Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Absolute Drivel

Virgin Radio changed its name yesterday. I used to listen to it in the morning when Pete and Geoff did the breakfast show, then a cock took over and today I am back with the BBC. Yes I know that Geoff is back on evening drivetime now, but they've lost my goodwill.

The new name is Absolute Radio. It was an absolutely obvious choice, especially considering that the company who bought the franchise and frequency way back in April was called "Absolute Radio". So I found the recent hype about "you the listener will be the first to know the new name, text xxxx to yyyy to get the news first" to be absolutely pathetic.

The other reason that the name is absolutely predictable is due to the rise in digital radio. Once upon a time we tuned to a particular frequency. Or in a new area, we searched by frequency. Increasingly today we search by name. Alphabetically.

I'm going to rename this site to "Aaah so that's the way to the top of the blogroll".

Monday, September 29, 2008

Moore Questions for Sherry Jones

There was a firebombing in Central London a few days ago, a terrorist incident, albeit one on a small scale. But there was not much in the news about it. That's why I refer to it here. Perhaps reporters and editors are too scared to report it. They should be.

The house attacked was that of Martin Rynja, and his company was considering publication of the novel The Jewel of Medina by the author Sherry Jones, who I have mentioned before. After the attack, and the usual bunch of religious "scholars" jumping onto the fiery bandwagon, it would not surprise me if Martin was intimidated into withdrawing publication. The terrorists will win.

It is not only a perceived insult to an imaginary deity that is being suppressed here, it is the asking of questions. The book may well present a sympathetic picture of the child's relationship to the prophet, or it may not. But as with any other aspect of history, can't we examine it, research it, picture it, question it?

Which actions of ancient leaders are role models for appropriate behaviour for today? What constitutes child abuse? Why do some people believe that entire chapters of particular books are literally true? If someone claims to receive the ultimate word of God, why should we believe him?

Those were just questions. But what are the answers?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Decisions

Thoughts of a colleague who is a mid-level manager at the client:
Despite earning those huge salaries for doing so, despite the oft-quoted pretence that it is tough at the top, actually it is easy to drastically reduce losses and consequently earn big bonuses. You simply close the loss making operations. It might require a degree of heartlessness and loss of popularity with those whose jobs you remove, there are obviously short term transaction costs that need to be written off, but basically it is still "easy".

What is "difficult" is to use all your existing resources and to increase their value. To provide leadership and direction to get more from the team. It's another way to increase profit, but it's much harder.

But what gets the big promotion and big salary and big bonus in the quickest time? Obvious really.

Not my words, but I wouldn't write it here unless I at least partially agree.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Biggest Mistake


Recall the days of the great boom in technology shares in the late 1990's. When companies like Yahoo and Amazon and eBay and a thousand other internet start-ups were soaring in value. In England companies like Freeserve and Easynet and FriendsReunited were setting the pace.

I was very much part of the early internet wave, my work was new media marketing, and I can honestly say that I predicted the prevalence of peer-to-peer sales models and web 2.0 long before the world caught up. But, on investment, I thought I'd play safe. Not so safe as to stay out of the sector entirely, but I could see a basic truth that still holds true; out of every ten start-ups only one or two will prosper, and that is as true in the brave new internet world as in the old material world. But it was not obvious who would be the next big thing, it never is. Even though I could predict the overall rise of social media, I could not predict the rise of particular social media companies.

So I recalled an anecdote - at the time of the California gold rush, a few miners struck lucky, most did not - but the ones who really made money were the guys who sold the spades.

And I recognised the need for a high capacity infrastructure for all this new communication. If I'd still been in America then I might have invested in Cisco Systems, but being in England, I invested in Telewest. In my mind it was easy to replicate websites, but it was hard to replicate thousands of miles of cable already embedded in people's streets. So I bought lots of shares. My life savings. My pension. I thought it was playing safe, buying spades not mines.

Within a few years, shares that had been bought above 250 pence were basically worthless. Like my pension fund. The company was taken over by NTL and then by Virgin Media. My stock was bought out for peanuts. Now, cable is doing well. Then, I was wiped out.

Which brings us to the present difficulties in the global financial system. Even shortly before the share price crashed, the directors and chief executives of Telewest were pulling out huge salaries and bonuses. One day perhaps we will find out the true extent of their complicity. One day perhaps my portfolio will recover.

Moral of the story: Research properly, never base your entire financial strategy on an anecdote.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In Praise of Brian

Not the messiah, obviously.

Question: Who links:

The best American novelist of the 19th century. Quotes here.

The best action series of the 20th century. Covered here.

The best fantasy movie of all time. Extolled here.


Brian Clemens. Creator and main scriptwriter of The Professionals. Directly related to Mark Twain. Went on to write the first sequel to Highlander. Yes, I said sequel, everyone sometimes produces poo.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Rob 'n' Plunder 'n' Sink t' Ship

Yesterday was International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

On Wall Street, every day is International Behave Like a Pirate Day.

The embattled company paid out $US5.7 billion in bonuses in 2007 alone, with senior executives including CEO Dick Fund receiving the biggest payments.

It really said "Dick Fund" - that's not funny, those were our funds they were dicking around with. Actually, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was awarded a $22 million bonus for 2007. Now shareholders like me have been wiped out.

None of that will matter to Fuld's personal bottom line. Though he is declining a bonus this year, it appears as though his financial cushion is substantial.

That's the main point. They've already raided the ship, now they don't care if it sinks.

But I'm a compassionate guy, I am very glad that Richard Fuld is alive and well. Honestly. Because if he had died or become disabled, Fuld's payoff would have been $434.7 million.

According to lawyer Ben Phi:
If Lehman's executives were frantically redistributing the company's wealth to themselves when the company was in trouble, then they'd clearly have a case to answer

Friday, September 19, 2008

Economic Opinion

It's now common news that Scott Adams, yes the Dilbert guy, got so sick of the inane blathering and vindictive name-calling of the US presidential campaigns that he funded and published a survey of 500 prominent economists in order to try to get a more unbiased opinion. Or perhaps to put it another way, he seemed to believe that people needed to know who economic experts considered would have the best economic policy.

Results are common knowledge now: a considerable majority favour Obama over McCain. But I have two comments on the spin placed upon this. Firstly, look at the wording of the press release:

The economists in the survey favor Obama on 11 of the top 13 issues. But keep in mind that 48% are Democrats and only 17% are Republicans. Among Independents, things are less clear, with 54% thinking that in the long run there would either be no difference between the candidates or McCain would do better.

The text above merges the undecided with the McCain camp to show a majority there. Yet among Independents, an actual majority favour Obama's policies over McCain's.

Secondly, the fact that more of the randomly selected economists were Democrats than Republicans might suggest to some people that the survey was implicitly flawed. Those people are wrong. The survey was not meant to reflect opinion but it was meant to reflect real economists' opinions, without an artificially enforced 50:50 "balance". Remember: if the facts have a liberal bias, pointing them out is excessively partisan

And regardless of economic facts, most people seem to vote based on uneconomic "values" anyway.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stimulating the MPG-spot

The opening line of a recent high profile article, you'll probably have seen these results elsewhere too:

A study commissioned by a phallically named insurance company proves beyond all doubt that the unbridled roar of an Italian supercar turns women on but the soft purr of a fuel-efficient econobox doesn't stimulate anyone's MPG-spot.

It's from a respected source, Wired. It specifically says "proves beyond all doubt".

David Moxon subjected 40 men and women to the sounds of a Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari, then measured the amount of testosterone in their saliva. He found everyone had higher levels of the stuff -- a measure of their arousal -- after hearing the revving exotics, but the amount the women had was off the charts.

According to a woman who actually read the study: "Testosterone increases in a number of situations besides arousal. For example, when a person is feeling aggressive, their testosterone goes up. I don't know about anyone else, but loud engine noises annoy the crap out of me. So were the people with higher testosterone levels fantasizing about sex in the greedmobiles or were they fantasizing about taking a sledgehammer and beating them into little, tiny, noiseless pieces?"

The study was commissioned by the ultra-exclusive British insurer Hiscox (we swear we're not making this up), which was curious to know how people respond to high-end luxury cars.

The research was funded by a company that specialises in high performance vehicles. If the results encourage more people to buy small volkswagens then less revenue for the insurer. If it appears to encourage high performance sales, even slightly, then potential win for the study sponsor. It's about the most prejudiced sponsor you could imagine. It's like a study funded by a vitamin pill salesman suggesting that people who take vitamin pills are more healthy.

"We knew owners of luxury cars felt a connection with the sound of their vehicles," says Steve Langan, managing director of the insurance company. "We have now scientifically proven the physical attraction people feel when it comes to cars."

Scientifically proven? Bullshit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

May Brian Forgive Me

Pure coincidence. From Brian's Soapbox last Sunday:

And what do I want to share with you right now? This photograph was taken by Stacey Bywater, who lovingly tends my garden. It's a common or garden creature, called a snail [correction: slug]. A creature which so many people regard as a 'pest' (simply because they don't know how to garden properly)

Left to their own devices, these animals are delightful. And where in Creation does it say that they have less of a right to live and eat and enjoy themselves in the world than we?

Brian may be an idol, we may even share a half-birthday, but sometimes we diverge completely. He appears to be the sort of person who displays near biblical ignorance in correlating whales and fish. And now, right after my last post, I see that he talks lovingly of slugs and seems to equate their feelings with people admiring flowers. Next he'll be saying that amoeba have rights too. He's a sentimental fool. But he's a god on the guitar.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pop Idol

Decent weather today, so I did some work in the garden. While trudging across, I accidentally stepped on a snail. Horrible.

Because a symbol can represent an idea, and those who hold the idea sometimes cannot or will not argue for it rationally, it might be required to manipulate symbols to get a point across.

According to someone I don't know who calls himself the "Friendly Atheist":
A communion wafer is not actually the body of Christ, regardless of your religious beliefs. It’s a symbol. And symbols only possess whatever meaning you give them. My friend seemed to agree here. He’s a Christian after all. He thinks the wafer is a symbol, too (as opposed to the actual body of Christ)

According to someone I do know who genuinely is a friendly atheist, from beginning with I:
To give an object that much importance - isn’t that idolatry? ... Yes, symbolic acts can be hurtful, and are usually intended to be. If you were ever teased as a child, you know how much “mere” words can hurt. But we should all be grown up enough to realize that what idiots say about us (or our beliefs and symbols) really doesn’t matter.

For a bit of context, the Fourth Lateran Council assembled by the infallible Pope Innocent III in 1215 directly guided Catholic behaviour. The first canon makes clear there is no salvation outside the Church and affirms "the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist". The last says that Jews must wear special clothes and must not be given public offices. Cue a long history of intimidation, persecution and holocaust.

That sort of attitude does need its symbols punctured. But I did not mean to step on that snail today.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wacky Taxes

Where I completely agreed with the economic adviser to George W Bush. Five quotes from Greg Mankiw:

1. voters are worse than ignorant about basic economic principles of good policy. Ignorance, at least, would have the virtue of being random and so perhaps would average out to zero in a large population. Instead of being merely ignorant, voters hold onto systematically mistaken beliefs.

2. To many economists [and to me], the basic argument for increased use of Pigovian taxes is so straightforward as to be obvious. But as George Orwell once put it, "We have now sunk to a depth where the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men."

3. A carbon tax would provide incentives for people to use less fuel in a multitude of ways. By contrast, merely having more efficient cars encourages more driving.

4. even if God came down today and told us that global warming was a complete hoax, the case for a much higher Pigovian tax on gasoline would survive, for the simple reason that every time you get in your car and drive, you inconvenience other drivers with increased road congestion and you put them at increased risk of being in a traffic accident.

5. dispel a common fear about higher Pigovian taxes, such as taxes on carbon or gasoline--that they will fall disproportionately on the poor.

Exactly what I said.

I should point out that although "I completely agreed with the economic adviser to George W Bush" in this particular case, George W Bush did not agree at all. Obviously. Because although I too get criticism for the same views, the economic advice was perfectly sensible.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Third World Economics

in 200 words.

Five things that are not significantly cheaper in the developing world, for example in the city of my birth compared to the city of my work:

1. Computers. Despite the image of India as a cheap IT supplier, the hardware is expensive.
2. Appliances and gadgets. The things that litter your home.
3. Fuel. Most of it is imported, and OPEC controls the price.
4. Clothes and food. This might surprise, but especially true of branded products.
5. Land. Obviously.

Five things that are much cheaper in the developing world, for example in the city of my birth compared to the city of my work:

1. A haircut. Fifteen pence is standard in a salon, obviously it's much less on the streets.
2. Public transport. Still less than ten pence a ride.
3. Nursing care. A couple of pounds per day.
4. Plumbers. A pound, for a job taking many hours.
5. Taxi fares. An hour's journey can cost a pound, who knows how the driver covers fuel out of that.

It's obvious really, the cheap things are services, the expensive things are products.

Equally obvious then, the people who provide the services cannot afford the products.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I just got the idea from the Language Log, but imagine how the GOP poll ratings might slide if Sarah Palin were to be caught in an embarrassing situation after a few bottles of vino...

Lo Ho! Claret fades. Sarah harassed after alcohol.

Weekend Abroad

Which of these reasons could you use to justify (if only to yourself) a weekend away that is very far away?

1. if the journey at each side is very easy. At this end if you live close to a tube station and can hop on the train to Heathrow. At that end if your destination is only 15 minutes from the airport.

2. if the flight itself is direct. Things can get stressful if there are interchanges and waiting around and potential missed connections. But if you can just settle down in your seat, flick through a magazine, have something to eat, watch a movie, catch a few hours sleep then wake up the next morning in the place you want to be, that's hardly more difficult than being at home.

3. if you have no luggage. As you are only going for a couple of days, you only need a few extra clothes.

4. if it's not really a "vacation", which would generally involve a holiday destination, but instead just visiting relatives. Related to the previous point, staying at home rather than hotel, you possibly have plenty of spare clothes there anyway.

5. if it is very very cheap. It would help if you had a close relative who worked for the airline.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why I Don't Watch Movies

It's not consciously a money-saving activity, it really isn't.

It's mainly about time and attention span. I rarely make the time to watch a two hour movie any week. If I have a few minutes for viewing, I'll watch music videos. If I have 25 minutes, I'll watch a comedy show. If I have 45 minutes, I'll watch an action or detective show. If I have more, I'll do something else.

And I simply believe that there is better dialogue, more humour, more satire, even better visual scenes in any random episode of Futurama (or MASH or Extras or countless others) than in any random comedy film that has been released in the last few years.

And I simply believe that there is better dialogue, more danger, more humour, even better visual scenes in any random episode of The Professionals (or House or countless others) than in any random thriller that has been released in the last few years.

And with the V+ series link we have banks of this stuff still on the virtual shelf.

Yet, somehow, whenever we discuss films at work, I've watched most of them.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Snake Oil

He's got a new book out. Just from his most recent column, five thoughts from Ben Goldacre:

1. these so-called "fish-oil trials" were so badly designed that they amounted to little more than a sham. In the case of the biggest, "the Durham trial", the county council has refused even to release the results, which I have every reason to believe were unflattering.

2. if you think about it rationally, any beneficial effects of fish oil on school performance will probably not be all that dramatic. We do not have an epidemic of thick vegetarians

3. The capsules Durham are promoting cost 80p per child per day, while it spends only 65p per child per day on school meals.

4. You are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. You hear it from people as they walk past the local council estate and point at a mother feeding her child crisps: "Well, when you look at what they feed them," they say, "it’s got to be diet, hasn’t it?" They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that’s why you’re healthy.

5. because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies have instead had to invent new diseases for the treatments they already have

Basically, the "best" marketing does not only sell you a solution, it sells you a problem that you did not know that you had.