Sunday, September 30, 2007


It would be too easy for me to take apart the leaders from the tabloid press, still easier for me to echo their populist outrage ... but maybe I can start from there to make a more sophisticated yet even more controversial suggestion.

A sick murderous cruel brute tried to kill himself in jail. And like most people I think we should have let him do it instead of spending a fortune on eternal "suicide watch". So does that make me like the red top editors?

In fact it's probably the sickest most vengeful members of the public who want him alive, just so they can drag out his torment.

Back to the villain of the piece, he was not even allowed to starve himself to death. Even though starvation is surely a horrible slow painful miserable tortuous way to die.

So why do we let our dying loved ones go that terrible way instead of hastening the end?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Si Paris

Michael Wood concluded his documentary about India yesterday. And it was refreshing, although perhaps neither "patriotic" nor "politically correct" to hear him refer to Bombay and Madras rather than their modern names. Because, obviously, he was speaking in English.

Every language, or more generally every related group of languages, has its own characteristic sound. I do not refer to the obviously different vocabulary in every language, but to the distinctive rhythm of each. It is the way that you can tell what language a foreigner is speaking even when you can't identify any single word. It is why you know the muppet show chef is Scandinavian even though he is unintelligible.

The English cannot pronounce correctly. Don't even try. The modern name Kolkata sounds a half-hearted mess. Stick to Calcutta.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hmmm hmmm hmmm

Following the brief diversion around my ankle, now the third and last in this little series. A very simple summary.

Based not only on the personal experience of many years of management, but also the evidence of independent controlled studies:

Statistical Fact 1: After positive rewards for good results, subsequent performance tends to deteriorate.

Statistical Fact 2: After admonishment for poor results, subsequent performance tends to improve.

Statistical Fact 3: Positive rewards tend to work better than admonishment to improve performance.

I imagine that two days ago, for some people, those three may have seemed contradictory. Perhaps now, for some people, they may be common sense.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Forces Levers Pivots

Sorry for a little diversion from the big economic and political issues, but the area of football injuries is a bit of a sore subject at the moment.

There is an English institution called Match of the Day. Gary Lineker was unparalleled as a pundit, he genuinely seemed to find new insight into tactics without spouting clich├ęs about "grit and determination" and suchlike. He's done alright in the much more difficult job of the host too.

But I don't agree with the choice of topics that the new pundits concentrate upon. In particular, there is an insistence on analysing refereeing decisions to death instead of highlighting the best bits of skill or the moments of incompetence. Sometimes the opinions are just stupid. For every time that they say that referees should show more consistency, they also say that the refs should instead use personal judgement.

And looking at last weekend's action (I'm always a few days behind thanks to the wonders of the PVR) they need to understand some physics too. A player was sent off for a tackle that, although it may have touched the ball, could easily have crashed the standing leg and broken it. In a later incident the tackled player was running and the challenge sent him flying. The pundits demanded the same punishment.

The second one looked more spectacular, but it was far less likely to tear ligaments. The pundits should know better.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A pat on the back or a kick up the backside

Relating the note from yesterday.

As an office worker, in fact as any worker, you perform tasks every day as requested by managers and clients. Sometimes the same request is directed to you in many different guises. You will do some of those tasks well and some of them poorly.

There are broadly only two influences on the success of those tasks. One is the set of factors that you control and the second is "everything else". You would hope that a manager should only reward or punish for the effect of the first set. But in any one specific task, the infinite possibility of "everything else" means it will probably be the more significant influence. However if given enough time and enough tasks, then your own abilities become statistically valid.

So if you have done exceedingly well in one task, you are likely to also do well in the next one, but statistically not quite as well - even if you are praised. Whereas if you have done exceptionally badly, then, regardless of your punishment, you are still likely to do better next time.

That does not mean a manager has no effect, it means a manager must be aware of his own effect.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Your Annual Review

Last week I started about the interactions of psychology and statistics to mass human behaviour, and hence to economic policy and organisational management.

Whether as an officer in the army or as a captain of a sports team or as a manager in a corporation, when reviewing the performance of others, you need to decide whether to concentrate on the positives or on areas for improvement.

Think of the likely effect on future performance. As a famous economist has stated:
I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.

That was not obvious. But that was common sense.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


The doctor told me that rice is meant to be good for mild ruptures to the anterior talo-fibular ligaments, so when I got home today I had a traditional bengali lunch then put my feet up to wait for the basmati to take effect.

The human body is not well designed for running with rapid changes of direction on uneven ground. It's almost as if the supporting structures of the knee and ankle joints were fairly incidental adaptations associated with a more fundamental driver, for example if the benefits from freeing forelimbs from the requirement to transport the body were associated with corresponding costs in other areas. Because evolution cannot plan ahead, it sometimes appears to make some fairly dumb decisions.

Alternatively, it could be God telling us that He did not want us to play football.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Edge of Thought

These links keep coming. That is
link as in the old English meaning of "connection" rather than the new English meaning of "hyperlink page reference".

Just yesterday I pointed out the irony in the position of of the Northern Rock chairman, relating current troubles at the bank to his earlier writing. I still have not seen anyone else comment upon this. And I do have a lot more to say on the evolution of human nature - another time.

But who is featured in both the
Times and the Guardian today? Professor Steven Pinker. I was unaware that his new book is being published in the UK just next week. I openly echoed his basic ideas about words and language only a few weeks ago. Yet his new book broadens scope precisely to the fundamentals of human nature that I talked about yesterday.

I bet he meets Matt Ridley for a drink while he's over here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Origins of Virtue

After yesterday's brief interlude for the cricket, back to the main news story of the week and the banking crisis - and to put my usual perspective, the intersection or otherwise of simple mathematics with normal human behaviour.

There is not room within this note's self-imposed limit to explain the implications of non-zero-sum game theory and economic moral hazard to the behaviour of Northern Rock customers, anyway we all know that decisions are sometimes individually sensible but collectively foolish. But what are the roots of this behaviour for human beings? And why do we sometimes act in ways that seem detrimental to our own interests?

The origins of virtue lie in the mechanisms of natural selection. Only the semi-ignorant think that long term natural selection is only about accumulated indivdual self-interest. The system of behaviour that is passed down through generations is related to a pattern of information - and if that pattern of information encourages co-operative or altruistic behaviour then it could help the pattern to propagate, even sometimes at the expense of the individual.

I've reached my limit, so no more about that subject for now. It was explained very well here. Full circle. Matt Ridley is today the chairman of Northern Rock! Can it really be the same person?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Being rude to your hosts

The Indian cricket team had to win today's match against the host nation South Africa to qualify for the semi-finals of the 20:20 World Cup. They scored 153 batting first.

The math was then very simple. Even if South Africa scored between 126 and 152, they would still go through with India because they both had a higher run rate than New Zealand.

It was very clear from early in the SA innings that they would never get the 154 to win the match. However, they could still have made 126 if India slacked off once victory was secure.

India did not slack off. Not a very nice way to treat your hosts. Without any hurt to themselves, they could have given the host nation, the tournament, and possibly the future of cricket a huge lift by allowing them a few more runs.

But they were right to keep up the pressure. Enormous credit to the players and to the very principle of sport. Integrity won here today.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Panic on the Streets of Newcastle

Banking systems. The subject involves the constant manipulation of hard numbers, yet the very existence of reserve ratio regulations acknowledges the influence of unpredictable consumers. This does intrigue me. It's all about those fuzzy boundaries between rational thinking and mass hysteria. Statistics and game theory.

I did a lot of this at college. In fact two of my tutors went on to become economics advisors to the government of the day, one of them advised John Major's government about privatisation and a second was also involved with the regulation of natural monopolies in the early days of Gordon Brown's time as Chancellor.

So I do know the principles about why the government does not guarantee all bank deposits. But I still think they are protecting shareholders and directors rather than investors. And that is wrong.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Under the mattress

Economics again. On a bigger scale. Sorry, but it is the main story on the news. Yet for various reasons (not all cricket related) I haven't actually watched the news much recently. So a little question that I haven't seen answered despite all those stories...

Fuelled by tabloid hysteria, long queues of people have just withdrawn billions of pounds from Northern Rock; how have they actually done that?

Presumably some have walked out with bucketloads of cash. But there would surely be physical money supply problems there. And I'm not aware of a big spike in shop sales.

Others must have transferred money to other banks. But no bank is safe. How did they choose where to go? Not everyone has easy access to government bonds and similar products.

Anyway, the reason that money was in the bank rather than in stocks or property or investment funds was presumably because it was meant to be fairly stable and safe - not for the pathetic interest rates there.

So what could be safer than a bank? Certainly not cash. That could be lost or stolen. You could try to insure the cash. But if your bank had a poor credit rating, what about your insurer ...


Another day into London on the tube, another day fighting through the mountain of paper waste.

Some people call it a free market in free newspapers. I call it litter.

Economics again. Externalities again. The quantity "purchased" does not reflect the price to society. The marginal cost is not zero.

The same principle as for plastic bags. Probably a bit more degradable, probably a bit more degrading.

Alternatively the free newspapers are like concrete tower blocks. Very cheap to put up. But you must factor in a disposal cost.

Legislation needed. And my family are not newsagents.

Monday, September 17, 2007

An ideal

I've alluded to it before, but I'll spell out the goal. Something must have prompted the post, so the first little paragraph will typically be some random incident that I have seen or experienced within the last 24 hours.

The second little paragraph will be an apparently disconnected observation about the big wide world.

The third paragraph, even shorter, will bring them together. Like the blog equivalent of a haiku.

Less than a hundred words. That's it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Match of the Day is showing the highlights of Spurs vs Arsenal. As usual, Arsenal created loads of chances but lack a clinical finisher. After spraying powerful shots in every possible direction, peppering the crowd behind the goal, the striker Adebayor finally connected absolutely perfectly and fired in a spectacular one.

Though he is possibly still a teenager, I think their midfielder Fabregas is a footballing genius. He never seems to whack the ball, but every touch seems to go straight to the feet of a colleague. Except for one time when he had a bit of space 20 yards out. Then he just stroked it into the goal.

But when they show the season's highlights or goal of the month, they will rave about Adebayor's.

It's like a tabloid editor trading rumours for week after week, randomly connecting with one, then splashing "exclusive - you read it here first". Or making loads of psychic predictions then seeing one come true.

Friday, September 14, 2007


If you are reading this, then you are using a computer, then you are accessing a computer database.

Most people do not "visualise" the route from the keyboard to a physical space on a real disk when they do a search - they just hope to see a symbol on the screen that represents what they are looking for, then expect to click through to what they really want.

But I'm an architect. Sadly, I have not designed bridges or skyscrapers since college days. But I have designed databases. And while the search cursor flashes, I still picture magnetic heads scouring across disk space.

Database principles are not complicated, but data can be stored in many different ways at varying levels of redundancy with various indexing strategies. There are eternal struggles between ease of input and ease of access. Yet ultimately it is just like guiding a little micro-man on a journey around the information store.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Information Currency

A large proportion of my work is making sure that marketing metrics are timely as well as accurate.

It's now September. But in last week's issue, MarketingWeek used a full quarter-page to splash the results of the survey: Social Networking Sites: Top 10 Most Popular - 2006

The expected names were there: Bebo and MySpace at 1 and 2, each with about 13% of the market, then YouTube and Faceparty at 3 and 4 with about 3.5% each.

Despite the prominence of the table, these results were presented without comment.

I guess the magazine had paid a lot of money for a survey that the agency had finally collated and summarised. So they thought they may as well publish it.

Shouldn't they at least have
mentioned the growth of Facebook in 2007?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Project Triangle

As mentioned earlier, managing a project means balancing resources, and though somewhat interchangeable, the main resources are people, money and time.

It's usually great to get more people.
But people cost money, and it takes time before they are really effective.

It's usually great to get more time.
But that may well increase costs too, and a tight deadline can actually help the team to focus.

It's usually great to get more money.
But fat chance.

Monday, September 10, 2007

C2 H5 OH 2

I said that for some people monetary factors may limit what they consume on an evening out.

I observed two tables. One table was broadly junior management. A second table was broadly senior management.

At the first table the lower paid managers seemed to be clubbing together and buying their own drinks with consolidated cash.

At the second table the higher paid managers seemed to have their drinks bought by the credit cards of senior agency staff.


Sunday, September 09, 2007


Although the daily nature of this blog necessitates a topical prompt, I did want to avoid this becoming an online diary. However, I think the state of my head yesterday clouded my judgement. So completing yesterday's note a bit more clearly, here are generically the top five reasons for stopping drinking in the evening…

1. A general long-term health policy.

2. You run out of money. Either a simple lack of cash or a broader budget issue.

3. You run out of time. You live far away and there is a last train waiting.

4. You feel that you are losing control. You can no longer trust your own behaviour.

5. Even though you know that you've only had a few and other people are just warming up, the mother of all hangovers is already smashing around inside your head.

Only number 5 applies significantly here. I know that you are different.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


I write this while suffering. Not because of the cricket result, but because I am hung over.

For some people the limiting factor in an evening's alcohol consumption may be the cost. For other people the limiting factors are the behavioural effects - you may know that beyond a certain stage your actions may become unpredictable or unpleasant. But for me the limiting factors in consumption are definitely the physical effects.

I am aware that alcohol reduces your inhibitions. It may make you say or do things that you would be reluctant to do anyway. But I agree with the doctors, it should not make you do things that you would never do while completely sober. And if your sober personality is fairly calm, and if you nothing major to hide, then a little release may be generally considered a good thing.

So I drink until I am sick? No, but it does me make feel sick. Unfortunately.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Two per cent

I should add another note to yesterday's question instead of hiding clarification in the comments - damn this artificial hundred word limit :)

But I was not trying to trick anybody. There was no lateral thinking required. I was not hiding anything. The weight of the basket is completely irrelevant. It was really just very simple maths. Nothing else.

I was only doing the same thing that I often do in my job as a marketing consultant, showing that a very simple mathematical result does not always correspond with what your "intuition" tells you when you first see the question.

What is correct, the maths or your intuition?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

One per cent

Recent stuff was about words. I am a marketing consultant, but I mainly work with numbers, and I believe in things that can be measured. Sometimes those things may initially appear unpalatable. But with just a few seconds of thought, it should all be obvious.

I'll keep the numbers round and simple. Imagine that you got a large basket of 100 kilos of fresh organic fruit delivered to your door while you were out.

Obviously fruits left outside will slowly shrivel as water evaporates. By the time that you got home, let's assume that the proportion of water has dropped from 99 percent to 98 percent

So, very approximately, how much does the basket of fruit now weigh? About 98 kilos?


Does your common sense tell you that the answer is only 50 kilos?

Monday, September 03, 2007



To talk or write utter nonsense and drivel, despite good intentions, in the manner of the well-known Britsh social commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I won't even dignify her with a link, but she was prattling on in today's Independent newspaper if you want to find some real yab-bing. She means well and aspires to good liberal values. But it would help if she talked sense.

I thought it might be a new word for the urban dictionary. But it already exists. Just not with this etymology.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


Following on from last week's incident on the roof, today I heard from another psychic. I don't even know his name, he is some sort of expert on living underground, but this guy's extra-sensory abilities seem comparable to any celebrity psychic.

I need to put in context and give specific facts to prove the point. Today I had lunch at my parents' house with some old friends from Zambia. It was more than just lunch really, I picked them up from their home in East London, drove them down South, spent the afternoon there, then drove them back in the evening.

The psychic was on the radio. I don't normally listen to Radio Four at weekends, but the conclusion to the cricket provided interest and entertainment on the long drive back. Then, on conclusion of the match, it switched back to rejoin with the normal Sunday programming. And then I heard this guy waffling about going down a mine. And then he said the mine was in the copperbelt of Zambia.

And I had just spent the afternoon listening to old stories about Zambia. The probability must be so astronomical as to rule out coincidence. There was no way the guy on the radio could have known that. Sally Morgan eat your heart out!

Saturday, September 01, 2007


I had wanted to avoid a televisual reference again, but I watched Michael Wood's History of India yesterday and I've actually met these film-makers so I feel I know them. Anyway, it was excellent and I heartily recommend it.

Obviously I disapprove of inherited caste privileges. People in India have been fighting the caste system for many thousands of years, writing statements of universal rights well before Palestinians copied some of them, and the whole nation of India was founded sixty years ago on principles of freedom from those outdated ridiculous ideas.

Sadly in the 21st century some people are still trying to exploit caste differences for personal or political or financial gain. It's so third world, so backward.

Of course the UK monarchy and house of lords are different aren't they?