaphor, these would be the coloured dividers that are typically used in a ring binder.
  • Each section can then have a series of pages and sub-pages.

Features I think are important:

Collaboration

  • Not only editing the same document at the same time, but also version tracking and the ability to highlight changes made by others.

Screen clipping

  • Much more powerful than standard print-screens, especially with a dual monitor setup.

Offline editing

  • Start online, continue offline, or vice versa. The system flexibly syncs with devices so your content is available wherever you want.

OCR

  • Taking picture of a page of notes or a whiteboard discussion and converting that to OneNote text, which then, naturally becomes editable and searchable.

Embedding files

  • You can import content, or simply attach files – which is great if you’ve got source documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, etc. so all your reference material is kept in one place.

Printing from Word to OneNote.

  • If like me, you’ve got a lot of old Word Documents, you don’t have to convert these individually to be available in OneNote. You can simply print to OneNote (tip: change advanced options in OneNote so that it creates a single note, rather than individual pages for each page of the Word document!)

Print from OneNote.

  • The other way around to the point above, but OneNote’s desktop version allows you to easily export to PDF and Word, or even as a OneNote file to send to someone else if they’re not on the same sharing network.

Password protection (in full/desktop version only)

  • Lock individual pages or sections behind simple passwords.

Tags

  • Add tags to documents to assist with searching. There are a range of tags available, from critical items, remember for blog, phone numbers, addresses, etc. then once the tag is added, simply “Find Tags” on the menu bar will show these tags in your documents. Very quick and very easy to use!

Checkboxes

  • Actually a kind of tag, but really easy to use. Highlight a list of content and press Ctrl+1 and the list is instantly converted to a checkbox list. Press Ctrl+1 again and the checkbox(es) will be ticked, to mark as complete. And press Ctrl+1 a final time to remove the checkbox. Again, all checkboxes show up in the “Find tags” menu option, showing in the To Do list – across all pages and sections in your notebook. There is the option of splitting this by section or notebook too, in case you have lots of lists.

Keyboard shortcuts

  • There are tons of keyboard shortcuts available in OneNote (as with most Microsoft product). The checkbox Ctrl+1 is just one of them. For a complete list, check out the Microsoft page here.

Subpages

  • As your OneNote use expands, you’ll find that some sections end up having a lot of pages. To help manage these, it’s possible to nest some pages as subpages, underneath others.  And (see OneTastic comment later) there are also some powerful macros available to help with this too, like the very helpful automatic Table of Contents in current section, for example.

Powerful search (also integrates with Delve via Office 365)

  • The search facility is quick, accurate and powerful – and if you’re a full Office 365 user, your OneNotes will start being indexed and presented through Delve too.

Cloud based, so is accessible anywhere

  • This universal accessibility has to be one of the biggest selling points for OneNote. It just simply works. And although cloud based, syncs with devices so OneNotes can be edited offline too when you’re out of wifi range.

Integrates with personal OneDrive.

  • Easily share content to/from OneDrive and with others. Your personal OneDrive has tons of free storage – as OneDrive comes with a very handy 15GB free for personal use. Which if you’re only using it for OneNote storage will take a very long time to fill up. If you’re using OneNote at work too, you can also easily switch from different OneDrive accounts, so you can (if you want) easily access your work-based OneNotes to continue that urgent writing when you’re out of the office – even on your iPhone/smartphone.
  • And if you need more OneDrive space, you can secure an extra 0.5GB of space for every individual you refer to the service, up to a maximum of 10GB. Here’s my OneDrive referral so if you haven’t already signed up, please do use my link! Thanks.

I haven’t taken the plunge yet and opted for a personal Office 365 account.  At £5.99 a month, it’s not exactly cheap… But that’s only for one personal computer. For a household (up to 5 computers + mobile devices), it’s £7.99 per month. As a Netflix and Amazon Prime household, that’s another subscription too far, especially with an older non-subscription version of Office working absolutely fine. The subscription model that Microsoft, Adobe and others are adopting is another story though…

There’s also a useful community around OneNote that has extended the platform with some very helpful macros and plugins. The very excellent OneTastic provides a very good selection of these that can easily be added to the desktop app (but as far as I’m aware, is restricted to the full desktop version (not the Windows 10, iOS or Android apps), but very helpfully creates some very useful shortcuts to make life even easier with OneNote.

So, to wrap up, I highly recommend getting to grips with OneNote.

Links to OneNote:

Windows app

iOS app

Android app

Whale slaughter continues

IMG_4896While I’m no eco-warrior, I continue to be dismayed about the Japanese whaling fleet. In the news this week was the story that the fleet had killed 333 minke whales. I just can’t understand how a supposedly developed nation can still claim this is a scientific programme. There’s nothing scientific about it. It’s just outright slaughter and really needs to stop.

With demand for whale meat in Japan apparently declining and the Japanese government investing considerable amounts of tax money to artificially sustain whaling operations – why is this being allowed to continue? Is the International Court ruling that this whaling programme was not scientific just being ignored? What repercussions will Japan face? Why are no international sanctions being imposed?

And this hunt took place in Antarctic waters too. What right does the Japanese whaling industry claim in order to do this? It’s such an illogical argument that this completely unscientific slaughter is being carried out by Japan, in contravention of international rulings and outcries from other nations all around the world.

I just don’t know what we can do to bring this to an end. Other than signing online petitions (which I recommend) it seems we’re all powerless to stop this wanton destruction of a peaceful species sharing this planet with us.

Chester races fixtures 2016

Here are the Chester Races fixtures for 2016

  • Wednesday 4th May
  • Thursday 5th May
  • Friday 6th May
  • Saturday 28th May
  • Saturday 11th June
  • Friday 24th June
  • Saturday 25th June
  • Friday 8th July
  • Saturday 9th July
  • Saturday 23rd July
  • Sunday 31st July
  • Saturday 20th August
  • Friday 9th September
  • Saturday 10th September
  • Saturday 24th September

Buy tickets here

Expat woes with the Lifetime ISA

So we’ve recently had the budget from George Osborne and amongst other things, he announced the Lifetime ISA. On the surface of it, the Lifetime ISA seems like an attractive proposition. And for many, it will be.  

Effective 25% profit (interest) guaranteed from the government on up to £4,000 of annual investment, until a person reaches the age of 50 appears very attractive. And that’s before any natural growth on where the ISA is invested, until the age of 60 when it can typically be accessed.

And this is where Osborne has been crafty, in my opinion. Dangling that 25% carrot in front of many almost seems too good to be true. In many cases, it will make sense to take advantage of the Lifetime ISA – but is this going to be at the expense of pension saving? 

The key difference between a pension and a Lifetime ISA is when tax is paid. So, with a pension, the money we put in to it now is tax free and then we get taxed when we take it out in retirement, often at a more favourable tax rate.

With a Lifetime ISA, the money that goes in has already been taxed up front. This in itself is a shrewd move by Osborne, because in a single swipe, he’s potentially reducing the immediate burden of pension tax relief whilst also securing tax revenues from future chancellor’s budgets.

However, for many, retirement – at whatever age it comes – may include a move to a sunnier climate, retiring overseas and joining an expat community of like minded folk. And this is the issue I have with the Lifetime ISA. 

Because tax has already been paid when the money enters the ISA, it should be tax free when it comes out. But this isn’t the case for expats. ISA’s lose their tax free status for those permanently living overseas, so in effect, a Lifetime ISA will result in money being taxed twice.

This isn’t the same case for a pension though. Putting money into a pension now, benefitting from tax relief at a potentially higher rate and then paying tax on the money coming out, regardless of where you are in the world – may arguably be a better home for retirement investment, if retiring overseas is even remotely being considered.

This isn’t intended as financial advice, it’s just my take on the Lifetime ISA – so please carry out your own research before making any investment decisions!

How to save £50 off iPhone 6s

With the recent announcement and release of the iPhone 6s, there’s the usual rush to buy the latest and greatest device. But there’s an easy way to save yourself a bit of money off the list price.

The 128gb iPhone 6s costs £699 if you buy it direct from Apple. But did you know that other retailers are also selling it for that price too?

Well, if you sign up for and use TopCashback and search for Very (the UK online retailer), at the time of writing you can secure between 7% and 8% cashback. On a £699 phone, that’s close to £50.

It’s exactly the same phone that you would have ordered from Apple or other retailers, and is completely brand new – only it’ll cost you less using this route. Simple! The only slight drawback is that they have slightly longer delivery times than going direct to Apple – but that’s to be expected with a phone that only began retailing last week.

Note: TopCashback isn’t the only cashback site offering these high cashback rates. QuidCo offers something similar – so it’s worth checking between the two to see which one offers the best rate.

UPDATE – actually, I’ve just had it pointed out to me that Quidco don’t pay cashback on VAT, so the actual price would be more like: £658.26

Change needed for BBC licence fee

It’s hard to argue with the detractors of the BBC licence fee because of the arbitrary way it has been made mandatory for everyone watching live TV in the UK, regardless of whether they actually watch any BBC programming.

Personally, I watch BBC news and a smattering of other live BBC programmes. If I have the time for TV these days, I take advantage of Netflix or catchup TV from any of the free-to-air channels (no Sky TV in this household!). I highly rate most of the programming the BBC make, however, even though not all of its to my personal tastes, as the stuff I do watch – like news, dramas and documentaries – are such high quality and genuinely entertaining. 

But what I do find outdated in today’s world is to have a mandatory licence fee enforced on everyone. Yes, it’s a British institution, but in a free market economy if individuals had the choice of spending around £7 per month on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or around £14 per month on the BBC (which is roughly what the licence fee equates to now), I would imagine a large part of the population would opt to avoid the licence fee and just choose the channel package that best fits their viewing tastes. And that’s they key concept, isn’t it – we should have the option to choose. 

The politics

Now the Conservatives have unfettered power since winning the election and ditching the Liberal Democrats, John Whittingdale (the Conservative culture, media and sport secretary) has the BBC licence fee firmly in his sights (source: Guardian). But whilst Whittingdale may have a personal dislike for the either the BBC or its licence fee, there’s no public mandate for the attacks of this nature. If the Conservatives think they’re doing the British public a service by pushing this challenge, I think they’re mistaken. Perhaps more should be done to reduce the country’s foreign aid budget, which last year topped £11.7bn (source: Telegraph), particularly when we see some truly absurd ways in which they budget is spent. (Don’t even get me started on why we’re still funding India… a country with its own space programme!)

But, I still feel it would be a shame to see such a great British institution as the BBC, disappear. That’s not to say that reform wouldn’t be welcome though – see the solution below, for my suggestion options as to what could be better options. 

Over 75s

Whilst writing about the BBC, its also worth mentioning the reported change that now sees the BBC ‘paying’ for licence fees for over 75s (source: BBC). I object to it being termed in this way, because there’s no incremental cost for another person watching BBC TV. This is effectively just an accounting term because it was previously money received from the government and now they (the BBC) are being told that they’re not going to be receiving it any more. So, they’re not paying for these licences, they’re just not receiving money for them – which means there’s a gap in the finances. Perhaps it might prompt the BBC to reduce some of its bloat and stop commissioning some of its more popular culture programming (I’m thinking of the X-Factor challenger, the Voice – which I’ve seen reported as costing around £19m)? 

International freeloaders

The BBC should also look at how they can limit overseas viewers freely accessing their programming via iPlayer and VPNs. The scale of the problem can’t be truly known, but with some BBC programming being incredibly popular overseas (e.g. Top Gear and Downton Abbey), surely the corporation owes us, the fee paying public, to do more to commercialise it internationally.

The key issue here is that the online services are only restricted based on the IP address where the viewer is based, and as I mentioned earlier, a simple DNS change or use of a VPN can enable anyone overseas to watch this – without a single penny being contributed to the corporation. A subscription only service, despite its technological obstacles and cultural reluctance at home in the UK, might be a better option to limit this sort of activity. It’d be interesting to see any stats from the BBC or other bodies that might be able to estimate the scale of this freeloading and whether any projections have been made as to what the income could be from making this a subscription service.

The solution

Is there a best case scenario for the future for the BBC? Whatever happens, there’ll be groups of people that aren’t going to be pleased.

My personal view is that we should see a reduction in the licence fee to reflect a core set of public-service channels that avoid the populist programming the BBC seem to focus on more these days. On top of this, we should have the ability to subscribe to additional BBC channels, with an additional fee for iPlayer. 

In doing this, it gives consumers the option of picking the package of programming and distribution channels that best suits them. 

If the online service was subscription only, that should surely also help address the international freeloaders. And who knows, perhaps in doing so, the corporation could recoup some of their lost funding.

So, something like this structure might work:

  • BBC One, BBC Two, BBC News, BBC Radio 1 – 4 – Base level mandatory licence fee – £7 per month
  • BBC Three – £3 per month
  • BBC Four – £3 per month
  • BBC iPlayer – £5 per month
  • BBC Radio other/all channels (online only) – £2 per month

A full package could cost more than the current licence fee, but equally many could pay less by choosing the services that are relevant only to them. This solution obviously doesn’t take into account the mechanics of how such a system could be introduced, but from a pricing perspective, I think it’s inevitably fairer.

NB: I’ve not mentioned the BBC Parliament channel, as I honestly can’t believe anyone ever watches this! I’ve also not gone over the widely covered fat cat salaries, golden handcuffs/parachutes that are offered to BBC execs, as that’s old news and seemingly happening less these days?!

Cut benefits for Sky TV subscribers

With all the focus on the recent budget from George Osborne and the welfare cuts about to be imposed, it still surprises me that one of the UKs big benefits issues persists and remains undiscussed and untackled.

Simply put, why are people on benefits able to have Sky TV subscriptions? If they’re rich enough to pay for Sky TV – with minimum subscriptions starting at over £20 per month and top tier packages over £80 per month – then they should arguably have their benefits reduced by this amount.

It confuses the hell out of me why the taxpayer funded benefits are allowed to support Sky TV subscriptions. Pay TV is a luxury, not a basic human right or utility, and certainly not one that should be paid for by the UK taxpayers. This benefit cut is much more logical than the bedroom tax that’s come about recently and would, in my opinion, have much wider acceptance by the general public.

I know many people, gainfully in employment, with good jobs, decent salaries and families to support – and they’ve made a careful decision not to have Sky TV because it’s too expensive for them. They pay their taxes, out of hard earned income, to – among other things – support the needy. And Sky TV should not be funded by these taxes. It’s just wrong.

With Freeview, or even Freesat, offering such a good range of completely free programming I can’t think of any genuine reason why Sky TV should ever be considered a necessity, and certainly not one that people on benefits should be able to pay for.

So, it might be a controversial statement – and it is entirely my personal opinion – but I believe that anyone on benefits that has Sky TV, should have their benefits reduced by the amount they pay for their subscription. That’s surely a fairer way of redistributing taxes and supporting those genuinely in need, isn’t it?